Today we visit the archive…form an orderly queue and no chewing gum!

Today’s Archive post comes to us from 2007–which is utter madness. EIGHT YEARS AGO? But it is still one of my favorites.

I mentioned that while in Houston, I got to loll around at the Hotel Zaza reading the latest Vogue. Penelope Cruz was on the cover, and there was a feature pictorial of her in the MOST sumptuous ballgowns by Balenciaga and Marchesa. Honestly, I would be buried in ANY of them, and I’m not even planning on being buried at all. (The pictorial also featured a bullfighter, and let me just say, animal cruelty charges aside, WOW. That matador gear is alarmingly attractive when it’s half off. Who knew?) But the part that impressed me the most was not La Cruz’s obvious beauty, it was this quote: You cannot live your life looking at yourself from someone else’s point of view. Genius.

And difficult. This is an issue I’ve struggled with a LOT over the last year in particular. People feel very free to offer opinions–sometimes critical ones–and the internet provides a very cozy place for anonymity. There are those who could never do what I do, but who feel free to dismiss it with a scornful word or a wave of the hand. These are people I do not understand, nor do I wish to. I think any job, done with integrity and creativity and thoughtfulness, is worthy of respect. (I suspect that the people who are most dismissive and vicious about other people’s work are deeply dissatisfied with their own, but I could be wrong. Amateur psychology is a thorny place to wander.)

In any event, I believe Penelope is right. We are so busy worrying about how other people see us, that we forget to see ourselves as we really are. After all, anyone else’s perception of us is filtered through the lenses of their experience. What they see is perhaps not what we really ARE. And it’s no use trying to GUESS how other people see us because it’s hopeless at best. We don’t hear the inflection of our own voices, see our own expressions. The most we can hope for is authenticity, an elusive and difficult quality to master. We have to know ourselves before we can show ourselves. And if anyone objects to that, we will remind ourselves that their point of view is simply that: a single point in a very big world.

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So today we’re loving

and I’m loving so much right now I can’t hardly talk about it. For starters, I woke up the other morning to a lovely email from the producer of the Lady Julia TV series asking my thoughts on casting. (He mentioned an actress I ADORE for the role of Julia, so I’ve been floating ever since.) I also have a book coming out in Italy this week–it’s the Italian version of A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS–and my Italian publisher has been hugely enthusiastic on social media about this one. It’s the first time I’ve done foreign interviews, and they’ve been a blast. And third, I received a lovely invitation to lunch with the UK editor of the Veronica Speedwell series when I’m in London! That’s a lot of fun stuff in one week, no? (Oh, speaking of the UK, if you’re a reader in the London area, I’m pondering the idea of tweeting out a time and place–most likely the second weekend in July in a pub–for a meetup. We can chat and have a pint and I’ll sign books. Sound good?)

What else am I loving? The decluttering I’ve been doing like a FIEND. Yep, I’ve hopped on the KonMari bandwagon, peeps. (The KonMari method of tidying up was created by Marie Kondo and involves purging your living space. In a single day.) I’m sure you’ve heard of this book; it’s been EVERYWHERE. I finally knuckled under and bought it and it was a life-changer. I did tweak her method–if “tweak” means “ignored a major part and did what I wanted”. There’s no way I was purging everything in a single day. But I’m not sure it matters in my case because I’m adhering to her most important principle: everything you touch should bring you joy. That is a VERY high bar, I realized when I looked in my closet and felt blah. I grabbed garbage bags and started flinging. When the dust settled, 2/3 of my wardrobe was gone. I’ve purged 80% of my jewelry, and half my makeup. It’s BLISS. I have had the odd moment of opening my closet and thinking, “WHAT THE HELL AM I GOING TO WEAR?” but what I have left I really like, it all works together, it fits, and it makes me happy. Everything I purged was “good enough”. Bah. Life’s too short for “good enough”.

Since I’ve cleared so much out, I was able to get rid of the stacks of shoe boxes, the hanging shelf system, the teetering stacks of bags. All I have left are things I WANT to have left. I’ve done a little shopping since I finished, but it was to fill gaps with things that work with everything else. I replaced my Hunter wellies which were excruciatingly uncomfortable with a pair of Naot Beth rain boots with a great fit. I have a running list in my phone of things I need so I can keep an eye out, but other than that, I don’t really care about shopping just to do it.

I applied the same principle to my enormous stack of library books, tossing everything back into the return bag except a few Ngaio Marsh mysteries. I did a hard book purge last winter, but I may do another in a week or so since I am seriously loving all the fresh energy in the house. Some philosophies would say it’s because the decluttering is improving the chi–all I know is everything feels lighter and brighter and simpler. I’ve also stopped using the dryer on my clothes. At least half of what I got rid of were clothes that I liked but that the dryer had faded, pilled, stretched, or otherwise mauled. Now I do a smaller load and hang it all up in the spare bath. If clothes can look happier, mine do.

I’ve also been inspired by–okay, I’m going to shudder when I type this, but bear with me–capsule wardrobes. No, seriously, I HATE that phrase. But there are loads of bloggers who specialize in them, sharing scads of fabulous advice. I think I’ve figured out how to put one together for our July trip to London and Paris–two weeks on ten items. I will blog it if this thing comes to pass because let’s face it, that might be my finest hour.

In other news, it’s bucketing down with rain today, but the honeysuckle along our fence is in bloom, I have a vase of peonies on my desk and a cup of coconut green tea, so all is well.

What are YOU loving today?

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Goodness!

I entirely forgot today was a blogging day, chickens, mea culpa. I did get 2000 words written this morning, so I hope that will be a consolation. (Veronica Speedwell #2 is well underway!)

Anyway, today’s is a Watching post, and for starters–”Tower of London”, 1939. It’s a wretched excuse for history, but heavens is it fun. It focuses on the Duke of Gloucester’s rise to become King Richard III, and watching Basil Rathbone (Gloucester) and Vincent Price (his brother, the Duke of Clarence) tear into each other in the drinking scene is riveting. Boris Karloff as Mord the Tower executioner is particularly grim, and Ian Hunter’s Edward IV is splendid. The best bit is Richard’s dollhouse–NO, REALLY. He keeps a dollhouse, meant to represent the throne room, locked in a cupboard. Whenever a person standing between Richard and the crown is removed, he flings the little wax figure onto the fire and sits another doll on the throne. It’s delectably creepy, and to his credit, Rathbone does a remarkable job of infusing a little humanity into his Richard in spite of the script. He is intelligent and vigorous, decisive and brave–all qualities that even his enemies agreed he possessed. Note: Elizabeth Woodville is played by Barbara O’Neil who also played Mrs. O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind”–I recognized her solely by her voice.

And since today is May 19, the anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s 1536 execution, I feel a nod to the best portrayal of Anne is appropriate: “Anne of the Thousand Days”. While I loved Natalie Dormer’s performance in “The Tudors”, Genevieve Bujold’s Anne is perfection. Like “The Tudors”, it’s bad history–Mr. and Mrs. Tudor never had a cozy chat in the Tower prior to her execution–but it’s splendid entertainment. Rumor has it that Richard Burton did not love playing Henry VIII, but Bujold clearly relished every second of her clever, calculating Anne. (I was going to post a link to the official trailer, but I object strenuously to the fact that it features a scene where she deliberately goads him and his response is a ferocious backhanded slap. There are MANY examples of Anne’s strength they could have featured instead of this moment that historians agree didn’t happen.)

Not done with royal shenanigans? Two documentaries might fit the bill. First, “Tales from the Royal Bedchamber” featuring the always delightful Lucy Worsley is chock-full of delicious gossipy tidbits, while “The Queen’s Garden” is a superb introduction to the land attached to Buckingham Palace. (You’ll marvel at the queen’s fungi. Really.)

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Today we’re making

Honestly, I expected the “Making” posts to be about food or crafts or other projects, but today we’re talking about a different kind of making: DEALS. I’m utterly delighted to announce that we’ve just agreed to a deal with Titan Books for the first three Veronica Speedwell books to be published in the UK! Having the books released in the UK is absolutely wonderful, but to have a deal for all three before the first is even pubbed is far more than I ever hoped to have. I could not be happier that UK readers will get to meet Veronica! I don’t have details on the release, but as soon as I do, I’ll be sure to announce. If you’d like to check out Titan and all their fabulous titles–(Sandman, Batman, some James Bond?)–you can find tons of info on their website.

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We have a guest!

Today is a Reading day, so I’m delighted to welcome lovely author and pal Tracy Grant to talk about her newest release, THE MAYFAIR AFFAIR! Tracy will be giving away a digital copy of THE MAYFAIR AFFAIR–platform of your choice–so pop a post in the comments to win. (Please note, comments are on moderation and you will not see yours until I have approved it which I will be doing in batches throughout the day. Please comment only once.) Welcome, Tracy!

THE PERFECT GIRL IS GONE

I’ve always loved fairytales. The only Disney princesses in my childhood were Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora (which definitely dates me). I liked all of them, had books and records (dating myself again) with their stories and was particularly attached to my Aurora and Phillip paper dolls. But from a young age I also always liked flawed heroines like Emma Woodhouse in Austen’s Emma or Barbara Childe in Heyer’s An Infamous Army or villainesses  like Achren in Llyod Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain or Milady de Winter in Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. As I said in a post on my own blog, “for one thing (as I noticed as a child) they usually get to wear the best clothes :-) (only compare Emma with Fanny Price or Becky Sharp with Amelia or Milady with Constance).” But more seriously, I think it’s in large part that they often are characters who break rules and defy conventions.” As a child, I liked them because they *did* things instead of waiting around to be rescued. Conventional heroines tend to be too perfect. Which tends also to go with a lack of inner conflict.

When I started writing, my favorite of my heroines tended to be those who pushed convention the most. Until I got to Suzanne Rannoch in my current series. French spy who married her husband to spy on him only to fall in love with him. Tormented by her divided loyalties, but still a realist about the compromises inherent in the life of a spy. Handy with a knife and a pistol. Adept at code breaking. Definitely flawed and conflicted, definitely a rule breaker, and definitely not the sort to wait around to be rescued.

Fast forward to the holiday season of 2013. My daughter Mélanie turned two that December. We went to The Nutcracker, which she loved, and she was starting to appreciate longer stories., I heard a couple of interview on NPR with writers and actors involved in a new Disney movie that was supposed to have heroines outside the traditional mold. It seemed like a good time to take Mélanie to her first movie in a theater. We settled into seats with peppermint hot chocolate, and there was Anna, who is sweet but also human enough to make mistakes and brave enough to try to fix them and who saves herself by committing an act of love instead of being the passive recipient of a true love’s kiss. Anna is an interesting heroine in her own right. But she isn’t the one who sings that song, the song little girls have been singing on countless playgrounds ever since that December. Apparently Elsa was originally going to be a villain in the mold of Maleficent or Ursula or Snow White’s stepmother. Her character evolved as the movie was being made. In fact when “Let It Go” was first written, the song writers weren’t sure whether Elsa would be singing it as a heroine or a villainess. But instead of a wicked queen she ended up a Disney princess who is also a tortured heroine, struggling with her powers and her identify, trying to be perfect, facing the fact that she has to be herself.

Mélanie likes both Anna and Elsa. She has Anna and Elsa dolls and plays with them together. For Halloween she wanted to be Anna and wanted me to be Elsa (picture above), but we saw far more Elsas than Annas out trick or treating. The Elsa toys are by far the hardest to find it stock. Mélanie sings all the songs from Frozen but she particularly loves to belt out “Let it Go.” “The perfect girl is gone” is a long way from “Someday my prince will come” or “Someday I’ll be part of your world” (Ariel is probably Mélanie’s other favorite Disney princess). No matter how ubiquitous the song has become, i don’t think I’ll ever get tired of hearing my daughter sing “Let if Go.” Or of hearing it on our CD, or our video, or sung by her singing Elsa doll or her Frozen karaoke microphone…I’d much rather have my daughter strive to be herself than to be perfect. When Mélanie is old enough to read my books, I hope that’s lesson she takes from Suzanne Rannoch and the other female characters, including Laura Dudley, governess to the Rannoch children, who is accused of murder in The Mayfair Affair. Not to mention from the heroines in the books of other writers i like an admire, very much including Lady Julia and Deanna’s heroines, including Veronica Speedwell, who I am eager to meet!

 

Mayfair

Tracy and her daughter, the darling Miss Mel.

Tracy and her daughter, the darling Miss Mel.

Tracy Grant Frozen Cake

Author photo courtesy of Raphael Coffee Photography.

Author photo courtesy of Raphael Coffee Photography.

To learn more about Tracy and her exciting world of Regency espionage, visit her website.

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Surprise Saturday post!

These Saturday posts are like Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition–nobody expects them! But today there was something just too fun NOT to share at once. Rachel Hollis, author, blogger, and all-around cool chick just made a hilarious video titled Book Nerd Problems–and look what she’s reading in the opening sequence! Rachel loves to tell the story that literally within two minutes of meeting each other in New Orleans, I turned to her and said, “I’m going to Jackson Square to visit a fortune-teller. You coming?” You can get to know Rachel over at The Chic Site where she spends a lot of time being generally fabulous. Huge thanks to her for featuring SPEAR in her video!

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Bonus post!

This week the lovely Deeanne Gist launched her newest, TIFFANY GIRL, and to celebrate she’s offering an awesome prize package! (Her last book had a scene between the hero/heroine that was so funny, I literally cried my mascara off. No lie. When I told her that story she showed up to one of my book signings with Lancome mascara as a gift. Now THAT is a class act.) Anyway, go check out the giveaway and I hope one of you wins so I can envy you freely!

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Talking about Granny Olga

This month’s ancestor (Reminiscing?) feature highlights one of the most interesting people to turn up in the family tree–St. Olga of Kiev. Seems odd to have a saint in the ancestral closet, doesn’t it? Literally millions of people today are descended from saints, usually the royal ones. When Christianity was first gaining a foothold in Europe, the bar for sainthood was pretty low…as you’ll see in Olga’s case. She is a direct ancestor of mine through the second wife of King Edward I–Margaret of France.

The chronicles are murky on Olga’s date of birth as is often the case with women and with figures born in the tenth century. She was born in Pskov anywhere from 879-903. (The 879 date is suspect since it puts her in her sixties when her only son was born.) She married Igor of Kiev, the ruler of Kievan Rus, a confederation of East Slavic tribes. Founded by the Vikings, Kievan Rus stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, a substantial stretch of land populated by warring factions and ruled over by princes with a tenuous hold on power. When Igor went to collect tribute from one of these tribes–the Drevlians–they decided to kill him instead in a rather nasty way. They bent down a pair of birch trees and tied his legs–one to a tree. Then they let the trees go, and well…things got messy and Olga was widowed with a three-year old son who was now the ruler of Kiev.

According to the chronicles, Olga was rather masterful at holding a grudge. The unwary Drevlians sent a delegation of twenty men to ask for her hand in marriage to their prince. By way of response, she had them buried alive. She then sent word to the prince that she would  marry him, but only if he sent an escort of his most distinguished and powerful men to accompany her. Not knowing the fate of his first delegates, the prince agreed, dispatching his most accomplished men to escort the princess to him. Upon their arrival, Olga welcomed them cordially and had them shown to the bathhouse so they might wash. Once they were inside, Olga ordered the bathhouse sealed and torched–thus exterminating the second Drevlian delegation as swiftly as the first.

Olga then set out to finish what she had started. She journeyed to the Drevlian capital to pay her respects to her husband’s burial mound. Unaware of what had become of the two delegations, the Drevlians were pleased to join her in a lavish funeral feast during which she ensured they became wildly intoxicated while her own Kievan troops remained stone-cold sober. More than 5,000 Drevlians were slaughtered at the feast, but Olga was STILL not finished.

After besieging their city, Olga was offered tribute in the form of honey and furs. She rejected this and claimed she wanted nothing but three pigeons and three sparrows from each household. Delighted at being let off so easily, the Drevlians complied. When the birds were delivered, Olga had her troops attach rags to each bird–rags that had been dipped in sulphur. The birds were released and flew directly back to the city, returning to the eaves and nests and dovecotes and setting fire to every house. As the surviving citizens fled, she had them taken into captivity and kept them as slaves.

In her old age, Olga was converted to Christianity, and so fervently did she try to introduce this religion to Kievans that she was known as St. Olga, Equal to the Apostles. She never converted her son, Sviatoslav the Brave, but her grandson, Vladimir the Great, became St. Vladimir of Kiev.

St. Olga’s feast day is July 11. She was also known as Olga the Beauty, and if you scroll down on this link, you can see an icon of her that was owned by a daughter of Tsar Alexander III.

(While Olga’s actions may well have been exaggerated to make her conversion to Christianity more impressive, she was certainly a dynamic and forceful presence in Kievan Rus. And as I like to say, even if I’m having a bad day, at least I didn’t burn down a bathhouse.)

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We’re out of order!

So today should be a blog about Reading but NOPE. I’m saving that for May 12 because we have a guest blogger that day, so today’s theme is Writing. I mentioned Reader/Writer Nancy–I’ve actually mentioned her frequently–in a blog entry a few weeks back and she popped right up with a series of interesting questions that pertain to writing. Sort of. I have always maintained that if you want to be a good writer you have to be a good reader. An English degree, while absolutely not necessary, is very helpful. It teaches you how to talk about what you read. And if you can talk about what you read, you can talk about what you write.

So, here are Nancy’s questions:

1. Your thoughts on deconstruction (and other literary theories, if you care). It’d make for lots of meaty blog posts.

2. Your specific thoughts on [Flannery] O’Connor. (And stories like hers. I suppose they have their place, but they grate so much that I cannot will myself to give credit yet where credit may be due.)

3. What’s the deal with some of the anthologized works? In fact, I haven’t read anything yet this semester I like (aside from the works I got to choose for myself). So far they’re all swill—including Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants.” (And again, I ask myself then what the hell do I like?!) Which brings me to:

4. Your thoughts on knowing what you like, specific things to look for to figure out if you like “it” or not, why it matters.

 Alright, let’s tackle them in order. First, nope. Not going to do a series of posts on deconstruction because OH MY GOD, THE BOREDOM. (Deconstruction is one of those nifty philosophies they make you study in college that most folks outside of academia aren’t too concerned with.) Second, I’m not actually that conversant with deconstruction for the simple reason that it was not a substantial part of my university’s curriculum. (Jacques Derrida is the grandfather of deconstruction; he wrote a series of books in the late 1960s that have been extremely influential in literary criticism, philosophy, architecture, law. My professors barely mentioned him. But then again, they never taught Jane Austen either…)

Anyway, here’s the most basic reason I’m not going to natter on about deconstruction besides my woeful qualifications: I find it pointless. It’s like Zeno’s paradoxes. (You know Zeno. He’s the dude who basically says that since you can split time down to infinitely small parts, there’s no opportunity for change to take place, so it never happens.) You read Zeno’s paradoxes and you eventually just walk away and say, “Eh. Whatever.” That’s how I feel about deconstruction. Whatever. For people who love sitting around discussing whether writing is derivative of speech (and therefore possibly secondary in importance), post-structuralism, nihilism–KNOCK YOURSELVES OUT. That’s what those sorts of ideas are for: the edification of people who fell compelled to sit around and chew those things over. Personally, I find I achieve clarity in writing that sometimes eludes me in speech, so I’m less inclined to be interested in a set of ideas which tend to promote speech as the primary signifier of meaning. But as I said, whatever.

Second question. I should point out that Nancy wrote a lengthy email with lots of thoughts about Flannery O’Connor. STRONG THOUGHTS. She was particularly put out with “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” I get it. Here’s the thing: stories like this are anthologized a lot BECAUSE you can get various interpretations. Teachers want stories that will spark discussion and debate, and you can talk endlessly about what this one means. Professional critics can’t agree; professors can’t agree. The whole point is to choose a view and argue it. That’s all. No one expects you to know the story because the STORY IS UNKNOWABLE. It is unique to your interpretation. There is no universal experience of this story–or any story for that matter–because readers bring their own baggage, their own experience, their own expectation to everything they read. You give this story to thirty students and you’ll get thirty different opinions. (Personally, I have always remembered the little points of the bandanna sticking up like rabbit’s ears…) And like her or loathe her, O’Connor gives you scenes you can SEE, something you will find frequently in literature that’s anthologized. If a writer has a knack for creating a story you can clearly see, characters with whom you identify, settings you feel part of, then the rest of it–theme, symbolism, conflict–are much easier to teach in isolation. Everyone knows an irritating, chatty, petulant old lady. Everyone reads that story and recognizes the grandmother. So they can move beyond her to arguing about the ending.

That hit on the third question and leads me nicely into the fourth: no, it’s got nothing to do with liking. I only remember liking three things I read in all the years I studied literature: REBECCA, one Bronte novel, and “The Hound of The Baskervilles”. Everything else, nope. Didn’t like them, wouldn’t read them for pleasure. But I LEARNED from them. I learned structure, narrative voice, pacing, imagery, symbolism, and about a million other literary devices. And I find it easier to learn from things I don’t like. If I like a book, I’m carried along by plot and/or character and I don’t pay attention to the structure. I am too busy being dazzled to watch the conjuring trick. If I don’t like a book, I can easily pull back the curtain to look at the mechanics. (The one exception to this is poetry. I liked most of the poetry I studied just because I think poets are unsurpassed as manipulators of language. Any prose writer can learn from a poet.)

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It’s our last new theme!

So April has been about introducing our new blog themes, and today is our eighth and final–linking. Once a month I’m going to round up an assortment of links, some fun, some informative, most discovered in within the previous month. I will even try to save some treats and not tweet them first!

*Fairy Playdough. I can’t begin to tell you how much I want to make this. Why? NO GOOD REASON. I even looked for strawberry conditioner last time I was at the store. No luck, but it’s probably for the best. As much as I long to play with this stuff, I fear it might turn out badly for me. And you know what they say about glitter being the herpes of crafts…

*41 Insanely Helpful Style Charts. Did you know this is how you’re supposed to be folding your cuffs? DID YOU?

*Disney Princess Historical Costume Influences. I never knew how much I needed Frock Flicks until I found this blog. It’s a delicious rabbit hole of film and costume, and the Disney posts are my favorites.

*Big Words Can Come in Small Packages. I dare you to use ‘quisquose’ in conversation today.

*5 Historical Manias That Gripped Societies, Then Disappeared. I found this utterly riveting. File this under “People Are Just Weird.”

*30 Things To Start Doing For Yourself. Time to take stock–are you doing enough for you?

*Town Name Generator. Having trouble coming up with names for your fantasy novel? Look no further!

*Stock Photos That Don’t Suck. Need stock photos? Here’s a list of sources.

*The Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge. Looking to create a reading list? Check out all the books Rory read during the course of “The Gilmore Girls”.

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