Galpal Sally has a problem

Before I headed into the revision cave–did I mention that’s where I am? Yep, from March 7-April 30. These posts were written and scheduled and I am not really here. It’s like I’m ghost-posting!–I put out a call on Twitter for people to ask questions in case they had a particular topic they’d like to see addressed here. My pal, the talented and fabulous writer and human Sally Kilpatrick posted this:

I need a lipstick that doesn’t cause my lips to chap and peel. It’s been my eternal quest, and I have a feeling only you can help me. Any kind of daily care would help, too, I’m sure. I’ve tried all sorts and am beginning to think I have an allergy to some common ingredient.

Well, I’m glad you asked, darling. First, I’m a big believer in never having naked lips. I always keep a stick of Burt’s Bees lip balm handy–peppermint or grapefruit. They do a nice tinted lip balm if you want a faint stain, but I take a dim view of the fact that my favorite dark rosy shade comes with a pomegranate flavor. (Nothing that is flavored with pomegranate actually tastes of pomegranate, IMO.) Your mileage may vary. A plain Vitamin E stick will do, but I’ve never found Carmex to be worth the burn. If you’re prone to peeling and chapping, keeping your lips covered and making sure you’re hydrated will help. (I drink about 100 ounces of water a day when I work out, so it’s possible you need extra fluid.)

A tiny, VERY soft toothbrush–something from the baby department–is a great way to exfoliate your lips if you must. DO NOT PEEL OR BITE THEM. I know that was shouty, but all you’ll do is shred them to ribbons. Lips are sensitive, so be kind.

If you want color, I’m a big fan of keeping two things in your cosmetic drawer: a perfect red and a perfect neutral. This can take AGES to find, but there’s also such a thing as a “good enough” red and a “perfectly serviceable” neutral. The trick to the former is knowing what kind of red suits your skin tone. Orange-based reds are VERY difficult for most people to pull off, but the people who need them look dreadful in blue-reds. As in some sort of dire liver complaint dreadful. A clean cherry red is good but not easy to find. And steer clear of anything with brown, brick, or coral unless your skin tone is very specific. From the drugstore, British Red by L’Oreal is a good gateway red, and I’m partial to Urban Decay’s F-Bomb.

The process for red is this: lips must be hydrated and free of chapping. If not, wear something else because the red will look hideous. Use a matte lip crayon in a similar red to your lipstick as a base layer–NARS makes a lovely one. Blot it, then apply again. Blot again. Apply two layers of lipstick the same way. Be warned, matte lipstick is very difficult to pull off. Far better to go with a bit of cream and blot off a little of the shine. (Matte will also drain your lips of moisture, so tread carefully there too.) If you are going for something easy, a bit of the blotted lip crayon makes a nice stain with a touch of balm over the top of it. (This will not last well, so be warned you’ll have to reapply. The lipstick over two layers of crayon should see you through HOURS.)

Finding a good natural color is hideously difficult. I still haven’t cracked it. The first point is knowing that anything sold as “nude” will most likely not match your skin tone and might possibly make you look cadaverous. Stick with a rose, mauve, coral, or brown depending on the actual color of your lips and if you find a perfect match, marry it.

Also, I had a request to help Tweep Jody whose cat was constipated. I say feed it a nice, oily sardine and then get out of the way.

(If you’re in the Charlottesville area, come see me this weekend at the Virginia Festival of the Book! Details here.)

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Historical girl crush alert!

Usually when I proclaim a historical girl crush, it’s my platonic adoration of a female historical figure. This time, it’s heartfelt admiration for a gifted historian, Helen Castor. I first came across her work when I saw the three-part series SHE-WOLVES based upon her book of the same name. I ADORE when historians get to present their own work in TV programs, and she did a splendid job of exploring the lives of the women who attempted to/did rule England up to Elizabeth I. (There were more than you think.)

This program led me to read the book which was divine. I get hoarse recommending it to people; I am evangelical on the subject. Helen–I’m allowed to call her that because we’re Twitter pals now–is one of those rare humans who can be extremely erudite and yet translate the most complicated and arcane historical situations in such a way that it sounds like a fantastically good soap opera. (Which it usually was, BTW.)

If I had my way, I’d lock her in a nice suite with all the conveniences and not let her out until she’d written me a new book every six months but apparently she has a life of her own, so when I DO get a new Helen Castor book, it’s a day of near-hysterical happiness. Imagine my delight when her newest popped into my Kindle the very day I was getting on an airplane!

Now, sorrowfully, this isn’t one of her long, luscious books, but it is very much in the Castor wheelhouse. Part of the Penguin Monarch series–which is DELICIOUS–this one is ELIZABETH I: A STUDY IN INSECURITY which tells you everything you need to know about this particular monarch. The books in this series are designed to be brief studies of the monarchs, each an amuse-bouche to tempt you to further reading although each is also a complete biography. They provide a lovely way to fill in gaps in your historical understanding or dip a toe into a particular ruler’s reign.

When you’ve finished, treat yourself to her biography of Joan of Arc or cue up the SHE-WOLVES series on Acorn!

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I have taken the plunge…

I’ve done it, y’all. I ditched my heels. According to this article in the Washington Post I’m not alone. Sales of stilettos have tanked and we’re buying flats and sneakers by the bushel.

For years, when I went to conferences, I dressed up–literally. Dresses and heels because that combination was easy to pack and made me feel confident and pulled together. And then, about three years ago for a conference in New Orleans, I simply didn’t want to do it anymore. I packed black skinny jeans, a white blazer, and t-strap pointy-toed flats in black and white. It was a revelation. After a decade of bandaids and moleskin and aching feet and cab fares, I walked everywhere. I did it easily and without pain!

And oddly enough, I felt more like myself than I ever have. I went home and packed up every tailored dress and donated them to my local thrift store. The heels were harder to part with. I had a pair of black platform boots that laced up the front and made me feel like an Edwardian madam–in a good way. I adored my leopard slingbacks with the cork heels that went with EVERYTHING. So I put them in the attic and promised myself that if a year passed and I hadn’t worn them, off they would go.

I’ve replaced my heels with an array of things that are kinder to my feet and back and every inch ME. I have over-the-knee boots in black velvet and a pair of t-strap velvet flats that are so embellished they belong in a jewel box. I have thigh-high riding boots and gladiator sandals and ballerina flats in leopard and pink suede. And this year I treated myself to the best of all possible things–three pairs of Taos Crave boots in black, violet, and red. They are comfortable and cool and make me feel like a superhero in disguise.

The year has passed and it’s time to ditch the heels forever. Something tells me I’m not going to miss them…

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Method and process, part 2

So last week I nattered on about process and today we’re wrapping up. I talked about my giant mind maps for outlining and how I use those maps to explore shadowy areas of the plot that I need to clarify. They are never pretty and there’s no proper organization with certain colors marking out specific issues. (I switch colors when I get bored.)

Once I have done a few maps, ideas will start fitting together and that’s when I begin to scribble on some of the newsprint. I’ll jot ideas, strike them out when better ones come along, and jot new ones. I will create new maps, working out the possibilities for every possible permutation of a plot point until I find the right one for this story. Then I scribble more notes, working up the shorthand diagrams into actual words. I spread them out around me–usually on the bed, but sometimes at the kitchen table or on the floor–so I can see everything at once.

When I think I have a working plan, I turn to notecards. I buy the big index cards in multiple colors, and I don’t code these by color either. (I need big ones because my handwriting is lavish and I buy color because white ones bore me. YMMV.) I work my way through the maps and diagrams and jotted notes to transfer the plot points to the cards–one point per card. Then, I arrange the cards in chronological order according to the story. If they work, I number them.

From here, I create a master plan–a punch list, really–of scenes to be written in order. Now, many of the scenes may be already written and if there is a good chunk of the book finished and it’s going to stay in place, I’m likely to write “OPENING” on a single notecard and that can stand in for a hundred pages of manuscript. Otherwise, I  may jot a few keywords to signal scenes that are going to remain in the book even if they get reshuffled. The master plan is just a single-spaced document I print and leave on the desk as I write, marking off scenes as they are written. I may tape the notecards up in order on the wall next to my desk, putting a large check on each as it’s no longer needed. Wiser writers than I will create a separate document for each scene to make it a simple thing to arrange them in order in the master manuscript, but I am not that smart. I cut and paste within the document of the manuscript itself, a messy and dangerous process made a little easier because I use a large monitor for my computer.

Whatever the plot issue, whatever the character trouble, I have never turned to my newsprint and markers without making progress of some sort. I can work out problems I would never be able to solve with a keyboard. Why? No idea. But I know what works for me. Maybe it will for you too.

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Method and process, part 1

Lately I have had several people ask about my outlining process, so I thought I’d jot a quick post about it. First, the caveat: Anything I say about process is what works for me. NEVER assume it will work–or should work–for you. Process is highly idiosyncratic; ask a hundred writers how they write, get a hundred different answers. The only reason it’s ever useful to even ask us is because you might find a nugget of something you can apply to your own way of working. If you don’t, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you. (I know this sounds very governessy, but I’ve been on too many panels and watched too many people flinch when they listen to how the rest of us do it. I’ve seen the frantic scribbling into notebooks and the abject look of horror which means, “OH, GOD I DON’T DO IT THAT WAY. AM I WRONG?” And if you think I’m projecting, that’s literally what I’ve been asked. I hate the idea that anyone would put themselves through it, so I’m going to keep hollering. YOU DO YOU.)

There are two kinds of outlining for me. First, there’s the overview of a book when I’m first conceiving it in order to write a synopsis. I’d never do a formal synopsis, but they don’t pay me without one. Publishers like a general idea of what you’re going to do–and you usually have a LOT of freedom to deviate during the actual writing–but it needs to be on paper. Fine. I churn out a 5-7 page outline against my will and once it’s approved, I start writing the book.

At some point, possibly during the writing but most likely during revision, something will stop working. Now, mystery structure is, IMO, the easiest because it’s very logical. You have an end result, so you work backwards. How was this murderer exposed? Well, this clue must have been unearthed. How was it found and by whom? Why were they looking? Each of these is a step backwards. At the same time, you know where you began and how you had to proceed during the set up. (These characters must be brought together. How does that happen? How is the crime revealed? What is driving the investigation?) So, you’re walking backwards from Z-Y-X at the same time you’re walking forwards from A-B-C. Eventually, you meet in the middle. That’s the sweet spot when you realize it’s all hanging together.

But sometimes it takes work to make that middle happen. This is where the outlining comes in. I have two methods for brainstorming the outline. The first is rough and deliberately casual. I use huge pads of newsprint and felt-tip markers to make mind  maps. (Not Sharpies here because they bleed through newsprint. I use bright packs of skinny markers and I throw out the colors I don’t like.) I may put the victim in the middle and map out everyone else’s relationship to this character. Or, I might use the sleuth as the spoke in the wheel. Recently, I used the instigator of the investigation because I was trying to get clear on his relationship with the suspects. Whichever area is murky is the area you need to explore through the map.

I should probably mention here that one of my worst habits is realizing I have a missing piece of the puzzle–backstory, motivation, etc.–and then waving an airy hand and saying, “Oh, I’m sure it’s fine.” IT IS NEVER FINE. That realization is the poky pointy finger urging me to dive deep and FIX THIS. Sometimes I do, sometimes I wait until my editor makes me because I’m too busy fixing everything else and this particular issue slides by. But at some point, that murky area will become the focus of a map and I will have to work it out.

Part 2 next Wednesday!

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Not quite a spoonful of sugar, but almost as good…

So lately I’ve been doing a heap of traveling–yay!–and schlepping my bag–boo. For the book tour, there was no way around using a proper, albeit small, suitcase. There was a 70-degree temperature fluctuation from Phoenix to Nashville, and I needed lots of layers and a parka in order to stay comfortable. I did my level best to streamline what I packed, and I was quite pleased with myself.

Until I met up with Lauren Willig straight off her flight and she was carrying nothing more than a tote bag. It was like Mary Poppins herself had appeared in front of me. Lauren was conjuring everything she needed from that single small bag. Granted, she was traveling for a single night, but it was LIFE-CHANGING. I immediately started to brainstorm how I could work this magic in my own travel life, and this past weekend, I made it happen. Here’s how:

1. Get a uniform. It doesn’t matter what your uniform is. Lauren always wears dresses and I have opted for black skinny jeans, black t-shirt, and black jacket. This means you don’t have to pack CHOICES.

2. REALLY think about what you’re packing and leave off anything the hotel can reasonably accommodate. I checked the hotel website and discovered Frette robes in every room. Good enough! A comparable hotel is also going to have everything from body lotion to Q-tips. Chuck those out of your bag and don’t look back.

3. Plan to rewear what you can reasonably repeat. In my case, it’s jeans and jacket. The t-shirt and underthings need to be fresh, so that’s what I packed. I folded them into teeny piles and put them into a gallon ziploc bag. I threw in a handkerchief sprayed with my perfume so they wouldn’t smell “plasticky”.

4. Make kits. I have small zippered bags for each of the following: cosmetics, chargers and earbuds, miscellaneous, food. A clear quart bag holds my liquids. And this is where it gets really good. Everything that I usually pack into travel containers? I downsized into sample containers. Enough for 2-4 uses which is perfect for an overnight trip, even if you get stuck on a layover. The miscellaneous bag holds emergency goodies that I’d have to find a drugstore or call housekeeping to replace: stain wipe, tiny lint roller (black clothes, y’all), orange stick, floss sticks, the tiniest nail file imaginable, two safety pins, two pieces of Hollywood tape, band-aids. They pack down to almost nothing but can really make a difference if you have need of them. The food bag holds a protein bar, some chocolate, a small bag of mixed nuts. These are for STUCK ON THE TARMAC FOR NINE HOURS-type emergencies. Or if I check into a hotel and somehow miss out on room service, which has happened twice in the last few months.

5. Find garments that do double duty. My favorite jacket is a black Cynthia Rowley waffle-weave blazer that has a zip-in grey sweatshirt hood. When this is in place it looks like I’m wearing a hoodie under the jacket, casual and warm. When I zip it out–which takes about two seconds–polished professional. It is GENIUS. I will sob when it wears out. If I’m going anywhere that might be below 50 degrees, this is the jacket because that hood is WARM. Otherwise, I have a few other black blazers in various weights, including unlined. If the temperatures will fluctuate, I also pack a long, wide Indian wool scarf. It’s scarlet and appliqued with green and black and turquoise paisleys, so it goes beautifully with the all-black travel outfit and it is perfect to use as a wrap, neck scarf, or lap robe.

6. Go digital. Okay, this one was hard. But I didn’t bring a physical book. (I know. GASP.) I packed my mini-tablet which is the best for reading or streaming movies, and my back-up in case of disaster is my phone. I also knew I’d be traveling through airports with bookstores if the worst happened. All it required was one extra cord–the plug is the same I use for the phoned–so it was much lighter than bringing a book.

7. Bring a “statement” accessory or two. I put that in quotation marks so you’d know I was speaking with tongue firmly in cheek because it sounds pretentious to speak of STATEMENT JEWELRY. (What does it say, one wonders?) In my case, this means large silver bib necklaces. I have five. I rotate them when I travel, and my one bit of excess is packing an extra one in my cosmetic bag just in case one breaks. (I bring the lightest one as a back-up and since I did have a heavy one break a few weeks ago, it makes sense to me to carry along a spare of the one element that really brings the outfit together.) My other distinctive item? Footwear. Throughout the winter travel, I’ve worn my purple motorcycle boots and they are perfection. Comfortable, a little edgy, the perfect pop against the black outfit. The only other color is the red lipstick I always wear to events. (Red brightens your face and counteracts the effects of jet lag like nothing else.)

8. Bring products that can pull a double shift. L’Oreal makes a mascara with the primer built into the other end, and petroleum jelly (I know. Gross.) will take off your eye makeup and work as a lip balm.

With a little planning, my own Mary Poppins bag worked like a charm, and I am a convert. I could never make it for more than two nights traveling like this, but for short trips, it is the very greatest thing. And if you REALLY want to feel like a queen, sit serenely on the flight during boarding when everyone around you is going full Thunderdome for the last overhead bin…

I’ll be bringing my Mary Poppins bag to Myrtle Beach this week! Don’t miss the Moveable Feast event on Friday courtesy of Litchfield Books, details on the Appearances page. See you there!

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Reminders and book recs!

If you’re in the greater Atlanta area, don’t forget to come see me–and Lauren Willig!–at our events this weekend. Friday we’re at the Mountain View Public Library, and on Saturday we’ll be at Books For Less in Buford courtesy of the Gwinnett County Public Library. Details on the Appearances page. We’ll be speaking and signing–I’ll have A TREACHEROUS CURSE and Lauren will have THE ENGLISH WIFE, so don’t miss out!

Too far from Atlanta to make it? Already read A TREACHEROUS CURSE and THE ENGLISH WIFE? I got you. Here are a few books I’ve just read and thoroughly enjoyed:

*HIS MAJESTY’S DRAGON. Naomi Novik. First in a series, imagine Napoleonic Wars but with DRAGONS.

*THE BEAST IS AN ANIMAL. Peternelle van Arsdale. Spooky, atmospheric, and very Grimm. This YA will be coming out soon in paperback, so if you want the hardcover, you’d better hop!

*THE GRAVE’S A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE. Alan Bradley. Ah, Flavia de Luce, it’s been too long! This is the latest installment in Bradley’s acclaimed series which features a 12-year-old chemistry prodigy as an irrepressible sleuth.

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HUGE thanks!

Popping in to say a heartfelt THANK YOU to all of you who made A TREACHEROUS CURSE a USA TODAY bestseller! We’ve been popping champagne at our house, and we’re lifting a glass to all of the readers, booksellers, librarians, and reviewers who have made this happen. Cheers!

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Round-ups and reminders!

The countdown is on–A TREACHEROUS CURSE, the third Veronica Speedwell adventure, drops on Tuesday, 1/16–and I can’t wait to share this one with you! Here’s everything you need to know:

*You can still secure your digital gift pack for pre-ordering! Get all the details here and claim your goodies.

*Be sure to check the Appearances page for all the book tour information. I’ll be seeing readers in Phoenix, Nashville, Houston, Richmond, Myrtle Beach, and more! Can’t make it to a signing? No problem. Any of the bookstores I’m visiting will be more than happy to take your request over the phone and I can personalize it for you while I’m there. Give them a call now to reserve your copy.

*Want a signed Veronica Speedwell bookplate? My publisher sent me a box full of gorgeous blue plates and I’ve signed them all! Send a SASE to me at P.O. Box 927 Williamsburg VA 23187 and we will hook you up.

*Grab your Veronica gear at the Redbubble shop! Totes, t-shirts, and more, all featuring the butterfly logo with the motto of the Hippolyta Club, “She flies with her own wings.”

For all of you who have pre-ordered, reviewed, tweeted, Instagrammed, blogged, and buzzed about A TREACHEROUS CURSE, THANK YOU–it has starred reviews from Booklist and Library Journal and is Library Journal Pick of the Month, so we are off to a great start! I’m packing up to head off on tour, and I am so happy I’ll get to see so many of you there. Cheers!


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We have merchandise!

Happy 2018, y’all! This month will see the release of A TREACHEROUS CURSE, Veronica Speedwell’s third adventure, and to celebrate, we’ve opened a Redbubble shop so you can get your very own Veronica gear. Every item features an exclusive butterfly graphic of the Hippolyta Club’s motto–“She flies with her own wings.” Come check it out!

And don’t forget to check the Appearances page for book tour information. The tour starts in TEN DAYS, and we have a new addition to the travels this year–Nashville! We also have two events in the greater Atlanta area in February. Hope to see y’all there!

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