Stuff I’ve Figured Out Along The Way

Every so often I repeat this post–one of my favorite pieces on writerly advice. First posted in April, 2013.

This is one of those blog posts that usually gets an appalling title like “Advice to Young Writers”. We’ll call it something more modest—like “Stuff I’ve Figured Out Along the Way”. These are bits and pieces I’ve collected, parts of the picture that I’m assembling as I go. I’m about to release my seventh novel; I’ve been published for six years. I am no longer the newest kid on the block, and I have picked up a few shiny pebbles along the road. And I’m posting them here because there’s a chance they might be helpful to someone else trundling along the same path.

  1. If you want to be a better writer of prose, read poetry. Poets are my gods. As I’ve remarked before, they say in ten words what I say in ten thousand. They are precise as surgeons, wielding their scalpel-words to hurt and to heal. It doesn’t take much—even a single poem a day can pierce your subconscious, raising your appreciation of rhythm, metaphor, and language.
  2. If you’re writing historical fiction, do your research. And then leave 70% of it out of the book. This is a bit of advice I gleaned from Persia Woolley’s book on historical fiction, and it’s brilliant. The criticism I hear most often of this particular genre is that readers bog down in the history bits. Yes, they love history or they wouldn’t read this type of fiction, but it must never supplant the story in importance. It is there to support the story, and if any fact—no matter how delicious—takes the reader out of the moment, it has to go. These are the cuts that hurt, but they are essential. There is an art to weaving fact into the fiction and achieving plausibility and readability at the same time.
  3. If a scene isn’t working, let another character drive the action. This is a piece of wisdom from Phillip Margolin that he shared when speaking to a Sisters in Crime meeting I attended donkey’s years ago, and I can’t tell you how many times it’s come in handy. Say you’ve written a scene that just isn’t working. Let’s further say it is between a mother and her teenage son and it’s about his girlfriend. The mother has reservations about the relationship. You’ve begun the scene with the mother haranguing the boy and he responded defensively. It evolves, quite naturally into a fight. Now, imagine you rewrite the scene and this time the son initiates the scene by telling his mother he can tell she has a problem with the relationship and he wants to clear the air. Instead of the expected dynamic of hectoring parent and sullen teen, you have a thoughtful teen and a responsive mother. The scene would be quieter, more vulnerable. Perhaps it would open them up to confidences, to mutual understanding. Now, that may not suit you at all, and all of this depends on the nature of your characters and how they need to respond to a situation, but it can absolutely shake loose a scene you’re having trouble with. It’s also a good strategy if you have a character who takes charge too often and needs to take a backseat once in awhile. And it’s fabulous if you’re suffering a wee case of block.
  4. “Write what you know” is bunk. This is the single worst piece of writing advice out there and it’s ubiquitous. It’s also limiting. Yes, I understand that you need to grasp something thoroughly to write it effectively, but this advice presumes that you can’t get to know something THROUGH writing it. And that’s how some very accomplished writers prefer to work. So toss this one out. If you want to write something and you don’t yet know it, be a Kipling mongoose and go and find out.
  5. The book you want to read is the one you need to write. Pretty self-explanatory. Don’t try to write something simply because it’s commercial or because “everyone is writing lesbian werewolf knitting circle romances”. Unless you LOVE lesbian werewolf knitting circle romances. In that case, rock on with your furry, fiber-loving, girl-on-girl self.
  6. Never take criticism from someone who doesn’t create. This is taken from someone entirely brilliant whom I have now forgotten—I want to say Aldous Huxley? Anyway, it’s worth repeating OFTEN. People who do not create are a species apart from those of us who do. They do not understand the work, the challenges, the vulnerability, the process, the discipline it takes to carry a project from idea to completion. This doesn’t mean they aren’t entitled to an opinion about your work; of course they are. They are entitled to have an opinion, to share it, to discuss it. But they are not entitled to have that opinion living in your head. Keep it out.
  7. On a related note, be careful about giving away your power. It sounds cynical and gross, but the truth is there are people who will be happy—nay, GLEEFUL—to find you have an Achilles heel and will amuse themselves by poking pins in it. So be careful about where you reveal your vulnerabilities. Do not show your work to just anyone; do not confide in everyone. Choose your confidantes with consideration. It takes discipline and willpower not to spill your guts to everyone you know and not to share your manuscript with anyone who will read it. Exercise that discipline and willpower—it will be well worth it. I’ve seen FAR too many people torn down by snarky critique partners or jealous writing groups. It can take a very long time to build that confidence back up again when someone’s sharpened their claws on it. If you share with someone and never come away feeling better about yourself, this is a very good sign that you need to move on.
  8. Just write. You can enter contests, create your website, attend conferences, go to workshops, find a writing group, join writers’ organizations, blog about your goals, tweet until you’re blue in the face. But NONE OF THOSE THINGS IS A SUBSTITUTE FOR WRITING. ONLY WRITING IS WRITING. If you’re not sitting down at your desk putting words to paper, you are not writing. You are posing. Stop it. Writing is discipline and craft and about 2% as glamorous as non-writers think it is. If you’re not willing to put in the work, you’re not a writer. And that’s fine—most people aren’t. According to a recent study—I want to say New York University, but don’t hold me to that—writing a novel exercises the same mental circuits and makes the same demands as writing a symphony. I loved reading that because it’s the first example I’ve seen that illustrates clearly what it feels like to write a novel. Each instrument has its own part to be written then the parts must be combined into a harmonious whole. There are themes and counter-themes to develop, ideas to explore and refine. Thousands and thousands of notes, put into precisely the correct order not just to make sense but to make art. Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? But most folks don’t walk around thinking they have a symphony rattling around inside and they’d write it if only they could find the time. But this is what you hear on a regular basis about books. (An NYT article from 2002 said a recent poll revealed 81% of all Americans thought they had a book inside them. I’d say after the advent of self-publishing that number is up even higher.) Here’s the thing—that book is going to STAY inside you if you don’t write it. So write it and stop talking about it already.
  9. You’re never as good or as bad as you think you are. We are creatures of extreme. We believe the absolute worst of ourselves and sometimes the absolute best. The truth is usually somewhere in between. Don’t let your head get turned with praise that is too fulsome, but don’t believe the worst of yourself either. Now, if you’re a person who NEVER thinks poorly of your own writing, you need to explore the middle ground a bit because if you never doubt then all I can say is: WRITING. UR DOING IT WRONG.
  10. Nice matters. Publishing is a surprisingly small industry. SURPRISINGLY small. You can show your ass all you want, but eventually people will compare notes and it will come back to bite you on that same ass. The editorial assistant you abused today can be an executive editor tomorrow with the power to refuse your newest project at the acquisitions table. The blogger you got into a flame war with on Twitter could get a job writing a review column for a major online magazine. You never know. I’ve seen people time and again think they were getting away from working with someone only to have that same person crop up again. Bad pennies abound in this business and they do keep turning up. Reputations MATTER. Make sure yours is a good one. If you act like you are terribly special and important, nobody walks around saying, “Oooh, it’s the terribly special and important author on the phone.” They roll their eyes and avoid you and tell their friends. And word travels. So, be nice. It costs nothing and generates a truckload of good karma that just might come back to help you when you need it most. Besides, the world needs more nice. Why not let it start with us?
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Lazy cooking

We’ve discussed my ambivalence about cooking, right? I mean, I don’t mind throwing together the occasional meal but UGH. EVERY DAY WITH THE FOOD. I am fine with eating the same breakfast for months on end. Currently this is 2% Greek yogurt topped with berries, slivered almonds, a few diced dried apricots, and a drizzle of honey accompanied by a piece of GF toast with almond butter a bit more honey and a BIG cup of Earl Grey. Lunches are some version of a ploughman’s–boiled egg or tuna, cheese, veg and fruit. I don’t mind the odd foraging for this meal, but DINNER. It’s the bane of my existence.

Until now. I browse food blogs which is odd for a person who doesn’t like to cook, I know. But I’m always in search of the ultimate dinner hack. (Sheet pan suppers, man. These are my JAM.) My absolute best new discovery is the easy marinades posts on Gimme Some Oven. The idea is to batch the process, whipping up five marinades at one time and creating freezer packs full of chicken breasts ready to go. I was a wee bit skeptical, but I snagged a big bag of chicken from Trader Joe’s and set to work, mixing tandoori, enchilada, teriyaki, honey mustard, and pesto. I managed to screw this up ENTIRELY since the recipes actually call for master mixes of spices to use for lots of different things and I just hurled the whole lot into a single marinade. Oops.

I was too tired at the time to worry about fixing it, so I slung them into the freezer and went about my life. One by one, I pulled them out and followed the SUPER simple instructions on baking. (I told you, SHEET PANS.) Every time they were delicious and juicy and 100 kinds of yum. It was the work of minutes to fling some vegetables onto another pan to roast alongside, and then I just whipped up some quinoa or rice depending on the flavor of the chicken. Beyond easy and worth the ten minutes of effort by a mile. (Imagine how delighted I was to find there are marinade recipes for pork and beef too! And if you’re a tofu kind of person, I should think these would be delicious that way also.)

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All things Asheville

So last month I was lucky enough to head down to Asheville for an annual writers’ retreat I do with a group of friends. It was my fourth trip to Asheville, and if you haven’t been, GO. It’s artsy and hip and full of fun things to do. You can hike or bike or kayak–all of which you can figure out–but I’m going to recommend the really useful: WHERE TO EAT.

*Curate. Our annual pilgrimage here for tapas is a sacred event. We each order 2-3 plates of the most luscious Spanish food you can imagine. Crisp fritters, unctuous cheeses, and so many decadent scribbles of honey. It’s recently expanded and HOPPING, so be sure to snag a reservation before you go.

*Chai Pani. All is right with the world when we are at Chai Pani. This is our customary first night meal because there is NOTHING better when you’ve been traveling than a good spicy thali. The butter chicken was divine. Also recently expanded and they were very kind even though we were pressed up against the windows until they finally opened after renovations.

*French Broad Chocolate Lounge. An Asheville landmark. You’ll know you’ve found it when you come across the line of people standing outside when it’s 30 degrees. The gelato and flourless chocolate cake are superb, and don’t forget to grab a box of truffles for the road.

*Wicked Weed Brewing Co. Disclaimer: we haven’t eaten here, but we do stop by every year to collect an assortment of beer for the husband of one of our number. (Hi, Dan!) A must-visit if you’re into craft beer or cool t-shirts.

*Biltmore. The Vanderbilt estate doesn’t occupy a spot on our usual itinerary, but this year it was well worth a stop because of the TITANIC exhibit. Little did we know, our tickets also included a tasting at the winery and we staggered out after some delicious wines, carrying off in triumph a bottle of port we uncorked for our nightcaps.

*Mast General Store. A fun stop with a large assortment of vintage-style candy and heaps of useful things. A great place to find Columbia sportswear on sale if you’re feeling outdoorsy or some cast-iron skillets if you have an inclination to cook.

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Ooooh, we’ve got a good one!

When I put out the call on Twitter for questions, Tweep Kat posted this gem:

Is your writing, for you and/or for your readers, a form of escape from or a tool of resistance against the world we find ourselves in today?

Isn’t that juicy? Short answer, both. I try to be aware of my privilege in this world as a cis-gender, heterosexual, able-bodied white woman. I get benefits I didn’t earn from a system that isn’t fair. Because of that, I believe it’s my responsibility to learn about people who don’t get those same benefits, to understand how their experiences differ from mine, and to make sure they are included in my work. I don’t always get it right. I am embarrassed and mad at myself and humbled when I screw up. The remedy for that is to get up and try again and do better. There will NEVER be a time when I am completely “woke” and thoroughly free of areas where I am blinkered. I know this is an imperfect process and I will never cross the finish line. There is no end, no moment where I can relax and say, “Well, goodness me, I’m certainly got THIS sussed.” The best I can do is better than I did yesterday, knowing that tomorrow is going to probably kick my ass a little and show me where I can do better still.

And while that occasionally feels weighty, it’s nothing compared to the burden carried by those who have to haul around societal baggage they didn’t ask for and can’t put down even if they wanted to. I write diverse characters from a place of respect, and I am always looking to do a better job of making my fictional world reflect historical reality. (People like to pretend that history was full of straight, able-bodied white folks of two genders doing everything in some sort of cream-cheese, Wonder Bread, Ozzie & Harriet vacuum where they were the only ones who existed. In a word: NOPE.)

In writing an accurate and diverse world, I am creating a mirror of what we are now, and some of the most gratifying messages I’ve received from readers are the ones from people who aren’t accustomed to seeing themselves in the kind of fiction I write. I read their messages and I listen to their stories at signings and the most important thing they want to communicate is their appreciation at being seen. So, when I write a character who is a person of color or with a physical disability or a fluid sexuality, it’s my way of saying, “Yes, I do see you.” Because, having seen them, how can I not write them? It’s resistance in that it expresses my world view–that we all matter, that we must include and accept and widen our reach to embrace those who are different from us. We have much to learn from them.

And as far as escape, I am immensely happy whenever I hear that I took a reader out of some painful situation because I issued an invitation to them to step into a world where their difficulty does not exist, at least for a little while.


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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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