History and Storytelling

The Pantheon in Rome

A few weeks ago I had the great privilege of visiting Italy with my husband. Although I travelled fairly extensively through Europe in my twenties, somehow I never made it to the land of wine and pasta (with the exception of one short stopover in Sicily where a raging storm kept me and my friend stuck in our hostel for three days straight). It’s been on my travel list for years, so when the opportunity arose, I flung myself bodily upon it.

It was an amazing trip. But one of the reasons Italy has now bumped itself near the top of my favorite-places-in-the-world list came from a somewhat unexpected angle–one that felt more than a little salient to this blog. Italy felt so rich with history–and therefore, stories–that I almost didn’t know what to do with myself.

Who needs armor when you got dat booty?

While I’m no historical scholar, I do know my way around European history. But while touring the various cities we visited in Italy, I found myself nearly overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of history steeped into every inch of the country. In Rome, two thousand year old Imperial ruins abide beside Renaissance basilicas and glossy designer stores. In Tivoli, the rococo grandeur of Villa d’Este stands mere miles from the ancient pleasure palace of Emperor Hadrian. In Umbria, we stayed on an olive-producing estate whose owners once protected Via della Spina, a major arterial road connecting Rome to the Adriatic, used from Etruscan times through the Byzantine Empire. In Venice, the very canals seemed to whisper the astonishing story of a city founded by peasants fleeing Attila the Hun, which would someday become one of the world’s greatest ship-building and mercantile capitals.

Byzantine Mosaics in Ravenna

I don’t write historical fiction. I don’t even really write historical fantasy, although most of my other-world fantasies are in some way informed or inspired by our world’s history. But everywhere I turned in Italy, I felt as though I was touching the edge of some great, palpable history, and I hated that I could only discover so much about each story. Etruscans settling the hills around Rome; the growth of a vast, tumultuous empire where slaves could become emperors; a dissolute, gilded bureaucracy beset by “barbarians”; popes and princes and art and music; a modern legacy of food and fashion and incredible wine. For me, all those periods and stories felt layered on top of one another–a palimpsest place, with fading years etched like ink upon its face. I wanted to read every single line, even the ones lost to time.

As a storyteller, that much history felt incredibly inspiring. I tried to take in as many of those histories and stories as I could–I can only hope that one or several will take root inside me and begin to grow. And if not? I certainly enjoyed the wine, pasta, and sunshine along the way.

Where have you traveled that inspired you with its history or stories?

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It’s time.

This time last year – April 5th, 2018 – I published a post that, among other things, reflected on the upheaval surrounding the RITA Award nominations.

You can find that post HERE.

The RITAs are the romance genre’s version of the Oscars. They’re sponsored by the Romance Writers of America (RWA), and if you write romance, getting a RITA nomination is a Very Big Deal. When the awards were announced last year, there was a huge uproar because the majority – the large majority – of the nominees were white.

In years past, authors of color have been nominated and a couple have won RITAs, but no black author has ever won a RITA award.

I finished last year’s post by encouraging everyone to read outside their comfort zone, to buy books by authors of color, and to listen to what authors of color have to say about how they’ve been treated and how they want to be treated.

And then a weird, but not entirely surprising, thing happened.

Nothing.

I mean, I wrote that post with the best of intentions, and in fact I followed my own recommendations, picking up books I might not otherwise have read. The ‘listening’ part didn’t happen, though. Not because I didn’t care, but because…I don’t know…the opportunity didn’t present itself?

Yeah, that’s kinda lame.

See, for the last year and a few months I’ve been treasurer of the Rainbow Romance Writer (RRW), the LGBTQIA chapter of the RWA. Last year when the RITA nominations caused such a stir, it was brought to the attention of the RRW board that authors of color view our chapter as unwelcoming. At the time, we put out a statement vowing to change.

Which makes my inaction that much worse, because I could have worked for an opportunity, and I didn’t.

Did I mention that when the RITA nominations were announced this year, they were just as white as in years past? The biggest difference has been the fall-out: authors of color spoke more forcefully, on twitter and on various RWA forums, calling out the Nice White Ladies whose subtle, unexamined racism perpetuates the system.

I am a Nice White Lady.

I care about the usual range of liberal causes, and I want to live in a world where racism isn’t a thing, where we can all let go of that particular piece of baggage.

It’s a nice idea, but we’re nowhere close to that yet.

In the days since the announcement of this year’s RITA nominations, I’ve kept pretty quiet, preferring to read the twitter threads and Facebook posts and show my support through re-tweets and likes. Which is fine, but it’s also a demonstration of the thing I can’t ever let go of.

My own privilege.

Here’s the thing. Once the social media dust settled last year, I was able to put aside these issues and focus on other things. The authors of color I know – even those I consider friends – don’t have that luxury.

This was brought home to me with particular eloquence in this essay on privilege by NBA player Kyle Korver. (HERE‘s the link to his essay.) More than anything else, this paragraph resonated with me, and prompted me to write this post:

What I’m realizing is, no matter how passionately I commit to being an ally, and no matter how unwavering my support is for NBA and WNBA players of color….. I’m still in this conversation from the privileged perspective of opting in to it. Which of course means that on the flip side, I could just as easily opt out of it. Every day, I’m given that choice — I’m granted that privilege — based on the color of my skin.

No matter how important I think the fight against racism is, I have the ability to put it aside in a way some of my friends don’t. Hell, I was able to take a whole year off, even after hearing that a group I help run is part of the problem.

It’s a sobering thought.

I’m left asking myself how I’m going to make things different this year. It’s easy to throw things down in a blog post and then let them slide because there’s no accountability. I will say I’m lucky, because the same authors who pointed out that our RRW chapter has issues are willing to work with us, to share their ideas so that we can create a more diverse chapter.

I’ll be working with the other RRW board members to move forward on that dialogue. (Can it be a dialogue when one side is mostly listening?) In addition, the RWA has put together a number of resources for encouraging diversity, and while I don’t want to make a bunch of empty promises, I’ll be exploring what’s there.

I may not be able to change the world, but I can work on myself. I can put more effort into recognizing all the ways the game is rigged in my favor,
in the hope of finding places I can level the playing field, so that next year’s RITA nominations are a celebration of diversity as well as excellence.

Stuck

I’m not a whiner. I mean, every now and then I’ll feel a little down, but I generally don’t talk about it, at least on social media. I’d rather set a goal, make a plan, and get on with it.

Whatever it is.

But I’m stuck. All the things I should be doing (taxes/writing/housekeeping/bills/gardening/savingtheworld/etcetcetc) are circling me like a damned bunch of alligators. Instead of picking one thing to focus on, I’m curled up in a metaphysical ball, hoping they’ll all go away.

A couple months ago I wrote a post about New Years resolutions that was kind of obnoxious in its enthusiasm. “I’ma do This and This and This and it’s gonna be fun!”

I just….haven’t done much. Instead of using those resolutions to motivate myself, they’ve been closer to a chain of weights around my neck, dragging me down.

For example, one of my goals was to write something my agent can send out on submission. Toward that end, I came up with an idea for a mystery series set in Victorian London, and I’ve put together a decent stack of books for research.

It’s gonna be cool. A brother and sister team – he’s a physician, she’s an apothecary – solve crimes at the edge of Whitechapel.

However – there’s always a however – rather than doing that research, I’ve spent days to weeks telling myself I’ll never be able to create a believable Victorian setting.

Because that’s a much more productive use of my time. (#sarcasm)

A publisher I’m interested in has a call for holiday novellas, with a deadline of May 1st. I have an idea, I played around with character sheets, and knocked out the skeleton of a plot. I’ve even written the first 1500 or so words.

And…they suck. Well, maybe suck is too strong a word. They’re just…not very good. To borrow a phrase from Marie Kondo, they do not spark joy.

But I really can’t blame the words for my current mood. It’s a combination of things: the current political shitstorm (like, Michael Cohen must have titanium gonads), lack of sleep, worry that writers I consider my peers are leaving me in the dust, stress related to putting 2 kids through college.

You know, the usual grind.

Also, lack of sleep.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, I’m not usually a public crybaby, so to wrap things up, I’m going to list a few things that are going right.

— Irene and I are working on a new novel!
— My agent saw an editor looking for stories set in either WW1 or WW2, so she queried my Paris story and the editor requested it!
— The damned sun is shining – which might not sound like much, but this is Seattle in February, so…

…spring can’t be too far away, can it?

Ready for a new one! (#NewYearsResolutions)

Remember 2016? We all thought it was the worst year ever because Prince and Bowie both died, and oh yeah, the election. LOL, remember?

(As an interesting aside, I now know there’s such a thing as Prince Rogers Nelson fanfic. That’s….wild.)

Then came 2017. From Inauguration Day on, that year made a beeline to the top of the Worst Year Ever category. (For some of us, anyway.) So obviously 2018 decided to blow up that category and remake it in its own awful image. I didn’t start last January with a whole lot of hope, but wow, I can barely stand to read the headlines anymore.

I’d say we were living through positive proof that you can’t run the country – or the world – like a reality TV show.

Yet….and yet…here I sit, on the cusp of 2019. While I’m not exactly optimistic, I’m ready to make plans, and blogging a list of resolutions makes them that much more real.

You’ll hold me to them, won’t you?

Some of my resolutions have to do with writing, others with life. About the only thing I can promise is that they’ll be concrete and measurable and not dependent on others. For example, it does me no good to put “end government shut-down” on my list of resolutions, because that’s not something I can do on my own. However, I can call my senators and ask them to end it. See the difference?

So here, in no discernible order, is my list of New Year’s Resolutions for 2019. ..

  1. I will write another book for my agent to send out on submission. She currently has L’Ami Mysterieux (m/m romance set in 1920 Paris) out with a few editors and we’re hopeful it’ll get an offer. If it does, that’ll re-jigger my list of goals, but that’s a good thing.
  2. I will continue to write about 20 postcards a week for #postcardstovoters. I started writing postcards a little over a year ago, and had written more than 1000 by the midterm elections. Then I went to a protest and met someone who’d written over 4000….wow…
  3. I will spend 10-15 minutes a day working on my French with Babbel. I started this last January, working with DuoLingo, but I sorta ran out of steam in about October. If I start working on a sequel to L’Ami Mysterieux, it’ll be helpful to have better French skills.
  4. I will write another installment in The Clockwork Monk & Other Stories. Monk has been a free download for a couple years now, and this fall I wrote a holiday novella sequel. Readers like the world and I like the characters, so it’s time for a full-length story – or at least something longer than 20k words.
  5. I will re-write the Creepy Doll story. Creepy Doll is a solo Halloween story set in the Hours of the Night world I write with my friend Irene Preston. We’ve been on something of a hiatus, so in the interest of only setting goals that fall within my control, I’m not making any promises about our other works-in-progress. I’m optimistic the wheels are starting to turn, though, and if/when we get back to work, this whole list gets blown up.
  6. I will keep Senators Murray & Cantwell on speed-dial, and contact them at least monthly. Even if we were to all wake up tomorrow and find our government back on track, with single-payer healthcare and sane immigration policies, I’d still want to be a bee in their bonnets. If there’s anything I’ve learned since November, 2016, it’s not to take our democracy for granted.
  7. I will climb back on the Weight Watchers bandwagon, because chocolate-drizzled popcorn for breakfast shouldn’t be a thing. Promising to lose weight is the biggest New Years Resolution cliche of them all, so all I’m promising is that I’ll show up at a meeting. Making healthier choices is a life-long process, and sometimes it’s good to have a little help.

Seven seems like a pretty good number to start the year off. I like that they’re all manageable, and that they build off things I’ve already accomplished. I don’t do well with uncertainty, so having this list – even though it may change radically over the next few months – makes me feel better. So, yeah. Happy New Year to me!

Do you make New Years Resolutions? What’s on your list?

Spectating Instead of Creating

Sometimes I feel like I’m the Queen of Getting Stuck in a Rut, which, as far as royalty goes, isn’t very glamorous. (And when I say “rut” I don’t mean a routine, either, because one of my ancillary kingdoms is the Duchy of Procrastination, neighbored by the Earldom of Wasting Time). For me, when I’m focused on a project I develop a strange fixation with having all of my “active” work rhythms–journaling, reading, listening to music, plus of course writing–be in service of the project I’m working on. Which means that when it comes to leisure activities–when I know I should be refilling the well in an intentional way–I don’t have the mental capacity left for anything of substance and turn to fluff. Bad movies, Regency romance novels, Candy Crush Saga. Not that there’s anything wrong with fluff! But (wo)man cannot live on fluff alone.

And then the next day I feel guilty for failing to refill the creative well, and I buckle down even harder on what I’m allowed to read and write during active work time.

Rinse, repeat. Binge, purge.

Sigh. Like I said, Queen of Ruts.

giphy1

A few weeks ago, I bought a ticket to the pre-Broadway world premier of Moulin Rouge: the Musical. Now, even though I love musicals, I almost never see them live. First, there’s the price, which is always steep, especially if you don’t want to use binoculars to see the actors’ faces. Second, there are the crowds, which make me nervous on a good day and can induce panic on a bad one. And third, there’s the husband who hates musicals, which is usually an easy excuse to let myself talk myself out of going based on the first two reasons.

But this time was different. I kept staring at the glamorous poster and thinking about the extravagant movie and its bohemian ideals: Freedom, Beauty, Truth & Love. I knew I needed this. So–gnashing my teeth at the price–I booked a ticket before I could change my mind.

I’m SO GLAD I did!

moulin rouge

The venue–the historic Emerson Colonial Theater–was stunning, frescoed and gilded in true Fin de Siecle glory. And the show was magnificent! From the very first number I was completely swept away, transported to Paris and the Moulin Rouge. I laughed, I cried, I cheered, and I clapped along to a seriously dizzying array of elaborate pop-culture inspired songs and dances. I think I barely blinked for three whole hours, enraptured in the sensation of being a spectator to someone else’s art. And when the curtain finally fell and I walked out into the night, I felt full. I felt inspired, with stories and songs and images dancing in the darkened set of my mind, just waiting for the spotlight to shine on them.

So maybe the choice isn’t between gruel and fluff; rigorous work and mindless fluff. Going forward, I’m going to try and challenge myself to participate in other forms of art that will challenge, excite, and inspire me. My own art can only grow in leaving it behind for an hour or two.

Author’s Note: The original title was changed after a dear friend pointed out a problematic element that I had failed to register. I offer sincere apologies to anyone who may have been offended and I will seek to be better in the future.

Summer in the garden…

So it’s 72 degrees at 10 in the morning, and the high temperature today is supposed to approach 90 degrees. (That’s 22 degrees and 32 degrees, for those of you who speak Celcius.) I know that doesn’t compare to a lot of places, but for Seattle, that’s hot in any language.

Which is why I decided for today’s post, I’m going to take it easy. Instead of breaking down the current kerfuffle in m/m romance (because there’s *always* a kerfuffle in m/m romance) or digging through the fall-out of last week’s RWA conference (because OMG MRWAGA cannot be a thing!), I’m going to take you all on a little tour of my garden.

Two things to know before we start.

#1. My ideal garden is neat and tidy and symmetrical, and I appear to be congenitally unable to create such a space. My approach to garden design consists of planting all the things and seeing what lives.

#2. Over the last five years, life prevented me from spending much time gardening, so what started as “pretty fairy hide-out” turned into “the call of the wild”. I did some major (!!!) pruning this spring, and  removed a couple prominent plants that had outgrown their space to the point that taking them out was the only option. Even though I’ve done a lot of work, there’s still more to do. (There’s always more to do!)

With those things in mind, here we go…

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This is my front walkway. Most of the time you can get through without being mugged by a plant.

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This is the stone birdbath, my 10th anniversary gift to my husband.

 

Okay, so now I’ve learned that I can’t write captions when I tile images. Come on, WordPress. Work with me.

At any rate, the two on top are my “garden helpers”. (Ed is on the left, and Burnsie is on the right.) The pink rose of Baby Blanket which has no scent but a lovely bloom, and on the right is a Japanese anemone. If the anemone is flowering, it must be almost August. Also, they’re vigorous (!!) so if you want one, ask someone who’s already got them, because once they’re established, they come up EVERYWHERE.

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This is my front patio, a usually-shady place to hang out.

I have a thing for lace-cap hydrangeas…

And I also have a fair number of herbs. That’s a creeping thyme on the left, and lavender on the right. I’ve also planted sage, oregano, fennel, chives, rosemary, and basil. And strawberries. Did I mention strawberries? I used to have raspberries, but they’re thugs and wouldn’t stay in their bed so I took them out. I’m not much of an urban farmer, but this spring I did plant tomatoes and potatoes, along with an espaliered apple tree (that right now is hiding behind the tomato plants).

backporch2
This is my back porch, and below are two closer views of the oak leaf hydrangea on the left.

And…that’s all for now. I’m sure I’ll be back next month with some flaming drama to share with you, but today I’m just going to kick back and water my plants. Hope you’re having a lovely summer! (Or fall, if you’re from Oz!)

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How to be Creative in the Chaos that is Now

First, let me say that I am proud of Liv and Lyra sharing their posts the last two weeks. As authors and public figures it’s difficult to know whether or not to speak up about politics, always afraid of hurting our livelihoods for offending people. But I think we all know that things are just different now and we need to speak up and not fear reprisal. If you didn’t get a chance to check them out last month, please go have a quick read.

I do want to get back to talking about writerly things, but we cannot ignore the fact that the current climate has really had a hard, hard impact on writers. The constant chaotic news loop we’re stuck in takes so much out of us. Every day, sometimes multiple times a day, there is some new horror or frustration or just plain bullshit that has us throwing up our hands, randomly cursing, or slumping over with a deep sigh.

So how, how do you push through all that crap and be creative? How do you check out if even for a little while so you can get your words for the day? You don’t want to look away because that is a privilege and the guilt is overwhelming. But you lose your goddamn mind if you don’t take a break once in a while, right? Another chaotic loop.

Well, first of all, the best thing you can do is look the monster in the face. Take five minutes in the morning to call your three reps (both senators and your MOC) and tell the staffer or leave a short VM with your name and zip code and tell them why you’re calling, what you’re supporting or protesting. They’ll take a note, thank you, and be done with the call. Boom. One important contribution done. And yes, you should do this multiple times a week. If you have phone anxiety call after hours and leave a VM, those still count.

Secondly, participate, if you can, in protests. I can’t tell you how much faith and hope and resolve the Women’s March gave me last year. Even in my small city, the turn out was amazing. This past weekend my husband and I joined in on the Families Belong Together March. In the past my husband has had to work when the protests were scheduled in our area, but not this one, so he was able to go. He really didn’t think it would be much of a turn out, he wasn’t as excited as I was. At least, not until we got there. When the crowd filled in his whole demeanor changed. He joined in on the chants, he raised his fist, he took a spare flag from another protester to hold up (this was a very big deal because my hubs is a Marine Vet and in Nov 2016 he packed away all his USMC and veteran apparel and refused to wear any of it or talk about being in the service because he was so angry and disillusioned).  Seeing so many people turn out in our small piece of America, seeing all the other veterans proudly wearing their hats and shirts, really changed something in him. If you need that, go to a march.

And finally, do what I’ve done. Give yourself a break. Not forever, not indefinitely, but take the time you need. We all need to recharge. When you’re ready, get back to work, but take as much time as you need to finish a project. You all know I’ve been talking about a new book, but I haven’t written one word yet. I did finally manage to flesh out the two main characters and that feels like something. In doing so I was able to think about the magic systems and a seedy, black market system that will work as a wonderful red herring to the mystery I’m still figuring out.

Another thing I did to help me this year was become a student again. Not back to uni or to a workshop,  but I did look up Brandon Sanderson. Plenty of people know who I’m talking about, but if you don’t, he’s a best selling Epic Fantasy writer, who also happens to teach. And what’s even more amazing, his lectures are on YouTube. I watched an 8 series lecture and took copious notes. I started watching because I wanted to learn what he had to say on magic systems, but then realized it was a whole class and decided to start from the beginning.

Now, I’ve written quite a number of books, so I like to think I know what I’m doing, but it was still nice to take this as a refresher course. It gave me some food for thought about a lot of things and it felt good to be a student again. There are a lot of his lectures to be found, but I started with his BYU 318R Writing Class. Seriously, check it out. And if you’re a newbie writer and struggling with your first book and can’t afford/don’t have time for school, take advantage of this. It was an amazing course, probably better than a lot of the classes I took in uni because so many of those were focused on reading.

Hopefully something here helps you figure out a balance to being informed without being overwhelmed and getting back to work. We need a middle ground; don’t let them steal your fire.