Thursday, November 11, 2010

Publishers Weekly Top 100 Books of 2010


It's an annual event. Publishers Weekly announces what they consider to be the best 100 books of the year.

What was fun was to see that out of the 100 books of all kinds, romance got 5 slots. What was astonishing, at least to me, was that my first historical romance, BARELY A LADY, was named one of the top 5. I'm still trying to believe it. I'm so psyched to be in such amazing company. Two of the other books are already on my keeper shelf. To say I'm honored would be an example of how, even as rich as the English language is, it is limited. Wow. Just wow.

Here's the more fun part. Joanne Bourne, one of the other authors on the romance list(and an amazing author. I love her work) mentioned on her blog that Rose Fox, on her blog, Genreville, gives us an inside look into the process, including the top 5 romances and the 5 who came really close. It's great reading. I'm including just the list here. If you want an introduction into romance, I can't think of a better list. I know that I'll search out the ones I've missed.

Top Five:

The Forbidden Rose
Joanna Bourne (Berkley Sensation)
In mid-revolution France, a noblewoman and a spy are torn between wartime practicality and headstrong passion. The gripping espionage story and wry voiceovers from the heroine will win hearts.

The Iron Duke
Meljean Brook (Berkley)
Brook's fabulous steampunk tale has an iron-boned war hero and a half-Asian detective inspector matching wits and wills on airships and battleships and in smoke-choked London as England recovers from 200 years of Mongol rule.

The Heir
Grace Burrowes (Sourcebooks Casablanca)
Burrowes pulls off an improbable Regency affair between a spoiled ducal heir and a housekeeper with a secret.

Barely a Lady
Eileen Dreyer (Grand Central/Forever)
The wartime amnesia romance is as old as the hills, but RWA Hall of Famer Dreyer (aka Kathleen Korbel) makes this one work.

Trial by Desire
Courtney Milan (HQN)
Modern readers will be as intrigued by the Victorian-era political issues as they are by the central story of a man trying to reconnect with the wife he abandoned.

And the rest of the top 10:

Proof by Seduction,
Courtney Milan
A stunning debut Victorian that very nearly made the top list, outclassed only by its sequel.

(my note: how good do you have to be to rate 1 slots in the top 10? I agree, too. Love Courtney Milan)

Whisper of Scandal,
Nicola Cornick
An adventure story wrapped around a heartbreaking tale of a woman rendered barren by her husband’s beatings.

Last Night’s Scandal,
Loretta Chase:

The hilarious and adorable story of two rapscallions renovating a haunted Scottish castle.

Marry Me,
Jo Goodman:
A moving 19th century American romance with tons of interesting period medical detail.

Warrior/Scoundrel/Rebel
Zoë Archer’s
Cranks up the Indiana Jones–style adventure to 11 and then piles on the sexy heat.

Welcome to Harmony
Jodi Thomas
Contemporary Western, is a really lovely meditation on what it means to be family.

No Chance,
Christy Reece
series kickoff is an exemplary romantic suspense novel with a fabulous self-saving heroine.

So, my friends who've come over from suspenseland or the small town of mystery, even the universe of science fiction, here's a great way to dip your toes into romance, just to see what you think. I promise you won't be disappointed.
Now, back to the champagne and chocolates....

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?


Probably the most frequent question I'm asked. And wish I could give people a better answer than “everywhere.” But I'm afraid that's the truth. Maybe if I tell you about how my latest idea is forming, you might get a better idea.


I'm working on a series of historical romance set at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. In my series (because I love nothing more than a little suspense), there are nefarious spies, who, in the third book, commit my heroine Kate in an insane asylum. Not a good thing for her, certainly. But as I was writing the scene, I realized something important. This isn't a normal insane asylum. This asylum is controlled by the nefarious spies, who really think they are working for a good cause. If some people have to be kept constrained until the bad guys gain control, well, so it must be.

But, as often happens, once I have one new idea, several more follow. I realized that while Kate is in this asylum, Kate hears about another woman kept there; a woman who has been committed because she threatened to turn her husband over to the authorities for his part in an attempt to overthrow the government. And for a while, that was all I knew. Except I had the nagging suspicion that this mysterious woman would end up with a book of her own.


Cut to Venice. I'm sitting on the balcony of my B&B overlooking the Canereggio Canal, and suddenly a voice comes into my head. It's of a woman in exile from her homeland, smuggled away to Italy to recover from incarceration. Her health has been fragile, but the beauty of La Serenissima has begun to heal her.


Still, she is hundreds of miles from her children. She has a husband she may not have loved, but certainly respected. She knows that he believes he is acting for the best, that her commitment was, in his mind, to protect her, because if he hadn't been able to contain her she certainly would have been murdered. She simply knows too much.


She still knows too much. She is still a threat to the group her husband belongs to. She would do anything to protect him, even refuse to speak of his involvement. But she knows that she cannot remain this way. Besides, there is a man...


Well, there's always a man in romance. But that's not the point. The point is that it was the sight of that side canal in Venice that set her loose in my head. Until then she had only been a one line idea. A plot point. A possible complication. That canal began to give her color and shape. Conflict, purpose, goals. To her the pastels of those old, crumbling, palazzos are the colors of melancholy. She wants to go home and knows it to be impossible. She wants to return to her marriage and knows she can't. She has begun to fall in love with the man who brought her to Venice and should not. And she thinks all of this as she sits on a balcony in an old palazzo as the sun sets over the choppy water and the bells of St. Mark's toll out the hour. She is in one of the most beautiful spots on earth, and she can only wish she weren't.


And that is where I got at least one of my ideas.

Friday, October 15, 2010

I Get It Now


I have always wanted to travel to Italy, specifically Pompeii and Venice. I know. It makes no sense, but there you are. For different reasons, both places drew me. So when I agreed to plan the family trip to Italy, the stipulation was that we include Pompeii and Venice.


Pompeii was everything I thought it would be. Without getting all mystical, let me just say that I swore I could hear old whispers as we stepped back and down into time. Whether because of the renovation or because of the place and its terrible demise, I felt as if the spirit of it had been trapped within those ancient stone walls to leak out like a badly sealed container.


And then there is Venice. I'm sitting on a balcony over the Canneregio Canal listening to the neighborhood settle towards evening and watching the gold of the setting sun wash down the pinks and oranges and terracottas of the tattered and peeling buildings across the way. And all I can think is why didn't I come here before? Why do I have to leave?


I know. It's been written every way but haiku (and if given the chance, I'd do one) about the romance and timeless beauty of Venice. Painters have struggled for centuries to capture that warm light, that peculiarly intense blue of the water, the erotic lushness of flowers and people and architecture. There is no way I can do better.


But I can report that every one of them was right, and I didn't really appreciate it until I sat on this balcony. I'd hoped it was so. I'd hoped that I could have a special experience in a city I've always held in my heart. I didn't realize it would be in a tiny caffe called the Leon d'Oro, which was run by an elderly couple who cooked your food the way their families had for centuries, right in front of your eyes, and made friends without knowing a word of English. I didn't know that one boat ride up the Grand Canal would steal my heart so completely that I felt melancholy even taking pictures, because I knew I would leave.


I'd heard that Venice was an unapologetic, overpainted old courtesan who knew exactly what she was and was perfectly happy with it. But until you see her colors and are seduced by her whimsy, you just don't understand.


I do now. I get it completely. I just wish it hadn't happened as I'm about ready to leave....

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Value of Serendipity


I love to plan trips. I love to research them, to find out the interesting places I want to see, the history I want to search out, the unique and the out of the way places that simply need to be visited. On the trip we're taking now, to Italy, I planned eight days worth of tours to learn about everything from volcanic eruptions (Pompeii) to the effects of music on grape vines (Tuscany) to the composition of tuffa stone (Rome) to how to blow glass (Venice). But even more importantly, I planned time for serendipity.


Serendipity in travel is what happens when you're surprised. Either you have to cancel something (we had to cancel a tour of the Amalfi Coast because of one of our members' unforseen carsickness), or you end up receiving unexpected gifts (my sister and I wandered off one day to explore Amalfi). And while I think tours are wonderful, especially the personal kind where you have a guide and all of his knowledge and enthusiasm to yourself, sometimes it's even better to wander off and get lost.


That is what is so wonderful about Venice. Venice is a city to walk. Actually, the only thing you can do—besides take a boat up the canals—is walk. There are no cars, no scooters, no motorized transportation of any kind. I found out why when we were walking down one of the main drags and we saw what looked like tables covered in sheets of heavy wood placed at regular intervals down the street. The strollers tended to sit on them, especially strollers waiting for shoppers(there is a LOT of shopping in Venice). It didn't occur to me that they had another purpose. Until I tried to get into St. Mark's Square.


I made the mistake of going about noon, which, it seems is high tide. As you can see by the picture, it is fairly perilous to try and maneuver St. Mark's during high tide. The city, wisely, has laid out walkways so the tourists can visit the important places: the Cathedral, Florians, and shops.


That was when it dawned on me what all the scaffolding was doing in the middle of the streets. It wasn't only St. Mark's Square that tended to flood.


Which brings me back to serendipity. Because Venice is an island, it is impossible to be lost for long. Although it is amazingly easy to get lost in the first place. The city is ancient, with city planners who obviously followed the seagulls to lay out the grid. There are big streets, little streets, tiny streets, cul-de-sacs, piazzas and a thousand or so churches (you will quickly realize this when it comes time for the Angelus bells to ring). The great thing, though, is that each of those streets is interesting, quaint, picturesque, charming, and full of cafes to rest weary feet in, if not shops.


Stop a while. Get your bearings. Ask for directions. Even if you don't understand them (and as one guide warned us, when asking for directions from an Italian, never listen to the words. Watch the hands. If they say, “A la sinistra”, or to the left, and wave with their right hand. Go right. Trust me), you'll end up having a great interaction. Hand gestures (non-offensive ones, anyway), do quite well to supplant tourist Italian. With hand gestures and my catch all of “Mi dispiace”, which means I'm sorry, and makes everyone feel better, I got a lovely shopkeeper to make me a custom-made necklace for my daughter. And by the end of it, both of us were laughing and happy.


Serendipity. Even if it isn't Venice, give yourself the chance. Schedule in a bit of extra time to get lost. Definitely stop by a little cafe where you only hear the local language and made yourself known. You'd be amazed at how much fun you have. Because as much as I love planned fun, I love the unplanned kind even better.

Monday, October 11, 2010

There's Old and Then There's Old


Everybody in America knows what old is. Old is before television. Old is before computers and microwaves. Really old involves either Pilgrims or Native Americans, who fought nature to tame a wild and often unforgiving land. That is old. We in America are infants.

I just spent three days in Rome. Yeah, I can see you now, shaking your head. Everybody knows about Rome. Crowded, noisy, filthy, rude, chock full of fanny-pinchers. Oh, there are some old buildings you can drive around in your car, but does it really matter? All I have to say is, Americans are infants.


It wasn't just the Coliseum, which after the Taj Mahal is probably the most recognizable historic site on earth. It's a bit moth-eaten, sure, but Russell Crowe fought gladiators there. But the Coliseum, although massive and amazing, isn't even the most amazing ancient architecture in Rome. I give that award to the Pantheon, a simple round building built as a temple to the gods and found itself taken over by people who believed in only one of them. It is perfectly proportioned, elegant, deceptively simple, and still standing in the same glory with which it was made...two thousand years ago.


Yes, that's what I said. The thing predates longbows, and still looks pristine. Absolutely amazing. Then there are the Roman fountains, which in and of themselves would be worth noting, especially the ones by Bernini, dancing explosions of marble that spout water from varied and amazing places to enchant, edify and nourish, since the water is perfect to drink. The water that is being forced through aqueducts the Romans constructed over...two thousand years ago. Nothing has changed. The wells the women got their water from have just developed fancy skins.

And then there are the catacombs. Now, for the purposes of fair reporting, the catacombs have been on my bucket list since I was a kid. You see, like any Catholic kid, I was raised on Lives of the Saints, which included every martyr known to the church, especially those who died particularly gruesome deaths. And many of those saints not only worshiped in the catacombs, they ended up there(not for eternity, though. When the market for relics got hot, the Church moved the saints to prevent further pilfering of fingerbones and skulls). The dark, close, musty subterranean vaults they used to inhabit, though, appealed to my dramatic little soul.


What I hadn't counted on was the fact that these things really were so old. Yep. We're talking two thousand year old range. The Romans mined the area for tuffa stone, leaving behind empty caverns, and the Christians (among others) used them for burial. I also hadn't counted on the fact that when we got to go down there, those narrow, dark, cool passages would affect me the way they did. I swear you can feel the pain and hope and devotion resonating from those carved cavern walls, where little beds were carved from hard stone to hold someone's wife or parent or child. I looked down the seven levels of tombs that had built up over the years (not many, though. They were finished in the late 500s. That's five hundred. A.D. And those who passed through still seem to have form and spirit and weight) and found myself overwhelmed by the half million people who had been buried there. Did I mention it was two thousand years ago?


Kind of makes our “George Washington Slept Here” signs silly in comparison.

Friday, October 08, 2010

In Praise of Staying Off the Beaten Track


When you travel to a new place, it's inevitable you're going to cross paths with every other tourist in the country, at least once or twice. We did it in the Vatican yesterday, and Amalfi two days before that. The cool places have already been found, and they've been found by the companies with the big buses. So when you enjoy the transcendent glory of the Sistine Chapel, you do it with 1500 of your closest friends.

The secret, though, is that you don't have to stay with them. What I've found before, and has really been brought home to me on this trip is that it's much more fun to stay where the busses don't stop. For instance, we began the trip in the little town of Matera in the south of Italy. Most Americans have not heard of it. Italians are just beginning to. There are tours there, now, as opposed to the first time I went, but it's still a meandering, contemplative kind of town where the big entertainment is dressing up in the evening and strolling the piazzas with your friends. A perfect introduction to Italy.

From there we headed for the Amalfi Coast. Now it shouldn't be surprising that there are crowds there. The Amalfi Coast is celebrated in movie and song for its legendary beauty. And I can't argue. There is nothing quite so romantic as sitting beneath the bougainvillea watching the sun set behind the isle of Capri. But here's the hint. Don't do it from a hotel in Amalfi itself. Or even Positano, lovely as it is. Both are overrun with every manner of tourist, which means that all the shops sell tourist kitsch, and all of the kitsch is expensive. Not only that, on the trip you took to learn about Italy, mostly you see Americans or Japanese. The streets are a nightmare, with locals trying to squeeze their cars past the hordes who descend on the town every day, and the restaurants are the most unpleasant I've ever been at. As for Positano, it's much lovelier. It's also MUCH more expensive.

Our compromise was Praiano, right between the two. Smaller, friendlier, more family-oriented, so that the people who own the restaurants serve you and visit out of interest rather than obligation. The rooms are WAY cheaper. The room we had at the small Hotel LeSirene, was large, airy, and came with a balcony overlooking the sea and Positano. For 90 euro a night. Come on. A Holidy Inn in Topeka is more expensive.

The best part is that there is a bus that runs about every 20 minutes that will take you anywhere you want to go on the coast, is painless (although often very crowded) and fool proof. So my sister and I hopped on the bus at 10AM, spent the afternoon in Amalfi, where the shops stayed open throughout lunch (one drawback to smaller places, if that bothers you. They do respect siesta, and close everything from 1:30-4:00.), had a drink, then climbed on the bus for home. We didn't have to try to drive that coast ourselves; we could get off and on where we wanted (like the big Ceramic Warehouse halfway home) and we could get a ticket at any cigarette shop (can't miss them. They all have a sign with a big red T on them)

We did the same in Rome, resting our heads in the Vatican Vista two blocks from the Pope, where we had a view, a bit more quiet (it's never really quiet in Rome, except Sunday morning) and a landlady who not only gave great directions, but better private tours. Much less expensive than the center of town, easier to navigate, and less stressful. And now, instead of fighting our way through every other tourist in Florence, we're taking a train to Siena, where we'll unpack our bags, pull out our wine and wander out onto the patio of the Albergo Bernini to enjoy one of the most spectacular views in Tuscany. After all, Florence is just down the road.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

We're Not At McDonald's Anymore


The first thing you need to know about Italian meals is that they are an event. Because I was speaking at the Women's Fiction Festival, I got vouchers for every meal at about a dozen of the restaurants in Matera. And they kept apologizing when I presented my voucher. Until I got a bit more comfortable with Italian, I thought they were refusing the voucher. But no, they were apologizing because on the voucher I could only have two courses, coffee and wine, instead of the usual four courses, wine, coffee, and desert like a regular meal.

Now, on a regular Italian menu, you start with the Antipasti, which is what we call Appetizers in the US. The first course, or Primi, involves your pasta and pizza, which come on plates larger than I could consume in an entire day.

But wait! There's more! Second course, or Segundi, includes either fish or meat course, which would be an entire entree in the US. Each region has their special fish, which is usually either baked packed in salt or 'crazy water'. Nobody so far has had the guts to find out exactly what crazy water is.

You can also get vegetables, of course, or, to my eternal surprise, the best french fries I've ever had.

After that is the salad course, which includes bruschetta (every time I'd see bruschetta I'd get excited all over again, until my family said, “Bruschetta in Italy? What?” A special note about salads in Italy. Fruit and vegetables are impossibly fresh and delicious here (and, for the hesitant among my friends, safe). But Italy, probably because the produce is so good, doesn't smother it in salad dressing. They rely on good old oil and balsamic vinegar. Now I'd heard that you really need to know your balsamic vinegar because there's a world of difference among them, but I'm telling you right now, I had no idea. Real Italian balsamic—not the stuff you get at Costco—is a gustatory revelation. I'm thinking of buying a case of it, like wine, to bring home.

AFTER the salad course, you can have Fromaggio, or Dolci. Cheese or desert (which often involves cannolis or tiramasu).And then, of course, your after dinner digestive and/or coffee.
Full yet? Trust me. I was full after the Primi. I have yet to quite make it to the Secondi, even splitting either salads or antipasti. I hate to waste food, especially good food, and it felt a sin to leave so much on my plate those first days when I didn't know better.

Once you have your seat in a restaurant, you're there for the evening, though. Nobody keeps the place at meat locker temperature or blasts cheesy music to make your dinner so uncomfortable you don't want to linger. They consider it an insult if you hurry away. Food is to be enjoyed, savored, shared. It isn't just a meal, it's a celebration, and they enjoy nothing more than sharing it with you. My kind of country.

And I haven't even begun to address how good the food is.

Monday, October 04, 2010

That Joseph Campbell is a Smart Guy

I probably could have learned this stuff if I'd just read Joseph Campbell. Sadly, I just can't get through non-fiction. I'm blaming it on my ADD. I don't know. What I do know is that I've had a lot more fun learning the same lessons by visiting different places in the world. And that is that for all the different mythologies, religions, and superstitions our ancestors taught us, they're all the same.

I had another reminder of that at the Women's Fiction Festival in Matera. We had a lecture from Dorothy Zinn, an anthropologist who specializes in the South of Italy. Her talk was on the belief in magic in this region, and how it lasted a much longer time than the rest of the world, because it was a particularly poor, isolated region where life was desperate and people had little control over their fates. According to Dorothy, the melding of magic and Catholicism here lasted into at least the 1950s, with priests and magic practitioners holding equal footing.

She told a few of the stories, a few pervasive myths tat addressed the insecurities and mysteries of life: like the magical jinx, who brought destruction with him wherever he went, or the little people who were pranksters and wore funny hats. Or the fact that on the day between All Saints Day and the Day of the Dead(Nov. 2), a procession of the dead leave the cemetery for mass and communion at midnight before returning to the grave, and how crossing that procession can cause disaster.

Hmmm, thought, listening to the stories. Very familiar. And not as old in other parts of the world as Dorothy thinks. I've been going to Ireland since the 1980s, when Ireland was still very poor, isolated from the rest of the world and insular. And I heard people tell me of sightings of fairies, leprechauns(little pranksters with funny hats. Sound familiar?) and Firbolgs, an ancient race of giants with one eye. The dead in Ireland walk on Halloween(well, they walk every day, but they have a special time of it on Halloween, when no living person should cross them for fear of disastrous consequences). Our mythology(because even in America I inherited it) was so entwined with Catholicism that one of the most beloved lullabies, the Castle of Dromore, invokes the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Blackwater Fairies in the same stanza.
A more recent example for me was a trip I took to a small village in Alaska, reachable only by plane and seagoing barge(in fact,all their supplies come by that barge twice a year). The area is desperately poor, still wild and raw, where internet—and therefore the wider world—had just been introduced.

I had the privilege of talking with several classes of children who were mostly Yu'pick, and asked them to write me a story, either about their lives or the stories their grandparents had told them. And there, just like Italy and Ireland, were the small, mischievous men in funny hats. Although I liked the Yu'pic version a lot better. According to them, the Little Men came on New Years and stole bad children. And the children were not returned until they learned to respect their elders and obey. Obviously a parent's story.

The only difference in the stories of all the regions I got to hear was demanded by that specific environment. In Alaska, for instance, there were a lot of stories of monsters lurking in the forest. When you look at how primeval and unending their forests are, and how very real terrors lurk there, I can well imagine a parent inventing something far more frightening to a child than a bear to threaten them if they disobey and wander off from home.

In Italy it's werewolves, and the warning is to never answer the first time a person knocks at night. In the stories, the threat is that a werewolf will knock before resuming human form. By the third knock, it's safe. Sounds like the old “never let a person know you're alone in the house” warning.

And in Ireland, it's never wander alone outside after dusk, for fear you'll stumble over a fairy ring or come across a trooping horde and be stolen away by them. There is also the idea that you never take food from one or you're doomed. What do we tell our children about strangers?
There is always a myth about how deadly women are, but I think that's just a man's excuse for not always being in charge.

But, of course, if I'd read Joseph campbell, I would have learned all of this from him. Because one of his basic tenets about mythology is that it is the stories are the same world-over. Smart guy.

Friday, October 01, 2010

I'll Never Do This Again. This Time I Swear It.


I said it before. I swear I'm never doing this again. I sound suspiciously like Robert Downey Jr. to a judge. But I really, really mean it.

Okay. I love to travel. I think we've established that. I love to plan trips. Half the fun for me is finding that interesting little place on a hill over the ocean nobody else knows about, or the town that had that thing happen I want to investigate, or....well, you get the idea. And since the internet has enabled me to do this from the comfort of my own chair, I've gone mad. Mad, I tell you, mad. I've arranged a 3 week trip to India for a friend's wedding (and quite a bit of book research. I swear, CPAs, that elephant ride will show up in a book). I got to plan a month to England and Ireland that included research in London and the Cotswolds for my series of historical romances, a wonderful trip around Galway and Sligo with my friend Katie as we took her husband Dave's ashes to places there he loved, and a couple of weeks renting a house on Dingle with my writer friends to work.

Now, I'm in Italy. I was coming anyway to the Women's Fiction Festival. Which my family heard me talk about. Which meant that suddenly I tacked on two weeks and 4 more cities, not including all the in-betweens. For five. By train. Do you know how many details that involves? Not just B&Bs, but shuttles, trains, insurance, tours just for the 5 of us. It certainly means that I learned a lot more about Italy, which will help for the books this is helping me write (Dave LOVES Italy). But it also means that I have a billion widgets of info whirling in my brain and four people who are relying on my knowledge of a country I've never been to.


Four people who assured me they'd be happy to go anywhere I took them, but who, when faced with the actual schedule, said things like, “We ARE going to the Pantheon, aren't we?” (the answer, thankfully, was yes). Four people I feel are my sole responsibility in a country where English is, usually, a casual acquaintance.


I even asked my family to learn at least tourist Italian. I assured them that I refused to be their translator, especially in issues of toilet-searches. Of course, I'll believe that when I hear it.
So I sit poised at the moment when I know they're taking off, my last moments of blessed, selfish peace, and I'm telling you right now. I'm never doing this again. It's just too much.
I sincerely hope you'll remind me the next time you see me say, “Guess where I'm taking my family?” Your response is “NOWHERE.”


I just planned 3 weeks in Italy. And I loved it. I get great satisfaction

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Eating My Way Around Italy


Too often eating is a chore. I'm not one of those people who considers food fuel. I consider it art, inspiration, passion. It is, at its best, a sensual marriage of sight, scent and taste. I don't eat bread. First I inhale its scent—ah, wheat, rye, honey, maybe asiago cheese--(you can imagine how delighted my children are to eat with me in public). I nibble, like a mouse, hoping to stretctch out the experience as long as I possibly can (I learned that from living in a big family where you got one—count it one—helping and no more. So hurrying did you no good). Like a mouse, I nibble, just to make the experience last longer (another reason my chidlren just love to eat out with me). But sadly, most days it's impossible to dig up any enthusiasm for the fare. After all, it's one thing to go into raptures over Chateaubriand. It's quite another over cereal and yoghurt.


Which brings me to one of the reasons I've been counting down to Italy. I can't think of anyplace else in the world a meal is such a symphony. The French think that they rule with their sauces you can't pronounce that take three days to make and five minutes to eat. But for me, I'll take fresh pasta, a glass of red wine and the sun warming my shoulders as church bells chime the hours.

I always put recommendations on my website for any restaurant I've enjoyed. I may have to start an entirely new website for Italy. The truth of the matter is, I have never had a bad meal. I know they're possible. I read it all the time on Trip Advisor. But I've been lucky.

I wonder if it's because from the minute I sit down the waiter realizes that while I'm not an expert, I am certainly a devoted fan. For instance, I supped at Il Bottole in Matera. I ate alone. At first the waiter was a bit hesitant. But when he poured my wine (a Primitivo from Matera) (didn't I say that like I knew what I was talking about?) he saw that I approach wine like any other food. As if I'm courting it. Approach coyly, hold gently, savor with eyes closed the surprise, the delight, the mystery of its make-up. It doesn't have to be complex. It certainly doesn't have to be expensive. All I ask is that the chef is as delighted by his own work as I am.


So the waiter sees me light up like a saint hearing heavenly choirs, and he smiles. And it's a special smile, not one of those “I'll put up with her because it's my livelihood” smiles, but a smile of companionship, of superiority that we two can recognize beauty.


He asked if he could order for me. To me, a great compliment which I gladly accepted. After all, I know what the best regional food of St.Louis is (toasted ravioli and Ted Drewes's frozen custard), but I want to know what he feels proprietary toward in Matera.

Well, he had good taste. Of course I'm not organized enough to remember to write down names, but the first course was two offerings, a small tart of ricotta cheese and vegetables (and to tell you how much I loved it, I HATE carrots. Not in this), and aa variation on bruschetta with (I can't make this up) charred char, tomatoes and shaved ricotta. Enough to make saints weep.
My second course was a breaded cod cooked in olive oil with potatoes, olives and tomatoes. Yes, thank you. It was that good. I barely refrained from tilting the plate straight down my throat. Add to that the smooth complexion of that Primitivo wine, and I was having my version of holy communion (wow, can I hear my mom's voice chastising me for that one).

Even the Italian version of fast food, a cafe Americano and zucchini quiche seems to be more exotic, more flavorful, more satisfying. Maybe it's the sunlight. Maybe it's being away from my normal staple of sandwiches and salads. I'm not sure. All I know is thank heavens Italy is all uphill, or I'd never fit into my clothes again. Although it would certainly be in a worthy cause.
Now that I've become familiar with Matera, though, I need to find out whether the Amalfi cuisine measures up. Or if the Roman cuisine can compare. I hope you dont' mind following along. I promise I'll try and make it as palatable as I can (which, in Italy, really isn't that tough to do).

And Now, a Pause in Our Regularly Scheduled Programming


For the next three weeks, I'm going to be changing my blogging schedule, although it will serve much the same purpose. I'll still talk about my writing life. But I'm going to be couching it in terms of the trip I'm on. I'm writing this from Matera Italy, where I'm attending the Women's Fiction Festival. From here I'll be traveling to the Amalfi Coast, Rome, Tuscany and Venice with my family in what I call the Flying American Tour. I want to at least touch each place so I know what it feels, smells and tastes like(Matera feels like sunlight, smells like fresh bread and cappuccino, and tastes like olives). My family wants to see as much as they can. So we compromise.


What I will also be doing will be scouting for my books. Just like Mel Gibson's set decorator for Passion of the Christ did when he walked the streets of Matera's Sassi district, I hope to find inspiration, confirmation and serendipity. I hope that the ideas that are gelling in my head for a story set in Italy just after the Napoleonic Wars will fine a setting, a voice and a score. It certainly worked in India. I found three characters and four stories there.


So here in Italy I will report on my success or failure in achieving at least the same. The fact that my search will entail sipping wine on a balcony over the Mediterranean, strolling medieval walled cities and gliding along the canals of Venice just means that I am the damnest, luckiest girl alive to have this job. It sure beats the hell out of fighting my way through ER hallways without spilling the pan of urine in my hands.


And if I may be pardoned for it, I will also do just a tiny bit of gloating over the fact that I was able to organize a champagne tour on a beer budget. Because besides being an author, I'm also Queen of Internet Travel. And I take both positions very seriously.


Ciao! Ciao!

Friday, September 03, 2010

J.K. I'd Like to Buy You a Drink


I hope J.K. Rowling makes more money than God. Not just because I thought the Harry Potter series was seriously brilliant, beautifully innovative and clever as hell. Because J.K. Rowling seduced generations of kids into reading.

I admit. I came to Harry late. But then, my kids were already grown when he showed up. I didn't have anybody to take to the midnight parties or warn that if they didn't get their homework done, they couldn't read the next installment before their friends. I couldn't imagine what could cause such passion.

As I finally read the series though (in a two week period), I felt cheated, because I didn't have kids to discuss it with. Because it isn't enough to read the series, to root for Harry and Hermione and Ron, to hiss at Snape and the Malvoys, to wonder at the magic of Dumbledore, you felt compelled to discuss it, argue over it.

J.K. didn't just write an adventure story with kids, it's a guidebook for kids in how to live their lives. As I said to my cousin when she objected on the grounds that Harry is a wizard and must be evil, Harry Potter is yet another retelling of the Christ story. It can't be more obvious. And along the way, he teaches strong lessons on the power of love, honor, loyalty and faith. And, my favorite, that the power of a mother's love is stronger than any other force in either world.

I did lasso my grown kids and make them talk to me about the series. I'm going back in the next few weeks after my deadline and rereading the series again. And I've discussed with other authors at length the respect I have for Rowlings's work. I got to the end of that sixth book and couldn't imagine how she was going to pull it off. As an author and student of mythology, I knew exactly what she had to do. I just couldn't figure out how she was going to do it. I tip my cap. She did it beautifully.

But as an author who has been hearing dire predictions about the future of literature, I want to give money to J.K., because she hasn't just enticed kids to read books, she's enticed them to read good books. Books that teach. Books that open their imaginations and expand the world. I was in the coffee shop today and got into a conversation with a girl who was deep into the Rick Riordan series about Percy Jackson. She was enthusing about the ancient gods, which she knew about because that is the world of Percy Jackson. I've met a lot of other kids who went from Harry Potter to Frodo Baggins, who graduated from the wizarding world to the Mars of Bradbury, the earth of Isaac Asimov.

When my kids passed through those all-important years when reading is ingrained on a person's habits, they only had RL Stine and Fear Street. Exactly where do you go from there? It took my daughter ten years to find her way back to reading. If Harry had been there, I contend she never would have taken breath. I think of the great books she missed, and it makes me sad.
So, thank you, J.K. If we ever meet, I'll stand you to a drink. Because I contend that without you the future would have looked a lot more dim.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Surprise!


People often ask me who my favorite characters are. After thirty-six books, I've had quite a few. But I'll be honest with you. My favorite character is often one of the secondaries. The supporting players who fill out the story, but don't make it.

The reason for that is perfectly selfish. In any popular fiction book, the protagonists basically exist within a certain behavioral range. They aren't allowed to be amoral or completely selfish. In my current book, BARELY A LADY, what criticism I get is for my hero Jack, who wakes up from a bad head injury with amnesia. Among the first things he remembers --in detail--is the mistress he had after he divorced my heroine Olivia. There are people who simply can't forgive Jack for not vilifying the woman he believes was a positive force in his life, or for admitting that he had feelings for her.

He broke the rules, and some readers won't forgive him. Which is perfectly understandable. Now, if Jack had been a secondary character, nobody would have thought about it at all. Secondary characters can be anybody, do anything, and it's okay, because they're not the moral center of the book.

One of my favorite characters of all time was in my books BAD MEDICINE and HEAD GAMES. He is a lawyer named Frank, who is a sociopath. Not a violent sociopath, like Mouse in the Easy Rawlin's series. More your jolly con-man kind of sociopath. And he knows it.

I didn't know when I first wrote about him that he was a sociopath. I just thought he was a lawyer who had sued my heroine Molly Burke. Over the course of the book, though, I realized that he was so much more.

Frank was really fun to write, because he had few boundaries. And he was a surprise. The same happens with most of my secondaries. Because there aren't any restrictions on them, they become kind of my gift to myself, the surprise that makes the book exciting. I mean, I know what the story is. I know how it ends. But it's my secondary characters who change the flavor, at least for me.

In my Drake's Rakes series, I got to give my character Lady Kate an entire household of fun characters that I'm continuing to play with throughout the course of the series. In fact, as I write Kate's story, her staff is about to go out on a rescue mission.

Even more fun, I gave Kate a companion. An elder woman named Lady Bea, who was Kate's sister-in-law. But Bea is special. After suffering a head injury of her own, she suffers from a condition called expressive aphasia. She can hear the words and concepts she wants to express in her head. But the correct words simply don't come out. So Bea has figured out a rather convoluted way of communicating that most of the time only Lady Kate can understand. And if it gets really hard for Bea to communicate, she sings. I've had people tell me that Bea is their favorite character in BARELY A LADY. And truly? I can't argue with them. I adore Bea. And she hasn't even had her starring turn yet. Until then, I hope to have a lot of fun with her.

Secondary characters are like that.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Details, Details


One of the choices authors make as they write their books, is whether or not to write the story in its proper order. Some write back to front. Some write the scenes as they come to them, some the character scenes, the clue scenes, the action scenes, all in a bunch. Me? I'm a firm proponent of writing the book in the order the story takes. I can't do it any other way, for several reasons.

First of all, I'm a lazy writer. If I wrote scenes as they came to me, I'd never write the tough stuff. It is a sad truth that it often takes only hours to write a chapter-long action scene. And then, the next page, which simply moves us from one scene to another, takes a week.

The other reason is because it's impossible to write a scene toward the end of the book first, for the simple reason that I don't know who these people are yet. How do I know what they're going to do?

As most people who know me realize, I am massively right brain dominant. It means I have a much easier time seeing the whole picture than I do the details. I can see my story in my head like a jigsaw puzzle I just have to assemble. What I don't see as well are individual pieces. It doesn't matter if I do storyboarding or astrology or character outlines. I can think I know everything about a character, but the characters don't really come alive for me until they act. Not only that, many times, the secondary characters show up completely without my permission.

For instance, in the book I'm working on now, EVER THE TEMPTRESS, the third in my Drake's Rakes series, I realized that the hero, Harry Lidge, has a batman. It certainly makes sense. Harry is a Major in the 95th Riflemen, who has just survived Waterloo. It's a great supporting character who can reveal all kinds of things about the hero and the backstory, and often provide comic relief.

So, who is the batman?

Beats me.

Oh, I figured I knew. But when I introduced him, it wasn't the hard, wiry, little Scotsman I'd intended. Instead, the introduction line went something like this; "(Harry) looked up to see his batman there before him, already throwing open windows to let in the air. The moonlight spilled in over the young man's features. Once when Harry was on the continent he'd seen a painting of angels by Raphael. If he didn't know better, he'd swear that one now stood by his desk; young, beautiful, with curly brown hair and big, liquid brown eyes that looked as innocent as a child's. Definitely too beautiful to be thrown into a troop of riflemen without protection."

Even worse, I realized that this angel's name was Mudge. Not exactly the moniker for one of the heavenly horde. So, what the heck did that mean? Where did he come from? Well, I have no idea. But I've spent so long doing this job, that I know that the best thing I can do is trust my muse. Somehow Mudge had been materializing in the sludge of my right brain, like the Urukai in Lord of the Rings (although much prettier). I know that he belongs there. I just have to figure out how. And why.

And that's just one character.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pull Me A Pint



As I tootled along the back roads of England, I found myself obsessing over pubs. I photographed them, counted them, and wanted to sit in each and every one and have a drink. What is it about those places that draws me? It isn't the drink. Believe it or not, I don't drink beer in any incarnation, be it lager or bitter or porter (yes, I am a sore disappointment to my Irish family). And it's a dead cinch that I can't drive around for long if I'm downing gin and tonics all day. But I really want an excuse to get inside those old doors and sit down.

I can't help it. Every time I go through a small town like Tetbury or Banbury, or Stow-in-the-Wold and see the white stucco or half-timbered front, the ale sign in the window, the name that evokes bygone eras, names like The George, the White Hart, the Bell Inn, and the tables out front in the sunshine, I have to stop. I order a gin and tonic just to have an excuse to sit either out under those umbrellas to watch the town pass by, or inside, where the chairs are worn, the floors flagstone, the walls half-timbered and the ceilings low.

It's not a proper pub if the floors don't list or the doors hang straight. An added bonus is a big, soot-stained fireplace, walls covered in framed black and white photos of the street out front over the years, and a bar that has been buffed by thousands of elbows. And then there is the name. The Merrymouth, the Royal Oak, the Kings Arm (do they really mean his arm? His gun? The branch of his government?For some reason it's always Henry VIII on the sign) and my favorite of all, from Tetbury, the Snooty Fox.

I've decided that it isn't the pub. I don't simply want an excuse to drink in every town in England (I don't even really drink the G&Ts. I just put them on the tables in front of me to give me a reason to be there). I think it's the history. I was walking through Burford, a town that reeked of the sixteenth century. The buildings were constructed of the famous honey-colored Cotswold stone, set with mullioned windows and topped with steeply pitched roofs. What, I wondered, were the insides like? If I closed my eyes, could I feel the lives that had passed through the rooms? Could I hear the centuries of feet that had trod the floors, smell the dinners and woodfires? Would I sense the pain and joy and grief that had resonated within the walls? I don't know. But I itch to see.

Well now, there's the problem. Most people have more sense than to invite a perfect stranger into their living room just because she wants to breathe the same air their ancestors did. The pub, on the other hand, is delighted to see me step through its doors. Even better, as long as I'm not flinging tables--or other customers--around, I'm welcome to stay. Even more, I've found that most of the people who own or work in the pubs don't need much encouragement to talk about the history of the place. So I don't have to simply imagine the people who have passed through. I have names and dates.

I can sit quietly, not necessarily even talking to anyone, and imagine the Royal Mail coach pulling into the couryard, horses snorting and stomping as they're being readied, women in long skirts and quaint bonnets being shown into back rooms for tea. I can see the farmers and shopkeepers gathered after a long day in the smoky taproom with their pints and their Wellington boots and their flat caps. I can feel the core of village life passing through these doors.

And since that is what I traveled to England to do, I don't mind at all that I've missed seeing a National Trust property so I can sit in the pub down the road for another hour.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Me and My Sari


About a year ago, my husband and I got the chance to travel to India for a wedding. While there, I took the opportunity to do some research for my Drake's Rakes series. So far Grace and Harry Lidge both lived there. So I hunted down the places they would have lived, and I interrogated every person I came across about the unique customs I saw, the exquisite art, the opulent architecture.

I came home with a bonus. My sari. I had planned on getting something made from the delicious fabric that is sold from every fourth storefront, I swear. But I had been strongly warned away from saris. "Western women are forever getting into trouble," I was told. "They don't know how to put on a sari, which means it tends to fall off at the worst moment." I wasn't about to challenge fate.

My hostess refused to listen. She wanted me to wear a sari and have my hands painted with henna for the wedding. When I told her of the cautions I'd heard, she told me she would have a 'western' sari made for me. So, two days before the wedding, she took me to the tiny town of Rourkela where we visited a fabric store(she almost couldn't get me back out. I swear I heard angels sing in there). Once I picked out my material, we walked across the street to the local tailor, and she asked him to make me a 'western' sari.

I know. You've probably never heard of a western sari. Trust me. Neither had the tailor. He, his staff, and my hostess spent half an hour tugging material around me and arguing. But they must have come to some conclusion. He promised the sari for the next day.

Personally I consider him and his staff genius. They constructed a sari that includes an elastic waist and a zipper so the skirt wouldn't fall off. And unless I undress, you can't tell. Even if I say so myself, it looks great. But then, I contend that every woman looks beautiful in a sari. I've made it a point to wear it when I can, simply because I love it so much. And because I'm not the one who has to wash and iron it myself.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Winners!

Congratulations to both Karen and Linda! You've each won a signed copy of Barely A Lady.

Please email my assistant at kimscastillo @msn.com (no spaces) with your mailing address. She'll get your prize out to you.

Stay tuned next month for another contest.

Friday, July 09, 2010

You Get a Page

My friend Karyn and I used to play a game. We were mall-walkers in those days. Half-a mile up, half a mile back. We did the first circuit fast, scouting out the stores, and then, if we needed to, we'd stop on the way back and make our purchases. We were deadly Christmas shoppers.

The stores we never missed, though, were the book stores. Barely breaking stride, we'd swing into the store and head over to the new book section, where we'd troll the shelves like vampires running through a blood bank. We scanned the covers of every new book we saw, no matter the genre, to see what struck us. What was current, what colors were hot (hot as in, much in use, not....well, you get it). And the covers that struck us would get picked up.

We didn't choose by authors. This wasn't personal preference. This was a test. If somebody came across a book written by an author he or she didn't know, what would attract them enough to pick the book up. If we were that author, what did we think would work for us?

Yes, I know. Publishers had entire departments who do that for them. Art departments, marketing departments, sales departments. But ya know? The sales force's name is not on that cover. Mine is. So I have always felt the need to at least be educated. And I've found that the only education better than that run down the bookstore shelf is a regular stop at a local used book store. If you want the latest gossip on what's hot, what people are looking for, what they respond to, forget focus groups. Sit thee in a used book store. I knew Christine Feehan was going to be a hit before her own publisher did. I knew that romantic suspense was about to make a big surge when the editors at conferences were still shaking their heads and asking for westerns.

But the next best thing is to test yourself. Pretending you don't recognize any author, what else makes you pick up the book? Cover art? Do you want a man or a woman, or both? Bright colors? Traditional poses? Full moons for paranormals or horses for historicals? Quotes by other authors? New York Times Bestselling author?

Okay, so you've reached for one. Next, read the back. Is the cover copy hopelessly generic or well-enough written that you're intrigued? Does it leave you wanting to know more? Yes, the editorial staff writes cover copy, but more often than not, I've been asked for input. So I have to pay attention.

Intrigued, you open the book. And here is where the rubber meets the road. You get exactly two paragraphs. Not even the whole page. Because nobody has time anymore to wade through pages of text before deciding to buy a book. I'm a huge proponent of the first line. As somebody said, "The first line sells this book, and the last line sells the next." But really, it's the first paragraph.

Does it drop you right into the author's world? Does it answer an unanswerable question? Does it tease or excite or soothe, depending on what has been promised on the cover? I work an inordinate amount of time on my openings. Because after trolling all those bookstores, I know that all I'm going to get is that first page. That first paragraph. Maybe no more than that first line.

I spend an inordinate amount of time on my openings. I never cement them in until the entire book is finished, since by then the opening has changed at least a dozen times. I change where I open the book, I might change whose point of view the book opens in. I might just change the lines. For my new historical romance, BARELY A LADY, I didn't make a final decision on my opening until the manuscript had been through my editor. Not fast enough, she said. Not immediate enough. True, my heroine is in a pickle of a situation, but I had to set up her normal world before showing how it's about to change drastically. All good, but I really needed a more compelling opening.

So I fretted. I fought. I paced my house like an expectant husband. And finally, it came to me. The book doesn't open with my heroine. It opens with my hero. And he's standing at the edge of the battlefield at Quatre-Bras, the day before Waterloo. The opening goes like this. "It would take a miracle to get him out of this alive. And he had the feeling he'd used up his share of miracles."

Because I'm a new name in historical romance, I have to rely on my cover, on the cover copy and on those two opening lines to lure in new readers. Grand Central gave me a luscious cover. We got a great quote from Eloisa James, and the ever-important New York Times bestselling author on the front. I even love the back cover copy. I can only hope the opening lives up to them all. I guess we'll find out.

I have many favorite openings, from "I dreamed I was at Manderly again" to "I found myself in a empty house with a dead body, a bare-breasted woman and a lawyer. The rattlesnake in the paperbag only complicated matters." (Earl Emerson, Fat Tuesday). How bout you? Are there any openings that made you buy a book? Any you remember fondly or not so fondly?

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

In Praise of Big Bus Tours


Now, as anybody knows who either knows me or has been reading my travel blogs, I am not the kind of person who usually joins tours. I'm too impatient, and too impulsive. If I want to stop to take a picture(and I do. Often), I want to stop. Then and there. Not so possible on a bus tour. I also want the pictures that nobody else gets. Also tough to do when you only stop where all the other buses stop, for as long as they stop, and wander about with the thirty other people on your bus. And I want to go the places other people just don't go so much. You see my theme here.

As I have also said, bus tours are wonderful for the people who enjoy the safety and comfort of having somebody in charge who knows the country, who like making friends with the other people on the tour and sharing the discoveries with their new friends. Or, for people who simply want to get a good overview of a place so they know what it is they want to visit when they return. Which is where we come to the one bus tour I take every time I travel to a new city.

I take the city tour bus. In London it's called the Big Bus Tour. I've been to London four times, now, and I've hopped on Big Bus every time. First of all, because it does give you a great overview of the city. Second, because it's the easiest way to get around to where you're going to go anyway. Easier than reading the local bus schedule anyway(although I'm pretty darned good on the Metro/Underground/Subway, whatever you want to call it---a brilliant way to get around any city).

Anyway. If it's a doubledecker bus, I'm the first one on the top, where I can see the architecture unimpeded, and get the overall feeling of the area we're driving through(is it bustling? Quieter? Noisy? Full of historic buildings or 20th century behemoths? Narrow streets or boulevards? Dripping green or burdened with concrete?). Atop a bus is the best place to find out, especially when you have a friendly driver and guide to correct mistakes or offer extra tidbits.

Even better, you can get on and off at will. Oh, they have set stops, but in most cities they're very well placed so you can walk all you want and catch a later bus back where you're going. On this trip to London, I picked the bus up at Victoria Station, hopped off at Green Park so I could walk the streets of Mayfair and St. James, got back on the bus at Green Park, road around to Buckingham Palace and walked through the special art exhibit on Victoria and Albert(btw, he was gorgeous. He had eyes that pierced right through you. Her? I just wish somebody had told her the empire wouldn't fall if she'd smiled). Anyway, back on the bus, then over to Lambeth Palace where the Bishop of Canterbury lives and has the offices that dispense the famed special licenses for marriage.

On the bus, off the bus, as much as I wanted, with a final complete circuit so I could set the placement of each site firmly in my head. Oh, I love to walk the streets of London and Dublin, and fell madly in love with Prague. But I like knowing that if my knees give out, I have a way home.

Oh, and my secret delight about the buses? There is just something voyeuristic about sitting above all the rest of the city, where you can look down on people. Because people tend to protect themselves from being watched from the ground level. But they never think that somebody's looking down on them, and you get to see them at their truest. Sneaking kisses and straightening clothes, cursing a cab that came too close to a puddle or swinging a child in the arms. Laughter and tears and furtive glances, and I get to see them all.

So next time you're in a new city, if they have one of those 'hop-on-hop-off' tours, give it a try. At the worst, it's a $20 ride around the city. Sure cheaper than cab fare.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Let's Cut to the Chase

I was going to write something esoteric about the fact that my book, BARELY A LADY, came out this week. I thought to wax rhapsodic about the joys of publishing.

Maybe next week. For now, I'm going to give you a break and skip straight to the good stuff. The contest. BARELY A LADY is out now on bookstore shelves everywhere. I want to celebrate. So I decided to give a prize to someone on the blog. All you have to do is leave a comment on my post and then hit the FOLLOW button on the right side. And because I'm in a particularly good mood, I'll give away an autographed copy of BARELY A LADY to two people. I imagine I'd be even more delighted if the comment you left was about BARELY A LADY(a good opinion is not mandatory)(it would certainly make me feel better, though). I'll announce the winners on next Friday's blog.

Good luck! Now, I'm going back to the work I'm doing on the third book in the Drake's Rakes series, EVER THE TEMPTRESS. I hope that by the time you finish LADY, you won't be able to wait to see what happens next.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Joy of Planning


I know. Anybody who has ever known me will look at that title and laugh. I hate to plan anything. Because of my ADD, I have--resentfully--learned to make lists and rely on calendars. But how much fun can planning be?

When it leads to a trip to India or Ireland or Chile is at the end of it, a lot of fun.

I love planning trips, especially now that the internet has made research cheaper. It has, conversely, made it harder, of course. Do you know how many B&Bs, inns and hotels there are in Florence alone? Do you know how many review sites there are? I could stay on line for the rest of my life, just comparing rental houses in County Kerry Ireland (in fact, I almost did).

As disorganized as I am in almost all areas of my life, I'm very organized in planning travel. I am, amazing as it is to behold, methodical. The first question is whether I've been to the spot before. If I have, of course it's an easier course. If not, then travelogues are involved, be it the Inside books, or Frommers or Rough Guide. I tend to look for the out-of-the way places, the towns big buses don't visit. It's why I initially visited the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. All the buses trundled around the Ring of Kerry, making it overrun and the roads dangerous. Dingle, at the time, was blessedly unchanged. Nothing stays the same, though. The buses finally found Dingle. I still go anyway. I fell too madly in love long before the buses changed the scene.

But I digress. Let's see. What's next? Dates, places, and then, my favorite, accommodations. There is no better way to spend an evening (or develop tendonitis) than to skim internet sites that specialize in travel accommodations. Some guides specialize in certain countries, like Alastair Sawday or Georgina Campbell. I'll mention them in reference to the pertinent trip. Then I check everything with a review site like Trip Advisor. I have found that if you get used to it, Trip Advisor is a wonderful tool. You just have to know what your expectations are as opposed to those of some of the reviewers. For instance, if you're visiting a family castle in Ireland that obviously isn't geared to rich tourists, it would probably be too much to expect spas and wi-fi. I interpret the review accordingly. I also tailor my expectations depending on who travels with us. Rick and I are more adventurous travelers than many, and would put up with more surprises than most people we know. For evaluating my possible choices, I've found that sites like Hotels.com and Travelocity also provide reviews that are pretty reliable.

Personally I look for something unique. Either a view or a special place, like a historic house, or something evocative: a villa in Italy or a horse farm in Ireland. I love staying in the country better than town, but I see the benefit of staying within walking distance of a pub. And if at all possible, I stay as far away from tourist hotels as I can. I go to France to see the French. I can see Americans in Akron.

And if I'm going to Colorado, I'd rather meet the people who live in Colorado, not St. Louis.

Of course the regimen is reliant on whether I've been to the place, or whether others are coming with me. I decide if I need help, as I did planning the trip to India, or not, as happens with trips to Ireland. I decide what help I'll need. I gather information about where I want to go and what I want to do. I have ten days in Italy. Do I have time for everything I want to see? If I have to sacrifice something, is it Florence or Venice? Since we're taking several of my siblings, do any of them have an opinion?

If necessary, we have a meeting to set down expectations and restrictions. When I took my brothers and their wives to Ireland, my one brother wanted to stay in a castle. My sister-in-law wanted to see wildlife. I could accommodate them both. I'm afraid, though, if one of them had said they wanted to attend a medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle, I would have maybe dropped them off. Fortunately, they know that.

Next week, we'll talk about the next phase...close encounters of the third kind.

Friday, June 25, 2010

My Mother Wouldn't Approve Part I



If you sit with me for more than ten minutes, you'll figure out that my background is unapologetically Irish. My great-grandfather was a member of the Flying Brigades of the IRA in the 1870's and, according to the family, escaped Ireland one step ahead of the law for blowing up a statue of King George in Dublin Square (and we're damn proud of him). According to my Irish cousins, at least the part about his escaping the law because of his Republican activities (that's Irish republicanism, which is a far cry from American republicanism) is absolutely true. So I inherited strong beliefs about Irish history and culture, and the role of the perfidious (my mother's word) British in it all.



Considering the fact that because of careful tutoring by my parents I was raised without the traditional prejudices you'd find in St. Louis, which was, really a southern city, I always saw that British bias in the light of a great lesson in the growth and development of bigotry. I never really thought the average British citizen cut down all the Irish forests or starved the Irish peasants or really wanted them to die in the potato famine, but I do admit that even now I have to watch myself, especially when the British royal family is involved, or people talk history, be it Cromwell or the Potato Famine or Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland. My instinctive reaction is to carry on the fight.



So why, my critique partner Karyn asked me, have I started writing Regency romance? With British aristocrats as heroes? Actually, I've thought about that a lot (while assuring the ghost of my mother that I'm not actually a turncoat). Someone first suggested I write an Irish historical. I can't do that. I know too much Irish history for it to ever be romantic. First of all, if the hero had money at all, he wasn't really (according to my family definition) Irish, but Anglo-Irish (you should have been in on the discussions with my mom about the difference between green and orange Irish. I couldn't even drink Bushmill's whiskey because it was...orange). And if the character was Anglo-Irish, he would have come to power in Ireland by having the lands of real Irishmen handed to his ancestors by British sovereigns.


So if I wrote what my mom would label a true Irish hero, he'd have to be a rebel, and we know how well that always turned out. If he was lucky, he would end up emigrating to American or Australia. And as a girl who considers her greatest dream to have land back in Ireland, emigration is not what I call a happy ending.



Okay, then, why not Scotland? They were also fairly often at odds with the British. They also always lost. Or got thrown off their land. Or starved. Same outcome. The lucky ones emigrated.



It's awful sometimes to know too much. I couldn't even watch Dances With Wolves. You know the end, where they escape up into the mountains? My reaction was, "Yeah, for what, six months? If they don't starve, the army'll still kill them." Really puts a crimp in the romance.



But the English, my mother would say? Well, yes. You see, if we're talking fantasy, (the same fantasy that has populated a mostly blond-blue-eyed British population with more black-haired-blue-eyed dukes than brown horses), then I can write good English aristocrats. Kind, thoughtful, in favor of Irish Emancipation. I can believe that they wouldn't ignore someone just because his accent had a hint of the brogue. I'm afraid he can't have lands in Ireland, because if he did, and he spent the majority of the book in England, that would make him an absentee landlord, which any Irishman could tell you was one of the roots of all the problems.....oops. There I go again.



But we're talking fantasy. The fantasy man. The fantasy relationship. The fantasy that a woman could meet the man who respected her for who she was (and be honest; there were as many aristocrats who achieved that fantasy as the one about being disgustingly rich and creating a utopia for everyone in the Irish countryside). The fantasy that this man and woman would not only want to have children, but that they'd be able to support them, so that nobody starved or wanted or ended up in a rookery doing needlework by candlelight to feed her starving children. And if you want a period of time when, even for the wars and the impending Industrial Revolution, society was solid, settled and prosperous (at least in a fantasy way), it was Regency England.



Yes, it does get in the way if you know too much history. It helps though, if you can find a place to pretend. Happily Regency England is that place for me (with apologies to my mother).

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Anticipation is Half the Fun


I think that's pretty true of everything, from travel to Christmas. The reality is never quite as sharp and sparkly as it is in your expectation. Well, maybe once when I saw Richard Burton in Camelot. My friend Vicki called from Chicago to say Burton was going to be touring there in Camelot. He was in his 50s, and had lived a pretty hard life. But one of my items on my fantasy wish list was that I'd get the chance to see the original cast of Camelot; especially Richard Burton.

I drove five hours through thunderstorms to get there. I vividly remember spending the entire time cautioning myself: Don't be disappointed. It won't be what you hope for. But it's still Richard Burton. You will be a cultural icon. You will have seen the Beatles live and Richard Burton in Camelot.

When the play finally started, I was so focused on not minding the dimmed and diminished Burton that it took me all of ten minutes to realize that, by God, he was brilliant. He was breathtaking. He was, as far as I was concerned, the only person on that stage. I have been very lucky to see some great theater, from Jerry Orbach to Ian McKellan to Vanessa Redgrave. Few of my experiences could come close to matching that afternoon watching Richard Burton.

But that doesn't happen often. So I've learned to enjoy the anticipation as much as the trip. Not that every one of my trips hasn't been wonderful. I've had rare and wonderful experiences. I've met fascinating people and shared wonders with my husband and friends. But just like anything else, during the planning stage, the possible is greater than the reality. I still have the chance to see everything I want, instead of having to settle for a museum because the rain is keeping us off a mountain, or missing the York races because your host is sick. But while it's still in the future, you still have the chance of seeing and doing everything you hope to. That is the time the maps are magical and you know that this trip is going to be the best you ever took. It's when, like Richard Burton in Camelot, the place you go will be even better than you'd hoped.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Lure of Research Part II



This being the part of the discussion where I admit to my slow descent to the dark side.

I was falling in love with research. I was beginning to change my relationship with it. Along about my fourth suspense, I found myself learning something in a forensic course about arson and thinking that I had to figure a way to put it in a book that until that moment had no arson in it (I burned down a house in BRAIN DEAD). Then, one day, I was at a Forensic Nursing conference, and I heard a guy talk about how he'd just taken the training to be a SWAT medic. And I heard myself say--out loud--"I have to write a book so I can do that." WITH A VENGEANCE was born. So instead of research serving the project, the project served the research.

Hello. My name is Eileen, and I research. And I've officially gone to the dark side. I've gone back to researching history. No. Not World War II. Not yet. (It's still a great book). I'm writing a trilogy that opens at the Battle of Waterloo. I not only know every regiment that served in the battle, I know what Waterloo teeth are and what happened in the barn of the Château Hougoumont.

The good news is that I've learned a few lessons. I haven't actually gone back to the beginning of the Hanover reign to find out why England was the way it was in 1815. I haven't even read a biography of Napoleon. But I do know who was at the Duchess of Richmond's ball and what kind of conveyances were seen in Hyde Park.

Okay, I did read a biography of Princess Charlotte, who would have inherited the British throne if she'd lived. But that's because she plays a role in the nefarious plot my heroes and heroines have to uncover. In their best sarcenets and superfines. And I went to India to learn how my heroine Grace Fairchild was raised and her good friend Harry Lidge came to be an adult. ( Well. I went to India. Why not find those things out while I was there?) I have several blogs on that trip that will explain everything. And this spring, I went back to England and Ireland to further research these books.

Okay. England. I only went to Ireland because I could. And because I write romance there better than anywhere else in the world. But England was an orgy of walking, talking, handling and writing, as I searched all the sites my characters would inhabit, from St. James to Bourton-on-the-Water. Suddenly my characters had not only names, they had references for their lives, from the elaborate barrel vaulting of the Burlington Arcade, to the longest village green in England at Frampton-on-Severn. My characters had not just names and backgrounds, but set decoration, and if you don't think that's important, I suggest you take Hogwarts out of Harry Potter and see how well you can visualize his world.

So for all those of you who cringe at the idea of research, come sit by me, and I will tell you that once you have surrendered to it, you will find your life enriched immeasurably (especially if you watch Jeopardy or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?). Fall in love with it. Use it (please. I beg you). And let it take you places you never thought to go. Just remember. Not everyone at a cocktail party wants to know the history of the Tudors (but if you do, see me in the corner).

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Lure of Research Part I

When I first wrote for publication, I sucked at research. I admit it. I never really learned how to use a university library. I'm a nurse. Nurses didn't really read extensively on a subject. We played with things. To make it worse, I'm a triage nurse. Kind of like a Jeopardy champion. We know a little about everything, but a lot about nothing. One of my friends likened our intellects to oil slicks. Because there was just so much we had to deal with, we only learned as much as we needed to across a breadth of knowledge that can be, quite literally, staggering.

So, when I wrote my first book, a Silhouette entitled PLAYING THE GAME, I basically wrote Singing in the Rain with me and Tom Selleck, set it in St. Louis, where I live, and made the heroine a nurse. It was the trifecta of no research. I figured that I knew how to write (been doing it since I was ten), but I didn't know how to research. So I'd write about subjects I knew until I could learn how to research subjects I didn't.

All in all, the plan served me quite well. I did made one almost disastrous mistake. Before I was ready (I could wipe on, but couldn't wipe off), I tried to write a historical romance set at the very beginning of World War II (no, the fact that nobody reads books set in World War II wasn't that mistake. It was another one). I set out to learn what I could about Europe at the moment Hitler invaded Poland in August of 1939. I got books. I trolled the library. I found myself absolutely fascinated by the history involved. And after months of this, I actually heard myself thinking, "Well, this information is vital to how the continent came to be the way it was when Hitler rose to power. I have to start the book farther back." The information was the Treaty of Versailles. Which was signed in 1919.

I put away my books and notecards and ideas until I could figure out how to discipline myself around interesting information. I wrote another book set in an Emergency Department. I wrote a book set in Hawaii, where I'd been on vacation. I wrote one in Alton, Illinois, which is right upriver, and deals with an author of children's books. No. Not exactly a huge stretch.

It was the suspenses I write that broke me free. First of all, I still got to set them in the Emergency Department. I set the hospitals in St. Louis. And since I don't have to do an inordinate amount of research on either, I got to spend my time learning forensics (okay, so it also helped me keep my nursing license up to date) (and I'd been fascinated with forensics since I was a pup in training). I got to talk to really interesting people (detectives, medical examiners, arson investigators) and play with things (lock picks, dead bodies--and no, it wasn't as bad as it sounds. I'm not Dexter--guns). It was wonderful. I began to appreciate research. The problem is, I began to fall in love with it.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Eating My Way Around the World


It isn't enough to see a new place or meet new people. Half the fun is eating. At least for me. So, when I speak of the trips I've taken, I will also speak of the food, the drink, the atmosphere. I've already included recommendations on my website for restaurants I've enjoyed in different places. I'll be able to expound on those in my blog, which will alternate with my writing blog. After all, one has a lot to do with the other.

How, you say? Imagination. Curiosity. The two cornerstones of writing. Sensuality, which comes in handy for romance. But the sensuality I refer to is the love of the senses. Enjoying what you see, taste, hear, touch and smell. Also very handy for a writer. For if you can't put yourself in the scene through your senses, your reader can't possibly connect with what you're saying, or the story you tell.

So I can tell you that I went to a pub in Ireland (if you know me, you've probably heard that before.). But what if I say I fought a damp night wind to push open a battered old wooden door into a dark and smoky room, frothing with the sound of laughter and argument. The walls are gray stone and cold, the floor the same wood as the door, even more scuffed and dulled by generations of hard boots and whirling dance. The bar itself is a work of art, the centerpiece of the room, where light glitters off the mirror behind and gleams like spilled water over the carved wood, where bottles stand at attention like guardsmen waiting for the call. The wood stretches smooth and cool as silk beneath my hand. The air is redolent with the tang of hops and barley, the ancient earthy smoke of peat bogs and the shallots that season potato soup. And oh, what a potato soup, thick and creamy, with vegetables bobbing like icebergs and steam wrapping around your hand. It's the smell of life and warmth and comfort, the smell of Irish potato soup. It's...

I have to stop now. I'm making myself crazy.. But you see what I mean. It is these things I search for when I travel. And I haven't even mentioned the people I shared my meal with, or the questions asked and answered, the opinions offered(in Ireland, if you want to start a great argument, ask directions anywhere. It's like a national sport). Or, for me, even better yet, the music.

In another blog. In many. Whenever I travel, I think of the things that strike me, and I want to share them. So what the heck? I will. And I'll share how I came to build a writing career from the traveling I've done. And will do. In fact, I'm heading back to Ireland in the spring, Italy in September, and hopefully, Chile in between. Because there's so much to see and do and feel and taste. And it all ends up in my books. Somewhere.

Meanwhile, I'll continue eating my way around the world.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Escape


Thank heavens for my coffeehouse. (WIRED in South St. Louis County). The truth of the matter is that I have trouble organizing breakfast. And right now I'm in the middle of a trilogy that is taxing a brain already burdened with ADD, family, aged parents, publishing business, travel planning, all the little business a household demands like calling to see why your electric bill just shot up(a call that ends up taking most of the morning)and, oh, did I mention ADD?

But at my coffeehouse, nobody calls me. Few people have my cell number, and those who do know better than to call to chat. I do not chat on my cell. I spend as much time as I can getting away from the phone. I'm sitting here now at a table next to a bright wall, across from a fire in a cozy fireplace, with soft music playing in the background. I know all the staff, many of the frequent attendees like myself, and I've built myself a little routine.

I come in, get my coffee, lunch, carrot bread, whatever, and drag all my paraphenalia over to a table, or if I'm lucky, the back room when it's not in use where I can be completely alone. I borrow the funnies from the community paper so I can do the New York Times crossword puzzle. I check email and news on line. I make any travel arrangements I need to (I am the queen of internet travel), do spot research I need, and update my facebook if I have the mental focus.

And then, when I'm in the proper mindset, I begin work on whatever book I'm tackling. Last week it was PR for BARELY A LADY, the first book in my historical DRAKE'S RAKES trilogy; the line edits for NEVER A GENTLEMAN, the second book, and the writing of the third book, EVER THE TEMPTRESS. This week will be the revisions for NEVER A GENTLEMAN, the second book.

If you're confused, think how I feel. The good point is that I can at least take some of the distraction out of the equation. The only TV here is turned to CNN. I can't accidentally trip over the daylong TCM tribute to Ronald Colman or House Hunters International. Nobody can find me on the phone. There is no bed or couch to lure me for a nap, or plethora of little chores that can quite successfully keep me from work for an entire day. Here I don't have a choice.

So here I am. I just wish I didn't have to leave before it closed. I mean, I'll just have to go home and make dinner and go through the mail and remember all the things I should have done while I was enjoying myself at the coffeehouse. Oh, for an escape...

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Someday I'll Go



Yes, I have the wonderlust. But so do a lot of people I know. People I've heard all my life say,"You know, someday I'm going to go." To Ireland, to Italy, to Branson. Someday, when the responsibilities are gone. When the money is just right. When the portents are good and the winds in the right direction. Some day.

I used to say the same thing. I had school. I had work. I had a husband. I had babies. I had a mortgage. And all the time I read those travel books like porn and dreamed, just like everyone else (everybody has these little dreams. I'll write a book. I'll try out for the local chorus. I'll do what I really want to do).

I've been lucky. I actually got to live out a big dream. I was a nurse. A good one, mind. But an unhappy one, because I needed some kind of creative outlet, and I'd told myself that I'd do that 'later.' It was my husband who refused to let me wait. My friend Katie who gave me a direction. Katie and I worked trauma together, and would spend hours on the parking lot after work saying, "There has to be something better than this." She was the one who suggested I try writing. It gave me courage. It made me realize that it was okay if I did something for myself.

At the same time, as a nurse I kept seeing a pattern repeating itself. I kept taking care of people who told me of all the things they had meant to do and never would. The trips and creations and small, personal pleasures they had deferred until they were ready, until everything else had been taken care of, until they retired. Only they died first.

The lesson came home when I was thirty-one. I'd just had my second child. One of our dear friends who was attached to the Vatican had been begging for us to come see him. "Come over to Rome," he kept begging. "I can get you in the back door of the Vatican. You can see things normal mortals don't."

"Some day," I said. "Right now I have work and children and mortgages. Some day."

Before some day could happen, my friend died. At the age of 33, he drowned, and I lost the chance to spend time with him, to see the miracles of Vatican City at his side. It's a chance that will never come back.

It might not have changed my life if I hadn't just seen my mother die still holding the brochure in her hand for a trip to Ireland. Her first trip. The trip she'd dreamed of her whole life, that she'd saved for, waited for. The trip she would take some day, when everything else was taken care of. The trip she never made.

It finally dawned on me that things weren't ever going to be completely taken care of. That the people I saw wait for that perfect moment almost always waited too long, whether it that moment was something big or something small. As small as spending a day alone, or reading one book, or learning to dance.

So within eight months of the day my friend died, I booked my first trip to Ireland. I remember circling for landing, and the mist cleared to show those legendary green fields. As I looked down, I realized I was crying. Not just because I was there, because my mother wasn't, nor her father, who had dreamed just as hard.

Now, I knew, it would never happen to me.

I won't do everything I want to. But I'll definitely do some of them. I can't afford to wait. Too late happens too fast.