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 Ch√Ęteau 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.