NOTE: I don't post to this blog super-duper often anymore, because I'm busy writing, well, books. (Read more about that here.) For more up-to-date, day-to-day ramblings, visit my Facebook page.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Fun Holiday Friday: Eartha Sings "Santa Baby"

You've probably heard this song before, but the original version isn't played as often as it should. No one gives it just the right blend of naughtiness and musicality as the peerless Eartha Kitt, who recorded it in 1954. As lovely as his voice is, what is Michael Bublé trying to prove by messing with the lyrics and addressing Santa as "buddy"? And don't even talk to me about Madonna's version, sung in an over-the-top Brooklyn slut-ese.

Why mess with perfection? Eartha's version is a little bit naughty, silky smooth, and 100 percent hers. Too bad this video doesn't show the fabulous Miss Kitt herself, but the voice is all you really need.

Every Friday this month I've brought you a memorable Christmas song. Click here to read the whole series.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Fun Holiday Friday: Ashley Davis

This beautiful, haunting carol has no better interpreter than Ashley Davis. She's a Kansas musician who studied in Ireland to perfect her songwriting and vocals, which honor Celtic and other folk traditions. You can learn more about Ashley here, and download the album The Celtic Winter here. All her albums are marvelous.

The carol itself is a 17th-century English song. I love the melodic line and the juxtaposition of major and minor chords. Ashley's rendition perfectly captures the calm, cold spell that winter casts.

I'm bringing you a new carol each Friday in December. Click here to see the whole series, or search for the tag Fun Holiday Friday.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Fun Holiday Friday: Tim Minchin

I may get a lot of flak for this because I'm supposed to be offering Christmas cheer every Friday, and this song seems at face value to trash the holiday.

But it really doesn't.

The thing is, whatever you may believe about the veracity of the Christmas story, there's no denying that the holiday has turned into a big commercial monster that starts eating its weight in tinsel on Thanksgiving evening and doesn't stop until it's burped its last on December 26. And that's after it's already dined on the post-Halloween appetizers, because that's when the Christmas trees pop up in our Kansas City-area stores.

What I love about this song is that Minchin reminds us that despite everything Christmas has turned into, we can still celebrate it in our own way and feel the warmth and love that it was all supposed to be about way back when. We can still drink white wine in the sun and welcome home our loved ones, and fill our stockings with a few chocolates and feel quite good about that.

It's also an inclusive message. Christmas doesn't have to be just for those who believe in the reanimation of a dead Palestinian. It's a holiday that anyone can embrace. At least, that's how I feel. Sorry if it offends.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Pet Peeve: Desert vs Dessert

Blogfrogs, let's make this short and sweet, because I have Christmas shopping to do, and no doubt you have something else you should be doing too.

So: Speaking of sweet, dessert is that lovely course that comes at the end of the meal. Because it's so sweet, it deserves two s's. (See how I threw in that pnemonic? Aren't I just the bee's knees?)

But desert is so arid and dry, it's soaked up one of its s's and is left with only one. Also, it's a verb, as in "to abandon." Because, see, it abandoned one of its s's, and ...

Well, you get the picture.

This lovely bûche de Noël is a dessert:

This superdry place is a desert:

Got it? Swell. Back to the mall, after which I expect you'll have a nice cup of eggog generously laced with something nice waiting for me when I return.

images: Top: my very own photo of my very own bûche de Noël, which I make every Christmas.
bottom:  Desert near Marsa Mubarak, Egypt. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Marc Ryckaert (MJJR). This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Of Dads and Birthdays

Yeah, go figure. It's my birthday again! Seems like we just did this last year. Some of you know what else this date commemorates, but I choose to think about these people

instead of this

not because I'm callous about Pearl Harbor, but because I can't help what day I was born and I choose to celebrate it. Besides, had I not been born on December 7, I wouldn't have heard this joke every year from my dad (pictured above):
"Yep, I was bombed twice--once in '41, once in '65."
Dad could be very funny. Sometimes.

Because he was an older dad--age 43 when I was born--he had a different take on life than other fathers I knew. He actually was enlisted in the Coast Guard in World War II, whereas my friends' dads were just kids during that war. So the Second World War felt real to me, not part of history. So did the Great Depression and horse-pulled milk wagons and penny postcards. Dad didn't talk much about the war, except to say that being on the Coast Guard Cutter Cactus was a lot like being in the movie Mr. Roberts. Without the funny bits.

I often wondered what it was really like. I know the Cactus performed search-and-rescue operations, and sometimes they lost men they tried to save. But I only learned that later, after Dad died, when I was looking through some news clippings he'd saved. He didn't want to remember the sad things--or if he did, he didn't want me to think about them.

As a young man, he was a class clown, occasionally mouthing off to teachers and then showing them up with his precocious writing skills. He played silly pranks and memorized romantic poetry (yeah, really) to recite to girls he was infatuated with. I would've loved to have seen the faces on the girls.

Dad was a writer, too. No one had a sharper vocabulary or deeper love for the language. His writing was clear, concise, logical. He had little patience for people who didn't respect the gift we'd been given, this fabulous English language. He didn't publish, though he would have liked to; he said he didn't have the discipline a professional writer requires.

But I have to wonder about that. He was disciplined enough to go to work every day, to do the best job he could--even at jobs he hated--and to provide well enough for us that we never doubted there would be presents at Christmas and a comfortable roof under which to open them. He wasn't always easy to live with, but he knew it. He did his best and was always ready with a sincere apology. My dad was hard on himself and hard on others, but a deeply emotional and caring man, and he wasn't afraid to show it. He did what other members of that Greatest Generation did: went to war, came home, built a life for his family, and delighted in all of it.

I think of Dad every year on my birthday. He's been gone for 9 of them now, but I still imagine him saying, "You always look sixteen to me." I miss the spaghetti dinners he made me and how special I felt, as the youngest child, to be The Birthday Girl for the day.

I miss you, Dad. Happy Claire's Birthday to you.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Fun Friday: Why Judy Sings It Best

Last month, you may remember (or not) that I wrote a gratitude post every Thursday to explain what I love about the writing life. Now that we've charged headlong into the holiday season, I'm going to share a bit of Christmas cheer every Friday of December. Yes, I said Christmas cheer, not holiday cheer. That's not because I don't honor Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, or Secular Commercial Month When You Plant a Tree Your Living Room and Snarl at the Nice Folks at Target. Those are all legitimate seasonal traditions too. But I grew up with Christmas, so that's what I'm celebrating.

Having invoked the phrase Christmas cheer, I may now confuse the issue by championing the original version of one of the most beautiful modern Christmas songs, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." If you don't know the words (really?), here they are:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
Next year, all our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yuletide gay
Next year, all our troubles will be miles away

Once again, as in olden days, happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us will be near to us once more

Someday soon, we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
(music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane)

Sound melancholy? Yeah. It is. The song was written for the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis. Judy Garland sings it to little sister Margaret O'Brien after the family learns that they'll soon be leaving not only their beloved St. Louis home, but also all their friends and the man Judy loves. So, yeah. She's sad.

This song perfectly captures the melancholy that often accompanies Christmas as well as the hope that things will get better. Never mind that Garland's beautiful, heartfelt rendition prompts Margaret O'Brien to burst into tears and knock down her snowmen in a fit of grief. No one can sing a song like Judy--just an opinion, but hey, I'm also right--and it galls me that we more often hear this hokey, cheerified version of her classic, which looks like this:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
Next year, all From now on, our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yuletide gay
Next year, all From now on, our troubles will be miles away

Once again, Here we are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us will be gather near to us once more

Someday soon, Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
I'm all for Christmas glee, but not everything about Christmas is happy. It's an emotional time that often is tinged with wistful thoughts. I love the ambiguity of the original song, and again I say, nothing can touch Garland's tremulous vocals. If you've never watched this scene, do it now:

And have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Read more about this holiday classic here.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The December Luckies!

We all know that December is the luckiest month. Some of us were even born in that month. (Not that I'm naming any names. Or asking for any gifts. Much.) December is especially lucky for the very end of the "caboose"--the last two Lucky 13 authors whose books debut this month. Go on, fill out that Christmas list. You know you want to.

These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner
December 10 (Disney Hyperion)
YA sci-fi/romance
Control by Lydia Kang
December 26 (Dial Books for Young Readers)
YA sci-fi

What's a Lucky 13? It's an author who was lucky enough to have her or his first book for kids or teens published in 2013. All year I've been tracking the Lucky 13s' releases! You can read about them here. The Lucky 13s blog can be found here.

Friday, November 29, 2013

See Your Fave Authors This Saturday

Blogfrogs, you and I both know there's nothing wrong with succumbing to the Buy With 1 Click madness that is the experience. Those of us with Kindle readers positively salivate over the idea of buying a book--ding!--and sitting down to read it 30 seconds later. In the middle of the night. On a Sunday.


Nothing replaces the experience of wandering the aisles of your favorite brick-and-mortar bookstore. It's the best way to find a book, just like I did when I was a kid: craning my neck down the row of  impossibly packed shelves, skimming the tables, curling up in the beanbag in the children's section. Bookstores are magical places. There's no greater thrill than coming up the One--the One You Absolutely Have to Read. I used to come upon these gems all the time when I was little, and then, clutching my new friend to my chest, I had to put on the big sad eyes and beg the chauffeur parent to please please please not separate us, but to let my new friend come home and live with us forever or life would never ever be the same. Luckily, the adults in my life were suckers for the big sad eyes.

So this Saturday, November 30, I'm giving back a little. Designated Small Business Saturday, this is a holiday shopping day when you can show your support for those indie businesses that make our towns and neighborhoods unique. I'm helping sell books at Shawnee Books & Toys, the fantastic little shop that hosted my book launch, and yeah, I might sign a few of my own books too. Chances are, there's an indie bookshop in your own town who's hosting an author, so check around.

So if you're in Shawnee and you're looking to buy books for the holidays (and why aren't you if you're not? Huh?), stop by and say hi. I'll have loads of recommendations for the young readers in your life. Before you're done talking to me, your arms will be full of fabulous stories.

And yes. You can take every one of them home.

Event details: 
Meet the Author on Small Business Saturday
Saturday, November 30, 12-3 pm
Shawnee Books & Toys
7311 Quivira Road | Shawnee, KS | 913-962-1428
More about how authors are helping out on Small Business Saturday

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thank-You Thursday: I'm Always Learning

Happy Thanksgiving, blogfrogs! Today is the last installment in my Thank-You Thursday series, in which I shrug off my usual grumpiness and revel in all that is wonderful about the writing life.

I guess there must be writers out there who hate research. ("Dang! Why did I have to set my novel in 15th-century Belgium? Was there even a Belgium in the 15th century?!") But most of us love it. We love it because we're naturally nosy curious creatures who enjoy learning about new things. Maybe we've never wondered what exactly the procedure is for launching a nuclear missile, but now we're writing a story about it, and we have to find out. And it's fascinating!

The thing is, most places, people, jobs, cultures are fascinating. Or at least they have fascinating components. Stories are everywhere, and if you love them, you'll find that research is just the search for the right one. You get to be the detective searching for that nugget of truth: Where was King Arthur's legendary Round Table located? How fast can a cheetah really run, and what does it look like? Are we ever going to get to drive flying cars?

Learning can take so many forms. It's not all about dusty history books. You can take lessons in archery or fencing or flying. You can travel to Rome and visit the ruins of a great empire. You can even eavesdrop on your middle-schooler and his friends and figure out what the hell they talk about all day.

So I'm thankful for work that's not only fun in and of itself, but that leads me to explore other civilizations and walks of life. That way I can lead a thousand lives not my own.

How about you? What fantastic bit of esoterica have you dug up lately?

P.S.  If you're really into research, see this recent post about how to write about a place you've never traveled to.

image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Public domain. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

November Linklove

All the best stuff I've read around the weboverse in the last month!

Jonathan Stroud (Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase) offers tips on how to scare the pants off your readers (via Nerdy Book Club)
Author Dee Garretson (Wildfire Run) on filling up your idea box (Project Mayhem)
Kelly Jensen at Book Riot discusses the Myth of Girl Characters in YA Fiction
Writer Angela Ackerman on the difference between conflict and tension (thanks to Cynsations for the link)
Story consultant Lisa Cron talks about 9 Ways to Undermine Your Characters' Best-laid Plans (Writer Unboxed)
Susan Dennard offers Simple Tricks to Unstick Your Story (Pub Crawl)

New agent Maria Vicente of P.S. Literary is looking to build her list (
Literary Rambles shines their spotlight on agent Erica Rand Silverman of Sterling Lord Literistic
Foreword Literary interviews their newest agent, Emily S. Keyes

Possible theme park based on The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (really? is that a good idea?) (GalleyCat)
Jeff Kinney's latest sales are anything but Wimpy (PW)
Book Riot loves the new film adaptation of Catching Fire (Hunger Games #2)
and another sad good-bye to Junie B. Jones creator Barbara Park

The Enchanted Inkpot talks to Matthew J. Kirby (The Lost Kingdom)
Shannon Younger of Chicago Now interviews tween blogger Erik of This Kid Reviews Books
Leah Cypess of the Enchanted Inkpot chats with Erin Bow (Sorrow's Knot)
Pam Witte asks 16 kidlit authors what they're grateful for this year (Ink & Angst)
PW features National Book Award for Young People's Literature winner Cynthia Kadohata (The Thing About Luck)
Pub(lishing) Crawl sits down with YA author Alison Cherry (Red)

Champion by Marie Lu (finale of the Legends trilogy) (YA sci-fi/dystopia)
The Seventh Pleiade by Andrew J. Peters (YA fantasy)
Extracted by Sherry D. Ficklin & Tyler H. Jolley (YA steampunk/time travel)

Picture Day Perfection (picture book by Deborah Diesen, illus. by Dan Santat)

Scholastic offers a wonderful video glimpse into what's coming up in spring 2014 (thanks to Watch.Connect.Read for the link)
Brooks Spencer gives you the Top 10 authors for reluctant readers (Nerdy Book Club)
You guys! Get your very own Harry Potter postage stamps! (via Book Riot)
image courtesy of wikimedia commons; available for reuse under this Creative Commons license

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Thank-You Thursday: Inspiration Is EVERYWHERE

Why this photo? Because it sparks the imagination.
If you're just tuning in (as most people are), you'll not realize that I've been overflowing with gratitude about the writing life all month. (Check out the other Thank-You Thursday posts here.) This week, I'm grateful that as writers our inspiration is all around us.

If I were a stockbroker trying to make creative investment decisions, I wouldn't know where to turn for inspiration. (And, yeah, you wouldn't want me touching your money anyway.) Cooking? I can stare at a cupboard full of food and see nothing to eat.

But writing is different. The great ideas are just waiting for us! An overheard conversation (oh yes--I do eavesdrop), a moment of déjà vu, the shape of a cloud on a stormy day--all of these things are fodder for a story. And that's just the fountain of ideas. For excellence, we can turn to those masters who make it look so easy, but who work so hard. 

Here are some of my favorite inspirations:
  • C.S. Lewis
  • E.B. White
  • Russell T. Davies
  • Madeleine L'Engle
  • Joss Whedon
  • Stephen King
  • J.K. Rowling
  • Harper Lee
  • Steven Moffatt
  • Roald Dahl
... and that's the short list. As writers, we're free to pick apart the masters' material and see how it works, why it works, and what we can do to make our own stuff better. We can also glean inspiration from symphonies, pop songs, architecture, vast landscapes, city streets ... the list never ends. 

Don't ever tell me you don't have any ideas. What you have is an overabundance of ideas. You just have to narrow it down to a single, really good one.

So thank you, creativity goddess, for all the great stuff to draw from. And also, thanks for making me so bad at math that no one will ever hire me as a stockbroker.

And how about you? Where do you draw inspiration from?

image: The Prague astronomical clock (in Old Town Square) was installed in 1410 by clock-makers Mikuláš of Kadaň and Jan Šindel, and is the oldest functioning astronomical clock in the world.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Godot13 and is free to share and reuse under this Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

50 Years of Me and Who

Like many other Earthlings, I wait with bated breath to view the 50th Anniversary Celebration Episode of the venerated British sci-fi TV show Doctor Who. (American Earthlings: Tune in to BBC America at 2:50 Eastern time / 1:50 Central this Saturday.) Like Who, I've been around (okay, almost) 50 years. Here's how we came together.

1963 : Doctor Who debuts on British television with William Hartnell in the title role as the original madman in the blue box. The unnamed Doctor, member of the ancient race of the Time Lords, but looking remarkably human, flies about in time and space in a time machine disguised as a police call box, which was a common enough sight in 1963 Britain.

1965 : I'm born. Some people notice. And one cat.

1989 : Doctor Who goes on hiatus. I don't notice because I never watch it.

1991 : I marry a rabid Doctor Who fan. In a haze of newly wedded bliss, I agree to watch reruns of a grainy-looking sci-fi series which features the same quarry, English woods, and underground tunnels to represent an infinite number of planets. The effects are laughable, the acting often bad, the writing frequently flawed, and the stories are interminable. Yet I cannot look away. The iconic-yet-changing doctor is an intriguing character and always delightful, from impish Patrick Troughton (Doctor #2) to the witty Tom Baker (Doctor #4) and kindly, youthful Peter Davison (Doctor #5). I yearn for these characters and stories to be brought to their full potential.

1994 : I'm pregnant with my first (and last) child. After an hour of thumbing through (read: arguing over) names one Saturday, my husband goes to take a shower. I happen upon the name Melanie, which I think is pretty. Under the showerhead, he runs through the names of all the Doctor's female companions, and happens upon Mel, companion to Drs. #6 and #7 (played by Bonnie Langford). Hubs comes out of the shower, I look up from the kitchen table, and together we say, "What about Melanie?" Forever after, he claims that our kid is named after a Doctor Who companion.

2005 : Master writer Russell T. Davies resurrects the Doctor for the BBC, casting Christopher Eccleston as war-damaged Doctor #9. The reboot is fast, funny, dazzling, and best of all, it has a huge heart. I loved it from the start because we the viewers experience everything through the eyes of a working-class British shopgirl who reacts as real people would: Part of her aches to go with her amazing new friend on fantastic adventures, and part of her clings to her family back on Earth.

2006 : I'm devastated to learn that our brand-new Doctor is already leaving the show. But when Doc #10 emerges from his TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) in the guise of actor David Tennant, the writing and the show itself get better and better.

2010 : I'm a bit heartbroken--okay, and panicky--when both David Tennant and master writer Russell T. Davies leave the show. Who can replace them? How will the show survive? Enter the madcap Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor, and--who better?--Steven Moffatt, author of some of the best episodes ever, to run the joint. Add Karen Gillan as the Girl Who Waited, and we all heave a big sigh of relief.

2013 : Doctor Who is all about change. Matt Smith is moving on, and Peter Capaldi will take his place at Christmastime. But first, Doctors #10 and #11 will team up in the 50th Anniversary Special, "The Day of the Doctor."

And I write a blog post to say thank you to all the marvelous writers, actors, and crew folk who love this series and work to make it the best it can be. You've all taught me a lot about storytelling, about the strangeness of the universe, and yes, about fish fingers and custard.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Fab Times at the British Faire

This weekend took me (along with a box of copies of The Key & the Flame) to the British Faire in Lenexa, KS. It's an annual fundraiser put on by several local chapters of the Daughters of the British Empire, who went all out this year to put on a gala event.
I wondered about the wisdom of setting up a table for a whole day with just my one lonely book to sell, but it turned out to be a great idea. While literary festivals and book fairs are the logical places to sell your books, sometimes you'll do better at an event whose theme somehow resonates with your story--and where there isn't a lot of competition from other titles. Because The Key & the Flame takes place in modern-day Britain as well as an alternate-reality, medieval-era Britain, it fit right in with the shortbread, Downtown Abbey memorabilia, and Doctor Who stuff up for sale. Here are some highlights:
photo: Steve Yates
The Royal Court graced us with their presence several times during the course of the day.
photo: Steve Yates
Watercolorist David Norwood, originally from a small town outside London, got a double dose of royal love.
photo: Steve Yates
Always nice to see Will and Kate. And Prince George was exceptionally well behaved.
photo: Steve Yates
photo: Steve Yates
The fine folks from The Queen's Pantry in Leavenworth, KS, helped me stock up on Scottish fudge, ginger beer, and Cadbury Flakes.
photo: Steve Yates
The DBE chapters setting up for the event
My pretty table, all ready to greet the readers. Primo spot: Right next to the gourmet cheese shop!
This stack kept shrinking throughout the day. :)
photo: Steve Yates
It was great fun meeting so many Anglophiles this weekend! Thanks to all the wonderful readers who completely emptied my inventory, my hubs for bringing by an additional box of books, and especially to the Daughters of the British Empire for inviting me. I can't wait till next year!
images: Where noted, Steve Yates took these photos for the Community Faces feature at To view Steve's entire slide show of the British Faire, click here. (Unlabeled photos were taken by yours truly except for the top image, taken by my lovely daughter.)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thank-You Thursday: You Can Do It Anywhere

There aren’t a lot of portable jobs out there. Teaching? Without a classroom, you’re just talking to yourself. Acting? You need a theater. Lawyering, accounting, marketing—most of those need some office time, even if you can take certain tasks on the road with you.

But writing: so easy.

I’m writing this post from a nice nook in the Student Center of my local community college. I feel pretty high-tech because I have an outlet for my cell phone and I’m working off the college’s wi-fi connection. But really, all I need is my notebook and pen to write. And I can take that anywhere I like.

That’s more than a matter of convenience. A change of venue is often needed to juice my creativity. Part of me draws comfort from the daily trek to my home office. My writing mind clicks into place when it sees all its familiar trappings: rugged old rolltop desk, cup of coffee, view of the crapabble tree out my window. But sometimes, like a spoiled two-year-old, my creative mind shuts down and refuses to work unless I give it something different: a new journal, a cool pen, a view of the sun cutting through autumn leaves, the roar of the surf. And because I write, I can indulge those desires. They come cheap. (Well, not the surf. I’m in Kansas, after all.)

So yes, I’m grateful that my chosen art form can go anywhere and doesn’t require an outlet or a studio or even a table. A sturdy lap, some lined paper, a writing instrument—that’s all I ask. And maybe a star to steer her by.

Sea Fever
By John Masefield (Poet Laureate of England; 1878-1967)

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking,

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.


Every Thursday this month I'm shedding my grump coat and giving thanks for the writing life. Search for the tag Thank-You Thursday to see other posts in the series.

Thanks to the for the text of Masefield’s famous poem.
images: top (John Masefield) courtesy of Wikipedia. Public domain. Image published in Newcomb, A; Blackford, K.M.H.: Analyzing Character, Blackford, New York, 1922. Earlier editions from 1916 and 1920 also exist.
bottom (brigantine) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: Brigantine 'Adolph' in the Bay of Naples. Unknown Italian artist. Public domain. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Pet Peeve: More Unique

Friends, writers, random people who happened on this post, I know that we Americans love our superlatives. It's why we're gaga about exclamation points. Nothing is just enjoyable; it has to be

or we can't say we've gotten any pleasure out of it. I'd love to launch what might be called a moderation campaign, but my reasonably pitched voice would be lost in a sea of grinning emoticons and boldfaced adjectives.

And yet.

We do have to keep in mind what certain words mean, which brings me to this month's peeve (finally, they sigh): unique. Here's Webby's definition:
being without a like or equal :  single in kind or excellence :  UNEQUALED : SOLE
So if you think something is particularly unusual, distinctive, what have you, you might call it unique, but is that in fact what you mean? Unique means one of a kind, so something or someone can hardly be more unique than someone or something else. Unique is thus a word than can have no comparitive. You could say:
That's the strangest-looking dog I've ever seen.
But you couldn't say:
That's the most unique dog I've ever seen.
That implies that you've seen unique dogs before, but not one quite that unique. 

Think about another word--best--that can have no comparative. Or fastest. Only one horse in a race is the fastest. No one says:
The palomino was pretty fastest, but the chestnut was definitely more fastest than he.
So do let's stop calling an unusual thing or person very unique or the most unique, shall we? Try using exceptional, remarkable, unusual, or some other adjective. That will help add a few more years to my weak heart. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Thank-You Thursday: The Fun of Writing

Happy November! It's the month of gratitude. Each Thursday this month, I'll tell you one thing that is fantastic and wonderful about the writing life that I'm grateful for.

Notice that I didn't say the professional writer life. Because that's an entirely different animal. The writing life is that experience--whether it's once a week, every day for 10 minutes, or your real-life, 9-to-5 job--that you have while writing. Publication is optional.

Today: I'm grateful for the writing life because

it's fun

That's right. The rest of the year, we can moan and groan about the agonies of writing, sitting over our typewriters and opening our veins, or banging our heads on desktops, the self-doubt, the isolation, whatever.

But at the end of the day, it IS fun.

Writers get to play, just like when we were kids, except we get to play forever. We get to close the door on the realities of our small lives and soar into wide-open vistas full of anything we want. Our imaginations allow us to create our own fun. We can time-travel to a 13th-century Russian monastery or a 25th-century Mars colony. We can fall in love or comfort children or fight Nazis. We can even save the universe using a kettle and some string.

I wake up every day wondering, What will I make today? A sad world? A happy moment? Will I scare people, enrich people, disgust people? Or just pour sand through a dumptruck in my own private sandbox?

The choices are ours. And they're marvelous. Be grateful that you get to do this, even for a few minutes at a time. Because frankly, if we were in it for the money or the fame, most of us--um, 98 percent of us, maybe?--wouldn't be doing it at all.

video clip is from Time Crash, that fabulous mini-episode of Doctor Who written by one of the most fun-loving writers I know--Steven Moffatt-- and starring David Tennant as Doctor #10 and Peter Davison as Doctor #5. Thanks to kaitlinmj for the video. Watch the full episode here (about 8 minutes long).

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Wednesday Writer Tip: How to Set a Story in a Place You've Never Visited

Writers today may not expound endlessly on the weather or the environment the way our predecessors did, but make no mistake: Place matters. Sometimes it's a character in itself. Think New York City in books like Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney and Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities; Paris in Hemingway's A Moveable Feast; or this fabulous passage from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes adventure The Hound of the Baskervilles, describing Dartmoor:

The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one's soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm. When you are once out upon its bosom you have left all traces of modern England behind you but, on the other hand you are conscious everywhere of the homes and the work of the prehistoric people. On all sides of you as you walk are the houses of these forgotten folk, with their graves and the huge monoliths which are supposed to have marked their temples. As you look at their grey stone huts against the scarred hill-sides you leave your own age behind you, and if you were to see a skin-clad, hairy man crawl out from the low door fitting a flint-tipped arrow on to the string of his bow, you would feel that his presence there was more natural than your own.

But suppose you long to write about Dartmoor and haven't ever been there? Can it be done?

Sure it can.

Some places are easier to research than others, of course. But let's pick a random spot I've never been to: New Orleans, Louisiana.

If you're determined to set your tale in the Big Easy, of course you're best off making a research trip there. But suppose you're limited by time and cash?

Start off at your local library (because books are free there). Here's what you'll look for:

  • travel guides like Fodor's New Orleans (in the 917s)
  • history like The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld by Herbert Asbury (in the 976s)
  • oral histories like Overcoming Katrina: African American Voices from the Crescent City and Beyond by D'Ann R. Penner et al.
  • video documentaries like Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans
  • phone books / Yellow Pages
  • maps

Of these, you'll want to acquaint yourself with the general stuff first--the neighborhoods, the best-known restaurants, the music venues.Then, dig into the history to see how the city became what it is today. In a place like New Orleans, music is big: listen to the old stuff that built the city and what the musicians are playing right now.

We all know that the internet contains a lot of bogus information. But some if it is quite useful. Go on sites like and read what visitors to New Orleans thought of the place. What are their impressions? What surprised them? Where are the best places to eat? Don't base your facts on these impressions, but do note that this is how the place affects real people. They're opinions; your characters, too, will have opinions.

Google Maps
Google Maps with Streetview can be handy when checking out a specific neighborhood. If you've never tried streetview, go to Google Maps and search for a specific address, like:

713 St. Louis Street New Orleans

This happens to be the address of a famous old restaurant called Antoine's. The page opens and shows the map, and on the left, a photo of Antoine's with a little orange person-figure in the corner. Click on that to open the streetview, and you can virtually stroll down St. Louis Street and see what the neighborhood is really like.

Streetview shows you some interesting things--the pink building next door to the restaurant, the praline shop across the street, and what kind of street it is (one-way only, fairly narrow). Use your cursor to travel up and down the block to see the nearest intersection and what else there is of interest nearby.

While you're at it, go to Here you'll find Antoine's colorful history, a photo gallery of its 14 dining rooms, and its menu and prices. There's even a video tour of the place.

Make a Bulletin Board
Find photos wherever you can. You're not using them for anything but your own personal purposes, so you don't have to worry about copyright. Google Images will give you more photos than you'll ever need. You can pin them to a Pinterest board (though copyright may be an issue if you go this route), or just paste them into a Word document or print them out. Immerse yourself in the look and feel of your place.

You'll need to know some rather dry information to get an idea of the area you're researching. Look up census records for the time period you want, and look for the racial and ethnic mix of the population, the average income, and other factors. See if you can find out things like how politically active the population is, what are their leanings, and how active different groups are.

Does the city have mass transportation? If so, is it widely used?  When we Google "getting around New Orleans," we have access to streetcar routes, fares, pedicabs (!), and walking tours, along with advice for each. Again, check tripadvisor: Often travelers will say something like, "The guidebooks told us the streetcar was easy. It isn't!"

Find Experts
Time to look for universities or colleges near your target town. In New Orleans, opportunities are many. Go to websites for universities like Loyola or Tulane and check the staff list. Or Google local historical societies. Find someone who specializes in local history or culture and wants to talk about it. Email those folks about your project. The worst they can do is say no, and it won't be to your face. If possible, make an appointment to talk to your expert via Skype so you can get something of the flavor the area, which will be lost in a strictly written correspondence.

Note that the Louisiana Historical Society website not only includes information of its own, but also helpful links to the state museum and libraries. Remember that New Orleans is a passion for these folks--wouldn't they just love to talk to you about it?

Be sure to ask your expert for other sources. And don't be afraid to approach librarians, either. They live for this kind of stuff. Trust me.

If at all possible, find someone who knows the area you're researching and ask them to read your manuscript for errors. If you've totally failed to capture the flavor of the place, you'll want to know. And naturally, you'll thank that reader in your acknowledgments. 

These are just some ideas to get you started. With a little diligence and creativity, you can write about anyplace (or time) in the world.

images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:  
Dartmoor: image by Herbythyme and licensed under these Creative Commons licenses: 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic, and  1.0 Generic.
New Orleans: image by and licensed under this Creative Commons License.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Samhain

While you're running around dodging miniature witches and vampires today, remember that Halloween (All Hallows' Eve) evolved from the ancient Celtic pagan festival of Samhain (pronounced SOW-en). The Celtic New Year began at this festival, that time between the equinox and Yuletide. Samhain marks the beginning of the darkest part of the year, when the earth sleeps. Its element is water, which is abundant in rain and swollen streams, feeding the greedy earth in preparation for its long hibernation. Animals gather food; trees shed their leaves and get ready for dormancy. The last of the harvest is gathered, including apples and hazelnuts, both of which are symbols of this time. And on the night of Samhain, the veil between worlds is thinnest: the world of the living and the world of the dead, as well as the world of the mortals and that of the fairies. It is said that mortals may enter the land of the fey on this night.

Because of the increase in traffic between worlds at this time, the Celts often dressed in costume to hide their identities. That way, no spirits would find them and take them to the Land of the Dead before their appointed time. Divination was also considered to be especially useful on this night, as the barriers between past and future were lifted.

You may remember that The Key & the Flame takes place during the Midsummer festival. The sequel, The Wand & the Sea, occurs during Samhain. In Anglielle, it is a night when Adepts may walk into the Realm of the Good Folk with impunity, provided they return before dawn. Holly's first task in The Wand & the Sea is to do just that: to journey into the Realm to seek help from the Good Folk who reside there. Meanwhile, Ben and Everett conjure aid of their own--in the form of a Sea Witch.

Now what could possibly go wrong with that?

Read more about Celtic traditions at Samhain here and here.

image: copyright Mickie Mueller; permission granted to use in noncommercial ventures. Visit for prints and other products.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

October Linklove

If you've never seen one of my linklove posts, then more's the pity, because this is the time every month when I divert you from this lovely (if malnourished) blog to all the diverse and wonderful info I've read elsewhere. Search for the tag linklove to see all the goodies in previous months.

Dianne K. Salerni (The Eighth Day) on writing a middle-grade series (Project Mayhem)
... and Angie Smibert (The Meme Plague) weighs in on series as well (Cynsations)
Kevin B. Parsons details The Top Ten Writing Fallacies (Author Culture)
Dan Blank explains how to launch something (you know, like a book, maybe) (Writer Unboxed)
Author Marissa Burt (Storybound) explains what to expect in the letter from your editor

Gemma Cooper of the Bent Agency reveals what she's looking for
Kathleen Nishimoto of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment chats with Cynsations
Literary Rambles shines their agent spotlight on Josh Getzler of Hannigan, Salzy, Getzler

National Book Award for Young People's Literature finalists announced (PW)
Roth's Allegiant comes racing out of the gate (PW)
S&S Launching New Sci Fi / Fantasy Imprint (PW)

Holly Black (The Spiderwick Chronicles, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown) chats with The Horn Book
Debut author Caroline Carlson (The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates #1: Magic Marks the Spot) sits down with Cynsations
Veronica Roth (Divergent trilogy) on the Today Show with Matt Lauer
Rick Riordan (The Heroes of Olympus series) and Jonathan Stroud (Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase) interview each other on Riordan's blog (thanks to Charlotte's Library for the link)

Sunny Sweet Is So Not Sorry by Jennifer Ann Mann (contemporary; 1st in new series) (Secrets & Sharing Soda blog)
When Did You See Her Last? by Lemony Snicket (mystery; 2nd in series)

Ever After High: The Storybook of Legends by Shannon Hale (fractured fairytale; 1st in new series)

The Winter of the Robots by Kurtis Scaletta (sci-fi)
The 9 Lives of Alexander Baddenfield by Jon Bemelmans Marciano (gothic humor)
My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman (contemporary)

  The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two by Catherynne M. Valente (fantasy; 3rd in series)
House of Hades by Rick Riordan (fantasy/mythology; 4th in series)

When the Butterflies Came by Kimberley Griffiths Little (via Cynsations)
The Templeton Twins Have an Idea by Ellis Weiner (via Watch. Connect. Read.)

Maryann Yinn gives a list of book-themed Halloween costumes (GalleyCat)
Real, true ghostly encounters from the authors at The Enchanted Inkpot
Cool bookish jack-o'-lanterns featured on Book Riot

top image courtesy of wikimedia commons; available for reuse under this Creative Commons license