You write

No doubt about it. Writing is a solitary pursuit. A story idea comes to you. You think about it alone. You research it alone. You write a first draft alone. Revise alone.

In between those steps, if you’re lucky enough to have writing friends and colleagues you trust, you share what you’ve written. You receive criticism, hopefully helpful, but even when it is, YOU have to decide if and how to integrate it into your story.

When it’s polished and perfect, you work on a query letter meant to inform and intrigue literary agents while you investigate said agents to find a good fit for you and your novel.

And then you query. And query. And query.

And wait. And wait. You’re occasionally lucky and get a nibble–a request for 3 chapters, or the whole manuscript. And then, while you wait to hear from those agents, you research others and query some more.

When agents answer with things like ‘solid writing’ or ‘terrific story but not for me’, you read them alone. And when you’re frustrated, you read other writers’ novels. Reading is also a solitary sport.

In singular moments, other story ideas come to you and you begin to think about where this one’s going. And you write.. alone.

You set aside a completed work which hasn’t found a publishing home to complete that second, and a third. You tell yourself it’s not your time, but that that time will come.

And you write.


Whining about wine

A departure here from my usual never-to-be-missed ruminations about writing, or those dazzling reviews of recently read novels. (And yes I know I’ve fallen down on the reviewing job lately but I lost my reporter’s fedora and I’m useless never mind witless without it.)

Today’s blog post is about foibles. Yes. Foibles. And wine. To be explicit, my weakness is the inability to pick the correct wine–i.e., the one I’ve been tasting in my memory but can’t reproduce in real life with real alcohol.

You see, in real life a Cote du Rhone or Beaujolais Nouveau would be perfect. Unfortunately, it’s mid-spring, and you don’t want a Beaujolais Nouveau now. It’s, well, it’s not nouveau anymore. It’s past its prime and can be akin to cotton. Maybe it’s good for bathing. But no, the Japanese do that in hot springs fortified with Beaujolais Nouveau in November.

And though I’m told gamay grapes–those which make the fresh and fruity Beaujolais Nouveau–have been described as the ‘younger sibling’ of pinot noir, I never liked pinot noir. But I allowed myself to be convinced that this was what I wanted and came home with a bottle of a Burgundy region Beaujolais blend.

It wasn’t light, and the dryness was overwhelming. In fact, all we could taste was dry. No grape. No fruit. Not even leather (though I don’t know who’d want their wine to have leather notes. All I think of regarding leather notes are saddle cinches. Not pleasant.)

Not to waste the bottle, I dredged up a favorite old chicken recipe that calls for a sauce composed of a butter/flour roux, a 6 oz can of tomato paste, and the 26 oz bottle of dry red wine. Of course, there are herbs and slivers of raw ham added, but you get the gist.

The sauce was superb.

I crossed the gamay blend off my list and trekked back to the wine shop.

“I’d like a grenache,” I said, and was instructed that that grape originated in Spain, where it’s routinely blended with other varieties.

I bought a bottle blended with Syrah (or Shiraz). It was drinkable, but while not full-bodied or heavy, it lacked the fruitiness I wanted, and so I used half the bottle along with some sugar to poach pears. They were yummy.

Back to the store. By this time, I didn’t want to be lectured. I was downright demanding. I wanted a true grenache and that’s all I wanted. A Cote du Rhone, I told the wine expert.

He told me that they, too, are usually blended–over 80% grenache in the Southern Rhone area of France, and sold me a Chateauneuf du Pape.

I thought ‘I have struck gold!’ I knew the region. Knew the grape. Its tannins would be very subtle, its nose fruity, its body light. But when I got home, I saw the blend was only 59% grenache.

Now, I don’t think I failed to make myself clear. Writing fiction, which is what I do, demands clarity–of images, actions, setting. And so I’m sure I explained myself well. Whether the wine merchant understood me or had his own ulterior motives is another issue.

I haven’t opened the bottle yet. I’m saving it for Sunday supper. I sure hope it’s what I want because honestly, I don’t have any more recipes that use a 26 oz. bottle of dry red wine.




Don’tcha just hate it when a good story ends?

Downton Abbey, the acclaimed PBS Masterpiece series, has ended after six exciting seasons. The main characters all received happily ever afters: Lord and Lady Grantham, hale and hearty, parental duty done, have grandchildren in the nursery. Robert has Mary and Tom to help run the estate, and Cora has her hospital work. Mary and Henry, Edith and Bertie, and Isobel Crawley and Richard Grey have all happily married. The indomitable Dowager Countess Violet is healthy and as pithy as ever. Barrow has metamorphosed from his self-centered, angry, conniving self into a man who realizes the value of friends and ‘home’ and has earned the title Butler, while Mrs. Hughes and Carson retire on Downton property with a pension, and Anna and John Bates have a son. Fellowes has even left us with a hint that Tom Branson might find favor with Edith’s new magazine editor.

What made it a hit? The attention to period detail in fashion and costuming, in history and news, in servants and service? In the interplay of station upstairs and downstairs? The beauty of Highclere Castle and  its natural surrounds?

All that, and the uniqueness of the characters and their personalities, certainly. The drama, births and deaths (and occasional resurrection… or maybe not), the interplay of fate as crafted by Fellowes and by history with these characters, surely.

Did we love Mary at her bitchy best? No, but we did love to hate her for it. Did we root for Edith to earn a happy ending through all those seasons? Yes, and were disappointed, as often happens in life. And dear Sybil. How we cried at her death, and our hearts broke knowing that Tom would have to raise their darling daughter without her.

We made it through the war to end all wars, through turning the Abbey into a hospital, went from horse and carriage to horseless carriage, watched candles give way to electricity, and telegrams to telephone. We saw the modern evolution of the kitchen–fridge, toaster, mixer, and all.

We learned that Cora was one of the golden era American princesses whose parents married them to British nobility, surrendering fortunes to gain them titles. Thankfully, for Cora and Robert, it was a love match–even if he didn’t seem to let us know it initially. But even that rang true. After all, his upper class Victorian and Edwardian upbringing didn’t allow for public displays of affection, so his coolness was appropriate. But in time, Fellowes warmed him up.

Thing is, all of this is what makes for a great novel. The depth of fully realized characters, the tension and conflict between them, their goals, and the world their occupy. Drama, Humor. Setting. Detail. Story. Story. Story.

Downton may have ended, and will remain a fond memory for many of us, but that empty Sunday night space only means an extra hour or so each week that we can lose ourselves in a really great novel.

The rooster crows, the hatchet falls

When Jenny was four, her dad brought home a dozen adorable fuzzy yellow chicks for Easter–Peeps come to life! She was delighted when he said she could raise them, and helped him set up a quasi-chicken coop in the garage of their tract home on suburban Long Island. Jenny fed them Cheerios every morning. Mom was downstairs a lot, so Jenny knew she saw to their other needs.

She didn’t know whether dad had intended to butcher them from the get-go or not, but it seems his hand was forced when several of the chickens turned out to be roosters who woke the neighborhood every morning at 5 am with their crowing. That, and the loud, cackling squabbles that broke out several times a day, necessitated their demise.

She never wondered if dad knew what to do. After all, he wasn’t farm raised. He grew up in the Bronx. So did mom. Jenny just assumed he did. After all, he was Dad. So, she matter-of-factly watched as dad set up a wide board in the laundry room atop mom’s washer and dryer one June day, and she kissed each bird goodbye before dad chopped their heads off. She wasn’t squeamish. No. She was curious, and observant, fascinated as a few ran around the laundry room floor, headless, and others continued to flap their wings, sending a flurry of down and feathers skyward to fall gently after the guillotine had dropped and dad tossed their heads into the slop sink. She was delighted with the chicken foot he gave her, especially when he showed her how to make the claws open and shut by pressing one particular spot.

She tucked the treasure in her pocket, and gave the whole exercise no more thought, knowing that dad said he’d pluck the chickens and mom would be the one to clean the blood spatter from her sparkling white appliances and always spotless cement floor.

Shortly thereafter–at least in her four-year-old frame of reference–six-year-old Joey came knocking on her door.

“Can I play with Jenny?” he asked.

She was so happy when mom let him in. Other kids were gone for the summer at camp and she was lonely, but it wasn’t long before Jenny broke a vase trying to pitch Joey a ball. She’d given no thought to what a baseball could do to inanimate objects, and she had no idea how to make a ball go straight when she threw it.

Mom banished them to the backyard.

“What do you want to play now?” Jenny asked, eager to please the only playmate she’d had in what felt like forever. He proposed follow the leader, and so she trooped after him down the slide, then up it, and then they played Simon Says, which she really didn’t understand and lost interest in. She didn’t have rollerskates, and Joey wasn’t allowed to use his brother’s skateboard, so she was at a momentary loss as to what to do.

And then inspiration struck.

“Let’s play house,” she said. “I’ll be the mommy and you be the daddy.”

Joey agreed, and raked a stick across the sparse grass of the lawn, while Jenny knelt and pulled what she thought were weeds like her mom did.

Joey dropped the stick and dusted off his hands. “There. Yardwork done,” he said while glancing about.

Jenny knew with some certainty he was bored and that she could lose her playmate, and so she hopped to her feet. “Time to kill the chickens!” she said, and explained about the hatchet, the blood, the headless carcasses fleeing the scene. To make it more interesting, she pulled the chicken foot out of her pocket and showed Joey how the claws clenched and unclenched.

Joe paled, looking a lot like the white hens themselves had, and then he said, “Mom’s calling. I gotta go.”

What goes into an antagonist?

Recently, I’ve been mulling over the effective traits of antagonists, so it was ironic that  the commercials of a particular yogurt company I’d been aware of worked as a primer in creating those traits.

The first two commercials, which aired around mid-year 2015, featured a kind of spunky brunette in 60s mod fashion who danced around while a voice-over in mock-French accent proclaimed good news–the product had reduced its sugar content by 25%. And, as the French-accented voice insisted, the yogurt still tasted good–or “gyud”.

That high-pitched voice didn’t sell either sincerity or ‘gyud-ness’ to me, but I thought she’d make a ‘gyud’ devil in angel’s clothing type of antagonist. After all, who’d think this cutesy innocent capable of malevolent activities, of acting on some deep-seated personal desire, or capable of vengeance? Terrific!

Then came a commercial featuring a burly bald man in a lovely gray suit who looked like he belonged either in a boxing ring or working for the mob. His stomach rumbled as he strove to convince us that dining on his tiny cup of yogurt with what appeared to be a demitasse spoon would assuage his hunger.

i didn’t buy it. Of course, this actor’s been seen on TV and in the movies, and surprise of surprises, among his many roles he’s played a boxer and a bounder. Well, he’d work as an antagonist based on his all-too-cultivated malevolent looks alone. I mean, he looks like a bad guy. But if satiating his hunger with tiny spoons and such manly victuals as yogurt is his thing, I fancy him as my type of quirky brainiac antagonist; perhaps, the industrialist ex-Nazi type who plans to eliminate mankind and create a new world a la Ian Fleming’s Dax character, highly if bizarrely motivated (at least to finish his yogurt).

After those two, the company released a commercial that features some poor fella on a ladder waiting for permission to pick fruit, while a young woman in farm duds stands below in the orchard. After telling him ‘not yet’ a few times, she finally yells “Pull that peach!”

Of course, I didn’t understand her command the first few times the commercial aired, and when I finally did, I thought the exercise silly.

But I know what kind of antagonist she’d play, a dominatrix, maybe seeking a partner with sticky fingers for a bank heist. Clearly, he’d play her minion–no, not like Stuart, Kevin or Bob–but the unquestioning dupe in her evil plans. I can see her hiding her nefarious deeds, using her minion as a foil. As for him, I presume he’d be an adaptable minion, and therefore, in the end, might overtake his dominatrix antagonist out of revenge and claim supreme power–bwah-ha-ha!

The most recent commercial viewed features mom, dad, son and daughter, lounging about the kitchen spooning yogurt into their mouths. Of course, as their mouths are full, all they can manage are eyebrow wiggles, smiles, and a lot of ‘mm-mm’s.

This cast put me in mind of happy-go-lucky soldiers of the dark, the zombies who unconditionally follow their evil master’s commands, their brainlessness mirrored in their empty smiles and their ‘mm’ing sounds. In the end, they too, might turn on their leader and become more amorally ruthless than he was.

So, yes, all of these commercial characters are candidates for antagonists, either with annoying qualities that would enhance their vicious deeds, or with innocuous qualities that clearly must hide a diabolical mind.

So ultimately, what goes into an antagonist? Yogurt. And no, I don’t remember the brand.

Wishes for the new year

December has been a whirlwind of sights, sounds, memories, sensations, and emotions.

I was lucky enough to travel this month. Germany, Austria, and Slovenia with their colorful Christmas markets were a seasonal delight–

Christmas gingerbread in Munich

Christmas gingerbread in Munich


Nuremberg market at dusk

Nuremberg market at dusk

Citrus pomanders in a Bratislava market stall

Handmade citrus pomanders in a Bratislava market stall

Vienna's St. Charles Borromeo Church hosted a midnight performance of Mozart's Requiem

Vienna’s St. Charles Borromeo Church hosted a midnight performance of Mozart’s Requiem

And while the trip was thrilling, it came at a price, the race to prepare for Christmas when I returned home.

A tradition of 30 years and more, friends and family and I climbed the hills of a Christmas tree farm hunting for the perfect tree. Trimming them, dressing the house for the holidays, gift wrapping, and baking occupied the final 2 weeks before Christmas.

It was only on Christmas, with favorite carols and holiday music flavoring the air in my home that I began to enjoy the day. White Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, The Christmas Waltz and more reminded me of  happy holidays past, while Adeste Fidelis, Ave Maria, and Panis Angelicus settled the joyful reason for Chritsmas in my heart and soul.

Next came the holiday parties, this year, thankfully, celebrated happily with close friends.

And now comes the new year.

I wish you all what I wish for myself–health, peace, a modicum of wealth, creative inspiration, the satisfaction of work well done, and success in whatever endeavors we hold dear.

Happy New Year!

Do you know him?

When characters spring to life on the page–fully fleshed, breathing, with their quirks–it’s because the writer who created them understood them ahead of time, created their backstory.

For Jim Ambrose, philandering husband and one of the antagonists in With Malice towards One, I knew this much based on a conversation I had early on with Danny Ambrose, the female protagonist. His backstory says a lot about Danny, as well.

“Has Jim any family?”

“No. His folks died young in a freaky two year period. His dad had a premature heart attack in his early thirties and his mom died of complications from the flu. Jim was raised by his mother’s sister Rose, a tallish, raw-boned spinster with a will of iron.

“They were never close. The first time he ever mentioned her was when we got engaged and he supposed we’d have to invite her to the wedding, he said. Even now, I can recall the moment that day when Rose, ever quiet and prim, took me aside and said, ‘Well, my dear, he’s your responsibility now.’  Her expression crossed somewhere between haggard and dubious, as if she were exhausted from dealing with him and doubted that I was up to the challenge.

“In the first years of our marriage we went to her home in Hartford for the holidays, but there was always an air of indignation or antagonism or disapproval—from him or her…I never could quite tell who it originated with. Looking back, it might have been that they were both too strong. You know, both vying for control? Whatever the reason, it ruined the holiday and by our third Christmas Jim decided Connecticut was too far to travel from Long Island. We sent flowers instead.

“I called her every month or so, but he’d never speak to her. She died alone in the house in Hartford about seven or eight years ago, and I still wonder if I’d abrogated my responsibility—to Aunt Rose.”

Malcolm Robertson, the history professor in With Malice towards One, told me this about himself:

“I was born at the end of the second World War. My father had been home on leave, gotten Mother pregnant, then gotten killed in the last air strikes on Germany.” He offered a wry smile. “Mother, Aunt Lucy and Aunt Margaret raised me, and I’ve often wondered if it was that household of women that accounts for the fact that I’m more comfortable around the fairer sex than around men.

“And perhaps that’s why I married Em. She was pretty, and level-headed, knew how to bake like Lucy and keep her accounts like Mother. We laughed together, and I truly thought I loved her, but she wanted sex a lot more than companionship. I could ehm… perform the act, just never got a lot out of it. It was a few years before I could admit that the reason she didn’t appeal to me for sex was that I was gay. It took me another year to get over that shock, but, once I did, Emily and I parted company. She was a great girl about it, wanting me to be happy as much as she wanted a richer relationship for herself.

“I began to explore my sexuality.carefully. I had a few short-lived relationships with lovers–but only a few. After all, it’s a stupid cat that dirties in his own garden, you know. I wasn’t trying to hide my situation from school officials. I’d been up front with colleagues, especially after a few of them tried to fix me up with single women they knew. No, I simply felt it was beneath me to live a life of flagrant sex. And yes, still, because I felt more comfortable around women than men, I found the introductory parts of new relationships very difficult indeed. Still do.”

A small bit of backstory for Geoffrey Gandulf, reeve of Norburnshire for William de la Coeur Grifon in The Luck of Two Magpies.

Inseparable playmates they had been as children, Geoff thought, but manhood and rank had made them as different as servant and master. Even so, this William was the lad he had loved to whoop and run with; the young lord who had got drunk with him the morn Taddy was born; the man who arrived home when the old Earl his father died, and wept for his loss on Geoff’s shoulder. Separate and unequal they were, but linked irrevocably—master and servant and more.


And the most interesting development to come out of knowing your character’s backstory? That despite that knowledge, they can still surprise you in the scenes they appear in.

The best, the bad, and the ugly

For writers, one of the greatest worlds to drop in on is a writer’s conference. One of the best on the North American continent is held each year in a suburb of Vancouver, BC, called Surrey. The Surrey International Writers Conference is an annual event that draws writers of fiction and nonfiction, agents, editors, and luminaries from the publishing world. It’s earned its ‘international’ status, as writers come from Canada, the US, Europe, and farther. Many years it’s a sellout. This year, its 23rd annual installment, was one of those, with about 600 in attendance for 3 days of sessions geared to beginner and advanced, fiction and nonfiction writers, with opportunities to pitch to agents, and have your work vetted by published authors and editors.

It’s always an engrossing conference, rich in opportunities for polishing skills, deep-diving into new elements of craft you’ve been dying to explore, and flexing creative muscles that are just itching to be worked.

Most first timers are agog at the variety of offerings and the bonhomie of other attendees. Most repeat attendees relish the creative atmosphere, the opportunity to meet other writers and talk craft, books, and shop, and to renew friendships face to face.

The Surrey International Writers Conference is certainly the best.

The bad is, well, seeing it end and having to leave, knowing your batteries won’t be charged as well until next year.

The cost of attending a conference isn’t cheap but it’s always worth it. The cab ride to and from the conference, however, isn’t so lovely. About $80-85 Canadian. But that’s not the ugly.

The Ugly is having your flights delayed both ways, and worrying if you’ll make your connecting flights, and in some cases not making them at all. I’ve learned over the years to seek connecting flights at least 90-120 minutes apart… just in case. (And yes, I’m snobbish enough to wonder why there aren’t any direct flights from my home town. It’s NYC for Pete’s sake!) And I am appreciative of the flight info updates I get on my phone. I understand flight delays or paths changed due to bad weather.

But when an outbound flight is first declared to be 60 minutes, then 90 minutes, and finally 2 hours late, and the reason given is that ‘debris’ got in the way of a door closing and ruined the seals so that a new plane had to be put into service, well, <sigh>.Maybe I give them a point for originality.

I know airlines realize we are captive audiences. They also want our business. Without it, they have no airline. Likewise, all the cutbacks have forced patrons to expect and settle for less, but it doesn’t mean we are content with less. Altered flight times are unacceptable to everyone–business people with meetings to make, families on vacations who have paid for hotel rooms and theme park tickets going unused because of delays, conference presenters who miss their speaking and session engagements.

Ugly. Purely. I won’t name the airline. I tweeted about it from the airport so they’ll go un-noted here. But as they say, ‘vote with your feet’ or in this case with your wings, I’ll not book with them next year.