Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Kindness of Strangers

I am thrilled to share that an article I wrote about a very difficult time in my life was published in Women's Day on-line. I titled it The Kindness of Strangers. It's always been curious to me, how rather than a family member or a close friend, it is so often a stranger whose presence provides the help or comfort you need during a trying time.

The whole encounter might last as little as a moment, but somehow when you walk away, your day is brighter for their smile or a kind word. This particular encounter made me so aware of that, and I've paid attention ever since, hoping to repay this gift.

Enjoy the read!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

It's no lie! Kindle First books have something for every reader....

It is an honor and also exciting that my latest novel, CROOKED LITTLE LIES, has been chosen to be an Amazon Kindle First selection for the month of July. One of the most gratifying aspects of such a promotional opportunity is that the book will be introduced to thousands of readers. Some will be familiar with my books, but for so many more my name and my work will be new.

As a writer, it’s wonderful, imagining the numbers of readers who might hold my book in their hands. Who might read and become engaged with the characters and the story as it unfolds. It’s a huge part of why I write, and it means so much to me to hear from readers. It’s the most gratifying thing learning that something I wrote has resonated with a reader in some way, or perhaps sparked a discussion, or even helped them see a similar situation in their own life in a different way that was of help to them.

My desire to write came from the joy of discovery I found in reading. Reading was and continues to be one of the great loves of my life. But sometimes, given the plethora of books published every month, it’s hard to find one I want to read. And that’s another reason I was so thrilled that my novel was chosen to be a Kindle First pick. As a reader and also an Amazon Prime member, I already knew the value of the program. First, only four novels are offered each month, which narrows the scope, and each one is presented in a straightforward manner with great cover art, a succinct description and a letter from the editor further defining the premise. With all this great information offered in a nutshell, it’s hard to make a mistake. And you can’t beat the price of the Kindle First books! If you’re a Prime member you can pick one for free. Non-Prime folks can have one for a $1.99. Another aspect of the program I like is that the books/authors are generally not the hot list, the ones you see over and over everywhere. Many times, they’re new and fresh, at least to my story hungry mind.

If you haven’t checked out the Kindle First authors, I recommend it. I’ve found so many books I’ve enjoyed through the program. To name a few: I was pulled into Catherine McKenzie’s book, HIDDEN, from the first page. The opening scene is a heart stopper. I couldn’t put it down after that. D.M. Pulley’s, THE DEAD KEY. First, I fell for the title. And the story behind it is every bit as compelling. I was reading it on my phone in the grocery check-out line of all places! Emily Bleeker’s WRECKAGE is another page-turner. The idea behind it … of people, modern-day, cell phone using, connected 24/7 people being stranded on a tiny deserted island after a plane crash with zip for electronics … was really interesting, but what kept my attention riveted was what happened in the wake of their rescue, the stories that were told, the lies that became truths. THE PERFECT SON by Barbara Claypole White was another discovery with a different sort of theme. There are family dynamics at the novel’s heart, but not your ordinary family dynamics. The book addresses issues that evolve from a dynamic that isn’t so perfect. I always wonder about it when, as humans, we describe a family or a person as normal. What does it mean really? This book made me reexamine that particular question again. Read it to the last page no matter what because the ending is just perfect.

In closing let me mention one last book. I only just found it. In fact, when it was offered as a Kindle First selection, I didn’t download it because it sounded so dark. Titled A DARK LURE, it’s by Loreth Anne White, and it’s billed to be about a serial killer, hunting the one victim who got away. I returned to look at it a few times, finally downloading the sample and after reading just a couple of paragraphs, I was hooked on the gorgeous writing, not to mention the immediate edge-of-the-seat thrill that’s present from nearly the first word. Then getting into the story, I’m finding it’s far more absorbing and layered than the simple hunt by a killer for his lost prey. So although I’m reading with my eyes wide shut, I couldn’t stop if I wanted to.

I have other Kindle First books queued on my Kindle. My TBR list is long enough now that no matter where I find myself, I know I’ll have something good to read. Go check them out, if you haven’t already. There’s something for everyone, every month. You won’t be sorry.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

How much joy can you stand?

I’m always excited to begin a new project. Usually the idea for another book has been hanging about
in the corner of my mind, fighting for attention, while I’m working on the final edits for a current project. The transition between stories can be disconcerting, though. The book I’ve handed off to my editor is full of people I know and love; folks I’ve worried over and listened to and encouraged from the first page to the last. I know how these characters talk and act. Now there’s a group of strangers in my head. I have no clear idea who they are. Still, I’m glad they’ve showed up, glad when I can set something about them down in writing: an opening scene, the gist of their trouble. After handing in CROOKEDLITTLE LIES, I did just that, began a story with a new family, a new dilemma, feeling confident I had something, that I’d forge ahead.

But very shortly into it, I hit a place where I felt I was writing in circles. The people in my head moved stiffly, like marionettes. They mumbled their lines or had nothing whatever to say. It got frustrating. I walked out on them many times. Some days I resisted even coming to sit at my desk. Why had I ever thought the idea was so great? But some interior knowing—my muse or guardian angel, the little voice in my head—kept me going through the fog and finally in the last week (now around 50 decent pages in out of the approximately 150 I’ve actually written) the book is taking off. The characters have come to life. They’re up and dancing and all I have to do is write down the steps. What a thrill. Once again, I understand why I’m doing this. When I reach this sweet spot, I couldn’t stop if I wanted to.
So here I am, closing in on the launch of CROOKED LITTLE LIES, while in the meanwhile, I have this compelling new story to engage my imagination and keep me occupied. It’s a good place to be, the best. And as I write this blog post, two things occur to me: one is that persistence does pay off. The second thing is that very often persisting can feel dumb … like the dumbest thing going. And here’s something else. It actually might be dumb to continue a project that isn’t working. Or it might turn out to be a brilliant move. The trick lies in knowing the difference and that’s not always easy.   

But it’s so gratifying when the persistence does pay off, when the view clears and you can see where you’re going. And this time, when the new story gelled, I got up from my desk, thinking how lucky I am to be doing work that I love, thinking, can it get better? I feel such a wave of gratitude for all the readers of my books, and of books in general. They make my work, that is such a source of joy in my life, possible. I’m so grateful, too, to Barbara Poelle, my agent, and to Tara Parsons, my editor, and to the whole Lake Union team, Gabe and Dennelle, and everyone else there, for their faith, enthusiasm and support. Working with them has brought more joy.

I’m reminded of a little book I read years ago while passing through one of the darkest nights of my life. It’s by Suzanne Falter-Barns and it’s titled, HOW MUCH JOY CAN YOU STAND? The question is one I ask myself from time to time, still. How much joy can I stand? I don’t know yet. Let me see once this next novel comes into the world. Let me see after I finish the new one I’m working on. Meanwhile, thank you! Thank you so much!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The art of waiting

The book ready to go!!
It's almost impossible not to draw a parallel between the birth of a child and the birth of a novel into the world. As a mother, I mean. Maybe it's different for dad authors. The biggest similarity, for me anyway, is the waiting. The closer the day comes, (or in the case of the kids, the closer it came) the more antsy I get, the more nervous and excited. Normally it's easy to lose myself in the writing of a new story, but for some reason that only works sporadically in the final weeks before a new book--one so many have worked on so long and hard, one I've dreamed of long before I set down the first word--comes out.

It seems whether it's books or kids, I need a bigger distraction, one that's more physical. As time shortened before the childrens' arrivals, I cleaned obsessively. I made drapes. I stitched entire layettes, flannel gowns with silk-ribboned drawstring hems, little embroidered jackets, tiny overalls with puffy, decorative trapunto knees. T-shirts with snap shoulders by the dozen.
The distraction still under construction...

Now, as the day approaches for CROOKED LITTLE LIES to make its debut, I'm gardening like mad, making a miniature fairy garden this time to defray the anxiety of waiting. I think, if I'm not mistaken, a few fairies have come to scope out the location. Sort of like I hope a few readers will scope out this post and possibly even look for the book on Amazon. Oh, I can't even say how delicious the build-up is. You know what they say, anticipation is everything!

I can't wait to share CROOKED LITTLE LIES with the world! It's coming in August!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Happy (belated) Garden Bloggers Bloom Day!

Swallowtail on pink verbena
Corsican Violets
I didn't know until this morning that yesterday, May 15th, was Garden Bloggers Bloom Day. I follow several garden blogs, mostly to ogle the gorgeous photos and to hunt for ideas. Two of my favorites are Rock Rose and Digging. I started my garden this spring from scratch. I mean there was absolutely nothing but native grasses, kidneywood and sumac, a few gorgeous old liveoak trees, a handful of redbuds, cedar, (ashe juniper) and rocks. Did I mention the cedar and the rocks? I've always gardened by the seat of my pants. Sort of the way I do everything, raising my kids, writing, cooking ... a pinch of this and a tablespoon of that, then stand back and see the result. Modify when necessary.

Monarda & Agastache
With this garden endeavor, though, I did try to apply a few things I've learned the hard way. I cleared out most of what I didn't want--the rocks, cedar, and other assorted misplaced greenery--and added hardscaping, first. David (my son and cohort in gardening crimes) used some of the cedar and some of the rock to build fencing, arbors, pergolas and walls, laying in the bones, at least as many of them as I've envisioned to date. Due to the slope of the land, the foundation for my garden shed had to be really high in front, 3 feet. I studied that for many months before finally deciding to dry stack stone walls and backfill them, essentially raising the garden beds to hide the slab. I've wondered since if I would have been just as happy leaving the beds ground level but that's gardening water under the bridge. Anyway, once the hardscaping was in place, and a few trees were planted down what I call the hell strip, which is basically a wide strip of land left bare by construction, David and I went shopping for plants. Austin has some fantastic nurseries. Hill Country Water Gardens, The Natural Gardener, Backbone Valley Nursery, and Barton Springs Nursery are a few. I'm not sure how many trips we made to each nursery or how many red wagons we filled. A lot! I could never have planted up the beds and the hell strip so quickly without David's help. He dug the holes and then helped me pop in the plants along with healthy doses of micorrhizal fungi and an organic, molasses-based fertilizer that we got at Hill Country Water Gardens.

David Austin - old rose: Munstead Wood
Natives & various succulents
Previously, I gardened in Zone 9A and dealt with hot humid summer days when the air lay on the garden like a damp blanket. Winters were often wet and mild but temps could plunge. Here in my Zone 8B garden, although it's not so far away, the climate is really different. I'm in the country so it seems there's always a breeze, everything from lightly ruffling to gale force. Although summer days are hot, the air is dryer. So far, I haven't lost plants due to fungus infestations the way I did in my Zone 9 garden. David knows nearly everything there is to know about building soil, so I'm sure his schedule of amendments, a couple of different fungal teas he brews, are part of why the roses, clematis, oak leaf hydrangeas, daylilies, phlox, bearded irises--essentially the fussier things I've planted in my raised beds--seem to be flourishing. Everything planted down the hell strip, all the drought tolerant toughies: assorted salvias, penstemons, rudbeckia, various sedums, agaves, assorted cacti, native daisies, betony, lavendar, rosemary and agastache looks good so far, too. Between the stones David laid to mark a wide path down the hell strip, I've put in a mix of smaller toughies: delospermas, assorted succulents including a favorite of my mother's, hens and chickens, tiny ground-hugging thymes, wooly veronicas, erodiums, dianthus and lilac flowered germander.

Dianthus & bearded iris
There are still bare spots everywhere, where things will have to grow some to fill in. The arbors and pergolas are naked, waiting for their respective dresses of passion vine, pink jasmine, sweet autumn clematis and climbing roses to cover them, and some perennials haven't exactly taken off like the verbascum and the strawberry foxglove. I've been warned those, along with my mophead hydrangeas I brought from my old garden and the lilac my sister shared with me, won't do here. Every time I hear that, though, I get my stubborn on and plant it anyway. I have to try. I do have a rule: if I kill it three times, I'm done. And sometimes I even follow it!

I'm cautiously optimistic, so far. Of course, it's only May. I'm waiting for August. How will it look then? Burned up? Gone to the grasshoppers? Who knows! I'll post as things progress.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Just do something! What writing and gardening have in common.

Recently, as I finished a final round of edits on CROOKED LITTLE LIES, my novel that is coming out shortly from Amazon/Lake Union, I was also putting in the major elements of the garden that has been in the planning stages since I moved out to the country a year ago, and I was thinking how similar the two occupations are. Either undertaking begins with a thought, an idea, an image, some whisper of something that sends you out the door or to the desk. Notes are jotted down. Sketches are made. Plans are put into action. Sometimes you hit a wall. Out here in the country, in particular, where there aren’t the usual parameters, like sidewalks, driveways and privacy fences, to define the area, I’m often stumped. How far should I take the limestone dry-stack wall? What, exactly, should the cedar rail fence with its adorable peaked arbor encompass? I go outside and stare, trying to decide. It’s very like sitting at my computer, wondering which way to take a plot or a character in a story.

Gardener’s block and writer’s block have a lot in common. There’s a certain despair, rising levels of frustration and anxiety. I can almost see this little person in my head pacing the floor, wringing her hands. Until a voice speaks up, yelling: Just do something! In the case of writing it means type a sentence even if it’s gibberish. In the garden, it might mean getting a few rocks, adding them to the existing wall and stepping back to evaluate. Or it might mean digging up that entire clump of daylilies, because they’re in the wrong place. It can get complicated with crafting a story, too, requiring of anything from ripping out an entire plotline to totally changing an ending.

Built from cedar harvested on the property, this little arbor
 in January looks pretty bare, but it has lots of potential.
And the two processes also share similarities in the method by which either one is created. Both start with good bones. In the garden, I begin with hardscaping, a wall, a length of fence, statuary or a pergola—some focal point to build around. In story writing I begin if not with a fully fleshed synopsis then at least I will have the bones of an idea. And in either case, for me, anyway, the bones need to be strong and compelling. I need an ocean’s worth of enthusiasm, because either way, I‘m going to be lost in this muddy, unknown territory for awhile. Either project is going to take time to complete, and there are bound to be setbacks, small heartbreaks and jabs of disappointment, never mind the odd bouts of confusion, the times I grope around wondering wondering where I am. It’s as easy to garden your way into a corner, as it is to write your way into one. 

But there is one difference between the two occupations, one that I discovered only now, as I sent CROOKED LITTLE LIES back to my lovely editor for the last time. I went outside to the garden, my go-to place. It’s always been my sanctuary even as it can be the greatest source for distress, and as I
This is Sophia, my beautiful garden muse,
found this spring. 
was looking over results of my early spring efforts so far, and feeling impatient that the perennials are so small, that the shrubs haven’t filled in, that the trees will need their canvas-strap supports for another six months and I hate how it looks, the word STOP! popped into my head. A voice continued: You’re missing it, the beauty now. The beauty of beginning, of watching something grow. It often happens that I’ll hear this voice, my higher self, the one that knows how to find the joy in life. And I’m so grateful for it, to have cultivated it so it’s usually louder than the voice of my frustration. It’s this voice, what I’ve come to think of as the voice of my joy, that sees me through the hard places in life. It’s there whenever I care to listen no matter what I’m doing, and definitely whether I’m writing or gardening. But back to the difference between them, standing in the garden that day, while I did slow down and let my vision fill with the beauty that is already in evidence, that little voice spoke up again to whisper that while the book was finished, the garden, like so many other gardens I’ve begun in my lifetime, never will be done. I will always walk outside and see something I want to do there. In fact, I will quite possibly die thinking of the phlox or some other clump of whatever flowers, how tomorrow I will move them as they have overgrown their place in the border. And perhaps that is a garden’s value, that one is never finished conspiring with nature over its creation. It comforted me, even elated me, having that thought. And I guess it does share a similarity with writing after all. I can’t see how I’ll ever be finished with conjuring plots, either, for the characters that continue to get up and walk around in my head.