Happy New Year 2017

Well, here we are in 2017, not a year I ever gave much thought to, back in the day. Anyone remember Y2K? The world didn’t end, or even falter, on January 1, 2000, and I’m going to assume that civilization as we know it won’t collapse this year, either.

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This morning my blog post from one year ago popped up on my Facebook feed, reminding me of my annual attempts to take stock. My resolutions, such as they are, remain the same. Write more. Publish something. Declutter the house. Lose a few pounds. Read more.

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I didn’t do well on “write more” this year. I did some editing on my Jinn books, and some for friends. I did not start a new manuscript, but I have some ideas for a fourth Jinn story. I entered the third Jinn story, Jinn on the Rocks, in two contests, and it made the finals in one, the West Houston RWA Emily contest. Fifty percent is about my standard—folks tell me that’s because I have a “strong voice.” I hope that’s true. I’m still dragging my feet on independent publishing.

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I wrote 53 blog posts, about one a week. That’s down from when I started in 2011, but fairly steady, and it gives me an outlet. I’ve written a few columns for my RWA chapter newsletter (Grammar Gremlins—you can find them in the articles section of this site if you’re interested). I went to the RWA National conference in San Diego in July, had a great time, learned a lot, and came home with every intention of diving back in. It was a very shallow drive.

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I have done a bit of decluttering—the old office is clearly in mid-process, just as it has been for months. The garage has a long way to go. The old sewing room, where my exercise bike sits mostly ignored, is in pretty good shape, with a work table for editing and a very old TV for noise. The plumbing jumped up and bit me when I tried to install a new washing machine, and the extensive work that caused took most of September, and a serious chunk of my bank account.

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Lose a few pounds? Yeah, well, I’ve gained about four. Better luck this year.

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In February I finally bought a smart phone. I won’t go so far as to say it has changed my life, but it sure has made some aspects easier. Contact with the outside world when the power or the Internet connection goes out. I deposit checks with it, and my relocated address book ties into navigation. I love the camera! It takes beautiful pictures (in spite of my minimal photographic talents) and sends them anywhere. I still don’t use it much for phone calls, but I have learned to text, usually in complete sentences, with punctuation. Some things don’t change.

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I did pretty well on reading, although it often feels like I never have enough time for it. I bought myself a new Kindle this year, a Voyage, and it’s a big improvement over my old keyboard Kindle (which I thought was pure magic when I got it in 2011).

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I raised my Goodreads Challenge target from 50 books to 60, and read 69 (compared to 72 in 2015). 41 of those were ebooks, a number that has risen steadily over the years. I’m sticking to that target this year, five books a month. According to Goodreads I read 19,705 pages this year (20,131 last year).

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In 2016 I read 14 romances, 21 mysteries (mostly cozies), 19 science fiction novels, five mainstream novels, and ten nonfiction books. Most of them were good; my average rating on Goodreads was 4.5 stars. I suppose I tend to be generous, knowing how hard it is to write a book.

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I plan to Keep Calm and Carry On in 2017, and wish you the best of luck with whatever comes your way.

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Happy New Year!

Susanne Alleyn: Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders

If you write historical fiction, you need Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders, Susanne Alleyn’s “Writer’s (& Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, & Myths.” If you read historical fiction, if you’re a history buff, you will enjoy this voyage into everything that goes wrong in writing about the past.

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medieval-underpantsUnder General Rule #1, Never Assume, Alleyn discusses underwear, geography, dialog and slang, British vs American English, foreign phrases, what Alleyn calls “presentism,” that is, inserting modern attitudes into historical situations, first names, and introductions.

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Why didn’t most women wear underpants until fairly recently? What do the modern British mean by “pants”? Why doesn’t fall follow summer in Britain? What’s the difference between “arse” and “ass”? When should your characters call each other by their first names? Who should be presented to whom, and why?

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General Rule #2, Wikipedia Is Your Friend, gives a starting point for basic research on food, plants, and animals (Old World vs New World), names (all the way back to ancient Rome), and guns.

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Where did dandelions come from, and when, and why? What plants and animals had Europeans never seen before the sixteenth century, and when did they make their way into widespread use? What does anybody mean by “corn”? What plants and animals had pre-contact American Indians never seen? What’s the difference between a pistol and a revolver? Between a musket and a rifle?

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Under General Rule #3, Do Not Borrow Your Period Details & Information From Other People’s Historical Novels and Movies, Alleyn discusses unnamed novels, Braveheart (Wallace never wore a kilt, and as for that French princess, forget her), several versions of A Tale of Two Cities (even Dickens flubbed a few details when he wrote historical fiction), money, English aristocratic and royal titles (with examples from Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey’s family and Downton Abbey,), lighting, and travel (historically very slow).

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What was money really worth, and what would a sou buy? How many farthings made a penny? How many shillings made a crown? A pound? A guinea? What’s the difference between John, Lord Throckmorton and Lord John Throckmorton? Between a marquess and a marquis? Why is an earl’s wife a countess?

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General Rule #4 is Don’t Just Swallow the Propaganda, Cliches, and Myths. The English and French versions of the French Revolution (Alleyn’s specialty) were very different. This section also includes hygiene and cleanliness, table manners, physical stature, teeth, servants and housekeeping, cafes and coffeehouses, doorknobs, glass and pottery, paper, pens, and pencils, restaurants, rubber and elastic, stirrups, telephones, window screens, and finally death and burial.

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Why did Renaissance doctors discourage bathing? What was the etiquette of eating with one’s fingers, and when did forks come into use? How tall was Napoleon, really? Why were servants more necessity than luxury, and why was being a servant a good job? What’s the difference between a house maid and a parlor maid? How did execution by guillotine proceed? What was life really like in the first half of the twentieth century? When was the fountain pen invented?

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Alleyn includes a final section on research, with several pages of references, broken into time periods, covering ancient times to 1950.

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Even if you are writing about a time and place far removed from Alleyn’s specifics (mostly France, England and North America), her topics and information will give you insight into the details you should be researching rather than assuming. Even if you are building your own world of fantasy or the future, these are details you need to consider.

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And if you are reading the book for entertainment, there is so much interesting material here, and more than a few mysteries solved.

Review: How To Write Funny

When I was at Half Price Books (my go-to spot for gift shopping) last December, I picked up a copy of How To Write Funny, edited by John B. Kachuba. Looks interesting, I thought. Apparently I thought so in 2001, the first time I bought and read it, and in 2006, when I read it again. So I passed the new copy along at the chapter Christmas party and reread the old copy I found on my shelf.

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How To Write FunnyHow To Write Funny is not a technical manual for humor writing. Most of the contributors agree that humor in writing stems from the mindset of the author more than from any tricks of the trade, although there are certainly technical suggestions throughout. The articles and interviews cover a range of writers and writing genres: fiction and non-fiction, short and long, prose and poetry. Many of the contributors confess that they tried and tried to be “serious” writers, but it was like fighting nature. That’s true the other way around, too—it’s not easy to write “funny” when your nature wants to write “serious.”

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The heart of the book is really about the nature (there it is again) of humor. What makes people laugh, and why? This is terribly subjective, of course, and pulls a wide variety of ideas, many depending on age, gender, ethnicity, and culture. Not all humorists are the same, either: the person who tells hilarious stories may not be a writer, and the writer who has you falling off your chair laughing may be too shy to speak in public. Many of the contributors list the authors they love, and the name that comes up time after time is Mark Twain, followed closely by Robert Benchley and P.G. Wodehouse.

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Most helpful for romance writers is Jennifer Crusie’s article, “Happily Ever Laughter: Writing Romantic Comedy for Women.” She points out that women respond to situational humor rather than jokes. “Nothing is a tragedy,” Crusie says, “if you can laugh at it.”

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Several other funny women are included, and their approach to humor is much like Crusie’s. Connie Willis says, “Exaggerating the literal truth, if it’s done well, shows us the emotional truth of a situation.” Esther Friesner, in “Take My Wizard . . . Please,” discusses humor in fantasy and science fiction, and by extension paranormal. Patricia Case tackles “Writing ‘Funny Bits’ for Kids.”

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“The funniest fiction,” says Roy Blount Jr., “involves characters who are not trying to be funny.” Remember Burns and Allen? (Hey, I know some of you are as old as I am.) George was the straight man. It was Gracie, with her totally unique view of the people and events around her, who was funny, and she had no clue. She was just being herself.

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Joe Lansdale talks about mixing humor and horror. Bill Bryson points out that British and American humor can be quite different. And Tom Bodett says, “I don’t think you can write funny unless you think life is funny.”

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How To Write Funny may not actually teach you how to write funny, but if you lean that way, it will give you some ideas. It’s available as an e-book from Amazon. You may have to hunt for a paperback copy.

When I Grow Up

When the Wednesday Writers picked “What you wanted to be when you grew up” for our May topic, my first thought was That was decades ago—I don’t remember. My second thought was Am I there yet?

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Back then, in a previous century, the big three choices for girls were Teacher, Nurse, and Secretary. None of those really did it for me, although any of them would have pleased my mother, a very intelligent woman with a high school education, whose work experience was limited to the years during World War II when all the men were away. My dad, on the other hand, was convinced I could be whatever I wanted to be, and told me so.

I did at least think about teaching, briefly, and about following my dad into the advertising business. A well-traveled journalist neighbor encouraged me to study foreign languages and aim for the Foreign Service, and I took Spanish, French, and German in high school.

I went off to college with no particular target, took more Spanish and French, and somehow wandered into an anthropology class. Next thing I knew I’d majored in anthropology and archeology, moved on to grad school, married a fellow archeologist, and gone into the cultural resource consulting business.

Somehow there was a thread running through all the detours. Remember my dad in the ad biz (in Milwaukee and Miami, thank goodness, never Madison Avenue)? He was there because it was one way he could make a living while writing, and I caught that from him. By the time I was twelve I was writing fan fiction (although that wasn’t a thing back then, and there was no way to share it). In high school I took honors English and creative writing, and wrote chunks of a totally unauthorized senior class satirical yearbook (I think I still have a copy of that somewhere, but thankfully not of the fan fiction).

I happily wrote term papers through college and grad school, and when Jack and I did archeological work I wrote the reports. And eventually I realized that what I wanted to do when I grew up, and what I’ve been doing under one name or another all my life, was write.

Here’s my dad at his desk in 1946.

And here’s my desk in 2016. Big changes in equipment, same love of the written word.

Desk 2016

This month my fellow Wednesday Writers are Tamra Baumann, Carol Post, Priscilla Oliveras, Sharon Wray, and TL Sumner. Pop over and find out what they wanted to be when they grew up.

Happy New Year! And, Of Course, Books

Welcome to 2016. My resolutions are always pretty much the same. Write more. Publish something. Declutter the house. Lose a few pounds. Read more.

I actually did pretty well on that last one in 2015. I had read 48 books in 2014, and joined Goodreads. So when Goodreads put up the reading challenge, I aimed for 50 books in 2015. I actually finished 72.

Now, admittedly, some of those books were fairly short. Epublishing has opened the field for novellas and short novels; books no longer have to reach a certain length to be financially viable if they don’t have to live on paper. Even so, Goodreads tells me that I read 20,131 pages last year (up from 13,641 in 2014).

I depend on Goodreads for page totals, and who knows how accurate they are on ebooks? But I do keep my own list of the books I read, and I can report that in 2015 I read nineteen romances, twenty-six mysteries, seven science fiction/fantasy novels, five general fiction, and fifteen nonfiction books, eleven of those related to writing or DIY publishing. This year I read 38 books on my Kindle, slightly more than half, up from my previous average (since I bought my Kindle in 2011) of about one third ebooks. (Maybe that would justify replacing my near-antique keyboard Kindle with a nice new paperwhite model.)

I must have been lucky or cautious in my choice of reading material: Goodreads tells me that my average rating was 4.4 stars, and I do try to rate and review what I read. I also know what goes into writing a novel, so perhaps I’m inclined to be generous.

I have not done a lot of writing this year. WordPress tells me I only published 38 blogs, less than one a week, in 2015. I’ll try to do more of that in 2016, keeping up my essay writing skills. I still have quite a few of those 72 books to tell you about, so I’ll start on those next week.

I did finish writing the third novel in my Jinn series, Jinn on the Rocks, but now I need to do considerable editing on the three Jinn books before I can seriously approach publishing them—when I wrote the first one, Jinn & Tonic, I had no idea I was starting a series, and the world of Pandemonia has expnded quite a bit. I’ve been reading and researching the self-publishing process, and it does sound like such a lot of work. Marketing doesn’t appeal to me at all. So I’ve been dragging my feet.

I think this year I’ll aim for reading 60 books—five a month, I can do that. And I’ll start the decluttering with the old office. And stick with the exercise bike. And start a new manuscript.

Happy New Year, and I wish you the best of luck with whatever you hope to accomplish in 2016.

Books, Books and More Books

Writer Wednesday: Favorite Holiday Books

Our Writer Wednesday assignment for November is “Tell us your favorite holiday books.” That’s a WW Novemberno-brainer for me: In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. What, that doesn’t sound like the holidays to you? Well, four of the five stories that Jean Shepherd turned into my favorite holiday movie, A Christmas Story, came from that collection. (The fifth came from Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and other disasters.)

“Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid” gave the movie its core, driven by Ralphie’s passionate desire for a “Red Ryder BB gun with a special Red Ryder sight and a compass in the stock with a sundial.” We hear about the Old Man’s battle with the furnace, Ralphie’s lofty expectations for his “What I Want For Christmas” theme, his visit to Santa Claus, Aunt Clara’s abominable bunny costume, and his broken glasses. I never lusted after an air rifle, but I sure can identify with the theme writing and the broken glasses.

The episode of the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, with its high anticipation and deep betrayal as Ralphie discovers the true meaning of the secret message, comes from “The Counterfeit Secret Circle Member Gets the Message, or the Asp Strikes Again.” The arrival and demise of the notorious leg lamp is described in “My Old Man and the Lascivious Special Award that Heralded the Birth of Pop Art.” Ralphie’s epic battle with the neighborhood bully plays out in “Grover Dill and the Tasmanian Devil.” (Fun fact for fans of the film: Scut Farkas character was added for the movie, with Grover Dill demoted to toady. Scut did appear in another story, “Scut Farkas and the Murderous Mariah” in the
Wanda Hickey collection.) The destruction of the Christmas turkey is adapted from “The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds,” also in Wanda Hickey, in which the neighbors’ dogs destroyed the Parkers’ Easter ham.

All of Jean Shepherd’s writing was sharp and hilarious. My copies are old paperbacks, with small print and brittle yellow pages, that once belonged to my mother, who introduced me to Shepherd. I remember reading the Bumpus hounds’ story aloud to my late husband when he was ill, interrupted by frequent laughter. (The two of us also watched the movie every year, a habit I have continued.)

Writing this piece has made me think about the complexities of weaving several stories together into A Christmas Storya film that has become a Christmas classic. The five stories have been reprinted in one volume, A Christmas Story: The Book that Inspired the Hilarious Classic Film. I want to reread them (and admire Shepherd’s skill in adapting them) without struggling with those old paperbacks (I actually have new glasses on order; they might handle the small print, but they won’t do much for the brittle yellow pages or cracked binding), so I’m downloading the Christmas Story edition to my Kindle to reread during the holidays.


Do you have a holiday book you love and reread? Visit some other Wednesday Writers, Tamra Baumann, Lauren Christopher, Natalie Meg Evans, Jean Willett, and Sharon Wray,
and discover their holiday favorites.

Writer Wednesday: Naming Names

Our Writer Wednesday topic this month is “tell us you favorite character name,” but I couldn’t think of one, WW Octobereither as a reader or as a writer. But names are important, and for a writer they require quite a bit of thought, and sometimes just as much planning.

Many of my favorite keeper books are science fiction, because I enjoy the world building. And names are often part of that world building. Character names in books like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, or Marion Zimmer Bradley’s tales of Darkover often tell the reader quite a bit about family, social position, or occupation.

I find I can’t write about a character until I know his or her “true name.” From time to time I have realized that I simply can’t remember a supporting character’s name, a sure sign that whatever name I stuck the poor soul with is the wrong one. I like to play with names, and sometimes they take on an extra layer of meaning. In one of my manuscripts, the heroine is called Liz, short for Elizabeth, and the fact that the Spanish version of her name is Isabel becomes an important plot point. In another story, the heroine calls herself Charlie, but the hero, a European with a formal streak, always addresses her by her proper name, Charlotte.

Sometimes a character’s true name never shows up, suggesting that there’s something else about the Columbo & Dogcharacter that isn’t working. That thought reminded me of Lieutenant Columbo, who never had a first name, and his dog, who never had a name at all. Columbo tried out several names for the dog during the series, but none of them seemed to work, and the dog remained Dog. Come to think of it, Mrs. Columbo didn’t have a first name, either.

On the other hand, I’ve recently been reading a series of old-fashioned Regency romances, originally published in the 1990s, in which nearly all the male characters have at least three names, first, last, and title(s). How other people address these men speaks to relationships and social position. People in contemporary stories are generally casual about names, but in historical tales, arriving at a first name relationship may be a major romantic milestone.

Do you have a favorite character name? Or are there names that push your buttons and make you put a book down? For more thoughts on names, visit Wednesday Writers Sharon Wray, Lauren Christopher, Natalie Meg Evans, and Wendy La Capra (and be sure to check out Wendy’s upcoming release, Duchess Decadence).

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