Don’t you hate it when…?

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After a long hiatus, two manuscripts complete, and a third on the way, I am pleased to announce that I’m back in the land o’prose. I think I’ll stick around a while this time. I’ve been through hell and back again over the past year. Of course, the trials and tribulations had everything to do with moving through life at a ridiculous rate, or seeming to, at least.

It dawned on me this afternoon that my mentor, and several thereafter, always said and reiterated that one cannot write absent experience to back it up. The “experience” referred to is, of course, life experience. Lots of it. The good, the bad, the sublime, and the quintessence of ugliness.

I will say one word, “Arizona.” Yes, Arizona righteously kicked my ass. And yes, I did mean to say, “ass.” I came here to take on a new job.

“It’ll be like L.A. I’ll love it,” I said.

It wasn’t. Nope, not even close. Everything in this Sonoran Desert place is prickly, poisonous, and has every intention of either killing or maiming you. Yet there is also this aching beauty that took my breath away. Every twilight, sunrise, sunset, windstorm, and rainstorm. Who knew one could appreciate water so much?

The first time I smelled the earth after a monsoon here, I was in heaven. The first time a freaking gigantic Palo Verde beetle buzz-bombed me and a two-by-four merely knocked the damned thing out but didn’t kill it, I was horrified. Shudder. Seriously.

I could hang with the palmetto bugs aka cucaracha grandes. Yes, they’re heinous, but they’re all over the south. They are a mere nuisance compared to other horrors of the etymological universe that proliferate here. But the Palo Verde beetle? Hell, the thing had a wingspan and was Jurassic in every aspect. Ugh. Second shudder.

Steel can probably melt in the heat. You feel like you’re going to pass out as you walk to the car from your front door to go to work. Air conditioning is theoretical. It works, then it doesn’t. Oh, and cold water during the summer? Ha, yeah, what’s that? There’s no need for a water heater during June, July, and August.

Every extreme exists here, but you figure out how to survive. I was tempted several times to hurl myself into the Colorado River just to get wet. I’m a strong swimmer, but I’ll tell you what, it would have killed me. It’s shallow but fast. Ah, hell, and I’m back to prosecuting again. Yes, the profession I swore I would never revisit. It takes a toll on your soul, I’m telling you. You see the bad stuff people do to each other and somehow, the desert seems the right place to do this work.

As I worked on the final version of a manuscript, my editor said I had better get done or else. That’s when I realized this place had changed me. I was used to cushy, deep-green grass, friends nearby, and choosing to be alone to contemplate life. Here, I am forced to be alone. There is no grass. And my friends are on the other side of the country or up north. I made new friends here, and I am very thankful for them.

I started over in every aspect of my life in this desert place. I got my mojo back and it’s amazing. I wondered where I had been all these years. I floated between complacency and the zen realization that love really is all that matters. And it is, by the way. In a place where life can be so easily forfeited to the whims of the environment, you gain a deep appreciation for that blood pumping through your veins. My reckless streak had slowed down to an occasional bout of acting up and worrying about consequences. Here, all of that changed.

I hated that my mentors were right. But I loved that they were right at the same time. Yes, I gained life experience enough to write it into some beautiful pages. The novels flowed. I saw the movies in my head and wrote down the scenes. And I get up every morning and head into the office, then to court, then home. And it is here that I turn on the music I love, and write like none other because I love it. Love, yes, it drives life.

Every one of you out there who pursues this crazy writing thing will come to recognize that the love of the sublime word is as deep as your own soul. My experiences here are leading me into yet another novel. I read the first three chapters out loud and said, “Damn, that’s good.” I never say that. It will be one of my best stories. I cannot wait to breathe life into the characters and share them with you from this desert place where the sound of running water is a faint memory, and the dry rustling of palm fronds in the wind the harbinger of rain and coolness.

Oh, and the photos? A giant crow overlooking the painted desert out by the petrified forest. Here’s one more. Beautiful green growing under and around ancient petrified wood that had agatized:

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Writing Frauds

Could not say this better

J. A. Allen


large Since attending a writing social last Saturday night, something’s been seriously bugging me. Okay, not in the keeping me up at night kind of way. More in the what the hell is wrong with me kind of way.  Why can’t I talk to other authors? I’ve brushed it off by calling myself a writerly introvert, which is true, BUT I am not an introvert in general. Actually, talking to total strangers is one of the key components I get paid for at my “real job,” and most of the time I’m pretty effing good at it.

My favorite blog post on Scribbles on Cocktail Napkins is: Swagger in the Age of the Author Brand. Inspired by Kristen Lamb’s blog about bad girls becoming best sellers, Swagger talks about how important it is to market ourselves as (kick-ass) authors in today’s saturated, self-published market.

But it’s hard to do when we don’t feel like kick-ass authors.

quotescover-JPG-57It turns out that feeling…

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Time to Let Go

 

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When the party has started and you’re hanging out with friends, family, and loved ones, always remember the new year is a good thing.  Time to let go of everything negative, lose your worries if even for two days.

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It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich, poor, published, or trying to be. Your crew is there for you and that’s a forever thing.

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Sleep in tomorrow

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Remain content, try not to disrupt the zen, and bask in the glory you are alive and loved regardless of circumstances.

Happy New Year everyone.

May all of you have many blessings in the upcoming year.

Lisa

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Wrestling with the South

I attended Emory University during the time the institution received the “Coca Cola Money” ($100-million) and has since transformed into a giant among learning institutions. I was raised in New York City and Chicago, so the South was a mystery. Like a dummy I brought sweaters when I started as a freshman. I roasted, learned my lesson, and replaced said sweaters with thicker oxford cloth button downs and light jackets.

I was hyper-aware of the long-standing race issues that had scarred the myth of the South as being all magnificent plantation houses and lazy rivers housing an occasional alligator.  I had friends of all races. I could not comprehend why anyone cared about the color of someone’s skin. In my universe character defined a person.

My days at Emory were carefree. There was no getting around the fact warmer weather was nice. Nobody I know says they love forty-below temperatures. It hurt and you can’t do anything outside.

Emory was home to a wide variety of students. Not a single one of us had a clue about  our identity yet. I had a vague notion of writing and painting as viable and wonderful pursuits, courtesy of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Eudora Welty. I thought boys were cute but had no idea what to do with one. I got too drunk one night and told my date, who said he could use a massage,  he could get one for twenty-five-dollars if he made an appointment, but I didn’t know anyone who did that. So much for his amusement at my ordering “double” white Russians at the Lullwater Tavern at the wizened old age of seventeen. Bet he wished he hadn’t used daddy’s credit card after all. We’ve remained friends to this day.

Then I wrestled with the often misshapen view of university conveyed by t.v. shows, books, and other forms of media that pigeonhole the place into ivy-covered, woodsy, and loaded to the hilt with significant stodginess of formal academia and specifically, Harvard and Yale. First, Emory was part of the Magnolia League. Ivy had no place in the south. It was deemed the “Harvard of the South”, and I agreed with that assessment. It was an intellectual powerhouse. I loved Emory. I loved the South, but not the darkness the South had embraced.

Now returned to this place below the Mason Dixon line, I experienced once again the beauty and ugliness that always factored into every brick of every building, the fiber of existence, and blade of grass in this place. Walking the dogs at night, the sweet smell of flowers and singing frogs recalled my walks with my roommate through Decatur, marveling at the mansions along our route. Fragrances of dogwood, wisteria, magnolia, and freesia overwhelmed my senses. When the cotton ripened in the sweltering heat, a different feeling, one of horror and the knowledge of justice denied emerged which was equally-overwhelming. The story came to me within a week of moving here.

It hit one night and I knew I had to write it. It’s a work of southern fiction grounded in the ethos of this place. For me, novels play like a movie. I see the characters, hear their dialogue, and write it down. It’s not difficult, it just happens. This was a place of spirits of many nations, a place where justice was abused, misused, and ignored for long enough. Sometimes, the spirits of the abused help the abuser rise up and bring about justice. The question was whether anyone will listen?

As I finished Tea with Henry, edited two other novels set during the Tudor era, and finalized Blood and Ceremony, my Southern novel started coming to life. Southern fiction is a unique style. I understand why you have to live here to write in this genre.  I hit my stride with this work, found my voice, and have nowhere to go but up as an author. My best advice to those starting out on this road: take your time, experience life, it will come naturally if it is to come at all.

The photo on my blog is a vine in autumn on the fence of the pecan field behind the house at sunset. This is that fence and that field. Time has vanished and it probably looks close to the same as it did 200 years ago.

 

 

 

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Reality Does Not Bite

By far the best advice I ever received from my editor/mentor was to write a good story, you have to base part of it on your own experiences. The obvious reason is the story has to be believable. Tea with Henry was set in my grandfather’s house in New Jersey. It was built in 1710. I moved it to Princeton where my main character, Amelia Wainwright, worked as a professor of Tudor history.  As was the case with the real Sydenham House, it once belonged to Amelia’s grandfather. You’ll see photos taken by our friend who visited in 1999. They are PDF files, but open them when you’re done reading this and you can envision my scenes through my eyes because I describe what I experienced and saw while living in this amazing piece of historical architecture.

I replaced my dog, Gina, with Eddie, a Maine Coon cat. Eddie existed as a beloved rescue until he passed away in 2014. His character was my homage to his beautiful soul. Henry and Anne Boleyn took a tumble down the stairs and Amelia’s friend, Irene, sees the ghost of Anne Boleyn staring out one of the second floor windows pictured as well. The grape arbor existed and you can see some of the vines and part of the arbor as well.

Setting a historical scene was easy since I had lived in a historical house. The feel and smell of it were different from a new or more modern home. The walls were two-feet-thick and made of lathing and plaster inside. The furniture was awful and uncomfortable, and George Washington had sought shelter for his troops there en route to New York. They were refused due to lack of enough ale or beer, bread, and cheese according to a letter I found in a drawer. The floor planks were almost two-feet-wide. Electric light was swallowed by the cavernous spaces and the lighting was never good, no matter how bright the sun outside. In a way, the house became a portal in America for Amelia to reach Tudor England, where she met Henry in Hampton Court Palace as it was in his heyday.

Every book I’ve written contains many elements of fact. Whether it be an event from my own life, or stories gleaned from others, places I’ve been, lived, and worked. I recalled when my mentor gave me the advice about keeping it real. I resisted the good words then, but now, I get it. It’s true and will make your story even more believable.

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A Good Historical Story Featuring Henry VIII Written by an American?

Ye olde Englande, land of Shakespeare, King Arthur, Queen Elizabeth I, Christopher Marlowe, Dickens, Monty Python (all time favorite comedy program) and on. Among the British authors covering a subject area I happen to love are: Alison Weir (#1 favorite), Antonia Fraser (for the salacious bits) and being married to Harold Pinter, a fave author, and Phillipa Gregory for yet more salacious bits.  Last but not least, Dan Jones (brilliant Tudor scholar). I love that women authors are represented in this mix and as themselves no less. Bravo.

I do sense, however, that when an American such as myself crafts not one, but three, novels all involving a varied cast of Tudor greats such as Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward IV, Richard III, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour, readers might view the titles with not a small amount of suspicion. After all, what could I know about British monarchs and life during the late Medieval and Renaissance periods that a British native does not know better by mere virtue of geography? The answer: quite a lot. The fact of being British does not mean one is a scholar in particular time periods.

I majored in Medieval and Renaissance history at Emory University. Although I’ve written stories featuring well known British monarchs, more novels are coming featuring other countries. I do like to have an afternoon tea with cream but not as  function of being an Anglophile. I spent a good deal of time both as a child and adult in France. French is my second language. Along with the language came the culture and a the san (pronounced, “tay-sah,” health tea) with cream in the afternoon. My preferred leaves? Green, Earl Grey, and black.

Few people unfamiliar with history will know who Eleanor of Aquitane was, and even fewer will know that Bretagne (Brittany) was ruled by a Duke whose power rivaled the King of France. I research my subject matter as I would anything of interest. For me, it’s the act of gaining that knowledge of  time, place, or person that makes writing the story enjoyable.

I know in today’s world, places and people in my novels will be deemed anachronistic by many yet interesting to another sector of readers. As I said in a previous post, I shy away from the actual language and linguistic syntax of the time. That would be too much realism and boring. Nobody cares whether I can translate an early Modern English manuscript into 2015 speak, and neither do I since it is irrelevant to the story.

I think many American authors can offer credible ripping yarns about famous people from other countries in their historical fiction. All one needs do is read “Outlander” to see I’m right. Diana Gabaldon is an American. That said, when you stumble across novels that seem to be written by someone who ought not to have done so due to geography, check it out anyway. You might be surprised. Oh and the next novel I’m working on for NaNoWriMo? Yeah, Southern literary fiction. Who knew?

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The Nature of Evil in Henry VIII’s Court

“Tea with Henry” is a different Tudor-based novel insofar as it explores a side of history left, for the most part, by the wayside. It has elements both of historical fiction and a creepy, don’t turn the lights out ghost story. The characters, some flesh and blood, others not, are people I would love to meet or love to flee depending on the situation.

As I wrote this novel, what started as an exercise in character development in a particular historical context became deeper and darker than the original somewhat fluffy concept. Amelia Wainwright, my main character, is a history professor. She’s the epitome of modern feminine cool. She’s smart and focused, but it’s more difficult for her to achieve success equivalent to her male counterparts. This is an issue faced in one way or another by most professional women I know, therefore I write this element from personal experience, albeit in a different profession than that of lawyer. She’s not a man hater, far from it. She’s certainly no sexual ingenue either. In fact she has issues with not getting involved with her graduate students from time-to-time and she is an unabashed bohemian. In short, she’s a healthy, modern, educated protagonist who happens to love the Tudors.

I had to throw a good lawyer character in the mix also. Irene Goddard is Amelia’s best friend and a striving big law attorney who pretty much hates what she does – again speaking from the perspective of an attorney with 25 years of experience under my belt. Irene is recently divorced from a womanizing partner at the firm, but glad to be rid of what she calls her “parentals’ great expectation”. The man was a prig, plain and simple. She envies Amelia’s wilder tendencies but seeks to both control Amelia’s behavior to preserve Amelia’s career, yet live somewhat vicariously through her friend. Yes, Irene has some great secrets of her own, though, so she’s a strong female character as well.

My editor challenged me to make Irene less of a goofy sidekick and give her substance. This took a lot of thought because when I looked at the story again, Irene came off as one-dimensional and more concerned about bagels and chocolate. She wasn’t a three-dimensional character, someone a reader could see in his or her friends and family. Granted, bagels and chocolate are fine things, chocolate with sea salt for me, dark, thank you, with maybe a little caramel…dang it, I digress again. Sorry. As they say in Nebraska, Irene needed fixed.

This, in turn, led me to examine my Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII characters for flatness and caricature in equal measure for different reasons. It took many rewrites since Marcy first sent me her edits to get it right. I discovered that I had lapsed into perpetuating some of the stereotypes associated with these two historical figures and it bothered me. I had to lose the academic and infuse the characters with humanity.

I started with Anne. As I crafted her interactions with Amelia, I was forced to account for her ambition while she lived. She was no saint nor was she a witch or sorceress. She was, however, adept at using her intelligence, looks, and manner to get what she wanted. When she was unsuccessful, she was hell on wheels. Further, I explored whether that ambition carried over into the modern day and propels her into Amelia’s world, an inevitability argument. I don’t want to give a lot away, but the result was surprising for two reasons: First, in the afterlife, Anne’s character is disturbing because she brings the ruthlessness of striving in Henry’s court into the modern day. She’s packing a .45-calibre blast of paranormal ammo to aim at whomever gets in her way. Second, evil can come as much from force of personality as it can from committing heinous acts.

Then there’s Henry. Henry did not start out as a tyrant. In fact, he was much more interested in the arts – painting, music- and sports than ruling a kingdom in turmoil. He delegated so much business to his councilors that Wolsey and Cromwell, in effect, ruled the day-to-day business of the Crown. At some point in his tumultuous romance arena, this artistic side of him had to play a huge role. I had no trouble creating a more sympathetic character whose evil is grounded in the fact that he knows he can do as he pleases and chooses to exercise that ability for selfish purposes such as divorcing Catherine of Aragon and establishing the Anglican religion; as well as beheading two wives. Henry was paranoid. He watched his father struggle to maintain his grip on the Crown, a claim that was tenuous at best. Henry VIII had reason to worry. With no male heir and wives seeming to go off the rails at times, he basically lost it. Who do you trust? His response: nobody, trust no one.

Evil in this regard is the insidious reality forced on the Tudor characters during their respective lifetimes. Anne always struck me as a woman ahead of her time and who refused to live within the social constraints the Tudor Court had imposed. Maintaining tact and discretion was not her strong point in other words. Henry was forced to constantly look over his shoulder and anticipate that everyone would betray him. In essence, he created his own reality to a good degree, and a paranoid one at that. Imagine living day-to-day under those circumstances. I know I couldn’t do it.

It’s difficult for us in the modern day to relate to concepts such as dower and curtesy (the bride price to be paid for a “beneficial” marriage between two families), noblesse oblige, courtly love, and the plain act of accepting the monarch’s word and deeds without question. We, theoretically at least, have the ability to question government and remove leaders we deem incompetent through the process of impeachment. You couldn’t so much as utter the thought of believing a monarch was about to die. To do so during the Tudor times (all monarchs, not just Henry) would mean a certain death. After all, Henry executed Sir Thomas More simply because Thomas refused to support Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. To us, that is an act of evil. Yet to the Tudors, it represented the status quo ante.

I think that’s why “The Tudors” was so successful as a series. It focused not on historical accuracy, but on the emotions of the characters and how the time period stifled and blighted the essences of each and every person in Henry’s universe. It could not be otherwise. “Tea with Henry” delves deep into how what we consider to be evil today punches a hole straight from the Renaissance Tudor court into the modern world. The question is, who will survive and how?

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