Wednesday, March 18, 2015

After the Ides of March

How can it almost be spring?! There's still five feet of snow in my yard. Sigh.

My current life is:

Drafting book 3

Copyediting book 2

Publicity for Virgin's Daughter

Watching The Musketeers season 2

Reading . . . lots of stuff, like always :) My problem is that I binge re-read Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles during all the blizzards and both Dunnett herself and Francis Crawford tend to ruin me for other historical worlds (and, let's face it, fictional men.)

So I decided now was a good time to finally pick up a book that's been on my TBR shelf for years: THE SUNNE IN SPLENDOUR by Sharan Kay Penman. Penman is by far my favorite living writer of historical fiction, and very nearly as good, in my opinion, as Dorothy Dunnett. Next to The Lymond Chronicles, my favorite historical novel is HERE BE DRAGONS, about Llewellyn the Great of Wales and his English wife, Joanna.

THE SUNNE IN SPLENDOUR is the story of Edward IV, Richard III, and the last twenty years of the Wars of the Roses. With the mortal remains of King Richard being laid to rest this next week in Leicester, what better time to immerse myself in his story? Especially in the hands of a writer I trust.

And always, of course, My Family. Oldest son immersed in studying physics at the University of Washington and writing/performing beautiful music. Second son finishing his freshman year in public health/pre-med--and waiting to see where he will spend the next two years as a missionary for our church. Daughter studying hard  (AP U.S. history this year), learning to drive, and fending off friends who have decided they are in love with her. Youngest son registering for high school (eeeek!) and working hard on the perfect swoop of his hair across one eye.

I learned to write seriously when these kids were between the ages of ten and two. Writing with half of them at college and two teenagers at home should be simpler, right? In some ways. But, just like everything else in life, there are always benefits and drawbacks. Am I ever going to be able to write 9000 words in one day, like Sarah J. Maas? Not for the foreseeable future. But guess what I can do? I can write in fits and starts. My beginning trained me to write in journals, to write in school hallways, doctor's offices, late at night, in fifteen-minute increments between making dinner or giving baths or cleaning up disasters. There are times when longer periods of focus are required, but for the most part I can work however I have to.

That doesn't mean I won't appreciate it when my days belong more wholly to myself. Days (and nights) when my husband and I can do what we like without recognizing school hours or vacation weeks or having to shut doors :)

I may celebrate then by seeing how many hours straight I can write. Or, more likely, how many hours straight I can read. Either way, life will be good then.

How do I know that? Because life is good now.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

2014 Reading

Before January ends--and with ten-foot snowdrifts outside my door--I shall try to make up for my lack of  mini book reviews these last months with a spotlight on my reading statistics and favorite books of 2014.

Total Books Read: 138

Non-Fiction: 24

Historical Fiction: 36

YA Fiction: 17

Speculative Fiction: 30

Mystery Fiction: 44

(Don't try to make those numbers add up to 138--some books fit multiple categories.)

No huge surprises in the genre/category breakdowns. Every year, mystery fiction leads the field of what I read. My dream is to figure out how to write a sustainable, suspenseful mystery plot. The first two manuscripts I ever wrote were historical mysteries. I figure fate had a hand in landing me with Kate Miciak as my editor (after my first two editors left Random House), seeing as Kate is Mystery Editor Royalty. Lee Child, Elizabeth George, Laurie R. King, Susan Elia MacNeal, Alan Bradley . . . the list of writers she does/has edited is brilliant. Someday . . .

Historical fiction, not surprisingly, rose this year and YA went a little bit down. Clearly I am an eclectic reader. I do not have absolutes about what I will or won't read. Anytime I've thought, "Oh, that topic/character/genre isn't for me," I'm guaranteed to find an exception.

With that said, here's my highly eclectic and highly individual Top Ten (in no particular order):

1. STATION ELEVEN/Emily St. John Mandel

2. THE MARTIAN/Andy Weir

3. HEIR OF FIRE/Sarah J. Maas


5. WE WERE LIARS/E. Lockhart




9. WORDS OF RADIANCE/Brandon Sanderson


So, yes, I cheated on number ten, seeing as the series is eight books long. But, come on! It's Dorothy Dunnett! Just trust me :)

And just to narrow it slightly, my favorites in each genre/category I listed above:


Historical Fiction: Hands down, HOUSE OF NICCOLO


Speculative Fiction: STATION ELEVEN

Mystery Fiction: THE SECRET PLACE

Hope your 2014 in books was as satisfying as mine--and here's to an awesome 2015!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Writing Life/Family Life

"I begin to understand why the saints were rarely married women. I am convinced it has nothing inherently to do, as I once supposed, with chastity or children. It has to do primarily with distractions . . .woman’s normal occupations in general run counter to creative life or contemplative life or saintly life." 
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, A GIFT FROM THE SEA

I have no hope of being a saint, but at times I find myself sinking in the chaos of distractions and jealousy--Oh! I'm so bone-achingly jealous!--of younger writers, those with fewer family responsibilities, the kind of writers who can draft an entire book in the month of December.

What did I write in December? Less than 5000 words.

From jealousy follows doubt and self-criticism: I started too late. I was too lazy when young. If I had been more motivated and harder-working, I would have had a book published before I hit my forties. How many books will I never write now? Also, I'd be so much cuter at book events if I were fifteen or twenty years younger. No one cares about a writer who looks like--and is!--a suburban mom.

Then I take a deep breath. And I remember that December brought the only two weeks of the entire year when all my children were home, when I would wake in the morning wondering what we would do and went to bed at night secure that all my baby chicks were in one place.

And I also find the veins of gold that run through those twenty years of motherhood. What did I, personally, gain from writing seriously and publishing only after I'd had four children? (And I do mean personal! This is NOT, I repeat NOT, in any way a treatise on how any other writer in the world can or should live!)

I gained patience. Everything in publishing takes forever. So does potty-training. Four times.

I gained perspective. Before 2008, I received some rejections that so shook me so badly I teetered on the edge of quitting. And then my second son was diagnosed with cancer at the age of eleven. Ever since, no professional rejection could ever again have the power to break me. Ironically, only after I accepted that writing would never be the single most important thing in my life, was I free enough to write precisely as I liked and damn the consequences.

Do you like to be in control? So do I. Publishing is one long path of things NOT in a writer's control. You know what isn't in a mother's control? If your baby sleeps at night. If your toddler eats anything other than string cheese (you can put food in a child's mouth, but you cannot make her swallow!) If your pre-teen fights with her friends. If your child gets cancer. If more than one of your teens inherits your own major depressive disorder. You cannot make your child happy. You cannot make them not suffer. You cannot give them a perfect future. When they need you, they need you right that minute--whatever you happen to be doing.

Compared to that? Well, for me at least, it means that I am very much more Zen when it comes to things like reviews and how well my books are selling.

So December was not a stellar professional month for me. So what? We went out to dinner and movies, we baked cookies, we read poetry and biographies and personal letters on Christmas Eve. We laughed at the fact that I bought my oldest son The. Exact. Same. Book. I bought him for Christmas last year.

All that joy at the cost of four weeks of writing time? That's not such a bad trade-off.

(NOTE TO FAMILY: That is not a bad trade-off ONCE A YEAR. There is a reason I am spending January locked in my bedroom with my laptop. Feel free to interrupt me for fire, blood, or vomit. All other interruptions will be met with violence!)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Virgin's Daughter Snippet

It's Christmas time! And my book is done! And my big boys are coming home in ten days! Christmas is my favorite holiday because I. Love. Giving. Gifts. 

And now I have readers to whom I can give gifts! Yesterday I made public my inspiration board for The Virgin's Daughter on Pinterest. And today I'm offering up one of my favorite scenes from the book. Very early on in the drafting of this story, I knew I had wonderful flirtation between my are-they-or-aren't-they possible lovers. Even before I started drafting, while doing revisions on The Boleyn Reckoning, the two of them were speaking to each other in my head. At one point I believe I tweeted, "Stop flirting at each other! It's not your turn yet." 

In the scene below, Julien has found Lucie in a tavern at a French inn. The lines I bolded are the earliest exchange I ever heard in my head between the two of them. Happy Christmas :)

     She never got the chance. On her next quick peek to the corner, Julien was looking straight at her, horror writ large on his face.
     She at least managed to meet him on her feet, stepping away from the table so hurriedly that she upset her chair. Julien reached her in five strides and gripped her arm above the elbow.
     “Hey, now!” One of the merchants she’d been talking to protested. “Hands off, she was here first.”
     Julien glared down at him and slowly, through the haze of drink, the man recognized the lord of the manor. Julien’s cultured voice didn’t hurt, either. “I think I’ll exercise my droit de seigneur,” he said cuttingly, and pulled Lucette after him out the tavern door.
     “What do you think you’re doing?” She pulled her arm away and turned on him, half-furious and half-humiliated in the inn yard.
     “You’re welcome,” Julien said with elaborate insult. “Those men do not care who your father is, all they saw was a likely wench who was in way over her head.”
     With her arm free, Lucette reached behind her back and, with a practiced move, had her dagger out and in Julien’s face before he could insult her further. “I know what I’m doing,” she said clearly, hating that her head felt so fuzzy. “I was not over my head.”
     He eyed the tip of the dagger, eyes nearly crossed, then smiled that seductive, mocking grin of his youth that she’d hated. “Where, Lucie mine, did you learn to wield a dagger so handily?”
     Without moving it away, she said, “My father does not trust men with his daughters. He required us to be able to defend ourselves.” From somewhere below the fuzziness of her brain and the sinking hollow of her stomach, she realized she’d used the word father.
     “A wise man,” Julien said.
     “A dangerous man.” Finally she let the dagger drop, her hand feeling suddenly too heavy to hold up. “And don’t worry about the tavern, those men didn’t know me, they thought I was . . .” She hesitated over the description.
     He smiled grimly. “You think you can disguise your nature with a little paint and none-too-clean skirts? Not in a thousand lifetimes could you ever pass for a . . .” It was his turn to hesitate, as though unsure how to proceed, which Lucette found amusing considering his Paris reputation.
     “A whore,” she said it for him. “Men will say things around a whore that they won’t around a lady.”
     “Damn right they will, and not a word of it do you want to hear. If my father finds out where you were—”
    “He’d be angry.”
    “He’d be furious! But if your father knew? Your extremely dangerous father that makes his daughters carry daggers? If [he] hears of this he will hunt me the length and breadth of Europe and string me up like a dog!”

Sunday, November 30, 2014

My Only Daughter . . .

. . . is sixteen today.

In her honor (and because my book is due before the workday starts in New York tomorrow and I don't have the emotional ability to write something new), I am posting a list I made for her twelfth birthday to read at a sixth-grade class party. With a few contemporary comments.

Love you, Emma Cate!

Twelve Things You Should Know About Emma

  1. Emma would rather read than eat. Or sleep. Or possibly even breathe.
  2. Emma is the most enthusiastic writer I know. And I know a lot of writers. She’s got motivation, she’s got persistence, she’s got a million ideas, and she’s got a voice that’s all hers.
  3. Emma will tell you that she’s lived in the same house her entire life. That is not actually true. We didn’t move into our house in Saratoga Springs until she was ten weeks old. So she’s lived here her entire life—minus ten weeks. (UPDATE: now she has lived in Massachusetts for more than three years. So two houses, minus ten weeks.)
  4. Emma embraces weirdness.
  5. Don’t mess with Harry Potter around Emma. (UPDATE: Still true.)
  6. Or Percy Jackson. (UPDATE: Or Maze Runner.)
  7. Or Artemis Fowl. (UPDATE: Or Agents of Shield. Or Once upon a Time. Or about a dozen other things.)
  8. Every summer for the last three years (WHICH MEANT 2008-2010), Emma has spent a week at Camp Hobe. No doubt you’ve heard her talk about it. It’s one of the good things that came out of her brother’s cancer . . . going to a camp where other kids her age either have cancer or have a sibling that has. Plus, the cute cute counselors don’t hurt.
  9. Last I heard, Emma’s dream is to live in Portland when she grows up so she can go to Powell’s bookstore often. (Yes, she is definitely my daughter.) She also dreams of owning a multi-story restored building in which the first floor is a bakery, the second and third floors are living quarters, and the top floor is a writer’s retreat. (UPDATE: For Portland, read Europe. Not sure about the bakery, though she did make her own brownie cupcakes for her birthday.)
  10. Emma is never, ever apathetic. She is fierce in her emotions. Sometimes that is fabulous . . . and sometimes her brothers run for cover.
  11.  She has three brothers: Matt is a senior in high school, Jake is a freshman, and Spencer is in Mrs. Zito’s class down the hall. Emma used to ask when she would have a sister, but she doesn’t anymore. She has learned to appreciate the wardrobe benefits of being the only girl.
  12.  Emma is our only daughter for one simple reason: Because she’s the best there is. Opinionated and curious and passionate—a believer in dreams and an idealist who wants to do something real in the world. (STILL TRUE!)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Summer Books I Loved

An account of Hurricane Katrina at one New Orleans hospital. Like watching a train wreck in slow motion: an avalanche of weather, weak infrastructure, poor planning, and traumatized decision-making.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know how I adore the Throne of Glass series--epic fantasy with a fierce and damaged YA heroine. This book comprises several novellas set prior to Caelena's introduction in The Throne of Glass, showing her rise and fall as Adarlan's star assassin.

One of my favorite mystery series right now is this one featuring forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway. This story weaves together a possible Victorian murderess whose bones may have been unearthed with the contemporary death and abduction of local children. The title comes from an Anglican service held yearly in London in memory of those buried in mass paupers' graves.

Another favorite series is Bolton's featuring Lacey Flint. Now working with the River Police rather than homicide, Lacey is drawn back into murder when she finds a body in the Thames. Was it left for her to find? How is it connected to the cases of young foreign women being smuggled into England? And could undercover detective Mark Joesbury be a suspect?

A slim but powerful YA novel about loss and friendship and first love. Cadence spends every summer on the Sinclair family's private island with her cousins and, eventually, a friend who might become more. As the three adult daughters quarrel with and over their aging father and his estate, the teens draw tightly together. Except for one summer--one that Cadence cannot remember. After two years of debilitating pain and migraines, Cadence returns to the island to piece together what happened.

NEVER LET ME GO/Kazuo Ishiguro
Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were raised at Hailsham, a somewhat idyllic childhood at a beautiful school in the English countryside. From the beginning, Ishiguro lets the reader know not all is right with the children or their lives now--I would call this a literary dystopian novel. As Kathy moves between her life today and remembering Hailsham, the reader falls into a seductive story of what it means to be human.

The story of the Jonestown massacre, beginning with Jim Jones's meteoric rise in Indiana to the beginnings of his paranoia and brutal control in California. Scheere tells many smaller stories of the individuals and families caught in the web of Jonestown and, though a reader knows how it all ends, it's still a tense experience akin to watching a horror film and wanting to scream, "Look behind you!"

On my bookshelf for over a year--now I'm wondering why I waited so long. This is the story of Bernadette, once a noted architect, who disappears from her Seattle home leaving her husband and daughter to wonder what happened. Fifteen-year-old Bea tries to find her mother by piecing together emails, old articles, official documents and secret correspondence between her mother and a virtual assistant in India. Wonderfully comic and moving story of one girl's search to understand the secrets adults keep.

The subtitle says it all: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World. Cahill writes the Hinges of History series, of which this is the latest, exploring those periods in time which changed the course of the world as we know it. Particularly apt for me as I am writing my new trilogy set in the 1580s, as the Renaissance and Reformation began to reap their rewards.

I am obsessed with Dorothy Dunnet's historical sagas. I started the House of Niccolo series a little diffidently, confident that it could never replace The Lymond Chronicles in my heart. Well, it doesn't replace it--but it wonderfully, magically, stands beside it. In books 5 and 6, Nicolas's plots in 1470's Europe reach their apogee as he schemes against his vengeful wife and sets Scotland on a collision course with history. I am now halfway through the 8th and final book in the series . . . and find myself reading slowly because I don't want it to end. I suspect when I finish I will pick up The Game of Kings and read The Lymond Chronicles once more too sooth my broken heart.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Childhood Cancer Awareness

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Unless, of course, you're a family touched by childhood cancer, in which case every month, every week, every day is shaped by a level of awareness no one wants but yet manages to provide significant blessings along the way. For those who do not live with that awareness, I'm posting something I wrote in late September 2008, just as Jake came off treatment. 

And Then . . .

There was me trying to decide what to write next.

It's been two weeks since his last chemo. He's had his blood draws for that period and his counts are good. On Monday the 27th he has a CT scan and MRI and we'll go to clinic the next day to meet with Dr. Afify for the final time. But not really--because, of course, we don't get to just walk out and pretend this all never happened. There will be scans and exams and probably worrisome moments aplenty over the next five years until Jake is officially declared cured. And I don't think I'm quite ready for all that. I'm still contemplating switching into that gear and wondering what life will look like then.

In the meantime, I've had a copy of Newsweek in my inbox for several weeks waiting for me to do this post. It's the September 15 issue and it has a story entitled WE FOUGHT CANCER . . . AND CANCER WON.

In 1971 (two years after I was born), Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act which was supposed to make cancer curable. Instead, almost forty years later, cancer is poised to overtake cardiovascular disease as America's number one killer.

There has been, as Newsweek put it, "a lot of elegant science . . . [but] studies of the mechanisms leading to cancer and efforts to control cancer often seemed to inhabit separate worlds . . . Indeed, it is possible (and common) for cancer researchers to achieve extraordinary acclaim and success . . . without ever helping a single patient gain a single extra day of life."

Why? On the NCI website, one can read that "the biology of the more than 100 types of cancers has proven far more complex than imagined [in 1971]." Cancer is smart. Send a drug up against it, and the cancer cells will develop around it. Like bacteria, cancer cells are constantly learning and mutating.

Metastasis is the greatest enemy. Metastatic cells, those that break off from the original tumor and grow elsewhere in the body, are responsible for 90 percent of cancer deaths. You want to know the really scary thing? There's no way to be certain that you're not leaving metastatic cells behind after treatment. Radiation killed the tumor in Jake's sinus. Forty-two weeks of chemotherapy have killed off any microscopic cells left behind. We hope. But the truth is, there's no way to tell.

The overall mortality rate from cancer has fallen 7.5 percent since 1971. In 1991, 215 out of every 100,000 Americans died of cancer. In 2005, it was 184 out of 100,00. Progress, but slow. Consider that deaths from cardiovascular disease have fallen by 70 percent in the same time period.

However, there's a brighter statistic. Fifty years ago, pediatric cancer was an almost certain death sentence (children with leukemia in the 1940s rarely lived longer than 3 months). Today, 80 percent of pediatric cancer patients live to be adults.

80 percent.

Why? Because pediatric oncologists banded together. With fewer patients, they reached out across the country for advice and help. The Children's Oncology Group (COG) has standardized treatment plans for pediatric patients. At times, 80 percent of children with a particular cancer are enrolled in the same clinical trial (Jake is part of a clinical trial)--it's long been less than 1 percent for adults. Rather than focus on new biological pathways, pediatric oncologists took the weapons they had and learned how to use them in new ways. And along the way, they saved the lives of countless children.

Only they're not countless to their parents.

Bravo. And thank you.