Month: December 2014

CARPE DIEM

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I just had cortisone injections in both knees in an effort to stave off raging arthritis.

Getting old is a bitch.

Do spare me the clichés: “It ain’t for sissies.” “Except for the alternative.” “You’re only as old as you feel.” (True—but some days I feel every decade, every year.)

Whoever—in his or her teens, twenties, or even thirties—contemplates being “elderly”? I surely did not. And now I am. When did that happen, for heaven’s sake?

I fought it as most of us do—by pretending it was not happening. I started dyeing my hair when I was still in my twenties. Two years ago I quit doing so. And I am still often startled when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Who is that white-haired old broad?

Years ago Cynthia Ozick wrote of aging: “It’s a kind of second adolescence, though much harder. . . .

Before you were always full of the future: some day you are going to do this. And now some day is here or it’s never going to be here. It’s frightening, as if a needle got stuck in the record of life.” (The analogy is dated, but it fits!)

But I have promises to keep (if only to myself) and miles to go before I sleep! And miles to go before I sleep. . . . (Apologies to the ghost of Robert Frost.)

Seize the day.

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LEST WE FORGET

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Always LostI have a great deal of admiration and respect for military people, in both history and in our own times. A certain bumper sticker always makes me smile: “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you are reading it in English, thank a soldier.” OK. It’s simplistic, but it has a grain of truth. A whole loaf, in fact. We owe our military people for everything—for our very way of life.

I recently revisited the Always Lost exhibit which honors those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The title comes from Gertrude Stein, the American writer who survived the Nazi occupation of her beloved Paris: “War is never fatal but always lost. Always lost.”) The focus of the exhibit is the Wall of the Dead—huge panels of wallet-sized photos of men and women we have lost since 9-11. Those faces, smiling, pensive, stern—7,000 of them now—are challenging to say the least. The rest of the exhibit consists of visual images: photos (some taken by professional journalists, some by service members) and written images: poetry and meditations. (I am proud to be a part of the latter.) But those panels of photos really get to you! They are as moving—and sobering—as all those names chiseled into the Vietnam Wall in Washington.

The exhibit has been replicated. One copy is touring Nevada, the other the nation (currently Minnesota, then on to California and Texas). A group in New York also wants it. Reproducing all those pictures, mounting the displays, packaging and crating them for shipping are all expensive—let alone the sad task of keeping the exhibit current.

And the money has dried up!

Every tear-jerker story on the internet prompts people to dig out their checkbooks. Congress continues to fund barrels and barrels of pork—not to mention $400 hammers and the like. Surely . . .

A century and a half ago, Abraham Lincoln enjoined us to “resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain . . . ”

But first we must remember them.

And not just them. Also those tens of thousands who have returned to us maimed in body or spirit.

We owe them that much.

Always Lost helps us remember.

THE BEST OF TIMES; THE WORST OF TIMES

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“May you live in interesting times.”

This line sounds like a blessing, but I’m told it was meant as a curse and had its origin in Ireland—or China—or India—or ??? Regardless, “interesting times” resonates as a description of both the Regency and our own period. The parallels, which are not particularly positive, are astounding.

During the Regency, England was embroiled in distant wars that had already gone on for years, drawing resources from domestic matters. Urgently needed social and political reforms—e.g., child labor and broadening the electorate—were delayed for decades by a fearful, increasingly conservative Parliament that was more interested in its own power and personal wealth than in serving the people. Think immigration and election finances. England’s “rotten boroughs” were not unlike the gerrymandering we see in America today.

England was then entering a period that would see it as the richest, most powerful nation in the world for the next hundred years. Yet that wealth and power did not “trickle down” to any degree. It remained with what amounted to the top 1%. The contrast between the obscenely rich and the desperately poor became even more stark. The rich got richer; the poor got poorer. Let them eat cake.220px-BrummellEngrvFrmMiniature

Public attention then, too, was diverted to such important matters as the elaborate wardrobes of the social elite. People were as obsessed with certain purveyors of style as some are today with whom (not what) Kate or Michelle is wearing. Never mind their good works—what is in their closets or on their backs? Afternoon promenades in a London park must have been very like the “red carpet” circuses we see monthly (weekly?) now—only without the gushing of a Joan Rivers. Beau Brummell was surely the fribble equivalent of the Kardashians.

The industrial revolution changed where, when, and how people worked—and played—just as profoundly as technology is changing our lives today. Displacement and uncertainty were side effects then, too.

May you live in interesting times . . .

A WORD OR TWO ABOUT RESEARCH

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RESEARCH (yes, in caps!) is a vital element of every writer’s work, but it is especially important for the writer of history-based stories. Believe me, if you get something wrong, some reader is sure to notice—and may not hesitate to tell you about it. Let us hope that most mistakes more subtle than the Regency writer who based her story around some old photographs found in a desk. In the Regency period? Early 1800s?

Before I wrote my first book, Willed to Wed (it’s to be re-released by Kensington in e-book format), I spent several months immersed in the Regency period. I have a whole drawer full of note cards from that study. (Told you: I’m old fashioned.) Of course I had been reading Regencies for a hundred years—since I was 13!—and soaking up the milieu. In writing Willed, I tried (and still do) to be faithful to the history of the period and events. The only real deviation in that book was the introduction of the waltz. This dance was brought to England in 1812/13, but probably had not gained the degree of popularity I gave it in 1813/14. But other “background” events and things are true: the frost fair on the frozen River Thames, the problems of soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars, efforts of people like Josiah Wedgewood and Robert Owen to better the lives of workers, distances and time for journeys.

I still do a lot of in-depth research for each and every project. For stories even tangentially related to the Napoleonic wars, I have boned up (anew) on Wellington’s campaign in the Iberian Peninsula. I also double-check issues of social problems in England during the Regency—the Luddites, smashing machinery, people’s fear of new technology. In Enemy Hands required that I immerse myself in WWII, from D-Day to VE Day. Currently I am dividing my time between the 19th C. American West and the post WWII period—as well as keeping an eye toward the Regency!

Research is vital—and I personally love doing it. Occasionally research itself sparks a story. The Wagered Wife (also to be re-released in e-book format) was inspired by throw-away background information in a biography I was reading. It seems two old men were gambling and the loser’s son had to marry the winner’s daughter. Their children, then aged 18 and 14, hated each other on sight, but they were, indeed, married, and the new husband promptly escaped his matrimonial duties by going off to the continent for four or five years on a “grand tour.” When he returned he went to the opera one night and fell madly in love with a woman in the audience. You got it: she was his wife, whom he now proceeded to court. The book said the courtship must have been successful for she ended up bearing him fourteen children! Well, this event nagged at me. Finally, I made the young man himself the gambler and later sent him off to fight in the Peninsula before returning to England to fall in love with his wife.

Research is vital—but it must not be allowed to overwhelm the STORY. It is far more important for the writer to know esoteric details than for the reader to do so. Less is often more—in the art of fiction as well as other art forms. Three of my favorite Regency writers know this very well: Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverley and Mary Balogh. Check them out!

FRIENDS

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I’ve been thinking about friendship lately. I have always considered myself inordinately LUCKY in my friends!

I was reminded of this by a recent visit from Barbara Vermeersch and her husband, Steve. Barbara and I taught next door to each other at Ramstein American High School in Germany. Like ex-pats of other nations, Americans serving overseas tend to create surrogate “families” within our insular communities. I treasure many of those relationships and still maintain many of them—though we are literally spread all over the U.S. now.

Barbara is the only person I know who still communicates with real, honest-to-goodness letters—USPS type LETTERS! So we have kept in touch, but I’ve seen her only once before in the intervening years. Within minutes—nay, seconds—we had reestablished that intimacy that is born of mutual trust, shared experiences, and shared (but not identical!) views of life in general. Mind you, this is not the first such experience I’ve had. It has happened before. I’m guessing that is one of the rewards of friendship: instant pick-up.

Robert Frost once said something to the effect that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” He was talking about family, but I think the same sentiment applies to enduring friendships. The difference is that a sense of obligation drives family members—a moral judgment hangs over them—but your friends choose to accept the place you accord them in your life (and vice-versa).

Fate—or Chance—or God plops each of us into a given family with no regard to our—or their—druthers. But we get to choose our friends. In the best of all possible worlds, there is some (or a lot of) overlap, though, and you find yourself related to someone you would have chosen as a friend anyway.

As I say, I am inordinately LUCKY!!!