Sunday, April 30, 2006

Rising Damp

It's that time of year -- when it's too warm for the furnace to turn on and too cold to wear less than three sweatshirts. It's also raining and has been doing so for the past 2 days. Pretty soon mold will be growing on the north side of us -- unless it doesn't grow on people who are shivering. It's somehow colder now than when it's -20 in the middle of winter. No damp to speak of when it's -20. Then even the snow squeaks.

If I were wearing a pair of mittens along with the three sweatshirts, that might be an excuse for not getting anything done on Spence.

Sadly, that's not the excuse.

In fact there is no excuse other than that I can't think what he's going to do next. I am intending to send him skipping ahead this afternoon -- off to the land of palm trees where I hope he will finally get his act together and DO SOMETHING. Which I should have done yesterday but somehow didn't.

Why is that? It's not a matter of waiting for inspiration. If I'd waited for inspiration on any of the other 50 odd books, I would be still waiting. It's not a matter of inspiration, really. It is, however, a matter of the well running dry. Sometimes you just have to have patience, to wait (dithering) while it fills again. Which brings us back to rising damp. Moisture is accruing on the story walls, but other than that, um, there's not much there.

But what there is is what I've got. So I'm going to go sit with the well and watch the damp rise --and do what I can with it. Maybe I'll find inspiration in it. But what I'm really looking for is the thread of the story.

Writing is easy and fun for me. Not.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Weird Things

The fiendish Kate Walker has 'tagged' me to come up with six weird things about myself. And my response to that is, "Only six?"

So, all right. Here are six:
1) I correspond with a cat. (Kate knows this. He's her cat. Or she's his human. His name is Sid and he's quite the most eloquent correspondent I've had the pleasure of communicating with. He's also gorgeous -- and he doesn't even need (or have) a towel. See Hugh-in-the-towel.

2) I don't know that I think capping deodorant bottles during a summer while I was in college is exactly weird. But I did it. And I also got fired from the job for 'not being suited to the line of work.' For which all I can say is, "Thank God." I was glad not to have found my calling on the assembly line at Max Factor.

3) Oh, heck, why not stick in the gunslinger? My gg-grandpa was apparently, according to a cousin, "a gunman." Once she asked him how many men he'd killed and he said, "About 40." It strikes me that someone should remember his name if he was responsible for 40 men dying. But he's a pretty elusive feller. And the fact that is weird, according to my sister, is that I actually find him interesting. She finds him appalling.

4) I love Iowa. Now 3 million or so other people (minus my mother) also love Iowa enough to live here (which is where we live during the school year). But some people find that weird. When you tell them you live in Iowa, they blink and say, "Ohio? Idaho?" No. Iowa. I.O.W.A. Land of green grass and green trees and green crops and blue skies and friendly people. One of the world's best kept secrets because it's NOT dramatic. No one sets movies in Iowa -- except, of course, Field of Dreams, which I was in, by the way. But I love Iowa -- even the winters. So my mother thinks I'm weird. Of course I also love Montana, where we like to be the rest of the year -- which she thinks is also weird.

5) I love Lincolnshire. It's a lot like Iowa. With one very steep hill.

6. I like to mow lawns. No, truly. I do. I am not much of a gardener. I try, but plants see me coming and they die at the sight. But lawns . . . yes, I do like cutting that grass. It looks so orderly when you get finished. I'm not big into Order. But in lawns I think it's a virtue and I like to do my part in establishing it. But I'm not obsessive about it. I also like that for at least 6 months of the year it's either too cold to grow or under a foot of snow. This is perhaps the Iowa farmer in me -- who knew I even had such a recessive gene? -- but I remember going around the Century Farm (one that's been in a family at least 100 years) that belongs to a cousin out in Bremer County and him saying, "I love plowing. I love looking back at all those neat, orderly rows." I knew what he meant. It's pretty recessive in me, but apparently it's there.

Okay, that's six. I'm saving the rest for another day.

And who can I tag? How about Anne Frasier? She may have done it already, having been tagged by someone else. But if so she can just link to it. Anne? How about it?

Friday, April 28, 2006

Missing Links

Writing books and digging up (not literally) dead relatives have a surprising amount in common.

For one thing, the characters -- and the dead relatives -- are not often much active help. As a writer -- and as a genealogist -- I propose things; I theorize -- and then I have to see if it works, if it flows in my fiction, and in my genealogical research, I have to find the documents, the evidence to back it up.

You know you're on the right track in writing, if things start to move easily, if one thing leads quickly to another. Then you know you've hit a vein (writing appears to have a lot in common with mining, too. Great-grandpa would be pleased). In genealogy, a theory opens up a notion to be explored and you move from there.

Ideally, of course, you just go straight back. Your mother leads to your grandmother who leads to her mother who leads to hers, and so on. But at some point there is a "brick wall." There is a mother who was, presumably, found under a rock. She has no discernible parents. She has no siblings. She just is . . . er, was.

Then what? You move sideways. In family -- looking for cousins, looking for possible aunts and uncles. You move sideways in terms of parishes. If there aren't any Hockens in this parish, well, how about the one over there? Then, of course, you will find five. All called Mary. Been there, done that. And then your brick wall turns into a bog and you spend the next few months figuring out which, if any, is your Mary.

And if that doesn't work you do what I'm currently embarking on right now -- both in my writing and in my genealogy. I'm skipping ahead.

I'm jumping over a generation and trying to find out if the Thomas Hocken who had a bunch of kids in the 1750s is the grandfather of the one born 30 years later. I should be looking for the younger Thomas's father -- and believe me, I have. But I can't identify him yet. From the looks of the names of the elder Thomas's kids, he could definitely be grandpa -- which would make one of those kids the father of my Thomas.

The question is: which? (if any, goes without saying).

I need to start looking at parish registers that haven't been transcribed. I need to read the fine print -- or in this case, the crabbed faded, mouldering, white-on-black filmed handwriting that makes my eyes hurt. I need to figure out if one of those kids could have left son or nephew Thomas some pittance in a will. I need to look at deeds and indentures and heaven knows what else to see if I can make that connection.

It's much the same thing I'm doing with Spence. He stood around in the park so long I finally kicked him out. I took away his scotch bottle and I said, "Let's go."

He said, "Where?"

I said, "There." And pointed several thousand miles away.

"How --?" he began.

But I cut him off. "I don't know. Clearly you don't know. But we can't stay here forever. We have a deadline to meet. So we're just going to skip ahead a little bit. I see something out there that I know is solid. So we're going there and start again. We'll figure out the missing bits later on."

"We will?"

"One way or another," I assure him.

Sometimes you just need to do something, even if it's wrong. Disproving is as useful as proving. Writing stuff you throw out invariably leads to stuff you keep. If the solid ground sinks this time, at least I won't try going there again. And if it holds us, we just might be able to look back and see the bridge we've been missing up til now.

So we're moving on now, all of us -- me and Spence and 4th g-grandpa Thomas -- jumping into the unknown, trusting that we'll land on something solid and can work out way back and make the connections.

We've got to do something -- then we'll figure out how it works.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Suspension of disbelief . . . or I've been watching Alias

Characters, we've been led to believe, are supposed to behave believably, to have a reason for their actions. Even if they act 'out of character' they are supposed to do so in a way that we can accept as a product of the stress they are under. Perhaps it is their 'dark side' coming out. Or in the case of some irredeemably evil guy behaving well for a change, it's because behaving like a jerk isn't getting him what he wants.

But at least you understand why he's doing what he's doing.

And then there is Alias.

I don't watch a lot of television. And frankly, the only reason I started watching Alias was because during football season two years ago, they had previews on that made me notice Michael Vartan. I thought he would be worth a look -- doing a bit of 'hero research' (see Hugh-Jackman-in-a-towel).

And I stayed to watch because I found the characters interesting. They had moral dilemmas. And as much as Alias was entertaining in a gadgety sort of way, and in an admiring Sydney Bristow as she yet again donned another disguise and outran and outsmarted the bad guys way, and, of course, in a Michael Vartan watching way, it was the character interplay that made me come back.

And then it just got weird. It was like the later writers didn't read what JJ Abrams had written in the earlier episodes, like they didn't know who these people were. They were just cartoons with some sort of character trait (Marshall is the techno-geek, etc) and if they ran into a blind alley, well, you could just pull out a trick (reminding me of Mark Twain's lampooning James Fennimore Cooper's 'gentle art of the forest') and, poof, your problem would be solved.

No. It doesn't work.

At the end of last season (sorry, spoiler ahead, but since it's been around for a year, if you haven't seen it by now, you deserve to have it spoiled), when they had Vaughn tell Sydney he wasn't who she thought he was, right when they were on the verge of getting things straightened out between them, it didn't work.

It didn't work because on Alias almost no one is who you think he is. Except Vaughn. Vaughn was the one sane straight shooter in the whole bunch. The one Sydney -- and we -- could count on. He was the guy we trusted not to be ambiguous, not to live a lie, not to have a hidden agenda.

And giving him one undercut his credibility at the same time it weakened everyone else's too, because after you've seen people shape-shift a dozen times, it ceases to be interesting and just becomes annoying. It also makes the characters all more alike, not distinct.

Then, of course, they ostensibly killed him in a car crash before he could say any more. Except they didn't really kill him (another plot device sadly overworked in Alias) so they could kill him again (can you say overkill, anyone?) in the first episode this season.

How many times are we going to watch Vaughn die?

The last one seemed pretty definitive, annoying though it was. But apparently even a barrage of bullets wasn't enough, and now -- after weeks on hold -- he turns up in Bhutan, reports of his death obviously exaggerated.

Don't get me wrong. I'm delighted Vaughn's not dead. For the last year he was the only reason I stuck around watching. But I'm annoyed that the writers are playing fast and loose with his character because they are also betraying the audience's trust.

I'm not saying characters can't change. They should change. But they shouldn't flip-flop just to provide a twist or a cliff-hanger ending. They should have an integrity that allows them to act like real people would act. Even in a universe as convoluted as Alias's, they need to have an inner logic.

It isn't easy. But I think it's essential. If we can't believe in characters acting with some sort of congruence, we lose interest. We don't know who to cheer for. We feel betrayed, let down. And just because it's easier to use a trick we've used before, we as writers shouldn't always take the easy way out.

We should try to understand our characters beyond the gimmicks. We need to be faithful to who they are. Then, when they do something unexpected, our readers might be surprised, but they will believe it.

They'll say, "Wow, yes, it caught me by surprise, but you know, it makes sense."

You've got four weeks left to redeem things, Alias. Don't let me down.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

My Inner Aunt

I have, fortunately, other personas within besides the dreaded "inner editor" I mentioned last time.

There is, for example, my inner aunt. She's cheerful and upbeat and optimistic. She always buys great gifts that are sure to please because she knows exactly what you want. She's always willing to listen without offering to tell you what you should do because, let's face it, she's not your mother. She's got wonderful stories to tell that make you wish you'd known her when she was doing wild and crazy things. She makes your life a better place.

I try to be that kind of aunt. I don't get much of a chance, to be honest, because The Siblings live in California, so the Niece and Nephews did, too. Now two of the Nephews have seen the light and have moved to Idaho with their wives and families, which doesn't make them much more accessible, but does bode well for their future happiness and well-being.

But I digress.

Aunts. Inner aunts are, I think, the result of having such a variety of wonderful "outer" aunts -- real ones, that is, not virtual ones inside me. My grandfather had nine sisters. They were an astonishing bunch of women.

There was the farmer's wife who raised her brothers and sisters before she married and had her own brood. She was strong and capable and nothing ever seemed to be too tough for her to accomplish. There was the minister's wife who made Goody Two Shoes look like A Wild Child. There were the lawyer with the silver hip flask and Opinions About Everything, the schoolteacher, the Can't-Hold-A-Job-And-Wouldn't-Want-To-If-She-Could, the flirt, the other flirt, the pie baker who worked in a lumber yard and has never been found on any census anywhere, the professional student, and Poor Mary, whom no one ever talked about (except to say, "Poor Mary," in whispers).

They were alternately upheld as pillars of virtue or as cautionary tales. Good girls and Bad girls. Whichever way my Inner Aunt wanted to go, she certainly had a role model who'd gone before.

Which brings me to Aunt Billie. My mother's older sister passed away last year at the age of 89. She never seemed 89. She always seemed about 19. Vivacious, bubbly, funny, that was Billie. She would have been a hard act to follow, which I'm sure my mother could tell you more about than I could. Doubtless she gave her parents plenty of sleepless nights when she was young and crazy about a boy named Billy Green. Billy had a car, which most boys his age didn't in Butte, Montana in the 30s. He and Billie -- and his car -- went everywhere. One of their favorite places was the Red Rooster on 'the flat' where they used to be able to buy Hershey Bar sandwiches.

"Hershey Bar sandwiches?" I remember saying incredulously. "In bread?"

"Yep. Grilled. The chocolate melted." She got this wonderful far-away look on her face and grinned. "With almonds. Best sandwiches I ever ate."

I think you must have had to be there. Or maybe you just had to be with Billy.

No one loved life like Aunt Billie did. No one had more fun. She moved in with my cousin about seven years ago and less than a month later so did one of his daughters and her three young children. It was, he says, a mad house. Aunt Billie loved it. She relished the noise, the confusion, the kids. She relished life, even when it was slipping away from her.

She read all my books, right up until she couldn't read anymore. And I think she made my cousin read her the last McGillivray book because her vision was going. (I can just imagine him reading the sex scenes to his mother).

"That's it then," she said to me after Molly's book. "The three of them?"

And I said yes, I was starting on a new series beginning with Elias.

"Oh, well, that's all right then," she said. "I wasn't going to go without finishing the last one."

She didn't. She finished them all. I told my cousin I should have kept writing them forever and we'd still have her with us.

But she's probably got her vision back now. And she has probably read Elias and Theo (even before he's been published). And maybe with luck she'll have some influence on Spence. She would love the fact that he's a Presents hero from Butte.

"No place better on earth," she would have said.

Certainly not for her.

I finished the revisions on Elias's book right before she passed away. It was a no-brainer to dedicate it to her. She was a terrific person, a spectacular aunt. There will never be another like her. Almost everything my inner aunt is, it owes to her.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

My Inner Editor

A long time ago in a galaxy that seems very far away now, I got a master's degree in theology. One of my courses was called Addiction and the Dependent Personality. What that had to do with theology, I'm still not entirely certain, but it was a good course and I read a book for it about "my inner child."

I remember my own inner child pretty well. After all, I grew up with her and I liked her a lot. We played in the mud together, rode horses together, read books together, dreamed about Jess Harper together. The person I don't remember ever having been introduced to before was my "inner editor."

Sadly, she exists.

She's the one who is picking apart Spence and the scotch bottle and the park bench right now. She is the one who is going back and adding labels to the scotch bottle and litter to the park. She's letting Spence gaze, then she's telling him gazes aren't right, he should be glancing instead. She makes his cell phone ring. Then she sticks it back in his pocket and deletes entire conversations.

I don't like her very much. Neither does Spence. I want to shut her in a box and tell her I'll let her out, say, about 45000 words from now. What Spence wants to do with her involves the box, some cement and the Hudson River. I'm tempted to let him.

That's the thing about writing. You write -- and the minute you do, some demon living inside your left brain starts to edit.

"You can't say that," she says.

"I just did," you reply, but not with a great deal of confidence because, hey, these people are new to you and you don't know for sure what they're going to do yet.

"Well, it's not a good idea," she tells you with that lofty know-it-all tone in her voice. "You should change it."

So you do. You shouldn't. You know you shouldn't. But you do. And you go on. And then you stop. And then you change it back.

Because the fact is, you can say that. You can say any damn thing you please. This is a sh*tty first draft, remember? So anything goes.

Who knows what any of these characters are going to do yet? You're just getting to know them. They're telling you their story. You're learning who they are and what they've done and what they're capable of doing. And you -- and they -- aren't necessarily going to get it right the first time. Or the tenth. Or, God help you, even the thirtieth.

You just have to write (unless you're Elizabeth George and you've figured it all out and you're writing because you know what's going to happen. Oh, God, I want to be Elizabeth George when I grow up!)

But for now, I just have to write, discover, learn. Muddle. But just try telling that to the "inner editor."

Well, I am trying. I've told her to get lost. I've told her that Spence and his scotch bottle stay -- for now -- and if I find out later that they don't do more for the book than they're doing now, they're history. But for the moment, they stick around. She's not editing them out. I might need them -- especially the scotch bottle -- later on. So there.

And if she doesn't like it, well, too bad. I know a hero with a box and a bag of cement I can introduce her to.

Spence is smiling at the thought. So am I.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Best Four Books About Writing

Now -- midbook -- is the time I find myself dipping into the tomes that tell me what I should be doing. Or at least the ones I hope will tell me what I'm supposed to do with my badly behaved teenager of a book.

There are certain ones I go back to over and over -- each for a different reason.

1) Bird By Bird by Anne LaMott. What can I say? It isn't going to tell me -- or anyone -- how to write a book. But it's going to be there to laugh and cry with, to support and sustain and to make me feel better about life with my teenager... er, book ... when all I really want to do is throw it in the trash bin. I am writing one of those "shitty first drafts" that Anne LaMott talks about -- and it's every bit as bad as she says. But I have to go there in order to get something worthwhile out at the end. Having faith in the process (and the writer and the characters) is important, though. And LaMott helps me do it.

2) The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler. I always knew I got stuck at a certain spot in my books. Chris Vogler helped me identify the spot (stage 6). Not only that, he helped me see it was the sheer volume of possibilities at this point that simply overwhelmed me. It wasn't less that was the problem; it was more. I still get stuck there, but I'm philosophical about it now. I deal with it. I try one thing and then another -- and something invariably works. It's not scientific. But then neither is the writer's journey. Not mine, anyway. It's a trip of discovery. But having Vogler hand me a map has made the trek more bearable.

3) Write Away by Elizabeth George. This is a book that I read because I can't do it this way. It reminds me that there are as many ways to write books as there are writers. Probably more. I'm in awe of Elizabeth George's command of her craft and her ability to do it all within a structure she has created that works so well for her. I would love to be able to write a book that way. So far I haven't been able to. But I've written them in countless (well, no actually, 58) different ways thus far. So there is hope. It's a wonderful inspiration.

4) Well, I'm going to cheat here and give you three for the price of one:
a) The Novel Writer's Toolkit by Bob Mayer. It is very nuts-and-bolts. Mayer tells it like it is. And he deals not just with the creative side of writing but with the business side. I didn't read it until recently, but I recommend it often. I think it's a very good, all-around book. He makes no promises, except that to write a novel you're going to have to work your tail off. And I'm glad someone said that. Thanks, Bob.
b) Creating Unforgettable Characters by Linda Seger. This is one I always go back to when I want to remind myself that my characters didn't begin on page 1. They had lives, histories, pains, joys, a whole raft of things that happened to them before I got hold of them that make them who they are. In other words, backstory is important.
c) Kate Walker's 12-Point Guide to Writing Romance by (who else?) Kate Walker. I write mostly genre fiction. Kate does, too. She wrote her book 20 years too late for me to benefit from it getting started. But if I were to start now in romance fiction, Kate's is a book I would want to read. All those 'aha' moments I got after reading 400 romance novels would have come a lot quicker had I been able to read Kate's book. Even if you don't want to write for the same line Kate writes for (Harlequin Presents in the US, Mills & Boon Modern in UK and Mills & Boon Sexy in Australia and New Zealand), what she has to say is well worth reading. Check it out.

If I were organized, I'd have links straight to Amazon or someplace for you to click on (and make a few cents along the way). Of course, I'm not. Sigh. So it's up to you to track them down. And if you want to develop your craft as a writer, you will. I did. They're all worth it.

Spence continues to sulk. I've had it up to my eyeballs. No more, buddy. No more.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

When books are teenagers . . .

I'm in the middle of the book.

The beginning of the middle, but the honeymoon is over. I can tell you that.

There's none of that whooshing sort of sound you get when you first take off on a new book. No fingers flying over the keys desperate to get all the enthusiasm down before it evaporates. No yippee, these people are so much fun, I can hardly wait to see what they do next. Been there, done that. Spence and Sadie and I -- we're past it.

There's also no "it's downhill all the way" feeling, either, that you get when the end is in sight. There's no momentum now. No light at the end of the tunnel. No yippee, it won't be long until these people will be living happily ever after on the other side of the pond with my editor.

Nope. Right now they're mine. All mine. No one else even wants them.

Do I? Good question.

And the answer, I'm afraid, is yes.

They are like my children were in junior high. Irritating. Noisy. Cranky. Undirected. But with great potential. Occasional moments of enormous charm. And a sweetness they often hide under a veneer of surly adolescence.

It's the potential that makes me keep them around. I've raised them this far; I have a vested interest. And even though I'm quite sure it's going to get worse before it gets better, I'm determined to hang in there because I know they can be wonderful. And really, what else can I do? They're mine. And, for better or worse, I love them.

Right now, I keep reminding myself I love Spence -- even though he makes me want to scream. He's sitting on a park bench in New York City with a bottle of scotch. He's been sitting there for two days (mine, not his) trying to deal with a crisis he wasn't expecting.

They aren't crises if you expect them, I remind him. He doesn't appreciate my wisdom. He scowls and drinks scotch. Yesterday I left him to it while I went to the genealogy conference, figuring that he would have his act together by the time I got back. Today, though, he's still there. Hasn't moved an inch.

I want to give him a good swift kick. And I may if he doesn't get moving soon. All of his introspective navel-gazing is driving me insane. It's very unSpencelike, come to that. He's always been a man of action -- grabs bulls by the horns, rushes in where angels fear to tread.

Got a cliche for 'action hero?' That's Spence. Suffice to say, he doesn't cool his heels gladly. At least he never did.

Well, this has never happened to him before, he complains.

(Can't tell you what. It would spoil the story. Sorry.) But it doesn't really matter. What matters is that he do something! Heroes don't give up in chapter four.

They also don't whine, I tell him. So straighten up and do something. Get busy. Give me that scotch and get to work.

He mutters. He grumbles. He takes another swig straight from the bottle and glares at me defiantly. But under the defiance there is, I think, just a hint of doubt. As if he's wondering if he really can pull it off.

I know you can do it, I tell him -- whatever it turns out to be. And I firmly believe that's true, even if he doesn't, because I knew Spence when he was a cocksure eight year old, before he grew up, conquered the world -- and met Sadie.

You think, he says. It's almost a question. I nod. He doesn't reply. He stares at me, long and hard. Wondering whether to believe me? Or to believe in himself?

Finally -- ages later -- he shrugs with that peculiar combination of bravado and determined indifference. "Yeah. Right." I hear no enthusiasm at all. But I do spot a slight straightening of the spine and squaring of the shoulders.

Yes! I think. Yes! There is life beyond the scotch bottle and the park bench. We might get a book out of this after all.

He starts to move away, to deal with the future, to face the lions, to fall in love. Then he turns and gives me a backward glance, one last defiant stare. "Just so long as you realize it'll be your fault if I don't."

Yep . . . they're just like teenagers.

Saturday, April 22, 2006


I spent the day at a genealogical conference, the first one I've ever been to. I have, over the past ten years or so, listened to a lot of tapes recorded at conferences (I spent untold hours driving to my son's baseball games and listening to how to sort through court records and make sense of families who burned down courthouses when they left the county). But until today I'd never been to a conference before.

I really enjoyed it. Learned a lot -- about territorial records, about midwest research, using newspapers to pick up details you might not ever find elsewhere, about wringing dead relatives out of indexes who insist they aren't there. Very enlightening. And at the same time, I kept thinking about Spence -- about the background he would have in his family in Montana to become the man he's become.

I think that's good. I think it helps sometimes to think about a book from a completely different perspective. When you come to a point, as I have now, where I feel I'm treading water storywise, it's always handy to have a new way to get somewhere.

The genealogy conference, odd as it seems, may have given me that. It made me think about all the things in Spence's past that make him the man he is. It gave me some ideas for research that I haven't had time to get going on yet. And, at the same time, it awakened me to genealogical possibilities with a few of my 'brickwall relatives' that I haven't yet explored.

Between Spence and the brickwall relatives, it was a pretty full day. I had intended to write some more tonight. But since I can barely keep my eyelids raised, that's not going to happen. I'll do it tomorrow.

My other writing task -- the Desire blog -- ended today. So I have one less writing task to deal with. Maybe I can focus some of that energy on Spence. I'd like that.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Who Knew . . . ? Or It's a Very Small, Very Strange World

I had an email this morning from a woman asking how I happened to pick the surname Antonides for Elias, the hero of my current release, The Antonides Marriage Deal.

It was, I explained, a matter of serendipity and Google. I had thought perhaps his last name was Aristides. But then I googled the name and found way more references to the deposed Haitian dictator than I wanted (minus the final S) and decided, um, maybe not. But I wanted a name that began with A, and I wanted it to end in -ides for auditory reasons I can't begin to explain. And so I decided on Antonides. A good Greek name.

Except, she informs me, most of the Antonideses in the US are Dutch.

Dutch? Well, Frisian, actually. Or Friesian, if you prefer the alternate spelling.

You could have knocked me -- and Elias -- right over. Dutch?

She wasn't kidding. It seems that a few hundred years ago some learned Dutch/Frisian pastors (or seminarians at least) took Greek surnames. To impress their congregations? Because they knew women fantasized about Greek tycoons? Because Greek surnames were harder to pronounce? With ancestries cluttered with Freylinghuysens, Claesens, Danckaerts, Kruycks, and Couwenhouvens it's hard to imagine they needed the extra challenge. But who knows?

So, anyway, Elias could be Dutch.

He's not. He's Greek, with a capital G. But he could be. Just don't tell my editor that. Not yet. If sales suck I guess we can say, "Well, Dutch tycoons must not sell." But otherwise, it's just between us.

The "very small world" part of this email conversation developed our Dutch connection. It turns out her Dutch Antonideses knew my husband's Dutch Unpronounceables 300 odd years ago. They all hung around Brooklyn (well, Flatbush) together. Weird.

But weird as it is, I had it happen once before. Not the Dutch tycoon stuff, but the coincidental last name stuff. Back in 1993 Anne Stuart, Judith Arnold, Linda Randall Wisdom and I each did a short story in a Harlequin Valentine's Day anthology. Mine was the story of a second grade teacher called Jane Kitto who, on Valentine's Day every year, received a charm from a 'secret admirer.' I had a lot of fun writing it. That was a reward in itself.

But an even greater reward was a letter I received one day from a retired minister whose surname was Kitto. His daughter had given him the book. He was delighted with it. Did I know any Kittos? he asked. I grew up with one, I told him, though I hadn't seen him in years. But that boy's family was Cornish and so was my grandmother's -- and so was the minister's. My story, about the steadfastness of love and the joy of having someone really know your heart, along with our shared history gave us all we needed to begin a correspondence that lasted until his death. Three years ago I followed a Cornish line of ancestors back into the late 18th century -- and there, it seems, I found my very own Kitto. I know my friend would be pleased.

Writers are often solitary people -- but they touch the world and the world touches them in varied and amazing ways. We are privileged to make these connections. To learn. To enjoy. To explore. Life is an adventure. Every day brings new astonishments -- things you'd never expect.

So, I ask you, in a world in which Elias Antonides could be Frisian, why shouldn't Hugh call?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Jess Harper . . . my kind of hero

People always ask writers where they get their ideas (which I've discussed). What I want to know is, why people don't ask me, "Where do you get your heroes?" Now that's a topic worthy of discussion!

Michelle Styles is talking about heroes on her blog. And she's right when she says that if you gave each of us the same hero (Hugh Jackman, for instance!) we would all write him a different way.

For example, Kate Walker and I had a Hugh Jackman theme going through our talks we gave in Australia and New Zealand two years ago (and Kate kindly brought along an overhead projector ready page of Hugh in the towel from Swordfish which -- as a visual -- made things much more interesting) and we both talked about how 'inspiring' we found him (much to the chagrin and dismay of the Christchurch journalist who thought we were writing 'beneath ourselves' and 'taking advantage of the fantasies of poor foolish women who didn't know any better.' What's 'poor' and 'foolish' about a woman who finds inspiration in Hugh Jackman, I'd like to know!).

But anyway, the point is, Kate and I were both inspired by the man, by the photo, but our books are nothing alike. Our heroes -- tough, competent, honorable, determined men who all look like Hugh though they are -- are nothing alike.

Why not? Because our voices are different. Our approach to conflict is different. The way we arrive at a story is different. So we can both start with Hugh and end up somewhere entirely of our own making. Writing is fun that way.

The first time I realized this very very clearly was when I was at a writers' conference in Iowa and Jessica Douglass/Linda Benjamin (real name: Linda) was giving a talk right before lunch. She was talking about her cowboy heroes, and saying that when growing up she liked Little Joe on Bonanza a lot, and used to daydream of the adventures she would have with "her brother, Little Joe." But then, she said, "I saw the tv show Laramie. And I saw Jess Harper. And I didn't fantasize about Little Joe anymore. I fantasized about Jess. And he was definitely not my brother!"

And I sat up straight in the back row and went, "Whoa! What's this? She thinks Jess was hers? Wait just a minute!" And I sat down with her at lunch and said, "I just have to tell you that Jess has been two-timing you -- with me!"

Linda and I have grown a great enduring friendship out of our youthful infatuation with Jess Harper. I've read all her books and can tell you that yes, in this case I find the core of both her Jess and mine -- and presumably the Laramie screen writers' -- there. But again, her heroes are not my heroes and vice versa. They are starting points. They are spurs (how's that for a cowboy metaphor?) that get us going. Where the characters and stories take us is always a new adventure.

In this case they took us on an even more amazing personal adventure as we ended up giving a talk called "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" at the RWA National Conference some years ago. And to do it, we thought we'd ask Robert Fuller how he felt about his alter-ego Jess. We never really thought we'd get an answer to the letter we wrote. Much less did I expect to pick up the phone one snowy December afternoon and have that memorable gruff baritone voice say, "Hi, this is Robert Fuller."

Be still, my beating heart. I still smile just thinking about it. And it turns out I had very good taste in men when I was 13 years old.

Now what I want to know is: when's Hugh going to call?

Monday, April 17, 2006

Bells and Whistles

There's no end to the gizmos you can put on your blog. If you've prowled around here any time in the past week or so, you've probably seen my ClustrMap which shows where people are accessing the blog from. If you click on it and make it bigger, you can see the general area more clearly (otherwise the US is beginning to look very much like a blob of strawberry jelly) and if, once you get the bigger map, you click on the link beside Navigation, where it says "smaller clusters" it gets even more specific. Kind of fun to see where the dots turn up. Got friends in Mongolia or Tierra del Fuego or Hawaii? Tell 'em to stop by. I'd love to fill the world with dots!

On the writing front, I discovered a 'word meter' which will display for all the world to see how many words I've got toward my current work in progress. So I decided it might be fun -- and challenging -- to put it up there so I can log Spence's total number of words. Not sure how often I'll update it, especially if it's going backwards, but I'll give it a shot.

There is, of course, no way to tell if those words will be the actual words I'll use in the book. The total of words I've actually written on Spence, even as he is now, is probably well over 10,000. But only a little more than half were "keepers." So a word count is nice, but it doesn't really tell the whole story.

That's up to me -- and Spence.


Well, after "Deflag" as my last post, you have to admit that "Desire" is a) alliterative and b) probably more likely to attract readers.

In this case "Desire" refers to the Silhouette Romance books "Desire" line which I have written quite a few books for in the past 10 years. In fact, I haven't written any since 2002, but that doesn't stop me participating in their blog and the Desire authors website. This week I'm the featured author in the blog -- and presumably Shelley the webmistress is going to put up The Antonides Marriage Deal as the featured book which, as it is a Harlequin Presents, will likely confuse people -- but maybe we can talk about that there: What the difference is between a Presents and a Desire, why you should care, why marketing does care, and what's an author to do if she doesn't have a split personality? But that's over on the Desire blog which I hope you'll drop in at if you're interested in romance book lines and why one is one and another is another.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch . . . the "deflag" is gone. It wasn't too traumatic. I even left one flag on, and wrote on it myself to alert them to the answer to the question the copyeditor asked. Next time I see Theo (aka The Santorini Bride) it will be in the 'galley' stage, which used to be page proofs, but is now a computer print-out of the manuscript. That's when we get to the really nit-picky stage. I used to think that after the galleys nothing could go wrong (with the manuscript, not in life -- or in covers). But years ago in my book Marry Sunshine I had Austin, the hero, as a little boy, have carved his initials and the heroine's in a tree. He had carved: AC + CB = TURE LOVE. And in the book he told the heroine, "Only one thing's changed: now I spell better." But some helpful last minute correction done by some nameless soul (heaven knows who, no one will admit it) changed the TURE to TRUE, thereby, I'm sure, thinking they'd saved the day -- and in fact, ruined the whole line.

Another nameless soul did the same thing to the very last line of The Antonides Marriage Deal. See if you catch it. Made me wince, but then, I'm only the author.

Saturday, April 15, 2006


It's a very publishing sort of term -- deflag -- and unlike most things in publishing, it means exactly what it says. The copyediting office in Toronto has just sent me back a copy of Theo (aka The Santorini Bride) liberally gummed up with little pink pieces of paper that hang over the end and wave in the breeze: flags.

My job is to re-read the manuscript and look at all the changes the editor (who did the line edit) and the copy editor (who did the copy-edit) have made (which actually aren't that many and most have to do with something they call 'house style' and I call 'fussing.' But we won't go there right now. Later. We will go there later) and do something about them.

So . . . I read and I consider and whenever I come across a pale pink flag sticking out from the manuscript, I read it and make a decision about what to do about it, and then I deflag the manuscript by tearing it off.

This copyeditor is one who has worked on my books for probably at least 15 years. We understand each other (we don't always agree with each other. But we do know what makes each other crazy). So when she says (probably 3x) on a pink slip, I know I've used the word 'probably' three times in the space of less than a page -- often much less -- and it's making her tear her hair and could she possibly persuade me to do something about it? Yep.

Sometimes, though, she says things on her little pink pieces of paper like, "I don't believe this was discussed earlier so they can't say it was now." Which is one of those editorial things that make me tear my hair, because in fact they had discussed it earlier, but the editor drew a line through it! Argh. So then I (calmly) remove the flag, restore the line (which I'd already done) and move on. Sometimes she saves my neck with one of her pink flags because she understands what I'm trying to say (feebly) and suggests something better.

She also writes me cheery little notes on the flag or on the margins when she particularly likes something. I have one of her flags (from 1991, I think) faded and weary looking, tacked on the bookshelf above my computer. The writing (in red pencil) is so faint now I can't read it anymore, but she liked the book and said something about "a masterful writer." Inasmuch as she's the only one (besides my dad) who ever noticed that, I keep it front and center. Thanks, Judi!

So Theo is being deflagged this weekend, with a little time out for cooking a leg of lamb for Easter (me, not him). Then it's back to work on Spence on Monday. Those palm trees are looking decidedly South Pacific (no, not the movie).

ps: 'House style' precludes the use of parentheses. I wonder if that's why I feel suddenly compelled to use them (sometimes more than once) in nearly every sentence!

Friday, April 14, 2006

LibraryThing . . . not Library Thing

It must be the time of year -- doing taxes, cleaning my office, Theo (aka The Santorini Bride) being back again for deflagging (about which more later), sorting through piles -- but the need to be organized is overtaking me. I'm cataloguing my library.

No! you say.

Yes! Honest. Because it isn't difficult. If it were, I'd be cleaning the oven. But last night I got the weekly email from the website, which is where I spend my time trawling for dead relatives when I'm not writing about fictional heroes (yes, I know, I really need to get a life). And in the email a very kind soul recommended a site called LibraryThing which you can use to catalogue your books.

You can catalogue 200 books for free. Or you can sign up for a yearly fee or a lifetime fee. My notion is, if you only have 200 books, you can remember what they are. Good grief, I've got more than 200 books about to fall on me if I so much as look wrong at the shelves behind my computer monitor! So, I don't know that anyone with a true love of books is going to have a collection of less than 200. I certainly don't. I got 200 catalogued in less than an hour and a half. Then I got a lifetime membership.

It's so cool. I can go to 'add books' and type in a rough estimation of the name and/or author -- and it, quick as a wink, searches Amazon, the Library of Congress, OCLC and lots of other places and comes back with suggestions, complete with publishing detail (as written on those sites) and in many cases a cover of the actual book (or some edition of the book).

Now, if you're picky you will want to add in all the info yourself right down to the edition that you have. But I'm trying to get a ballpark idea of what I have in certain fields. I don't care if I have the most recent edition of Colloquial Navajo or not. I just care that I don't accidentally buy two of them!

It's been done. You are reading a blog by someone who has two copies of The Making of the Cornish Landscape because she didn't have LibraryThing around two weeks ago to tell her she already had one on the top shelf of the bookcase in the corner of the living room, where her Cornish books are not supposed to be!

If anyone wants to buy a copy of The Making of the Cornish Landscape, I'll sell one cheap. Just send me a note or make a comment here.

Anyway, LibraryThing has all sorts of potential for keeping me sane and my library manageable and it even allows me to find other people who have the same book interests that I have. It's interesting that a few discerning souls have actually catalogued copies of Anne McAllister books. I'm impressed!

So, if you, too, are about to be buried by books -- or you have copies lurking in corners that you've forgotten -- you might give LibraryThing a look. It makes the cataloguing easy -- and actually fun. The only downside I can see is that I have found, while looking for books I already have, books that I would love to add to the growing collection! Yikes.

I'm resisting so far. But I have created a category called "wanted."

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Ides of April

Julius Caesar died on the ides of March. He should have waited a month and done it with the rest of us over income tax returns.

But I suppose when you're emperor, you look forward to getting all that money from the rest of us. So maybe we were lucky he got it a month early, though doubtless there was some other emperor wannabe with his hand out waiting for the peons to fork over the cash. There always is.

I'll have to ask Michelle Styles. She knows those sorts of things because she writes about gladiators and such. Emperors, too, for all I know.

What I really know is I hate this time of year. I have to sort out all of last year's receipts and stuff (which I also did right after Christmas so I could make a ballpark guess as to what the heck was going on and pay up then whatever I owed for the fourth quarter of last year) and then I have to verify it and then turn right around and do it again for the first quarter of this year. That's overkill, if you ask me.

It's like spending the day getting a root canal of your brain. I hate it. But -- ta-da! -- I'm finished with it. I locked myself in my office, made impressive little piles of paper, added the numbers on all of them, filled in the blanks and now it's the CPA's turn. Lucky him.

Of course today, when I dropped it off at his office so he could re-add my columns of figures and figure out all the stuff that I can't get my brain around, his office looked like he'd just brought it up from a week in a Tennessee tornado. Usually he's all neat and orderly. Obviously there's a hidden side to him that appears during the last week of tax season.

Why wait? you say. It's inevitable. Just do it. Well, yes, and of course I did. But why hurry? And besides, I had to wait until after March 31 so I could see if someone was going to send me money (hahahahaha) and to figure out if I needed to buy more reams of paper last quarter or this. And, of course, there were all those pesky pieces of paper to round up and keep track of. It's like herding cats. Only cats are probably more fun.

Speaking of which, if you haven't seen it, you should check out the wonderful EDS tv commercial which aired during the Super Bowl a few years ago. I sent it to Kate Walker a while back and she sent it on to Anna Lucia, and for all I know it's now making its way around the world in blogs. But in case you never got to see it, check it out.

I don't know what EDS does when it's at home but you can get an idea from herding cats -- or at least I hope you can. I think it's my favorite commercial of all time.

Anyway, now I am done with the taxes -- except for paying them of course, which is also inevitable -- so I can get back to weaving my hammock for Spence. What fun.

Next thing you know I'll be thinking how much fun it is to clean the oven.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


You wouldn't think I'd be worrying about sagging middles right now -- not because I personally don't have one (on my body) -- but because I just got rid of Theo and I've hardly had time to get to the middle of Spence.

But . . . you'd be wrong.

I have a sagging middle in the middle of simply thinking about Spence. This is worrisome as I don't even have that much of a beginning yet. I sort of think of books as hammocks. There's this pole at one end (the beginning) and a pole at the other (the end) -- and all the rest is hammock. You can think of it as a sagging middle if you want, but my term is more restful.

Anyway, Spence has, I think, a very nifty beginning. A challenging beginning. Which is good, because if he didn't, I wouldn't have much of a book. Or a hammock. And I haven't really thought about the end yet. So I'm just imagining a sort of virtual post out there to hold up the other side.

Right now I'm getting into the palm trees. See, I told you there would be palm trees. I think I'm going to have to borrow my friend Robyn Donald's imaginary South Pacific island for this one. I've offered her Elmer, Montana. We'll see if she wants to do a swap! Just for now -- don't worry, I've got enduring rights in Elmer.

But now I need to go figure out the middle of Spence so I can weave some good support for anyone who comes along and decides to rest in my hammock. Should be fun.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Contest -- or Anybody Here Read German?

If there's one thing this house has a ton of (besides dogs), it's books. Everywhere you look -- books. Books I've loved. Books I use for research. Books I hope to read before I die. And some books I'll never be able to read because there isn't time in this life for me to learn Norwegian or Finnish or Korean or Polish or Croatian -- or even German.

So . . . here's the thing. I just got a couple of copies of Nathan's Child in German. It's in an omnibus edition with other stories by Sandra Field, Diana Hamilton and Melissa McClone. And I can't read a word. Well, a few words. But not enough to make trying to struggle through it worthwhile. So I'm offering them to whoever writes me either a note in the comments section here -- or sends me an email at anne.mcallister(at) Use the @ where the (at) is.

At the same time I'll send you a copy of one of my backlist titles (the prof is going to love this. He'll think of it as cleaning out the attic).

And for the rest of you -- those who, like me, don't read German but who would like a copy of one of the backlist books -- do likewise. Send me an email or respond in the comments section, and we'll pick a winner at the end of next week.

I know that Kate Walker's cat Sid does the choosing of her contest winners. But Sid, unfortunately, doesn't swim. So he won't be coming across the pond to pick winners of my contests. I guess Gunnar will have to do it, though Gunnar is very picky and will have definite opinions about the sort of treats I put on the various names. There will be considerable deliberation, I'm sure.

But he's never one to shirk his duty, so I'm sure it will get done. Check back to see if you're the winner, or if you've sent an email I'll contact you.

Spence wants to know why Gunnar gets treats and to pick winners and live happily ever after while he gets angst and misery and a heroine who would like to wring his neck. I told him that was the difference between dogs and heroes.

And yes, I do see a palm tree looming on the horizon. Not the English palm tree, though, I don't think.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

I thought I should ask that -- since everyone always asks me.

And the fact is, I have way too many ideas. Ideas are everywhere I look. They're in everything I read, everything I hear, everything I see. Ideas aren't the problem -- at least coming up with them is not.

The problem is -- can they sustain a book? Lots of ideas are great setups, cute meets or what ifs that get you started. But what if they die on page 19? What if they don't have the stamina to make it to page 220? What if they're sprinters not marathon runners?

And figuring out which ideas are worth spending several months -- or more -- of one's life with is a challenge indeed. Sometimes it's easier than others. Sometimes you get a character who just hangs around and prods you until you say, "All right! All right! I'll write your damn book!"

If you don't know what it is about yet, that's a little tricky. But at least you know you're going to have a good strong voice there helping you along every time you get stuck. That's what's happening right now for Spence and me.

Spence turned up at an inopportune moment in Theo's book, demanding a book of his own. He wouldn't go away. And he turned out to grab a chunk of Theo's book (and would have grabbed a lot more if my editor hadn't slapped his hands and told him to wait his turn!) and he did a nice job there. But of course that didn't satisfy him. It merely whetted his appetite.

So, fine. I had handsome, rugged, intense, determined, overbearing Spence breathing down my neck -- and no story at all. He wasn't content to be an idea, either. He wanted substance. A plot.

Plot is, in case you haven't noticed, a four letter word. Plot and I wrestle a lot. Right now Spence and I are wrestling with a plot. A plot is, let's face it, a lot of 'ideas' which grow out of other ideas which in turn change a character's life. I asked Spence about having his life changed, and he thought he should be the one to change it. I agree. But it seems that sometimes things you do backfire on you when you least expect it (or when you don't expect it at all).

So it is happening to Spence. Now, together, we are exploring various ideas to see which ones fit who he is. It's an interesting process.

So far there are no palm trees. I think there could be, though.


Saturday, April 01, 2006

Go figure

A couple of days ago, I posted the North American cover for my April Presents, THE ANTONIDES MARRIAGE DEAL. (See below on the ELIAS'S BOOK! blog entry)

Lovely couple. Big city (New York is where the book is set). Sophisticated. (Anne McAllister characters? Like I said, go figure).

As it happens, THE ANTONIDES MARRIAGE DEAL is also coming out in UK this month. And it has a different cover.

This is not incredibly amazing as in recent years that sort of thing has been happening. For example, on THE INCONVENIENT BRIDE, I had what I call my From Here To Eternity cover, aka Is that an alp I see in the Bahamas? on my Presents cover. And in the UK it had these teenagers lying in the grass.

For a while there, when my people were in Pelican Cay, I had a variety of interesting covers on my Presents -- there was the hammock cover and the bed with gauze cover and the people in the water with champagne flutes cover. All of these books in UK got some variation of a palm tree on the cover. There was the shadow of the palm tree, the front-and-center palm tree and the slightly demented palm tree.

Then on LESSONS FROM A LATIN LOVER, in Presents I got a very nice people walking on the beach in their evening clothes cover.

This cover came right from a specific scene in the book. I was really really pleased.

Of course in UK I got a palm frond covered cabana, but I didn't care. I just wondered, what is it with England and palm trees?

And now we have THE ANTONIDES MARRIAGE DEAL. And, as you saw, the Presents version has a sophisticated couple having a night out in a big city on the cover.

On the UK cover there are . . . people walking on the beach in their evening clothes.

Not only that, they are the same people walking on the beach in their evening clothes in the Presents version of LESSONS FROM A LATIN LOVER, aka the same cover.

So, I just need to tell you people in UK who go looking for Mills & Boon books this month and who may have seen this cover already and who think you may have read this book before, you haven't. This is not the same book!

Why do I feel like an idiot explaining this? Where do you suppose the public gets its perception that "all romance books are alike?" Could it be from the covers?

Now I'm wondering, were those all the same palm tree?