Morning Coffee: Fairy Tales and Princesses

fallThere’s a growing movement telling little girls that fairy tales and princesses are bad. Recently an actress announced she no longer lets her daughters watch “Cinderella” because she doesn’t want them to believe they need a man to come along and save them. Another actress announced she had to have a long talk with her daughters after they watched “Sleeping Beauty” because the prince kissed Beauty without her consent. Women have voiced concerns about “Beauty and The Beast” because that Beauty is held captive by a frightening beast until she falls in love with him. And the list goes on.

I’ve heard similar complaints about romance novels. We shouldn’t be telling stories about love at first sight and finding your one true love. These stories teach young girls they can’t be happy on their own. If it’s a sweet romance or a Christian romance where there’s no sex outside marriage the one side complains it’s unrealistic and preachy. If there is sex outside marriage the other side dubs it “mommy porn”. This makes me sad.

We’re living in a time when women are being encouraged to stand up for themselves in ways that were unacceptable in the past. This is a wonderful thing! Hopefully our daughters won’t have to put up with the harassment their mothers and grandmothers routinely experienced. But why does it have to come at the expense of love and romance? Yes, young girls should be taught they don’t need a handsome prince to come save and protect them. Yes, they absolutely must give consent before being kissed or touched in an intimate manner. And being held captive by another is now, and always has been, a bad thing. But falling in love is a beautiful thing, something we should all be so blessed as to experience at least once in our life.

Love is a biological process hard wired into our brain for both pleasure and procreation. That feeling of excitement, the racing heart and sweaty palms we experience when first falling in love, is due to a release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and phenylethylamine. Dopamine is the “pleasure chemical”, the cause of that feeling of happiness whenever you are with him or her. Norepinephrine is similar to adrenaline, the reason for the racing heart and excitement. Put them together and you have that crazy cocktail we all recognize: happiness, excitement, sleeplessness, loss of appetite. Researchers studying MRI images taken while their subject is looking at a photo of their love have observed the area of the brain that lights up is the same area connected to cravings and addictions. It’s why when we are in those first throws of love we often find it difficult to focus on anything else.

Love is what connects us to others. Whether it’s the love of a parent, a friend, or a sexual attraction, it’s the one thing that assures us we are not alone. Love is a good thing. So, let’s be careful we don’t sacrifice love in our search for a better future. Have those important conversations with your daughters and sons, but also let them experience love through the eyes of an animated prince and princess. And if you, your friend, or your neighbor enjoys reading a good romance novel, whether of the sweet or erotic or anywhere in between kind, celebrate that, too. We could all use a lot more love and a lot less judgment in this world.


Morning Coffee: History of the Jack O’Lantern

halloweenHalloween! It’s that time of year again when countless pumpkins go under the knife to create scary, and sometimes not-so-scary, Jack O’Lanterns. They’ll sit in windows, on front porches and lawns, lit from inside, to welcome all the little trick-or-treaters. But why do we do it? Whoever thought of carving a face into a hollowed-out pumpkin and then lighting it with a candle?

The name comes from an old Irish folktale about a man named “Stingy Jack”.

The Legend of Stingy Jack

Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years.

Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”

The Irish and Scots used turnips and potatoes to recreate Jack’s lantern. The English used large beets. The “lanterns” were placed in windows and near doorways to frighten away Stingy Jack’s ghost, and any other spirit that might happen to wander by. When the Irish immigrants brought the tradition with them to this country the much larger pumpkin, a native fruit, became their new favorite and soon a part of the Halloween tradition.


Morning Coffee: Unlocking My A Game

fallLast weekend I attended WisRWA’s fall workshop, “Unlock Your A Game”, led by Heidi Cullinan. It was an intensive one-day workshop based on the book by her and Damon Suede, “Your A Game: Winning Promo for Genre Fiction”. Going in, I thought I understood the concept of branding, but I had no idea just how involved a process it is. It’s not merely a tagline that describes my books. It’s symbols and pictures and even colors used on business cards and websites, maybe even the clothing you wear to an event. It might be the font color, size and style on your website and book covers. It’s how you portray yourself in everything you say and do to agents, editors, publishers, media, and, most importantly, your fans and readers.

Think about it. When you go to the grocery store what products immediately catch your attention? Why? Which ones do you buy, claiming they taste better when maybe it’s more the color of the packaging than the actual flavor? Brand is more than the name on the label, or author’s name on the cover. There’s Flo from Progressive Insurance, the Geico gecko, Madge the manicurist who used to soak her hands in Palmolive dish soap, Mr. Clean, and those scrubbing bubbles, just to name a few. You don’t need to be told the brand name to recognize them. That’s branding.Your A Game: winning promo for genre fiction by [Suede, Damon, Cullinan, Heidi]

“Your A Game” teaches using game theory to craft Brand, Presence, and Market strategy. Brand is my piece in the game; presence, the rules of engagement; and market, my playing board. I’m currently working on my brand, my tagline, my piece in the game. It’s the thing that will first and foremost set me apart from all the other players.

We spent all day breaking down each of the three components, interspersed with exercises meant to put our new knowledge to work. This proved to be not as easy as you might think. By the end of the afternoon, when it was time to put everything we learned together into draft bios and pitches, we were exhausted. Heidi warned us in the beginning that there was a lot of information and by the time we were done our brains would feel overloaded, overwhelmed, and be just plain over flowing. She wasn’t kidding! By the last exercises I couldn’t put two words together on the page and have them make sense…or even not make sense. My hand refused to move my pen across my paper. And I wasn’t the only one in the room who looked like they might need help remembering their own name.

Despite all this, I loved every minute of it! That’s right. I loved it and even bought the e-book when I got home. I anticipate some long winter hours studying and practicing until I get it just right.

Morning Coffee: The Not-So-Straight Path

fallFew paths in life are straight and easy. Changes have to be made, twists and turns, perhaps back tracking before choosing a new direction. The reasons can be many, from an unexpected personal or family situation, to the decision that another path has become more desirable. I have made the decision to change my path toward becoming a published author.

My dream to publish has been a lifelong one. I have taken classes, joined critique groups. Over the years I’ve had success publishing poetry and short stories, but the goal of publishing a novel still beckoned, just out of reach, until recent years when I felt ready to push ahead.

My goal has been to find an agent/publisher. This is a high-reaching goal. Agents and editors receive thousands of submissions. Some requested and some cold. Some are not very good, but many, if not most, of them are very good and worthy of publication. Unfortunately, not all of them can be accepted. It costs a publisher considerable money to bring a book to the marketplace and they have to give everything they can to each title chosen to make it a success. Because of this, many wonderful stories have gone unpublished, unread, in the past. The rise in the number of small independent publishing companies has improved the odds of publication, but they have even less money than the big houses to invest in new titles.

Then along came self-publishing. The down side is this allows even poorly written unedited books to be published. The up side is now readers have so many more good books to choose from, books that don’t necessarily fall into the specific needs of traditional publishers but do provide an exciting and exceptional read.

Comments received from submissions have indicated my book is a good read but it just doesn’t fit into the narrowly defined needs of publishers at this time. I could decide to stick it in a drawer to wait and see if those needs change, or I can take control of my path and publish it myself. This being said, my path to publication has taken a turn. I’ve decided to abandon my search for an agent/publisher and self-publish.

I have arranged for a professional editor. I am discussing the correct path forward with authors I know who self-publish. I am considering cover design. I’m even considering a different title. While my path has changed, the end goal is the same. Stay tuned for updates.

Morning Coffee: A Change of Seasons

fallSeptember is here. While technically it’s still summer, fall not scheduled to officially arrive until the 22nd, all the signs are here. Leaves are changing. Nights are cold with mild days. Acorns litter our yard this year in greater numbers than ever before, which causes me to fear a harsh winter is coming. School is back in session for children everywhere and their mothers are celebrating with pumpkin spice anything: coffee, lattes, muffins, scones.

Fall is one of my favorite seasons. The cold nights make for better sleeping. Mild days still allow for a round of golf, or a hike on one of our many beautiful trails. And I admit I might just love pumpkin spice a little more than is healthy.

When I was growing up I loved that school would be starting again. By then I was bored with summer and ready to go back to the classroom. Store shelves stacked high with colorful notebooks, file folders, and 3-ring binders made my heart race. There was nothing better, to me, than a new box of crayons, colored pencils, or markers. Oh the possibilities in that box! I couldn’t wait to find out who my teacher was going to be, and which of my friends would be in the same class with me. In high school, fall meant football games, dances, Homecoming.

When my children were young I still felt that excitement. Except, by then I was looking forward to days free from the complaint, “I have nothing to do!” From our current home I can hear the school bells ring and listen to the children on the playground during recess. That’s when all the old memories come back.

Perhaps my excitement came from my father. He was a high school teacher and always anxious to start the new school year. I think his excitement became my excitement. Before school started I would sometimes go with when he prepared his classroom. At the end of the year I could help him pack anything that wasn’t staying over the summer. During the school year he graded papers while we did our homework.

Later, when we were older, my mother went back to school to become a grade school teacher and librarian. I always knew that one day I would attend university, but the example of her going back as an older, non-traditional, student gave me the courage to do the same and finish my degree after my children were in school. And when I did, that old feeling came back, the excitement of a new school year, new classes, and old faces.

The one bad side…fall fast becomes winter.

Morning Coffee: Always Writing

feetI am always writing. Sometimes that means sitting at my computer, as I am now. Sometimes it means doing almost anything else while my brain works on something to do with my book.

Lately, that means trying to work out a story hole in “The Healing Heart”. I’ve been revising my first 20 chapters in order to get myself back on the path, and in doing so I found one inconsistency and a couple holes. Most have been quick and easy to fix, but one has kept me stymied. I need to add a scene, a not necessarily long but crucial scene. The problem’s been how to do it without sounding like I’ve just stuck it in there…a sort of info dump that takes away from the flow. I knew which chapter it had to be in, I just couldn’t figure out how to do it.

So, I thought about it. And thought about it and thought about it. I thought about it while typing in the revisions for previous chapters. I thought about it while lying awake in the dark at night. I thought about it while cross-stitching and while making jam. I thought about it while staring blankly out the window at the rain. You get it…I thought about it a lot.

Then it hit me while reading a magazine. Why then? I don’t know. All I know is the answer was so obvious I also don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier.

That’s the way it is with all writers. We don’t write so much because we want to, but because we HAVE to. It’s a compulsion. And sometimes it’s pure torture. When you read a book you can’t help but think how easy it would be to write one. All you need is a story idea and everyone has at least one of those. Ask any writer who’s had to make small talk at a cocktail party, or been forced to speak to the stranger sitting next to them on a plane. Everyone has a book they’d write, too, if they had the free time.

Writers don’t write a book because they have a free weekend. (After all, you can READ a book in a weekend so writing one over two days is nothing, right?) Writers write because they can’t not write. For many that means getting up before the kids are awake or it’s time to go to the day job. If they go for very long away from their computer, or notebook for those who prefer drafting in long-hand, they start pacing the floor and muttering things that could frighten the children. Now, it could just mean they’re working out their killer’s motive and signature, but it could also mean they need to get back to their writing before all the plot twists in their head drive them to drink.

Finding the right words to put on paper might be agonizing, but once I do the feeling is like a drug and I have to do it again. That’s what it means to be a writer.

Morning Coffee: The Faces of WWI

feetI love history. It’s why I chose a history degree program when I went to college. It’s why I read historical, both fiction and nonfiction. It’s why I write historical novels. I just really enjoy researching. I own many nonfiction history books, there’s the internet, and then there’s fiction. That’s right; sometimes I use other people’s fiction to help with my research. Always fact-checking before using, of course.

More often than not, research using fiction means analyzing how they write their dialogue, how they show emotion, how they incorporate historical details that make the reader feel like they’re really there without leaving the story reading like a dry academic paper. Recently I’ve been reading a collection of short stories and was reminded of a WWI detail I’d read about in the past but had since forgotten.

“Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and The Great War” is a collection of short stories about love during the time of the signing of the Armistice. (The 100th anniversary is November 11th.) The story “All For The Love Of You” by Jennifer Robson is about a young American girl living in Paris at the time of the Armistice. She makes herself useful by volunteering at The American Red Cross Studio for Portrait Masks run by Mrs. Anna Coleman Ladd. There she meets an American soldier whose face was severely damaged in battle and he has sought out Mrs. Ladd to make him a mask to hide his injuries. They, of course, fall in love. Daisy Fields and Captain Mancuso are fictitious; however, Mrs. Ladd and the American Red Cross studio were real.

The large-caliber guns of artillery warfare had the power to destroy men’s bodies in a way never seen before. Bones were not merely broken, they were shattered upon impact. Trench warfare made this all the worse. Soldiers believed they could stick their heads up quick to survey the landscape without understanding the fast and immediate destruction of the machine gun. New methods of facial reconstruction were being advanced that are still in use today, but it was not enough. Men were left with open wounds that even the best surgeons could not repair. Something had to be done to allow these men to go home to their families, their communities, without fear.

Francis Derwent Wood founded the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department in England in 1916. In 1917, Wood’s program came to the attention of Anna Coleman Ladd, a sculptor living in Boston. When her husband’s work took them to Paris, Mrs. Ladd consulted with Wood and opened the Studio for Portrait Masks under the administration of the American Red Cross. Her studio was credited with the best work, a single mask taking up to a month to complete. Creating first a plasticine likeness, a mask was fashioned from galvanized copper one thirty-second of an inch thick. The mask, when completed, would weigh between four and nine ounces, depending on whether it was made to cover the entire or just part of the face. (Most were partial masks.) The metallic surface was then painstakingly painted with hard enamel to match the skin tone of the man, match his eye color right down to the flecks of light reflected in the good eye. Eyebrows, lashes and hair were made from real hair. Wood’s studio used slivered tinfoil, reminiscent of ancient Greek statues. Eyeglasses were often used to better anchor the mask to the wearer. If he did not normally wear them, plain glass was used. While not perfect, the likenesses were remarkable and allowed the men to return to the public without fear or horror.

By the end of 1919, Mrs. Ladd’s studio had made 185 masks. Her studio closed in 1920. There is no record how many masks were made by Wood. His department disbanded in 1919.

These lightweight metal masks were more comfortable and durable than the old leather prosthetics, but they did not hold up for the lifetime of the wearer. After only a few years they would become too bent, chipped, to retain the wearer’s likeness. Very few, if any, masks survive today. There are, however, many before and after pictures of soldiers who wore the masks and the work is remarkable. If you Google WWI face masks you’ll be amazed by the difference they made in these men’s lives.

I’ve written many times about my first novel, “Mary Bishop”. While it’s currently making the rounds looking for an agent and/or publisher, I’m working on my second novel, “The Healing Heart”. This one takes place in 1918 and covers the end of WWI and the Spanish flu pandemic. One of my two leading men, Harry, returns from the Western Front with a severe facial injury. He loses an eye and has a jagged red scar down the right side of his face from artillery shrapnel. Will Harry get a mask? I don’t know yet, but it will at least be a topic of discussion.