The First Breath of Autumn

Autumn Leaves, by John Everett Millais (1856)
Autumn Leaves, by John Everett Millais (1856)

Just a short post this week, as I’m currently up to my neck in proposals, synopses, and pre-promotional activity for A Song at Twilight, which comes out in less than two weeks! But it’s worth noting that today is September 21, traditionally considered the autumn equinox (it’s also apparently the UN International Day of Peace–a touch ironic given the current state of world events, but let’s not dwell on that just now). And tomorrow will be the official first day of autumn.

Autumn was a season I had to learn to love. When I was a kid, it meant going back to school, usually amid scorching temperatures, and settling (reluctantly) back in harness. As an adult and a full-time writer, I’m almost always in harness now, either writing or thinking about my next project, so that aspect of autumn has sort of lost its sting. And when the September heat wave passes–and it’s been cooler than usual this year–mornings becomes misty and overcast, days shorter, and nights longer, although we do get an hour back to compensate. And there’s Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the onset of the Christmas holidays to anticipate . . . or dread, depending on one’s perspective!

On the West Coast, we don’t get the same brilliant display of foliage that the East Coast and Midwest enjoy. But even here there are occasional pockets of vibrancy and color, purplish-reds and orangey-golds among the fading, yellowish-greens. And pine cones drop to the ground, and so do those annoying spiky things that look like morning star flails in arboreal form. They might be horse chestnuts, but whatever they’re called, they’re a nuisance, especially underfoot, which means I need to be extra-careful on my morning walks so I don’t do a face plant into the sidewalk.

Autumn in England can be beautiful, I’ve heard, and this ode by John Keats seems to bear that out. So, whenever I’m feeling grumpy about the fall, I remember this poem and try, as Keats did, to find the beauty in this most contradictory of seasons.

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

–John Keats (1795-1821)

“L” is for “Location”: The Pleasures of On-site Research

The Alphabet Posts are back!  (And believe me, it took a few minutes to remember which letter I’m on. Ahem …)

For me, research is one of the most fascinating parts of writing a book. And for a (predominantly) historical romance writer, that generally means submerging myself as much as possible in the past, absorbing the details and attitudes of a bygone age, while trying to keep my connection to the story emotional, visceral, and real. So I read letters, memoirs, and journals, and familiarize myself with the lives and careers of historical figures who might have influenced the creation of my characters.

Model of H. G. Wells' Time Sled
Model of H. G. Wells’ Time Sled

Virtual time travel is wonderful, of course, and with the wealth of print and online resources now available, you can get closer to the past than you ever imagined. But even the best secondary sources can’t always recapture the experience you want to have as a writer and to convey to the reader. And that’s when on-site research becomes highly desirable, even essential.

The late Margaret Frazer attended a reenactment of medieval mystery plays, performed in the open air by a traveling troupe, as part of her research for A Play of Heresy, her last Joliffe the Player mystery. Deanna Raybourn, author of the Lady Julia mysteries, traveled to England because she needed to smell a moor for her third book in the series. And I’ve heard some Regency authors discuss the upcoming bicentennial of Waterloo and debate going to visit the battlefield to get a genuine “feel” for the last battle of the long-running Napoleonic wars.

Battlefield of Culloden, photo by Auz
Battlefield of Culloden, photo by Auz

Having once visited Culloden Moor, though not for research purposes at the time, I can attest that the old battle sites do carry a certain “vibe.” In Culloden’s case, it was a mournful, desolate one, enhanced by the overcast grey sky and the scrubby reddish-brown brush–the color of old blood–that covered the terrain. I was depressed even before I saw the stones marking the mass graves where Highland clans had fought and died for the Jacobite cause.

Magdalen College, Oxford University, photo by Romanempire
Magdalen College, Oxford University, photo by Romanempire

On a happier note, I’ve also visited Oxford University, though sadly my memories of it aren’t as vivid as they could be. I’ve seen Blenheim Palace and Stonehenge.  I’ve walked on the medieval walls surrounding York, which could come in very handy in one of my WIPs, set in Yorkshire. I’ve seen the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, and a fascinating collection of cameos and intaglios at the British Museum. I’ve walked my feet off visiting the Tower of London, and seen–though not heard–the Tower ravens hopping about the yard. And I’ve been to Cornwall, though not, alas, as close to the north coast as my characters are.

Unfortunately, on-site research of this nature is a luxury. My first-hand memories of the UK were all acquired on one trip, years ago. Few of us have the means or opportunity to jet off to see every detail of our books’ setting for ourselves. So it’s pure serendipity when you find what you need much closer to home.

MemorabiliaWallIn my case, that turned out to be the Hard Rock Cafe. Because, as it happens, one of my WIPs is actually a contemporary–or maybe it’s more accurate to call it a “modern” historical–romance starring a British rock band, set in the 1990s. Up until now, my research process for this story has consisted of mining my own memories as a child/teen of the ’80s, reading interviews with actual British bands of the time, watching concert footage and old music videos. Not until last month did I realize that some of what I might be looking for–the ambiance and overall set-up of a theme restaurant/live-music venue–could be found at the HRC.

In retrospect, it seems strange not to have thought of it before–there have been several HRCs in California, though several have closed over the years. But there was still one within driving distance in Hollywood and that was where my companion and I headed one Sunday morning.

StefaniGownWhat we found exceeded our expectations. A collection of rock-n-roll memorabilia that included such items as Jim Morrison’s leather pants, one of Gwen Stefani’s evening gowns, guitars played by groups like Guns ‘N’ Roses and Steely Dan, and manuscripts on which original lyrics were scribbled; multiple TV screens broadcasting vintage music videos, including Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock-n-Roll” and the campy Jagger-Bowie ’80s cover of “Dancing in the Streets,” which I find impossible to watch with a straight face; a tiered seating arrangement that explained how HRC could conceivably fit several hundred people in their space even with live entertainment; and, of course, the stage itself, complete with speakers and standing mics. Best of all, we met some friendly, chatty servers who were more than happy to dish about the place and what it was like when a band was booked to play there.

GnRGuitarSo we stayed for a couple of hours, soaking up atmosphere, asking questions, and having a very good lunch on top of all that. We left well-satisfied on all levels, and are even contemplating a return trip in the not-too-distant future. When the answers to our research questions are just a short drive rather than a transatlantic flight away, it seems a shame to waste the opportunity.

After all, don’t we owe it to the Muse?

RWA 2013: Parting Thoughts

P07-17-13_08.32Almost two months after the RWA conference in Atlanta, I have finally collected my thoughts enough to offer some kind of postmortem on those intense 4-5 days. At least to compile a list of the things I am most likely to remember–from the serious to the frivolous, from the ridiculous to the sublime.

So, in no particular order:

15 Things I Discovered While in Atlanta for the Conference

1. More than 2000 people in an enclosed space, even one as large as the Marriott Marquis, generate a powerful amount of noise.

2. Atlanta natives can be the nicest, most helpful people imaginable–from the security guard who personally escorted me across the skybridge from the Hilton to the Marriott so I’d know how to get there to the woman on the street corner who gave Hopelessly Lost, Confused Me the clearest, most comprehensible directions to my intended destination. (Yes, there were some folks who were less than helpful and a few that were downright rude, but by and large, I was favorably impressed by “the kindness of strangers.”)

3. Mary Jo Putney, a historical romance author whose work I’ve long admired, is as classy and gracious in person as her books and blogs suggest. Not only did she provide a lovely quote for my soon-to-be-released book, she invited me to sit at her table during the RITA Awards ceremony on Saturday night when she received the Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award. I was delighted to accept, and met several other authors that evening, including Cara Elliott and Jo Beverley, who were also very gracious. Romance is a very welcoming community, on the whole.

4. RITA awards are heavy–yes, I got to hold Ms. Putney’s for a few seconds. The metal ones presented today are manufactured by the same company that manufactures the Oscars. (According to Eloisa James, they used to be made of chocolate.)

5. Kristan Higgins, the contemporary romance author, is a terrific public speaker, delivering a sometimes humorous, sometimes heart-wrenching talk on how romance novels comforted and sustained her during some of her most difficult times.

6. Cathy Maxwell, the historical romance author, is no slouch either: she spoke movingly of a man who’d been a brilliant artist but who lacked the confidence in himself even to sign his name to his works.

7. A hybrid career–combining traditionally published and indie-published works–has much to recommend it, at least in theory. Especially if you have a head full of stories, some of which might be too offbeat to appeal to mainstream publishers.

8. Forms of social media are more numerous and confusing than ever. (This may not be news to anyone else, but I felt obscurely comforted to know I wasn’t the only person bewildered by Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, and their ilk.)

9. There are more ways to get your work out there and in front of readers than could have been imagined just a few years ago.

10. No one understands a writer quite like another writer.

11. Book signings can be feeding frenzies, especially when the books are free.

12. The Georgia Aquarium–the world’s largest, apparently–is all kinds of awesome, especially the Cold Water gallery that houses sea otters, beluga whales, and South African penguins.

13. Don’t set foot outside in Atlanta during the summer without looking out the window first. Checking the Weather Channel beforehand is probably a good idea too.

14. The “plane train” at the intimidatingly large Atlanta airport is a great way to get from place to place. (I just wish I’d known about it before I walked the 100 miles or so from the terminal to domestic baggage claim on my arrival.)

15. Writing is the wellspring from which everything flows. A simple but fundamental truth that can too often get lost in the flurry of marketing, promotion, and social media. And yet this is something that every writer emphasized in every session in which the subject arose. Tell your stories. Tell them to the best of your ability. Protect the work. Don’t let being an author get in the way of being a writer. Nora Roberts was particularly vehement on the subject, saying that one mistake she thinks beginning writers are making is focusing too much on “market, market, market” and not enough on “story, story, story.” Words to live by, Ms. Roberts.

Well, that’s all for Atlanta, folks! Maybe a year from now, I’ll have a similar list for the San Antonio conference. Hope to see some of you there!

Happy Labor Day!

For those who celebrate it, have a wonderful holiday weekend!
 I Hear America Singing.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deck-hand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The woodcutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

–Walt Whitman (1819-1892)