Character Sketches

Or, making the most of a challenging situation. COVID-19 has on-going, wide-ranging impact around the globe. It’s scary and overwhelming and exhausting. However, I like to look for opportunities in every situation; COVID-19 is offering an interesting opportunity to observe how differently people respond to stressful situations.

My family, while practicing social distancing and safe at home approaches right now, had a family vacation scheduled this month. At the time we needed to make decisions, we felt it was an acceptable to choice to continue with our plans. On March 14, we left for a week in Curacao. The good news is that we were renting a house with another family, and the house was located within a gated community. By Tuesday of that week, Curacao had gone to take-out only options at restaurants, and by Wednesday, beaches and other tourist venues (plus most things) were closed completely.

Even traveling through airports, our exposure was pretty limited, and we were able to enjoy our vacation – with some significant changes.

But, it was also fascinating to observe the behavior of those around us, as well as to observe my own behavior. As a writer, it can sometimes be difficult to imagine how I would respond to the situations I’m inventing for my characters, to write an authentic experience.

Responses to this situation vary as much as you would expect; some folks were business as usual, while others were clearly wary of people and places. It’s been fascinating. Here are a few observations:

-People don’t know what to do. The air of confusion permeated every venue – do I say hello to strangers, or not? Do I offer help or look away? – very little eye contact, careful spacing between individuals, less confident posture by most.

-Airports are very, very quiet; not just due to the lessened number of people, but also because people are not having casual conversations, there was no laughter or happy chatter, and people were spacing themselves away from strangers even more than usual.

-Airplanes were filled with people cleaning their own spaces (to the point the pilot thanked us with a little sass and then had the crew collect the used wipes), but beyond that, some folks traveled as usual, while others wore gloves, masks, hats, long sleeves, eyes darting about – fearfully? self-consciously?

-Shopkeepers, restaurant managers, airline crew were all cordial, efficient, calm, and matter-of-fact. There was frustration in the restaurants, but also an understanding of the value of following the rules being implemented.

-Overall, people in service industry were as helpful as they’ve always been, answering questions or providing guidance.

-People overall were jumpy; every cough, sneeze, and sniffle received side-eyed glances from passersby, glances filled with question and concern.

-A few people were determined to carry on as close to usual as possible, almost defiantly so.

For me, I’m a fan of listening to experts (CDC, WHO) and using common sense. However, the Friday before we were schedule to leave – after we’d seen the State Department announcement informing Americans to come home immediately – our flight was canceled. United had, in fact, canceled all flights off the island (and we later learned they had cancelled 60% of their flights worldwide).

After some time on the phone, the United agent got us re-booked on the next-to-last American Airlines flight off the island before the borders were closed completely. That was when I got seriously stressed! For me, that looked like snappish responses to questions, relentless cleaning, and a need to be packed a full day before we were scheduled to leave, just in case. I didn’t relax until we landed in Miami. (NOTE: At the same time, we learned that one of my daughter’s teachers was trapped with 1000 other Americans in Peru, and is, in fact, still trapped there now.)

I’m planning to build out my notes and observations, and save these for future writing projects. However, it’s also a way for me to process this crazy situation, to make sense of things in some small way.

Sending well wishes and calming thoughts to everyone as we navigate the pandemic! XO (from a distance)

March Madness

My March madness has nothing to do with sports, especially since I don’t really follow sports. Instead, March madness is that feeling I get when I realize that the end of winter is in sight, and I’ve done NONE of the things I planned to do while I cocooned away the winter.

That statement is a bit hyperbolic, of course, as I’ve done many things, but still – the feeling of insufficiency lingers. Why is it so easy to create overwhelming to-do lists?! My intentions are honorable and when I’m capturing the lists, I’m convinced that I’m being quite reasonable in considering what I can actually accomplish. And yet, time slips away, there aren’t nearly enough check-marks along the margin of the to-do list (yes, I write them in a notebook, old-school style), and I find myself adding things I have done simply so I can check them off! (Disclaimer: I do that anyway, even when I’m moving through a reasonable list.)

For instance, this winter I knew we wouldn’t get much skiing in as I still haven’t decided if I want to take it back up, and also my husband had knee surgery and isn’t allowed to ski yet. And then our daughter picked up a winter volleyball commitment, which takes every Saturday. That really should have meant more time to continue the purging of the clutter; completion of various home project (building a desk and shelves, replacing some doors); and time to write.

The clutter is lessened, but still overwhelming. There are two, unpainted shelves as of yesterday, but no desk and no doors. The novel has not moved forward in a significant way (although I did have a brilliant idea this weekend when I had a writing session with a friend, so there’s that glimmer of positivity).

I’ve not even started planning the garden overhaul or calling for quotes on those chores I KNOW I’m not going to get to. Oy.


There’s a bright spot in all this gloom. You know what I did do this winter? I relaxed. I took naps for the first time in years. We didn’t drag our daughter to Home Depot or Lowe’s every weekend and call it “family time.” The critical chores got done, but there was actual down-time, time to decide at the last minute that we wanted to meet friends or go out to dinner. That was lovely.

I am reminded, as I often need to be, that the description of success for me would be best titled, “Balance.” Spring is coming, and more items on my list will get their check-mark. We have a vacation coming up, and I can’t wait for a week of warm sun, sandy beaches, and turquoise waters. The novel will get done; I’m not in a hurry (clearly). Eventually, I’ll get my new desk which in turn will allow me to deal with the office clutter more effectively.

It’s all good.

So, I’m here in NH where the weather can’t quite commit to a seasonal attitude – one day it’s winter, another it’s spring, and then back again – but the days grow longer, in spite of the temperature, and warmer, sunnier days are on the horizon. Isn’t that lovely?

Readers, what’s your favorite reading mode – physical book or digital edition? I’ve been thinking about this lately as I stare at the ever-growing TBR pile next to my bed, while I download book after book on my digital reader. Yet, the books I choose to read in more physical form are quite different than those on my tablet.

I don’t know why.

When my husband and I began retrofitting one of our bedrooms into a library, with as many shelves as I could cajole him into building, it was clear that a thoughtful purge was in order. There were simply too many books, and I knew I wasn’t done buying them. Finally, I began to let go of old college textbooks, accepting that I was never going to become a teacher and even if I did, those books were terribly out of date. The teen reads were donated to a local organization, as my daughter has much different taste in reading; frankly, some of them simply didn’t age well, either. Over many months, I did round after round of book culling, until I needed to step away from the process. It’s hard to let go!

Eventually, a set of guidelines emerged: if the book wasn’t by a favorite author, wouldn’t be re-read, or wouldn’t be a timeless reference, it could go. But it was hard.

The digital reader, on the other hand, is full of all kinds of books. The tablet has made it all too easy to buy the next book in a series, although it’s definitely advantageous to have when I travel! A filled my tablet with lighter, easier reads or used it to try out new-to-me authors to decide whether they’d move to my favorite list.

What I didn’t originally do, however, is purchase e-books by my most favorite authors, as I prefer to have their books in paper copy, especially when I get to have them signed. (A signed book represents a connection to the author that’s really special to me, as I don’t buy pre-signed books, I only get them signed by meeting the author.) Also, most of my reading is done at night, in bed, which means the e-reader is super helpful when my husband wants to sleep but I wish to read. Which in turn means that my TBR pile keeps growing, even as my tablet gets more full, too. Over time, my tablet has become full of some authors that are becoming favorites, but now I have none of their books in paper copy! (Oh-oh.)

It’s a conundrum.

A physical book is one of my favorite things. I love the smell and the feel of the pages. I like the action of turning the pages, and I even enjoy searching for something, anything to use as a bookmark – because I can never find any of my many bookmarks when I need one! The e-reader provides convenient light, portability, and the opportunity to purchase another book quickly and easily. Certainly, they both have a place in my life. But now, my rules have flown out the window, while the TBR pile continues to grow.

Happy Holiday Monday, all! I hope you get to carve out some reading time today, whether paper book or digital.

Welcome, February!

With a suddenness that I can’t quite process, we’re already in the second month of the new year. Where did January go?!? Truly, the first month of 2020 flew by at a speed for sprinters everywhere to envy, and while I’m quite anxious to welcome spring, I’m not in a hurry for time to pass, and these things seem to be inseparable.

February kicked off this weekend with a series of events that range from mildly to moderately interesting, depending on your level of interest in trivia, weather prediction, and sports. In no particular order:

February 2, 2020 is the first palindrome that qualifies as such in any date format (US/UK/ISO) in over 900 years! 909 years, to be precise. The last time this happened, the date was (for those who can’t do the math) 11/11/1111. For more details, click here. Thank you, 02/02/2020.

There was some sort of significant sporting event on Sunday. (Just kidding!) The Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers faced off for Super Bowl LIV (54), and one of the best halftime shows I’ve seen in a decade wowed the crowd.* Did you catch the amazing Demi Lovato’s rendition of our national anthem? Wow! Those pipes, that performance! If you missed it, click here to check it out. (We’ll wait.) Fun fact: the last time the Chiefs made the super bowl was on my husband’s birth day – his dad was annoyed that he had to miss the game for the birth of his third child. Ah, milestones and memories!

Are you thinking ahead to spring? Hoping it arrives soon? Punxsutawney Phil has your back! According to his annual prediction, we’re heading for an early spring. Of course, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) notes that Phil’s accuracy is. . .not great, at roughly 40% since 2009. But, what’s not to love about a cute groundhog and guys willing to dress up in top hats every year to pull the pudgy guy out of his burrow and announce the results?

It’s only February 3, and so far the month has provided oodles of entertainment. What’s next? Some sort of silly, manufactured holiday full of chocolate and imported flowers?!?

Happy February, everyone!

*My Facebook feed hosted some mixed feelings about the show, but I happen to love both Shakira and JLo – their music, yes, but more importantly, their hard work, dedication, and ability to balance successful careers and parenthood (yes, they have privilege, but they earned it.) Their dancing represented both their athleticism and their heritage. Finally, pole dancing is widely known to be a mad core workout, so I’m good with all of it.

Happy New Year!

Welcome to 2020, everyone! If you’ve been celebrating holidays during the last few weeks or so, I hope you’ve enjoyed them and experienced great joy and happiness. If you haven’t celebrated yet (or don’t celebrate), I hope the last few weeks of 2019 treated you well.

As we settle into these first days of 2020, I’ve enjoyed time to reflect, relax, and recharge. Some of our readers may recall that my company (otherwise known as the “day job”) has been undergoing a merger since July of 2018. One of the changes was a decision to close our company between Christmas and New Year’s Day. This year, we closed early on Dec. 21st and re-opened on January 2nd! By adding two personal days, I enjoyed eleven delightful weekdays away the office. While it took some restraint, I managed not to logon and only checked email briefly (I was working on a promotion for a member of my team, and was quite excited to keep that moving). The timing of this break was perfect, as it really provided ample opportunity for those reflect, relax, and recharge activities!

Those two weeks were full of firsts – including my first axe-throwing adventure (I will not be your main protection during the zombie apocalypse, but I have enthusiasm), as well as my first snowmobiling excursion. Both were AWESOMELY fun times, and earned top recommendations from me. These activities, combined with family time and plenty of naps, provided the recharge and relax opportunities I so desperately needed by the time December rolled in.

Our writers’ group wished one of our members a temporary goodbye as she snowbirds south to Florida for the winter. *sniffle* We had a lovely couple of writing sessions together before she left, and got to see her well-polished manuscript in printed form! She’s doing a final read-through before she shops it seriously to agents, and we’re so very excited for her. Her novel is exquisite and we’re all looking forward to her future publication date. (Just putting that positivity out into the ether!) Seeing her hard work in print form encouraged me to reflect on my writing and writing goals. No epiphanies yet, but I’m feeling enthusiastic about the coming year, and the writing activities I hope to weave throughout.

As the first (partial) week of January comes to a close, I’ve turned my mind to setting my intention for the year. Resolutions still are not my thing, but I’ve enjoyed setting intentions, and plan to continue that this year. What should I chose, though? Mindful? Focused? Purposeful? It’s so hard to decide! (Clearly, “decisive” should also be considered.) The next few weeks will see more reflection as consider my options and, hopefully, the right word will make itself known by the end of the month.

Happy New Year everyone! I hope this year brings you health, joy, and opportunity. Mwah!

Scent: A New England Perspective

The fall and winter holiday season is in full swing and we’ve (thankfully) moving from pumpkin-spiced EVERYTHING to the deliciousness of peppermint and chocolate. We’re not completely out of the pumpkin-scented woods, of course, with Thanksgiving not quite upon us, but we’re close!

Perhaps more than other seasons, I find the scents of fall and early winter to be the evocative. Spring brings a lovely green smell, one I associate with all things budding and blooming, and that wet smell that is uniquely spring; it somehow evokes the idea of things growing, of the soil and flora all coming to life (at least in New England!). Summer has the hot smells, like sunscreen, sea breezes, and heated pavement – and occasionally a medicated aloe scent associated with sunburn recovery. Spring and summer scents are seldom alone; instead, the waft through the air in happy cliques of scent, assaulting and swarming the scent receptors. I’m not complaining, but I rarely notice singular spring or summer scents.

Fall and winter, however, with the spicy smells of apples and pumpkins and peppermint, the tang of the pine or fir or spruce Christmas trees, the richness of simmering potpourri or apple cider, somehow manage to be both more specific and singular as I experience them. Perhaps it’s the nature of fall and winter in New England. Our deciduous trees drop their leaves, which soon dry and crumble underfoot. We stop mowing lawns and spreading mulch, the flowers die off for the next few months, and even the ocean breezes seem milder in scent. I’ve done zero research, but I’m guessing the changes in the air (temperature, moisture content, something) have an impact, but I could be making that up.

Scent in any season has a strong impact on people – specifically, scent has the power to evoke strong memories — an effect known as the Proust Effect. Scientists have learned that when we inhale, scents bypass the part of the brain called the thalamus, and instead go straight to the brain’s olfactory bulb (or smell center). The olfactory bulb is directly connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, which might explain why scents sometimes trigger specific memories.

When I’m reading a great book and I slow to think about why I’m enjoying it so much, often I’ll realize that the author has not only woven a great story with realistic, appealing characters, but they’ve fully brought me, the reader, into the place of the story. For me, smell is one of the most powerful senses an author can use. It may not be obvious to me at first, but if the setting is lacking a great description that includes smell, the story hasn’t likely anchored me as a reader. Scents are one of the elements of a story I most enjoy experiencing with a talented author, far more so than descriptions of visual elements.

We won’t decorate for Thanksgiving and I’m not quite ready to haul the winter decorations out of the attic, but I’ve brought out the spruce room spray and the apple cider candles, and I’m ready for the cinnamon-nutmeg-brown sugar heaven that is baking season. While I’ll never stop hating the cold, I do love the scents of fall and winter.

What’s your favorite scent? And what’s it like in those parts of the country that don’t really get four finite seasons?!?

Changing Seasons

Over the last little while, I’ve posted a lot about my wonderful writers’ critique group, Writers on Words. Readers of this blog have read about our changes in membership and our journeys to publication – we’ve all achieved publication, which is amazing! – as well as the more recent ebb and flow of participation. I’ve also shared with you the regeneration, if you would, of the group this past summer. After a bit of break, followed by honest group discussion about what we wanted and needed, we experienced a period of meaningful re-engagement that was truly exciting.

And yet, we seem to be floundering again. We had that spark of engagement this summer, and even took on a daily texting check-in early this fall. Essentially, one member would initiate a text with an update on words written, pages edited, or butt-in-chair time for the day, and the others would celebrate and share their own updates. It provided some good accountability, and it was also fun to cheer each other on.

But, then life happened, as it does. One member went on vacation. Another had a business trip. One’s work schedule got busy. The texting check-ins became erratic, fewer members had accomplishments, and then it just. . .stopped. I became overwhelmed with life – injuries for both husband and child (they’re doing great), which have required surgery/physical therapy/rest/doctor’s appointments – and simply couldn’t initiate our meeting invitations. Another member was out of the country. And so, we’ve not met in quite a while, and no one is clamoring to do so.

This begs the question – has our group simply run it’s course? While we enjoy each other’s company, we write different genres and are in very different places in our publishing journeys. Our small membership makes it quite difficult to weather the times when one member simply can’t participate fully; instead, when one slows down, the whole group loses momentum.

As autumn begins it’s more serious progression toward winter, the leaves having lost the last of their color and fallen to collect in ever-growing piles on the ground, the unusually warm days disappearing, and the air moving from crisp and clean to piercingly cold, I wonder if our group is also at the end of it’s season. How do we know? The letting go of something that has been a touch-stone for me for nearly 12 years is a painful idea. And yet, it’s become so much work, emotionally and physically, to keep it going.

There’s no clear answer at this point, and I’m not ready to make a decision for myself, much less the group. The questions I’m asking myself are hard and uncomfortable. And frankly, I hate winter, so there’s that. We all know that the changing of the seasons is inevitable, the cycle of life and death on-going, but that doesn’t mean we all love the process. Mostly, I do, because I enjoy Spring and Summer more after winter; I’m reminded to appreciate the joys of those seasons, the warm sun, vibrant colors of flora, the explosions of birds and butterflies. Putting away the cold weather gear is a milestone to enjoy! For WoW, I can’t quite visualize what the next season might hold, the joy it might bring; at least, not yet.

Where does WoW go from here? I just don’t know. What do you think?

Happy Autumn!

We’re (very nearly) into October, and the weather in New England is settling into proper Autumn behavior. While the days still dip a toe into the high 60s and low 70s, it’s happening less and less often. The nights are cool and crisp, and the air has that smell. You know the one I mean? My husband thinks I’m a bit of a nutter when I talk about the smell in the air and how the air just feels different right now. Soon he’ll acknowledge those oh-so-autumn smells, the leaves decomposing on the ground, the frosty bit in the air, but we’re not quite there yet. But, I can smell the difference.

One of my favorite parts of the season is the annual delivery of chrysanthemums. My daughter’s former gymnastics team sells the plants every September, and I love that I can support her former team AND start shifting the look of our home from my wild summer gardens to those gorgeous, richly colored mums. Bonus: mums are my birth flower, so there’s that. Each year I choose a different color scheme, which adds to the fun. (Although sometimes I lose my mind a bit, like today when I went shopping for a few additional plants, convinced that I had yellow and orange at home, when in fact I had dark red and orange at home; now I have yellow and orange and red and purple. Ooops!)

This year, our local nursery has gone all-in on interesting options for fall decorating. They offer the many colors of mums, have a great selection of white pumpkins, but also offered all of these: square, green, speckled gourds; striped gourds; green speckled circular gourds; cream colored pumpkins with orange and green stripes; gourds with fascinating lumps and bumps in many colors; pale green pumpkins with dark green stripes; and more! I wish I’d thought to take photos; I had no idea there were so many options, but I love that our local greenhouse offers them.

Of course, my decorating ideas are always much bigger than my actual effort, and I will never make use of that many options available to me. Still, it’s fun to dream that I have a bit more Martha Stewart-level skill, time, and budget for decorating. (And staff, let’s not forget staff.)

Today I bought my first jug of fall cider, and next weekend I’m hoping to do a little apple-picking. In a few weeks, we’ll go grab carving pumpkins, and add some jack-o’ lanterns to the mix. Soon the sweaters and boots will come out of the attic, along with warm, wool socks; fires will happen as often as possible in the fire pit, and we’ll try to wring every possible moment out of this gorgeous weather until it all goes sideways with the arrival of winter.

Happy Autumn, everyone!

Too Much of Good Thing?

For the past six or so months, I’ve written several posts about my amazing writer’s group and our reinvestment in the group, as well as our craft. It’s been a great summer together! We’re still working on getting back into a regular rhythm, but we’re meeting for critique sessions as often as possible, and we’ve made a significant effort to meet and write, whomever is available, if our usual critique session won’t work for the whole group. These writing sessions have allowed me to really dive into my WIP – sometimes I work on my outline, other times I develop my notes, expand my character sketches, or spend time on world-building. It’s all time well-spent.

We’ve also recently kicked off a daily texting check-in. We each have different writing goals, either based on words or time spent writing, and we send a text with our accomplishment. It’s been fun, and we get so excited to see each other’s messages come through. I find myself feeling more accountable for keeping to my goals than I would have otherwise, and momentum is an incredibly important aspect of writing for me.

The fascinating side-effect of my improved diligence, of revisiting good and regular writing habits, is that I feel energized, excited, and enthusiastic about developing my story. Which is great. Wonderful! Lovely. But, I also find that I have the occasional new story idea. Or a couple.

Actually, I’m swimming in ideas. Which sounds like a fantastic problem to have! And it is, truly, but now I’m struggling to concentrate, to finish one story before I jump into the next. I’m a pantser at heart, although I’ve learned to value and prioritize creating a high-level outline, and that means that its hard for me to slow down and capture enough detail about my ideas that I can successfully come back to them later. The inability to recapture the idea makes me anxious about losing it completely, and I begin to lose momentum on the current project, bouncing back and forth like some errant molecule pinging around.

Can there be too much of a good thing when it comes to writing, and having a plethora of wonderful story ideas? Nah! Just a need to better capture the key details of the idea, and the self-discipline to focus on one project at a time. No problem, right?

My Computer Ate My Blog

Monday has arrived, yet again, welcoming us into another week. Can you believe we’re halfway through August?!? I’m not quite sure where summer went – apparently I blinked and it zoomed by, leaving little trace that it was ever actually here. Ah, well.

Today’s blog was, well, not this one. I wrote two actually, and was deciding which to use. And then Monday happened. (Okay, technically Sunday night, but I’m not feeling the love for Monday, so Monday gets the blame today. And technology, but I’m getting there.)

As I struggled with my technology last night and again this morning, my brain roamed around how technology plays an increasingly present role in some of my favorite fiction. A sign of the times, writers are including internet searches, smart phones, and hacking in their stories at an ever-increasing pace; my favorite authors do this very, very well, walking that fine line between keeping the story current while not making it so current that a year from now it will seem dated and difficult with which to connect. Their characters use their technology in ways that I see myself doing so, and having the challenges I experience every day: difficult internet connections, no charging stations in airports, a phone that keep glitching, and so on. I can feel the character’s experience, as it closely aligns with my own, or is realistic enough that I can relate to the events.

Others, not so much. For instance, how often is the protagonist suddenly a hacker? Especially when the protagonist has a career as a florist, pet groomer, or parasailing instructor? And yet, here I sit, struggling with some basic functionality, when I spent nearly two decades working in IT. I’m suspicious. Of course, the stories in question are not sci-fi or other genres where there is an expectation of suspension of disbelief. No, these are the kinds of stories where the protagonist is your average florist, who suddenly knows how to hack some CIA database to obtain info about something-or-other. (No offense to florists, who are amazing; they’re simply not usually cross-trained as hackers, either white or black hat.)

My current work in progress requires a fair amount of suspension of disbelief, but I’ve tried to set up the story in such a way that the reader is engaged and willing to go for the ride with me, and the characters in the story. Rachel’s backstory provides groundwork for why she has access to the people and information that she does; when something is a stretch, I’m working to provide a rationale that the average reader is willing to accept. Plenty of beta readers will have a shot at telling me where I’ve missed the mark and stretched things too far, because its important to me that I be fair to my readers.

While I love a story that involves technology, I need it to be within the boundaries of reality, even a stretched reality, or I’m going to lose interest in the story. Tell me, what theme, trope, or bad behavior causes you frustration in your reading?