In Praise of Porches

Dscn0035 From Mary Jo:

One of the signature features of newish American homes is the deck—a broad sweep of wood on which one can slap mosquitoes, dodge wasps, burn slabs of animal flesh over a grill, and wreck one’s skin.  From which description you may correctly deduce that I’m not a big fan of decks.  <g>

New_orleans_06_and_porch_040_6 When I moved into this house 13 years ago, it was in possession of a small deck that was a very nice staging area for my pots and pots of flowers.  I am by no means the gardener that Jo and Pat are, but I grew up on a farm and I take deep, rather mindless pleasure in watering my flowers and pinching off the dead blossoms and generally maintaining at least a minimal connection with nature. 

But in twelve years, I never, ever, actually sat on that deck.  Being right by trees, it had way too many bugs, and since I’m a pasty Anglo-Saxon who hates sitting in the sun, it was too hot for most of the summer.  (I have now reached the age where all that youthful sun-avoidance is paying off.  Who knew that not playing the “my tan is darker than your tan” game would have such benefits? <g>)

Since the original deck was in the process of slowly falling to pieces, I spent years trying to decide what to do about it.  A screened porch would be lovely—I adore sitting on a friend’s screened porch and admiring the squirrels and relaxing without bugs or sunburns.  But a screened porch would eliminate my summer flowers and winter birdfeeders. 

New_orleans_06_and_porch_046 Last summer, I finally figured out how to improve and upgrade my connection to the great outdoors: make it bigger.  Through pure luck, I found a fabulous remodeler who was looking for a smallish project to fill in some time, and he built me a small but beautiful screened porch with a narrow open deck extension just big enough for my flowers and birdfeeder.  Plus, he installed a window in the dining room so I could see my birds and flowers.   (What’s the point of flowers if you can’t see them???)

I adore my screened porch.  I bought some ultra comfortable chairs and added good lighting and whenever feasible, I like to sit out there with my Dana (the slightly more sophisticated sibling of Susan Miranda’s Alphasmart) and write.  Or maybe read research books after finishing the newspaper.  Without much editing capacity, the Dana is great for generating first draft material because it’s a simple beast that offers no distractions.  (E-mail is definitely the spawn of Satan in terms of distractions!) 

The ideal is what the SO calls “Goldilocks weather”—not too hot, not too cold, but juuuuuust right.  Naturally the weather doesn’t always cooperate, but with fleece throws stored in a porch cabinet and a ceiling fan, I can expand the acceptable temperature range quite a bit.

New_orleans_06_and_porch_048_1

But my lovely porch is by no means free of distractions.  My favorite are the rare hummingbirds who buzz by like hyperkinetic little green helicopters.  Very fond they are of my red and purple flowers.   Once I heard a slight sound and looked up to see a tiny goldfinch perched sideways on the screen about 18” above my head, its feathers lemon bright.  Most of the other birds are what they call “common birds”—robins, sparrows, maybe a cardinal or nuthatch—but that’s okay, I’m pretty common, too, and I love watching them darting and chattering in the white pines that almost touch the porch. 

Dscn0042_1 The sliding door to the living room has to be kept open six inches no matter what the heat so the cats can come and go.  Grady likes to sprawl on the table top, master of all he surveys.  Lacey slinks out like a furry serpent, her green eyes darting in all directions as she looks for threats.  They both go into a kind of holy trance when they see chipmunks, which the cats probably define as “lunch.”  <g>  They aren’t as interested in the squirrels, who must look too much like a fair fight. 

Interestingly, since I acquired my screened porch last summer, I find that many, many people really love screened porches, but most of the time, they don’t have one.  They have decks. <g>  A friend said she’d love a screened porch, but screening in part of her deck wouldn’t look good, so she’ll stick with her deck, which she never uses.  Me, I’ll go for comfort every time.

The writing life has its downsides, as all jobs do.  Cash flow can be grim, one works in a business that defines the term “thin ice,” and one spends most of one’s time either writing, thinking about writing, or feeling guilty about not writing.  <g>  But there are some really major pluses, too.  And one of them is being able to work on one’s porch.  New_orleans_06_and_porch_049_2

Mary Jo, who actually wrote this inside on her desktop because it’s HOT out there.

MJP’s Voice of America interview

From Mary Jo:

Just a quick note to say that on Wednesday morning, June 21st (tomorrow), I’ll be doing a live interview on the Author’s Exclusive show on the Voice of America radio network.   (Whoops, I typed "newtwork," which conjured some interesting thoughts but doesn’t fit here. <g>) 

This is the first show by the interviewer, a friend of Jo Beverley named Solveig McLaren.  This new internet radio show will focus on romance novels, especially those with paranormal elements. This first show will have me and Laurell K Hamilton.  Elevated company! 

My interview will start at 9:30 am EDT or a few minutes before.  It will be repeated between 9:00 and 10:00 pm EDT the same day, and archived for thirteen weeks.  All you have to do is go to www.voice.voiceamerica.com  If your speakers are working, you’ll hear whatever is being currently broadcast.

Solveig’s website is:  http://www.publicityworks.net/

I love her Scandanavian name–whenever I see it, I think of the Peer Gynt suite, which certainly has some lovely paranormal type music. <g>

Mary Jo, whistling Grieg’s "In the Hall of the Mountain King"  ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_the_Hall_of_the_Mountain_King )

Blatant self-promotion: PETALS IN THE STORM

Petals150_dpi Okay, I know you really want to know about the books we’re flogging, right?  You lucky people, I have two—count them, two!—releases in June.  I’ve already posted on THE MARRIAGE SPELL, and I thank all of you who’ve made such lovely comments about the story.

But I haven’t said much about PETALS IN THE STORM.  Granted, it’s a reissue with roots that go way back, but I’m the sort who tends to care about people and things indefinitely, so I’m still very fond of the characters and story.  In fact, Petals (I don’t like to use initials for this book because that would be PITS <g>) started life as a very long Signet Regency.  THE CONTROVERSIAL COUNTESS was the fourth traditional Regency I’d written, and the one where I realized that the longer, more adventurous Regency historical was really where I belonged.  (Two of my first four Signet Regencies, nominally 75K words, had drafted around 120K.  And the plots tended to be pretty active.) 

Controversial_countess The hero of Petals, Rafael Whitbourne, Duke of Candover, had a walk-on role in my previous book, The Would-Be Widow.  He was your basic dark, disdainful duke, but in his last scene, he showed a flash of vulnerability that intrigued me.  He was a man who had loved and lost, so naturally I wanted to write a book about him.

I adore the smoldering intensity of lost-love-regained stories (later I learned they’re called reunion stories, but I like my name better), so I sent Rafe off to the Paris peace conference that was held after Waterloo to decide what to do about France since Napoleon had blown up the hard work of the Congress of Vienna after he escaped from Elba.  Rafe could move in the highest circles, so he was asked to listen to what was said and pass information to British intelligence.  He’s told to work with a mysterious and highly talented Hungarian countess called Magda Janos, who spies for the British.

He meets the countess—and finds that she’s the very British Margot Ashton–the only woman he’d ever loved, and whom he’d thought dead for a dozen years.  They’d parted on very bad terms, with anger and recriminations.  But stubborn, rather arrogant, Rafe learns that the past isn’t what he thought, and dammit, Maggie is still the only woman he’s ever loved.  After a lot of adventures and major humbling on Rafe’s part, they work out their problems. 

Even though the book was published as a Signet Regency, it had the plot and soul of a historical.  So several years later, when I was writing historicals and decided to do my Fallen Angels trilogy (yes, this is the seven book trilogy <g>), I was thinking about archangel names and wishing I could use Rafael, because it’s a good name and Rafe would fit right in with this crowd. 

Bingo!  Because NAL was crash publishing the first Fallen Angels book, THUNDER AND ROSES, to launch their Topaz imprint, I was going to have a gap between books.  So I suggested to my editor that I revise The Controversial Countess into a Fallen Angels book.  She thought that was a fine idea, and the result was Petals.  Editing the book into a historical took less time than writing a new one, which was good for my scheduling, and indeed, Rafe fit in beautifully with the other Fallen Angels.  The revision polished the writing, removed some Regency-isms, and became a little sexier.  It was the same story and characters, but better suited to publication as a historical romance.

I had two main thoughts in mind as I wrote the original story.  English aristocratic males were often raised in ways that would make them fairly harsh and unlovable in real life.  At the least, they would tend to have trouble expressing themselves emotionally.  This is one reason my heroes have often suffered greatly: to increase their empathy and make them more believable as romantic heroes. (Besides, torturing heroes is fun.  <eg>)  In Petals, Rafe starts as the typical dark, arrogant tempered duke, and is greatly improved by learning some painful truths.

For Margot, the heroine, I was interested in contemplating the aftereffects of serious trauma.  She has also suffered greatly, and become stronger in the mended places.  Nonetheless, it takes Rafe’s love and acceptance to complete the last bit of healing.  And lest you think that her recovery is too improbable—something all too similar to Maggie’s trauma happened to a friend of mine.  Yes, healing is possible. (Some of Margot’s thoughts reflect things I learned from my friend.) 

So I still love the book and Margot and Rafe, and if you haven’t read it and think you might like the story by all means, read it! 

As an aside, when I first started writing the story, I needed a foil for Maggie, so in a finger snap, I created Robin Andreville, the blond, enigmatic English spy who has been her friend and mentor.  He intrigued me so much that I went on to write him into the book that became The Rogue and the Runaway, and later ANGEL ROGUE.  AR will be reissued in November, the last Fallen Angels book to be reissued.  But that’s a story for another day. 

Mary Jo, thinking back on how researching this book pre-internet was a lot of hard work!

The Marriage Crunch Revisited

From Mary Jo:

In 1986, Newsweek magazine wrote a cover story called “The Marriage Crunch” which famously said that a white, educated single woman of 40 had a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than getting married.  That remark didn’t seem quite as tasteless before 9/11, but it was outrageous enough to be picked up and widely quoted.  (I once read a women’s fiction novel based on the idea of four single women offended by the idea who pledged to go out and find themselves husbands in the next year.  Their results were mixed.)

You have to give Newsweek credit—in their June 5th issue, they revisited the story and cheerfully admitted they’d been wrong.  They tracked the fourteen single women referenced in the original story and located eleven.  Eight of the eleven had eventually married, several had children, and interestingly, none of them had divorced.  The three women who hadn’t married were living full, rewarding lives.

The original prediction about the dreadful odds against educated women marrying if they waited too long (at age 40, the figure was pegged at 2.6%) was flawed because the times, they were a’changing.  Being a demographer is like forecasting weather—working with statistics describing the past can be useful, but they don’t always predict the future. 

In the ‘80s, women were expanding their skills and goals.  They were delaying marriage because they had wanted more education and had wider options.  There was less of a panicky need to go to college to get a “Mrs. Degree,” and more freedom to make choices.  Nonetheless, most of the women in the earlier article did get married and most people do yearn to find the right mate.   

I found all of this quite intriguing since romance and marriage are my business.  Society has changed a lot in the last twenty years, and those changes are reflected in popular fiction.  Since we Wenches write popular fiction—who would want to write UNpopular fiction?—one way or another, we’re affected by what’s happening out there even though we write historical novels.

In contemporary romances, the secretary heroine of twenty years ago may have morphed into a CEO or a hot shot consultant today.  There are whole categories for kickass heroines a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  The romance world has become a whole lot more diverse. 

In historical romances, the changes are more subtle, but today’s heroine is more likely to be a woman with a well developed mind rather than a teenager with little to commend her beyond a nubile body and her stunning beauty. 

My heroines have always been fairly independent, though in ways consistent with the historical record.  There have always been women who have had to support themselves, like my Welsh schoolteacher. (Thunder and Roses)  There have even been British women who have been warlords in the Middle East, like the heroine of my book Silk and Secrets.  (Check out Lady Hester Stanhope if you’d like to know more about such a woman in real life.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Hester_Stanhope

Writing paranormal romances adds a whole new dimension to strong heroines.  In my two alternative history series, magic is a great equalizer.  In my Guardian world (A Kiss of Fate, Stolen Magic, and the book I’m working on now), women have magical power that can equal or surpass that of male Guardians.  In the Regency world of the Stone Saints (The Marriage Spell, my new book), aristocratic men are actively discouraged from having anything to do with magic.  Which means they have a lot to learn from the women in their lives.  <g> 

Not that I want to create domineering heroines: my ideal in both real life and my books is an egalitarian relationship.  I don’t mean that both parties must split all responsibilities down the middle: there is a reason why most households have had a division of labor through the centuries.  But there should be mutual respect.  A willingness to listen to each other’s views and make compromises.  A desire to go more than halfway to keep the relationship happy and healthy. 

Maintaining a relationship of equals is harder than when one person is in charge all the time.  There are times when one partner is running low on strength and the other has to pick up the slack.  Times when both partners have deeply felt and incompatible needs.  Such circumstances aren’t always easy to work through, bBut the rewards can be great.  It’s nice not to have to carry all the responsibility, all of the time.  Or not to be told what to do all the time.  I rather like taking turns. <g>

The egalitarian relationship has become much more popular in recent years, but there have always been couples who have achieved it.  John and Abigail Adams were role models right at the beginning of the republic.  Marie and Pierre Curie shared their lives, their laboratories, and their scientific fame.  I’m sure you can think of other couples through the ages who shared the good and the bad in an egalitarian way.  (And they didn’t have to be famous—my maternal grandparents had a good partnership from what I know of them.)

To bring this back to writing, a powerful romance shows how these two characters fit together–what each sees in the other.  How they enrich each other’s lives.  What is special in their relationship.  In my current release, the heroine, Abigail, isn’t attracted to the hero because he’s the best looking man around—she points out to him that most of his friends are better-looking. <g>  But he seems funny and good-natured, and that rings her chimes.  For his part, he likes that she’s down to earth and practical and intelligent, not a terrifyingly perfect London socialite.  Even though she’s a wizard (ugh! hiss!), he can’t resist her kindness and sensuality. 

If I had to define the essence of a good romance, I’d say that a writer needs to show what these two particular people love about each other.  Plus, the characters should deserve each other—no pairing a great person with a cranky twit.  Make them fit well together. 

Yep—that’s all there is to it: the secret of writing romance, revealed here today! 

Mary Jo, sure a few other secrets will be revealed in the comments. <G>

Why not make a movie of your book?

From Mary Jo:

One of those questions that authors hear with some regularity is “Why don’t you make a movie out of one of your books?”

This is flattering.  It’s also pretty funny because of the implication that writers have any control over such things. (Heck, the only thing we might have control over is the content of our books, and even then….) 

The chances of a historical romance writer having any appeal to the great and insane dream factory called Hollywood are infinitesimal.  As a writer friend who lived in Beverly Hills once told me, it was more likely that she’d be struck dead by a meteor than that a movie would ever be made of one of her books—and she writes fast-moving, sexy romantic suspense, which is more likely to interest movie makers. 

Historical romance means costume drama, and costume drama costs more to make than a contemporary setting.  Usually a lot more.  So if someone wants to make a costume drama, they’ll probably pick a reliable classic with a built-in audience, which is why there are so many versions of Pride and Prejudice.  Or else they’ll add elves and make it fantasy, which is hot these days. <g>

Now and then a movie will be made from a romantic book, but usually there is a great story hook, as with Meg Cabot’s delightful The Princess Diaries.  Geeky San Francisco teen finds out she’s heiress to a small but charming European kingdom.  Great story idea, great movie, and after she becomes a princess, she has great hair.  <g>  Or The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.  (Not only are these good stories, but they are YAs and their young protagonists are a good choice for the movie-going demographic.)

In general, though, romance is something that takes place inside people’s minds and hearts. While it’s an element in most movies, pure romance is seldom at the center of the story.  Romantic comedy comes closest, but there’s still lots of comedy to entertain people while the relationship develops.  In thrillers, The Girl is usually the reward to The Hero for being so brave and stalwart.  Or worse, she gets killed to give The Hero an excuse for destroying six counties with his mega-weapons.  Ugh!

The movie production process is long and beyond arduous.  As with tadpoles that never live to become frogs, few ideas ever reach the silver screen.  There can be any number of reasons that stories fall by the wayside, and many great stories disappear onto studio shelves, never to be seen again.  (For a hair-raising insider view of Hollywood, you might read William Goldman’s very funny books, Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell You?  Since one of my contemporaries, The Spiral Path, is built around movie making, I got to do lots of fun research.)

Romance tends to work better on television because it’s well suited to the intimacy of the small screen.  Yet even there, with a few exceptions (two LaVyrle Spencers and one Penelope Williamson book come to mind), any romance novel turned into a tv movie is apt to be contemporary.  Cheaper, and more people can relate so modern stories.  Often the stories chosen are more women’s fiction/family drama than romance since soap opera has always been a staple of television. 

Nonetheless, having said all that—my book The China Bride has just been optioned, for the second time—by a Hollywood producer.  They first optioned the book several years ago, then allowed the option to quietly expire.  Now they’re optioning it again.

Don’t think that an oChina_bride ption usually makes an author rich!  The initial money is small, though if a movie ever got made (HIGHLY UNLIKELY) there would be a good pay-out.  Such deals are wildly complicated: with the first option, the deal memo was 10 pages, or maybe it was 16.  And that wasn’t the contract, just the deal memo.  It spelled out every conceivable variation, including theatrical film, tv movie, spin-off tv series, whatever. 

I have no expectations of this—my agent warned me when it was first optioned that Hollywood is full of elephant graveyards littered with the bones of novelists who lost their wits and careers by becoming obsessed with the dream of movies.

Not to worry, I assured her.  I’m too much of a control freak to play well with others, and movie making is a very collaborative process.  If someone wants to give me money to make a movie from one of my books, probably distorting it hideously in the process, I’ll take the money and run.  I have no desire to be part of the process, nor to chase will o’ the wisps when it’s hard enough to write novels.  (William Goldman emphasized that in Hollywood, the writer is always at the bottom of the status heap. Who need that?)

Still, selling an option is found money, and the bragging rights are considerable.  This is the only non-American set historical romance I’ve ever heard of to be optioned, and I’m pretty sure I know why there is interest: my kickass half-Chinese heroine.  With martial arts popular, Troth might make a good story. 

Do I expect anything to come of this?  No, this will just be another deceased tadpole, I think.  But the bragging rights are considerable. <G>

Mary Jo