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Today the Dames would like to welcome contemporary fiction author, Laurie Boris. Hi, Laurie! Thanks for joining us!

Tell us about your latest book, Don’t Tell Anyone.

DontTellAnyoneCover_LBoris300pxBased on a true incident, Don’t Tell Anyone is a contemporary novel about a family who accidentally learns that their matriarch, venerable Jewish mother Estelle Trager, not only has advanced breast cancer but had intended to take it to her grave. As her adult children attempt to help her, each with his or her own agenda, the complicated weave of all of their secrets and lies begins to unravel. Don’t worry about the “c-word,” though. This is not your typical cancer book. I’ve had cancer survivors read it and tell me it was entertaining and inspiring.

I can’t wait to read it–and I really mean that. I’ve wanted to read it ever since I sent you the email about the interview. Can you share a little bit about what you’re working on now or what’s coming next?

I’m returning to an unfinished project, which has a little more humor in it, and is set in the weight-loss industry. I steal away to work on it like I’m meeting a secret lover.

Sounds fun, I always enjoy a book more when the author throws in some humor. Now, for my favorite question: When you’re writing, who’s in control, you or the characters?

I’m one of those pantser-type people who follow the characters around. They get the first draft. Maybe the second if they really won’t shut up. But I get the third, fourth, fifth, sixth…

Oh, great answer. I do the same thing, let them have control on the first and maybe second draft but after that, it’s all mine! Who are your favorite authors, the ones you read when you should be doing something else? Why do they appeal to you?

Big Russian novels! Especially Tolstoy. I just love melting into his characters, because they are so thick and complex. Anna Karenina is one of my favorites. As for contemporary writers, T.C. Boyle and Joyce Carol Oates make me want to raise the bar on my own writing. I’ve been enjoying M. Edward McNally’s epic fantasy series, The Norothian Cycle, because he writes so well and has great, strong female characters. JD Mader’s new releases always go to the top of my list. And Janet Evanovich for pure giggles. When I was nursing a back injury, I discovered her early romance novels and devoured all twelve. It was great therapy.

I’ve never tried Evanovich’s early romance novels. I’ll have to check them out. Promotion is a big—and usually the most hated—part of being a writer. Can you share a little bit about how you promote?

It makes me squirmy. I know it’s something we all must do, and I’m learning how to straddle the line between “not enough” and “annoying the heck out of everyone.” Social media has worked fairly well for me, but what’s been most effective is word of mouth. I have lovely friends and fans and generous, supportive family members. It’s like that old shampoo commercial. And they tell two friends, and so on… Also, as a contributing writer for IndiesUnlimited.com, I’m part of a vibrant community of independent writers who offer support and share knowledge. I’ve learned more about promotion and marketing from them in the past year than I think I have in the past twenty. Of course, it keeps changing, so it’s important to keep up.

Yes, it is. I think most authors would agree that promotion is the bane of their existence but it’s something you have to do. Tell us a little bit about where you live.

AuthorLaurieBorisI live in the Hudson Valley, a half-hour from Woodstock and about halfway between New York City and Albany, New York State’s capital. The summers are so humid my hair fuzzes out like a dandelion. But every time I see the Hudson River or the gorgeous mountains that surround us, I feel privileged that I get to live in such a beautiful part of the world.

I’m lucky enough to live surrounded by mountains, too. I’ve always loved the Blue Ridge Mountains and if I missed anything when my husband and I moved to Maine it was not being able to see mountains in whichever direction I turned. What are your thoughts on the standard writing advice, “write what you know”?

I don’t like it. Or, more specifically, I think it’s misinterpreted. Does this mean I can only write about left-handed female protagonists of Eastern European ethnicity up to and including the age of fifty-one? Who have only lived in the places I’ve lived or had the jobs that I’ve had? If we all ascribed to this canard, how do we explain Narnia? Harry Potter? The whole of science fiction and epic fantasy? Forsooth, who among us wears chain mail and rides upon the backs of dragons these days? Of course, you’re going to be more familiar with—and have a deeper understanding of—what you’ve experienced first-hand. But I prefer to think of this saying as “write what you want to know.”

Yep, that’s about how I feel, too. Why restrict yourself to only what you know when there’s so much more out there—especially in your imagination. How do you classify yourself as a writer? Fiction or non-fiction? Specific genre such as mystery, short story, paranormal or more general such as women’s fiction, Appalachian, etc.

Contemporary fiction seems to cover what I love most. I’ve dipped into subcategories of that—women’s fiction, coming-of-age stories, dark comedy—but contemporary fiction is my general wheelhouse.

Besides “writer,” what else are you; what is your “day job”?

I’m an editor, proofreader, and ghostwriter. I also work at a local community college, keeping their website up to date. It’s great being in an academic environment a few days a week, soaking up all that energy.

I’m always amazed at how hard writers work! What is your VERB? (This is a big poster at a local mall)? If you had to choose ONE verb that describes you and you behavior or attitude, what would it be?

Swim. I’ve always loved the water and I’ve been taking aqua fitness classes for years. Metaphorically, though, life has frequently tossed me into the deep end without a floatie belt. Sometimes there’s some thrashing around at first, but I’ve learned to swim. It’s not always pretty, but I can get to the end of the pool.

Okay, I’m not much of a water lover but whatever floats your boat. <groan> Sorry, couldn’t resist that. Were books an important part of your household when you were growing up?

My parents live and breathe books. They read to my two brothers and me when we were little and took us to the library, where I quickly devoured everything on the shelves. I read anything and everything my parents left out, much to their embarrassment at times. Books were my friends, my teachers, and my refuge.

Some of my best childhood memories are about going to the library. I loved it so much I wanted to live there. Have you bought an e-reader? What is your overall impression of electronic publishing?

I received a Kindle as a gift a few years ago. I love the convenience of electronic publishing. I can read Harry Potter in bed without the threat of falling asleep and breaking my nose. [Seriously, this happened to someone I know.] But I love print books. I think both have a place in publishing. I can bring twenty books on vacation, but War and Peace on the Kindle just doesn’t work for me.

And a bonus question! Baker’s Dozen! (If you’d like it…)

Great! I know our readers will love it so go for it! Any books on writing you have found most helpful? Or classes you’ve taken?

My favorite writing book is Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird. It’s very liberating to someone who is a recovering perfectionist, especially the part about letting yourself write lousy first drafts. She just makes so much sense. I reread it at least once a year.

Thanks so much, Laurie. I enjoyed reading your answers and I hope you’ll come back and visit us often.

To find out more about Laurie and her books:

Website/blog: http://laurieboris.com
Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/author/laurieboris
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/laurie.boris.author
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/LaurieBoris
Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4824645.Laurie_Boris

 

 

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Today, the Dames are pleased to turn the spotlight on literary fiction author, Shaheen Ashraf-Ahmed. Welcome, Shaheen. Tell us about your latest book, A Deconstructed Heart. 

ADeconstructedHeartcoverMy latest book is a story of an Indian family living in England who are trying to stay connected, despite the unraveling of traditions and social structures that would normally keep them together. It begins with a middle-aged college professor, Mirza, whose wife has just left him. He responds by having a breakdown. He moves out of his house and into a tent at the bottom of his garden, much to the consternation of his neighbors and students. Mirza is tormented by a ghost: the cranky spirit of his old teacher, who cannot comprehend the dysfunctions of modern life. A niece, Amal, is dispatched by the family to “rescue” Mirza. She ends up feeling solidarity with him in his loneliness and soon falls for his student, Rehan. When Rehan disappears, Mirza is forced by his niece’s suffering to face the world again. Together, they have to rebuild a new idea of what family can be. 

Sounds intriguing and I love that you have so many facets that appeal to me as a reader: a bit of mystery, a little romance, a touch of fantasy. Definitely a book I want to read. Can you share a little bit about what you’re working on now or what’s coming next?Achangeintheweathercover

I’m writing a short story series, The Purana Qila Stories. I have published two stories from that historical fiction series on the Kindle: A Change in the Weather and The Dust Beneath Her Feet. The stories are interconnected and introduce readers to a family living in or around a compound in India; the stories explore how time and emigration break open a once tight-knit community as characters grow up and/or move on, sometimes moving far away, with consequences for those they leave behind.

In The Dust Beneath Her Feet, I wanted to write a strong female character and was inspired by the real-life story of my aunt. Safiyah has to raise two daughters alone after her husband moves across the country to find work. Partition is looming in India, the new border with Pakistan cuts off husband and wife and travel is perilous. Safiyah hears a rumor about her husband and is forced to make a difficult decision.

My sister and I just published a book based on our great-aunt’s life—or really, the first 20 years of her life, and we’re currently working on the second book in the series. We really enjoyed the research and getting to know her better than we did when she was alive by re-visiting the stories we heard as children. What do you consider the single most satisfying aspect of being a writer?

I would have to say that nurturing the creative side of oneself is the ultimate satisfaction as a writer. It is a side of ourselves that, as women, we may not always get a chance to develop, and I feel truly grateful that I started down this road. Apart from raising my children, nothing that is this hard is so gratifying.

I also love being in a community of writers-readers, a community like the one here at the Dames of Dialogue blog. I have met some wonderful and supportive people who love books as much as I do and who have given me so much encouragement.

We’re happy to have you with us and hope you’ll come back to visit often. Who were your favorite authors as a child? Have they influenced your writing career in any way?

shaheencolorI grew up with a very limited library, which I now realize was a blessing in its own way: I was forced to read classics to stave off boredom, and I was soon hooked. I read Jack London, Austen, the Brontes, anything and everything I could get my hands on. I must have read The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, at least twenty times; I can still remember some images and lines by heart. When I was eleven, an uncle introduced me to Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and there started my love affair with South Asian literature. I have to believe I was influenced by every book I ever came across; some for the musicality of the words, some for their pace, others for their careful construction. I’m still learning!

“…influenced by every book I ever came across;”—that’s one of the best answers we’ve ever gotten to that question. Where do you find inspiration for your writing?

I did not realize, until I started writing, how influential my mother was in sparking my interest in telling stories. I grew up with her memories about life in India, and they were always so vivid. My mother lived in poverty, but she and her siblings were often left to their own devices and had great adventures that made me laugh and filled me with wonder. I can’t imagine the sacrifices her family made to get her and her siblings through medical college and eventually, she went on to become a doctor in England. I often think about her journey and I still turn to her when I am researching historical details for a story.

How wonderful that you admire your mother and find inspiration in her life. What are major themes or motifs in your work? Do your readers ever surprise you by seeing something else in your stories than you think you wrote?

It’s interesting that you should ask me this question, because a reader just pointed something out in A Deconstructed Heart that I had not realized. She saw that Mirza’s act of smashing wine bottles after every party, because he did not drink, led to his wife’s interest in creating mosaic art with the glass shards—an interest that led to her expressing herself as an individual and ultimately leaving him. It was a connection that I did not catch. It’s wonderful to hear fresh perspectives from my readers.

I would say that I am interested in loss, in all its forms. I think about how immigration/emigration affects our personalities and who and what we have to leave behind each time. As someone who has lived in India, England, Scotland and France (during college) before settling in America, I think about how we often we are compelled to say goodbye throughout our lives.

How do you classify yourself as a writer? Fiction or non-fiction? Specific genre such as mystery, short story, paranormal or more general such as women’s fiction, Appalachian, etc.

While I write historical fiction, I would classify myself as a writer of literary fiction above all. I think my themes may resonate with women in particular, but the word ‘literary’ captures my aspiration to write well, above all else. As someone who has published poetry, the beauty of the written word is my overarching preoccupation when I sit down to write.

Any teachers who influenced you…encouraged you or discouraged?

I was very lucky to have a headmaster at my Scottish elementary school who saw that I could write poetry and started a gifted creative writing class for a few students every Thursday. I used to look forward to those lunch hours spent reading and discussing poetry by famous poets and sharing our own. Mr. MacDonald allowed us to express ourselves and never made us feel as if our opinions did not matter. I remember being nine and telling him that I thought Shakespeare was over-hyped (!) —an opinion I have since disowned, by the way—but Mr. MacDonald never let me feel that I had no right to my own thoughts. I think independent thought is critical to developing your own, strong, voice as a writer.

Sounds like a wonderful teacher and as a teacher myself, I applaud his vision. Have you bought an e-reader? What is your overall impression of electronic publishing?

Electronic publishing is simply an extension of the democratic process of allowing every citizen a voice, as I see it, the same way that blogging has widened a field once dominated by the newspaper and magazine industry. Of course, there are books that are not of sufficient quality to be published, but that is also true of some books in print format.

I resisted the idea of an e-reader because of my devotion to printed books, until my husband bought me one. I soon realized that the e-reader is highly convenient for traveling. I hate to be bored and must always be reading something; I love being able to carry the next novel I’m reading wherever I go, without worrying about how to pack it. I now have three titles on the Kindle and I’m happy to report that the process of publishing in this format has been painless.

I still love the printed book as a work of art, but I know that with new multimedia formats being developed for online newspapers and apps for the iPad, the e-reader will not be far behind in being able to offer a multi-sensory experience.

Last year, a multimedia version of T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland was released for the iPad, which combines written text with videos of actor readings. It was wonderful.  You only have to look at this year’s Snow Fall project on the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2012/snow-fall/#/?part=tunnel-creek) to see the possibilities of multimedia for the reading experience. This is the future of electronic publishing, and I think it’s very exciting.

Like you, I resisted the idea of an e-reader until my husband gave me one for my birthday. After I learned how to use it, I was sold but I still love my print books, especially my favorite “comfort” reads and can’t imagine myself ever parting with them. How do your characters “come” to you? Are they based loosely or closely on people you know?

I don’t try to imitate anyone I know when I write, but there are minute elements, a way of dressing, or a sense of humor, that I can trace back to a certain person. However, my characters are a combination of the work of my imagination and a few traits in people close to me that probably only I can identify. I think I’m getting the balance right, because several people who know me have suggested different muses for my characters, never the same names!

I think most writers do the same thing; combine traits they’ve noticed in real people with a good dose of imagination to create their characters. I know I do. Do you have any good suggestions for overcoming writer’s block?

I find that the best way to overcome writer’s block is to read someone else’s writing. You need to take the pressure off yourself and forgive yourself for not being able to write at that precise moment; it can be inspiring to divert yourself with someone else’s moment of success. I’m also a big believer in listening to my instincts. There is a natural rhythm to writing that, at least for me, can’t be forced. Some very successful writers are highly disciplined and make themselves churn out a certain number of words each day. I envy them, but I know that I can’t write like that. I only sit down to write when I know I will be able to write something true, that I can stand by.

Oh, I envy writers who can do that, too. I’ve never been able to tie myself down that way and when I try, my writing definitely suffers for it. What are your thoughts on the standard writing advice, “write what you know”?

I think there’s certainly truth to this saying, but as a writer of historical fiction, it would be more apt, perhaps, to say instead, “write what you want to know.” The research involved in writing a work of historical fiction requires humility, being prepared to admit that you don’t really know enough, and must go find out for yourself and ruthlessly fact-check.

For example, I thought that the character Imran in my stories, A Change in the Weather and The Dust Beneath Her Feet, would like scooters. However, I had to be careful, because scooters were not available in India until the early 1950’s. Therefore, I could mention his love of his scooter in A Change in the Weather, which is set in the 1950’s, but in The Dust Beneath Her Feet, which is set in 1947, Imran can only look longingly at Italian magazines featuring the Lambretta, a scooter that will be manufactured for the first time during the following year in Italy. To mention my character riding a scooter in India in 1947 would have been anachronistic.

Yes, Christy and I ran into that problem when we were writing Whistling Woman. We researched everything from how a dead body was prepared for burial in the late 19th century to how homemade jams and jellies were preserved. It was fascinating…and all too often, madly frustrating! 

Thank you for joining us today, Shaheen. I’ve enjoyed getting to know you a little better, both as a writer and a person. To find out more about Shaheen and her writing, visit: 

Website: https://www.amazon.com/author/shaheenashrafahmed

Blog: http://www.coinsinthewell.wordpress.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/hailandclimb

“They are extraordinary, and worthwhile.”…Shannon Blue Christensen writing about Shaheen’s short stories, The Dust Beneath Her Feet and A Change in the Weather at irevuo

Mackie Sue Beanblossom and Daisy Marie Hazelhurst, best friends since birth, have shared trials and tribulations together through the years. But nothing has prepared them for menopause and all the horrific accoutrements that accompany it. Mackie Sue, a principal, has a demanding job that keeps her busy most hours of the day. Daisy Marie, a cosmetologist, owns her own business but deals with the stress of pleasing her clientele. Both find themselves facing challenges in their marriages, one of which becomes stronger while the other faces loss and hardship. Through it all, their friendship remains steadfast and true and their commitment to one another unwavering.

Susan Whitfield has penned a humorous tale of the menopausal effects on women and their ways of dealing with it while trying to live as normal a life as possible. The friendship between Mackie Sue and Daisy Marie is endearing and their antics provide for lots of laughs. But this is not limited to a comedic book. There’s also action, suspense, romance, a bit of a mystery and a touch of sadness. Consider Slightly Cracked one of those books that begs to be read in one sitting, one the reader will not want to put aside even after they are finished.

Nick and Amy Dunne live the good life in New York City, both with careers they love and lots of money to spend. But when the recession hits and they lose their jobs, they’re at a loss as to what to do. Nick decides they should move back to his hometown in order to take care of his mother, dying of cancer, and his father who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Nick quickly fits into this completely diverse lifestyle but Amy has a hard time adapting. On their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy mysteriously disappears. At first the police treat it as a missing person but when evidence of a massive blood spill in the kitchen turns up, they begin to suspect murder and their eyes turn toward Nick, who has been acting suspicious since the beginning. This book is told in two sections, each one with alternating points of view of Nick and Amy.

Flynn does a good job slowly revealing facts and providing nicely delivered twists while peeling away the layers of the personas of Nick and Amy, These two are not likeable characters although this does not take away from the read but rather enhances it. The ending may bother some readers although others may see it as the ultimate twist to the story.

The Dames are pleased to shine the spotlight on multi-genre author Alana Lorens today. Welcome, Alana! Tell us about your latest book.

The first book in the Pittsburgh Lady Lawyer series, romantic suspense novel CONVICTION OF THE HEART, features attorney Suzanne Taylor, who raised her children as a single mother at the same time she built a successful legal practice. She’s managed to keep herself untangled from romance for many years, putting her kids and their financial security first.

But the case of a city councilman’s battered wife brings her complications in the form of police lieutenant Nick Sansone, whose interest in her comes right when she needs a little help from outside sources. The councilman strikes out at Suzanne, Nick, and eventually, anyone he can think of who might make Suzanne back off. Will they be able to stave off the danger long enough for their love to blossom?

See the book trailer for this here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a84IZoH-JKw

The second is SECOND CHANCES. This women’s fiction story begins the day attorney Inessa Regan receives a pink slip after ten years of faithful service. She’s been a mid-level associate her whole career, partners telling her what to do, providing her with an office and everything she needs. Thrown out into the legal world on her own, she doesn’t know how she’ll survive.

Her neighbor brings her first client, Kurt Lowdon, a young Iraq veteran with cancer, who’s looking just to have a will made. Inessa struggles to give Kurt what he needs, and he helps make it easy for her. Once his immediate needs are met, he takes her under his wing and brings her more clients as well as a place to open an office to see them. Things begin to fall together for her, including a very special friendship with Kurt that becomes something more.

But his past military service, and the friends he’s made there, begin to cause problems for them both, as well as issues his drug-addicted sister delivers to his doorstep. He still hasn’t kicked his cancer, either, and Inessa wonders if falling in love with him is a blessing or a curse.

Here’s the book trailer for SECOND CHANCES: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CEMtSxd6FQQ&feature=youtu.be

I love that you have YouTube videos for your books. That’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while now but so far, I haven’t got up the nerve to tackle it yet. Can you share a little bit about what you’re working on now or what’s coming next?

I’m very happy to report that I’ve just signed a contract for the third book in the series, entitled VOODOO DREAMS. This story is about a Pittsburgh lawyer wanting to get away from it all after a big trial goes bad, so she grabs a flight to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Who does she find staying at her bed and breakfast but a lawyer from the firm that beat her? While she wants nothing to do with him, gradually the two of them are drawn into a mystery that takes them through the city cemeteries and even into the Louisiana swamps for a voodoo ritual. Very exciting stuff. J

Oooh, the big easy, voodoo rituals, mysterious cemeteries, and love. Sounds like a winner to me! Promotion is a big—and usually the most hated—part of being a writer. Can you share a little bit about how you promote?

So who wants to hear a constant bombardment of “Buy my book!” No one. Even if you add “please,” it still gets pretty tedious, right? Instead, I have my blogs/websites and partner up with other authors to exchange posts, so that I can be introduced to whole new audiences. I think this way we can begin a two-way conversation, not just a one-way demand.

I also participate in community events, where I can meet local readers. For example, on Valentine’s Day a couple of years ago, one of my favorite shoe stores had a big event, and I joined in with my book about a girl who finds a glass slipper on the sidewalk, THE ELF QUEEN. We had a contest to try on the slipper I had, and whoever fit the shoe was entered in a drawing to win a prize package. It was a lot of fun.

Very original and yes, it sounds like a lot of fun. How long have you been writing?

I wrote my first novel when I was 14, a terrible old Gothic time-travel about a governess and the young lord of the mansion set in England (where I’d never been, of course). Considering it now, it was dreadful. But it was the beginning. Now, some forty years, thirty manuscripts and eighteen book contracts later, I’m able to look at it and laugh.

While I read a lot of gothic romance in my youth, I also read science fiction and fantasy. I think that’s reflected in what I write now, with the women’s fiction/romance under Alana Lorens and the sci-fi/fantasy/supernatural under Lyndi Alexander. The Novelspot site actually did a seven-piece series on my history as a writer that covers all the drama, divorces, writer’s block and children with autism. The BEHIND THE SCENES series begins here with A Dead Rabbit and the Letter. http://novelspot.net/node/5197

Thanks for including the link! Who or what has been the biggest influence in your writing career and why?

I’ve got to say my husband is probably the catalyst that has really made my writing life come together. He’s not a writer, but he’s a reader, a voracious one. We met playing sci-fi role-playing games on the Internet (that’s a whole other story!), and his imagination really helped spark mine back into serious work. He is great to bounce ideas off for workability, and his skill set really compliments mine, so we can figure out how to create almost any scene.

Sounds like a match made in heaven! What do you consider the single most satisfying aspect of being a writer?

Knowing where I am on page one and knowing where I want to be by the last page and then step by step, filling in that gap in a way that’s interesting and well-done.

What are your thoughts on the standard writing advice, “write what you know”?

In this particular series, it’s been pretty valuable! My work as a lawyer certainly informs my storytelling. On the other hand, I also write space opera, though I’ve never been on a spaceship or off the planet. So I think a thorough knowledge of the working human (and often those who are less functional) can benefit an author’s work. After all, world-building can only take you so far—it’s the people who catch reader’s imagination.

I agree, the characters can definitely make or break a book. How do you classify yourself as a writer? Fiction or non-fiction? Specific genre such as mystery, short story, paranormal or more general such as women’s fiction, Appalachian, etc.

I’m really all over the map, but much more genre fiction rather than literary. I have my non-fiction book 101 Little Instructions for Surviving Your Divorce, that came out over a decade ago, but then in 2010, I really concentrated on fiction. The urban fantasy series, The Clan Elves of the Bitterroot, is set in the mountains of Montana. I have romantic suspense with bordellos and Mexican drug lords, contemporary romance with broken hearts and rock stars, a Firefly-like series set in deep space about a rebel space captain thrown out of his universe who must rebuild his crew to survive, and this summer a supernatural mystery with psychic vampires. Instead of trying to squish all my writing into one category, I write the stories and characters and situations that come to me.

All over the map, indeed, but I think it’s safe to say you never get bored as an author that way. Besides “writer,” what else are you; what is your “day job”?

I’m a family law attorney, handling divorce, custody, adoption and juvenile dependency matters. It’s a very emotional area, and certainly helps generate a lot of passions that I can transform into writing work.

I’m also mother to several children on the autism spectrum, so with therapies and testing and team meetings and IEPs and all, it feels like a second or third job a lot of the time.

You’re a very busy woman! Are you in a critique group? If so, how does it work and specifically how do the members help your writing?

I have a couple of critique groups through the Pennwriters’ organization, and these people have been really instrumental in helping improve my work. Pennwriters has several groups meeting in the northwestern Pennsylvania area, almost one every day, kind of like Writers’ Anonymous. But this is a great advantage, because each writer can find the group that fits his or her needs. I’ve been a member of one group since about 2005, and the six or eight people have all progressed to a very polished level of work. We bring our eight to ten pages and read aloud, then get back our copies with comments and suggestions. I have recently joined a second group that is a little less polished but has more published romance writers in it, and so I get a better perspective for my romance works. Their process is pretty much the same. Both groups are very positive; while there’s no ban on criticism, it’s understood that we can ask for what we need. I always want people to be tough but true in their commentary—there’s no reason to tear people’s work up just for the sake of doing it.

 Any good suggestions for overcoming writer’s block?

I often get blocked in what they call the “sagging middle.” I’ve got the story launched, and I know where the characters are going but it just…can’t…seem…to…get…there. When that happens, I usually start picking scenes from the outline, it doesn’t matter if they’re in order, and writing them, to get momentum up again. After all, no one says you have to write the story from the first to last page, right? Once you get restarted forward, it’s so much easier to fill in the gaps.

 I’m well acquainted with the “sagging middle” syndrome—it gets me every time. Any books on writing you have found most helpful? Or classes you’ve taken?

I absolutely devoured SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder, which is actually a screenwriting book, but definitely applies to any kind of fiction as well. You’ve got to make readers connect with your characters in any format, and this book helps show you how.

I’m also a big fan of writing teacher Margie Lawson, from Colorado. I’ve taken several of her online classes and then had the privilege to take one of her intensive master courses at her home in Golden. Her work is amazing, and she really taught me how to open up my character’s emotions in new ways.

Thanks so much for joining us today, Alana. I enjoyed getting to know you through your thoughtful answers!

To learn more about Alana Lorens, Lyndi Alexander, and their books, go to:

http://alanalorens.com –website/blog

http://lyndialexander.wordpress.com –other website/blog

Alana Lorens on Facebook– https://www.facebook.com/AlanaLorens?ref=hl

Conviction of the Heart buylink http://www.amazon.com/Conviction-of-the-Heart-ebook/dp/B0089PTPAO/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1353946105&sr=8-2&keywords=alana+lorens

Second Chances buylink http://www.amazon.com/Second-Chances-ebook/dp/B008CVY09Q/ref=la_B005GE0WBC_1_2_title_1_kin?ie=UTF8&qid=1353946163&sr=1-2

“Cowgirl is an attitude.”

This is a quote from famous cowgirl Dale Evans, who goes on to say, “Cowgirl is a pioneer spirit, a special American brand of courage. The cowgirl faces life head on, lives by her own lights, and makes no excuses. Cowgirls take stands. They speak up. They defend the things they hold dear. A cowgirl might be a rancher, or a barrel racer, or a bull rider, or an actress. But she’s just as likely to be a checker at the local Winn Dixie, a full-time mother, a banker, an attorney, or an astronaut.”

Although I grew up on a ranch in eastern Montana and I rode horses, gathered cattle with my dad and helped with branding, I never really thought of myself as a “Cowgirl.” But through my years of reading and researching for my books, I’ve come to realize that I am—maybe an “urban cowgirl” by strict definition, but a cowgirl by attitude.

My grandmother was a cowgirl—a real one, one who not only rode horses, but also rode bucking stock in rodeos in the 1920s & ’30s.

The 1920s was the heyday of rodeo for women. They grew up riding out of necessity alongside their fathers, brothers & husbands and naturally they were just as competitive in trying to see who could stay on the back of a bucking bronc or steer or roping calves as the men.

Rodeos started out as impromptu events—cowboys betting each other who was going to get bucked off the quickest. Annie Oakley paved the way for women when she gained fame in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as a sharpshooter. Lucille Mulhall, when she was 18 years old, lassoed and tied three steers in 3 minutes, 30 seconds—faster than the best cowboys—won a gold medal and a $10,000 prize for a world record!

This “cowgirl attitude” is the way my grandmother lived. And I modeled my character, Nettie, on my grandmother and the cowgirl attitude.

In the first book, Cowgirl Dreams, Nettie is a strong-willed girl of 14 who dons her brother’s pants, sneaks out of the house to ride in her first “public” rodeo. She risks broken bones, her mother’s wrath and society’s branding cowgirls who rode the rode circuit as “loose women.” But by the time she successfully rode that steer until it stopped bucking and she was still on its back, she knew: rodeo was in her blood. Competing was something she HAD to do.

In my second book, Follow the Dream, Nettie continues her pursuit of her rodeo dream. At the beginning of this story, she seems to have it all—a rodeo cowboy and plans for riding the rodeo circuit—fame and fortune.

More obstacles arise: unexpected family responsibilities and unrelenting hardships. The drought of 1930s, nick-named the “Dirty Thirties” hit Montana—not as severe as the Midwest—but still bad enough that grass for grazing horses become in short supply. My grandparents actually trailed their herd of horses from Cut Bank, MT to Salmon, ID, a trip of 400 miles and three months, to find feed for them.

Nettie’s adventures in overcoming the obstacles to her dream are the epitome of the phrase “Cowgirl Up.”

“Cowgirl up” is an expression that means to rise to the occasion, not to give up, and to do it all without whining or complaining. It is easy to say “cowgirl up,” however it takes a true cowgirl at heart to live up to the true meaning.

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

 

 

Today, the Dames are pleased to spotlight Victoria Marshal. Join us as she answers the Dames’ Dozen. Welcome, Victoria. Tell us about your latest release Bookended by Beauty Queens.

Bookended by Beauty Queens is about Angie Palmer. Angie has really isolated herself from people including her family. Until one day her Grandmother comes to live with her. Grandma brings with her a world of changes, including Val a drag queen who wants to be friends. Angie tries to keep Val distant but can’t. When Val becomes the victim of a violent crime that leaves him in a coma, Angie finds herself in a very public battle to save Val’s life.

Ultimately Bookended by Beauty Queens is a journey of the heart.

You describe your main character in Bookended by Beauty Queens, Angie Palmer, as a woman who likes her privacy. How did you come up with the character and the plot?

Angie is a lot like me in many ways, and I think I was the jumping off point for creating this character. Eventually she morphed into Angie with her own quirks and traits. I’m not sure if all writers write themselves into their characters but I did.

The plot was a little tricky for me. I started out to write a romance with a generational subplot but it’s not that anymore. When I was writing Bookended by Beauty Queens, the whole country was focused on the Terri Schiavo case, and I was trying to understand what was happening. How could people who really knew nothing about the circumstance feel so passionately about this woman and her family. Me trying to understand their passion, eventually worked its way into the story and transformed the book into what it is now.

I can’t speak for other writers, but I’m guilty of writing myself into my characters and often have to stop and think of how they would act instead of how I would act.

Can you tell us about what you’re working on now or what’s coming next?

I’m working on a romance that has a little mystery in it. Then again I thought Bookended by Beauty Queens was going to be a romance too and it wanted to be Women’s Fiction. We’ll see what this one wants to be.

I have a feeling we just read the answer to the next question but I’m going to ask it anyway: Are the characters in the driver’s seat when you’re writing or do you take control of the wheel and guide them where you want them to go?

The characters are in complete control! When I was writing they just would not do what I wanted them to at all. It’s such a strange place to be in when you realize that you’re only taking dictation.

“Taking dictation,” that’s a great way to describe it! What is a typical writing day like for you?

My husband works nights, so I was taking my writing to bed with me every night. I now have a giant gel pen stain on my mattress, because I couldn’t stay awake, so now I get up an hour early to get solid writing time for myself. I sneak writing in around other family activities thanks to my trusty notebook and pen!

Hmm, maybe I should try writing in bed. Who knows, it could be a cure for my insomnia. Where do you find inspiration for your writing?

Everywhere. That sounds flip but it’s the truth. When I turn on the news, or leave my house there’s inspiration waiting for me. I have to keep a notebook with me at all times to capture moments.

I once saw a woman on a subway in Washington DC who was decked out in a bright yellow sundress with a crinoline, white gloves, and sun hat. She seemed out of place somehow on the subway. She became the inspiration for Val the drag queen Angie meets on the subway in my book. Not that she looked like a drag queen, but her prim appearance was a juxtaposition to the surroundings so she made an impact on my writer’s mind.

I’m the same way when it comes to inspiration. You just never know where you’ll find it. Promotion is a big part of being a writer. Can you share a little bit about how you promote?

Social media is so huge right now that you can’t ignore it. I have a Facebook page, twitter, and I just joined Pinterest. I hired Enchanted Book Promotions to help me out with booking blog tours, and interviews, which has helped a great deal.

I haven’t joined Pinterest yet, but I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about it. How long have you been writing?

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t write, though I only got serious about writing full-length fiction for the past 15 years or so.

Who are you favorite authors, the ones you read when you should be doing something else? Why do they appeal to you?

There are so many! I love Stephanie Bond, Sue Grafton, Jennifer Cruisie, Christopher Moore – the list would be endless, so I’ll stop there. Really anything that grabs my attention I’ll read. I said once that I’m a genre omnivore and I’m going to stick with that statement.

All good authors and a couple of my favorites are on your list. I’ve never read Christopher Moore but I’ll be sure to check him out since our tastes seem so similar. Who or what has been the biggest influence in your writing career and why?

My family. The encouragement I’ve received from my parents, sister, and husband has been overwhelming. I would be doing this if it wasn’t for their support, and cajoling.

Yep, family is the most important for me, too. In fact, I often say if it wasn’t for my sister, Christy, I would never have written my first word. What do you consider the single most satisfying aspect of being a writer?

The ability to make the world what you want it to be. As a writer you get a great opportunity to right the wrongs, and create happy endings. That is the best part for me.

Your answer reminds me of my favorite quote from author Anais Nin: I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live. Tell us a little bit about where you live in “real life.”

I live in sunny Minnesota! Yes, I said sunny. Why are you laughing?

Minnesota has always been my home and always will be if I have something to say about it. It’s so beautiful here. Everyone should come to Minnesota. If you’re wimpy about cold then come in July, it will be plenty hot!

I’m not laughing, I’m remembering when I lived in Maine. It’s not for everyone but I loved it—cold, snow, the whole bit. And when spring comes, there’s nothing to compare it to.

Thank you for joining us today, Victoria. I enjoyed getting to know you and hope you’ll come back and visit us often.

For more information on Victoria, visit her website and blog at http://victoriamarshal.com/.

Welcome to the Dames of Dialogue, Heidi! We’re happy you could join us today. Tell us about your latest release, Follow the Dream, the second in your Dare to Dream series.

The story takes place in the 1930s, with Nettie married to her cowboy and her dream future lies ahead of her. They’re planning a busy rodeo season and Nettie has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to London with the Tex Austin Wild West Troupe. But, life during the Great Depression gets in the way of her dreams. Family responsibility, extreme drought, and personal tragedy challenge and threaten to break this strong woman. It’s a story that encourages one to not only continue to pursue a dream, but also to be able to change the dream if necessary.

You say on your website that the first two books in your series, Cowgirl Dreams and Follow the Dream, are based on your grandmother’s life. My sister and I just co-wrote a book based on our great aunt’s life growing up in the small mountain town of Hot Springs, NC. It took three years and a lot of that time was spent researching. Tell us how you researched the idea for your grandmother’s story and why you felt compelled to write it.

That’s great! Family history can be full of material for our books. I knew my grandmother until she died when I was 12, and I was aware that she loved riding and outdoor work more than anything. My dad told me later that she had actually ridden bucking stock in rodeos during the 1920s. She was not your stereotypical, cookie-baking grandma! This piece of information fascinated me, and later in my life, when I started writing fiction, I decided to base a novel on her. My dad told me many stories of growing up with his rodeo/ranching parents, and I had a scrapbook and a couple of short pieces my grandmother had written about her horses and how she and grandpa met. I read all the non-fiction books I could find about the rodeo cowgirls of that era and found many common threads in their stories, which I could weave into my novels. I also went back to the eastern Montana area where she grew up and found the old ranch house where my grandparents lived when they were first married.

I was around 12 when Great-aunt Bessie died, too. I remember so much about her and was always fascinated by her life as a mountain woman. Can you tell us about what you’re working on now or what’s coming next?

I am working on the third book in the series, working title Nettie’s Cowgirls, which takes place in the 1940s. This tells the story of the demise of rodeo, especially for women with the advent of World War II.

I hope you’ll let us know when it comes out. I love almost everything about the 1940s, it was an interesting time in history and a time when women stepped up to the plate and proved they could be just as valuable in the workforce as men. Speaking of work, in addition to writing, you also offer manuscript services for authors, including editing and preparing electronic files for printing, you teach several writing classes, and you have an active blog. In other words, you’re a very busy woman. It makes me tired just thinking about all that you have going on. How do you juggle it all and still find time to write?

That is always the $64,000 question! With all of my editing, blogging, and teaching activities, sometimes my own writing gets pushed to the back burner. I keep trying to change that, but I, like many writers, find that self-discipline for writing is a difficult thing to achieve. I admire those who get up at 0 dark-thirty and write for several hours. I’m not a morning person, so that does not work for me! I seem to work best under a deadline, so belonging to critique groups where I’m expected to read pages each week is a good motivator.

I was recently talking with a fellow writer who told me he gets up at 6 every morning and writes for 2 hours before he starts his day job. I have no idea how people do that and like you, I admire that kind of drive. Are the characters in the driver’s seat when you’re writing or do you take control of the wheel and guide them where you want them to go?

A little of both, I think. I am a “pantser”. I don’t do a formal outline, but I have an idea in my mind of where I want to go, and I do allow my characters to take me down roads I hadn’t considered. It’s a lot of fun to sit down with a general idea of what I want to write and see where it leads me. Sometimes it turns out much differently that I’d thought (and sometimes better).

Oh yeah, that’s exactly what I do. It can be frustrating at times but overall, it’s much more fun! In your bio on your website, you say you were “born with ink running through your veins” and that even before you could read or write you “wove many tall tales.” Tell us about the first story you remember writing.

Gosh, I had so many running through my mind when I was a kid. I didn’t have other kids my age to play with, so I made up my own companions and scenarios. I listened to “The Lone Ranger” and “Roy Rogers and Dale Evans” on the radio, and I would often make up my own stories based on the programs. Likewise with books my parents read to me or that I later read. I do remember writing a haunted house mystery in red pen and using a lot of description that included the word “red,” so I could underline it! My teacher told me I had a “wild imagination.”

How funny, especially given that most writers hate the dreaded “red pen.” Where do you find inspiration for your writing?

I read a LOT. When I find one of those books that paint word pictures and create music with the written word while keeping my on the edge of my seat with the storyline, I want to just soak it up like a sponge and figure out “how do they do that?” I’m also inspired by nature. When I get stuck in my writing, I try to follow Julia Cameron’s (The Artist’s Way) advice and “refill my well” by taking an afternoon to sit by the water or walk in the woods. It’s amazing how much that helps.

I’m a big believer in “refilling my well.” I used to walk in the woods when I lived in Maine and it never failed to rejuvenate my creativity. These days, I take a walk with my dog or garden or simply sit on the swing on my front porch and daydream for a while.

Promotion is a big part of being a writer. Can you share a little bit about how you promote?

I’m active on the internet with the social media sites, I write a blog, do guest blog posts, and I visit and comment on as many (topic-related) blogs as I can. I’ve made many great contacts that way. I’ve done the virtual blog tour as well as a “reality” driving tour through Montana. The internet is mostly “marketing” in hopes of creating sales. But I actually do most of my selling one-on-one, at craft fairs, at authors’ or book events, speaking engagements, school visits, etc.

Christy and I are getting ready to do a reality driving tour, as you put it, through the mountains of western North Carolina to promote Whistling Woman, the book we wrote about our great-aunt. Here’s hoping it works as well for us as it does for you.

I enjoyed reading about your first visit to the library when you were a child. You said you remember wishing your parents would go home and leave you there with all those wonderful books. I remember my first visit to our small public library too. I felt as if I’d discovered heaven on earth and like you, I wanted to live there with the books. Who were your favorite childhood authors? Have they influenced your writing in any way?

Books certainly have been my passion all my life. Your question about what I first wrote made me realize that I had a foundation in western writing, even though I never set out to write a “western”. I just wanted to tell my grandmother’s story. But I read a lot of Zane Gray in elementary school, as well as listening to the programs I mentioned. I also read Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables, Heidi (of course), Aesop’s Fables, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Robinson Crusoe, Huckleberry Finn—all the “classics”.

Christy and I never thought we would write historical fiction either, but like you, we really wanted to tell our Great-aunt Bessie’s story. Now that you’re all grown up, who are your favorite authors, the ones you read when you should be doing something else? Why do they appeal to you?

Two of my favorites: Montana author Ivan Doig, who writes about my home state in such an engaging way to put you “there,” and Jane Kirkpatrick, historical novelist, tells heart stories of real women, their dreams and struggles. I also enjoy women authors such as Anne Rivers Siddons, Anne Tyler, and Ursula Hege. I read lots of what I call “escape” fiction, too, the police procedurals, courtroom dramas (John Grisham), and thrillers such as Harlen Coben and Dean Koontz.

Some of my favorites, too! Who or what has been the biggest influence in your writing career and why?

I think it has to be described in layers, as in building a foundation. First I had parents who read to me and encouraged me to read and learn. I had a wonderful teacher for the first through third grades in my one-room country school who was innovative in her teaching methods and encouraged my writing. Another high school English teacher got me involved in working on the school newspaper and encouraged me to pursue journalism. The instructors in the fiction writing classes I took helped me to hone my craft, and the writers’ and critique groups I belong to now take me to a higher level with each project I undertake.

Parents who were avid readers and teachers who believed in encouraging their students to write—the world needs more of both! What do you consider the single most satisfying aspect of being a writer?

There are many, from just having a good word-flow day to getting that first “yes” after a series of “no thanks.” But I think what makes me feel the most satisfied is when I get feedback from a reader (woman or man) who says “I tasted the dust, and smelled the manure, and felt that steer bucking, and I cried when…” That’s when I know I’ve done a good job.

Great answer! Thanks for joining us, Heidi. I hope you’ll come back and visit us often.

For more information on Heidi Thomas and her books, visit:

Website: http://www.heidimthomas.com

Blog: http://heidiwriter.wordpress.com

Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Heidi-M-Thomas-Author/113945861994671

Books are available through Heidi’s website (autographed) and from her publisher http://www.trebleheartbooks.com. Cowgirl Dreams is available for Nook and Follow the Dream is on Kindle.

Most of our readers know about Whistling Woman, the book Christy and I wrote about our great-aunt’s formative years living in Hot Springs, North Carolina. In an effort to remain true to the history of the small town, we did tons of research both on-line and in books. Luckily, a cousin of ours, Jackie Burgin Painter, who grew up in Hot Springs had written several books about the area, including our most valuable research tool, The Season of Dorland-Bell, History of an Appalachian Mission School and An Appalachian Medley: Hot Springs and the Gentry Family, Vol. 1. In Jackie’s books we were able to see pictures of our great-grandfather (Papa in Whistling Woman), John Daniels, as well as a copy of Aunt Bessie’s diploma from Dorland-Bell (Dorland Institute at the time) dated May 21, 1899. And we also learned about Aunt Bessie’s sure-fire cold remedy (warm moonshine mixed with honey and rock candy).

The books were a tremendous help to us but I think the one thing that really made us feel as if we were a part of what we were writing were the frequent visits to Hot Springs. Both of us feel a sense of “homecoming” whenever we go there, whether for a couple of days to edit or for only a couple of hours to have lunch.

This past Wednesday, using the excuse of our mom’s birthday, we met in Hot Springs for lunch at what has become our usual place (so much so that the waitresses recognize us!), the Smoky Mountain Diner. The weather was perfect, sunshine, very little wind, and temperatures in the 60s, so we took the opportunity to stroll around and take pictures (don’t ask me why we never thought to do that before) and we’d like to take you on a walking tour of our favorite town, Hot Springs.

Here we go! We’ll start at Smoky Mountain Diner where we usually eat. Best hot dogs in town (or anywhere else, for that matter) and they have a lot of options, everything from pizza to pot roast. All yummy!

Walking down the right side of Bridge Street (the main road) toward downtown the first thing we come to is a marker for the Appalachian Trail which runs the length of the town. Hot Springs is well known to hikers and they host a trailfest during the summer.

Also, along Bridge Street, you’ll see historical markers about happenings and places in the town. First is one about an English folklorist, Cecil Sharp, who collected ballads of the “Laurel” area in 1916 and the next one is about Dorland-Bell Institute which is where Great-aunt Bessie went to school.

                                         

Next up, is another favorite of ours, the Hot Springs Public Library. This was the first place we went when we started doing the research on the book. The librarians are friendly, knowledgeable, and very helpful.

After the library, it’s Gentry Hardware. The Gentry family is well known in Hot Springs and have been there almost since the beginning. Jackie’s book, An Appalachian Medley, is about the Gentry family.

And then we come to the Hot Springs Welcome Center. The welcome center used to be housed in a Southern Railway caboose, which they moved just down the road from the new building.

                                           

Next, we cross the bridge over Spring Creek. The creek played an important part in our Great-aunt Bessie’s life. It weaves throughout the story a lot like it weaves through the town of Hot Springs.

                                            

Next, comes the Hot Springs City Hall. No one could tell us if this is the actual location of the small jail we describe in Whistling Woman, but in our minds as we were writing, this is where we imagined Papa’s office was.

Cross the railroad tracks and cross the street and you come to the Hot Springs Resort and Spa, excuse me, the World Famous Hot Springs Resort and Spa (at least that’s what the gate says). This is where you can go to take the waters and cure whatever ails you. It’s not as grand as the Mountain Park Inn that stood there in Aunt Bessie’s time but it still is the focal point of the town.

         

Going back down the other side of the street, our first stop is at the Harvest Moon Gallery in a house that was built back in the 1800’s. We’d been told one of the houses our great-grandfather built was still standing and were hoping this was the one. Research showed it wasn’t, but it was so close to the house we described in the story it was a bit spooky when the owner allowed us to walk through as if it was our own home. (Why am I hearing the theme from Twilight Zone in my head?)

                                             

After that, it’s the Dorland-Bell Presbyterian Church which was built and opened in 1900. The chapel takes center stage in an important event in Great-aunt Bessie’s life. It’s a gorgeous building even though it’s over a hundred years old and the stained glass windows alone are worth a trip to Hot Springs.

                                               

Last but not least, behind the chapel we have the Hot Springs First Baptist Church which is where Great-aunt Bessie’s graduation ceremony from the Dorland Insitute was held (this was before the chapel was built). They used the Baptist Church because Dorland didn’t have a building large enough to hold all the people who came to see the graduation. Great-aunt Bessie was one of only seven members of the first graduating class but it was an event important enough to the town to have people coming from near and far to see it. As a matter of fact, it was so well attended they had to hold two ceremonies, one in the afternoon and another one in the evening, to accommodate everyone.

         

So there you have it, our favorite little town nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, or as the sign for Madison County says, “The Jewel of the Blue Ridge.” We hope you’ve enjoyed walking with us through the setting of our book, Whistling Woman, and hope if you ever find yourself in Hot Springs you’ll stop in at the Smoky Mountain Diner for a cup of coffee and a slice of their scrumptious pecan pie or maybe a piece of their delicious German chocolate cake. And don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for a glimpse of Papa, Bessie, Mama, Roy, Loney, Green, and Thee–we’re convinced their spirits are all there.

Whistling Woman is available in ebook at Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and on Smashwords. Print version coming soon!

Whistling Woman by CC Tillery

CC Tillery has some big news to share! But first, a little backstory–toward the end of our book, Whistling Woman, the family celebrates Old Christmas, with Papa and Bessie telling Thee the meaning and the myths behind the holiday. The following is an edited section–no spoilers here!–from Chapter Twenty-one, Winter 1900, entitled, Breaking up Christmas:

Papa is talking to Thee:

“Ya’ see, boy, midnight tonight is when the baby Jesus was first presented to the world. That was when the three Wise Men arrived at the stables where Mary and Joseph had taken shelter so Mary could have her baby. The Wise Men had traveled for miles, following the light of a single star, because they wanted to honor the birth of their Savior. When they showed up and offered the gifts they’d brought, all the animals in the stables woke up, adding their praise to that of the three Wise Men and the angels singing up above. And to this day, they say if you go out right at midnight and stand quietly, you can hear the animals praying, and some say if you can get a look at them, you’ll see them kneeling, too. Don’t know how true it is, but I’ve heard tell that the wild animals out in the woods and up on the mountains wake, stand up, and then lay back down on their other side.”

I looked at Thee, his eyes wide and filled with love, and knew right then and there that not only could I forgive Papa, I had to for the sake of my family.

Loney, who loved Christmas, sat in the chair beside Papa with a nearly completed quilt top spread across her lap. She’d heard the story many times, but when Papa started telling it, she stopped sewing and listened as raptly as Thee. When the story was finished, she smiled and asked, “Have you ever seen the animals pray, Papa?”

“Can’t rightly say I have, but I’ve heard tell of people who sneak out at midnight and have seen it. ’Course, there’s folks who say it’s bad luck to go looking for the signs of Old Christmas, that if you do, something bad will happen to you. I don’t think that’s so, though, since the people I talked to that claim to have seen and heard it all looked hearty to me.”

“But if you just happen to be out and see a sign, then it’s all right?”

“Sure it is but why would a person be out in the barn at midnight?”

Playing along, Loney said, “Maybe they were late getting home and had to put their horse in the stable before they could go to bed?”

Papa laughed. “Could be, Loney, but we’re all safe at home, as most people are on a cold winter night, so I guess we’ll stay right here and let the animals and alder bushes do what they do without us.”

“The alder bushes?”

Papa winked at Thee. “Did I forget that part? Well, Loney, the animals aren’t the only ones who honor the birth of the baby Jesus. The alder bushes do, too. Right at midnight on Old Christmas Eve, no matter how cold the night is or how much snow’s on the ground, the alder bushes burst into bloom and some say they even sprout new branches. I’ve also heard it said that if you listen closely, you can hear the bees roar in the bee-gum, as if they wanted to swarm.”

Thee stood up, leaned on Papa’s knee and said, “Can we see the animals, Papa?”

“Maybe in a few more years, when you’re old enough to stay up until midnight but not this year, boy. This year, I’d say you’ll be fast asleep by the time midnight rolls around. Why, you already look like its long past your bedtime and here it’s barely gone dark. It’s a long time till midnight.”

Thee’s little face crumpled and Papa patted his head. “Tell you what, Thee, if you can keep your eyes open till then, I’ll take you out to the barn myself and we’ll see what we can see.”

Clapping his hands, Thee jumped up and down. Jack chortled and did her best to slap her tiny hands together, too.

“But Papa, what if it is bad luck?” Loney asked.

“Pshaw, girl, I’ve talked to lots of people who say they’ve seen just such a thing and they were all living and breathing when they told me.”

Loney picked up her needle and started working on the quilt top again. “Wouldn’t that be a lovely thing to see, all the animals honoring Jesus like that?”  She looked down at Thee and smiled. “I think it might be worth taking a chance on some bad luck, don’t you, little man?”

Thee nodded and clapped his hands again. “Tell us some more, Papa.”

“Why that’s all I know to tell, boy. Maybe Bess knows more.”

Thee ran over to me where I sat on the sofa. “Tell, Bessie, tell.”

I smiled at him and ruffled his hair. “I’ll tell you what else happens during the twelve days of Christmas, Thee, but it’s about people, not about the animals.”

He looked doubtful but sat down at my feet, prepared to listen.

“There are some things you shouldn’t do, like lend anything to anybody during the twelve days of Christmas because if you do you’ll never get it back.” I pointed to the fireplace. “You see how the ashes are piling up in the hearth over there? That’s because it’s bad luck to clean them out during the twelve days. It’s also bad luck to wash your bed sheets until Old Christmas is over.”  I leaned down and sniffed at Thee. “Good thing we only have one more day, else we wouldn’t be able to stand the smell.”

Thee giggled and dramatically sniffed the skirt of my dress, wrinkling his little nose.

“Tonight is Old Christmas Eve and at midnight people everywhere will be breaking up Christmas.”  His face crumpled again and I went on hurriedly, “That’s not a bad thing. What it means is most people will drink sweet cider and burn a piece of cedar or pine in the fire as a way of saying farewell to the season.

“Do they have to break it because it’s old?”

I smiled. “No, sweetie. You see, some people believe the twenty-fifth of December is the day when the baby Jesus was born and the sixth of January is when He was first presented to the three Wise Men and to the world. But a long time ago, most people believed the sixth was the day when He was truly born and that’s when they celebrated so that day came to be known as Old Christmas. There are twelve days between the two dates, from December 25th, the ‘new’ Christmas, to January 6th, the ‘old’ Christmas, and that gives us the twelve days of Christmas. During those twelve days, people have what they call Breaking Up Christmas parties. Tonight’s party is at Aunt Belle’s house and there will be lots of sweet cider to drink and music for dancing.” I leaned down. “And I’ll tell you a secret if you promise not to tell. Promise?”

He nodded.

I bent down and whispered, “Aunt Belle is planning on having a small fire in the street outside her house right at midnight so that people can burn a piece of cedar or pine to officially Break Up Christmas. Don’t tell Papa though, or he might have to arrest Aunt Belle.”

Thee laughed and whispered back, “I won’t. Can I go and see the fire?”

“If you do, how will you see the animals in the barn when they kneel down to pray?”

He frowned. Uncle Ned boarded his horse at the town livery stables so Aunt Belle didn’t have a barn or any animals he could spy on to see if they really did pray at midnight.

I took his chin in my hand and lifted it to give him a kiss. “Why don’t you stay here with Papa and Loney, and if you can stay awake, Papa will take you out to see the animals. You can see a fire in the fireplace any old time and Roy and I will be sure to burn a piece of pine in Aunt Belle’s fire to break up Christmas for you.”

Roy came in from the barn, bringing the crisp smell of winter with him. “You about ready to go, Bessie? I’ve got the horses hitched up and they’re champing at the bit.”

I stood, lifting Thee with me. “You keep those eyes open tonight, Theodore Norton. I want to hear all about what you see tomorrow.”

He put his arms around my neck and hugged me, whispering, “I will, Bessie,” in my ear. I squeezed him before kissing his cheek and setting him down on the floor.

Walking over to Papa, I kissed Jack on the top of her head first then bent further in to kiss Papa’s cheek. I turned to Loney who set her quilting aside and stood up.

“Have a good time, Bess.”  She stepped forward and kissed my cheek, which surprised me. Loney wasn’t usually given to outward signs of affection.

I took her hand and squeezed it. “You sure you don’t mind staying home with the babies? I can stay and you can go to the party if you want.”

She smiled. “I don’t mind a bit. You know how much I enjoy taking care of them. You and Roy have fun.”

I hugged her goodbye. At the door, I turned and looked at my family and the strangest sensation washed over me, as if I stood far away, seeing them in a dream. I could feel their love for me, just as I could mine for them, but there was a distance there, a deep chasm keeping them from me.

Now for the big news, in honor of Old Christmas, and as a way of saying thanks to everyone who’s been involved with this book for the last four years, Christy and I decided to have a special 12 Days of Christmas sale. That means from December 26, 2011 until January 6, 2012, you’ll be able to download the Kindle version of Whistling Woman for only 99 cents!

Enjoy and a very happy holiday season to everyone!

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