Sandra Gulland

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Notes on (surviving) the writing life

Welcome to my blog on writing and the writing life. I also blog on research subjects at Baroque Explorations.

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Quill copy


Eyes like a comb-box: in search of 18th century similes

When I get stuck for a simile or metaphor, I sometimes rummage around on Books Google.

Eyes like … ?

What would someone in the 17th or 18th century have said?

Eyes like fish pools.

Not exactly what I was looking for!

Eyes like a comb-box.

I admit: this one intrigued me. What is a comb-box? A quick Google search for “18th century comb-box” revealed a wealth of them.

comb boxes

But nothing whatsoever like “eyes,” however.

Intrigued, I followed the link and discovered The Works of Francis Rabelais, published in 1738. Chapter XXX is a long list of nonsensical (at least to me) similes:

The nape of the neck like a paper lantern.

Spittle like a shuttle. 

The bridge of his nose like a wheel-barrow. 

The windpipe like an oyster-knife. 

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This one is perfect, however:

Hair like a scrubbing-brush.

Of course all this led to an exploration of what Rabelais was getting at (an anti-Catholic spoof of sorts), which only goes to prove how diverting procrastination can be.

Now, as for those eyes


For those of you who would like specific steps in using Books Google for this type of search:

Go to https://books.google.com

Type in a word or phrase. Click “Search books.”

On the page that comes up, click “Search tools.”

Then click “Any time” and a menu will drop down.

Click “Custom range.” Enter your range and click “GO.”

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February 21, 2015 @ 1:43 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment





A love letter to old Finn

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{Finnegan in 2004}

My dear and very old horse Finnegan was mercifully put out of his pain in the wee hours of this morning, Valentine’s day.

Dawn Townshend, who has lovingly looked after him for decades at her stable in Petawawa, sent me a message around 6:00 last night to let me know that Finn was in trouble.

I wept. Finn had had a very rough spell the winter before and had nearly died. Under Dawn’s care, he revived, and looked amazingly hale and hearty last summer.

Me & Finn, rain, summer 2014

In October, as my husband and I prepared to head south, I said my good-byes, knowing that old Finn might not survive a harsh winter. After all, it was a miracle he’d lived as long as he had. He’d been “30-something” for quite some time.

Finn had loving care and that was always a comfort: Dawn put apple juice in his water to entice him to drink, special supplements in his feed to keep him healthy, blanketed him to keep him warm. He had the roomiest stall in the stable, right at the front, from where he could keep track of all the comings and goings.

I believe Finn was eight when I bought him, perhaps ten, so I’ve had the honour of his company for over two decades. He was a Thoroughbred, a gentleman, docile and somewhat pokey—a perfect match for me. He was a wonderful horse to ride: his gaits were smooth and he rarely startled. When I wasn’t riding him, he served as a trustworthy school horse. When both Finn and I were much younger, we won modest ribbons for hunter jumping, but my sweetest memories are setting out on trail with him, alone for hours in the beautiful woods.

Close to midnight, Dawn messaged me that Finn was not responding to the pain medications and that the vet was on her way. “Love the old guy too much to let him suffer.”

And so it began, the leave-taking, the tears. Just after 1:00, Dawn wrote that Finn had died peacefully, “surrounded by people who loved him.”

“The last thing he knew were kind words and a soft hand stroking his face.”

“Finn left like the kind old soul he always was.”

I’ve heard it said that it takes eight horses to find the horse that is meant for you. That horse was my Finnegan, and I will have no other. He was dearly, dearly loved by many.

R.I.P. dear old Finn.

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February 14, 2015 @ 1:07 pm5 comments already! | Leave a Comment





Writing with writerly diversions

SMA

It’s a busy week in San Miguel de Allende: the Writers’ Conference is on and there are many writers in town.

Yesterday I heard Tracy Chevalier‘s keynote address on the importance of history (wonderful), and tonight my husband and I are going to hear Scott Turow. Tomorrow, Gloria Steinem, and Saturday, Jane Urquhart.

I likely would not have written the Josephine B. Trilogy had it not been for the advice of Jane Urquhart, who was writer-in-residence at the Univ. of Ottawa when I was trying to figure out what to do with my very messy draft of a contemporary-mystery-comedy. I’m especially excited to see her.


As busy as all this sounds, I’m taking it relatively easy this year, because I’m working on draft 5 of The Game of Hope.

Something I wish I had the patience to do:

“I have done the second draft of all of my novels in longhand so that I slow down and think about what I’m doing more. That has been extremely helpful.” — Russell Rowland in a 5 on interview. He also has some very interesting things to say about self-publishing.

Interestingly, Tracy Chevalier writes in longhand, and then types the day’s work into the computer at the end of the day.


An excellent overview: The 8 Habits of Highly Successful Young-Adult Fiction Authors


Toews

What I’m reading now: All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews. Wonderful!


The photo of San Miguel de Allende at the top is by photographer and friend Leah Feldon.

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February 12, 2015 @ 1:04 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment





Perspectives on infinity

Earth

Remember the first photos of Earth from space? It created a sea-change in our perspective.

As a child, my father found it amusing how disturbed I was by the idea of infinity. I am challenged anew, and in a rather marvellous way, seeing this amazing NASA video.

The word “perspective” has many meanings. It is an old word, dating from 1300s.

1387: Aristotle..made..problemys of perspective [L. perspectiva problemata] and of methaphesik.

a1661    W. Brereton Trav. (1844) 60   Wm. Daviseon offered to furnish me with a couple of these perspectives, which shew the new-found motion of the stars about Jupiter.

1692   tr. C. de Saint-Évremond Misc. Ess. 280   By the means of great Perspectives, which Invention becomes more perfect every Day, they discover new Planets.

1605    Bacon Of Aduancem. Learning  ii. sig. Hh3,   We haue endeauoured in these our Partitions to observe a kind of perspectiue, that one part may cast light vpon another.

It’s this last, the sense of “putting things in perspective,” that this NASA video vividly evokes for me. What do our own small lives matter, after all?

I am consoled by William Blake’s lines from Auguries of Innocence:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

I begin each day working to create a world on the page. Every age has its moment of wonder, of awe, of expanded perspective. I’m wondering what that moment was for Hortense at the end of the 18th century.


Worth reading …

The Incident of the Fly Swatter, a blog post on Wonders & Marvels, on some historical perspective on the relationship between France and the Muslim world.

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January 30, 2015 @ 6:22 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment





Unpacking, packing, unpacking … how not to deal with “stuff”

We’re back in San Miguel de Allende, back from the beach. It’s always wonderful to come home, but I miss the heat and the sound of the surf. I miss the enchantment of sunsets.

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I’m sitting now in my office with my favourite coffee mug on the table beside me and my computer on my lap. I soon must get back to working on Draft 5 of The Game of Hope.

But first: it’s time to go through our photos, is it not? Here’s a panorama stitched together with DoubleTake software:

Panoramic with DoubleTake (smaller)

As I slowly get my office back in order—unpacking, finding the cords, the stacks of Things To Do—I tell myself that now is the time to be selective: throw things out. And so I try: one, maybe two truly-useless things get pitched, but only after great deliberation. Hopeless!

Have you watched this Seinfeld video on “Too Much Stuff“? He’s “congratulating” everyone in the audience for having won a flat-screen TV:



Talk about stuff! Will Self’s writing room: hard to imagine.

Will Self's writing room

Coincidently, I use his book Psycho Geography as a mouse pad.

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January 26, 2015 @ 3:52 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment





On reading, writing & taking an on-line course: getting things done to the sound of the surf

Casita

My husband and I have been staying in one of our favourite spots, a Solecito casita on beautiful Playa Blanca on the Mexican Pacific coast. (Our casita: the one shown above.)

It’s a totally relaxing time for us, and—surprisingly—one of the pleasures, for me, is that I get quite a bit done:

• I edited the 4th draft of The Game of Hope and began draft 5.

Sat Night

• I read a lot, likely because I’m reading on my little Kindle, and not on the Kindle app on my Net-connected iPad.

• I finished THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS by Michel Faber (my first Sci-Fi), and am close to finishing THE GIRL WHO WAS SATURDAY NIGHT by Heather O’Neill. (Delightful! I have previously read and very much enjoyed LULLABIES FOR LITTLE CRIMINALS.) I’m still reading and highly recommend Publishing 101 by Jane Friedman as well as various research books.

• I read a pdf of wonderful novel that I gave a rave quote for … I’ll have more to say on this book when it is published in March.

Light

• I listened to a wonderful audible recording of ALL THE LIGHT YOU CANNOT SEE, a novel by Anthony Doerr that was on virtually every “best of 2014″ book list.

Coursera.org: How to Learn

I caught up on the video lectures of a Coursera course I’m taking on how to learn. (You can watch them here.)

Why am I following this course? Because I am determined to become more conversant in both French and Spanish. (In fact, as I go for my daily walk on the beach, I listen to French tapes.)

My research method

This course has got me reconsidering my writing research method. I used to write notes out by hand. Now I prefer highlighting passages on Kindle and sending these to Evernote—knowing that I can always find the information should I need it.

Effortless! Right?

Not exactly. Evernote is great, but the trouble is: when I look for something on Evernote, I find the mass of notes overwhelming. It’s not that functional system for me, in truth, and I’ve long had a hunch that writing down notes by hand was more effective. This Coursera course has confirmed the importance of approaching information through different media.

Another problem I have is resistance to organizing my research. I’m content to cruse the Net, buy new books, read and highlight them, but I’m somewhat scattered and slapdash about it, in truth.

220px-Il_pomodoro

This course has reminded me of the value of the Pomodoro approach: setting a timer for 25 minutes of focussed distraction-free (i.e. Net-free) period of time.

It has also reminded me of the key importance of review: and this is where note-taking comes in.

The course also emphasises how important relaxation is to learning. And so … to the hammock.

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January 23, 2015 @ 5:20 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment





Pleasantly Lost in Austen

“Selkie,” a reader of this blog, left a comment on my “best of 2014” blog post about my love of the 2005 film Pride and Prejudice (staring Kiera Knightly). She said she watches an Austen movie once a week. (I can understand!) Very kindly, she gave me a list to share here. As comprehensive as it is, she notes that is only of the films she owns.

emma 1972

Emma (1972), starring Doran Godwin and John Carson.

Emma (1996), starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam.

Emma (1996), starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong.

Mansfield Park (1983), starring Sylvestra Le Touzel and Nicholas Farrell.

Northanger Abby (1986), starring Katherine Svhlesinger and Peter Firth.

Persuasion (1971), starring Firbank and Bryan Marshall.

Pride and Prejudice (1940), starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier.

Pride and Prejudice (1980), starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul.

Pride and Prejudice (2003—an extremely modern version), starring Kim Heskin and Orlando Seale.

Pride and Prejudice (2005), starring Kiera Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen.

Sense and Sensibility (1981), starring Irene Richard and Tracey Childs.

Sense and Sensibility (2004), starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant.

Related movies: 

Becoming Jane

Becoming Jane (2007), starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy.

Lost in Austen (2008), starring Jemima Rooper and Elliot Cowan.

About this last one,  Selkie notes, “I absolutely love this movie!” That’s high praise indeed; I’m going to try to find it!

Thank you so much, Selkie!


I discovered that I had a 6-book credit on Audible.com that had to be used before the end of this month. Needless-to-say, I went on a book-buying spree. Here’s what I bought:

landline

Landline by Rainbow Rowell, because I enjoy YA and I especially enjoy Rowell’s work.

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. On many “best of 2014″ lists.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Ditto.

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill. This unusual novel was on the very interesting New York Times 10 Best Books of 2014 list and I really liked what the NY Times team had to say about it on their Podcast. (It’s a poetic novel, and I’m not sure how well it will work on audible, however.)

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. This one is on virtually every “best of” list.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron. Because laughing is wonderful, but most of all, because it is narrated by the amazing Meryl Streep.

I listen to “books on tape” (not that they are on tape anymore) when I’m exercising, so this collection should get me in excellent form.

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January 16, 2015 @ 12:24 pm2 comments already! | Leave a Comment





A crazy publication day

News

Yesterday was a crazy day: I sent out a newsletter, the U.S. paperback edition of The Shadow Queen came out, andquite by coincidence — my INK e-book edition of The Shadow Queen launched in the UK and beyond.

TSQfinalcover2Shadow Queen Anchor (US) ppbk cover

Any one of these requires quite a bit of on-line attention, but to have all three in one morning?

Too much!

By 11:00, I decided I needed a walk, so I went out to buy watercolour supplies for the class I’m taking this afternoon. Very therapeutic!

And soon … to the beach, where I will be reading the 4th draft of The Game of Hope with an editorial eye. I put the novel aside December 1. It will be interesting to read it afresh.


I’m reading:

Publishing 101 by Jane Friedman. Excellent. Highly recommended.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. I’m only a few chapters in and I love it already. Will it last? I very rarely read speculative fiction. I suspect this one will hold me.

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January 7, 2015 @ 9:30 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment





The essential first step on the path to publication

New Yorkers

Memory snap-shot: my father at the kitchen table, leafing through an issue of the New Yorker. He turns the last page and pushes the magazine away. “I didn’t get a single one.”

Anatomy of a New Yorker cartoon,” a Ted talk by Bob Mankoff, the magazine’s cartoon editor, is (of course!) quite funny. It is also insightful into how humour works, the creative process, and what it takes to succeed in getting something published.

The New Yorker receives around 1,000 cartoons each week, and only publishes about 17 of them. Mankoff himself had the first 1000 cartoons he submitted rejected. One thousand!

Step one for all creatives: collect 1000 rejections. 

After years of making the New Year resolution to “get something published” — and failing every year — I decided that my resolution was the problem. The following New Year, I instead made the resolution to begin a collection of rejection letters, a collection that I intended to ultimately include a rejection from every literary magazine in North America.

I didn’t get very far, for — ironically — that was the year my Josephine B. Trilogy was accepted for publication. My many rejections had finally paid off.

An essential truth of the writing life is that the path to publication is paved with rejections. Perseverance is the key.

On that sobering note, enjoy a little New Yorker humour:

Happy New Year! May your 2015 be creative and fruitful.


corsets

In Mexico, Italy and elsewhere, one wears red underwear on New Year’s Eve, promising passion in the year ahead. Yellow signifies prosperity, so some wear both yellow and red.

What colour should a writer wear?

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December 31, 2014 @ 6:30 pm2 comments already! | Leave a Comment





My year in Dot Com

Site summary

The annual report on my website from WordPress is kind of fun:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 36,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 13 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

“selkie” was my most active blog commentator: thank you so much, selkie! (The posts inspired by your astonishing lists of period films will be coming in the New Year.)

I do love WordPress.

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December 30, 2014 @ 9:18 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment





Getting ready for 2015: resolutions on book-keeping & book-making, the post-it To Do and the Seinfeld “Don’t break the chain” methods … or how to write that damned book!

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Last year, I posted a blog with almost this same name—Getting ready for 2014: resolutions on book-keeping and book-making.

I wrote:

We’ve made our resolutions, and one of mine is get to the bottom of the mail in-box three times in the year ahead. Wish me luck.

I’ve gotten fairly good about in-box zero; what I’m not that good at is actually dealing with the emails that I hide away in files with names like “URGENT” “FOLLOW-UP!”

Another resolution is to deliver The Game of Hope ahead of schedule (it’s due December 1). That will take more than luck: that will take constant perseverance!

Bravo! I did manage to do this, sending The Game of Hope to my publisher two days ahead of the due date.

I had other resolutions, of course: keeping my weight down, exercising, etc., which I kept fairly in-line. (I could have done better.)

What I did evolve this year—eventually—were two motivational systems for actually getting things done.

1: The Post-It method

  • My To Do List for the day must fit on a post-it note (and not a big one).
  • Each item should be measurable: i.e. “30 minutes, bookkeeping.”
  • Tasks that are irksome should be introduced in 15-min. chunks. (I.e., said bookkeeping.)

2: The Jerry Seinfeld “Don’t Break the Chain” method

In conjunction with the daily post-it (as well as a more extensive compost-heap of long-term things to do), I’ve started using the Seinfeld method for the one daily task I resist most strongly: exercising. That I’ve finally found a way to actually overcome my resistance is a strong testimonial to the effectiveness of this method.

Here is a snap from my “Don’t Break the Chain” calendar earlier this year:

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Every day I do what I’ve promised (30 minutes on the treadmill, in this instance), I colour in the date. The idea is not to have any gaps—and the visual reminder, for me, is strong.

Seinfeld originally suggested this system for writing. (I wrote about using the Seinfeld “Don’t Break the Chain” method in another blog post: A writer’s routine: how many … hours, days, word?) I highly recommend this system if you want to write very day: just make sure that the daily goal you set isn’t overly ambitious. It’s better to write for 30 minutes a day every day, than to attempt 2 hours a day and fail.

“Don’t Break the Chain” calendars

If you’re going to use the Seinfeld method, you need to print out a continuous calendar. Click to download a printable version of this one I created using PDFCalendar.com:

calendar-2

Another continuous calendar created by David Seah allows you to make notes:

CompactCalendar2015-ms-US

The Writer’s Store also offers a calendar to print out: here.


I have a system when it comes to writing a draft: I set a goal of about about 1000 words a day and record my progress in a small Moleskine diary. If you are casting about for a way to keep track, consider this Word Tracking Calendar, also by David Seah.


I was amused to find these very old To Do Lists of mine:

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The colours were random—they did not signify anything. Note the To Do: “figure out the fax machine.” I never did manage that!

My resolutions this year? To finish The Game of Hope and write a solid first draft of The Princess Problem (the working title of the second Young Adult about Hortense). Also: keep up with daily exercise.

And, of course: in-box zero—but without simply filing away the emails to be answered.

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December 29, 2014 @ 11:15 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment





Watercolour therapy

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Yesterday, I went to a watercolour class. Before heading out, I searched my computer for for the address, but up popped a biographical essay I wrote many years ago: “Watercolors.”

It’s about my teen years, and about my mother, but most of all it’s about creativity and renewal. I wrote it for an anthology edited by my friend Victoria Zackheim: The Face in the Mirror; Writers Reflect on Their Dreams of Youth and the Reality of Age. It’s a biographical essay, as close as I’ve ever come to a memoir, and rereading it again brought tears. I’m thinking I might publish it as a chapbook, sub-titling it “An exceedingly short memoir of a rather long life.”

How à-propos that this essay should have reappeared just now, for I’ve been in the betwixt and between fog that it addresses—a fog I go into after a manuscript is sent out and before a new draft or novel is begun. In the essay, watercolours are seen as key to reviving creative doldrums.

Ah ha. 

(I’m reminded of a chapbook by Henry Miller I treasure: To Paint is to Love Again.

Miller

It’s a collector’s item now, a bit expensive, but you can hear him reading from it on YouTube.)

The class, taught by Canadian artist Donna Dickson, was excellent: tools and techniques and, for me, total absorption for a good three hours. Writing is such a mental, even abstract art, it’s refreshing to engage with the physical world in this way.

Above is a snapshot of a watercolour I painted this summer. It wouldn’t be honest  to claim that it’s only the process that matters, but in truth it really is about process … and right now my process is learning techniques and how to use the tools.

That said, what I love most about the visual arts is that they open me up to seeing the world in a new way.

(See To Paint Is to Love Again: Henry Miller on Art, How Hobbies Enrich Us, and Why Good Friends Are Essential for Creative Work on Brainpickings.com.)


Here is the painting I did for Donna Dickson‘s class. She’s an excellent teacher. Watercolours are such a pleasure!

Nopales

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December 18, 2014 @ 9:18 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment





Inside out: not unlike the writing process

I adore this trailer for the new Disney movie Inside Out:

It reminds me of all the voices in my head when writing a scene:

  • Why would she do that?
  • What are the others thinking?
  • Someone, do something!!!

I’m excited this morning about an idea for the covers of the INK non-fiction titles I’m planning. Designer Kris Waldherr and I have had several back-‘n-forths. The new idea is to have them look a little like old chap-books with marbled papers.

Looking at marbled papers just about put me into an aesthetic swoon. Google “marbled pages” for yourself and you will see:

marbled pages

If you want to see more of these, go to my Pinterest board, where I’m collecting ideas.

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December 13, 2014 @ 12:51 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment





Online amusements: Josephine—the sorrowful wife?—and Napoleon’s Tweets

Mention

I’ve recently started using the “Never miss a thing online” Mention app. Just what I don’t need—right?—but being a Social Media Nerd, and terminally curious, I thought I’d give it a try. For starters I searched my name (of course), as well as mentions of Hortense and Napoleon.

It has turned up some surprising links.

This Turkish site, for one, on the theme of “the sorrowful wife.” In the book section, they display four titles:

The Sorrowful Wife

Yep, there’s sorrowful Jo right beside a novel by Goethe. My smile for the day.


Do you belong to Book Movement? (If not, it’s free.) It’s great site for book clubs and readers generally. Last spring, M.J. Rose and I did a special for their newsletter on our books — her’s, The Collector of Dying Breaths, and mine, The Shadow Queen — which are remarkably similar in a number of ways. It’s online again: you can read it here.


Grumpy Nap

As for Hortense, her step-father Napoleon completely overshadows her. As he does. She has not a single mention, yet he has 5571! Clearly, he is the master of the Tweetable quote.

  • “The word impossible is not in my dictionary.”
  • “The best cure for the body is a quiet mind.” (Yet his mind was far from quiet.)
  •  “A leader is a dealer in hope.”

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December 9, 2014 @ 10:19 am3 comments already! | Leave a Comment





That naughty Saint Nick: trouble—and romance?—in toyland

Santa-scary

Author and screenwriter Robin Maxwell recently wrote to me about, among other things, that mischievous Saint Nick.  While she and her long-time collaborator Billie Morton were researching the history of Santa for their recently-published Middle Grade novel Trouble in Toyland, they learned that in Renaissance England the idea of a jolly, gift-bringing immortal of the Yuletide season called “Father Christmas” came into existence during the reign of Henry VIII. This inspired them to write “Lady Karola and the Christmas Stranger,” a Renaissance romance short story (with a touch of fantasy) that takes place on Christmas Eve at the court of Elizabeth I, when one of the queen’s waiting ladies first lays eyes on a mysterious stranger.

Ho ho ho!

(See my own blog post on that wild and crazy guy: Would you want this man sneaking down your chimney?)


Family life

Of all the books I’ve recently acquired, the one that has most charmingly hooked me is Family Life by Akhil Sharma. If you’ve read about this memoir, you may be scared off—the author’s brother is tragically paralyzed in a swimming accident—but believe me: it’s gentle and warm and humorous. Beautifully written. I highly recommend it.

 



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December 8, 2014 @ 6:35 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment