Category Archives: Random thoughts

It’s in the eyes

Standard
Photo of an ancient Egyptian funerary mask from the Papyrus Museum, Vienna, by Diana Ringo. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Photo of an ancient Egyptian funerary mask from the Papyrus Museum, Vienna, by Diana Ringo. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

I write contemporary romance novels with a strong secondary plot, or contemporary novels with a strong romance plot, depending on which agent or editor you’re talking to. Although I like reading and writing romance, making the couple’s interest in each other believable is difficult. Escalating the romance with the action plot is complicated, and how do you show that these people are right for each other? As a writer, you have to get past looks. What makes readers know that these two will survive lust and hang in for the long haul? And how can I show that on the page?

As it (conveniently!) happens, two University of Chicago neuroscientists have studied how people look at each other when they’re in love—or lust. John and Stephanie Cacioppo examined whether people look at others differently if they perceive a long-term companion, or a temporary sexual partner.

They showed heterosexual college students photos of persons of the opposite sex. The researchers asked subjects whether an image elicited feelings of romance or lust, and tracking software recorded participants’ eye movements.

The results, published in Psychological Science, aren’t shocking, or even surprising. The researchers found that people interested in the long haul focus on the eyes and face of the other person. But those who want a fling focus on the rest of the body. Both men and women engage in this behavior, but women are less obvious about it. The scientists speculated that this might be because women have better peripheral vision.

This study corroborates their earlier findings. The Cacioppos had already conducted brain scans that proved that love and lust occupy different parts of the brain’s insula—true love activates its anterior region, but sexual desire lights up its posterior. Posterior regions are involved in current, concrete sensations, feelings, and responses, according to the researchers, “whereas anterior regions are more involved in abstract, integrative representations.”

The study results seem obvious, but still good to know. As the researchers say: “Reading other people’s eyes is a valuable skill during interpersonal interaction.” And that’s got to be a good skill for romance—and any other kind of—writer to understand. When your heroine reveals her deepest secrets—that’s when the hero has to look into her eyes. But when they’re dancing and she’s wearing a short skirt—it’s all about the legs.

The eyes have it!

 

 

Enjoy the moment

Standard

I’m just settling in after spending a few days in San Antonio at the annual Romance Writers of America annual conference. I had a great time with my co-bloggers over at 8 Ladies Writing. Six of the eight made it to the conference. Here we are, enjoying a post-RITA awards photo op!

Kat, Jilly, Justine, Jeanne, Kay, Elizabeth

Kat, Jilly, Justine, Jeanne, Kay, Elizabeth

The conference was a lot of fun. I met a lot of great people, I reconnected with old friends, I heard some great talks. I skipped the Alamo—I couldn’t face the excursion in the heat. Right now I’m resting, unpacking, and getting back to work. And soon, I expect, I’ll be extrapolating what I learned into my own projects. We’ll see! In any event, taking the time to celebrate friendships and accomplishments is always a good thing.

Shooting this vacation movie

Standard
This photo, shot by Timothy H. O'Sullivan (1840-1882), shows Sutler's bomb-proof "Fruit and Oyster House" located in Petersburg, Virginia, during the siege of Petersburg (June 1864-April 1865).

This photo is not of the cabin I rented for vacation. Shot by Timothy H. O’Sullivan (1840-1882), it shows Sutler’s bomb-proof “Fruit and Oyster House,” located in Petersburg, Virginia, during the siege of Petersburg (June 1864 to April 1865).

I got my credit card statement today, and the refund for my vacation cabin rental is on it, so now I can tell the story.

It was a movie-worthy vacation, blue skies, clear waters, scented pines—a movie that if I were pitching it to a Hollywood producer, I’d call Dos Amigos meets Chevy Chase on a bad vacation at the House of the Damned. Or maybe A Cabin in the Woods without the mad scientists.

Okay, so here’s what happened. The dos amigos arrive at the cottage late afternoon on Friday. We unload the car, open the cottage, pick our rooms, stash our stuff, and fill the fridge. By now it’s early evening and we turn on the stove to make a grilled cheese, and…the stove doesn’t work. And we’re cold, so we crank the heat, and…there’s no heat. We call the office and get an out-of-office message that they’ll be back Monday.

That has to be a lie, because it’s vacation season, so we make a ham sandwich and go to bed. The next morning, we drive down to the office and explain. They say they’ll send someone out.

He comes right away. He’s not a maintenance guy, he’s the lawn guy, but the maintenance guys are out of town at family graduations, and the lawn guy’s on standby. We think probably the circuits just got thrown, so he’ll fix that and we’ll be good.

And he does throw the circuit breakers, and he asks me to turn on the stove and see if the indicator light goes on, so I do and it does, and on a note of premature self-congratulations, he departs.

Night falls. We’re cold. The temps are dropping to 40 or so for the second night in a row, and we want some heat and a warm meal. So we turn on the stove, and the indicator light goes on, but in fact the stove does not heat up. And the furnace doesn’t kick in, either. So we make a ham sandwich and decide to go to bed. Except now we can’t brush our teeth, because we also don’t have any water. And the electric lights, when we turn them on, pulse. It’s like living in an emergency freezer.

The next morning we drive down to the office and explain what happened, and the maintenance guys come right out. They determine that the place needs an electrician, so they call him and we depart for a restaurant-cooked breakfast.

We come back early afternoon and he says everything is fixed. So I say, let’s do a check. I turn on the stove, and the indicator light goes on, and then the heat comes up. I turn on the furnace, and it kicks in. I turn the tap on the faucet, and water comes on. I hit the light switch, and the light comes out in a steady stream. All good!

The electrician and the maintenance guys take off. The dos amigos settle down in the rapidly warming living room to read. Just when I thought that the first-heat-of-the-season smell was a little too strong, the smoke detector starts to shriek. I pull the plug and drive down to the office. The maintenance guys come back and clank around on the furnace for a couple more hours. Then they dust off their hands and say it it’s fixed.

And it was. And it was good: stove, furnace, water, lights, all functioning properly. Except I never did get hot water upstairs. But the shower was downstairs, so tragedy was averted.

And today I got the refund. And a story.

 

Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

Standard

A great American writer has joined history. The message of the poem she wrote and read at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inaugural, “On the Pulse of Morning,” about how diversity enriches and strengthens us as a nation, stands in stark contrast to the actions of a young, disturbed madman in Santa Barbara recently.

Many others more eloquent than I have written about her themes of hope, love, inclusion, and dignity. If I can learn to write with one-third her power, I will count myself successful.

To hear her read the poem and find out what it meant to her, go here.

Something freakish this way comes

Standard

pillsThis happened to me on Twitter the other day. I was sitting up late at night, my allergies were going nuts, I was drowning in mucous, I was sneezing, I was coughing, my eyes were burning, my throat and ears were itchy, and I wrote a 140 character-with-spaces rant about it on Twitter, naming the over-the-counter medications I’d tried but that hadn’t worked. One of those medications I use all the time and usually have a lot of success with. The other medication I tried once and hurled it out the window.

So the next morning I log on to Twitter, and the company that makes the medication I like sent me a tweet, asking me to get in touch with their customer service department. I feel like the over-the-counter medicators are coming after me. Eek! I didn’t mean those bad things!

One million words and counting

Standard
Michael Proffitt on the grounds of Oxford University Press. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Michael Proffitt on the grounds of Oxford University Press. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

I read recently that the next (third) edition of the Oxford English Dictionary would come out approximately in the year 2034. This seemed like a really long time until I read more. The first edition was proposed in 1858 as a 10-year project. Five years in, the philolgists were up to “ant.” They needed 70 years to pull the first edition together. It came out in 1928.

The second edition was started in 1933 (so they got a little vacation in there) and came out in 1989. The third edition, now underway, began in 1994. It will have one million or more words in it.

These facts were interesting to me because when I was a young editor, I decided that when I was old and established and could afford it, I’d buy a copy of the OED and keep it on a book stand. To me, the OED was like a badge to a cop or a tiara to a princess. It was an emblem of certification, of accomplishment: I’m an editor, see? I have the best dictionary in the world.

For one reason or another, I never bought it. And now it’s probably too late. When the third edition is finished, it will have 40 volumes if it’s published in print. But the current editor, Michael Proffitt, says that unless at the time of publication a market develops for the print version, the reference will be placed online.

The work is going slowly because new words are being added to the vocabulary at an unprecedented rate. Each edition has more words than the last, because once included in the reference, no word is ever taken out. “We can hear everything that’s going on in the world of English for the last 500 years, and it’s deafening,” said the associate editor Peter Gilliver in an interview with The New York Times. Gilliver spent nine months revising definitions for the word “run,” currently the longest single entry in the OED.

The current OED text contains, in addition to literary references, blog and Twitter postings, quotations from gravestones, and an inscription in a high school yearbook. The philologists want to find the earliest and most illustrative uses of a word—not certify a word as “proper English.”

I feel a little nostalgic that my first professional icon of editorship—that of owning a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary—won’t come to pass. Of course, I could still buy the second edition (20 volumes for about US$1,700), or I could buy an on-line subscription. I probably won’t, though.

But I do love a good reference book. What writer wouldn’t? When you’re looking for just that one perfect word, it’s nice to know that somebody has compiled a million of them for you.

So here’s a little quiz. The following entries are in the OED. See if you know when these terms first appeared in the language.

OMG, I Am, Like, Literally Unfriending You. Whatever!

OMG. The first recorded appearance of this breathless acronym for “Oh, my God!” comes in a letter to Winston Churchill.

1917 J. A. F. Fisher Let. 9 Sept. in Memories (1919) v. 78. I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis — O.M.G. (Oh! My God!) — Shower it on the Admiralty!!

LITERALLY. Examples of this inversion go back to 1769. Even Mark Twain did it.

1876 ‘M. Twain’ Adventures Tom Sawyer ii. 20 And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.

LIKE. Few words annoy the purist like “like.”

1778 F. Burney Evelina II. xxiii. 222 Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship’s taking offence.

UNFRIEND. Facebook was born in 2004. Unfriending began earlier.

1659 T. Fuller Let. P. Heylyn in Appeal Injured Innoc. iii, I Hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.

WHATEVER. It’s not as old as “unfriend,” but it’s been around for a while.

1973 To our Returned Prisoners of War (U.S. Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs) 10 Whatever, equivalent to “that’s what I meant.” Usually implies boredom with topic or lack of concern for a precise definition of meaning.

 

 

Seventy-seven cents

Standard
The Women's Union Label League parades for women's equal pay in San Diego's Labor Day Parade, 1910. Women have been at the equal pay thing for a while.

The Women’s Union Label League parades for women’s equal pay in San Diego’s Labor Day Parade, 1910. Women have been at the equal pay thing for a while.

I can’t believe we still have to talk about this crap, but evidently, we do. Seventy-seven percent. That’s how much money a woman earns compared to a man: seventy-seven cents of every dollar.

Today President Barack Obama signed an executive order that makes it easier for the employees of federal contractors to find out what their colleagues earn and to discuss wages. So Jane can stand on the line and ask Joe what he makes, and if he tells her, she can find the boss on her break and ask for a raise. That’s not revolutionary, but it’d be good.

But remember, only if she’s employed by a federal contractor. If she works at Home Depot or Dollar Tree or some other non-federal-government job, fugeddaboudit.

The presidential event honors National Equal Pay Day, and the event is a cheap political shot by Democrats to woo their constituents before an election. I’m all for it. Women’s median earnings are lower than men’s in nearly all occupations—even in jobs that are predominantly taken by female workers.equalpay-final-208x300

Women often suffer in competitive occupations because they take time off to have children. When working women have small children at home, employers say they take too much time off, they aren’t loyal to the company, they can’t perform at the highest level, and they don’t deserve a raise. When working men have small children at home, employers say that they have a family to take care of, so they deserve the extra money. That disparity needs to stop.

Women need to learn to ask for more money and negotiate for higher wages, but employers—and society at large—needs to shift its attitudes and reward results gained and not hours worked.

Today’s executive order does not give any female employee one red cent. It just makes it easier for her to find out what somebody else at her company earns. It’s a small step to raising that seventy-seven cents to a full buck. And that’s long overdue.

 

Your Title Here

Standard
BookBub's mystery category word cloud

BookBub’s mystery category word cloud

BookBub's historical romance word cloud

BookBub’s historical romance word cloud

BookBub, an ebook promotion services company, published a blog post about words that are trending in book titles. Using data from the last six months, BookBub analyzed 3,850 books from multiple fiction categories to see which words turn up most frequently in titles and then turned their results into word clouds.

Which word was used the most often? Love. Love appeared in the titles of religious and romance novels, but also horror, historical fiction, women’s fiction, and mysteries. Pious turned up in the titles of action-adventure novels, but not religious. (Religious, however, had Couponing. How inspirational is that?)

Murder and Death were huge for the mystery category, as you might guess, but some mysteries also used Dumpty (but not Humpty, as far as I could tell). Thriller titles used Justice, Blood, Black, and Blue the most (I guess there’s a lot of bruising going on in thrillers). War was the word used most often in historical fiction titles, and Destiny and Deadly—but also River—in action-adventure. Zombie and Dead turned up most frequently in horror titles, but historical fiction by a huge margin went with Bride. Historical fiction titles also used Sourdough and Bushwhacked. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve always wanted to use “Bushwhacked” in a title. Or anywhere.)

Contemporary romance titles included the words Audubon and Shopper. Children’s books went with Amazing, Treasure, and Princess. Religious books used the word Heaven most often in their titles (and let’s not forget Couponing).

Women’s fiction went big with food words: Ate, Pickled, Chocolate, Coffee, Shelled, Shucked, Fried, and my favorite, Geoducks.

Lots of words in book titles seem to be possessives. Everybody’s got one — God and the Devil, as well as normal people: Anne, Darcy, Doctor, Else, Gasparilla, Horatio, Jacob, Nefertiti, and Nobody. Tough guys get their time on the cover—Assassin, Hunter, Monster, Pirate, Rogue, Shooter, Warrior—as well as royalty: Emperor, King, Knight, Duke, and Lady. Abstracts that own things: Heaven and Freedom. Places that own things: Chicago and a Kingdom. Things that fly that own things: Bird and Fairy.

I couldn’t resist: I made up a few titles of my own using trending words. Ready?

The Assassin’s Princess Treasure (action-adventure)

Darcy’s Zombie Love Bride (historical romance)

Couponing on the Dumpty River (women’s fiction)

Deadly Destiny: Bushwhacked Justice (thriller)

Nobody’s Sourdough War (historical fiction)

Life just doesn’t get any better than those trending words—as long as you’re not bushwhacked.

The day I sang with Pete Seeger

Standard

peteSeeger2A long time ago, when I was an aspiring journalist, the Newspaper Guild, the union for writers and editors, was on strike against the daily newspaper in the town where I lived. A lot of newspaper unions, like unions everywhere, were losing ground in those days. If these editors and reporters lost the strike, they’d lose their jobs, and then if they wanted to keep working on newspapers, they’d have to move somewhere else. Where their future would be just as shaky.

The strike hung on through the winter. The cold often exceeded -20 degrees. Walking a picket line in that kind of weather isn’t just miserable; it can be life threatening. Because many of my friends and acquaintances wanted to be hired into those good jobs, too, we wanted that union to survive. And to help out the strikers, we often walked the picket line that winter to show our support.

The shift changed at 6am, so it was important to be out there when scabs drove through the gates for the morning shift. And one day when I got out there at 6am, standing in wind so cold I thought my teeth would shatter, there was Pete Seeger. He took off his gloves and played his banjo and sang a song. I think it was “This Land Is Your Land,” but I wouldn’t swear to it. We all knew it, and we all sang along.

Pete Seeger died today. When I looked at the photo tribute The New York Times posted, I noted how many times he’s standing on a stage with other people, highlighting and sharing their stories. That’s the way I’ll remember him, too. Standing outside on that freezing road, singing his heart out with a bunch of people who needed his voice.