Wordless Rest

FullSizeRender-4This is an in-progress drawing that’s been living on my desk the past week. It was a thin watercolor sketch from a photo I shot last summer, which I decided at the time didn’t appeal much. Somehow, I found it and started messing around with some excellent pens I found last summer when Mel Scott and I wandered around (one of) the gigantic Blick’s stores in New York.  It’s not meant to be great art; I’m posting it to show you how my creative process is evolving.

As I posted last week, I’ve been working with great focus on the Restoration project, Whi
tehall,** set in the court of Charles II of England, one of the most fascinating characters to ever hold the throne. I love everything about this era–the people and the clothes and the world hurtling from the old into the new. It was a time of burgeoning knowledge in the sciences, particularly “natural philosophy” an early term for the observation and recording of the natural world, in all arenas from medicine to botany, for which Charles also had a passion.The Royal Society, one of the world’s most revered scientific communities, had its first meetings at this time.

And who could help but love the brilliant, rakish, doomed John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester?

When I agreed last summer to do the project, I had a thimble-full of history about the era, which has meant fervid immersion in all things Restoration, which is a lot of intense mental work. Which is one of the reasons I became a writer, frankly–there’s nothing I love more than learning all about something–but it’s hard work. Tiring. I have to take breaks, look away, change both my mental focus and my visual focus.

So I’ve been painting and drawing more. I write/research for an hour, then spent ten or fifteen or twenty minutes drawing, painting, scribbling. Something. It moves my brain into a completely different mode, entirely non-verbal but also laser focused. Every molecule of my attention goes into the shape of a line, a petal, a shadow, this very minute portion of the work. Which is like writing in a way, of course–you can only write the sentence at hand.

But behind each sentence in a novel are dozens, maybe hundreds, of bits of information. Fifth grade grammar class and the research from how gardens were arranged and where they were located to the shoes of the characters and her undergarments and how her hair was curled and what how the fabric moved and the relative positions of the players and what I wrote in the former scene and what’s coming later. It’s a lot of heavy lifting.

A line is particular, but it is particular to itself and this drawing or painting. I am only interested in how it shapes this page. I suppose there is a lot behind that line I draw, the colors I choose, other studies I’ve made, classes I’ve taken, but it’s not words. For this writer, I suppose that’s the thing. There are no words in painting. I love to read and I love to write, but sometimes that part of my brain just gets very tired. That’s why I cook. That’s why I garden. And now, that’s why I paint and draw.

If you work with words, what are your tricks for resting your brain? If you work in other ways, do you need a different kind of rest? 

**The first episode of Whitehall will be released in mid-May. Sign up for my newsletter if you want to be sure to be reminded when it begins.

Makers and Flippers

4040456368_8bf09758c3_mA friend of mine has started a business flipping houses. We live in a lucrative market for this kind of thing, and she’s a very practical banker sort who has systems in place to make renovations fairly standard–the kind of kitchen needed for most houses, the flooring that’s attractive and yet not too expensive, the bathroom upgrades people need.  She’s a business woman.

I would love flipping houses. The great project of my thirties was saving a house build in 1912. It was a mess when we bought it for a song and sweat equity, and I do mean a mess–almost everything had to be redone: the crumbling plaster ceilings, the electricity, the plumbing, the floors, the crooked windows.  Even over the course of the nearly twenty years I spent there, not all of it was finished, but I saved that beautiful old house. We fixed her bones and her bricks, sanded the splintering pine floors, replaced all the wiring and 90% of the plumbing.

I’d love to do more of that–saving old houses, taking out the old ugly things and replacing them with more beautiful stuff.  My friend knows this, but when it came to partners for this kind of business, she went to a couple of her more practical friends.

As she should have. She’s a flipper.

I’m a maker. I don’t want the practical pods of the usual kitchen makeover. I want to enter each kitchen and gauge the light and imagine what woods would compliment the era and what might make it the most beautiful kitchen ever. I would never do it for the money, because I make things. Books, of course. Now my paintings and drawings. Gardens. Food. My goal in flipping a house would be to make it into something I would live in happily forever–and that would be a sure way to lose money.

The thing is, makers have to learn to be business people, too, especially in the current world. It’s great that I want to write (and cook and paint and garden) but I also have to live in the real world. I have to eat. I don’t have a patron, though husbands kind of count, since they share the load and make loans upon request. Being a maker, I want to make things all the time, all day long–and luckily, it doesn’t matter what it is. I’m happy painting. I’m happy writing (writing a blog or a novel or a letter). I’m happy digging in the earth to plant seeds to make my garden.  The trick of my day is to keep the money-making aspects of making, the commercial fiction, occupy the most vigorous part of my day. Thus, I’m writing this morning. When I’ve done my words, I’ll make a loaf of pumpkin bread for a friend who is mourning. Later this afternoon, I hope to have some time to work on my drawing.

A lot of my friends are makers, and I bet a lot of you are, too.  Tell me about your projects of the moment. If you’re a flipper like my friend, I’d love to hear about that, too.

Flexibility and Growth as an Artist

Hiromi Masuda: Let's play the Glass 2I am a fan of Gretchen Rubin, whose books on happiness and habits offer a lot of insight into how we can live the best life for ourselves. (She doesn’t get the Rebel personality, but I forgive her for that.) This morning, her Facebook post let me to this blog:

The Dangers of Typecasting

As most of you know, I made a choice a couple of years ago to explore the world of New Adult romance. I had written straight romances, contemporary and historical, in the past, but hadn’t done if for nearly ten years when I was mobbed by a new idea. By a character, Jess Donovan, age 19, poor and struggling and trying to make her way.  She awakened me one morning in mud season in Breckenridge and by the end of the day, I had mapped out the entire book.  In my world, we call that a “gift book” and foolish indeed is the writer who ignores such an offering from the gods.

However, It was a risky choice, and I knew it–women’s fiction readers don’t like to be lumped with romance readers (although many are both) and my romance readers might not want to go with me into this much younger world. To keep things branded cleanly, I knew I would have to take a pen name, and that meant starting from ground zero–not always the easiest thing for a writer with an audience gained over ten years.

That’s the visible stuff.

Intimacy and Privacy in a Public Age

FullSizeRenderLately, I’ve been reading the diaries of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn to help create an authentic world for the Restoration drama I’m working on for Serial Box. (It is so much fun! You’re going to love this series!)

Reading the diaries makes me aware of my own diary habit. I’ve been keeping a journal since the fourth grade. The first one was blue, with a lock and key, and I wrote sporadically, always telling the absolute truth, no matter how boring, and most of my life was pretty boring–or so I thought. When I look back, it is surprising how much detail I managed to capture in those looping cursive letters. “Today I went to Grandma’s house. Merry and I played with Anne. She is going to have puppies,” I wrote, and I remember the husky who had such a cheerful smile. I remember the puppies tumbling over my lap.

Just as I remember my life, Pepys creates the world of his times in daily, ordinary details. The days and days of rain that ended up flooding his main floor–and gives me the detail of a dreary stretch of weeks when the Portuguese queen had just arrived in England and lends atmosphere.

Some might say that blogs and social media are creating the same sort of record of our lives, and it is partially true. But social media tends to be fragmented and scattered, often a recounting of things others liked or didn’t like, and details out of context–a meal eaten in a restaurant you will never visit, the new chair of someone you’ve never met.

Journals and diaries contain the context of the diarist and her times, her viewpoint, a record of opinions as they rise and fall and twist. Journals are more powerful because they are deeply personal. They’re not meant to be art or even to be shared–and therein lies the pleasure. They are private, and that means the writer is entirely free.

The rules of my journals have been fluid, but fairly consistent. I don’t have to write every day, though I like to see at least one or two a week at a minimum. There is no attempt to write well, particularly–I’m not writing for others in those pages, only myself. I never embroider the facts, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily an accurate record. I only have my own viewpoint, after all. I can only write my own interpretation of events. We’ve had to be aware, in our writing of Fierce Artifice, of the fact of Pepys’ crush on Barbara Villiers. It colors every paragraph he writes about her. He also hears a lot in gossipy sessions at the local pub and interprets the tidbits of fact in his own way. But it is his accurate record of his own thoughts.

That’s my goal, too. Showing up. Writing “In the moment….” when I’m getting too far off track.  Sometimes I write only on the computer. Sometimes in notebooks, by hand. Sometimes, often when I’ve gone through a difficult period, I’ve binged on fancy, beautiful journals and written endless, repetitive journals in them. They’re not terribly readable, those particular ones–they are mainly therapy, me writing my way to the center of something.  And like thereapy, I often write my way to truth, as when I found myself writing, “How many times will I write this exact same journal before I actually make a change?”

And then I made a change.

Being Still

The first Monday of the new year, and once again, I am not home. This is the fourth January in a row that I have not been home. This year, I am in San Antonio, awaiting the birth of my second grandchild who is in no rush at all, though everyone else is. Her sister said plaintively, “Can I see my baby sister, please?” expressing how all of us feel.

Last year, it was a wake for Christopher Robin’s mother, a gathering with the New Zealand arm of the family. The year before was her sudden death and the need to attend to all the duties that entails, and her funeral. (We were very glad we’d made the trip to see her the September before.) And the year before that was a long trip to New Zealand to see the family there, and tour the South Island, which is still one of my favorite trips ever.

This year, it’s quiet. I have been playing many games of Minnie Mouse Concentration, and a matching game called Hiss, and Candyland. The girl has gone off to school and we are in the puddles of quiet left behind. I miss her chirping little voice, but I do have to work and I need a good long walk. A trailhead beckons from not far away.  In the summertime, it would be too hot and I’d be afraid of the ants that seem to attack my feet when I come to Texas, but in the winter, the snakes will be sleeping and if I wear shoes, the ants won’t annoy me.

My American-school trained self wants to START FRESH this Monday morning, wants to start writing something meaningful on the clean chalkboard of the new year. And yet, the universe has been arranging something else for me the past few years. Instead of getting busy, getting back to work, I have been dropped into situations where my access to actual writing is blocked, and instead, I read a lot–in cars, on planes, in the long evenings. I stare out the windows to landscapes that are not my own, and I see something new, a bird, a tree, a sky. On Saturday, it rained all day, just a slow gentle drizzle, but all day. That happened a lot in England two years ago. It does not happen in Colorado.

Instead of getting busy, I’m getting filled up. Which might be just the right way to spend a week or two at the start of a busy year.

Later this week, I’ll write about my favorite books and binge watching in 2015. For now, what are you all up to this fresh Monday of the fresh new year? 

Saying Farewell to Characters

I am in the very last week of writing the very last book of the Going the Distance series.  I’ve been immersed in

intense_240 the lives and dramas of these characters for nearly two years, since that fateful morning in Breckenridge when Jess woke me up at 4:30 am to tell me she had a story for me.

Wow, did she ever.

Writers always get attached to their characters, but this is especially bittersweet. I don’t usually spend two years and more than 300,000 words on one group of stories.  Yesterday morning, I was feeling so emotional and weepy that I realized I needed to write Jess a thank you letter. I thanked her for showing up, for connecting me with a new world, for showing me how much I would love writing this particular kind of story, which has been more fun than anything I’ve done in a long time.

It is like sending the whole gang off to college, leaving me with an entirely empty house. So, yeah, I’m feeling a little mournful.

I have about two scenes left to write, then a whole lot of polishing.  There will be a big Facebook party either on May 28, or the Saturday after that so more people can come. If you want a reminder that Intense is out, sign up for the newsletter here.  (You can also read a sneak peek and pre-order at iBooks. It will be out everywhere else May 28, no worries.)

Of course there are other projects in the works. A Feast of Peaches is the new Barbara O’Neal, and it’s in motion, but I don’t yet have a release date. I’ll keep you posted.

I’m also going to start a second New Adult series in the fall, with appearances and eventually books for a couple of the characters from Going the Distance. Stay tuned for that, as well.

The blogging once a week thing hasn’t been going as well as expected, but I’m trying. I suspect, too, you’d rather have more books, right?

Have you ever missed a character from a book–either one you read or one you wrote? 

Curing the Crankies

I am a grouch this morning. There’s no other word for it. I didn’t sleep well because my knee was hurting and I have this restless leg thing happening after the surgery that’s quite annoying, and I don’t FEEL like doing my work, but there’s a lot piling up and it needs to be tackled.

Also, there are about 27 jillion errands that must be run. My mail has gone missing in this weird little Twilight IMG_7361Zone transfer of addresses and I can’t seem to get it straightened out, so my poor daughter in law has to keep forwarding it to me. Then it gets sent back to her. Rinse and repeat. There’s a box with books for my eldest son that’s been sitting here since Christmas. I spent the weekend running around doing fun things, but then I got super tired and haven’t recovered. Yesterday I forced myself to go swim because I need to get my aerobic capacity back after six months of doing almost nothing to take care of that. (Also, my core strength is not what I’d like and that needs work, too.)

I’m still healing from getting my legs chopped in half then put back together again, and it’s a long road. It’s a good road, but like any long journey, there are times you stop, weary of the same landscape, wish for rescue by helicopter. There’s no helicopter here. Just me and my precious body, on the road toward feeling better.

This morning, I should be writing, but I can tell you right now that’s probably not going to happen. I’m tired and resentful of life roaring back at me so hard, and I’m not quite ready to leap in with such intensity. Because I am a writer and I set my own hours, I do have a certain amount of freedom to step back.

Instead of coming into my office to write, as I planned, I moved things around. The new bottle of gesso I bought last Friday found its way into my hand and I found a brush in the other and I glossed some paper with it, just to play. Some little something started to breathe in the midst of all that irritability. As the paper dries, I pull out a photo of a tomato that I want to paint, and look for the right paper, the right size and weight, and I’m starting to draw. Later, I’ll add a little bit to the small journal of watercolor pages that seems to be a long, long love letter to my darling girl. I miss her terribly, and this is helping. Last week, we had a long, rambling, cheerful chat via Facetime, the first time she’s been really engaged, and she didn’t want me to “leave her house,” and showed me thing and blew raspberries and laughed when I kissed her. At one point, she said, “Nana’s stuck inside the iPad,” which has been haunting me slightly ever since.

All of this inner drama is why I haven’t been writing blogs as I promised. This morning I realized that is dishonest. I’m not always cheerful—far from it, actually. My life doesn’t always flow smoothly, and things show up in clusters—the urgent need to replace my knees, my parents’ ill health the past year, my beloved granddaughter and her wonderful parents moving 800 miles away—and I struggle to keep an upbeat attitude.

I have no wisdom today except that I’m going to take some pleasure in this little cabinet I bought to keep art supplies more orderly:

I’m 1454626_819401144817143_7649465128040458001_ngoing to paint and write something on those gessoed pages. I’m going to listen to music and see if it will speak to me about this book, and I will take a long nap. I am tired. I am healing. I am human. That is what I need today.

What do you do to cure the grouchies? 

Love,
Barbara

Go Ahead, Be Terrible

One of the hardest things about starting a new book is the awfulness of it. I’m there now, at the beginning, no longer thinking about the book or making notes or even writing long backstory and character pieces—which is actually one of the most fun parts of writing. If it was only that part, I would be the happiest writer in the world.

Instead, I’m actually starting to write the thing, in scenes, with characters talking and moving and all that.

This is the point of ruination. I’ve talked about this before—every book is perfect before I must try to bring it into the world. They live in some other place, in the Land of Books Waiting to Be Written, and some are mine to write and some are yours and some are still waiting for their person to get busy and bring it over into the Land of Books That Can Be Read.

As I try to bring my book over the wall into this world, I ruin it, almost from the first word.

Writers Don’t Get Lonely

As part of rehab for my brand-new bionic knee, a physical therapist comes to my house five days a week and puts me through my paces. As I’m standing on my toes and cycling on a portable little bike, we chat. He’s a guy of a certain age, with an intriguing history as a Shakespearean actor and a director in New York, and we’ve found lots of things to talk about. We were talking about various kinds of work, and introverts and extroverts and I mentioned that I was spending a lot of time alone with the rehab, but that’s pretty much the shape of my life.

He said, “But writers don’t get lonely, do they?”

It gave me pause, because I had actually been feeling…oh, not lonely exactly. More at loose ends, like a bead banging around inside an empty can. I don’t get lonely, for the most part. I love being alone, puttering in the garden or taking photos or writing. My head is filled with people, lots and lots of them, and they amuse and entertain me quite nicely. I also just like to think—about the vast reaches of space, about how tea is harvested, about the young woman on the radio who said both men and women should be hairless, all over. (Really?) I also love the company of other people, and find people interesting, which might be why they tell me their stories.

Just now, however, I’m not engaged in much of anything, and I guess the word lonely might have been floating around. CR works all day. My concentration is a bit splintered. I’ve been doing a lot of watercolor exercises, which is distracting and enjoyable, but there are only so many a person can do in a day.

It turns out that a writer who isn’t writing actually does get lonely. When I realized that, I sat down and opened the Scrivener file for my MIP. The two main characters have been poking me, and followed me all over England (I wrote pages and pages of plotlines on trains) but I thought I should be more focused before I started actually writing scenes. I’m floating in a world of narcotics and know from experience that there’s a reason they keep you high for awhile. (Another PT said, “Do you know what they do? Basically amputate both bones in your legs and then get you on your feet the same day.”)

But it’s not like I won’t go over them twenty seven thousand times between now and the time anyone sees it. It’s not like I don’t know what I’m doing here.

I opened a file and started writing. Funny—I wasn’t lonely anymore. More, there’s something freeing in doing it through all of this wild year. I’m a writer, and what I do is write. I write to understand things, to celebrate things, to decipher things. I write stories and essays and blogs and articles and letters and posts of all kinds. I write because that’s what writers DO—sick or well, sober or high as a kite, furious or peaceful or silly. Writers write.

Have you ever discovered a loneliness that can be eased by working on something?

Listening to the Prompts

All creative people devise ways to communicate with the mysterious place where ideas come from. A scientific person might call it the right side of the brain. A more mystical one (that would be me) probably calls it the universe or Spirit. Whatever the name, we all learn over time to trust the whispering prompts that nudge us into a particular direction.

Detail-from-JMW-Turners-B-007I’ve had some weird communications going on with the universe over painter JMW Turner, an Englishman I’d honestly never heard of until three months ago. I don’t know how I missed him now, since he is one of the most highly regarded of all English painters, and his style was a forerunner of the Impressionists, whom I adore with heart and soul, but there’s the truth. I had never heard of him or seen his work until I needed a painter for Brilliant. Jess gives Tyler a biography of a painter for Christmas, so I googled watercolorists and Turner came up. He was an eccentric who did things his own way and he fit the bill, so I ran with it. (Deadlines make a writer practical. Yep, works, toss it in there, move on.)

Afterward, Turner kept coming up—everywhere. At first, I put it down to simply awareness. You never notice how many cars of a certain model there are until you start driving one, then they are everywhere. Or you learn a new word and then see it in twenty places the next few weeks. I’m studying watercolors a bit, so reading in that world, and he’s a master. Of course I would see his name.

But it kept going and going. An article in a magazine I rarely read. A comment about the new movie. (Me: “There’s a movie?”)