Holiday Madness

At the s.f. convention I attended last weekend, some of the magazine and anthology editors were looking for holiday-themed material (mostly short stories).  They wanted other writing too, but the holiday connection sticks in my mind.  A couple of years ago I agreed to write a novella for Christmas marketing.  The editor didn’t insist on sleigh bells and snowmen, but the idea was that the work would be a virtual stocking stuffer.  So I wrote The Young Pretender, a novella in the regency mode.  It took me a bit longer than I expected it to, so we released it for Burns Night, a Scottish holiday toward the end of January that honors Robert Burns on his birthday.  I even tucked in bits of Burns’ poetry.  The Young Pretender is not a bad story–one of my funnier tales, in fact.  I’ll always associate it with Christmas, but I’m the only one who will.  It continues to sell well, so the Burns Night connection isn’t necessary to marketing.

Holiday marketing is a fine capitalist tradition, up there with coupons and loss leaders.  But, I wonder, is it truly Protestant?  We seem to be moving back toward the Wars of Religion.  Will corporate bank-rollers want to continue to celebrate holidays?  It was, after all, a Catholic practice.  The Lutherans, when they came along, tolerated a few of the old holy days, but the orthodox of Scotland (wha’ believe in John Knox) tossed out all of them along with bishops, statues of saints, prayers for the dead, and stained glass windows.  They continued to burn witches.

It was a hard time for artists, musicians, and architects.  I can see another wave of Protestantism being hard on writers.  What with all the new devices and programs for tracking posts on social media, I foresee bloggers such as myself being dragged off to the pyre for half-assed reflections like this one.  Such a pity, but maybe we’ll turn into martyrs and saints with our very own holidays.

I want the Feast of St. Sheila to slide into the gap between St. Patrick and Easter.  A book fest would perk up the wet season no end.  My books would come on sale, two for the price of one, and folks who wanted to celebrate my life could drink peppermint tea and munch peanut butter cups (sweets to offset the salinity of corned beef and spiral cut ham).  Appropriate toasts could be offered, preferably rhymed, and glasses of Pacific Northwest merlot or shiraz raised to salute me and my books.  I believe I would like a parade.

I don’t see why the rest of you shouldn’t have feast days too, first come first served.

Expectation Management

Writing is an expectations management venture. If you don’t manage your expectations, you can get really depressed, really fast. It’s that simple. Self-publishing or indy publishing aside, the number of books submitted to traditional publishers, both large and small, borders on the ridiculous. The number that are accepted and make it into print is a very, very small fraction of that. So, the odds are stacked against you from the get go.
Right now, I’m in Saudi Arabia, teaching with the Royal Saudi Air Force as I wait for Perseverance Press to release my new Jacobean era mystery Shakespeare No More next fall. Expectations management has been uppermost on my mind. For just as I have had to practice such management in my writing career, right now I have to practice it for my students.
I can’t talk a lot about what I do, but many of my students come from the desert tribes. They are illiterate in Arabic, so English is even a bigger challenge. Their goal is to be able to go to the US for advanced training. That’s their expectation. Mine is more modest, getting them from one level to the next. And that has a direct correlation to writing.
Focus your expectations on moving from one level to the next. Those sorts of things are achievable, are reasonable. If your expectation is a million seller and mansions to live in, well, those expectations are a sure road to disappointment. For most people.  But writing is a craft, and a craft takes practice, and you must move from one level to the next.  Lightning strikes happen, but they are hardly the rule.

But here’s the thing with expectation management. It’s a self defense mechanism, designed to protect our emotional health. Dreams, on the other hand, are a different matter. If you don’t dream big, you don’t achieve big. I’m reminded of my hero Lawrence of Arabia’s comment in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his great memoir of the Arab Revolt:
‘All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.’

So, my advice is simple. Be a day dreamer. Try to make that dream possible. But understand that there are things outside of our control, that sometimes tether our dreams to the ground. So dream big, but manage your expectations.

Where Do Those Ideas Come From?

This is Lea Wait, taking a few deep breaths. I just got home from what was close to two weeks on the road. Yes: a family wedding was included. (A family wedding in Phoenix, I might add. I live in Maine.) But most of the days I was away from home I was talking about my books — at a children’s book festival in Albany, New York, as part of a live variety radio production in New Hampshire, at a mystery bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona … and at other places along the road, where I smiled, handed out bookmarks, and answered questions.

One of the questions authors are asked most often is, “Where do you get your ideas?”

And, yes, I’m sure we’re all tempted to  say, “I google for them” or “One whole plot came to me in a dream,” or “Didn’t you know Macy’s had an ‘idea section’?”

Of course, no author I know would say any of those things. But it’s hard to explain where ideas come from, because … they’re everywhere.  (Who knows when a wedding in Phoenix might end up in one of my books?) At least for me, yes, some ideas come from my life. I probably wouldn’t have set books in Maine or New Jersey if I hadn’t lived in those places. Or invented a protagonist who was an antique print dealer if I hadn’t grown up in a family of antique dealers and collectors. Maggie Summer, my protagonist in the Shadows Antique Print Mystery series, probably wouldn’t have thought of becoming a single adoptive parent if I  hadn’t adopted my four daughters.

But  Maggie is also a college professor. I’ve never taught. Angie Curtis, the protagonist in my Mainely Needlepoint series debuting in January with TWISTED THREADS, has a license to carry and rarely reads. Not me, in either case.

Often an idea comes from a sentence fragment,  or a newspaper clipping. If the idea sticks around, I start to dig. Research. Ask more questions. I’ve written about AIDS (SHADOWS AT THE FAIR) and Alzheimer’s (SHADOWS ON A MAINE CHRISTMAS.) I’ve written about amputation (WINTERING WELL) and rape (SHADOWS OF A DOWN EAST SUMMER.)  I haven’t experienced  any of those things first hand.

Right now I’m writing about the politics of lobstering and the embroidery of Mary, Queen of Scots. My information in both cases comes second or third hand — although I have been out on lobster boats.

So – where do my ideas come from? From life. Mine, others’, or from research. Always, they come from digging into a thought … and molding it into a piece of a plot.

Making trouble for my characters.  Making an idea a story.

The Polls Are Open

It’s the first week in November and the polls are open in Alameda County, California, with early voting starting on Saturday, November 1. The general election is on Tuesday, November 4.

For me, that will be a long day.

That’s because I signed up to be a poll worker during the general election. On Tuesday, I report at 6 AM and will be there until the polls close at 7 PM, and probably a good while after.

My long day will actually start on Monday evening, when my fellow workers and I will meet at our polling place, a local high school, to set up and arrange the room.

This will be my first time as a poll worker. It’s something I’ve been thinking about doing, so earlier this year during the primary, I inquired at my polling place and discovered that all I had to do was fill out an online application the Alameda County, California Registrar of Voters website.


So I did, indicating that I was willing to work in Alameda, the town where I live. Some weeks later, I received an email advising me that my application had been accepted. I was assigned a polling place.

I was also required to attend a two-hour training class prior to the election, which I did late in October. The class was an eye-opener.

There’s more to this job than greeting voters at the polls.

Each polling place here in California is assigned an inspector, a judge, and several clerks. Me, I’m one of the clerks. The reason things start so early in the morning is that we have set up and arrange the polling place. In some cases, when access can be arranged, poll workers can set up on the night before the election, which is where I’ll be Monday evening.

In addition to the voting booths, there’s an official table, where voters check in with clerks. There is also a scanner for ballots and a touchscreen voting apparatus which also has an audio option. Plus inside and outside signs must be hung.

Once the polls close, all this stuff, plus the ballots must be packed up just so. There are as many closing procedures as there are opening procedures. Various containers are packed and sealed for transport back to the Registrar of Voters.

All the poll workers must take an Oath of Office, which will be administered by the inspector. That makes it feel very official.

It’s a good thing I have this manual to consult, as well as an inspector who, when I spoke with him on the phone, sounds as though he’s done this many times before.

This should be an interesting experience, one that I take seriously.



by Nancy Means Wright

Decades ago, my husband and I, newly married, lived and worked at Boys’ Home, deep in the state of Virginia. Freight trains rumbled and snorted behind our shaky cottage, and we had to shut our windows against the smelly, air polluting chemicals from the local pulp and paper mill. But we loved working with the homeless boys–one of my tasks was to teach them to dance (I kept band-aids handy)–and several were students in the English classes I taught at the local high school.

My classes were huge, and a fair percentage of the kids dropped out of school to work in the mill. But there were dedicated students, too, and it was a joy to see young minds open to vibrant language and ideas in poems, plays and essays. Until, that is, I decided to introduce the Gettysburg Address.

“Yankees,” one of them snarled.

“But we’re not fighting a civil war now, are we?” I asked. “Especially one that ended in 1865?”

“Well, my great-great…granddaddy got hisself kilt at Bull Run. My daddy says we can’t forgit that!”

Other voices chimed in. Sally Lou’s ancestor fought the Yanks at Shiloh. Johnny’s was a bugle boy who lost a leg. Johnny was still angry about that. “I aint readin’ no goddam Yankee speech!”

I finally compromised and offered anyone extra credit for writing about the speech “as literature.” Only one girl did. (Her parents were born in Connecticut.)

I’m still amazed at how long people nurture old wounds. I think of Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, and IRA Irish still bitter over the outcome of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne–Catholics vs Protestants. Or the blood shed by Spartans and Athenians in ancient Greece. Or the 13th-century Italian Capulets who hated the Montagues. Even my own 20th-century mother was at war with “that tribe of Italians down the street. Why, they fought against us in WW2!” (Never mind that couple was young, with a new baby.) Mother complained, as well, about Poles, Russians, and Irish immigrants, although my father’s family had come from Ireland during the Great Famine, and Mother’s own parents took ship in the late 19th-century from Scotland.

I wouldn’t be that way, I told myself. I would respect everyone, regardless of race, gender and attitude. In Vermont I fought for Civil Unions and Marriage Equality. I espoused Death with Dignity and Gunsense. I kept an open mind, didn’t I?

Then this fall, longing to see the ocean, my spouse and I took a Road Scholar trip to Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod. Out of 24 participants, we were the only New Englanders; most were from the West or the South. The South? A red light flashed on. I loved southern writers and had a beloved editor who was a Georgia native, but the Virginia school experience still rankled in my mind. I had encountered like-minded authors at a mystery writer’s conference in Alabama, but during a side trip to a small town was told to keep my mouth shut about being a northern liberal–and worse still, a Unitarian. “You could get shot for that,” a fellow writer warned.

So I was wary at meals when we sat beside couples from the Deep South. I thought of the novel, The Help, and the Tea Partyers who were obstructing Congress and deadheading important (to me) issues about immigration and climate change. I came to the dinner table with narrowed eyes, fueled by Move On, Bill McKibben, and other activists.

Yet as the week wore on, I found myself in conversation with southerners, including a Mississippi woman who charmed me, in spite of myself, with her warmth and good humor. She loved to read, and we talked about Faulkner and our mutually beloved Eudora Welty who was a native of her town.  We discovered that we had a Scots-Irish ancestor in common whose surname we still carried on, and that we had a basic respect for people–although we carefully avoided talk of religion or politics. After the trip was over, I discovered to my great surprise, that her son is a respected politician of my own persuasion. And “certain” she was secretly against all I believed in, I’d never dared ask her outright.

How wrong I was! I’m ashamed now of my narrow prejudgments. I wish that I had met some of those small town Alabama folks who kept their rifles at the ready! I might eschew their politics, but I’d surely find them stimulating as people, wouldn’t I, once I got to know them? Why, we might even have broken bread together. The liberal and the arch-conservative: finding connection–at the very least, in food and family. Not to mention grist for the writing mill….

Ladies Who Lunch

Wendy Hornsby

Over the weekend I went to a wonderful ladies’ luncheon; yes men were welcome and several attended. The theme was women in the 1930s, and the setting, a house designed by Julia Morgan, the architect who also designed Hearst Castle, was perfect. The sweeping drive was lined with vintage vehicles, attended by drivers dressed in plus fours or pin stripes and fedoras. There was a fashion show, of course, of authentic clothing from the era, and music and some dancing, and food made from recipes taken from Ladies Home Journal, circa 1930. As I talked with friends and sipped wine—we are in wine country, so of course there was wine—I thought about my mother and her friends and the luncheons they hosted for each other. What fun they had, and what work it took.

Mom and her friends would be classified as housewives, but the house is not where you find them on most days. They were the board of the PTA, scouts and Camp Fire, Little League, Equestrian Trails, and various Sunday schools. They sat on, and frequently chaired, town commissions, councils, advisories, and the school board. Their careers were family, town and church, and they probably spent as many hours meeting, planning, and acting as any nine-to-five worker would. Their compensation? Well-schooled, healthy children, I suppose. More than that, their big reward was the fellowship of other bright, active women marooned in outer suburbia.

They made occasions to celebrate and entertain. School teacher luncheons, baby showers, officer initiations, summer, fall, winter, spring, were among the occasions they feted. When it was Mom’s turn to host a luncheon, the entire family was set to work days ahead of time. The floors were waxed and polished, windows washed, lawn mowed, silver polished, guest towels, table cloths and luncheon napkins ironed, and nut cups filled. The nut cups were my favorite part. We mixed pastel pillow mints with salted Virginia peanuts and distributed them into little fluted paper cups that were set at each place, and usually taken home by guests to children who would expect them.
hostess plate 2

Mom would know who in her community had card table and chair sets, from whom to borrow a coffee urn or punch bowl, who had flowers in bloom, and who to call for hostess sets. Hostess sets were pressed glass plates that had a well for the little matching cup and sometimes a thumb hole like a painter’s palette so that the plate could be held onto at a buffet. They came in several patterns, and everyone knew whose set was whose so that they could be returned after the event. Husbands were deployed a day or two ahead of time to gather in the necessary equipment, and the evening after to return it all.

The meal would be elegant, and most of it would have been made the day before so that the kitchen was spotless when guests arrived and the hostess would look fresh and relaxed as if everything had been effortless, which of course it had not. The whole affair involved quite a bit of sleight of hand.

As for the food, the hostess played to her culinary strengths and her serving pieces. Mom had a lovely silver holder that fit 9”x13” Pyrex baking dishes, so whatever she served would be something that could be made in 9”x13” Pyrex baking dishes. The day before, she would make several pans of her entrée and stow them in the refrigerator until just before guests were due. She was famous for her pie, so deep dish chicken pie showed up regularly, as did pretty pecan tarts.

I loved Mom’s chicken pie, which we would eat for several days afterward. But I especially liked her custard sandwiches, that are a sort of non-fried version of a Monte Cristo. The preparation is easy, it’s make-ahead fare, and perfect for holiday brunch or lunch, so, with the holidays fast approaching, I’m sharing this one with you.

           Fern’s Baked Custard Sandwiches
Serves 8
Assemble the night before serving

Note: The bread needs to be roughly square. Pullman loaves are best, but any sandwich loaf will do.
8 slices of good white sandwich bread
8 slices of wheat or rye sandwich bread
8 slices of Swiss cheese
8 thin slices of ham or turkey
6 eggs
2 cups milk
1 tsp. mustard powder
healthy pinch of cayenne or chipotle powder
1 stick butter, melted
Assemble sandwiches: slice of white bread, cheese, ham, slice of wheat or rye bread. Cut off crusts. Cut each in half. Place sandwich halves in 9”x13” Pyrex baking dish in rows, long edge down, so that white and dark bread alternate (e.g. don’t put 2 pieces of white bread next to each other). The finished dish will looked striped.

Beat together eggs, milk and seasonings, and pour evenly over the sandwiches. Don’t worry if all the liquid pools in the bottom. It will even out overnight as bread absorbs it.

Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. 45 minutes before serving, heat oven to 4000.   Melt butter. Uncover refrigerated dish and pour butter evenly over the top. Bake for 30 minutes or until custard is set and the top and bottom are golden. If it browns too fast, tent with aluminum foil.

Slice and serve with preserves on the side.


Going Home


I spent the past weekend in New Jersey with former classmates, celebrating the 50th (yes — unbelievably – 50th) anniversary of our graduating from Glen Ridge High School. One of the highlights of my weekend — and there were many — was speaking at the library which had been my refuge and inspiration during the years I was growing up.

I first discovered the library when I was about ten, and saw their collection of Walter Farley books (yes, I was one of those girls who loved horses) and marveled at their shelf and a half of Doctor Doolittle books — I’d thought there was only one. After that I cajoled my mother or grandmother to take me to the library often, since although it was only about seven blocks from our home, those blocks included a major intersection. My grandfather, who loved mysteries and always had a stack on the table behind his pipe and next to the Morris chair where he spent hours each day, was often included in the expedition.

When I was in sixth grade I was thrilled when my mother and the mothers of two of my friends decided together that the three of us were — yes! finally! — old enough to make the library trip on our own. We walked there every Saturday morning, taking out as many books as we could carry. By then I was reading Betty Cavanna and Lois Duncan and other “books for teenage girls.” (I’m thrilled that Lois Duncan is now one of my Facebook friends ….)

In seventh grade we began attending the school across the street from the library, and I began finding excuses to go to the library after school. There was always a subject to be researched in the encyclopedia collection there, or checked in magazines in the stacks. I discovered the Dewey Decimal system, and read every book on writing … since some day that’s what I would do. Secretly, I dreamed of someday seeing a book I’d written on one of the shelves. I discovered The Writer Magazine. I knew when it arrived at the library each month (it couldn’t be checked out,) and would curl up in a special window seat and read it, cover to cover. I learned about manuscript submission guidelines and agents and rejection slips and how to write dialogue. I studied the market place information, pretending I was going to submit something I’d written. I even got brave enough to send a few poems to magazines, and was proud of the rejection slips that resulted. They made me feel like a real writer. I planned to save enough slips to cover a wastebasket with them, but never did.

When I was a sophomore in high school I started working at the library as a page. I shelved books after school and weekend for fifty cents an hour. After I’d shelved the day’s books I started working my way around the shelves, checking that all the books were shelved correctly. (A lot weren’t, but the librarians never had time to do what I was doing.) It took me most of the school year to check the children’s room, where I also discovered other wonderful authors that were, theoretically, too young for me — but whom I loved.

In my junior year I was moved to the adult department, where I repeated my verification of book locations.

In the summers, in Maine, I became a frequent patron of the Wiscasset Library (where I now do a lot of research for the books I write.)

But the Glen Ridge Public Library wasn’t finished helping me, When I was working on my masters thesis at New York University I lived in New York City, where my libraries of choice were the Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village near my home, and the Donnell Library on 53rd Street, which was their version of a children’s room. Librarians in New York were able to find many of the books written for teenagers in the 1950s and 60s that I based my thesis on, but New Yorkers are tough on books. I bothered my mother to represent me back in Glen Ridge, and the library there put in inter-library loans, searching New Jersey libraries for many of the books I was looking for. And finding them,

I hadn’t been back to the Glen Ridge Public Library in decades. But I was thrilled when several of my classmates asked if I’d do a book signing during our reunion, and the library I’d loved invited me to speak there. I felt the way I had when my undergraduate college asked me to come back to speak and gave me a lifetime achievement award. I felt as though I was truly going home.

The Glen Ridge Library today is, I am pleased to report, still wonderful, and, despite the major budget cuts that have affected so many of our nation’s libraries, it has expanded. Its addition has added a special room just for YA books, handicapped accessibility, and more space for books, computers, and research of all kinds .. including a meeting room, where I spoke Saturday. I was also thrilled to see that the parents of one of those two girls who walked to the library with me every Saturday were among the major donors who’d helped the library expand.

Today visitors to my home often joke that it’s like a library. Floor to ceiling bookcases are in every room and most hallways. To me, home and walls of books are synonymous. They are comfort and company and escape; they have stayed the course during the ups and downs of my life.

Books represent home. And last week’s visit to the Glen Ridge Library was, in many ways, even more a homecoming for me than seeing my former classmates. That library was where I grew up.


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