Happy 218th Birthday, Mary Shelley

391px-RothwellMaryShelleyMary Shelley (née Wollenstonecraft Godwin), the author of the Gothic/Horror novel, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, was born August 30, 1797, in Somers Town, London, England — 218 years ago today. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, a feminist and philosopher, died eleven days after giving birth.

Mary was raised by her father, William Godwin, a philosopher and author. During her younger years, she was tutored by a governess, and also attended a boarding school.

Mary bore an illegitimate child at age 17, with Percy Bysshe Shelley, a married 22-year-old man, but their prematurely-born child died. Mary married Shelley, an English Romantic poet, in late 1816, after his first wife, Harriet, committed suicide.

Mary Shelley’s most famous work was created in Geneva, Switzerland, during a rainy vacation in 1816, when the couple spent a summer with Lord Byron, John Williaa39da6923869bf6582fad67280b08b75m Polidori, and Claire Claremont. Lord Byron suggested they each write a horror story.

Frankenstein was published anonymously in London in 1818. Her name appeared on the second edition, published in France in 1823.  Mary and Percy’s second and third children died, but their last child, Percy Florence Shelley, survived to adulthood.

Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned when his sailing boat sank during a storm in 1822.

Mary would later publish more novels, short stories, biographies, and travel writings.

Mary died in London, England, on February 1, 1851, at age 53, from a brain tumor.

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Writing With Cats

I grew up a dog person. Now I’m a cat person. This change happened when a cat was introduced into our young marrieds’ household by my spouse. It was only fair. I had swooped in with the pound puppy first. He followed by bringing home the stray kitten hanging around his office building’s parking lot.

That was the last dog we owned. Once she exited our lives there was no interest in replacing her. I was hooked on cats who followed by the carload.

Knick, a grey tabby, was our first indoor cat and one of my favorites. Early on we had tried bringing in a pal for him, but he would have none of it. After he had been given up by his family for adoption, he had spent six months in a shelter where he lived in a large room with about twenty other cats of all ages. I should have realized that a roommate was not on his wish list once he moved in with us.

Instead Knick was content to hang out with me as he followed me around the house. I adored being numero uno. I talked to him constantly, and I’m sure that cat understood a lot of what I was saying.

Working at home as most writers do, Knick was great to have in the office. He would warm his fur by the slider which let in the afternoon sun.

In between his frequent cat naps I talked to him about my writing. ‘Where was I going with this scene,’ ‘could this character be stronger’ stuff. I talk to myself a lot when I write, but this didn’t qualify. I was talking to someone who was listening to every word I said and who looked at me while I was talking.

After Knick died three years ago we were slow to consider acquiring another cat.

Then last year, after we had moved to a new house, we started talking kittens. Two sounded fun, one for each of us. We hadn’t had a kitten since the summer that a neighbor driving around our neighborhood was holding up a black and white kitten to ask if we had lost a kitten. We hadn’t but we ended up giving her a home with our family.

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Archie (left) and Amanda (right) spent their first weeks with us preferring the cozy confines of the laundry room. Little did I know that once they began to explore our house that my office would hold limitless fascination. Amanda looks a lot like our old cat Knick.

Yes, two kittens seemed the right move for our new household. So I went online and quickly found them: a tiny brother and a sister from a litter deposited on a local vet’s doorstep.

So now I am comfortably settled in my new spacious office in our current home. The cute-as-can-be kittens are a year old. I am writing a book.

How’s that working out for me?

If you come to my house and knock on my closed office door, this is what you will hear.

“You can come in. But don’t let those #@%^ cats in here!”

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Archie enjoys napping on my desk. I’m sure that he thinks I really don’t need to get to that file folder anytime soon.

That office sofa and chair, nicely decorated with fluffy pillows and furry throws hold no attraction for Amanda and Archie. Sitting in the windows, enjoying the best of the weather, is so, so boring.

But my cats beg to come in the office. What is the attraction?

Simple. They are still kittens. Kittens like to play, and my desk holds endless delights for them.

There is the tangle of wires and cables under the desk. Who wouldn’t want to chew on those and pull so hard that the printer cable disconnects?

Who wouldn’t want to walk on the keyboard, deleting any number of letters from the document displayed on my screen? How about thumping the touch pad to change what is shown on the screen?

The heat emanating from the screen is so pleasant that it makes the space between the screen and the portable keyboard the perfect place to settle in for a snooze.

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Amanda doesn’t understand why I prefer typing on the keyboard to rubbing her ears.

And is cat hair good for a keyboard?

If I hear Siri talking, I know that Archie is standing on my cell phone. Did you know that the little circle below the screen on an iPhone is very responsive to the press of a paw?

So the cats are barred from the office. But does it end there?

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Gifts are delivered throughout the day for me. Today we have the old slipper, the old sock, and one of several catnip mice on the premises.

Of course not. They sit on the other side of the door and howl, the perfect atmosphere for a writer’s concentration. They leave me presents. Since they are indoor cats, these gifts are not the usual small animal prey from the yard, but a selection of their toys brought from other rooms of the house.

And I do have visitors who ignore my restrictions, and upon entering, say, “There’s somebody here who wants to see you.”

From time to time, the sight of their cute little faces melts my resistance. O.K., I think. I’ll let them in. Every month they get older, and their kitten playfulness has to end one day.

All I have to report is: not yet.

Back to Reality

I’ve recently gone back to work full-time, and, boy, has that been an adjustment. I’ve done freelance assignments and written fiction for six years, and I haven’t written a word of fiction since taking my job a month ago.

That is not good.

officeI enjoy writing fiction, but it has been years since I’ve come home from putting in eight hours and set down at the computer again. I write or edit most of the day now, and I find myself doing household chores, vegging in front of the TV, or reading. When I was working from home, I was reading an average of three books a week. Gone are the days…

I like to think I’m going through a period of adjustment…and I hope I get adjusted pretty quickly. My writing partner and I have published two books, and recently had Harlequin back out of our deal for a trilogy for their now-defunct e-book line. That has made it difficult to write too, just the sheer sadness of such a loss.Home

What do you do when you motivation has reached an all-time low? I like to put inspirational quotes on the refrigerator and my computer, so I’ll have visual reminders of what it is I want to do.

How about these?

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”  Mark Twain

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” Richard Bach

“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.”  Phillip Roth

“There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.”  Doris Lessing

These are good quotes, and I’m feeling more inclined to put fingers to keyboard. I mean, I wrote this, didn’t I? Now all I have to do is read the last chapter I wrote so I can catch up on my fiction.

 

Memory, That Trickster

I’ve been thinking about memory lately, and how well or badly it serves us. My own memory is not as useful as it once was, that’s for sure. I always made lists and posted memos to myself. Now I have to remember to look at the lists! And my once enormous fund of completely useless factoids is slipping away.

But here, I am thinking about something more complicated, the twists our memories can take.

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This began with a long-running disagreement between two people I know well. As they both talked to me, I observed that they kept going back to certain sore points. OK. But they kept forgetting any details that did not support their emotional story line. It seems our memories, like our computers, can’t hold unlimited data. We unconsciously select what we can use, or what interests us, or even just what stuck at a moment when the memory card had some available space. mem1

Some more examples:

– a relative was collecting some family history. Having my dad and one of his sisters in the same room, she interviewed them about their mother’s background. And not one thing they thought they knew was the same! Her father had died in Russia when she was young and the only detail they agreed on was which relative brought her to the US. That was because they had both known him. It was very funny.

– the time I finally owned up, as an adult, to being scared of dogs as a child. My sister said, “That’s because of the time a dog grabbed your mitten with his teeth and dragged you.” It all came back to me instantly, but I had completely forgotten it until then.

– all the times my grown children mention a childhood memory and are shocked that I don’t share it. And all the times I remember pieces of their childhood they have forgotten. We were in the same moment, but experiencing it differently

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– and my favorite – the people who insist the Good Old Days of their youth were better times than now. That time is otherwise known as the Great Depression and World War II. Depression1

This isn’t merely idle musing for mystery writers. The witness who is sure he saw the dead man threaten a cop before the cop started shooting. Or was it the other way around? The classic instance in the classic Twelve Angry Men, where it finally becomes clear that a witness could not have seen what she testified to. (No spoiler but if you’ve never see the movie, go rent it ASAP.)

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Then there is the witness who is sure she would recognize her attacker, until DNA proves otherwise. The suddenly retrieved memory of a long-ago crime. The child who remembers abuse and the parent who denies it ever happened. The child who saw something but did not understand it and reports what he saw with his child’s interpretation.

There is a plot twist in every sentence, isn’t there?

Selling Books-Amazon Reviews

What efforts do you make to reach the reader to introduce them to your work?

Unknown-1Jenny Milchman takes herself on a book tour and has done so with huge success. I’ve done my smaller tour with book signings hosted by my family. I talk to rotaries, and libraries.

Online, I keep in touch with several blogs on a daily basis. Does Goodreads help? I find its site confusing, but that could just be me. Linked-in?

I’ve gotten forty Amazon reviews for my March release, Broken Window, many from those I don’t know, but there is also a fair share of those who I’ve asked to post a review once they read Broken Window.

But do the reviews help? Does Amazon push your book more? I know at least two reviewers focused on writing Amazon reviews, I was glad to get a fine review from them.

I love the libraries and I’ve not been to a book store yet.

What’s your secret to reaching the reader?

When do you see a difference in the sales, or do you?

Ginning the Bestseller Lists, Old-School

imageI came across a fabulous write-up on the hoax of I, Libertine, which conned the New York Times bestseller list, also literary reviewers, publishers, and booksellers (even a lit professor) in the mid-fifties. Not because it wasn’t an obvious hoax. I encourage you to read the whole post to see how funny but transaparent the hoax was, and how easily it could be detected by people who asked questions rather than pretending to have the answers. From the blog of author J. Mark Powell:

Shep [Jean Shepherd, radio host and satirist] may have been working in Manhattan, but having been born and raised in Hammond, Indiana (where A Christmas Story is set, by the way) he still had Midwestern sensibilities. One thing that astonished him about New Yorkers was (and still remains) their slavish obsession with Top 10 lists. “The 10 Most Beautiful People…” “The 10 New Looks for Summer…” “The 10 Hottest Movies…” Shep felt New Yorkers blindly followed whatever appeared on those lists without thinking or questioning them. The one that got his goat most of all was The New York Times Best Seller list for books….

But here’s the thing: in Shep’s time, despite its name, the criteria for making the list involved more than just book sales. It included customer requests for and questions about books to book sellers. So if a retailer had a stack of a particular book that wasn’t selling, he could gin up enough queries about it to get the title included on the best seller list, which then made people go out and buy it.

You have to read it all to marvel and laugh at how long the hoax went on, how many people knew, and how many other people fatuously pretended to have read the book or to have met the author. The truly turgid cover above came rather late in the game, actually, when a real book was finally written to fit the hoax. Yes, it also hit the bestseller list.

There are still ways that people try to shift this list or that one, and the keepers of the lists still put their own thumbs on the scales, too. But also, for me, the story also highlights the way that people still assume if they haven’t read about it or seen it from a handful of media outlets, something couldn’t possibly be happening or be true. I’ve come across this more in New York than other places I’ve lived, to be frank. The downside, if there is one, of immersion in perhaps the preeminent media capital of the world is that people within may not look outside very often, assuming they already know all that’s worthy of knowing. Therefore, a story that’s unremarked and unreported in the northeast ends up working like a very successful “conspiracy,” because a huge number of people (in this case, listeners across 37 states) know something of which the self-appointed tastemakers and trendsetters remain ignorant and/or are satisfied to have other people remain ignorant.

In some salons, Frederick R. Ewing was considered the acme of success, but who among us will ever compare to his reach (not to mention his genius)?How do you define a writer’s success? How tough are you on yourself about your own?

Enjoy the Sweaty Dog Days with Celestial Erudition!

canis_majorWe’ve had a pretty mild season, but it is mid-August, so these are precisely the dog days of summer! This name given to the hottest days of the year in the northern hemisphere is reputed to have come about due to Sirius, (also Canis Major, Sothis in Greek, or Sopdet, Isis’s star to the Egyptians).

Often visible in the evenings of spring and winter, during this time of summer, the sky’s brightest star (after the sun of course), appears to us to be “far” enough from the showoff that it’s actually visible in the morning skies, just before dawn. It appears to us to twinkle, even to be multi-colored. This time also marks the season when the Nile would flood, its yearly inundation bringing fertility in its wake, and also being associated with Isis’s tears for her dead husband Osiris, who was, in Egypt at least, the constallation we call the hunter Orion. In fact, if you follow the line of Orion’s 3-star belt behind him, you can’t miss bright Sirius just above the horizon in this picture. Whether as a goddess or best friend, the star is known for its fidelity and radiance.

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Sirius is the bright star near the center of the picture. You can draw a diagonal line from the mountain peak through it and then the belt of Orion.

The gorgeous picture above is from the youth blog of the Delaware Nature Society, which has more info on naked-eye stargazing. And here’s another story about the star from India, as reported by Deborah Byrd at EarthSky:

In India, Sirius is sometimes known as Svana, the dog of Prince Yudhistira. The prince and his four brothers, along with Svana, set out on a long and arduous journey to find the kingdom of heaven. However, one by one the brothers all abandoned the search until only Yudhistira and Svana were left. At long last they came to the gates of heaven. The gatekeeper, Lord Indra, welcomed the prince but denied Svana entrance. Yudhistira was aghast and told Lord Indra that he could not forsake his good and faithful servant and friend. His brothers, Yudhistira told the Lord, had abandoned the journey to heaven to follow their hearts’ desires. But Svana, who had given his heart freely, chose to follow none but Yudhistira. The prince told the Lord that without his dog, he would forsake even heaven. This is what Lord Indra had wanted to hear, and then he welcomed both the prince and the dog through the gates of heaven.

Finally, on the subject, Wikipedia offers this Homeric quote from the epic poem, the Iliad:

Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky
On summer nights, star of stars,
Orion’s Dog they call it, brightest
Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat
And fevers to suffering humanity.

Now doesn’t that make the sweat in your toga feel altogether more expansively erudite?

Eudora Welty and Ross MacDonald

Meanwhile there are lettersA book review by Susan Straight of Meanwhile There Are Letters:
The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, edited by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan (Arcade: 568 pp., $35), caught my attention in the Los Angeles Times and I just had to share it with my fellow Women of Mystery, our blog pals and readers.

Susan writes: “This remarkable book collects more than a decade’s worth of written and mailed correspondence between the two writers — he who was emphatically married (though his marriage is represented as dutiful and often painful by the time of their letters) and she who remained single and died in the same town in which she was born and had nursed her brother and parents when they became ill and died.”

Click on over to ‘Letters’ inscribes a grand love affair with words between Ross Macdonald and Eudora Welty to read more about it.

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Some Thoughts on “That Book”

A lot of people have asked me about Kate Breslin’s For Such a Time and how such an awful book could possibly have gotten a Romantic Times recommended read and a Library Journal starred review. In case you missed it, here’s the back cover copy:

Powerful Retelling of the Story of Esther

In 1944, blonde and blue-eyed Jewess Hadassah Benjamin feels abandoned by God when she is saved from a firing squad only to be handed over to a new enemy. Pressed into service by SS-Kommandant Colonel Aric von Schmidt at the transit camp of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, she is able to hide behind the false identity of Stella Muller. However, in order to survive and maintain her cover as Aric’s secretary, she is forced to stand by as her own people are sent to Auschwitz.

Suspecting her employer is a man of hidden depths and sympathies, Stella cautiously appeals to him on behalf of those in the camp. Aric’s compassion gives her hope, and she finds herself battling a growing attraction for this man she knows she should despise as an enemy.

Stella pours herself into her efforts to keep even some of the camp’s prisoners safe, but she risks the revelation of her true identity with every attempt. When her bravery brings her to the point of the ultimate sacrifice, she has only her faith to lean upon. Perhaps God has placed her there for such a time as this, but how can she save her people when she is unable to save herself?

Now, this is patently offensive on all levels, but it got a freaking STARRED REVIEW in Library Journal and, as I said, no one would shut up about it. It was discussed on Jezebel, on Slate, on Salon, even in Newsweek. And people kept asking me how it was possible.

Why do they ask me? Because it’s being published as a romance, and the publisher or author nominated it for a romance award and somehow–through the perfect storm of events, it made it to the finals for an award. (No, it did not win.)

But it won’t go away, either and people have been asking me to justify my writing in a way that I have not had since Fifty Shades. So if you’re at all interested in my thoughts, I’ve posted them on my blog. Though the title should tell you how I felt: Yes, I Read “That Book” So you Don’t Have To.