It’s that sentimental time of year, when everyone is looking at the bright side … well, almost everyone. Writers, being contrarians by nature, like to look at things a little differently. I know at least one writer who, even at Christmas, likes a bit a dark with all that light and she very kindly agreed to share her views with readers of this blog. So, my friends … drum roll, please … meet Karen McCullough.
It’s my favorite time of year! I love, love, love the Christmas season. I enjoy pretty much everything about it: music, decorations, baking, shopping, even the cold weather. And I love Christmas stories.
Like the season itself, they tend to be sweet, even schlocky, and I’m not usually someone who goes for schlock. While I do love happy, or at least hopeful, endings, I’m more drawn to darker stories with troubled characters and tough situations. I find a happy ending more satisfying if the characters have had to go through hell to get to it.
In truth, I generally prefer even my Christmas stories to have a bit of darkness – a damaged character finding healing or the climax of a difficult journey coinciding with the holidays. My absolute all-time favorite Christmas story is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Characters don’t come much more nasty than Scrooge at the beginning of the story. Doesn’t it make his transformation all that much more moving, though?
Still, I’ll read almost anything that has a Christmas theme.
I’ve tried to figure out why I’m willing to read sweet romances, tales with kids and pets, bunnies and teddy bears (okay, elves and reindeer, anyway) at this time of year, when the rest of the year I tend to avoid those kinds of books. Why does a Christmas theme trump everything else?
I suspect it has to do with the season itself and the emotions it inspires in those of us who celebrate it. Christmas is a time when people are more cognizant of others and their needs. It’s a season that celebrates generosity and encourages giving. Giving to those we love, especially family, but extending a spirit of generosity to friends, acquaintances, and even strangers.
So many Christmas stories center on characters learning to open their eyes and hearts to see and appreciate those around them, or on people coming to understand what their priorities should be, or just gaining a better understand of why it really is better to give than to receive.
And I like even those stories darker because the journey is longer, harder, and yet ultimately more satisfying when the distance from darkness to light is farther.
Not surprisingly, years ago, when I was assigned to write the vampire story to be part of an anthology of paranormal Christmas stories, I wanted the journey to be a hard, even desperate one. I think I succeeded. And a few years ago, after the anthology went out of print, I was able to retrieve the rights to the story, and now A Vampire’s Christmas Carol is available in most ebook formats.
Blurb: Can Christmas Eve get any more fun? On her way to her family’s home, Carol Prescott’s car slides into a ditch in a deserted area with no cell phone signal. The only available shelter is already occupied…by a vampire. To Michael Carpenter, Carol is the bait of a trap.
In an effort to hold onto his soul, Michael has resisted the urge to drink human blood for almost a century. Now he hovers between human and vampire. If he doesn’t drink from a human before the night ends, he’ll die. He’s desperately thirsty, but Michael has seen the soulless monsters vampires are and he prefers death. Carol is pure temptation to him, the Christmas present from hell…or is it from heaven?
Buy:Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B006G36AXG Nook: http://bit.ly/In7FEb Smashwords: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/109662
About Karen McCullough
Karen McCullough is a web designer by profession, and the author of a dozen published novels and novellas in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres as well. She has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy, and has also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, four grandchildren and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.Website: http://www.kmccullough.com Blog: http://www.kmccullough/kblog Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/KarenMcCulloughAuthor Twitter: http://twitter.com/kgmccullough Thank you, Karen, for stopping by Birth of a Novel.
One of my resolutions at the beginning of this year was that I would read fewer books. The plan was to take time to savor the language and pay attention to how the writer developed characters. I admitted in a post last August that that didn’t go well – or, more accurately, it didn’t go as planned. However, I did learn something about myself and isn’t that what resolutions are all about?
The second part of that resolution was to set aside a month to immerse myself in the words of one writer. How did that go? Much better. The writer I chose was Willa Cather. Why her? She was one of the many writers I know more by reputation than by actual experience. At that point, I had read only one of her books (My Antonia), but it was enough to know that she had interesting things to say and that I enjoyed her style. It was a good choice.
For me, reading is all about characters. The books that I love and go back to again and again are those with strong characters – people with whom I fall in love and cheer for, or sometimes hate and jeer at. Either way, these people real to me. After I close the book and turn off the light, I worry about them. When the book is finished and back on the shelf, I savor their triumphs and regret their disappointments. And when it comes to creating strong characters, nobody beats Cather – especially strong women.
My favorite examples of Cather’s strong women are portrayed in the books known as the Prairie Trilogy: On Pioneers!, Song of the Lark, and My Antonia. If you want to understand the history of our country, read these three books. They tell the story of a country – growing, changing, and forging itself into a nation. The characters are not heroic in the usual sense of the word, but they, through the lives they led, the hardships they endured, the perseverance they displayed, are the backbone of the country. Their strengths and weakness are at the heart of who we, as Americans, are. In each of them, there’s a strong woman, a woman who’s not afraid to take charge of her own destiny.
Song of the Lark is a little different from the other two in that it looks at the less than admirable side of life in a tight, closed community. It’s the story of an artist, nurtured by the prairie she loves and, at the same time, constricted by the expectations of the community and stifled by small-town life. I couldn’t help but wonder how much of Cather’s own experience went into this one.
To round out the month, I read a collection of novellas that included A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House, and Death Comes for the Archbishop. They were all good stories, but I have to admit about half way through Death Comes for the Archbishop, I began to skim. It’s set in an earlier time than the others and was an inspiring story in many ways. The archbishop traveled all over the southwest, including some Native American sites that I’ve visited and found fascinating. I’m not sure why I lost interest. Maybe I was just maxed out on life on the great prairies – in other words, too much of a good thing.
All in all, I enjoyed immersing myself in Willa Cather’s books. She was a wise woman, and a fine writer. A few of her observations that I thought worth jotting down:
“There are some things you learn best in calm and some in storm.”
“Where there is great love, there are always wishes.”
“It does matter much whom we live with in this world, but it matters a great deal whom we dream of.”
“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
No fancy language – just seemingly obvious statements, expressed in simple, declarative sentences. Yet I found them provocative. All in all, I enjoyed immersing myself in the books of one author and will probably do it again. No idea who will be next. Any suggestions?
So often we complain about our country. We lament a political process that seems to have gone wrong, grouse about corruption and lack of fairness, about … I could go on, but I won’t. We all have our pet peeves about what’s wrong with America and we’re not shy about expressing them. That’s okay. We have the freedom to do that and that just may be our most important freedom.
Freedom of Speech is the freedom that keeps the others intact.
I grieve that we aren’t more respectful of opinions that differ from our own. I have to admit that I’m guilty of this myself. I say terrible things about people whom I’ve never met – all because they don’t agree with me about where America should go or how we should get there. I get so caught up in expressing my own opinions that I forget to listen to those who have contrary ideas. And, for that, I’m sorry. Really, really sorry. But I’ll probably continue to do it. Why? Because I have the freedom to do so.
This most important freedom is also the easiest to abuse and we do abuse it all too often. But, somehow, in the midst of all the shouting, we keep going, re-interpreting what freedom means and how government is supposed to work. The process can be uncomfortable, sometimes downright painful, but maybe the pains are necessary. Maybe they’re growing pains – and isn’t it good, after more than 200 years, to still be growing? This Sunday, after church, Pete and I were talking to someone who is active in local politics. We asked her what she thought of the election results. She said, “The voters always get it right.” I’m not sure I agree, but I admire her attitude, especially since I’m reasonably sure she didn’t support all the candidates who won.
My wish/hope for the world is that all people everywhere find freedom – in whatever form works for them, in whatever culture they live.
Again – THANKS, VETERANS.
Long-time readers of Birth of a Novel may remember that this blog started out charting the journey of five women writers as we worked our way from vague idea to finished novel. In the process, we became friends and will always remain so. However, the blog itself has changed over time as all living entities must. The biggest change was the loss of four of the original five posters. Happily, Marielena Zuniga, Sharen Ford, Gretchen Haertsch and Joan Barth are still writing, but their lives and their careers have steered them toward different paths. I treasure their friendships and miss their contributions to the blog, but I haven’t been left alone. I firmly believe that birthing a novel is best done with the help of other writers. With that in mind, I’ve gone forward with Birth of a Novel by inviting other writers whom I admire to share their experiences and insights and mixing them in with my own thoughts. I think the mix has been a good one and am proud of the diversity of views represented here. I feel a special pride in this post because it was written by one of BOAN’s original members, Marielena. It was first published in “Times They Were A-Changing: Women Remember the 60s and 70s” http://www.timestheywereachanging.com/
CATCH THE WIND
The black-and-white photo of the young woman sits on my desk. I want to weep for her. I want to love her. I want to tell her it will be all right, although she doesn’t know it yet.
She is 19, stands in a park somewhere on a summer’s day, wearing a Mary Quant mini-dress, bangs that meet her Twiggy-mascared lashes, hair hanging like a dark veil around her shoulders. She has a shy smile on her pale lip-sticked mouth and an eager invitation to life in her eyes. She wears an expression only youth can pull off, one of innocence and fearlessness.
She stands in her opaque-laced stockings and Mary-Jane shoes in the midst of change, straddling two generations – her mother’s and her own. She doesn’t know what’s ahead and if she did, she would run. She would flee to England in the hopes of meeting her beloved Paul McCartney or fly to Haight-Ashbury to wear flowers in her hair.
No, she has no idea of what’s to come, poor child – the struggles in the workplace for equality, the broken hearts, the loneliness, the searching for identity as a woman who was raised with the conventional principles of the 1950s and found herself thrust into a world tilting headlong into the drugs, sex and rock-and-roll of the 1960s. So I cry for her and the woman she is, and I love her for the woman she doesn’t know yet that she will become.
She begins, as most of her generation, by bucking the norm. She doesn’t want to be a wife, tied to a husband and children in a cookie-cutter house in the suburbs. So, she doesn’t marry, doesn’t follow the traditional path of her mother. Later, she will look at her choice from “both sides now,” as Joni Mitchell sang, and learn that “something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day.”
Instead, she works at a 9 to 5 job. She wants to write and so that’s what she does, for a large daily newspaper. The Women’s News Department is stuck in the corner of the newsroom, where she and three other women write about weddings and engagements. She wants to write about how women are changing the world and her first article tells the story of a woman trekking from coast to coast, alone, protesting the Vietnam War.
No matter. The managing editor makes a point of telling the women that they do not write as well as the male reporters. That they never will. Each day, on page six, the newspaper prints a photo of a woman in a bikini or other scant clothing. When the Women’s News editor protests to the managing editor, he brushes her aside. These photos sells newspapers, he barks. Chauvinist pig, she whispers back at her desk.
The young woman is listening. And learning. She is green in this newspaper business and in these changing times she watches the world in news pass across her desk. Nixon resigns, followed by Agnew. The Vietnam War rages on with men of her age slaughtered. Four dead in Ohio.
Women are demanding rights. Burning bras. Others are speaking of the Age of Aquarius, of spiritual enlightenment, of meditation. The Beatles travel to India with their guru. She feels as if she is in one of their songs, watching the world through kaleidoscope eyes.
Sitting in the newsroom, daily deadlines pressing, she flashes back to the Fab Four. She adores them and in her teenaged years, sees them four times in concert — twice in Philadelphia and twice in New York City. At 14, she boards the train in Trenton for Shea Stadium, the car pressed with screaming, pubescent girls. They are alive with a passion that only youth can flaunt, fraught with an excitement akin to orgasm.
She and friends devise schemes to meet the Beatles. That never happens. But one of her hair-brained ideas a la Lucy Ricardo lands her in a hotel lobby at 5 o’clock in the morning getting the autographs of Herman’s Hermits and The Who. She shakes her head, remembering.
An editor screams for copy. She begins typing on her IBM Selectric typewriter. Where did that time go, so quickly, she asks?
This is what she doesn’t know yet. That it goes quickly. That what seems forever in youth becomes quickened, and even more so in later years, like evening light slipping through your fingers. I want to weep for all the lessons she will have to learn, for all the tears she will shed as she goes about “finding herself.”
What she finds isn’t always pretty. She has self-doubts. A man she loves introduces her to the songs of Judy Collins, of wildflowers and “Michael from Mountains” and she wants to hide behind his smile. But he leaves her for someone else. She is still too young to know the meaning of love, so in hindsight, she is grateful.
But her heart is broken – and tender. She feels the injustice of the times, of discrimination, of rights denied minorities, of wars that never should be, of women who want their voices heard. She yearns to make a difference. She tries to catch the wind.
One day, she surprises the newsroom and says she is leaving. Another newspaper? they ask. After all, many of her colleagues have gone on to bigger city newspapers. Better paying jobs. No. She is going to southern Georgia. To work with the poor. As part of a mission program. They don’t understand. They look at her like she’s gone daft. Maybe she has. But she knows her life is not here, not in this newsroom.
In Georgia, she finds purpose and meaning. She works in the African-American community at a day care center and also for the weekly newspaper in a small Southern town. She finds that prejudice still exists, but when given a choice, people will love instead of hate, that sometimes a listening heart is needed. But that action is also needed at grass roots level and that people need and want education, employment, a future – and hope. She sees that change happens slowly, although in youth, she wants it to happen like the crack of thunder and a cleansing storm.
Now, she looks at another photo that sits on her desk. Her hair is graying, although she still colors it and vows that soon she will stop that nonsense. She carries extra pounds and her eyes reflect a sadness that is earned only through life. She goes on to write for many publications and organizations, especially about women’s issues, wins many writing awards, and in this way, she finds, as psychologist Carol Gilligan has written, “a different voice.” Her own voice.
In a passing conversation a friend calls her a pioneer for other women. She blushes. She hadn’t considered the idea. Hadn’t even thought of herself in this way. But again, this had been part of her growing up before the 1960s, in that other world that told women and girls: Be polite. Be good. Don’t speak up. Don’t claim your power.
But now she realizes, that in some miniscule way she has been a trailblazer, a part of a swell of women in the 1960s and 1970s who were saying to other women: Listen. You have options. You can do things your mother never did. Your choices will have consequences – but you do have them. Make the most of them. For yourselves and for the world.
She knows she lived through pivotal times. She is thankful. She feels as if she and many other women planted seeds during those decades – seeds that are now bearing rich fruit. She begs the world to not let that fruit decay on fallow ground. There is still much work to be done.
And they, women of the 1960s and 1970s, have the experience and tools to continue tilling that ground until they unearth the promised land of equality, the promised land of a world where no one goes hungry and the rights of all humans are respected. But they can only do it with the help of all their sisters, young and old, and yes, with men who are willing to take their hands and lead gently with their hearts.
In some ways, she wants to be that young woman again, filled with energy and innocence. In many ways, she doesn’t. She knows life can be hard. She knows that many times hope can abandon her in a second and leave her breathless. But she also knows now how strong she is, and that her strength comes from decades of good and poor choices, of disappointments and fleeting dreams, of joys that sparkled like stars and her deep spiritual convictions in a power greater than herself and the belief that in the end we all are, as Anne Frank said, basically good.
She looks at both photos now and takes a deep breath. Yes, she weeps for the young woman, and all that is ahead of her, but she smiles at and loves the woman who has survived. It has indeed been all right. And in that difficult journey she has learned to embrace herself with reverence, and even though she still has her bad days she has learned to turn with the seasons and understands that “there is a time to every purpose under heaven.” She knows, as Joni sang, “there’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty, before the last revolving year is through.”
She has found her voice. And herself. And most of all, she has learned to love herself. Finally. Yes, she has.
Marielena, you have indeed found your voice and I am grateful to you for sharing it with us. Thank you.
I am pleased to introduce Shellie Foltz to the readers of Birth of a Novel. Shellie, a fellow Avalon writer (and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Missourian), has agreed to share her experience writing for the stage. Personally, I’m fascinated by plays and movies. They seem to me to be storytelling in the best “show, don’t tell” tradition, but I didn’t realize until reading Shellie’s post how collaborative the process is. I’ll Shellie tell you about that.
No More Going it Alone
I’ve always sequestered myself with my writing; I rarely share anything in draft form with anyone but my husband. In the past year, however, I’ve discovered the joy of collaboration thanks to the good folks at Stained Glass Theatre, a regional Christian theatre located in Ozark, Missouri. The theatre has a rich and wonderful history which you can read all about on its website (www.sgtheatre.com); but my personal history with Stained Glass dates back to just a little over a decade when I revisited a neglected area of my writing life: the play.
I became fascinated with theatre in high school and found great joy not only in watching plays, but in reading them. In my sophomore year of college I was accepted to the scriptwriting program at NYU’s TischSchool of the Arts. Something contrived to keep me at home, however, and that dream never came to fruition for me, though receiving that letter still ranks as one of the proudest moments of my life. I sat in on script writing conferences with local groups after that, but really my writing life as a young twenty-something was haphazard.
Feeling frustrated with myself, I decided I would return to that love of the play and write one with a production at Stained Glass Theatre as my goal. When Welcome to Joe’s debuted, I was over the moon and as soon as the show closed I was on to the next. Related Spaces found a spot in the theatre’s season a couple years later, and two years ago Joe reprised. I am eagerly anticipating seeing Keeping Watch, my first Christmas show, on stage this season and for that I have especially to thank the Executive Director, Tom Young, who took the time to talk with me about his vision for the theatre and some of the things he’d like to see on stage. I felt inspired and challenged after that conversation. I was eager to write, but it didn’t come as easily this time.
I suppose it’s fair since, as an English teacher, I made many writing assignments to students that I should find it difficult to write to someone else’s vision rather than as a result of personal inspiration. I revisited the notes I’d made after that conversation with Tom many times, struggling to “see” the stage through his lens. There were features he was interested in that were not natural to me, but I worked diligently to meet a fast-approaching deadline and was determined to have something to offer that would meet with and perhaps even exceed expectation.
Writing a play is such a different process from writing prose. There are so many considerations: the size of the stage, where the actors and actresses will stand, how they will move and maneuver through the set, the cost of props and costumes, and the overarching theme (if there is one) of upcoming seasons. There are so many questions to be answered about each scene! What will the extras on stage be doing while the hero and heroine interact here? How quickly can the villain change costumes from the last scene before re-entering in the next?
At its essence, however, good writing is good writing. Like a novel, the play must have a strong central conflict and the writer must take time to develop the characters fully. Dialogue must be natural and stage directions must indicate how it should be delivered to avoid confusion, just as you would indicate that a character in a story spoke hesitantly or heatedly. Whatever format your writing takes, you as the creator, must grow in your understanding of the genre and must invest yourself in your craft. This can be uncomfortable. I know. I have experienced collaboration.
What an exhilarating, humbling experience! To engage in meaningful conversation with others who are interested in your success and who believe your involvement will mean something to their own success! To address a piece of writing critically from multiple perspectives! To engage in evaluative conversations! Oh, to hear someone say, “I think this section might be stronger if. . .”! To listen closely and intentionally with an aim of perfecting the piece! This is what collaboration is all about!
Many of you know this already; it is nothing new to you. You have allowed a certain few others in. They are your critique group, your trusted advisors. Others of you, like me, may have hidden away and worked in solitude until you were ready to share the final product with the world. May I encourage you to take a step outside yourself and engage others? I have every confidence that if you do you will find yourself not only a better writer, but a happier one. Let’s face it, we all want to be appreciated. We all want to have someone tell us our work is good. We all know our work is good; but it can be better. More importantly, we can be better people for the process of sharing and accepting help from others in this most cherished and personal of endeavors: writing.
In addition to her plays, Shellie is the author of two wholesome romance novels: No Penalty for Love and Love Under a Dark Sky available at http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=shellie%20foltz.
Shellie, thanks so much for sharing your experience with us.
I’m pleased to welcome another guest this week – Heidi Ashworth. As is the case with so many of my writer friends, Heidi and I got to know each other via the internet. And I do feel that I know her, based on messages exchanged and her postings on Avaloners, a list shared by authors published by Avalon Books. (Most of the original books are now available from Montlake if they’re romances or Thomas & Mercer if they’re mysteries.) When a question is asked, Heidi is often the first to answer. When someone is discouraged, she is quick to encourage. In short, though we live thousands of miles apart and haven’t actually met face to face, I know her as a warm and generous person. As for her writing … I’ll let her speak for herself.
I read my first Regency-era romance when I was four years old, the word ‘read’ being a relative term as I was only able to make out ‘the’ and one or two other simple words. It was The Talisman Ring by Georgette Heyer (something I didn’t know for many years later, even after having read the whole book in my twenties. It wasn’t until I finally found an edition with the same heart-stoppingly romantic cover, as in, the hero, his head wrapped in a white bandange, weak and in bed with a colorful patchwork quilt over him, that I realized it was the same book.) and my sister would not give it to me if I couldn’t prove that I could read it. Two simple words did not qualify me as worthy, however, and I forgot about it.
However, my mother and much older sisters were reading regencies by the handsful. It was the sixties and regencies were wildly popular, even amongst those who later moved on to the more graphic “historical novels”. Georgette Heyer was the mother of the genre, despite the fact that she started out writing Georgian-set romances (most of which I love as much, if not better, than her regencies) but she was quickly imitated by the likes of Barbara Cartland and others. I made my first attempt at writing my own at age ten (again, I hadn’t read more than, literally, a few words of The Talisman Ring) a six page affair that took place in France in 1972. I had a lot to learn about what constituted a Regency romance.
Very shortly thereafter, one of my sisters introduced me to The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia and I was off on a fantasy-only adventure that lasted until my mid-twenties. By then, more current Regency genre greats such as Joan Smith, Barbara Metzger, Carla Kelly, Marion Devon and many others were writing shorter, funnier, lighter and, at times, more emotionally satisfying, regency romances than had been available in the past. I read my first (I loved it but quickly learned that it was garbage and moved on to other authors whose names I still recall) and I was hooked. Who wouldn’t want to spend all day sitting around in a gorgeous gown, attended to by servants, taken out on carriage rides and spins around the ballroom by handsome young men and speaking in an English accent? At their core, Regency romances are the quintessential Cinderella story, which just happens to be my most favorite story of all. In short, they are the die-hard romantic’s fantasy novel of all fantasy novels.
By the time I had my first baby and was able to quit working full time, I knew what I wanted to write and, this time, I had a much better idea of how to go about it. It involved speaking in an English accent for a solid six weeks, a development with which my husband was very patient. That particular book was never submitted for publication but the next finally did find a publisher (erm, about fourteen years later but we won’t talk about that) and since I have published two more, as well as two novellas, and have written three more short stories coming out in an anthology in October of 2013.
As long as there are those who are true romantics at heart and who enjoy being transported to another time and place, Regency romances will have their place on the bookshelf (virtual or otherwise). Long live the Regency romance!
Thanks, Heidi, for sharing your love of Regency romances with us. I think you’re right, they’ll always have a place on the bookshelf. Who can resist a Cinderella story? And I have to say, they make the prettiest covers.
If you’d like to learn more about Heidi Ashworth, here’s her website: http://www.heidiashworth.com/
My guest this week is Beate Boeker, author of romances and mysteries guaranteed to make you chuckle and forget about your problems for a while. Beate has been a traditionally published author since 2008 and now offers a number of full-length novels and short stories online. Several were shortlisted for the Golden Quill Contest, the National Readers’ Choice Award, and the ‘Best Indie Books of 2012′ contest. She is a marketing manager by day with a degree in International Business Administration, and her daily experience in marketing continuously provides her with a wide range of fodder for her novels, be it hilarious or cynical.
Here’s a description of a Boeker heroine that also tells a great deal about Beate herself:
”Are you impatient with those clinging females who do nothing but sink against the next manly chest at regular intervals? Great! We have something in common. The heroines in my novels are self-assured with weak spots in their armor. They may loose their head occasionally but never their sense of humor. They laugh rather than cry and fight rather than faint.” (taken from Beate’s website, link below)
When I asked Beate to share how she came up with the idea for her latest book, Mischief in Italy, she very generously agreed and, as an added bonus, suggested a perfect conversation starter for your next girls’ night out.
The perfect topic for the next girl’s evening
If you are a writer, you know that moment well when the plot of your new book bores you to tears, when that inner voice says it’s all crap and you might just as well delete the whole thing. If you are a writer who has finished a book, you know that you will soldier on, and that in the end, it’s worth it. I have reached that point with every book I’ve written, more than ten contemporary romances and mysteries, so I know it well. However, for some reason, things were different when I wrote Mischief in Italy, and I don’t know why.
Maybe because I had the idea while sitting on a boat in the middle of lake Garda, blue water, blue skies, warm sunshine and my favorite people around me. Maybe because I started to scribble the first chapters into a notebook I held on my knees while the sunshine filtered through the olive trees on our camping site. Maybe because I never really planned on making this a fully blown novel. I just started with one crazy idea – a warped ad in a newspaper to find a soul-mate – and took it from there, and while writing, I had to chuckle on every single page. In the evenings, I would read my latest chapters to my family and we would curl up with laughter.
It’s my fun novel. The novel to read when the future is bleak, the present is boring, and the past is best forgotten. When the chocolate is gone and you’re on a diet anyway. Something to make you happy and make you feel better. It made me happy while writing, and I hope that it makes the reader happy while reading.
One of the key scenes in the novel hinges on a very important question: What is the most repulsive (as in un-sexy) thing in a man? When I wrote the answer, I didn’t hesitate one second. It seemed a given. And recently, when I had a friend over for dinner, I asked that question again (she had not yet read my book), and without hesitating, my friend chose exactly the same thing. We couldn’t stop laughing. Next, I tried it during lunch with my colleague. She hesitated a bit, but the second thing she said was spot on – again.
Now I wonder if it’s a cultural thing. Maybe that’s a typical German answer. So here’s the question for you: What is the single most unattractive physical feature in a man? I’m looking forward to reading your comments, and after your replies, I promise I’ll tell you what I chose for Mischief in Italy.
To give you a bit of a taste of Italy, here are the first two chapters of Mischief in Italy. Enjoy!
“Maybe you should be a bit more . . .” I hesitated and chose the word that would hopefully offend my son the least, “. . . selective.” I replaced the cup to its saucer and was glad I sounded so much in control. I’m a grown man. Fifty-eight, successful, settled. There is no reason to be nervous just because I plan to have a heart-to-heart talk with my grown son. I shot a glance at Josh to gauge his reaction.
A pulse started to beat at his neck, and he pushed a hand through his hair, just like he always does when he gets impatient.
For an instant, I missed Kate with something akin to pain. Kate had always gotten along with our son much better than I. She used to say we were too similar. When she died five years ago, it seemed at first as if Josh and I were growing closer – but only for a week or two. Whatever Kate had meant, one thing was sure – Josh and I had totally different approaches to deal with loss. I withdrew and became even more of a recluse while Josh threw himself head first into every available amusement. Divertimenti, as the Italians would say. The American boy is amusing himself . . .
When the pain receded after Kate’s death, I didn’t change my way of life. I can’t tell why. Maybe I was too accustomed to it, too lazy to change something. Josh continued with his manifold ways of amusement, and I had been watching him with growing concern for some time. We should get closer again. Heck, he was my only son, and I loved him. I found it hard to tell him so, however. I hoped he knew it anyway. Right now, it was time for a talk, but I had to admit I dreaded it, that’s why I had put it off for such a long time.
“What do you mean, I should be more selective?” His tone was aggressive.
Damn. I had taken the wrong approach, but it was too late now. I didn’t know how to bring it across, how to put my unease into words.
“Dad?” Josh watched me with his blue eyes that could be so chilling.
“I mean . . .”, I was hunting for the right words with a feeling of despair. I had figured it out in advance. Had planned what to say. Had been convinced I could be calm and sensible and controlled. Instead, I had barely said five words and had lost it already.
“You mean?” His mouth had taken a mutinous shape. He was twenty-seven, too old to be told what to do.
I decided to take the plunge. “I have a feeling that you’re only playing around, and that it’s not good for you.”
“Playing around?” His jaw was one hard line. “What do you mean?”
Heavens, do I have to spell it out loud? “Women,” I said. “You’re bringing different women home all the time; and I’m worried about you.”
“Why should you be worried?” Josh frowned. “I’m living a good life. I’m enjoying myself. What’s wrong with that?”
“That’s just it.” I was grateful that he had given me a good opening. One that got me back on track. “I’m not sure that you’re really enjoying yourself. It only seems to touch the surface.”
“Oh, trust me, it gets deeper than that.”
I hate it when he makes leery remarks, and as usual, I decided to ignore it.
Josh pushed back his chair as if to get up. “You’re telling me to settle down and to present you with grandchildren, is that it?” Again, his drew his hand through his hair. “God, I never thought it would get to that.”
I forced myself to remain calm. “No, that’s not it, Josh,” I said. “I just want to tell you that I’m worried about you. You’re not happy.”
“Well, let me tell you something, too, Dad.” Josh looked me straight in the eye. “In fact, it’s good that you’re bringing this up because I’ve been wanting to discuss it with you.”
Surprise shot through though me. “What do you want to discuss?”
“I feel that you’re not living life as you should,” my son said. “You’re being buried alive. Here you are, in a magnificent villa right at Lake Garda in sunny Italy, spoiled by beauty and riches, and all you do is sit at home all day long. I don’t believe you even use the pool anymore.”
I stared at him, speechless. “You’re worried about me?” I finally managed to squeeze out.
“Yes.” Josh pressed his lips together. “Your life is too sad for words.”
“But I’m fine.” Mixed feelings battled inside me. I was touched that Josh should worry about me – I had never suspected him to waste more than a fleeting thought on his father. On the other hand, he was a fine one to talk. How on earth had he dreamed up the idea that I was unhappy? “Don’t worry about me,” I said. “There is no need to change anything in my life.”
“See?” Josh grinned. “That’s the same answer I gave you. And I believe you even less than you believe me.”
I shook my head. Finances are a much easier topic than human beings. Either the shares go up or they go down. You can prepare for both. But human beings are so unpredictable – they jump to the side and leave you puzzled. “So what do you suggest we do?”
Josh eyed me. “We have two options. Either we continue as we are, or we both try to make some changes.”
I did not like the direction this was taking. Maybe I should have left well enough alone, but I had the impression that Kate would have expected me to take a more active hand in our son’s life, now that she was gone and that he seemed to have settled on a road that could only lead him to unhappiness. “What do you have in mind?”
“Well, to start with,” Josh picked up a piece of prosciutto-ham wrapped around a piece of sweet melon and gave me a wicked grin, “I think you need a woman.”
I choked on my coffee. “What?”
“I can help you find one,” he offered. “In fact, people often ask me to be introduced to you. Women too, but I always tell them you’re not interested.”
“I’ll thank you to keep it that way,” I said with a sharp note in my voice.
“But why not? They’re quite attractive, I assure you.”
“If they’re anything like the women you so successfully manage to bring home, I’m not interested. They only want a free meal ticket.” Darn. I shouldn’t have been so crass. I gave Josh an uncomfortable look.
He kept his gaze on the melon on his plate. A strange smile played around his lips. “We’re now coming to the root of the matter, Dad, aren’t we?” He lifted his head and gave me a look I couldn’t figure out. “You think I’m being exploited.”
I decided to be totally honest. “I’m afraid you’ll get hurt.”
Josh laughed. He didn’t sound amused. “Don’t worry, Dad. I don’t believe in illusions.”
“Good.” My reply was tart. “But I still don’t want to be a sort of guinea pig for your young ladies.” Unlike my son, I was sure I could be cheated. Apparently Josh knew better how to protect his heart. For me, it was too late to learn. But how could I tell him that?
I can’t believe he’s trying to tell me how to live. I mean, look at him. Ever since Mom’s gone, he’s let himself go – a recluse, that’s what he is. A good thing he can deal with all his finances from home. Even better that he hasn’t any hair left. I bet he wouldn’t have gone to a hairdresser even once in all these years and it would now grow to his shoulders. Though otherwise, he’s not unattractive. Even the slight stubble on his chin suits him. “Dad. If you’re not taking care, you’ll become a fossil. You still have plenty of years ahead of you. Why don’t you fill them with some fun?”
He made a sour face. “Just what is your idea of fun?”
I grinned, but knowing that he wouldn’t enjoy the answer that leaped to my mind, I merely said. “You know what. But that’s not important at the moment. What’s important is your idea of fun. I mean, you were happy with Mom, weren’t you?”
A shadow crossed his face. “I was.”
“So what did you enjoy doing with her?”
He gave me a sharp look as if I had asked something indecent, though for once, nothing remotely like that had crossed my mind. However, neither of us voiced our thoughts.
In the distance, I could hear the lawnmower of our neighbor kick into action, which reminded me that I still had to get a gardener to give the property down by Sirmione the once over before I could show it to some prospects tomorrow afternoon. My father startled me out of my thoughts.
“I liked to be silent with her.”
My mouth dropped open. I mean, what can you do with a guy like that? Here he is, rich, healthy, fit, but when you ask him about his idea of fun, what does he say? He wants to be silent. “Why do you need a woman for that? Heck, any silence will last longer if no woman is anywhere close.”
He shook his head. Tired. Never one for words, he looked at me with a shrug. “A companionable silence. Do you know what that is?”
I didn’t. Honestly. And I didn’t want to get to know it. It sounded too dull for words. “Well, you can’t advertise for a woman with this description. You’ll never get a single reply.”
He nodded. “You’ve made my point. It has to happen. You can’t search for it.”
“Look here, Dad.” I pushed a hand through my hair. “It will not happen either if you hide behind the walls of the estate. You need to get out.”
He shook his head, his jaw set.
I knew that line of his jaw well – too well. He had made up his mind. Not willing to waste my time, I gave in. “Okay, if you’re not willing to roam the lake or let me introduce you to some people, then you have to put up an announcement on the Internet – or in the newspaper. Whatever you want.”
“I don’t want another woman in my life.” For once, he sounded out of temper.
I bent across the table. “You’re feeling blue. Lonely. Admit it.”
He sat back and crossed his arms. Then he fixed me with a stare. “So do you. Admit it.”
An uncomfortable squiggle went through my heart, but I ignored it. I had to get Dad into action, if only to get him out of my hair. The idea of a shared pool and garden with several houses on the property had seemed a good idea at the time. It turned out to be less practical with a father who wanted to know the name of every female in sight.
Years ago, he was different. He was bored now, that was it. A major financial crash on the stock-market might keep him busy for a few weeks, but it would also endanger my business. Selling properties became hard when the economy went down. No, I had to find another way. I pulled out my cell phone and tapped a few words into it. “Look here. What do you think of this?”
My Dad took the phone from my hands, settled his black reading glasses on his nose, and read the announcement I had composed. “Active man in his best years is looking for a woman to share a house with pool by Lake Garda. Jeans-type. Only serious answers, please.” His jaw dropped, and his hand sank onto the table. “Active? What on earth do you mean by that? Weren’t you telling me a few minutes ago that I’m in danger of becoming a fossil?”
I shrugged. “It means you’re not fat.”
“God.” Dad shook his head. “And where does the jeans-type come in? I abhor jeans. They’re so uncomfortable.”
I looked at his classic chinos in off-white. “It means you have a youngish set of mind.”
He stared at me as if I had developed an extra pair of ears. “What is this?” he asked. “Some sort of special lingo like selling houses? As in ‘romantic setting’ which really means ‘in the middle of nowhere’?”
I grinned. “Something like that.”
“How come you speak it?”
I sighed. My poor Dad had no idea how to work the market. “To avoid embarrassing you, let’s just say I know what women find attractive.”
“Pah.” My father threw the phone onto the table. “They find the house with pool attractive. The rest doesn’t matter.”
I started to be a bit put out. “Listen, Dad, I doubt it’s as black and white as you believe. Marcia for one,” I made a move with my head toward my house, “. . . wouldn’t–”
I suppressed a sigh. “You met her by the pool yesterday.”
“Oh.” My father had the grace to look uncomfortable. “I’m sorry; I was out of line. But she was so thin.”
I clenched my teeth. “Quite. But it’s not exactly tactful to tell her that she should gain weight before you even know her name.”
“You weren’t there to introduce us,” he pointed out.
Sometimes, I wanted to throttle him. “I was working, Dad, and right before, during our breakfast, I told you her name and informed you that she might still be sleeping.”
He shrugged. “I’m still saying that you would also have her here right now even if you were twenty years older than I am and even if you had a foul temper all day long.”
My patience was at an end. “Not quite, Dad.” I narrowed my eyes and bent forward. “And don’t tell me you’re trying to cut me out just to prove your point.”
He looked shocked at the thought but rallied quickly. “I won’t.” For the first time today, he smiled. “She’s too thin for me.”
“Talk about being superficial,” I couldn’t prevent myself from saying.
“I don’t want to fight with you, Josh.” My Dad refilled our cups. “So where are we?”
I tossed down the coffee and got up. “We have learned that we are worried about each other,” I summed up. “Which is probably only stupid because we can’t imagine how to be happy in another way. So let’s drop it, shall we?”
My Dad looked me full in the eye and held my gaze. “Is it stupid?”
For some reason, I had to avert my eyes. To gloss it over, I slipped my phone into my pocket.
“Let’s make a pact,” Dad said.
I checked my watch, turning it so the sunlight wouldn’t be reflected by the titanium. If I didn’t hit the road within the next five minutes, I would be late for my first appointment today. “Well?” I put both hands on the back of my chair and looked at him.
“You’ll find out if this . . . this Marcia is made of sterner stuff. And I’ll put an announcement into the newspaper.”
I frowned. “Just what do you mean?”
“Tonight, you’ll tell Marcia that an unexpected problem is draining our finances.”
“Problem? What problem?”
He waved a nonchalant hand. “I gambled. A law-suit. Unlucky investments – whatever.”
“It’ll risk ruining our professional reputation.” I stared at my father. He’s going nuts.
Dad shrugged. “So what? We’ll find out who our real friends are.”
“That’s what you want?” I couldn’t believe my ears. He seemed to have developed an odd sense of humor lately.
Dad grinned. “Yep.”
I couldn’t remember the last time he had grinned like that. Something inside me cracked. “All right, Dad. Until the end of summer, we’ll play this game, and we’ll discover our real friends.” That gave us six weeks. Eight at the most. I held up my hand. “But I have one condition, too.”
“What is it?”
“When you’ll put up that announcement in the newspaper, you also mention the house and the pool by the lake.”
He winced. “But that’s counter-productive. We wanted to find real friends, soul mates, not gold-diggers.”
“Wrong, Dad, wrong.” I pocketed my keys and went to the door. “I’m supposed to find soul mates.” I stressed the first word. “You, however, are supposed to have more fun.”
Sound like a fun read? Believe me, it is.
Find Mischief in Italy here: http://amzn.to/11pkT4W
Learn more about Beate Boeker here:Website: www.happybooks.de Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Beate-Boeker/153573758044433?ref=ts&fref=ts Twitter: @BeateBoeker Goodreads author page: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1679907.Beate_Boeker Book trailer: http://www.happybooks.de/104-0-the-question.html Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Beate-Boeker/e/B001JSC5DC Blog: http://www.avalonauthors.blogspot.com (I post here together with other authors)