Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Hard Act to Follow

--Adrienne Miller

Last year I made a handful of resolutions, and, like almost everybody else in the world, I broke most of them. All except one. Which was just fine, cause that was the only one that really mattered. 

There were the old favorites - to weigh less, to exercise more. I don’t need to tell you. Chances are, you’ve made the same ones. But the one I really meant, the one that came from down deep in my heart, was simple but more frightening than all the others put together. 

I resolved to put myself out there and see what happened. 

That’s it. I didn’t know exactly what it meant when I promised to it. Turns out, I didn’t have to. All I had to do was say “yes” a few more times than I said “no”. Some of those yes’s were a little daunting. Who am I kidding? Every one of them scared the hell out of me, but with each one I said, I cleared a little more fog off the path I was traveling.

It was a good beginning. And now I have to follow it. 

So, what’s it going to be? That’s the question I’ve had on my mind the last few weeks. Once again, I shouldn’t have worried about it so much. 

The answer showed up just in time, all sparkly and shiny on a silver platter...actually it came on a album download from the iTunes store, but the image isn’t as pretty.

A little while ago, our own Rachael whispered the name of a band that I had to check out. “The Avett Brothers,” she said. “They’ll change your life,” she said.

That Rachael Herron, she’s smart. Seriously, if you have a chance, check out I and Love and You.

One click and $9.99 later, there it was--the simple lyric that became this year’s resolution. Decide what to be and go be it.

Once again, I’m not quite sure what it means, or where it will take me, but I know--really down to the bone know--that it’s the one. So...deep breath and here goes...

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Let it be resolved...

I'm not a big one for New Year's resolutions. Rather, I make resolutions every day.

It's quite common for me to proclaim (quite loudly) that I have decided to move to Paris. Or that from now on I will walk around the lake every day while learning Italian. Or that I will dance naked around the house naked to Billy Idol whenever I can't think what to write next.

Happily for me, my friends and family are accustomed to my heartfelt declarations...and even more used to witnessing those resolutions fall by the wayside in favor of new ones. Since they are my friends, they don't judge me too harshly when, quite predictably, those resolutions don't quite come to pass.

So this year I'm taking a new tactic. I will only resolve things I do already. Since I don't do a lot of things that are good for me, these are fairly easy to innumerate.

Let it be resolved...

...I will not take up smoking cigarettes (unless I'm diagnosed with six months to live, in which case Sophie and I have vowed to start smoking like chimneys)
...I will enjoy sleeping (new fleece sheets for Christmas, yay!)
...I will write two more books (fingers crossed, and Billy Idol at the ready)
...I will --from time to time-- drink too much, say and do inappropriate things, and have a fabulous time
...I will never, ever, wear yellow pants (I was visiting family over the holiday and saw several pictures of me as a young girl wearing bright yellow pants. Disturbing at best. Yes, it was the seventies, but still...there's simply no excuse for that kind of behavior.)

And finally, with a nod to my dear blogmate Rachael, who stole my idea for this week's blog: I resolve not to stab anyone this year.

Unless, of course, I'm provoked.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Rachael's New Year's Resolutions

I always make the same New Year's resolution.

I resolve not to stab anyone this year.

There. I made it again.

Having never stabbed anyone before and not having a huge problem with my temper makes this a pretty easy resolution to carry out. It gives me a feeling of satisfaction to realize that once again I've made it successfully through another year.

You could do the same thing! Resolve not to shoot anyone! Or not to ride a go-cart at DisneyWorld! It's not exactly setting the bar low, it's just setting the bar where it can be reasonably reached.

And honestly, I don't need resolutions. I have goals. In 2010, I'll finish two (maybe three?) books. At least one will hit the shelves (in five countries). I'll learn how to sign them and give readings. I will write every day. I'll always be the professional with whom other professionals want to work. I'll promote the hell out of myself. That's really all I need to do, isn't it? Screw resolutions, I have gumption.

And I'm not stabbing a soul. I swear it.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Bring On The Serenity

by Sophie


I'm a fairly resolute person. I don't generally have a problem with following through. When I say I'm going to do something, I either do it or change my mind and choose a new path.

Sometimes, though, fate intervenes, and no amount of will in the world is enough to get me to my goal. When that happens, my frustration is boundless. It is my profound belief that sheer will should be enough in every single case. That wanting and working - the magic equation - should get you everything you want in life. And being denied pretty much enrages me.

For example, a while back I started the Hundred Pushups challenge with several of the Pens. I smile to remember that the folks over at Hundred Pushups had me convinced that I truly would be knocking out 100 pushups in a row by following their program for a few weeks. Turns out that by the second week I could not make the goal. It wasn't for lack of trying - I tried until my eyes nearly popped out of my head and sweat worked its way out of pores I didn't even know I had and I collapsed weeping on the carpet. But I didn't quit. I just waited a couple of days and tried again. And again. And so it went. It took 14 attempts over an entire month until I managed that day's goal, but I did it.

The next step took another month. No problem.

But then...oh then, one day, something Bad happened to my shoulder.

Now don't fret, y'all. I'll be okay. It's just fine and even kind of mend-y as long as I just don't do pushups. It's entirely likely it intends to heal right up if I give it half a chance. Only....there is now no way in heck I'm going to get to Hundred Pushup Nirvana. Why, by the time I'm able to do another pushup, I'll be lucky to be in the Three Pushup Club.

And that makes me insane. Remember my magic equation?


...except when it doesn't.

All of this is a very long way of saying that this year's resolution has presented itself for my consideration: to accept the things I cannot change. (Yeah, yeah, it's lifted from elsewhere; if you know the source, consider yourself lucky and do your best to live it.) There are, I'm afraid, quite a few things that I have not been able to change in the last year, which show every indication of not allowing me to change them in the new year. I would love to stomp these things into a pulpy bloody mess, to blast them with death rays, to drown them in bottomless oceans, but instead it appears I am going to have to learn to live with them.

So, all right, danged that way, that stubborn pesky way that you are being. I bless you anyway. Thank you for connecting my arm to the rest of me.

There, how was that? Not terribly convincing? Ah well...there's another old saw some of y'all may know, that goes a li'l somethin like this:

Fake it 'til you make it.

So next time you see me, I'll be faking serenity with a vengeance. Who knows, sometime in '10 I might just manage a little of it for real.


Rachael and me last summer - I can't find our pushups picture, but arm wrestling is just as good!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas from the Pens Fatales!!

The Pens and some friends and their spouses got together this week to spread holiday cheer. We enjoyed wine and great food and even greater company! Then we taped a little message for you all :)

Happy Holidays from all of the Pens!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Nothing Pointy, Please

I've tried my fair share of crafty activities. Some of them have worked out better than others.

I've learned that sharp objects and I don't mix. I once nearly severed a finger while carving a linoleum block. I've learned my lesson and stayed away from knitting needles.

Silkscreen squeegees are much more my style. Rubber, wood, paper, and a bit of paint, and you can make yourself some prints that look almost as cool as if you'd maimed yourself sticking with carving linoleum blocks.

Besides, creating a stencil from a sketch or a photograph (like my guitar tree below and my dragon at right, respectively) doesn't take as many hours of work before you can see the end result. If I start a project I like to finish it, so taking on a manageable art project definitely has its appeal.

Letterpress is another great way to create art with a similar aesthetic, but those machines can be dangerous--at least to those of us known to skewer our fingers with carving knives.

Last month I wrote that I wouldn't have time to make hand-made holiday cards this year. I was sad about that, so I changed my mind.

I didn't manage to pull out my silkcreens, but I took an old letterpress poster I made at the San Francisco Center for the Book and found a font on my computer that captured the same feel.

And when I have time to step away from my computer, I'll stick to a craft where getting paint on my shirt is the worst that can happen.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Martha Craftily Gets Tom Neely To Blog About The Craft of Songwriting

You know that saying? When at first you don't succeed, try again? I'm a fan of: when at first you don't succeed, throw yourself at the mercy of someone who will.

Who did I find to succeed in a blog on craft? Tom Neely. The husband of our own Adrienne Miller.

Check out this good looking bunch ------>

Since craft is defined as a trade requiring special skill, Tom could be considered a consummate craftsman. This guy writes songs. That's like...writing something...without words. It boggles the mind.
At least this one.

Check out Tom getting crafty on his
mp3 site where you can listen to his tracks (some are rumored to be inspired by OUR VERY OWN ADRIENNE MILLER!)

Without further ado: TOM NEELY!
(A little more ado: Within this blog is the best piece of writing advice I've received in 2009. Just for kicks, I bolded and colored it red. It's just that important.

In keeping with my policy of always saying yes to anyone who asks me to write a song for them, when asked to write something (not a song ) about the craft of songwriting of course I said yes.

I’m reluctant to call myself crafty but am definitely quick to call myself familiar with the craft of songwriting. I’m lucky enough to make a living teaching kids to write their own songs, once I teach them how to play an instrument that is, and have written hundreds myself.

To me songwriting doesn’t have to be about reinventing the wheel. It should be about going backwards, or forwards in your way. Maybe sideways. Maybe that’s a crappy metaphor. I think we all have something to say and the first, and biggest, challenge is to figure out how in the world we want to say it, be it writing or singing or art.

I figured out pretty early on that the medium for me was music. I wrote terrible songs for many years but I was okay with that. I was convinced that you had to dig through all the crap to eventually get to the good stuff, being lead on by some sort of songwriting buried treasure. I’m still digging, as are we all, but I feel much closer. I don’t get asked nearly as often if I was singing out of tune on purpose. (I wish I made that up).

As for the craft itself, I have my students write “one of those” all the time. A blues song, a punk song, a country tune, that sort of thing. I’m sure it’s the same way writers go about writing a vampire novel or a regency set historical romance. Stylistic confinement is a good thing. Considering every note and every chord as an option is just too bloody hard a way to write something. It’s like putting every ingredient you own on the counter and then trying to bake something. It’s impossible. You’d just spend the afternoon marveling at how many different kinds of flour you own.

With regard to my own writing, I’ve never been able to get behind the ‘write what you know’ school of thought. On the contrary I’ve let ‘write what you’d like to know’ be my guiding philosophy. If you want to become an expert on 15th century Scotland, set a novel there and just imagine the expert you’ll be after writing that book. It’s taken a couple of decades but I can comfortably write rock or jazz or country or classical songs because I was okay with spending some serious time being awful at each of those styles.

Regardless of whether you’re a songwriter, a novelist, or an artist of any kind I believe this sort of experimenting and variety is crucial to keep your craft exciting to you. We can’t allow what we do to become dull to us. It’s just too precious. Save dull for nine to five cubicle jobs.

As far as the nuts and bolts of songwriting goes, I’m a chords then melody and finally words kind of guy. If it’s a classical/soundtrack type song then I’m very old school and just write down notes using a notation program. I fear any more detail than that would be sleep inducing.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Bygone Era

by Lisa Hughey

As a kid--dare I say it-- a girl growing up I was always doing some sort of craft. X-acto knives and needles were my tools, my mom and grandma the instructors.

I did it all: The ubiquitous Holly Hobby painstakingly cut out with the sharp knife and decoupaged onto a miter-ed block of wood (that we enterprisingly stained ourselves). The cross-stitched pillow with some ultra-sweet and trite phrase like “Home is Where the Heart Is”. The crewel still life of flowers in a vase. Tie-dye, candle making, tissue paper and pipe cleaner flowers, sewing...frankly, I wasn’t very good at any of it. (I wish I had some pictures but somehow my ‘projects’ have not survived my many moves...possibly ‘lost’ on purpose)

My grandmother, Nellie, was a veritable queen of crafts well into her nineties, crocheting dish scrubbers out of netting and stitching Christmas tree ornaments.

Some ornaments made by Nellie

I remember asking her once how she knew how to do all this cool stuff. In her era, she had a ‘Ladies Club’ meeting once a week where they learned all sorts of crafty things.

She had an incredible eye for color. And she could take a length of any material, ribbon or raffia and turn it into an exquisite bow for a wreath or centerpiece. When I bought my first house, Grandma Nellie helped me make a grapevine wreath for the front door, using orange crinkled paper wrap and old sheets, we attached a beautiful bow and handmade ghosts. It was awesome and I still have it, even though it’s looking a little tired these days. (Sorry-but the Halloween stuff is stored in the garage and not at this time, easily accessible-so no picture!)

Nowadays, among piano lessons, soccer, basketball, swimming, volleyball practices, tutors and the like, there is no time leftover for the pastime of crafting. It’s become a lost art.

But I try to find time to create beauty for everyday ordinary events. Nellie could take random objects and with floral foam, green wire, a few yards of ribbon, and flowers (sometimes right from her garden) and design a masterpiece for the dining room table. I like to think in this respect I inherited just a tiny bit of her artistic ability because my one talent is being able to set a beautiful table.

Happy Holidays to all!


ps-I was going to take a picture of my dining room table (set for today's Pens Fatales holiday get-together but the battery on my table died) The good news is that we're going to try out our Flip camera thingy and hopefully take a fun video to post on Friday. Keep your fingers crossed! :)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Not Quite a Dab Hand

L.G.C. Smith

I suck at crafts. About a month ago, I mentioned my flat DIY Christmas tree that hangs on an old screen from Cost Plus in my living room. This is my Pride and Joy, Craft Department. Unlike many of the Pens -- Sophie with her beautiful quilts and stitchery and Rachael with her stunning sweaters come to mind -- I don't have much to show and tell about when it comes to crafts. (I have to pad things with a photo of something I can do well, which is cook. Hence the caramel corn I made today. Ta-Da!)

But once, ONCE I made something glorious that wasn't food. Something I loved. Something I designed, made, and used. (Never mind those books I've written. We're talking things with tiny screws that require tools here!)

My flat tree consists of three pieces of bamboo painted green and wired into a triangle with red wooden beads and Costco r
ibbon zigzagging back and forth across the middle. It has rosemary branches attached to the edges, a sassy nod to pine needles, and it was outlined in lights that actually worked. I hung my favorite ornaments on it and it was cute. Sort of like the plastic plate I glued macaroni to and spray painted gold when I was in first grade. (Can you believe my mother threw that out? Before I was forty even.)

Now? My flat tree is a little past it's sell-by date. The rosemary long ago dried to a crackly crunch, and most of the leaves fell to the floor where some are still lodged in the crack between the carpet and the baseboard. They have to be picked out by hand. Since my vacuum can't budge 'em, I decided to keep them around in case I need some stale old rosemary for spaghetti sauce for someone I hate.

The gently draped ribbon, once as white as winter snow, is now dingy with dust. I do vacuum it occasionally, but the suction from the attachment hose seems to have loosened the knots affixing the ribbon to the frame. (See how I used 'affixing?' I watch HGTV. I know things.) Some of the ribbon swags are kind of droopy, but that adds character, right?

The lights... Oh, the lights. A few of them still come o
n. I thought about replacing them a couple of years ago, but I was afraid the whole tree would fall apart if I jiggled any part of it. Always better to be conservative in housekeeping matters, I say. Even if it's broke, why fix it?

For the past three years, I've tied Advent presents to the tree for my niece. This winter, unfortunately, I'm not sure it isn't harboring a black widow spider come in from the cold. We've had a lot of them this year, and it's been a while, like, mmm, maybe nine months -- okay, make it a year -- since that corner has been cleaned. I put the Advent prezzies in a bowl on the coffee table in the family room instead, and have kept Clean the Scary Living Room Corner at the top of my To Do list since the day after Thanksgiving. I'm pleased to report that I've cleaned all around that corner a couple of times since, but...Spiders. Gah.

So here I am, still fond of my decrepit flat Christmas tree. It took me eight hours to make the thing. I got green paint all over my clothes, my hair, the patio and my sister's German Shepherd, Elsa. She was cool about it, and still cheerfully helps me whenever I look like I might be heading for the paint cupboard, just like she never spent a December sporting one green ear.

Sad to say, I think this may be the year the Craft Project of Christmas Past bites the dust. As lackluster in the cleaning department as I am, I do know black widows and children should not be in the house together. When the real tree comes down, I'm thinking my old friend will be coming down, too.

I'll reuse the beads and ribbon, strip off the wire and
put the bamboo stakes back in the garden supply pile. The wall behind the screen will need a little work to cover up that ugly incident with the double-sided tape. No hurry of course. The mess will remind me of my flat tree.
In the meantime, I'm weighing my options for the next Craft Project. With only one allowed in any decade, I have to think carefully. There's the clunky headboard I've been meaning to spruce up for, let's see, about nine years. Or the ugly fake brick in the kitchen that I've hated since we moved in -- what fourteen years ago? Or maybe I could decoupage Disney Princesses and Dora onto sturdy little chairs for my rough and tumble nieces. Who knows? I think it's going to take me a good two years to decide on a worthy follow-up for my flat tree.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Welcome guest Rachelle Chase

Rachelle Chase is an award-winning romance author, speaker, business analyst, and model. Her most recent books, MEN ON FIRE, SEX LOUNGE, and SIN CLUB were published by Kensington Publishing. When she’s not writing (or procrastinating), she loves to dream up fun ways to promote her books – such as her “Finding Derek” contest, where hunky guys competed online to be the hero of SEX LOUNGE. In fact, she’s got some fun contests and promotions underway now. For the holidays, if you buy a copy of her hunky firefighter book, MEN ON FIRE, at participating bookstores, 15% of sales will be donated to the San Francisco Firefighter’s Toy Program. And, she and co-sponsor Leigh Michaels are gearing up for the 4th Annual “Chase the Dream” contest for writers – their motto is “We pick winners” because each year, some finalists have landed agents or book contracts as a result of the contest. It’s free, fun, interactive, and educational, so Rachelle encourages all romance writers to enter. Details are at her web site,

My friends and family know that, in addition to being a great procrastinator, I’m a great “starter.” I love, love, LOVE to start things. The only things that get finished – like, oh, say … books, day job deliverables, Christmas shopping, or shaving … are things with deadlines (in the case of shaving, a date or a doctor’s appointment is a surefire deadline that’ll have me taking a razor to my arm pits).

With the exception of crafts. Deadlines do not work with crafts.

Unlike Rachel, I oftentimes start making a handcrafted item for a loved one’s birthday or special occasion at the last minute (see procrastination above). Which means that the I-just-had-to-make-it gift gets stuffed into my Started Projects bag.

Case in point, the Granny Square projects. When my mom quit her day job to become a cross-country truck driver, I started a blanket for her, in hopes it’d keep her warm in her truck at night. On the day before her birthday, I FedExed it to her in Florida, half finished, and with the promise that I’d finish it later. Ten years (and a career change for my mom) later, it’s back in my bag and I’m still promising to finish it.

The second granny square project was a baby blanket I started for my niece. She’s six now and far too big for her blanket. I’m planning to finish it in time for my great-niece.

Then came my Small Project phase. Thinking that perhaps smaller projects would have a chance of getting finished, I asked an ex-boss to teach me a simple knit stitch – a large, loopy stitch that would enable me to finish a scarf quicker than knitting row upon row of small, tight stitches. Only, she didn’t show me how to finish-off or tie-off or whatever it’s called. So I don’t know how to cut the yarn without unraveling the whole thing – a perfect excuse for not finishing.

Next was the Fuzzy Yarn phase. I bought beautiful, expensive (to me) yarns, figuring that if I loved the yarns, I’d be excited to finish the projects. Not. It’s been so long, I have no idea what these projects were supposed to be when finished.

This year, I’ve entered the Teeny Tiny Project phase. And I’ve found the perfect project: Baby booties. They’re small, simple, and don’t take much time to finish. The fact that I don’t know anyone with a baby is no deterrent. I’m sure I’ll know someone by the time the first (and last?) pair’s finished.

Thank you, Penfatales, for having me as a guest. For without you and your deadline, this blog post never would have been finished.

Any other starters or procrastinators out there?

Please help Rachelle refine her procrastination skills by leaving a comment on her blog, and friending her on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dibble, Dabble, Double

--Adrienne Miller

I’m a dabbler. I dabble. It’s what I do. 
Not with everything, of course. I don’t recommend dabbling in marriage or parenthood. Chances are you won’t make it very far if you only dabble in writing. Some things take bone-deep commitment, and I’m not afraid of that. But when comes to ways to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon, I’m a confirmed dabbler. 
I’ve learned to crochet and decoupage. I’ve made scrapbooks and collages. I have the afghans and family albums to prove it. Some of these crafts I was semi-competent at and others...well, let’s face it. I was total crap. But that’s the beauty of dabbling--limited ego investment. 
Right now, the dabble du jour is baking. I took it up a few years ago, and tried jumping right into cake and pie territory. But a really good cake or pie takes skill, and developing that skill takes time. We dabblers aren’t big on investing time. It goes against our code. 

My favorite chef hard at work.

So, a few mealy chocolate cakes and crunchy pie crusts later, I moved on and found my wheelhouse. Bread. Yes, I know good bread takes just as much time and skill to make as pastry, but, for some reason, it clicked. The smell of yeasty dough rising in the kitchen fills me with joy. The thought of having warm, fresh bread in the house is comforting. 
I make decent loaf breads and baguettes. My cinnamon rolls are out-of-this-world good, and my Challah is phenomenal. 

Dang, I'm getting the urge to braid some dough just looking at that.

Now, I don’t bake every day. I don’t have any plans to quit my day job, get myself one of those tall, white hats and open up a little boulangerie. Nope. Every other weekend is fine by me.
You see, I’m a dabbler. It’s what I do.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Um...Juliet doesn't knit

I have to say, I'm a little abashed to be writing this post after the examples set by my two previous Pens.

Let's be clear: I don't knit. Or crochet. Or embroider. If something rips, I either try to cajole a friend into sewing it for me, or I keep it around with the intention of someday doing something about it until it goes out of style. At which point it becomes Goodwill's problem.

But still, as long as a "craft" doesn't involve textiles, I'm up for it. Yes indeed, I have Big Plans.

I save things. Weird things. And always with the intent to use them in one crafty form or another. Bottle caps? Surely they're useful for something. Wine corks? It goes without saying. Those tiny plastic tables that keep the pizza box from smooshing the pizza? Cool. Clothespins, old Tarot cards, abandoned Scrabble tiles...oh yes, I've got 'em. and I'm not afraid to use them. Eventually.

Problem is, I'm a little busy right now. The craft of writing has me in its grasp, and it's pretty tough to extricate myself. And peeking out from behind writing's skirts, clamoring for attention just as soon as I find some free time, is painting (if you're interested, check out to see what I used to do before I caught writing fever.)

A good friend of mine has been watching a TV show called "hoarders", and lately I think she's been pondering staging an intervention. But I contend that the very best thing about a junk-filled artist's studio is that there is so much promise, everywhere. How many things in life offer such possibilities? A blank canvas calls out; a stray piece of wood whispers; a styrofoam ball inspires. My housemates cringe, my neighbors worry, my son rolls his eyes. But I would argue that, at least to some extent, hoarding is a sign of a creative mind.

Especially if you're hoarding really awesome things like Altoid tins. Do you have any idea how many things a person could make with Altoid tins?

Still, my eternal optimism is not shared by all. So I guess I'd better be crafty about hoarding cool stuff until I get a chance to dedicate myself to some really craftiness.

And when I do, those Altoid boxes are going to become some amazing mini-shrines. Just you wait.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

She's Crafty, And She's Just My Type

Um, yeah. I'm crafty. You may have heard that I knit. It's not an idle threat. I didn't write a knitting romance because it was the In Thing to do. I did it because I couldn't do anything else.

I've been known to be crafty in many ways over the years, cross-stitch, crochet, quilting, sewing, but it always comes back to the knitting that I learned when I was five. Knitting feels like breathing to me. People who say it feels meditative? Feh. I don't know if I ever felt that. It's autonomic. It's part of my body, and I don't have to think about it (unless I'm REALLY thinking about it, and that's fun).

So, a photo-essay of some of my favorites over the years. (Forgive all the self-portraits -- I'm a selfish knitter.)


Cromarty is a classic Alice Starmore design, and it took months on size US1 needles. But I was so proud of it when it was done, and it's worn like iron. I wear it now to write in the early mornings.

This next one was one of my first original designs, done in alpaca which was way too hot for me to ever wear. I think I wore it twice, but I remember it being the moment I decided that yes, I did kinda know what I was doing:

Then I took up spinning fiber. I never really got into dyeing, but this was my first hand-spun sweater, and I dyed the fiber with Kool-Aid. This was Black Raspberry, I believe, and sometimes, if I get caught in the rain, I still get a whiff of it (and it matches my cheeks!):

This next one is the sweater I'm most proud of:

It's a replica of a Norwegian sweater my mother had commissioned for herself in the 60s when she was there. I reverse engineered it from my mother's sweater and knit a copy of it. As I knit the sleeves (I always knit sleeves first), I could almost see my mother's arms growing from the ends of my needles. So many hundreds of times I had been held within the safety of that sweater growing up, and to see another sweater, growing from my hands, was truly wonderful.

My wedding stole. I designed it from a couple of Babara Walker motifs, in alpaca, so it sheds like crazy, and I never wear it now, but I love it. It was perfect, just like that drizzly, happy day in Vancouver.

The Cade Sweater: This is the sweater that goes along with the plot (pattern included) in my book How to Knit a Love Song. A non-traditional Gansey with raglan shaping, this actual original sweater will be raffled off at some point in the future. (Sign up for my mailing list to keep up to date!)

So really, when it came to writing a novel, when I cleared out all the stuff I thought I "should" write and finally wrote what I wanted to write, it wasn't surprising what came out. And I'm so happy I got what I did.

Monday, December 14, 2009

No Idle Hands Here

by Sophie


I'm sure you've heard a variation of this quote:

For Satan finds some mischief still / For idle hands to do.

It's from Isaac Watts, the the "Father of English Hymnody," who wrote a bunch of hymns three hundred years ago and as far as I can tell was a fairly stuffy and no-fun guy.

I figure what he meant was "Hey, you there resting from a morning of washing stone floors on your knees, grab a feather duster and get busy." And who needs that?

But I do have one thing in common with the guy - I too am leery of idle hands. And idleness in general. I'm a fidgeter, an undisciplined thinker and imaginer, and I find that keeping my hands busy is a great way to calm my disordered thoughts and make sense of my environment.

I would have been great back in the day where every spare moment was filled, out of necessity, by chores, even when visiting friends. Folks came over and you'd shell peas together, or work on a quilt, or even put up a barn. Lots of chatting and gossiping took place, but you were also creating something of lasting value (well, except in the case of the peas, I suppose; in that case you were just creating dinner).

I was taught just about every kind of needlework as a child, and I loved it. Having your needlepoint or knitting in hand allowed you to sit quietly among the adults, privy to all kinds of conversations. When my kids were little, I relaxed at the end of the day with my sewing; it was a way to let my pent-up thoughts unspool at leisure. Even now, when my writing has edged out all of my leisure activities, I love to pick up a scrap of handwork now and then when I'm stressed. And it doesn't even have to be a thing of beauty; I remember an afternoon with my friend Trish when we made perler-bead suncatchers with our daughters - it was immensely satisfying to me to line up the tiny plastic beads in the shape of stars and hearts while we discussed the challenges of parenting and volunteering.

A week ago, my daughter announced that she wanted to knit squares that would be assembled into blankets for the needy (learn more about the project here) and she and I spent a wonderful evening together with the knitting basket that we'd both abandoned years ago. We watched Love Actually, which we do at the start of every holiday season, and we talked, and we knitted. Our squares weren't perfect - they came out a little lopsided, and my carpal tunnel flared up, and the puppy got into the basket and tangled up the yarn, and we scotched our original plans to do a dozen squares each.

But if indeed Satan finds inroads when hands are still, he didn't stand a chance that night - our fingers flew, our needles flashed, and the evening passed in the sort of happy companionship that's all too rare these days. I need to remember that the next time I'm stressing over a deadline or a dusty house or an unbalanced checkbook: sometimes the act of creating, no matter how humble, can restore us to the balanced place where we are at our best.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Greatest Researcher, uh, ever

Today we welcome debut author Brad Parks, author of the brand-spankin'-new mystery novel FACES OF THE GONE (St. Martins Minotaur, December 2009). Brad's novel is already reaping great reviews. (Ahem, a certain Pen might just share an editor with Brad, and is planning to soak up as much reflected glory as possible.)

A little more about Brad: he started writing professionally at 14, when he discovered two important things about his hometown newspaper, The Ridgefield (Conn.) Press: One, it paid freelancers 50 cents a column inch for articles about local high school sports; and, two, it ran most submissions at their original length. For Brad, that meant he could make more money writing than babysitting. For the parents of the girls' basketball players at Ridgefield High, that meant glowing accounts of their daughters' games that ran on for no less than 40 inches. Brad left the newspaper industry in 2008 to become a full-time author/stay-at-home Dad to two young children. He and his wife, Melissa, now live in Virginia, where he is currently working on the next of what he hopes will be many Carter Ross Mysteries. Read more here.

I am pleased and honored to be here today at Pens Fatales to talk about research. Sophie has invited me to blog on this incredibly vital topic because, of all her author friends, I am the one single greatest researcher ever in all of the history of the whole entire world.1

Since all well-researched articles cite their sources – and to stave off the rigorous debates that routinely erupt within the academy over the minute details of crime fiction – I have arranged for the hard-working interns at to compile meticulous footnotes on today’s blog post, so that you might get a small insight into my unparalleled researching genius.2

Now, clearly, research is the single most important aspect of writing. As has been established in classic texts by Cunningham (1967), Rothstein (1974), Fischbein et. al. (1978) and Hurdbinder (1981), no one cares about your engaging characters, your clever dialogue or your page-turning plot. They are reading because you give them excruciatingly detailed technical descriptions that run on for many long and fascinating pages. This is important advice for young writers: Whenever there is an opportunity to stop the action and show the reader how much research you’ve done, you must seize it with both hands.3
I can’t tell you the number of times, when I ask a reader why they like a certain author, they reply, “She researches better than anyone I’ve ever read.” I must hear that fifteen times a day.4

Knowing this, I absolutely pride myself on the unparalleled verisimilitude of my work.5 Before I allowed myself to sit down and write FACES OF THE GONE, I did many years of intensive research, often researching late into the night, on weekends, even on holidays.6 For example, there’s a scene at the beginning of Chapter 3 that I researched several times in college, researched perhaps once or twice after college and that I still might research again someday as long as I don’t have to drive anywhere.7 Later in the same chapter, there is a scene that I researched – often painstakingly – for the better part of my adult life. 8
I do not want to pretend I’m alone in my dedication to research. Lee Child, for example, spends many long months at the library before penning a single word of his next Jack Reacher thriller.9 Harlan Coben – who has often told me he wants to be just like me when he grows up – has staked his career on the quality of his research and may someday become a modestly accomplished mid-list writer because of it.10

There is nothing more galling to me than an author who hasn’t done thorough research. I was reading a book not long ago, by a Very Famous Author I Won’t Name11, and I was appalled to see an egregious error. He had a character using a gun that, from his rudimentary description, was either a Glock S445 Snubnose Stopper Elite or a Glock G54 Supersubcompact Brainsplatterer – the author was rather imprecise in his description of the left anterior reportalization chamber, so it’s impossible to say with any accuracy which it was – and, get this, he had the character remove the safety on the gun before firing it. Everyone knows Glocks don’t have safeties!12

I was so appalled and upset I had to stop oiling the ballistical androgynator on my Smurf & Wilson .556 Magnum, put down the accordion-cotton/hydroglyceride melignite I was getting ready to test-detonate, unsheathe my serrated double-sided Hackmaster Pigsplitter, and walk away from the book.13
I mean, what’s wrong with some authors?

They owe it to their readers to do better. For example, say I were to write a book where the villain is the leader of a rogue group of extreme Islamic fundamentalist terrorists.14 The only way I would feel comfortable capturing their worldview with any amount of authority would be to learn Arabic so I could read the Quran in its original text, grow a beard down to my belt, convert to radical Islam, and declare jihad on the baristas at my local café.15

But that would only be the start, of course. The most important rule of research is that you’re never done researching. There is always one more expert to call, one more Dexis-Flexis article to read, one more Giggle search to complete. So don’t even think about starting to write until you are totally, utterly and completely done researching every possible question and scenario that might arise in your book. Because you can’t just go back and look it up later. That’s cheating. And we all know what happens to cheaters.16

Thank you to all the Pens Fatales for hosting me today. I am sure this has been educational for many of you and that you will look forward to my next non-fiction work, Police Procedure, Weapons Specifications and Forensic Expertise For Dummies: How to Grind The Joy Out of Your Writing One Needless Detail at a Time. I’m sure you’ll also enjoy a visit to my blog at I think you’ll find that by following this simple advice I have given you here, you too will be a successful published author. 17

1. For fun, we spiked Brad’s Frosted Flakes with peyote this morning. He is currently hallucinating.

2. We’ve spent most of the day playing a classic version of “Frogger” on our laptops.

3. In fairness, this seems to have worked for Tom Clancy. Others might want to pause before considering this tact.

4. Brad spends most days by himself, writing in a small cottage in rural Virginia. The only people he talks to regularly are his wife, who buys perhaps four books a year; his two-year-old son, who likes to throw books; and his one-year-old daughter, who likes to eat books.

5. No, he didn’t know how to spell “verisimilitude” on his own. We had to look it up for him.

6. This is actually true. This highly unusual method of research is called “being alive.”

7. This is the scene where the protagonist, Carter Ross, gets stoned.

8. This is the scene where Carter thinks he’s about to score with a hot chick but gets a sisterly hug and a brush-off instead.

9. Actually, Lee Child is apparently blessed with one of those absurd, wolf-trap brains ( that snatches information and never lets it go.

10. This entire sentence is the peyote talking.

11. Jason Pinter.

12. Everyone except Brad, that is. The sum total of what Brad knows about guns wouldn’t fill the tip of a hollow point bullet, and he never would have noticed the Glock mistake on his own. The only reason Brad was aware of this anecdote is because Jason once volunteered it at a Bouchercon panel, saying he was very sorry for the error. Brad probably brought it up here because he’s jealous that Jason is not only more successful, he is also younger and has better hair.

13. None of these weapons actually exist.

14. Yeah, because no one is writing that book these days.

15. For the record, the baristas could kick his ass. Especially Jean. She’s small but scrappy.

16. That’s right! They get bitch-slapped by Stella Hardesty! Oh, wait, he’s not talking about that kind of cheating? Well, then never mind.

17. Just as soon as your manuscript is done. In the Fall of 2023.

Want more drivel like this? Sign up for his newsletter, follow Brad_Parks on Twitter, or become a fan of Brad Parks Books on Facebook.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

My Love Affair (With Research)

Like many of the Pens, I'm a reformed academic. I've always been into research. REALLY into research.

I don't mean the kind of research you can do at the computer (not romantic enough). Or the kind that requires studying volumes of data (not engaging enough). Or the kind that needs rigorous analysis of original research (not tangible enough for me to wrap my head around in the humanities and social sciences).

I'm talking about hanging out under the gothic arches of the reading rooms in old libraries; venturing off the beaten path when visiting a foreign city; reading the inscriptions on weathered, ivy-covered gravestones.

Notice a pattern there? None of my favorite kinds of research were especially helpful for a real life PhD.

But my kind of research is much more fun.

Around the time I spent a semester of graduate school at the University of Bath in England (studying comparative social policy, thank you very much), I realized that although I loved research, I didn't love what I was supposed to do with it.

I gave up research for my day job, but it didn't make its way out of my life.

I wonder about all sorts of things I come across:

What if a painting scholars had always assumed represented a fictional event turned out to be a true depiction of a long-lost treasure? That's one of the threads that comes together in my first mystery.

And those famous Roman Baths in Bath? I've got a great scene set in that place--now I just need to write a book to go with it...

When I received a writers' grant to be put to use finishing my first mystery novel, I bought a plane ticket to London and got myself a readers pass to do research in the British Library reading rooms.

(Those rooms are more secure than the flight to get you to London: multiple forms of ID, no bags, no pens, no food or drink, and no cameras--thus my sketch of the reading room where the British East India Company's India Office Records are kept, at left).

Once I got in, my fictional characters had a field day with the ideas I thought up in that reading room.

After I came up with what I wanted to happen, I consulted with historians to make sure the plot was plausible. Luckily, with only a couple tweaks, it was.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Martha Says There's No Substitute for Experience

I have no imagination.


So when a manuscript calls for something to happen that I'm ignorant of, like, oh, let's say, lock-picking, I have four options.

1. Check out the local library
Awesome for deep, detailed research but not appropriate for a non-professional character. Onto:

2. Scour the internet
Wikipedia, Wikihow and Youtube include terminology, methods, and video demonstrations but they lack sensory detail. May as well try to:

3. Find an expert
They can demonstrate technique, answer questions, and provide fun-filled anecdotes! But bottom line is, nothing beats an attempt to:

4. Try it myself
Especially if the materials aren't too hard to come by because the husband is already in possession of a set of wrenches and picks.

I started with a simple padlock by inserting the wrench in the bottom (applying pressure to turn the cylinder once successfully "unlocked") and then inserting the picks along the top and raking the pins.

First thing I learned?

It's hard. My fingers cramped almost immediately. One of the torsion wrenches wasn't just a single L but a double L on both ends. That one allowed me to offset the pressure off my thumb easier, easing the cramp.

Second thing?

Raking the pins all at once did nothing for me. I had to ease in the front-most pin before pushing deeper into the lock for the second pin to make any progress.

Maybe those details won't make it into the manuscript, but I feel hella cool for knowing them. Cool enough to move onto a real door lock.

Last thing I learned? A real lock is harder, takes forever, and requires more patience. Not something a first-time lock picker could realistically master in under twenty minutes. In fact, even the husband who is pretty decent at lock-picking can take up to ten minutes on a new lock. An expert or someone with the fancy materials can go under 60 seconds easy.

This leaves me with choices - let the character sit there ten minutes, make her an expert or have her own/steal/borrow the fancy materials.

Either way, my scene :

1. is grounded in realistic expectations
2. has sensory detail
3. includes specific materials and techniques which I know are effective instead of just me selecting from a list on the website

Having an extra dose of awesome in my resume doesn't hurt, either.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What if?

by Lisa Hughey

I love research. I usually begin with an idea, a really, really rough premise. It might even only be that the NSA has a secret branch of field agents and my heroine is the ultimate extreme loner....

Then the fun starts. First, I research the research books, looking at online reviews, going to the bookstore and reading back cover copy. From there I choose three or four books about my subject.

And then I start reading. Using sticky arrows, post-its large and small, and colored pens, I notate any informational tidbit that I find fascinating and compile little facts in my head. And the seeds of the plot begin to take shape.

I like to find historical facts in my research and use them for the foundation of backstory. But then I twist and turn those facts, constantly asking...what if? From there the idea grows. And with every bit of knowledge I absorb, I think...what if?

What if?

From my ‘what ifs?’ the idea grows until I need to start doing research on the internet. Which I love. I double check everything. Even things I’m fairly sure I know, I re-confirm through the internet. (Which is why I will never write a historical romance. The research worry would kill me!)

When the World Wide Web was new, there wasn’t a lot of material uploaded but I distinctly remember looking at a list of contents of a library at Oxford, in England. I remember that moment of awe, as I realized I was sitting in my little suburban California living room, one son watching Barney and the other napping, and I was accessing a library at Oxford. The idea was so heady. Of course, at that time, the text wasn’t on the internet, but I knew one day it would be.

Sometimes I go off on tangents, bizarre little side trips that might not be related to my original search. And frequently within those tangents, a new ‘What if?’ occurs to me, spinning my story in another direction.

What if? One of the most thought provoking phrases I know. :)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Place Names Rock

L.G.C. Smith

Place names are my research passion. When I've been to a place that moves me, a place that begs me to write a book set there, I go to maps. I trace rivers and hills, valleys and plains. I learn their names. Over and over I hear them in my head. I chant them under my breath, and soon a story takes shape, a tale born of a particular landscape in a particular time.

Then I dive into history and archeology to see if what I'm dreaming up makes sense. One such saga I've spent a lot of words and years developing came out of the landscapes of western Cornwall where one line of my mother's family originally came from.

Oh, the research orgy that ensued. I became fixed on the end of Roman Britain, even though all I knew about it was that it had existed. I'd have been hard-pressed to give more than the most general dates. I didn't know much about Cornwall, either, but the place names sang in my head. Crowan, Crenver, Perranuthnoe and Drym. Helston, Germoe, Marazion and Hayle. Gwinear, Godolphin, St. Ives and St. Erth. Gwithian, Goldsithney, and Gweek. More. Many, many more.

I started with the language, working my way up from the little Shire Books sold in every tourist haunt, the ones filled with Cornish place name elements, to what
ever I could find on the structures and sounds of Cornish as it had been before it died out in the late 18th - early 19th centuries. Then I branched into Breton and Welsh, and, eventually, into proto-Welsh, or the p-Celtic British dialects spoken in much of Britain before the Anglo-Saxons came. Even with a pretty hard-core background in linguistics, I found it rough going.

The history, archeology, and folk lore angles were easier, but Cornwall didn't appear in many Roman-era records so the history was thin. The Roman road network that reached into so many corners of Britain didn't seen to have made it out to Land's End. They probably used boats. Archeology was more promising, but again, there were very few Roman finds. Iron Age village
s were better represented, like the one at Chysauster, so at least there was something. It appears that Cornwall was, at the end of Roman Britain, well removed from the hustle and bustle of Roman administrative, civic, and commercial activity.

This was all perfect for the historical fantasy books I was writing. I needed a backwater, the butt-end of the Empire, where passionate men and women were free to indulge ambitions and emotions unchecked, though not unaffected by civilization.

Yet for all the study I've done in this area, there is one tidbit that tickles me all out of proportion to its relevance to my novels -- which is zero. But it came out of my fascination with place names.

Somewhere in the midst of all this research, a friend told me that one of her ancestral Cornish names was Trecembo, which sounded a lot like Tregembo, a place I knew of in western Cornwall. I remembered Tregembo Hill because my sister, my parents and I were nearly flattened by a speeding semi in the middle of the road there, which was far too narrow for a large truck to be taking at sixty. Anyway, I deduced that my friend's family must have originated at a place called Trecembo in eastern Cornwall. Based on all my research, I knew that people continued speaking Cornish in the west much later than in the east; as a result, sound changes continued to take place in the west, leaving older forms of the language fossilized in eastern Cornish place names.

The [g] in the middle of Tregembo must have originally been the [c] found in Trecembo (pronounced like /k/). The prefix, tre- is quintessentially Cornish, meaning 'home place' or 'farm,' frequently followed by a personal name or a descriptive term.

I recall thinking about all this while brushing my teeth one night. I ran the words over and over in my head. Tregembo Hill lies in the sharp, almost ninety-degree turn in the River Hayle. When I finished brushing, I put my hands on my hips and repeated the two names over a few more times. They sounded awfully similar to something else that I couldn't quite put my finger on.

All of a sudden, I found myself imagining the map of Tregembo Hill just east of Relubbus. I saw the same angle in my elbows in the mirror, and I got it: Akimbo. A bent elbow. Tregembo. Trecembo. The place where the river bends like an elbow. Different prefxes, same root. I checked my Welsh and proto-celtic dictionaries just to be sure. Yup. -cambo comes from a root meaning bent or crooked.

The word 'akimbo' seems to have baffled etymologists. I'm convinced it's not derived from Swahili or Dutch or whatever else the official Word Wizards posit it might be. It's an old British word that came from either Cornish or Welsh, or whatever came before them.

How fun is that?! Research. Ahhh. I love it.