Monday, January 31, 2011


L.G.C. Smith

Unlike all the nice Pens, I was born with ready access to fury. Anger, too, its more selfish cousin, but injustice has always brought me roaring to my feet with fire shooting from my eyes as I wield my tongue like a blade. Fortunately, I was born into a family of yellers, somewhat anomalous amongst the ethnically British, so furious self-expression, if not precisely encouraged, wasn’t actively discouraged, either.

Thus it took me longer than most to understand that channeling the Furies wasn’t going to win me any popularity points with my peers. I was taught that an open and straightforward statement of anything was the most respectful way of dealing with conflict negotiation and emotional complication. Communicate clearly. Treat people with respect. It’s okay to be furious if the situation warrants it, such as on behalf of underdogs or the downtrodden.

Fits of temper were not okay. Being mean to people because I was mad was not okay. Being selfish was not okay. But if there was bullying? It was okay, possibly even required, to defend the bullied, even against adults. Injustice was to be pointed out with the assumption that it was clear to all. Once identified, it could be stamped out.

It’s not always obvious, but fury can be idealistic. Even na├»ve. Ever notice the purity of a five-year-old’s fury? There are no shadows for a furious child, no grey corners where one interrogates ambiguity or other people’s perspectives. If she is betrayed, if she or someone she loves is wronged…fury flies.

It can be difficult to distinguish between anger and fury so most people never try. Anger is so strongly stigmatized, and so threatening to most of us that we don’t cope well with it in many ways. We’ve turned the responsibilities personified by the Furies of old, justice, judgment, and punishment, over to the state, which puts individual expressions of fury in potentially murky legal waters. That’s not a bad thing. But it shifts defining fury into the realms of personality and away from any sense of it as having social or communal relevance.

This is hard because fury is personal and visceral. It demands action from us. From our bodies, hearts, minds, and spirits. Western cultures fear furious individuals for good reasons, and most of the time, we tamp down fury and move on. But sometimes, as Sophie so articulately showed us in her post last week, we use that force in constructive ways. We see clearly. We up our commitment. We don’t give up.

Maybe, as a society, we need to be talking more about how fury might not be synonymous with anger, perhaps starting with our five-year-olds. We might seek to come to better terms with the consequences and uses of judgment, generally considered the opposite of tolerance, when sometimes, that may not quite be true. Can we make tolerant and compassionate judgments? Can we be furious in tolerant and compassionate ways?

Culturally, we have, for the most part, abandoned fury to cranks and abusers. To the unstable and the unwell. To high histrionics and inappropriate expression. To hormonal shifts and futile rage. It is then left to us as individuals to cope with figuring out what constructive purposes fury might serve in our own lives, and that is no small challenge.

Friday, January 28, 2011

To all those aspiring writers out there....

Wanna win a book of writing advice?

Here's something about us. The Pens are members of the San Francisco Area Romance Writers of America. A few years ago, our chapter put out a book on WRITING. While the slant of some of the book is romance based, most of the writing advice works no matter what kind of fiction you are working on.

So how can you win?

Post a comment (on this particular post only!), tell us what you are working on, and you will be entered in a drawing to WIN:

Writing Romance—The Ultimate Guide on Craft, Creation and Industry Connections

•50 Inspiring Articles
The process, craft and business of writing by some of your favorite published romance authors, as well as a few of the industry’s leading editors and agents.

•A Complete Resource List
RWA chapters, SFA-RWA member authors, and RWA-approved publishers and literary agents.

•Success Secrets
How to craft a compelling story, find a great agent, and more!

We will use the random generator to pick a winner on February 14th.

Good luck!!!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Messy Business of Being Human

-Adrienne Miller

There’s an amazing moment at the end of Macbeth, just after he has learned about his wife’s death and just before he is about to learn of his own imminent defeat. He’s a changed man at this point in the play, so different than the one we met in Act one. He is a man who has given in to his ambition, and it has wrecked him. He has forfeited the last flicker of light inside his soul to be king. And none of it mattered.
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing

It’s the soliloquy of a defeated man. One who can look back and see the events that have led him to this bitter, violent end. 
The writer in me loves this scene. I love it because it’s a heartbreakingly elegant culmination of all that has come before. I love how, like cogs meshed in opposite gears, each dark emotion brings about dark action until Macbeth is pulled to his inevitable demise. And I love that we, the audience, get to watch it all unfold so neatly. Cause in real life, we don’t.
It’s one of the most appealing aspects of being a writer. We get to loom high above these worlds we create like omniscient gods, knowing where every angry word or loving touch will lead, but in real life we stumble around as blind as anyone.
What we can see so clearly in other people’s lives, we can only see shadows of in our own lives. How fear leads to isolation. How anger turns to regret. How joy can bring about resiliency. These were the themes and lessons I found so attractive when I started to read fiction.
Each book told a different story, but the core was the same, being human is a messy business. We love and hate, strive and fail. That shiny widget you thought you wanted, turns out to mean nothing. Meanwhile, the one you threw away to make room is the one you miss. We all get an hour to strut and fret. We create our own sound and fury, but in the end what it signifies is up to us. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Furies, Plural

The Furies, winged and with serpents for hair

(Author's Note: Blogger had one of those exciting, late night, "let's jettison the entire essay" moments last night, so the following was dredged up from a very sleepy memory. Apologies in advance if it seems a bit lacking...the original was much better. Feeling furious about it...)

Long before Dirty Harry, Billy Jack, Harry Brown or any of the other (mostly male) vigilantes went around shooting people on screen, there were the original pissed-off avengers...the Furies.

The Furies were three sisters, Greek goddesses of righteous vengeance: Tisiphone (avenger of murder), Megaera (envious wrath), and Alecto (unceasing anger).

Permit me to call them The Awesome Sisters.

The Furies were especially prone to avenging the rape and murder of women, children, and gay men. Violence within families was of special interest, so the father who molests his child will feel their wrath, as will the man who rapes his wife, or the mother who murders her children. They will be pursued, and haunted, and persecuted...forever.

The sisters also had a soft spot for the most vulnerable in society, like beggars and strangers. And they reserved special horrors for those cruel to animals.

The Furies were said to be relentless and without mercy. Once they have been summoned they will persecute their victim until he either commits suicide or succumbs to madness. Terminator-like, the Furies never give up, never go home. Their prey will lose everything, all their possessions, their loved ones, their health. Hunted criminals are even wary of sleep, for fear of nightmares. And nations or communities that harbor these criminals are themselves at risk from the wrath of the vengeful trio.

From these truly awesome, vengeful beings we derive the words fury, furious, and infuriated.

In typical Greek fashion, the Furies were said to be horrific to look at, with snakes for hair and blood dripping from their eyes. But later, more romantic-minded painters portrayed them with grimaces, but with rockin' bods:
Orestes, being punished for killing his mother

After they showed a little mercy to Orestes, the Furies were changed into the Eumenides, or "the kindly ones", by Athena. Apparently they had tempered their rage just a tad, so that rather than pursue a criminal forever they might relent once he showed true remorse and repentance.

Barbara Stanwyk, looking awesome and furious, in The Furies, 1950

It is said the Furies will never die, so long as sin exists in this world. I expect they're in for the long haul. But in my book, they're the most entertaining vigilantes around...except for Stella Hardesty, that is.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Tempest in a Teapot

I've never been good at fury.

Sometimes I'd like to be. I've thrown things three times in my life in anger (coins on a German street, beer (still in its cardboard case so the smash wasn't very satisfying), and a teapot (whose smash was)), and each time, as I was in the very process of throwing, I felt such an extreme sense of relief that it scared me. There was something so terrifying about the whole bodily motion -- identifying what was to be thrown, picking a target, feeling the heft, rise and subsequent release of the object -- all the while knowing it was wrong, so wrong. But that terror felt so viscerally good, in a chilling way. Be it a harmless coin or a sharpened spear, the act of throwing something remembers a deadly act, and that gorgeous frisson of fear feels good.

That last throw, the teapot incident, was during a spousal fight. I honestly don't even remember what it was about, but I was furious, obviously, beyond the normal anger of a regular ol' argument. I saw the teapot on the table. Small and green, it had never been used. It was a wedding present and was pretty but not very functional. These actual, prosaic thoughts went through my mind as I reached for it. And then, up, over my head, smashed to the floor, and all the while I was thinking, I'm just going to have to clean this up. It's going to make a mark on the wood flooring.

I was right. The teapot smashed, leaving a small but distinct divot in the wood. Porcelain flew in large chunks and a shower of fine dust. I was immediately ashamed and embarrassed, and still, I was triumphant that I was feeling this passion. That something, anything, even an idiotic fight prompted mostly by exhaustion, could rouse me to this.

And seconds after I threw it (does hurling floorward actually count as throwing?), I had the broom in my hands, cleaning it up. Stunningly anticlimactic. The fight ended. We went to bed no longer angry, the point forgotten.

And looking back, I miss that teapot. I hate the scratch on the floor. It was a stupid, destructive moment in a life that (luckily) has very few of those. When I'm furious at circumstances within any small bit of my control, I write a blistering, heart-felt letter. When the circumstances are out of my control, my anger tends to dissipate quickly. I'm lucky that way, I know I am.

But I do understand fury's lure. Directed, worthy fury is good, no mistake there. We should be furious at doctors who misdiagnose, crooked judges, and dangerous intersections. Misdirected ridiculous fury normally has no place in my life, but when it squirrels its way in, it feels GOOD, just for those few seconds.

Then I just have to clean up. Best to save the fury for the big stuff. At least I know how to call it up when I need it.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Summer of My Malcontent

by Sophie


Fury is generally considered a transitive emotion, which is to say that it requires an object. One is understood to be furious at or about something. Unlike sadness, or despair, or good cheer, which can take up residence in and even define one's character, we think of fury as coming and going with the tides of circumstance. Something or someone makes us furious; when that thing or person is removed, the fury goes away.

But a number of summers ago, fury erupted within me without provocation and, over the course of days and then weeks and finally months, settled in and showed no signs of abating. What's more, though I could catalog quite a few things over the course of four decades on earth that I had reason to be angry about, that particular summer was relatively calm. No one wronged me grievously, I didn't quarrel with anyone in particular. The events that stand out over those several warm months include my first mystery writers conference, a quilt project that took over the spare room with its thousands of multi-colored patches, a family reunion trip to Rhode Island.

And rejections. Dozens, scores, of rejections in my mailbox, my inbox, scrawled on slips of paper and returned to me with breathless speed in reply to my emailed queries. Was it this mountain of rejections that finally pushed me over the edge? Maybe...but that doesn't feel quite right. It's more like there was a vein, or perhaps an underground lake, of fury waiting to be tapped - for years, maybe - that found its way out that summer.

I experienced it as energy, first. That was the summer I began to have trouble sleeping (something that plagues me to this day), and I felt a restless, irritable sort of urgency from the moment of waking until I finally drifted off at night. I started going to the gym more, and as I pushed myself on the stepper or the bike, I found myself chanting in my mind to the rhythm of the machine - "you-can-not-make-me-stop-i-will-never-stop-i-will-not-give-up"

I was kind of taken aback by this. Who was "you"? My rejectors, certainly - those agents and editors who failed to see my promise - but it was more than that. It was anyone and everyone who got in my way, cut me off in traffic, snubbed my children, overcharged or underappreciated or took me for granted. It was everyone and no one. It was just everyday life, according to the few friends I confided in, the irritation of living, sharpened by middle age.

But I knew that it was more than that.

I lost weight. I wrote more. I took great care not to channel my fury on my children. I read books that I thought might wick some of the angst away - that was the year I discovered Ken Bruen, Ruth Rendell. I dared to write about violence, something I had always shied away from. All of this helped. None of it, however, erased the fury at the core.

In time it settled, as a viscous liquid fills a plastic bag, seeping into pockets and folds of my inner life. There it remains, and I suspect it's permanent. I've heard that fury is the result of the onset of menopause, but I think that's just another way to marginalize middle-aged womae; in my experience, hormonal changes lead to frayed-edge irritability more than anything. No, my fury feels like my own, and evidently I'm keeping it. I hope to find ways to make the most of it.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Wonderful, Horrible, Difficult, and Complicated

The Pens are thrilled to welcome Avon author Lavinia Kent today!

Family is complicated.

I almost feel that I could stop writing after that one sentence and I'd be done, that everyone who reads this would nod and feel satisfied.

It's so complicated that I've written three completely different versions of this piece, each one focused on something different. I began the first one by describing this last Christmas at my parent's house in Wisconsin. I was there with my husband and three children. Also present were my two brothers and their wives, another four grandchildren and my uncle. My parent's house is not small, but it is far from large. Most of the adults escaped to a nearby motel for the nights (ahh, hot tub and pool first thing in the morning), but we were all together during the day.

As was expected it was both a wonderful and difficult time. For every hour spent listening to seven children arguing over the Wii there was an hour spent watching a massive snowball fight through the window, bright red cheeks and endless smiles (hopefully I will have managed to download my pictures). For every time I watched my brother and husband carefully avoid talking about politics I spent time talking with my mother, learning bits and pieces of family history.

It was wonderful and difficult.

It was complicated.

It was family.

The second time I tried to write I worked on a piece tying in family history and shamelessly pushing my latest book, Taken by Desire. It was not a far stretch because many parts of my heroine's background were rooted in my own family's New England history. My heroine is an English woman, but her immense fortune has American roots - and problems.

I grew up visiting some of my family's grand homes in Bristol, Rhode Island and hearing the stories of their fascinating lives. I felt I was living a real piece of history as I imagined myself dressed in a late Victorian gown, playing croquet on the lawns. I loved to imagine them in their carriages driving about the small town on the same streets that I walked as a child. I climbed the narrow ladders to the widow's walk and dreamed of looking out over the bay waiting for my true love to return.

It was only as an adult that I truly came to understand what it meant that my distant relatives had been shippers in the triangle trade and how one-sided my dreams had been.

Family is complicated - a single generation can separate a great man from a slave trader.

To switch to a much happier subject, the topic of my last blog attempt was weddings. My mother gave me a wonderful selection of family wedding photographs as a Christmas gift. And last weekend I attended a wedding where the bride glowed so brightly, it made everybody smile. I always need to be reminded that brides truly glow. It is such a trite expression; yet when I look at some couples on their wedding days, I can barely breathe because the love is so plain to see.

I write about such love all the time, and sometimes begin to think I am exaggerating - but then I see in palpable form that most basic bond, the foundation of most families, and find I lack the words to do it justice.

I've seen the same glow on new parents, and when a loved one survives an accident or a health scare. It isn't often that love shines out of someone, but when it does, it's unmistakable, and almost always a mark of family feeling.

What ties all these different attempts at a blog together is, of course, family - wonderful, horrible, difficult, and complicated. Families haves their stories and history, their annoyances and their companionable moments. But to be a true family, what ties us all together is love. Sometimes what's trite is still true.

Lavinia Kent is the author of three regency historicals from Avon, and lives with her family in Washington D.C.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Family Makes for Good Fiction

by Gigi

The mystery novel I'm currently working on was inspired by a family story.

My father's uncle was the first of his family to come to the United States from India. He arrived in Pennsylvania -- right at the time of the influenza outbreak of 1918 that killed more people than World War I. He was one of the millions who died in the pandemic.
Or did he?

Whispers among some of the family said he was murdered, because he was such a brilliant man that he was perceived as a threat. I doubt it's true, but wouldn't it make for a great piece of fiction?

The premise that kicks off Pirate Vishnu (my working title) is that historian Jaya Jones had always believed that her great uncle died in the Great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 -- but what if he didn't?

My real-life family story doesn't involve a missing treasure, a coded treasure map, pirates in the San Francisco Bay, or a present-day murder -- but that's where fiction takes over.

This book is taking a while to write, because I'm alternating between the past (1900-1906 San Francisco Barbary Coast and the Indian kingdoms of Travancore and Cochin) and present (modern-day San Francisco and India).

One of the things I have to inspire me with the scenes from the past is old family photos.

Here's a photo of my uncle and father in India in the 1950s -- don't their expressions make you wonder what they were talking about?

And here are two great uncles, one of whom worked on a British tea plantation and was beaten to the point where he became deaf.

Yeah, maybe real life is sometimes just as dramatic as fiction.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Martha's Tiger Family

I haven't been able to peep into SFGate, NPR, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, or even Entertainment Weekly without running into the tale of self-proclaimed "tiger mother" Amy Chua, a Yale Law Professor who decided to raise her kids in accordance with strict Chinese standards and wrote the resultant memoir "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother."

My close circle of friends break down between Vietnamese, Taiwanese and Korean but we are undoubtedly bound by similar upbringings within our "tiger" families. Different values were emphasized for each of us, but the takeways were identical.

1. You get A's. No other grade exists.
2. Schoolwork first.
3. Approved (e.g. piano) extracurriculars second.
4. Family duties, church and chores third.
5. All the above gets done. All of it.
6. More school work next.
7. Other extracurriculars follow.
8. Then maybe a social life.
9. Elders are right.
10. No whining.

Punishment for violation of these terms is likely physical, sometimes financial, and definitely punitive to any sliver of social life you might have.

There is no such thing as a "hard" teacher. You never blame the teacher.
There is no such thing as an "unfair" system. You never blame the system.
There is no such thing as a "wrong" adult. You never blame an adult.
There is no such thing as a "bad" day. You never blame your mood or health.

Of course, as children, we knew teachers could be unduly difficult, systems were sometimes unfair, adults could be wrong, and days could be sucktastic. We huddled up, lamenting how cruel our parents could be. How distant. How completely medieval.

We also learned it's not the point. In life, you will always run up against difficulty, unfairness, and injustice. You should not go running to mommy. You should not let it paralyze you from doing your best. You find a way to deal with it and still pull out perfection. YOU ALWAYS DO YOUR BEST.

If I came home with a bad grade, I had no one to blame but myself. It did not matter if the teacher did not cover the material. It did not matter if late construction kept me up the night before. It did not matter if the bus driver was late to school, thus frazzling me. It did not matter, if I was robbed at gunpoint on the way to school and someone stole my pencil case and I had nothing to take the test with but my own blood. Really.

I will admit, I wish everyone followed this philosophy.

If I'm on a surgeon's table, I don't want the person cutting into me to let bad days get to them. If I'm being defended for a crime, I don't want the lawyer preparing my argument to be distracted by the unfair assignment of my case. If I'm preparing for retirement, I don't want the investment professional preparing my portfolio to blame the wrong analysis they received.

Does it really take Tiger parenting to yield this result?

I don't know.

I was raised in Asia, and thus was raised like everyone else. Some of my friends were raised in the US, and thus were aware that another type of parenting existed. Parenting where kids were encouraged to have fun, to enjoy their days, and to do their "best" but "best" didn't have to be an A+ or a gold medal or first place. Parents protected their kids interests. "Went to bat" for them with parents or principals.

This completely baffles me and my friends. Not because it's wrong, just because it's different. In the same way these parents are baffled by our upbringing, we are baffled by theirs.

I don't have kids, but I assume the end result of any parenting gig is to produce a happy child. To the Western mom, how could you be happy if you haven't been given the freedom to discover what makes you happy? To the Tiger mom, how could you possibly be happy if you aren't doing your best?

Lemme tell ya, I'm the best at a lot of things, and it's pretty effing awesome. But it also took me decades to realize that I could be happy doing something as "frivolous" as writing.

Now that I live in the United States (and I admit this is based purely on anecdotal evidence, the bane of the progeny of any tiger family), I'll admit I don't see that my friends raised under one method or another are any happier or smarter or nicer or more well-adjusted or less worrisome.

There are differences.
Oh yes, there are.
I'll not raise controversy by noting them here. But they have nothing to do with paycheck size, the number and quality of our friends, or how often we smile.

So I guess that's good news.

We're all functionally dysfunctional.
No matter the type of family.

(On a postnote, the author's eldest daughter wrote a letter defending her mom in which I gleaned a lovely piece of advice I am going to co-oped for writing: "Everybody seems to think art is spontaneous. But Tiger Mom, you taught me that even creativity takes effort." So there you have it - EFFORT! I'll get right on that...after this nap.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Intentional Family

by Lisa Hughey

I think everyone else has covered the idea of making your own family from your friends and comadres and fictive family (which honestly the Pens are well on their way to becoming), so I’m going to focus on the nuclear family and the idea of the intentional family.

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and extended family all lived far away on the East Coast. So we made our own traditions for holidays. I’ve followed in my parent’s footsteps and moved to California where we have no family close by. I am always envious of people who have 45 people over for dinner on Christmas because until I’m a grandma, that probably won’t ever happen.

Luckily, our family has something different, but just as good.

Years ago, someone recommended the book, The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties by William J. Doherty, Ph. D. The premise of the intentional family is to create family rituals that bind you together in an ever increasingly scattered and frenetic world. Some of Doherty’s suggestions we had already incorporated into our daily lives, like eating together as a family, which we do as often as we can, although between sports and work and travel schedules it is not an every night occurrence.

But there are many ways to make your own intentional family. Everyone needs to find what works for their family. I thought I’d share with you a few of the things we do in my family.

Every fall we go to our local pumpkin patch. The patch boasts a corn maze, a hay ride, pony rides (and boy did I shed a few tears when all my kids were too big to ride the ponies), an Indian village and various cut-outs for photo opportunities. We have gone to the patch every year since
my oldest was four.

We try to do Family Movie Night once a week but at least two or three times a month. We decide on a movie, which can take as much time as actually watching the movie sometimes, and then we sit together on our sectional sofa and watch with super buttery stove-popped popcorn and occasionally a box of candy Dots.

Once a year, we take a quick overnight trip to the Monterey Peninsula. Our standards, a hike at Carmel Point Lobos to take in the seals and the majesty of the Pacific Ocean. We spend half a day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium roaming the halls visiting our favorite, the Stingray tank and the kid’s touch pool, and gazing into the Outer Bay giganto tank to watch the sea life of the Monterey Bay. And, no matter how big my kids get, we spend and hour or two tide pooling, looking at the sea creatures trapped in the nooks and crannies of the coral.

I love Thanksgiving so when my kids were little and basically had a ho-hum attitude toward the day and the meal I knew I had to do something. My husband always does the turkey, because, eewww, I am so not sticking my hands into that. So I decided that each child would pick a dish and we would make that dish together which gave them a stake in the outcome. Thanksgiving has become a beloved holiday in our house. We pick out their recipe about a week before the holiday and then we make our shopping list. We prep and cook all day long and everyone enjoys the day.

Which just goes to show...that any family can develop their own rituals and become their own intentional family.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Family Compound

L.G.C. Smith

I always thought that once you grew up, you moved away from your family. Three of my grandparents lived in South Dakota all their lives and the fourth most of her adult life. In total contrast, my parents and their siblings skedaddled immediately after college. One aunt and uncle and their kids ended up in Minneapolis and stayed there. Another set landed in Denver and stayed there. The rest moved a lot. At one point in the late 60s, we lived on Guam, my mom’s sister’s family was in Alaska, and my dad’s sister’s family was in Hawaii.

When we returned to the States, my parents set to making up for lost family time. Every vacation we took was to some sort of family get together. My mom’s family met every summer at my grandparents’ ranch. We visited the Minnesota gang a couple of times, and they came to see us once. My dad’s family met up at Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park or at his parents’ house in Rapid City. Once we met at Estes Park, Colorado. There were a few reciprocal visits with the Denver camp. Even now I have trouble wrapping my brain around the idea that a vacation might NOT include family.

Then my mom’s oldest sister’s family moved from Bremerton, Washington to the same place we lived in California. For two years while I was in high school, I had cousins who lived a mile away. Wow! I loved it.

More than twenty years later, I had been living in my house – back in the same community where I went to high school – for three years when one of the houses behind me went up for sale. My youngest sister was looking to move out of her condo and into a house with enough room for dogs. Within a few months, she’d moved in kitty-corner behind me. We share a three and a half foot property line. Just enough for a gate between the back corners of our yards.

The gate.

I won’t lie. I had a stray thought or three about the wisdom of living next door to my sister. Our other sister, the middle one, accused us of being so enmeshed as to be embarrassing. Living next to kinfolk was for the very wealthy or the very poor. Excessive amounts of higher education (me) and owning a successful business (my youngest sister) meant little. We had given up all pretensions of aspiring to the upper middle class and sunk into a lower-order mire.

It’s turned out to be a lovely mire. Our zip code isn’t prestigious, and our houses are forty-five year old tract homes without much architectural distinction, but that doesn’t matter.

Living next door to my sister has been great. Now my parents are in on the deal four or five months of the year since they built a granny unit addition at my sister’s house.

This picture is to make up for my last post. My mom can smile,

and we have lots of fun family parties together.

There’s a certain sitcom aspect to our lives sometimes. We have our storm in a teacup moments like when my laid back Arkansas born-and-bred brother-in-law’s sense (or lack thereof) of timeliness butts up against my dad’s pathological need to be at the airport three hours ahead of flight time.

We've had our Real Life Drama moments through the years like when my sister suffered one miscarriage after another, and then finally, we all celebrated her daughter's birth. Or when one of the dogs, Magoo, was diagnosed with a terrible cancer that took a quarter of his face and an eye. It took all of us working together to figure out the diet changes, supplements, make the dog food, and get him to all his appointments. Everyone took a turn holding his paw when the chemo treatments melted half of his face. (Three years on, he’s doing well, and all the fur on his face grew back.)

Magoo lying in the grass, healthy and handsome.

We have our cozy homespun moments, like yesterday morning when my niece, now almost five, called to announce her mom was making pancakes and would we like to come over for some? Oh, and bring some powdered sugar, please, --and the plum jam that I made with the Elephant Heart plums from my sister’s tree.

My neighbors across the street aren’t related, but they have the same sort of family relationships, those fictive kinship ties that Juliet spoke of last week. I’m as likely to see them at each others' homes as their own. Over the past fourteen years, I’ve seen them walk back and forth thousands of times. It’s a fine thing to witness.

Within the confines of my small neighborhood, I know of at least six instances of family members having bought houses next to or within a few blocks of each other. My parents and my brother are moving into next-door houses in Austin this spring. My dad’s sister and her husband, now in San Antonio, live in a family compound with my cousins and their families. For many of us, living in close proximity with parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and their families works surprisingly well.

Then again, why wouldn’t it? Living surrounded by family seems to be a pretty common default setting for human beings.

Friday, January 14, 2011

What is Family?

The Pens are thrilled to welcome Lorraine Heath today! No one is better qualified to write about family -- she's written the book(s) already!

What is Family?

Family. As I write this following the holidays, family is on my mind quite a bit. My older son decided not to travel from Portland to Dallas during the holiday rush. Considering more than 6,000 flights were cancelled due to weather that was a wise decision. My younger son spent the holidays with his girlfriend’s family. So hubby and I had a very quiet Christmas. We went out for a nice dinner and took in a movie.

Someone I know is fond of saying that family is who you spend the holidays with. I prefer to think of it as family is who you *make* a holiday with. My boys will be here in the middle of January and we’ll unwrap gifts then, eat lots of food, and enjoy each other’s company. That it didn’t happen on Christmas day is inconsequential to me. What matters to me is that we find time to be together when we can and when we are together we make the most of it.

My recent series, London's Greatest Lovers, is about family. A widow—the Duchess of Ainsley—with three strong-minded sons, each determined to be known as London’s greatest lover, is what ties these stories together. The duchess has her own story woven through those of her sons. What I liked about these characters was that while they were from the same family, they were all so very different. They had different strengths, weaknesses, and personalities. But at the core of each of them was a dedication to family. So often in romances, the characters are orphans so the writer doesn’t have to deal with parents, but the duchess and her meddling lover were fun to include. Even the duchess had her faults that were delightful to work with.

I’m thinking about the series now because I just wrote the epilogue for the final book and I brought all the family members back together to give the reader one final peek at how they’re all doing. It’s Christmas. It’s family.

The series I wrote before this one—The Scoundrels of St. James—was also about family, even though none of the characters were related by blood. What tied them together was that they all grew up on the streets and they formed an unbreakable bond. They would lie, cheat, steal, kill, and die for each other. Perhaps not the best attributes for family members, but the lengths they would go to for each other were indicative of their love for each other. As one of the characters told another, “I would gladly follow you into hell and not even bother to ask why we were going.”
It’s that sort of devotion that I love. Not all families have it of course. Not all family members are close. Not all family members are related by blood. Not all families have been with us since we were born.

I’m fortunate to have a family of friends. These ladies are the ones that I share the highs and lows of publishing with. I share with them my good news before I share it with anyone else. It helps that they are all writers and they understand the publishing world. Like my scoundrels, we have a common background and that bonds us.

I recently saw a quote: “Friends are the family we choose.” I think that’s so true.

During my life, I’ve never had a great many friends but those I have are so very precious to me.
As I mentioned earlier, I think family are the ones that we *make* holidays with. The holiday doesn’t have to be on the calendar. It can be a celebration. A retreat. A getting together over a glass of wine and knowing that whines may flow as well and that they are safe. Whether it’s the family of blood or the family of friendships, a safe harbor is provided—a place where you can ride out the storm.

And in the end, perhaps that is the true identifier of family: it is always the safe harbor.

Lorraine Heath, the bestselling author of historical romances, relishes the importance of family in all its forms.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

I Love That You Love It

--Adrienne Miller

My family has an obsession with trains. My parents have it, my kids too. And, as if to prove that it’s not tied to some quirky Miller family gene, my husband has it as well. Everybody, it seems, but me. 

Look, a lovely family picture.
Taken, of course, on a train.
Big trains. Little ones. Toy trains or real trains, it doesn’t matter. They love them all. And when I say love, I mean *Love* them. My boys have buckets--no, really, buckets--of them. The whole family has annual memberships to not one or two, but three local train museums. And it’s not just the engines that they love. My father has a collection of antique railway china that’s worth a small fortune. 
They all have their own favorite railroading periods. They know the names and numbers of famous engines and cars. They know what line went where and when it stopped running.
Pretend trains count too.

I love that they have it, this shared joy, but for the life of me, I just don’t see the beauty there. I know it exists. I’ve seen it shining in their eyes every time we take a big family trip out to the Sacramento and the state railroad museum. All I can see is a molded mass of metal, pistons and whistles and domes, a hunk of iron and steel that was useful a hundred years ago if you needed to get yourself to Chicago and back. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t see the poetry in it.
There are few constants in life, but I can guarantee if we pass by anything that is even vaguely train shaped one of my children will be plopped on top of it and their picture will be taken.

Of course, I have my own loves. Some of which my family and I share, but some of the others, not so much. I get that not everybody is keen to wander around cities on foot for hours on end with no particular destination in mind. I can also understand that everyone might not be as stirred by the subject of religious symbology as I am. 
But then there are the ones I just can’t understand. I gave my mother a copy of Pride and Prejudice once. She returned it a few days later, saying that she couldn’t get past the beginning. It was boring, she said.
Boring. Pride and Prejudice. I shook my head. She just couldn’t see the poetry in it. Just like I can’t with the trains. 
Which is fine. There are we love and things we don’t. It’ll have to be enough that I love that they love it. 

And they do love it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

All Our Kin

My mom was the youngest of eleven children from the South, which meant that my sisters and I grew up hearing stories about "Family" all our lives. This was Family with a capital "F": Kin were obligated to help one other, provide for one another, look after one another.

But my sisters and I were raised in California, far from our twenty-eight Texan cousins, and a few others scattered here and there. We did just fine, but as a girl I always longed for more. It wasn't until I hit college, and took my first anthropology course, that I realized there was an alternative...and it even had a nifty name: Fictive Kinship.

In many Latino cultures, fictive kinship is formalized through the system of compadrazgo, in which you ask your friends to be your comadres and compadres (literally, “co-parents”). In English we translate this into Godparents, but with comadres the bond between the godmother and mother is often more important than that between the child and the godparent. It is assumed the adults will care for the children, but it is the link between the *adults* that is crucial. In fact, really good friends often refer to each other as compadre and comadre, whether or not there are any children (or any religious ceremonies) involved.

Essentially, this is your family of choice, the folks who might be even closer to you than blood kin.

Historically – and still in many parts of the world – family is a powerful survival mechanism. Darwin would say that we have a special interest in keeping alive those who share our DNA. Religion and society then step in and dictate that we are beholden to our blood kin to help them through the tough times. Tightly bonded families help their members to survive and flourish.

But there’s a dark side to such interdependence. What happens when there is no family, or when a member is forced, or chooses, to step away? At many points in our past, and still now in many parts of the world, women, in particular, without family are left unprotected and unprovided-for.

When I was researching witchcraft for my novels, I found that many of the women who became “witches” – that is to say, “healers”—in European society had no family, or had committed the sin of refusing (or failing) to marry. As outcasts, they had a choice of heading to the urban centers to work as prostitutes…or to become powerful women, healers who inspired respect and fear. In a word: Witches.

And what then did most witches do? They formed covens. They taught each other, helped and supported one another, and socialized. Covens (a word which refers to an “assembly” and is related to convent and covenant) provided these women with a kind of family, through fictive kinship.

(Many people think warlock is the term for a male witch, but it actually means “oathbreaker”, and refers to the men who knew about --and sometimes previously protected-- the coven, but who named names during the witch-hunts, breaking the covenant in order to save themselves. )

Some time ago I was invited to attend a modern coven meeting in Berkeley. Contemporary covens (at least in the Bay Area!) are typically less about survival than they are about socializing and practicing rituals and devotion, but the fictive bonds amongst members are still important, especially for us modern folk without a lot of blood kin around.
At the coven meeting was a woman who was eight months pregnant. She was feeling anxious about the upcoming birth and asked each of us, while we formed the traditional closed circle, to lay our hands upon her belly and to bless her and her child.

In the process of creating a blood family, she was reaching out for fictive kin. Comadres. And in that assembly of like-minded women, she found it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Family is Code

Family. It's a word that, no matter what, means something to all of us. At its utterance, some pale and cover their mouths while running from the room. Me, I'm a lucky one. I have a great family, albeit smaller than some -- no oceans of cousins, aunts, great-uncles. Just the normal sisters, nephew, Dad, and some etc.

But there's an interesting usage of the word Family that you might not be aware of.

Years ago, I was at a training class for dispatchers in Sacramento. One of the men in the class was awesome. Really handsome, rugged, dreamy eyes, he let me bum cigarettes and we made dirty jokes out in the courtyard. Something...though.

"Are you family?" I asked out of the blue.

His eyes narrowed. "Why?" Then he paused. "Are you?"

I laughed while nodding and he whooped.

It's code, see. Are you family? means Are you gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered/queer? But it's special, because it also means the person asking is some flavor of queer.

What if a gay person asks this of a straight one? Normally, they don't know the code. And we know that. If we ask and the person looks puzzled -- "Huh? Do I have family?" -- we backtrack and change the wording quickly, "No, I mean, are your parents still alive? Where do they live?" and the chat goes on, that question answered.

I realize as I type this that it's been YEARS since I've used it this way. Perhaps it's gone the way of "Are you a friend of Dorothy?" Usually, it's just a shorthand between people. If a woman in clogs and Stanford sweatshirt walking a tiny dog in a sweater walks by, Lala will mutter, "Family?"

"Duh," I say.

It's interesting, though, how this arose from necessity. Gays and lesbians needed a safe way to bluntly ask each other, back when it wasn't as safe as it is now (the phrase is said to have been used as far back as 1930). And the word itself -- Family -- implies both what gay people sometimes had to leave behind in order to find their real, accepting one. And it made the answer at the hospital a true one: "Are you family?" "Yes." (Even today, domestic partners have horror stories of not being able to be at their loved ones' bedsides.)

I'm glad I'm living NOW. I don't know how brave I'd be in other times, I really don't. I hope I would be strong, though.

And I'm so glad to have all KINDS of family (Pens included).

Monday, January 10, 2011

Quick Trip to the ALA

by Sophie

ALA Winter Meeting - I Was There! (With Martha!)

The topic this week is family, and I do have one, and I love them deeply, but I'm just back from the American Library Association meeting and I'm bubbling over with enthusiasm for everything I saw and read and experienced in the last two days and I want to share - okay with you?

First wonderful thing about the weekend is that I got to room with Martha. Of all the Pens, she and I probably live the furthest apart, and we don't get to see each other as often as I would like. Yeah yeah yeah, she knows all kinds of fascinating people and is scary-smart and all, but mostly I just enjoy her company, even/especially when she's not feeling great so we just watch hotel TV. (I had never in my life watched The Bachelor and last night we watched a rerun with Martha's running commentary and I nearly fell out of the bed laughing, despite the fact that I have never seen a more insipid gathering of doltish people anywhere.)

the view from our hotel room - amazing!

But to stay on-topic - on the topic which isn't on-topic - let's talk about librarians: they LOVE books. They talk about books with reverence. They handle them with great care. They light up when they meet new authors, they roam the show floor tirelessly looking for new things to read, they talk about their collections with obvious pride. I ADORE THEM. Everywhere I went - whether to get a soda from the hotel shop, or lunch, or strolling along the marina, there were clusters of librarians talking about books, carrying books in their bags, buying books, sharing books.

It's not like I never met a librarian before. I've written before about how much I adored my college library (fun fact - Lisa and I went to the same university at the same time and never knew each other!) and someday I will share what my hometime library meant to me, though that will take many many words....but I have never seen so many in one place before.

I was at the convention to sign ARCS of my spring release, A BAD DAY FOR SCANDAL (ThomasDunne/St. Martin's/Minotaur, June), and my friends Hank and Rosemary invited me to participate in a series of mystery panels. Now I've done panels where three people showed up, all of them my friends, their sole purpose to hurry me along so we could go to the bar, and I've learned to keep my expectations...moderate, shall we say. But at our early morning panel yesterday, hordes (okay, maybe exaggerating a TINY bit) of eager librarians showed up to listen and discuss mystery novels. It was a delightful experience.

One other thing I'd like to tell you about before I stagger off to bed (it's well after midnight, and I only got home from the airport an hour ago) - I attended some panels of high school librarians who were in the process of creating a list of recommended novels for their kids. I was blown away by the enthusiasm, professionalism, conviviality, and focus of this group. Simply put, they care very deeply about bringing the best books to their readers. At one point they invited a panel of teen readers to address them, and it was the best-attended session I saw. Every librarian and audience member listened with great care to the teens who shared their reviews of '10 reads. It was truly awe-inspiring.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Christmas, the Musical! (Or, How I Learned to Work with My Inner Grinch)

The Pens are thrilled to welcome guest blogger Jami Alden! Jami Alden is the author of sexy romantic suspense. Her next book, BEG FOR MERCY
will be available in June from Grand Central Press. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her socially well adjusted alpha male husband, her sons, and a german shepherd who patiently listens to dialog and help her work out plot points. You can find out more about Jami and her books at,, or by following her on Twitter @jamialden.

When I was little the holidays were an awesome time, full of tree decorating, cookie making, and most importantly, vacation from school.

It wasn't until I was older – my late twenties, in fact, that I realized what a freaking production Christmas is. By that time, I'd handled Thanksgiving on my own for several years – I had the turkey, the mashed potatoes, the gravy, the whole package down to a science, and had even managed to get the entire meal, appropriately hot or cool to the table more or less on schedule.

Then, a few years after my husband and I got married, we hosted Christmas for the first time. My in laws (including husband's 7 siblings) were flying in and staying through the new year. I scoured the stores for gifts for the whole group and had them wrapped and ready to go well before the big day. Excited at the prospect of “our” first Christmas, my husband and I went out in search of a tree. Only problem: no lights, no ornaments, no nothing.

No problem! I dutifully went to Target and got enough stuff to deck two trees worth.

Then, tree appropriately twinkling, I looked around the rest of our little rented house and realized... it was bare.

Now, in my house we jokingly refer to my mom as “Patty Christmas.” Every year, she not only does the tree, she also swaps out all the towels for holiday themed linens and gets out all the Christmas themed drinkware. From December 1 – 31st, from your first sip of coffee to your last sip of wine, you are reminded 'tis the season. There are red velvet bows on nearly every doorknob and a faux pine garland winding up the staircase.

My house, in comparison, was sparse, minimalistic even. It wouldn't do. So, having no job or children at the time, I put aside my not yet off the ground writing career and did another wave of Christmas shopping. Candlesticks, towels, glassware, candles, vases in the shape of Santa's boots. I was set. No way Christmas would ever get me down again.

Fast forward 5 years. Let me tell you, nothing brings out my inner grinch like a crushing deadline. Add in 2 kids ages 2 and 5 months, about a thousand people to shop for a and a husband who worked 80 hours a week, and I was ready to cancel Christmas.

We managed to get a tree. It stood in its stand for a week while I circled it resentfully. “I am so not in the mood to decorate you.”

“This sucks!” I muttered. “It's all a bunch of BS and it's not like I don't have enough going on. F the tree. The kids won't give a crap, and they'll break the ornaments anyway.”

Someone must have been listening. Because one Saturday in December while I was out, no doubt doing something very self indulgent like going to Trader Joe's ALL BY MYSELF, some little Christmas Elves came to visit.

When I returned, the tree was decorated. The little holiday knick knacks were strewn around the house. Holy crap, who knew Christmas could happen in our house without me?

The little twinge of guilt I felt at having been such a scrooge disappeared in the wave of love and gratitude for my husband, for seeing that I needed a little help getting into the Christmas spirit, for taking a bunch of stuff off my plate, and doing it all without acting like it was a big deal or a burden or an imposition.

My own Alpha Christmas Elf :)

Do you ever need help getting into the Holiday spirit? Who are your helpers? Are you sad to season end or, like me, do you feel like you'll need the next 12 months to gear up for the next one?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Pass the Grog

by Gigi

I'm a celebrator. Just to be clear: not the kind with a party hat and noisemaker, screaming at the top of her lungs at the strike of midnight on new year's eve. Can you see me doing that? I didn't think so. I'm the kind who seizes an opportunity to let myself celebrate--having fun with a new reason to enjoy life, enticing those around me to join in, then siting back with a smile on my face to take it all in.

When the Pens came over to my house for dinner a few months ago, we hadn't gotten together as a group in a while, so I wanted to do something a little special. Since we conceived of this enterprise as a "Grog" (group blog) I designed a Pens Fatales label for some Grog for us to imbibe that evening. (OK, it was vodka, since who really wants to drink Grog?) It made the whole thing seem more festive. More like a celebration.

A small experience sticks with me that sums up this feeling. On a miserably freezing, wet day, I ducked into The Cafe in the Crypt for a cup of coffee to warm up. The person I was with snagged a table while I waited in line. I returned to the table with not only coffee but also a luscious bread and butter pudding to share. I was soaking wet, and the crypt was more crowded than atmospheric, but I had good company and a warm, buttery treat, so what more could I ask for? The person I was with could see it on my face. She turned to me and said "You really enjoy life, don't you?" That's exactly how I was feeling on that cold winter day.

I think one of the reasons I'm so bad at establishing celebratory holiday traditions is because I always want to try some new experience. Until a few years ago, I bounced around from place to place a lot, and was rarely "home" for the holidays.

Instead of having a specific tradition, to me celebrating is about the people you're with and the experience you're having together. I remember the Christmas Eve dinner at a cozy little pub in London with tiny little booths and a huge roast, getting to know a new friend a little better who has since turned out to be one of my closest friends. And the New Year's Eve in Cornwall, in a b&b whose owner wore a reindeer hat while serving rich treats and hosting silly games. And of course there are the times I made it home to visit my parents, wherever they happened to be living at the time, for wonderful visits surrounded by Christmas ornaments placed on all of the cultural artifacts throughout the house.

For me, those visits are most worth celebrating because they're not a given. I've always been of the opinion that I don't know what adventures life has in store for me, or what the future holds. So I'll celebrate with my friends and family as I go along each step of the path.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Martha Practices Celebration

I remember back in high school a friend invited me to her graduation party.

Me: What is it?
Friend: A graduation party.
Me: For what?
Friend: Graduating.
Me: Weren't you supposed to graduate?

Ditto college acceptance party. First job party.

I didn't have a crazy strict upbringing but I definitely remember there was no tolerance for resting on your laurels.

No point getting excited about A's until you had straight A's. Straight A's don't matter - do you have the 4.0? Why freak out over the 4.0 until you're in college? College is just a gateway situation until you have the job. Do you have it? DO YOU?

Okay, great, a job ,but is it secure? Have your benefits kicked in? Did you get your first review? What about a raise?

Then at my first job, I met my friend E.

E likes a little celebration in everything.

She had me over for a dinner. Beforehand, I received a hand written invitation. At the event, she had typed up cute menus. Everything was beautifully plated. We said cheers. Cheers! We celebrated the fact that we were having dinner. BIZARRE! And addicting.

Next thing I knew, I would throw out cheers for anything.

Now we've already established from previous posts that I'm not modest and if I do say so myself, I'm intelligent, and I'm also a fast learner. So I took to celebrating like a fish to water.


Was it 5pm? Cheers.
Did I get mail? Cheers.
Good TV shows on tonight? Cheers and cheers.

I couldn't have learned it at a better time because writers need to celebrate, like Lisa said. There's too much rejection. Too much angst. Too much repeated beatings on your self esteem.

So finished manuscript? Cheers. Who cares if you have the agent.
Agent? Cheers! Who cares if you have the deal.
Book Deal? Cheers!!!! Screw your sales numbers.
Sales numbers? Cheeeeeers! Eff your next book contract.

Cheers to me, cheers to us, and cheers to you!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Lisa is a Celebration Junkie

I love to celebrate. Give me a reason and I’m there. You finished your first manuscript. Hooray, break out the champagne! You took the plunge and started exercising. Let’s take a walk! Your kid passed his driver’s test. Let’s have a glass of wine! You passed your first class. Yippee, here’s a great big hug.

I really do think it’s important to celebrate the small things. Because life throws us so many curves and unexpected roadblocks that when we hit a high, it needs to be catalogued and acknowledged and well, celebrated.

So one of the things that happens once you become a writer is that there are milestones along the way that perhaps really only seem like milestones to other writers. (Or at least that’s what we like to tell ourselves). Seemingly little things that deserve a check mark on a list of actions that make us REAL writers.

Each of these moments are little triumphs in their own right.

Having a plotting breakthrough.

Pens plotting and query reading

Finishing a draft. Crafting a query letter. Hitting send on a manuscript.

Your first rejection.

A good reminder card given to me after a series of rejections

Tackling the revision letter. Re-sending your manuscript.

Your first book signing.

Rachael's first signing

Your first meeting with your editor, agent, publicist. Starting a blog. Starting a grog. Building a website. Your first interview.

Finding your book in a store.

A night of bookspotting (which is NOTHING like trainspotting)

Your first release. Your first award. Your first mention in the NYT Book Review. Your first list.

You celebrate for yourself and you celebrate for your friends. :)

I’ve hit some of these and I’m still waiting on others. But one thing remains constant...each time I hit one, the Pens will be there to celebrate with me.

Happy New Year! May 2011 be the year for you.