Thursday, November 29, 2007

Sometimes, it's so easy

Last week, the Wall Street Journal--my favorite newspaper, hands down!--had a story in The Informed Reader column (Insights and Items of Interest From Other Sources) that just begged to be blogged about.

The November 18 Sunday TImes (U. K.) had an article on blondes: dumb or not? Come to find out, it's not blondes that are dumb, it's how they're perceived. And who is doing all this perceiving? Well, men, of course. Seems a man's mental performance drops whenever he's around a blonde woman. He is mimicking "the unconscious stereotype of the dumb blonde."

It's just too good to be true, isn't it? Here's the link:


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Monday, November 26, 2007

Setting a time: an interview with Laura Parker Castoro

A few months ago, reading Dear Author, I was clued into the 1980's novels of author Laura Parker by a review of one of her Australian-set ones. I have a weakness for historical Australian romances, so I went in search. Alas, my pursuit for that particular series was fruitless, but I brought home Emerald and Sapphire set in 1754 England. It had the typical alpha male, the young heroine, a not-so-secret baby, a dastardly rich guy, and a scathing female rival for the hero's attention. He was, of course, too in love with the heroine to fall for the old flame's trickery, wiles, and easy bed again. There was the old woman, the semi-hooker with a heart of gold, and lots of mud, rain, and perilous weather. It was great and it reminded me of why I fell in love with the romance genre in the first place.

Had I read this in 1983 I would have merely moved on to the next book. I wasn't writing at the time and the questions I have in mind now are different than then. (If I had had any at all.) But now, thanks to the Internet, I can find the author's website and the fact that her career is still going strong. And--drum roll, please--I can find the answers to my question.

Laura Parker Castoro graciously agreed to answer my question about time and setting. Over the coming weeks, I plan to ask other historical authors the same question: Why did you set your novel when you did?

For Ms. Castoro's Emerald and Sapphire, it went like this:

Why 1754 and not half a century one way or the other?

Her answer: ""Emerald and Sapphire" came to be set in the mid 18th century because of the hero, Merlyn. He had a unique physical attribute: one blue eye and one green eye. Now that's eye-catching, all puns intended. But once seen, he wasn't likely to be forgotten. So, I had the character but didn't know how to make his unique appearance part of a story until I decided that he used his eye color to advantage, as a disguise. So far, so good. But there were still a problem.

Meryln was going to become a common jewel thief who wooed and pilfered from aristocratic women! Yet nothing as simple as an eye patch worn in pubic was likely to make him disappear into whichever disguise he'd chosen for the moment. So I thought, 18th century! People wore wigs!

I began researching costumes. I always do a lot of research to make certain my historials are as accurate as possible in their settings and social mores. I own a dozen books on period dress. I discovered that after 1760, many men wore their own hair dressed and powdered to look like a wig. And furthermore, powdering and rouging the face was going out of fashion. Well those were the things that made for a better disguise. I needed my hero, Merlyn, to wear a real wig and powder and rouge his face as an aristocrat would before 1760. So, story had to be before 1760.

A little social history research gave me the other elements I needed to make the story believable.

-- Before the French Revolution, a commoner couldn't even dare look into the face of an aristocrat, let alone speak to one without being addressed directly by the aristocrat first. So no commoner friend of Merlyn's was ever likely to recognize him in his aristocratic disguise. And no aristocrat would ever waste his/her time staring at a commoner, no matter how attractive. So, Merlyn's relatively safe from crossover connections.

-- When playing an aristocrat, Merlyn wore a gray powdered wig and a black silk (expensive) eye patch over his green eye, making him a blue-eyed man. As himself, he wore his own black hair unpowdered and a rough brown leather eye patch over his blue eye, making him a green-eyed commoner.

-- One problem remained. How could he, a commoner, learn to talk and act like an aristocrat? Easy peasy! He was an actor by trade. He was trained to speak as an aristocrat, move and act as and aristocrat, and could study them before, during and after performances.

So now my hero is free to slip in and out of both worlds without worry...until he makes love to a young aristocratic woman, and first to ever get close to him as both Merlyn the actor, and Merlyn the aristocrat. Does she see through his disguise? You bet! And thereby hangs a tale!

I have most often written my historicals in what I call the Napoleonic Era, which ranged from the early 1790s to 1815. It includes the Regency Era but is broader. I like this era because it is a time of great change in Europe, both in terms of government and social norms. Unlike the 18th century, where strictures of class kept people from making eye contact, the barriers between wealthy and poor, aristocrat and commoner were beginning to crumble. Makes for lots of intrigue and conflict and scandal.

But I always put the story first and find the place where it can best be told. In "The Gamble" I once again chose the mid 18th century because the rigid class distinction worked best for my characters."

Thank you, Laura.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Thanksgiving redux

I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving, that it was what you wanted it to be, whether with family or friends, a huge meal or a snack, football games or a movie.

Thanksgiving is my favorite of the holidays. It's secular, so everyone can enjoy it, it's not a necessary night function (we have trouble staying up to welcome in the new year and lest you think that a condition of ageing, we had trouble in our twenties also), and it draws, like a magnet, good feelings with family and friends. It's a carefree holiday.

Unless you're the cook.

We had 9 at table yesterday at lunch, related by blood or marriage to them all. In the past, when it might have been just the four of us, we'd cast our net around for families too far from theirs to go home and invite them to our table. We had some lovely celebrations that way.

My mother-in-law brought the cornbread dressing and gravy per her son's request. He knows that dressing is not my strong suit at the Thanksgiving table. I know it's not at any table. He figures he saved the day. I'm thinking it was one less thing for me to grapple with, to grapple with unsuccessfully even, and we all won. We even got to keep the leftovers. Double win.

That left me with the salads, fruit and veggie, one of the desserts, sauteed spinach (we voted online), and, of course, the guest of honor, the turkey.

Ever since I saw Emeril brine a turkey on Good Morning America in 2002 (I think), I have stuck to this old but wonderful method of turkey prep. Only problem is, it's dicey. Just where in the refrigerator does one put a 14-pound bird covered in juices, salt, and water and stuffed into a garbage bag which will have to be turned at least once? The easy answer is 'anywhere the turkey fits.' The hard answer is: very carefully on the bottom shelf trying not to spill the bag over the edges of the roasting pan. At this point in the prep, I always wish I'd just got a turkey breast.

Then I saw Sandra Lee on The Food Network roast a bird on a bed of carrot and celery sticks. Ooh--no sticking! She made a great butter mix to go under the skin and filled the cavity with fresh herbs. It just got better and better.

Somehow though there's always last minute prep and I'm running around like a chicken with my head cut off (okay, turkey) and my husband asks: Is there anything else in the refrigerator? As if. It's all out! How could there be anything left in the fridge when we're eating it all? Then halfway through dessert I remember the homemade cranberry sauce. Like we needed that.

But it was very good on the leftover rolls at supper.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Is Thursday the new Saturday?

Unless Christmas is on a Friday, the weekend before it seems sacrosanct and no one has parties. The perception is that the guest list will be out of town or busy with family. This year, the weekends are Dec 1/2, 8/9, 15/16, and 22/23. If we were doing our biennial cheesecake party, I'd be lobbying for the 22nd (if there weren't a family party already) because, well, just because I think everyone would be in their ho-hum what-do-we-do-now-until-the-24th? stage and would gratefully show up. They might have relatives in tow, but that would be fine with me. We always have plenty.

Given the perceived Saturday crunch, Thursdays have become popular. We just received our third invitation to a Christmas party on Thursday, Dec. 13. We have no such invitations to any of the Saturdays in December, although we have managed to provide our own entertainment on one of them and the other, the 22nd, is, like I said, a family Christmas celebration.

I already see where this is going because it's happening year after year. We're not going to have any parties on those Saturdays. Or Fridays. Twenty years ago it was a social whirlwind. Maybe the people who'd invite us to parties are just too old to give them.

So we'll be home with a DVD, threatening the cats within an inch of their tails if they tear up one more package under the tree, and resting up from all the Thursday parties.


Monday, November 19, 2007

Houdini "L" Roach

We live in an old house, circa 1918. It's in the mode of Prairie-style, two stories, a basement (not a wise choice), and a large front porch. It's red brick, has 37 windows, none of which are air-tight. There are plumbing issues, water issues (as in rising, basement), electrical issues (my favorite are the two double light switches, where one of each pair is controlled by a different breaker), and "settling" issues. ("The kitchen door won't close. Guess the house has settled for the season.")

One of our biggest issues are the many little hidey-holes between the walls, under the floors, and in the (ahem!) basement, where insects can hide. In spite of a 29-year relationship with a quarterly pest control service, we have still been the prey of ants (the ones that hid in my iron took a while to sort out), fireants (we'll never be rid of those), fleas (I didn't feel nearly as bad when I learned that year that everyone had fleas, even people without pets), and rodents. (See basement above.) Spiders are endemic and what would autumn be without the lady bugs gathering in the windows and bathroom? But our latest source of abuse has been the roach.

We have fought a good battle, going to the nesting source (the split hackberry in the backyard) and I thought detente had been reached. In bolder moments, I envisioned winning the fight. I've even been a bit cocky about it. (Think on it.) And then I met my match this morning in the downstairs bathroom.

Cleaning house is not my favorite thing to do, but the holidays approach and the family is coming, so things need to be spiffed up. I'd dusted, vacuumed, swept, finally made my way into the bathroom. There, on the floor in the corner, was a roach, belly up, quite still. I gathered him up with a bit of toilet paper and flushed him, turned to scrub the sink, turned back around and voila! there was a wet roach, belly up, in front of the commode.

Hmmm. Surely not, but it had to be, didn't it? That was the roach I'd just flushed, except I hadn't crushed him first, he'd been merely stunned on toxic roach juice and had found the strength to fly out. After all, that was one very wet antenna stretched out on the tile. Toilet paper, commode, flush. Satisfied, I went about my business.

Five minutes later, I come back to the bathroom to finish the cleaning and there, in the same corner as the original, is a roach. Belly up. No lie, because you can't make this stuff up. I studied the distance, didn't note a wet trail, and proceeded with the toilet paper, CRUSH, commode, flush.

Out I go. Ten minutes later, vacuum cleaner in hand, I'm back for a quick run-through and there, on the floor behind the commode, belly up, is a roach. It can't be the same one, it just can't. I crushed the heck out of the last one. I repeat the performance.

But I'm still leery. Hours have passed, and I enter the bathroom cautiously. Why should 3 roaches stumble out of hiding in succession? How could one not die?

However, I do think he's gone, Houdini Lazarus Roach.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Which gift would I want?

We just finished watching the first season of Heroes on DVD. In retrospect, given the writers' strike and the impending nothingness of midwinter TV, perhaps we should have waited a while to start it because once begun, it became addictive. We blitzed through 22 episodes like there was nothing else to watch. (And admit it, there's a bit of truth in that.)

Safely, I have been taping the second season, hedging my bet that I'd like the series enough to continue it. I didn't start taping until episode 5, but absent the answer to one little question which I haven't ferreted out online yet (Just how did Peter and Nathan survive?), we would seem to be good to go and have more evening time-fillers ahead.

But I admit to feeling a bit inconsequential. All those people. All those "gifts." How inadequate am I? There are times I'd liked to have kicked-butt or listened to people's minds or walked through walls. Talking to machines and time travel, those could be tempting to abuse. Healing oneself--healing others--now there are gifts worth having. Painting the future is a bit odd, and flying is my least favorite along with starting fire and being nuclear, but finding lost people could definitely come in handy.

But if I got to choose, I'd come up with another. (And if it were taken in the first 4 episodes of the 2nd season, I haven't seen it yet.) I'd want the gift of language, of being able to listen to a few words of a conversation and undertand the syntax and vocabulary. I'd be able to communicate with anyone. Sounds like an old "Star Trek", doesn't it?

Well, haven't you always wanted to go where no (wo)man has gone before?

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Look out: Curves ahead!

I think we have a case of chicken and egg (which came first?) here. In the past few days, the media, this as an example, have had a field day with the idea that women with a waist smaller than their hips (that would be the Waist Hip Ratio, or WHR to those in the know) are more intelligent and have more intelligent children.

While I'm sure I could think of many exceptions if I just put my mind to it (being in the proper WHR is making me a bit lazy about it), I think it's backwards. As a writer, I constantly hear the mantra to get out of the chair and away from the computer because it'll just "spread what's already big enough as it is."

So, are curvy women intelligent because of all that stored Omega-3 (read the articles) OR are intelligent women curvy because they enjoy the mental gymnastics and sit more?


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

So, are we abnormal? (And let's be polite enough to read the blog before answering, okay?)

It has come to our mutual attention that perhaps we're not of one mind with our compatriots, those of similar age and background. They're discussing where to retire and we're discussing... not.

This was brought home to us this weekend when two things happened. A good friend who lives near Detroit emailed that she and her husband had just purchased property in NC where they would build and retire. Now, on the one hand, given the choice between x-voluntary years in Detroit and the same number in NC, I'd become a Tar Heel, too. Still, retirement home?

The other occasion was our 35th college reunion. Sitting around a concrete table under a live oak tree (and being pelted with acorns in the wind), we visited for over 5 hours with people we hear from at Christmas and see once every 3-4 years when various of us convene at a reunion. (And, yes, we could certainly bestir ourselves to see each other more often.) Retirement may have been mentioned. In truth, we were too busy telling stories none of the rest of us have ever heard, that my head still aches.

We live in a small town. It's certainly not ideal. We were big-boxed years ago and small businesses come and go. Unofficially, the most growth would appear to be in pizza places because we have five, two of which have just opened. In order to get anything bordering on a huge selection of merchandise, one must either go online or travel 30-40 miles. We are blessed with a six-screen theater but the movie industry has been a bit slack this year, so we're good customers down at the video store.

All this aside, we have no desire to pack up and move elsewhere to retire. This is small-town Texas. This is where people leave the cities to come to retire, and we're already here.

So, abnormal? Don't think so.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

On Veteran's Day

Her name was Mrs. Graves and she was my third grade teacher. That is why I know about Armistice Day, now called Veteran's Day.

Mrs. Graves was a widow and given to tears when she spoke of her husband. Perhaps this wasn't appropriate in front of 30 8-year-olds, but we accepted it. She could write an Olde English script and taught us some of the letters. I can still do her 'M'. She was a very nice lady and I adored her and my mother was quite upset when my sister, two years later, ended up in the classroom of a teacher more given to make her students cry than cry herself.

But in my third grade class, which would have been in the late '50s, we were patriotic. The pledge to the flag, maybe even singing "My Country 'Tis of Thee" or "Texas, Our Texas." My memory is distant on the singing detail but I do know that at 11 in the morning on November 11, (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month), Mrs. Graves had us stand. We stood in silence to honor the dead of our grandfathers' generation, men who died on a continent our own fathers had returned from less than 15 years earlier.

Nearly half a century later, I still remember. Thank you, Mrs. Graves.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

In praise of good copy

The Christmas season catalogs are inundating my library table in the living room. I cull the ones I'm definitely not interested in when I pull the stack from the mailbox. The rest I leave in a pile on my side the table (it's easier that way: his stack, my stack) and once a week go through them, rarely pulling one I find worth another look and tossing the rest. But this time of year, I have to go through them at least every other night or my side the table (and it's an old, delicate-legged table) will collapse.

At some point in time, I found myself on the mailing list of Bas Bleu, a specialty catalog for, according to their website, "The odd little book."


I was unfamiliar with nearly all of their "odd little books", but by the end of my catalog search, I wanted to own them all! Their reviews are some of the best copy I've ever read. Each review is identified by reviewer's initials, so you could indeed follow a favorite through the catalog. What a gift to be able to write that way!

The catalog also features gifts and items of interest to readers, but it's the books that shine. Take a look and be prepared to spend an hour.

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