Award-winning author
Unusual times, remarkable places

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

26 December 2007

Be careful what you wish for

The “Katrina Fifteen.” That’s what New Orleanians call the fifteen pounds many people gained after the federal levees broke and flooded the city.

My plan for today, the day after Christmas, was to start snacking less and increase my daily time on the elliptical machine to 45 minutes, in hopes of getting rid of my Katrina Fifteen by next Christmas and fitting into my pre-Katrina clothes again.

I should have told others my goal.

My friends and family know what I love most in the world, and they gave it to me for Christmas . . . lots of it.

To whit:
  • a Godiva gift certificate
  • a 17-ounce canister of chocolate truffles
  • four Dagoba chocolate bars (2 ounces each)
  • three Chocolove dark chocolate bars (3.2 ounces each)
  • two Endangered Species dark chocolate bars (3 ounces each)
  • one Rapunzel dark chocolate bar (3 ounces)
  • one Ghiradelli dark chocolate bar (3.5 ounces)
  • one box Ghiradelli dark chocolate squares (1 ounce)
  • assorted Godiva chocolate bars (12 ounces total)
  • a canister of hot cocoa mix
  • homemade chocolate fudge
  • one box of Lindt chocolate Fioretto (1.6 ounces)
  • one box of Capolavori chocolates (0.6 ounces)

Some of these gifts were nominally for both my husband and me.

My husband doesn’t care for chocolate. I get it all.

If I don’t write like a dervish for the next several weeks, it won’t be my the fault of my wonderful friends. They’ve provided me with plenty of writing fuel and lots of phytochemicals to keep me healthy. Now my task is to produce prose worthy of all that chocolate.

Oh, and to set the alarm early so I can get up and on the elliptical machine before work. Wonder if an hour a day will be enough to counter my friends' generosity?


Some quotations from the Website of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association:

"Chocolate doesn't make the world go around, but it sure does make the trip worthwhile."


"Man cannot live on chocolate alone; but woman sure can."


"I could give up chocolate but I'm not a quitter."

"Chocolate flows in deep dark, sweet waves, a river to ignite my mind and alert my senses." 


"Chocolate is a perfect food, as wholesome as it is delicious, a beneficent restorer of exhausted power. It is the best friend of those engaged in literary pursuits." 

—Baron Justus von Liebig (1803–1873), German chemist

19 December 2007

I am Lion, hear me roar

As mentioned Tuesday, Julie at Virtual Journey nominated me for A Roar for Powerful Words award. I’m honored that she has found my writing strong and worthy of notice.

The award is also a meme. The recipient is to blog about what she or he thinks are three essentials for powerful, effective writing and nominate others who exemplify good writing.

I’ve read other Roar recipients’ lists of essentials and agreed with all of them. But for me, the most important essentials are more basic.

1. Powerful, effective writing has a purpose and accomplishes it. A piece of writing should make you think, or laugh, or cry, or take an action, or change your mind about an issue, or go to the computer and Google for more information. If I write an article about proper footwear for people with diabetes and no readers change their shoe-buying habits, I have failed, no matter how beautiful my prose or lyrical my sentences.

2. Powerful, effective writing uses the right word in the right place. I believe a writer should have at hand at all times a dictionary (I have more than 20 dictionaries in my office, and I look up even common words to get a feel for their denotations, connotations, nuances, and etymologies) and a thesaurus (I like Rodale Press’s The Synonym Finder best) and use them frequently. Words are our weapons; we should be properly armed at all times.

3. Powerful, effective writing uses correct grammar, except when it shouldn’t. Nothing cripples an idea faster than to be expressed in a sentence rendered confusing, ambiguous, or impotent by poor grammar. Grammar rules are to writing as the proper temperature of the kiln is to clay. Strength and beauty result from knowing the limits and using them to one’s advantage.

4. I know I’m only supposed to list three items, but I feel strongly about another essential. Powerful, effective writing soars when it drops its deadwood. As a copyeditor, I see sentences weighted down by redundancy (“red in color,” “mentally assess”), filler (“very,” “due to the fact that” instead of “because,” “basically”), throat-clearing (“I’d like to start by saying . . .”), bureaucratese (“on a daily basis,” “utilize,” “impact” used as a verb), and adjectives piled willy-nilly on each other like apples in a basket (“new Murrieta Temecula Republican Assembly Gold Eagle member”). After I get the rest of my reference books unpacked, I will post on how to lighten leaden prose.

I pass on the award to three people:

Steve Malley at Full Throttle and F**k It for his clear, concise, useful writing advice and examples

Charles Gramlich at Razored Zen for the same reason

Candice Proctor/C.S. Harris at Candy's Blog for her powerful posts that chronicle living in New Orleans after the flood

My Christmas/Hanukkuh/Eid/Kwanzaa/Winter Solstice wish for my blog readers is for them to go forth and ROAR!

18 December 2007

Lions roar, pictures speak

Julie at Virtual Journey honored me with a nomination for A Roar for Powerful Words award. Thank you, Julie. The award comes with an obligation to blog about what the recipient thinks are the three things necessary for writing to be effective and powerful. I want to think on that a little longer and will post my answers later in the week.

In the meantime, Julie also started a meme she calls the Gallery Meme and invited readers to participate. I was intrigued and will post on that today.

Here are her rules: Choose an image(s) of any kind (photo, art, or graphics—your own or attributed), then write a description, poem, or 'scene' about them as you please, and say why they are meaningful to you.


It was April of 2006, and my in-laws were visiting. We drove down to the Quarter to see the Gay Easter Parade and found the parking spaces in the Quarter and Faubourg Marigny already snatched up by parade goers. So we parked in Tremé, a neighborhood I was not very familiar with. I got out of the car and crossed the street, and this is what I saw:

How could I not take pictures of a sculpture of such power and pain? It wrenched my heart and I did not even know what it was.

Later I learned its story.

The wall behind belongs to historic St. Augustine church, a Catholic church built for free people of color and dedicated in 1842. The church served a wider congregation than its original intention, though, and had the most integrated congregation in the United States. In the center of the church, free people of color had a block of pews, and whites and other non-blacks had a separate block of pews. Charitable people of color purchased the pews in the outer aisles so that slaves would have a place to sit in church—a first in the United States. Through its history, members of the church, such as Henriette Delille and Homer Plessy, have worked to help the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the oppressed.

The sculpture itself was erected in 2004 and is called The Tomb of the Unknown Slave. It honors all slaves who died in the United States and particularly the black and American Indian slaves who were buried in Tremé in unmarked and now-forgotten graves.

The shrine contains a 1500-pound cross made from a marine chain. Hanging from the cross are shackles such as slaves were forced to wear. Surrounding this central cross are small metal and wood crosses.

Normally stark, the shrine is softened in this picture by Easter lilies.

To me, this picture contains the history of New Orleans in microcosm—racism and racial tolerance, brutality and compassion, beauty and violence, badly treated slaves and a well-to-do class of free people of color, despair and hope, all coexisting in an improbable mix that birthed the modern city that embraces its history while not hiding from the parts that were dishonorable and cruel.

To learn more about St. Augustine church and its shrine, visit

Anyone else want to take up the challenge of this meme?

12 December 2007

Interview with best-selling romance writer Hailey North

Welcome, Hailey, to my blog. Thank you for taking the time to answer questions about your new contemporary romance from HarperCollins, Not the Marrying Kind.

Not the Marrying Kind, two urbanites reluctantly return to the small town where they both went to high school and bump into each other for the first time since then. You moved from the city to a small town shortly before writing this book. Did any of your experiences or emotions about this move make their way into the novel?

I appreciate this question . . . yes, I suppose my move from New Orleans to Covington did influence my characters’ experiences. Though as someone who lived in many small towns around the South and Midwest, I think I envisioned Harriet from that greater experience of having left (er, fled) the southern Midwest to college in California. The visits back to the Midwest were not without their challenges.

This book was different from your previous books. Less humor than usual and more . . . je ne sais quoi. Depth? Sorrow? Strength?

What was different was me pressing into places inside myself that really, really hurt. It's more authentic. Most of my ha-ha funny stuff is a means of protecting my vulnerability.

For the post–Hurricane Katrina reader, romances were perfect for taking one’s mind off the difficulties of everyday life and vicariously experiencing good events. But for you as a writer, was it difficult to write a story with a happy ending when you were displaced and your house destroyed?

It was difficult to write, period. It would have been harder to write a bleak story. I’ve spent years and years of my life scribbling in notebooks, filling the pages with dreams and characters. After Katrina when my husband and I hauled wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow to the street, I cried as I said goodbye to the molded, warped piles of all those notebooks. But even as I cried, I was cheered by the reality that those notebooks had become published novels and if I’d done it before, I could do it again.

As you’ve noted, this book is not my typical “light romance.” I was in no mood after losing our home in Hurricane Katrina to tred too lightly into a happily ever after story. However, as I spent more and more time with Harriet and Jake and their family and friends, I came to realize that despite tragedy and trauma, we can all come out okay on the other end. They helped me to realize the redemption.

Did Hurricane Katrina change anything about the way you write, either your method or your characters or plot?

The most important thing that Hurricane Katrina changed about my writing is that I now possess a laptop. We packed, at the last minute, I must confess, to evacuate and I didn’t tow my desktop or any backup disks. We were leaving, after all, for only a few days. Hahahaha. When we made our way back to our flooded house and I found my desk and computer and boxes of files and all our wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves full of books tossed around like dinghies in a particularly violent storm, I could do nothing but cry. And then begin to shovel the resulting mess into the wheelbarrow my husband transported to the street to be picked up by the Bobcat and dump truck crews. Words can barely express the loss.

And about being a newlywed . . . thank God we went through it together. It made us even more bonded.

Even though Not the Marrying Kind takes place in Arkansas and never mentions Katrina, it feels like a Katrina book to me because the intertwined themes of loss and recovery are so strong. Yet it’s an optimistic book, not a sad one. It was cathartic for me to read; was it cathartic for you to write? Or was it hard to write about loss when the wounds were still so fresh?

I think my response above answers this question. And yes, when all was said and done, it was cathartic. We carry on. We grow through the loss. We are reborn.

I’ve always found the story of how your early critique group helped you get published inspiring. Could you retell the story for blog readers who don’t know you?

As to my early critique group . . . yes, and yes and yes. Gosh, have I written anything that contained a comma splice? If so, I owe a dollar! We were merciless. Met every Wednesday evening without fail for four or so years. We all published our first books, all five of us. Wow! And yes, I did have to “audition” to get accepted as a member. Thank you, Meryl Sawyer and Olga Bicos. And thanks for letting me pass muster!

Many romance writers, including you, started out as lawyers. Which is harder, being a lawyer or writing romance novels? Which is more fun?

Which is harder, being a lawyer or a romance writer? It depends. Seriously. My husband is a criminal defense lawyer specializing in capital cases. If he flubs up, his client gets the needle or the electric chair. If I slack off, I miss a bestseller list. Hmm . . . .

What is your favorite part of writing?

My favorite part of writing is hearing from readers who relate to my characters as people. Living, breathing, complicated, annoying, adorable people.

What is your writing regimen? Would you recommend it to aspiring authors?

My writing regimen?? Hahahahahahaha. When I’m on deadline I write like a maniac. A whirling dervish.

Do you write with or without your cats Mocha, Stanley, and Daisy?

At this very moment, Daisy is asleep on my lap. Mocha is in her safe place, the laundry basket at the foot of our bed. And Stanley is snoring peacefully on the foot of said bed.

What books can we look forward to in the future from you?

Books in the future . . . ah, now, that’s a good question. I may do some more “Nancy Wagner” books . . . as in Two Sisters and All Our Lives, the first two books I published with Avon Books, before I transfigured into Nikki Holiday, author of paranormal romantic comedies. And then . . . and only then, came Hailey North. So it’s yet to be known who I shall be next.

Thank you again for visiting my blog to talk about writing and your new book Not the Marrying Kind.

Visit Hailey North’s Websites at and Her book Not the Marrying Kind is available at all major bookstores and can be ordered online from and Barnes & Noble.

04 December 2007

Interview with historical mystery writer Laura Joh Rowland

Today I welcome to my blog Laura Joh Rowland, author of the Sano Ichirō mystery series set in Japan in the 1600s. St. Martin's Press recently released the 12th book in the series, The Snow Empress. Once a poor and lordless samurai, Sano is now chamberlain of Japan. He is still solving mysteries for the Shogun, though. This time, he investigates the kidnapping of his son, Masahiro, and the murder of the mistress of the mad lord who may be holding Masahiro captive—if he has not already killed the boy.

Thank you, Laura, for visiting today.

James Clavell’s
Shōgun was an extremely popular book in our teen years. Did it influence your choice of the time of the Tokugawa shogunate as the setting for your novels?

I looked to Shōgun as evidence that there was a market for books set in feudal Japan. That Clavell’s novel became a bestseller and a classic was proof that many readers were interested in Japan and willing to buy books on the subject. The huge success of Shōgun was a selling point for my first book. But I didn’t read Shōgun or watch the miniseries until after I started writing my first book, which is set almost a century later than Shōgun, in a very different political and social era.

Is it difficult to research this time period well since you don’t read Japanese? Do you have any research tips for novelists who wish to write historical novels but don’t know medieval Latin, Norman French, 17th century Japanese, or whatever the language of their time period is?

Research is always a challenge, but there’s quite a bit of material about 17th century Japan that’s available in English. That’s a popular period. Advice for budding historical novelists: Pick a setting that has enough written about it in your own language. And remember that a little research goes a long way. The disadvantage of writing about a place and time that has a wealth of accessible information about it is that all those historical details can bury your story, and no matter how hard you try to be accurate, there’ll be somebody who can spot your mistakes.

You were lucky enough to have the late science fiction writer George Alec Effinger as your mentor. How then did you end up choosing the mystery genre to write in? What other writers have influenced you over the years?

I’ve always been a big fan of the mystery genre. So was George Alec Effinger. He taught a course, at the University of New Orleans, on writing mystery fiction. That’s where we met. He had a solid understanding of the structure of mystery novels, and his landmark book, When Gravity Fails, is actually a mystery set in a science fiction milieu. I learned a lot from George. Other writers who have influenced me are P. D. James and Martin Cruz Smith, although my writing style isn’t much like theirs, and neither is my subject matter. If we have anything in common, it’s the serious treatment of the characters and issues in our books, and a strong sense of place and social context that makes our fictional worlds seem real.

One problem many New Orleans writers have is that recovering physically and mentally from Hurricane Katrina takes an enormous amount of time. You successfully balanced redoing your Katrina-flooded house with writing The Snow Empress. Any tips for the rest of us?

When disaster strikes, give yourself a break, because who else will? That was my philosophy during the aftermath of Katrina. I looked on my writing as a welcome break from dealing with insurance companies and contractors, living in a partially gutted house while workers renovated it amid much noise and chaos, and witnessing the devastation all over New Orleans. My fictional world of ancient Japan was my refuge. I was glad to immerse myself in my characters’ problems and temporarily escape my own. But I know other writers who couldn’t write at all for months after Katrina. Some of them write books set in New Orleans, and they had to adjust to drastic changes in the city. The time they spent away from writing was the break they needed in order to recover. There’s wisdom and healing in doing what comes naturally.

In The Snow Empress, Sano and his wife, Reiko, become unlikable as grief and rage over their son’s kidnapping drive each close to abandoning the samurai code of honor. This seems a risky move for a writer. Did you fear alienating readers?

I strive for emotional intensity in my books. That means placing my characters in serious dilemmas, where the stakes are high and they must make difficult, controversial decisions. People in that kind of situation are not warm and fuzzy to be around, and Sano and Reiko may turn off some readers who like tame stories about characters who can play by the rules because nothing that bad ever happens to them. But I don’t write for those readers. Maybe if I did, I would sell more books, but then again maybe not, because I wouldn’t have the readership that I do now.

Unlike many authors nowadays, you do little promotion for your books. Why is that?

Time and energy are in short supply, and I’ve always chosen to invest most of mine into writing rather than into sending out mass mailings or trying to make appearances at every venue for selling and promoting books. I do have a website, I do signings at bookstores and speak at conferences, and I occasionally go on tour. But unless the publisher foots the bill, it’s hard to reach a large number of readers without spending more money than I can afford. And the effectiveness of self-promotion is hard to quantify. More effort and money spent doesn’t necessarily equal more book sales.

What is your writing regimen? Would you recommend it to aspiring authors?

I get up at around 7 a.m., have breakfast, and read the paper. Then I go for a walk while I plan the scene I’m going to write. I work up enough material about the characters, setting, action, dialogue, and plot development to fill up 5 or 6 pages. Then I write until 3 or 4 in the afternoon, with a break for lunch. I highly recommend walking. It’s good exercise, and it gets the brain moving. But I know that many authors aren’t morning people, and many don’t like regular routines. Every author has to create his/her own regimen.

Your next book, The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Brontë (a March 2008 release), will take place in a completely different time and place. Why did you start a second mystery series?

I wanted to stretch my wings. Even though I love my Japanese series and plan to continue writing it, I’ve always wanted to try something else. I picked Charlotte Brontë because I love her novels, and I’m fascinated by her adventurous, tragic, romantic life. She’s the perfect heroine. I’m also fascinated by Victorian England. It has striking parallels with our own time, such as rapid, dramatic advances in science and technology that changed the world forever. I don’t know whether The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Brontë will become a series, but I certainly hope so.

Thank you again, Laura, for taking the time to visit my blog and talk about writing and your books!

Readers, keep an eye on Sphinx Ink's site. Laura will be guest-blogging there soon.

Laura's Website is at The Snow Empress is available at major bookstores and can be ordered online from and Barnes & Noble, as can the previous books in the series. The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Brontë is available for preorder.