Award-winning author
Unusual times, remarkable places

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

29 January 2008

The story behind a story

My science fiction story “The Llama’s Tale” was posted Sunday at Space Westerns’ Web site at A one-sentence synopsis: Kella is sure she'll be chosen to be a rider for the prestigious Llama Express Service—until the training school pairs her with the aging, scruffy, flatulent, half-deaf llama Buddy.

If you have a moment, I’d be honored if you checked it out. The Space Westerns site charges you nothing to read the postings, and it contains many good cowboy stories set in outer space.

I thought it would be fun, after recent postings about “filling the well” here and at Steve Malley’s Full Throttle or F**k It, to briefly analyze the contributions of my well to this story.

Buddy the llama existed in real life. I did give him a species change (from horse to llama), but otherwise he is the same tired creature my sister, Renee, was assigned to when she took riding lessons.

The comment Kella’s brother Trivvy makes during the show is what my own little brother Vince—now far from little, as he delights in pointing out as he rests his elbow on my head—actually said during the graduation show when Renee finished her riding lessons.

The setting was inspired by the ABC television program “The Young Riders” (about Pony Express riders), which I watched faithfully from 1989 to 1992.

Kella is based partly on my sister. She wore such a horrified look during the horse show that I can still see it ~35 years later.

Kella’s arrogance is based on mine as a teenager. School emphasized book smarts above all other qualities, and I bought it hook, line, and sinker. I thought that because I was smarter than other people, I was also better than them. (As in Kella’s case, life taught me otherwise.)

So how much did I drain my well? Buddy the horse is probably good for only one go-round, and the same for “The Young Riders” as inspiration.

On the other hand, some elements that went into “The Llama’s Tale” did not lower the level of my well. My brothers can still serve as models for little boys in other stories. And despite my efforts at self-improvement, I still can be arrogant and have many other flaws to draw on to flesh out characters; I don’t see that well running dry—not so good for me, but great for my fiction.

Well Depletion Score: –2


Odds and ends
  • If you are a Jennifer Blake fan looking for the interview mentioned in Jennifer's February newsletter, please look at the post that follows this one.
  • Today is “The Liar’s Diary Blog Day” in the blogosphere. Because first-time author Patry Francis is undergoing treatment for cancer and cannot promote the paperback release of her novel The Liar’s Diary, hundreds of bloggers today will do so for her. You can read about Patry Francis’ life with cancer at her blog Simply Wait. Her Website is at, and her book is available at Amazon. (Note: I have not read The Liar’s Diary, so this announcement is not a recommendation but rather a helping hand for a fellow writer in trouble.)
  • Next week’s post will be an interview with debut author Therese Fowler. I have read her powerful novel Souvenir, and I believe you’ll find her interview fascinating and thought-provoking.

22 January 2008

Interview with multi-award-winning romance writer Jennifer Blake

Jennifer Blake’s career has spanned more than 35 years, and she has written under the names Patricia Maxwell, Elizabeth Trehearne, Patricia Ponder, and Maxine Patrick. Her first published books were Gothics, but she has since written historical romances, a murder mystery, a suspense, and contemporary romances. Her current Master at Arms series (published by Harlequin/Mira Books) takes place in New Orleans in the 1840s. The heroes are sword masters—feared and respected for their deadly skills, but not considered worthy suitors for young women of Creole society.

Welcome, Jennifer, to my blog, and congratulations on the forthcoming publication of your fourth Master at Arms book, Guarded Heart, on February 1.

Thanks so much. I sincerely appreciate this opportunity to tell people a little about both my career and my swashbuckling sword masters.

How has the romance market changed since you first published in 1970?

It’s exploded, to put it simply. When my first book came out, the only thing approaching historical romance of the kind we have today was Forever Amber by Kathleen Windsor and maybe the Angélique books from the husband-and-wife team who wrote as Sergeanne Golon. A few authors, such as Emilie Loring, Grace Livingston Hill, Faith Baldwin, and Elswyth Thane, had “modern” romances leftover from the 1940s and 1950s on library shelves, but Harlequin reprints of Mill & Boon books from England were the only game in town for paperback contemporaries.

Characters in these books, and in my early Gothic novels and contemporary romances, might kiss or become involved in mild petting, but love scenes happened discreetly offstage. This means I’ve seen it all: the publication and wild popularity of Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower and The Wolf and the Dove; the discovery of Rosemary Rogers, Jennifer Wilde, Bertrice Small, Shirley Busbee, Cynthia Wright, Rebecca Brandewyne, Jude Deveraux, Janelle Taylor, and dozens of others. I’ve applauded Janet Dailey’s first American originals from Harlequin, plus those of Sandra Brown and Nora Roberts and all who came after them. I’ve seen the rise and fall of romances with pirates. knights, Scotsmen, Vikings, Native Americans, cowboys, and a dozen other heroic types, and survived the brouhaha and backlash over “forced seduction” as a plot device. I’ve seen the breadth and scope of romances expand into trade-size paperback and hardcover, and also into chick-lit, ethnic stories, paranormals, erotica, and those with faith-based overtones. In short, I’ve watched the whole romance revolution from the chair in my office—and occasionally sallied out to help erect and defend the barricades.

You’ve written more than 50 books. How do you stay fresh? Have you ever burnt out, and if so, what did you do?

If my books have remained fresh, it’s probably because I’ve always loved trying something different, something original. It tickles me to add a feather to a love scene, say, or reverse the captor/captive scenario so that it’s the hero who winds up chained to a wall. The energy and excitement in these concepts are transferred to the books.

I’ve never burned out, but will admit to being scorched around the edges a time or two. The first was in the mid-1990s, after almost fifteen years of back-to-back contracts that required two 150,000-word historical romances every year. I was tired and also more than a little weary of corsets, crinolines, and carriages. For that entire period, however, I’d had a contemporary story idea in the back of my mind. Rather than sign a new historical contract, I took time off to develop this Southern glitz & glamour saga. My agent then talked my publisher into accepting it, though at a reduced advance and royalty rate. My interest in writing was revitalized. Of course, it didn’t hurt that when Love and Smoke was turned in, Fawcett/Ballantine liked it so well that it was released in hardcover and with the backing to make it a bestseller.

The second incident came in 2001. I’d written nearly a dozen contemporary stories and changed publishers by then, signing with Mira Books. I was working on what became the last of my Louisiana Gentleman series with a plot involving a heroine who must be rescued from “behind the veil” in Afghanistan. On 9/11, she and the rescuer-hero had just flown back to the States with a group of vicious Al Qaeda terrorists hot on their trail. Suddenly, all the research I’d done, the places where I’d set the first half of my story, were front and center on CNN; the whole scenario was far too immediate. I offered to scrap the book and provide another story to complete my contract. Instead, it was suggested that I create a fictional Islamic country and soldier on. Finishing that book was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done; the amount of effort required to reach creative concentration was draining beyond words.

Afterward, I took a sabbatical while I decided whether I wanted to retire or take a different publishing road. The final decision was to return to my historical roots, where plots devices had no chance of becoming real. Also, I had been mulling over a series of books using the sword masters of old New Orleans for some time; they had been with me ever since I came across a mention of them in Herbert Asbury’s French Quarter in the late 1980s. By the time I sat down to write the proposal for the first novel, I had six stories crowding my mind.

On a whim, I included a brief paragraph about each of the extra five when I sent in the proposal. My feeling was that Mira might possibly contract for three books. Instead they negotiated for all six and closed the deal in a matter of days. Then my German publisher, who happened to be in New York at the time, bought the first three books based on no more than a brief description over the dinner table. Again, I was energized by the change of career direction and show of faith by my publishers.

You married at 15 and started writing at 21. How did that affect the development of your career? Were your youth and lack of experience in the world helpful or something you needed to overcome?

Marrying so young gave me the unique opportunity to indulge a rabid addiction to reading. By the time I turned 27, when I actually published my first novel, I had read eight to ten books every week for more than a decade. My tastes were all-embracing; anything that looked even vaguely interesting went into the pile beside my bed. What this mass of reading accomplished was to give me a crash course in literature plus an instinctive feel for the internal workings of story. It enriched my vocabulary and began my lifelong love affair with words. Since all this reading went forward without outside direction or interference, I had no special reverence for great works compared with lighter fiction, no feeling that writing was, or should be, beyond my scope.

A certain amount of what eventually became my writing style was already set as well: the voice I heard in my head as I read, one made up of thousands of writer’s voices added to my own, became the voice that later went on the paper.

I had few experiences to write about, true, but I’d read about everything in the world. More than that, I had an active imagination and supreme faith in the words of whoever said that experience has its limitations; a writer doesn’t have to have killed people in order to write about murder. But probably the most helpful thing about being a young stay-at-home mom was that I was bored beyond words. The only thing I had to lose if I spent my free time capturing scenes and ideas on typed pages was a few hours of game shows and soap opera episodes.

Your Master at Arms books require substantial research. Do you enjoy researching them? Do you have any suggestions for not getting bogged down in research at the expense of your writing time?

Research fascinates me; I’ve thought about writing a Louisiana history just for the fun of delving into dusty books and yellowed microfiche. After so many years of writing about Louisiana, I have a library of almost 500 titles on the subject, as well as collections of historical journals and books on costume, steamboats, carriages, and so on. More than that, I love having an excuse to head down to New Orleans and spend days photocopying old newspaper pages at the Williams Research Center.

What keeps me from getting lost in the details is the certain knowledge that the story is the reader’s focus. Background and setting are only window dressing for what’s happening to the characters. I don’t try to have everything lined up at the start, then, but only research enough background for whatever incident I’m using to write the book proposal. Other bits are then added as the story progresses. I will admit, however, that thirty-something years of writing about New Orleans give me an advantage over anyone just coming upon the city as a setting. Much of what they might have to dig for is so familiar I don’t think of it as research at all.

New Orleans in the early 19th century underwent dramatic changes in social structure, language, and culture. What one thing do you find most interesting about that era?

I’m intrigued by the class system that prevailed among the aristocratic French Creoles, with its European origins and staunch resistance to the invasion of American mores and ideas. One of the goals for the Masters at Arms series was to make this society come alive for readers in a manner similar to upper-class English society in Heyer’s Regency novels. Of course, the most intriguing, most unique class in the French Quarter was that of the maîtres d’armes.

They were like the sports heroes of our time, so idolized that they were followed on the streets by young boys; their clothing and hairstyles were aped by young men about town, and older gentlemen were anxious to stand them a drink or a meal for the privilege of being seen in their company. Few men crossed them due to their dangerous skill. For all that, they were seldom invited into private homes and never introduced to unmarried ladies. This social dichotomy brings tension to the stories over and above the usual plot conflict. I’ve also tried to show its personal effect, particularly upon the hero of Guarded Heart.

When I looked over my list of books read in 2007, I realized that nineteen of the seventy-three contained sword fights. What is the appeal of a man with a sword?

There can be no greater test of a man’s courage than facing an opponent with this excruciatingly lethal weapon in his hand. Add the skill required for wielding it, the intelligence necessary to anticipate countermoves, the strength and coordination that must be exerted to prevail in a duel, and you have the very image of a hero. The history of sword fighting is grounded in extreme notions of honor as well. We’ve moved so far away from this concept today that it has intense romantic and nostalgic appeal.

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

I’ve always treated my writing as if it were a day job. This means I work five days per week from about nine in the morning to three or four in the afternoon. Once in a great while, if an idea is pushing me or I can’t sleep, I’ll get up around three AM and work until sunrise. And I may read for research or outline a chapter or scene before bed if the ideas are there. But I don’t work on weekends and don’t pull all-nighters because that way lies burn-out.

In the early stages of a book—the first seven to eight chapters—my daily goal is a relaxing three to five pages. Later, when the background and situation are set and characters introduced, I try for seven to ten. If I miss my goal, I don’t beat myself up about it and I don’t try to catch up the next day. A writer’s muse, in my experience, works best when you treat it kindly.

I do recommend this kind of regular, healthful routine for aspiring authors—or as close to it as they can get. The myth of the driven writer, working far into the night with eyes bloodshot from exhaustion and a glass of bourbon and smoldering cigarette at their elbow, is a macho construction perpetuated by male authors who were off hunting, fishing, or hobnobbing at the local bar when they should have been working. No one writes at top form in that situation.

Thank you again for taking the time to talk about your series!

It’s been my pleasure, Shauna. Best of luck with all your writing endeavors!

Visit Jennifer Blake’s Website at and her blog at Her book Guarded Heart will be available 1 February at all major bookstores and can be ordered online from and Barnes & Noble.

On 22 January, I posted Jennifer’s advice to beginning writers at the blog of the Orange County Chapter of the Romance Writers of America, Please visit there for more wisdom drawn from her years of writing.

21 January 2008

Does this mean there are two pots of gold?

© 2008 David A. Malueg

My husband looked out his office window here at the house and saw a full double rainbow. He went out and took some pictures, and this one shows the outer rainbow the best. We were lucky to see it; it lasted only a few minutes.

15 January 2008

Man into myth, round 2

In July 2007, I discussed the legends of Gilgamesh and John Henry with an eye toward figuring out how the life of a historical person morphs into a larger-than-life legend.

I recently read two biographies with a similar goal:
If a Pirate I Must Be: The True Story of “Black Bart,” King of the Caribbean Pirates by Richard Sanders, about the 18th-century pirate John “Bartholomew” Roberts (no known relation)

El Cid: The Making of a Legend by M.J. Trow, about the 11th-century mercenary Rodrigo Diaz

Both authors began with the history and lifestyle of the times. The bulk of the book provided the biography, with discussion of the accuracy of the evidence. The ending discussed how a mythology grew up around the man.

Sanders and Trow came to similar conclusions. Boiled down to the basics, (1) the man had to stand out in some way from others of his kind, and (2) the times had to change so that the man was seen in a different light.

What made these two men stand out?

Rodrigo Diaz went into battle countless times and never lost, even when the odds were impossibly against him. He earned the nickname El Campeador (The Valiant One) in his first battle when he was a teenager. The Moors later gave him the title al-Sayyid (The Lord), and today he is still known as El Cid.

John Roberts was captured by pirates and forced to join the crew. Six weeks after being impressed, the pirates elected him captain because of his boldness, knowledge, and ability to intimidate. Unlike most pirates, Roberts did not drink alcohol, he banned gambling on his ships, and he rarely killed. He was the most successful pirates of his time, capturing 400 ships in his two-and-a-half-year career.

What happened after their deaths to keep their legend alive?

After El Cid’s time, relations between the Muslims and the Christians soured. The Christians began a several-century campaign to drive the Moors out of Spain. After the peninsula was mostly secured in the 1300s, the nobles of Spain began to fight each other. The songs and stories of El Cid that had been passed down were resurrected and retold, casting El Cid as an ideal knight who helped drive out the Moors, a man unlike the lesser men of the 1300s. Two centuries later, El Cid was reinvented again, this time as a symbol of the sustained greatness of Spain. King Philip II applied to the pope for El Cid to be canonized. Most bizarrely, the 20th-century dictator Francisco Franco identified with El Cid and took every opportunity to bask in the reflected light of his hero.

Black Bart’s exploits were better documented than those of other pirates, and he featured prominently in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, written in 1724 by Captain Charles Johnson. The book portrayed Black Bart as intelligent and disciplined, a tea-drinking man who resorted to violence only when necessary. Later, when pirates were no longer a threat, their adventures became fodder for popular entertainment. Johnson’s book was a common reference source. According to Sanders, Black Bart and his crew were the models for characters in Walter Scott’s The Pirate and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and still strongly color our view of pirates today.

Do these insights help the writer who wants to create a character worthy of legend? Perhaps, if she's writing a tale that takes place over generations or centuries. Otherwise, I don't see that they do. The lives of El Cid or Black Bart would be unbelievable in fiction. And excluding the occasional brief epilogue, most novels and stories end when the story itself ends.

What do you think? Does the process by which Gilgamesh, John Henry, El Cid, and Black Bart became legends give you any ideas for creating larger-than-life heroes?


Odds 'n' ends

1. Starting next week, I will have a regular blogging slot at A Slice of Orange, the blog of the Orange County Chapter of the Romance Writers of America. Called “Advice to Myself as a Newbie Author” (a title I inherited), each monthly column will profile an author who answers the question, “If you could go back in time to before you were published, what advice would you give yourself?” Look for it on the 22nd of each month.

My first guest at “Advice to Myself . . .” will be Jennifer Blake, whose historical romance Guarded Heart, set in New Orleans, will be published February 1.

2. Jennifer Blake will also be interviewed here at For Love of Words next week. She has an interesting history and many insights to share, so please stop by.

3. The Writer’s Digest website had an interesting blog post Tuesday called “20 Tips for Good Blogging.” Worth a look, particularly for new bloggers.

08 January 2008

Filling the well

For two years, my mother-in-law had not done any quilting, not since her knee-replacement surgeries. Still, when she and my father-in-law visited in December, she was glad to go with me to check out the nearby quilting stores, which I had not yet taken time to explore. We found three near my house, with quite different collections of fabrics for sale. (What a luxury, after having only the Quilt Cottage in New Orleans—a great store with great service, but small, and open only limited hours since Katrina.)

My MIL bought some fabric and a book and for the first time in two years was eager to start a new quilt. And she did, right after the holidays, using a pattern in the book she bought.

I too bought some fabric—two cat fabrics for my cat fabric collection, a multi-toned fabric with a luscious hand, and fabric dotted with tiny fleurs de lis. And I too was inspired. After my in-laws left, I dug out blouse patterns suitable for the fleur de lis fabric, and I spent a day unpacking my sewing equipment and setting up my sewing space.

If only filling my creative well for writing were as easy!

Ideas gush forth from many of my writing friends; I have occasional drips and dribbles. Perhaps my paying job (medical writer) is too similar: My brain has to generate so many ideas for articles that maybe it balks when pressed for more.

It’s not that my brain lacks what it takes. After going to a Romance Writers of America convention, reading an interesting book of history, having a retreat with my critique group, or taking off for a few days away from home by myself, my brain brims with ideas, and I must write fast because they are flowing so quickly. But otherwise, ideas lurk below the surface like fish in a frozen-over pond, flickers of shadow and color, slippery and elusive.

Do ideas come easily to you? What do you do to fill your well?

01 January 2008

Looking back, looking ahead

For the first time ever, in 2007 I kept a list of the books I read. To my surprise, given how much time I spent preparing to move, moving, and unpacking, I read 73 books. Sixteen were written by people I know in real life or whom I “know” through blogging. (Thanks, blogging friends, for good reads I might have otherwise missed!) Here’s how my year stacked up.

  • fantasy, including epic poems: 18
  • romance and chick lit: 10
  • science fiction: 7
  • historical mystery: 5
  • women’s fiction (excluding romance): 3
  • literary fiction: 2
  • modern-day mystery: 1


  • miscellaneous: 8
  • writing related: 7
  • history: 4
  • biography: 3
  • gardening and attracting birds: 3
  • quilting: 2

I plan to keep a list again for 2008.

Some people have told me they set reading goals for the year. That sounded like something worth trying, so for 2008 I set three goals:

  • To read Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth (which looks fascinating but has so far intimidated me with its length) and some of the other very thick books on my shelves.
  • To read more books on writing—I’ll shoot for one per month.
  • To catch up on some of the mystery series I’m behind on.

What about you? Do you keep a reading list? Do you set reading goals for the year? What are you looking forward to reading in 2008?