Award-winning author
Unusual times, remarkable places

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

29 August 2008

Three years on

Three years ago today, the poorly designed federal levees that were supposed to protect New Orleans broke and flooded eighty percent of the city. Some people are still missing; 1,464 people perished. That figure does not include the elderly and fragile people whose deaths were hastened by stress or heartbreak.

Grayson Capps' "New Orleans Waltz" from Wail & Ride (Hyena Records)

pictures set to Bruce Springsteen's "My City of Ruins"

26 August 2008

Interview with historical romance author Lynna Banning

Lynna Banning’s September release from Harlequin, Templar Knight, Forbidden Bride, is her fifteenth romance novel and the second one set in the Middle Ages. She became a writer after careers as an English teacher and as a technical writer and editor.

Lynna, thank you for visiting my blog, and congratulations on the publication of Templar Knight, Forbidden Bride.

Some historical romance readers thrive on the historical details; others want as much romance as possible, with only a few historical touches for flavor. How do you balance the needs of these two kinds of readers?

Mostly, I don’t. I loving using the historical details I find, and I tend to “flavor up” my stories a good deal. My editor first says, “Great—it feels like I’m actually there.” And then she adds, “But the reader doesn’t really need to know who was fighting whom in 12th century Spain.”

I usually write about a period I love, and I read books and look at pictures until I’m immersed in the era. I want the setting to feel real to the reader.

Your books require much research. Do you enjoy that stage of writing? Do you have any suggestions for not getting bogged down in research at the expense of your writing time?

Oh, boy, do I! I’m really a frustrated history major at heart and I love doing research! On the other hand, it can bog down the writing time, to say nothing of clogging the written story itself. My suggestions for not bogging and clogging are two:
  • Do the research concurrent with the writing.
  • In your book, use the specific concrete details gleaned from research as you would other adjectives, for example, the carved silver box; the heavy gold-link pendant; the folds of her green silk gown.
What was your favorite part of writing Templar Knight, Forbidden Bride?

The tournament at Carcassonne! Derring-do and brave knights and lovely ladies, oh my!

The heroine of Templar Knight, Forbidden Bride is half Arab. In real life, how would she have been treated in the Christian portions of Europe?

The heroine being half Arab (actually, she’s Circassian, but raised in Damascus) would warrant different treatment if she were considered a Muslim. And of course, most “Arabs” were considered Muslim then, as they are now, even though my heroine is Christian. As for her treatment, it would depend on where she was: A cosmopolitan society (Cyprus, Venice, Athens, even Egypt) would be accepting. A rigidly Christian society–northern European countries, for instance–might be inhospitable.

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

I write by hand on yellow lined note paper, usually at night propped up in bed or in my den (even on airplanes, in restrooms, hospital waiting rooms, dentist’s office, etc.) and the next morning I type my daily allotment of four handwritten pages into the computer. This prints out about five double-spaced pages, about 1200 words/day. That afternoon or evening I (1) edit the printed pages and (2) write four more handwritten pages.

Advice to aspiring authors: Try to write consistently, every day if you can manage, but don’t force it if you have a migraine or your child has the mumps. If you started on, say, December 31 and wrote one single page each day for an entire year, you’d have a 365-page novel finished by the following New Year’s Day. If you wrote two pages/day, you could do it in 6 months.

I don’t particularly recommend writing by hand unless it comes naturally to you (I was an editor for 34 years and it feels “right” to draw circles and arrows and move things around on the first draft.) But I do recommend writing consistently—even a little bit keeps the creative juices flowing and the muse fed and watered.

Do you have any other advice for aspiring writers?

A. Go to workshops, writing groups, and classes. Nothing spurs you on, or adjusts perspective, or teaches you writing craft or characterization like writing classes and workshops. You can learn a lot from how-to books, as well. Try James Frey, Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon (Goal, Motivation & Conflict), Linda Seger, Syd Field.

B. Read widely—not just in your own genre.

C. Always use correct grammar and punctuation. If you need better control over your English usage, take a basic English class. One good book for reference is Write Right by Jan Venolia (paperback).

How has the romance market changed since you first published in 1996?

The historical romance market hasn’t changed as significantly as the broader romance market, but the spillover changes are apparent: more (and considerably) hotter love scenes; primary focus (at least for Harlequin/Mills & Boon) on the romantic relationship rather than surrounding historical/political situation or anything else peripheral to the love story—secondary plots, secondary characters, etc. Personally I think this turns fascinating, complicated events into a “simple story,” but. . . .

I also see a growing reader interest in periods not popular before, from Vikings to World War II, and in interesting locations other than England and Scotland.

You wrote Western romances before turning to medievals. What eras do you hope to write about in the future?

After thirteen Western romances and two (shortly to be three) medievals, I am considering other eras with a built-in historical conflict and/or mixing of societies (Norman/Saxon, Viking). This might include medieval Sicily (where Arab, Norman Christians, Greeks, etc., congregated) or maybe pirates, Malta, or the Byzantine empire). I love civilizations in contrast/conflict. That’s one big reason why I am drawn to medieval Spain—the mix of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in a sort of golden age of artistic endeavors.

Thank you again for visiting my blog to talk about writing and your book.

Lynna Banning’s Website is at Her novel Templar Knight, Forbidden Bride is available at bookstores during September and online anytime from and Barnes & Noble.

20 August 2008

Public speaking: an interview with Christee Gabour Atwood

Today's guest is writer Christee Gabour Atwood, who has had more jobs than I can list here and still have room for her interview. Among other things, she has been a radio and TV host, a corporate trainer, and an actress, giving her plenty of experience talking in front of people. Today she shares her secrets with us.

Thank you, Christee, for visiting my blog today to give us some hints about public speaking.

I’m thrilled to be here today, Shauna. You’re always such a kick to visit with. And I’ll do anything for a semicaptive audience, so I’m glad to be able to visit with your readers too!

At a talk you gave to the Southern Louisiana Chapter of the Romance Writers of America, you recommended trying out one¹s outfit before speaking in it. I ignored that advice once and discovered to my embarrassment that my new burgundy part-cashmere jacket turned my blouse pink with burgundy fuzz. Have others ignored your advice to their peril?

Well, let’s not even get into that Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction. . . .

I’ve talked to people who have had buttons fly off, heels break, seams rip, and, yes, even a toupee mishap that one person recounted to me.

But I think the best story I’ve heard about a wardrobe problem was this woman who was wearing a big flowing skirt as she went up on stage. Her shoe caught on the skirt. She tripped, tearing the skirt and dropping and breaking the trophy that was being handed to her. She said it wouldn’t have been so bad, but it was an award for the best safety record in the plant.

What other advice do you have for choosing an outfit for speaking in?

Comfort! If you’re going to move around, write on a flip chart, or sit and visit with people, you don’t want to be hindered by your clothes.

I’ve worn tight stuff to try to look skinnier than I am—and then realized that I couldn’t breathe. Made for a long presentation . . . and people kept asking whether I was always that shade of blue.

Another thing is to recognize your tendencies and to dress accordingly.

If you know that you’re the type to play with your earrings, jingle the change in your pockets, or fidget with your buttons, wear something else.

If you’re going to be on television, you’ll also want to wear things that look good on camera. No busy designs that might “buzz” on the screen. Not too much white that could pale you out. Watch the show you’re going to be on to get ideas of what looks good.

You clearly enjoy talking in public. Are you nuts?

Hey, I was the youngest of six children. I’m trying to make up for those years of childhood when no one heard a word I said.

It’s funny, though. I really don’t like having people look at me. (Yeah, there are some issues here. . . .) But I have messages that I want to share with people. So, I talk. It’s about the message, not the messenger.

And I do love the gratification of seeing people’s faces when they “get it” or when they nod and smile that they have had similar situations. The feeling of connecting with a group of people is pretty phenomenal.

Public speaking is reputedly Americans' #1 fear, ahead of death. Do you have any tips for people who are afraid to speak in front of groups? How about for those afraid of dying?

If they have both issues, they should never do stand-up comedy. I did that—and dying in front of a group is the worst. Well, I imagine it is. Haven’t tried the other kind of dying. Although I did see a bright light at the end of a tunnel one time. It was the 11:15 Amtrak to Biloxi.

I digressed again, didn’t I? Did I mention that I have the attention span of a gnat?

If you’re afraid of speaking in front of groups, start with groups you’re comfortable with. Tell a joke for friends. Volunteer to teach something at a staff meeting—and stand up while you do it to get the feel of presenting. Talk to kids or volunteer to read at a library program.

If you’re afraid of dying, read Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Death doesn’t seem like such a bad prospect after that. (Please note that the opinion expressed here is the opinion of this author and in no way reflects the opinions of her college English professor, who thought this was the best book ever written.)

What's the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to you while speaking in public?

Hmmm. There are so many to choose from.

But I think one of the outstanding moments was the time my rear end took over the show.

Yes, I had just spent the better part of an hour getting everything set up on this huge audiovisual cart with the computer and my interactive PowerPoint, etc.

A few hundred executives filed into the room. I was introduced and stepped up to the front of the room. The person leaving the stage was coming down in front, so I slipped behind the cart to get into position.

The cart, however, was very close to the wall with the outlet. As I slipped behind it, my ample rear end knocked the plug out of the wall and poof, there went the power. I tap danced (almost literally) till we got it going again.

After making it through that presentation, I went straight to sign up at the gym so I could make that rear end smaller.

What should one do with one's hands while giving a talk?

Whatever makes you comfortable. Yes, there’s a theme here. Because when you’re comfortable, your audience will be too.

Many of us in Louisiana would be mute if you forced us to hold our hands still. On the other hand, many folks aren’t comfortable with moving around like that. So, if you like using your hands to talk, by all means do! It creates a more exciting picture for your listeners. It lets you drive home the statements that you’re making. And it works off some of that nervous energy you’ve got while you’re in front of a group.

Just be careful not to fidget. I’ve seen people play with a pen until I wanted to go up there and snatch it from them. This, of course, is highly discouraged in most situations, so I have resisted. But what if your audience members don’t have the wonderful sense of restraint that I do?

If you’re going to use gestures, do them big or not at all. Gestures should be above the waist so they show up. They should be natural and not like those things the guys in car commercials do. We’ve all seen them do “Right on the corner (punch), Right on the price (punch)” and miss the punches.

Practice till the gestures are natural. And don’t use them because you feel you should. Use them because they feel right.

How do you recommend people go about preparing and rehearsing their talk?

Practice the parts of your talk. The chunks of information. Talk about them and get comfortable that you know them well enough to discuss the information without looking at your notes very often.

Then practice your transitions. How do you get from one point to another? Work at them until they feel natural.

Practice your intro and your ending over and over until you can do those in your sleep.

Now put it all together. Practice the whole thing in front of the mirror to discover habits that could be distracting.

Practice with friends and family. Practice with your dog or cat. Practice in the shower. Practice in your car, but just pretend that you’re on a speaker phone so people don’t worry about you.

And practice with your notes. Notes are not a crutch. They’re a GPS to keep you from getting diverted and not finding your way home. Just make sure that your notes are keywords, not a word-for-word script. No matter how good you are and how well you know your material, if you have the script in front of you, you’ll find yourself reading parts of it. And that’s when you lose your natural delivery style.

I suppose you get the idea now that I believe practicing and getting comfortable with your material is really important. If you do, then my work on this topic is done.

What functions does a rubber chicken serve when giving a talk? When you talk, that is, not the chicken.

A rubber chicken reminds you never to take yourself too seriously. I always have my miniature rubber chicken hanging out of my pocket when I talk. It makes me feel invincible, silly, and contagious.

And if someone says, “Do you know you have a rubber chicken hanging out of your pocket,” don’t hesitate. Say, “No, but if you hum a few bars. . . .”

Taking yourself lightly is just easier to do when you have a rubber chicken as an amulet.

Do you have any other advice for talking in public?

Do it. Do it lots. Practice it often. Turn around in elevators and say, “I suppose you’re wondering why I called this meeting.” Offer to explain things in meetings. Tell a joke to break tension in the office.

The more you speak in public, the easier it gets. And then your only problem will be trying to find new audiences so you don’t have to keep writing all new material.

Thanks again, Christee. It's always fun when you visit my blog.

Thank you, Shauna. I really enjoy myself here. Especially since I was supposed to be writing on my book today and would do anything to avoid getting to work. Oops! Hope my editor isn’t reading this. Really, Mark, I’m hard at work and ready for that deadline. . . .
Have a great one!
Christee & Elvis, the rubber chicken

You, too, Christee!

Christee Gabour Atwood has two Websites, and She also blogs at

Her book Three Feet Under: Journal of a Midlife Crisis is available at and at Barnes & Noble. Her business and training books are available at ASTD Press, and she’s looking for an agent and publisher for her latest humor book, In Celebration of Elastic Waistbands.

13 August 2008

Ready, set . . . . wait, where’s my pen?

Two thousand writers, talking about writing, going to writing classes, meeting other writers, reading writing books in spare moments. No wonder one’s mind pops with ideas at the yearly Romance Writers of America conference. I promised to talk more about the suggestions of psychologist Eric Maisel. These thoughts came to me as I read his book A Writer’s Space.

In my sewing area, my sewing machine, table, and equipment sit ready for use. Everything has a place and is usually in its place. The quality of the light is different from the rest of the house. The area contains nothing unrelated to sewing except CDs and a CD player.

When I go to my sewing area to sew, that’s what I do. The room is ready and there’s nothing else to do there. The ambience puts me in the mood immediately.

Not so my office. It’s a multipurpose room. I do medical writing there. I copyedit there. I critique there. I write fiction there. I shop there. I balance my checkbooks there. I bill clients there. I work on my account book there. I call the mortgage office and the sanitation department and the vet’s office and my family and everyone else there.

When I go into my office to work, that’s often not what I do. First I have to search for what I plan to work on. That can take some time because there are piles and piles of papers that need to be filed, receipts that need to be entered into my account book, stacks of notes about people I need to call and tasks I need to take care of, my harps in case I want to take a break and play (except the mess has cornered them and made them inaccessible) . . . I think you get the picture. If not, I've provided one at left.

Reading A Writer’s Space made me realize that my office does not trigger a writing mood or encourage me to write or even make writing easy. Instead, I feel exasperated and pulled in all directions by the many tasks begging for attention.

Going to the RWA conference prompted me to undertake several new projects. One is to make my office a place that does invite to write. I took the first step this week by making a strict new work schedule that sequesters non-writing projects to certain times, so that I can focus just on writing the rest of the work day.

The next project—a long-term one—is to organize my office. I’d like separate projects to be in separate places. I want to finish unpacking from our move here. I want to figure out where to store office papers so they don’t land in ever-growing stacks on the desk and floor and futon.

How about you? Does your writing space encourage or discourage you from writing?


Next week: Public speaking: an interview with Christee Gabour Atwood

Two weeks from now: An interview with historical romance author Lynna Banning

29 August: Remembering Katrina

05 August 2008

RWA conference highlights

The 2008 Romance Writers of America conference got off to an earth-shattering start before I even left Southern California. I was reading Old Man’s War by John Scalzi at the Ontario Airport while waiting for my plane when a 5.4 magnitude earthquake hit two miles away, cracking some runways. Because the rumbling and shaking fit the scene I was reading, I did not realize an earthquake had occurred until I heard other passengers gasp. Possible moral: Do not read military sf while sitting near an earthquake fault.

I roomed with my critique partner and friend Farrah Rochon, whom I haven’t seen since last summer. We had a great time staying up late to catch up on news and bounce story ideas off each other. As a result, I came home with plans for a short story and two books. Farrah and I were glad to get to spend a lot of time with fellow SOLA member Rae Ann Parker, who moved away from New Orleans shortly before I did.

I also enjoyed a long lunch with historical romance author Lynna Banning, a fellow Early Music enthusiast who years ago encouraged me to start writing seriously. She also convinced me that a science fiction and fantasy writer could get a lot out of RWA and suggested that I join the organization, for which I will be eternally grateful. Lynna agreed to do an interview on my blog, so look for that later this month.

One of my goals for the conference was to network, so I talked to as many writers as I could. One particularly interesting author, whom I met at Thursday's lunch, was Mingmei Yip. She was at the conference to promote her first novel in English, Peach Blossom Pavilion. I took a cab across San Francisco to hear her play the guqin (a seven-stringed instrument something like an Appalachian dulcimer) at one of her booksignings. She also graciously agreed to be interviewed for my blog.

Some people go to the RWA conference primarily to see friends, agents, and editors. My main goal was to learn a lot, and I certainly did. The workshops this year were fantastic, and several lasted two hours instead of the usual one, allowing speakers to cover their topics in much greater depth. Here’s a brief overview of the sessions I attended.
  • Cherry Adair spoke on “Layering and Texturing Your Novel,” which should come in handy in September when I start the second draft of my WIP. She works twenty-two layers into every chapter of her novels. Useful tip: When adding layers and reviewing chapters, don’t start at the beginning of the book. Instead, look at the chapters in random order.
  • Mary Jo Putney and Patricia Rice talked about brainstorming, its uses, and how to develop a good brainstorming group. Useful tip: Brainstorming is the opposite of critiquing. Instead of judging others’ ideas, one should build on them and take them in new directions.
  • Psychologist Eric Maisel spoke on “Creativity for Life.” This session was so crammed with useful information and great ideas that I’ll devote a whole post or two later to it.
  • I learned the basics of making book trailer videos from Diana Holquist and Lindsey Faber. Useful tip: A book trailer should not be about the book, but rather present one concept that will motivate readers to buy the book.
  • Four American Title finalists (Ruth Kaufman, Gerri Russell, Michelle Ann Young, and fellow OCC-RWA member Gina Black) joined with publicist Theresa Myers to talk about ways to promote oneself while still prepublished (an optimistic synonym for "unpublished"). Useful tip: If you post snippets of your novel on your site, don’t post your first chapter. If you do, after your book published people may pick it up, read the first page and recognize it, and set the book down, thinking they’ve already read it.
  • Robin Owens, Ann Aguirre, Catherine Asaro, and editor Cindy Hwang held a panel on cross-over fiction, specifically, fiction that combines romance and science fiction or fantasy. Useful tip for choosing where to submit a cross-genre book: If the romance resolves after the fantasy or sf story, the book is a romance; if the romance resolves before, the book is speculative fiction.
  • The final session I attended was Susan Gable’s “Story Superglue,” in which she discussed how characters and the reader’s emotional response to the book are the two things that make a story stick with a reader. Useful tip: If you give each character a motto and a set of values, you’ll have any easier time knowing what choices each will make.

I also found time to visit the nearby Ghiradelli store twice, and good thing, too: My baggage was searched on my flight home, and the searchers repacked carelessly. The lid came off a container of non pareils, and it was half empty when I got home. Luckily, on my second trip to the store, I had gotten another container, which remained sealed.

Except for that tragic incident, the conference exceeded my expectations. I came home with a suitcase full of books and other goodies and a brain full of ideas for writing faster, better, and more happily.

For some other takes on the 2008 RWA conference, visit these Web sites: