Self-induced Stress

Jessie: In New Hampshire, looking out over  the snowdrifts.


As much as I might hate to admit such a thing, the truth is, I’m a binge watcher. I love Netflix, Hulu, and Acorn TV.  When I find a program that I love it is hard to stop watching after just one episode. The interest builds, the connection to the characters deepens, and conflict ratchets up.

That’s where the problem comes in. I get stressed out. Really stressed out. So stressed out I have to stop watching. Invariably, three episodes or maybe four, into a series something happens that makes me hit pause. It might make me hit stop. It sends me scrambling for something on the lighter end of the tension spectrum.

It might be trouble in a family. It could be a legal difficulty. It might just be that zombies are getting too close. Whatever it is, I find myself watching a few scenes through half-closed eyes or from behind my hands.  Sometimes, if I’m watching the show with someone else, I will find an excuse to leave the room. I hover outside the doorway listening, rather than watching, as if that will make it all easier to endure somehow.

Sometimes it  is just that I’ve had a hard day and don’t have room for anymore difficulties. Often if that is the case I’m eager to continue the show the next time the desire for programming strikes me. Other times the stressors are ones that always bothered me and I either end up watching the shows in five or ten minute bites. Or I stop watching a series entirely.

The thing is, I almost never have that happen with well written books. When difficult things happen I trust the author to make the emotional roller coaster worth the ride. Even when loves remain lost, diseases turn out to be terminal and dreams turn to dust,  books seem to have conclusions that make me glad I persisted.

I might draw in a quick breath or avert my eyes momentarily from the page but generally, I continue to the end without requiring an emotional health break. When I get to the end I feel enriched rather than drained.  Perhaps that’s why my dream job is working with the publishing houses rather than the movie houses!

Readers, do you find television programming stressful? Do you stop watching mid-program? Do you have a different experience with books? 


Something New

Jessie: in New Hampshire hunkering down for the long winter slog.

One of the best things about being a writer is the built in necessity of trying new things. You expect to be asked to create new books, imagine new characters, describe new settings. There are new themes to explore, new voices to use, even new publishers to partner with. But some parts of the process seem set in stone . They appear inflexible and unlikely to invite new methods or ways of doing things. Which is why outside influence is so important.

I’ve noticed from my friendships with other writers artistic types often find life partners who are tech savvy. It’s a pattern I’ve followed. My beloved husband is one such man and he is always delighted when I show the slightest inclination to be interested in technology. I should’ve known that when I mentioned I had read an article on dictating novels he would pounce on the notion.

I should’ve realized when I was handed a light weight box from under our Christmas tree that my life was about to change. On Christmas morning I slipped the wrapping from a beautifully packaged gift to reveal my very own copy of dictation software. Truth be told, I felt as though I’d been offered a dare and I wasn’t sure I was up to it.

I kept the box, unopened, in a credenza next to my desk, until today. I had put it off for  long enough, I told myself. It wasn’t as though I had no idea how to speak. It wasn’t as though I was a particularly good typist. I’m still not sure what made me wait so long.

I think I felt as though my stories came out my fingers, as if they couldn’t find their way past my lips. But it turns out they could. This afternoon I wrote an entire outline for my next Beryl and Edwina novel. I at least doubled my word count per hour compared with my typing speed on the first try. I can’t imagine what it will be like when I’ve mastered the technology! I feel like a whole world has opened up in front of me.

As a matter of fact, I dictated this entire blog post. I may never type anything again!

Readers, which things have you tried lately that have surprised you? Writers, have you ever tried dictation software?


Best of Intentions

Jessie: In NH, where Christmas is sure to be white.

‘Tis the season of gift knitting in my world. Which is to say, nothing is going the way I had planned.I have projects on the needles and others stretched out on racks still damp and drying into shape. I have balls of wool and alpaca and silk rolling round the floor near all my favorite knitting spots as I consider how best to use them.

But mostly I have re-starts and surprises. I love to gift knit for people who value such offerings and I set out to create such tokens every season. One of my sons loves to open such packages. One of my sisters does too. A few friends and even friends of friends are on the list. So each fall I sit down with the best of intentions.

I search for just the right pattern, pick out the ideal yarn and reach for what I hope will be the correctly sized needles. Then I cast on and begin to play with the project by swatching. For those non-knitting readers, swatching is simply knitting a small piece of fabric to check that the needle is the correct size and that the knitter likes the fabric produced. More often than not the needles are too big or too small and the fabric is not at all what I had imagined. So, I start again with different needles. After a few tries it often occurs to me that the pattern is not correct for the yarn or the yarn is not right for the pattern and I go back to the drawing board.

Eventually, if I am paying attention to how the yarn behaves once unwound from the ball and formed into stitches, I manage to match a pattern and yarn in a way that pleases me. I knit along happily, usually at a good clip, and before long I have a completed project in my hands. Which often leads to another problem. I am forever knitting things for the wrong person.

This year I thought a neckerchief of handspun, hand-dyed Blue Faced Leicester wool was for my son’s friend. But the color is more green than turquoise with a defiant tendency towards yellow undertones. I despaired of it until I realised I had been making it for another son’s girlfriend all along instead. It looks perfect for her. I have a sumptious alpaca cowl I thought was for one someone when really it is for another person on my list. I thought a third person was going to receive a hat. They ended up with a scarf instead.

Some of me is aggravated and befuddled by my inability to make plans that don’t go awry. The rest of me is pleased to see how it all works out in the end. It is a lot like writing a mystery. You try out some characters, some scenes and some motives. You end up with plot twists you didn’t see coming and a satisfying ending!

Readers, do you have projects that seem to have minds of their own? Do your gifting plans always go the way you imagine that they will?


Critical Eyes

Jessie: On retreat in Maine.

Lately, I’ve been feeling restless. Life has been changing for my family, mostly for the good, but it makes me see my world with a different view. Especially my physical environment. I’ve been looking at my possessions with a critical eye and wondering which of them I’d keep if I were to move into a home one third the size of my current one. Which things really are the best choices for my changing life?

When my first child was a baby, my husband and I bought a big, old colonial home in a tiny village and set about renovating it. We were on a meager budget and it took a long time to accomplish all we set out to do. More children joined the family and all the rooms became full to bursting. Twenty-two years later the house is mostly renovated. Two of the kids are out on their own and the house feels overstuffed and very quiet. The space and tranquility have given me a chance to ask myself how much of what has accumulated is what I want to take into the next twenty years. I’ve come to recognize there are many things that don’t make the cut.

The question has fascinated me and has felt strangely familiar. Unitl I realized that the process is surprisingly like revising a novel. I tend to write bloated first drafts with a shocking excess of words. I meander and sauter and rarely get straight to the point in the early work. But under all the layers of what isn’t needed, or even wanted, is the truth of the story. By turning a critical eye to the work, I am able to excavate and lift up only that which best serves what I am trying to accomplish. I enjoy that part of the writing process. I love unearthing treasures from amongst the rubble.

It seems writing has permeated all aspects of my life, even my decorating. That same critical eye now can’t stand bloat in my possessions. It doesn’t want unneeded things in my physical world any more than it likes unnecessary words in my work. I wasn’t expecting it, but I am grateful. As a matter of fact, I think I’m going to go revise my laundry room right now!

Readers, do you find a need to change your physical environment as your life circumstances alter? Writers, does your work leak into the rest of your life in surprising ways?

Guest Miranda James-Digging Up the Small-town Dirt

Jessie: In New Hampshire where we finally broke down and turned on the heat!

I met Miranda/ Dean James at the Berkley table at the Malice Domestic Agatha Banquet. I was new to the world of Berkley and he was already the super star he is today. I could not have been more fortunate in a dinner companion. He was gracious and welcoming and charming and funny. He put me at my ease without appearing to work at it. He is a total gentleman through and through. It is with great enthusiasm and pleasure I welcome him to the Wickeds today! 

diggingupthedirt_coverSouthern towns are probably no different from towns in other regions in the U.S. They have a distinct social hierarchy – dominated by either (or both) the ancestral aristocracy or the families with the most money. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course. Unless your family has lived in the town or its environs for at least three generations, you’re a newcomer. You don’t know why it’s always been done a certain way. And you may not have figured out all the nuances of hierarchy – like who will belong to certain organizations in town, who will get invited to important functions, who stands a chance of getting elected in local elections. If you can’t remember when John Henry Jones’ great-uncle Erasmus Smith was mayor and caused all that mess over the Rotary Club dinner sixty-seven years ago, well, you can’t really claim to be a native, now can you?

What’s really fun in these towns are the clubs, like the Junior League, the Garden Club, and the various men’s groups. Since I’m writing about two sisters from one of the original families in Athena, however, I decided to focus on one of the traditional women’s clubs you find in most towns, the garden club.

Miss An’gel and Miss Dickce, of course, are on the board – as they are on practically every board in Athena. Not everyone on the board has a similar pedigree, but they are women of position and some wealth. Every group has its own dynamics, and if something happens to upset the equilibrium, well, interesting things can happen.

Like having a prodigal son return – a prodigal son who was the most handsome, most charming, and most desired man in Athena forty years ago. What could possibly happen with this particular fox once more amidst the chickens? That was the inspiration for Digging Up the Dirt.

Readers, are you familiar with social hierarchies and nuances like the ones described? Writers, do you use those sorts of structures in your own work?

Miranda James is the New York Times-bestselling author of the “Cat in the Stacks” and the “Southern Ladies” mysteries. By day Miranda (aka Dean James) is a medical librarian in Mississippi. At other times Miranda spends time with two cats and thousands of books while thinking about the next murder (or two) to commit. Only on the page, of course.

3, 2, 1 Launch!

WhispersBeyond_FixJessie: In NH where we are finally getting some rain!

As many of you know I have been enthusiastically celebrating the release of my latest novel, Whispers Beyond the Veil this month. It has been a great deal of fun to post things here on the blog and over at Maine Crime Writers.

Reviews of the book have been spotted around the web on blogs like Carstairs Considers and Moonlight Rendezvous. Anna Lee Huber featured it on her monthly Sweet Sixteen Giveaway on Facebook. The other Wickeds were even nice enough to take a copy of the book with them to Bouchercon for a little show and tell since I was not able to attend.

And to top off all the long-distance celebrating I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to connect with readers and other writers in the physical world.  I was so delighted to be asked by the charming and gracious, Karen Baker,  owner of The Country Bookseller in Wolfeboro, NH to hold a launch party for the book at her shop this past Saturday.

The turnout was wonderful and I got to meet, or to reconnect, with so many delightful readers. There is just something so special about being surrounded by the sight and the feel of row upon row of books. Especially when you are sharing the experience with other people who love them as much as you do.

I hope all of you who have sent well-wishes from all around the web, and those of you I have had the pleasure of seeing in person, know just how grateful and appreciative I am of your support. Books are written in solitude. But they are meant to be shared. Thanks to you all for letting me share mine with you!

Readers, do you ever attend book launches? Writers, do you have a favorite launch story you’d like to share?