Baby Trash Panda!

So yesterday, the Thunder from Down Under and I pulled into our driveway at lunch, and there was this tiny little dark lump near the carport. “What is that?” I asked Thunder. My sister next door has baby kittens at her house, but they’re two different shades of orange.

My massive Viking of a husband, in melting tones, said, “Awww, it’s a baby raccoon!”

And so it was. racoon 1He didn’t seem to be afraid of us, really – he didn’t scamper away when we approached him, just sort of wandered. And he wasn’t bawling like baby raccoons do when they’re scared. But he looked weak and tired.

So Justin the Hubs and our brother-in-law, Derek, caught him gently and tucked him up in our doggo’s travel kennel, and Justin consulted the interwebs for someone who knew how to help.

raccoon 2By the time I got home from work yesterday, Baby Trash Panda had a blankey, food and water, and half a Krispy Kreme doughnut (classic glazed), and seemed a lot more alert and energetic. And Justin had found a certified rehabber who said he’d be glad to take him just as soon as he got home from picking up an orphaned baby possum in another county. We took that as a good sign.

So after dinner, we packed him up and drove off into the boonies to Doctor Doolittle’s house. Truth be told, we were a little apprehensive. But once we saw the guy had “White silence = white consent” painted on the back window of his pick-up truck, we figured we were in the right place–obviously he was our kind of people. And sure enough, he was very, very nice and seemed to know exactly what to do.

And this morning, he texted Justin and let him know that our own little Rocket has settled in nicely. So nicely, in fact, that his new dad thinks someone else must have tried to tame him then turned him loose (because apparently people just suck). He seems to have no fear of humans, and now that he’s had a couple of meals and a good night’s sleep, he doesn’t mind being picked up and handled at all. So instead of being returned to the wild, he will end up being one of Doctor Doolittle’s housepets. And we are very much okay with that.

raccoon 3This is him with his foster sister, a mama cat with whom we understand he has already taken to snuggling when she goes in his cage.

raccoon 4

Have a great life, Baby Trash Panda!

UPDATE: Just in case anybody’s still worried about him. His new name is Shadow, and I think he’s managing.

shadow the trash panda

The Passion of Miss Cuthbert

Stella 2 Passion of Miss CuthbertI have a new book out. It’s called The Passion of Miss Cuthbert, and it’s the second in my series of romantic mysteries starring amateur detective Stella Hart. Stella is a silent movie actress in the 1920s whose stepfather owns an English manor house. Her fiancé and partner in crime-solving is George Barrington, Thirteenth Baronet of Kingsley-on-Pike. Stella is white. George is white. Stella’s mom and stepfather are white. Stella and George spend this installment on an ocean liner where the passengers we meet are all white, including the corpse, the killer, and Miss Cuthbert, the frumpy chaperone whose passion ignites the plot.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past couple of weeks, you begin to see my problem.

The book was actually released as scheduled on June 4, 2020, a/k/a Day 10 of the protests following the murder of George Floyd by officers of the Minneapolis Police Department. That morning, my publishers and I talked it over and agreed that yeah, any kind of big promo push for my book that day would be disrespectful, tone deaf, and just generally gross. We all had friends on the front lines of the protests. More importantly, we had friends and colleagues whose lives were in danger every time they left the house.

I won’t pretend it made me happy to ignore my book release. I worked really hard on that story, and I’m proud of it. Plus it’s the first book I’ve ever written specifically and completely for Falstaff Crush, the Falstaff Books romance line, and I think that’s kind of cool. And trust me, I’m as arrogant and self-involved as any writer alive, and I really, really want to sell books. But not even I could stomach doing commercials for an easy-breezy story of a white girl on a cruise ship last Thursday.

John, Melissa, and I decided to wait to do any major promo until tomorrow, June 9, and as you can see, I’m blogging about it today. Is that any better? Is it still too soon? Honestly, I don’t have a clue.

Diversity has been on my mind with these books since the beginning. My original inspirations for this kind of story were  two of the most overtly racist popular writers of the twentieth century, Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse. (If you don’t know what I’m on about, Google it. I don’t have the heart to tell you.) I knew going in I had to fix that, that my main characters were going to be sensitive to the world view of people not like them and aware of their privilege. And I think I’ve stayed true to that; I hope I have. But in these first two books at least, everybody is still #sowhite. I actually toyed with the idea of making Stella’s lady’s maid, the wise and fearless Sophie, a Black woman. I even floated the idea to my alpha reader, my sister, Alexandra Christian. Together we agreed it was a bad idea for two reasons: one, I’d only be doing it to have a Black character in the story, and two, if my story was only going to have one Black character, she did NOT need to be a lady’s maid.

So in Book One: Guinevere’s Revenge, which is set at that English manor house, everybody’s white. The second book I actually wrote for the series was The Baronet Unleashed. It takes place in Hollywood and has multiple Black characters, at least two of whom are scheduled to turn up in future installments. But when I started writing the Miss Cuthbert story, I realized it needed to happen before George saw Hollywood, so The Passion of Miss Cuthbert became Book 2, and The Baronet Unleashed became Book 3. If we’re all still around and books are still a thing, it should be coming out sometime this fall.

I wrote The Passion of Miss Cuthbert in January, February, and March of 2020 as the dumpster fire that my own personal life had become exploded outward into the dumpster fire that has engulfed everybody else. Writing it was my comfort, my escape, and I make no apologies for it. It’s a damned good book. Do I wish that for the week of its release, half of America was not at war with the other half? That we weren’t all in danger of getting sick and/or making one another sick, that some of us weren’t threatening violence for the right to make our neighbors sick? That Black Americans could live their lives as safely and fearlessly as I do mine, that we as a country could collectively agree to that as their inalienable right instead of brutalizing them in the public streets for even asking? I do, of course I do. I wish that every day whether I have a new book out or not. I’ve written lots of words that speak to that wish both in fiction and not, and I’ll keep doing that because writing words is the thing I do best.

But this week, I’ve got Stella, and she’s good. She’s fun. She means well. If that seems wrong to you, I get it; ignore me. My feelings won’t be hurt. But if you could use what my editor calls “All goodness and light with just a little touch of murder,” let me hook you up.

Black Romance Matters

I have a book of my own coming out this week, and trust me, I’ll be telling you all about it. But watching the news and talking to my friends and reading the internet this week, I feel like it’s more important to shine my little spotlight on books from some of the amazing Black women writing romance. I know all four of these women as fellow authors, and I’m lucky enough to call a couple of them friends. But in every case, their art gives me joy as a reader and makes my own genre and my own writing better. Every one of them is irreplaceable, and I cherish every word they write. So to borrow the catchphrase of my own publisher, click the covers and buy their shit!

perciDahlia Rose – Perci Rules the World (The Perci Podcast Series Book 1)

By day Percelle Meadows works at the Municipal Archives of New York City. From blueprints to vital statistics, if you need it, she can find it. By night, Perci takes on her persona of social jetsetter and all of her adventures are gobbled up voraciously by her fans. Being a forty something (hey age is just a number!), her life is just beginning all over again. Lovers, champagne and dancing the night away, it was so different than how she was raised, who she was taught to be.

ruthless prideNaima Simone – Ruthless Pride (Dynasties: Seven Sins Book 1)

Millionaire CEO Joshua Lowell earned his icy reserve and arrogant pride through painful experience. He refuses to allow gorgeous but determined reporter Sophie Armstrong to dredge up his family’s dark past—or circulate rumors of his secret child. But Joshua’s fierce pride is at war with his heated desire for Sophie, the only woman who could ruin him…or save him from himself.

 

firebreatherRaelynn Blue – Firebreather

Angela Brown came to Alaska to study dragons, not fall in love with one. But when Ryuu Sho Jin, a brilliant and beautiful dragon shifter, falls into a life-threatening fever, she realizes how much this clan and this dragon have come to mean to her. She risks her life and binds herself to Ryuu as his lifelong mate. In his arms, she discovers passion and terror like she has never known before, and feelings for this man she never realized she could have. [Full disclosure: This particular book was published by Falstaff Crush.]

complicatedNikki Prince – It’s Complicated (Undeniable Book 1)

Ashton Locke has had a thing for Keiko Jarrett since college. So when she proposes adding friends with benefits to the mix, he’s intrigued, but wary. Sure, he’s always wanted her, and is definitely not ready to settle down with anyone, but what happens if one of them crosses the line?

Con-Tinual! (and ConCarolinas goes online!)

Heya Kittens!

Usually right around this time of year, I’d be crowing with glee that ConCarolinas was coming up at the end of the month and that I was going to be there and that I hoped all y’all were going to be there and how it was going to be awesome!

But this year, we’ve got the Corona going around, and it’s just not safe. So like pretty much every fandom con I know about this spring, ConCarolinas in its known, in-person version is a no-go for 2020. And yes, we are all very sad. I only do one con a year, so I feel like I’ve lost a major connection to my tribe. I have a powerful need to hug other geek necks, and I can’t wait until it’s safe for us all to gather and crow together again.

But all is not lost! Because the people who run ConCarolinas are just as bummed out as we are AND all super-talented and super-tech-savvy and super-committed, they’ve found a way for us to all connect online. The Facebook group Con-Tinual: The Con That Never Ends is hosting an online version of ConCarolinas that has already started and will pick up steam throughout the rest of the month. We’ll have panels (I actually did one last night on Zoom with a bunch of other crazy writers on creating a world bible for your book series), watch parties, vendors, music, and much general hanging out, all from the safety and comfort of your own secured bunker or living room. I’ll check back in here as my own stuff is available, but in the meantime, just go on and sign up. It’s a good time, I promise.

Update: Here’s a link to the recording of our world-building panel: World Building Bibles at ConCarolinas (Me, Alexandra Christian, author and editor Melissa McArthur, author and editor Theresa Glover, author Joelle Reizes (J.D. Blackrose), and author Natania Barron, having a marvelous time.)

Losing My Grip

Heya Kittens. I’ve missed you. I haven’t been around so much the past few months, mostly because I haven’t really known what to write. The fall my dad took on November 4, 2019, the little spill in his bedroom we thought was no big deal, has turned out to be a very big deal indeed. He isn’t “perfectly fine” like I wrote he would be. He’s in skilled nursing care and may very well be there for the rest of his life.

I haven’t written about this stuff not because it hasn’t been a horror tale worth telling but because the story really isn’t mine to tell. Bless his sweet heart, I owe Dad at least that much dignity and privacy. And besides, this is Lucy Blue’s blog, the on-going saga of my writer self–my brand, if we can stomach the word. Beyond my being too tired and heartsick to write because of it, Dad’s story didn’t seem to have very much to do with that.

But in one way, it kind of does. I’ve read a lot of articles and op/ed pieces lately about how pretty much nobody makes a living writing fiction any more. Everybody has a day job, a safety net, another side hustle that pays, a spouse who earns well. The people who make it are the people who can afford to invest the money, time, and effort required to outdazzle or just simply outlast the crappy marketplace and reach an audience, whether that means paying for conferences to make connections or just keeping the lights on at home. And kittens, I’m sorry to say it, but it’s absolutely true. As much as I cherish the story of Jo Rowling writing Harry Potter in a cafe and becoming a billionaire, I know there had to have been a lot of steps in between that don’t get talked about, a lot of support from elsewhere that kept her and her child alive not only while she was writing her masterpiece but while she found a publisher for it. And waited for her advance check to show up because publishers and agents prefer to pay out twice a year. I’ve been in that system for a while now, and I know how it works.

My safety net has always been my dad. I’ve always had a day job. I’ve never had the luxury of writing full-time. But the day jobs I have had have been the kind that let me write. I haven’t had to be a teacher or a copywriter or any of the other careers that would have paid me enough to live but demanded so much more of my time and energy and commitment, and I’ve only ever had one job at a time. And my dad is the one who has made that possible. Any time I needed extra cash to get the toilet fixed or buy a stock photo for a cover, he has always come through. So even though with the exception of a few years writing about sexy Highlanders for Pocket Books, I’ve never made much money as a writer, I’ve always been able to keep writing. I’ve been able to read all those memes that say, “The ones who succeed are the ones who don’t quit,” and think, hell, yeah, that’s me! I’ve been able to keep chasing the dream, keep believing it’s going to happen if I can just hold on. Believe my stories are worth what I give them even if they don’t really pay.

But Dad can’t be my safety net any more. He needs his money, and he needs my time. And frankly, kittens, I don’t know how much longer I can keep on holding on. I love my work. I love the process of writing. I love the stories I tell. I love my publisher. I love being a part of the writing community. All of those things feel vitally important; they have been at the core of my identity for so long, I can’t even picture who I am without them. But the sad, cruel truth is, I’m not sure I can afford it any more.

So I guess my point is, in the wise words of my beloved publisher, buy my shit. Review my shit. Recommend my shit to other people. Because if somebody doesn’t soon, I’m powerfully afraid I might be done.

 

Three Things I Love (About Winter Knight)

winter knightWinter Knight, the book I have coming out on February 11, 2020, is the only romance I’ve ever written just for me. I love all my kissy book stories, all my heroines, all my heroes. But with Winter Knight, I asked myself, if I was on Amazon or at the bookstore looking for a romance to sweep me off my feet, what would that book be? And then I wrote it. Here are three things it has that would make me love it even if it wasn’t mine.

1 – An Enchanted Castle: When I was a sprout, my favorite book was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. If you’ve never read it, it’s the story of a plain, pissy little orphan girl who discovers happiness and friends exploring the dark corners and overgrown gardens of an English manor house. When I got a little older, I fell head over heels for the YA novel Beauty by Robin McKinley. This fairy tale retelling is as much about the castle as it is about the Beast, and if you like the Disney version of this story, you like this book–they ripped off McKinley shamelessly. I’ve toured Biltmore House more times than I can count, and in Ireland, I spent more time wandering through castles than I did drinking Guinness. Something about walking through grand, empty ballrooms and exploring twisting hallways is endlessly fascinating to me.

In Winter Knight, the heroine, Christabel finds herself in a huge, mostly-empty manor house in the mountains of North Carolina in the middle of a blizzard. She is the unexpected guest of a mysterious handsome stranger, Bernard, and his even-more-mysterious staff of servants who anticipate her every need. And she spends an awful lot of the story poking around empty nooks and crannies and discovering magical secrets.

2 – A Beastly Brainiac: Speaking of Beauty and the Beast … Anybody who knows me or my husband knows I’m a sucker for a smartass. Washboard abs and big bank accounts are lovely, but it’s the big brains and snarky quips that really light me up. (Alexandra Christian calls this being a sapiosexual.) From Sherlock in Sherlock to Doc Holliday in Tombstone to Deadpool to Tony Stark to Hamlet to Fox Mulder to Henry V to Harry Dresden to Quincy Harker, I love’em better when they’re smart and damanged and just the slightest bit mean. And if they also happen to be just a little bit crazy, that can only help. (Not for nothing do I call my husband Evil Genius.)

Bernard is a brilliant scientist who works alone in his lab in the bowels of his mansion. He’s equal parts heartthrob (he does have those abs because did I mention this is my fantasy?) and goofball (he wears sweatpants and geeky t-shirts under his lab coat and uses Rick and Morty Band-Aids on his boo-boos). He’s bossy and snarky–at one point, Christabel tells him, “Don’t be an asshole,” and he replies, “Can’t help it. It was a birth defect.” But he’s also kind and protective and fiercely romantic. And magical. And he’s read all of Christabel’s books. And y’all, I just adore him.

3 – A Heroine Like Me: I have a former fan fiction goddess’s horror of writing a Mary Sue, but with Christabel, I decided I didn’t care and went for it. She is a romance novelist. She isn’t a virgin in her early twenties; when the story begins, she’s on her way to get a facelift. She’s successful, capable, smart, sometimes confident, sometimes terrified. She desperately wants true love, but she has a hard time trusting her instincts and an even harder time trusting other people. She’s a hopeful romantic, and when she meets Bernard, she’s thrilled, intrigued, and scared to death. And I just adore her, too.

I wrote this story to distract myself from all the bad stuff in the world, and for me, it worked. I really hope reading it will do the same for y’all.

North, South, East, West, and the Romance Writers of America

In 1985 when the miniseries North and South first aired on TV, my mother worked for a lady named Miss Rose Cauthen. North and South, for those previously spared by youth or ignorance, was based on a series of historical novels by John Jakes about two wealthy and heroic white guys who meet at West Point about a decade before the Civil War and become friends for life. And of course the big hook is, one is from the North and one is from the South—South Carolina, to be specific. It’s the vehicle that unleashed the raw sexual power of Patrick Swayze in a pair of tight britches on an unsuspecting world. Mama, my sisters, and I watched it avidly. All the ladies in Mama’s office watched and discussed it daily with breathless enthusiasm. Miss Rose herself declared it to be the best thing she’d seen on TV in an age.

Then came the Great Unpleasantness. The North guy’s abolitionist sister (played by Kirstie Alley) not only helped one of Swayze’s slaves escape the plantation, she had sex with him in the barn on his way out. A Black man and a white woman engaged in consensual sexual relations (or at least 10 full seconds of foreplay on the way to sexual relations) right there on the TV screen. I can only imagine the noises that came out of Miss Rose and her sister, Miss Louise, as this horror unfolded before them. But the next day, Miss Rose declared that she had turned off her television set. She informed her staff that North and South was filth of the worst possible kind, and she would not allow it to be discussed in her office. She even attempted to forbid the rest of them to watch. And when Mama told her she declined to be so censored in her own home, both Miss Rose and Miss Louise made it plain that henceforth they would think less of her as a lady. Bear in mind, please, that these genteel flowers had already absorbed the shock of several extended sequences of half-nekkid Swayze making soft focus whoopie with another man’s half-nekkid wife in scenes hot enough that Mama made Alexandra Christian cover her eyes. But a brief interlude between a single consenting white woman and a single consenting Black man who subsequently married was more than they could bear. And the idea that any other “nice” woman could bear it just fine was more than they could imagine.

I’ve found myself remembering Miss Rose a lot lately as I’ve been watching the RWA implode. It’s a long, complicated, very much on-going kerfuffle, but for the purposes of my point, here are the highlights. (For a more detailed analysis, start here.) In recent years, as romance as a literary genre expands beyond the f*ck fantasies of white ladies of a certain age both in fact and in perception, the Romance Writers of America keeps getting itself in trouble. The actual membership is becoming more diverse, but the ruling spirit of the organization keeps proving over and over again that it just kind of is not. One of the most vocal and effective critics of institutional racism in the RWA and romance as a genre is bestselling romance author Courtney Milan, who is Chinese-American. Back in August 2019, no doubt in response to yet another version of “honestly, Courtney, I don’t see the problem,” Milan called out another writer, Kathryn Lynn Davis, for her portrayal of Asian characters in a book from her backlist. On Twitter, she called the book a “racist mess” and quoted passages to prove her point.

Davis and the RWA attempted to turn off Milan and forbid the rest of us to watch her any more.

Specifically, Davis made a formal complaint to the RWA, saying Milan had cyber-bullied her and cost her a contract. RWA formed a secret squirrel special ethics committee to investigate because, inconveniently, the regular ethics committee at RWA that everybody knew about was chaired by Milan herself. The secret squirrels investigated and voted in secret to suspend Milan’s RWA membership for a year and ban her from holding any office within the organization for life.

And bless their sweet hearts, I swear I think they thought that would be the end of it. When one of Milan’s friends went public with the news, the RWA seemed to be shocked—shocked, I tell you!—to discover that not only would Milan not just go away and hush because they told her to, a big, loud swath of their membership was just as horrified by their attempt to silence her as she was and just as willing to say so.

It’s quite the circus. Since the initial blowup, a lot of complicated issues going back decades have come out. There’s even dispute now as to whose idea it was to spank Milan in the first place. Davis now says she only filed her complaint because the leadership at RWA told her she had to, that she never intended them to punish Milan. Meanwhile, the RWA leadership insists that once Davis filed her complaint, they had no choice but to act.

I call bullshit on both sides of that argument, but whatever. Y’all know me well enough by now to know I #standwithCourtney. I recently recorded a video statement as acquiring editor for Falstaff Crush calling out RWA and supporting diversity in romance in the strongest possible terms—love is love, y’all. That should be up on the Falstaff Books YouTube channel soon if it isn’t already.

But the actions of Davis and the RWA leadership are not mysterious to me. I know those people. As we say here in the Beautiful South, I’ve been knowing them all my life. They’re Miss Rose. Behind all the boilerplate and pearl clutching, all their assertion and defense comes down to this. “I am a nice lady. All my friends (all of whom think like me or don’t dare or care enough to tell me otherwise) tell me all the time what a nice lady I am. Nice ladies are not racists. Therefore, I cannot be a racist. My views on and portrayals of people not like me cannot be racist but are in fact the truth—or at least a perfectly acceptable fantasy that doesn’t hurt a soul. Because I don’t hurt people. I’m nice.”

Sorry, Miss Rose, but you’re not.

The people who think this way are so dependent on this view of themselves they see anything that threatens it as an unforgiveable attack. Out of fear or laziness or some combination of the two, they adamantly refuse to consider for even one moment that their critics might have a point. To question their own attitudes.

To check their privilege.

And until RWA can do that, it’s not going to get any better.

Romance as a genre is so much more than it’s perceived to be. And lord knows, with book stuffers and click farms and copyright crazies, we need a professional organization to defend us now more than we ever have before. But a Miss Rose RWA will never be qualified to do it.

An Outlaw Meaner than Krampus

bury me notHey Kittens – in case I haven’t mentioned it, there’s what I consider to be a really sweet Christmas story in Bury Me Not called “Cowboys and Krampus.” Here’s a little sneak peek:

By suppertime, the snow was drifted halfway up the windows downstairs, and the hotel was full enough to bust. People had drifted in all afternoon like ghosts in thick coats dusted white—trappers, gamblers, a traveling preacher, even a couple of farm families with kids. Just as Mrs. Bhaer and her daughters were setting the table, the big doors opened again, and two men came inside, one carrying a fiddle case. “Hooray!” the oldest daughter hollered, clapping her hands. “Now we can have dancing!”

They put me next to Cade at the table for supper, of course, and by the time we tucked in to Clara’s special brandy pudding, we were managing to be civil. But when the fiddler and his friend the piano player tuned up, we got as far away from one another in the big main room as we could get.

After a while Thomas came over to where I was loitering by the hearth. “Hey Daisy,” he said, offering me his hand. “Care to take a turn?”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Cade had parted a fellow’s hair with the butt of his rifle in Kansas City for less.

“Aw, it’s Christmas,” he said. “I’ll risk it.”

I looked over at Cade, who was back to playing cards with one of the farmers, the preacher, and a professional gambler who would probably fleece the lot of them. “Yeah, I’m his fake wife now,” I said. “He probably won’t even notice.”

Thomas laughed. “Oh, I wouldn’t go that far. What’s got you in such a fidget, anyhow? Don’t you like Christmas?”

“Not especially.” Luis and Clara were having a sweet little smooch under the mistletoe. Our Mexican bandito was wearing a clean white shirt and had wet his hair and slicked it down flat until he looked like a bank clerk.

“Don’t be like that. These kids get a real hoot out of Saint Nicholas. I’ve been carrying a toy train for that bad little Klaus in my saddlebag since May just to see the look on his face.”

“That’s real sweet of you, Thomas.” Klaus and one of the farm kids were hiding under a table near Cade and his cronies, plotting mischief. I hoped they gave them all a hot foot. “But Saint Nicholas can kiss my ass.”

“From the mouth of a lady,” Thomas said. “What did poor ol’ Saint Nick do to cross you, Daisy?”

“Nothing, since he ain’t real,” I said. He just kept looking at me, waiting. “It’s a pitiful story.” Still waiting, one eyebrow raised. “When I was nine years old, there was a dolly in the window of the general store,” I said, turning my back on the room to face the fire. “She was the prettiest thing I ever saw, in a white dress, a bride. She had blue eyes and yellow curls like me, and I stood at the window for a while every day for a month just staring at her, wishing she was mine. My daddy got wind of it, and he told me not to worry, that if I was good, he was just positive Saint Nicholas would bring her to me for a Christmas present.”

“Oh hell,” Thomas said.

“Oh hell is right,” I said. “I wanted that dolly so bad, I forgot my daddy was the town drunk and wouldn’t know the truth if he met it in the road. Three days before Christmas, that dolly disappeared from the store window, and I was just sure he had gotten her for me. He kissed me good night on Christmas Eve, and I just knew when I woke up, I would have my doll. I even had a name for her all picked out. I was going to call her Charlotte Russe after a sign I had seen in an eating house.

Thomas was standing beside me, blocking my view of the room. “I’m just guessing it didn’t work out that way.”

“Not quite, no.” I was glad he was hiding me from the others. I had tears in my eyes for a dolly I hadn’t seen for twenty years and had never owned; I felt like God’s own fool. “When I woke up, there wasn’t no doll nor no daddy either. I had to go down to the saloon and scrape him up to keep the sheriff from throwing him in jail for drunk and disorderly. Then as we were walking back, him leaning on my shoulder singing, ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ like some damned idiot, I saw this wagon full of folks riding past us on their way to church. They had a girl about my age; I knew her from school.” I wiped the foolish tears away. “She was sitting up front with her daddy, and my Charlotte Russe was sitting on her lap.”

“Damn,” Thomas said, glancing back at something over my shoulder. “That might be the saddest tale I ever heard.”

Before he finished saying it, I looked back and saw Cade right behind me. Before I could say a word, he had picked me up and slung me over his shoulder.

“What do you think you’re doing, you crazy bastard?” I said, kicking and beating on his back as he carried me to the stairs. “Put me down!”

“Nope.” Everybody in the room looked shocked, but nobody made a move to help me. Luis was grinning like a possum.

“Y’all sleep tight now,” Thomas called. “Don’t let the bed bugs bite!”

The Paperback Rack at the Big Star

Every writer has a touching story about their favorite bookstore or library as a child, the place where they discovered the ineffable delights of literature. I can go on at great length about my love for Miss Daisy at the Chester County Library or my swoon of ecstasy the first time I walked into the original strip mall location of The Bookworm in Rock Hill or my nostalgia for The Intimate Bookshop at the chichi-poopoo mall in Charlotte. But if I’m honest, the repository of fiction that influenced me most strongly in the years I was becoming the writer I am was the paperback rack at the Big Star grocery store. It was right inside the doors, just past the buggies, across from the produce section, and I hit it up every single week. And if I didn’t hit it up myself, my sweet mama hit it up for me. She’d be on her way out the door, and I would emerge from my headphones full of Alice Cooper or the Bay City Rollers and holler, “Mama, find me something to reeeeeeead!!!!” And bless her precious soul, she always did.

So I read the top of the paperback bestseller charts, about six months behind, for the entirety of my adolescence. (A book had to be a pretty safe sales bet to make it all the way to the Big Star.) And y’all, those books were awesome. I grieve deeply for the variety and insanity of the Big Star book rack. It taught me story, crowd-pleasing, popular story, the stuff that’s kept us author types in business since we were buying our place at the fire with our fresh new take on Beowulf. I read some great literary novels–back then, literary novels came out in pulpy paperback all the time. But it’s the genre fiction, the “trashy novels” I devoured like popcorn that really branded themselves on my brain. I can see their influence now in every book I write.

salems lotSalem’s Lot by Stephen King: I still stand in awe at Mama’s perception in picking this out for me. This was the first King book I ever read and my first contemporary, grown-up horror book, and it came to me at the bottom of a bag full of frozen fish sticks and tater tots when I was about 13. I stayed up all night reading it, loved every single syllable of it. As soon as I finished it the first time, I flipped back to the beginning and started reading it again. If I had to pick one writer who has influenced my style and my focus and my beliefs about writing as an art and a job the most, King would be it. And that all started with this book. There’s an element of horror in almost everything I write, no matter how sweet or romantic it might be, and that came from here, too. And oh yeah, vampires … mine evolved to be very, very different (thanks, Anne Rice and Frank Langella!), but Uncle Stevie also introduced me to vampires. My bestselling book series so far has been about vampires, and I’ve got a WIP going about them right this very now.

lonesome doveLonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry: This is one of those literary novels I was talking about–I mean, it won the Pulitzer Prize–but it’s also a gloriously pulpy, down and dirty western. I’ve blogged before about how I grew up watching western movies with my dad and how that influenced my writing. But with all appropriate apologies to Zane Grey and Louis L’amour, this is the first western novel I ever read that really spoke to me. For one thing, the women are just as layered and interesting and just as important to the story as the men–there’s a lot of the actual lonesome dove, Lorena Wood, in Daisy, the protagonist of my own weird western stories. McMurtry’s book and its sequels and outgrowths gave me a clearer, more realistic picture of the real world behind the western myth, and I hope that comes through in my work.

laceLace by Shirley Conran: Holy Moses on the Nile, y’all, have you read this book? Forget Judith Krantz; forget Danielle Steele. This is the ultimate trashy women’s novel, the ultimate guilty pleasure, the ultimate lurid potboiler. I plowed through it in less than a day, exclaiming in delighted shock at regular intervals, and when I finished, I gave it to Mama who did the same. She gave it to one of my aunts, who gave it to one of her friends, and so on and so on and so on. The premise is Einstein-level genius: a beautiful and notorious movie star invites four fabulously wealthy and successful women from four very different worlds to tea and says, “All right. Which one of you bitches is my mother?” And of course we find out that these four women were all roommates at boarding school, and we flashback to each one’s story in turn to discover the answer to the question. And every plot twist is more outrageous and deliciously awful than the one before it. American Starlet and its upcoming sequels are very much my hopefully-fresh take on this kind of book. They are my Lace; any time I get stuck on my plotting, I think, “what would Shirley do?” and go as wild and wooly as my imagination will allow. I can only pray I am doing her legacy justice.

He’s never been anything but kind and encouraging, but I suspect I drive my publisher batshit crazy with this stuff. Standard wisdom in the book writing business right now is pick a series and stick with it. Or if not a series, at least a genre. I try, y’all. I really, really do. And there are definite, discernible connections between all of my books. They all have strong relationship plots; they all feature smart people; most of them are pretty sexy, even–especially–if they have vampires. (Sorry, Uncle Steve.) But in the ways that make them easy to tag for the Amazon search engine, I’m afraid they’re all over the place. For better or worse, I write for that paperback rack. So I really hope y’all keep wanting to read it.

demon's kissbury me notamerican starlet

Hot Guys in Helmets

adam driver rolling stone

The cover of this week’s Rolling Stone

So because we’re total pop culture junkies and apparently sheep, the hubs and I have already subscribed to Disney +, and we’re watching The Mandalorian. And yes, we love it, and yes “Baby Yoda” is the cutest darned thing ever, and yes I think it’s a great addition to the Star Wars canon, and I can’t wait to see how it comes out. But as a romance novelist, I have another reason for liking it that has absolutely nothing to do with any reasonable consideration of story or production.

The Mandalorian is really hot.

Which is crazy, right? I mean, we’ve never seen his face. If his vows to his compatriots are to be believed, we aren’t ever GOING to see his face. Setting aside that this story has no room for any kind of romantic subplot and that sexuality is almost certainly a non-issue in the first place, why should a guy in full armor with his face completely covered make me want to start pricing helmets as a Christmas present for my husband? Consideration of this burning question made me start thinking about all the masked and helmeted heroes that have given me the vapors over the years. Some of them, like the Mandalorian, stay masked all the time. Others use the big reveal as a signpost to character or purpose; with faces bared, they become someone else. But in every instance, the mystery of the mask adds hugely to their love monkey appeal, whether they mean it to or not.

1 – The Other Star Wars Guy: Unlike my little sister, Alexandra Christian, I’m not really a Kylo Ren fangirl. He’s a little too damaged, a little too controlling, a little too brat-prince batshit crazy to work as an object of my vicarious desire. But I must admit, that big moment in The Force Awakens when Baby Vader takes off his mask and reveals the soulful eyes and misshapen beauty of Adam Driver hit me right where it was meant to. That’s the moment for Rey and for the audience when we start hoping he can be better. And how well his story works for us going forward depends very much on how effective that reveal continues to be every time he does it–you’ll notice that by the end of The Last Jedi, he’s barely ever wearing his mask at all. If we’d never seen him in the mask, if we didn’t have that contrast, he would be stripped of a whole lot of his seductive power. I’ll be very curious to see how the mask as fetish is played out in The Rise of Skywalker.

2 – The Stig: I had never heard of the TV show Top Gear until I married my husband. I don’t even drive. And yes, the lead host of the show’s heyday, Jeremy Clarkson, was an absolute horror show of white male privilege; his own co-hosts referred to him as “the orangutan.” But in every episode, their “tame racing driver,” The Stig (a joke about how all the best racing drivers seem to be Scandinavians named Stig) would test drive some incredibly exotic and impractical dream car around the track and set a best possible lap time. He never appeared without his helmet; the mystery of his identity was a running gag throughout the run of the show; they sold promotional teeshirts that read “I Am the Stig.” When the real live guy in the helmet, Ben Collins, finally outed himself in a book, he was fired from the show and pilloried forevermore by the rest of the presenters. Collins is a pretty nice-looking guy. But The Stig was Hot As F*ck. He never showed his face; he never even spoke. But he drove, better and faster and harder than any other human on the planet, all with perfect calm, perfect cool, perfect efficiency. And I think that was what did it for me, just watching this man perform at the absolute top of the game he had chosen without ever breaking a sweat. If I had seen his facial expressions changing, heard him talking about engines or describing the thrill, I don’t think I would have been nearly as affected. The mystery of the man inside this magnificent machine was what flipped my switch completely, and I doubt very much I was alone.

3 – The Dashing Rogues: These are the kind of guys Errol Flynn used to play, guys like The Scarlet Pimpernel and Antonio Banderas as Zorro and, more particularly, Cary Elwes as The Dread Pirate Westley in The Princess Bride. (I know, I know, the Dread Pirate Roberts was his secret identity; Westley was his real name.) Elwes was playing the Platonic ideal of this archetype for laughs, but it worked as more than just a joke because he looked and sounded amaaaaaaazing doing it. And he works the transformation; he fully embraces the power of the mask. When he leaves as the Farm Boy, he’s serious, determined, and blandly besotted–the male version of his beloved Buttercup. But when he returns in that black mask with that ridiculous little mustache, he’s snarky Superman. It isn’t just that he can out-fence, out-fight, and out-wit all comers. It’s that he takes such obvious delight in his powers. Hiding his identity frees him to embrace his inner bad guy even as he saves the girl. And it’s very, very sexy.

4 – The Superheroes: Some superheroes take the idea of a dual identity way beyond Clark Kent’s glasses, guys like Batman and Ironman and my favorite lover of the bunch, Deadpool. Unlike Ironman and Batman, whose disguises are weapons in themselves, Deadpool is hiding a deformity. The mask is his beauty look; underneath he’s the monster. It’s a very Byronic, Phantom of the Opera-kind of character, except that he’s also a total smartass. He hides from his beloved because he fears her rejection, and when he takes off the mask, it’s funny (I dearly love the Hugh Jackman mask gag), but it’s hugely romantic, too, the ultimate display of vulnerability. Batman scores points every time he shows his true face to one of his many love interests; Ironman hides from no one, but the moment Pepper discovers the suit is a big step in their relationship. But for me, Deadpool takes the prize.

5 – My Favorite: Anybody who knows me at all knows I dearly adore me some Russell Crowe. I don’t care how old or fat he gets or what kind of role he might be playing, just watching him makes my heart go pitty-pat. And I can tell you exactly the moment that unbreakable bond was forged:

Holy moley mooley moo. When Gladiator came out, my gal pals and I spent much time and breath exclaiming over that helmet. My story, “The Dragon,” in Eat the Peach, functions quite nicely as Maximus fan fiction, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. But why does that moment make such a difference? What is the deal with the helmet?

When Max puts on the helmet, it’s to hide his face from the Emperor and kick ass. He proves himself a killing machine without equal and a leader of men. Max in the helmet is the ultimate war machine in the same way Deadpool is the ultimate assassin and Stig is the ultimate driver. But when he takes it off, he reveals his fearsome broken soul. He is “the father of a murdered son; the husband of a murdered wife.” The helmet doesn’t just function practically as armor; it functions as a buffer between his anguish and the world. When he takes it off and reveals that anguish … well, all I can say is, it works a treat for me.

And I think the Mandalorian is a version of the same thing. We don’t see his face, but we do see his behavior. We see him fight and win; we see him fight and lose and keep trying. And we see him with The Child–his body language, his decisions. We see the tenderness behind the warrior. And because of the helmet, we can project onto that any face we choose. So yeah, not a romantic story. But a very romantic hero all the same.