How to Cook a Pot Roast

So a couple of weeks ago, my 81-year-old dad fell down. He’s fine; he didn’t break anything; we were very lucky. But suddenly the guy who was extremely independent and a regular at every greasy spoon in town was shaky on his feet and not willing to leave the house. He’s getting around okay with a walker, but he’s still really awkward with it. (And I don’t think he wants his favorite waitresses to see him using a walker, but that’s a whole other issue.) The upshot is, my sisters and I and our darling husbands have been taking turns being Dad’s own personal Meals on Wheels, which means that some nights when me and the Evil Genius would make do with a tuna sandwich and a bag of chips, I’m having to produce an actual dinner. And for a Writer Girl, that can be challenging.

But I have a slow cooker, and this ain’t my first dance. And some of the homiest, Sunday-dinner-at-Granny’s-house-iest meals are actually dead easy to pull together, and Cracker Barrel can suck it. Pot roast, for example. If you look it up on the Food Network or an actual foodie blog, you’ll read about bundles of fresh thyme and peeling potatoes and words like “sear” and “braise” and “pan juices.” And those recipes are awesome; I use them when I have the time. But for a Wednesday night supper when I’ve got a gothic romance to write, I do it like this.

Ingredients:

1 2-pound chuck roast

1 stick of butter

2 beef bouillon cubes

2 tablespoons of minced onion or one onion peeled and cut into wedges

Freshly cracked pepper (don’t panic; they sell it in disposable pepper mills at the Wal-Mart these days)

A generous slosh of worcestershire sauce (maybe 2 tablespoons)

1/2 cup water

2 cans of beef consommé

1/4 cup all purpose flour

Another 1/2 stick of butter

Another tablespoon of worcestershire sauce

3 cups of cooked rice (or a plastic tub of plain microwave mashed potatoes if you’re a Yankee)

1 can of peas or green beans

Directions:

Before you  leave for work (or as late as on your lunch hour if you’re like I was yesterday and forget before work), put the chuck roast in the slow cooker. No, you do not have to flour and sear it first. Just stick the hunk of meat in the Crock Pot. Break your first stick of butter in half and drop it on top of the roast. Unwrap the bouillon cubes and drop them in, too. Season with pepper. (You do NOT need more salt if you’re using two bouillon cubes, trust me.) Slosh on the worcestershire sauce and the half cup of water. Sprinkle or drop in the onions. Put the lid on the slow cooker, turn it on low, walk away. (If you’re doing this on your lunch hour, turn it on high for half an hour, then turn it down to low.) Leave it for the next 6 hours.

30-45 minutes before you want to eat, start your rice. (If you’re eating Yankee potatoes instead, wait until you finish everything else to nuke them in the microwave.) 30 minutes before supper, turn the slow cooker down to warm and ladle out some of the juice into a measuring cup. If you have one of those groovy cups that skims off the fat, by all means use that; otherwise, skim off as much as you can with a tablespoon. Open your can of peas or green beans, pour them in a pot, heat them over medium-low heat. (For peas, I just pour them in; for green beans, I drain them, replace the liquid with tap water, and season with a tablespoon of the juice from the slow cooker.)

Melt the half stick of butter in a saucepan or small skillet on medium-high heat, whisk in the flour, cook and whisk for about a minute to get rid of the flour taste, add the two cans of consommé and beef juices, whisk as it thickens into gravy. I usually do this a little at a time to get the consistency I want. If it’s too thick, you can add hot water. If it’s too thin, you can add a slurry of cornstarch and cold water. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and worcestershire sauce.

Put your roast on a platter, chunk it up with a serrated knife. (It will be too tender to actually slice.) Slather the meat and the rice or potatoes with gravy, serve the green veggie on the side. Flip off the Cracker Barrel the next time you drive past because trust me, you make way, way better pot roast.

Serves 4-6 depending on how hungry everybody is and whether or not you have dessert.

 

Ways to Keep Writing When You Can’t

american starlet

This fat-ass novel started life as a free-write I did when I couldn’t find the groove writing vampires. 

Sometimes real life gets in the way. Sometimes there’s just no physical way to walk away from the house fire that is your mundane domestic life and get to your desk or your laptop or Starbucks or the picnic table behind the Circle K or wherever it is you do your writing. I’m not talking about that; in that case, take care of your business and get back to it when you can. You officially have my permission as a fully-vested badge-carrying member of the Writer Police.

I’m talking about the times when you’re staring at the blank page or screen with an outline or an idea already in mind and the time and will to make stuff up, but the words just don’t want to come. Writer’s block, yes, but that’s too big a word for it and way too scary. Writer’s block is something novelists in novels get that makes them hear voices and axe murder the neighbor’s cat. Say it with me: I do not have writer’s block. What you have is a momentary numbness of the crazy brain. It’s not gone for good; don’t panic. It happens to everybody. It happens to me all the time. And when it does, these are some of the ways I’ve found to deal with it.

1 – Write Shit Anyway

Just keep writing or typing down words even if you know they suck, even if they make no sense, even if they have nothing whatsoever to do with your work in progress. Even if they don’t belong to you. Many is the time I’ve resorted to transcribing song lyrics I remember from high school—I can write out the entirety of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album if you ever require that service.* And sometimes just the physical act of writing words wakes up that sense memory and makes my own story float back to the top. (FYI, writing fan fiction totally works.)

Think about it this way. Writing is an art and a calling and a mystic practice, but it’s also a job. And when you have a job, you do it because you’ve promised to do it whether you feel like you’re doing it well or not. If you owned a doughnut shop, you’d go in every morning and make the doughnuts. You’d follow the recipe, go through the motions, and at the end of the process, you’d have doughnuts. They wouldn’t always be the best doughnuts, but you’d have something to sell. Writing is different; the personal stakes for the individual product are higher, and the recipe is always changing. But sometimes just going through the motions is enough to put you back on track.  Just remember, just because you write it doesn’t mean you have to keep it. And many, many times, you have to write your way through that shit draft to find the golden one behind it.

2 – Absorb Somebody Else’s Art

If I’ve been banging away at #1 for a while and still nothing’s clicking, I stop trying to be a creator and give myself permission to be the audience. I spend the time I would have spent writing reading somebody else’s book or watching a movie or a TV show or listening to music. I give it my full attention, guilt free, because I know sometimes this is as much a part of my process as the actual writing. Sometimes I try to find something that’s sort of in line with what I’m trying to do, something specifically inspiring. But honestly, what usually works best for me is to dive into something completely different that has nothing whatsoever to do with my story’s genre or action or mood. I will say, reading or watching other fiction works better than something like the Food Network if I’m trying to jumpstart my brain. But I will totally jump-start a gothic romance by watching Rick & Morty. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories almost always get me rocking and rolling again, regardless of what I’m working on. But sometimes I do better with something completely new.

One very important note: My hubs the gamer gets this kind of juice playing RPGs with complex stories, but Candy Crush won’t work. That’s not stimulating your brain, that’s sedating it. I love phone games, too, but if what you’re after is a brain that makes story, they won’t ever get you there.

3 – Give Up And Play Candy Crush

Some days, it just ain’t gonna happen. And that’s okay. No, really, it is; I swear it is. If I’ve tried and tried and still feel like every word on the page is a drudgery that I’m just going to have to throw out, I give up. I give myself permission to give the f*ck up. Because I know it’s temporary. I know that story is still perking away in my subconscious; I know it won’t ever let me go completely until I get it told. But sometimes it needs to grow and evolve without me watching it. I know that sounds crazy. (I promise my neighbor’s cat is safe.) But almost every time I throw up my hands and just let myself not be a writer for a day, by the next day whatever story problem I was having solves itself. That plot knot comes undone. That character snaps into focus. Because I’ve been writing for a really  long time and because I do try to write something pretty much every day, I know when I can’t, there’s a reason. I know it’s going to be okay.

So say it with me, kittens. It’s going to be okay.

*The screen door slams/Mary’s dress waves./Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.

Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

bell-book-candle-black-backless-evening-gownThe Nightmare Before Christmas isn’t the only Christmas/Halloween crossover movie ever made. There’s also Bell, Book and Candle, a smart and surprisingly twisted romantic comedy starring Kim Novak and James Stewart. It opened on Christmas Day 1958 and takes place at Christmas–the climax happens at midnight on Christmas Eve. And while one big plot point gives me serious indigestion, it’s one of my absolute favorites.

Kim Novak is Gillian Holroyd, a witch who runs an art gallery in New York–this is one of those New York movies where all the people, sets, and costumes are gloriously glamorous. James Stewart is Shepherd Henderson, a publisher who lives in the apartment upstairs.  (We know he’s a classy guy because he’s got two last names.) Our girl Gillian isn’t looking for romance, far from it. She’s very happy living single with her familiar, a gorgeous Siamese cat named Pyewacket. Besides, any witch who falls in love for real risks losing all her powers. (That’s the part that makes my stomach gurgle just a bit.) She’s much too sensible and kind-hearted to vamp some poor sap with her supernatural charms (including but not limited to looking just Kim Novak) for the sake of a cheap thrill. But Shep’s just asking for it. First he annoys her Aunt Queenie, another witch played by Elsa Lancaster of Bride of Frankenstein fame. Then he has the audacity to be engaged to the bullying pill who tortured Gillian in college. How could any witch resist?

The whole “a witch can’t love and still do magic” thing sticks in my craw, of course, along with Gillian’s many lamentations about wanting to be “normal.” But watching Novak and Stewart banter and succumb is worth the allowances to be made. These are the same two who had steamed up the screen earlier that year as the doomed lovers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and it’s lovely to see them in something with laughs. And while the paranormal angle is a little watered-down by modern urban fantasy standards, it still has a pretty delicious bite, particularly for 1958.

Turner Classic Movies is showing Bell, Book and Candle at 8 pm EDT on Thursday, October 3, 2019 (today if you’re reading this on posting day), and I highly recommend it. And if you want six versions of my own take on witchy girls in love, check out Eat the Peach: And Other Wicked Tales, available now from Falstaff Crush.

eat the peach

How to Cook Supper on a Tuesday Night (Hamburger steaks & gravy)

My mama worked a nine-to-five clerical job pretty much my whole life. So I learned from her at an early age how to get to the grocery store, get home, and get supper on the table fast before collapsing from exhaustion in front of the TV set. This was one of my father’s favorite dinners, so we had it all the time. Whenever I think about cooking supper, this is still the first thing that springs to mind–the smell of it cooking takes me straight back to 1982. It feels like a real meal, but it’s cheap and fast and by this point, I could make it in my sleep. And bless him, my hubs loves it, too.

Ingredients:

2 pounds of hamburger

2 small white onions or one really big one

2 green bell peppers

2 tablespoons of butter

¼ cup of flour

2 cans of beef consommé

1-2 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce

Salt and pepper to taste

1 ½ cups of uncooked white rice

1 can of peas

How to Make It: 

Put 3 cups of water on to boil, liberally salted, with a lid. At some point while you’re doing the next few steps, the water will start to boil. When it does, add the rice, stir, bring back to a boil then reduce heat to low so the water just simmers. Leave it to simmer, covered and untouched, while you cook everything else.

Pat the hamburger into 6-8 patties, depending on how many people are eating. Season on both sides with salt and pepper. Sear on both sides in a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, about a minute and a half per side. You’ll probably have to do them in batches; I do mine as I make them out and remove the seared ones to a plate. You aren’t trying to cook them through at this point, just browning the outside.

While your patties are cooking, peel the onions and slice them in half lengthwise, then slice in half-rings, then seed and slice the bell peppers lengthwise. (Cut them big this way so the non-veggie-eaters can pick’em out without whining.) Once the patties are done and out of the pan, add the butter to the pan drippings and let it melt, then add the onions and peppers and sauté them until they’re soft. Add the flour, stirring constantly, and cook for about a minute so the flour doesn’t taste raw. Then add the consommé and stir to make a gravy. Add the Worcestershire sauce. Taste the gravy and adjust with more Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper as needed. Add the patties back into the gravy, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for about 15 minutes or until the meat is cooked through and your rice and peas are done.

Open the can of peas, pour it in a pot over medium heat, heat through.

Serve the gravy over the rice and beef patties with peas on the side.

Serves 6-8

 

 

Hippie Juice – Summer 2019

hippie juiceSo as regular readers already know, my family goes to North Myrtle Beach every summer. We stay in the same ramshackle house, flop like beached sea mammals on the sand, eat way too much junk food, play a LOT of contract rummy, and drink. I probably drink more alcohol during that one week than I do any two months during the rest of the year. And usually every year one or the other of us stumbles on some combination of fluids that becomes the drink of the summer. This year it was me, and this was it:  Hippie Juice. And no, I totally did NOT invent the concept. This is my adaptation of something I saw repeatedly on Pinterest, made with ingredients that don’t involve flavored vodka or grain alcohol. Because it’s been a long, long time since I was a college girl cooing, “Damn, y’all, I’m so druuuuuu-unk!” every time a cute boy walks by. (After nine years of marriage, my husband can tell without me telling him. ) But I think I’ve preserved the general spirit–it ain’t classy, but it sure tastes good. And it’s such a pretty shade of pink! These are the proportions for a pint-sized mason jar as shown. (And yes, that IS a Far Cry 5 glass–Hubs got it on sale at Target.)

Ingredients:

1 shot of either Grey Goose vodka OR Malibu coconut rum

About 2 shots of watermelon juice

1 heaping teaspoon of pre-sweetened pink lemonade mix

4-5 frozen strawberries

3-4 ice cubes

Enough fizzy lemon-lime soda to fill the glass – I prefer Sierra Mist.

Pour the shot of liquor into the glass. Add the watermelon juice. Add the pink lemonade mix and stir until it’s completely dissolved. Add the strawberries, ice, and soda, stir gently to combine.

The darlings of Pinterest take the trouble to rim their glasses with pink-colored sugar, and you can certainly do that if you’re of a mind to. But for me, that time is much better spent drinking, sunbathing, and reading trashy paperback novels on the beach.

Please wallow responsibly.

 

WIP: The Adventuress and Her Monsters

blur-calligraphy-close-up-51159Heya Kittens!

Since my real life is boring as the summer winds down, I thought y’all might prefer a sneak peek at my current work-in-progress (aka the thing I’m escaping into lately). It’s a a true gothic romance set in late-Victorian England, and the heroine is an American heiress doing the husband-hunting tour. And she meets this dangerous but oh so gorgeous guy …

This bit comes about 10,000 words into the book. I’m hoping to be done by the end of the year, so come 2020, watch this space!

♥♥♥♥♥♥

When Arabella arrived home from the ball a scant hour before dawn, she found a letter waiting on her pillow. “Maisie, what is this?”

“A man brought it around midnight,” the maid said. “The hotel manager brought it up himself and said the man insisted you receive it as soon as you returned.”

“So you didn’t see the man who left it?” The heavy envelope was sealed with an old-fashioned wax seal marked with an elaborate “D.”

“No, miss. But I got the idea he must have been someone very important or else …” She broke off. “No, miss. I didn’t see him.”

“Or else what?”

“You’ve seen the hotel manager,” the girl said. “He’s a right old dragon who thinks himself mighty as Herod. But I would almost say he looked frightened. He made me swear I would give you that before you went to sleep.”

“And so you have.” She set the envelope on the tray with her cocoa. “Thank you, Maisie.”

The gray light of dawn was creeping around the heavy drapes when she settled back on her pillows and slit open the envelope.

“My dear Miss O’Bryan,” it began in a clear, bold hand. “Arabella. I realize it is hardly proper that I should write you such a letter or deliver it in such a fashion. But I will not be easy in my mind until I know I have done all in my power to warn you. Once you have read this, you must proceed as your own conscience, heart, and judgment might lead you. But I will consider myself absolved.

“My cousin is not what he seems. He is as kind and as intelligent, and his wealth and position are all that any man might hope for—or that any woman might desire in a husband. But he has other qualities and other passions beyond the scope of the usual English gentleman. There are aspects to his character and person which are not so generally to be desired nor so easy to explain.

“Reading this, you may believe I consider you a fortune hunter unworthy of my bloodline and that I mean only to frighten you away. I assure you, Arabella, nothing could be further from the truth. As soon as we met this morning, I saw in you a rare spirit and intelligence, a worthy soulmate for any man but particularly suited to Gabriel. I am convinced he has fallen in love with you and with good reason. I wish I could rejoice at this, but I cannot. Impetuous and hot-tempered as he can be, it is not his habit to grind young men of the peerage under his heel as he did this morning. Nor is he known for making himself the object of gossip. He would have done neither of these things if you had not captured his heart and were not worthy of its loss.

“But there’s so much you don’t know.

“I wish I could explain my objection more plainly, if it is even an objection at all. But some secrets are not mine to tell. So I will only caution you thus. Do not take up Gabriel as a lark. Do not mistake his humor for lightness of spirit or his charm for shallow art. He means everything he says, even—especially!—when it seems he does not. He may play the fool, but he is a man of deep purpose. And his quest is all. If he makes you a part of his world, you will not easily escape it. And your reputation is not all you will imperil if you try.

“Tread carefully, Arabella.

“Your servant—Dante Durant.”

She refolded the letter with trembling fingers. Her first animal instinct was to throw it into the fire, burn it to ashes, and pretend she had never received it.

But that was foolishness. She was jumping at shadows because she was so tired. For all his pretty protests to the contrary, Dante obviously found her unsuitable—too American, too vulgar, too much trouble. She resolved to set his letter aside and get some much-needed rest. In the morning, she might well destroy the letter. She might respond to it. She might even keep it to show Gabriel—not immediately, of course, but some sweet future time when it would make him laugh. Who knew? Perhaps the three of them might someday laugh about it together. She tucked the envelope under her book on her bedside table and turned down the lamp.

But she couldn’t sleep. After tossing and turning for half an hour as the sun rose behind the drapes, she got up and went to her writing desk.

“Dear Dr. Durant—Dante,” she began.

“I’m not sure what you meant to accomplish with your letter. If I were really in some kind of danger as you keep hinting, common decency would compel you to tell me precisely what that danger is. If you have the affection for your cousin you pretend and the regard for me you wrote of, what reasonable objection could you have to our forming an attachment?

“But like you, I’ve gotten ahead of myself. You write of love and marriage—good heavens, Dante, I barely know the man! Let us get to know one another, please, before you predict disaster. Or in the alternative, keep your predictions to yourself.

“In short, my very dear sir, write what you mean or kindly leave me and your cousin in peace.

“Yours in friendship—Arabella O’Bryan”

She finished her signature with a flourish. She blew on the ink to dry it, then folded the letter into one of her own monogrammed envelopes. She copied Dante’s address carefully from his own letter, then took the packet out to the parlor, still dressed in nothing but her nightgown.

“Good morning,” she said to the hotel maid who had paused in her dusting to gawp at her. Judith’s morning correspondence was stacked neatly on the sideboard, waiting to be taken down to the hotel post. Arabella slipped her letter to Dante into the middle of the stack. Then she went back to bed and slept soundly until well past noon.

Taming Plot Bunnies and Getting It Done

plot bunnyOne of my New Year’s resolutions for 2019 was to be more productive and disciplined in my fiction writing. I’d spent the last three months of 2018 finishing a project that I’d been working on sporadically for years and ignoring everything else, and that had taught me that I actually produce more and better story if I stick to one at a time.  But going into the new year, I knew I had at least three novel-length projects in my pipeline that needed to get written for Falstaff Crush. All three were in sketchy outline, ready to roll, but I felt like I had fallen behind and needed to catch up. Under my old protocol, I would have worked on one until I got tired of it (or got bogged down in a plothole), then switched to another, rotating my way through until I finished something and adding in something new in its place. But again, I had figured out that this methodology was just making me feel tired and stressed all the time—I was constantly juggling, constantly working, but I never felt like I was making any headway.

So I resolved to line them up and work on them one at a time—a paranormal medieval romance with a dragon in it that was my heart’s desire at the moment first, then the second Stella Hart mystery, then a super-smutty gothic horror romance I’d been talking about since ConCarolinas 2018. I would give myself three months for each and try to write in chunks of 1000 words as many days of the week as possible.

And lo and behold, y’all, it’s working. I finished the submission draft of The Wizard’s Daughter around March 15 and Stella 2 by mid-July, and I’m well underway on the gothic. The first two books are about 50,000 words each, and the gothic will be at least that long, maybe a little longer. For me, this is HUGELY productive—I have NEVER been able to finish more than 1.5 full-length novels in a year. That alone would be enough to make me call this method a success. But I’ve noticed a few other benefits, too.

I’m a lot more relaxed when I’m writing. Writing fiction is my major stress-buster in and of itself; when I don’t write, my anxiety explodes through the top of my head like turning off the power grid at Ghostbusters Central. But knowing that I only have to produce actual word count on one story at a time focuses that energy and helps me shut out the static of all the other stories I’m not writing yet. When plot bunnies hop up, I can think about them, even jot down some notes, but then I pat them on the head and send them away because sorry, kid, I’m busy. And I have no guilt about that—I am cloaked in the righteousness of productivity.

I’m a lot more relaxed when I’m not writing. This is a benefit that only really came into play as I finished The Wizard’s Daughter. I have a day job; I have a husband; I’m an editor of other people’s stuff; I have to market the stuff that’s already published; I read other people’s fiction; I have research to do which may or may not ever be a part of my word count; I have episodes of Lucifer and The Great British Baking Show to watch. All best intentions and soul-deep commitment aside, I know there’s no way in the world I’m going to actually write 1000 words a day every single day. It’s just not going to happen. But I still finished a book in a little more than three months. I proved that even with my schedule, when I focus on one story and live in it until it’s done, I can do the work; I can finish. Finishing Stella 2 by the end of June just reinforced that. So going forward, when I miss a day, I don’t freak out or beat myself up or—and this one is the killer—use that momentary setback as proof of inevitable failure and let myself completely off the hook. I know now if I stick with it, I can take a day or a weekend or a week with the flu away from my story and still finish it in a timely fashion.

I don’t get stuck as often, and when I do get stuck, I wriggle out of it a lot faster. When I’m working on the first draft of a story, I’m never NOT working on it. That plotline is running like a background task in my head continuously, day and night, even when I’m sleeping. This is why it takes me an hour to take a bath and can take as long as twenty minutes to put my sneakers on. As soon as I’m holding still and not talking, I get lost in my story. And every fiction writer I know is the same to greater or lesser degree, and don’t let them tell you any different. (I don’t drive, but I suspect a lot of novelists find themselves miles out of their way on the way to the Wal-Marts because that story brain took over.) When I was working on multiple projects simultaneously, that part of my brain was working out all those plots all the time, attacking multiple knots at once. And every time I sat down to actually write, I had to somehow silence everything else to put myself completely into the manuscript in front of me. I wasn’t just tuning out the bills I had to pay and the itch on the back of my knee and the barking of the neighbor’s dog, I was also tuning out those other stories. By keeping that part of my brain focused almost completely on the one story all the time, the knots unravel on their own, and I don’t get paralyzed. I’m not trashing and rewriting nearly as much or nearly as often as I was before. I’m more confident when I put pen to paper, and when something isn’t working, I recognize it a lot faster. So while I still have a bazillion distractions from outside my writing process, the time I do spend physically writing is more efficient and productive.

I can work smarter with my publisher. The question I’ve dreaded the most from publishers since I first started getting paid to make up stuff is, “So when will the book be finished?” Like authors, publishers want to be responsive to the market; they want to release stuff that’s new and fresh and of the moment. But they’re also having to plan their release calendar years in advance. So yeah, they want your newest genius idea, but only if they can have it now—or at least know when they can expect it. (This is why most publishers won’t accept proposals and sample chapters any more from new authors; they want the product in hand before they agree to buy it.) And I’ve always been crap at accommodating that; I think that’s been one of the major things holding me back as a professional fiction writer. Now I know, all things being equal, if I have a reasonable plan mapped out (my outlining process is another whole post) and can stick to a reasonable schedule, I can expect to finish my product and have it ready for editing in three months. The books I’m writing in 2019 will hopefully show up on the Falstaff Crush calendar in 2020—and my publisher can make that determination with confidence because he has the books in hand.

This protocol won’t work for everybody. I know a lot of talented writers whose best defense against writer’s block is working on multiple projects simultaneously. I don’t even know how long it will continue to work for me. Once I run out of outlines, the whole system might fall apart. But for right now, this is how I’m doing it, and I have to say, I’m pleased.

My Heroes Have Sometimes Been Cowboys

bury me notThe first grown-up movie I ever saw in a theater was The Cowboys, starring John Wayne. It came out in 1972, so I would have been eight years old. My dad has always been a die-hard Wayne fan (oh, the raging fights we’ve had about McClintock!), and in those days, first-run movies didn’t hang around our local theater long. My guess is my grandmother wasn’t available to babysit the one weekend it was playing, so Daddy told Mama most of the cast was under the age of sixteen and told himself I’d be fine. Either way, the first time I found myself in a movie that didn’t start off with a nature documentary or a Mickey Mouse cartoon, I saw John Wayne get shot. And it was glorious.

If you haven’t seen it, John Wayne is a cattle rancher who loses all of his ranch hands right before the big cattle drive and has to recruit a bunch of boys barely old enough to climb into the saddle to replace them. Bruce Dern plays the squirreliest, dirtiest, most evil polecat of a rustler ever to grace the silver screen. He’s the one who shoots and kills John Wayne, and his eventual comeuppance haunts me to this day. (If you ever read me write a villain getting killed by horse-dragging, rest assured, I bear them a grudge.) I suspect I only understood about half of what was going on in the story, but it sucked me in completely. And while I can’t find much good to say about John Wayne as a human being these days, I’m still a sucker for an even halfway decent Western. My current favorite is the remake of 3:10 to Yuma with Russell Crowe (swoon!) and Christian Bale, which incidentally, my father the purist who loved the original absolutely hated. And yes, I have even seen Young Guns and Young Guns 2 multiple times; why would you even ask?

My own latest book release, Bury Me Not, blends this love of cowboys with my usual focus on history, horror, and romance. In three connected stories, saloon dove-turned-outlaw Daisy and her notorious gunslinger lover Cade battle zombies, vampires, and Krampus. (For those most beloveds who’ve been reading me since Little Red Hen Romance, two of the stories were released through LRH as singles, but the vampire story, the longest of the three, is brand new for this book.) And I love those two so much, I’m sure sometime soon I’ll have them battling something else. I can’t even tell you how much fun they are to write. As you can probably tell, these stories aren’t exactly serious; neither Larry McMurtry nor Annie Proulx has much to fear from me so far. But I think they do put across just how much I still love the great mythology of the American Wild West. I hope I get the details right enough that my dad might like them, too.

The Dark Lady – a freebie for Pride Month

In honor of Pride Month 2019, here’s a short story I wrote for a 2016 anthology Falstaff Books put together to raise money for LGBTQ support and awareness. Get your copy of the full anthology HERE. In my story, a transgender woman who found herself as a boy actor at Shakespeare’s Globe makes peace with the playwright she loves as  father.

The Dark Lady

Burbage expected a scene of squalor. But he found a neat little house of fresh plaster and timbers built on the edge of the suburban village he had never heard tell of before. He was ushered into a second floor parlor and told he might wait if it pleased him. A fire was burning in the hearth, and the mantelpiece was lined with polished silver plate.

He had just taken a seat in the best cushioned chair when the door opened and a lady swept in. “Forgive me, mistress,” he said, getting up again with his old player’s grace. “I fear I must have come to the wrong house.” She was a very pretty lady, too, with thick, glossy waves of dark brown hair drawn back in a veil of gold net and wide, bright hazel eyes. Her gown was plain but rich, black brocade with white linen collar and cuffs, and she wore a simple choker at her throat with a dark red stone in the shape of a heart. As he bowed to her, she smiled, and a dimple appeared at the corner of her mouth. And suddenly he knew her. “God save us!” He fell back into the chair, all courtesy forgotten. “Orlando!”

“Hello, Dick,” the little monster said, still smiling. “And if you don’t mind, it’s Mistress Thatcher now—or Rosalind, if you must.”

“Monster!” he said. “It’s an outrage. It’s indecent! I’ll have the sheriff on you, you impertinent pup!”

“Are you a magistrate now, Dick Burbage, that you would lecture me on decency and threaten me with the law?” she said, her cheeks flushing pink. “My father-in-law is, and he loves me well.” The arch of her eyebrow was familiar, too, a trick she had used to great effect against him in battles of wit on the stage. “He will stake his considerable purse and influence to defend my honor, should you accuse me. Think you, player, that you are his match?”

Burbage considered the silver plate along the mantelpiece and the jewel at her throat. “Forgive me, chuck,” he said, tempering his tone. In the old days back at the Globe, he would have boxed the creature’s ears for speaking to him so, but now this seemed imprudent. “I was but surprised to see you so—I loved you so well as a boy.”

“Loved me?” she said, her smile returning. “Nay, Dick, not once, though not for lack of trying. Will you have a drink?” Without waiting for his answer, she poured a cup of malmsey wine and put it in his hand.

“Thanks, Mistress…Thatcher, did you say?” he said, taking a drink.

“I did.” She poured a cup of her own and sat down. “But call me Rosalind. You did so once before easily enough.”

“On the stage, aye,” he said. The wine had calmed his nerves, and he was able to look at her again and smile. “But that is all the world, isn’t it, chuck? So our Will did say.” He drank again; the wine was excellent. “You always were a pretty thing.”

“I thank ye kindly, sir.” Rosalind surveyed the old ruin with weary affection. “But have you come just to pay me compliments and threaten me with shackles? ‘Tis a funny sort of visit.”

“I’ve come for Will.” The old actor’s eyes were red from more than drink, she thought. “He is dying, Orlando—Rosalind. He has fallen into a stupor, and I thought it would ease him to see you again.”

“And why should you think that?” She took a long swallow of wine to mask her sudden grief. Will Shakespeare dying? It couldn’t be so. “’Tis twenty years since I left London. ‘Twould be passing strange if he remembered me at all.”

“Go to, monkey,” he said. “As if any of us could forget you, whatever you might have become.” For a moment, she was offended, but his eyes were twinkling, and she couldn’t be angry. She raised her glass instead, and he returned the salute. “He spoke of you right recently, in fact,” he said, holding out his empty glass. “Drayton and I made a party to visit him in Stratford a month or so past,” he said as she refilled it. “He had just made his will, and Michael asked if he felt well. He said he felt content but for a few small matters now out of his power to help.” In his eyes and manner, she could see the great tragic player he had been. She knew how dearly he loved Will; in his eyes she saw he was telling the truth. “I asked him what small matters, and he mentioned you. He said your parting still troubled him, and he would give much to speak with you again.”

Her eyes had filled with tears as he spoke. “A month ago this was?”

“Aye, chuck,” Burbage said. “It has taken me a fortnight to find you—I began when he fell ill.” He leaned forward in his chair and offered her his hand, and after a moment, she took it. “Will you not go to him, Orlando?” he said. “Our Will did love you once.”

“Don’t try to be Hamlet to me now, Dick,” she said. “You haven’t the legs for it anymore.” But she couldn’t be cursed with him, not now. “Of course I will go.” She went to the door and called in the maid who was eavesdropping there. “I must away to Stratford-upon-Avon with Mr. Burbage to visit a sick friend,” she said. “Call for my carriage and bring me my cloak. And if any do have need of me before I return, tell them I may be found there.”

“At New Place,” Burbage said. “But God’s life, sirrah—mistress—will you not change your costume?”

“Nay, sir,” she said. “I go as myself or not at all.”

After a moment, the old player nodded. “Aye, chuck. As you will.”

 

 

For the first few miles, Burbage kept up a lively monologue, catching her up on what he knew of all their old friends from London. But old age conspired with the gentle rocking of the carriage and the wine he had drunk, and soon he was asleep, leaving her alone with her thoughts.

She had ridden this rutted road with him before, though not in comfort. She’d still been Orlando then and had perched like a monkey on top of a wagonload of scenery. They had been bound for some further place, some country manor or other, to play Romeo and Juliet for a rich noble and his household outside the plague-ridden danger of London. Juliet had been Orlando’s first noteworthy role with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men; he had been barely fourteen years old and as a boy looked younger because of his size. Will Shakespeare and Dick Burbage had stopped off at Stratford-upon-Avon on the way, and they had taken Orlando with them for reasons neither had bothered to explain.

Dick and Orlando had waited for Will in a sort of orchard across the road from the house where Will’s wife and children lived with his in-laws. “You must cheer him up when he returns,” Burbage had said, settling on the ground against a tree as if he expected a long wait.

“Why does Will need cheering up?” Orlando had asked. The playwright had been sad and quiet since they’d left the Globe. “Dick, what’s happened?”

“Never you mind,” the older player had said, pulling his hat down over his eyes. “Just be ready with your best japes when he returns and none of your tragedy.” Orlando had been a clown before Will had cast him as Juliet, and to Dick’s mind, he ought to have stayed one.

Dick was soon asleep, leaving Orlando alone to wait. More than an hour had passed; he knew it by the chiming of the village church bells. But he saw no sign of Shakespeare’s return. Finally, reckless with boredom, he left Burbage sleeping and ventured across the road.

He didn’t have the nerve to knock on the front door, so he sallied around to the back of the house like he knew where he was going. There was a stable and a flock of geese in the yard, but all was strangely quiet. From an open window upstairs, he could hear a woman crying and the soft voice of a man who might have been Will. But he couldn’t make out the words.

“Who are you?” a voice spoke behind him. Turning, he found a girl of what looked to be his own age.

“Orlando, mistress.” He made a deep bow as Burbage would have done, on-stage and off. “At your service.”

“What are you doing here?” She was a pretty girl with serious brown eyes that were very like Will’s.

“I’ve come with Will Shakespeare,” he said. “I’m one of his players.”

“Oh!” She looked more interested. “Then you must be wicked.”

“Must I?” He rarely talked to girls his own age and never of this class. “Who says so?”

“My mother,” she said. “Will Shakespeare is my father. I’m Susannah.” She walked around  him like he might have been a camel displayed at the fair. “You’re very handsome.”

“I have to be,” he said. “I play the lady’s parts. Or in truth, I play the whole lady. Her parts are hidden—as they must be, mind, as I am playing her.” She didn’t even smile. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mistress Susannah,” he said, bowing again. The girl continued to stare at him. “Are you glad to have your father home to visit?”

This had seemed the most harmless of questions, but the girl’s expression crumpled. “Yes.” She turned her back on him and hid her face in her hands. “Go away!”

“What is it?” He put a hand on her trembling shoulder. “What ails you, child?”

“I said go away!” She ran from him down the garden toward the orchard, and for a moment, he thought he’d let her go and go back to Burbage. But that seemed cowardly. The girl was obviously upset. So he ran after her.

He found her leaning on the gnarled trunk of an apple tree, sobbing like her heart was broken. “Don’t look at me,” she ordered, looking back when she heard him approach. “It isn’t decent.”

“What isn’t decent?” He touched her shoulder again. “That I should see you cry?” She nodded, crying all the harder. “Susie, why are you crying?”

She turned to him. “Because my brother’s dead.”

“Your brother?”

“Hamnet.”

“You poor darling.” Without thinking, he pulled her close, and she pressed her hot little face to his breast. “I’m so sorry. No wonder you have to cry.”

“Mother says I mustn’t,” she said. “She says Hamnet has gone to heaven, so we must rejoice. But I don’t feel like rejoicing.”

“Of course you don’t,” Orlando said, stroking her hair. “And just between us, your mother is a horse’s ass.”

She almost giggled through her tears. “No, she isn’t,” she said. “She’s a very godly woman.”

“In a pig’s eye,” he said. “I promise you, Susie, I know my business. My father was a priest. He would have been a bishop if he had lived. And when he died, I cried and cried for a fortnight in the bishop’s own house, and no one once told me to stop.”

“You lived with the bishop?” she said.

“I did indeed until I ran away,” he said. He handed her his handkerchief. “You were right before; I am very wicked. But I promise you are not.”

“I don’t think you are either,” she said. “I think you’re very kind.”

Will stepped out of the shadows of the trees. “So do I.” He held out his arms to Susannah, and she ran to him. Orlando turned away, not wishing to intrude. From a discreet distance, he heard the girl’s soft weeping and her father’s tender voice speaking comfort. Tears stung his own eyes, and he wiped them away.

He was just about to leave them in peace and go back to Burbage when Will spoke to him. “Is Dick drunk in the tavern yet?”

“Sleeping where you left him,” Orlando said, turning back to him. Will had his arm around Susannah, and she was tucked close to his side. “Shall I tell him we’re going on without you?”

“And who will be your Friar Lawrence?” Will said. “No, I must come, too.”

“Please don’t go, Papa,” Susannah said.

“I must,” he said, hugging her close. “But we shall be back in three days’ time, after the performance.” He kissed her forehead. “In the meantime, Orlando was right. You must weep for Hamnet all you like, you and Judith both. I give you my permission.” He had tears of his own on his cheeks.

“Yes, Papa.” She wiped away her father’s tears with Orlando’s handkerchief. “I will see you in three days.”

Walking back to Burbage, Orlando hadn’t known what he should say, so he kept silent. But before Will woke up Dick, he suddenly turned to Orlando and hugged him close much as he had Susannah.

“I’m sorry about Hamnet, Will,” the boy she had been had said, half-choked with tears.

“Thank you, chuck.” Burbage had let out an almighty snore, and they had both laughed. “I am sorry, too.”

 

 

 

The village of Stratford-upon-Avon had changed very little in the twenty years since her last visit. But Will Shakespeare’s family’s fortunes had obviously improved. “Our William did very well for himself in the end,” Burbage said as he climbed down from the carriage in front of the fine New Place. “Though perhaps not so well as you.”  Rosalind stood in the door of the carriage waiting, one eyebrow raised. “Oh, God’s almighty teeth,” Dick swore. “Come on, then.” He offered his hand for support, and Rosalind took it and climbed down. “Insolent puppy,” Dick grumbled.

Rosalind just smiled. “That’s insolent bitch to you.”

Will’s wife was none too keen to welcome either of them. “How dare you come back here, Richard Burbage,” she said, coming down to stop them as soon as they crossed the threshold of the hall. “’Twas you put my husband on his deathbed, you and Drayton. Carousing so at your age and dragging him with you. And what strumpet is this that you’ve brought to my house?”

“Mistress Rosalind Thatcher,” Rosalind said, making a deep curtsey that would have passed muster at the royal court.

“Go to, both of you,” Anne said. “Out of my house at once.”

“Mother?” A younger woman was coming down the stairs. “Is this not still my father’s house?” With a shiver of shock, Rosalind recognized Susannah. “Think you he would not wish to see his friends?” She offered her hand to Burbage “Well met, Dick.” When she turned to Rosalind, her eyes widened in recognition. “And you…Mistress Thatcher, did you say?”

“I did,” Rosalind said. “At your service.”

“My father was most eager to speak to you,” Susannah said as her mother made an ugly snort that added nothing to her meagre charm. “Won’t you come upstairs?”

She led her to a bedroom with windows facing west. “He always wants to see the sunset,” Susannah explained in a hushed tone. “He says the twilight is the best time of day.”

“So has he always done,” Rosalind said. She could hardly believe the man lying so still on the bed could be Will.

“It is safe to come near him,” Susannah said. “My husband says it is a fever of the brain that ails him, not the plague. He’s a doctor, my husband.”

“I wouldn’t mind it either way,” Rosalind said. She sat on the edge of the bed and lay her hand over Will’s. He felt warm, and his face though lined now with age and pain was just as she remembered. “I would risk much more than plague to speak with him again.”

“He mostly sleeps now,” Susannah said. “But he has awakened twice since yesterday to ask for water and to talk with me and John. I believe he might wake again for you.”

“May God so will it,” Rosalind said. “Do you remember me, Susannah?”

“Of course I do.” She still had her father’s eyes and her father’s sad, sweet smile. “You still play the lady’s part, I see.”

“It is no part,” Rosalind said. “Not anymore.”

Susannah put a hand on her shoulder. “Then we must be as sisters,” she said. “My father loves you as a child.” Before Rosalind could answer, she had gone, leaving her alone with Will.

“Is that so, ancient Will?” she asked, clasping his hand. “Can you love me as a daughter as you loved me as a son?” But he didn’t answer.

She waited beside him holding his hand as the shadows crept across the floor. Susannah came back in every hour or so to look in on them, but otherwise, they were alone.

As the sun was setting, Rosalind went to the window. “I love the twilight, too,” she said. “At the Globe, Hamlet would just have been dying now.” Ophelia had been one of her last roles. It was said even the Queen herself had been moved to tears by her performance.

But her last part had been as Rosalind in As You Like It. She remembered her last performance. Her last night on the stage. Her last night as the boy Orlando.

She had lingered long after she thought all the others had gone until a messenger came with a bundle she had saved her wages for weeks to buy. In the empty tiring house by the light of two small candles, she took off her boyish habit for the last time and put on her new clothes, a plain gown such as a shopkeeper’s wife might wear. She combed out her hair, grown long for years so she never had to wear the wigs that so plagued other ladies on the stage, and pinned it in coils under a white linen cap.

She was just fastening a ribbon around her throat when she saw Will Shakespeare reflected in the copper mirror in front of her. “What new mummery is this?” he asked.

“None at all,” she said, tying her ribbon. “I am leaving, Will.”

“Who has procured you?” She heard the fury in his tone but knew it wasn’t for her. He had thrashed a minor player within an inch of his life two seasons before for playing pimp between nobles and another boy. “If your purse is light, why not come to me?”

“My purse is fine,” she said. “I’m not playing whore, Will.” She stood up and turned to him. “I’m leaving. Leaving the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, leaving London. Leaving Orlando.” She could see from his face he didn’t understand. “I can’t playact innocent girls any longer. I am ready to be a woman.”

“Queen Gertrude,” Will said. “Lady Macbeth. Cleopatra—are these not women?”

“Aye, Will, but they are imaginary parts,” she said. “Your parts, the women who live inside your head. I am ready to be myself.”

Finally she saw the beginning of understanding in her master’s eyes. “But you can not be this woman, chuck,” Will said not unkindly. “I made you a woman for the stage, but God made you a man.”

“Do you mean now to preach me a sermon?” she said. “You know me, Will, as well almost as I know myself. Was Rosalind not written so that the world might see me as I am, as you do?”

“Rosalind was written to amuse a mob,” Will said. “She is a thing of air and fancy.”

“Aye, but I am not.”

“And who has taught you this strange text?” Will asked. “What wizard has promised to transform your parts and make you his bride?” She blushed and turned away. “You are right, boy, when you say I know this malady.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “But malady it is, a fever of the mind, not magic that may undo nature. I would have you escape this hell, Orlando, and for my part in bringing you to it, I must beg the pardon of Almighty God.”

“You’ve done naught but be as a father to me!”

“And a right poor one, too, methinks,” Will said. “I have made you believe you are a monster.”

“Then what of your noble patron?” Rosalind said. “Your most beautiful beloved, your holy soul? What manner of monster is he?”

Will slapped her so hard he sent her sprawling. “A poison tongue does not become thee, Orlando,” he said, his voice trembling.

“Orlando isn’t here, Will.” She wiped blood from her mouth. “What’s more, you know he is not, else why strike me with your open hand and not your fist? If a man so offended thee, why not draw thy sword?” She could see from Will’s horrified expression that he understood. “I am younger than you are and stronger. If I be a man as you are, why should I allow you to strike me down?”

“Get up, for pity,” Will said. “Get up and stop this.”

“’Twas your Almighty God made me a woman, Will, not you. You know I am no monster, and you know I am no man.” She climbed to her feet. “I have taken nothing from the company but honest wages. I ask nothing of you but your blessing. The blessing of a father to his daughter as she leaves his house.” Tears were streaming down her cheeks. “Will you not grant me that?”

For a moment, she had thought he would. She had seen in his eyes that he wanted to, that he loved her still. Then he had turned away. “Go to, boy,” he said, the last words he had spoken to her. “Go to.”

Now twenty years later she went back to Will’s bedside, tears brought on by memory wet on her cheeks. “Fairly met, master-father.” She went down on her knees beside the bed and clasped his cold hand between her own. As cold as any stone, she thought, remembering the death of old Falstaff. She had played the boy in old King Henry’s play, her first time ever on the stage. She had been paid for it with the first good meal she’d had in weeks, an orphan and runaway apprentice alone on the streets of London. “You saved me, Will,” she said. “For certes, you must know that.” She brushed the last wisps of his hair back from his fine, handsome brow. “Dick Burbage said you wished to see me,” she said. “I am here.” His lips were pale, and his eyelids looked bruised purple. Old Hamlet, she thought. How many times had she seen him made up as the ghost? She held his hand against her cheek. “Will you curse me again with your silence?”

Will’s eyelids fluttered. “You,” he said, a rasp barely louder than a whisper. “Is it you?”

“Aye.” She smiled.

He smiled, too. “My lady still…” He stroked her cheek. “Ophelia, then?”

“Nay, love. Rosalind.” She kissed his wrist and felt the flutter of his pulse against her lips. “A merry wench, I promise.”

“Good.” He frowned as if something pained him. “Aye me…” She gripped his hand more tightly. “Blessing….” He laid his hand on her head. “All blessings, daughter,” he said, smiling as she cried. “All my blessings on thee.” She leaned down and kissed his cheek, and she felt him kiss her back. But when she drew back, his eyes were closed, and he was sleeping.

 

 

She returned to her own house in the morning, and her own sweet Lydia met her in the yard. “Well met, beloved,” her wife said, kissing her. “Well met, wife.” Rosalind dissolved in tears against Lydia’s breast, and she held her close. “Welcome home.”

 

ConCarolinas 2019!

ConCarolinas 2019It’s that time of year again – ConCarolinas is back, and I’ll be there! I only consistently show up for one fandom and writing convention a year, and ConCarolinas in Charlotte, North Carolina, is it. And this year’s slate of guests and events is particularly excellent. The people in charge have worked their collective cabooses off making this the best ConCarolinas/Deep South Con ever.

And I can prove it. They invited me. I’ll be there all weekend, Friday, May 31 through Sunday, June 2. I’m officially launching not one but two new books, and I’ll be appearing at the following panels:

bury me notOn Friday, May 31:

3:00 – Whose Story Is This? (in Walden): We’ll be talking about fan fiction; loving it, hating it, what it means, how to do it, what it can lead to. And I’ll actually be the moderator on this one, so batten down the hatches.

7:00 – ConCarolinas Short Takes (in a 3rd floor room, follow the noise): I’ll be one of a whole slate of author guests reading bits from their latest works. It’s a choice crowd, and we’ll all still be giddy with first-night-at-the-con glee. So a good time is pretty well assured at this one.

On Saturday, June 1:

11:00 – Tired Tropes of Women (Keynes): Parsing, bemoaning, and offering alternatives to the timeworn cliches of chicks in space and fantasy and horror, from the sexually voracious pixies who get confused tying their shoes to all those dead-but-loyal superhero girlfriends inspiring their men to greatness. If you’re a woman writing speculative fiction or a guy writing speculative fiction who wants to write better women, hit this one up.

12:00 – Historical Fantasy (Keynes): Ways to write the fantastical while keeping it real–and why it matters.

1:00 – Choosing an Editor (Keynes): You know you need an editor, but what kind of editor do you need? All the basic species will be on display and ready for your questions.

6:00 – There Is No Finish Line: Maintaining Energy and Momentum (Walden): Whether you’re just starting out as a writer or writing Book 27 of your bestselling series, you’re gonna have days when you think you might just quit. A panel of authors who’ve been at this for a while will offer war stories and advice on how to beat those urges and keep going (and why you must). I’ll be the moderator, and I can’t wait to hear what everybody else will have to say.

eat the peachOn Sunday, June 2:

SF/F: Are We Ready to Lighten Up Yet? (Lakeshore 2): A discussion of “Hopepunk”–what it is and why we might really, really need it. Or why we don’t.

I’m Not Bad, I’m Just Written That Way (Walden): Let’s talk about antiheroes, baby. (Why yes, I probably WILL mention that new season of Lucifer on Netflix; why do you ask?)

When I’m not on panels, I’m sharing a table with Alexandra Christian in Authors Alley, and I’ll probably stop in to annoy John Hartness and the rest of the crew at the big Falstaff Books booth. Get all the scoop about ConCarolinas 2019/Deep South Con 57 at their website here: https://concarolinas2019.sched.com/ Can’t wait to see you there!