Lilacs, Sawdust and Love

I am writing this in view of the back yard so that I can refresh myself with frequent glances our lilac bush.  Every spring, it produces thick cones of blossoms that range in color from violet buds to the lavender of spent blooms.  Some people don’t care for lilacs because they bloom so briefly, only a matter of weeks compared with the spring-to-summer performance of roses, for example.  And the contrast of shaded purples against the plant’s vibrant green leaves might strike some as garish, but I love it.

However striking their appearance is, the reason lilacs are my favorite flower is invisible, but impossible to ignore: its scent.

Heady, intense, luxuriant, this time of year the perfume hits us as soon as we step out of the back door, even though the shrub sits at the edge of our yard.  I could bury my face in the heavy clusters and breathe their odor in for the next two weeks.  (Apologies to those who suffer from high pollen counts this time of year!)  Trying to analyze the scent with words like ‘sweet’, ‘earthy hints’ or ‘green’ doesn’t work.  One whiff hits my nostrils and all I think is Lilac!

Part of this is because our sense of smell is primitive.  It’s not processed in the cerebral cortex, so is more linked with memory and emotions than with rational thought processes.  I often participated in theater during college and the head of the scene shop never understood why I stuck my head through the doorway and inhaled deeply every time I passed.  He didn’t know the smell of sawdust rockets me back to age three or four, watching my carpenter grandfather in his workshop while I happily play on the floor.  Grandpa died over 30 years ago, but thanks to sawdust, I retain vivid memories of him.  The power of scent works both ways, though.  I couldn’t be in the same room with egg salad for years because of a highly distressing experience involving a sandwich, the back of a station wagon and the flu.

Science debates the importance of pheromones in human mating behavior, but each of us does have a unique scent that can only be disguised temporarily by deodorant or perfume.  Humans don’t have the acute noses of bloodhounds, but on the same subconscious level that triggers emotional memories of Grandpa, personal scents register in our brains.  As a romance writer, I try to keep that in mind as something that draws the hero and heroine together, or repels them from the villain or villainess.  I may not always include it, but I give some thought to what my characters smell like:  Leather? Pine? Soap and water?  Vanilla?  Maybe lemons make him remember burying his face in her hair because she used their juice to rinse it.  Or opening the cedar chest causes her heart to ache because the odor clung to his shirt.

Scent, feelings and memories — an intimate triad of the physical, emotional and mental aspects of our nature.

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Capturing Moods: Music

I can’t sing, but because I’ve danced much of my life, and will until I can no longer hobble to the ballet barre, music is one of my essentials.  Where some people need to have the TV on for background noise when they’re home, I need music.  Several different kinds of music.

Anymore, I use radio programs like Pandora on my computer to pull up songs or I carry them around the house on my iPod.  (My family gave me a reconditioned one for my birthday, which suits me perfectly.  No bells and whistles I’ll never use, and enough for me to play with.)

When I’m getting started with the day, the DJ feature on iTunes works great.  That’s when I answer emails, get the laundry started, figure out if I forgot any errands for the day (sadly, a frequent occurance), that sort of thing.  My listening list ranges from Bach to parts of the Twilight soundtrack.  (The latter mysteriously appeared after one of my kids had the computer one day.)

For writing, I’ve discovered that lyrics are problematic.  They can capture the exact feeling my characters are going through, but the words themselves distract me.  At the moment I’m typing to Patsy Cline’s ‘I fall to Pieces’, but once it’s time to get into characters and places, instrumentals work better.  For writing from my hero’s point of view, Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings soundtrack or John Williams’ for Star Wars often work well.  Amazingly, the Transformers II soundtrack has some deep orchestral tracks that conjure up a strong hero either in action or expressing his tender side.

For my heroines, I often resort to romantic piano pieces, depending on what they’re doing in a particular scene.  Chopin’s faster pieces remind me of ballrooms and swirling skirts (probably because his music was used to create the ballet ‘Les Sylphides’, lol!), while his slower pieces let me focus on description or narrative.  I can listen to the lyrics of female country music stars when I’m stumped.  They help me find where the heroine is emotionally in the story and their sassy attitude helps my ladies find their backbones.

Franz Liszt’s passionate compositions  lend themselves to both arguments and love scenes, lol.  The turbulent melodies of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ also work well for the latter.

Each of us has our own personal playlist: Songs that cheer us up (rock & 80’s pop), inspire us (Josh Grobin, LOTR soundtrack), make us get up and boogie around the living room (curtains closed of course!!) or sing out loud in the car (Kelly Clarkson, Duffy, Michael or Janet Jackson, Marvin Gaye), reflect a sunny day (Jason Mraz, Van Halen)  or a melancholy mood (Rachmaninoff, the Pet Shop Boys) or get us in THE mood (old R&B, baby!).  What do you listen to?  Why?

A Change of Season

In a blog interview with Cheri LaClaire a couple months ago, I was asked about my writing routine: where I write, what I surround myself with, etc.  The thing is, I don’t really think of myself as having a routine, so it made me pause and think carefully about how each writing day starts for me.  The writing day is different from the rest of the day, simply because I also do things like laundry and cooking.  I would add housekeeping to the list, but that is something I try to avoid as much as possible.

I covered the basics in my interview with Cheri, but this spring, I find myself avoiding my ‘official’ writing space, which is in our basement.  It’s a good space, mind you, near the laser printer my husband gave me two Mothers’ Days ago (one of the best gifts ever!) and convenient to my books.  The basement, for the foreseeable future, is the only place in the house with room for my desk, printer, file cabinet and books.   But right now, I can’t stand to go near it.

Maybe because this last winter seemed to stretch on and on and on and on, with SO much more snow than usual, I want to spend as much time as possible near sunlight, and where I can at least see outside.  I’ve been working, to my husband’s dismay, on our dining room table.  I sympathize with him, since this involves clearing it off before dinner every night.  (We both agreed several years ago that since we have a dining room table, we should actually use it.)  But it’s so pleasant to work in a light-filled room, surrounded by furniture that came from both my grandmothers,  in the house that we raised our children in.

The view from our front window is an unremarkable front yard, but it has a tree and the sight of green grass.  With the dining room window open on temperate days, I can hear the birds that built a nest in the neighbors’ gutter.  Add flowers cut from our garden and I can enjoy the sights, sounds and scents of warm weather as I write.

Or I can sit under the tree in our backyard and write there.  The box that once contained a swing set now serves as a pleasant outdoor space with chairs and a table found on sale last year.  Bringing my laptop out isn’t practical, but a notebook and pen and my faithful thesaurus work great.

I know, I know — there will be days of humid 90-degree-plus heat, or thunderstorms and the occasional tornado.  And bugs.  And there will be meals to cook and vacuuming and dusting to do, and a teen with her TV and music once school is out.  But what is the point of writing romance if I can’t indulge in a good fantasy??

Springtime is for Romance…Novels

My second-of-the-year, unscientific, and entirely subjective list of books in my TBR pile:

Desires of a Perfect Lady, Victoria Alexander:  Love disrupted by the machinations of others, and a profound sense of betrayal on both sides.  This one promises lots of angst, hopefully accompanied by touches of humor.  This one is at the top of my TBR pile.  March 2010

Shattered, Karen Robards: Although my first love is historical romances, this contemporary has several elements I enjoy: a heroine determined to take care of herself, an aloof hero who secretly lusts after her, a nice bit of mystery and a legal setting.  Having been raised by a lawyer and judge, I hold my breath about courtroom settings & legal procedures in fiction, but I’m willing to give Robards a chance.  March 2010

Mistress of Rome, Kate Quinn:  A romance novel placed in ancient Rome!  This book would catch my eye for the unusual setting alone, but a heroine who sounds courageous and resourceful is always worth reading about.  And lets not forget about the gladiator….ahem.  April 2010

Never Less than a Lady, Mary Jo Putney: Putney’s historical romances are an auto-buy for me.  Her characters are so real it’s as if I’m meeting new friends every time I read one of her books.  This volume is the second in her ‘Lost Lords’ series, and features a self-confessed murderess and a gallant, if over-particular hero.  Yeah, that got my attention.  May 2010

Sex and the Single Earl, Vanessa Kelly:  Despite a monumentally silly title, the actual plot of this book appeals to me. An arranged marriage where one of the characters harbors a secret longing for the other is one of my favorite plot devices.  May 2010