Happy Twelfth Night!

No, not the play by Shakespeare, though it is named for the holiday.

Starting in the Middle Ages, Twelfth Night referred to the last of the twelve days that make up Christmas.  You know, like in the carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas.   It is celebrated January 5th, the Eve of the Epiphany, or on Epiphany itself, January 6th.

The holiday ended two weeks of revelry and role reversal.  Led by a Lord of Misrule, often someone of low status within the household, servants dressed as their masters.  Both men and women cross-dressed.  Songs and mummery entertained the wealthy, and everyone feasted.  Cooks prepared special food and drink, such as wassail and a King Cake.  In England, a bean and a pea were baked into a ‘plum cake’.  (This sounds like a precursor of the plum pudding of Dickens’ day.) Whoever found the bean won the title of King, while the recipient of the pea would be Queen.  If a woman found the bean in her slice, she was allowed to choose the King, and a man who found the pea chose the Queen.

Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Mexico have versions of the King Cake, with coins, tokens, or beans hidden inside.  There are references to Twelfth Night cakes in English cookbooks in Victorian times, and my mother-in-law speaks fondly of the King Cakes eaten during her childhood in France.

Although To be Seduced opens shortly after Twelfth Night, there is no mention of the holiday in the book.  My heroine was raised in a Puritan household, and they did not celebrate any part of the Christmas season.  As the Bible does not mention that the early Christians commemorated the birth of Christ, they considered it unseemly to acknowledge it.  And they objected strenuously to the secularization of Christmas — some things never change!  Under Cromwell, celebrating Christmas was outlawed.

My family’s Twelfth Night dinner ends with a cake of whatever flavor takes the cook’s fancy, with a quarter baked in. When my youngest was a toddler, I figured the quarter would be easy to find and hard to swallow!  As it is, the poor child didn’t get an uncrumbled slice of cake till she was about eight.  Whoever finds the coin is King or Queen and gets to (read: must) wear a paper crown for the rest of the night.  And our tradition is rippling outward now.  My oldest started throwing Twelfth Night parties in high school, and one of her college friends has asked about plans for the 2010 party.

Remember, if you decide to try a King Cake, TELL EVERYONE TO TAKE SMALL BITES!!  (Seriously! I almost choked on a penny when I was a kid!!)

Here is a link for a modernized version of a medieval King Cake.

And here is an eighteenth century recipe that looks like a plum pudding.

Twelfth Night,or King and Queen

Now, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where Bean’s the King of the sport here;
Beside we must know
The Pea also
Must revel, as Queen, in the Court here.

Begin then to choose,
(This night as ye use)
Who shall for the present delight here.
Be a King by the lot
And who shall not
Be Twelfth-day Queen for the night here.

Which known, let us make
Joy-sops with the cake;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurg’d will not drink
To the base from the brink
A health to the King and the Queen here.

Next crown the bowl full
With gentle lambs-wool;
Add sugar, nutmeg and ginger,
With store of ale too;
And thus ye must do
To make the wassail a swinger.

Give then to the King
And Queen wassailing;
And though with ale ye be wet here;
Yet part ye from hence,
As free from offence
As when ye innocent met here.
– Robert Herrick, 1648

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Coming in 2010! My first TBR list of the Year

Yeah, I should be writing something about my favorite romances of 2009, but I’m ready to move on!  Here are 5 books I look forward to reading in the New Year:

1.  A Matter of Class, by Mary Balogh: I enjoy marriage of convenience stories, partly because the two people involved have to find a way to work things out.  Mary Balogh’s tales draw you in with their wonderful sense of time and place.   AMOC came out this month and is next on my To Read list.

2. To Tame a Dangerous Lord, by Nicole Jordan:  A ‘dangerously sexy’ lord marries a plain girl.  She wants to gain his attention by becoming a beautiful temptress.  I am a total sucker for a good makeover, and if the first chapter is any indication, this one revolves around an extremely attractive hero and a very likable heroine.  Release date: January 2010

3. Scoundrel’s Kiss, by Carrie Lofty:  An opium addict heroine and a hero who has taken a vow of chastity — wow!  This one I’ve got to read!  With their backgrounds, these characters sound like they go through a lot of angst, and the setting, in Spain, also intrigues me.  Release date: January 2010

4. Rogue in my Arms, by Celeste Bradley:  The next in her Runaway Brides series features what sounds like an interesting triangle involving a nobleman, an actress and her seamstress.  And don’t forget the motherless waif and the seamstress’ young brother!  Release date: February 2010

5. All Night with a Rogue, by Alexandra Hawkins: Another rouge! A notorious, handsome and decadent hero and a heroine who wants to live by her own talents.  Sounds like my kind of book…yummy 🙂  Release date: February, 2010

And in an utterly brazen plug, don’t forget To be Seduced, by ME!  I enjoyed writing this story so much.  Richard, a honey-voiced Cavalier, will use any means necessary to rebuild his home.  Bethany, whose Puritan upbringing hasn’t blinded her to worldly ambition, insists on turning the situation to her own advantage.  Mutual suspicion wars with mutual attraction in the turmoil of the early English Restoration.

Confessions of a Tree Tyrant

I freely admit that I suffer from OCTD: Obsessive Christmas Tree Disorder.  I put ornaments on the tree from the top down, with the smaller ones at the top and the largest at the bottom.  By now, I’ve trained my kids to do this as well, although my husband remains immune to my attempts to convince him that this is really important.  I keep my ornaments boxes out when my family and I have finished trimming the tree, because I know that next day, I’ll find bare places in the branches to fill up, or a dark spot that needs something nice and shiny to brighten it up.  Yup, it takes a minimum of two days before I can pronounce the tree finished.  Where my mom used tinsel, I use bead garlands, and it can take several minutes to adjust a ‘swoop’ the way I want it.

The first ornament that goes on is always the angel my parents bought for my first Christmas tree, the one that fit on a tabletop in their apartment in Germany.  The next ones are my girls’ first ornaments, and then the tiny balls that perch on the topmost branches, just below the spire that we use instead of a star or an angel.

Why? Why do I take such pains (and according to my kids, pass them on to everyone else)?  Most of the time, decorating anything is as much a challenge to me as a calculus problem.  Yet when the Barbie ornament is too close to the teapot, I make a mental note to move one or both of them when their owner is not looking.  Not that that works, because the she tells me I’m stifling her inalienable right to put her ornaments where she wants to, and returns them to their original spots.  Anarchist.

I learned my wicked ways from my mother, who makes beautiful, magic Christmas trees that range from elegant, with gold and crystal, to whimsical, with toys, Santas and candy canes.   She got the knack from her mother, who managed to dress up her aluminum tree by selecting a couple boxes of plain balls from the drugstore.  One year Grandma used red and green, another year, shades of sky blue, and another, her favorites: purple and lavender.  My college student put our tabletop tree up in her dorm and assured me she placed the ornaments in their proportional places and made sure the wires for the lights were hidden.  As my tree-tyrant bosom swelled with pride, the Anarchist just rolled her eyes.  I reminded myself that at least one of my children would carry the Persnickety Tree Gene into the next generation, and that the other is getting an A in chemistry.

Then a few days ago, we made spritzer cookies.  My oldest and I were happily sprinkling them with colored sugar when the Anarchist let out a gasp of horror. “You can’t just dump on sugar like that!  These aren’t just cookies, they’re works of art!”  My momly heart overflowed with joy.  She might not care if the tree looks just right, but even she can’t deny her Inner Tyrant.

Huh?

Earlier this month, writer Alan Elsner wrote an article for the Huffington Post entitled How Romance Novels take the Romance out of Romance.  I haven’t read any of Mr. Elsner’s novels, but he sounds like an intelligent man. He simply misses the point of romance novels.

For one thing, he makes the common mistake of confusing all romance novels with porn.  I’m very fond of the graphic sex scenes that “quite surprised” him.  Very very fond of them.  (Btw, we’ve been out of the Victorian era for over a hundred years, Mr. Elsner — why does the discovery that women enjoy reading about hot sex startle you?) But it’s safe to guess he didn’t pick up an inspirational romance. Or anything from Harlequin’s tamer imprints. Or by Georgette Heyer.

He has also either forgotten the meaning of the word ‘romance’ or didn’t look it up.  It’s the wee hours of the morning as I type and I didn’t feel like going downstairs to my reference books, so here’s the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary’s definition (the italics are mine):

Romance Function: noun  Date: 14th century

1 a (1) : a medieval tale based on legend, chivalric love and adventure, or the supernatural (2) : a prose narrative treating imaginary characters involved in events remote in time or place and usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious (3) : a love story especially in the form of a novel b : a class of such literature 2 : something (as an extravagant story or account) that lacks basis in fact  3 : an emotional attraction or aura belonging to an especially heroic era, adventure, or activity.

Most readers of the genre know perfectly well that sex and love are two different things.  These days, a good romance of any genre depicts the development of an intimate relationship, physically and emotionally.  The level of physical intimacy varies greatly from inspirational to erotic romance, but the emotional connection between the hero and heroine must be there.

Mr. Elsner doesn’t say in the article what books he based his observations on.  If they were straight-forward erotica (a venerable literary genre, but not romance), that might explain his claim that in romance novels “love is expressed through sex and only through sex”.  Or he might have been reading through testosterone-colored glasses and not registered the emotional content.  He does assert that “love takes place in the mind where it has to fight for its existence against all the other challenges presented by life.”  Maybe for him that’s true, but it isn’t for me.  Loving my husband was not a rational choice on my part.  (I would never have deliberately chosen a man who thinks I should enjoy housework.)  It just happened.  After experiencing “an immediate and powerful mutual attraction”, I might add!

Christmas Lists

Not a ‘Get’ list or even a ‘To Do’ list.

This time of year, families celebrate the holidays with a myriad of traditions: favorite foods and meals, favorite movies and books, favorite activities. Here’s some of the things we do at our house each year, with a few reasons why I love them. (Just a heads up…some of them might not match up with the customary images of joy and family togetherness.)

Favorite Movies
The Lion in Winter: Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine celebrate Christmas in France. Except he keeps her imprisoned most of the year, she aids their sons in rebelling against him, and he’s doing the nasty with the future Richard Coeur-de-Lion’s betrothed. And you think your family has rotten holidays.

A Christmas Carol: The version with Patrick Stewart only. Captain Picard as Scrooge! Make it so!

Holiday Inn: Bing Crosby first sang White Christmas in this movie, which premiered in 1942.  Fred Astaire co-starred as a rival performer.  The movie was remade in 1954, again with Bing, entitled — you guessed it — White Christmas.

Favorite Rituals:
Some of these are done in lots of families. Some are very, very different. Allow me to emphasize that no one has ever suffered permanent injury or death as a result of any holiday activity in my home.

Putting up the World’s Biggest Cat Toy:
In non-feline homes, this object is referred to as a ‘Christmas tree’. The cats get very excited when they see the boxes and love to help, especially when we’re engaged in weaving the long strings of lights through the branches.

Wrapping presents: Okay, it’s a bit of a chore, and the cats like to help with this, too. But if you’ve got company, it’s fun to outdo each other in disguising gifts with unique packaging. We once convinced my youngest that she was getting the world’s largest piece of salt-water taffy. (It was a pillow made by my oldest.) And who knew duct tape could be so festive!

Christmas Eve at my in-laws: Pandemonium! 25 people on my hubby’s side, including some small children. Potluck buffet, champagne, and little ones asking if it’s time for presents every five minutes. It’s a blast!

Late Christmas Eve Service: The celebration of Christ’s birth moves me every year. The service ends with the congregation singing ‘Silent Night’ as the lights dim. With the altar candles glowing in the darkened church, I reflect on how small the lights of Grace and Mercy are in our world, and yet how brightly they shine.

Christmas Brunch with my family:
More pandemonium, particularly if my sisters are visiting. Let’s just say we tend to get creative with ribbons and bows once they’re off the gifts. My mother says we look silly, but we ignore her.

Sparring matches: These break out periodically over Christmas season between my daughters, both of whom are testing for their black belts in taekwondo this month. They spar over who gets which of my ornaments when I’m dead, over who gets to use the prettiest wrapping paper first, and over the last dinner roll. Among other things.

Giving Thanks

So many things that I’m grateful for…

Always first, my husband and daughters. Without them, my world would be a colder and darker place, even on the brightest days of summer. I am thankful for the continued health and safety of those I love most in the world, as well as my own.

And I give thanks for the rest of my family — my parents and my stepmother, my sisters and stepsister, and my in-laws — and for the collective kinks in our brains, limps in our gaits and general dysfunctions that keep us arguing and laughing together. (Always remember, right in the middle of dysfunction you find FUN!)

I have been blessed with a multitude of friends, the people you find in life who feed your soul and love you even after they discover that you hate dusting and secretly love to listen to disco and Bananarama’s version of ‘Venus’.

Thinking of friends moves into my writer’s gratitude list: Sally, Johnnye & Kim are friends and fellow writers, and I have benefited immensely from their guidance and honesty. (Or in Johnnye’s case from her whining and nagging.)

Not only are these three terrific women friends, we all belong to a critique group that includes writers of fiction, screenplays and stage plays, and poetry. Genres from romance to horror movies are represented, as are both genders. (For a romance writer, getting the viewpoint of males, especially when writing your hero, is invaluable!!) My family loves me and is proud of me (mostly), but they don’t get my struggles and triumphs with the written word like other writers do.

I am profoundly thankful for everyone at Kensington Publishing who has put time and effort in the belief that I can write books that will sell. Yes, it is a business and I am a minnow in a pond with some very talented fish, but my emails and calls are returned promptly and they answer my newbie questions with great patience. Peter Senftleben, my editor, is wonderful! I was delighted when he told me he will be my editor for my second book.

And during these tough economic times, I am humbly thankful for material blessings. Not just the necessities of food, shelter and clothing, but for having enough to help our hard-working college student pay her expenses, and to cover our (mercifully small) medical expenses.

What do you give thanks for?

This is new….

While I’m hardly a recluse, the concept of having my book title and name come up in various places on the internet is …. odd. ‘Behind the scenes’ is where I’ve always lived and I do well there. So when Maureen Cuddy in Kensington’s publicity department emailed and then called me last week to request answers to questions for the Debut Corner of Romantic Times’ February issue, I alternated between ‘OMG!!’ and ‘Oh, crap!’ (Um, actually I used a stronger word than ‘crap’.)

Maureen’s initial email went into my spam file and she called one of the few times I didn’t have my phone with me. Lucky for me she was very understanding about the spam issue. Besides, when I checked the time of her call, I realized I had been driving a very busy stretch of road with my daughter in the car. Better chalk one up to my Car Guardian Angel for leaving the phone behind that day.

After jumping up and down, emailing Maureen back (she had left the office by the time I returned her call), running out to the nearest bookstore to get a copy of RT to get an idea of the length of the answers I should provide, going to my weekly critique group and finally composing the answers to send back, I wondered where else I might be popping up. For the record I didn’t Google myself, since my favorite search engine is http://www.dogpile.com

I knew that Kensington listed To be Seduced on the major sites for pre-sale, but I also found it mentioned in an online forum at Romantic Times, the blog Babbling About Books and More, and at Fantastic Fiction, a site based in the United Kingdom that covers all genres of fiction.  The site that gave me the biggest chuckle was the one offering my book for pre-sale in India. I wonder if this makes me ‘internationally known’ now. (My guess would be not so much, lol.)

Sitting and Staring

Okay, I sit down before the computer, turn it on and pull up my WIP. With any luck, the words I wrote yesterday make sense. Maybe there’s an awkward phrase to fix or a common word to replace, but those are just delaying tactics. Any writer knows the real work starts when the words stop scrolling. So I sit and stare at a blank screen.

And stare. And think about going back and doing some ‘good solid editing’. But that’s not what I’m here for. Editing means working with something that exists on the page or hard drive. It’s important, but first there are characters who clamor to get to the end of their story, the one that’s still unfinished. The surroundings and scenes living in my head must be described, the emotions transferred from imagination to page.

Writing is like walking through fog. Even when you know where you want to end up, most of the time you can only see a few steps in front of you. The good thing is, if you just keep walking, you can at least see the next few steps, and then a few more. Eventually you will reach the end of the book and your characters get to their long-awaited destination.

Happy Ever After

HEA…one of the basic requirements of romance writing. If the characters don’t end up happily united, with the implication they will stay that way for the rest of their lives, it ain’t a romance novel. It may be an excellent book — I’ve read many moving stories that do not end up with the hero and heroine together, but it’s a different genre.

Why do we so desperately want the hero and heroine to find their Happy Ever After in our favorite romances? My theory is that this is part of the fantasy involved in the genre. Compared to staying together, the wonderful and improbably gallant adventures featured in romances are cake. You have to outwit a drug lord? No biggie. Your sweetie has just come down with the Black Plague and you have to nurse him back to health? Easy peasy. I’ve been married 24 years, so I think I can speak with experience here.

Try tactfully changing the conversation before your oblivious spouse tells your uptight boss that story of how he and his friends mooned their college library while spelling out ‘Merry Christmas’ on their butts. Or coming to terms with the fact that your disinterest in housekeeping drives your honey up the wall. And no fictional plague victim has ever decided to ‘help’ his nurse by reorganizing the kitchen while she was out for an evening.

On the other hand, romances end fairly early in the lives of their characters, while skin is unlined and libidos are strong. We don’t get to see them enjoy the little discoveries that keep a relationship fresh. And after 24 years, some things are better than ever. We both have more lines in our faces than we like, and we might fall asleep on the couch instead of making out on it. But once we’ve rested up, my husband and I get to slip between the sheets with someone who’s had years to find out just we like.

Let’s just say a good time is guaranteed 🙂

How did I get here?

Seriously, how did I get here? ‘Here’ being a pre-published author, terrified at the idea of strange people reading my books. (Okay, yeah, I’m kinda strange myself, but I’m used to me.)

Nearly two years ago, I was trying to recharge myself creatively and took an acting class. I was there to see if I wanted to go back onstage at our local community theaters. Another student was there because she writes screenplays, and had been told that she needed to take an acting class before writing for actors. (Excellent advice, by the way!)

She and I got to talking and she told me about a weekly writer’s group she belonged to. The writers included poets, novelists, short story writers, screenwriters, and the genres covered the writing map: thriller, mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, horror, young adult.

Something went ‘click’. Moments of ‘click’ happen very rarely in my life, and I’ve learned the hard way not to ignore them. I’d written bits of stories, along with some truly awful poetry, starting in my teens. I wondered if I could do more than that. So I went. And I’ve gone ever since. When it was my turn to write, I started with historical romance. It is my favorite genre, followed closely by fantasy and science fiction. Most of my previous writing attempts had been placed in past eras.

I abandoned my first story because I couldn’t get the characters to DO anything. Then a wonderful heroine appeared in my imagination, and the book now titled To be Seduced was conceived.

After a year, I was having a wonderful time writing Richard and Bethany’s story! I loved my characters and my work was well received by our critique group, including the men. But I wondered how it would hold up outside that trusted circle. So when I saw a first chapter contest offered by the East Texas Writers Guild that promised a critique of every entry, for a very reasonable fee, I thought ‘why not?’ That the judges of the finalists were all editors and agents looked pretty cool too, but there was no way my entry would get that far.

Wrong. My entry finaled. This thrilled me to pieces, because the judge for the historical romance section of the contest was Hilary Sares of Kensington Publishing. I couldn’t say much to my family, as they tend to regard my writing as yet one more weird thing I do. But the idea that a New York editor was reading my stuff resulted in numerous happy dances in the privacy of my living room. I ended up winning my category, and Hilary requested my manuscript. Eventually Kensington offered to buy it, and it is now in the good hands of Peter Senftleben.

I am pretty sure that if I turned my experience into a synopsis for a future book, it would be rejected by any respectable agent or editor. I can’t blame them. Stuff like this doesn’t happen.

Except it did.

Sexy Historical Romantic Comedy

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