The Necessary Stall

Sharon Ashwood
February 16, 2011  •  No Comments

On Monday at, Jessa wrote about false starts or what I call variously the Chapter 3 or Chapter 5 crisis. It usually comes once the initial burst of wonderfulness has faded from a new idea and the real work begins. Sometimes, the result is major book stall.

At this unfortunate point, one might be tempted to give up because:
a) There isn’t enough plot to hold up the story
b) The story started okay, but it doesn’t feel right anymore
c) A prettier butterfly just went past.

Problem A is solved by doing the necessary homework. If there’s no structure holding up the story, it’s going to collapse like melting Jell-o. What works for me is to plan a new crisis point every two to three chapters and work toward those high points one at a time. The benefit is twofold—it’s like a fresh burst of energy every 20 to 30 pages, and it keeps plot movement in manageable chunks. I think of those plot points like the pilings of a bridge; the more there are and the better they’re placed, the sturdier the structure. No sagging middles.

Of course, to do this effectively (that is, to come up with disasters at once logical and surprising) means layering in all sorts of perils for your characters, whether emotional or of the man-eating variety (who left their alligator in the bathtub?). That’s a whole other blog.

Problem B is a bit more airy-fairy. I’ll often start a book that has a certain something I really like – atmosphere, feel, flavour, whatever. Fifty pages in, I’ve lost it. Since I can’t name what the magical something was, I can’t figure out how to get it back. The only solution I’ve come up with is to backtrack to the point where I still like the manuscript and pick it up again from that point, doing everything I can to preserve the vibe. Sometimes this means wearing a certain sweater, drinking the right tea, putting on the right music, and other silly writing rituals. Once the book is solid, I can usually return to my haphazard ways, but until I’ve got it on the right track, I have to rely on authorial voodoo to woo my muse.

The above method works about half the time. Sadly, sometimes the book just turns into compost. Not all ideas are winners.

Problem C (butterfly chasing) can be put down to lack of discipline (who, me?) or the fact that sometimes books just aren’t ready to be written. The prettier butterfly comes along and we chase it because it’s the worthier prize. Our poor little caterpillar books will have their day, just not yet. I had a recent encounter with this, and the proposal had to be released back into the wild. It’s nearly there, but there is still some cocoon time in its future.

How do I deal with letting go? There is a balance between forging ahead because we refuse to give in and knowing when to walk away. I have faith in my “nose” about my own work. The hardest part for me is being patient and sitting with an idea until it shows its true colours. Is it a hummingbird or an eagle? A bon-bon or raw steak?

All you writers out there—what’s your acid test to know whether an idea is a firecracker in waiting, or just a dud?

February Fantasies

Sharon Ashwood
February 8, 2011  •  No Comments

dsalvatore One of my favourite mental games to play around Valentine’s Day is all about fictional dates I would love to have. You know what I mean—an afternoon of bounding through the heather with Highlander, dancing with Mr. Darcy, or skulking through ruins for a candlelit tryst with the darkling doomed. Half the fun of a good hero is to see if he could fit into one of these mental vacations. However, there are a few safety tips one must observe:

1. Tasteful editing is a must. Vampires especially benefit from a buff-up to rid them of blood breath, coffin hair, and that musty basement odor. Ditto for demons and that special eau de sulphurous damnation.
2. Choose your version. For instance, a barbecue picnic with Conan the Barbarian will always work better with the film version of the hero than the original Robert E. Howard. In the movie world, you’re less likely to be eaten by something gruesome while muscle boy spaces out in a big broodfest about conquering the neighbouring kingdom. For another, a Hollywood hero would never burn the burgers.


(Speaking of Hollywood, Last of the Mohicans is a huge improvement with Daniel Day Lewis. The film managed to almost never mention the fact that the hero’s name is Natty Bumpo.)

3. Historical heroes can be brought up to date where it counts. Yes, when it come to things like voting, we like our modern men.

The list goes on, but you get the idea. Once the man of choice is knocked into shape, the fantasy begins. Will the ride be a coach? A phaeton? A Lamborghini? A wild stallion tamed only by the strength of his manly thighs? And you will go to … the opera? A ball? The midnight pillage down at the oasis? Or will you skip all that and dine in on champagne and peeled grapes? The possible permutations are endless.

This is when it’s good to be a romance writer. On a good day, these fantasies are paid employment.

What’s my thrill? I’ve always favoured the idea of swashbuckling through seventeenth-century Europe, convincing the Duke of Buckingham to forget Anne of Austria and give me the diamond necklace instead, but then I’m probably the only person on earth who thinks foiling Cardinal Richelieu would make a fun night out. Lace, swords, and chase scenes … I’m in. The only thing better is to add a splash of magic.

So if you had absolute free rein, who would be your Valentine?

Profound drivel

Sharon Ashwood
February 2, 2011  •  No Comments

So what projects am I working on?

1. An annotated gastronomy of reheated pizza.
2. A collection of critical essays on Season 2 of The Vampire Diaries.
3. Reminiscences of my pre-cat furniture.
couchSeriously, I am working on:
• Another short story for the Mammoth books (a YA story about urban fey).
• Proposals that would look much better on paper instead of being pure imagination.
• Piles of research for said proposals (I never do anything the easy way).
• Stuff for my day job that spills over from work day into evening.
• The fitness plan that has me up far too early in the morning.
• The Evil Kitchen Reno (which is looking spiff but not universally so).

The problem is, of course, that projects can be teenagers. You know what I mean—there is the promise of things to come, but we’re in the awkward phase when things look out of proportion and a little hard to love. Witness the 5 a.m. wake up to go to the gym. Good theory, ugly reality, nuff said.

Fine, but what about the books? Oddly all this activity contributes to my work in progress, because it’s colouring my state of mind—and right now, all those colours are vital information.

What does that mean? Imagine you want to see a certain type of movie, but can’t describe what that might be, or you want to read a certain type of book, but you’ll only know it when you see it. What is that certain something? When I roll the essence of a daily vignette across my tongue, what is it I’m detecting?

I call that the flavour or scent of a work. It brings up an atmosphere or mood, and once you have a taste for that feeling, you crave it. You’ll haunt a bookstore looking for it. Only a certain café can evoke it. Only your best pair of boots feels it. Maybe a particular alleyway looks like it. Maybe it’s just the way the light shimmers on the side of a building or the taste of the morning on the air.

I have to have that flavour figured out before the first words hit the page. Once it’s nailed down, I can catapult myself into the story by concentrating on that feeling. It’s like the magic passkey to my story kingdom.

Is any of this making sense? How would you describe what I’m talking about?

Kitchen Toyz!

Sharon Ashwood
January 25, 2011  •  1 Comment

Kitchen toys are great fun.

My favorite has to be my Cuisinart coffee maker. This would be because, without coffee, there is no existence. My shiny friend grinds the beans every pot. I load it the night before so that a mere push of the button is all that is necessary for life to flow back into my shivering, semi-comatose body every morning.

I also like my timer that looks like a skull. Very Hamlet.

There’s also my avocado knife, egg slicer, the pan for cooking ladies’ fingers, a device for making tortilla salad bowls … the list goes on. I love to cook. More specifically, I love to accumulate cooking gear (not that I have room for it in my closet-sized kitchen). I have been known to carry on long-distance communications regarding the acquisition of the right frying pan (which was just right, in case you read this, o cousin mine).

A new city means finding new cooking shops and when I discovered Sur la Table on a visit to Portland, well, it was a love match. I got the cutest bright red colander, just the right size for a few cups of blueberries. How could I leave it behind?

Why does this stuff turn me on? I think because a) I like food and b) the kitchen is symbolic of well-being. Parties end up in the kitchen. Togetherness happens around a table. It’s warm and bright and nurturing. It’s only natural to equip it with amusing, useful, and sometimes just indulgent doodads.

My current home improvement project is to put in a stainless steel backsplash, which is going to make the work area look 100% better given the current surface is old, peeling wallpaper. I’m taking before and after pictures. I’ve left the kitchen upgrade until last because of the disruption involved, but it may be the one I appreciate the most!

Has anyone else redone their kitchens? Any words of advice or war stories?

Escape to the Woods

Sharon Ashwood
January 19, 2011  •  1 Comment

As I’ve thought about the “what do I want from 2011” subject, I’ve found it hard to narrow my wish list down to one thing. I’ve been in the land of big goals for the last few years, and I have achieved many of them. Yay for me. Unfortunately, that comes at the price of a lot of other things, usually those small grace notes that make life more than an act of survival.

I’m not talking huge stuff. I’m thinking of afternoons on the couch reading, time to sort through my collection of movies, or hours spent idling in a garden centre wondering if pink petunias would look better next to celosia or thrift. In other words, all that fun and variety we tend to forego when faced with monumental goals, such as making an unreasonable book deadline (And let’s be honest—when faced with that due date, they all seem unreasonable.)

Ironically, not only do those idle hours provide R&R, they also afford the opportunity to push the envelope. Just as big projects tend to jettison that afternoon spent getting a pedicure, they also squash any chance a writer might have to develop whacky ideas. There isn’t the time to make up stuff for the sheer joy of it.

This is a sad thing, because that’s where a writer gets practice with ideas and techniques that can later go into “real” writing down the road. I knew a fiddler who called this kind of activity “woodshedding”—that is, going out into the garage where no one could hear him and making his mistakes with impunity. When he was satisfied with his new licks, he’d come back in and share. Everyone—from gymnasts to chess players—needs that safe space to take risks and to feel the metaphorical wind in their hair.

So my goal for 2011 is to go reacquaint myself with that woodshed, and to try something daring. Maybe it’ll make it into a published book, and maybe it won’t. That’s not the point. It’s the sense of play and freedom I’m after. Call it research and development or call it goofing off; I want to see what craziness my brain is capable of.

Legitimate reasons to ignore the alarm clock

Sharon Ashwood
January 12, 2011  •  1 Comment

The question of how to spend a cold winter’s night does sound like a no-brainer for the torrid imagination of romance writers. However, even the most romantically afflicted occasionally wants to use a bed for sleeping. Sounds simple, right? But in a world filled with to-do lists, work issues, dissatisfying conversations, and other naggy crud, sometimes a full night’s snooze is elusive.

I’m one of the chronically sleep deprived. Some of it’s periodic insomnia (usually around book deadlines), some just the result of running out of time. Back in the heady days of my first basement apartment and way too much sociability, I could survive on three hours a night. Or thought I could—my powers of self-deception were remarkable back then. But now that I spend more time in meetings with other theoretical grown-ups, I have to give the illusion of paying attention. That’s a little hard to do with one’s eyes drifting shut.

sleepingstatueAccording to my intense research of various studies (as seen on the Internet) most adults require seven to nine hours of sleep for optimal rest. Among other things, that’s when cell repair/rejuvenation happens and various metabolic processes take place. The body releases growth hormone and melatonin and assorted things that make our internal furnace work properly. When that doesn’t happen—such as when we don’t sleep long enough or wake up repeatedly during the night—growth hormone levels drop and stress hormones like cortisol rise in our systems. Basically, our bodies become convinced that we’re under attack. Our metabolism drops to a crawl, storing everything it possibly can because it thinks we’re going to need it for fight or flight. Eventually, our adrenal system burns out, and so do we. One of the nasty side-effects of all this is an inability to properly burn carbs, which can lead to high blood sugar problems and occasionally diabetes.

No, I’m not a medical doctor and you should see the experts for a complete and accurate description of this phenomenon. However, the point is that we need rest or we break. We gain weight, we’re tired, we’re sick and we age faster than we need to. If that’s not bad enough, lack of sleep lowers leptin levels, which makes us hungry all the time.

burnejonessleepingbeauty1So how are we supposed to get enough down time? Obviously, prioritizing bedtime is a must, but there are a few other tips I came across, some of which surprised me.

First, avoid looking at TV, computers or other backlit screens (which will include some e-readers) for half an hour before bed. Your brain thinks all that bright light means it’s daytime and not sleep time.

Forget drinking warm milk or having a snack for several hours before bed. The increased blood sugar throws off the hormone release cycle that happens during periods of deep sleep. The best practice is to stop eating after dinner is done.

Don’t exercise right before bed, but do exercise during the day. If you’re physically tired, chances are you’ll sleep.

Don’t do work in your bedroom. If you study or work where you sleep, it’s harder to switch off and rest. Unless, of course, you’re taking the microeconomics course I did a few years ago, which had a guaranteed soporific effect.

We all know that it’s important to get enough rest, but the medical consequences of not doing so are far more dire than I knew. I believed, as so many do, that working the extra hour or two each night would get me further ahead than hitting the hay on time. Not so much, apparently.

sleeping-beauty-lOf course, this is a blog by romance writers, so I’ll give the last word to Elizabethan dude Sir Philip Sidney, whose hero is pining for his lady love. It’s one of my favourite poems.

Come Sleep! O Sleep, the certain knot of peace,
The baiting-place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release,
Th’ indifferent judge between the high and low.
With shield of proof shield me from out the prease
Of those fierce darts despair at me doth throw:
O make in me those civil wars to cease;
I will good tribute pay, if thou do so.
Take thou of me smooth pillows, sweetest bed,
A chamber deaf to noise and blind to light,
A rosy garland and a weary head:
And if these things, as being thine by right,
Move not thy heavy grace, thou shalt in me,
Livelier than elsewhere, Stella’s image see.

Tradition vs Tempeh

Sharon Ashwood
December 22, 2010  •  1 Comment

Holiday meals have always been run by Family Tradition. Woe betide the innovator, because the turkey dinner is the turkey dinner. If a vampire came for dinner, he’d be eating the dead bird and Brussels sprouts and mashed spuds, too—or else. In a throw down between my mother in an obstinate mood and the forces of darkness, I’d put my money on the home team.

Speaking as someone who has lived largely, sometimes strictly, as a vegetarian, I have issues with this. Tradition is deaf to my pain.

My own influences have therefore crept in at the edges, waving from the gravy-soaked sidelines. I get to do Christmas Eve dinner, and this is one of my favourite offerings. This recipe is yummy, light, and perfect for that oh-no-not-more-turkey phase that hits around December 29 ….

A not-so-shepherd’s pie

Saute a large diced onion with two cloves of crushed garlic, 1 tsp each of thyme and coriander, a half pound of sliced mushrooms, and tons of black pepper. Add a half pound of crumbled tempeh and 1/3 cup of tamari (or soy) sauce (note that this takes the place of any added salt). Add 2 cups of vegetables (frozen works) and ¼ cup chopped parsley or cilantro. Cook until tempeh is slightly browned and the mushrooms are cooked. Mix two cups of vegetable broth (I use bouillon cubes) with ¼ cup flour and stir into veg mix.

Meanwhile, turn 3 pounds of potatoes into creamy mashed potatoes. Oil a 9 x 13 baking pan, and put the veg mix in the bottom. Cover with the mashed potatoes. Garnish with paprika, chopped nuts, or chopped parsley if desired. Bake at 375F for about half an hour or until the top browns. If you like a super-decadent twist, brush the top with olive oil or melted butter for an extra-golden finish.

It’s comfort food that is actually fairly good for you. Goes well with fresh salad.

Have a fabulous holiday season!

In the Bleak Midwinter

Sharon Ashwood
December 14, 2010  •  1 Comment

I actually dug out my first Christmas CD of the year in order to write this blog. I’m not in the festive mood and probably won’t be until a) I get this extremely busy work-week out of the way (I can tell everyone is piling it on in an effort to clear their desks for the holiday) and b) the copyedits of Frostbound pass from my computer back to NYC. Then it’s time to figure out what shopping I have or haven’t done. Yup, I’ll be one of those last-minute people scampering wildly through the mall on Christmas Eve. Extreme sports, jingle style.

It wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time, when I performed and even recorded Christmas music, I would start digging out Christmas tunes in the fall, rehearsing for some time before taking the show on the road. Needless to say, my neighbours hated me. However, I was in the festive spirit well in advance of December 25. All my cards were mailed on time.

I delighted in finding weird but authentic carols. Personal favourites include the Boar’s Head carol, a medieval processional lauding the donkey Mary rode (c/w chorus “hey you ass, hee-haw”), and some of the gorier verses of the Coventry Carol, but I’m perverse that way. Or maybe it was self-defense. By New Years I was ready to scream if I heard another fa-la-la.

On the whole, I had a great time. The grumpy moments of hiking my harp up flights of stairs have faded, and I remember the joy on kids’ faces. I can’t count the times the elderly would tell me they hadn’t heard such-and-such a carol since they were young. And I treasure the feeling of timelessness that comes from giving voice to songs hundreds of years old. It’s one experience we can truly share with our ancestors.

The time for those moments hasn’t passed, but it had to ebb to make way for new adventures. And, since I abandoned my wassailing ways, I’ve had to find other ways of getting my Santa on. I found this lovely tidbit on YouTube—one of my favourite Victorian carols played by Loreena McKennitt and accompanied by truly gorgeous scenery. It definitely stirs my feeling of sparkly winter wonder …

The glue on the Christmas card envelopes have affected my brain

Sharon Ashwood
December 7, 2010  •  No Comments

It’s December, the time for top ten lists. Since I, like everyone else, am in a tinselly, chocolaty holiday frame of mind, here are ten things that make me smile:

10. Finding out the repair bill won’t be huge. ‘Nuff said. Got my computer back in one piece.

9. Getting home. This counts double in these leave-in-the-dark, come-home-in-the-dark times. Triple if your day involved travel. Quadruple if it was travel for work.

8. Snow. It’s just too pretty to complain about for long. (Of course, we don’t get an unreasonable amount here—just enough to be purty.) Here’s a shot I took last month. You can’t see the harbour in the background because of the fog.


7. Here’s a seasonal one: finding a really cool present. You know what I mean—the type that makes you chuckle with glee because you know they’ll love it.

6. Nauseatingly cute animal pictures. If you like them, too, check out the Itty Bitty Kitty Committee.

5. A good Regency romance. I loved this one, but then Julia Quinn is always a treat:

4. Nice feedback about my books. Reviews. Emails. Kind words at book signings. I love to know that I gave someone a few hours of pleasure. It makes the zillion hours cursing at my computer screen worthwhile.

3. My cats, who will purr for me even if I’ve been a complete toad that day.

2. Random phone calls and visits from friends. The ones where they just want to chat because they like you. That’s when I know I count.

1. Hugs from family and friends, because it’s the people that matter when all is said and done. That was something Charles Dickens had right.

Do not adjust your set. I shall be back to my regular curmudgeonly mood anon. But not too soon.

Maybe Peter Pan had it right

Sharon Ashwood
December 1, 2010  •  No Comments

The problem with growing up is you have to decide things. There are small, annoying things like whether to eat a healthy dinner or stick with potato chips and ice cream. Worse, there are important decisions, like how to engineer a more or less steady income. If you’re like me, the latter happens more by default than conscious planning.

So when confronted with the “what do you want to be when you grow up” question, I’m inclined to shrug. Who says I want to grow up?

ballet20shoesWhen I was little, I wanted to be a ballerina. I studied dance until I was in university, when it became abundantly clear that I’d missed some sort of highway exit to the Royal Academy, probably when I was around eight. I was tartly informed that the teen years were too late to get serious. So I got a literature degree instead, with honours. I refused to be washed up before the age of twenty, no matter what some dance mistress said.

Meanwhile, I shifted my dreams from one art form to another, trying out fabric painting, bookbinding, costuming and music. Finally, I settled on writing and started zooming along on this oddball carnival ride. The point isn’t that I become rich and famous. The point is that I can move forward. Artistic achievement is a process, not a stopping point. There are many roads and there is always some new pinnacle on the horizon, just out of reach. Without that misty destination in front of me, I would grind to a halt.

So, no, I don’t want to grow up. I don’t want to face facts, set goals, or turn my dreams into concrete plans. I can do that with the mundane part of my brain that works nine to five and reads the grocery fliers for the best bargain. It won’t invade the important part of my world, where I look out the window at the clouds and think, “What could I possibly do if I just turned my mind to it?” Because most things are possible. Just ask a child. It’s the adults that like to tell us where we fall short.

I don’t want to grow up. What I want to be will always remain an open opportunity.