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.

Titanic Ghosts

Sharon Ashwood
November 25, 2010  •  1 Comment

Here’s an interesting story.

It begins: “A group of ghost hunters is planning a titanic mission in order to see whether the spirits of the folks who drowned on the Titanic are still haunting the site of the wreck. . . . ” They’re off in search of EVP.

For this I gave up Desperate Housewives

Sharon Ashwood
November 24, 2010  •  2 Comments

Which constitutes my real life—the one where I trundle off to the office each day, or the one where I sit swearing at my computer making up stories?

The romantically correct answer is to say that art is everything and that I am only alive when I am writing. Eh, not so much. There are times when I feel that and, hey, hand me a big enough royalty cheque and I’m out of the day job in a flash. However, until that day comes, I’m very much in favour of salary, benefits, and pension. I like to know that my heat will be on and my fridge full. I’m shallow that way.

In some ways, that makes it easier to handle the unpredictable nature of the writing biz. Because my survival is not dependent on its antics, I can keep a cooler head. On the other hand, the hours that could be devoted to improving my art are spent in meetings. It’s impossible not to resent that when a story is calling my name.

There are only two answers I can think of for managing work and writing both. One, I treat the writing as seriously as I do my paid employment. I go to work, and then I come home and go to work again on job #2. Workaholic? No, just an understanding that no one is going to do the book for me. Therefore, I sacrifice countless hours of prime time television. Oh well.

Two, I am very wary of burnout. Given #1 above, I’m bad about not building in R&R. My answer to everything is to work harder. Unfortunately, harder (at least in this context) isn’t always better. Jokes get flat, sentences plod, and the story sounds as tired as I feel. There is only so much pulling-up-of-socks one can do at that point. More effort won’t help; in fact, it will only hurt. The solution? Just back away from the computer. Go take a nap. The nice thing about writing is that it stays put until you can come back to it with a fresh eye.

The contradictory nature of my two answers speaks for itself. Art versus life is a balancing act. Fun versus labour. Inspiration versus perspiration. Fortunately, women are good at juggling priorities. After all, we hold down jobs, take care of children and parents, keep house, and make sure holidays happen. We know how to work smart.

Review of Readers ‘n’ Ritas 2010

Sharon Ashwood
November 18, 2010  •  No Comments

Okay, for those who don’t know this event (put on by the folks from Fresh Fiction), it’s an intimate readers conference with a ratio of about 10 readers per author. The guest of author this year was Sherrilyn Kenyon, so there were quite a few of her fans in attendance and the event had a distinctly paranormal flavour. However, there were other genres well-represented by the likes of Lauren Willig and Tara Taylor Quinn. See here for a complete list of guests.

Confession time: going to a conference where I know next to nobody is not my comfort zone, especially when I’m supposed to be witty and engaging. Unhappily, I had to face the dreaded microphone twice—and I wasn’t expecting it on either occasion. The first time was Friday night, after two glasses of wine, no dinner, and 15 hours of solid travel (I have no idea what I said) and the second at 9:30 the next morning, with still no food and barely a slurp of coffee (no idea what I said that time, either). I might have been blazingly brilliant or utterly incoherent—my memory is a blank. Folks still talked to me afterward so I guess I didn’t sound totally out of it!

There was a reception on the Friday night. Saturday had panels, a luncheon, a book signing and a costume contest. Sunday folks went out for brunch in groups. There were also some ongoing things, like raffles, silent auctions, a room where authors and readers could hang out, and so on.

The best part of the get-together was the people. I adored the readers. I adored the authors (had a few quiet fan girl moments). I met so many super people, I soon forgot about not knowing anyone and felt like I knew everyone. If you (like me) are a little on the shy side, this is a good event to try out. It’s a very comfortable size.

The grade A alpha – no poodles need apply

Sharon Ashwood
November 16, 2010  •  3 Comments

As I write this, I’m at the Readers and Ritas gathering in Dallas, Texas. This event (put on by Fresh Fiction) is an extraordinary bash for readers of romance fiction, hence the “readers” part of the title. The “ritas” references margaritas. So far I’ve seen plenty of the former and very few of the latter. The drug of choice here appears to be Sherrilyn Kenyon, the guest of honour.

So, on to the “hot hero” part of the blog. As I’m in a perfect position to do field research, being in the middle of a pack of avid readers, I can accurately report the preferences of at least this slice of the reading populace. Heroes get points if they are a Dark Hunter. They get extra points if they’re Acheron. Points are awarded if you’re Taylor Lautner or could possibly be portrayed by Taylor Lautner. Beyond that, vampire porn will suffice, with the odd furball thrown in. The one “must” is that they are an alpha, because these readers are big girls not looking for “safe”—at least not in their reading material. The nice-guy beta hero is more the fare of the YA market.

Reassuring, because the vampire hero I’m working with at the moment is more alpha than any of my previous ones. I like to think of him as Bruce Willis from “Die Hard” crossed with Hellboy. The only thing that saves him from being obnoxious is a sense of humour. I had to give him something redeeming because, good grief, he’s occupying my brain for the next while. Y’know the cliché of the vamp in formal wear with all the fine china and expensive décor? Not this fella. He’s more of a sports bar vampire—and just the ticket if you want to save a town from some very evil forces disguised as a beer.

Now, all that being said, it does lead me to one question. Trade fangs for fur or a corporate suit for a cowboy hat, alphas are all broody, sexy, take-charge guys. Stray too far from that basic DNA, and many readers lose interest. I’ve always wondered how far the envelope can be pushed. A non-traditional occupation? A fondness for goldfish? He rides a bicyle? Owns a bichon frisee (okay, that might not work with a werewolf)?

How far and in what way can the essential alpha vary and still be true to the romance code?