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Ordinary Moments, Extraordinary Memories

As February begins I am constantly reminded that my dear sister, Nancy, was to have spent the lion share of this month with me, as she did last year. We were already well into dreaming and scheming her visit when she passed away. As this archived post will reveal, though I miss her terribly, my life is filled to the brim with wonderful memories — most involving adventures and lots of laughter. Strangely, or maybe not so strangely at all, it’s the random memories that stand out for me, the moments that were extraordinary in their ordinariness. This walk we shared several years ago in the dry canyon behind her house is a classic example of sisterhood for us.

While I miss her dreadfully, I find, to my quiet surprise, that she has left me with a wellspring of joy and love to large and deep for me not to want to share stories of our times together. If there was one thing Nancy Thomas understood it was that the empty holes caused by loss and sorrow can only be truly filled with love and laughter and celebration amidst the tears. I hope you enjoy Two Sisters Walking. And thank you for allowing me to indulge in those joyful memories.

 

Two Sisters Walking

‘Look how all that water’s soaked in since the rain,’ I point out to my sister as we
descend into the Dry Canyon that runs through her town in Central Oregon’s High Desert. Yesterday the rock bed of the shallow spillway looked like a small lake. Now the puddle is reduced to a birdbath for the scrub jays.

‘The rocks are porous,’ she says. ‘Volcanic. Even with a day and a night of heavy rain, it all soaks right in.’ Along the side of the paved path, the soil looks as dry and dusty as it always does, but looking out at the vegetation that’s usually varying shades of kaki and tan and burnt umber everything now has a shining patina of green, and the tiny purple flowers of the low bronze plants, which neither of us can name, carpet the desert floor with color.

A rock chuck gives a sharp high-pitched chirp from somewhere nearby and a scrub jay calls from the juniper tree above us. I catch a flash of iridescent blue in the branches and a flutter of wings. I love this canyon. It’s truly one of the treasures of Redmond Oregon, and some of my fondest memories and best ideas are associated with walks in this
canyon on my annual visit with my sister. The canyon, which was formed by ancient volcanoes, used to be the city dump a long time ago. Now it has a paved walking path the entire 3 ½ mileas well a dog park, a playground and several sets of steep steps into it from street level. It’s wide enough in spots that you can completely forget you’re surrounded 2015-05-03 10.28.11
by a town on both sides at cliff-top level, and there’s now a bridge spanning the canyon in graceful concrete arches. I love that you see the occasional deer in the canyon and even occasionally there are mountain lion sightings. I love that the canyon feels like a wild place in the middle of a town of 27,000. But I also love that there are still a few places along the rocky edges where you can find the rusted-out corpses of cars and baling wire and other twisted metal heaps, now mangled beyond recognition, but certainly an inspiration to my imagination. I love that the canyon and the cliff tops that surround it are an incredible blend of wild high desert and human detritus from as long as people have lived on the cliffs above.

As we head into the canyon, a runner passes us, ears muffed in headphones. ‘That’s a tall drink of water,’ my sister says.

‘Where, I say,’ looking around for a large bottle of water, maybe strapped to the man’s hip.’

‘The guy. He’s tall.’ She nods in his direction. My sister has a way with words.

I laugh and watch him as he trots down the walking path, his miniscule running shorts flapping in the breeze. ‘You don’t even want to know where my thoughts go with that,’ I say.

She sniggers, ‘Probably not.’

I’ve already tried out my ideas for my recent mountain lion in the canyon story that I posted last week on my blog, so 2015-05-13 16.14.04she’s not at all sure how her ‘tall drink of water’ may inspire me.

We walk in silence until we get to the bridge. From there on the canyon widens out until there are places where the trees and rocks hide the housing developments that line the cliffs above on both sides. We’re looking for a crow’s nest I spotted a couple of days ago when I was walking the canyon by myself. The sun was at the wrong angle for me to see inside the hodgepodge of dried sticks stowed into a crevice in the rocks, but the two attentive adults squawking and flapping on the ledge suggested there was a family. Today with this side of the canyon wall in shadow and us armed with a pair of binoculars, we can see that, indeed, there are at least five crow chicks, who look only days away from fledging. We watch in delight the caws and chirrups and furious exercising of young wings until one of the adults notices we might just be paying too much attention to the kiddos and hovers threateningly above us making loud threatening calls. We both decide, observing the poop-spattered side of the cliff below the nest, that it’s best to move on before mummy or daddy drops the bomb.

‘I’ve never seen a nest of crow-babies,’ I say, looking back over my shoulder as we continue on toward the stairs. The part of the canyon walk we do is the wilder end. It takes about two hours round trip and involves the ascent and decent of two sets of stairs – one about sixty steps, the other 109. Good for the old thigh muscles. We walk to the end and turn
back along the canyon wall on an unpaved path that undulates and weaves in and out of the rocks and trees. This is my favorite part. I could be in the woods for all I know, especially with the twitter and chirp of birds around us. Three California Quail cross in front of us with their top knots bouncing jauntily. A golden mantle ground squirrel scurries into the rocks. There’s just enough water in the little brook that passes beneath the trail to trickle softly.

For a long time we don’t talk. We just walk and take it all in. When we’re together, we usually talk a lot. We make up for lost time, but the canyon is a place where we’re silent as often as not because it’s such a great place to hear our thoughts, to listen for inspiration, to feel glad that we chose to walk instead of stay put in the house. I’m thinking about a story that the walk has inspired. I don’t know when it’ll happen, but when we do talk, we’re approaching the end of the walk, up behind the trailer parks, back out on the rim of the canyon. The place is sort of a no-man’s-land. I suspect that if expansion in Central Oregon continues, it may easily be turned into a housing development, but for now, it’s just there. There’s a huge mound of earth, maybe eight feet high, with a shovel thrust down in the top of it. I know for a fact that it’s a place where the kids 2015-05-14 15.17.26from the trailer park play, but in my mind the shovel is there to bury a body. My sister looks at me askance as though she might be worried just a little bit about the twists and turns of my imagination as I take pictures of it and tell her my story idea.

‘There’s a dead skunk over here,’ she says, motioning me over. Her mind has it’s own strange twists and turns. ‘Stunk to high heaven last fall.’

‘It doesn’t smell so bad now,’ I say, looking at the desiccated heap of flattened skin and bones that I would have missed completely if she hadn’t pointed it out. ‘I want some pictures.’

She steps back and watch as I take pictures of the delicate skull and teeth, visible above the dusty remains of the pelt.

As we step back onto the dead-end lane that leads out of the canyon and back home, there’s an old pickup truck that’s been sitting there, my sister tells me, for months. The back of it’s loaded with a fascinating array of junk. ‘It looks like 2015-05-13 16.49.46
someone was moving and then just deserted everything,’ I say.

‘It’s been ticketed by the police for being left, and then the ticket blew away and it’s still sitting here,’ my sister tells me.

I start taking pictures again. ‘Maybe the owner is buried beneath that mound of dirt back there,’ I say. ‘Maybe there’s foul play involved.’

‘That looks like a rodeo dummy in there,’ she says peering into the bed. And look, there’s a bottle of some kind of prescription drugs in that stir-fry pan.’

I look around to make sure no one is looking and start taking pictures while I tell her my story idea. ‘I think the guy will be running from someone and this is as far as he gets before he gets caught.’

‘But why would he have a rocking chair in the back and all that cooking stuff?’ She asks.

2015-05-13 16.45.52‘I don’t know, I’ll think of something. Maybe he was a rodeo clown, maybe he had gambling debts?’ I keep snapping pictures feeling slightly guilty for doing it, but not that guilty.

‘There was actually a pair of lacy women’s underwear laying behind the truck at one time. Bright pink.’ She remembers.

‘Seriously?’

‘Yup. That sounds like something that might interest you.’

‘The plot thickens.’ I say. Someone with a couple of dogs comes up out of the canyon behind us, so I, quick like a bunny, stuff my iPhone back in my pocket and we head on.2015-05-13 16.20.55

‘You want coffee?’ she says, as we stomp the dust off our feet on her sidewalk. ‘I want coffee.’

‘Me too.’ I follow her into the house, taking off my boots and pounding them over the rail of the porch to rid them of
dust.

‘I’m dying of thirst,’ she says.

‘Better get you a tall drink of water,’ I reply.

She gives me a dirty look and starts the coffee pot.

 

Dark Days and Birdies

(Archives)

The darkest day of the year has come and gone. From now on it’s a slow, teasing progression toward spring and glorious sun-filled days. But even the dark days bring their own pleasures.

Every year in early December, something wonderful happens in our back garden. The wagtails return! We’ve had a pair of pied wagtails over-wintering with us for the past four years now. I’d like to think they come because they’ve developed a warm spot in their little birdie hearts for us, but I know they really come for the shredded cheese.

 

Wagtails are insectivores, and these two lovelies, whether they are the original pair who first visited us on that dreadful winter four years ago or some of their descendants, have probably come down from Scandinavia to winter here in South England. They come here because there are certain kinds of insects that survive in the moss on the roofs of the houses and every time the temperature warms slightly, they come out briefly. It’s a day to day existence for the wagtails, and I can’t imagine how any of them actually survive, so I put out shredded cheese, which they love.

 

I associate Christmas with a huge influx of birds in our back garden, and it’s a time when I feel closer them and am more sensitive to their needs. Though food is the obvious need – fat balls for the general population, mixed seeds and nuts for the tits and doves, currants for the blackbirds and of course shredded cheese for the wagtails (though the starlings and the magpies also love the cheese and currants) the big draw during the coldest days of winter is the birdbaths. People might not realise birds have no source of fresh water when everything is frozen. Imagine nothing to drink when the weather is cold, no place to bathe.

 

Every morning, as soon as it’s light enough to see, we go out and fill all the feeders, spread currants and cheese for the blackbird and the wagtails and then we tend to the two birdbaths, clearing out the ice with hot water. When that’s done we go in to have our own breakfast. Our dining table is in front of sliding glass doors that look out into the back garden, so every morning during the bleakest days of winter, we are rewarded with an feeding frenzy and a pool party.

 

We live in a wonderful symbiosis with our avian friends. We keep food and water available for them throughout the coldest darkest times and in turn we’re rewarded with a close-up and personal view of the natural world we wouldn’t otherwise get. The blackbird perches on the retaining wall and stares in the window at us if there are no currants for him. The wagtails show up out of nowhere when they hear us filling feeders. They’ve learned there’ll be cheese.

 

Through December, we’re all waiting for the daylight, waiting for the sun to return. We’re all waiting and longing for light and warmth and new beginnings. Through those darkest months, I marvel at how the birds survive the bleak harsh days when there seems to be nothing for them to eat, nothing for them to drink. I know that lots of them don’t survive. I know that when the temperature dips below zero, whether or not they survive the night can depend upon how much they’ve been able to forage the day before. The difference between survival and death is such a fine line. And every year I’m astounded and amazed by their tenacity, by their will to survive the dark days.

 

In the spring, the wagtails go back to Scandinavia to breed and the bird population in our back garden changes, and the dynamic changes. We get fledgling starlings and blackbirds and the whole garden becomes a nursery for the next generation. But there’s something magical about those winter months, the dark cold days, the times when the closeness I feel is a deep admiration for the ebb and flow, for the push to hang on one more season, for the deep powerful urge to survive and bring forth the next generation. I watch the starlings fluttering in wild abandon in the birdbaths, the water freezing on the edges even as they bathe. I watch the wagtails and the blackbirds treading frozen ground, eating cheese and currants, their feathers fluffed to nearly twice their body size to keep warm, and I feel that somehow, I’ve become a part of something so much greater than myself and my little understanding of the world. This is the gift I receive every year in the dead of winter, and it’s a gift that I treasure long after the sun has returned and the Dawn Chorus has begun in earnest and the wagtails have flown north.

 

Happy Solstice, everyone! May all the gifts you give and receive be gifts that touch the heart.

 

Thoughts on Cinderella and Being Our Own Hero

From the Archives

I’m thinking about Cinderella today, oh I know there’ve been lots of face-lifts to the story to make it more modern, and I know the original fairy tale had some seriously dark stuff in it. The old Russian version has the evil step sisters cutting off their toes to try and fit their enormous feet into the dainty glass slipper! And the evil toe-cutters are exactly my point.

 

I’m thinking about how often women are portrayed in pop-culture as either wanting to or NEEDING to be willing to cut off their toes to spite their feet in order to be worthy of a Prince Charming to come and rescue them. I’m also thinking about how often that perfect beauty of tiny feet, tiny waists, big tits and gorgeous face are the main characteristics of the damsel Prince Charming rescues. In fact, they’re quite often the ONLY characteristics of the damsel in need of a romantic rescue. Sadly, we’re encouraged not only to read about that vacuous blank canvas of a damsel, but we’re expected, likewise, to want to BE her. That dream of being rescued by the prince on the white horse will surely become our reality if we can only cut off out toes and be Cinderella!

 

Okay, if I’m honest, at every single one of the difficult points in my life I would have been more than willing to be rescued from the struggles, or even at times I would love to be rescued from my ordinary life and brought into something more exciting. (That’s always a very dangerous thing to wish for!) And who hasn’t spent serious time ‘looking for a hero,’ even if it’s just in a really juicy fantasy.

 

Most of the time, though, we don’t get rescued. We have to do that ourselves, and we’re all the better for it. In the best situations, and in the best stories I’ve read, the hero and the heroine rescue each other, and they’re both worthy of the rescue.

 

I suppose the need to be rescued is archetypal, just as is the need to go on a quest, which is often only an elaborate way of rescuing ourselves. But the makings of a fictional hero and a heroine these days seem to have more to do with fat bank accounts and chaining virgins to the bed in an expensive dungeon and less about the journey that risks everything.

 

Oh, did I mention the journey? Right! The rescue, the quest, they always go hand in hand with the journey. And this is why, for me, Cinderella is one of the weakest tales. The journey is the leaving of our comfort zone – quite often screaming and kicking every step of the way. In that respect, no doubt Cinderella was outside her comfort zone at the ball, but in most journeys, there’s no glass slipper, no prince charming, and no fairy godmother dashing to the rescue. There’s much fear and trembling and digging deep. THAT’S what makes a book nail-biting and un-put-downable (there! A new word) It’s when chaos springs from the mundanity of order that heroes are made. And the resulting quest, the resulting journey is usually at least as painful as having toes severed to fit into glass slippers.

 

We rescue ourselves on a daily basis. We find within ourselves the makings of the hero, and we push forward. That little seed of the hero’s journey exists in all of us, and it’s never a matter of sitting in the ashes by the fireplace and waiting to be rescued. It’s a matter of getting muddy and mucky and taking risks and moving into the places inside us that terrify us, but that pull us like magnates, nonetheless. We are our own heroes, and our stories – those of us who write stories, come from the deeper places in our selves – or at least they should if they’re ever to matter much.

 

Am I being judgmental? Quite possibly. I never claimed not to be. But I know my own journey, and I know when I sit in front of the computer and break into a cold sweat because I fear the place I see myself heading, because I know I have no choice but to go there if this story is to be born, then I know that no one will rescue me but me, and I have to go deep into chaos to come out the other side as my own hero.

 

Tips on Writing Good Sex

As a writer of erotic romance, I’m always trying to analyze the ways in which sex strengthens story. I’ve been very vocal in my belief that a story without sex is like a story without eating or breathing. Sex is a major driving force in our lives on many levels that I’ve dealt with in many blog posts. Because it is a major driving force in our lives it must also be a major driving force in story. Sex is a powerful way to create conflict and chaos in a story. It’s a way of allowing our characters to interact on an intimate level. And it’s one of the very best ways to cut through our characters’ facades and get an honest look at who they are when their guard is down and they’re at their most vulnerable. With that in mind, I’ve decided to share a few points that I always find helpful when I write sex scenes. For me, going back to the basics is always a great way to sharpen my skills. And I love to share the things that work for me.

 

Three occasions not to write sex

  1. While writing children’s books
  2. While writing the definitive work on antique saltcellars.
  3. When you’re not a writer, you’re a bricklayer. Even then …

 

Three important reasons to incorporate sex in your writing

  1. Sex adds tension.
  2. Sex adds depth and dimension to a story, and gives it more humanity.
  3. Sex adds intimacy and transparency to the story and helps the reader better know the characters.

 

Three big no-nos in writing sex

  1. Sex should never be gratuitous. If it doesn’t further the story, don’t put it in.
  2. Sex shouldn’t be a trip to the gyno office. Technical is NOT sexy.
  3. Sex should never be clichéd or OTT. (unless it suits the story)

 

Four suggestions for writing better sex scenes

  1. Write sex unselfconsciously. No one is going to believe it’s you any more than they believe Thomas Harris is a cannibal.
  2. Sex scenes should always be pacey. Too much detail is worse than not enough. Sex should neither slow nor speed up the pace of the novel. It shouldn’t be used like an interval in a play. It should not serve as filler to bolster word count. It should always keep pace with the story being told.
  3. Approach sex in your writing voyeuristically by watching and learning from your characters. Their personalities, emotional baggage and behavior traits will dictate how they have sex and how you write it.
  4. You should always be able to feel a good sex scene in your gut. I’m not talking about wank material, I’m talking about The Clench. It’s a different animal. The Clench below the navel is for the sex scene what the tightness in the chest and shoulders is for the suspense scene.

 

The power of good sex can drive a story in ways that almost nothing else can. Good sex can be the pay-off for a hundred pages of sexual chemistry and tension, but the pay-off is even better if it’s also the cause of more chaos, sling-shotting the reader breathlessly on to the next hundred pages and the next.

 

Inspiration, Take Me! I’m Yours

(archives)

It’s elusive, it’s mysterious, it’s exhilarating, and we erotic writers crave it more than the sex we write about. We chase it shamelessly, we long for it passionately, we would gladly make ourselves slaves to its every whim and, no matter how fickle it is, we always welcome it back with open arms. When it’s with us, it’s at least as good as the best sex. And when it’s not, we mourn its loss like a lover. I’m talking about inspiration, of course. It’s the breath of life for every story ever written and the coveted ethereal presence that every writer yearns for.

 

The mythological link to inspiration is especially interesting to me in the light of a life-long fascination with mythology. From my very first novel novel, The Initiation of Ms Holly, which is a retelling of the Psyche and Eros myth, to The Medusa’s Consortium Tales,  and the reframing of Medusa’s story, the Greek myths have inspired me.

 

Greek mythology – mythology oany kind, really — is fabulous inspiration for smutters. The gods are always dipping their wicks where they don’t belong and finding ever more creative ways to do so. Nine months later, viola! A magical child is born, a child with gifts that will be needed to save the world, or at least a little part of it. But there’s one story where the lovely virgin resists, and no wick-dipping occurs. That’s the story of Apollo and Daphne.

 

The Muses serve Apollo, so of course this myth interests me. Apollo is the god oflight and the sun; truth and prophecy; medicine, healing, and plague. He is the god of music, poetry, and the arts; and all intellectual pursuit. Daphne is a mountain nymph and not interested in giving up her virginity to some randy god. While Apollo is pursuing her, she prays to her father, who is a river god, and he turns her into a laurel tree. Ovid claims it’s not Daphne’s fault that she’s not hot for Apollo right back. He claims that Cupid, who is angry at Apollo shoots Daphne with a leaden arrow, which prevents her from returning Apollo’s feelings. But what matters is that she misses out on Apollo’s inspiration.

 

My theory is that the whole mythology of gods coming down from Olympus, or wherever else gods come down from, to seduce humans is really nothing more than a metaphor for inspiration.

 

Consider all the different forms in which Zeus visits his paramours. He takes the form of a swan with Leta, he visits Danae in a shower of gold coins, he approaches Europa as a white bull. Writers understand that inspiration can take absolutely any shape, and often the very shape we least expect.

 

The gods aren’t always gentle in their seductions. Hades drags Persephone off to the underworld screaming and kicking all the way. Zeus turns Io into a white cow, who is tortured and tormented by Hera. In the form of an eagle, he abducts Ganymede and drags him away to Mount Olympus. Writers know well that inspiration doesn’t always come in a gentle form. In fact one of my creative writing teachers used to advise her students to go to the place inside themselves that most frightened them, most disgusted them, most disturbed them, and that’s the place where they would find inspiration, that’s the place from which their writing would be the most powerful.

 

Finally, whether inspiration comes in gentle, beautiful forms or whether it drags us kicking and screaming and tears us from limb to limb, the result will be something greater than what it sprang from. From the seductions of the gods, the children born were always larger than life. They were heroes and monsters and fantastical creatures, but they were all born of that joining of divinity and humanity, they were all the result of what happens when something greater penetrates the blood and the bone and the grey matter that is our humanity. What comes from that inspiration may indeed be monstrous or fantastical, but it will always be, in the mythical sense, born of the gods.

 

Which leads me back to Daphne and Apollo. The cost of inspiration is the loss of innocence. We are seduced, we are penetrated, we are impregnated with something new, something fresh, something possibly even frightening, something that we, as writers must carry to term and give birth to. But none of that can happen without yielding to the seduction. Daphne became a tree, unable to move, unable to think, unable to ever be penetrated or inspired. One can only imagine what may have resulted from the willing union with the god of light and truth and poetry and the arts and all the things we writers crave. I’ll be honest, I fantasize about Apollo. I fantasize about inviting him right on in and saying I’m yours. I’ll take all you can give me, and please, feel free to stay as long as you like. Though, in truth, in my fantasy, I skip the dangerous and scary bits. And encounters with inspiration can often be dangerous and scary.

 

There is a cost to inspiration. It’s the obsession we all know as writers, the one that won’t allow us to think about anything else in the waking world and sometimes even in the dream world until we get the very last word down, until we make it shine exactly the way we conceived it, exactly the way it penetrated us. My heart is racing just writing this because every writer knows what it feels like, and every writer lives for it to happen again and again and again. So yeah, forget the tree rubbish, laurel or otherwise. Inspiration, take me, I’m yours. Have your way with me. I couldn’t be more willing if I tried.

 
© 2018 K D Grace
The Romance Reviews

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