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You'll never believe what I found

sitting in the front row of my Jane Austen talk last week. In fact, the entire night was sort of a series of unexpected moments.

But before I give the real shock away, let me tell you, I am so relieved those chats are over. While I’m usually pretty confident I know more about the era than the average bear, I always get nervous before I do a talk on Jane Austen. Because she is so beloved, so studied, so written about. So I did my talk by skirting Jane and just talking about her era. That is fun. Sharing those tidbits–like Jane losing her writing desk while she was traveling because it looked like everyone else’s traveling desk–sort of the ubiquitous black suitcase you see today going round and round on the baggage carousel. Or how people then overspent, run up debts and built houses and lives they couldn’t afford.

Ah, the world and mores and times may change, but people, God bless them, never really do.

For me, going to the talk out at the Snoqualmie Library was like taking a step into my past. I used to live out there, in the woods, near the river. When it was really the sticks and no one lived so far off the beaten track. But these days, civilization has discovered what my parents knew all those years ago when they moved out there. The place is gorgeous. Look at this million dollar view from one of the housing developments I passed on the way there:

And then there is the view from Starbucks. (If you grew up out there, you’d chuckle as I did when I saw it. I mean, Starbucks in Snoqualmie? ) This is the hometown of the Mar-T Cafe, of Twin Peaks fame, for goodness sakes, hardly the suburban/urban homeland for a skinny grande with a raw sugar.
So if that wasn’t surprising enough, imagine as I began my talk with this:
Yes, no need to check your monitor resolution. That is four high school guys sitting in the front row of my talk on Jane Austen’s England. And if that wasn’t enough to rattle me, it was snowing when I walked to my car. Yes, snowing. The last week in April. In Western Washington. But come on, I’d seen enough that night not to be shocked. I was even on the lookout for Bigfoot hitchhiking as I drove home. I bet he’s a caramel macchiato sort of guy, don’t ya think?

So, hey, what’s surprised you lately?

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Patience

This is probably not a word that most people would use when describing me. I am not the most patient person. I want things to happen. Now. Not months from now, not years from now. But now. Today. Immediately. And so I became a writer. I can just see career counselors and life coaches all over the place just shaking their heads. Because writing is all about the patience. The hurry up and wait. A one page at a time sort of existence. I can’t just get up one morning with a brilliant idea and sit down at 9 with a latte in hand and chuck out 400 pages of brilliant text and be done with the idea before the I have to fly off for martinis at 5 somewhere hip and happening.

I have to live ideas for months and sometimes years, before they even get to the front of the queue and then they have a good six to nine months of nagging at me to sit my butt down and work. Yes, work. At times banging my head against the keyboard because the words won’t come, and other times against the walls when others get the bonuses or perks that I want, yet they seem to get with very little effort on their part.

Impatience has a way of coloring your gaze with jealously.

But over the last few years I’ve found that I have more patience than I thought I did. Or maybe I’ve learned how to live with patience. Or I’ve come to “a-hem” a certain age where patience is a little more embraceable. The funny thing is, that when you go along with the notion of being patient, of waiting, of letting life run its course and the right path will open up for you, one step at a time, the world moves along at a much smoother pace. A lot less wall banging.

I suppose one thing that taught me this is knitting. Yes, knitting. Talk about the ultimate craft in patience. A sweater is knit one stitch at a time. Take a look at a sweater and imagine how many stitches go into that. Knit one at a time, over and over again. This is the second part of patience–the faith part of it. That if you take that one stitch at a time, write one page at a time, with each step you are closer to finishing. The other day I picked up a sock I had set down last fall and hadn’t finished. I had forgotten how to turn the heel–which is the part of knitting that makes that pocket for your heel and turns the sock that 90 degrees you need to go. Now my problem was that I tried to do it at 10 at night. After several frustrating attempts and some really bad knitting, I nearly tossed the entire thing in the garbage. Instead, the next day, I sat down at the table, with instructions right in front of me, a latte at my side and turned that darn heel. One stitch at a time.

Matthew’s autism has probably also had a hand in getting me to this place. We spend months on waiting lists for services. We spent so much time on one list, by the time his name came to the top for help, he was too old for the program. But on the other hand, as I look over the past five years that we’ve been coping with this issue, that when that call comes, that slot becomes available, it is the right time for him to have those services. The right TA, like our beloved Kelsey, or an awesome teacher, like his Mr. Perkins, comes into our life and helps bring Matthew one step at a time out of the isolation that autism is.

Patience is faith. Faith that our footsteps are being guided and that what we really need (as opposed to what we jump through hoops and run in circles convinced that we need) will be there when we can put it to best use.

What have you been avoiding? What are you impatiently waiting for, yet never seems to happen? What steps, rather than leaps, will get you there?

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Let Them Eat Cake . . .

I have to admit it. I suck at decorating cakes. I mean, I really stink at it. And don’t suggest a cake decorating class. I flunked. Twice. It is humbling to have the cake decorating teacher suggest, ever-so-politely, that while my desire to learn how to make cakes special for my children’s birthdays was admirable, I might want to just buy them from Safeway. Sigh.

And then there was the Seven Minute disaster. I called my mom in tears after I had gone through all my sugar and eggs and 4, yes, FOUR attempts to make Seven Minute Frosting. “Mom, I can’t get it right. It just sits there.” Mom to the rescue. She comes down, watches me ruin yet another batch, and even she was baffled. The Queen of Seven Minute Frosting and my own mother had the nerve to suggest, that perhaps I should just stick to ready made. If you knew my organic lovin’, never-make-it-any-way-but-by-scratch-and-with-love mother, it was like being told I had been dropped off on the doorstep as a baby by really odd strangers.

Now that doesn’t mean I still don’t try. Believe me, I got rejected as a writer all over town before I sold. Every editor I’ve ever worked with (5 in total) all rejected me at one time or another. So even being told to shove off by the nice Wilton Lady or even by my own Mother wasn’t enough to stop me from committing crimes against cakedom in the privacy of my own home. I mean, I can learn this. I can master this. But when the husband looked at my last attempt (February 12, 2008 to be exact) he was less than kind. “Honey, please do us all a favor. Don’t frost them.” Oh, the cake is very edible, and so is the frosting (as long as I stick to Buttercream) but together, I turn it into an eyesore, a birthday homage to Jackson Pollock.

But after the February birthday in our house, comes the April follow-up. Here was my chance to redeem myself. Now over the last year or so, I’ve taken to reading Jane Brockett’s Blog, Yarnstorm. She knits, cooks, and takes wonderful photographs that are a delight for the soul. Jane also wrote the book, The Gentle Art of Domesticity. And of course, she bakes cakes. Or rather, she can decorate them. Without any help from Wilton. Why just look at this magic! Or this one. Look how she doesn’t even frost the sides, and yet, it is still a work of art. I felt inspired. I felt breathless. This I could do.

And see if I didn’t:

Other than the kitchen looking like I was battling icing demons, I nailed it, and the kitchen cupboards, the floor and one of the kids when they wandered by and I brought the hand mixer up a little too fast. Sure, Jane’s kitchen probably never looks like this, so I’ve also done the homey, beauty shot:

And just so you can have a little food for the soul on this Monday morning, here is my close up:
Take that Wilton! And my heartfelt thanks to Jane Brockett for saving me from a life of cake decorating humiliation.

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When Friends Rock

I think one of the most amazing parts of being in this business is the sheer number of people you get to meet, either in person or online. The good friends you gather along the way who come into your life by chance and then seem to have been a part of your life forever. This week I saw a good friend, Lara Adrian, reach a pinnacle in her career – #6 on the New York Times list with her latest Midnight Breed book, Midnight Rising – and I was dizzy with excitement for her. When I couldn’t get a hold of her, I called our mutual agent and she and I did the happy dance over the phone. Now to anyone in my local Target who just happened to witness me doing said happy dance, my apologies. But I digress.

I met Lara Adrian about 10 years ago. A year or so ago we were trying to remember when and how we met, and neither of us could come up with something concrete. But as it was, we were both living in Phoenix, both longing for our respective coasts (mine: the Pacific Northwest: hers: the Upper Atlantic) and just starting out in our respective careers. We both moved in opposite directions about the same time, but never lost touch, emailing each other, spending time at conferences, and sharing writing advice, cheers, promo ideas, and sometimes a bit of gossip, along the way. (Girlfriend, I still owe you for suggesting The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines when I was stuck in the middle of It Takes a Hero.) When I hit the USA Today for the first time, Lara sent me flowers. I returned the favor when she hit.

When she took the risk of leaving historicals to write her vampire series, I could only watch in awe, because to me it was such a giant leap of faith. But not for her. She made it look effortless, writing her books with discipline and heart, and her series took off–and rightly so, they are great books if you haven’t read one.

And this week, found her on the New York Times bestseller list. I spent the day grinning, because in this business where jealousy, and snarky spitefulnes, and being “bitchy” is synonymous with being considered intelligent and profound, (snort!) it is just so refreshing, so wonderfully rejuvenating to see a friend fly without a safety net and soar, to see someone who is kind, and truly intelligent, and so darned gifted get what she rightly deserves.

So who do you admire? What makes you stand up and cheer? And since we are being warm and fuzzy today, what friend do you need to email and say “hi!”? Because I know this for sure: Friends rock.

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April Fool's in July

Oh, come on. Did you really think I was going to give away the spoiler? Sorry, but you’ll have to wait until August 26th to find out what made Val cry.  Please, go back and finish reading today’s blog and have a great day.

Oh, and make a big deal about this in the comments over there and see how many other people we can lure in.

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Don’t Let the Librarians Fool You

Beneath their mild-mannered, Dewey loving exteriors, beats some very passionate hearts. I discovered that last week when I made my first trip to the PLA Conference in Minneapolis. (Just in case you aren’t a librarian, the PLA is the Public Library Association). Librarian and romance superhero, John Charles, invited me to open up the PreConference program, Romance 101. Our goal? To educate and hopefully gain enthusiastic support for seeing more romances in public libraries. Luckily for us, it was like singing to the choir, because the folks who came and spent half a day with us were so wonderful and kind and nice, I felt utterly spoiled by the end. HarperCollins had sent books for me to sign and it was so much fun to chat away with these great folks from all around the country–albeit with John, the timekeeper behind me saying “more signing, less talking.” You’d think John, who’s known me for years now would know–me, stop chatting about, well, ME?
Remember all the bags in the box, the one child labor laws may have something to say about? And yes, I do think they should legalize Legos as a form of payment for children. Here they are decorating the table way and ready for the taking. Believe me, there was nothing left. Want to see why? Here’s a peek inside:

Yes, that’s a copy of Laura Lee Guhrke’s And Then He Kissed Her, which she shipped to my hotel room. I think a personal massage and a spa pedicure would have been a nicer thing to find at my hotel room door rather than a beat up box from UPS, but the librarians were really excited by their bounty of free books. (But karma was with LLG that morning–And Then He Kissed Her is a RITA finalist!!)

I had to laugh before I left because I ran into a friend and she asked me if I was daunted about speaking, which I said–no I wasn’t–it was the getting out of town that was usually the big headache–all the arrangements that go into leaving town. That was until I walked into this conference room:

It was like walking into a big college lecture hall. And I couldn’t resist traveling all the way to the top for the birds-eye view from the nose bleed seats. I had one of those “oh, crikey,” moments. This room was big, but once it filled up with friendly faces it didn’t feel quite so big.

But a huge thanks to John Charles, Shelley Mosley, Kristin Ramsdell, and Joanne “Let me Put a Bow on that” Hamilton-Selway for their good humor and great company. These four are passionate about books and romances and reading and always impress me with their sly humor and wit. And yes, I am going to name a pirate in my next book, John Charles, and no, Joanne, I didn’t put the picture of you with your ribbon. I’ll take payment in the form of a Cosmo in SF.

And no, I wasn’t nervous in the least when I stood up to speak. But I might have been a bit stressed in the week beforehand. Might explain why I told my hairdresser to go ahead and lop off my hair. Note to self: When its taken you four years to grow it out, don’t take four seconds to decide to whack it off.

And finally to all the folks in Minneapolis who were tired of snow and winter, and I regaled with tales of Spring in Seattle: I got my due, as your snow followed me home. Yes, snow in Seattle at the end of March. I would have told them that such a thing would happen when pigs fly. And here is one in my garden doing just that:

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I got nothing . . .

At least not this morning.  Really slammed to get the book done and in overnight by today.  So check back tomorrow and hopefully I’ll have some spare words left.

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Psst . . . Do you like to win things?

Hey all, just to let you know, Samantha James is having a big, I mean, huge contest extravaganza to celebrate the release of her new book, The Seduction of an Unknown Lady. Get thyself over there and enter. She’s giving away tons of books, coverflats and some really cool grand prizes nearly every day. Just thought you might like to know, because she’s got some of my coverflats in there and a hardback of one of my books. You’ll have to enter to find out which one.

Oh, and her book comes out today–so make sure you go get a copy. It’s a great book and like all of Samantha’s stories, The Seduction of an Unknown Lady is full of heart and passion.

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Trains, Planes and Automobiles

I’ve been so caught up in finishing a book, everything has sort of stacked up on the desk. I looked up the other day, blinked like a ground hog and realized I’ve got a bunch of events coming up soon and I didn’t have any of the particulars nailed down. Like airline flights, hotels, rental cars, the sort of details that my lazy-ass assistant never gets to. Oh, wait, that’s me having to get up an hour early to get it all done–so you can understand why it just sort of doesn’t–get done that is. And with the first trip starting, well, like today, I really needed to get my *&^$ together.

What really motivated me was listening to NPR, the 5:00 news and the 10:00 news all issuing dire warnings about less flights, more costs and book now, (and yes, I am a bit of a news junkie), so I finally roused the assistant to get up early and get it all together. She was a little caustic about the whole thing, but luckily the rest of the house was still asleep not to have to listen to her grumbling.

What I hadn’t realized is that I had been a busy girl saying “yes” to just about everything that came my way. I don’t normally do that, and for years have had to be very discerning about what I did considering the difficulties of leaving the family behind. Yet there was the evidence in my little mail folder called “Es Events.” Reader’s Luncheon in Portland? Yes! PLA in Minneapolis? Wouldn’t miss it for the world. BookExpo in Los Angeles? Well, why not? RWA in SF? You had me at San. Oh, and then there are the two library programs locally that I am doing on Jane Austen. Crikey! What was I thinking? Just look at my Events page if you don’t believe me.

So I got busy on Expedia, on Amtrak.com, and Disney.com. Don’t even ask about the later. Apparently one cannot go to Los Angeles and not take the entire family. I didn’t see them queuing up in my office for the little jaunt this week to Minneapolis–covered as it is in snow. But I saw that as a good excuse to go buy two skeins of Malabrigo wool and make a new hat and mittens. As for RWA, I had to not only get myself organized, but Mr. Boyle as well. You see, he’s coming to RWA to give a talk with me, so I had to get his flights arranged as well. Yes, the hero husband is coming to RWA. Please don’t swamp him for autographs or gush over him, it really goes to his head, and I would like him to fit into the hotel elevator.

So far so good. The other part of trips is getting the promo pieces together. With a deadline looming and my office overflowing with crap, er promo, I ended up dangling a new set of Legos in front of one of the little heroes if he’d stuff bags. I tell you, I wish my assistant was so easily motivated because the little dude was a champ. Here are part of the 60 bags that are going with me to Minneapolis. My packing list this trip is rather easy: Suitcase full of swag and not much else. If you run into me the third day of the trip and my clothes look like a wreck, well, you’ll know why.

Someone asked me just today if I ever get nervous speaking to so many people, and I said no. I’m usually so relieved to be done with all the details (the childcare, the laundry, flights, airport transportation, the shopping, the makeup that I never can find, what knitting, books, and work to take with me, is my phone charged, iPod charged, batteries in the camera, emergency numbers all laid out, groceries stocked) that I just sigh with relief and get up there. For 25 minutes no one wants anything from me but to make them laugh. Of course the librarians in Minneapolis may be surprised–my talk is slated for 8:30 in the morning, which equates to 6:30 AM Seattle time. I don’t know about any of you, but I am rarely funny at 6:30 in morning.

No, wait, I’ve got a better idea. I think I’ll send the assistant. She’s barely had anything to do lately.

P.S.  Drop by tomorrow as I have news about a really cool contest someone is having over the next month.  Drop by, get all the details, so you can enter early. 

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Getting My Irish On

Now that used to mean getting myself down to the nearest pub and . . . well, singing a lot of Irish songs into the night. And perhaps imbibing in a pint or two. (Kit, this is the point where you don’t snort your coffee all over your keyboard, nor do you comment.) But life is so very different now. This year it has turned into discovering my Irish roots in another way: Discovering the most authenticate and perfect recipe for Irish Soda Bread.

This all started about a week ago when my son’s teacher put out a call for parents to volunteer to make Irish Soda Bread for St. Patrick’s Day for the kids to take over to the retirement home across the street from his school. They go over there on holidays, take the residents cookies and such and visit with them and sing them songs. I gamely raised my hand and volunteered and then panicked a bit. Sure, I’m a good part Irish, but I’ve never made soda bread in my life.

So I did what any American-Irish would do. I went in search of my roots. Via O’Google. And found two likely recipes. The contenders were: Martha Stewart’s Recipe and Simply Recipes. Thus began the Boyle Irish Soda Bread Test kitchen.

Of course, as ancient tradition dictates, I got out my O’Kitchen Aid mixer and my Cuisanart. Essential for that authentic taste. The differences you will note in the recipes is the volume of eggs, sugar, butter, and buttermilk. And in Martha’s, she makes that addition of the caraway seeds. Hmm. Since I knew one of the test eaters would probably stick his little nose in the air if he heard the word caraway, I made the Simply Recipe version early in the week. The test eaters devoured it. The loaf turned out wonderful. Sorry no pictures. Like I said, devoured.

What I also discovered is that soda bread traverses all meals. Makes awesome toast in the morning. A nice hearty slice goes well with your lunch salad. And warm from the oven and sliced, it makes a nice addition to dinner. We Irish are a clever bunch, if I do say so myself.

So on Sunday, with St. Patrick’s day just 24 hours away, I had to get serious. First into the oven was the Martha version.


And it came out with this really disappointing crust and, well, really heavy. Look at it up there–it looks so pale and lackluster. Even the addition of butter on the crust before baking didn’t make it brown nicely. I think with the extra eggs and butter and sugar, it makes it just too darn heavy. Dense. Now I know it is supposed to be somewhat dense, but this is verging on concrete. The caraway seeds add a nice flavor, but it just wasn’t that homey loaf I was looking for.

So back to the Simply recipe. And I turned out two loaves (without the mixer. Yes, I did it by hand.) and instead of baking them in a heavy duty cast iron skillet I used a heavy duty cookie sheet. So here we have before:

And after:

Hearty crust. Not too dense. Comes together easily. Oh, yes. We have a winner. So however you get your Irish on this year, I hope your day is green and full of good cheer, and hopefully with a slice of soda bread. Look, I’ve done all the hard work for you. And would someone please pass the butter before my slice cools down.

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