Diversity in Fiction: Crafting Characters Respectfully

I’m not one to go seeking out hot-button issues, but the truth is when we don’t address underlying, systemic problems of all the ‘isms’ in our culture (from government programs, to housing applications, to writing fiction–) they continue to hold power over and harm other human beings. So, I’m discussing today how we, as writers, can be not only sensitive to the characters we create but the effects of their existence on our world. After all, stereotypes exist because we fail to see them in all the subtle ways they permeate our lives. As ethical and compassionate people, we should work towards burning down those untruths as much as possible, even in our own work.

I’m not going to stand on a soap box and preach without starting with myself. I’ve probably, in my ignorant and un-learned past, created characters that simplified the complexities of a human into certain traits. I’ve tried not to. I tried to craft my characters as strong, independent and powerful, more tuned to their personalities than their physical traits. But there were still subtle things, I wasn’t even aware of at the time, that filtered from my limited white experience. As I look into rewriting this character, I am constantly questioning how I can do better.

We all should. We owe it to the character, to the reader (and to the world) to examine our writing and go forward with an eye to our own hidden (and not so hidden) biases or ideas.

The best advice I can give you is to strip yourself of any cloak of magnanimous “equality”. Start by reading some real, hard to stomach, but necessary soul-exploring books on the complexities of race and gender equality, the reason systemic problems exist, and how we can best eradicate them. Talk to people from every background, attend classes, lectures, and forums, open discussions of others’ experiences. Do it with an open heart, and a willingness to accept your part in the system. Have the dedication to do something about it.

When we are invested in writing characters different from ourselves (race, gender, religion, sexuality, age etc) one of the best things we can do is RESEARCH. In the expansiveness of the Internet, so much good information, written by diverse voices, can be found. The ones most important (and really the only viable ones) are those written in their own voice, about their own experience.

I also encourage you to talk to as many other people of all walks of life as you can. (And not just to research for your work…do it for the benefit of your humanity and compassion.) While I DO NOT advocate for you turning your ‘one black friend’ into your go-to for all questions about a diverse, varied and culturally rich part of our world (it’s not their job or duty to educate you), don’t shy away from respectful and honest conversations that come up, especially when they happen from immersing yourself in different situations and events from a standpoint of open mindedness and learning.

Above all, when you are writing diverse characters DON’T, for the love of god, assume that by describing their skin color/religion/orientation that you’ve described their character in total. DON’T stereotype them. DON’T include diverse characters just for the sake of checking off a box.

DO make them unique to their upbringing, their experience, and their situation. DO describe all of your characters equally and in rich and expansive ways.

I’ve always believed that good storytelling is universal. And in our connected and dynamic world, it would be a shame to only write one kind of person. But care for your characters and the people they may or may not represent. Here are some good resources that may help:

Good luck and don’t be afraid. Just be respectful, compassionate, and educated.

Westbury Falls: Episode #6

Great day in the morning, it’s time to get back to our little time traveling Lillian. If you need a refresher of what happened last time, you can find it here.https://thebeautifulstuff.blog/2021/12/02/westbury-falls-episode-5/

If you are lazy, like me, and don’t want to go back that far, we left our characters with Lillian running out into a storm, pissed off that she was stuck in a different time and about to marry some shady-ass-muthaf*&#ker and the good Dr. Blackwell, worried for her safety, because she’s too damn stubborn to take care of herself dashes out after her.

Photo by Krisztina Papp on Pexels.com

And now–Episode #6

“Perhaps some other time. I am running quite late for meeting with my father and should not dawdle further.” He politely bowed, careful to lean back as to not come too close to the skin she so graciously offered up for perusal. She curtsied and Dr. Blackwell rushed from the room.

He indeed had a meeting with his father that afternoon, and so it was not a falsehood that allowed him to escape Kitty. But it was not his true reasoning. Acquiring his hat and gloves from the porter, he walked casually out the front door to the sound of thunderous clouds and the quickening rain drops that fell from the storm above. He looked in both directions, knowing that he should acquire his horse and go back to his father’s estate. He could, as Miss Darlingwood had advised, give Lillian the space she needed to ruminate over her “anticipated happiness”.

Only everything about her face indicated that she was not in the slightest way anticipating the impeding nuptials with happiness. Everything about what he’d observed felt that she was not at all pleased with what had transpired before her fall. Marriage was not always a cause for happiness but it would secure her future and she should not feel so passionately against such an advantageous situation. And he should not care that she was contrary to the idea. But from the moment he had taken charge of her care at the base of the stairs a week ago, he felt, deep in the soul of his person, that he was responsible for her safety. She was his patient. And she had just run out, unaccompanied, into the rain.

“Ridiculous,” he grumbled under his breath. How could he take care of a woman who so blatantly went against his good and sound advice? There was only so much he could control and she, with her strong will and stubborn countenance, did not make even those things easy. The rain began to fall in earnest then. Soaking his jacket and hat and making it difficult to see much past the gates of the estate.

“Blasted,” he cursed. Nodding to the stable hand who had brought his horse round, he mounted quickly and tore off in an expanding circular path around the grounds.

She would be wet and cold. Perhaps having damaged her stitches. Perhaps slipped and fallen in a gully. Bones broken, head split open, any number of horrifying injuries. Had she not a mind for the worry it set within his poor heart? His poor heart—he scowled and pushed the horse faster. His heart had nothing to do with wanting her to maintain her health and her reputation. Through the rain and wind, the rushing growl of thunder above, and the distant echo of it in the hills surrounding Westbury Manor he listened for a cry for help, but only the sound of distant gulls resounded.

His eyes scanned the horizon as his heart sped up with every moment that she evaded him. True worry, real and hard, began to seize hold of his good sense. He gasped and wiped the rain from his eyes. Matthew’s thoughts circled around in his head, just as his path circled through the gardens and expansive fields of Westbury. Why would a young, poor woman scorn an advantageous marriage?

Why would a young doctor refuse a prestigious seat on his father’s board?

Some things were simply not meant to be.

What would his strait-laced cousin think of her antics now? He could not fathom how a man like Fredrick would have considered her a suitable match. But knowing his cousin as he did, Matthew thought it must have everything to do with her being exceedingly beautiful. And his cousin had always been drawn to the shiniest, most sought-after things. She would, indeed, be a stunning trophy on his arm. A trophy that he barely made effort to get to know, to spend time with, to dote on. To even visit in her convalescence? Did she mean so little to Fredrick?

While Matthew, on the other shaking hand, could scarcely stay away even for the sake of the delicate propriety that dictated their strange and sudden relationship. Suddenly, he felt a pit of sadness open in his chest at the very thought of never seeing Lillian Byrne again.

“Blast, it all. Damn fool idiot!” he said again, not sure if his words were meant for her, his cousin, or himself. His eyes scanned the horizon ferociously.

Then, out in the south pasture, he saw her cresting the far hill. A sodden bonnet in one hand, an unused shawl in the other. Her hair, coming down in waves around her shoulders, out of the carefully constructed updo that hid her wound. Paled and soaked, she stomped determined up the hill. He urged his stead forward, down the first hill, and quickly up to intersect her path. The wind tore between them, swirling the rain round in a cacophony of sound and drenching water.

“Miss Byrne, I demand you stop this foolishness at once!” he yelled from behind her. Lillian, deep in thought, took two more striding steps with her skirt lifted, dropped the drenched and heavy material, and spun to face him. She pushed the hair from her eyes.

“What are you doing here?” she said. “You’ll catch your death!”

“Oh? Is that a matter of fact? But you are perfectly safe to be out in such a torrent?” He dismounted from his horse.

She scowled in response.

“Miss Byrne, I insist that you allow me to accompany you back home.”

“That is not my home,” she sobbed and pointed to the gray manor in the distance that was harder every passing moment to see. “Those are not my friends, that is not—” The wind stole her words and Matthew had to take off his hat and stomp nearer to hear.

“I don’t understand,” he said and stormed closer. Lillian stared at him as the rain fell from his nose in droplets and soaked his blond locks so they plastered to his head. He, in turn, watched the rivulets of it pour down her cheeks, drip off the shelf of her top lip, and its perfect pink peaks. The fullness of her bottom lip, wet and tender.

“Please come back,” he said as he came close, unable to take his eyes from her lips. Lillian’s fingers lost their hold of her bonnet and scarf and they fell in wet heaps beside her drenched and muddied feet. “This is no storm to be walking in. There is scarcely any air to breath with all the rain. We are worried over your well-being.”

“We?” she asked.

I am worried,” he said and hung his head. For all of the desperation to take her back and make her fit in the space and place a woman should, he did not try to touch her, nor did he force her to follow him.

“You—you were?” she said softly and tried to peer below the blond lashes that touched his cheeks as he gazed down.

“I was…much concerned,” he said softly and he knelt to pick up her belongings. When he looked back up, he noticed that the stitches of her wound had come loose, and a small trail of blood was now joining the rain to trace her cheek. He grunted and hastily took a handkerchief from his breast pocket, quickly pressing it to the cut and causing her to take in a quick breath. His fingers were warm as he put pressure to stop the bleeding.

“See now. You should have listened to me. Look what has happened,” he said, feeling relieved for having changed the subject and being able to reprimand her again instead of admitting to her effect on him. He took the cloth away and she stared at her blood.

“Perhaps your stitches were faulty,” she said and smiled up at him. He scowled at her snark and began to formulate an argument from his shock at her suggestion until he saw her smile.

“Why, you ungrateful little child,” he said and a smile played unwilling on his lips. She watched it grow with the speed of her heart. She liked that she got under his skin and so did he.

“I am no child.” She pressed further. He looked down at the wet, thin fabric across her breasts and the skirt that clung to the fullness of her hips.

“You certainly do not look like a child,” he whispered. Lillian swayed closer and he swayed backward in equal parts. “But your behavior suggests otherwise.”

“Well, perhaps you should have found a switch along your way to rescue me, so that you could take it to my backside and teach me a lesson for such immature petulance,” she countered.

“Miss Byrne!” He blushed profusely, shocked not so much that she had spoken such suggestive words but that the thoughts immediately occupied his mind. “I could not–could do no such thing! I would never strike a woman!”

“No?” she whispered and took his hand in her cold fingers and pressed its warmth to her face. If he would allow, she would show his hands all of the cold and drenched skin that now ached for his touch. He took in a deep breath and she could feel him pulling away.

“That would be the right of your husband, to dole out such punishment for your ill-mannered behavior.”

“And if you were my husband, would you?”

“Would I what?” he asked, his frown deepening with the effort to not allow his brain and heart the luxury of such a fantasy.

“Take a switch to my backside in punishment for my ill-mannered behavior?” she asked. His eyes sought hers, his breath quickened and she could tell he was in the throes of trying not to think of it. “Or perhaps, simply your hand to my backside would suffice.” Visions of her creamy skin, naked over his lap before a warm fireplace, his broad hand against the curve of her backside flooded his mind and his breath came in gasps as his eyes closed.

“Miss Byrne, that is a most improper thing to—”

“I am yet un married,” she said and looked up at him, into his eyes, showing the dark depths of her own desire by pressing her wet skin closer to him.

“You are soon to be.” He reminded, but his hand stayed for a moment and he looked as though he wanted to pull her in for a kiss. She leaned forward. “Lily, please—” he interrupted. “You must come back with me so that I may mend the stitches before you bleed out or catch your death of cold. I shall write my cousin this afternoon to let him know that you are in need of his company.”

“I am not—”

“Do not—” he sighed exasperated and reached out, “argue with me, Lily!” taking her by the hand he pulled her to the patient stead.

“Lily?”

“If you are determined to act like a spoiled child, then you shall be addressed as one,” he growled. “Does my cousin even know what kind of trouble he has set himself up to inherit?”

“Perhaps it would be best if he were to just call the whole thing off!” she yelled back and struggled against his strong hand that held fast despite the pouring rain.

“The arrangement is made, do not jest so boldly to undermine your promissory words. It is most unbecoming of a young lady and will only serve to ruin your family’s good name and your reputation.” Lillian felt as though she might throw up as he lifted her easily onto the back of his waiting horse.

“I can walk damn it!” she burst out.

“You will do as I tell you!” he yelled back and with a grace she’d never seen possessed in any person, he swung up on the horse behind her. “And I will see to it that you obey!”

“I will not obey you!” she argued and squirmed against the strong arms that held her fast. He tightened his grip and his chin sunk down firmly into the crook of her neck and shoulder. His hot breath on her neck, his voice in her ear.

“Please, Lily, I only ask to protect you. You would not survive the financial ruin. You would not survive the poverty I have seen in young women who have fallen out of society’s good graces. And, as if you did not know, let me patiently remind you that even a simple rainstorm has been known to cause life-ending fevers. Especially for those who have been exposed to great trauma. Please, for the sake of my heart, come home.” His voice turned desperate and he placed a delicate kiss to her neck, just below her ear.

“I do not like men telling me what to do,” she said back to him, though the warmth of him, the way his lips shook against her skin, and how his hands gently caressed her waist, felt as though he were trying to apologize in touch.

“I do not blame you. And I’m sorry if I seemed—too forceful. I am not used to a—a woman like you. You’ve quite befuddled me, Lily, in ways I don’t know how to recover from.”

“I just can’t marr—”

“Please do not say it. Please, my dear Miss Byrne, trust that you will find happiness, in some way, some form by staying the course of this engagement. I believe you will. I must believe it for I cannot bear any thought that it would be otherwise. And so, you must believe it too, for my sake.”

Lillian stopped her struggle, sobbed, and wrapped her arms around his, leaned back into the warmth of his strong chest and allowed him to guide the horse back to the manor.  What were the chances she could find a way home before she was forced to marry Fredrick Sutton? What were the chances she would be able to stay away from his cousin until then?

Both seemed very bad odds.

She held still and quiet, unusually quiet for her, while he stitched up her cut. She had been watching his steady fingers and hard, unflinching eyes as he worked, but it only served to make her fall more deeply in the trouble of affection with him. He glanced once down to her eyes, to see her staring at him and his brow fell.

“Does it not bother you to watch? I know this must—” he paused steadying his hand as he knotted the delicate thread.

“Hurt like hell?” she asked quietly so Kitty would not hear from where she sat on the settee beside them, watching her like a hawk. Instead of shock he simply smiled out one corner of his mouth and nodded. She spoke more loudly to dissuade suspicion on Kitty’s part of her curse and her blooming feelings.

“I’m hoping I can learn to improve my embroidery skill by watching you. Kitty tells me I am quite dreadful and wonders who must have been responsible for my instruction.”

“Who indeed had that pleasure?” he asked distractedly as he cleaned the remaining blood from the wound and that which had trailed down her cheek in the rain. Miss Darlingwood looked over at them.

“Yes! Who in deed, I think I would very much like to reprimand them.” She chimed in.

“I do not recall,” she said softly and looked back down at her hands, knowing very well that she had never in fact been taught the art as all respectable young women of the age were.

“Well, failing at one thing, I am well aware that you have many other talents,” he said, tossing the bloodied cloth into a pan of water. Miriam collected the first aid materials on a tray and left in the stealthy manner of a woman who runs the household without ever being seen.

“And how can you be so assured of my talents?”

“My cousin tells me you are quite the accomplished at the piano forte.”

Lillian’s head was not up to the challenge of puzzling through how she’d pull off living up to such a reputation.

“Oh that’s right! Why I’ve heard from Mr. Bryne that you play quite beautifully and are quite the accomplished singer.”

“Is that so? I would very much like to hear that someday. When I visit Mr. Sutton and you that is.” Dr. Blackwell said as he cleaned and put away his instruments, throwing small glances her way as if to remind her.

“I assure you; rumors of my talent have been greatly exaggerated.” Lillian said dryly. While she may have indeed learned and played the piano at the insistence of her mother for most of her life, she knew that the two were separate and different instruments.

“In such cases as this I would normally argue that such modesty is becoming of a young lady.” He smiled but Lillian did not return the smile.

“Finally, I am acting becoming,” she said and rose to put space between her and the doctor. Kitty looked up from her sewing as Miriam cracked the door

“Beggin your pardon Miss Darlingwood, but Master Byrne has asked if he could join you all later for tea and I wanted to ask you about the menu,” she said quietly from the door way. Kitty rose with a huff, not sure she wanted to converse with Mr. Byrne over tea, as he’d teased her mercilessly just last week about a curl that had escaped her carefully tended styling and made her feel quite self conscious. While she hovered at the doorway to talk to Miriam, Matthew caught Lillian by the wrist.

Normally, I said.” His finger gently traced an arch over the delicate skin. “But we both are aware that you are too honest to be concerned with other’s opinions.”

“I beg your pardon, Sir,” she said quietly as to not gain Kitty’s attention even as a fire lit her eyes. She moved to storm away, but he held her by her wrist.

“Feel, the angel’s heart as it beats faster,” he whispered and gauged her pulse. Lillian stopped; the world hung on his lips at the endearment. “Let us agree, Lily, to never be dishonest with one another. Though we are merely friends, it would do my heart much good, and give my soul ease to find an honest woman in my small social circle.” He spoke the words only realizing afterwards that they were, in themselves, more honest than he’d ever spoken to a woman. In the strange and misleading world that was always evolving around them, women and men stood in constant foreplay of truth and deceit, one always vying for the power over the other. Such an arrangement of honesty with Lily in particular would benefit not just himself, but her as well.

“I’m sorry that you’ve found no such honesty from my counterparts so far into your life. Though do not be misled that men are more upstanding. They have their share of plays for power through falsehoods I have sadly learned in my short time here.” She moved to pull her wrist away but he stood up and took her other arm in his as Kitty was now quite engrossed in the exact ingredients for the scones that would need to be made precisely in a certain way, despite the fact that Miriam had been making the most scrumptious, light as a feather scones since the time she was nine.

“Then I will make you the same promise,” Matthew said quickly. “To always be honest with you, even when the questions and subjects you bring forth to me are difficult to broach. Even if I am frightened of what I may divulge, I will always allow the truth to win out.”

Lillian raised her hand suddenly and offered it out to him. But instead of the customary delicate touch and curtsey, she held his grip fast, as if shaking the hand of an equal and he smiled to feel it.

“It is a bargain, sir. One I swear I will always try with every ounce of my being, to execute.”

“As will I, Miss Byrne.” He smiled and dropped her hand, just as Kitty turned back to them.

“What a horrifying ordeal!” she said with exhaustion and went back to her work going on to lament how Lillian’s brother had gravely affronted her with the tease. Lillian wanted to tell her it could be much worse. That her actual brother would prank her mercilessly even going so far as to cut off sections of her hair while she slept the night before school pictures. She opened her mouth to defend the goodness of this alternate Will but closed it again and sighed. When she looked back, Matthew was staring at her strangely, as if he’d been studying her. He pretended to inspect his new stitches while he stepped closer as Kitty continued in her own conversation of previous vexation.

He looked at her lips and, as if testing the deal they had struck, he leaned forward. “In our new arrangement of honesty, I feel it is my place to inform you that I would much rather seal our new contract with a kiss,” he whispered.

“I would prefer that as well, but I know that it would sully both our reputations should we be found out and I would not make a dishonest man of you, as you once so deftly lectured me on in the middle of a rainy hillside. Not twenty minutes past to be exact,” she whispered back.

“Ah, see, your memory is improving already,” he teased and moved back and away from her.

“Wonderful! Perhaps I will one day remember why I agreed to an engagement.”

“Don’t all young women want to be married?” he said and went to stand beside the window while he rolled his cuffs back down. Lillian watched him from the corner of her eye, while Miss Darlingwood sat in the other end of the couch and looked up periodically between them.
            “Yes of course,” Kitty chimed in without even thinking. Lil rolled her eyes. She could think of no way to control her features and now that she’d agreed to be honest with him, she didn’t feel it would be right to agree so readily.

“Some women are much in want of adventure. We surely don’t want to sail in calm seas all our lives,” Lil said, recalling one of her favorite Austen sayings. Kitty gasped. Matthew turned his curious blue gaze on her.

“Miss Byrne! What an awful thing to say, indeed!”

“Not at all—” Matthew spoke.  “Calm seas make for dull years. Storms build character and strength, even surprises and happy stories sometimes.”

“Surely you jest, Dr. Blackwell.”

“The best stories often come from our—wildest adventures,” Lillian agreed. “We’ve only one heart. One body, one life. Why would I want to spend it in only one place?” Matthew looked at her with quickening breath.

“Why indeed?” he whispered, falling into a trance that led him to believe that there could be no other woman for him in the world, than Lillian Byrne. And damn his cousin or the consequences that came from the realization. He could not take his eyes from hers. Kitty tittered nervously between them.
            “But what of safety, security? Home life?  Surely you would not want to tempt starvation and death all the days of your life.”

Lillian couldn’t look away from Matthew. “To some, marriage is a cage. A starvation of self, a death of soul,” she whispered softly.

“What a horrible thing to say, Miss Byrne!” Kitty struck out suddenly with a sharp reprimand. Matthew smiled strangely at her uncharacteristic poeticism.

“Perhaps—” he interrupted in calming tones, “the right marriage, to the perfect match, would be a feast of adventure, a finding of self, a life—made whole.” he whispered and looked down at her lips. Lillian nearly fell to her knees and ached to rush into his kisses, his arms, his bed.

Begin Again

So here we are, at the precipice of a new year and probably, in some part, still reeling from the last two. I recall, vaguely, that at this time last year I was filled with hope that things were about to get better. Then, events in the first week of the year reminded me that the calendar rolling over didn’t wipe the slate clean on the world’s troubles. It’s just a date. Not a miracle.

The only comfort I had, and still have, as we again sit at the top of 2022, is that I have control over at least one thing in the world, and that’s how I live in it. So no matter where you are, in physical or mental space, take an opportunity to day to think about what you would do if you could begin again. The date may be arbitrary, but the idea is sound.

Everything you’ve lived through up to this point has prepared you for the challenges ahead. Everything that you’ve seen, learned, failed at, succeeded at, has built in you a resilience for the journey ahead. So while we shouldn’t dwell on our pasts (whether it be to regret–terrible thing, or to relive glory days–also unhelpful) we should remember the value they have given us. Every experience, hardship, joy, failure, and triumph has added to your soul-resume and will give you what you need for this next year. I believe that whatever it is you set your sights on, whether its finishing a book, starting a new job, getting out of an abusive relationship, or giving yourself more grace, you will find success. But don’t just throw vague intentions out. Make a map.

Now how detailed you want to get depends on your level of focus, your own acknowledgement for order, and what works for you. I like to start with a general goal list, break it down by quarter, month, and week, and hang it up where I can see it. So when I find myself caught up in pitbull puppy videos, its looming over me, reminding me to focus.

That’s a shit-ton of bullets…*sigh*

At the beginning of the year, it looks daunting. So I have to remind myself, even if it’s on paper, it’s still fluid. Just because it’s all there, listed out, doesn’t mean it all gets done today. Like any journey, goals are a series of steps, one after another.

This year, I’ll be trying a few different things, and I only squawk about them here as a measure of accountability.

In the spring (March-ish) I’ll be releasing my Western Romance Series and planning some tour dates in my home state of Wyoming to promote it. This will include book signings, readings, and Q and A sessions. I’m aspiring to submit short stories, poetry, and flash fiction to at least 100 different publications (aiming for 100 rejections but my hope is they aren’t ALL rejected). In May, I’m hoping to finish up a collaboration with a local press for my Sci/Fi novella “Saturn Rising”. The blog will continue with weekly writing advice, poetry, guest blogs, and a special series on local charities, the work they’re doing, and how we can help keep them running. This year’s Anthology is not yet themed but I’m shifting over to include short stories, essays, and excerpts. Stay tuned for more details. This year, winning entries will be published and receive a monetary prize.

I’ve got my first co-authoring project in the works (a fun romp and homage to my love of 80’s pop culture) and will be working on my next series (I’m getting all Urban fantasy this time).

Outside of writing, I’ll be teaching a few more classes, continue advancing towards my next degree (Sensei Sarah has a nice ring to it), reading more, I’ll climb a few more 14ers, and work this old body into more flexibility through yoga. It all feels like a lot, but days are made of minutes and you can do a lot in those minutes….once you choose to begin.

Good luck out there. Come back and visit to keep updated on the anthology submissions and so we can check in with each other on our new starts. Above all, let’s just be better people this year. The best versions of ourselves we can be.

Lessons From The Year

It was a goal heavy year. I talked briefly a few weeks ago about how to set up your own yearly goals in a manageable way, but today I want to talk about you. That’s right…not some bullet list on a webpage or a chart of tick-them-off boxes. I want to talk about the beautiful human on the other side of the screen. Stop looking over your shoulder, it’s you. I mean you.

Now maybe I know you, personally. Maybe we’ve never met. The point is, I think you’re amazing. You may not believe me. It’s okay. I’ve talked A LOT about not believing everything you read…and my words are no different. So allow me to offer proof.

This year has been tough. Hell, the last two have been a raging dumpster fire…for nearly everyone who wasn’t making a personal rocket ship to go play Spaceman Spiff while countless other humans suffered in poverty, starvation, and lack of medical care on the Earth. No wonder they were so anxious to leave for ten minutes and show how awesome it is to have money… but I digress…

The point I’m trying to make is that you’ve survived 100% of all your worst days.

A moment of silence for 2021...

At the start of a new year we have a tendency to look back (sometimes like Indian Jones on the destructive explosions of warplanes and tanks going over cliffs, shaking on torn knees, dirty, bent, beat to hell, and wondering how we survived, still clinging to our favorite hats) and worry that the next year will only be worse—Nazis, aliens…Shia LaBeouf—it could get a lot worse.

But it could get a whole lot better.

And we have some say in that. Now, we don’t always have a say in the bigger things of the world. I’ll never change the inequality of women or be able to change the mind of every little girl who’s been told, (like her mother and her mother before her…and so on) that being skinny is the height of desirability and beauty.

Photo by Daria Obymaha on Pexels.com

But I can shift the way I speak around my daughters. I can shift the way I talk to my friends (and speak up for them when they cannot speak well of themselves). I can shift the way I talk to myself.

I can’t fight capitalism. But I can support companies that  pay their workers a living wage. I can’t change lobbyists, or billionaires, or any number of corrupt, societal ruining forces. But I can lend a helping hand. I can volunteer. I can protest. I can stand up and use my voice, I can vote…

When we look at the battles ahead of us in this new year, let us pick ones we can charge into wisely. And please, for the love of mental health, let us start with the ones in our own heads.

The direction of your life, the ability to lift yourself above old and destructive habits has everything to do with how you speak to yourself. Your voice is the only one in your head 24/7. Your body is the only one you live in. Your voice, your mind, your heart, your body—every single one of those things is beautiful. Every one of them is enough. And they (read: you) deserve to be taken care of, loved, and respected.

So when we look into this new year, I only ask that you change one thing.

I want you to change how you talk to yourself. Be bigger than what the world wants you to be. Take up space and use that space to spread compassion and acceptance. Be outspoken with your understanding, your need for justice, and most of all, be outspoken with love.

Life is short. This could be the first year of a long and beautiful rest-of-your-life.

It could be your last year on Earth.

You simply do not know, so spend it with your heart and passions in mind. Draw and hold boundaries where they need to be and do not apologize for cutting out the people who are hurtful or refuse to acknowledge that you are enough. Speak well of yourself. Speak kindly to yourself. Accept every soul-bump as part of being beautifully human. Don’t be cruel, but take no bullshit.

We humans–we’re a beautiful mess. Falling in and out of love, drunk on passion and enthusiasm one minute, and stumbling into the gutter of disappointment the next. I say, just do your best, little human. Until you know better, then do the better. Be kind to yourself, be kind to others. But don’t give away your light and energy to people who don’t appreciate and return it.

It’s just that simple. And just that complex. It’s just. that. human.

Stay safe until the new year and beyond.

Reflections on Goal Setting

When I first took a class on goal planning for writers last year, the intention was to create an environment and a year where I carved out space for my writing as I would a career. Now, as we reach the end of another year (yeah, I hate to tell you, but its only a few hours away) I wanted to take the time to look back and let you know what worked, what didn’t, and what I could do better next time. Not so much a bragging post, this is more to offer you ideas of your own on how to pursue your writing career without feeling too overwhelmed.

Every great endeavor seems impossible while you’re standing at the base of it, wondering how best to begin. But journeys are not made in great leaps and bounds, they are made by singular footfalls, one in front of another. Maybe your goal is to finish your novel, memoir, poetry book, cookbook and have it ready for publication by December next year. That’s a huge leap when you’re staring at an empty page.

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a planner when it comes to the creative process of my writing. I don’t outline in detail, I don’t diagram, and I sure as hell don’t employ computer programs to chart the course of my books…but–being the little virgo-seque, organizational lovin’ nerd I am, I do like a set plan for how I get from blank page to finished book.

So rather than try to eat this whole goal at once, try taking little bites. I realize it seems over simplified, but what what worked best for me was breaking down my goals by first naming the end result I wanted, then thinking about the benchmarks I needed to meet every three months to make it happen. Then I broke it down further, to what I needed to do every month to meet those benchmarks, and finally what I needed to do every week so that it was manageable within my life.

In example, I wanted to submit at least 55 pieces of work this year. That meant that every month I needed 4 to 5 submissions, or one + a week. It’s hard to think of 55 poems out for submission all at once. I don’t think I would have been able to feel capable. But one submission, every week was something I couldn’t find an excuse not to do.

I wanted to finish editng three novels and have them ready for publication. I didn’t try to cram them all into a month. I broke it down to 3-6 chapters a week, which gave me about four rounds of in-depth editing for each, including a Beta reading round.

Having defined goals in mind is essential, allowing yourself room to wiggle when life gets complicated (because life always does) is just as important. That’s why at every quarter, in my planner, I would write down a day to reassess. What was working? What wasn’t? What could I let go of? What was I ahead on? It helped me understand my work habits and held me accountable to myself more than just a post-it of ideas on the first of January.

When life got complicated, overwhelming, and sometimes down right depressing, I gave myself room to let go of what I no longer deemed as important (I didn’t read 100 books this year, but made it through about 15–plus 12 read-throughs of my own novels). I reprioritized the schedule so that the things most important to me (family) would have first dibs on my time and used what I had left to do my best.

Even while giving yourself grace, don’t give yourself the excuse to quit. I find, no matter what the task, if I’ve set a deadline on a particular project, I will almost always finish it on time or before. Having a date to work with helps boost the sense of urgency and makes you delete social media from your phone so you aren’t wasting even one minute that you could be writing/practicing/editing/researching/submitting.

So that’s pretty much it. Because I love you (of course I do!) here’s an easy bullet list reference:

  • Set defined, obtainable goals. Pick anywhere from 1-5, but don’t go crazy. You’re only human.
  • Break them down by quarter, month, week, even day if need be.
  • Schedule rewards for meeting your goals on these timelines.
  • Allow yourself room to drop/add/readjust if something isn’t working. The journey won’t go anywhere if you’re passed out on the side of the trail with exhaustion.
  • Set defined dates for benchmarks and completion of the steps toward your goal. In other words: Give yourself ‘Due Dates’.
  • Make sure you understand your “WHY”. Why are you doing this? What are you seeking? Is it fame? Closure? Justification? The “Why” is never wrong, and you will need to return to it when things get tough.
  • Set your goals and break down the schedule you’ll need a week to two before the start of the New Year. Nobody wants to wake up New Year’s Day and try to muddle through big plans. Start thinking about it now and give yourself time to figure out what’s obtainable and most desired.

Well, I’m done talking. I appreciate you giving this blog a look over and hopefully getting the gears turning about your goals for this new year ahead. Drop me a line and let me know what you’re planning to do (this is a good exercise in accountability–if you’ve told someone you’re gonna, its an extra source of drive when you don’t feel up to it.)

Happy Writing.

Poetry 12-09-2021

What Am I Made Of

The ghosts of hearts unfairly broken 
haunt me relentlessly
my own among their wreckage
and the ones still alive 
they kick down, through the floorboards of my brain
and reverberate
in the pit of my stomach

Ghosts of lovers
who loved me too much
those I rolled eyes at, 
and turned away from, 
to crawl for miles on bloodied knees
and claw at the departing feet
of those who did not love me enough.

Ghosts of the friends I picked apart
like the vulture's beak to carrion
and become angry when they
no longer fed me

Ghosts of friends who disappeared
into the ether of life
and forgot they were 
my solid ground

I think I'm made up of ghosts 
all vapor and energy
nothingness roaming
empty of touch
devoid of breath
but heavy,
oh so heavy
in soul.

NANOWRIMO Week Four: The Final Countdown

Good morning!

For those of you who’ve been following me through the month of November, this marks the final installment of surviving NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month). I’ve been flowing with a life-stages theme, and had intended to title this week “Retirement” but the thing with NANO is that only some of us will spend the last week resting and reaping the rewards of a month packed with hours of dedication to your project. A lot of us will find this final week to be the last, desperate attempt to finish.

So this brief post is for those who are struggling through the last four to five days to make up those words, or at least push to do what they can.

I hope, more than anything, and even above the lofty goal of 50,000 words, that you are still trying. That you haven’t given up. That you have built a habit of writing so that you don’t feel complete in your day unless you’ve spent at least some time on your work.

Because, that’s the whole point. This month is more about teaching us to prioritize our lives to include our writing first (or at least at the top of the to-do list) and to know that we CAN accomplish great things when we give it the time and love it needs. It’s more about building the habit of writing than it is about reaching the specific goal.

So often in our lives we self-limit. So often we are told it can’t be done, we can’t, the work is too great, the effort pointless. So often we are told that struggle won’t be worth the outcome. But those voices and those opinions fail to factor in that it is not just the outcome that is rewarding. The end result is not all we are working for. Its the journey in getting there.

When we challenge ourselves, the bigger reward lies in the struggle. New ventures, hard and thankless work, and lofty goals teach us how to plan, how to plot, how to push ahead when we simply don’t feel like it or when others around us question or scoff at the ideas before us. Challenges shine a light on how amazing and resilient we are so that, no matter the outcome, we learn what we are capable of. And once we know what we are capable of, the bonds of doubt weaken and we begin to believe that if we can write a novel in a month, we can edit it, publish it, write another, and another, and another. And if we can write a book we can take a class, or teach a class. We can climb a mountain, we can travel across the world. We can do anything we set our minds to.

We can.

You can.

You’ve only got a few days left in this month and I BELIEVE THAT YOU CAN do anything you’ve set out to do. You are amazing. You are imperfectly perfect and there’s no one in the world who can finish this month the way you will.

Deep breath, writer. Don’t let the home stretch scare you. Let the struggle instead be your gift and one which you are grateful to work through. You can. You will.

NANOWRIMO Week Three: The Midlife Crisis

Hey there writer.

I know I don’t have to thank you for being here with me because if you are akin to me, you’re looking for any excuse to change up the monotony of this novel-writing month and escape that mad-dash. Perhaps you’re feeling like this story you’ve been pouring your heart and soul into for what seems like years is starting to stale. Things are getting drab. The plot line is petering out. The characters have run out of things to say.

This is the dreaded, dead-ended doldrum, (say that one a few times fast) of week 3. And it can often feel like middle age in its sunken sails, stagnant air, and the questioning of the choices that brought you here.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

With only days left in this crazy adventure, you may feel like you just don’t want to go on. That perhaps it would be easier to abandon your project all together and take a hot little novella out for a spin. Maybe start seeing some poetry on the side. Perhaps dabble in a little erotica?

While I encourage some dabbling (especially in erotica) I would argue that all of those exploratory practices can be done right in your own work in progress. So you’re bored, so you don’t know what the characters will say to one another…I urge you to start a new chapter, in the same document, where your characters take a jump off of the tracks and do something completely unexpected. Put them in a different time, put them in a different dynamic…hell, switch their genders and see what happens. Write a poem that serves as a synopsis to the story, first from one character’s perspective, and then from another’s. All of this play might help unlock the paths your novel needs to get going again. Think of it as putting some wind in those sails. A little spice in between the pages.

And all of those words you put down, even if they may be edited out later, still count as words towards your 50,000. Let’s be honest, at this point in the process, any word count is better than none.

It’s normal to feel a bit discouraged and bogged down in week 3, but what you’re building is worth hanging on to. It’s worth the investment of time and thought in this, the darkest, dreaded, dead-ended doldrums.

Hang in there kid. Go get freaky with your WIP and spice things up to see you through to the end.

Next week, look for the final, and highly inspirational installment of my NANOWRIMO survival guide.

NANOWRIMO Week Two: Here Comes a Writer With a Baby Carriage

Hello! Thanks for taking the time to catch up with the blog in the middle of one of your (hopefully) busiest writing months. At this point your mind set is probably so swayed to creating that reading outside of your work in progress is a lot like talking to another adult after being seeped in toddler-speak non-stop all week.

I know that your time is precious so I’ll keep it short and sweet. (Like me, ya’ll)

The second week of NANOWRIMO is all about elaborating on, fleshing out, and developing your baby. Last week we talked about the excitement of new love, the honeymoon stage of writing, if you will. This week is about the baby you’ve made and what that means for not just your writing, but your life for the next seven to ten days.

I know a lot of you are parents, and though it may have been awhile since you’ve spent the midnight hours rocking teary-eyed cherub back to sleep, chances are you remember the sacrifice of time and autonomy for the good of the future. This week is not much different for the NANOWRIMO process. You are starting to see the commitment involved and how the expectations you may have had in the beginning are often dashed by the realities.

Because children don’t always behave the way you think they will. Characters show unexpected traits and say things that throw your dynamic out of whack like dropping the f-bomb at Christmas dinner with Grandma, or asking you for “boob!” loudly in a store.

Settings and plot lines stall with the same debilitating frustration as trying to get a two-year-old into shoes because you’re late for the doctor appointment and you haven’t showered in three days, and you ate cold, leftover mac n cheese for breakfast and you’re not sure if that’s their diaper that smells or the dog…

Keeping on top of the little fires that come up isn’t easy but I encourage you to set a flexible schedule (it works with kids; it works with writing). Give yourself two hours ideally but really whatever you have is fine. Leave half for just writing. Leave the other half to fix plot holes, develop your character’s personalities and backgrounds, build on your story arc, and brainstorm solutions for things that are cropping up as you pour ever more work into the novel. Look at it like doing the groundwork of, feeding, changing, and burping for half of it, and the other half cuddling, coloring, singing, and playing.

A well rounded “story” is equal parts meeting the basic needs and getting to play in the creation of it.

Good luck out there. Nap when it naps, grab a shower while your computer backs up. Drink some coffee and prep for the long nights. Remember the bigger picture. Novels and babies are investments in the future. The work, and love, and committed care you invest now will lead to rewarding results in both your story, your characters, and your craft.

Oh…and get a decent meal. You can’t run on PB&J crusts and half eaten apples forever.

Westbury Falls: Episode #4

Hello! I realize it’s that scary time of year and I could produce a terrifying post to do the holiday justice. Then I thought, what’s scarier than being sent back in time to a place where you can’t wear pants, all of your rights have been stripped away, and your set to marry a murderous psychopath? Not much. Welcome to episode #4 of Westbury Falls.

Photo by Matthew Badsey on Pexels.com

Lillian paced, her legs confounded by the narrow skirt and ridiculous undergarments that seemed to dissuade too much movement and thereby kept the fairer sex, fair. What she’d give for a pair of pants! Or a hot shower. Or an Advil. The bath she’d gotten from Miriam was an influx of boiling water that cooled far too quickly in the drafty room, in a copper tub where the maid scrubbed her down without the gentleness she had grown accustomed to with her brother and the sad, blue-eyed doctor. A shower would have been much preferred.

If she wanted to see or have any of the modern amenities that she desperately craved, she needed to concentrate and ignore the propriety that had been forced upon her both in garments and in expectations.

“Think Lil,” she said and nibbled at her thumb nail. There were only three possible explanations.

One, that she had indeed hit her head and was in her own time, unconscious and in a coma and this was just the wild dream she was stuck in. Yet her body felt pain, touch, annoyance… things too real to be simply a figment. If it were this first option, she could simply play it out until her brain was healed enough to get itself out of this maze.

Two, that she had hit her head, harder than she realized, and was, in fact, dead.

“Which makes this what? Heaven?” she snorked and looked down at the cinched waist and scratchy undercoats of her dress. “Not likely! Purgatory, at best.” In that case, she couldn’t very well do anything about it. Being dead meant she’d never be able to see her family again. But if she were dead, why could she feel so clearly? Why could she move from place to place? Why hadn’t someone or something come to explain the rules? Did heaven have rules? What would that make Matthew Blackwell then? Some fallen angel? An agent of the dark but still beautiful? Lil sighed. This wasn’t some fantasy, tween action series. She already checked most of the nooks and crannies of the place for cameras, in the case of it being an epic prank. She hadn’t even found outlets; no electrical switches. Only candles and lamps. And the fireplace in her room that cast such a beautiful glow over Matthew’s long straight nose and high cheek bones.

“Focus Lil, he’s the least of our worries.”

If it was not a coma, and she was not dead—what were the chances she’d stumbled across some sort of anomaly in the universe?

“Three, I fell down a magical staircase and ended up in a different time.”

She stopped in front of the windows in the parlor and her heart rate steadily climbed. The pulsing in her body amplified in the wounded temple and ribs, bringing about another horrendous head ache. The other options fell away from her rational brain as she faltered and sagged against a settee. Was such a thing even possible? Her mother had always been a sucker for a good fairy tale, and often made them make wishes in faerie rings as children and believe in the strange energies of places like Stonehenge and Newgrange, even though science would have greatly disagreed with such nonsense. Yet, here she was in the 1800’s somehow and no rational explanation could be found.

It was clear, be it dream or a hole in the space time continuum, she was Lillian Byrne, her ancestorial aunt. The one who had drowned, shortly after being married. She was yet to be married, as the good doctor repeatedly reminded her of her betrothal.

Maybe she had to solve this mystery…the mystery of her aunt’s disappearance soon after the date of her wedding and subsequent discovery of her body in the lake, ruled a horrible accident due, in part, the journal entries of her brother had said, for her love of nature and of daily walking.

Maybe her brain really needed to know the answer and was simply conjuring up the story as a means to keep itself busy while the coma ran its course. She knew now that she was, or thought she was, her own great-several-times-over aunt, Lillian Louisa Byrne.

The time period, place, and characters were all the same from the family journals her mother had poured over for years. She never recalled hearing about the good doctor. But perhaps he wasn’t part of the story so much as an extra playing piece her libido had conjured up. Lillian blushed with the idea that if she created him, she could do whatever she liked with and to him. The temperature in the room rose and she cleared her throat.

“My! What wandering thoughts have possessed your injured mind, I wonder?” came the cherry-pink voice of Kitty Darlingwood from the doorway. “I’ve rarely seen such a blush but for the roses in spring, dew kissed and new.” She giggled and came to sit beside Lillian tiny hands clasped demurely in her lap. Lillian had only met her once, in her room after she had first gotten dressed and was called upon.

She supposed in her life Kitty was what her mom would call a bosom buddy. The best of friends. Lillian plastered on her best smile and tried to conjure up some warmth for the stranger. In Lil’s time, she didn’t have many friends. She worked in soup kitchens and low-income restaurants in her neighborhood in Payton Indiana, while her mom, a stock broker, kept the family fed and clothed on her own. She didn’t have leisure time for friends. She didn’t get along with many of the girls in her class. Even at the end of her senior year, she was practically alone.

“Tell me,” Kitty whispered conspiratorially and her blond corkscrew curls seemed to vibrate in anticipation. “Are you reliving the moment of your engagement to Mr. Sutton. I’ve never heard told the story. It must have been quite romantic!” she twittered like a school girl.

Are you fucking kidding me, right now? was the phrase on Lil’s mind but she dare not speak in such a manner or they might bundle her up and send her to a looney bin for profanity. She gently smiled at the younger, spritely charge. What had her ‘brother’ said? Fredrick Sutton was a good man. A strong a sturdy gentleman of 40 who enjoyed parlor games and pheasant hunting. Good judge of scotch and not yet interested in marriage. What kind of proposal would such a man make that could be spun into a believable tale? Lillian sighed.