Lifting a pen burns calories, doesn't it?

 I’m on a diet. Not some trendy, named diet that makes me give up carbs or give up fats or eat both carbs and fats but only on alternating Tuesdays. No cleanses or detoxes. I joined a free program, sponsored by my health insurance company, that combines good, old-fashioned calorie reduction with increased physical activity. I earned a free weight scale and pedometer for signing up. There’s online access to a health coach and video lessons on topics like, “Be a [Fat] Detective,” “Eating Out,” and “Manage Stress”. I confess the videos aren’t super-helpful to me. I’ve always known what I should do, I just lacked the motivation to do it. Then a visit to my doctor, and the resultant lab report, provided all the motivation I needed. My test results were only a point or two away from being diagnostic of a variety of illnesses. Time to change my sedentary ways. The plan seems to be working. Approximately 1200 calories a day and a combination of barre and Pilates three-to-four times a week translated to a six-pound weight loss since my doctor’s appointment. The temptation to sit and eat hasn’t left me. It lurks in the background like a prowling hyena. You don’t realize how much chocolate there is in the world until you’re actively trying to avoid it. When my motivation wanes, I pull out my lab report to remind me why I started this. Or I try on clothes that had been relegated to the back of the closet because they were too tight. Those adorable pencil skirts fit now. And the pants I bought several months ago in “the size I am now”? They need a belt to hold them up. Yipee! Although eating less doesn’t require juggling between my day job and my writing, physical activity certainly does. I have to be at the office between 7:30 and 8:00 am. The thought of getting up at oh-dark-thirty to exercise, shower, and change before reporting to work leaves me cold. I found barre classes in the evening and Pilates classes on Saturday morning. Pilates gets me out of bed on Saturday (buh-bye, sleeping-in) but barre in the evening makes for long days. I come home, eat, shower, and fall into bed. Writing on weekdays has suffered as a result. Fortunately, I’m between rounds of edits on book four right now so I have some time to get back on the writing track. I suspect I’m not the only author who struggles to balance a healthy lifestyle with writing. A Google search turned up an article, “How the Bookish Stay in Shape,” by William Hageman in the November 11, 2015 issue of the Chicago Tribune. He interviewed three female authors, all over-forty, who described engaging in a variety of physical activities such as cycling, hiking, weight training, and, in one author’s case, baling hay on her farm. Three authors. Only three. Did he only try to find three physically active authors? Or maybe he tried, but failed, to find more than three. Writing is a sedentary, solitary activity that lends itself to over-eating and under-exercising. Combating this tendency requires conscious effort. What are your tips and tricks for staying in shape in a bookish world? Leave a comment or visit us on Facebook to share and discuss.

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Welcome to Jeff Soloway

Please welcome Jeff Soloway to the Miss Demeanors. Jeff was formerly an editor and writer for Frommer’s travel guides, Jeff Soloway is now an executive editor in New York City. In 2014 he won the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His Travel Writer mystery series is published by Alibi, Random House’s digital imprint for crime fiction. The third novel in the series, The Ex-President, about the resignation and mysterious comeback of America’s new billionaire president, is just out.  I’m very happy to join the Miss Demeanors as a guest blogger! Like Susan Breen, I publish a mystery series for Alibi, Penguin Random House’s digital imprint for crime fiction. My latest installment, The Ex-President, is my first foray into political fiction. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. But writing it almost drove me insane.  My plan, hatched way back in late 2015, was to write a Trump novel. At the time, Donald Trump was one of 18 Republican candidates for president, an outrageous goofball with hilarious delusions of national importance. My story would feature a similarly outrageous character named Carlton Chomp, who was sponsoring a Caribbean cruise in order to raise money for his run for the presidency.It seemed to me the perfect premise for a comic satire. Trump was hilarious; my version of him would take his absurdity to even greater heights; the jokes would write themselves. As writers, we’re all familiar with the moment when a character runs away with the story—when the character’s unexpected thought or speech or action leaps up within you, and you feel you have no choice but to follow as some strange force propels your story in a thrilling new direction. Well, in this case, it wasn’t the character that was careening out of the control but the real world itself. And it took my novel with it.In early 2016, most of the other Republican presidential contenders began to drop out. Trump was now a serious candidate, not a joke (or not just a joke), and I had to recast the premise of my novel accordingly.And then Trump won the nomination. He was a major force in American politics. His name would be recorded in history books. The jokes I had written were now much less funny. And then he won the Presidency. Like so many Americans, I was stunned. I had misunderstood my country completely. And, of course, I had to rewrite my novel from scratch.So I did. I decided that this time, I would have to keep so far ahead of history that there was no chance it would overtake me. Obviously my Trump character would have to be elected President—but I decided he would quit halfway through his term. And then he would start a mysterious comeback. He would begin again to hold rallies, appear on the television, raise money. Everyone would wonder why. Obviously he wanted something new, something that suited his ambitious even better than the Presidency. But what? It would be up to my hero to find out.The novel that resulted, while still a comedy, was weirder, sadder, and more serious than the one I originally planned. I hope it’s also richer, but I don’t really know. We usually think of inspiration as springing from some mysterious well deep within us. For me it came from the world outside. I wonder if that makes the story somehow less mine. But that’s a question that hardly matters to the reader. Link to Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/Ex-President-Travel-Writer-Mystery-ebook/dp/B00KUQIU88  

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Have Laptop Will Travel

I have lived in the same two states my entire life: New Jersey and New York. More specifically, I have lived in Manhattan or within ten miles of it for my entire childhood and adult life (save for four years of college in Princeton, NJ, which wasn’t really that much farther).  I set many of my books in these two states because I’m most familiar with them. After a decade in the city, I feel like I have a handle on the culture of Manhattan and, even more so, its suburban environs where I live and grew up. As a writer and a person, I’m comfortable in my area.  But that very comfort is the reason why I must travel. I need to see other places to gain perspective on the location that most often serves as the backdrop to my stories. When I don’t visit other places for awhile, I can become so immersed in my home that I can’t recognize anymore what’s unique or strange or beautiful or nutty about it. Writers need the ability to see a place as both an outsider and an insider. We need to have the accuracy that comes from immersion but also the distance to point out what makes a place special.  Recently, I went to Chattanooga TN to see my mother-in-law compete in a half Iron Man.  (Side note: if the world ever devolves into a Walking Dead situation, I’m on her team). The place has all these incredible rock formations and a mountain cave system complete with an beautiful underground waterfall that really should be the setting for a dark thriller–albeit not one that I would write since it would probably devolve into a Raft of The Medusa situation and I don’t do that kind of gore. Still… The city is also incredibly active. Everywhere, people are biking, rock climbing, running, kayaking, and just, generally, hanging outside.  I don’t know if I’ll ever set a story in Chattanooga, but going there did help me see how sedentary life in my home state of New Jersey is, particularly when the weather gets colder. We drive to indoor places or stay in our houses. When we need to work out, we drive to the gym. Seeing it, reminded me of how any story that I set in New Jersey really needs to note the driving culture. If there’s a book set in NJ and someone is not running around in an SUV, then it’s not really set in NJ.  It also reminded me of how active I was living in the New York City. I walked everywhere. Ten blocks. Twenty Blocks. Fifty blocks, in nice weather. I would walk from Battery Park to the Upper East Side on a beautiful day. Why take a cab? I’d walk five blocks in rainy weather to duck into the subway (impossible to catch a cab).  If a story is in Manhattan and it involves someone driving anywhere save for outside of Manhattan, it’s not a story in Manhattan. *Unless that story is Taxi Driver.  What is something that you learned about your favorite setting about being away for awhile? What place have you travelled to that had helped enrich your perspective.      

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An Artist’s Date: Vallarta Botanical Garden

    Let me take you on what Julia Cameron, queen of creative inspiration, calls an Artist’s Date. The last time I took you for one, we twirled around Italy, the ultimate artist’s date. Today, we’ll visit the Vallarta Botanical Garden in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where I am spending eight glorious weeks writing, reading, and eating and drinking. More on the eating and drinking another day, but let’s leave it for now that I am never hungry here.              Just to remind you, an Artist’s Date is an excursion, preferably solo, to a destination intended to expand your creative resources. They are intentional and sometimes self-indulgent, but never to be suffered with guilt. You might meander through a yarn shop, even if you have never picked up a knitting needle in your life, just to absorb the colors and textures around you. The goal is to fill the creative well within you.My well has been running a little dry lately. I have been writing a book for over a year. It’s a stand-alone mystery that I have struggled with, even though I love the story and my protagonist.  I may be guilty of overthinking this book and exaggerating the onerous duty I feel toward Olivia Rose, whose story I am telling. I arrived in Puerto Vallarta committed to finishing this book, but not quite sure how I would do it.          The day I chose to go to the botanical garden, I chided myself for doing something frivolous when I had serious writing to do. I’d planned to visit the Vallarta Botanical Garden even before I arrived, but thought it would be a reward for hard work done when writing goals were accomplished. But my traveling companions had other ideas, so off I went within days of arriving in Vallarta.           We rode a city bus for forty-five minutes up hillsides past a wild Pacific Ocean that seemed to be having a temper tantrum. I listened to passengers converse in Spanish, French, and English. The hillside was green and lush, the roadsides sprinkled with trash. Mexico, like most countries including my own, is filled with contradictions.          Nothing I had read prepared me for the exotic beauty I found inside the garden, which I quickly gave myself permission to enjoy. Trails leading down to a river, an orchid house spilling with tropical colors and shapes, a small chapel for solitude. More trails up a hillside, one named “Vanilla.” Fountains and bridges leading from one garden room to another. Bees having a party inside a blossom, while birds sang joyfully everywhere.           My ears were filled with birdsong. My eyes weren’t sure if the superabundance of beauty they were seeing could be real. The smell of green was everywhere, while a pleasant warm but not hot sun warmed my shoulders.            This is a generous garden I was surprised to learn was created only recently. Benches are placed throughout the acreage, often in shade, inviting strollers to sit for a moment and simply ingest the beauty surrounding them. There are statues and art throughout. I was drawn to the huge conservatory because I have a fascination for conservatories and because I have given Olivia Rose one in her story. This one had more plants than I’d ever imagined could fit in one. The light was magical. I wished Olivia Rose could see it.           Even the inevitable gift shop and restaurant were thoughtfully designed. Hummingbird feeders perched on railings surrounding the porch where diners sit within inches of the tiny birds dancing around them. The gift shop has a separate area with cushioned chairs looking out through open windows at bird feeders. Brilliantly colored birds took turns performing.            The day ended on a comical note when a large bulldog, owned by the garden ticket-taker, chased an empty water container larger than him rolling down a hill until he conquered and captured it. It was an inspiration for tenacity.            By the end of the afternoon my senses were so full, I was exhausted. But I was also exhilarated in a way that happens only when I get out of my head and into nature. I was tired, grateful that I had gone on an artist’s date, and ready to write.

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Traveling to India

This week I am going on an amazing adventure. I am going to India, and not just to India, but to a remote part of India which is 330 kms due East of New Delhi, just on the Western corner of Nepal, in the State of Uttarakhand.  To get there, I am flying into the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, spending a night in a hotel, and then taking a 5 hour train ride to Halwadi, where I will be met by a driver, who will then take me another 2 hours to the Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission, which is near Banbasa. There I will meet up with Rosey, a young woman I’ve been sponsoring for some years, and I will spend a week at the orphanage where she lives.  The orphanage is a working farm, as well as being a school for children in the neighborhood, and so I suspect they will plant me in the library and ask me to read books to kids. Perhaps I will teach a few writing classes! I think it unlikely I will be harvesting grain, though who can say? Life takes strange turns.  There is so much I am looking forward to about this trip. First of all, I am looking forward to actually seeing (and hugging) Rosey, who has been an important part of my life for several years now. I’m looking forward to seeing the night sky. Can you imagine what that will be like? I’m curious to see the wildlife, though perhaps not too much of it. In the past few months they’ve had several pythons show up, and I’d rather not see that. The orphanage is not far from the Himalayas, so perhaps there will be a chance to see that. Most meaningful to me will be the church service they will have Sunday morning. Sometimes, in my own country, I feel like people lose sight of the fact that faith ought to be a source of joy and hope. I suspect that in the shadow of the Himalayas, surrounded by good people and a hundred or so very active young people, I will tap into that joy.

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Passage to India

Yesterday I got my visa to go to India. That means, on Jan. 3, I will be catching a plane to Delhi, and then another plane to Pantnagar, and will then drive (or better to say, be driven) for two hours to Bambasa, which is where the Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission/Orphanage is located.  (The picture below is from their Summer Games.) There I will finally have a chance to meet Rosey, a young woman I’ve been sponsoring for the last few years. She’s just turning 17, speaks fluent English and dreams of being a journalist. She’s also endured some very tough things in her life and she’s a very inspiring and loving spirit. I’ll be there for a week. Usually they have visitors help out with the farm work, though I can’t imagine I’ll be of much use in a rice paddy. Perhaps I can give some writing lessons. Or help with the library. Rosey has promised me I will not be bored and I believe her absolutely. Only a few weeks ago, they found a python on their grounds, and I believe there’s been an elephant wandering around. Rosey said they’d teach me how to cook some Indian food, and her friends are dying to see my daughter’s wedding pictures. One of the things that has surprised me, though maybe it’s not surprising in this day of the internet, is that they are all very savvy about Western culture. They’re up-to-date on movies and Rosey adores The Hunger Games. What an adventure this is going to be!    

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Of Cockapoos and cars

When I was young, I desperately wanted a Peugeot sports car. I kept talking and talking about it until finally my dear friend said, “You don’t even know what a Peugeot is. You just like the name. ”   She was right, and I thought of her when I acquired two cockapoos, for much the same reason. How could you not want something called a cockapoo? Every time I say the word, I laugh. My phone keeps auto-correcting it to cockatoo, which I don’t think is nearly as funny. So I have two of these silly dogs. The oldest, Buster, is very nervous. He’s a very gentle soul, but watchful. He keeps his head still and his eyes just follow me wherever I go. He’s also very flexible, and when he’s tired, he stands like a tripod and slowly sinks to the ground. He also tends to tilt. He always makes think he looks like he’s on the Titanic, sinking. He’s the sort of dog who’s perfect with kids. You can do anything to him, and my son has, and he doesn’t get upset. He just looks forlorn, as though in a perfect world, such things would not happen. My younger dog, Bailey, is much more high maintenance.  When we went to pick her up at the breeder, my daughter said, “Give us your most lively one.” That dog never sits still. She’s always twitching about, scratching and licking. She’s probably not the most attractive dog. Her face always makes me think of a revolver, and yet she has very high self-esteem. She’s also devoted to me, and follows me around no matter where I go. My two little friends keep me company when I write, which can be a lonely occupation. They are also great to practice dialogue on. Mainly they are my cheering squad. Whatever I do, they think it’s fabulous.

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Meeting heroes

I can date the moment I became interested in Tudor history. It was back in the 1990s, when I was a young mother and happened to pick up Alison Weir’s book, The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Enthralled is not too strong a word to use to describe my reaction. Since then I’ve read all her books, and for the last two weeks, I’ve gotten to spend time with her as I traveled around England as part of her Tudor tour. I’m happy to report that she’s just as lovely and smart as I would have hoped, but that led me to ask my fellow Miss Demeanors: Have you ever met any of your heroes? How did that go? And this is what they said: Tracee: I can’t say that I’ve met one of my heroes – perhaps I don’t have a concrete fix on who they would be! I’ve certainly met people I admire and I’ve never had a bad experience. In fact, I’ve always been amazed that they are in fact nice ordinary people despite their ‘day jobs’ or worldwide fame. In particularly I had this experience when I met Juan Carlos of Spain. I was struck by how difficult it must be to live your life entirely in the public eye, yet remain gracious and quite frankly normal. I had quite a different experience when I met Viktor Yushchenko at the papal funeral. I only knew that he was president of Ukraine and married to an American. When he shook my hand I confess that half of my brain thought, oh my gosh this is what they meant by horribly disfigured by the failed assassination attempt with dioxin. (This was only months afterward.) At the exact same time, emphasis on exact, the other half of my brain thought, I have never met such a handsome charismatic person. Which is a little insight into what real charisma can do for a person. While not a hero of mine, he was memorable and charming, and certainly I won’t forget meeting him. Robin: I’ve gotten to meet not one but two of my heroes (so far), Dean Koontz and Joseph Finder. I met Mr. Koontz at a book signing (his, not mine, darn it). I met Joe Finder at a conference and went full fan girl on him before I could stop myself. He handled it with good grace and humor. A cool aspect of that encounter is that Hank Phillipi Ryan is the one who introduced us. She’s also fabulous. Alexia: I heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak but there were about a gazillion people attending the lecture so I didn’t get anywhere near him. I’ve heard Walter Mosley speak at conferences twice but I confess I never worked up the courage to actually meet him. I felt kind of like Dorothy in the courtyard of the Great and Powerful Oz. Jonathan Kellerman wasn’t my hero until I met him at Left Coast Crime. He turned out to be so normal instead of a Big Name Author who couldn’t be bothered with the hoi polloi. He even came over to me and congratulated me on my Lefty win. So now he’s my hero. Michele: I’ve always been politically active so I’ve had the opportunity to meet many political figures that I admire, although few qualify as heroes. My real heroes are writers. In 1988, I bought a debut novel in hardcover for one of my early trips to St. John, taking a chance on a new author. The writing and plot in A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George blew me away. I’ve read every book written by her since then, loving that she still sends me to the dictionary almost thirty years later. In 2015, I got to meet Elizabeth at the New England Crime Bake and to take a class with her. She is a gifted and generous writing teacher. At an earlier Crime Bake, I had breakfast with Sue Grafton whom I’ve traveled almost the entire alphabet with for twenty years. She was more interested in what writer Ang Pompano (on her other side) and I had to say, than in regaling us with tales about her. She shares a wry sense of humor with her protagonist, Kinsey Milhone. I have to include Hank Phillippi Ryan as another hero. She is a very talented writer, but also is the most generous and inclusive author I know. She gladly encourages, supports, and launches new and veteran writers. Hank epitomizes how sharing a writing community can and should be. Paula: I’ve had the good fortune to meet many of my heroes, all of whom are writers. Starting with Alice Hoffman. I collect first editions of her work, and so I go to her signings, where I’ve met her several times. She’s as wonderful as her books. I made her laugh once, and that was a very good day. I’ve also met Lee Child, the loveliest man ever. And Elizabeth George and John Updike and Stephen King and Elizabeth Berg and William Kent Krueger and Judy Blume and Julia Cameron and, well, I could go on forever, because I’ve been going to writer’s conferences and books signings forever. On my list to meet next are Louise Penny and Mark Nepo and Abigail Thomas. And if I ever make it to that big writer’s retreat in the sky, I hope to meet Maya Angelou and Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen and Shakespeare and Nora Ephron and Agatha Christie and….  

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B.O.A.T.S. (Based on a True Story)

 I heard information today at work that made me say to myself, “That would make a great movie.” (No details here–it’s an active project.) It got me thinking about other true stories that would make gripping fiction. The art world provides a plethora of material suitable for a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller. Art isn’t nearly as sedate as those 6th grade field trips to dim, musty museums led you to believe. A search of Artsy turned up an article about an agoraphobic photographer who uses Google Street View to take screenshots of the people and landscapes she encounters in her virtual world travels. What if she grabbed a screenshot of a crime committed thousands of miles away? What would this homebound woman do? A deeper dip into Artsy’s archives turns up several articles on the hunt for, recovery of, and restoration of Nazi-looted art. What’s been described as the world’s greatest art theft has already inspired novels, movies, and TV shows: Portrait of a Woman in White, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, The Woman in Gold, and episodes of Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Father Brown, and Agatha Christie’s Marple, to name a few. Newspapers and magazines often feature stranger-than-fiction stories. The Telegraph and Business Insider report on professional mourners hired to grieve at funerals. (Rent A Mourner is a legit UK-based business offering “discreet and professional mourners”.) Turns out, this isn’t a new thing. Mourners for hire date back to ancient Greece and are traditional in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. They’re called moirologists and in 1910, in Paris, threatened to go on strike, complaining of not being paid living wages. Imagine an experienced moirologist noticing something odd about the deceased she’s been hired to mourn. An unusual Mark on the body? A bruise not hidden by the undertaker’s makeup? A face she recognized? I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the Internet and good, old-fashioned eavesdropping as sources for strange-but-true material. Last week I listened, fascinated, as the man at the table next to me recounted how his brother witnessed a massacre during a coup and developed PTSD so severe he suffered violent outbursts that eventually led to a life-or-death fight with the storyteller. Literally life-or-death. Think broken bones, manual strangulation, and bystander intervention. Drama fit for a Man Booker prize. Google “can’t make this stuff up” and get 18 million hits: links to newspaper articles, listicles, blogs, and Facebook pages. Here’s a recent one from FB: a woman breaks into a celebrity’s house (Drake, if you must know) and steals Pepsi, Sprite, Fiji water, and a hoodie. What if an obsessed fan broke into a celebrity’s house and found Nazi-looted art or witnessed his idol committing a crime? What life-imitates-art stories would you like to see fictionalized?

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Rosie

Some years ago I was working on a novel and needed to set a scene in an Indian orphanage. It wasn’t a big scene, but I wanted details to bring it alive. So one afternoon I went scrolling around Indian orphanage sites and one thing led to another and I wound up sponsoring a young woman named Rosie.  Rosie lives in a small village on the very northernmost part of India, close to Nepal. So she is physically about as far from me as it’s possible to be. And yet one thing I’ve discovered, as we’ve exchanged letters every month or so, is that we have so much to talk about.(Her English is excellent. Far better than my Hindi. I was taking Hindi classes for a while, and she was so supportive of me. Praying for my success, though those particular prayers were vain.) She is fascinated by the arrangements for my daughter’s wedding. She loves all the details about the dresses and the food. She’s also very well-read. What I find surprising is that so many of the books she reads are the same as the ones American girls her age are reading, such as Hunger Games. She is in some ways so similar to the girls I know and in some ways so different. She works on a farm. She had a terribly difficult beginning to her life. She’s had experiences I will never understand. But somehow this beautiful shining spirit comes through. For years, in almost every letter Rosie has sent, she’s asked when I will be coming to visit, and I always say I’d love to come, but it’s just so difficult. But this year, for my birthday, my oldest son said that if I wanted to go to India, he’d go with me. Joy! So, it’s going to take a lot of planning, but in a year or so you will be getting a picture of me on a farm, hugging my dear young friend. How about you? Where do you dream of going? (Note: If you’re interested in where Rosie lives, you can check out the site at www.indianorphanage.com)

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