The Empty Chairs at America’s Thanksgiving Table

 To the families and friends of those lost at Parkland, Tree of Life, Thousand Oaks, Santa Fe High, the Capitol Gazette, and at so many more inexplicable moments of mass violence that they have become an  unforgivable blurred memory of terror; To those who lost loved ones or are without homes after the wild fires throughout California; To those who have lost loved ones or are without homes after horrific hurricanes in Florida, North and South Carolina, Virginia, and still Puerto Rico; To those who have lost loved ones to illness and age; To those who are separated from loved ones by their service to our country; To those who have lost or are separated from loved ones by the ravages of opioid addiction; To those who are alone or separated from loved ones for reasons no one seems to understand; I understand the emptiness of “thoughts and prayers” as you sit at a Thanksgiving table with empty chairs today. As you sit at a table in a shelter or with strangers who have made room for you at their tables. As you defy the Norman Rockwell image of the holiday. Thoughts and prayers are only words. But words offer acknowledgement and acknowledgement is the seed of action. Though my words may be inept, I honor those missing from your Thanksgiving table today.         

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Sweet Dreams Are Made of These

My subconscious is on some serious stuff. It must take it while I’m asleep.  Last night, I woke up to the frightening music of my dog’s intestinal track (if you have been fortunate enough to have a dog live past ten years, then you understand). As a result, I remembered my ENTIRE dream . I was in Jamaica, chatting with my dead grandfather. He gave me sugar bun, a Jamaican concoction that is exactly what it sounds like: a bread, “bun”, made with raisins and glazed with sugar. I then took my kids out into the backyard where he showed me rabbits dressed up in human clothing, much to my children’s delight. My husband insisted that he had to go because hanging out with dead people was giving him the willies. I let him go and ate the bun.  This will make it’s way into a story–mark my words.  The story for my last thriller, Lies She Told, came to me in a dream–partially. I went to bed, after a glass of red wine, thinking about where I would get my next thriller idea from and I had a nightmare about this woman in a seedy Brooklyn apartment with blood on her hands. I felt that I was watching her from above or slightly over her shoulder. Close third person, in other words. She didn’t look like me, but I had the sense that she was me. And, after that, I wrote a thriller about a writer and the character in her head that may, or may not, be based on her–perhaps without her consent or conscious knowledge.  A lot of art, I believe, is taking what our subconscious mind gives us and rationalizing it until we have something that translates into a kind of story for broader consumption.  It’s late. I wonder what I’ll dream up next…    

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Play, Part Two

Because we can all use a little more playfulness in our lives, I asked my fellow Miss Demeanors what they do for fun, and how they fit it into their lives.  I wanna play date with everyone! Robin: I have lots of outdoor recreation available where I live and I make the most of it – bicycling, hiking, running, kayaking. My schedule is flexible so I’m able to incorporate playing outside for at least an hour, 3 – 4 days a week. My favorite play days are what I call my “weekend triathlons”: 2 mile run or hike (with or without the dog), 20 mile bike ride, an hour in my hot tub (with or without a glass of wine). Paula: Do I really have to go after Robin? I do a little yoga and walk the dog most every day. In the summer, I kayak and paddle-board. In the winter I like snowshoeing and ice skating. Susan: This may not sound that exciting, but I have recently started a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of the Sistine Chapel. I find working on puzzles so relaxing. It keeps my hands busy but my mind can roam all over the place.  Tracee: I’m more on Susan’s wavelength. I love a puzzle! Especially in winter. For me recreation is a museum. Although reading, the theater, and movies are also on the play list. Can I list travel? That’s play. I tried to bring “museum” and “puzzle” together last winter and bought a puzzle of a Vermeer painting. Seemed like a good idea until I started….. lots and lots of dark similar colors. That one went back in the box and is the equivalent of coal in a stocking. Right now I’m looking forward to my first transatlantic sea voyage…. and calling that a lot of play! Alexia: Urban exploration is my idea of play. The built environment fascinates me, especially structuresbuilt “back in the day” when both form and function mattered and things were constructed to last. I love art so discovering hidden street art is a joy, as is going to art museums and galleries. I love the symphony. I’ve got season tickets to both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lake Forest Symphony. I love the experience of eating a good meal. It’s not just about the food; the environment and presentation matter, too. The same goes for a good drink. I enjoy exploring new (new to me, anyway) whiskies and cocktails. I’ve learned to pay attention to the aromas and flavors and the different layers that are revealed between lips and back of tongue. And I’m learning more about pairing whiskey with food. One of my favorite places to eat (and drink) is the Deerpath Inn in Lake Forest, as you’ve probably guessed if you’ve seen my Instagram feed. The Chicago Athletic Association is another favorite place. Discovering new, unique hotels is fun for me. Every hotel prompts daydreams of working it into a mystery. Of course, I never tell hotel staff that I’m peering into the corner because I’m trying to decide if it’s a good place to hide a body. Michele: I’m a big proponent of play dates. When I feel filled to the brim with whatever human misery I’m experiencing or witnessing, I take off for a day. I might drive to a nursery to check out special plants for my garden or head for a museum exhibit. Sometimes I’ll just take a long solo walk through the beautiful Audubon sanctuary I live next to or on one of Cape Cod’s gorgeous beaches. The point is to get out of my head, regain my perspective, and hopefully have a good laugh and a delicious lunch along the way. Cate: I love to travel and I play a bunch with my kids. Here’s my daughter and I in Ireland doing the Drake Keke “shiggy” challenge.  … I admit it, I kinda wanna do the Shiggy now.

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Play

Two weeks ago, I had my first reading of Blessed be the Wicked at The King’s English in Salt Lake City. I haven’t lived in Utah since I graduated from high school a very long time ago. Still, Utah’s a place always close to my heart. My pioneer ancestors helped settle Deseret in the mid-nineteenth century. I grew up listening to my mom tell stories of her grandpa’s ranch out in Grantsville. The farm hands were up at the crack of dawn, and when they came in from the first labor of the day, around dawn, my great grandma would feed them steak, eggs, and potatoes for breakfast. Meanwhile, my mom would sneak spoon fulls of cream from the top of milk jugs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen happier grins than what I saw in the frayed black-and-white photo of my great grandpa in striped overalls with my mom by his side on his tractor. Grantsville, Utah, in the late 1940s was a place where people knew to cherish time. As a rancher, my great grandpa had plenty of work that had to be done. He did it and he did it well. If you’re a farmer and a rancher, there’s nothing to be gained by cutting corners. When he finished what needed to be finished, though, he knew there was more to life. From the stories, I know he knew how to have fun. He took my mom out on the horses, he let her drive the tractor, he watched her climb trees. I never knew my Great Grandpa Brown. I only know him through my mom’s and my grandma’s stories. HE laughed a lot. He smiled. He knew how to live. Getting work done was important, but so was playing. It’s a lesson I’m trying to apply in my own life. We need to get our work done: yes. We need to do the best job we can: yes. Then, we need to play: absolutely. So do what you need to do. Do it well. Then, climb a tree.

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Breathe

 When I first started practicing yoga, I found the care my instructors spent on shifting between one pose and the next to be intolerable. I would get frustrated with how long it would take. I wanted to jump straight into what was next. Why waste precious moments on what we did in between?  Let’s get on with it! I now realize my impatience was a sign of my own inability to find beauty and joy in accepting the moment exactly as it is. I wanted to move on to the next pose because my mind obsessed between mulling over the past and dreaming of the future. I didn’t taste the present. As a human being, I’m beginning to understand that even during the uncomfortable transitions, I need to be there fully and mindfully. It’s important to let the transition unfold as it wants to. I need to be as mindful on how I get there as I am once I arrive. As a writer, I’ve come to realize that being fully in the moment is what distinguishes my better writing from my so-so writing. The difference between the great and the good is the ability to inhabit the moments between the action. That’s where we build tension and allow for recovery. Those moments matter, we need them as human beings and we need them as writers.  Now, every time I find myself rushing–in writing and in life–I stop. I inhale slowly and exhale slowly. Then I breathe again (and again) until I’m no longer rushing into the next moment, and I’ve stopped obsessing over the last.  Life is better that way, and, I think, so is writing.

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Transitions

Write what you know.  I’m not going to venture an opinion on this bit of writing advice, but I am going to use it as a jumping off point. Right now, what I know is that I’m on plane in Nashville waiting for take off. My husband and my son are here, too. My daughter is not. She’s staying behind to start her freshman year at Vanderbilt. She’s completely ready for this transition. Me? Not so much. After I hugged her this morning—and may or may not have shed a tear or three—we walked around the Parthenon in Centennial Park. There was time to think as we wandered among the exhibits and the enormous statue of Athena and her shield (that’s the photo to the right). I found myself alternating between feeling misty and knowing this is as it should be. By nature, I’m a person who wants to jump from one thing to the next. I’m not so sure that’s a healthy way to approach life. Transitions have their own beauty. Beauty isn’t pain-free. It can mean tears. It does right now. My daughter’s off to her new life. My new life will be one without waking her up in the morning or staying up past my bedtime to make sure she’s made it home safe. I won’t be picking up her shoes by the door. I won’t be making vegetarian meals for her. No more girls’ lunches after picking out a dress she needs for the next big event (at least not as frequently). I’m going to miss all that. This moment, though, has its own beauty. As I write this through watery eyes, I know I must feel what I’m feeling. I must feel the emptiness of her room in New York and the happiness of knowing she’s in a small dorm room overlooking the beautiful trees and green lawn of the commons of her campus. She has a lot to look forward to. I do, too. I know that even though this moment is bittersweet, I must savor it because it will not last. So, please excuse me while I shed a few tears . . . and smile some, too.    

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Self-Care is no mystery

 I’ve been focused on taking better care of myself these past couple of months, thanks to tangible evidence from my doctor that my sedentary lifestyle was putting me at risk for some serious health issues. My test results made me become more conscious of the need to take care of me. Now, I’m eating less and I’m making the time to exercise. I asked my fellow Missdemeanors, We spend lots of time writing, marketing, networking, going to conferences and book signings, taking care of family, working day jobs for some of us… How do you take care of yourself? Or do you? SusanI try to walk in the woods every day, and for the most part I succeed, unless it’s really icy. Though I have actually crawled up the slope leading into the woods on occasion.  I usually follow the same route, and there’s always something to see. My mind frees up and I invariably come up with ideas, but I’m not even trying. I always feel restored afterwards. RobinNo matter where I am, at home or traveling, I wake up an hour earlier than I have to in order to have a couple of cups of coffee in bed. It’s something my dad used to do when I was growing up. I didn’t understand why he did it until I started doing it, too. It’s a small luxury that’s easy to pull off. Once I get up, I typically operate at full-throttle so it’s nice to ease into the day. It’s like a morning meditation with a side of wake-up juice.
CateAgree about the Zen coffee thing.  AlisonAlexia, I love that you’re focusing us on self-care. I meditate every morning and manage to do some yoga most evenings. Both which have had major impact on my ability to be a calmer and more compassionate person. One other activity that I once saw as wickedly indulgent, but now realize is critical to taking care of myself, is going to sleep when I’m tired. My brain works better, by body feels better, and my mood is happier when I’m well rested. MicheleOne of the things I’ve learned is to honor my biological inner clock. I get up and rise and shine early in the morning when I am bursting with energy. I also go to bed early because I need to refuel. As simple as it sounds, it is the single best thing I do for me. I don’t eat junk food as a rule, which not to say I don’t indulge in good food. I also have a list of things I know help to de-stress me. Being near the ocean always works for me, but so can pulling weeks, cooking something that requires me to chop and smell the ingredients, and flipping through magazines with beautiful photos. I love yoga and solitary walks. And this is when I remember how much I miss my dog because a walk with her or just the feel of her coat as I patted her made me feel even better than she did.That should be pulling “weeds” not “weeks.” It simply proves my point that I am increasingly incompetent as the day goes on. It must be close to my bedtime. TraceePaying attention to ourselves, that seems to be the common theme. Whether it’s walking the dogs (which is an important part of my day) or getting up early when the mind is active or going to bed ‘on time’ let’s keep taking care of ourselves. That’s how we also make sure we can take care of the other important people in our lives. RobinAmen sister! PaulaFor me it’s all about building in time to rest and relax, and when I don’t have time for that, at least recognizing when I’m dangerously exhausted, and need to stop and chill out.A regular yoga practice helps. I do yoga at home, and I do it on the road in hotel rooms. I also go to a yoga studio for classes.If I’m not on the road, I give myself Sundays as a real day off. Which means that I only have to do what I want to do. That could mean binge watching HBO, or making a pot of chili, or reading something just for fun.Sometimes I want to work and so I do. But only if I feel like it. How do you take care of you? Share your ideas here or join the discussion on Facebook.

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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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