Living that Curly Life

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Not everyone has straight hair. And not all curly hair is created equal. Yet, the vast majority of book characters (in books that I’ve read) have straight hair. If they have curls, they are often ” perfectly windblown” or some such nonsense.

Sigh.

Confession time. I have curly hair. More specifically, I have 2c/3a low porosity hair. For the majority of my life (**cough cough** three decades **cough cough**) I only let my hair be curly on days when I couldn’t bear to heat style it or couldn’t, for whatever reason, tame it into a ponytail. Even on my wedding day, my hair was carefully blown out straight and then curled with hot rollers.

Recently, thanks to some encouragement from my curly headed sister, I have embraced my curls. That means that I have had to start “unlearning” all of my bad hair habits. It also means I have to figure out how to care for my curls. It’s not as simple as it might seem. My hair actually gets curlier every week that I don’t try to straighten it, so I have to figure out how to handle it at each new stage of curliness too.

And so it hit me, almost every fictional depiction of characters with curls is complete nonsense.

First, there are a lot of different kinds of curls. From wavy all the way to coils and everything in between. And a person can have more than one type of curls at the same time.

Second, just because someone has hair that is naturally curly doesn’t mean they don’t have to work to style it. If you have a curly headed character on a long camping trip with no styling creams or gels, no satin pillowcases or head scarves, and no access to any kind of conditioner, those curls aren’t going to look the same anymore.

Third, if you have a character with curly hair and they go through some kind of makeover to become more attractive to a love interest, don’t straighten their hair. Curly hair is beautiful too.

I could go on, but at this point, I’m starting to wonder if I shouldn’t make a 10 Things post about curly hair at some point. I want to see more curly headed characters in fiction. And I want to see them depicted realistically.

If you are unsure, there is a wealth of videos on YouTube specifically dedicated to the care and styling of curly hair. Curly Penny. India Batson. Real life + Curly Girl. Hair Romance (her microphone is a hairbrush, which is just glorious). Joy Before Her. Bianca Renee Today. And those are just a few. Go down the rabbit hole.

Let your characters live their best life. The curly life.

A Matter of Distinction

A friend and I were talking about different books that we had started lately and decided to DNF. The premise of each book appealed to us, but we weren’t pulled in. We couldn’t immerse ourselves in the world the author created. After talking for a just a few moments, she said something about her book that was one of the main reasons she couldn’t connect. I realized it was the same reason that I couldn’t get on board with the one I was reading either. The character voices weren’t distinctive.

When I talk about character voices, I mean more than the way the character speaks in dialogue. It’s their attitude, air, personality. It’s their essence. If characters are distinctive enough, you could theoretically tell which one of them is “talking” without any kind of tag or beat.

Think about opening up a text from someone you know and immediately knowing, without needing to be told, that their significant other sent it from their phone. How did you know? The feel of it was all wrong. Your friend wouldn’t say it that way. But their partner would. That’s what character voice is.

Think about the music you listen to. If you heard a new song, just the first few bars before the lyrics begin, do you think you’d have a clue which of your favorites was performing? Perhaps. What if you read the lyrics. You might be able to figure it out. Because different artists/acts/bands do more than sound different. They feel different. Their voice is different.

So when you write characters, each of them should have a distinctive voice just like the people in your life. Even if there are similarities, no two people sound exactly the same. I have two sisters. They each look a bit like our mother in their own way. They shared a room growing up. They were taught the same idiomatic expressions. But they don’t say things the same way. When I answer the phone, I know which one of them is calling me without looking at the name on my phone. Even with similar tones and pitches to their voices, their “character voice” is very different.

Because this happens with real people, it needs to happen with fictional characters. Otherwise, each character comes off as a wooden copycat. Unless you’re writing a story about creepy Stepford clones, that shouldn’t happen. And if you’re writing a romance, character voices that sound too similar will seem like the main character is falling in love with himself/herself/themselves. And not just in a healthy self-esteem kind of way.

So when crafting characters, explore their personalities. What are their idiosyncrasies? Everyone has at least one. Do they use different idioms? Does everything they say have a passive-aggressive bite? Maybe they’re more direct? Do they say exactly what they are thinking, or do they expect everyone to hear what they aren’t saying? It will affect how you write their scenes. And it should. Characters should sound different because people are different.

Book Review: Shades of Milk and Honey (Glamourist Histories #1) by Mary Robinette Kowal

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Using glamour is an art form. A young lady must be very skilled to master the art of pulling folds of it from another plane and using it to create images and sounds in this one. And all well-bred young women are expected to be skilled. It is, after all, one of the “womanly arts”.

Jane is nearing the age of spinsterhood and has accepted her fate. Her gorgeous sister, Melody, can wrap men around her finger with very little effort, but Jane is not considered beautiful and feels awkward instead of flirtatious. But working glamour is where Jane shines. Everyone in the county knows of Jane’s particular skill and she is often called upon to entertain during parties.

It is at one such party that Jane meets a professional glamourist. Like all “womanly arts” such as painting and playing music, the paid professionals are actually all men. And Mr. Vincent is one of the most lauded glamourists in all England. But his haughty manner rankles Jane. She wants to learn more about his techniques, but his company tests her composure.

Jane would prefer to dodge the handsome but infuriating Mr. Vincent, but his work is exquisite and she is desperate to know more. As she studies his creations, she tests her own version of his technique. While testing one such technique, one that obscures her from view to anyone outside the fold of glamour, she overhears some distressing things regarding her sister and her latest suitor. Jane must use her skill and her wit to save the family from potential ruin because, in a world where illusions can be pulled from thin air, nothing is quite what it seems.

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This was billed as Jane Austen meets magic and I was sold. I found the series in a used bookstore in the Staff Picks display and bought the series. Jane Austen, magic, discount. That is a powerful combination, my dears. I was all in.

With hints of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and written in an alternate history where magic is quite literally an art form, this hooked me from the first chapter. Having said that, if you don’t like Jane Austen, historical fiction, or alternate histories, stop here. This book isn’t for you. If you are practically squealing with delight, carry on.

As always, let’s visit the high points first.

I like that this wasn’t a simple retelling. It definitely paid homage to specific Jane Austen tales, but it was not the exact same story plus magic. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I enjoyed that this was a little something new.

Jane isn’t beautiful. She knows it and everyone else does too. She is not one of those girls who thinks she’s plain when she’s secretly gorgeous. While not ugly, she isn’t pretty either, and no excuses are made for it. Once or twice she does wonder what it would be like if she were pretty like her sister, but she isn’t the type of character who dwells on it. Her talent with glamour earns her as much praise as her sister’s beauty, even if it feels a bit harder to come by.

She loves her sister, but she does get annoyed by her behavior. Jane is not a saint or a martyr. She hides her feelings behind a mask of propriety, but her ire–and the guilt over the ire–are there. As someone with two sisters, I appreciated that her love for her sister didn’t erase or negate other emotions. You’re allowed to love someone and not like them all the time. But I digress.

On the flipside of the coin, let’s look at the low points.

The magic system can be hard to follow. The rules are clear, but what the characters are actually doing can sometimes be difficult to picture. It is described using terms most often associated with laundry or linens (wraps, folds, sheets), bubbles, and ropes (braiding, knotting). I just had to roll with it at first until it started to make sense.

I have to grade using the same rubric for everyone, so I have to bring up diversity. There isn’t any. Although, I will point out that, having read all but the final book in the series now (I haven’t had time to read the last one, but I do have it), that the author does remedy that. She brings in new characters of different ethnicities and sexual orientations, though the latter is talked around as you would expect for characters living in the early 1800s. But in the first book, nada.

I found that to be true of most of my criticisms of each book. Whatever I found lacking in one book, the next book in the series seemed to address. It’s as if (I know it sounds crazy, but just hear me out) the author was learning from her mistakes and growing as a writer. What a concept. Let’s all try it.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. I recommend the series, or at least books 1-4 since I haven’t actually read number five yet. Did you really think I was going to give it a thumbs down? Jane Austen with Magic! The only way this could have hooked me faster was if it had been set in outer space.

Your mileage may vary.

A Family Library

Earlier this summer, my younger child took his first steps. He’s one. It was a big moment. As every parent would be, I was beyond proud of this milestone. I took pictures. I called dad at work. I gave him a big hug and lots of mommy kisses. But I wasn’t the only one cheering him on.

Let me back up a little.

My older child is four years old. During the school year, he attends preschool twice a week. If he gets a good behavior report, I take him to the library as a reward. He loves it. There are toys, games, puzzles, and books. It’s an air-conditioned playground filled with magic and stories. Sometimes when the weather is nice we will also visit the city park’s playground. But his first request is the library.

All throughout my second pregnancy, I marched into the library with my older child and the librarians would give me knowing and sweet smiles when I was a tired, bedraggled mess. When I didn’t show up for a few weeks, but my older child made his appearance with alternating grandmothers, they commented that they couldn’t wait to meet our newest family member.

And then, for months, they let me break the “no food or drink” rule as I brought everything I needed to be prepared for feeding a hungry baby. Granted, it was usually just a bottle of water, but it’s still a rule and they still purposely ignored the fact that I was breaking it.

As he started crawling, the staff would each come to coo at him and cheer him on. And then one day, he did it. Right there in the library, with one of the librarians in the adjacent aisle. He walked. From the fire truck activity table to the bookshelf filled with toddler favorites. Three steps. His first.

Once again, I was allowed to break a rule. This time it was the “no cell phones” rule. I called my husband and in very excited but hushed tones told him that our little munchkin could walk. The librarian spread the word to the other staff members and by the time we made it to the circulation desk to check out my older son’s selection for the week, everyone knew. And they congratulated him (and me). And they asked to take his picture.

They got my permission to use that picture on the library blog. They didn’t tell me when exactly it would happen, but I gladly granted their request.

Well, now the day has come. It wasn’t just a happy moment to add to our library’s specific page. They made my son Patron of the Week for the entire regional system, which covers a lot of our state. The post points out that a library can be a place for a lot of firsts, “first library card, first storytime, first “a-ha” moment, and…your first steps.”

It is such a silly thing to be proud of and excited about, and yet I am. My son’s first “award” is (tangentially) related to books and my book nerd self is loving it. It’s sweet and fun. And it makes me feel more connected to my community in a way. The library staff isn’t just a group of smiling, kind faces that we see each week. They’re almost like extended family. They want to celebrate life’s big moments with us.

They noticed when my older son moved into the “I can read alone!” books. They cheered him on with gusto. And when my younger son started walking, they got out the camera and shared the news like proud grandparents. That’s special to me because my family lives several hours away. My husband has cousins a little over an hour down the road, but most of his family is more than a hop, skip, and a jump too. And it takes a village to raise a child. Knowing that we have people seeking to be a part of our village, at a time when it is easy to feel alone, is a blessing I can’t describe.

So don’t you ever tell me that books don’t bring people together. Because that post is right. The library can be a place for a lot of firsts, including the first time you realize that you’re home, you belong, and you’re a part of something bigger.

10 Things About Southern Cocktails

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Drinking in the South is almost an art form. We take our alcohol seriously. Bourbon is a way of life. Moonshine is a point of pride. And not being able to hold your liquor is a mark of poor breeding.

For those of you who aren’t aware of the doctrine of the Southern Baptist Church, drinking is more than frowned upon. It’s prohibited. However, the old joke runs “What’s the difference between Baptists and Methodists? Methodists will say hello to each other in the liquor store.” Because no matter what the church says, most of the congregation imbibes. How do I know? I’m a Baptist. My father also grew up Baptist and was, for a time, part-owner of the local liquor store. Just to paint you a picture.

There are, however, teetotalers within the South. Most of the ones I know are older ladies. Like my great-grandmother, God Rest her soul. When the doctor told her she needed to drink a beer a day for her circulation, she made my grandfather drive to the next county to buy it for her because she was terrified someone in her Sunday School class would see! Never you mind that my grandfather kept a beer fridge on the porch at his home. And if you don’t think I’ve ever written a character based on that gem of a woman, you’re wrong.

For the most part, though, alcohol is deeply ingrained in the Southern culture. It can wash away the pain of a harsh loss of your beloved alma mater’s athletic team. It can blur the jagged edges of a broken heart. It can ease the tension at dysfunctional family gatherings, unless of course part of the dysfunction is an uncle or two with an addiction issue. Also a common Southern tale.

So get out your shakers, your stirrers, and the key to your liquor cabinet. It’s time to booze it up, Southern Style.

  1. The Mint Julep, a drink long associated with bougie white women in big hats who watch horse races and their significant others in seersucker suits, actually started off as a medicinal tonic over a thousand years ago. The mint wasn’t added until the late 1700s, and it has been made with different bases over the years, but it was in the Southeastern United States that the concoction gained real popularity as a recreational drink.
  2. The Sazerac was created in New Orleans. Its specific origin within the city is controversial, but the recipe first called for cognac. Due to crop failures cognac was hard to come by for a while and rye whiskey was the replacement. I’m a tried and true Southerner and I’ll be honest, I’ve actually never had one of these.
  3. There is an official tailgate cocktail for every university in the Southeastern Conference, as published in the Southern Living Official SEC Tailgating Cookbook. My own beloved Mississippi State’s is the Bulldog Bloody Mary (it’s garnished with pickled okra).
  4. The Old-Fashioned. America’s first cocktail was created down south, but as other drinks created in the same style grew in popularity, people continued to order this one–in the “old-fashioned style”. The drink eventually made its way to the Waldorf-Astoria and its place in history was firmly cemented. But it all started south of the Mason-Dixon.
  5. Mississippi Punch, so named because it originated “somewhere along the Mississippi” calls for light brandy, rum, and bourbon along with some bitters, lemon juice, and granulated sugar. Basically, pour a little of all the best stuff in your liquor cabinet and then add a bit of something without alcohol to make it look like you aren’t just trying to get hammered.
  6. Three words: Sweet Tea Vodka. You’re welcome. Also, pace yourself. It’ll get you faster than you think.
  7. The Hurricane, named because it was originally served in glass from a hurricane lamp, was invented by the Pat O’Brien in New Orleans. Several of my friends and acquaintances have lived to regret Pat O’s signature creation.
  8. It’s hotter than the Devil’s backside down here in the summer, so leave it to Southerners to mix ice cream with booze. Mississippi Mudslides are made with chocolate ice cream, coffee ice cream, milk, and–what else–bourbon. You can even top it with marshmallows.
  9. Folks at the University of Alabama have a drink named after the line of one of their most common cheers. The Alabama Yellow Hammer Slammer is made with three different kinds of alcohol, but you’ll only taste the fruit juices in the recipe. Have you ever wondered how Southern women can possibly wear heels to football games where they will stand and cheer for hours? Drinks like this. Your feet won’t hurt if you can’t feel them.
  10. Everybody has their own special tricks to avoid or cure hangovers because showing up to church on Sunday morning in a pair of sunglasses that covers half your face and slumping down in the pew is a dead giveaway that you’re an amateur. But perhaps the most popular is the “hair of the dog that bit you”, followed closely by Gatorade (also created in the South) and painkillers.

The South has an ugly past, but a wonderful history of creativity. Music, theater, literature. So it should be no surprise that the same creative spirit spilled over into our, well, spirits.

So if you’re writing a character with a bit of a Southern flair and you don’t picture them as the kind of person who drinks beer that’s on tap or whiskey neat, then maybe this will inspire you. Though, if you feel the need to “get into character” I would advise you to pace yourself.

ARC Review: Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris

Available August 28, 2018

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Ellis Reed wants to be a true journalist. He doesn’t count the work he does working for the Society pages as real reporting. He’s biding his time, but in 1931 he’s also not going to complain about having a job–any job–either. Besides, one of the perks of the job is using the newspaper’s camera to take photographs of the things that really speak to him, like the little boys holding a sign declaring that they’re for sale.

Lilly Palmer has enough going on in her life. She has a secret son, a job working for the most demanding newspaper chief in Philadelphia, and a long-term plan that requires her to keep her head down and her nose to the grindstone. But when she stumbles across Mr. Reed’s photo in the darkroom, she can’t shake the feeling that the world needs to see it. She turns it into the chief on a whim.

Ellis is thrilled for the chance to write his first feature story. However, the photo is the catalyst for a journey that neither he or Lilly could have predicted. In the world of prohibition and mafiosos, even an innocent photograph can be dangerous–for the kids in the picture most of all.

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When I first opened this book, I had reservations. It started with a prologue that largely told me where the book was going. The prologue was in first person, but the rest of the book was in third person. I knew I had to finish because, quite frankly, I had committed to finishing it for the purposes of a review. So I bargained with myself. If I could read just a quarter of the book at a time, I could knock it out quickly without needing to force myself through long stretches. I read pretty fast, after all.

I ended up finishing the whole thing in a single sitting. Before I ever got to the twenty-five percent mark, I was enthralled.

The book moves. The pacing and tension pulled me along so that I wanted to keep reading to find out what happened next with each scene, but I didn’t feel emotionally worn out from it.

The characters were gorgeously flawed. While I rolled my eyes as the description of each of the main characters as essentially being mainstream beautiful, their characterizations were more interesting to me. Ellis isn’t just a reporter desperate for a story, he’s desperate to succeed because he has a chip on his shoulder and deep-rooted family issues. He has to prove his father wrong about him. He makes bad decisions based on past hurts and good decisions based on a sense of basic decency.

Lilly’s character is a great commentary on the way we treat single mothers in this country. She has a child from a failed relationship who lives with her parents and she has to visit on the weekends because she can’t work and care for her child at the same time. She hides her son from her coworkers because there is a stigma against being an unwed mother. She hides him from her boss because he doesn’t want to have employees who will be unreliable because of “family issues”. She desperately wants to make enough money to change her situation so her son can live with her full-time, but it is a struggle. Her decisions are based on intuition and instinct related to her experience as a single mother.

There are some parts of the plot that can seem a bit outlandish, but set in the days of Prohibition and the Great Depression when organized crime was in its heyday, there is also just enough plausibility to keep you hooked.

On the other side of the coin, there are some areas where the book didn’t score as highly with me. There is one POC character. She’s in two scenes. If I’m going to correct Regency writers, I’m going to do it to Prohibition writers too. There were a lot of missed opportunities to incorporate POC characters.

It also doesn’t portray mental illness in the best way. And that’s putting it mildly. If you are neurodivergent, just be aware that this may not be the best book for you.

Also, there is a scene where one of the main characters kisses someone while in a very serious relationship with someone else. That’s because the “someone else” is more of a plot device than a real character. The same can be said for Lilly’s son. You only meet him a few times and he’s more of a plot device than a character. So while the main characters are well developed, some of the lesser characters get a bit glossed over.

There are sprinkled in facts and descriptions to remind me of the 1930s setting, but the downside of this is that I needed to be reminded. To be truthful, I can’t put my finger on exactly why I wasn’t grounded in the time period setting, but I wasn’t. Your mileage may vary.

In the end, I liked the book both in spite of its flaws and because of its characters. I rooted for them even when I didn’t like what they were doing. So if Prohibition era fiction that features mobsters, corruption, mystery, and just a hint of romance sounds like your type of book, you’ll love this. It’s flawed but interesting.

Becoming a Soccer Mom

At the beginning of the summer, I had grand writing plans. I would sit out in the backyard whilst my children splashed around in our little inflatable kiddie pool or ran through the sprinklers and I would write. Plot holes would get filled, edits would get finished, new stories would blossom.

None of that happened. I’m not the writer version of June Cleaver.

No, our summer consisted of water play, baseball games (of the minor league variety mostly), yelling at the World Cup on TV, trips to see family at the beach or the lake, and a lot of exhaustion. It’s August and I promise that if you let you me, I could sleep until October.

Alas, my nap is not to be. We started a new adventure today. One that will dominate our schedule for the next couple of months, but one that we’re excited about. My four-year-old attended his very first soccer practice.

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Photo by Lorenzo Cafaro on Pexels.com

That’s right, ladies and gents. I’m a soccer mom. A full-fledged, SUV drivin’, uniform cleanin’, family calendar coordinatin’, picture takin’, loud cheerin’ soccer mom. And I have zero shame.

My son begged to play soccer from the moment the sign went up in the city park declaring that sign-ups had begun and you only had to be four to play. Because he can read now, so even if I wanted to ignore those signs and keep walking, he knows.

He begged to play soccer. And, to be honest, he didn’t have to twist my arm or my husband’s either. We let him sign up. And all summer he has been pumped up for this moment. He has played soccer in our front yard at every opportunity–though at four that consists mostly of him dribbling the ball across the yard and then flinging himself down in the grass just for kicks.

But today, he got to practice. He got a jersey, met his team, and ran drills. This kid could not be more thrilled. The unadulterated joy in his eyes would make the Grinch’s heart grow three sizes.

Before we ever left the house, while I was helping him get on his shin guards, his socks, and his cleats, we had a chat. I told him that just because Mama and Daddy like soccer doesn’t mean he has to. If he doesn’t have fun, that’s okay. If he doesn’t like to play, that’s okay. If he loves it, that’s wonderful too, but I would love him either way. Whether he was the best player out there or the worst one on the team, it would not change how much I love him.

He nodded and gave me a hug. And then asked if it was time to leave yet.

Practice went about how you would expect for a team of four- and five-year-olds. There was a lot of tripping, short attention spans, and at least two children stopping midfield to turn and say “Mom! I have to go potty!” In other words, it was adorable. It was also a bajillion degrees, but it was adorable.

In the car on the way home, my child re-capped every moment as if his father and I hadn’t been on the field with him the whole time. He had a blast. But being his mother, I needed full, unequivocal, indisputable confirmation.

“Does that mean you had a good time?”

“Mama, I really really loved it!”

The amazement and wonder in his voice, the reverence–it elicited more emotion from me than I expected. So, that’s it. My fate is sealed. I’m a soccer mom. I might as well buy a sticker family for my car and start monogramming sports bags.

Soccer mom and proud.