Writing on the Sly.

(originally published 7/19/2017)

I’m not going to write a fourth. I’m just not, even though I’ve been thinking about it for six months and have opened up what I call a “slushy pile” of notes and bits of narrative – and even though I’ve already picked out a name for it and have an outline. Because writing books is a pain in the a– and I refuse to do it and will stop right after I launch the third. Yep.

HOWEVER, just to keep this little lie I’m telling myself afloat, I’m including a tiny bit of set-up for the fourth in my third. By doing this – and by sharing an excerpt here, I shall exorcise myself once and for all of this ridiculous endeavor! So let the exorcism begin:

***SPOILER ALERT ***
PROLLY DON’T WANT TO READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE SECOND BOOK, BREAKWATER ‘CAUSE DEAD CHARACTERS SHOULDN’T TALK.

Chapter Whatever

Xanthe approached Griffins Bay – and the real object of her visit, Peter – from the ocean, having decided to search out her former colleague for a chat about her unrelenting work problems. No, that wasn’t true. She hadn’t decided anything, was following this particular urge on instinct, not reason, although she thought a conversation with the former prince might resolve her ever-deepening anxiety over the shifting center of her life. And Peter knew her and her professional commitments as well as anyone.

Earlier that day, she’d sensed he was near the Blake home, and this thread of perception, slight though it was, had given her adequate impetus to leave her offices on Shaddox and undertake her current swim. She’d had to be sneaky in her escape from the palace since others there continued to ask her about him, hadn’t stopped since they’d learned of his resurrection seven years earlier. Peter apparently didn’t want to communicate with anyone, which stopped none of them from trying to wheedle a meeting with him out of her.

They were kind of cute, often inventing some weak but plausible need for reconnection with their one-time regent – would he like any personal items from his life before exile? So-and-so had been an intimate and was frantic with worry for him, and could he or she get in touch? Surely she, Xanthe, could facilitate an encounter.

She couldn’t, but she didn’t blame any of them for trying. She understood their artless attempts, which were a combination of genuine concern and rabid self-interest none of them could help, both of which would be alleviated if Peter would deign to visit the seat of siren government and show his face. He wouldn’t and didn’t.

At first, she’d tried to persuade him by contending he’d be left alone sooner if he’d cater to his former subjects in this matter, if he’d let himself be seen and answer a few questions to allay everyone’s curiosity. “You’ve been the center of our common life for over a century, and the drama surrounding your return is too seductive,” she’d argued. And it was true: even the most stable among them yearned to ferret out for themselves the truth in this part of their collective history, to establish a more definitive resolution than the one they’d been given. Or at least come up with a palatable way to consider all that had happened since his faux suicide.

Peter hadn’t disagreed, but neither did he comply with his community’s requests for an audience. “I’ll think about it,” he’d answered off-handedly, in a way that made Xanthe believe he couldn’t care less what anyone else wanted, her included. After her attempts to lure him into a public appearance failed, she hadn’t known what to say to sirens who solicited her for a connection. At this point, she just wished they’d stop pestering her.

“I have no influence on him,” she’d stated again and again. “I don’t know when – or even if – he’ll visit Shaddox. Ever.” Their eager nods were not acknowledgments because they acted as if she hadn’t spoken. She continued to be approached by folks who thought she had a unique in with Peter Loughlin.

She suspected she had more of an in than Peter let on, though, since while she never had any indication where he was when others asked, she did sense him when she wished to locate him herself. Perhaps because he allowed her this access? She wondered.

“Why can I always find you?” she’d inquired.

“I will talk with you anytime,” Peter replied… and that was all he’d say on the subject. She studied him to determine what he might be hiding.

She couldn’t tell if there was anything, couldn’t be sure of his motivations. Although he’d confessed he’d been lonely for his own kind when she’d come upon him murdering their viceroy all those years ago. He drew her attention back to him. “You have nothing to worry about from me, Xanthe,” Peter claimed. “We’ve known each other a long time, and talking with you is a pleasure of mine. My motives are that simple.”

“If you say so…?” Since she also felt the easiness between them, she was inclined to believe him. Although she couldn’t help but feel wary around him given his past, epic deviances.

“Truly. You are always safe in my company,” he insisted.

“Mmm,” she responded uncertainly.

But back to her current personal crisis and the reason behind her impending visit to her one-time boss. She’d elected to search for him in Griffins Bay on the same whim that brought her to him every time, no matter where he was, although she was aware he often dropped by the Blakes’ to check on Gabe, Kate, and little Henry. And sometimes Carmen and Michael when they were beachside, which they usually weren’t since they’d moved to Shaddox.

Just outside the reef protecting the bay, Xanthe grabbed a waterproof pack with land supplies from one of the designated caches in the rock face.

She saw Peter from underwater just before she surfaced… and she felt his grin, his anticipation. He sat on the end of the dock by the Blake house in Griffins Bay, shirt unbuttoned, pants rolled up as he dangled his feet in the sea. “Ah, moonflower, it is lovely to see you,” he told her when her face broke the waves. She hooked an arm around one of the dock posts to anchor herself.

The overhead sun left his face in shadow, making her unable to read his expression. But this time, she didn’t need to rely solely on her observational skills to determine his frame of mind, because she absorbed his emanations cleanly. Peter’s emotional output today, usually missing altogether, was almost like that of a normal siren.

And he really was pleased to see her. She was awash in the loveliest tenderness from him, a restorative balm that blanketed her and soothed away the worries she wore these days like a second skin. When she reacted with her own sweet outpouring – an automatic response usually not possible with Peter Loughlin – she perceived a freeness within him she’d never felt before. He was relaxed… and almost open.

This was not anything she attributed to their rogue, duplicitous prince, so she stilled, combing him with her intuition for evidence of deceit. She inquired within herself as well, checking for the backlash of emptiness, the sour echo of loneliness she considered a trademark of any interaction with Peter. His usual impediments weren’t there this time, or maybe they were, but penetrable for once.

“You’re happy,” she remarked with surprise.

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Bakemasters.

(originally published 7/11/2017)

Do you love stories with bakers in them? Me, too! I mean, “Like Water for Chocolate”? “Garden Spells”? I rest my case. Consequently, my heroines are also foodies, with Sylvia Wilkes, my girl in “Breakwater” (book no. 2) taking the cake, yuk-yuk. She opens a bakery, SeaCakes, and her apple fritters help her catch her man. I think everyone should eat these at least once in her life, so I’m sharing Sylvia’s master recipe:

Apple Fritters
(Adapted from Nancy Silverton’s “Pastries from La Brea Bakery”)

Peel, core, and chop 3-4 tart apples. Toss with ½ tsp. ground cinnamon, ¼ c. sugar, the scrapings of one vanilla bean, and 2 T. brandy. Set aside.

For the dough
1 pkg. active dry yeast
2/3 c. whole milk
3 ¼ c. plus 2 T. unbleached all-purpose flour
4 extra large egg yolks
½ c. sugar
pinch of salt
1/3 c. sparkling apple cider
½ stick unsalted butter, melted
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
1 T. pure vanilla extract

Heat the milk to lukewarm. Place the yeast in the bowl of an electric mixer and add milk. Let soften 1-2 minutes and add 2 c. of the flour. DO NOT STIR. Cover and set aside in a warm place until the surface of the flour cracks, 30 min.

In a separate bowl, combine yolks and sugar, then add the cider, melted butter, salt, cider, cinnamon, vanilla, and remaining flour. Mix until combined and add this mixture to the yeast/milk/flour. Beat with paddle attachment on low until combined and sticky. Turn dough out on lightly floured surface, clean and oil the bowl, return dough, cover and let rise 1 ½ hrs.

Meanwhile, sauté the apple mixture in 3 T. of butter until apples are soft. Remove from heat and drain.

Scrape the dough from the bowl onto a floured surface, roll into a rectangle 2 inches thick, and spread half the apples on dough. Fold into thirds (it’s okay if it’s messy) and pinch edges of dough together. Flatten the dough again, spread the remaining apples on it, and fold/pinch/pat flat again. Let rest 30 min.

An Ocean of Beachheads.

(originally published 6/4/2017)

Perhaps the very most fabulous thing about “beach reads” is, well, everything. Going somewhere warm when it’s 20 below? Think of the plethora of bookish escapes that await you! Too caged up in the winter-ness of it all in January? Pick up a beach read! Heading to the lake/ocean/park and need a book?

You know what you want.

Problem is, there really are a gazillion choices out there, and how does one wade through them all? Plus, not everyone’s sensibilities are aligned, so a book that makes one person swoon with joy has another holding her nose and dropping the thing in the nearest trash bin. How to discern?

I recommend triangulation. If you have a book you love, search for others like it, using phrases such as, “books like Outlander” or “novels like In Cold Blood.” You can be more specific, too, by adding the term “inspirational” or “erotic” or “literary” according to your preferences. The reading community is so generous, and you’ll find tons of options, which you can further research before you decide. Another favorite resource of mine is Listopia on Goodreads, which slices and dices genres every which way imaginable. For illustration purposes, here are lists that contain my first book, Updrift: https://www.goodreads.com/list/book/25114259/

Yet for all the dazzling internet tricks out there today vying for your book-buying dollar, the best is still personal recommendation imo. By far. I haven’t always agreed with the staff picks at the stores I frequent, but those selections have always made the choosing process more digestible, and they’ve always led me to something I’ve enjoyed. Book clubs and subscription services can help on this front, too. Hope this helps!

Feminism & Theme in Updrift.

(originally published 3/7/2017)

 

Updrift is first and foremost a love and adventure story with a little mythology mixed in, not a treatise on ideal womanhood or feminism… But. I did write in a theme addressing the challenges modern women face concerning work, family, and love; and I included the backdrop deliberately with the goal of enriching the narrative. The theme is not there to cast aspersions or further divide us, however. Quite the opposite.

In a nutshell, my heroine, Kate, is the daughter of a single, working mother. As Kate grows up, she looks to the three most influential women around her – her mom; her aunt, the corporate go-getter; and Alicia, the stay-at-home mother of her best friend – to try on the incarnations of adulthood each represents. She changes her mind twice in Updrift, changes her mind again in the sequel… and if I were to focus solely on Kate throughout the series, which I don’t, her circumstances and how she applies her values in light of them would change many, many more times.

I took this approach because real women who juggle real, whole lives, don’t have the luxury of adhering to one, pure professional or biological ideal. Real women adapt, with considerable intelligence and strength, to accommodate all the dichotomies inherent in having a job and family and lovers on the side; and they live richer, more communicative lives as a consequence. They’re also, in my opinion, a lot more relatable than the idealized women represented on either end of the spectrum in commercial literature, ones who I don’t think much exist.

If you’re like me, you’ve seen literally dozens of what I call anti-heroines come out of traditional publishing in the past ten years. The last book I read in what’s become a veritable slough of them had the hero and heroine falling in love because of their ability to physically harm each other, with the heroine (of course) being the superior fighter. It was very well written… but I find this trope every bit as one-dimensional and limiting as the damsel trope it’s meant to replace. I also find the arguments in favor of such scenarios too facile, certainly disingenuous, and worst of all, unkind.

Telling a young woman she needs to develop her combat prowess to be a competent romantic partner is no better than insisting on weakness for the same reason. If you don’t know a woman who wrestles with how to have a family and pay attention to it while holding down a job, you don’t know any women. If you think brandishing the banner of ‘either/or’ should be the goal of fiction aimed at young women, I would ask you to approach the idea of womanhood with more expansiveness, more empathy, and more love, both for yourself and for girls coming into adulthood.

This perspective led me to ponder in my writing, “What does ‘and’ look like instead of ‘either/or? What does it feel like inside a real character?” I gave Kate her professional passions because they are a part of her personhood and therefore her womanhood, and she sets aside her romantic compulsions for the man she loves in favor of professional discipline before she commits, which I believe can be hard for some girls but is a worthy choice to illustrate. I make sure Kate feels the friction between duty and love, as many of us do. I do not make her figure everything out at age 20 because I wouldn’t expect that of her, and because life in the real world doesn’t happen that way.

And I just wouldn’t do that to a sister.

Kate’s story contrasts with different heroines in the trilogy, which was drafted entirely before Updriftcame out. For those who are truly interested in this issue and where I take it, I’m happy to provide the following spoiler alerts: Kate will return to her professional interests in Breakwater, where she figures out how to accommodate motherhood and her career ambitions, but on her terms. Breakwater’s heroine establishes her own business and is professionally developed well before engaging with her guy. And in the third, Outrush, the heroine completes medical school and is processing a failed marriage before her romance takes off.

Maybe you disagree with my approach and have good reasons for doing so. I welcome your comments and invite you to share your perspective. And if you have a different story to tell that expands on the ideas I laid out above, I invite you to write the story out, publish it, and share it with the world. I think we need a broader selection of novels than the ones we have. The ones I’ve written, I’ll admit, are based on my musings and mine alone. What would be your theme?

Beach reads, anyone?

Something about spring trips a switch in my head every year, where the heavy, introspective stories that compel me in fall and winter start to feel suffocating. Of course, I live in Minnesota, where it’s so blasted cold for four months, you have to focus on indoor activities or you’ll freeze your katushy off.

By March/April, though, I can’t care any longer about all those deep explications on the human condition, or even dredge up meaningful interest in anything too serious. A new atrocity in the Middle East, you say? Global warming will kill us all by 2020? Gosh, that’s awful. Why don’t you tell me about it while I whip up a nice batch of cookies for us over here. And when’s the last time you watched the movie, “Splash?”

Basically, if I’ve got a Faulkner or Anne Dillard tome on my nightstand in May, you can bet it’ll stay there untouched and unloved until next November. Maybe longer.

But I think it’s good for us to turn off the news and coldness when we can, to come into the light and reach for relief, because (and here comes my main rationalization for fluffy reading) eating only hardship makes us morbid and anxious, until all we feel is unhappiness and all we do in the world is breed more unhappiness, which is unhelpful on pretty much every front that counts. We also deny ourselves the kind of intercourse that makes us whole and capable, where we indulge in silliness or quirks or flights of imagination that cause others to smile and hope, help us all go out there and do what needs doing to pay the mortgage and care for the kids.

Which means we need a full spectrum of stories to muse over, including those with covers of half-fainting heroines at the mercy of some delicious-looking lover. Such ridiculousness soothes. It transports us to problems that are either gripping or not, but not truly consequential, and certainly not our own.

So here’s the question: What does a UV-deprived, shivering northerner read when she wants to let the sunshine in? I confess the series I’ve written, The Mer Chronicles, was motivated by this kind of need for diversion, but my novels are for others to peruse. For my own getaways, I’ve found tons of books that hit a particular note I like – not too heavy, not harmful, perfectly engaging. Here are a few I recommend, ranging from sweet to intense, and they all do the trick.

“What I Did for Love” by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

“Tender Rebel” and “Gentle Rogue” by Johanna Lindsey

“Blue-Eyed Devil” by Lisa Kleypas

“Dreams of a Dark Warrior” by Kresley Cole

“The Next Best Thing” by Jennifer Weiner

“Blackmoore: A Proper Romance” by Julianne Donaldson

“Passion” by Lisa Valdez

What do you read to get away from it all? Leave your ideas in the comment section below, please!

End-of-Winter Flirtation, Pt. 3

Beach-Bound, Part Three

He didn’t realize he was looking for her until he didn’t find her in the cottage. And he remembered so very little, although the more he concentrated, the more he kind of recalled.

Still, it wasn’t much. Wavy, copper-gold hair catching the firelight, then curling around him underwater as he held her in his arms. Brief illuminations of her long, lean frame as she mingled with others on the beach, every line of her a temptation. His clearest recollections were of her eyes, clear and green and wise; a dozen times he’d caught her stealing glances at him during the party and tried to catch her stare. He wouldn’t let her look away when they were submerged, when he finally got to hold her and became so lost in her gaze he forgot her name.

Except… they couldn’t possibly have gone swimming in this weather. And had she even given him her name? He didn’t remember her saying it… but she must have, because it was just there at the edge of his thoughts. A flower, like a rose. No. A field flower, something sunny and open and strong in the wind. Daisy. Yes. Her name was Daisy.

He absolutely had to find her. In fact, when he was sure she was nowhere in the cabin, he almost bolted back to the beach, reasoning – he wasn’t sure why – she must be in the sea. Which, again, was nuts.

The sensation of floating with her under the waves replayed itself and he experienced every moment of it, the darkness closing off the rest of the world, the intensifying the intimacy between them, which was thick and sweet and wild enough to break a man’s heart.

He was pretty sure she’d promised to come to him here, though. He walked to the front porch and scanned the stretch of sand leading to the water, and then examined the ocean itself. He found himself evaluating each inconsistency in the water’s surface, expecting her to appear and swim toward him… which, again, was nuts. He saw no sign of her anywhere, however. He returned to the house, rummaged for a pair sweatpants and then located the makings for coffee. One thing he knew for sure: he hadn’t imagined her. And if she didn’t come soon, he would go back out and look for her.

Errin Stevens is the author of Updrift, now available at Liquid Silver Books, Amazon, and bn.com.

 

An End-of-Winter Flirtation.

Got invited to share a short story on the Romance Lives Forever blog site a couple of months back as part of a holiday/snow-themed thing, and want to share it here with y’all. I will post a portion of “Beachbound” for the next five days!

Beachbound, Part I

He knew where he was before he opened his eyes.

First he heard the surf, the rhythmic rush and crash of waves hitting the shore perhaps ten yards from where he lay. The fresh sea air tickled his nose and awakened him further. When he shifted, sugar sand cascaded from his hair, brushing his face as it fell to the ground beneath his cheek.

His eyelids lifted to reveal a weak December sun whose light barely penetrated the gray carpet of clouds covering what appeared to be his own private beach. Diffused and dim, the sky was still too bright for early morning; he guessed the time to be maybe ten? Perhaps closer to noon.

What was he doing here? His mind was clear, his perceptions crisp… but he could not recall the events leading to his current circumstances. He drilled his memory, encountering only blackness until a single image surfaced like the too-brief revelation of a dark landscape by a flash of lightning. A party in someone’s backyard… no, on the beach, at night. There was a fire and laughing; and strange, beautiful women drifted around him and several other guys, everyone a stranger. The women were extraordinary – their eyes, their skin, their hair – every feature, every movement fascinated him. He and the other men examined them hungrily, riveted. He felt like a predator hunting the one he would choose… but then maybe he and the others were prey, there for one of them to select. His mind shuttered and the picture disappeared.

He decided to work his situation backwards instead, to search for tangibles in what he could see and understand at the moment. He was on his back with his face turned toward the ocean, and he was blanketed under an enormous pile of seaweed. Which he supposed he appreciated since he would otherwise be dead from hypothermia. He started to disentangle his arms, and then quickly tucked them back into his body for warmth, and because he apparently needed to make a stronger inventory before he acted as he didn’t seem to be wearing anything underneath all this kelp. This was a significant problem he wasn’t sure he could solve – it felt like it might actually snow – and he peered up the beach. He had an insubstantial memory of parking his car in a lot possibly located just to the north. He calculated the time it would take him to traverse the half-mile stretch and immediately abandoned the idea. He wasn’t sure the lot was even there, and in any case, he’d never make it in this cold.

He lifted his head as high as the weight of his cocoon allowed and noticed markings in the sand next to him. Someone had left him a note.

Seth – Go to the house over the berm.

An arrow pointed behind him and he followed it to see where it indicated. He glimpsed the roofline of a simple, heretofore unnoticed shack, a brown-shake Cape Cod perched on the otherwise bleak landscape, not too far from where he was. Seth fought his way out of his nest and sprinted to the cottage.

 

Errin Stevens is the author of Updrift, now available at Liquid Silver Books, Amazon, and bn.com.