Perfect Heroes, Perfect Escapes

I read a lot of novels that are nothing like what I write. Lately I’ve been on a Grace Burrows binge. She writes Regency romances, and for those of you not in the know about romance genres, Regency novels take place in England in the years George III was incapacitated and his son served as regent, so between 1811 and 1820.  (These dates include much of the Napoleonic Wars between 1803 and 1815.) Naturally, the genre spreads into the years before and after these dates.

So anyway, Grace Burrows:  One of the things Grace does is build big families and then gives each member of the family his or her own book. Grace is not the only author doing this, of course, but she does it very well. I’m a sucker for this kind of series. I need to know what Matthew’s brother will do about that nasty little secret hinted at in Matthew’s book.

Critics of the genre complain that romance books are predictable. Well, duh. So are sci fi, western, fantasy, thriller, police procedurals. Don’t we know the hero will prevail? The cop will catch the bad guy in the nick of time? What’s the name of that Tom Clancy hero? Jack Ryan? He will save the day, count on it. Well, romances end with a Happy Ever After, and that’s fine with me.

I used to read Dostoevsky, Dickens, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. These days, with global warming, Covid 19, political craziness, I want that Happy Ever After. I want escapism. And I can find it in the pages of a Grace Burrows novel.

If you read a lot of any author’s books, you see little quirks, some annoying and some not. For instance, Grace seems to use the word fundament at least once in every novel. Don’t know what a fundament is? I didn’t either. It’s somebody’s rear end.

More interesting though is the hero’s character. Every single man is unbelievably wonderful: Kind. Sensitive. Protective. Complicated. Nurturing. Lonely. Emotionally generous. Unselfish. Also, with all these fine characteristics, he’s rather alpha, a take-charge kind of guy. And quite tall, usually well-muscled.  And a fine horseman.

Well, who could complain about that guy? It’s fiction, after all.

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. . . in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom

Reading the paper this morning, I was struck by this quote:

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

Are you touched by this as I am? It’s from Aeschylus, whom I have not read, nor, I suspect, have many of us. Robert F. Kennedy quoted this passage in his address to people in Indianapolis the night after Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed. (I read about this short, impromptu speech in Daniel Ruth’s column in The Tampa Bay Times, Thursday, April 5, 2018, 9A.)

I’m not proposing that all our young people should read Aeschylus in school when there is so much else they much digest before they’re eighteen. But . . . I find myself wishing we had time for such eloquent wisdom.

More poetry, gracefully taught and willingly received. More art in its historical context. More essays and speeches of great import — Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Mark Antony’s plea steeped in irony and rhetorical device, Frederick Douglas’s impassioned appeals for justice. Surely those would be of more use to our children than Great Expectations. Sure, I loved that book, but I was an English major. How my students struggled with the nineteenth century diction, pacing, and dilemmas.

As another example, when I first taught high school English, I was required to help my students read Moby Dick. I had only just read it myself, and my students simply could not read well enough to find any joy, or comprehension, in such a dense tome. So I proudly got permission to buy my students Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.

This novel, written in the late twentieth century, does not match Aeschylus in eloquence, but it does demonstrate evil and pain, courage and healing, and perseverance in the face of great threat, devastating betrayal, and terrible fear.

And, as you may know, Ender experiences pain, “drop by drop upon the heart,” and comes through as a wise and compassionate soul. And all of this demonstrated in prose my students could handle.

I seem to be wandering from my appreciation of Aeschylus, but I’m not abandoning it. I sit here comfortably beyond being told what to read by a teacher who seems to have no notion of how difficult it is to concentrate on an incomprehensible, irrelevant text when my hormones are raging and in thirty minutes I can meet my friends in the lunch hall. But imagine a classroom where such a quote comes to young people, with meaning, with relevance. It makes me want to be in the classroom again. I’d toss out Great Expectations and share Martin Luther King’s and Robert F. Kennedy’s speeches, in context, and maybe throw in a little Aeschylus, too. And at the same time, find the despair and the wisdom in contemporary texts like Ender’s Game.


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The Beleaguered Romance Writer

Sigh. I’ve been dissed again. I write historical novels — and they have romance in them. Even some mild (sweet, they call it) sex. And I get reviews and fan mail that indicate that lots of people, mostly women, but a surprising number of men, admire them. And yet . . .

Heard once more: Romance? That’s trash. I don’t read that stuff. Romance? Pfft. Subtext: I’m smart. I have an education. I’m sophisticated. I don’t read emotional stuff.

And so on. It used to hurt my feelings. Now it just makes me tired. But once more unto the breach, dear friends, in defense of Romance.

I too am educated (have an MA). I too have a high IQ (not Stephen Hawking high, no.) I too am a serious person who raised a family (that’s serious stuff) and taught high school (very serious stuff). And I love to read about people.

A good romance novel — I keep interrupting myself, sorry : yes, there are poorly written, shallow romances, just as there are in any genre (Western, time-travel, sci-fi, fantasy, “literary”) — a good romance novel offers food for the mind as well as for the emotional core of being human. It’s not just about sex and hooking up, not a good novel. It’s about wanting connection, about understanding oneself as well as another person in order to make a connection. It’s about growth. It’s about hope. It’s about learning to care and learning to accept caring. What’s shallow about that?  Also, some romances are just plain fun.

If you don’t lead with your emotional self, there’s nothing wrong with that. I recognize lots of people are more cerebral than feeling, though of course all of us are both in differing proportions. But if you are willing to give Romance a chance, have a look at the titles below. I’m listing my favorite romance authors for your consideration.

By the way, I read lots of other stuff too. Just finished a bio of Ivan the Terrible (boy was he terrible), I’m slowly making my way through a bio of John Adams, I read history books of all kinds, I read Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books. I read Louise Penney’s mysteries, Lisa Gardner’s suspense, Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series. I like Howard Bahr and Richard Ford and Susan Straight. I often buy whatever has just been profiled on NPR. And so on.

But back to some of my favorite romance writers. You’ll see I’m partial to the 19th century. So be it. Some are pretty sexy and if that makes you uncomfortable, search for “sweet” or “cozy” romances.

Laura Kinsale, Flowers from the Storm

Sherry Thomas, Delicious

Judith Ivory, The Proposition

Meredith Duran, Fool Me Twice

Joanna Bourne, My Lord and Spymaster (spies!)

Loretta Chase, Lord Perfect

Eloisa James, A Duke of Her Own

Mary Balogh, Slightly Dangerous

Courtney Milan, Unrivaled

For contemporary, I recommend Jennifer Cruise, Bet Me, and Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Nobody’s Baby But Mine

Okay, I’ll list myself too. I like my books. Gretchen Craig. Start with Always and Forever, or for the newest series, Here Will I Remain. Mine are not as sexy as most of the ones listed, but there is some sexual content.

You don’t have to read Romance. Ever. But if you haven’t read at least one good one, please spare the feelings of all us romantics and stop dissing us. Now if you want to continue dissing us, you got to read one of these books first. (I’m looking at you, David.)




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Why Is New Orleans Where It Is?


  This boiling fountain of death is one of the most dismal, low, and horrid places, on which the light of the sun ever shone. And yet there it lies under the influence of a tropical heat, belching up its poison and malaria . . . the dregs of the seven vials of wrath . . . covered with a yellow greenish scum. (A visitor to New Orleans in 1850; “How Humans Sank New Orleans,” The Atlantic, 2/9/2018)

Swamp Wetlands Marsh Delta near Texas Louisiana Border Aerial drone shot over Lost Lake and Found River area

And yet, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, said let’s build a city right here, among the serpents, alligators, insects, heat, humidity and suspect water sources. And so they did.

Why here? Two answers: geography and one man’s profit.

The Mississippi River is extraordinarily tricky in its lower reaches. It twists and turns, it has multiple currents within its banks, some faster than others, some actually contrary, all of them changeable. And as it flows into its massive delta, the river splits and braids into a nightmarish maze of channels. Early European explorers had plenty of challenges going downriver to find the Gulf. Those who started in the Gulf and looked for the river’s mouth were stymied. Took a lot of time and effort and luck to figure out which of many streams would take them into the main body of the river.

So, okay, they finally found the best way in. The banks were shallow, all around was marsh and swamp. So they sailed on further and further inland. Not until they got up to where Baton Rouge is now, 200 miles from the Gulf, did they find stable, high ground. Looked like the best place to build a city, but it was an awful long way upriver from the Gulf of Mexico. Still, they needed to create a port if they were to take advantage of all the goods and wealth of the continent’s French-held interior flowing out to the Gulf, to the Atlantic, and back to France. Where else might they build a new city?

Well, Sieur de Bienville was a young mover and shaker in the nascent colony, and he happened to have been granted land (by good, kind, generous King Louis) at a spot where the river makes a bend. When a river bends, it throws up silt and detritus and more silt and detritus until it has raised up a substantial levee. At this point, where Bienville had an interest, the banks were higher than most anywhere below Baton Rouge, ten to fifteen feet above the water. Though the higher ground was “nothing more than two narrow strips of land, about a musket shot in width . . . surrounded by canebrake and impenetrable marsh,” it looked pretty good compared to the swampy ground elsewhere. (quote from The Atlantic article)

Another advantage of this site was its proximity to what the French named Lake Pontchartrain. Settlers had easy access to Pontchartrain from the ridge that became New Orleans, and thereby, weaving through bayous and streams and lakes, one could access the Gulf, and the French fleet, and cut about 125 miles from simply following the river downstream to its mouth.

And then there was the profit motive. If Bienville could persuade other enterprising Frenchmen to settle here and begin growing tobacco to export, that would be a very good thing for France and an even better thing for him as the landlord of all those growers.

Frenchmen were mad for tobacco, and the king saw all that pocket money for tobacco going into English coffers because they had the tobacco market cornered. Alas, the Louisiana tobacco industry never took off. They tried, but conditions were just not right and the quality of their tobacco could not rival that of Virginia and the Carolinas.

Even so, there were furs and hides and other goods from the hinterlands to export, but they needed a port first. So New Orleans was born, right there where the French Quarter, the Vieux Carré, invites you to eat oyster po’boys and gumbo filé today.

Why name it New Orleans? King Louis XV was just a boy, and the regent, who really ran things back home in France, was le Duc d’Orléans. Never hurts to honor the man in power.

Those intrepid French men and women who stuck it out and created Louisiana were a tenacious lot. Success was not assured, and conditions were brutal. I’m pretty sure I would have chosen to stay in France where there were no gators (though come to think of it there are gators in the pond near my house here in Florida . . . ) or snakes (well, the back yard  . . . it’s Florida, after all) — well, I’d prefer to live in a place with a decent nail salon and good French wine.

This is a simplified version of the infighting and exploring and confusions at the time. If you want to know more, I recommend Lawrence N. Powell’s The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, Harvard University Press, 2012.



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Anything besides death and destruction?

When I was a kid, the Conquistadors were heroes. Glamorous in their shiny armor adorned with bright feathers and ladies’ lacy tokens, they were handsome lads intent on furthering the kingdoms of God and of Spain. Then, I got a little older and realized that, hey, these guys were invaders! They weren’t heroes to the people they conquered!

Well, did the Conquistadors bring anything besides death and destruction? Why, yes they did! You can hardly blame the Europeans for all the diseases they brought, as devastating as they were to the native peoples. They didn’t know they were bringing diseases, so I don’t put that in the deviltry category. The religious coercion, one could argue, was sincerely meant, now and then, to save the heathens, as repugnant as that kind of hegemony is to us now. Other destructive influences are well known — conquer, usurp, use, exploit, and so on.

Now for the positives, and there are a few. When the conquistadors came to what is now the Santa Fe region in 1598 (about 60 years after Coronado), they brought wives and children and meant to stay. They also brought seeds for fruit trees the Puebloans had never seen. New kinds of seed corn. Sheep (wool! meat!), horses, cattle. All kinds of metal and the means to work it into tools like plows and hammers. Wood working skill to make wagons and wheels and furniture and barns. And a culture of difference. Any time two great cultures collide, there are sparks, difficulties, conflict. There are also new stimuli and new occasions to invent and adapt.

I’m sure any Puebloan of the time wished the Spanish would all just go away, and they suffered greatly at the harsh might of the conquerors. But it’s complicated, of course it is. Not every Spaniard who invaded the area had meanness in his heart, and no human ever had only one side to his character, good or bad.

My novel, Crimson Sky, is about that fateful year when the Spanish came to settle in what we call New Mexico. The book is now in re-issue with a gorgeous new cover, ready to draw you into the ancient world of the Puebloans.

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4 and 20 Blackbirds Baked in a Pie? Really? Really!

Remember this Mother Goose rhyme?

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a Pie

When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing;
Wasn’t that a dainty dish,
To set before the king.

I was always struck by the image of a big pie with live birds in it. What was that all about? Guess what — they really did make a big pie with live birds in it!

“Blackbirds could be bought by the dozen in Paris: four and twenty baked in a pie would have served about six, which was a rather standard size for a medieval pie. Live birds were served in pies. The pie was cooked with a filling of bran to prevent caving in; just before presenting the dish, the cook let the bran out through a hole in the bottom of the pie and slipped the birds in through the hole. Obviously, it would have been prudent to alert the carver before trying this trick. The sources neglect to mention how the birds were removed from the hall after the feast.” (From Darice’s book Savoring the Past, The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789, by Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, Scribner 1983.)

If I had any drawing talent at all, I would love to draw the king cutting into the pie and being amazed, startled, frightened at live blackbirds flying up into his face. Better than a whoopee cushion.

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Send More Women!

In researching herewilll4blog early Louisiana history, I discovered some racy stuff. Well, a little racy. Those bold Frenchmen who sought their fortune in a wild and unknown country found themselves daunted by one particular trial: no women.

It was hard to be an effective colonist when you were distracted and lonely. What was a man to do? At different times, the Church turned a blind eye to Frenchmen taking up with Native American women. (I always wondered what Native American men thought about that.) At other times, the Church cracked down on such disgraceful activity. Finally King Louis, fond of women himself, decided to solve the problem of his lonely Frenchmen. He sent them French women.

Today, many old Louisiana families proudly trace their lineage back to some of these women. They were chosen from convents and orphanages to insure they were women of good character, and when they arrived in Louisiana, they were carefully chaperoned until they had chosen a husband among the colonists and were married by a Catholic priest.

Because each bride-to-be was provided with a small chest, a casket, of basic needs, they were known as casket girls.

Now, the convents and orphanages were not the only source of French brides to be sent overseas. Prisons and asylums provided young women, as well, unfortunates who had been prostitutes, thieves, criminals. Perhaps these inmates welcomed the chance to become respectable wives, and perhaps some of them had to be dragged aboard a ship headed to a life in the New World, a wilderness where there were not even any croissants.

These latter, more interesting women are the subject of my newest novel, Here will I remain. I hope you’ll explore with me what Fate has in store for these women who have nothing left to lose.

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Why don’t we all write our own versions of War and Peace?

If you’re a writer, you’ve heard this before: why don’t you write xyz?

If you’re not a writer and you’ve said this to someone who is, then be advised, however kindly your query is received, it is a frustrating question..

Why? Because if I could write like Anne Tyler, for instance, I certainly would. I heard Stephen King say something like that years ago at the University of Maine when he gave an evening talk, beer can in hand. If he could write something else, he would, but what comes out of his head is what you get.

In a conversation with her friend, acclaimed writer Robb Forman Dew, Anne Tyler talked about “how and why a writer chooses his or her subject.” Dew asked her, “Can you tell me why, for instance, your first novel didn’t happen to be your version of War and Peace?”

Tyler answered: “It doesn’t seem to me that I am ever completely free to choose my subject. . . . I’m always saying, for instance, ‘My next book is going to be bigger. More eventful. It really will be War and Peace! But set in Baltimore.’ And then that book is done and I think, ‘Uh-oh, it’s the same book as the last one.’ I seem to be constitutionally committed to looking through a microscope rather than a telescope.”

I would love to write little jewels like Anne Tyler’s novels, love to have her insight and compassion with her characters. Or why don’t I write a book of staggering depth like Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. And why aren’t I funny on the page, like Julia Quinn in What Happens in London? And why can’t I flesh out a plot as complicated as one of David Baldacci’s thrillers?

The answer is, that’s not what I’ve got in me to give. My books generally are about women thrust into difficult situations and trying to keep a grip on their values in spite of difficulties. They’re about more than that, of course, but readers find that a writer they’ve become interested in really does have a particular voice and a particular take on the world that shows through in the novels. Cause that’s how that writer experiences the world and how he shares his take on it.

So. That’s why.

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Today there is a lot of talk about the Supreme Court considering whether to uphold Affirmative Action in the University of Texas case.

As a person who has thought about and written about racial injustice for years in my novels, I thought I’d share my thinking on this issue. Yes, slavery has been legally over for 150 years, but injustice and inequality persevere. For instance, in my home town, we are embroiled in a huge scandal. The school district has allowed terrible inequalities to persist – and knew it. Segregation has reasserted itself and the low-income, mostly minority families now send their kids to schools that are underfunded and understaffed so that many children don’t even feel safe, much less do they feel the classrooms are calm enough to learn.

Of course this is a complex issue. I could go on and on about our local school system and the ways it is failing children, but for the moment, I’ll simply declare: children coming out of those schools are not getting the education children get in the more affluent neighborhoods. And it is oh so wrong.

Thus. Affirmative Action is still needed. It has helped – no question the black middle-class is growing because young people were given a chance they would likely not have had without this government intervention. Since we are still failing to guarantee equal education to all our children, we are obligated to do what we can to mitigate the inequities at the college level. Maybe someday we will have “fixed” the injustices that come from poorer education in minority schools – until then, we owe those children who have been short-changed a shot at success – and Affirmative Action is important to that end.

A local columnist finishes all his essays with this: That’s all I’m saying. Ditto.

My new – and last – novel about slavery is coming out in a couple of weeks. Look for Livy on Amazon.

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Seeing Michelangelo’s David

Seeing Michelangelo’s David

Just got back from Italy. The highlight of my tour was seeing Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell ‘Accademia in Florence. We had an art-history professor as a guide, which increased my appreciation and my understanding. We should all have a Simone to take us around Florence. (This wordpress program doesn’t let me italicize these works of art, but consider it done.)

Depictions of David, as in David and Goliath, were common in the Renaissance, just as were pietas and madonnas with child. (I think every artist must have had to paint or sculpt those three subjects.) Most of those representations of David portray him in the moment of his triumph, after he’s slain Goliath with his sling shot and cut off his head. He’s often shown with one foot on Goliath’s severed head.

Part of Michelangelo’s genius was choosing to portray his David in the moment before the action. David is just a lad, maybe 15 or so, watching the giant Goliath galumphing toward him, big heavy footsteps, mean scowl on his huge face, carrying in his massive hand something lethal like a deadly club or mace. And there’s David, slim, not yet in his full muscular manhood, inexperienced, armed with a sling and a few stones.

Take a look at a close-up of David’s face. A little frown line between his eyes, he looks wary, he looks like he’s concentrating, maybe you can imagine a hint of fear in his eyes. But his stance is all confidence, his body relaxed and yet still you feel the tension of ready muscles. There is a stone in one hand and in the other is the bag of the sling. The strap of the sling crosses his back (I had never seen that strap sculpted in the marble before – it’s on his back). All he has to do is slip the stone in the bag and swing that strap – he waits, and waits, until the perfect moment and then he slings that stone, catches Goliath in the forehead, and down he goes. Then David grabs a sword and chops his head off. (A lot of non-Michelangelo depictions show the stone embedded in the severed head’s forehead.)

So much more dramatic than sculpting David and his slain foe after it’s all over. The David is so very beautiful, and all the more captivating for the professor’s telling us how unique Michelangelo’s “telling” of the David and Goliath story was. Hope you get to see it, too.

We also saw Michelangelo’s Pieta which is in the Basilica at the Vatican. I remember it as being rather golden from the way it was lit, but photographs of the statue show it in luminous white. The Mary is huge, big enough for her dead son to drape across her lap, but that’s okay. I’ve seen other pietas where Mary is much smaller in relation to Jesus, and that more realistic depiction of size didn’t add a thing to the whole. I choked up and struggled not to cry in public like an idiot – I do that when something, music or painting or sculpture or ballet – is extraordinarily beautiful.

Seeing those two sculptures was among the most memorable moments of my life. It makes me wonder what works of art have been meaningful to other people. I’d like to hear.

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