The Wedge of the San Rafael

The Wedge of the San Rafael
Someone has to live here, in the middle of desert beauty. Might as well be the Kellys.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Take a good look

Since I last blogged - and I'm not prolific - something has changed. I'm writing this without my glasses. Two weeks ago, my right eye was operated on for cataracts. Yesterday, my left eye ditto. Although that left eye is still a bit dilated, I'm okay. I've worn glasses or contacts since I was eight years old, and now it's just me and my bionic lenses.

My daughter Sarah was my best cheerleader. She's an ocular diagnostician and worked for Doctors Hansen and Byers in Price, Utah. When I flunked an eye exam in November, she was so pleased, because the next step was cataract surgery.

I'll admit to some apprehension two weeks ago, but it was slam dunk. They don't knock you out for cataract surgery, but they do numb the eyeball, then sedate you with what I call "I'm-not-out-but-I-don't-care" drugs. I could hear indistinct voices and see some odd flashes of light, but that was it. For yesterday's surgery, I was less sedated, so the voices were more distinct and I could see better out of my previously corrected eye. Interesting.

So here I am, and I'm happy. Two things: 1) don't be afraid of cataract surgery  2) don't put it off.

Busy times. I made my changes on the copy edited manuscript of The Double Cross, my first in the continuing adventures of Marco and Paloma Mondragon in 1780s New Mexico. The first book will be out August 1, and I'm happy with it. Marco and Paloma will be around for at least four books, and maybe more, if they do well.

I've received a copy of the ARC (advanced readers copy) for Stop Me If You've Read This One. It's a collection of some of my Prairie Lite columns from the Valley City [ND] Times-Record, a daily newspaper where I labored for four years, before we moved to Utah. Writing for a daily is a total grind, but the carrot was the opportunity to write - among other things - a weekly column on anything I wanted. For a writer, that is dangerous, indeed. I made the most of it. "Stop Me" will be out in April.

Harlequin Historicals sent me the cover for Her Hesitant Heart, which stunned me. It's a beautiful cover, and has everything to do with what happens in the novel. I sent an email to my editor, Bryony Green, and the Big Cheese, Linda Fildew, telling them how delighted I was. (After not being delighted for quite a while.) But it's a great cover. Her Hesitant Heart will be out in late April/early May. That book, set at Fort Laramie in 1876, turned into huge fun for me, because it's a subject I know well. There's nothing nicer for a historical fiction writer than to be able to turn around and look at shelves and shelves of research books on the Indian Wars, Napoleonic War, and medical history.

I've been speaking at a number of book clubs lately. At one last week in Carbon County (where My Loving Vigil Keeping is set), one of the readers said she is a great-granddaughter of Richard T. Evans, who is the choirmaster and good friend of the fictitious Owen Davis. At another book club in Utah County, a lady told me that years ago when her husband was in graduate school at BYU, they lived in an apartment in the Knight-Allen House. In "Vigil Keeping," that's where Jesse and Amanda Knight live. Other readers have told me of their relationships to some of the real people in the book, which pleases me greatly. The challenge to putting real people in fiction is to get it just right. It matters.

Onward. Now I'm writing the outline for the first of two Regencies I owe to Harlequin. It's either going to be set during the Treaty of Amiens in 1802-03, or just after Napoleon is exiled to Elba in 1814. Involves a Scottish lass, Mary Charleson, who goes on an adventure to locate a Christmas cake in which a valuable ring was baked by mistake. And fruitcakes being fruitcakes, the doggoned thing has been passed to other folks, and passed on...

So it's off to the living room, where my European history is shelved. And I'll look at it through "new" eyes.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

When in Rome

I'm test-driving my "new" right eye. Yesterday, I had cataract surgery on it. When I went in for the post-op checkup, it tested at 20-20, so I am a happy girl. (So was my tech, Sarah, who happens to be my daughter. She started to cry, she was so pleased.) Doc Byers will do Eye 2 in two weeks. Last night, my other daughter Liz, a former optician, took the right lens out of my glasses, which helps. Sarah will cut a blank for those glasses, so I won't poke myself in the eye.

But the main issue today is a total fan letter to Ruth Downie, whose latest book is out, and which I've already devoured. I don't read great gobs of fiction (too busy writing it), so when I like a book, I become a loyal reader.

Ruth Downie lives in Devonshire, almost my favorite place on earth. I paid a too-short visit to Plymouth a few years ago, and would gladly return. She writes the most wonderful mystery series set in Roman Britain at the time of the emperor Hadrian, roughly 120 A.D. The hero, a reluctant hero, is Gaius Petrius Ruso, a medicus (doctor). He's physician in the Roman army, and stationed in Britain, a real backwater for someone with ambition (which probably wouldn't be Ruso). His unpleasant wife has divorced him, and his family from Gall put the D in dysfunction, always asking him for money and other favors.

He acquires a slave girl named Tilla, a Brit of the Coronotatae tribe. A convenient arrangement becomes far more permanent, after a book or two. These are thoroughly delightful characters. Tilla is tough, opinionated, certain she's right, tender now and then, and devoted to her doctor. Ruso is much the same, but a bit easier on humankind than Tilla is. Together, they form an odd couple in Roman Britain - he has status as a Roman officer, and his services are essential, but he is cynical. Tilla is a second-class citizen in her own country, and powerless, or is she? The books contain a lot of humor, mixed with mayhem. I think of the Rusos as the Nick and Nora Charles of early British crime fiction.

I found the first book, Medicus, in a Deseret Industries thrift store four-plus years ago. I think it cost me 75 cents. I rarely pass up a book with a Roman setting, because Roman history has fascinated me since junior high. It was charming. After I finished my 75 cent copy, I knew I'd have paid more to read it (and certainly have since).

You do need to read this series in order, because their lives change significantly with each installment. The order is Medicus; Terra Incognita; Persona Non Grata; Caveat Emptor; and now Semper Fidelis. They may or may not be to your taste, but give Medicus a try, if you're so inclined.

I have certain crime fiction authors that I read: Michael Connelly, Robert Crais (consistently fine); Peter Robinson (ditto); James Lee Burke sometimes; Lee Child (hit and miss); Steven Havill (fun). Now I'll add Ruth Downie's book to my admittedly short list of guaranteed purchases.  I do hope she's working on another book about Ruso and Tilla. I mean, right now.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Eyes Have It

This is one of those little-bit-of-this-and-that columns. On Monday, I'm having cataract surgery on my right eye. This will be followed two weeks later by the left eye. I flunked an eye exam last fall, so it's surgery for me. This delights my daughter, Sarah, the ocular diagnostician, because she tells me I'll see better soon, and probably without needing spectacles. (Down time is s'pozed to be brief, so I'll soon be back trying to help Ammon and Addie Hancock get out of Mexico before the Pancho Villa-types make it even more difficult. I had to hang four gringo cowboys two days ago, and I didn't much enjoy that.)

I think I'm a pretty good patient, but how would I know? My last surgery happened when I was four years old and had my tonsils and adenoids removed. I suppose I can count the event in 2002 where I broke my arm and the doc put me out, because he wasn't sure if I needed to be sliced and pinned. Turns out he was able to line up everything again, so it wasn't too bad.

The tough part about this means I have to stay out of the pool for a week. Water aerobics is not only good exercise; it is also my source of all knowledge here in Carbon County.  No, no, not necessarily gossip. I've only lived here 3 1/2 years, so whenever I have a county-related question, I know I can ask it in the pool and someone will have an answer. Hasn't failed yet.

I did an amazingly extravagant thing after Christmas, and it came in the mail yesterday. A month ago, my daughter Liz shared her history of perfume book with me. We discovered that - supposedly - the oldest actual brand-name perfume that is still in production is something called Jicky, by Guerlain. It came to life in 1889, and was/is popular with Cary Grant and Sean Connery. Yes, a guy fragrance at first, but it became a favorite with the ladies.

It's not cheap, and I'm cheap, so I had no plans to buy any. Then my sons each Amazoned me for Christmas. "Why not?" I asked myself, so I ordered a bottle of the spray cologne. It came yesterday, and me oh my, it is an original scent - mild with overtones of lavender. I've even figured out how I can work a reference to Jicky into the Mexican Revolution novel I'm writing now. Whether I do or not remains to be seen. I've certainly never done any product placement in a novel before.

Oh, those of you who are buying Miss Whittier Makes a List as an ebook - thanks! It's doing pretty well.

One more tidbit, then it's back to Chapter Fourteen. There is a most intriguing website called that I have to mention. My friend Steve Patterson told me about it, and I'm hooked. It's a random series of old photos - they seem to range from the Civil War era to the 1970s - which have/can be enlarged to show amazing detail. People's comment are equally entertaining. Take a look; you might get hooked, too.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Pioneering Made Easy

If you'd had your head hanging out a window recently, you'd have heard my snort and guffaw when I got my latest Deseret Book catalog.

For those of you who aren't Mormon, let me explain. In 1847, Brigham Young led a pioneering company of some 120+ Mormons into the Salt Lake Valley. From 1847 to roughly 1860, Mormons followed the Mormon-Oregon-California Trail to the Salt Lake Valley in covered wagons. From 1856 and for a few years, the poorest pioneers came via handcarts, pulling all their possessions in a small cart. After 1860, most emigrants went to the Missouri River and were freighted to Salt Lake by wagons and teams that had delivered goods to the East, and would otherwise have returned to Utah Territory with empty wagons. And after 1869, most came by railroad.

It's become popular for Mormon youth groups to stage those handcart treks. Typically, they'll borrow or build a handcart, and dress up in pioneer clothing, and push and pull a handcart five or so miles. It's a nice spiritual experience for many, and gives today's more tech friendly, privileged youth a tiny - and I do mean tiny - taste of the rigors of trail travel. Don't get me wrong - I think it's a good idea.

Well doggoned if the Deseret Bookstore Catalog isn't starting a Pioneer Trek Outfitters Guide, where pampered youth can buy ready-made skirts, bonnets, aprons, shirts, blouses, bandannas (12 colors), neck coolers, pioneer hats and trek wristbands. There will also be pioneer dinnerware, a trek journal (probably in tasteful leather which can be eaten if the journey turns into a Donner Party sort of gig), and appropriate hand sanitizer, sunscreen and lip balm.

Oh, give me a gigantic break. Half or most of the fun of reenacting is to make your own period clothing and accessories, and rough it a bit. Neck coolers? Wusses.

I can say this because I was one of the first to organize such a trek, and we did it the hard way. When we lived in Torrington, Wyoming, in 1972-75, I worked summers at Fort Laramie National Historic Site as a seasonal ranger/historian. During the school year, I also taught an early-morning Seminary class for high school-age Mormons, where they learned about our church, the Book of Mormon, and the Bible. One winter, my Seminary class and I decided that since we lived on the Oregon Trail, we would make a handcart and pull and push it in July from Torrington to Fort Laramie, one of the prime stops on the overland trail. It's a distance of 25 miles. When Brigham Young organized the handcart companies, he figured the pioneers could travel that distance in a fairly easy day. A typical day proved to be about a 10-12 mile trip.

We did it two summers, starting early in the morning and arriving in mid-afternoon. We were sunburned and footsore, but we learned a lot about our pioneer ancestors and ourselves. One thing we all discovered was that after a mile or two, NOBODY looked back. We didn't, because it became too discouraging to look back and find out how short the distance was that we had traveled.  We started joking each other, "If you're going to fall down, fall down facing west."

We also understood completely when those "real" pioneers described in their journals their joy at seeing the American flag at Fort Laramie. We felt that same joy, after our day of arduous travel. But we only had to walk and pull that handcart for one day, and not the 110 days that it took to make the journey from Iowa City, Iowa, to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. Our handcart had ballbearings, so it was easy to pull, and it wasn't loaded with food and all our earthly possessions. It was hard enough, but there was none of that exhaustion, desperation and pain that the real pioneers felt. Or the true joy of arriving in Salt Lake.

Even after some 30+ years, I see some of my Seminary students now and then. We remember that experience, and we are grateful. We learned not to look back and to keep moving, no matter what, valuable lessons.

Storebought clothes, neck coolers and hand sanitizer? Sissies.