Photo safari through a historic Flagstaff neighborhood

2020-04-24 12.10.15.jpgMy first novel, Vanishing, Inc., is set in a fictional mountain town in Arizona called Ponderosa. I live in Flagstaff, a not-so-fictional mountain town in Arizona that makes an appearance in my story, but since I’m writing a paranormal romance (a time travel romance, to be specific), I wanted the freedom of a fictional setting. I don’t want some overly-literal reader leaving me a one-star review because there are, in fact, no time portals in Flagstaff.

Hey, you know it could happen. I’m sure plenty of tourists have walked through standing stones in Scotland and become very grumpy because they did not immediately find themselves in the arms of a lusty Scottish outlaw. BTW, how cheap are airline tickets to Scotland these days? Asking for a friend…

But I digress.

Now, where were we? Oh, yeah–Ponderosa, Arizona, which exists only in my manuscript. But you’ll love it, I promise. Especially since it involves a lusty Arizona outlaw.

It also involves the unique landscape of the Northern Arizona mountains, which I’ve been lucky enough to call home for the last 6 years. Now that my world has shrunk to the size of my yard (thanks, Microbe that Must not be Named), my explorations have been a bit limited. But last week I got to take a trip! Go on a journey! Where did I go, you ask?

I took my husband to the dentist.

It’s a thrill a minute around here, I tell ya.

His dentist’s office is in one of Flagstaff’s historic neighborhoods, so I took myself on a mini photo safari while he got his tooth fixed. The primary setting in Vanishing, Inc. is a stone cottage built in 1890, so I paid particular attention to old stone houses. Like this one:

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I’ve been fascinated by stone houses since I was a kid. I suppose they remind me of the fairy tales I read over and over in elementary school. We have a lot of rocks around here, so old stone houses are fairly common,  but I still find them magical. Look at that texture! At the contrast of textures! And can’t you just picture that house with a time portal in the basement? C’mon, use your imagination…

Take away the modern windows and modern roof, and this one would make a great location for a time portal:

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I love how the stone makes the house fit into the landscape like it’s always been there.

Besides writing, I’m obsessed with gardening, so I took lots of pictures of plants and yards, especially where there were contrasting textures. Like this:

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And this:

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And my favorite picture of the day. Look at that wonderful old stone wall! and those red buds popping out of the shade! I can picture my main character stumbling over that wall in 1910, on her way to even more trouble.

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And it’s spring, so I couldn’t resist the flowers. Here’s forsythia:

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And sand cherry blossoms:

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this little trek into my world, both real and fictional. I’m fortunate to live in a beautiful, magical place, but beauty and magic can be found anywhere. I hope you’ll take the time to find some of your own.

Q is for Quotes (#AtoZChallenge)

Back when I started this month-long challenge, I said the theme would be discovery, and I would write about the the things I’ve discovered during coronavirus lockdown. I’m always discovering stuff. When I was a kid, I did what most kids do: find random stuff and bring it home and hoard it like Blackbeard’s treasure. I don’t collect stuff now (unless we’re talking about plants…), but I do collect random bits of information and save it in my journal. One of my favorite things to save this way is quotes. I have pages and pages of quotes I’ve copied down. Each one spoke to me at the moment I found it, and many of them still speak to me each time I reread them. Here are a few of my favorites that I discovered this year:

“Endings are about emotion, and logic is emotion’s enemy. It’s the writer’s job to disarm the reader of his logic, to just make the reader feel”–Ethan Canin, “Rehearsals for Death” (published in  Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process)

“No matter what anybody tells you about writing, you can do whatever the fuck you want”–Neil Gaiman, “Random Joy” (published in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process)

“Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life”–Laurence Kasdan (quoted in Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us)

“Saying no can be the ultimate self-care”–Claudia Black (quoted in The Artist’s Way)

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage”–Anais Nin (quoted in The Artist’s Way)

How about y’all? What are some of your favorite quotes?

On the LITA blog: Strategies for Surviving a Staffing Crisis

Every now and then, I blog about library-related stuff. Today I contributed a guest post to the LITA (Library Information Technology Association) Blog, titled Strategies for Surviving a Staffing Crisis. The post is library-focused, but much of the advice would apply to other settings as well. Hop on over and give it a read if you’re so inclined.

 

P is for Patience and Persistence (#AtoZChallenge)

P2020

I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley in California, where every November and December, a layer of tule fog settles in. Sometimes it lifts during the day, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s so thick you can barely see the end of your car hood. That’s when you hope the road you’re on has those little raised bumps along the shoulder, so you can ride on them to guide you. We called that driving by Braille. 0/10 Do Not Recommend.

Dense Tule fog in Bakersfield
Dense Tule fog in Bakersfield is from Wikipedia and licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

What I do recommend is walking in the fog, especially at night. There was something magical about a walk on a foggy night, when I could barely see 30 feet in front of me. But it was also easy to get disoriented, easy to lose my way. However, if I started in the right direction and put one foot in front of the other, my destination would emerge out of the fog like an apparition. It was difficult–and scary–to keep walking forward toward a destination I could not see, even though I knew it was there. I was always tempted to veer off to the side to see if I could find a familiar landmark, or to turn back and wait until my path was clearer. If I wanted to reach my destination, though, I needed to keep moving forward. Slowly. Carefully. But forward.

We all have dreams. We all have goals. We all have destinations we desperately want to reach but that seem so far distant, so shrouded in the fog of uncertainty, that we aren’t even sure they are there. I want to publish a novel. You might want to run a marathon or finish college or buy a house. None of those things are easy. None are short-term. All require setting yourself on a path and putting one foot in front of the other day after week after month after year, even when the destination seems hopelessly distant. Even when you’ve lost sight of it entirely.

And now we have a global pandemic that keeps us in our houses, keeps us afraid, and keeps us wondering if we’ll ever have a chance to do more than get up and get through. How long till marathons are a thing again? Till college classes can happen in person? Till we’ll recover economically enough to buy anything, let alone a house?

I don’t know. You don’t know. None of us knows. 

But here’s what I do know: those dreams, those destinations? They still exist. Never mind walking through fog. It feels like we are sailing through a hurricane, and many of us have been blown off-course.That professional editor I wanted to hire to help me prep my first novel for querying? Gonna have to wait on that, because I may get furloughed, and raises will be canceled, and…

But on the other side of the huge waves and hulking clouds and sheeting rain, our destinations await us.

For now, though, we exist in an in-between time, between the familiar, the old normal, and whatever will come after. And right now, that new normal is shrouded in some pretty thick fog.

That phrase, in-between time, reminds me of a lovely novella by Diana Gabaldon called The Space Between. It’s set in the Outlander world and tells the story of Michael Murray and Joan MacKimmie, Jamie Fraser’s nephew and stepdaughter. Michael is grieving the death of his wife and recounts the advice he got from his brother Ian:

“That’s how ye do it,” his brother Ian had told him, as they leant together on the rail of their mother’s sheep pen, the winter’s wind cold on their faces, waiting for their da to find his way through dying. “Ye find a way to live for that one more minute. And then another. And another.” Ian had lost a wife, too, and knew.

He’d wiped his face—he could weep before Ian, while he couldn’t with his elder brother or the girls, certainly not in front of his mother—and asked, “And it gets better after a time, is that what ye’re telling me?” His brother had looked at him straight on, the quiet in his eyes showing through the outlandish Mohawk tattoos. “No,” he’d said softly. “But after a time, ye find ye’re in a different place than ye were. A different person than ye were. And then ye look about and see what’s there with ye. Ye’ll maybe find a use for yourself. That helps.”

“Ye look about and see what’s there with ye. Ye’ll maybe find a use for yourself.”

That line has stuck with me since the first time I read this story, and it’s come back to me many times since the coronavirus lock-down started. And many times since it started, I’ve looked around to see what’s here with me, and usually I can find a use for myself. Each day I can take one step, however small, toward my dream. I hope you can, too.

O is for Outside (#AtoZChallenge)

O2020After four weeks of quarantine, I’ve learned a bit about what helps keep me mentally healthy in lockdown, and exactly none of it is a surprise: adequate sleep, nutritious food (apparently woman does not live by Doritos alone, though heaven knows I’ve tried), meaningful work, exercise, and fresh air. Spring in Flagstaff is wind season, so getting outside without being blown into the next ZIP code is challenging. Usually the best opportunity is before nine AM, which is why I’ve been outside gardening at 7 AM. Yes, I know that is sick and wrong, but one does what one must.

I could write a long, not-so-eloquent essay on the beauty of nature and the spirituality of watching the garden come back to life after its winter sleep, but really, that’s been done way too many times by writers way more talented than I am. Instead, I’ll post a few pictures to share the beauty of my surroundings with you. It’s still early spring here, so there’s nothing too dramatic happening outside (except for the occasional gale-force winds), but the beauty is in the details.

In my last post, I talked about how life in quarantine is like seeing the world through a macro lens. Here’s what my macro lens (OK, the macro lens on my Nikon glorified point and shoot) captured over the weekend:

Apple blossoms

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Peach blossoms

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Daffodils

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In twenty or thirty years, when the young ‘uns ask me how we survived being stuck at home for so long, I’ll tell them I looked for beauty in the small things all around me.

The Art of Writing an Epic Blog Post

The author of this post demonstrates the techniques he’s talking about… with this post. I love the clear, practical advice in an easily-digested format. Highly recommended.

Be honest. You often dream of writing an epic blog post, the kind that gets shared thousands of times, liked, tweeted, and pinned, commented on by …

The Art of Writing an Epic Blog Post

N is for Now (#AtoZChallenge)

N2020What’s the worst part of quarantine? Not the boredom. I’m not bored. I don’t have time to be bored. I’m my usual committed self, swamped with Zoom meetings, writing, Zoom meetings, cooking, Zoom meetings, chores, Zoom meetings, gardening, and Zoom meetings. I could do with some boredom. 

Not fear of the virus. I’m past that. Or, rather, like the adaptable, resilient human I am, I have adjusted to it. We humans can adjust to nearly anything.

What I mind is the uncertainty.

I am a planner. I use two different to-do apps and used to keep a bullet journal (now it’s mostly a regular journal). I check my calendar at the start of each week so I can be prepared for what’s coming up. I make project plans. Lists. More lists. I like routine. Predictability. Or at least the sense of safety and security that comes from the illusion of predictability.

Sure, I read books and blog posts about the importance of living in the moment, that all we really have is right this minute now, about being mindful in whatever you’re doing right this minute now.

And then I start planning my next vacation or garden or novel.

But this pandemic has stripped away the future. Hell, it’s stripped away next week. We can’t plan, whether it’s a new job, a vacation, or even a Sunday drive. The only certainties are death and Zoom meetings (taxes have been postponed till July). All else is uncertain, shrouded in virus-laden mist.

Our worlds have shrunk to the size of our houses and backyards and computer screens (seriously – I had 6 hours of Zoom meetings on Thursday). And so all we have are two things:

Here.

and

Now.

And really, that’s all we’ve ever had, as the mindfulness gurus tell us, but of course we never believed it. When I have more time… when I get a raise… when we buy a house… when we go to [insert exotic destination here that I will never see except on a co-worker’s Zoom background].

But our plans were always iffy. Man proposes, and God disposes. Man plans, and God laughs. But ya gotta admit, the odds were better. In our safe, modern world, the odds that we’d make it to next year, next month, or next Thursday were pretty good for most of us. And the odds that we could predict next year, next month, or next Thursday were fairly good.

Not now.

I have no idea what my life will be like in three months. I have a pretty good idea what it’ll be like next Thursday, though–more Zoom meetings.

And so I am unmoored by uncertainty and trying to learn how to live–and treasure–life in the moment. What is there for me in this place, right here, right now? (besides a Zoom meeting). With my choices circumscribed, I focus more deeply on what is in front of me, the way a macro shot shows only its subject, the background blurry and barely distinguishable.

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My eyes are the lens, and I can choose where to train them: on the flower or the withered stalk. With fewer choices, I’d better make mine count.

I choose the flower. I choose the beauty. The love. The joy. The peace of this moment, right here, right now.

And I’d better get on with it, because I have to be on a Zoom meeting in ten minutes.

G is for Gardening (#AtoZChallenge)

G2020 I guess that last post should have been named, F is for Failure, because after that post, I failed the A to Z Challenge. I am now a day behind, and judging by the number of items on my to-do list for this week (and it’s already Thursday–WTF??), I will be several days behind very soon. I’m going to come back to that thought in a moment.

First, though, I want to say a few words about my other favorite activity besides writing: gardening. For those who don’t know, I live in a volcano field in a high desert, 7000′ above sea level. My soil is clay covered with about a foot of red cinders from the last volcanic eruption a few hundred years ago. Each May, we are invaded with swarms of locusts (a/k/a grasshoppers) that would make an Old Testament prophet proud. The wind howls all spring, and winter temps drop below 0 at least once a year. And I am crazy enough to try to grow plants here.

This exercise in frustration has taught me a few things:

Determination. Well, that didn’t work. What can we do differently when we try again? (This describes 6 years of trying to grow roses in this hellscape)

Tolerance for imperfection. Plants will not look like they did in the nursery catalog when they grow here. Apple blossoms will be frozen off long before fruit can set. The first tomato will ripen the day before the first frost. Etc.

Prioritization. Spring is wind season here in the San Francisco Volcano Field (look it up – it’s really called that. I live in a volcano field with an actual name). So when we have a few nanoseconds that are not windy–and I’m not at work–I drop everything to run outside and weed or plant something. (Digression alert! Have you ever realized that gardening is mostly about pulling out some plants and putting in others that grow less well than the ones you pulled out?) Whatever else I am doing can wait till the wind starts blowing, which it will do 5 minutes after I get outside. If it’s a calm spring day, nothing is more important than gardening. Nothing. Tie a tourniquet above that arterial bleed and wait till I’ve planted this rose bush that will get eaten by grasshoppers next month and freeze to death next winter. Can’t you see I’m busy?

Well, now, it so happens that determination, tolerance for imperfection, and prioritization are pretty dang good life lessons, especially for us writers. And I am demonstrating all three of them in my approach to the A-Z Challenge.

Yesterday I demonstrated prioritization. Work was hectic, I had writing to do, I had to pick up groceries, and I was exhausted. I inspected my to-do list, said something like, “Oh, hell no,” and started moving stuff to other days. One of the things that got moved was my daily A-Z Challenge post, because it was a lower priority than a) earning a living, b) feeding my family, c) editing my short story (it’s about a haunted ranch house that hasn’t been redecorated since the late 1980s. Mauve is terrifying. Terrifying, I tell you), and d) preserving my sanity. So I embraced my inner Def Leppard (or Elsa, for those of you with kids under 10) and Let It Go.

Today I’m demonstrating determination. So I missed a day? I can still do the challenge, still press on. And of course I’m demonstrating tolerance for imperfection. So I missed a day? BFD. Is it going to matter in a year? Is an agent going to decide not to sign me because I wrote about G on H day?

Nah.

We are all doing the best we can, struggling along with too much to do and not enough time–and now we’re doing it in quarantine, with the fear of a potentially-deadly illness looming over us. So today’s discovery in my A-Z coronazoic journey is this: prioritize ruthlessly to focus on what’s most important, and cut yourself some slack when you can’t do it all. And if the sun is shining and the wind ain’t blowing, get out in the garden!

Bonus for those of you who like plants and are willing to tolerate me showing off a bit: garden pictures!

Before – when we bought our house in 2014

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After – last spring

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Fall 2018

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If you want to see more garden pictures or read about my gardening adventures, you can stop by my other blog, Gardening With Altitude and Attitude. It’s on hiatus for now, so I can focus on my fiction writing and this blog (see? prioritization!) but you may find some of the old posts mildly entertaining.

F is for Favorite Things (#AtoZChallenge)

F2020Today marked the beginning of week 4 of working from home/social distancing/quarantine/lockdown for me. In the interest of staying positive–and finding a theme that a) starts with f, and b) isn’t an obscenity–I will devote this post to a few of my favorite things about this surreal time. So here it is:

Janet’s Top 6 Favorite Things About #QuarantineLife

  1. Calm. You’d think that with a deadly virus lurking just beyond my driveway, I’d be freaking out. You would be wrong. Even though I’m working full time from home and am busy most of the rest of the time with writing, cooking, and washing dishes (note: I do miss takeout. I think I spend half my free time doing something kitchen-related), I’m way more relaxed than I was when I was working in the office. I’m sleeping better, too.
  2. Time. I have an extra hour a day that I would normally spend driving to and from work. I also have break times throughout the day. At work, my breaks consist of surfing the internet, reading Ask A Manager, and avoiding anything good for me like exercise or writing. At home, I spend my breaks exercising, doing household chores, preparing food, or reading–activities that give me more free time at the end of my workday or are intrinsically rewarding.
  3. Solitude. Pre-quarantine, I was almost never alone. I might get two or three hours alone on weekend mornings before husband and son (a/k/a the night owls) got up. About half the time, I’d be so exhausted that I’d get up late and maybe–maybe–get an hour or two to myself. Now I have the house to myself for almost half my workday. For a natural introvert like me, that is a blessing.
  4. Simplicity. #QuarantineLife may not be exciting, but it is so much simpler than normal life. Decisions are constrained and therefore easy to make (see The Paradox of Choice and any article about decision fatigue). I can do whatever I want–as long as it doesn’t involve going anywhere where there are other people. I can eat whatever I want–as long as I have the ingredients on hand. I can wear whatever I want–which for me, ironically, means an easier choice, because I’ll always choose yoga pants and a t-shirt. I’m not going anywhere, so they don’t even have to be color-coordinated. Shoes are, of course, optional.
  5. Sanctuary: The world beyond my driveway may be spinning out of control, but here in my little cocoon of happiness, I can decide what I hear, read, and watch. I’m spending my time with the people I love most (even though they’re obnoxious and occasionally smelly), in the place I love most (home). The outside world is just that–outside.
  6. Introspection–or maybe head space. Slower pace and fewer choices = mental space to think, to process, to consider what matters most in my life and how to get more of it when this craziness is over. I also find myself wondering what about our culture and lifestyles will be forever altered by this pandemic. I don’t have answers, but thinking about it is fascinating.

So how about you, dear reader? Are you finding anything good in this long, strange trip?

E is for Exercise (#AtoZChallenge)

E2020

A big part of my voyage of discovery (how’s that for pretentious?) this month is figuring out how to thrive in quarantine. I realize the point of all this social distancing is survival, but I’m not one to settle for surviving. I want to enjoy my life. I want to thrive.

And so I’m building my How to be Happy Without Leaving the House toolbox, and I’m discovering that one of the key elements for me is exercise. Now, mind you, I was the kid who was always picked last in PE and the adult whose life motto was, “If you see me running, please kill whatever’s chasing me.” But just because I sucked at team sports and hated running doesn’t mean I didn’t like to be active. I walked, hiked, roller skated, and swam as a kid. I walk, hike, and lift weights as an adult. And (shhh… don’t tell anybody, because it will ruin my reputation as a couch potato) I even run sometimes. Even when nothing is chasing me. But I still hate it.

Building movement into my day has been a challenge since the Microbe That Must Not Be Named put me on lockdown. No gym means no weights and no treadmill, and the weather is rarely conducive to outdoor activity this time of year. Hubs and I have managed a few walks in the woods near our home (way distant from any other humans), but for the last week, we’ve had 30+ mph winds all day, just about every day. So… how to get exercise?

So far, I have:

  • Walked in circles in my house like a mentally-damaged zoo animal–which, come to think of it, is an apt simile. I really need some enrichment activities. How about a chew toy stuffed with chocolate syrup?
  • Run in place while on webinars. Note: I would have done this in my office before quarantine if I hadn’t been worried about looking ridiculous. One of the best things about working from home is that no one cares if you look ridiculous.
  • Attempted an aerobic workout video from Fitbit Premium (currently free for 90 days). Note: That video included various forms of torture, including jumping jacks. I actually attempted a jumping jack. And then I considered calling my pulmonologist.
  • Walked and hiked and shoveled wood chips onto pathways in my vegetable garden on the rare days when I could get outside, . Yesterday I found the first grasshopper of the season. Tomorrow I will be ordering a military-grade flamethrower. I have issues with grasshoppers.

So, fellow quarantinos, how are you exercising while on lockdown? Any suggestions for a middle-aged librarian/writer for whom a jumping jack nearly proved fatal?