The Middle of the Beginning of a Love Story in a Coffee Shop

From the first chapter after the first 2500 words:

“Can’t knock it til you try it, Cheri.” Cole nodded at Cheri’s half gone half caf soy latte with a shot of sugar free hazelnut flavor.

“Oh, I don’t know about that. I don’t think the peppermint would play well with the hazelnut flavoring in here, even if it did add a cooling jolt to the Joe.”

“Then let me.” Cole’s hand wrapped around her hand, paralyzing it. He pried the candy cane from her fingers and before she could protest, eased the curve of the cane into his latte, and slowly stirred, smiling.

That slow, deliberate swirling of the candy in the foamy, steaming, creamy, bittersweet drink stirred something deep inside of Cheri. Her eyes widened as her lips parted around a soft Oh!  Cole was watching her as he stirred and she knew he noticed her pupils dilate and her breathing change because his own eyes widened, too. The bang and brew of the Mocha Joe baristas behind the counter slipped under the patrons’ chatter to create a sound wave that heightened Cheri’s senses and quickened her pulse.  

“Are you all right, my dear?” Cole’s eyes seemed wide with something other than worry. “You don’t seem to be breathing.”

“I, uh, I just, uh was surprised about…that the taste of that…candy cane…” She stopped. 

Cole nodded and then, while Cheri watched, he very slowly, very carefully lifted his cup to her.

Cheri looked at him and then at the cup, and her mouth opened wider, but instead of tipping the cup for her to drink, Cole slipped the foam-slicked candy cane between her lips.

Cheri sucked in her breath like a shallow gasp for air before drowning. She dropped her eyes to the table and felt heat bloom on her face. Almost instinctively her fingers flew to her lips just as she bit down on the candy cane trying to stifle a small whimper. The hard candy shattered between her teeth, filling her mouth with shards of sweet need swirled with the latte’s cream. She tried not to cough by swallowing hard, but the tickle rose inside her. She swallowed again with Cole still watching, and after a few restrained coughs, the tickle mercifully subsided. Cheri’s fingers tried to clean up her lips, but succeeded only in further smudging the minty wetness well past her mouth.

 “Well, my dear, that’s left quite a mark on you! I must say, I rather like it.” He put the long shaft of the crookless candy cane on the table midway between them.

Was he throwing down the gauntlet, she wondered? Testing to see what line she’d cross?

“Look what you’ve done! I’m all sticky wet!” Cheri held out her hands which slightly shook.

“Sticky wet looks good on you, but the test is in the taste!” And before she could say a word, Cole reached over again, and took her sugared hand in his, raised it to his lips, and kissed her fingertips.

Breathing was impossible, then, for Cheri, while his hand held hers captive. She felt herself rocking back in her chair, as much from desire as from outrage.

Outrage won.

The Dahlonega Literary Festival

I went to the Dahlonega Literary Festival this past weekend. What a great opportunity to learn from writers across the spectrum!

Dahlonega is a little town in the North Georgia Mountains at the foot of the Appalachian Trail. Dahlonega claims to be the “site of the first major gold rush in the U.S.” Incorporated in 1833,  Dahlonega now anchors Georgia’s growing “wine country” while it also celebrates and preserves the folk traditions that built the South’s mountain towns.

From these roots grows the Dahlonega Literary Festival (DLF). It’s unabashedly Southern veined: fifteen minutes can’t pass without someone invoking the name of Flannery O’Connor in hushed, reverent tones. Reverence also reverberated from the rafters of the Roman Catholic Church’s classrooms for one of the South’s living (and present) literary legends: Terry Kay.

Literary events I’ve previously attended offered a single opportunity to hear each author: big names would headline their own hour while lesser known or niche authors might appear on a small panel. Not so at DLF. Every author and illustrator participated in several different panels, workshops, signings, and even dine-arounds over one and a half days. That resulted in cross-genre, cross-generational cross-talk about common issues like creating memorable characters and the element of suspense in fiction.

Perhaps the best example of this format’s genius was the panel entitled “From Chuckles to Belly Laughs: Hitting the Right Note with Humor.” The aforementioned Terry Kay, whose classically Southern tales like To Dance with the White Dog (published in more than twenty languages worldwide) , is a quiet but powerfully present elder statesman, while James R. Tuck is the profane yet profound biker badboy whose “dark, urban fantasy” novels appeal to an entirely different audience. Yet, here these two men riffed off each other about their similar and dissimilar uses of humor in their work, exhibiting obvious and genuine respect for one another.

In the middle but by no means overshadowed, Joshilyn Jackson loudly and colorfully opined about using humor to deal with often “touchy” or “off-limits” subjects. She said she doesn’t write humorous books; she writes about characters who use humor to cope with difficult and dark situations. That’s something to which I certainly can relate.

And then, because the question to which the panelists were responding was “is there anything off limits to humor?” Kay quietly disagreed. Tuck, Jackson, Jackie Cooper, Raymond Atkins, Kim Boykin, and Charles McNair all had said nothing was off limits if handled properly. Kay said one thing was off-limits: using humor to hurt someone else. “I would never write anything that hurts a person,” he said. I wondered, because of the looks on their faces, if some of the panelists would have no problem crossing this line to produce a good book. Chewy food for thought.

Joshilyn Jackson summed up her viewpoint: “If you’re inside of it and love it, you can poke fun of it, but if you’re outside of it, you really can’t.” She was referring to cultural, geographical, organizational, religious, gender (insert specialty group like short people here) humor.

I stumbled upon a gem of a session quite by accident, or, rather, misunderstanding. The workshop was titled, “Character Drawing,” which I thought referred to developing a full profile for your characters. Sign me up! Turns out, as you probably guessed, the session was for illustrators and referred to the challenges of literally drawing characters. The workshop leader was Mark Braught, who was part of the team that created collateral materials and merchandise concepts for the first Harry Potter movie. He has a lengthy catalog of works produced in addition to this one sexy assignment. He’s illustrated children’s books, designed book covers, created iconic images for well-known brands, etc….but if you met him, you’d never know. He’s a lanky stick of dynamite with a late-night radio voice. His jeans are cuffed 50s style and his black-framed glasses could have been bought at a Happy Days costume sell-off. But what a kind and patient man! He talked about the challenges of designing a book cover based solely on a plot synopsis and a concept sheet from the publisher. He also talked about the perks of being a well-known freelance illustrator versus a junior or “pool” illustrator: he can demand to read the manuscript if they want him to take the job.

Before this, I never really thought about the origin of a book cover. Most times, he said, the author is not involved in the decisionmaking or conceptualization process. Terry Kay reinforced this point when he talked about the twenty different covers To Dance with the White Dog has: one for each of the twenty countries in which it was reprinted. Kay saw none of the covers before publication.  

I also learned a great deal from “The Element of Suspense in Fiction” session. Deanna Raybourn shared how she has to pace her writing in order to pace the plot. She forces herself to write slower, or less, as she reaches the climax of her story because she said she has a tendency to rush the conclusion, which, of course, ruins the book. She also shared that in suspense writing especially, writers increase the level and complexity of detail in higher action scenes specifically to slow down the reader. People speed up their reading, she said, when they get into high action scenes; therefore, writers have to slow them down so they don’t “climax” too quickly and as a result, feel let down or cheated. Whew!

I hope you all have the opportunity to attend literary events and book readings/signings. They really are enlightening. This one made me want to be a published author even more than ever before, not just so I’d get invited to present at events like this, but, more importantly, so I’d be on the guest list for the “presenters only” cocktail party the night before. Oh, the stories they said they could tell about that! Shenanigans was the word they used most often, and then smiled insiders’ smiles. I like shenanigans.

No More Throbbing Members

This week’s lesson in romance writing class covered the all-important art of writing a lovemaking scene. The lovemaking scenes are so important to the genre, they have a subset of rules all their own, rules layered on top of the already lengthy list of musts for all romance novels in general.

The number one absolute must, must Must spanning, nay, defining the genre, is sensibly simple: the girl always gets the guy, aka, there’s always a happy ending.  This makes sense. I know I don’t want to invest the time, imagination, and emotion necessary to devour two hundred and seventy pages of yearning, sparring, blocking, yielding, giving, taking, resisting, and finally surrendering to pleasuring, only to see the sizzle fizzle on the last page. People—mostly women but men, too—buy romance novels because they know they will have a happy ending. It’s a sure bet in the way real live never is, in the way gamblers want a night in Vegas to be. That never-fail happy ending is what makes romance so profitable (billions of dollars in annual sales) and prolific. Did you know that more than fifty percent of all paperbacks sold annually are romance novels of one type or another?  (Source: Instructor Liz Delisi).

The lovemaking scene(s) in romance novels, we learned, have less to do with the mechanics of the deeds and far more to do with emotions and senses. Another no brainer, given the female audience. Don’t women generally care more about the emotions than they do about frequency, intensity, duration and positions of intimate activity? If they are married, they might care more about the frequency, intensity, and duration of the guy completing simple household chores like washing dishes and taking out the trash but when it comes to action between the sheets, if you believe everything you read in Dear Abby and online blogs, women are in it for the “I love yous” and the closeness and the reassurance that the happy ending doesn’t just happen in romance novels and massage parlors on Cheshire Bridge Road.

Not to say that sex isn’t important. It is. It is important. It is really important. It is really, really important. And when it’s good, it’s essential (when it’s bad, it’s what you avoid at all costs, including taking out the trash yourself at nine p.m. and washing the damn dishes all by yourself, as slowly as possible). Sex is important for consummating love; for stimulating production of endorphins and oxytocin and other feel-really-good chemicals; for release of, um, tension; and for, well, fun. It’s also for procreation but that’s someone else’s blog. Sex is important for bonding and affirming and insert your favorite verbnoun here (note: this is the only place in this blog you will be asked to insert something of your own).

In romance novels there are rules about the lovemaking scene, all of which I won’t expose here because I paid good money for the privilege of acquiring that knowledge. If you want to know, pay to take the class or buy the book yourself.

The one rule that I will mention here is the rule of specificity versus euphemism. The rule is always specify the euphemism you specifically are using and why you prefer the euphemism to the more blunt or graphic word or descriptors.

No, that’s not really the rule at all. There isn’t a rule explaining when to be graphic and when to be delicate. It depends on the romance “line.” If the romance takes place in colonial Boston, the language would differ from that of 1964 Greenwich Village and that would differ from a 2014 paranormal romance. In all cases, and always, the most important rule of all when writing a lovemaking scene is this:

Never refer to his throbbing member or her heaving bosom.

Don’t do it.

Seriously. Don’t do it.

Why? Read this:

She stared in wonder at his throbbing member and couldn’t help herself from panting with desire, her bosom heaving like a pair of tethered balloons eager to burst from the unforgiving muslin prison they were stuffed into right now. She wanted to soar into the sky of his endlessly blue eyes and feel that manhood swell in her forbidden palace.

Did you read that with a straight face? Did it make you moist to read that, or did it make you want to pop a piece of Bubblicious into your mouth and hide in the basement with your best friend and giggle over the bodice ripper you smuggled from your grandmother’s nightstand?

Words are everything to a book. They are everything to the reader. If you’re going to write a lovemaking scene, my class was told, make it one that leaves you, the writer, as breathless as the hero and heroine, as incapable of not turning the page as you want the reader to be. That’s tricky because as in real life, the words that excite me may not excite you. The words you like to use to describe your member may be ones that make me cringe and the words I use to describe lady parts may be too delicate or too crude for one audience or another.

In real lovemaking such rabbit-warren thinking can kill the moment before it takes its first breath. If a lady starts imagining how she looks from all angles in a lace cami and formfitting boyshorts, she may lose the courage to strut out of the bathroom unless the room is pitch dark which kills an entire line of sensory stimulation: the poor eyes are out of the game. She won’t let the candlelight lick her skin, creating patterns for his tongue to trace. She won’t allow his hands to worship her curves or to reverently cup her ample twin temples before bowing his head to pray with his lips on her attentive, eager nipples.

The same is true when writing romantic, even erotic scenes. Unlike real life, however, writing lovemaking scenes can benefit from a third person: a beta reader or an editor, who can read the passage and critique the scene for authenticity and sizzle. Don’t do this with real lovemaking, unless you want to be slapped in the face or left…alone…forever, with an unappreciated member.

Whew! It’s hot in here. Romance writing is hard work that requires more than a few strokes of genius. Time to get back to it.

Writing a Love Scene

This week our assignment is to write a love scene for a romance novel. Love scenes in romance novels are not graphic accounts of sex. We learned that romances emphasize the emotional connections, which may be conveyed by body, voice, expression, thought, action or interpretation.

So here goes, somewhere in the story, of course, in a coffee shop:

Cole’s silence as he read Cheri’s words wrapped fear around her heart. This might have been a bigger mistake than leaving her crayons in her smock on wash day when she was in the first grade. Her mother had set the machine on “hot/cold,” which first created a rainbow lava flow that then hardened onto all of the clothes…and the inside of the machine. Not only were the clothes ruined, the machine had to be replaced, too. This story just might be that same kind of disaster, she thought, gleaning no clues from his poker face. She silently willed Cole to say something, anything, forgetting to be careful with wishes. To her horror, he did speak. He read the last sentences of the story out loud:

Thank you, dear and darling you, for the still moments of being, one beside me and somehow deep inside me, belonging without any kind of touching, except that kind only spirits arousing, accepting, and everywhere ascending, only spirits believing and giving love freely entwining desire with breathing…this is what they, now we becoming, yes, this we touchingly know.  

Cheri stopped breathing.

“This isn’t just a story, is it?” Cole asked, his voice low, insistent.

The sound of his voice tricked heat into flaming above and below Cheri’s heart, in places she had denied such heat for much too long.

For some reason she felt her head sway to the left and then to the right. It was going where she knew she should not go but she couldn’t seem to stop it.

“It isn’t just a work piece, Cheri. You wrote this for me.”

Cheri bowed her head but said nothing, thinking instead about how the story had a love scene in a coffee shop. Was it wishful thinking or premonition? She’d never say, but she would admit that the story’s hero bore a striking resemblance to the man who was praising her pages. Life is art, Cheri strongly believed, a Magritte canvas and window: which came first and which held the other was impossible to discern…which was quite the point.

Cole reached across the table and took Cheri’s hand in his. He very gently rubbed her hand with his fingers.

Cheri felt the current surge up her arm and almost whimpered out loud. Too much! It was too much! It had been too long and too long in the making. Cheri pulled back, pulled her hand back, put her hand over her mouth. “Cole, I, I…what I, I can’t, here, can’t, I…”

“I can apologize if you want me to,” Cole offered, his very blue eyes intensely watching her. “Do you want me to?” His hands were seeking hers on the table but she kept hers in her lap.

She felt paralyzed, unable to say either yes or no, move toward or away. She wanted to disappear, frightened by the realization that her passion, which she thought had been so cleverly disguised, was so readily apparent…and about to overtake her.

“Come outside with me, Cheri.” Cole said, reaching under the table to brush her knee.

“Cole, we have work to do! We can’t just leave!” Indignation returned her words to her.

“Of course we can; you work for me. We’re done for now. So let’s go sit in my car. It’s getting too loud in here.”

She looked at him. He was crazy. “It’s freezing cold outside!”

“I have heated seats, Cheri, and I will keep you warm. Come outside and talk with me. You need to talk to me; I can see it.” Cole sat back, pulled his scarf from his lap and draped it around his neck. He then tucked the pages back into his laptop envelope, clearly ready to leave.

“Oh, heated seats. That makes all the difference!” Against her better judgment, which seemed to be eager to take off work, too, Cheri managed to stand up by gripping the table for balance. She wiped off her mouth and fingers with napkins before shrugging on her coat and wrapping her own scarf around her neck. She wondered what to do about their coffee cups. She took a large gulp to almost finish her almost cool latte. She wedged the pile of used napkins into the cup and marched over to the trash can, where she dumped them.

Buttoned up and tightly wound, she mutely followed Cole, who had popped a lid onto his still full latte, to and out the side door of Mocha Joe. She thought of bolting to her own car and racing far, far away, but Cole turned to her, as if he knew that, and gently took her elbow. “Come sit with me, Cheri,” he simply said.

He opened the passenger side door for her and helped her up and inside his SUV, pushing her door closed once she was seated. It was a small gesture that she never appreciated from others, but from Cole it made her feel pretty. Cole slipped around to the driver’s side. He deposited his folio in the back seat and then he slid into the driver’s seat. He started the car, switched on the heat, and placed his drink in the cup holder in the front console below the stereo panel, which he tapped. Soft music began to play. Cheri watched all of this, and realized the man was preparing to seduce her. Her heart hammered in her chest and her mouth suddenly went dry.  

Cole took a breath, turned sideways towards Cheri. He took her hand in his.

“Poor little cold fingers,” he said, curving them into the palm of his hand. He covered the little fist her hand made with his other hand, and pressed his warmth into it. “Are you okay, my Cheri?”   

“I am fine,” Cheri assured him, though she wasn’t sure she was. His next move would determine how fine or unfine she really felt, but she couldn’t decide which move she preferred, or which would be fine and which would not. Cole’s fingers lightly stroked her hand until her fist unclenched and her fingers spread, opening to him.

“I am not OK,” Cole said. “I am struggling. You see, there’s something about you I can’t quite explain. Something impossibly alluring. I can’t stop thinking about you, Cheri, and God knows I’ve tried.”  Cole raised Cheri’s hand to his mouth and kissed it, then let their hands slowly lower. “But you seem so delicate sometimes, and so guarded, I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Delicate?” Cheri asked, bewildered. “I may be small but I am not delicate. I am quite capable of taking care of myself. I do a fine job of it, actually.”

“Quite fine, oh, yes, you are, my dear!” Cole said, smiling. “Fine in so, so many ways. You also are working for me and I don’t want to take advantage of my position.”

“So fire me,” Cheri offered, shocking both of them, though her pulse raced at the thought of the lost opportunity, to say nothing of the very necessary income.

At that Cole laughed a big, hearty laugh, which seemed to lighten the air that had become too dense for breathing. “Sounds so easy but I can’t. I need you. You are quite important to the publishing house and to my plans, young lady.” He smiled. “You have incredible talent; that’s part of your allure. All this.” His hand waved up and down, “and gifted as hell to boot.”

Cheri laughed, too. “All what, I can’t possibly imagine, but thank you for appreciating my talent. I love working with you, for you, however the arrangement.” 

“What about the rest?” Cole asked.

“The rest of what?”

“My very unprofessional interest in you. Does that interest you at all?”

“I…I don’t know,” she tried to reply, her heart knocking so loudly she thought he could hear it. He looked at her through somehow rounder azure irises and she wondered if he was going to scold her for not answering. She stiffened for the reprimand, and was stunned when, instead, Cole pressed his lips to hers.

Cheri thought at first it would be a quick kiss, like the quick kiss he gave her a few weeks ago when he thanked her for her hard work and she had blushed, delighted and embarrassed.

But this was not that kind of kiss. This was a kiss that Cole deftly steered, from tentative to fully engaging to fiery desire igniting. His teeth softly bit the swell of her lower lip, and then his tongue traced the circumference of her mouth before matching his lips to hers. He opened her mouth with the soft probing of his tongue, and suddenly Cheri’s brain exploded with fireworks flashing out YES! YES! Oh, yes oh yes oh YES!

Cole held one of Cheri’s hands tightly in his, as if knowing he needed to tether her so she wouldn’t soar away. His other hand cupped her face for a moment, and then fingers traveled the line from her temple to her cheekbone to her jaw, and Cheri thought, “My face is in your hand Cole. Hold onto me.”

Cole finally broke the kiss to pull back and admire his handiwork. Cheri’s mouth was swollen, her eyes round and wide, unfocused. She panted softly, staring up at him, his effect splashed all over her face.

“Wow,” she whispered to Cole.

“I know,” he replied softly. “I know, I know,” he said a few more times, and pulled her close to him, tucking her head beneath his chin. “I know, my darling, I know.”

“I always wondered what it would be like to kiss you,” Cheri confessed.

“Well, how did I do?” He kissed the top of her head.

“Better than I imagined. You are an incredible kisser,” she said against his chest, her fingers reaching up to stroke his face.

“You are the expert kisser, my dear. I just followed your lead.” Cole’s hands stroked her back through her coat and he kissed the top of her head again.  

She smiled, then, against his chest, which felt like her new home, knowing he could not see her face. Words like love she silently breathed, relieved to speak the truth while keeping it still well out of his reach.

“Hmm? My dear?” Cole whispered to her. “What did you say?”

“Nothing, I was sighing is all.”

“Is that a good sign, then, a sigh from you?” Cole raised her chin with his fingers. He smiled into her eyes.

“You have the most beautiful blue eyes,” Cheri marveled, “And I say that without being partial to blue.” What she didn’t add is that she got lost in them every time he looked at her: it sounded so cliché. And maybe lost wasn’t the right word because that sounded pejorative. Lost meant directionless, without a clue, or floundering. She felt none of those things.  What she did feel was weightlessness, an intense pull, a fascinating yearning. Those eyes were hypnotic, the way they promised so much but confessed so little. Cole’s face and its well-trained features usually betrayed nothing about what was floating or churning inside the man. Right now, however, Cole’s eyes seemed to be warming and Cheri could swear she saw the flicker of affection, which she hoped wasn’t just her own projection.

“Ah, my dear Cheri, you are incredibly pretty. Everything about you is lovely. Your own eyes are so expressive, they way they flash when you’re talking about what moves you. And your talented fingers!” he put her hand to his lips and kissed each fingertip. “I like the way they touch my skin, as if they were made just for that task.”

The First 800 Words of a Romance

Our assignment this week is to write the first 500 words of our romance novel. Here are mine…with about 300 more words.

The candy cane lay prone on the table, elegantly curving around openness wide enough to allow two fingers to insert themselves and coax it upwardly erect…so that’s exactly what Cheri did. After sliding her fingers down the candy shaft, which now was perpendicular to the table, she lifted the cane to her mouth and bit into the cellophane wrapper at the tip. With her teeth she tore the wrapper just enough to unsheathe sweet surface for her to lick. The cool peppermint tickled her tongue, convinced her lips to let the hard candy slip between them. Almost greedily she closed her mouth around the stick, and then she closed her eyes and savored.

“That’s one hell of a lucky stick of mint,” drawled a familiar voice. Startled, Cheri opened her eyes just as the lips that gave shape to that voice pressed warmly to her cheek.

“Good morning, sir,” Cheri greeted Cole Brasswell, as he swung into the seat opposite her. “I would kiss your cheek, but my lips are a little sticky.” She smiled an apology at him, self-consciously running her thumb across her lower lip and then brushing it back again, trying to clear her mouth of cane juice.

“Ms. Keene, I always am amenable to sugar sharing,” Cole said as he unbound his neck from his navy scarf. “Just so you know,” and then he winked, staring straight into her eyes while his hands fondled his scarf into a puddle on his lap.

It made Cheri blush. Damn it! I was doing so well, she thought, remembering how she had kept her thoughts trained strictly on work the last three meetings with Cole, her most provocative—and most important—client. It had been easier to maintain her professional detachment throughout those three meetings, given that they took place in Cole’s polished conference room and included three deputies from his publishing house. At the same time, she had felt a charge in his very first handshake and had walked away feeling rattled.

Why did Cole throw her so quickly and easily? She didn’t even answer her own dumb question with the obviously dumber answer. Instead, she kicked herself in the head and straightened her back. Cole was one of those men who teetered on this side of the line between sexy swagger and sexually harassing…most of the time. Her right hand still grasped the candy cane, so she stuck the still slickly wet head between her lips and sucked on it to soothe herself.

“You’ll have to get your own sugar, sir,” she said, withdrawing the candy just far enough to speak, and then she swallowed, almost as an act of defiance.

“Nicely done!” Cole said as he raised his cup to his mouth. “Ah, the creamy head is the best part!” he exulted after swallowing a slim sip of latte. The milky foam, as he knew it would, gilded the upper whiskers of his silvery modified goatee. He snaked his tongue upward to capture the foam, and then watched Cheri watch his tongue.

The overt sexiness of this simple action thrilled Cheri a lot and frightened her a little. “Work, Cole,” Cheri reminded him, but it sounded more like a question.

“Ah, work. Yes. Quite nice work, young lady,” Cole said, leaning back and smiling as he reached into the leather envelope in his lap that held his silver Apple MacBook Air, though he pulled out printed pages rather than the pricey machine. “Fifteen hundred words as required, and it is very good.” He tipped the pages in her direction before carefully placing them on the table just to the right of his center. He hit her with that in-on-a-secret smile that always made Cheri weak, as it did this time, so she slashed her ridiculous grin by inserting the candy cane back into her mouth.

“I aim to please,” she said around the candy, making her words taste almost as fresh as she felt. She tried to stifle that fizzy feeling bubbling inside her rib cage. It wasn’t special for a client to praise her, she told herself. He’ll do what it takes to get the best out of me, and praise is one of his standard tools of the trade.

Cole slipped on his recently acquired for $350 titanium reading glasses to glance through the pages. Cheri noticed, reading upside down, that he had written notes in the margins. After a minute that wore like five, Cole said, “Stunning imagery and juicy language, Cheri. I can’t help but feel like this is more than an exercise in wordsmanship.” He pushed his expensive glasses onto the top of his head while keeping his eyes trained on her. He leaned forward, and his fingers grazed hers, making her jump backward in her chair as if zapped with electricity.

She jumped up from the table and darted away, yelling behind her, “No! No! You can’t touch me! I can’t be touched!”

40 Is Too Old for a Romantic Heroine

OK, it wasn’t put quite that bluntly. The instructor more diplomatically questioned a 40 year-old heroine and a forty-five year old love interest: “I think you’ll have a hard sell with these ages. You might want to think about making them younger, but maybe you can make it work.”

It’s my main quibble with romance novels and chick lit in general. Leading ladies who have the audacity to be forty have to be harried moms who whine over lots of wine to their whiny BFFs about their no good husbands who turn out to be no good (gasp!) cheaters who jump ship with the babysitter and the super soccer mom has to start over finding love with the kids’ surprisingly soulful soccer coach/new-to-town widower whose wife died of cancer three years ago. 

There aren’t a lot of forty-something plucky single gals who are smart, sexy, and childless. And hunky smoky heroes are not forty-five, or even forty-one. Why is this? Maybe we will learn the secret in class.

But I have to think that somebody’s missing something. Am I the only early Gen Xer who wants to read about happily ever after for early Gen Xers and late Boomers who aren’t wronged super moms? (I am not dissing super moms. I admire and respect you and maybe I “should” have been like you but I wasn’t and I’m not). 

If I want a little escapism, I don’t want to pretend I’m a wine guzzling, shoe hoarding, silicone-enhanced, debt-be-damned thirty year old on the track to make law partner before I get the rock and pop out a baby Bjorn.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Those stories make tons of money and there are writers who spin those stories with brilliance and finesse. God bless them.

I want to read a story that might actually happen to me if I was taller, cooler, less afraid, a little wealthier, and living in Seattle (so I could have steamy sexy dates in Starbucks: She stuck her finger up to make a point, forgetting that she just had used it to scoop the last of the latte foam from the side of her coffee cup. Too late. He trapped her hand in his, and slipped the milky fingerprint between his lips. She stared at him, shocked. Not shocked by the bold move as much as by the heat that flooded through her).

It could happen. Well, except for the taller part, though that’s why God invented high heel shoes.

On to Lesson Two.

Love this astute piece from my wise friend about discrimination in its subtler but no less devastating and cruel forms…


Make Some Noise!

#GuestShoes #Crossdisability

A few weeks ago two-year-old Emma Duke and her mother, Catherine, were asked to leave a Panera Bread because Emma’s orthopedic shoes were too squeaky and were annoying other customers. Emma has a developmental disability, and her orthopedist and her physical therapist recommended that she wear the squeaky shoes to encourage walking (Source). Her dad Stephan Duke stated,

“She just started to try to walk at 23 months, which is very late, so the orthopedist recommended special shoes to her for better ankle support. The shoes squeak as an incentive when she walks heel to toe, so she’ll hear it and know that she’s walking properly.” (Source)

Panera has apologized to the Duke family and offered to help cover some of Emma’s medical bills, but an apology and a check do not address the root cause of why Emma and her family were asked to leave the restaurant.

Lots of children’s shoes make noise and light up. There’s Stride Rite’s Star Wars Vader Light and Sound shoes that flash and make Darth Vader breathing sounds. There’s Disney’s Toy Story Buzz Lightyear Sound and Light-Up Shoes that flash and deliver classic Buzz Lightyear one-liners.

Lots of adults’ shoes make noise too. High heels clack. It’s a fact. Boots stomp.

Would a child wearing Buzz Lightyear shoes that said “To infinity and Beyond!" be asked to leave a restaurant because their shoes were annoying?

Would an adult wearing really clackey high heels be asked to leave a restaurant because their shoes were annoying?

The answer to these questions is likely NO. Though it is very possible that other customers and staff might get annoyed with the various shoe sounds, it is not likely that they would give individuals an ultimatum remove their shoes or leave the facility.

So why were Emma Duke and her family asked to leave?

The shoes Emma wore to Panera that day were shoes made for toddlers. They squeak when the child walks heel to toe. These shoes come in many styles and colors. The marketing for the shoes states that their purpose is two fold: The squeak in the shoes help parents keep track of children, and the squeak incentivizes children with disabilities to walk. According to her parents, the shoes worked for Emma.

The old, toxic saying goes, “Children are meant to be seen, not heard.” It’s this societal expectation that keeps so many children from speaking up and causes their thoughts to be disregarded when they do speak up. Disability occupies a similar space. I would argue that in most places disability is neither meant to be seen or nor heard. When both children and disabled identities make themselves known in an uninvited way, they become subject to public commentary and policing. Children and disabled people being told in ways spoken and unspoken — What they should and should not do. Where they should and should not go. What they can and cannot look like. Experiencing unwanted body and behavior policing is a daily occurrence for members of so many minority communities.

Similarly, parents have countless stories of times strangers have publicly commented on their child’s appearance and behavior, recommended changes to their parenting style, and/or suggested ways a child should be reprimanded. Catherine Duke’s experience of having to leave a public space as a result of her child’s disability status is one many people with a disabled family member have faced.

This blog has discussed noisy shoes before, and the adults with disabilities experiences with them have been consistently positive. When escorting blind visitors into my office, the clacking of my coworker’s heels was a big accessibility asset. I had sandals with beads all over them that shook and were extremely percussive. They added to the already distinctive sound of my gait, and I loved it.

Reading the story of Emma’s experience, I know that this will not be her or her family’s last encounter with discrimination. I know that as she grows up and becomes an adult with a disability, a spouse with a disability, a parent with a disability, people may no longer actively comment on her shoes, but people will continue to assert all kinds of other opinions on her body. She  will continue to feel pressure to minimize her difference and reject her lived experiences.  Knowing all this, I want to tell Emma to never stop making noise. I want to tell Emma’s family to never stop making noise. I want to tell her that presence is advocacy and that her presence as a child with a disability matters. Her presence in the world will always matter. Keep making noise, Emma, in whatever way you can  and I’ll keep making noise right along with you.

Check out a video of Emma and her family here.

The Romance Writing Class

I just completed my first class in The Art of Writing Romance…if only there was a class in the art of romance, period! If only I could learn in six classes, twelve assignments, and about two dozen outside readings the secrets of successfully achieving the “happily ever after” in life, instead of on typewritten pages, wow! I’d pay big bucks for that.

Well, maybe not. It doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee.

In any case, here I am, taking a formal workshop on the art of writing romance fiction. It’s different from other kinds of fiction, I’ve already learned. It has very specific conventions, starting with the one true love. I like this. In other fiction the characters can mess around with twenty paramours, and they could end up throwing each other over a bridge. In romance writing there’s only one guy for her and one girl for him. There may be others to try to come between them but true love always wins. There’s comfort in that.

And that comfort is why more than 50% of paperback books sold in any given year are romance novels, according to our teacher. Happily ever after is pretty popular stuff…and highly profitable.

So why do romance writers get laughed at by “serious writers,” get so much grief that many romance writers, including an Ivy-League educated friend of mine, hide behind pen names? 

I have to admit, I’ve been wondering if I need a pen name should I be so lucky as to get published. Not because I’m ashamed to write romance stories, I say, but to protect my family, especially my niece and nephews, from having to answer their friends’ questions. “Isn’t that your aunt who wrote that book with twenty steamy lovemaking scenes, ten of which were in a coffee shop? Man, I’m never getting a Starbucks again.”

I am getting way ahead of myself. It’s only the first class. We don’t get into writing steamy sex scenes, and the joy of euphemisms, until session four. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you all about it.

In the meantime, I’ll be working on rewriting the scene in the coffee shop…the one where she trails her finger through the thick milky foam of her latte and then takes the sweet cream into her mouth, savoring the way he stared at her across the cafe table.

Short Stories of Love…or Passion…Either…Or…Both

Sometimes it works to start at the end. I’ve been writing a series of short stories about love: love denied, love betrayed, love begun, and love reclaimed. Though maybe they speak more about passion than about love…or can they be separated? There are seven so far.

Here is the end of the last story, which is titled Bidden Forbidden:

Ah, flames fanned for weeks by the bidden forbidden refrain, left us with nothing except the charred remains of denial and hesitate, withdrawn and abstain. I took him apart, and returned him, sated, to the whole of wanting, where we started again. For once and perhaps only I curled up beside him, pleased and pleasured, having given him the same.

Once again I fell, only this time into slumber, and he must have, too, both of us surrendered. In my dreams I remembered that this had been not to be: I wasn’t to touch him and he wasn’t to claim me. I woke with a start to find him staring at me with wonder-wide eyes and a satisfied smile.

“So which one of us is guilty of breaking the rules?” he asked, kissing me sweetly before kissing me deeply.

 “Well,” I replied, “It likely is both…and also neither.”

“I vote for neither as I can’t promise good behavior.”

“Ah, yes, I remember: rules are meant to be broken.”

“It’s elemental. I’m weak,” he pronounced.

“No, this isn’t about weakness, which you are not. It’s more about an inevitable, undeniable force.”

He smiled and kissed me, taking my hand. “So it is, my dear, we are as inevitable now as when we began.”

"And no less forbidden."


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