Grace's Mosaic Moments

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Two Offbeat Books

A weird weather year - icy cactus in Texas - posted to Facebook by Texas Hill Country

Two Unusual Books

I avoid writing reviews - it's time-consuming, and frequently I know the authors personally and don't want to fall into the trap of favoring one over the other. But this week I have to mention two books I stumbled across, thanks to Amazon blurbs, that were so unusual they managed to distract me from the turmoil of re-plumbing and living in chaos until my bedroom finally had a carpet again, and the zillion books, too many clothes, and various oddments could be restored to their rightful places and my house begin to look normal. (Truthfully, all the books are still in ten blue trash bags in the garage, waiting to be re-shelved, while I write this blog, but we're getting there, looking infinitely better than yesterday at this time.)

Both books are magnificent examples of the art of Characterization and should be read for that, if for nothing else. One is a Romance, the other - for lack of a better word - Women's Fiction. And both are examples of books written by authors with special knowledge. True Pretenses by an author with an understanding of Judaism. The Disenchanted Widow by an author familiar with Ireland during the Troubles.

True Pretenses by Rose Lerner. 

 As an author of multiple Regency novels, I can only say that this one is truly different. Yes, we all strive to come up with a new angle, a new twist, a fresh bit of dialogue in a genre with thousands of facets, but this one actually does it. Your classic beleaguered Regency heroine is paired with a con artist of Jewish heritage who, though he has not practiced his religion in years, has not forgotten his roots. 

This is a tale not only of romantic love but of desperation, devotion to family, loyalty, redemption, and hope. As a character study, as a love story, as a peek into the lives of people who are not titled members of the ton but a thief and a young woman of the gentry struggling to find their places in the world, I cannot recommend this book too highly.

The Disenchanted Widow by Christina McKenna.

The title sounds like a traditional Regency, right? Well, it's about as far from it as you can get. The setting is Ireland in the Eighties, when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were at their worst. (As there was a flurry of the old troubles the night before I arrived in Belfast many years later, I got a taste of what that era was like. We didn't even venture out of the hotel to try out the inviting-looking pub across the street - with a strapping security guy constantly guarding the door. The next day, after a bussed tour of the town, where, among other things, we saw chainlink fences three stories high, topped with barbed wire, around the schools - and only when we were about to head south out of town past the gun emplacements in the hills - our guide told us we'd just spent the night in the most bombed hotel in Europe! ) 

This then is the setting for The Disenchanted Widow, a woman, wounded to the soul, who has suffered two generations of alcoholism and abuse, and now finds her life threatened by an IRA enforcer. She takes her eight-year-old boy and runs from Belfast, ending up in a small town peopled by an absolutely astonishing variety of characters. And where she finally discovers there are good men who think of others besides themselves. (The why and wherefore of shoppers suddenly finding themselves surrounded by the bomb squad is simply too good to be missed.)

If I found the book a bit long at times, when I put on my editing hat and asked myself what I would cut, the answer was "nothing." The picture of rural Ireland was too priceless to pare down to just a tale of what happened to our heroine and her son. The "hero," by the way, is a small-town-boy-made-good, now an art restorer in Belfast and also threatened by the IRA. (Secondary characters include a transvestite mechanic, a hopefully singular priest, and a loquacious countrywoman of a certain age.)

If you require an HEA ending, then perhaps this book isn't for you. But if you'll settle for hope for the future, for using your imagination and a bit of "what if," don't miss this one. It's priceless.

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Thanks for stopping by.

For Grace's website, listing all books as Blair Bancroft, click here.

For a brochure for Grace's editing service, Best Foot Forward, click here.


Saturday, February 21, 2015


It finally happened - Hell froze over.

Why anyone would leave Florida for Minnesota in February . . . but I'm glad to see the old coat getting some use. (That's fake fur, I hasten to say. It's been hanging in the closet since 1982! It was 2° F. outside when this photo was taken.)


Narration. Well-written narration is essential to creating a good book. And yet in the past decade or so Narration has been getting short shrift, with writers advised to use dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. Keep in mind, however,  that Dialogue only shows the surface. (Think of a swimmer - what you see on the surface is far less than what's under water.) Unless you let your readers know what your characters are thinking, we will never see anything but those few words on the surface (which might be the opposite of what your character is actually thinking). The reader also wants to know what actions are happening while the characters are talking. Just as readers don't want characters to be undeveloped stick figures or to talk - no matter how brilliantly - against a blank canvas, they do not want your characters to stand there, like great lumps, talking and talking without doing anything! And describing action is one of the many aspects of Narration. As is describing such vital ingredients as characters and setting. Narration provides color, atmosphere, breathless moments of joy, sorrow, sex, and death. 

Narration provides setting, description, backstory, action—all the color and drama a book needs to grab readers in ways Dialogue never can. (Consider the unseen shark cruising in on the kicking body underwater. Readers need the whole story, not just a description of the swimmer's head bobbing along against a blank blue ocean. Narration can reach inside your characters' heads and reveal what they are really thing. Narration is what penetrates your hero's and heroine's brains and reaches your readers' hearts.

Caution about writing action. Action does not necessarily mean some big battle scene. Writing action can be as simple as mentioning that the hero, shoulders, slumped stared out the window. And do not make the mistake of inserting action for no reason except that someone said you should. The action must make sense. It must add to the plot, reveal character, etc., not detract from what is more important. Conversely, if a villain is droning on and on, boring everyone to death, and he suddenly picks up a bat and whacks someone over the head, it is the action that is vital to the scene, not the words that were spoken. They were just a smoke screen.

Another bit of advice: try to keep your paragraphs short. (No longer than a third of a page, if possible.) The old days of page-long paragraphs do not fit the tempo of modern readers. Do not, however, write a whole slew of one-line paragraphs. Save these for emphasis. If you use a lot of them, the whole point is lost.

Grace note: many, many years ago when I was first looking for an agent, I recall one scrawling across the page that she wasn't taking new clients, but one look at my manuscript told her that my paragraphs were too long. (And this was more than twenty years ago. So take heed, keep some white space on those pages.)

Above all, never forget that Narration presents your reader with the whole cake. Dialogue is just the frosting.   

Writing Exercise - Character Description:
Grace Note: I would like to see the romance publishing industry allow authors to "tell" us about their characters, as Nora Roberts did in her famous introduction of Tucker Longstreet in Carnal Innocence. With so many indie authors out there, all I can say is I encourage you to consider "telling" us about your main characters when they are introduced. This is heresy, however, so all I can say, don't forget to describe both main and secondary characters when they are first introduced. Give readers some idea of how you picture them in your head and try to work in some personality traits if you can. The "modern" rules of romance require this to be done almost exclusively through the eyes of the hero and heroine seeing each other, rather than through the eyes of the author. 

Only you can decide if you feel you must bend to New York print house rules or if you would like to be daring and do for your main characters what Nora did for Tucker.  Always keep in mind, however, that most "rules" were made for a reason. Many readers may not want to plow through a description that goes on for two pages, no matter how well done it is. 

 However you approach the problem, don't settle for talking heads against a blank canvas or for characters who stand there and do nothing while they talk.

Exercise: Create a new character, or select one from a book you are currently working on. Tell your readers about this person, make him/her come alive. Read it over. Is it too long for always-in-a-hurry readers? Is it just straight facts, or did you work in a peek into your character's mind? Is it you, the author, who is telling this? Or did you go for New York mode and let a character in your book create the description?

If you feel you've nailed it (in whatever mode you choose), I'm sure other readers of this blog would like to see it. Please share by posting to Comments.

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Thanks for stopping by.

For Grace's website, listing all books as Blair Bancroft, click here.

For a brochure for Grace's editing service, Best Foot Forward, click here.  

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Four Days Without Water

Massachusetts after 3 blizzards in 3 weeks - another expected on Saturday
Alas, Massachusetts must wish for a lot less water! I lived in Massachusetts and Connecticut for many years and never saw anything like this. We don't do this kind of snow in southern New England. That's ridiculous. And another blizzard is predicted for Saturday. Could I ever move back? No way! (For my readers overseas, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island are southern New England. Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont are northern New England.)


 With all the dire events in the world, I suppose I shouldn't complain, but in the three houses I lived in while I was growing up, we never had a plumbing problem. Through 20 years in an 1830 house where the plumbing was probably laid on around the turn of the 20th century, we never had a plumbing problem. Through 25 years in Venice, Florida, in a house built in the early '70s, we never had a plumbing problem. But here in the suburbs of Orlando in a house built in the late '70s, I have just had my life turned upside down. Believe me, it is an experience you do not want to endure. 

On Sunday night I was getting ready for bed when I noticed a dark patch on the bedroom carpet by the bathroom door. It squished when I walked on it. Oh-oh. I soon discovered a damp patch in my walk-in closet as well. Needless to say, I didn't sleep well. Of course, by morning it was much worse. I called the plumber immediately, but in spite of the emergency situation, there was no plumber at the door in the next few hours. Meanwhile, my son-in-law came over to turn off the water and had to dig out the meter box, which is underground near the street and had filled with dirt since the last time it was used.  Afraid to damage the meter, he ended up digging it out with his hands. (NO ONE should have water meters like this!) My daughter called a water-damage cleaner she knew, and they were there for hours before the plumber showed up, doing a really great job. (The cleaners, that is.)  In a very short time I had half a carpet in my bedroom, no baseboards, no clothes and other storage in my closet, even the pictures gone from my walls.) And the bedroom and bathroom were stuffed with giant fans, heaters, and suction equipment.

Plumber's diagnosis - a "slab leak"; i.e., somewhere below the cement. Hard to tell where. Solution: find & fix the leak, but the pipes could spring another leak almost immediately, or re-plumb the entire house. But this was Monday and they couldn't re-plumb 'til Friday. (You've got to be kidding!) My daughter scrambled to get in touch with the plumber who works on their rehabs. The cleaners left, all was dry in the bathroom, bedroom, and garage. Everything on hold, waiting on which plumber was to do the re-plumb.

In the late afternoon Cassidy came in through the garage entrance, reporting that she'd walked through water. Oops!  And sure enough, the water was back, even though the main water meter was turned off. At 7:30 p.m. the cleaner returned, shook his head, did his vacuum thing, and went home. 

The next morning, the puddles were back. I called the water company, who promptly sent out a man who seemed able to get the water meter truly shut down. The cleaner came back again. The new plumber arrived in the midst of all this, shook his head, did some prep work, and promised they'd start the re-plumb on Wednesday morning and I'd have water by 5:00 p.m. Somewhere in the midst of the chaos, the insurance adjustor came by. (Haven't heard the verdict on that yet.) And then . . . more puddles appeared. I had the water man back for a second time and all seemed well. Again.

On Wednesday the plumbers were doing fine until about four o'clock when the man in charge (not the boss) told me they could not find the main connector to the house. They'd been digging and digging and only finding the two irrigation lines, not the main to the house! Yikes. So at 5:00 p.m. they promised they would be back in the morning and I'd have water by noon.

I gritted my teeth and prepared for a third night in the guest room. Except near midnight while I was clearing all the stuff from the closet and closet floor (umpteen years of old slides in square boxes) that was piled on the bed, my feet went "squish." Oh no! Now I had water in the guest room. To shorten a very long story, at one time on Thursday afternoon, parked in front of my house were: the plumbers' truck, the master plumber's truck, the cleaner's truck, and the water company truck. With nearly a football team of men standing over my underground water meter by the curb shaking their heads. The master plumber informed me he'd been at it 25 years and never seen anything like it. A remark echoed by his helpers. 

And by the way, if you're wondering what one does when men are working in both bathrooms, thank goodness my daughter lives only two blocks away!

In the end, before the plumbers could complete their work, the water company had to install two new meters at the curb, one for the house, one for irrigation. Only then did the water stop leaking and messing up everyone's hard efforts. Orange County Utilities actually admitted to being the villain of the piece. Sigh. So by around 5:00 on Thursday I finally had water again. Hallelujah!

I also have a bedroom with half a carpet, no baseboards, and various holes in closet and bathroom walls.  More holes in the guest room closet behind the guest bathroom. The clothes and slides from the guestroom closet are still stacked all over the house while we wait for the cleaner's fan to do its job (estimate - Monday), plus the steady drip of some kind of water vacuum draining into my guest room sink.  Also, my lawn has been dug up from the curbside meter to the house. And in various other places as the plumbers replaced four outdoor faucets. Aargh! 

But no more than grumbling from me. I HAVE WATER!

The moral of the story: At the first sign of an in-house leak beyond a dripping faucet, consider that your house might need re-plumbing and do it before you end up with a disaster like mine.

~ * ~

Thanks for stopping by.

For Grace's website, listing all books as Blair Bancroft, click here.

For a brochure for Grace's editing service, Best Foot Forward, click here.  

Saturday, February 7, 2015


A tree that grew around an abandoned lawn-mower

 My daughter and her husband were looking at possible houses for rehab and found this amazing sight - a tree that simply grew around the lawn-mower left beside it. They did not buy the house, but if they had, she said they would have cleared the ground, mulched it, and left it as a conversation piece.


A setting needs clarity and color. Otherwise, the characters are talking heads set against a blank canvas, like a child's stick figures. Readers also want to get a feel for date and location. Sometimes you can identify a scene by simply adding a Date & Location line at the top of your scene. But don't forget readers will feel more at ease if you paint the backdrop for them. Are your characters in the city, the suburbs, or the country? A mansion, a condo, or office? If you didn't use a Date & Location line, can the reader immediately tell what era it is? Contemporary, Victorian, Medieval, Fantasy World, a Galaxy Far, Far Away? Can readers tell if your characters are on a farm, in a tavern, war zone, a spaceship? If not, you need to add the necessary words of identification and "paint" a background that enhances the action and dialogue.

Although Conflict is an essential element in fiction, creating interesting and believable characters with whom the reader can empathize is probably the single most important aspect of your book. If you have great characters, you can usually get away with a sketchy plot! But the best plot in the world will fail if your main characters are shallow, cardboard, uninteresting, or not properly identified (a frequent failing, particularly with secondary characters). Readers need some idea of who your characters are—at least a hint of their place in the world, and hopefully some kind of physical description—before they can be expected to develop an interest in the people you've created. You—supposedly—know your characters. Readers do not. It is your job to reveal your characters to your readers so they can understand them as well as you do. They can't do that if you leave the details in your head.

Readers want your hero and heroine to be likable. The h/h can have flaws, but readers must be able to believe those flaws will be redeemed. (Or in some cases, minor flaws merely make a character more appealing. That's a choice that is up to you. Just don't make your heroine a bitch and keep her that way. Nor your hero a permanent grouch who enjoys kicking puppies and small children! Yes, he is allowed to have a meltdown at some point, but he cannot stay a bad guy. At least not in romantic fiction.)

Grace Note:  I recently abandoned a book (and a whole series) because the main character was continually snarky. Some readers may think it's "honest." I wouldn't go near a person like that with a ten-foot pole, and I certainly wouldn't share my life with that person through reading about him/her. And I suspect many others feel the same way.

Characters are the backbone of a book, the element that makes a book come alive. An author should give them the physical description, background, and voice they deserve. Try to get to know your two main characters before you begin a book, but don't be surprised if they metamorphose into independent characters with a will of their own. Give them their heads. Spontaneity usually adds sparkle to a book.  

As an example of the above, I first heard about the phenomenon of characters taking over a book from my mother back in the days when she was writing romances for Modern Romance magazine.  She sat down at the table for supper one night and told us how her hero and a rival had taken on a will of their own. "They weren't supposed to end up in the lake," she said, shaking her head. "It just happened." [In this particular serial story the readers were supposed to decide which man got the girl. Instead, it was which one drowned!]

So give your characters the freedom to be themselves. If you have written a good book, they have undoubtedly grown and developed over the chapters you've written. They really aren't those sketchy characters you started with. Don't be afraid to allow these stronger, wiser, happier, sadder, exhausted, frustrated, exuberant people to take the bit in their teeth and charge off into the sunset. (I'll never forget how surprised I was when one of my heroines allowed the villain and his lover to drive away in her $100,000+ mobile home!) And, no, I won't mention which Golden Beach book that is in as it will give away the ending.)

Secondary Characters.
Secondary characters are also important. They should add depth and color without being so prominent they detract from the hero and heroine. In the case of important secondary characters, be sure to include some kind of identification, a brief physical description, and at least a hint of their personality.

One of the most common beginner mistakes is allowing secondary characters to take over the story, overshadowing the hero and heroine. Do. Not. Do. This. For example, I recently read a book where the hero had more scenes with a secondary female than he did with the heroine - to the point their interaction was not only detracting from the story but adding a rather icky sub-plot. I also recall reading a contest entry where the whole first chapter featured the heroine and a male friend at a ball, with no hint of either hero or a plot. Do. Not. Do. This.  Even in tales of suspense, readers want to see the hero and heroine interact with each other, and not constantly sidetracked into dealing with other people. Yes, of course, the h/h must talk to others, but do not let these scenes dominate your book and detract from the romance. 

Characters in a series.
Your characters - hero, heroine, secondary - must be reintroduced with each new book. Write the book as if, say, Book 5 is the first book in the series the reader has read. And, besides, most people are so busy their memories are short. The majority of people who did read Books 1-4 have probably forgotten who some of the characters are and what they did in previous books. I recently had the uncomfortable experience of jumping into a series where the author did not make any effort to identify characters from past books. A character was suddenly introduced as "Emma's friend." And there I was, paging back and back, trying to find Emma - who was not there. Evidently, I was magically supposed to recognize her from a book I hadn't read. This practice continued throughout the book, causing untold confusion. If I had not been obligated to finish this book, it would have been a wall-banger by Chapter 2.

Special Note on Character.
Lack of identification and description are the cardinal sins when introducing a character. In contests I've judged or manuscripts I've edited, even some main characters simply appear, engage in dialogue, and disappear. We have no idea who these people are, where they came from, or what makes them tick (i.e., no introspection - no looking inside the main characters' heads). Believe me, even minor characters need some sort of introduction. Simple examples: Ellie, Marybeth's maid; John, who played high school football with Eric. Identification is all important! Otherwise, readers are left grinding their teeth. And soon become disinterested. As I did with the book in the paragraph above.

Summary on Character. 
Readers want juicy details on their heroes and heroines, past and present. They want to see them against a well-drawn background. They want to see inside their heads, experience their emotions as well as their action and dialogue. To repeat a phrase I've offered a countless number of times before. We (readers) want to view the story through the hero's and heroine's eyes. We want you to let us see what they see, hear what they hear, feel what they feel. We also want to know who these people are - and that requires a bit of their past as well as letting us know their characters through their actions and dialogue. Whatever you do, do not settle for reams of dialogue set against a blank canvas (i.e., narration with no setting, no character descriptions, no identifications). Give your characters depth. Make them come alive. Make us care.

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Thanks for stopping by.

For Grace's website, listing all books as Blair Bancroft, click here.

For a brochure for Grace's editing service, Best Foot Forward, click here.