So what is this journal page, anyway?
More and more writers have added live journals or blogs to their sites. I'm not sure I want to commit to the kind of daily or even regular updates that those require, but I thought an occasional journal might be fun. Someplace where I can capture the thoughts and events that don't fit into any of the other sections of the site, and haven't yet made it into any of my fiction writing. Here goes...

January 8, 2005
New year's non-resolutions

Hear that faintly metallic tinkling noise? It's the sound of millions of new year's resolutions breaking all over the world. A mournful sound.

I don't make resolutions any more. I set goals for the year. I know that sounds like a quibble over wording, but I'm a writer. Words matter; they have power. And to me, the difference between a goal and a resolution is important.

You make a resolution. You try to keep it. But, all too often, you break it, and it's hard to make yourself glue it together and continue. You look at that cracked and mended, more than slightly tarnished resolution, and think, "Okay, I'll try again next year." Trying again next year is fine if, for example, you've kept a diet resolution all year only to fall from grace a week or two before Christmas, and next year is only a few weeks away. But if it's not even the middle of January. . .

I set goals for the year. If you don't achieve a goal, you can keep trying. You haven't broken anything. It's more like a journey; if it takes a little longer than planned, you can still get there.

And there's nothing magic about January 1 for goals. I'm thinking through my 2005 goals now, in what time I have after finishing the day's writing.

Once I have them, I'll figure out what I have to do each month to achieve those yearly goals, what I have to do every week to achieve the monthly goals, what I have to do each day to achieve the weekly ones.

Which sounds as if I spend more time planning than doing. Not really. (Though I do think that planning is the first and most important stage of doing.) And I don't sit down like clockwork every week, parcel out my goals into daily increments, and accomplish them all. It's more of an attitude. Even though I'm no longer doing the nine-to-five day job routine, I find Sunday night a good time to sit down, review the past week and plan the next. Month-end bill-paying time is a good time to take stock of where I am and what I want to get done in the coming month. And if my routine has been disrupted--if I've been traveling, sick, or just too damned busy to get through everything I want to do--that's okay. When I return, feel well enough, or get through the crunch, I sit down and reset my goals.

Which is what I'll be doing when I finish working on the current manuscript--the fourth Turing book, which will probably be called Delete All Suspects. I'm getting down to the wire on it. Need to turn it in . . . no, let's not think of how soon. Because thinking about how soon I have to finish it will only make me feel panicky. All I have to worry about today is reaching today's word-count goal. That's the other good thing about goals. If you break them down into little daily bits, they don't seem so impossible.

Figuring this one was one of the things that helped me finally get published. Writing a 300 page book is a big project. Scary big. But writing one page a day for a year isn't. All you have to worry about, each day, is that one page, and even with time off for holidays, and you'll get there.

Off to work on that daily goal. Which is, obviously, quite a bit more than a single page these days. But it's okay. I'll get there.

October 30, 2004
Sad news

I'd planned to write a little more regularly in this online journal, but like many other things, that fell by the wayside this year. In November 2003, my father began to have difficulty swallowing and complained of a sore throat. We went through tentative diagnoses of acid reflux and then ulcer until, in March 2004, they determined that he had esophageal cancer.

After more tests, the doctors finally decided that a six-hour operation wasn't reasonable for an 88-year-old man, no matter how fit for his age. So we began six weeks of radiation.

They put in a feeding tube, in case he lost his ability to eat. Mom learned to clean the feeding tube, and turned her considerable energy to the task of devising appetizing meals that were easy to swallow. I set up a satellite office in my childhood bedroom so I could keep writing even when my parents needed me in Yorktown for transportation to the doctor and for moral support.

The radiation treatments ended on June 25, Mom's birthday, and we began a period of waiting to see how much good they had done. In late August, we learned that they hadn't done enough.

After much discussion, we decided to try chemo. Chances of cure were slim at this point, but there was a chance it would prolong his life and improve its quality. Unfortunately, the second round of chemo produced severe side effects, and Dad became very weak.

On Wednesday, October 27, I headed up to my home in Reston, planning to take a few days' break. We'd hired a very good live-in caregiver to help Mom, so I felt safe leaving Dad in their hands while I voted, collected several weeks' of mail, and put out various fires.

Dad died early the following morning. At home, probably without too much suffering, and after eating his last meal by mouth, not through the tube.

Apologies to anyone who has found me a little scattered or disorganized of late. Especially anyone whose email I haven't yet answered. Eventually, I'll be back to my normal focused self. Eventually I'll even catch up on email. Just not quite yet.


June 26, 2004
My first lily blooms

First of this summer, anyway. It's not perfect--something has nibbled it, here and there. But it still looks splendid--you don't notice the nibbles unless you get in really close. Of course, the first thing I did was get in really close, to take its portrait. Sometimes

I think that's why I grow things like lilies and roses--things that take more work than just scattering a few seeds or digging a few holes. So I can stalk them with my Nikon.

While I was at it, I took a few photos of the lily buds that look about to open. They're almost as picturesque as the flowers; at once beautiful and fecund, and yet strangely alien. If I were doing special effects for Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I'd model the pods on swelling lily buds. ( there's a word you don't get to use every day.)

I have over a dozen such buds in various parts of the yard, so I've been on a lily watch for days, waiting for one to finally bloom. Having only one previous summer's experience with lilies, I'm not all that expert at telling when they're getting ready to bloom. Some of the buds looked ready, but for all I knew, they might spend most of July hovering in a state of apparent readiness, taunting me and tempting all the other occupants of my garden.
That's the frustrating part of gardening. You think you're gardening. Everything else thinks you're tending the buffet.

Twice this week, I've chased deer out of the fenced-in part of my yard. They've trampled a muddy bog at one side of the yard and dined on what would have been this year's hydrangea and mock orange flowers. The wretched things are ignoring several acres of park teeming with tasty greenery to pick on my yard.

At least since the roses are mostly up on the deck, in pots, the deer probably won't go after those. Though everything else does. I spray the bushes with environmentally sensitive bug repellents, which help, but I still resort to going out several times a day to kill Japanese beetles. (By knocking them into a small bowl of soapy water.)

Still, like the lilies, I think they're worth it. Even less than perfect, they're glorious.

May 13, 2004
Adventures of a nearsighted novice gardener.
Every time I start getting a little conceited about my horticultural skills, life hands me a reminder that I'm still very new at this gardening thing.

A few weeks ago, while parts of my fence were missing due to another savage attack by the trees, I had a houseguest. I walked into my living room to discover my guest gazing out into the back yard.

"Look!" she said. "There are three deer grazing in your yard!"

She was a little startled when I ran out into the yard, barking and snarling in a fashion reminiscent of Spike, Michael's mother's dog, and drove the deer out. To her, this was a rare and wonderful encounter with Mother Nature. To me, it meant the freakin' deer had chomped and possibly killed another plant or two, and was a vivid reminder that I needed to get the fence mended.

The following morning, I looked out of the window first thing in the morning and saw that the deer were back. Since I was still in my nightgown, I didn't want to run right out. So I rapped sharply on the window. Even as I did it, I was thinking how foolish--rapping doesn't even chase the squirrels off my parents' bird feeder, which is right outside the window; what effect could it possibly have on the deer?

Only it worked. They didn't run, the way they do when I bark at them and wave my arms, but they lifted their heads, stared around with annoyance for a few moments, and then loped off in a slow but stately fashion, rather like insulted dowagers.

All this was several weeks ago. The fence is mended now, thanks to my friends Dave and John, and I haven't seen much of the deer. And then this morning, very early, I glanced out of the window and saw a dark shape in the back yard, just inside the trees. I rapped, sharply, several times, to no effect. Aha, I said, nodding wisely. They've learned not to fear rapping. I was about to throw on some clothes so I could go out and chase them, but luckily I put on my glasses first. I'd been out of town so often over the last month that Dave had taken pity on my lawn and begun mowing it--begun, because the grass had gotten so high that it took three or four chargings of the electric mower--and he had moved the portable bin in which I mulch grass clippings to a strategic spot just beyond the edge of the grassy part of the yard. I had been rapping briskly at a large circle of black plastic mesh.

Then there was the rhododendron crisis. I ordered several nice rhododendrons from a site called, that appears to have unusual kinds that I've never seen in the local garden stores. Not that I have a wide collection of what's available in the garden stores, but somehow, I could not resist the lure of a redder red . . .a darker purple . . . an unusual blue. Anyway, the plants all arrived in excellent condition; most of them bloomed, despite being very small--I figure not only are large plants more expensive, they require MUCH more digging; I like to get them small and let them do some of their own digging. I noticed a few days ago that they all still seemed to be thriving--except for one, the Yaku Princess. I was quite thrilled when it bloomed; it showed promise of being just as gloriously beautiful as its picture. But then, just as the blooms began to fade, the whole plant became covered with gray fuzz. Had my lovely little rhododendron acquired some hideous mold or disease? Would it spread to the adjacent Purple Splendour and from there to the Lee's Dark Purple, and perhaps even to the small but healthy-looking mountain laurel on the other side? Should I scrub the mold off? Spray the poor little plant with some noxious pesticide? Apart from the mold, it seemed quite healthy, but clearly it was only a matter of time before it began to pine. And was it all somehow my fault?

I finally decided to email, explaining my problem, and was quite relieved to receive the following answer:

The white-felt new growth is typical of varieties with yakushimanum parentage. When the leaves mature the topside fuzz (tomentum) will come off, but the underside will still have a light tan felt underside (indumentum) . . . We have had several others who had thought the same thing. One lady even tried scrubbing it off the leaves!

I am so relieved. Not only that my Yaku Princess is not ill, but that I didn't torture the poor thing by scrubbing its leaves.

Having admitted my shortcomings as a gardener, I should report that on my morning tour of the back yard, I saw lilac, camassia, ipheion, and deutzia blooming.

I also spotted the first few cicadas I've seen, sitting on some of the little rhododendrons. I guess the invasion is about to start.

January 13, 2004
Celebrating horizontally
Someone congratulated me on Thursday (January 8) for not celebrating the completion of my book in my usual fashion--by getting sick. Usually only with a cold, but it's still not fun to spend your first few days of freedom from deadline tucked up in bed with a stack of tissue boxes and an armload of over-the-counter medicines. So I agreed that yes, wasn't it nice. I must be taking better care of myself. Managing stress better.

I should have recognized a jinx when I saw it.

Thursday night, I started feeling a slight pain in my ear. I assumed it was a reaction to the plunging temperatures, and possibly a harbinger of snow.

Friday morning I woke up with a full-blown earache.

Since the snow made me nervous about driving my injured car (more on that in a minute), I scrounged a ride to the doctor from my friend and neighbor, Dave, and found out that I had an ear canal infection. Swimmer's ear--though how I managed to acquire swimmer's ear in January is beyond me. The closest I've been to swimming in weeks was the occasional hot bath, and not many of those since the plumbing crisis reduced me to showers. (If you're getting the sense that many, many things tried to interfere with my making this latest book deadline, you're right.) But at least there's medicine to treat swimmer's ear, and it's highly unlikely to threaten my hearing.

So I did end up celebrating horizontally after all--tucked up in bed for a couple of days, letting the Advil dull the pain, and holding my head sideways so the ear drops wouldn't run out. And napping. My new favorite sport.

I managed to rouse myself for Saturday's Sisters in Crime meeting, because it was all about our chapter anthology. Clint Gaige of Quiet Storm Publishing has accepted the anthology, Chesapeake Crimes, and it will be officially out in April (and, we hope, available somewhat sooner, depending on how fast we can proof and the printer can print). Definitely out by Malice, which means that by convention time, in addition to a new Meg novel, I'll also have short stories out in two anthologies.

Meg stories, as it happens. My story for the SinC anthology, "Night Shades," is a crossover, in which Meg visits the fictional world of Helen Chappell's fabulous Oysterback novels. The other story, which I think I called "The Birthday Dinner," will appear in an anthology called Death Dines In, edited by Claudia Bishop and Dean James, and takes Meg and several nervous relatives to a meal at the house of an aunt who once did time for poisoning. I haven't seen the cover for this one yet, but the other two have wonderful covers. And as if to reward me for making the effort to go to the meeting, when I got home I found the first copy of Parrots waiting on my doorstep.

I celebrated with more Advil and eardrops, and a nice long nap.

By Monday, I felt better enough to take my car in for the estimate and repair. Finally. It was December 29th, on my way back from Yorktown, when I ran into the deer. I was only going 55 miles an hour, but along that part of route 17, the woods run right up to the road, so I didn't see the deer until it leaped out into the roadway about six feet in front of me. I'm not sure what the braking distance of a Honda Civic is, but it's considerably longer than six feet.

Since this was before I'd turned my manuscript in, my first reaction was, "Damn! I do not NEED this right now! I have a deadline!"

Relief that I was still alive, and consternation over the damage to my car, and sorrow over having killed a living animal, and a general case of the shakes followed, more or less simultaneously.

The right headlight was smashed; the right front door badly dented, and various plastic, metal, and glass parts were knocked askew, or in the case of the long plastic underbelly piece (the part that keeps grime from splashing up into your car from the road), dragging on the ground. The car that had been behind me stopped, and the driver, after asking if I was okay, wrenched the dragging plastic thing off, and pronounced my car okay to hit the road again.

Well, maybe--I haven't been driving it much while waiting to get through the red tape so I could take it in for repair. (Note to self: in future, avoid the holiday season when scheduling accidents involving vehicular damage.)

Not that I needed to drive much for the next few days--I spent Monday, Tuesday, and most of Wednesday making a few (okay, more than a few) final, last-minute changes to the manuscript of Access Denied, the third Turing Hopper book. I think the first time I got into the car again was Wednesday, when at 5:30 p.m. I loaded up my manuscript and headed over to my trusty UPS store.

Which was closed. Somehow I'd overlooked the fact that while to me, December 31 was the day I had to mail my manuscript to Berkley, for the rest of the world it was the eve of a major holiday. Oops.

Fortunately I made it to the nearby Office Depot a good fifteen minutes before they closed for the evening, and got the manuscript out of my hands and off my mind before the year ended.

A very nice way to celebrate the new year, if you ask me.

Of course, deep down I have the dispiriting notion that everyone else was doing a better job of this closing out the old year and starting the new year right business. Apparently most of my friends cleaned the house from top to bottom; paid all their bills; balanced their checkbooks; made generous 11th hour donations to their favorite charities; went to glamorous parties while also managing to open their back doors to let the old year/bad luck out and their front to let the new year/good luck in; arranged for a tall, dark-haired man to be the first man across their threshold in the new year, thus securing good luck; ate various culturally specific good luck foods (black-eyed peas and ham for this Virginian); and spent the day keeping all the virtuous resolutions they made for the coming year.

I closed out the old year proofing, typing, copying, panicking, and mailing out a manuscript and rang in the new by hanging around with friends, eating, talking, playing croquet, playing Settlers of Catan, and most of all, celebrating the fact that I finished the book. I'd like to have done all the organized things, too, but you can't have everything.

Now I'm still in catching up mode. Catching up on all the things I didn't do while I was on deadline, because I'm about to rev up for the next deadline. Yesterday, getting the car in for repair. Next, proofing the galleys for Chesapeake Crimes. Luckily that's something I can do horizontally, because I think it's time for more Advil and eardrops.

December 14, 2003
A cool birthday present

Yesterday, I got the news that Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon had been nominated by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association for the Dilys award. Very cool under any circumstances, but particularly nice arriving on my birthday. Many thanks, booksellers!

A writer friend, Anne Grant, asked what it was like having a birthday so close to Christmas.

My answer? Kind of a bummer.

Kindly friends and relatives: "What do you want for Christmas?"

Me: "I have a birthday first."

Kindly F&R: "Oh, that's right. Well, we'll give you an extra special present for your birthday and Christmas, okay?"

Me: "I'd rather have two presents."

My parents read something in a book that seemed like good advice to them--when a kid has a birthday, you should always give his or her sibling(s) a present. (Not that hard to do with two kids; not sure how well it works for people with many kids.) Anyway they did. Which means that I got a present on my brother's May 18 birthday, easing what would otherwise have been a nearly year-long gift drought, and he got a small present on December 13, lightening the long wait from Thanksgiving to the arrival of Santa. I'm not saying we anticipated each other's birthdays with the same passionate greed as we did our own, but it did allow us to enter more fully into the spirit of the other's big day.

So while I fully approve of my brother and sister-in-law having my newly arrived nephews, Liam and Aidan, as little Sagittariuses (Sagittarii?), I can see already that with December 3 birthdays they'll suffer the same birthday-Christmas whammy I did. Perhaps I should become their eccentric aunt who not only writes murder mysteries but also celebrates their half birthday.

I spent part of my birthday putting up my Christmas tree and starting to decorate it. Another sign that I'm mellowing: I used to refuse to put up any holiday decorations until after my birthday was over. Now, I think I will merely insist that Aidan's and Liam's big day must be well and truly celebrated before Christmas tinsel makes its appearance.