Tuesday, October 14, 2014

HONOR AMONG THIEVES Sneak Peek: Meet Bluebell!

My new Regency romance series, The Honorables, kicks off in less than two weeks with the release of HONOR AMONG THIEVES on October 27. I can't believe it's already almost here! I'm so excited to share this novel with you. This story has been kicking around in the back of my mind for years, waiting for all the pieces to fall together. They finally did, and I'm thrilled with the result. I hope you will be, too.

While we're waiting for October 27 to get here, I thought I'd introduce you to one of the characters you'll encounter in this tale that carries us to the dark underbelly of Regency London. HAT's heroine, Lorna, joins a gang of resurrectionists, body snatchers who plundered graves and sold corpses to surgeon-anatomists for dissection. One of the members of the group is Bluebell, a bloodhound who sniffs out fresh graves. And though she has a grim job, Bluebell aspires to a cushier life. Click through for an excerpt, and a chance to win an advance e-copy of HONOR AMONG THIEVES:

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Announcing The Honorables!

So, after a long while of people asking me WHEN is my next book coming out, I finally have an answer for you: this fall!

I've just signed on with Crimson Romance again to release my new Regency Romance series, called The Honorables. The series will consist of five titles, three full-length novels and two novellas. Book one launches in October, with a new title coming out every three months. It's an ambitious schedule and I'm a little daunted, but I know I can do it! I've been thinking about this series for years, and I'm so happy to have the chance to bring it to you.

Who Are The Honorables?

Back in the day, groups of friends often named themselves and held club meetings. JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis both belonged to a small literary discussion group called The Inklings, for example. In current historical romance, you'll find The Survivors' Club, Mary Balogh's group of Napoleonic War veteran heroes, and Celeste Bradeley's Liar's Club, a group of Regency-era spies.

In a similar vein, I have formed The Honorables, a group of five friends who belong to noble families, but who will never inherit the title. The men meet at Oxford University, where they form their little society and bond over pints at the local pub. The friendship carries over to their adulthoods in London, and plays an integral part in each man's story.

The first member of the group you will meet is Brandon Dewhurst, the youngest of Viscount Marcel's five sons. He's an anatomist-surgeon, working on the frontier of medical knowledge in Regency London. He has a passion for his work, but knows the macabre nature of his calling and younger son status make him all-too-resistible to the young ladies of the haut ton's infamous Marriage Mart. Everything changes when he meets Lorna Robbins, a lady who doesn't mind his work, and who seems to be carrying a dark secret of her own.

Don't lie. I know you wish you were that brain in a jar. HOT!!!

What does 'The Honorables' mean?

History lesson time! During the Regency (and beyond, but I speak only about the time period in which I write), men who carried titles were referred to as Peers of the Realm. These are your dukes and marquesses and earls, etc. The Lords. The heirs of these titled noblemen might carry what is called a Courtesy Title. For example, the son of Joe Johnson, Earl of Chicago might be known as Viscount Indianapolis. It all had to do with how many titles the family patriarch possessed. In this example, the father owns both the earldom and viscountcy, but since he is only called by his highest title (Earl), his eldest son gets use of the next-highest title he owns (Viscount) until he dies. The heir's title, Lord Indianapolis, is a courtesy only, carrying no real legal weight. In the eyes of the law, he is a commoner. He does not become a peer in his own right until his father dies, making him the new earl.

The younger son(s) of the Earl of Chicago does not receive a courtesy title, no matter how many additional viscountcies or baronies might be attached to his father's name. He is simply referred to as Mr. Johnson, although his full legal title, in recognition of his family's status, is The Honorable Mister Johnson. Your boyfriend Mr. Darcy, the untitled grandson of an earl (his father was a younger son) carries the moniker The Honorable Mister Fitzwilliam Darcy.

The Honorable Misters Bingley and Darcy. When's the last time you read a Regency romance novel featuring a Mister?
That's what I thought.

And thus the name of both the group of friends, and the series. The Honorables is about men who aren't your typical Regency heroes. None of them are peers. There are no dukes, no earls, no viscounts. Each man belongs to a noble family led by a titled peer, but these are the younger sons or grandsons, the guys typically overlooked in contemporary Regency romance. Some of them, such as The Honorable Mr. Brandon Dewhurst in book one, have a profession, rendering them bad matches on the great Marriage Mart of the haut ton. Others, like book three's Lord Sheridan Zouche (courtesy title only; his legal name is The Honorable Mister Sheridan Zouche), are happy dwelling on the edges of the ballrooms and parlors, enjoying their allowances and lack of responsibility.

There are no grand estates to be inherited, no massive fortunes at stake, no titles to pass along. For this series, I have dug deeper into the Regency's rich, fascinating history to bring you stories you won't find elsewhere. Together, we'll explore the criminal underworld of body snatching, the East India Company's massive trade empire, a political campaign gone haywire, and so much more. Along the way, you'll meet the heroines who tame the hearts of these fiercely independent gentlemen. They are women like you, struggling with financial difficulties, family problems, and feelings of not fitting in. When they find their men, though... watch out. The sparks are going to fly, and the temperature is going to rise as wits and passion collide on the way to true love.

I hope you'll join me for this exciting journey.

Monday, May 5, 2014


Right this second, I'm sitting in the middle of a gorgeous green lawn, reclining in a lounge chair, with my laptop in my lap and my eyeballs closed. A refreshing breeze is blowing across my face and arms, while the sun's warmth keeps me from getting too cold. I'm on retreat. A writer's retreat. And it's heaven.

I just opened my eyes, but I can't make out the screen clearly on account of my sun-blinded eyeballs (turning one's face up to the sun will do that, I suppose, even with your lids clamped down), so I'll keep writing without the assistance of visual input for a while longer.

For the last few months, I've been dealing with my usual winter blahs. Spring arrived, but the inspiration didn't come with it. I haven't written as much or as well as I'd like. I have allowed myself to get caught up in everything else that needs my attention: children; spouse; laundry; house; cat. Meanwhile, the manuscript doesn't impose. It doesn't insist I work on it. It just sits on my hard drive, patiently waiting for me, accepting whatever bits of time I give it.

The trouble is, if you let it, a manuscript will do nothing but wait. In my experience, manuscripts EXCEL at waiting. They might even major in it at college. While they sit there, waiting all professional-like, everything else in a writer's life continues to demand her notice. Loudly. It's so easy to lose the stride, the fire.

Seriously, I can't see. What is this even?

Enter the writing retreat.

One of my very best friends in all the world knew I was struggling, and she generously invited me to come to her home to work. She and her husband (another of my very favorites) have treated me like an honored guest, their Author In Residence, while I've been here. They've seen to my every need while I have taken over a whole portion of their house, spreading my research materials, computer, and personal belongings all over the place. They've fed me beautiful meals and refused to allow me to do the dishes. They've told me my only responsibility here is to get inspired and WRITE.

And boy howdy, I have written.

It's amazing what miracles a change of scenery can do, what wonders can be wrought by a temporary reprieve from responsibility. With nothing else to focus on, my brain has been working in overdrive, churning out more words in the last four days than I've written in the whole last month. Right this minute, writing isn't something that's getting in the way of all the other stuff I have to do for my family and home. It's a pleasure, a wonderful, beautiful pleasure. THIS is why high school and college students can churn out poem after poem. When you've got nothing to do but think about the story... you think about the story. And you write it. And maybe also a blog post for the poor, neglected blog.

Calling an event like this a retreat is apt. What is a retreat, but an occasion to pull back and regroup? When faced with an overwhelming situation, a retreat allows a writer (or an army) to strategically refocus the effort where it's most needed.

Tomorrow is my last day of retreat. Wednesday, I return to my life and all the business that is going to try to pull me away from my writing. I hope to carry with me the feeling of my retreat, of being able to disengage from everything around me for a short time to focus on the work. To remember why it is I love writing so freaking much.

Friday, February 28, 2014


by: A.A. Milne
She wore her yellow sun-bonnet,
She wore her greenest gown;
She turned to the south wind
And curtsied up and down.
She turned to the sunlight
And shook her yellow head,
And whispered to her neighbour:
'Winter is dead.' 

Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter, hasn't it?

Even here in the South, we've had more than our fair share of gray skies, sub-arctic temperatures, and rain falling to earth in an unnatural, solid state. In a region where any amount of snowfall is a rare treat, this winter has taught us to dread the words "frozen precipitation" This has been the year of the Polar Vortex, a climate event that sounds like it was conceived in the volcano lair of a Bond villain.

The entire North American continent is suffering from the winter blahs, but this week I spotted the light at the end of the tunnel: My daffodils bloomed.

These aren't my actual flowers. Or my actual barn. These are paid re-enactors.

I'm usually not much for spring. Typically, we get a week or two of pleasant spring temps, accompanied by bucketfuls of pollen in the air, and then we plow right on into summer. Spring is a quick pit stop on the way to the main event--heat and humidity.

But this year... man, I'm really digging the idea of spring. When I saw the daffodils in my front yard burst into their glorious yellow blooms, my heart opened right along with them. Yesterday, we woke up to yet another frost on the ground, and I feared the flowers were done for. But this morning they're nodding in the breeze, defying the lingering cold and forcing bright color onto our muted landscape of brown and gray.

When I studied abroad in France during college, I took an oral presentation course. One of our assignments was to speak about a festival in our hometowns. I'll never forget the speech given by a Swedish student. She told us about her town's annual spring festival, how everyone got together for days of music and revelry to celebrate having made it through the winter. In my area, we celebrate particular crops, like watermelons, peaches, cucumbers, peanuts... whatever a given little town produces lots of. The idea of celebrating basic survival touches on something primal and intrinsic. And after the brutal season we've endured, I think we're all due a little fun.

Spring reaches past our modern, civilized exterior to grab us right by our pagan roots. To this day, all of our spring holidays are about fertility, sex, new life, renewal. The ground thaws to accept seeds. Plants engage in passive sexual reproduction and douse our cars and our respiratory tracts with their sperm. Spring fever hits humans and other animals, granting us increases in energy and sexual appetites. The entire hemisphere (Sorry, Antipodeans, you already had your turn.) pulses with vigor and desire.

It's little wonder our ancestors welcomed spring with music and dancing and wine and fertility rites and feasting and little fuzzy bunnies and chicks. Flowers and soil and green and youth and breasts and sap and cherubs and the sun. The sun. That glorious giver of life and light. It came back. And we honor it, we thank it for keeping its promise. Every civilization throughout history has worshiped the sun. How can we not?

The sentiment... I get it.

I know winter isn't quite over for a lot of you. There's still a stretch of miserable cold and dreary, leaden skies in the coming weeks, but we're almost there. I promise. Daffodils don't lie. Hang in there. The ice is slowly melting.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Be Mine

Today is February 14, Valentine's Day, a holiday with the power to reduce the best of us to quivering heaps of adolescent uncertainty: Is it too soon to get him a gift? Will she think I lack imagination if I buy her chocolates? Will the comically oversized box earn back originality points? What if he doesn't like teddy bears? Haven't we been together too long for this nonsense? Is it weird to say "Happy Valentine's Day" to my boss, or is it weirder not to say anything?

Someone you encounter today will tell you Valentine's Day is a made-up holiday pushed by a secret coalition of greeting card companies, candy cabals, and floral cartels trying to boost profits in the post-Christmas slump. Those people are wrong.

Maybe. The above could only have come from a soulless
Faustian fraternity working in concert with the minions of Hell.

Here are some fun facts about the history of Valentine's Day you can use to put the naysayers in their place, and to dazzle your friends and lovers.

You might know that Valentine's Day originated as a Catholic feast commemorating St. Valentine, but did you know there is more than one St. Valentine honored by the day? Valentine of Terni was a second century bishop martyred during the Roman persecution of Christians. When he was jailed for preaching his faith, he reputedly healed his jailer's daughter of blindness, thus earning a few new converts and a date with clubs, stones, and the executioner's axe. Valentine of Rome hails from the fifth century. He was also persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, and executed. Romance! Legend has it that Mr. Of Rome performed secret marriage ceremonies for Roman soldiers, who were forbidden to marry. His flower-adorned skull is a relic on display in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin.

Your move, Hallmark.

The feast of St. Valentine was not originally fixed to the fourteenth day of February. Even today, the Eastern Orthodox church honors the Saints Valentine in July, on the sixth for Valentine of Rome, and on the thirtieth for Valentine of Terni.

Valentine's Day was first connected to romantic love by Geoffrey Chaucer in the high middle ages. To commemorate the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia, he penned "Parlement of Foules," which begins:

For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

Mid-February isn't really sexy time for most species of birds in England, so this poem also provides a clue that Valentine's Day wasn't always observed on 14 February, but sometime later in the spring. Also, we know the engagement was made official in a treaty signed May 2, 1381. Aww, political marriages. Romance!

Over the next many centuries, Valentine's Day really hit its stride. It was a big hit with followers of the courtly love traditions. Valentine love poems and letters dating back to the 1400's have survived to tell the tale. Donne and Shakespeare both wrote about Valentine's Day ( in "An Epithalamion, Or Mariage Song, On The Lady Elizabeth, And Count Palatine Being Married On St. Valentines Day" and Hamlet, respectively).

The giving of flowers and chocolates on Valentine's Day are folk traditions from the UK which commemorate the early advent of spring. In some places, sweets and gifts were left for children, while other communities latched onto it as a celebration of romantic love.

The ducks are an interesting artistic choice.
Charges of mass-produced sentiment are frequently leveled at manufactures of greeting cards, but you can't blame American Greetings for spreading a bad idea. In 1797, The Young Man's Valentine Writer was published in Britain. Its pages were filled with verses a young swain could copy out to send his beloved. A few commercially produced cards embellished with sketches and poems, called "mechanical Valentines," were available in the late 1700's, although they were not manufactured on a large scale until the Victorian era. By the turn of the nineteenth century, young lovers of both sexes were sending an astonishing number of poems and letters to one another through the post, using the holiday as an excuse to toss propriety to the wind.

A couple years back, one of my favorite blogs, Two Nerdy History Girls, featured this amazing anti-Valentine's Day screed written in 1805 by an indignant father and published in The Gentleman's Magazine:

 My eldest daughter who never receives any letter which she would wish to conceal from her parents, finding that her billet contained what appeared to be Poetry, began to read it to us; but she fortunately had not gone beyond the second line, when I recollected (from having heard of them in my boyish days) what the sequel was; and, snatching, as quick as lightning, the abominable Valentine from her hands before she could possibly arrive at the meaning, threw it upon the fire, congratulating my daughter on having escaped reading the most horrid obscenity that depravity could invent.

This is just an excerpt. I encourage you to read the whole post at Two Nerdy History Girls for the entire, hilarious epistle. The gentleman must have, in his own youth, utilized a publication akin to The Young Man's Valentine Writer, to be so familiar with the "horrid obscenity" his daughter received in the morning post.

On Life's Sea
In Love's Boat
Ever with thee
I would float

The poetry really hasn't gotten any worse, although that's not saying much.

From Victorian times onward, commercial valentines have been a mainstay of the holiday, making observation of the occasion affordable for everyone, down to the least popular kid in the fourth grade.

I hope you've enjoyed this little overview of the history of Valentine's Day. Whether you're celebrating with a special loved one, children, friends, or a box of chocolates pour un, do so with a clear mind, knowing that by sending flowers and buying cornball greeting cards, you're doing your part to uphold ancient, proud traditions.

Thursday, February 6, 2014


Almost three years ago (Has this blog been around that long? Yikes!) I wrote about my annoyance with the use of "Lolita" as a pejorative. I'm here today to rant about another inappropriately hijacked name-turned-adjective:


This one doesn't stem from the misunderstanding of a fictional character, but rather from an incomplete comprehension of a real man's literary legacy.

Yes, Elizabeth, I hear you saying, but what does it mean? I'm so glad you asked!

Machiavellian or Machiavelian  (ˌmækɪəˈvɛlɪən) 
— adj
1.of or relating to the alleged political principles of Machiavelli; cunning, amoral, and opportunist
— n
2.a cunning, amoral, and opportunist person, esp a politician

Wow, that Machiavelli guy must have pretty bad, to have a whole word meaning "evil politician" dubbed in his honor, huh?

Bzzzzt! Wrong!

So, what's all the hubub about this man? How can I claim his name shouldn't be shorthand for everything we hate about politics and politicians? Good questions. Let's discuss!

Dark Ages are over, baby! Somebody bust out the
scientific method and the booze. Wooo! 
Niccolò Machiavelli, known today as the father of political science, was born in Florence, Italy in 1469. The keen among you will note that this places him squarely in the Italian Renaissance. Though a wonderful era for the arts, sciences, literature, and philosophy, it was sort of a crap time for Italian politics. In fact, the nation of Italy, as we know it, did not yet exist. Instead, Italy was a collection of independent city-states constantly warring over territory. And within the city-states (Venice and Florence being the biggest kids on the block), rival political factions kept overthrowing one another. The Papacy was active in fighting for land, as were foreign powers such as France, Spain, and Switzerland. It was all very tumultuous.

Over the years, Florence, Machiavelli's hometown, had gone back and forth between a republic system of government, and a monarchy. At the time of his birth, the Medici family had held Florence for half a century. But they were ousted from power in 1494, and the republic was reestablished.

Niccolò was an educated young man with a keen interest in history and politics. He held several posts in the Florentine government, serving as a diplomat to foreign courts, and running the city-state's militia for a time.

In 1512, the Medici returned to power, dissolving the republic, and in 1513, Machiavelli was imprisoned. Accused of conspiring against the Medicis, he was brutally tortured for three weeks before he was finally released. He retired to his country home outside the city, where he tried to stay involved in politics through his writing. He was a renowned intellectual. Besides his political writings, he penned books on history and war, as well as poems, plays, and other works of fiction. He died in 1527, at the age of 58.

Nope. Nothing remotely diabolical here.

So, where in this brief sketch of a biography will you find the underpinnings of the term Machiavellian? Niccolò himself seems a rather unassuming sort. He never possessed political power of his own, and was never more than a minor player in the government.

The term finds its roots in Machiavelli's most famous political treatise, The Prince. In it, Machiavelli discusses the different types of princes, namely hereditary and new. Machiavelli offers advice for those in power. Drawing from historical and contemporary examples, he uses the successes and failures of others to support his points.

Controversy swirled around The Prince almost as soon as it was published. Within its pages, you see, Niccolò Machiavelli asserts that a strong prince must do whatever it takes to seize control, stabilize the government, and retain his power. A prince must be willing and able to behave in immoral ways in order to meet these ends, including eliminating those who could threaten his position, lying, faithlessness, and developing a false morality to present to the populace. "But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic [faithlessness], and to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived."

Oooooh. Okay. Yeah. Now we're starting to get to the bottom of this Machiavellian situation. That doesn't look very good for old Niccolò, does it?

But here's the thing:

A lot of what Machiavelli says in The Prince is true. The leaders of countries really do have to grapple with decisions we'd consider immoral. Most of us can agree that killing is bad, mkay, but we know there's always the chance of war being declared. It may be justifiable in certain circumstances, but ordering the deaths of human beings is immoral. Yet we expect our leaders to be able to send armies out to kill human beings. So we, as a society, already accept a measure of immoral conduct in those who rule. And many of Machiavelli's observations regarding the nature of politicians sound just as accurate now as they did 500 years ago. Take, for example, this passage:

For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them.

Well, hey there, every politician ever! Look at you, espousing God and Country and Family and Children on the tee vee, while behind closed doors you're taking money from special interest groups, doing favors for your corporate buddies, and engaging in tawdry affairs in airport bathrooms and Oval Offices and the like. That's pretty spot-on, yeah?

But for centuries, historians and philosophers have wondered whether Machiavelli really meant what he was saying in The Prince, or if he was maybe up to something. The first clue is found right at the beginning of the book, in the dedication:

To the magnificent Lorenzo Di Piero De' Medici

You may recall that time, about ten paragraphs ago (man, this post is a lot longer than I thought it would be), when the Medicis had Machiavelli imprisoned and tortured for three weeks. So, what gives? Why dedicate his book to the dude who introduced him to the joys of strappado?

More like Lorenzo de' MeDouchey, amirite?

One idea is that Machiavelli was just toadying up to the man who could decide to make a human pinata out of him again whenever the fancy struck him. And you know, I wouldn't even say that's a terrible idea.

Some people, including the philosophers Diderot and Rousseau, argued that The Prince is satire. Others have hypothesized that the true audience of The Prince is not the nobility at all, who would already know everything Machiavelli advises, but the common people, who might be inclined (in the early 16th century, anyway) to trust the promises of their princes and kings, and to think them upright, pious men based on what they see in public.

One intriguing theory even suggests that Machiavelli--in true Machiavellian fashion--was attempting to lure Lorenzo de'Medici into a situation in which the people of Florence could easily rise up and overthrow him. In support of this idea is the fact that in The Prince, Machiavelli advises Lorenzo to arm the people, live inside the city, shun liberality, and lie to the citizenry. That's... kind of a genius recipe for disaster.

He looks so much less menacing with his eyeballs
properly filled in.

Additionally, The Prince is not the sum of Machiavelli's work. Following The Prince, he wrote another, much longer, political treatise. This one, titled Discourses on Livy, extolled the virtues of republics. In this book, he sets forth a system of checks and balances between the prince, the nobility, and the people. Contrary to the immoral behavior advised in The Prince, in the Discourses, Machiavelli states that extra-constitutional means should never be necessary in a republic (Some commentators have even suggested that The Prince is meant to demonstrate the moral superiority of republics.). He says that governments of the people are better than governments of princes. And it doesn't get more clear than this: "... if we compare the faults of a people with those of princes, as well as their respective good qualities, we shall find the people vastly superior in all that is good and glorious."

So... Machiavellian? I think there's a strong case to be made that Niccolò Machiavelli's work has been unfairly reduced to The Prince. The entirety of his political work and writings suggest he was strongly in favor of republics by and for the people. A true Machiavellian, therefore, would trust the people to govern better than a prince ever could.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

In Memoriam

On January 24, 2014, my beloved grandmother, Grandma Vel, passed away at the age of 92. I've been away from the blog for a few months and this isn't how I imagined coming back, but I hope you'll indulge me. The following post is adapted from the eulogy I wrote for her memorial.

Vel in 1942, age 21

For Vel

As I thought about the memorial service, one of my first considerations was to worry about what I should wear. Even though the small service was just for our family, the occasion seemed to warrant more than my usual jeans-and-a-t-shirt wardrobe. I considered shopping for something a rung or two up the formal ladder of attire.

But then I remembered a particular Sunday morning, during one of my sister's and my summer visits to Grandma Vel's. This would have been, I believe, the summer between my seventh and eighth grade years of school. We were all getting ready to go to church. While Sis and I donned our dresses and brushed our hair, Grandma's voice erupted from her room, in one of her usual exclamations of frustration, “Oh, Godfrey!” followed by her laughter. We found her sitting on the edge of her bed, struggling to pull on a twisted pair of pantyhose. She cursed and grunted until she'd shown them who was boss, and then complained the whole morning about how uncomfortable they were. It was the only pair of nylons she owned, she later explained, and she hadn't worn them in years. The elastic had given out, so the pantyhose sagged at the ankles. Her wrestling match with them had put a run one leg, and the toe seams showed through her sandals. When we got home, she threw them away and changed back into her own comfortable uniform, jeans-and-a-button-down. It didn't occur to me until today that I might have gotten some of my fashion sense from Grandma, but I think I must have, and I know she would want us to be comfortable here.

When I think about Grandma, I remember how she always seemed larger-than-life. She was tall, with broad shoulders and a bit of a swagger in her step. Even when I'd grown taller than her, she was still something of a giant in my mind. When she was excited, the concept of an “inside voice” escaped her. She spoke loud, she laughed loud. Her heart was large and overflowed with love, especially for small animals, such as stray cats and her granddaughters. Vel took up a lot of room. She was a landmark, a destination, all by herself. Only a landscape as expansive as her much-loved Zion National Park could house a woman as brimming with life as she.

Vel is the baby in her mother's lap. Two more would be born after her.
The oldest few were already grown and gone.

Vel was born in 1921, one of seventeen children, to poor Danish immigrants. She grew up in a small coal mining town in Utah that no longer exists. As I thought about what I should say in my remarks, I knew I couldn't really talk about any of her family history, as it falls beyond my area of authorial expertise. I didn't witness her bucolic childhood in Spring Canyon, nor did I watch her grow up in a tribe of sisters. As a young woman, she developed her talents as an artist and a songstress, singing on live radio to great acclaim, and painting canvases of the untamed wilderness which inspired her. She became a woman I never met, riding in a standing-room-only troop transport train for her brief honeymoon in San Francisco, and riveting bombers during World War II. I like to think we'd have been friends, had we met at a play group as young mothers, with our arms and laps and houses full of children. I look at photos from that time in Vel's life and recognize a kindred sense of harried weariness, of love and exhaustion so deeply entwined it doesn't seem you can ever pull one from the other. But I'll never know. That wasn't my experience with her.

My father is the well-behaved one on the right.
Since she passed, I've been reflecting a lot on what my relationship with Vel was, and what it wasn't. I don't know what it was like to grow up with Vel for my mother. I can only imagine the family was complicated, as all families are. Vel's children would have adored her when they were young, and hated and been embarrassed by her when they were teenagers. As a parent, she probably often fell short of her own desires, and her children's expectations. This is the way of being a mother.

I don't know what it was like to have Vel for a mother-in-law. Mom always spoke of her with fondness and respect. Maybe everything was smooth sailing between them. Maybe there was some underlying judgment and animosity I never knew about.

To me, she was always Grandma Vel. In all of my life, she is the only person from whom I have ever felt complete and total acceptance. I believe it must be the prerogative of grandparents and grandchildren to find in one another not just the potential for, but the fulfillment of, perfection. Vel used to praise Mom's late mother, Liz, as a paragon of ladyhood. She admired Liz's genteel manners and said she felt like “a bull in a china shop” next to her. But to me, her brash ways were every bit as instructive in the art of Womanhood as Liz's more subtle, cultured example.

1962, still waiting for Nelson Eddy to sweep her away.

From Vel, I learned that that the simple pleasures in life were just as marvelous as the finer things, that an evening at home playing cards and sipping margaritas was the best thing in the world, as long as you spent it with the right people. She taught me a woman should never leave home without three essentials: her lipstick, so she'd always be presentable; some tissues, useful in civilization or the wilderness; and chewing gum, so your breath will be fresh, in the event your dream Latin lover suddenly materializes at your side.

Another family pet. This one she called Fury,
presumably because she'd trained him to tear the faces
off of intruders. Don't let the fluffy ears fool you.
On the same summer holiday I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, when Vel wrestled with and discarded those hated nylons, we had one of my first mature heart-to-heart discussions on the subject of spirituality and religion. I don't remember how the conversation started; I probably asked her why she so rarely went to church. But I remember well her telling me that she felt closer to God when she was out in nature than she ever did inside a building. Vel didn't need organized religion telling her how to find God. Her deity was all around her in the mountains. He was in the yard she worked so hard to make beautiful. He was in Mop and Sandy, her dear little dogs. Even though it was different from how she'd been raised, and from what some of her children came to embrace for themselves, Vel found a spiritual path that fit her perfectly. A little bit Christian; a little bit Pagan; a little bit Pantheist. As far as I know, Vel didn't have a word for her beliefs, and she didn't need one. It was something just for her, and it didn't matter if anyone else in the world agreed with her. She taught me that's it's ok to break from convention, and to hold fast to what is right for myself.

I have frequently said that I feel like an imposter grownup. Sometimes, I feel as insecure as I did in high school, and I'm sure that one day, some government agents will turn up at my door and charge me with impersonating an adult. But then I remember Grandma Vel, and how she never felt her age, either. Even in the last few years, when she was living in a nursing home and mostly confined to a wheel chair, she groused about being surrounded by old folks. Vel never got old. She took French lessons and learned to use the computer and socialized with her friends, refusing to let something as inconsequential as the passage of time put a damper on her enjoyment of life. She showed me that I may not be able to escape the indignities that come with age, but I never have to feel—or be—old.

Vel, on the right, with one of her sisters (center)
and a childhood friend. Vel never lost her youthful
sense of fun.

In return, my sister and I provided Vel with a constant source of grandparental pride. She thrilled at our good grades. She thought we were beautiful. She invited the neighbors over to coo at our sweet, Southern accents. She called us by the endearments Little Sweet, or Living Doll. Even the one time I recall her wanting to fuss at us for sneaking out of bed and staying up late was turned around when she discovered we'd broken bedtime to secretly bake a cake for her birthday the following day. Her disappointment in our behavior was turned to surprised delight in the blink of an eye.

She loved us the way she did everything, big and loud and a little bit unruly. I know neither Sis nor I will ever forget the time we broke down on the side of the interstate on our way to catch our flight home from Vegas. Grandma's one-armed neighbor, Ann, gave us a lift. We stopped at a casino in Mesquite, Nevada for lunch. Vel and Ann got carried away on the slot machines, so we were late getting back on the road. When the car broke down a short time later, in the middle of the Nevada desert in the middle of a hot, summer day, the time crunch made it an even greater catastrophe than it would have been otherwise. But Vel didn't hesitate in her purpose. She knew she had to get her babies to the airport, and so she flagged down a perfect stranger and commandeered his vehicle. My sister and I perched on the piles of paperback books in the backseat of his car while Grandma hopped into the front passenger seat and ordered the man to drive us to Vegas. Damn if he didn't drive us a good hour and a half, right to the curbside dropoff at the airport, never once protesting Grandma hijacking his car and his time.

Vel was proud of my efforts as a writer. When I sent her a copy of Once a Duchess, she locked everyone out of her room at the nursing home while she spent the weekend reading, so she could call me on Monday to discuss the novel. She told me that she showed it off to all the residents and staff.

The author and Vel in 2011. I smuggled tequila into the nursing home to
make her a proper margarita. A fine time was had by all.

She even praised my mundane accomplishments. When the eldest Master Boyce was two months old, Mom and I took him out to see Grandma Vel for Thanksgiving. One afternoon, we left her home with the baby, with a bottle of pumped milk to give him when he became hungry. She repeatedly marveled over and complimented the cream content of the milk, as though I had personally invented the perfect food for infants. Everything I did was really and truly wonderful, and to me, she was every bit as perfect.

Because Grandma Vel lived so far away, visits were always an event. In my mind, Grandma Vel will always be a vacation. She's a special holiday of mutual adoration and affection, smelling of White Linen and dusty, Western skies. She is soaring mountains and horseback rides. Rock shops and bumbleberry pie. She is Good and Plenty candies, licorice nips, and a drawer full of reused aluminum foil. She is lava rocks and zoysia grass, apricots and cherries. She is her wonderful paintings, her extraordinary voice, and her unfettered enthusiasm for living.

My time with Grandma Vel is like a strand of pearls, each occasion beautiful unto itself, but becoming more precious as they are gathered together, becoming a rare and precious heirloom on the silken strand of my life.