The magic of instant friendship.

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I came home from work the other day to find my little lady in her bedroom, lying on the bed with her laptop open and the Christmas lights she keeps strung around the room all year long plugged in. She was creating a website for a school project and had her phone propped up next to her so that she could FaceTime with a friend. Sounds like pretty much any thirteen-year-old in America, right? But this isn’t just any friend–this is a friend she met at the pool in Mexico when we vacationed there four years ago, and he–yes, he–lives in Virginia. So while she’s doing her pre-dinner homework here on the West coast, he’s playing around on his flight simulator on the East coast where it’s three hours later in the evening. They giggled and chatted as they worked on their individual pursuits, so I closed the bedroom door and went to change out of my work clothes, thinking how small the world must seem to them. I mean, I’ve met people and lost people and found them all over again (or never found them again at all) so many times throughout the years–to think that keeping in touch and seeing the face of someone you met so randomly is this easy for them seems strange. Their world is so different.

Her muted laughter drifted from her bedroom down the hall as I unwound my scarf and took off my earrings, and I thought about the day these two unlikely friends met, and about the way I’d pulled some hotel stationary from my pool bag and scribbled some thoughts as they played together under the sun. Though I hadn’t seen the paper in a few years, I knew I still had it tucked away somewhere, so I went in search of it. I found it folded in fours and tucked between the pages of a leather-bound journal in a drawer. Here is what I wrote:

She’d waited four days. Four long days for a playmate. Four days of settling on Mama as a swim date. Four days of conducting the ocean in its rise and fall with her long arms, unaware of my camera trained on her.

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And then finally he came. Not the fellow nine-year-old girl she’d hoped for. Not someone she could talk Barbies with, but a dark-haired eight-year-old in swim trunks and a black swim shirt with a pirate emblazoned on the chest. Prior to his arrival, there’d been fits and starts of “What’s your name?” and unremarkable snubs by girls who already had sisters and friends to play with. They didn’t need her. These repeated social letdowns had left her wrapped in a towel in tears by my side all week, but in one swift move of friendliness and curiosity, this boy in the pirate shirt had taught her one of life’s special secrets: sometimes boys are just easier.

He asked her where she was from and quickly explained to her why our four-hour trip from PDX to Cabo would take five-and-a-half hours on our return: “Headwinds or drag,” he said knowingly. “I’m kind of a plane expert.” He told us he was a member of the Beckford Barracuda swim team back in Richmond, Virginia. He told us he could swim the backstroke in 1:12, and that he knew how to have underwater tea parties. He told us he’d be happy to help us with our fries, which we were snacking on poolside on this, our first all-inclusive vacation and our first trip to Mexico. I slid the plate in his direction.

I could see that she was put off by the fact that he didn’t need her name in order to pursue this friendship, and that he seemed to want to share with her every piece of information he’d ever gleaned during his eight years on planet Earth. His desire to bring her into his world was charming, in my opinion, so in addition to “Sometimes boys are just easier to make friends with than girls,” I whispered another of life’s little secrets in her ear before she dove back into the pool: “Sometimes boys like to talk. A lot. Just let them. You’ll get your turn when they finally run out of things to say.” She nodded and snapped her aqua-tinted goggles back into place, took a deep breath, and dove into the turquoise pool after him.

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“Holly,” he said sometime later. “Want to go in the jacuzzi?”

“Sure.” She shrugged, trailing after him.

Want to go in the jacuzzi?” my husband intoned, eyebrows raised. “I thought she hated the jacuzzi! I thought she was the jacuzzi police–’No one under sixteen allowed.’”

“Not anymore,” I smiled, watching as she followed her new friend across the pool deck.

Now, post-jacuzzi, they have set up camp on a shared towel under some stranger’s umbrella, the roiling Sea of Cortez a backdrop to their games of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and hand claps. I watch them with mild envy as my baby replaces me as her only playmate on this trip, and wonder what impression this brief friendship under the sun will have on either of their young hearts. Will this self-professed “plane expert”–this boy who patiently explained to my daughter that she lives in the Washington with Seattle in it, not Washington D.C. where the president lives–will he grow up and remember this day? Will he one day think of blonde-haired, red-shouldered Holly from Spring Break in Cabo? Will he write about her? Perhaps fashion a poem as a grad student about a long-legged girl in a purple bikini who swam with the dolphins but wouldn’t race him in the backstroke? Or will it fade from memory for both of them, lost as many things are in the haze of childhood–like the pink sun setting just west of the crashing waves of the Sea of Cortez?

When ‘Christmas Key’ comes to the Big Screen.

**insert laughing emoji face with tears streaming**

I mean, a girl has to dream, right? Because whether I’m reading or writing a book, the characters and places come to life in my head, and at a certain point it really is like watching a movie, isn’t it? This has been a busy month so far, with school starting up again (our school district decided high school needed to start an hour later, so not only is our schedule bumped back, but I took on an extra class at the end of the day, which means I’m now getting home at 5:00…not exactly teacher’s hours anymore!), and I also managed to get Book 2 in my Christmas Key series, Wild Tropics, published and out into the world. I’m really proud of being in the middle of an actual series now, and I’m currently working on a novella about Jake–one of the main characters–that will give some background information about how he ended up on a tropical island in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.

But as I work on my stories, of course I have ideas about who the characters are, and who they look like. So, without further ado, allow me to cast the Hollywood version of Christmas Key:

Holly Baxter, Christmas Key’s 30-year-old mayor: I see her as sort of a blue-eyed Keira Knightly. Pretty, but kind of serious. A little quirky.

Jake Zavaroni, Christmas Key’s only police officer and Holly’s ex-boyfriend: Jake Gyllenhaal. Good-looking. Honest eyes. Looks like he’d be a tough but good-hearted cop.

Bonnie Lane, Holly’s assistant at the B&B: 50-ish, a Southern belle who loves men. A real saucepot–like a Golden Girls era Rue McClanahan, with a thick accent and a Blanche Devereaux sense of humor.

River O’Leary, Holly’s love interest who visits the island from Oregon: 30-ish, tall, good sense of humor, ex-pro baseball player for the Mets. Paul Walker–no question.

Maria Agnelli, the island’s resident cantankerous octogenarian: 86, a widow with a sharp tongue and a kooky streak. This is where my love of the Golden Girls becomes obvious (okay: we can call it an obsession)–Maria Agnelli is 100% Sophia Petrillo.

Cap Duncan, owner of North Star Cigars: looks like a pirate who walks around with a parrot on his shoulder. A little grumpy with a lot of secrets. I picture him as Donald Sutherland with slightly longer hair and a gold hoop earring.

Leo Buckhunter and Dr. Fiona Potts, Holly’s uncle and his girlfriend, Fiona, who is both the island’s only doctor and Holly’s best friend: Buckhunter is a grizzled, tattooed Matthew McConaughey in my mind, and that never wavers. Fiona is a petite, smart, funny woman in her 40s, and although I think of her with more strawberry blonde hair, she’s definitely a Reese Witherspoon.

Coco Baxter, Holly’s mother: late 40s. Self-involved, self-centered, self-serving. She and Holly aren’t close, and while she doesn’t technically live on the island, she visits all the time and her negative presence is always felt. I see her as a crisp (though not British) Kristin Scott Thomas. Remote and with an attitude, but beautiful.

I’ll be sure to let you know when the movie premiere is so you can be there! **insert another laughing/crying emoji again here**

Happy fall!

RRBC Book and Blog Party 2016!

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Welcome to this stop on the blog tour! This is our first time participating, and we’re really excited to join you from Vancouver, Washington. We’ll have two winners today here at Redbirds & Rabbits, and all you need to do to enter is comment on this blog post. Our two prizes today (both randomly drawn by the RRBC team) are:

  • One $25 gift card to Old Navy (perfect for back-to-school shopping!)
  • One paperback copy of There’s Always a Catch, the first book in my Christmas Key women’s fiction series. Along with the book, I’ll send you some “book swag” like a magnet and my own homemade soundtrack of songs inspired by There’s Always a Catch and the forthcoming Wild Tropics, which is book #2 of the series!

It’s exciting to have you join us from wherever you are on this beautiful planet, and we’d love to tell you a little bit more about ourselves. My name is Stephanie, and I’m the mom. Holland is my 12-year-old daughter, and we’re the co-authors of a series that Holland dreamed up two summers ago. From her original idea, we decided to write books about what it might feel like for young girls to move to America. Each book is about a girl from a different country, and the main character’s story follows her as she moves to our country and gets assimilated. We published our first book, Iris, about a year ago, and we’re incredibly excited to announce that we just put out our second book, Mai, a few days ago.

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In addition to the books I write with my daughter, I also pen a women’s series based on a fictional island off the coast of Florida called “Christmas Key.” The main character, Holly Baxter, is the 30-year-old mayor of a tropical island where the only traffic comes from slow-moving golf carts driven by retirees; the commute to work involves getting sand between your toes; and happy hour means salty margaritas with a view of the ocean. The only drawback for Holly is the lack of romantic options on Christmas Key! Book one, There’s Always a Catch, came out in the spring, and book two of the series, Wild Tropics, will be out in September.

TAAC-CK-BK-ONE-f          WildTropics-TAAC-f

And finally (as if two series and being a full-time teacher wasn’t enough!) I write YA under the pen name Reed Hall. My first YA book, @Robertopancake, came out last year, and it was a book that I absolutely loved writing. The whole thing was inspired by an exchange about music that I had with a kid on Twitter back when the site first became popular, and it moved me to write this book from the perspective of a teenage boy. The real @Robertopancake kindly gave me permission to take his (often hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking) teenage boy tweets out of context and use them in my own fictional tale. The result is a book that I’m still incredibly proud of, and the main character is someone I love as if he’s a real, live boy (and many of my readers have said they wished he was real!).

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Thank you for stopping by today–we’ve loved being a part of the Rave Reviews Book Club the past few months, and this blog tour has been a great example of what a wonderful, supportive community it is. Happy reading and writing, everyone!

~Stephanie & Holland

Designing a small office on the cheap.

So we have this playhouse–this adorable little space in our backyard that can’t be more than 5 feet by 6 feet–that my husband built entirely from instructions he found online about eight years ago. It started out as a playhouse for Holly, and we picked pink for the walls, filled it with plastic food and dishes, stuffed animals and dress-up clothes, and then let her make up games and play with friends out there. (These pics are from Labor Day weekend 2010–oh, how I miss that tiny girl!)

At some point we put a desk in there and added some “writing stuff”–books, inspiration boards, and our collection of red birds and rabbits–and she and I used it to work on our stories together. lady & lou

But this summer she’d finally stopped playing out there when friends came over, so we got rid of the last remnants of pretend food, gave away the tiny table and chairs where she’d used her plastic cash register to sell imaginary burgers and fries, and talked about making it a more inspiring space for both of us. She was loathe to say good-bye to the pink walls, but I finally convinced her we should try something new, and we agreed on blue.

I didn’t want to go crazy spending money on redesigning such a small space, so here’s what we did:

  • sold the old desk and chair set on Craigslist for $40
  • Bought a gallon of paint (“Resolute Blue” by Sherwin Williams)–$25
  • Printed 4×6 copies of all 5 book covers (ours, mine, and the one I wrote under a pen name) and bought frames at Target–$20 total
  • Purchased a 2-shelf white stand at Target (and convinced the hubby to put it together!)–$25
  • Found a gold cup, clock, and a white candle at Target to add some interest–$25
  • Picked up a white rug at Target for under the desk–$30
  • Moved a small white IKEA desk and chair out of our guest room and put it in the writing room (already had these)
  • Dug up an old lamp that Holly once used in her bedroom, cleaned it, and put a new light bulb in it (already had these)
  • Used our collection of books and those lucky red birds and rabbits for decoration (already owned all of this as well)
  • Brought a heavy ceramic box from my step-mum (she found it in a charity shop in the UK) down from a shelf and used it to hold paperclips and post-it notes, and to offer inspiration, as it says “NEVER NEVER NEVER GIVE UP” on the lid (already had this)
  • Total: $125, minus the $40 I made from the old desk set. So the grand total I spent to remodel and re-charge our writing space is $85–I’m pretty happy with that!

Here are some of the “after” shots (we ended up turning the desk towards the wall for functionality, but it could really go either way):

I’ve already been out here for most of the day–I think I’ve found my new “happy place”!

 

My Christmas Key soundtrack.

There’s almost nothing I do without music, except maybe sleep. I put Pandora on as soon as I start getting ready for work in the morning, I listen to music as I drive (preferably Sirius XM’s First Wave station), and I play it all day long in my classroom during the school year while my students are working. There’s more music while I work out at the gym in the evenings, and of course I listen to it non-stop as I write. A mellow Pandora station that fits the mood of my story and doesn’t distract usually works well, so for my Christmas Key books, a combination of Tropical Holidays and Caribbean Jazz are pretty much my go-to stations.

For me, music sets the mood and the tone of not just writing, but life. Certain songs can instantly transport you to a time and place (anything that came out in 1997–Chumbawumba’s Tubthumping, the New Radicals You Get What You GiveSarah Mclachlan’s Building a Mystery–are like a time machine to the fall of that year, a trip back to me driving around Miami as a 22-year-old newlywed in a beat-up car with no air-conditioning, trying to make it as a model on South Beach). Road trips are intimately tied to the music I listen to as I take in the small towns, the wide vistas, and the mottled skies, and I also find that songs are interwoven with the humans who recommended them to me, as one of my favorite students did this year when he made excellent suggestions for a handful of cool songs I’d never heard before. From this point on, those songs will always be the ones that Grayson gave me.

Music is such a big part of my life that it’s no surprise to me when I go back to revise and edit to find that I’ve name-checked several songs in every book. After finishing There’s Always a Catch and the forthcoming Wild Tropics, I had to go and buy the songs I didn’t already have in my iTunes library, and now I have a handy Christmas Key playlist to listen to whenever I need to get my head back into the game with drafting or revising. So without further ado, here are the songs mentioned in the first two books in the Christmas Key series. (I’m giving away two copies of my soundtrack on CD, so if you live in the U.S., leave a comment on this post and tell me which island on this beautiful planet is your favorite, and why–I’ll choose 2 winners on July 31st!)

  1. Let’s Stay Together–Al Green
  2. God Only Knows–The Beach Boys
  3. Trouble–Coldplay
  4. Hotel California (Live)–Eagles
  5. Brilliant Disguise–Bruce Springsteen
  6. Just Like Heaven–The Cure
  7. Jamming–Bob Marley
  8. Witchcraft–Frank Sinatra
  9. Thriller–Michael Jackson
  10. Somebody Else–The 1975
  11. Jingle Bell Rock–Bobby Helms
  12. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!–Ella Fitzgerald
  13. Santa Baby–Eartha Kitt

 

The beauty of multi-tasking.

Well, our goal of having a full draft of book 2 done by July 17th kind of got blown out of the water. We’ve worked on the draft a number of times, and even took it with us on our road trip last week to Eastern Washington and Idaho. While the man in our lives spent his days in a conference in Spokane, we swam in the hotel pool, wandered around town taking pictures, and sat on the balcony at our hotel (the magic balcony that was somehow always in shade, no matter the hour) and worked on our book.

I was curious to see how chipping away at multiple writing projects at the same time would affect my overall productivity, and I can’t say for sure that it’s been better or worse, but I have had fun jumping between three different things this summer. In addition to the second book in our “American Dream” series, I’ve been re-working something that I wrote years ago because I loved the setting and the characters so much. I have it laid out as a series, and I find that I’m either totally immersed in it (and listening to my tropical stations on Pandora for inspiration, given that the setting is a fictional Florida Key), or I’m overwhelmed at the prospect of completely re-writing it, and I’m scratching my head over just what the genre actually is. Romance? Not totally. Adventure? Maybe. A mash-up of “The Golden Girls” and contemporary chick-lit? That’s a possibility. Just to mix things up, I even pulled my absolute, very favorite manuscript out and am finally (hopefully) working on the final edit for that. So a day this summer where I don’t write or edit something is certainly not because I’m lacking projects to work on!

This last piece I’m editing is something that I hold near and dear to my heart, and I’m excited to be back in it again. I wrote it in 2009, and the protagonist is a 15-year old boy. At the time, I was trying to figure out the appeal of Twitter, so I got on there and searched for a few things that were of interest to me. My very first search was for #thecure, and out of the results, I picked someone’s tweet that said, “Hahaha, I love The Cure.” I responded, he responded, and we had a humorous exchange. In one of those “small world” moments, we discovered that we’d both lived in the same town in Florida, and that we were now both living on the west coast. Had our families both stayed in Florida, chances are pretty good that he might have ended up in my husband’s biology class at some point. Needless to say, I followed this funny kid on Twitter, and have never been disappointed by his cynical and entertaining outlook on life, nor by his wicked-eclectic taste in music.

In fact, I was so amused by him that I took some of his Tweets totally out of context and built a story around them. I made a main character, gave him a life, a love interest, and what I hoped was a voice that someone else would love as much as I did, and I wrote a whole manuscript. When I was done, I emailed him and told him what I’d done (worried that he’d be like, “Okay….creepy old lady…stalking my Tweets much?”) but he was both flattered and intrigued, and even read my early draft and offered feedback. He’s maintained all these years–as I’ve threatened to finally be ready to do something with the manuscript–that he’s fine with my using his words, and even keeping his Twitter name as my main character’s didn’t bother him. So I’m doing it. This summer the “kid” who inspired my work turns 21, and I’m getting this thing edited for the last time, changing the things that need to be updated, and self-publishing it under a pen name. But why a pen name when it’s my favorite protagonist and a work that I love? Because it’s something totally separate from what Holly and I have been working on together, and it’s also really different than the Florida Key story. I want it to stand alone, and so it will. I’ve got my book cover, lined up the formatter, and am wrapping it up this month, so there it is–in writing: new goal for the summer is to get this book done and out there, and then to re-focus on book 2 so that Holly and I have a nearly complete draft before school starts!

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll take you there.” –Lewis Carroll

For as enthusiastic as I was a few weeks ago about the book Take off Your Pants, I am equally invigorated right now by Stephen King’s brilliant On Writing. And yet…I sort of feel like I’m chasing my own tail. While Pants got me to outline and think ahead before writing in a way I’d never done before, King basically throws an arm around my shoulders and tells me, “You’ve been doing it right all along–keep going.” Which I love, of course, but it just reinforces for me what a solitary, unique pursuit writing is. What works for me may not work for you–and vice versa–but according to King, that’s just fine and dandy. In the same way that the universe drops the right people, jobs, and situations into your life just when you need them (I’m still waiting for the universe to drop the right lottery numbers into my lap–that definitely needs to happen), I think it also slides the perfect book under your nose at a time when you’re searching for exactly what lies between the covers of said book. Take off Your Pants was timely and helpful as I floundered with my own process and wondered what was missing, and On Writing fits the bill as I move forward and think about the parts of writing that bring me the most joy.

And I find that joy in the creative place where time evaporates. That place where I start writing and working and the next time I look at a clock, three hours have gone missing. During these spells, the characters take on a life of their own and move the narrative forward in a way that makes me feel like my hands are just holding the planchette on a Ouija board while some unseen spirit does the work. King agrees with me here–the magic is in the way that you pull a story from the ether (his analogy is of unearthing a fossil carefully, of trying to keep it intact as you extract) and in the way that you get to essentially be the first reader as well as the creator–the story is as much of a wonder to you during the first draft as it is to your readers. Beyond that, his suggestions for tighter writing and editing are beautiful. If nothing else, I’ll walk away with the metaphorical toolbox that he helps his reader build, as well as with the knowledge that you have to slay the evil adverb. In our final edit, Holly and I are going through our manuscript right now and stabbing every adverb we can find, tossing molotov cocktails into our sentences wherever we see modifiers like “angrily”, “sadly”, and “pitifully”. We’re on a mission to get our narrative tightened up so that it corners like it’s on rails, hums like a tuning fork, and moves the reader along at breakneck speed like the Shinkansen bullet train racing through Japan. It’s been an exciting journey so far, and we’re speeding towards our first stop (book one’s publication!) on this adventure. All aboard!