Author Archives: Mairead

About Mairead

Writer and reviewer.

Questions you might get asked when people learn you write any kind of romance novel

I was talking to some friends/acquaintances the other day and I was asked why I have a different name on my Facebook profile. When I explained that I write and set up my Facebook page under my pen name, then the questions started. I am used to most of the common ones like “how do you find the time?” or “is anyone we know a character in your books?” or “where do you get your ideas?” but the latest ones were around how hard it is to write a sex scene. (No off color puns intended.) So, for giggles, how many of you romance writers out there get the same questions and how far out of whack are my responses?

Question: “Do you get embarrassed writing that stuff?”
When I first began to write, yes, I did. In high school, two friends and I would write steamy love letters for our classmates to give to their boyfriends. One girl provided the imagination courtesy of a purloined (from her parents) copy of The Joy of Sex, the other relied on her own experiences and a facile understanding of common jargon and street slang. I was the grammarian who kept the purple prose flowing and reasonably well written. Was I embarrassed? Oh yeah, but I learned a lot from a theoretical perspective. It all came to an end with a very uncomfortable conversation with the head mistress of the school, a rather dour nun, and my father when one of the letters was seized during the exchange of money for the letter. Yep, I was the one caught selling the goods. My accomplices got away but I was left with a rather unsavory reputation since it was assumed I had been relying on my own (nonexistent at that time) expertise in the area to create such “disgusting and sinful” letters that would ultimately see me writhing in the fires of hell, or so Sister Mary David assured me. My father’s response out of earshot of the nuns was to laugh but he did step up his intimidation tactics of any poor guy who tried to date me.

Later on, my very first romance story (which will NEVER see the light of day unless it is published posthumously and I hope I have burned every page of it well before then) was a sweet little formulaic “bodice ripper” tale that took the better part of 2 bottles of wine and much giggling between me and my best friend to get the scenes correct. I think the giggling was more from the wine than the topic though.

Between then and now, I have read a lot. I’ve read books that were full of vague euphemisms (“mutual splendor” anyone?) to raw and raunchy porn for women. What I have come to realize is that it’s more embarrassing to write something that takes a reader out of the story to think, “Wait, what? Is that even physically possible?” or “Where did that extra hand come from?”

Question: “Do you write about your own sexual experiences?” aka “Have you really done THAT??!!!?”
The short answer is: sometimes yes and sometimes no. Everyone has heard the old saw of “write what you know” so they assume that if you write it, you’ve done it. I always caution people, especially my husband who is fond of raising an eyebrow and remarking that he can’t recall us every having done whatever my characters happen to be doing, that writers have very fertile imaginations. Let me repeat that. We..have…very…fertile…imaginations. We also know how to do research and the internet is full of research material if your imagination fails you.

Would you go up to a friend who writes a crime novel and automatically assume she/he knows how to violently kill, dismember, and dispose of a body based on personal hands on experience?

I rest my case.

Question: “Why didn’t you make it more/less explicit?”
Well, here’s the rub. (Again, no pun intended.) In my opinion, different stories require a different approach. I know I get annoyed by a certain popular romance author, who shall remain unnamed, because the last four books of hers were more or less recycled sex scenes from her prior works. Change the names, change the locations, and change the villains, then presto – new book and more royalties. Otherwise the sex was a cut and paste. If nothing else, I do not want to annoy my readers. Especially, since I do not have a large following, yet.

When I write, I pay a lot of attention to what makes sense and what is in character for the players in the scene. I let their personalities shape how explicit – or not – the scenes will be. The language used to describe body parts and who is doing what to whom will be pretty character specific. If my hero is an edgy bad boy, then there may be some explicit language and it’s not going to be a tame scene. If the heroine is shy and virginal, she’s probably not going to know exactly what she wants or to be comfortable talking like an experienced woman.

If a scene isn’t racy enough for you, use your imagination to figure out what the characters may or may not be doing out of your eyesight. Likewise, if it’s too racy, skip the next couple of paragraphs or pages. Sex scenes, even in my romance novels, are not the main attraction. At least I hope not because I put a lot of thought into character and plot development.

Question: “Don’t you worry about what your family/friends/co-workers will think of you if they read your books?”
Not really. I do write under a pen name to somewhat shield them but anyone with even basic skills of internet research could figure out who I am in real life. I also rely on the fact that: (1) I am not a widely published novelist at this point, (2) it is fiction and anyone who knows me is aware that I am very imaginative and my mind can go in some pretty odd directions at times, and last (3) if someone wants to make assumptions about who or what I am based on my writing, it’s their problem.

What other questions have you had to field about writing romance novels?

Mairead Walpole is the pen name for a somewhat introverted project and contract manager who has 20+ years of business and technical writing under her belt. In her spare time, Mairead writes paranormal romance among other genres. Her first novel, “A Love Out of Time” is available through Second Wind Publishing (www.secondwindpublishing.com) or Amazon.com.

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Darker Musings: Depression

I received some sad news this week. An old acquaintance committed suicide. She was 48 and left behind at least two teenage children and possibly a third. I don’t know for sure because we lost touch years ago, so all I really know of her life is from third party anecdotal snippets. She was once my sister’s roommate and best friend. As a result of that connection, we had occasions to talk in social settings or when I called to speak to my sister or stopped by for a visit. We all went on “girl’s weekend” trips and the like. Like most friendships that begin as single women, things changed with marriages and motherhood. For a while we’d run into one another at my nieces birthday parties or out and about in town. We were not friends per se but she was a part of my life for a time. And I knew her well enough to know there were some issues with depression lurking beneath the mask she wore.

You would have to get past first impressions and really talk with her to recognize it. Or maybe I saw it because I have also struggled with depression and like recognizes like. She was a very pretty blonde with startling green eyes, a sweet manner of dealing with people, a wicked sense of humor, and an engaging personality. If you looked no further than that, you’d never know that there was a roiling cauldron of self-doubt, low self-esteem, fear of rejection/abandonment/ failure, and depression beneath the surface.

I call out the depression apart from the other issues because they are not always linked. Much as one would love to believe that if one just gets over their self-esteem issues, faces their fears, or conquers self-doubt, then depression will magically disappear; the reality is that for some it won’t.

As one who’s been fighting depression since my teens, I know what it is like to stand on the edge of that mental abyss and contemplate ending it. I know the allure of having the mental (and physical) pain just stop. I know the frustration of trying medication after medication with no real improvement, or worse, trading the pain for some sort of anesthetized existence where you don’t quite feel the pain but you don’t quite feel anything else. I know the joy of finding a medicine that works and experiencing life like a non-depressed person does, followed by the despair when your body builds up a tolerance for the medication and it stops working. I know the alienation when others find out that you are depressed and act like it’s a contagious disease. I know how it feels to be judged by others as being somehow defective because of the stigma of “mental illness” and that this makes you unreliable or not stable enough to handle things. I can totally understand why a person might choose to step off the abyss and I can see it from their point of view. They aren’t being selfish, they truly believe that they are doing everyone around them a favor, they are in so much pain it has clouded the reality.

So why do some of us become victims of this disease and some of us survive?

To be clear, in my opinion, if you call yourself a victim of depression then you have just upped the odds of your stepping off into the abyss at some point. Victims tend to be the ones who commit suicide. I am a survivor. That isn’t to say I haven’t thought about it. I always laugh at the question the doctors and mental health workers ask a person with depression. “Have you ever had thoughts of suicide?” If you have depression, at some point, you have thought about ending it. I believe the answer in preventing suicide can be found in the follow-up questions that never seem to get asked. Why didn’t you? What was it that made you decide to keep living? What do you think is different this time? I think if more mental health care professionals would delve into these questions instead of rehashing your relationship with your parents or self-esteem, it might help more people become survivors.

In talking with other depressed people (we seem to be drawn to each other when we need to talk), what I have noticed is that those of us who are still kicking around after 20+ years of fighting are those who can deal with change, refuse to accept a “victim of…” label, recognize and embrace their unique gifts that come with depression, are able to openly acknowledge that it is a real disease, and decided not to let the ignorance of others define us. These things seem to combine in some fashion to bolster one’s innate survival instinct so that we can stare into the abyss and say, “No. This is not the way for me.” It gives us the strength to face and push through the pain; to smile, to laugh, to live even while experiencing depression every single day of our lives.

When I hear about people who’ve stopped fighting, I grieve for them and for their families.

Too many will be quick to say she was selfish and didn’t care about anyone but herself. These are the words of someone who has never walked in the shoes of depression. You don’t get it, you never will, and to say such a thing is unkind and cruel to anyone she loved and who loved her. Think this if you must but keep these words to yourself. The last thing her kids need to believe is that their mother didn’t love them enough to live. You don’t tell the child of an alcoholic that their parent didn’t love them enough to stop drinking; you tell them their parent was ill.

Her family and friends may wonder what they could have said or done to change it. Some will blame her husband and god help him if by chance the marriage was on the rocks. A phone call unreturned or an apology never given may haunt a friend with “what if” and “if only” but they need to be let go. Some may blame her doctors for not spotting the problem. Some may question her faith. Truthfully, there wasn’t anything you could have said or done. She was the only one who could save herself and for reasons only she could explain she chose not to.

Please don’t misunderstand the message of this post; I do not believe suicide is ever the answer. I understand it, but that doesn’t mean that I accept or condone it.

To save lives, we need to change the conversation. We need to stop the stigma and judgments around depression. If you don’t understand it, educate yourself. Read. Study if you’re so inclined. Help your children and teenagers develop strategies to cope with change, failure, and disappointment early on in life. If someone tells you that they are depressed, listen, don’t judge and don’t tell them their feelings aren’t valid even if they don’t make sense to you. Help those you love see themselves as you see them.

To “Blondie”, rest in peace.

Mairead Walpole is the pen name for a somewhat introverted project and contract manager who has 20+ years of business and technical writing under her belt. In her spare time, Mairead writes paranormal romance among other genres. Her first novel, “A Love Out of Time” is available through Second Wind Publishing (www.secondwindpublishing.com) or Amazon.com.

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Striking a balance between nurturing creativity and instilling a sense of reality in your child

My approach to parenting is to encourage my children to try new things (within reason), which is why I have become a “sports mom” with a mini-van that is overflowing with various sports equipment and has the permanent odor of sweaty kid’s feet.

Luckily, my kids are also interested in academics, the arts, and video games, so it’s not all about sports with us. I’m sure it’s probably no surprise that I encourage my kids to create stories and we often play the “what if?” game about things we see, or hear, or even think about. Sometimes, the stories are just silly, sometimes they are a little scary, and sometimes the stories are quite good.

Both boys have some creative talents, thus I am a regular customer at Michael’s craft store and have a well stocked collection of paints, chalk, sketch pads and the like. My husband and I were both musicians in our pasts, so there are also a variety of musical instruments in the house that the children are encouraged to play with. And, I’ve been known to show the boys how to make a musical instrument with craft supplies. For example, an empty frozen orange juice can with lid, duct tape, and a collection of small rocks makes a great maraca or rumba shaker. With a love of music comes a love of dance as well, so it is not unusual to find me or my kids dancing around the house when doing chores or playing “Let’s Dance” on the Wii.

What I am not is one of those annoying mothers who believe her special snowflake should do anything he wants to do regardless of ability and everyone else should get with her program to applaud his efforts. Radical concept these days, I know.

So, what happens when these two mindsets collide?

They did last night and this morning I am still wondering if I handled this the right way or if I need to put some more money in the therapy fund. (Their grandparents have the college fund covered. My husband and I are putting aside money for therapy – hopefully, if we’re doing this parenting thing semi-right, the kids won’t need it and can go buy a car for their graduation from college or put a down-payment on a house.)

My youngest informed me he was going to enter the talent show at his elementary school.

“Really? What are you going to do?” I asked, wondering what exactly he was thinking about since our talent shows tend to be all about the kids who have studied dance, martial arts, music, or sing in their church choirs. Nate’s talents aren’t really the sort of ones that translate well to the school talent show stage. One day, he could become a comedian of the Chevy Chase variety, but at 7, he is definitely not ready for Prime Time.

“I’m going to dance.”

That awkward moment when you realize your kid is dead serious and you love him to the moon and back for his absolute lack of fear, and yet, you know that his dance skills – unless something major changes between now and high school – will one day be an excellent means of preventing teen pregnancy.

Seriously, how the kid can be so coordinated on a sports field and such a flailing train wreck on the dance floor is beyond me. It’s adorable in that “only your mom will love this” way and sort of painful to watch all at the same time. No teenage girl is going to want to get anywhere near that no matter how cute he might be when standing still.

“Um, have you actually tried out and gotten accepted?” Thinking this current culture of “there are only winners” has taken things one step too far if my son’s dance skills are considered talent show worthy.

“Not yet, you need to sign the form.” G-r-e-a-t. Enter Mom, the wrecker of dreams unless I want to allow him the experience of public humiliation.

“Well, honey, you know you’ve never taken any dance classes and these sorts of shows are really for the kids who have studied. Is there anything else you can think of that you could do?”

Tossing a baseball, wrestling, or training his dog to do a trick weren’t really activities that would be allowed, so I steered the conversation to some of the other things he could do – like play a tune on his Ukulele or compose a song on the piano. Neither of which interested him because he thought no one would like it. Granted, his Ukulele playing is pretty basic and his compositions on the piano are more Schoenberg-esque than I think his classmates can appreciate. My husband would probably prefer Nate dance than play a piano, but Hubby isn’t a big fan of the expressionist style of composition.

Nate wants to dance, because he loves it and all his friends think he has great dance moves when they are on the playground at recess. He is confident enough in himself that when his friends laugh and encourage him, he interprets it as a positive. I want him to hold onto that confidence for a little while longer so he doesn’t become self-conscious and let fear of being ridiculed hold him back. As I listen to him talk, I am torn. How to tell your kid you don’t believe he dances well enough to enter without forcing reality on him too soon? I go for something less than brutal honesty that I hope will be somewhat supportive.

“Nate, I don’t think you are quite ready to dance for the talent show. Tell you what, why don’t we look into some dance classes this year, then you can sign up next year?” I’m afraid of the next stage of the conversation. The moment when he realizes I honestly don’t think he can dance.

He thought about it for a moment or two. “Could I take magic lessons instead? Or get a magic kit for my birthday? Then I could do magic tricks as the Great Nate next year!”

“You have a deal, but you can still take dance classes if you want.”

“Mommy? You know you’ll need to make me a cape, right?”

Mairead Walpole is the pen name for a somewhat introverted project and contract manager who has 20+ years of business and technical writing under her belt. In her spare time, Mairead writes paranormal romance among other genres. Her first novel, “A Love Out of Time” is available through Second Wind Publishing (www.secondwindpublishing.com) or Amazon.com.

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When the magic fades: the day your child learns about Santa

For those of us who decided to participate in the childhood legendary creatures stuff (Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, etc.) there comes the bittersweet day that your child learns the truth behind the myths. How this goes depends a lot on what you told them to begin with and how you handled the questions as they came up. This year was the year my 5th grader learned about Santa Claus.

My kids have always been a bit on the precocious side. The questions actually started much earlier than I anticipated and when confronted with the, “Mommy? Why does/how does Santa…?” I resorted to that tried and true tactic of parenthood, turning the question back on them. “Why do you think…?”

So far this tactic has worked. Sometimes with hysterically funny answers and sometimes with amazingly perceptive analyses that are far beyond their years. For example, the year my children noticed that the Santa pictures don’t always depict the same guy and wanted to know why, they came up with the theory that all the real looking Santas are related and the others are just guys who the spirit of Santa comes to and they just want to spread the joy. This has turned into an annual game of trying to figure out whether the Santa is a brother, cousin, uncle, etc. of the real Santa or just someone who really loves Christmas and wants kids to love it too. Another year, they wanted to know why they only get 3 Santa gifts when other kids get 1 or more, and some kids get none even when they believe in Santa. The boys gave it some thought and decided that it must be because moms and dads help Santa and since Santa doesn’t have any means of income – the number and type of presents that Santa brings must be tied to what a parent can afford.

Each realization has been termed one of the “Secrets of Santa” and they understood that further “Secrets” would be revealed as they got older. For my oldest, the final secret reveal was this year.

About two weekends ago, I was enjoying my coffee and working on the grocery list when he walked into the dining room and said, “Mom, we gotta talk.” I put down my pen and indicated he should continue.
“Don’t worry about Nate,” he said. “I turned on the TV in the playroom so he’s occupied.”
“Okay…”
“It’s about Santa Claus. I think I know the final secret. There’s no actual dude, is there?”
“Well, what do you think?”
“You always say that.” He sighed and started again, really quick like he was going to lose his nerve, “I think he existed once, I mean, like the St. Nick guy, but there’s no North Pole and all that. It’s the spirit that lives on, isn’t it?”
“Sounds like you’ve thought about this.”
“Well, yeah. I know that you and Daddy get the spirit of Santa and I thought you just helped him, but if he isn’t real, then what it means is that the spirit turns you and Daddy into Santa Claus, right?”
“Well, what do you…”
“I think you and Daddy are Santa Claus for us, and my friends’ parents become their Santa Claus, and when I grow up and have kids I’ll be their Santa Claus. I’m right, aren’t I?”
A part of me wanted to say no and reverse time to the days when he was wide eyed with the promise of magic and wonder. Another part of me loved his perception and calm acceptance. So I responded honestly. “Yes. Are you okay with this?”
“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be? I think it’s cool and now I can help you and Daddy keep it going for Nate.”

And with that he gave me a hug and left the room to go outside with our puppy. I was glad he went on with life so matter of fact, but for me it’s sort of bittersweet that he knows for sure. At first I worried that he would enlighten his brother but he hasn’t. If anything, he is as into keeping the spirit going as his father and I are. Oliver will turn 11 in a few months and this is just one of many signs that he is starting that transition from a little boy to a young man. As his mother, I miss the baby he once was but I love watching him turn into the man he will become.

Another item in the “upside” column is that I have another person to help move that blasted “Elf on the Shelf” to another perch on a daily basis.

From my home to yours, we wish a Merry Christmas to all who celebrate and Happy Holidays to those who don’t.

Mairead Walpole is the pen name for a somewhat introverted project and contract manager who has 20+ years of business and technical writing under her belt. In her spare time, Mairead writes paranormal romance among other genres. Her first novel, “A Love Out of Time” is available through Second Wind Publishing (www.secondwindpublishing.com) or Amazon.com.

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It’s that magical time of year again, and no – I don’t mean Christmas

Those that know me well also know one of my pet peeves is that Thanksgiving has become little more than a speed bump on the way to Christmas.

I’ve written in the past about my love of the Thanksgiving holiday so I’ll spare you the sound of me on my soapbox.  This time, I’ll tell you how I am celebrating Thanksgiving.

In October, a friend told me that she was going to post a comment every day for the month of November on Facebook about what she was thankful for.  I thought it was a great way to protest the dismissal of Thanksgiving and to celebrate the holiday all month long so I decided to join in.  I missed the first day but quickly got on track with a double posting for Day 2 of both Day 1 and Day 2.  I’m up to Day 22 and haven’t missed a day, yet.  There have been some days where I had to decide between more than one thing to write about and other days where the thing I was thankful for may have seemed a bit of a stretch.  Regardless of what anyone reading my daily posts might think of them, the one thing that has come out of this exercise is my realization of how blessed I really am.  Each day as I reflect on the things that I am thankful for, I find that I am less interested in the things that I don’t have or didn’t achieve.

In addition to the daily post on Facebook, my kids and I have started talking about Thanksgiving on a much deeper level than this event that happened in Massachusetts, or Virginia.  (Sorry, I am a Virginian and my father’s side of the family can trace roots back to the both the Mayflower AND the founding of Virginia – so I have to get my dig in.)

The message that I am trying to drive home to my boys is to be thankful for the people and the things in your life.  To treasure them and take care of them and to always be grateful for what you have and what is given to you.  My husband tends to bring it back to giving thanks to God for all that we have, and while I have no objection to that viewpoint, I want to bring the discussion with the kids to a level that applies to everyone -Christian, non-Christian, and Atheists.  At its basic level – the concept of gratitude seems to be missing in our society and if I impart little else to these boys, this is one concept I really want them to understand.

I’ve heard the objections to Thanksgiving as a national holiday and I can respect where people are coming from with their objections, but I believe that it’s not too much to ask that we as a country have one day where we pause and take a hard look around us to find at least one thing that we are thankful for and acknowledge it.  It stinks that the next day is all about insane consumerism, but that is a topic for another blog.

Happy Thanksgiving and I hope that each of you has 30 days worth of things to be thankful for!

Mairead Walpole is the pen name for a somewhat introverted project and contract manager who has 20+ years of business and technical writing under her belt. In her spare time, Mairead writes paranormal romance among other genres. Her first novel, “A Love Out of Time” is available through Second Wind Publishing (www.secondwindpublishing.com) or Amazon.com.

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Where do you find inspiration?

I get this question a lot.  About a nano-second after someone digests the fact that I write, the inevitable question will be about where I get my inspiration.  On hearing my response, I always get the sense that I have let them down somehow.  As though they were expecting some ritual – “I only write on days that end in a Y while drinking Chai Tea, and listening to Mahler” or some logical routine, “I set aside 25 minutes each morning before I get my kids up and write whatever comes to mind” or that I would identify the “get your inspiration shop” just down the street.

Inspiration – for me at least – is not something I can reliably find or count on.  It just is.  (Or in the case of writer’s block, is not.)  I suppose I could make up something that sounds thought provoking and “autho-rish” or I could come up with something suitably weird so that they’d walk off satisfied, but I figure they honestly want to know, so I honestly answer.  Sometimes inspiration comes from the usual places – dreams, events in my life, local or global events that are in the news, and people I meet – but sometimes inspiration is sparked by a random thought or snippet of a song, a smell, a taste, or something I see.  Sometimes I have no freaking clue where the idea came from.  It just pops into my head and I can’t link it to a single thing that I am aware of.

My children inspire me not only in the ways that one’s children tend to inspire parents, but also with story ideas.  My youngest child in particular will be a rich source of inspiration should I decide to start writing post-apocalyptic zombie tales or go down a totally Lovecraftian path in horror fiction.  Nate is 7 and has an extremely active imagination; I think I have let him watch way too many SciFi, Discovery, and H2 shows.   My oldest is 10 going on 30 and he tends to ask hard questions around why things happen the way they do.  His questions have inspired me to jot down ideas for stories in a couple of different genres.  His latest series of questions and answers have been around dogs.  We recently acquired a puppy and subsequently lost our dog of 15 years within a fairly short span of time.  Oliver made some observations about the dogs’ interactions that sparked an interesting discussion around dog’s memories and how they perceive the world.  When we got the puppy, it seemed as though our older dog was “mentoring” her in how to behave with the family – almost a passing on of the care of the boys from the elder to the younger.  Once Khaki was integrated into the family, it seemed Lui’Ka was ready to move on.  “She was staying alive for us, wasn’t she?” he asked one night after she passed away.  He has expressed an interest in writing a story with me told from a dog’s perspective, which I think could be fun.

My job can inspire me.  One of the first novels I wrote (yet to be published due to needing a fair amount of re-writes) was based off of a “what if” scenario with a case I was working on.  It’s a legal thriller told from the point of view of the paralegal, rather than the attorney or law student.  I have another “yet to see the light of day” novel based loosely on some events from a prior employer that deals with the “what if” the company was really doing what people thought they were doing.  In my current job, I can’t say much inspires my writing other than providing material for use in developing characters.  I work with some interesting people, psychologically speaking, and one or two of them may just wind up in my current WIP.

I recently got an app for my smartphone that lets me write notes with a stylus or my finger when I am on the go.  Prior to that, I carried around a small notebook and pen but that wasn’t as efficient as it sounds.  You tend to run out of ink or paper at a critical moment, or worse, one of the kids drops some god-awful sticky thing in your bag and bye-bye notes.  I love my handwrite notes app.  Sitting in traffic and something sparks a thought; I just scribble notes on my phone to be expanded out when I have time.  I can blend my grocery list with my novel notes and sort them later.  Since my phone is with me almost 24/7 I can capture notes easily and don’t worry about carting around anymore additional stuff in my purse.  Heck, my purse is an inspiration in itself.  On any given day, you never know what might be in there.  Need some duct tape? A clean sock? Wax? A dog bone? I’ve probably got you covered.

The latest thing to spark my imagination was coming upon a sign at a bookstore that said, “Words to Inspire.”  Unfortunately, it was on a table with nothing around the sign.  I found it ironically funny at the time but later it took root in my thoughts and it has inspired the beginning of what for the moment feels like a short story.

 

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So what inspires me?  In short, everything.

 

Mairead Walpole is the pen name for a somewhat introverted project and contract manager who has 20+ years of business and technical writing under her belt. In her spare time, Mairead writes paranormal romance among other genres. Her first novel, “A Love Out of Time” is available through Second Wind Publishing (www.secondwindpublishing.com) or Amazon.com.

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When business and creative writing collide: the annual performance appraisal self-assessment

It’s summer.  That once magical time of year that, as an adult, I dread.  I’m not talking about appearing in public in a swim suit, although that does have its own share of horrors. I’m talking about trying to figure out how to sum up a year’s worth of work using corporate-speak phrasing and tying my work to homogenized character traits that some HR person believes to represent our company’s model employee.  In short, it’s time to do the annual performance appraisal self-assessment.

I’ve been in the professional workforce for over twenty years now, which means I’ve written more than twenty of these things.  One would think that by now I write a solid self appraisal in my sleep.  Perhaps if I could stuff that side of me that hates bureaucracy in a box and bury it until after review time I would be able to just write the blasted thing and move on.  Instead I seem to find humor in the whole process and fight the urge to give my pervers humor a chance to stretch.

In my young and somewhat irreverent past, I had been known to have fun with them.  Early on in my career I worked for a large law firm on the east coast as a paralegal – or rather as what is now known as a litigation project manager.  In this job, we had to do these rather long thoughtful reflections on how we viewed our career, where we saw ourselves in five years, and whether we felt the firm was using us to our full potential.  In the mistaken belief that no one really read these self assessments – since no one had ever discussed the contents of my assessment other than to tell me what a great asset I was to the firm, I decided to see if anyone was paying attention.  In the middle a long paragraph around where I saw myself in five years, I wrote a sentence that stated that I felt the whole exercise was a complete waste of my time since no one ever discussed what I had written in prior reviews.  When the performance review came up, it was more of the same “great job…valuable asset” discussion.  At the conclusion of my review, as I was walking to the door, the managing partner said, “Oh, and by the way – I do read the self assessments. Every. Single. Word. I predict that with the right boss you will go far, or more likely, your warped sense of humor will get you in trouble one day.”  So, I have learned to be careful of what I write in self appraisals.

Getting started on the assessment isn’t all that different from working through writers block.  I stare at the blank screen until I realize that I have to start somewhere so I just write.  Most of the time, my first pass at an assessment is like a free-form, stream of consciousness list of everything I have done over the past year.  Then I start to make my connections to the key or buzz-words that HR requires.  From there, I begin to craft the actual narrative and justification statements.  Because I do have this irreverent side to me, I occasionally go ahead and write in the quirky, sardonic things I would love to say.  (Ex: I demonstrate tact and diplomacy when dealing with my peers by not commenting that Jane’s presentation could be used as a natural remedy for insomnia.)  But I am always careful to remove them from the final document.  When I think I have the document complete, I set it aside for a few hours to a day before going back and proof-reading.

I suppose I have to admit that the self assessment process has some value other than forcing me to consult a thesaurus to come up with different ways to say “I rock and deserve a raise.”  It does make you think about your contributions to the company over the course of the year.  I can even admit that when my boss and I have not agreed on a rating, it has sparked a conversation around development opportunities or areas of improvement that ultimately serve to make me a better person and a better employee.  I guess the hardest part for me is reigning in my sense of humor when faced with the Dilbert-esque nature of the average self-assessment document.

Mairead Walpole is the pen name for a somewhat introverted project and contract manager who has 20+ years of business and technical writing under her belt. In her spare time, Mairead writes paranormal romance among other genres. Her first novel, “A Love Out of Time” is available through Second Wind Publishing (www.secondwindpublishing.com) or Amazon.com.

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Old Dogs Part 2: The End of the Story

In January, I wrote a blog about Lui’Ka, my Chinese Shar-Pei, and how age was starting to catch up to her.  When I wrote the blog I knew our time with her was limited and the day was approaching where a decision would have to be made or nature would take its course. On Friday, two days before her 15th birthday, she passed away.

Thursday morning, she was an old dog who could move around on her own, albeit a bit gingerly but she was able to get up and go outside when she needed to.  Thursday night, she wasn’t able to stand up without help.

We were getting ready for bed Thursday night when one of my sons came in to tell us something was wrong with Lui’Ka.  “Mommy, her legs won’t work.”  She must have had some sort of mild stroke because she could walk if we helped her get up, but once she lay down it was as if she couldn’t get her muscles to respond to help her stand back up.  Lui’Ka did not want to sleep on her bed, she seemed to want to be outside beside the Koi Pond, so we carried her outside and made her comfortable beside the pond.  It had become her favorite spot in our yard.  She liked to lie on the slate slab over the skimmer and watch the Koi swim.  I personally think she also liked being able to lean over and get a drink out of what she viewed as a large water dish.

We stayed outside with her for awhile before coming in to put the boys to bed and prepare them for what was going to happen next.  I have to admit that a part of me still hoped she’d go in her sleep, but it was not to be that easy.  The next morning there was no doubt that another stroke had happened and the end was near.  A call was made to the veterinarians office to let them know what had happened and that we’d be coming in as soon as they could take us.

Lui’Ka left this world with the feel of my oldest son’s hand stroking her fur and the knowledge that she was loved.

Rest in peace my friend.

Lui'Ka by the Koi Pond

Lui’Ka by the Koi Pond

We plan to move an iris bed from one part of our yard to curve around the side of the pond.  When we get her ashes back, we’ll put them on the irises so that she will always be beside the pond.  I’d like to find a nice concrete statue of a sleeping Shar-Pei to go in the garden in memory of her.  If anyone has seen a statue like this, please let me know.

Mairead Walpole is the pen name for a somewhat introverted project and contract manager who has 20+ years of business and technical writing under her belt. In her spare time, Mairead writes paranormal romance among other genres. Her first novel, “A Love Out of Time” is available through Second Wind Publishing (www.secondwindpublishing.com) or Amazon.com.

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Mean Girls

I thought when I graduated from high school that I would leave the “mean girls” behind but, sadly, my first roommate and suitemates were all members of that breed.  I was a transfer student and they had planned to room together with another girl who had apparently decided to elope with some guy she met over the summer.  So, we got stuck with one another.  While it was fascinating to watch them up close and outside of the public eye – mean girls are sort of like sharks in blood saturated water, they are as likely to take a bite out of each other as their prey – I was sure that once I entered the working world they would be elsewhere.  Alas, after more than 25 years in the workforce, I have come to accept that the stereotypical “mean girl” is as much a part of life as taxes and dying.

As a child and teenager, I was always puzzled by “mean girl” behavior and admittedly, at times, deeply hurt by their barbed comments or actions.  As a young adult, I learned how to ignore them or at least pretend to be ignoring them.  As a seasoned adult, (translation – over 40) I am more amused by them than anything else.  The only thing that has changed is the tracks of time on our faces and the fact that we all need to start thinking about covering those pesky grey hairs.  The faces change but the games remain the same.

Normally I avoid them, but I’m getting quite chummy with a mean girl these days.

Her name is Candee.  She’s a character in my current work in progress and I’m having a lot of fun with her.  Candee started out as just a minor character, but she is taking more and more of the center stage and, though I fully intend to kill her off in a particularly fitting manner, she is helping me work through a difficult scene that was holding up the completion of my book.  In developing her character, I’m revisiting memories of every mean girl I’ve run up against in my life.  It’s been an interesting trip down memory lane.  I’ve also realized that either there are a lot of “mean girls” in the world or I am a magnet for their attention.

The motivation of the stereotype has, in my opinion, been hashed out enough.  Some say the behavior is a manifestation of poor self esteem, herd mentality, a need to control everyone and everything, bad breeding/manners, really bad PMS, or just a general snarkiness in the personality.  I’ve even heard it attributed to eating disorders and low blood sugar.  (That one I can buy, when I’m hungry or my blood sugar is tanking, I can be pretty mean too.)  Regardless of the cause, the end result is the same – somebody gets their figurative hair pulled and spat at.

In my story, the “mean girl” is the perfect foil.  She’s the one who can be just despicable enough in her dealings with others that next to her, my anti-heroine seems reasonable and relatable, yet she isn’t really even evil nor does she distract from my villain.  She’s just really mean.  Candee is something of a demi-villain if you will.  At the same time, she has something that does draw people to her and allows her to get close enough to draw blood – in this case literally and figuratively.  She’s no “bad girl with a heart of gold” – in fact, I’m not entirely sure she even has one and I’m pretty sure her victims would agree with me.

In general, I tend to build my characters on traits or characteristics that can’t be attributable to one particular person.  Under the “write what you know” school of thought, I suppose it could be said that there are usually traces of people I care about in my main characters or hero/heroines but not so much with my villains.  Up to now that is.  Candee seems to be taking on many of the physical traits of one particular person from my past.  It was a bit of a shock to realize that on some levels, I see this person as a “mean girl” because I hadn’t thought of her that way; a bit unkind or careless in how she expressed herself, but otherwise fairly harmless.  As I read back over what I have written, I am seeing her in a whole new light.  I do wonder if it’s time for me to buy that shirt that cautions others to be nice or they might wind up in my next novel.  Or perhaps I need to hire a good attorney.

So, how often do you use or realized you have used a real person from your life as the basis for a character?  And, how far can you go without risking a lawsuit?

Mairead Walpole is the pen name for a somewhat introverted project and
contract manager who has 20+ years of business and technical writing under her
belt. In her spare time, Mairead writes paranormal romance among other genres.
Her first novel, “A Love Out of Time” is available through Second Wind
Publishing (www.secondwindpublishing.com)
or Amazon.com.

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Temptation & Motivation

I’ve been thinking a lot about temptation and motivation lately.  In part because of my weight loss efforts and in part because I am struggling with the “why” of how one of my characters needs to act for the final chapters of my sequel to A Love Out of Time to work.

The surface level mechanics of both temptation and motivation I get.  It’s the deep “lizard brain” stuff that escapes me.  Take the weight loss thing for example.  I want to lose the weight and I believe that I am motivated.  I’ve kicked my addiction to Mountain Dew and all carbonated sodas.  I am well aware of the nutritional information of everything I put in my mouth and just how long I would need to work out to burn it off.  I have a well thought out plan that will pull two pounds a week off me, as long as I stick to it.  Life is going along just fine and I am on track, then a slice of cheesecake crosses my path and the next thing I know, I’m in a carb coma wondering where the hell my will-power disappeared to.

So, how does one resist temptation?  What truly motivates someone to do or to not do something?  And most importantly, what makes sense or what is believable to a reader?  I can guarantee that some of you reading the previous paragraph totally understand what I am talking about and there are others who don’t.  For them it’s a simple equation of want to lose weight, don’t eat the cheesecake.  But that is another topic.

When I work on character development, one of the tools I use is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to lay a ground work for why a character is tempted or motivated to behave in a particular manner.  For the basic framework, it works for writing and in trying to figure out why the heck I do what I do in my own life.  Unfortunately, Maslow didn’t have all the answers.

Given we all have different filters on our perceptions of the world around us and of how other people are acting, one can’t just assume that your motivators will be the same as your neighbors.  Think about the work-place and if you have ever had to manage/supervise others.  What motivates one employee to correct performance issues is not necessarily going to work on another.

Writing about truly evil characters is easy.  They can behave in all sorts of heinous ways simply because we accept that the villain’s actions or motivations will be outside the norm or what we consider reasonable.  If their actions were reasonable, they wouldn’t be such a “bad” character.  Likewise, creating a traditional hero or heroine is pretty easy.  Writing a true anti-hero or heroine is slightly more difficult (and I think incredibly fun) but what I find the hardest is taking a traditional hero or heroine and making them do something that on the surface seems to go against the grain of everything you believe of them.  Some could argue that what you’ve done is simply flipped them to anti-hero status, but I disagree.  It’s more complex than that. Finding that one event, that one temptation that even they can’t overcome, or that motivational need that answers the question of why.  That is my current quest.  (And maybe if I can figure that out, I can apply it to my cheesecake issue.)

What tools do you use to develop complex characters?

 

Mairead Walpole is the pen name for a somewhat introverted project and contract manager who has 20+ years of business and technical writing under her belt. In her spare time, Mairead seeks work/life balance and writes paranormal romance. Her first novel, “A Love Out of Time” is available through Second Wind Publishing (www.secondwindpublishing.com) or Amazon.com.

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