Tuesday, 25 August 2009

I just got back from a wonderful holiday in Italy. I stayed in the beautiful Riva del Garda on my honeymoon. 'Mr Harper' and I have always wanted to go back and we decided to take the kids and celebrate our 20th anniversary in style.

This was the view from our table as we dined outside on shore of Lake Garda last Monday evening. I couldn't stop sighing. Partly because my pizza was so good, and partly because it was so beautiful.

Even the flight over was stunning. We flew right over the alps. Who can pay attention to aeroplane food when there's a view like this out of the window?

Here's Riva's main square on the waterfront. We ate here most nights.

And here's what Riva looks like with the mountains in the background:

Boats in the little lakeside town of Limone:

The gorge at the Varone falls:

One of Riva's pretty cobbled streets, and the imposing Mt Rochetta, which towers over the town:

The way the Lake sometimes is the most amazing shade of green:

And the most beautiful place I have ever been - the magical Isola del Garda. This palazzo is on a tiny island at the south end of the lake and is like something out of a fairy tale:

And, finally, Lake Garda in a different mood:


Saturday, 22 August 2009

RWA 09: Washington DC - Sunday

Sunday morning, Donna and I got up bright and early determined to do some sightseeing. With only a few hours and a lot of city to see, we decided to get one of the tourist trolley buses which left from the hotel and ride around the National Mall, stopping at a few locations, if we had time. Here are some of my pics from our day out.

A pretty house in the Kalorama district

The National Mall

The Lincoln Memorial

Inside the Lincoln Memorial

I come from a nation that has grown up over thousands of years, absorbing influences, ideas and language from its many invaders. Reading the Gettysburg address, which is carved on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial, I was struck by the words. It's a powerful thing to found a nation and to be able to decide, "this is what we stand for", "this is what this nation will be founded on". Whatever your politics, you can't fault the dedication, the principles and the optimism that humankind can rise above its pettyness and be truly great. I want to believe that.

The Korean War memorial

This Korean War Memorial was very moving. Statues of soldiers, in rain capes and with radios, are walking thought the low bushes, always watchful, always alert. There is something haunting about these statues. Despite their uniform colour, you feel as if they could almost move at any second.

The Vietnam War Memorial

I wanted to see this memorial because I recognised it from an episode of NCIS. When I mentioned this to Donna, she knew exactly which episode I was talking about and I discovered a fellow fan! This led to a discussion of all things 'Tony' and brought some much-needed levity to what was becoming quite a solemn bit of sightseeing.

Donna on the trolley bus

The FBI Building

The Capitol

Donna and I in the grounds of the Capitol

Arlington National Cemetary
When we arrived at Arlington Cemetary, it was time for me to catch the Metro back to the hotel so I could collect my luggage and make my way to the airport. Donna and I hugged goodbye and, despite our warnings to each other not to start, shed a little tear. And then it was time to go. I really enjoyed the little I saw of Washington DC. Strangely, much of the architecture reminds me of my hometown, London, and I hope I get the chance to visit again some day and see all the things I missed.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

RWA 09: Washington DC - Saturday

There were some great workshops listed for Saturday at the conference, but I didn’t make it to as many as I’d have liked. Marathon runners hit what’s known as a ‘wall’ somewhere in the middle of the 26 miles. My buddy Donna Alward has a theory that RWA conference goers can have a similar experience. Too much information to absorb, too much adrenaline within such a short space of time… It’s gonna cost you somewhere down the line.

By Saturday, my brain was no longer retaining information the way it had been. I blew off some of the workshops I’d been desperate to attend and ordered the conference DVD instead, knowing I’d get much more out of them if I listened to them when I was feeling fresh. I didn’t know it yet, but the ‘wall’ was looming.

I had a lovely lunch with Donna and Kate Hewitt at the Lebanese restaurant across the road from the hotel. People had raved about this place all week. It was even in my guidebook. I wasn’t disappointed. After a hearty serving of lamb kebabs and baklava I was ready to face the world again – although, what I actually did that afternoon has slid from my memory. I have vague memories of a workshop on body language.

That evening, I had a quick dinner with Donna at the pub in the hotel and then it was time to get dressed up for the RITA/Golden Heart awards ceremony. I had been so excited about getting into my lovely green evening dress. I’d slimmed into it and it was feeling good but, during the ceremony, I hit the ‘wall’. All the tiredness, the jet lag, the emotion of the past few days caught up with me. I’m one to blub at weddings and when people give moving speeches so I shed a tear a few times. But then there was speech about how those winning awards (RITAs, Oscars, Grammies…) would probably give them up gladly to find a cure for cancer.

Cancer has affected my family in the last year and, although treatments were going well and there was no reason to be maudlin, this speech hit home. I started to cry…and then found I couldn’t stop. I sat there with tears constatnly dripping from my eyes for the next half an hour, wondering why on earth I was crying and how I could turn off the waterworks.

By the end of the ceremony, I had dried up, but I wasn’t really in the mood for socialising and the queues for food and drink at the RITA/GH reception weren’t really conducive to mingling, so I stuck with Donna and Julie Cohen and chatted to them and looked at all the pretty dresses. I only took a couple of photos of that night, so I have no glitzy photos to post, unfortunately. Here’s the one I do have. Me and Julie and Donna, smiling, but looking underneath as if were ready to go home and give our kids a big hug:

Friday, 14 August 2009

RWA 09: Washington DC - Friday

By Friday morning we were well into the conference and things were starting to blur together. I went to a couple of workshops, a get-together for the Mills & Boon Authors and then it was on to the Awards Luncheon. The speaker was best-selling historical romance author Eloisa James, whose talk was both moving and inspirational. Summing it up the best I can, she spoke about how real-life trauma and emotional moments are the fuel for great books – if you have the courage to pour it all into your writing.

And, just so you can see what it looks like when a couple of thousand authors sit down to lunch together, I snuck up the staircase at the back of the room and took a picture.

The afternoon was another blur of workshops and time for a quick dinner (gorgeous coconut milk soup and spring rolls) with Harlequin Romance authors Shirley Jump and Donna Alward, and then it was time to scoot back to the hotel and get ready for the Harlequin party, which was being held downtown at the Ritz Carlton.

There are parties and then there are parties. The Harlequin Party each year at the RWA conference is one of the latter. It rocks. This year it was Harelquin’s 60th birthday and this was reflected in the vintage covers being projected onto the walls and six different bars around the room, all offering cocktails from different decades.

I think what made it really great fun for me was that I had two great dancing buddies in Donna Alward and Jennie Lucas. I have only one word to describe the lovely Jennie on the dance floor and that is “shameless”. I quickly got sucked into an equal state of shamelessness. So much so, that while the DJ was doing an 80s bit, he asked Jennie and I if we’d go up on the stage and dance. Eek! I decided to grab Julie Cohen – cos she was equally shameless and in situations like that, the more the merrier, right? – but somehow they ended up on the stage and a third body wasn’t needed, so I stayed down on the floor. Just as well, I discovered, as the DJ got them to do “Maniac” from Flashdance, complete with running on the spot. Sorry, Julie!

The DJ certainly got the party jumping (and a few hearts a-fluttering). I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun. There is something to be said for a man who can get an entire room full of romantic novelists (including the big name authors) to all do Michael Jackson’s Thriller dance in unison, complete with zombie arms and everything. Other popular songs of the party: "I Will Survive", "It's Raining Men" and "I Need A Hero". All very apt, considering the profession of the most of the guests. I’m going to let my photos tell the rest of the story:

The scrum...I mean, the dancefloor.

Some of the yummy deserts on offer

The DJ receiving some adulation and singing "Livin' On A Prayer", I think...
Jennie and I in our shamelessness

The party rocks on...
Shirley Jump and yours truly

Midnight always comes too early after a party like that, and I wasn’t tired a bit, so I hung on with Shirley and we joined in with some after hours singing as the DJ hopped onto the piano in the lounge outside and started belting out songs. Eventually, around 1.30 a.m. we made it back to the hotel and I fell into bed.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

RWA 09: Washington DC - Thursday part 2

After the Keynote Luncheon, I went to a workshop, but then it was time to meet up with some of my fellow M&B/Harlequin Romance authors in the lobby, because we were off on a little excursion – something I was particularly excited about – a tour of the Washington Post.

After getting the Metro downtown, we stopped off for iced coffees (bliss!) and then met up with a couple of other editors and authors at the Washington Post building.

Here's Lynn Raye Harris, Donna Alward, Shirley Jump, Kim Young, Teresa Southwick, Susan Meier and me (and I think Barbara Wallace is hiding in the back!)

We were all given bar-coded stickers with our names on and someone had to scan my…erm…chest to let me in the building. It’s been a long time since I was a newsroom. My father used to be a journalist and I remember visiting the offices of the Daily Express when I was small to watch the Lord Mayor’s parade progress down Fleet Street. There were a few minor changes, but the office layout wasn’t dissimilar – a big, open-plan room with lots of desks.

First stop was small TV set that their reporters use to report breaking news. They sit slap-bang in the middle of the newsroom and give their report – no green screen technology or CGI effects here. And I like that.

We scurried round the newsroom in a hurry, desperate not to disturb anyone who was still working at their desks, although at 5.30 p.m., the place was virtually deserted. We popped out heads into offices, said collective ‘hello’s to many people whose names and jobs I have now forgotten completely, although I do remember meeting Steve Pearlstein, who won a Pulitzer Award last year for his columns on the recent financial crisis (one of 6 Pulitzers the Washington Post and its staff collected last year!). Mr Pearlstein is said to be the man who first predicted the financial crash of last autumn.

Shortly afterwards, a loud buzzer sounded and we instantly changed direction and headed for a small conference room. It turned out that we were going to be allowed to sit in on a story conference where the editors decided what was going to be on the front page the following day. How excited was I? We were handed a sheet of paper with the mock-up for the front page and the same graphic was displayed on a wall-mounted computer screen at the end of the conference table.

Now, in novel writing, it can take ages to decide which way you are going to go with a story. I often need plenty of thinking time so I can investigate different avenues and decide which one is the right way to go. In journalism, everything is much more immediate. It has to be decided and it has to be decided now. There were no lengthy speeches from each editor, only short to-the-point comments. These people do not mess around.

Mostly there was agreement on what should grace the front page. The only suggestion to change was that one editor (I’m so bad with names, and I had reached my limit by this point in the tour – apologies!) suggested they drop a story of the Maryland GOPs (I’m British. I have no idea what this means!) and instead focus on President Obama speaking to the NAACP. Everyone else concurred, saying there was a few more days for the other story to peak and they agreed that, because they didn’t know what Obama was going to say and, therefore, had no idea if they were going to have a good quote to lead with, that the story should be more the fact it would be the first time a black president would address the civil rights organisation.

I would say the story conference lasted a maximum of fifteen minutes, probably less. I noticed on the wall one of the old-fashioned plates that newspapers used to use to print the pages framed an hung on the wall. I took a picture (see above), but it’s a bit fuzzy. The Washington Post was the newspaper to break the Watergate story back in the 70s and the plate on the wall reads (back to front, of course): “Nixon Resigns”. Fab.
The other picture I took a photo of in the newsroom was something taped to one of the supporting pillars – mainly because I thought it was funny – a picture of Paris Hilton after she was arrested, even though it’s from the front page of another paper.

Before we ended our tour, we were allowed to go upstairs and see the executive offices. The chairman, Donald Graham, has the most fabulous door on his office, made out of the old wooden printing blocks that would have been used once upon a time to set the headlines in the newspaper.

I also took a photo of a portrait of Donald’s father, Philip Graham. With it being Harlequin’s 60th birthday this year and Mills & Boon’s centenary last year, I’ve seen a lot of the vintage covers on display, and I thought Mr Graham wouldn’t have looked out of place on one of them as a dashing hero. Sadly, Mr Graham’s own life did not have a happy ending but was turbulent and traumatic. After learning a little about the Graham family and how his wife Katharine took the reins of the Post after his death, I would be really interested to read her autobiography.

After our tour finished, we headed back to the hotel and Donna and I met up with Kate Hewitt and had a light dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant across the road. We shared a tomato and mozzarella salad to start and I had linguine with seafood in a marinara sauce. The large, fat scallop that sat on top of the whole dish was just gorgeous!

The last event on Thursday (and by this point I was severely flagging!) was the eHarlequin pyjama party. It’s great fun, but I’d forgotten how mortifying it can be to wander through the vast lobby of an international hotel in just my night clothes! I managed to stay about an hour and then I just crashed.

I’ll leave you with a before and after of the Washington Post front page for Friday 17th July 2009. First, the mock-up we were handed in the conference and then the real front page:

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

RWA 09: Washington DC - Thursday part 1

Thursday morning I was up early for breakfast at a cafĂ© across the road from the hotel with some of the ‘newbie’ writers for Harlequin Mills & Boon/Silhouette. The conference is so busy, sometimes you have to schedule the get-togethers at the oddest times!

To the left is Desire author Tessa Radley and Modern Heat/Little Black Dress author Julie Cohen, and below is new Romance signing Barbara Wallace, with Presents/Modern Romance authors Lynn Raye Harris and Kate Hewitt.

After breakfast, I made my way back to the hotel for the opening session. The guest speaker was best-selling author Janet Evanovich, who had some pearls of wisdom (and some great one-liners) to share with us mere mortals.

  • “I enjoy writing for an hour and a half in the morning…and then it’s like haemorrhoids.”
  • Janet says she’s not a fast writer (I find that very comforting) and that she thinks more than she writes.
  • She likes silence when she writes and often wears the earmuffs she got when she learned to shoot (research) to cut out audible distractions!
  • She puts all the ingredients into the book and cooks it and cooks it until she is left with the essence of all the things she put into it. She tries to boil her stuff down so that, instead of pages of narrative, she has just a few sentences that tell her all she needs to know about that character or location. (Love this! As writers, I think we all need to ‘boil’ more.)
  • The secret to a page-turning book is seamless transitions – moving the reader from one place to the next without them even noticing it.
  • Her best writing advice? Don’t hold anything back, thinking you’ll save it for the next book. Put it in the book you’re writing now (and hope to God that something fills the gap!)
  • As soon as readers know you have an agenda, a message to give, you’ve failed.

The next major event was the Keynote Luncheon, at which Linda Howard was the speaker. She had us laughing right from the opening lines of her talk, recounting the story of how she allegedly got ‘duped’ into standing there. She said she’d been told to say something inspirational, but had replied that she didn’t have any inspirational stories – only cow stories, as her husband raises cattle. How Linda feels about cattle, was fairly obvious from her one comment on the subject, given in her Southern drawl: “Cows are the devil’s handmaidens.”

She said the only other stories she had were about her family. And on that subject, she said: “Every nuthouse has its keeper, and I am the keeper of the nuts.” She then went on to give us anecdotal proof.

The story in which her brother and sister-in-law decided to get some much needed fresh air after both being wheelchair bound (I’ve forgotten why!) by travelling round the neighbourhood with him on his ride-on lawn mower with her wheelchair attached to the back with a length of bungee cord was so funny that I swear I stopped breathing a couple of time I was laughing so hard. Tears were streaming down my face and I lost all my mascara – waterproof mascara! I can't wait to get my conference DVD of all the sessions so I can listen to it again.

She said the inspirational message in her talk was that if she can build a successful writing career under such circumstances, that it ought to give us hope. Her final piece of (inspirational) advice was: "Hang in there, do the best you can and, when the nuts are falling, take cover!"

More on Thursday soon…