Atop The Ramparts at Château Royal d’Amboise

Amidst all of the revelations brought about by my trip to the Loire Valley, there were some lovely scenes that simply stole my breath.

The grounds of Château Royal d’Amboise near the hunting lodge proved simple for the most part.

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It was, however, the ramparts which provoked majestic ooooos and ahhhhhhs.

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One of the most remarkable qualities of the royal residence is only about a fifth of what it once remains intact. Imagine what it must have been like, its towering presence over Amboise and the Loire River, five-hundred years ago.

I like to imagine that da Vinci and Melzi sat in a tower long the victim of time and treachery painting elegant women with the Loire in the background.

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Meanwhile, the tiny town of Amboise bustles below:

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Atop The World With Da Vinci

“Can’t you see it?” she asked me.

“I’ve been walking for like an hour and I’m exhausted. I’m going to sit on this bench over here for about two days,” I told my ephemeral guide.

“Perfect. Right over there. Nope, one more bench over. There, you got it.”

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I gasped.

There, at a tiny grove of trees just above the marked remains of where the Château Royal d’Amboise used to extend into a far greater complex than what remains today, I could see what she offered up.

A new whispering in my ears began to shift from mere chatter to a conversation overheard and a vision of an old man alongside two others stationed at wooden easels. Amongst the shady plane trees and Gary oak, he guided their hands to sketch and capture the scene in front of them.

I stepped forward to take a closer look, and a young woman stretched her neck around the closest easel to make sure I saw her.

A quiet wave.

A knowing, modest smile.

The old man waived a gentle finger at her and everyone returned to their work. Something pricking me on the shoulder forced me out of the vision and around staring back at the river.

An arched bridge.

A wild river.

Rugged hills and shifting light.

I caught a glimpse of the landscape they had been painting in the background.

By the time I turned back around, the group of painters had vanished from view, but not from my own knowing of who I’d had the chance to watch at work that day—Melzi, Salaí, and their Master.  Who was their muse? What else had they learned to paint on that hill in the magical light of Amboise?

Just beyond it on the trail, it would seem others may have a bit of a sense as I dd that something truly remarkable took place there.

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My guide pointed out that it is marked in plain sight, for those of us who know to use as a guide.

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I nodded and acknowledged her gift, then suddenly stood.

My attention redirected itself by force, and I moved toward what appeared to be the remains of a moat or battlement at the top of the castle where I was offered another vision.

This time men and women fled a burning castle, but it was too late. The bodies piled up, filling the space, the screams and panic swarming my senses until my mind snapped back and I stood in the sunshine shaking.

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It would take a week for me to understand the final message of that time at the top of the world with da Vinci.

My guide spoke in a solemn tone, offering up an explanation of what I’d seen.

“Not even his power could stop what came for us.”

I Died Here

I  found myself staring into the remains of a place I didn’t know existed.

A grotesque, morbid sensation settled across my shoulders, then a pressure leaned in against my right arm and I stiffened.

“I died here,” a voice whispered.

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Throughout that morning, while I bought roses and baguettes at Le Marché and began my winding procession through the cobblestone streets, the same voice drew me closer.

Having arrived in Amboise less than twenty-four hours earlier, my first walk through town led me to the base of the castle ramparts at Château Royale d’Amboise.

The moment I found myself at the locked gate leading across the small moat, I heard her again: “I died here.”

My mind fickered and scenes of a woman tossed from the tower above, crashing against the pavement, played out over and over. The water stains of rust or wear streaming down from the window tuned to blood and the air bristled with the scent of lilies and life violently exiting.

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The woman who spoke pulled me back into her time and showed me, then nodded, took my hand, and asked me to remember.

“Do not leave me here again,” she said.

At that moment, I’d convinced myself I’d gone crazy, watched too much Outlander, had slipped into some delusional state brought on by jet lag and the ongoing series of serendipitous events leaving me without time to recover from the last.

Whatever it was, Amboise and its royal heritage had long called to me without me listening. In the works for years, The Woman On The Wall only ever had one major setting. This tiny town on the banks of the Loire River drove me right to its edge and there I stood, clear in every way that I returned to a place I’d known in not just one lifetime, but many.

“I died here.”

Did this woman speak of my death or her own? I will never truly know. However, she stayed with me for a long while, weaving me in and out of abandoned space, requesting that I listen and remember them, remember how I used to know them.

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An unnatural urge to rip open the gates of passageways and throw myself into the spaces leading up into the castle took hold and I fought her stories, her words, the places she revealed to me.

I knew who spoke. I knew the voice of Aesmeh. I knew she needed me to know where her life played out. It was as if she’d waited five-hundred years for someone to finally hear her and not run.

Oh, how I wanted to run.

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My own urge to get the hell out of there took over, and I released myself into the street where I wandered, grateful for the lack of interest that anyone else in Amboise seemed to have for those quiet, abandoned places which carried with them the deep resonance of stories much more difficult to hear than one of royal pageantry, art, and afternoons in the garden.

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As my head cleared and the voice faded, I relished the accomplishment of breaking free when there she was.

I told myself it was just a window, one which I’m sure the owner had specially made with the gentle face of a striking ancient woman visible when the sun caught it just right. Maybe she appeared because someone thought it appropriate for this historic royal hamlet. Maybe, she wasn’t done with me.

Her eyes followed me as I moved up and down the row of houses until finally, I collapsed across the street from her and just listened.

“So,” she said. “Let me introduce you to everyone else.”

In The Writer’s Studio – August, The Dead Month

Just about every writer who submits their work to agents knows that there is one month every year when nothing happens.

Don’t prep a manuscript, write a query letter, reach out on Twitter, or check in with an agent who has your partial. It’s not gonna work out for you because everyone is at least pretending to lounge on a New England beach.

The rest of the year is stupid crazy busy. August means time for a bit of radio silence.

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For me, it has traditionally proven the month to hunker down and log big hours in the writer’s studio, plotting and crafting.

This year, however, my brain took a break along with everyone else. You can read about my angst surrounding this unplanned standstill HERE.

Today, after a long chat with an editor who just returned from vacation herself, I found myself breathing a bit easier. The conversation revealed her own startling loss of an entire month and her shock at how often lately this similar chat has played out. Apparently, August was a wash for at least half the known universe, and we are all scrambling to realign priorities, carve out time, and make tangible progress on writing projects.

For me, this is all about removal of external distractions.

I’ve planned the hell out of my research trip to France and refuse to plan even a minute more.

Classes and curriculum, mapped out.

Coaching training, done.

Schedules, made.

Now, to snuggle in and get the love letters between Francesco and Aesmeh mapped out.

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Then, to make sure my modern-era antagonist is fully formed and well-rounded. I actually quite love him, such a provocative character motivated by what he is convinced is the only possible road to truth.

Finally, before I get on the plane to start the research and writing marathon in France, I’m going to nail the sequence of the story down and finish the plotting. That way I can move through my time there with exceptionally focused purpose instead of scrambling to figure out story foundations.

I’m coming out of the Augustine black hole, people.

Finally.

Slow Travel

I’ve been circling around this concept of slow travel a lot lately.

It’s not shocking to anyone who has spent literally even one day with me that I am a bit of a doer. Chilling is not my thing.

I’ve got lists and then lists for the lists.

I survive on accomplishment alone.

It’s my insecurity, I get it.

To do is to have a purpose. To chill is to, well . . .

Yet, upon reflection, I’ve begun to understand how my urge to do, do, and then do some more is based almost entirely in the fear that I will somehow be thought of as less, miss out, that I only get one shot at things, and that everyone else is staring at me thinking I’m an idiot unless I am superwoman mounting the to-do list like the queen of everything.

This leads me to France and THIS ARTICLE from Quartzy.com.

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I am taking myself to France in October to, well, chill.

No, do.

No, chill.

No, do.

See, it’s a problem.

I am taking myself to France in October to research The Woman On The Wall. For those of you who don’t know, I’m writing a novel about the true identity of the Mona Lisa that is half epistolary love story and half Indiana Jones-style thriller.

I know, in my head, I am going to Paris and Amboise to chill and get to know the places where the novel is set as well as possible in 14 days. I’m not going to play tourist.

Then, the other part of my head goes bananas. I have like a billion to-dos in Paris in my Google Maps. I can do 12 hours a day in the first two days I get off the plane, right?

This article killed all of my need to do Paris (in a good way), giving me permission to just wander through my quick 72 hours there.

Yes, me and La Gioconda are hooking up.

We’ve already texted.

She’s expecting me.

However, I have now basically just thrown my crazy to the wind and decided that everything else in Paris can just happen.

We’ll see how I fare.

Managing Corporate Clients & Creative Muse

I got up this morning planning to work on an article for a corporate client. This is pretty straightforward work, crafting a piece based on an interview I did last week about a technical topic I’ve done a fair bit of reading up on.

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Segmenting my days into mental spaces is something I attempt to practice with some level of religious commitment. It’s a serious business to go from corporate article to fantasy novel writing to lesson planning for creative writing classes. I need to keep a clear head to stay clear on my goals.

However, my devotion to schedule-related doctrine wanes with embarrassing regularity, especially when I get distracted by a digital rabbit hole.

Welcome to my morning, where I got up and went to YouTube to put on ten hours of cello music. Instead, a video on an ancient religious order called The Scarlet Council appeared in my feed (I feel like I’m stating the obvious, but I love a good historical conspiracy theory). How could I refuse such an offer to delve into ancient mysteries?

Well, it’s 2.5 hours later and I’m back into corporate mode – black turtle neck and hair up in a bun ready to bust out some business-focused material.

The reward is I wrote thirteen pages of The Woman On The Wall  (1500 words or so) while listening to the 70-minute video despite the fact I’m getting a later start than I wanted to on the other work.

This is my life, trying to balance curiosity and the need to create with my more intellect-based writing projects.

I’ll shift again in about two hours, prepping for an evening teaching creative writing classes.

Despite the chaos, it’s satisfying to know I’m quite capable of connecting my deep calling to write to everything I pursue in life.

Lately, people ask me why I write and I just tell them, “For me, writing is the mother blood. Everything else manifests as a result of it.”

 

On How I Broke Down When Writing Feedback Hurt (And Won)

The other day, literally within a few hours of me doing the “I am amazing at this” dance after I wrote what I considered a killer short story submission, I got an e-mail.

Seeing this editor’s name in my InBox brought on a mixture of excitement and fear as it usually does. She’s incredibly talented, and I literally sobbed when I recently got the request from her to see pages of Geist.

Excitement soon turned to crushing defeat.

Phrases such as, “Your writing didn’t resonate with me as much as I had hoped,” made me bleed from my eyes.

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It actually hurts me right now to repeat her feedback. I hesitate to share it with you because I feel like it marks me as a failure — talentless, like one of those people on American Idol who humiliate themselves in the audition phase and make the blooper reel for millions to take note of what not to do.

Her words started me down a wild path of self-doubt, echoing in my head over and over.

I even shouted into the Instagram void with one of those long Stories that I’m mildly grateful now I’m unable to reshare.

I shut my computer and walked away.

This moment, after such an amazing high from writing that morning, demanded a lengthy self-flagellation.

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Me: I must suck at this. Time to seriously rethink my place in the world.

Higher self: I’m literally going to beat you with a stick if you don’t stop this level of bullshit.

Me: But, she said she hated it.

Higher self: No, she said she didn’t connect with it.

Me: Yes! Hatehatehate!

Higher self: *Sigh* Did you read the rest of the e-mail?

Me: Fuck off, I’m going to go mainline chocolate and watch Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant fall in love for the hundredth time.

Higher self: Read it now, you pathetic, thin-skinned pansy.

Me: Maybe it’s this abusive relationship with you I need to reconsider.

Higher self: *tapping foot and glaring at me*

Me: I’ll read it, shut up already.

2 minutes later

Me: Oh.

Higher self: She told you how to fix it.

Me: I didn’t read that part.

Higher self: Of course not, you were too busy confirming your own insecurities.

Me: But, what if . . .

Higher self: Re-write the damn chapter. Dig deep. Consider if what she has told you makes sense, if you have known all along that this needed to be fixed all along.

Me: But, I don’t want to re-write it. I’ll have to tweak the whole front of the book.

Higher self: Do you have an agent?

Me: No.

Higher self: Do you have a book contract?

Me: Stop already.

Higher self: When was the last time someone who has the capacity to get you from no agent and no book contract to agented author with a book deal took time to critique your work and show you specifically how to fix it?

Me: . . . I hate you.

Higher self: You love me.

Me: Why did you see this when I didn’t?

Higher self: Got yer back, baby.

downloadThe whole feedback thing sucked, but opening to truth is often not the finest moment in anyone’s life.

I took her recommendations and rewrote the chapter based on her notes, sent it off to a group of trusted friends and mentors to review and offer their honest feedback as well (per her recommendation), and spent the night going over it line-by-line with my brutally honest husband.

2 a.m. rolled around and I dropped into bed, satisfied that one of the most humbling writing days in recent memory may have opened up a massive wound, but refusing to step back into an old place of “to hell with this” meant it became one of the most instructive writing days in recent memory too.

Don’t let the brutal truth of writing feedback stop you from pursuing the craft. Use it to get better.

Day 25 – The Teacher

As a writer, I have found nothing more aggressively instructive in the best of ways than teaching creative writing to others.

Unless you’re wealthy by other means, a writer’s life requires a day job or a side hustle to make the pieces fit together. Not to get all cheesy, but teaching writing is really the best case scenario for a professional writer in terms of that ebb and flow. For the last several years, I’ve taught people of all ages how to find their own voices, write stronger stories, and edit their own work.

It keeps me sharp, well-read in all genres, creative, and always thinking about stories, more stories, then at least another one.

Part of staying laser-focused on my writing career is to not get distracted. Teaching keeps me in the zone. Plus, I literally could spend all day every day talking about writing. So . . .

Day 23 – Submitting to Literary Journals

Submitting to literary journals is a new thing for me. I always figured I’ve got limited time, why would I spend time writing things other than my novels? However, this lets me try out new styles, test concepts, and just write.

Today, I’m working on a piece to submit to Luna Station at the end of this week.

I think it’s hard to get excited about short stories sometimes, yet that is exactly the skill I force my students to master. It’s all about telling the best story and learning how to do it well.

Finding journals is a bit of work, but I suspect this will allow me to up my writing game and expand in ways I never even expected.

Out for submission I go.

The year was 1768. Ekaterina Racovitža could still feel the echo of her sister’s body trembling, blood caking upon the bronzed haunches of the eagle adorning the Russian Tula blade lodged in Ionela’s chest. Three months and a thousand miles beyond that day, the gurgle of the girl’s lungs drowning, the last of her once-powerful Moldavian family murdered, still stung Kat’s ears. She’d failed to save them.

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With her exiled to a remote commune in Southern France marred by its own failure, the madness of grief, regret, and isolation set in. The Gevaudan and its demons stalked her just as its notorious, malevolent La Bête had stalked and slaughtered hundreds before taking a bullet two years earlier.

Fuelled by the redemption offered in one man’s plea to find his daughter alongside the appearance of the Zagavory—three totems filled with Moldavian word magic—Kat exposes a countryside severed from the rest of the world. A depraved plot to save France, merging science with religion to build an unstoppable army, leaves its peculiar inhabitants victims of the monarchy and its allies. The discovery leads her into a realm of bizarre devotions, violent passions, and one family’s irredeemable loss where she is forced to determine the fate of the Gevaudan, revealing the nature of the monstrous in all of us.