Moms Taking Time for Themselves

Why are there so many articles about moms taking time for themselves? You can’t walk through a magazine aisle (yes,those are still a thing), or go through a grocery checkout line without seeing something about it. You find it on mom blogs, in the online journals, and on Facebook.

So why is this so prevalent?

Because it’s so hard, and it’s important. Like anything that’s hard, lots of people have written about it. This tends to be because what worked for one mom didn’t work for another.

Let’s start with why it’s important for moms, or anyone, to take time for themselves.

  1. It’s really hard to help others until your own needs are met.  Think about it. There’s a reason the airlines tell you to put your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else.

2. Kids learn by what you do, not what you say. If you tell them that it’s important for all members of the family to help out, and they see dad helping do dishes and fold the laundry, they see that. If you tell them exercise and eating right are important, then get take-out most nights and plop down on the sofa, they see that, too.

3. Stress is bad for everyone. We all need less of it, and as being a mother is a job that never really ends, sometimes you need to take time that is yours.

We’ve all been there.

 

So, we know that it’s good for us, but why is it so hard?

  1. Because kids need us. Maybe less than we want to believe, less than we think, but they need us. We’ve been hard wired by nature to respond to those needs. There’s a reason why you can’t ignore a baby’s cry.

2. Societal pressure. There is most certainly a lot of pressure on moms to be “perfect”. To throw kids the perfect birthday party, to make sure they have all the right activities, to nurture them so they have the best start in life. Looking at my own checkered childhood, I feel like I turned out fine in spite of it. Or maybe, just maybe, because of it. That is a post for another time, but the pressure to give a “perfect” childhood is very real.

3. Because we love them. Kids are the greatest challenge I’ve ever faced.

They are frustrating, annoying reminders of all the worst parts of myself. They are also amazing little creatures capable of making my heart melt with a single spontaneous hug or “I love you, mommy.” We want to do things for them. We want to be there for them. We want to give them all that we can.

4. Fear of Regret. For me, this is a big one. I don’t want to regret the time I didn’t spend with them. I work full time, and now that the oldest has started official school, she has obligations, too. I only see them for a few hours each work day, which, yes, can sometimes be too much, but it still makes me feel like I’m missing so much. I have to make use of whatever time we have together as I don’t get much of it.

 

Trying to make time for myself has definitely been challenging for me, especially as I’ve been trying to juggle a full time job, spouse, and kids.

And writing!

So yes, it’s hard to take time for just myself when there is so much more I feel like I should be doing. So many more things I want to be doing. I haven’t yet figured it out, and maybe I never will. But at least I understand the dilemma.

 

How about you? Are you able to find time to yourself even if you have other obligations? How do you do it? Do you ever fear you’re going to miss out on other things? Do you worry about not meeting other societal demands because of it?

Happily-Ever-After According to Science

Why do some marriages work and others don’t? Why do some people stay in a bad marriage, while others will leave a relatively good marriage?

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I hated Romeo and Juliet anyway.

Some will say love. Romance. Soul mates. On the more mundane and practical side, people will say shared interests, beliefs and goals.

As a romance writer and reader, you often see the story end at the point where the characters are married and are now expected to live happily-ever-after. Or, maybe this particular trope is one where they’re forced to marry because of plot reasons, but by the end of the story, they confess their love for each other and then live happily-ever-after.

Either way, we end with the characters in love and ready for their happily-ever-after ending.

In the real world, more marriage will end in divorce than be successful. At least in America they will.

Yeah, not very romance-writer of me to mention that, I know. But, if I want to give my characters a believable happily-ever-after, I need to understand what leads to that happily-ever-after. What makes some marriages work?

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No, no, no, no, no!

 

Well, science has an explanation on why some marriages work and some don’t. It’s called Interdependence Theory.

Interdependence Theory states the following.

Rewards – there are rewards from marriage (or any social interaction). These can range from companionship to physical intimacy. Interdependence theory has defined them as the following:

  • Emotional – Positive and negative feelings in a relationship. These are especially important in a close relationship. Ah, here we’re getting to where love comes into play. See, you knew I was a romance writer!
  • Social – Or how you appear to others. Does being seen with a super model make you feel better about yourself? What about with a stripper? What other social repercussions are there from the relationship? Perhaps you have to attend a lot of operas, and you love opera. But what if you hate opera?
  • Instrumental – These rewards are achieved when a partner is proficient at handling tasks. Like mowing the lawn, building the kids a tree fort, or doing the laundry without anyone getting stuck with pink socks (true story).

Costs – there are costs to a relationship as well. Basically, for all of the different types of rewards (emotional, social or instrumental), there is a corresponding cost. So, just like there are emotional, social and instrumental rewards, there are emotional, social, and instrumental costs. Makes sense.

So, DH putting up with my annoying habit of leaving my shoes by the sofa where I kick them off every night would be an example of an instrumental cost my husband has to pay regardless of how many times I’ve promised I’d be better about it. Or going to the annual corporate party for my employer would be a social cost. Sorry honey!

Rewards Minus Costs  Should Be Positive – Yeah, not very romantic, is it? Sounds more like I’m building a profit and loss statement than writing a romance novel.

Yes, I’m sure I’m a romance writer. But science is seldom romantic.

However unpleasant it may sound, research has shown that humans keep a record, whether consciously or not, of the net value of a relationship to us. So, you’re in a “profitable” relationship if the rewards outweigh the costs. But, this still isn’t enough to keep people in a relationship. They have to be making “enough” profit. Kind of like when you invest in your 401(k) account. You only have so much money, so you want to select the investments that will net you the most profit for the time you have them invested.

Comparison / Opportunity Cost – Once someone has tallied up their total relationship rewards and costs, they will either consciously or subconsciously review their other options. Even if they are net positive, in their account isn’t earning as much as they think it should, they are more likely to end the relationship and look for another. This may explain all of the Hollywood break-ups.

 

Okay, so now that we know this, how can we apply the science to making a romance novel earn its happily-ever-after?

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Not the response I’m looking for, though I may have said it about a romance novel or three.

 

I want my happily-ever-afters to be believable. So, here are a couple of ways I can use the Interdependence Theory to make it believable:

1.No Alpha-Holes – A strong male lead could provide a lot of rewards on the instrumental level. He gets stuff done. But even if a heroine loves him, the emotional and social costs of dealing with him are going to be extremely high. Toning him back so he’s still an alpha without being a jerk would help a lot.

2. No Porcelain Dolls – Both characters in the romance have to be active. If either can basically be put on the shelf while the other does all the heavy lifting, you’re going to have a relationship with very high instrumental costs. No matter how much you love someone, if they can’t figure out how to open the refrigerator and get themselves a soda, you’re going to get pretty ticked at them after a while.

3. Opposites Might Not Attract – The whole wallflower with a super outgoing character trope might not end well. If the wallflower really doesn’t like much social interaction, but the extrovert loves it, there is going to be a high social cost to the relationship. Unless, of course, one or the other is the way they are to mask their true personality. The extrovert who actually hates all the parties etc.

 

What do you think? Does interdependence theory hold water in your book? Think it’s bunk? If so why or why not? Any other way that it could be used in writing to give believable happily-ever-afters?

10 Steps to Younger Skin

I came across an advertisement like this, and I’m not really sure how this is even allowed. I mean, no matter what I do, I am going to have the skin of a woman who needs yearly mammograms. I could do 10 steps, 20 steps, 100 steps, and my skin will not go back in time.

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And frankly, why should I want it to? Why does my skin need to look younger than it is?

To be attractive. To be beautiful. To be desired.

To be loved.

There is the reason. The real reason I’m supposed to want younger skin. I feel like I’m inundated with messages constantly telling me I’m not “good enough” to be loved. I’m not pretty enough, thin enough, rich enough. I’m just not enough.  So I must buy their product to look better, to be thin, or to appear rich. Their product will help make me enough.

Of course, that’s complete crap.

But if they can convince us to believe it, they have a market for life. A market that won’t be terribly sensitive to price.

Makes me wonder if this is part of what feeds the escapism some of us find in romance novels. In these stories, however old you are, whatever you look like, it’s always enough.

Outside of our fiction, advertisers are doing whatever they can to make us feel we need their product. Most likely because what they’re selling isn’t chocolate cake. Rather, their wares are something we don’t want or need intrinsically so they must create a market for it.

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And create a market they did. While there was almost no cosmetics industry in the early 1900s, the global cosmetics market was worth $460 billion in 2014   Let me show you that with the zeros:  $460,000,000,000. A year.   By 2020, it’s estimated to be a $675,000,000,000 market.

I want you to think about that for a moment.

California’s state budget is $171 Billion.

Okay, so bigger than the entire state of California’s budget. Not just bigger. More than twice as big.

I did some looking, and the cosmetics industry is scheduled to surpass US military spending of $598 Billion.

Could you even imagine if we spent that much money on anything else? What would the budget be to colonize Mars? To end global hunger?

Perhaps I see it this was because I have nothing vested in cosmetics. I don’t “put” on my face every day. You see, I have a strong allergy to most cosmetics. You don’t really want to know what’s in most of them. Even Web MD has warnings.

I can only use dye-free, scent-free products. The dye is an issue, but the scent in most products causes me huge issues. Given what cosmetics are made of, the makers have to use scent to cover it or no woman would put it on her skin.

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I used a bunch of different products, desperately trying to find eye make-up that didn’t make my eyes swell. Or foundation that didn’t make my skin red and itchy. Or lipstick that didn’t my lips hurt and make them swell. It didn’t matter if it was L’Oréal, Clinique, or Channel. Nothing played nice with my skin.

One afternoon many years ago, my soon-to-be-husband asked me if I needed to wear it at all. He told me I looked exactly the same with it as I did without, and besides, he hated wearing my lipstick if he kissed me.

That was the last day I ever wore make-up. I threw it all away, bought some dye-free, scent-free lotion that my dermatologist had recommended, and I never looked back. Do I sometimes miss making my long but fair lashes look dark? Yes. Do I miss my eyes swelling, or getting red and angry? Nope.

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About what my eye and the skin around it looked like after a bad reaction. 

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve changed the lotion I use, but it’s still dye and scent free. And my skin never reacts poorly to it. This says a lot because my skin reacts poorly to a lot of things, including the soap in public bathrooms. I have to carry hand-sanitizer in my purse or risk soap getting caught in my wedding ring and making my finger swell too large for the ring.

Abstaining from cosmetics hasn’t meant perfect skin, and I do get a bit of redness or an occasional breakout, but I stick with a gentle cleansing routine and lotion and it clears up pretty quickly.

I’ve seen other women who struggle with their skin and use cosmetics to combat it. I’ve often wondered if wearing makeup has actually made the skin issues worse for them, forcing them to buy yet more products.

Interestingly, science says my inner skeptic is in on to something . Yes, there is evidence that cosmetics are not good for your skin, which can lead to needing more products. Of course, there is no cosmetic company willing to fund such a study. Or, if they have, they haven’t released the results. So there’s only a handful of research out there.

But, there is also a such a thing as withdrawal from makeup. Because of course there is. You get customers to buy something they don’t need, and it has addictive side effects that include the release of testosterone when you quit using their products. This testosterone spike causes more skin issues, so you go back to using their products.

This isn’t growing into a $675 billion dollar a year industry because people need lipstick. They’ve made us want their product,  but it isn’t an innate want.It’s a manufactured one, and they’re going to make it hard to quit them if you ever choose that route.

Not condemning wearing make-up. You do you. Heck, I was so into the stuff at one point that I suffered elephant eyes to wear it. I miss mascara the most. I’ve got long lashes, but they’re fair. Really miss the mascara.

We all make choices and get to decide how to spend our hard earned money, but perhaps it’s something to think about before buying your next tube of lipstick or bottle of mascara. Remember, even in the early 1900s, make-up wasn’t popular and was mostly used by prostitutes. War paint indeed.

The rise of make-up came right along with the rise of advertising so they could make us want it.

Whatever you choose, it’s never unwise to take a moment to think about why we do what we do. To make sure it’s our choice, and we’re really doing what we think is best for us rather than what an advertiser may think is best.

Looking at you, commercials.

 

How about you? Ever get sucked into a product because of an advertisement? Do you regret it? Or maybe you came to love the product?

 

Our Deepest Fears

I read an article in GQ of all places (I know, the depths of the internet I troll), that made a very interesting point on insults and fear.

When someone insults someone else, the insult is enlightening of the person giving it. For example, if Woman A calls Woman B fat, that tells us that Woman A does not find worth in herself unless she meets a certain body ideal.

Intelligence is another example.

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This is only insulting if you value intelligence. Clearly, the person who wrote this meme does. But this may not hold true for everyone. I know when I was in middle and high school, being intelligent, especially as a girl, was not highly valued (sad, but true).

The idea that an insult tells you more about the person delivering it makes a lot of sense to me, and it could be a great way to explore a character’s fears. Whether protagonist or villain, any insults they throw out would show what’s important to them.

Honor. Faith. Love. Monogamy. Whatever it is that your character views as important.

For example, in my work-in-progress, Knight of Valor, when a vampire insults the heroine and calls her weak, that’s really of reflection of the vampire’s own fear of not be able to do as her master commanded.When a necromancer calls the heroine a whore, it’s a result of his fear of her choosing another over him.

As I think through this, though, I also realize that the importance of the insult varies greatly on who is delivering it.

insult

Does the heroine care about being called weak by the vampire sent to retrieve her or a whore by the necromancer that wants her? Not at all. They simply don’t matter to her. This doesn’t generate action on her part because it doesn’t resonate with her values.

In Crowned Prince, the insult dynamic took a different turn when a very respected High Knight uses some subtle and some less-than-subtle insults on a power-hungry prince. But these tell us that honor, loyalty, and dedication are very important to the High Knight. The insults are also more meaningful because they’re coming from him, and the hero and heroine respond accordingly.

Not sure this will change my writing, but it does give me another way of looking at my characters. Another way of understanding them, developing them, and digging a bit deeper.

How about you? Any of your characters ever use insults?  Do they tell you more about them? Show you what the character fears?  Or does it give you insights into whoever is being insulted?

Character Analysis: Heroes Part 2

After taking a look at heroes I didn’t like, the next step is to take a look at those I did like. Much like with heroines, when I first started this post, I thought the heroes I liked would be the exact opposite of what I didn’t like.

It turned out a little more complex than that.

I have to have the basics: no brooding, no jerks, and a character doing something. But as with the heroine, when I think through what I about the characters I like, there’s more to it.

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The Bride – The hero is a powerful Scotsman, who may be considered barbaric, but he takes care of his people and protects his wife. He is physically capable and a good leader.

The Highwayman – While I didn’t like him because the author took it too far, his cold, rational and eminently practical persona is appealing.

Finders Keepers – I loved the hero. Yes, he was a powerful captain in the Imperial “star fleet”. But he was smart, extremely capable, and a demanding commander. He had a touch of the cold and aloof, but he also didn’t spite himself when he realized he loved the heroine.

The Study of SeductionWhile I hated the heroine, I liked the hero. He was practical, not willing to be swayed by the whimsy of other people’s opinions, and he was actively trying to help and then protect the heroine. He was smart, well-educated, and could build metronomes.

A Gentleman’s Honor – This hero is one of those “perfect” types, but perfect for a reason. He is the alpha male without ever being a jerk. He protects the heroine from the beginning. Yes he’s attracted to her, but there’s more than that as well. There’s his honor. And what’s right. He is intelligent, physically perfect, and acquainted with the rougher things in life. He firmly believes in his obligations to take care of the people on his lands and his duty to serve because of his birth-rites.

 

So, what does it take for me to actually like a hero?

Competence – I like characters that are actively out there doing something and being good at it. I do not find bumbling or indecision endearing. Intelligent characters, especially, seem to be my favorites. Part of this competence is accepting their feelings, even if they don’t like them, and dealing with them. In the romance genre, the hero has to be believably in love by the end of the story.

Need to Protect – I am actually surprised at myself by this one, but there it is. I strongly favor heroes who protect rather than exploit. They are the “good guys” although bad-boy characters can be fun, they’re fun when they use their bad-boy skills to be the protector the heroine needs. Yeah, I know. Not exactly the feminist ideals I hold myself to, but there it is.

Honorable Leader – The ability to command respect is important in a hero, but so is the ability to turn his back on society’s opinion and do what’s right. A strong moral fiber to keep the hero on the high road rather than becoming a villain.

 

 

Flash Fiction: The Blood Lottery

My entry to Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge.  There have been a lot of really sad entries to these challenges of late, so I thought I’d try a different take.

The Blood Lottery

 Helena shivered as the cold spring breeze cut through her thin cloak. The scent of freshly tilled earth and young growing things filled the air. A time of rebirth. A time of blood sacrifice to keep the monster from devouring the calves, lambs and newly planted fields.

Even standing in the center of the crowd, Helena felt alone. Her mother had been sacrificed first, then her older sister had been taken by the blood lottery five years later. Her younger sister’s name had been called last spring.

No one stood up for them as most were happy it wasn’t their friends or family. And who would miss a poor washer woman and her impoverished children?

Helena suspected that the lottery was not random as it was supposed to be. It had been a long time since a merchant had been chosen and longer still that an aristocrat had.

The poor, the misfits, the criminals unfit for hard labor. Those were the ones that somehow were chosen time and time again. And she fit two of the three criteria. Helena assumed the only reason she hadn’t been chosen yet was Lord Lothar’s lustful interest in the washer girl who read books. But that shred of protection was gone when she’d refused to jump into his bed. She’d take her chances with the rigged lottery.

Fear knotted her chest as she watched the sheriff roll out the silver basket filled with names. She knew, and yet, it was supposed to be a lottery…

She held her breath as the priest reached into the basket and drew out a name.

Her name.

The crowd parted like a sea around her, afraid to get too close to the condemned woman. She swallowed back the fear. Time to join her mother and sisters in the great beyond.

Helena said nothing even as the guards swooped in and yanked her forward. Lothar leered down at her from the podium, a dark smile twisting his lips as they bound her arms behind her back. He sat back and watched as they dragged her through the streets toward the Tower of God.

Helena kept her face blank as her heart pounded against her ribs. She’d done the right thing rejecting Lothar. Her mother’s willingness to bed a nobleman and let him sire her three daughters had done nothing to protect any of them. Nothing to feed them. And the nobleman had been quite willing to sacrifice his illegitimate daughters when knowledge of them had become inconvenient.

Steadying her breathing, Helena said a prayer to Thalia. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about how she was going to eat tonight.

They reached the gleaming silver temple overlooking the jagged Dragon Cliffs. Helena had only a moment to take in the glorious windswept valley and jagged peaks before the guards forced her up the almost endless flight of stairs to the top of the Tower of God. The icy wind tugged her mahogany hair from its braid, twisting the shining tendrils as they bound her to the pole.

A guard drew his dagger and sliced her wrist.

Helena yelped, watching her blood flow from the wound and drip down her hand and over her cloak. The only cloak she owned. Not that she would need it much longer.

The moment her blood touched the Tower of God, she heard it. A deep, low rumble that made her stomach climb into her throat.

The guards heard it too and raced back down the stairs.

Growing louder, the rumble filled her ears and shook the ground. The entire temple swayed, and had she not been bound to the pole, Helena would’ve tumbled onto the jagged rocks below.

A moment later she saw it.  Her eyes saucered. As large as the temple itself, the silver dragon glittered in the afternoon sunlight as it glided through the cold air.

Before she could think, before she could offer another prayer to Thalia, it dived at her.

She closed her eyes and screamed.

But there was no pain. She opened her eyes, expecting to be dead, but instead she found herself soaring over forests and streams so fast that they disappeared beneath her in a panoply of color. A wave of nausea hit her, and she buried her face in her arm as she steadied her stomach.

Collecting herself, she took several slow breaths and looked up. A basket made out of strong but flexible reeds surrounded her and protected her from the dragon’s razor sharp claws. Was the beast taking her home to eat her? Or taking her as a meal for its children?

The dragon snorted above her, and Helena fell back against the basket.

I have no intention of eating you, and I have no children to feed you to.

There was bitterness in the words, and she looked up at the beast’s claws surrounding her.

“I can hear your thoughts?”

If I so wish it.

Helena said nothing and tried to keep her mind blank as she gazed down at the blur of landscape below them. The dragon’s flight felt effortless, yet she knew they were crossing in minutes what would have taken hours.

At last his pace started to slow and he spiraled upward. Helena clung to the sides of the basket. The dragon cleared the top of a mountain and descended into the valley below.

Lush, green, and full of life.

Given their altitude, it should have been snow-covered; instead she saw farmers’ fields already sprouting and orchards in bloom. The rich scent played off the cold glacial smell of the dragon.

Another flap of his wings and they were gliding over towns and climbing towards a large castle that glittered like ice.

The dragon circled the castle then landed with a cat’s grace in the windswept courtyard. The doors to the castle opened and a group of revelers raced outside, their arms laden with flowers as they welcomed her.

Helena’s eyes widened and tears streamed down her cheeks as she saw her sisters and her mother running toward her.

“Am I dead?” Helena asked as she hugged her mother.

Her mother shook her head as she brushed away Helena’s tears. “This is Dragon Valley. Lord Ander brought us here, as he brought you.”

“I thought…” Helena said and looked back at the massive silver dragon.

A blast of magic puffed her cloak, and where the dragon had been stood a man with silver hair and eyes bluer than the sky. A well dressed courtier hurried forward and draped an exquisite white cape over Ander’s shoulders.

“Let the feasting begin. The girl is hungry.” Oblivious to his nakedness, Ander left them as he strode into the castle.

“Still not the one,” Helena’s mother whispered. Looking down, she said a prayer.

“Not the one?” Helena asked.

Her mother hugged her. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s go enjoy the feast celebrating your arrival. We’ll have plenty of time to explain later.”

Dressed in a warm cape and clean clothes, Helena ate her fill for the first time in her life. Still not totally convinced this wasn’t heaven, she looked towards the glittering castle and wondered about the man that had given her a new life.

Follow Your Passion: Write What You Love

I write fantasy romance novels because that is what I love. Magic, knights, necromancers, and dragons. A hero and heroine who will fight through everything thrown at them and then live happily ever. It’s not a popular area of writing, not like Regency, nor is it the “next up and coming thing”.

But I both love to read it, and I love to write it. (When I can find the kind of work I like to read, anyway. If you know any Stephanie Laurens meets Tolkien authors, let me know!

When I am working in my world, and it frequently is work, it’s a place I want to be with characters I love or love to hate.

FantasyWoman

This is the TED talk I watched while on maternity leave and is what inspired me to write again: https://www.ted.com/talks/larry_smith_why_you_will_fail_to_have_a_great_career?language=en

Putting it succinctly, Larry Smith tells you to follow your passion. To do what you would do even if you weren’t paid for it.

It really put into context a lot of things for me.

Or maybe it spurred a midlife crisis.

Either way, it got me to write again.

After subscribing to the Writer’s Digest to get electronic access to agents and publishers, I have also been put on their “send me tons of advertising” list.

I’m amazed at how many solicitations I’ve received. I’m starting to think there are more people making a living on “helping” people become writers than there are people making a living writing.

But I digress. One of the classes that stood out to me was the one showing me how to make a career out of writing. The ad was something like:  “The Top 9 Most Lucrative Writing Opportunities.”  It’s selling point was that it wasn’t novel writing or anything like it.

Which wasn’t a selling point to me. The whole ad felt so much like a scam that I was reminded of those signs on the side of the road –  “Make $2,000 a week from home!”.

Whether it was a scam or not, if you already have a day job that pays the bills, why would you want to do this? Why would you want to trade your current career for a writing gig you don’t actually want to do?

Even if it isn’t a scam, that’s not following your passion.

I say write what you love. Bring your passion. Love your characters. Love how they change through the crucible of your plot.

Your readers will see this, and they will love right along with you.

And it will make the hours of work worth it to you because you are doing what you love.

I’ve never heard of a single “mega-author” admitting that they wrote something they didn’t love. Or that they wrote it because it was “trending” or “made money”. Some authors single-handedly made new genres by writing what they loved (Tolkien comes to mind).

If you’re going to spend the hours writing it, make it something you love. Something you’re proud of. Your passion.

Dragon Fire

Chunk Wendig posted a flash fiction challenge that the story must include a dragon. As a fantasy romance writer, I took this opportunity to work on an idea that has been percolating for a while. 

World

Dragon Fire

“Errand boy. Do I look like an errand boy?”

I like market day. I don’t mind bringing back supplies.

“Only because Kassia brings you sugar cubes. Whoever heard of a dragon with a sweet tooth?” Ceric asked as the cold thin air ruffled his dark hair.

The silver dragon snorted and rolled through the sky.

Ceric cursed and concentrated on staying astride Xensnisir as they soared over the sprawling farmers’ fields, the thick forests, and the high cliffs.

You just wish she brought you sugar cubes. And she would if you’d ask her.

Ceric’s chest tightened as he glanced back toward the cliffs and saw the breeze tangle Kassia’s hair as she watched him and Xensnisir swoop through the darkening sky.

“She’s there again,” Ceric muttered.

She is most nights.

“She should be safe inside her house. The sun’ll set soon.”

She comes to watch us.

The dragon spun through the air, dived, and then darted back into the clouds.

“Show off.”

You would miss her if she did not come. I gave her a reason to keep coming.

“We need to get these supplies back to the Heights, remember?”

We could take her home first to make sure she gets there safely. I would like to feel her on my back.

“I bet you would.” Ceric snorted.

You would like to feel her, too.

He started to argue, but knew it was foolish to lie to a creature that read his thoughts. “She’s Farmer Ennis’s youngest daughter.”

You say that like it means something.

“He doesn’t like dragons.”

No, he doesn’t like their riders. But it’s not him I want on my back.

“It doesn’t work that way.”

It could. You desire her, and she returns your interest.

“Maybe. Possibly. But that doesn’t matter.”

It’s all that matters.

He thought of her luminous sea green eyes and the pretty smile she saved for Xensnisir. Maybe for him, too, if Ceric thought about it. He’d considered offering her a ride on Xensnisir several times, but disapproving looks from her father and Dragon-Captain Corrant’s edict to reduce strife with the locals had stopped him.

Ceric glanced back toward the cliffs where he could see her outline and swallowed back a surge of emotion. “She would be an entanglement, a distraction, one we can’t afford. Especially with our next mission.”

She could be in trouble. Dark Ones have been seen in the area, but they have learned to avoid us.

Glancing at the darkening sky, Ceric cursed, knowing the Dark Ones would be out soon. Thoughts of what they would do to her if they caught her had him turning Xensnisir around. “We’re just seeing her home. No need for another lecture from Corrant.”

If a dragon could grin, Ceric knew his would be.

 

Kassia watched from the high cliffs as Ceric and Xensnisir glided past, and her heart leapt as the dragon somersaulted, dived towards the ground and then soared back into the clouds. Exhilaration flooded her as she imagined slicing through the sky on a dragon’s back with a dragon rider’s strong arms around her.

Not just any dragon rider. Ceric Mason.

A smile curved her lips as she remembered him and his dragon helping with the harvest when the rains came early, and when he’d searched through the night and risked the Dark Ones to bring little Lyra home.

Kassia’s mother warned dragon riders only led to a belly full of child, heartbreak, and shame. Her mother might be right; a dragon rider was purported to be the reason why her cousin Dana’s first child had come only six months after her marriage.

But Kassia’s heart still flew when she saw Ceric.

Foolish to feel anything for a dragon rider. Strong, handsome, and guardians of the lands, they had their choice of partners and were known philanderers. Some said it was the dragon bond that drove them to infidelity, others that they took advantage of their position. Either way, the dragons and their riders were all that stood between farmers like her family and the Dark Ones.

Shivering at the thought, Kassia turned from her perch on the cliff and hurried along the wooded path toward home.

In an attempt to lighten her spirit, she entertained a dozen excuses for talking to Ceric the next time he was at the market and dismissed each in kind.

The encroaching darkness froze such silliness.

The dragon and his rider had come back later than usual, and she’d stayed longer than normal on the cliffs watching their antics. She cursed herself for losing track of time and prayed for Thalia to watch over her.

Darkness fell faster among the trees than it did in the open grasslands by her house.

Things stirred in the shadows, and Kassia’s heart thumped against her ribs as she hurried along the path.

Not too fast, she cautioned herself. Movement lured the Dark Ones almost as much as the scent of human blood.

A branch snapped in the trees behind her, and then a second. The musk of rotting leaves followed her and fueled her fear.

Night sank in around her as the last rays of sunlight painted the land outside the forest crimson. Her breath caught as the sounds slunk closer, and the scent made her stomach churn.

A rustling ahead and to her left. They were circling around her.

Fear slid like ice through her veins.

She ran.

Without thought, without direction, she flew down the path. Going home would only lead them to her family and their livestock. She couldn’t, wouldn’t, do that.

The cliffs. If she jumped, the Dark Ones wouldn’t feast on her, and there was something to be said for that.

As she clambered over a log, it leapt out of the darkness. She raised her arm to shield herself, and its claws raked across her, tearing through muscle and grinding against bone.

She screamed and fell to the ground, the beast’s momentum carrying it over her head and slamming it into a tree.

Blood soaked her shirt and dripped on the ground.

It stood and grinned, its razor sharp teeth glinting in the twilight as its forked tongue licked the blood from its claws.

The smell of rotting leaves intensified as more things shifted and stirred. She wanted to look behind her, but that would expose her back to the one that had already tasted her blood. Her right arm hung at her side, and she balled the tatters of her shirt to press against the gaping wound. The bleeding slowed, but the scent of her blood stained the air.

Surrounded. She could hear them closing in on her.

Dark Ones preferred to eat their prey alive and used the screams to lure other humans, other prey. Thalia hadn’t answered her other prayer, but she said another and begged for a quick end.

She swallowed a scream as a strong arm looped around her waist and a silver sword hacked the Dark One opposite her in half.

The slithering in the forest paused as they assessed this new threat.

With dragon strength, Ceric lifted her and darted back through the forest, using surprise and his inhuman speed to gain distance.

The Dark Ones stirred behind him, snarls and gnashing teeth giving chase.

Kassia’s good arm tightened around him as she buried her face against his chest and thanked Thalia.

They burst through the forest, and she heard a great inhale then felt the whisper of heat.

Shrieks and howls rent the night as dragon fire engulfed the things following them.

More come. The blood calls them.

“I know,” Ceric said as he levered himself and Kassia onto Xensnisir’s back.

“Know what?” Kassia asked.

Ceric shook his head. “Anything we can do?”

If her wound is not tended soon, she will die. We will burn the Dark Ones once she is safe.

“Then get us outta here.”

The dragon obliged, and with two powerful beats of his wings, they were soaring over the top of the forest and back into the clouds.

His heart steadied as the cool breeze tousled his hair and his breathing calmed. Sucking in the cold, bracing air, Ceric cradled her against his chest.

The Dark Ones had almost gotten her. Almost.

A curse stroked his tongue, but he bit it back as he looked into her eyes. Fear made them bright, and she shivered against the heat of his chest. He tightened his arms around her and stroked her butter-colored hair to comfort her.

“If I die,” she whispered, “at least I got to ride a dragon.”

“You don’t get to die. Not on my watch.”

She smiled at the arrogance her father warned her about. But Ceric meant it. He wanted to protect her, to keep her safe, and he was doing everything in his power to accomplish that.

Death stalked her despite Ceric’s efforts, and she silenced thoughts of her father’s recriminations as she enjoyed the rich scent of her dragon rider, reveled in the feel of his strong arms wrapped around her, and exhilarated at the bump of the air currents.

She was flying. With Ceric.

A smile curved her lips as her eyes closed.

Ceric looked down at her slack face, heard her ragged breathing, and felt her blood soaking through his riding leathers. He swallowed back a curse as he held her tightly against him.

The healers in the Heights know how to treat Dark One wounds. Especially Maida.

“Hurry.”

I am.

Impatience nipped at Ceric as Xensnisir raced through the sky. Their trip home took half the time it normally did, but Ceric didn’t notice as they finally reached the Heights.

He half slid half fell off Xensnisir, but he kept Kassia cradled against his chest.

A woman in cinnamon robes stitched with silver embroidery hurried out and examined Kassia’s arm.

“Will she…”

“Seen worse on new riders not careful around their fledglings,” Maida snapped. “Now get her inside.”

He carried Kassia into the bright temple, laid her on the sickbed, and stepped back. Folding his arms across his chest, he leaned against the doorframe and waited for Maida to try to chase him away. She didn’t.

Whispering a spell, Maida touched her hand to Kassia’s chest, and the farm girl’s breathing steadied even as Maida cleaned the wound and rubbed pungent ointments into it. She then stitched it with silver sutures, whispered another spell, and bound Kassia’s arm in fresh linens.

When she was done, she looked at the dragon rider in her doorway and the enormous beast that lurked just beyond. “She needs rest and to keep the wound clean. And no extended dragon flights. I want to see her again in a couple days.”

Ceric nodded and lifted Kassia into his arms.

“She was lucky,” Maida said. “You and Xensnisir need to take better care of her.”

“Take better care of her? She’s a farmer…” Ceric started, but the surprised look on Maida’s face had him whirling toward Xensnisir. “What aren’t you telling me?”

Kassia’s eyes fluttered open, she mumbled something, and then lay her head against his chest as she shivered.

It will wait. Kassia needs you now.

Ceric’s eyes narrowed, but he carried her out to the waiting dragon.

Xensnisir flew them up to their cave and landed as lightly as a cat.

Ceric slid to the ground still cradling Kassia against his chest.

The dragon bowed his head and nudged Ceric’s shoulder. She will be well again.

Ceric rubbed the dragon’s nose. “She will, and then I’ll kill her for being up there after dark.”

Do not be too harsh with her. She was there because of me.

“And you’re going to tell me why Maida thought we should be taking care of her.”

Perhaps.

The dragon curled in front of the entryway to Ceric’s sleeping chambers, tucking his wings into his body as he rested his head on his fore paws and guarded the entrance.

Ceric had never seen Xensnisir so protective. It was unlike his dragon to keep secrets, but Ceric was too tired to pursue it now. The morning, however, would see him getting answers

He carried Kassia to his bed and eased her against the sheets. After gently removing her bloodstained clothes, he quickly tucked a thick blanket around her.

By the Light, she was injured. What was wrong with him?

She is beautiful. I would like to see her naked, too. But not tonight.

“What has gotten into you?”

Xensnisir didn’t answer.

Ceric opened a cupboard and pulled down several more blankets. “Looks like a night on the floor.”

Room enough for two humans. And she will want you close after such a scare.

Exhaustion robbed him of the desire to argue. Ceric stripped out of his bloodstained clothes and slid into bed beside her. Even with a blanket wrapped around her to keep her flesh from touching his, the scent of her whispered around him, taunting, tempting and luring.

As sleep finally claimed him, he could hear his dragon snickering.