A Writer Girl Kills Her Darling

Map of 1880s London, with notes

Writing fiction ain’t for sissies. Sometimes, it means killing something you love.

Since September, I’ve been editing “The Thief of Hearts,” the Victorian-set historical romance I wrote before selling my Red Hot Russians series. Set in 1870s London, its the story of a runaway debutante determined to start an independent life, and the charming street thief with whom she falls in love.

On Friday, I reached a pivotal scene. In the original manuscript, it was handled as a prologue, told from the point of view of a non-central character. I thought it was an interesting, and unconventional way to start a novel. Mostly, it was a bad calculation by a newbie author, and routinely questioned by critiques and contest judges. Still I remained loyal to the scene, which was the first creative thing I’d written in ten years.

Flashback to Labor Day, 2009. After a summer-long historical romance binge, I craved a cross-class trope with a wealthy heroine and a hero who had nothing. Needless to say, there weren’t a lot of books fitting this description.

On a bike ride, the main characters and opening scene of this non-existent book came alive in my mind. After the ride, I wrote the scene. Later that night, I read it, and said, “damn, that’s good.”

Six months later, I finished the book. At RWA 2010, I landed an agent, who pitched it to editors. In a pre-Downton Abbey market, few saw an audience for a Charles Dickens/Upstairs Downstairs mash-up. I shelved the book, wrote about figure skaters in contemporary Russia, and life went on.

But now that I’m preparing to self-publish Thief, I realize that my beloved prologue has to be folded into the story, and retold from the heroine’s point of view. Which brought me to Kill-Your-Darlings time.

It’s tough to cut a scene you love, even tougher to cut a scene that brought you back to writing after a long time away. There’s a bit of irony in that I’m coming back from a hiatus this time, too. Not ten years, but long enough.

In any case, I want to honor the scene by sharing it with you. I realize this has been a longer than usual post, so if time doesn’t permit reading on, I understand. For those who do, THANK YOU! It means more than you know.

The Thief of Hearts

PROLOGUE

London, November 1871

The journalist had bloody well seen enough.

Newgate Prison was no better than a dungeon, a stone hulk of wild-eyed men, slump-shouldered women, and ragged children, whose chief crime was poverty. Man’s inhumanity to man was apparent, even in these supposedly enlightened times.

“You sure you don’t want to see more, Mr. Collins? I din’ get to show you where I keep the Tiger Bay Slasher boxed up. All o’ London can feel safe ‘cause me, Head Gaoler William X. MacAffee, got that fiend under lock and key. Tha’s ‘X’ for Xavier and MacAffee, spelt wi’ two ee’s at the end.”

“A tempting offer Mr. MacAffee, but I really must be going.” In his notebook, he jotted down a few words. “Headline hungry braggart.”

MacAffee removed a large ring of jingling keys from his belt and unlocked the door to his office. Collins followed him in to retrieve his umbrella. The weather had taken a fearsome turn after almost summerlike conditions yesterday. Cold rain made the entire place reek with a noxious bouquet of unwashed flesh, urine and infection. He couldn’t wait to be gone.

But the office was crowded with people; a pair of turnkeys, two well-dressed gentlemen who were likely barristers and a genteel young woman.

 How odd.

She was a pretty lass, in a fur-trimmed red coat. The younger of the two men, a stiff-jawed fellow, exquisitely turned out in a fine black overcoat, held her arm. She pulled away.“Father, I have to see him! I can’t leave until I do!

“Constance, my dear,” he answered in smooth, placating tones. “I brought you here as you insisted, to speak with Mr. Morgan. Now that you have done so, you must trust him to do his job and forget all about this wretched experience.”

 “Forget?” Her bitter laugh sounded strange, coming from a well-bred young lady. “Father, I can’t possibly forget.” She turned to the other gentleman. “Mr. Morgan, I need to see him and I won’t leave until he’s brought to me.”

MacAffee prattled on but Collins strained to hear what the father and Mr. Morgan were whispering in the corner. The father heaved a sigh and gave the barrister a short nod, as if he’d agreed to something, but wasn’t happy about it. At last, MacAffee shut up and they both watched the barrister signal one of the turnkeys.

“Right away, gov’nor,” said the turnkey. He and the other guard disappeared behind a heavy oak door at the opposite end of the room.

MacAffee blew his red nose into a filthy handkerchief, then cocked his head towards the gentlemen and the daughter, who stood apart from them, arms crossed. “Bad business, that,” he said in a low voice. “Society girl, kidnapped by an East End ruffian. Made ‘er do God knows what and ruined ‘er, sure as I stand ‘ere.”

Less eager to leave now, Collins turned to a fresh page in his notebook. “You don’t say?”

“Caught ‘im on the docks, tryin’ to smuggle her out o’ the country.” The gaoler leaned closer, cheap gin heavy on his breath. “Bloke ‘ad already killed a man.”    

A moment later, the turnkeys returned with a prisoner, not much older than the girl. Tall and lean, he had the hard eyes of an East End hooligan. Filthy ragged clothes, Collins wrote. Unfashionably long blond hair. Shackled hand and foot, a chain locked round his waist.

The guard holding the chain shoved him into the room. MacAffee chuckled. “Seems the saucy minx wants to confront him what stole ‘er virtue.” He stuck his finger in his ear and scratched.

Pencil poised above his notebook, Collins stood ready to take down every vile accusation the young woman hurled at the fiend. Instead, she rushed forward and embraced him. Collins’ shock was nothing compared to her father’s.

The girl pressed her cheek against the young man’s chest. “Oh, Alex thank God! I was afraid I’d never see you again.” Gazing up at him, she caressed his face. “Are you all right? Have they hurt you?”

The young man kissed her palm and his harsh expression gentled. His eyes were closed, one corner of his mouth lifted in a bleak smile. “I’m fine, luv. I’m all right. God, it’s good to see you, Connie. I miss you so much.”

She tugged at the chain around him, as if she could break it with her small hands. “I’m going to get you out of here. You shouldn’t be in here for something…” Her voice trembled and grew thick with tears. Again, she wrapped him in her arms and pressed her face to his chest.

The chains on Alex’s wrists rattled as he fought against them. His furrowed brow and grim mouth revealed his anguish at being unable to hold her. He murmured soft words of comfort as she clung to him. “Sshh, it’s all right, Connie. Don’ cry, luv. Everything’s gonna be all right.”

But it clearly was not all right. Collins couldn’t look away.

The girl took a deep breath and wiped her eyes with a lace-trimmed handkerchief. Then she clutched Alex’s arms and looked up at him, a determined set to her lovely face. “I’ll find a way to free you, I swear. I’ve told my father everything.”    

“No!” He was adamant, rattling his chains again. “Damn it, Connie you promised. You can’t save me and even if you try, it’s too late. I’ve already confessed and no matter what you tell them, I’ll just deny it.”

Now here was a story. This girl had not been kidnapped. The young couple shared a secret—something for which the lad was willing to risk the gallows. What could it be? Whom did he kill? Just as intriguing, how did a pampered rich girl come to know and possibly even love, a penniless boy from the East End stews?

He scribbled as fast as he could, making special note of the despair in Alex’s voice.

“This would have happened one way or another. At the hands of the Count or the Crown, it ends the same for me. But at least you still have a future.”

“Yes, I do have a future. With you in America, as your wife. My father and Mr. Morgan have promised you the best defense money can buy.”

Collins glanced up, in time to see her father’s eyes widen. He turned to Morgan, who replied with a subtle shake of his snow-white head. Over the girl’s head, Alex cast a hard look at the two older men. Neither would meet his eye.

 An ominous sign.

Then he shifted his gaze back to Constance, nestled against him. A handsome lad, his fate might have been altogether different, had he not been born into poverty. For the second time, a heart-wrenching mix of bitterness, despair and intense love played across his features. Alex shut his eyes tightly and pressed his lips together. When he seemed to have himself under control, he spoke tenderly to her. “’Course they have. Before you know it, we’ll be together again, just like we planned. ‘Til then, do something for me would you, luv?”

“Anything,” she whispered.

“Don’t blame yourself for what happened, and try not to be too sad. You gave me so much, showed me I could have a future and a beautiful, smart society miss to share it with. You are everything I ever wanted, and no matter how this turns out, I’ll not regret a day of it.” He brushed his lips against her hair, and breathed deeply, as if he were trying to capture every last essence of her. “I will always love you, Lady Constance.”

“I love you, Alex.” Smiling up at him, she slid her arms around his neck and kissed him. Not a chaste peck, but a lingering lover’s kiss. The journalist scribbled, “…a kiss no Mayfair debutante ought to lavish on a ragged Cockney.”  

“Now see here, Constance!” Her red-faced father sputtered with rage. The barrister placed a hand on his arm but he shook it off and charged forward to claim his daughter. She ignored him and ran her gloved hands through Alex’s hair.

Then the guard holding the chain jerked it backward, wrenching the young man from her arms. She cried out as Alex stumbled, but managed to keep his balance. For a moment, he seemed to forget his shackles and charged in the turnkey’s direction. In an instant, the other guard pulled a short club from his belt and beat him across the back and shoulders, forcing him to his knees. Constance’s eyes grew wide, and she struggled as her father grabbed her by the arms and pulled her back.

Ghastly sounds of the cudgel striking Alex’s body and his low groans of agony filled the room. Then Constance’s scream drowned out both. “Stop it! You’re hurting him! Stop!!!”

The first guard unlocked the heavy door. His partner grasped the chain at the small of Alex’s back and hauled him up like a sack of bones. They shoved him through the door.  Fear and defeat were etched on his face.

This was no murderer.This was an East London lad whose fate rested in the hands of two swells keen to see him dance at the end of a rope.  Just the sort of vile injustice Collins had founded The London Reformer to expose.

 Constance was crying now. Her father stood between her and the prison door, but she shouted over his shoulder to anyone who would listen. “Please, let him go! He’s innocent, he didn’t kill anyone! It was me! I swear to God it was me! Alex, I love you!”

But Alex was gone, swallowed by the impenetrable walls of Newgate Prison. Desperately, she clutched the lapels of her father’s overcoat. “Please, Father. We have to help him. I love him. I love him more than anything.” Her words collapsed into sobs as she buried her face against him.

Even as he patted her shoulder, the father wore a calculating expression. He and the barrister exchanged knowing glances. “There, there, dearest. You’re obviously overwrought. Of course, we will help your…friend. Mr. Morgan will do all he can. Come, it’s time to go home.” He circled his arm around her shoulders and guided her out the door.

Collins turned to MacAffee. “What will happen to him?”

 The gaoler answered with a malevolent chuckle and blew his nose again.  “Why, Mr. Collins, ain’t it obvious? He’ll hang.”

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Live From Chicago, it’s Saturday Night!

Elizabeth backstage at Second City

This weekend was a bit of a nostalgia trip. Saturday evening, my husband and I went to see our son’s college improv troupe perform at The Second City.

Back in the mid to late 1980s, I lived in the nearby Lincoln Park neighborhood, took improv classes, and had the thrill of appearing in a couple of shows at The Second City. These were student shows, not the professional troupe, but being backstage in the same cramped room where John Belushi, Bill Murray and other legends once hung out, is something I’ll never forget.

The Second City’s home at Piper’s Alley looks a lot different (read, nicer) than it did back then, with small theaters, rehearsal rooms and collaborative work spaces on the upper floors. The auditorium-style seats in the photo above have probably made a great backdrop for more than one cast picture.

The best part was watching my 20-year-old son onstage doing improv, something he started his freshman year of high school. Improv is equal parts fun and terrifying. Some nights it works, some nights it doesn’t and you don’t know the next line until you’re saying it. My son and his teammates rocked it, and gave a great show. My husband and I couldn’t have been prouder.

Gabe backstage at Second City

So here’s to the next generation of improv in the family! I can’t wait for the next show.

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A Writer Girl Looks Ahead

Wow! It’s been a busy summer, especially this past month. I loved celebrating my new website with all of you– thanks again to everyone who entered– and also presented to the Indiana Romance Writers on goal setting. That motivated me to push for some goals of my own.

I’m happy to report that I completed all five, though it took until 3:30 p.m. on the last day of the month to do it. But I’m especially excited about completing Goal #2: “Read Thief.”

“Thief” refers The Thief of Hearts, a Victorian-set historical romance I wrote before my Red Hot Russians series sold. At the time, my agent advised me to focus on contemporary romance for the foreseeable future. But now that Red Hot Russians is complete, and I’m self-publishing, the time feels right to take another look at Thief.

After reading it, I’m happy to say that I love the book as much as I did when I set it aside in 2014. It still needs some work, (and possibly a new title), but the story of an earl’s daughter who flees an arranged betrothal only to fall for a Cockney street thief with a heart of gold, still captivated me. It’s a mash-up of Oliver Twist, Downton Abbey, with a dash of two of my all-time favorite historical romances: Lisa Kleypas’ “Dreaming of You,” and “The Proposition” by Judith Ivory.

I hope to share Constance and Alex’s story with you someday soon.

I’ll be working on edits this fall as well as reading the sequel, which I expect is in much rougher shape. Ideally, I’d like to publish them close together, but no decision or timeline yet. Right now, it’s a fond farewell to August, and summertime, as I head out with my husband to see our favorite Beatles tribute band.

In the immortal words of John Lennon, “All You Need Is Love.”

Happy Labor Day, everyone!

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Thanks Indiana Romance Writers!

Author Elizabeth Harmon's front rorch office

This past Saturday, I had the pleasure of presenting a workshop to the Indiana Romance Writers RWA Chapter on planning and goal setting.

Creating a business plan is a lot more fun than it sounds! “Dream Big Plan Smart” helped the authors define a vision for their careers, write personal mission statements and set goals for the year that are in line with the statements. The idea was inspired by an awesome series of articles by Maggie Worth, that ran in Romance Writers Report, Sept. -Nov. 2015. For anyone who keeps their back issues around, it’s definitely worth a read.

Of course, the challenge with any plan is sticking to it, but the talented members of Indiana Romance Writers are excited and motivated. Best of luck with your goals!

By the way, any authors looking for a good short conference this fall, should consider IRWA’s event on Oct. 26, featuring the amazing Damon Suede. Details here.

As usual, I forgot to take a photo when I was actually there, so this pix of my front porch office–preparing for the presentation will have to suffice.

Thanks again for a great day ladies.

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Was it really only 3 years ago? A Writer Girl Gets Nostalgic

This 2016 photo popped up on my FB memories the other day, and it took me by surprise.

Was it really just three years ago that I was a RITA finalist? It seems much longer.

The photo was taken at Harlequin’s reception for its finalist authors, prior to the big HQN author bash at RWA Nationals. I’d attended the HQN party twice before, and each time it was a pinch-me-I’m-dreaming experience. For a newbie published author to be among names I recognized from book covers– women whose careers spanned decades, was nothing short of fabulous. The rooms were always beautiful, dancing with my glammed-up chapter-mates, and random people out on the floor was one of the highlights of attending RWA. And we all got souvenir socks to take home.

That night, I had no idea that on the Writing Career Roller Coaster, I was speeding toward one of those sudden drops which sends your stomach into your throat. The more daring riders might throw their hands up in the air, but I’m not one of those. I tend to keep a tight grip on the bar, and brace for the inevitable twists and turns that come when the track levels out.

The track has since leveled, and though I’ve been ridden through some twists and turns, I’m getting my bearings back. I brought the Red Hot Russians series to a successful conclusion and discovered that I love self-publishing. Though I shelved the book idea that followed, and more than once wondered if I’d ever write again, working on a short story this spring reminded me of how much I love writing romance fiction. I have a new website (soon to be celebrated with a Grand Opening). I’m giving a workshop on goal-setting to the Indiana Romance Authors in August. The short story comes out in an anthology later this year.

And fall- my most productive writing season– is coming.

What will I be writing? Still working that one out. Even the idea of saying “Yes, I’ll be writing,” feels rather fragile and vulnerable. But for the first time in a long time, the desire is there.

So I’ll start with that, and use this photo of my three-years-ago self, as a reminder of what amazing things can come from it. Will I ever be a RITA finalist again? Heck, I never thought I’d be one in the first place. But I was. And the memory is picture perfect.

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A Writer Girl moves on

Lovely flowers to celebrate my last day as a Circulation Associate at our local library. Starting Tuesday, I’ll take on a new position in the library’s Adult Services department, with new responsibilities, new co-workers, and new pay. Yay! Looking forward to getting more involved with programs, including some during National Novel Writing Month.

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Lessons From The Library- What can kids books teach adults?

Child reading a book

What can kids books teach adults?

Working in a library, I’ve gotten to know Captain Underpants and Fancy Nancy. Barbie and her sisters. Mr. Putter and Tabby. Pinkalicious.

Some of these books, I read to my boys when they were small, like Arthur and the Berenstain Bears. Some, I read when I was a kid, like Nancy Drew and Ramona the Pest. And some, like Bedtime for Francis and Harry the Dirty Dog, my parents read to me.

Though it seems like the world is shifting from pages to screens, my library’s children’s collection proves readers still like something they can hold in their hands.  Though I’m published digitally, and love the convenience of my Kindle, it’s comforting that books and stories have a loyal following.

Not only that, kids books have lessons for adults. Like what?

Loving again can be scary

Mia can’t get over her pet cat Sandy’s death, and can’t ever imagine replacing him. Over the Christmas holidays, she gets to play with her friend’s cat’s kittens. Then Mia’s parents surprise her by saying she can have the last kitten, Whiskers. But although Mia loves him, she feels guilty about Sandy. Can Mia bring herself to keep the new kitten? 

Pretty much the premise of every second-chance romance out there, it’s hard to give our heart to someone new after we’ve been hurt. There’s guilt and the fear of being vulnerable once again. But then, a special someone comes along who’s worth the risk.

No one is “normal”

Raina just wants to be a normal sixth grader. But one night after Girl Scouts she trips and falls, severely injuring her two front teeth, and what follows is a long and frustrating journey with on-again, off-again braces, surgery, embarrassing headgear, and even a retainer with fake teeth attached. And on top of all that dental drama, there’s still more to deal with: a major earthquake, boy confusion, and friends who turn out to be not so friendly.

Face it, sixth grade sucks for everyone. It’s the age when feeling abnormal, is normal. Finding our happy ending isn’t about waiting for the glorious day when our imperfections go away. Chances are, they won’t. It’s about learning to accept ourselves in spite of them. And yes, things get better.

Reading is supposed to be FUN!

Goofy Grampa takes his grandson Wiley to a monster truck show in the middle of an F5 tornado, where they meet Colonel Dracula, whose primo vampire truck feeds on some pretty sinister “gas.”

Sure, its good to expand our mind and learn new things, but reading doesn’t always have to be good for us. The books we love best can also be the ones that make us laugh out loud. Even if we’re laughing at fart jokes and F5 tornadoes.

What are some of your favorite kids books? Why do you love them, and what have they taught you?

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T Rex in the rear view

Life after Lay-Off

Today marks the one-year anniversary of something I’d rather not remember.  On June 7, 2018, I was laid off from my job as an editor with a regional magazine group.

After spending close to a year climbing out of a pit triggered by writing career setbacks, this plunged me right back in.

Rational thoughts aside, the lay-off felt personal. Wasn’t I good enough?  Hard-working enough? Young enough?  My fiction output slowed to a trickle, then stopped altogether. I was angry at myself for ruining my husband’s long-awaited summer vacation, for jeopardizing my younger son’s college plans and generally bringing a dark cloud of turmoil over our entire household. The tape in my head that droned what a failure I was ran on non-stop repeat.

Like I said, it’s something I’d rather not remember. 

I’m happy to say that one year later, life is light-years better than it looked that day.  In the fall, I found a job in a new field, that’s a great fit. My son went off to college, as planned. My husband cheered me on in my new position, and continues to do so, as I inch back into writing.  Therapy helped me identify what triggers the Failure Tape. Faith and prayer help me shut it off, or at least turn the volume down.

So while I’d rather not remember how bad I felt that day, and for many days afterward, I need to.

Why?  Because life is full of struggle. As fiction writers, we know that a story without struggle isn’t a story at all. Some struggles are huge, some are small, but they’re there just the same. And when the next one comes along, remembering a really, REALLY bad day serves as a reminder that things can, and do, get better.

Maybe not perfect.  Maybe not walk-off Grand Slam victorious, but better. And remembering our worst days helps us appreciate the better ones that much more.

There’s a lyric in an old song by Wynonna Judd about how a dead end street is a place to turn around. It forces us to look at our map, get our bearings, say a prayer and start over again. The journey is a long one, travelled step by step, day by day. But for today at least, I feel like I’m heading in the right direction.

Happy Anniversary.

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The Romance of Figure Skating- Olympic Team, Pairs and Men’s

Team USA figure skaters are off to a great start, earning a bronze medal Sunday in the Team Event.

What’s great about the team event is that it gives skaters who might not be contenders for the podium in individual events an opportunity to win an Olympic medal, for their country and for themselves.

Pairs skaters Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and her husband Chris Knierim, were awesome in the short program, not to mention too cute for words.
The star of the night was Mirai Nagusu, who skated the women’s long program and became the first US woman to land a triple axel at the Olympic Games.

The Knierims were far off the podium in last night’s Pairs competition, which was won by Germany’s Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot, who received the highest-ever score for a pairs long program for their stunning skate. After 5 Olympic appearances, Aliona has her gold medal! Very exciting and well deserved!

Still craving pairs? Check out Pairing Off, the first book in the Red Hot Russians series, which is on sale all this month. Watch the book trailer here!

Tonight, it’s all about the men, as the short program kicks off. American Nathan Chen, aka The Quad King, is Team USA’s best hope for a figure skating gold medal. Fingers crossed he brings it tonight!
That’s all for now… skating is about to start!

Enjoy!

Can’t get enough figure skating? You’ll love my Red Hot Russians #FigureSkatingRomance series.
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The Romance of Figure Skating- The Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang

happy i love lucy GIF

Oh my gosh, it’s here!

The day winter sports fans have anticipated for four year has arrived. The PyeongChang Winter Games officially open Friday, Feb. 9
But figure skating fans don’t have to wait to watch their favorite sport. The Team Figure Skating Event kicks off Thursday night, with the men’s and pairs short program.
The Team Event debuted in the 2014 Sochi Olympics and features nations who have skaters competing in all four disciplines: men’s and women’s individual, pairs and ice dance. Teams can select which skaters will compete in the Team short program and long program competitions. The top five teams after the short program events will advance to the long program events. Gold, silver and bronze medals will be awarded to the teams but as with other team sports, each member will be considered an Olympic medalist.
The teams taking part are South Korea, Germany, France, the United States, Japan, Italy, Canada, Israel and the Olympic Athletes from Russia.
https://youtu.be/NMQjsEYyHXI
Team USA has chosen Nathan Chen to compete in Thursday night’s  Men’s Short Program competition, with Adam Rippon skating the Team Event Men’s Free Skate on Sunday night. Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and her husband Chris Knierim, the only U.S. pairs team competing in PyeongChang, will skate both the pairs short program, and the free skate Saturday  night.
Also scheduled for Saturday, are Team Event ice dance short dance, women’s short program. The men’s and women’s free skate and ice dance free dance will take place Sunday. All events are on NBC, beginning at 8 p.m. EST.
As of Thursday afternoon, line-ups for women’s and ice dance had not yet been announced.
If you’re looking for an awesome, informative and snark-free explanation of how to watch figure skating, check out this article in The Washington Post.
Can’t get enough figure skating? You’ll love my Red Hot Russians #FigureSkatingRomance series.
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Pairing Off
Turning It On cover shy girl and male stripper find love on reality TV show
Getting It Back cover former figure skating champion risks it all for love
Heating It Up cover small town love story set in Antaractica
Shining Through cover champion figure skaters in love
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