The places travel really takes us to

I write a lot about travel and how it affects us because of the perspective I think it allows us when we get away from our own little corner of the world. I always re-enter my daily round with a fresh way of seeing things after I’ve been outside the US. It’s easy to construct a simplistic mental picture of what “out there” looks like from the vantage point of our front porches and I think a lot of us do that because it helps to manage day-to-day stresses  if we can just compartmentalize and reduce the larger world. To that end, I find I often fall into thinking of certain countries in stereotypes in my mind—until I visit them again and am reminded how basically alike we all are after all.

One of my favorite memories, and one that I hope I will keep vivid in my mind until I’m an old bent-over crone with pins in my hips, is the forty-five minutes I spent in Venice between midnight trains one night many years ago.

The forty-five minutes is a bit of an exaggeration but not by much. I was traveling Europe with my mother and my paternal aunt and I’d miscalculated the timing between trains for our trip from Nuremberg to Prague. A five-hour layover in Venice was the result. Later,  I realized I should have just booked us a couple of rooms and gone with the flow but at the time, staying to our schedule seemed important.  I parked my elderly companions at the restaurant, where we later had a memorable pasta dinner watching the cold drizzle  (it was October) from our table, and trotted the half-mile back to the train station to grab tickets for the next train. It was only a few blocks but it was already dark when I left the restaurant and the fog had dropped heavily onto the streets like a wet drape.

19212830I slipped down an alleyway that looked to me to be a short cut to where I remembered the train station was and when I came out of it, I saw I was standing in front of one of those arching stone bridges that crisscross back and forth over Venice’s canals. I took one step onto the bridge and stopped, for what reason I can’t imagine since I am nothing if not single-minded, needing constantly to be reminded to look around me. I realized that I was totally alone although it wasn’t late. I stood on the bridge, stopped in my mission and just needing to pause and look into the murky fog that blanketed the water below. As I watched, a single gondolier emerged from the mist—his back straight, his hat at an angle, the pole fluid in his hands. He began to pass beneath me on the bridge and just before he did, he looked up at me and languidly blew me a kiss.

Then he disappeared beneath the bridge and back into the mist.

If I hadn’t  continued to stare after him as he retreated, I might have convinced myself I imagined it. The feeling that that gesture evoked in me—so cavalier, so Italian, so romantic—registered an emotion in me that made my heart ache.

I’ve thought about it so many times since then. Why did it affect me so? Was I longing for love? Was I needing an affirmation of my youth? My attractiveness? And more than just what I felt when he did it, what about why he did it? Who was he? He certainly wasn’t expecting me to throw him a tip. I couldn’t see that he did it for any other reason than just the fact that we were both alive and the night was young.

I used to try to imagine who he was. Was he a complex man? Did he have  a wide range of deep emotions? Could he be the sort of complicated  individual who could have a fight with his wife that morning, maybe worry about paying an electric bill in the afternoon and then coast through the eerie mist and spontaneously blow a kiss to a lone woman on a stone bridge? Or was he simple-minded? Did he blow kisses to everyone he saw?

GondolierI honestly don’t know why the experience arrested me so. Or why I still think of it to this day. I just know that sometimes when we travel away from our own streets and subdivisons, we can find ourselves  mindful of the world around us in ways that we aren’t normally, and magic—unexpected and potent—can come drifting by in front of us where, for once, we actually see it.

Why taking a risk matters—win or lose

It’s interesting. I just got back from a romance writer’s conference here in Atlanta and was reminded of some of the steps necessary when plotting a story to understand your protagonist’s motivation, and how they’ve changed by the end of the tale. It’s irresistible to think of your own story and motivation when crafting fiction. (It’s that whole unexamined life not worth living thing again.) I find it amazing how detailed and focused we can get in trying to figure out a character’s purpose or goal while, at the same time, blithely sail through life uninterested in figuring out our own. I’ll illustrate this with one antagonizing statement. And bear with me. Remember it was a romance writer’s conference I just got out of and so matters of the heart are on my mind.

The older we get, the less open we are to finding and accepting love.

Wow. Big statement. (I expect LOTS of comments!) If you’re happily ensconced in a loving relationship, you can sit this one out or not as you like. But here’s how I see it.

Remember in the 80’s there was that Time Magazine article that came out and sent millions of single women into vortexes of depression because they pronounced it easier for a woman over 30 to be abducted by aliens than find a husband? Well, with Internet dating and other available matchmaking tools, it is easier today to connect with someone but, statistically, it continues to be a major struggle for people of a certain age to find love.

In terms of actively seeking a mate, statistics show that as we age, we actually fear the companionship and love we think we crave. (We might’ve feared it a little bit when we were younger, but it gets worse as the years add up.) Steeped in habit and afraid of change, the older we get, the less inclined we are to risk getting hurt or disappointed. So, basically, just when we need love and companionship the most, we are more likely to turn away from it. (See how a little self-knowledge would be REAL helpful about now?)

Psychologists have shown that depression can be an offshoot of aging (no shit!) But struggles with loneliness are typically trotted out as a major reason for that.  What’s surprising is the fact that studies show that many older people (we’re talking forties and fifties here) are more comfortable being sad and alone than risking finding and being with someone who they might love or who might love them back. Like a lot of things, it’s easier to do nothing and take solace in the familiarity of your own depression than get off your ass, wash your face and “put yourself out there.”

You can say that life itself is a gamble and that’s undeniably true but nowhere is the gamble bigger than where it concerns the heart. Love is risky—no matter what age you are. (That’s why it makes such good fiction!) While the rewards are great, even if just temporary, the downside of a misguided or ill-matched romance is pain and even worse loneliness.

But, heavens, not even trying is just wrong.

What Makes Historical Romance Work?

What happens when you combine a right-brain off-the-charts creative type with an inclination toward OCD? (No, I wishthis were a set-up for a joke.) While my husband and family wouldn’t be surprised, the results of a personality test I recently took (which inescapably established that I was indeed unemployable in any kind of corporate or structured setting) revealed that not only was I an intensely creative type but I had a heavy dose of the analytic compulsive personality. A creative who likes rules? So that’s weird. But I think, after essentially sloughing off the results of the test as if they were as irrelevant to my options for prospective work as a Cuisinart is to a bricklayer, I’ve assembled the Intel in a way that makes sense to me. (Which, by the way, is what the test predicted my type of personality would do.)

It is true I am creative, but I am also curious about the creative process. This is why I don’t just write, but wonder why I wrote what I did. My husband is a philosopher and he introduced me to the whole “an unexamined life is not worth living” idea. (I know that many of you learned about this in college, I live it with this man pretty much daily.) Okay, so my natural inclination combined with the company I keep has me questioning things I might normally just sit back and enjoy. (God forbid.) Because, see, if you want to re-create an amazing experience, first you have to understand it. You have to understand how it happened or how you happened to create it in the first place. My nascent left-brain tendencies don’t really accept the whole “it just wrote itself!” or “who cares why chocolate tastes good? Dig in!”

This is a lengthy introduction to my most recent self-question, which is: why do I like to read historical romances? Again, if you read this genre and do not care why you like them, that’s fine, of course. But if you discover the little nugget of why upon which the whole of your pleasure in the genre turns, then, possibly you will then be in a position to find a way to expand that pleasure by including other tints of the thing you (unconsciously) love or are drawn to in other plot lines within the genre. (If this next bit goes under the heading of “everybody knows that!” please remember that one person’s epiphany is another person’s “well, duh!”)

Okay, so I love historical romances. That’s easy enough to break down: I love history. I love romance. So far, not much to decipher.  When I examine it closer, though, I discover it’s not so much history, in itself, that I love, but the idea of what life was like during that time of history compared to my own life. It’s immensely interesting for me to imagine myself—with all the ups and downs in my typical day—trying to put dinner on the table for my family without the use of microwaves, Whole Foods or an SUV. I love the idea of having much the same goals and dreams: love, family, security, self-improvement only now plopped down in the 14th century. So the history thing I get. As I’ve written before, reading a story that takes place in a time other than the one in which I am living is time travel and I love time travel.

Okay, on to romance. Again, not too complicated. I loved falling in love when I was younger, I love reading about it now. The whole courtship thing is so exciting and, unless you’re Elizabeth Taylor, not something that gets repeated too many times in a lifetime.

The bolt from the blue, for me, on the whole historical romance genre—and an important reason why I love it so much—had to do with the kind of romance that’s typically portrayed. Unless it’s just my myopic worldview, relationships between men and women today tend to be very equal. We both work, we both take care of the children, we both share much of the same problems and concerns of career advancement, ego, worry about the world going to hell, etc. The differences between men and women back then were much more pronounced. The sexes were very different from each other. For one thing, the women were protected, the men did the protecting. If you had a woman behaving like a typical woman from today’s world—strong, resolute, decisive—she was considered (within the genre’s rules) to be headstrong (and therefore, much more worthy of the male lead’s love.)

God knows I’m not saying I long for less equality with men. I’m not saying I approve of the fact that women still make less money than do men for the same job. I’m saying, when it comes to fiction, it is quite pleasant to read stories in a time when the differences between men and women and their happy acceptance of each other’s gender roles actually augmented their attraction to each other.

Or am I over-thinking it?