Saturday, November 22, 2008

Weekend Wind-Down: Fireworks and Fairy Tales

Welcome Back to Kate Hardy, who shares with us the ultimate way of winding down on a weekend, with a whole lotta AWWWWW factor....

What’s the best way to wind down?

Usually, my first thought is the beach. (Yes, I know I live 30 minutes away from the North Sea. And there’s nothing between the coast and Siberia. I just love the cool breeze and the sound of the sea and walking hand-in-hand on the beach. Even in winter.)

But at this time of year, when daylight hours are so short in England – you can’t beat fireworks and fairytales.

And that’s exactly what happened, a little earlier this month. We had fireworks and fairytales for a whole weekend. So it was a bit like living one of my novels instead of creating them.

Usually, on Saturdays, I’m up early with a mug of coffee, trying to work as fast as I can before everyone else wakes up, so I can spend quality time with my family for the rest of the weekend. This particular weekend was different. I didn’t work AT ALL.

It was a special day for all the right reasons. It was my daughter’s 8th birthday (and a double anniversary for me – 7 years since The Call, and 6 years since my first M&B, A BABY OF HER OWN, hit the shelves). We went out to dinner and the waitress was wonderful: when we’d ordered desserts, she turned off the lights (though there were candles on each table!); she lit a Roman candle in a bowl of ice-cream, which she brought over to my daughter; and she got the whole restaurant to sing ‘Happy Birthday to You’. I really didn’t think it could get better than that. (The look on my daughter’s face when she told her cousin all about it, the next day, is the kind of look I want to put on my reader’s faces. I want to give them something magical.)

But, actually, it did get even better. Because, some months ago, I was doing a radio interview with our local BBC station, and while I waited in the foyer I leafed through the programme for our local theatre and discovered that the stage show of Beauty and the Beast was going to be on. And that there was a performance on my daughter’s birthday. So I booked tickets that night, and was delighted to find I’d booked early enough to get really good seats.

The acting was superb. The singing was superb. The lighting and staging were utterly brilliant (and all kudos to the wardrobe department).

And the story was right up a romance author’s street.

Firstly, we have the perfect romance heroine. Someone who’s not part of the crowd; someone whose head is usually in the clouds, and who really, really loves good stories. (Recognise Belle in yourselves, anyone?) Someone who puts others first, whose family is important to her, and who doesn’t want to be married to someone who doesn’t understand her. (Well, would you marry Gaston? The gorgeous, brawny guy who acts like a tank and can’t recognise other people’s feelings?)

Then we have the hero. OK, so the romantic hero is usually gorgeous at first sight (hmm – I suppose the Beast is, if his backstory’s told first). But he’s also difficult. Someone who won’t let others close. Someone who needs to learn that there’s more to life than he currently sees. I think our Beast definitely fits that.

He makes her dreams come true (that library – oh-h-h, if someone did that for me… Oh, wait. My real-life hero did, and it’s yet another reason why I love him so much); and she gives him something he’s never had before: love, for who the beast is as a person.

Add a fabulous score, some clever special effects (the transformation of The Beast, as in 5 seconds to get him out of a costume that takes a good hour to put on before the show – now that’s magic; not to mention the indoor fireworks), and true love… The perfect wind-down. Fairy tales and fireworks.

That was the Saturday. Just wonderful.

Sunday was more like one of the epilogues in one of my books: I find it very hard to say goodbye to my characters, and I like to revisit them after the big declaration… just to be sure that the path of true love is still running smooth. So on the Sunday we had a big family party. Lots of talking and laughter and hugs and smiles – oh, not to mention lots of cake. And chocolate. (See, I told you it was HEA and a wind-down. Chocolate = fairytales, right?) And as soon as it was dark, DH added the last bit of magic. (And this picture really is from my back garden. I discovered that my camera has a ‘fireworks’ setting.)

The perfect wind-down. And a very special weekend.

What makes your weekends special?

Hotly Bedded, Conveniently Wedded is on the shelves in Australia/NZ at the moment (Harlequin Australia is out of stock!); you’ll be able to buy it from in December (on shelves in the US in January). The Greek Doctor’s New Year Baby is out in the UK, US and Australia/NZ in January (available online in from Mills & Boon, and in December!)

You can find out more about these books, and Kate, on her website ( and her blog (

Friday, November 21, 2008

Friday Film Night - The Sexiest Man Alive!

Every year People magazine blesses us with a collection of sexy men...since Male On Monday is every PHS member's favorite day of the week, I'm sure not one of you has missed the news. The Pink Heart Society's favorite man in a towel, Hugh Jackman, was deemed sexiest man alive!

Such honor deserves a montage of Hugh, don't you agree? The only problem is we've enjoyed his so Trish's Male On the rougish Eddie in Friday Film favorite Someone Like a romance novelist in Paperback Hero...the dashing duke in Kate & Leopold...we even celebrated out birthday with a Hugh Jackman Day blog tour!

With the impending release of the epic Australia, and the teasers showing Hugh looking better than ever, I think everyone will agree he's at the top of his game. Them movie we all can't wait to see won't hit theaters until Thanksgiving...which give us the weekend to revel in a Sexiest Man Alive video binge...

Paperback Hero is a great place to start...pick up Happy Feet to watch with any kids that might be about (he voiced the pengiun, Memphis)...if there are any men grazing through your life who might balk to such soft fare, check out any of the X-Men movies -- it will whet your appetite for the upcoming X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

The Prestige is a movie that will have you pondering for hours...the magic, the fantasy, the's a dark story, but one that leaves you spellbound. Scoop, a Woody Allen romantic comedy mashed up with a murder mystery is worth watching. It's more odd than funny, and the mystery element isn't all it could be, but as long as you aren't expecting too much it's a fun watch.

It's hard to make a bad choice when going on a Hugh Jackman bender. Just don't watch Van Helsing too close to bed time!

Jenna is hoping to finish her NaNoWriMo novel on time – so far it has cake, champagne and moonlight. In the meantime, Par For The Course is out, with car sex, an interesting approach to learning to golf, and a love story hazardous to your hankie supply. Oh, plus exploding toads… Check out Jenna’s website, or blog.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thursday Talk Time: Dealing with Criticism

PHS columnist Kate Walker talks about the worst part of the writer's life - the critical assessment - or, even worse, the dreaded rejection letter.

Calm Critique or Crushing blow?

I suppose in a way that this is really a Writers’ Wednesday sort of post. But as I don’t have one of those until – Oh, until March – I’m writing on this topic now because it’s very much on my mind.

What topic?

Well, a few days ago a friend sent me an article that referred to a web site called It’s fairly obvious what the site is about - it is a sort of shrine to the rejection letter. A major portion of it is devoted to writers anonymously posting rejections they’ve received, and commenting on how it made them feel. I do understand their need to vent.
Rejection hurts. We’ve all been there. We send in a manuscript, our precious baby, the work we’ve toiled over, put all that blood sweat and tears into it and then it comes back. And it comes back with critical comments.

It’s the same with a critique. As many of you will know, the Romantic Novelists’ Association runs the New Writers’ Scheme. In this scheme, on payment of the special fee, an unpublished writer can submit a manuscript and have it read and critiqued The organiser has a team of over 30 readers who are authors with extensive publishing histories in various types of romantic novel. The scripts are sent to an appropriate reader who provides a report including, for example, such aspects as plotting, characterisation and structure. The reports are intended to be honest and constructive suggestions from a published novelist - they point out flaws but also offer advice based on experience.

I’ve been a reader for this scheme for over 8 years now and the reactions of the writers who submit vary. Some of them read the report of their manuscript, they take on board the comments and criticisms, they absorb the advice. And then they decide whether to follow it and use it to, hopefully, make their work better for the next subscription.

Others react quite differently. They cannot believe that their work has not been passed for a second read, sent to an agent or even, in the case of category romance, direct to Harlequin Mills & Boon with a recommendation from the RNA. They believe that the reader must have a personal axe to grind, or that he or she is determined to destroy their work, their confidence and their fledgling career before it has even begun. They refuse to even consider that the critique might be right. And so they don’t learn from it.

Some of the worst problems come from writers who have shown their novel to someone – a friend, their partner, their sister . . . That reader they say enjoyed it. Said it was good. So this criticism can only be meant to be cruel.

I understand. I really do. I’ve been there. Not with the critique perhaps, but certainly with the editorial rejection. I’ve felt the sting of getting my work back, and reading what I believed was a couple of scathing comments on it. It was only much later, when I’d calmed down and reread the letter that I saw it was not really scathing at all. I found that letter again a few months ago and was stunned by how encouraging and kind it actually was.

This topic was already in my mind because the last of the NWS scripts recently went back and as always there have been those who have felt hurt, slighted, attacked. And those who appreciated getting an objective considered assessment of their novel. It’s also in my mind because of ‘John Sergeant-gate’ here in the UK. For those of you who haven’t been aware of the furore, on the UK programme Strictly Come Dancing, 64 year old political commentator John Sergeant has been – depending on your point of view – either made a delightful and amusing contribution to this ballroom dancing contest, or made a laughingstock of himself – he has even been unkindly dubbed the Dancing Pig. The professional judges have criticised him, often been brutally honest, but a huge public vote has kept him in the contest. He was, they say, providing some wonderful entertainment as he made his heavy footed and ponderous way through the dances.

Now it doesn’t matter what side of this argument you come down on. The point is that today even as I was writing this John Sergeant pulled out of the contest. He knows that, no matter how many people love to see his own form of dancing, this does not make him a dancer. Even with all the professional tuition and help in the world from his dancing partner Kristina Rihanoff. And no matter how cruel people think the judges are being, they do know what they are talking about and they are giving a professional assessment on his performance as they see it. John’s performance may be fun – but it’s not ballroom dancing.

So where does this leave the would-be writer and their critique or rejection letter?

Well, first and foremost, lucky to have some feedback. Yes, even critical feedback. When most publishers barely have time to read the ‘slush pile’ and most writers simply receive a ‘not for us’ form letter of rejection, any actual comments on why the book didn’t work for this publisher or agent or reader is like gold. Even when it stings – or worse. All right, it always stings. Even a so-called ‘good’ rejection hurts because it is a rejection. So you’re allowed to react a bit! Scream and shout if you want to. Throw the manuscript at the wall – throw the letter/report at the wall. But please don’t rip it to shreds – you will want to read it again when you calm down.
You will – honest. Even if only to go through it muttering vindictively and wishing a dreadful revenge on whoever wrote it. Even if you totally disagree with everything they said.

If you can, put both the manuscript and the report/letter away for a while then wait a week, a month – sometimes it takes months before you can look at your own work objectively and can see what the reader was seeing in it and what they’re trying to say. At the beginning of my career I once had a book that an editor didn’t like and I couldn’t see why. I filed it away for 6 months then took it out and read it – squirming inside with embarrassment because I realised that almost everything the editor had said was true and the book really did need a lot of work. (Yes, I did rewrite it and yes I did get it published in the end – because it was a much better book.)

Unfortunately, criticism and rejection are part of the writer’s life. You can only avoid them in one way – by never sending out any manuscripts to any agent editor ofr reader, but if you’re writing to be published then that won’t be much help. You can only learn to cope and to find ways of dealing with the comments – and reading them to find ways to learn to write better and more successfully. In my experience of working with the New Writers’ Scheme it’s the writers who pick themselves up, dust themselves off, absorb the fact that the comments are meant to help you improve as a writer, not destroy you, and start all over again who ultimately come out of the long dark tunnel and into the light. The PHS’s own Natasha Oakley is a shining example.

After all, John Sergeant may have a huge wave of popular feeling on his side, he may have been taken to the nation’s hearts in a way that he never expected – but if he wanted to learn to dance professionally then it was the professional assessments, however painful, that he needed to listen to.

And even if you do get a rejection letter or a bad critique – it can’t be quite as bad as for poor Snoopy - who gets a rejection letter for the story he hasn’t even sent yet!

If you want a chance to have your manuscript assessed by the RNA New Writers' Scheme, check out their web site for details. The best time to apply is at the beginning of the year when there are 200 places available - but be quick - they're snatched up fast.

Kate's latest book, Bedded By the Greek Billionaire is on sale now in the USA in Harlequin Presents. The UK edition is still available on the Mills and Boon web site (as a print book or in ebook form) or on
Romantic Times called this book "a delicious melodrama full of dizzying emotions as the reader goes along with the highs and lows as this couple finds each other again," and they also selected it as one of their Top Picks for November

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Writer's Wednesday with Barbara Hannay

Harlequin Romance's Barabara Hannay is with us today...talking about work and how it can be anything but!

Research is not a dirty word…

To quote a man called William Henry: ‘What is research, but a blind date with knowledge?’

This quote seemed particularly apt for me, because research shaped a large chunk of my November Harlequin Romance, Blind Date with the Boss.

It all started back when I was teaching, when we used to have “professional development” days, usually while the students were on holidays. Although we groaned about these days, they were often fun. We had to do totally different activities from our normal classroom work and with no students around and a playful atmosphere, the teachers relaxed, let down their hair, played pranks, got to know each other better. Of course this behaviour had all sorts of on-going benefits for our working relationships during term time.

Remembering these sessions, I knew from the start of this book, that I wanted to set an office romance within the framework of a corporate team building workshop. So, of course, my first task was to find team building workbooks. I managed to get my husband to borrow HR workbooks from the corporate library at his work. (Sometimes, you have to be a tad devious)

Wow – these books were amazing. I found so many activities that deliberately threw people out of their comfort zone and into situations where they needed to trust each other. Perfect! I would never have thought of these ideas on my own.

Somewhere during my reading, I encountered discussions in these books about personality types and soon I moved on to studying Meyers-Briggs personality descriptions, which in turn led me to my serious, introverted, analytical hero, Logan Black – and my extroverted, people-focused, sensitive heroine, Sally Finch.

Now, while I was deep in research mode, I went a step further and found another very useful book about body language and before long, I was actually compiling a file which kept track of all the different types of body language we use to convey different emotions. This way (I hoped) I wouldn’t just fall back on all the old clich├ęs.

Finally, I’d always known that I wanted part of this book to involve my heroine teaching the hero how to dance. I was so tempted by all those lovely touchy-feely possibilities that you can’t avoid when you’re dancing. And then there was all the reversal of power when it’s her teaching him, which is always fun.

Only one problem – I know next to nothing about dancing. So… back to research.

So You Think You Can Dance became compulsory viewing, but I was also lucky to have a daughter who used to dance in a professional contemporary company, so I indulged in that other kind of research… ‘Excuse me… would you mind jotting down a few points?’

It’s actually quite amazing how willing people are to help. OK, so maybe my daughter felt obliged, but I’m currently writing about a vet and I’ve been so appreciative of the generous help that a local veterinary nurse has given me.

So, here’s my point… while many stories may spill onto the page, inspired by little more than our own vivid imaginations, there are just as many times when research can be truly helpful.

Have you had a blind date with knowledge recently? You never know where it will lead and I’d love to hear your stories.

Barbara’s latest release is Harlequin Romance, Blind Date with the Boss. Read an excerpt and find out more on her website.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Temptation Tuesday - Cookbooks

This Tuesday our Natasha Oakley is here to share her addiction to cookbooks ....

Dust free corners and lemony fresh toilets may be desirable but they don't fire the same enthusiasm for me as cooking does. I find the whole process theraputic. When the going gets tough, I hit the kitchen. Just as well, really, since I have five children to feed.

Okay, I confess the reality rarely matches up to the fantasy I hold of myself as the living embodiment of Ma Larkin in the 'Darling Buds of May' but there is something so very comforting about food. Eating it. Reading about it. A quiet afternoon, a mug of hot chocolate made with real chocolate and topped with those little marshmallows and a virgin cookbook is my idea of heaven.

Anyone not happened upon Nigella Lawson's 'How to Be A Domestic Goddess'? I'm reminded of that one because my kitchen is filled with the aroma of her Banana Cake as I type. Since I know many of you prefer your recipes to refer to sticks of butter and cups of flour you'll be pleased to know it's been translated! Her 'How to Eat' is well splashed in my house, too.

If you haven't succumbed to the Nigella phenomenon yet here's a little 'You Tube' temptation. And I'm cooking these eggs this second ....

I also used her cupcake recipe to make my mother-in-law's 80th birthday cake. Mind, I only managed to get ten out of her quantities. Twelve is a bit tight.

Then there's 'Rachel's Favourite Food at Home'. Can I just say her Lemon Sole and cheese gratin in this book is wonderful?

In 'Rachel's Food for Living' the 'Slow Roast Spiced Lamb with Roasted Root Vegetables' is a must try.

Ingredients - Serves 12-15 Although in my opinion you need more vegetables and can half the raita.

For the lamb
1 x 3kg shoulder of Lamb
2 tbsp Cumin seeds, toasted and ground
2 tbsp Coriander seeds, toasted and ground
60ml Olive oil
900ml lamb or chicken stock, for the gravy

For the roasted root vegetables
2 Parsnips
2 Carrots
1 Celeriac
1 Swede
1 large sweet potato
60-75ml Olive oil

For the raita
500ml plain natural yogurt
1/2 Cucumber, deseeded and finely diced
2 cloves Garlic, crushed
1 tsp Cumin seeds, toasted and ground
1 tsp Coriander seeds, toasted and ground
large bunch mint or Coriander, chopped


1. For the lamb: preheat the oven to 220C/gas 7.

2. Using a very sharp knife, make long but shallow incisions into the shoulder of lamb all over the skin. In a small bowl, mix the ground cumin and coriander with a few good pinches of sea salt, pepper and the olive oil. Spread this spicy oil over the lamb, rubbing it in with your fingers, then place the lamb skin-side up on a roasting tray. Sprinkle the skin with salt.

3. Cook in the oven for 20 minutes, then turn the heat down to 160C/gas 3 and roast for 4 hours. Baste it every 15 minutes or so by spooning the juices over the meat. The cooking time will, of course, depend on the size of the shoulder, but when it's cooked the meat will be very tender and almost falling off the bone in the most gorgeous way.

4. For the roasted root vegetables: about 20 minutes before the meat is due to come out of the oven, peel the vegetables and cut into 2cm cubes. Dry the cut vegetables with kitchen paper, then put them in a bowl and toss with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. The vegetables should all be coated with a thin layer of oil.

5. Spread them out in a single layer on one or two roasting trays and cook in the oven for 25-35 minutes, until golden on the outside and soft on the inside. Do not try to turn them while they are cooking as they will only lift off the tray when they are fully cooked.

6. When the lamb is ready, transfer the meat to a serving platter, cover and keep warm while you make the gravy.

7. To make the gravy, put the roasting tray on the hob on a medium heat, add half the stock and bring to the boil, whisking to release the sweet juicy bits that have stuck to the tray. When it comes to the boil, pour it into a mais-gras or a small bowl or heatproof jug. If using a jug/bowl add one or two ice cubes to draw the fat up to the top, then you can spoon the fat off and discard. If using a mais-gras, degrease the juices in the usual way.

8. Pour the degreased juices into a small saucepan, add the remainder of the stock, bring to the boil and season to taste. If it's a little watery, boil it for another couple of minutes.

9. For the raita: mix all the ingredients and season.

10. To serve, cut the meat into slices and pour over the gravy. Spoon on the roast vegetables and serve the raita on the side.

Cook's notes: to toast spice seeds, fry them in a dry pan for 30 seconds over a medium-high heat until deeper in colour and smelling fragrant (keep moving them around).

If you have any leftover meat, reheat it in an ovenproof dish covered in gravy so that the meat doesn't dry out.

She seems to be living a dream of a lifestyle, too. You can find her online diary here.

And then there's James Martin's 'Eating In'. He's always good to watch on Saturday Kitchen as well I find ...

And how about Tamasin Day Lewis? Her 'Tarts with Tops On' is guaranteed to tempt one to serious calorie overload. Tamasin, remember, is Daniel Day Lewis's sister. Want a peak???

So, what's your favourite cookbook indulgence? Anything I really ought to add to my Amazon basket??

Much love

Natasha's latest Harlequin Romance 'Wanted: White Wedding' is available in the UK here and in NA here!

Romantic Times Magazine says: 'Natasha Oakley's Wanted: White Wedding (4.5) has its share of deeply touching moments, but what makes it stand out are the humor and the wonderful characters.'

And look out for 'Cinderella and the Sheikh' in shops January 2009, but available for pre-order now!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Male on Monday :: Marc Blucas

This week Ally Blake remembers one of Buffy's old squeezes, the delectable, adorable Marc Blucas.

I can't believe this guy was up for grabs!!! Especially with one Ms Trish Wylie, the queen of the fanfic on board, but since he's yet to be highlighted I hereby declare Marc Blucas mine, all mine!!!

Born 11 January 1972, Marc Blucas is the perfect age for an Ally Blake romance hero. Tick one!

At 6'2" he's the perfect height for an Ally Blake romance hero. Tick two!

He once spoke about his "inherant likeability" as being a factor in his casting and he's spot on. Tick three!

And come on, he's gorgeous. Deep husky voice, gentle eyes, big muscles, great smile, more often than not is cast as a protector. He's just about perfect.

Being that I am up early in the morning with bub, I like to have a stash of easy watching stuff on my DVD hard drive to make the bleary eyed wake up routine more bearable, so I recently I recently recorded First Daughter.

It's a cute film, certainly not too much of a brain stretch, Katie Holmes holds up well enough as the President's daughter heading off to college. Then twenty odd minutes into the film, he appears. The hunk in the classroom, the guy who saves her from the stares and whispers by acting the fool. If you don't melt in a puddle of mush in that moment, then I just don't know what!

Marc Blucas first came to most of our attentions as hunky Riley Finn on Buffy. College boy by day, military ops vampire fighter by night. So we got to see him do lots of manly stuff in khaki flak jackets. Yum!

Of his audition he says: "To be honest, I was right off the boat. I was kind of like Heather Graham in Bowfinger, like “Where do I go to be a star?” I didn’t know what the hell I was doing." But clever Joss Whedon saw something in the long lanky basketball player. Lucky for us!

And then there was the recent Jane Austen Book Club. I'd forgotten he'd played Emily Blunt's husband as he was all grown up, and not the sweet charmer he usually played. So the guy can play different archetypes.


Apart from acting, he has been coaching the basketball team of a private all-girls Catholic High School, Marymount High School, in Los Angeles since 2005.

In 2005 he dated Lauren Graham which just ups his coolness in my opinion. (He wears facial hair really well too don't you think?)

Now, unfortunately for the rest of us, he is dating reporter Ryan Haddon who was previously married to Christian Slater.

But I'm convinced, he's a keeper. Warm, engaging, just below to radar enough to be truly intriguing, and cute as a button. Welcome Marc Blucas to the PHS Hero Hall of Fame!

This month Ally has a Harlequin Presents novel, A NIGHT WITH THE SOCIETY PLAYBOY, out in North America.

Though she cast a different hottie in the role while writing him, she wouldn't have had any trouble writing her Caleb with the above fellow in mind ;).

For more about the book check out Ally's website, or grab a copy from your local bookstore or online from eHarlequin.