Shadowboxing Interview

Shadowboxing by Anne Barwell

I’m honored to host Anne Barwell to discuss her new release, Shadowboxing, a tense and thoughtful novel featuring espionage during World War II. Rather than presenting a simple story about good versus bad, Anne Barwell shows us brave men and women shadowboxing with “different shades of neutral.” She delves into the consciences and hearts of four main characters and the men and women who work with them. The couples just begin to recognize their love for each other amidst of the horrors of war. The blurb:


Berlin, 1943.

An encounter with an old friend leaves German physicist Dr. Kristopher Lehrer with doubts about his work. But when he confronts his superior, everything goes horribly wrong. Suddenly Kristopher and Michel, a member of the Resistance, are on the run, hunted for treason and a murder they did not commit. If they’re caught, Kristopher’s knowledge could be used to build a terrible weapon that could win the war.

For the team sent by the Allies—led by Captain Bryant, Sergeant Lowe, and Dr. Zhou—a simple mission escalates into a deadly game against the Gestapo, with Dr. Lehrer as the ultimate prize. But in enemy territory, surviving and completing their mission will test their strengths and loyalties and prove more complex than they ever imagined.

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LM: Thank you for being here, Anne. I highlighted a great deal of text in your novel and prepared pages of notes for this interview, most of which I can’t use without risking spoilers. So I’ll jump into my questions: In addition to entertaining us with a great story, are you reaching for a specific goal with Shadowboxing?

AB: Thanks for hosting me today, Lucy. I’m delighted to be here.

One of the reasons I started writing Shadowboxing fifteen years ago is that I wanted to read an action/drama story set during WWII featuring homosexual—the word ‘gay’ wasn’t used at the time—protagonists and couldn’t find any.  There are a lot more books out there now, which is great.  I love reading—and writing—about the time period, and in particular stories set in the years before, during and after both World Wars. Wars bring out the best and worst in people, and I also wanted to explore the concept of what is considered ‘other’.  Kristopher’s father has very definite ideas about the Jews, and Kristopher soon realizes that because he accepts himself as homosexual, in his father’s eyes he too is ‘other’.  Sadly, people fear others who are different from themselves and this often results in distrust and violence.

LM: I’m struck by the time you take to develop complicated characters and their relationships. You take the same amount of time in your fantasy series that starts with “Cat’s Quill.” Do you prefer creating “real life” characters?

AB:  I prefer writing realistic characters, as it’s more interesting for me as a writer.  Some of the characters I write are pretty much ‘you get what you see’ like Ben in The Sleepless City series, but most have their own internal struggles they are still working through.  As in real life, what people show on the surface is not always a true reflection of what is underneath. It’s only when someone grows close enough to another to trust them, that they are ready to share that side of themselves they’ve often hidden for a long time.  Finding themselves in situations completely out of their comfort zones also tends to make people reassess who they are and what they are capable of—good and bad. I love exploring characters by dropping them into situations and watching them ‘sink or swim’.

LM: You open Shadowboxing with scientist Kristopher (“Kit.”) He is naïve, lost in his equations without recognizing the consequences of his work. His sister Clara is wiser, and he dreams about his mother giving him advice. Was it your intention to have women represent wisdom and conscience before this man developed his own?

AB: I hadn’t actually approached it from that angle—it’s an interesting one.  When I wrote the story, I wanted to include strong women characters who make a difference to not just Kristopher’s life, but to others in the story too.  The world is made up of both genders and I wanted to show that balance, and not write a story about just a group of men.  Kristopher’s mother has a strong influence on his life although he has never met her, and Clara has been a substitute mother to him while he was growing up.  Upbringing and our formative years play a huge part in who we are, and either can push us in one direction or another, as we agree or disagree with how we’ve been brought up. Both these women have shaped him, and play a part in helping him to find the courage to be who he is supposed to be.

LM: Kit dreams of an old Jewish friend he’d never had the courage to admit he loved, and now this friend has gone missing. In several instances throughout your novel, comments made about Jews could come from today’s headlines in reference to other people. Were you aiming to demonstrate the timelessness of bigotry?

AB: Bigotry has been around a very long time, and I doubt it will ever completely disappear. Laws change but it’s difficult to change people’s reactions and the way they think especially if it’s an attitude that has been handed down to them over several generations.  It’s sad to see those comments repeating today, and sometimes I wonder if people will ever learn the mistakes made throughout history.  Those seen as ‘other’ are feared and persecuted, and if it’s not one group of people, it’s another.

In order for things to change, people need to find the courage to speak up, even if it means risking themselves. I’m reminded of a poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller called  They Came For Me, in which someone turns a blind eye to the injustice around them and then when someone comes for them there is no on left to save them.  I’m also reminded of a quote from Edmund Burke, which I referenced in Shadowboxing—“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Unfortunately, it is not always just themselves these good men are risking, but those they care about. It’s often easier to put yourself in the line of fire in order to stand up for what you believe, but threatening loved ones makes a person think twice about doing so.  

LM: While undercover, Michel falls for sweet-minded Kit, who had only been trying to make the world a better place with his science. Michel helps Kit escape his Nazi workplace. Michel’s accepting, deceased brother had helped him make peace with his own orientation, and in turn, Michel helps Kit develop self-acceptance. Did you plan these complex layers of characterization, or did they occur naturally as you wrote?

AB: I planned for some of them but others occurred as I wrote. I usually have a rough idea of characters before I write, but I really get to know them as the story progresses. I had no idea that Michel had a brother who had died until he told Kit. Of all the characters, Kit and Matt were the ones I knew the most about, and even they didn’t always act the way I anticipated. The other characters have developed as I’ve written, and all of them still surprise me, even as I’m writing book 3 of the series, with some of the comments they make, or the revelations about their background.

LM: Ken and Matt form the other main couple in the novel. Ken’s mother is Japanese and installed in an internment camp. Are you emphasizing the tragedy of families divided by war?

AB: War is rough on families. All of these men have lost family, for one reason or another. As the story progresses they grow closer to each other and form a type of family themselves.  Their original mission was supposed to be a simple one, but it isn’t long before it becomes personal in many ways.  

One of the reasons I wrote about a multi-national team is that the war was won due to the efforts of many people from different backgrounds and I wanted to reflect that. There is also a real danger when dealing with someone from another culture to clump everyone from that country or culture into a single unit and presume everyone is the same.  In every culture there are good and bad individuals. War is also not black and white, but shades of grey. Ken is fighting for his country, but his country has passed a law that allowed his mother to be interned in a camp because of her heritage although she was born in America. Situations like this blur those lines of right and wrong, and force people to look at their own misconceptions.    

LM: Matt endangers himself to grieve over the body of a former lover, a woman. Did you want to show the elasticity of his sexuality and the depth of his heart?

AB:  Yes, and that there are different kinds of love.

I’ve been asked why there are two homosexual couples in a book set during this time period.  All of these men approach their sexuality very differently.

Matt loved his former lover, but after much soul searching, he realized he wasn’t in love with her. As with many men of that time, he tried to conform to societal expectations but in the finish could not live a lie. Not only wouldn’t he have been true to himself, but it wouldn’t have been fair to her.  Friendship is a different kind of love.

Ken, on the other hand, has never given his sexuality much thought. He hadn’t the need to until he met Matt. To him the concept of love is much simpler. He wants to be with Matt, and will do whatever it takes to protect him, and has never felt that way about anyone else before.

Michel, out of all of them, has accepted himself for who he is. His brother Corin’s acceptance helped with that, and Michel knew early on that he wasn’t attracted to women.

Kristopher has been in denial—and not just about his sexuality—for a long time, and a lot has to happen to make him accept himself for who he is and get him to the point where he can’t go on pretending.

However, given when the story is set, sadly none of these men will ever be able to publically admit their love. The most they can hope for is to survive the war and live together as ‘confirmed bachelors’ or ‘war buddies’ and hope like hell no one works out the truth about their relationship.

LM: I’m particularly fascinated by your details about WWII-level technology. In comparison to today’s sophisticated powers of devastation, WWII seems almost simple. They treat wounds with sulfa. Cloud cover actually prevents accurate bombing. One of the men builds crystal radios, and another man recognizes a passing airplane by the sound of its engine. Did you enjoy researching for this novel?

AB: I love researching. With every book I write I learn something new.  The Echoes Rising series is more of a challenge because it is set seventy years ago and a lot of things we take for granted today didn’t exist then.  Although I always try to use a combination of books and the internet when I research rather than just relying on the internet, it’s the little pieces of information that are often the most difficult to find. For example while writing Shadowboxing I had to find out about telephone jacks in Germany in the 1940s and how they were attached to the wall. The only information I could find was about countries other than the one I needed. Luckily, one of my beta readers is German and she was able to find the information for me.  While it is impossible to get everything exactly right, I want the backdrop of my story to be as accurate as I can make it.

LM: You use an interesting method for Kit and Michel to encode messages. Did this method in fact exist during World War II?

AB: I based all types of codes used in the series on what existed and was used at the time, although I had some fun choosing the specifics. The Resistance used a variety of ways to leave each other coded messages—including advertisements in newspapers, and in cigarettes which they’d smoke afterwards! Being a musician myself I couldn’t resist using code in music, something which came into use long before the war, and was also documented as being used at Bletchley Park, which was the site used by Britain’s codebreakers at the time.

Code phrases were also used when meeting others. In Shadowboxing some of those names and phrases came from “The Wizard of Oz”. The movie came out in the US in 1939 so would have been well known there, but not in Germany. I love that movie.

LM: One of my favorite aspects of Shadowboxing is the tug of consciences. Even while in direct conflict with the Germans, the men are devastated when the Allies’ bombs kill innocent women and children. They question their own culpability as soldiers. The Gestapo members believe themselves to be men of honor. Do you wish more people could see the broader perspective of war that you present here?

AB: That’s one of my favourite aspects of the story too. It’s difficult trying to justify killing when you’re fighting a war, especially when innocents pay the price of the battle.  I didn’t want to write a story in which all one side are good guys who never make mistakes and believe entirely in what they are doing and the other side consists of men who are truly evil.  While some characters fall into the bad guy category and enjoy hurting people, they’re a minority in this story. I think that opponents who are also fighting for their own beliefs are much more interesting characters to write, and harder to defeat. That tug of conscience that Kristopher feels about the weapon he has helped to develop is going to be a big part of the story as the series continues. Should a weapon capable of that much destruction fall into the hands of either side, and what is to stop the so called good guys from justifying their use of it?  From our perspective, we know about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but these men don’t.  Those bombings were also one of the reasons I made Ken a Japanese American.

LM: You’ve created another layer of sophistication between the characters and their families: a person can love his or her country, and disagreeing with its policies doesn’t make that person a traitor. Are you making another point that applies to today’s world?

AB:  You caught me there. It ties into your earlier question about families divided by war. In one of the early scenes of the story, Kit and his father are arguing.  His father agrees with the ideals of the Nazi party, while Kit does not. However, that disagreement does make Kit a traitor to his country. He loves Germany and does what he can to fight for it and its people, and wants the war to end, but not at the expense of his own beliefs.  Just because some people in a country believe and act a certain way does not mean that everyone does. It is foolish to judge a whole country on the actions of a few. This is something that will come up again in the series, and not just about Germany.

LM: You create a great deal of tension when the men are caught, escape, evade capture and are caught again. The Gestapo does not treat them well. Your depiction of PTSD seems very detailed. Did you research this condition as well?

AB: Thank you. I felt really bad about what I did to some of the characters during this story, and later in the series.  While I haven’t done a lot of detailed research about PTSD, I’ve read and watched a lot of stories and movies etc about characters who have gone through it. It’s not something that is easily forgotten, and during WWI and before that there are documented stories of men suffering from it who were shot for desertion because it wasn’t understood what it was.  With everything the characters in my story go through, I wanted to make sure there are consequences, and that their experiences impact their actions later on.  It wouldn’t be realistic if they didn’t.

LM: Your love scenes are delicate and emotional. Do you prefer the romance of emotion rather than more physical descriptions?

AB: Thank you again. Yes, I do prefer to focus on the emotional rather than the physical. There are only so many ways to describe a sexual act, and I’m one of those readers who tends to skim when there’s x amount of those scenes in a book. Sorry!  I’m more interested in how these men react to being with each other. Giving themselves to each other is also an act fraught with danger because of the penalty if they are caught, so making love is going to be kept for when they are both very emotional. I was also careful to keep the love scenes at a minimum because of the time period—having too many of them wouldn’t work for the story.

LM: With your skillful writing, I felt the couples’ most desperate wish: to be free of war and somehow make their lives together. They each grow in maturity, self-knowledge, and courage. But you leave us with a mystery involving a German woman who seems to have a secret level of power and members of the Gestapo who will not give up the hunt. Our guys have not yet escaped Germany. What can you tell us about what comes next?

AB: Our guys still have a few hurdles in front of them, even as I’m writing book 3 in the Echoes Rising series. The 2nd edition of book 2—Winter Duet—will be released December this year from DSP Publications.  Here’s the blurb:


Winter Duet

Germany, 1944.

Hunted for treason and the information Kristopher carries, he and Michel leave the security of their safe house to journey across Germany toward Switzerland. Caught in a series of Allied bombings, they stop to help civilians and narrowly escape capture by German forces.


While investigating a downed aircraft in the Black Forest, the two men discover an injured RAF pilot.  After they are separated, Kristopher and the pilot are discovered by a German officer who claims he is not who he appears to be. Determined to find Michel again, Kristopher has to trust the stranger and hope he is not connected to those searching for him and the information he carries. Meanwhile Michel is intercepted by one of the Allied soldiers he met in Berlin. His help is needed to save one of their own.

Time quickly runs out. Loyalties are tested and betrayed as the Gestapo closes in. Michel can only hope that they can reach safety before information is revealed that could compromise not only his and Kristopher’s lives, but those of the remaining members of their team—if it is not already too late.

LM: Thank you for allowing me to pick your brain about Shadowboxing. Best wishes for a successful release of this novel!

AB: Thanks, Lucy. It’s been a pleasure, and your questions made me think, especially from the perspective of now writing the 3rd and final book of the series Comes a Horseman. I’ll leave your readers with an excerpt from Shadowboxing as a further teaser for the book:

EXCERPT: Shadowboxing

The light on top of the confessional blinked off, and an old man walked out, a dazed expression on his face. He muttered something under his breath too low for Michel to hear, glanced behind him, rapidly made the sign of the cross, and then repeated it. He then, to Michel’s surprise, prostrated himself in front of the altar and called out in a loud voice, “God, I beg your forgiveness for leading such a boring life.”

Someone snorted. Michel turned in time to see the brunet he’d observed earlier roll his eyes. Whoever was in the confessional masquerading as the local parish priest had an interesting sense of humor. He wondered idly who was in charge of this mission. The brunet certainly didn’t seem surprised by what had just happened.

Michel tentatively opened the now-empty confessional and entered, wondering what he was getting himself into. Whatever the priest had said to the old man, it was definitely atypical of the penance Michel remembered receiving in the past, courtesy of the clergy of the Catholic Church. Surely they couldn’t be condoning this behavior, although he was sure Father Johannes would have agreed for someone to temporarily use the confessional as a meeting place. He’d helped the Berlin Resistance on more than one occasion.

Playing the part of a priest would be the safest way of doing this for the person on the other end of the confessional, especially if he were caught. Father Johannes too, despite his protestations, knew to deny knowledge of anything or anyone if that happened. He would do his people more good here than in a Gestapo cell or a camp.

Michel knelt as the priest opened the small mesh window dividing the two compartments. Searching his memory for the correct phrasing, Michel spoke the precursory words for the sacrament. Confession might be good for the soul, but in his occupation, some things were better left unsaid, even to a priest.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” he began. “It’s been two years since my last confession and—”

A bored-sounding voice interrupted him. “Just get on with it, will you? I hope your sins are more interesting than the last person’s. I damn well hit my head when I started to drift off….”

The priest paused to catch his breath, and Michel spoke quickly, before the man could continue his tale of woe. “I’m homesick, and I’m often tempted to click my heels together and say ‘there’s no place like home.’”

There was a moment’s silence, followed by what sounded suspiciously like a very loud sigh of relief. “The answer to your problem is to follow the yellow brick road.”

Michel arched an eyebrow in the half darkness. Was this his contact? “Toto?” he asked.

“In the flesh. What took you so long? You’ve no idea what I’ve been through in here.” There was another moment of silence. “How can I help you, my child?” The man snickered. “Sorry, I’ve always wanted to say that.”

A loud creak was followed by the sun streaming through the now open confessional door. Michel blinked rapidly at the sudden change in light. The “priest” standing in front of him proffered his hand in greeting, although he was careful to keep his voice low so they couldn’t be overheard. “Matthew Bryant. Matt.”

“Gabriel.” Michel considered giving his name rather than his codename, but he didn’t trust this man or his team that far as yet.

Bio: Anne Barwell

Anne Barwell lives in Wellington, New Zealand.  She shares her home with two cats who are convinced that the house is run to suit them; this is an ongoing “discussion,” and to date it appears as though the cats may be winning.


In 2008 she completed her conjoint BA in English Literature and Music/Bachelor of Teaching. She has worked as a music teacher, a primary school teacher, and now works in a library. She is a member of the Upper Hutt Science Fiction Club and plays violin for Hutt Valley Orchestra.


She is an avid reader across a wide range of genres and a watcher of far too many TV series and movies, although it can be argued that there is no such thing as “too many.” These, of course, are best enjoyed with a decent cup of tea and further the continuing argument that the concept of “spare time” is really just a myth.

Anne’s books have received honorable mentions four times and reached the finals three times in the Rainbow Awards.  She has also been nominated twice in the Goodreads M/M Romance Reader’s Choice Awards—once for Best Fantasy and once for Best Historical.






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Comment on this blog, and by May 27, one of you will be chosen to receive a free copy.


Heidi Cullinan has produced another treasure. On May 24, 2016, SHORT STAY comes out. The novella is Number 3.5 in the Love Lessons series. I’m honored to offer an official blurb and an excerpt below.

Warning: If you’re expecting a critical review of Heidi Cullinan’s writing, you’ll need to look elsewhere. I adore her novels. Anyone who’s experienced rejection and condemnation of their true selves will vicariously triumph with Heidi’s guys. With their vastly different personalities and talents, they scrabble through the wreckage of post-traumatic stress to find their places in the world.

The Love Lessons series focuses on the new freedom of young men in college. In Short Stay, we continue with Baz and Elijah’s newborn relationship.

Status: they’re stuck. They’ve each spent years behind tough facades. They have no problem leaping to each other’s defense, but communicating needs, fears, and miserable doubts? Nope. Not their thing. Instead they try to read each other’s minds.

Doesn’t work.

Baz’s socialite mother worsens their stress. In desperation Baz comes up with the idea of a Las Vegas road trip. Walter and Kelly from the first novel in the series (Love Lessons) accompany Baz and Elijah. It’s a kick to watch them meet up in Las Vegas with characters from other novels. All the friendships and relationships deepen in subtle ways.

I’m particularly impressed with Heidi Cullinan’s deft skill in transforming each guy’s vulnerability into strength. Together and separately, the young men learn how to become who they were meant to be. As they mature, their relationship power levels keep shifting. Friends and lovers push and pull each other toward fulfilling, meaningful lives.

A highly satisfying series.



Book 3.5 in the Love Lessons Series


Hot messes have a hard time with happily ever after.


Baz Acker and Elijah Prince have it all. They’re engaged, and their wedding is guaranteed to be a spectacle no event will ever top. So why are they hunkered down in a quiet corner of the Acker mansion, restless and edgy while they wait out the holidays?

When Baz suggests a road trip with Walter and Kelly to Las Vegas, it sounds like an ideal escape, but it turns out Vegas only amplifies their unease. Elijah can’t slough off the self-hating his parents programmed into him, and he worries how that will affect his marriage. Baz, crippled en route because of too much time spent in the car without rest, must face the truth that his wealth and influence can’t always counteract the limits his disability will put on his—and Elijah’s—life.

With help from their friends, a wily poker player, a take-no-prisoners drag queen, and a smooth-talking casino owner, they face the truth that happiness is a state of mind, not a destination where they book a stay. What happens in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas—it will follow them all the way down the aisle.


Note: This novella was written for and by the request of Heidi’s Patreon readers. It is a continuation of a story begun in the novel Lonely Hearts in the Love Lessons series, also incorporating characters from the Special Delivery series. It is suggested but not required that you read at least Lonely Hearts before reading this book.


Buy links: All Romance EbooksAmazon USSmashwords iTunesKobo • Nook
Audiobook: coming soon
GoodreadsExcerptShort Stay Spotify Playlist

(bonus: Kelly’s Disney Favorites Playlist)



EXCERPT: Picking a Vegas Hotel


Elijah grinned wickedly and held up his phone. “Giles and Aaron are absolutely green that they didn’t get to come. They said they would have totally been our drivers.”“They aren’t twenty-one.” Baz wiped his mouth with his napkin. “They wouldn’t be able to go to most bars, and they wouldn’t be allowed on the casino floor.”

Kelly wrinkled his nose. “I don’t know if I want to gamble.”
Walter nudged him. “You can do a few penny slots. Or be my arm candy while I play poker.”

Elijah flicked gently at the bridge of Baz’s glasses. “You should play poker. They’d just think your glasses were part of your schtick.”

Baz stifled a wince at how that small gesture made his eyes throb. “Craps is more my game.”

They talked nonstop for the last leg of their trip, imagining the adventures they were about to have, looking up possible excursions on their phones. Even Elijah began to get excited. “I had no idea there was so much to do. Now I wish we had more than a few days to stay.”

“I wish I didn’t have to get back to work.” Walter was driving, or rather he was behind the wheel while the Tesla situated itself precisely in the lane. “But alas, I do. Kelly and I both have to be in Minneapolis by the fourth.”

They came over the crest of a hill, and suddenly there it was: Las Vegas. The city sprawled across the desert, a throbbing oasis in a sea of sand. Great grids of brown dotted with tiny shapes of houses until the Strip erupted, framed by the mountains in the distance. It would have been more impressive at night with all the lights, but two in the afternoon wasn’t anything to sneeze at either.

Baz had programmed the hotel into the navigation, but Kelly rerouted them in a detour of the Strip with a stop at the famous sign. They couldn’t find a place to park, but plenty of other people were slowing down to get a glimpse. Kelly managed to snap a picture through the moonroof.

“Okay, let’s see this hotel,” Walter declared, and they were on to their final destination.

Baz had a little misgiving about his choice as they took in the grandeur of the casinos on the Strip. He wanted to impress Elijah without overwhelming him, a fine line Baz was still learning how to negotiate. The smaller casino had seemed so much more them, though he’d admit mostly he’d seen “ten rainbow flags” and “resident drag queen” and leapt. Plus their suite had a view of the Strip. It also had a hot tub, the photo of which had Baz already thinking about how he’d get busy in it. But the Strip casinos were varying degrees of awesome too. Super-kitschy, elegant, modern—everything was there. As they drove by Bellagio, Baz kicked himself, thinking he should have booked there. He almost had, but they hadn’t had a suite available, and the pictures of the lobby made Baz imagine Elijah bitching about being out of place.

He wanted this trip to be perfect. He wanted it to make Elijah relax and show him that no matter what, Baz would always make everything okay.

As they pulled up to Herod’s Poker Room and Casino, Baz began to feel a lot better about his choice for their accommodations. It was elegant in a more traditional, understated way. It reminded Baz a little bit from the outside of his mother’s favorite old hotel in St. Paul, both the architecture and the quiet dignity of the bell staff. It was nice without being imposing. Small enough, too, that Baz could flash some money and probably get some VIP treatment.

He felt pretty good about his choice before they got out of the car, but what sealed the deal was what he saw as he exited the Tesla and handed the keys to the valet. Along the side of the building, just under the overhang, hung the Nevada flag, the US flag, and four bright, proud rainbow flags. When Elijah spied them, he visibly relaxed. Baz did too. This was going to fix everything. Elijah’s nerves, his quietness, his lack of faith that Baz could take care of him.

He was sure of it.



Remember, readers! Comment below to qualify for a free copy of Short Stay. On May 27, a commenter will be chosen.


With so much ugliness mushrooming near and far, last weekend I was heartened by an awesome gift from the Northern California Special Olympics: proof that altruism and joy do exist.One of my young adult relatives competed in volleyball. The team members ranged in age from twenties to seventies. They lived in the moment, utterly devoted to the game. A sixty-year-old man clapped and bunny-hopped in victory. A young woman gave her audience face-splitting grins and thumbs-up no matter what happened to the ball. Entire teams dutifully raised their arms to receive serves—and kept their arms raised, watching with peaceful interest as the ball hit the floor beside them.

I laughed at the same time I fought tears. People with special needs have their behavioral ups and downs, and caring for them is a challenge. Nevertheless, as the players either planted themselves in one spot or threw themselves at the ball and even popped it over the net, their innocent joy was shocking in its beauty.

The tournament will forever shine in my memory, but nothing glows brighter than the moment my often-miserable relative achieved an especially good point and checked out my reaction. I waved both arms and yelled. The responding helpless giggles hammered my heart.

Many of the players were elderly, and I was confronted with an awful reality: their parents had passed on with no choice but to entrust their special children to others.
We desperately need organizations like the Special Olympics. I witnessed respectful teens guide sometimes confused players on and off the courts, keep score and line-judge. Adults worked as referees, coaches, bus drivers, tournament managers, and more. They were generous with their time, energy and experience. They cared.

World-wide ugliness captures our attention with its screaming volume, and honorable people quietly donate their time to give special adults the thrill of playing before appreciative crowds.

I wonder if they fully comprehend the enormity of their gift.
SO Shirt (1)


Dreamspinner Press Badge

As an affirmed cave-dweller, I typically leave for writing conferences with about thirty percent happy anticipation topped by seventy percent unfiltered terror. In this mode, I made my way from California to Florida for the Dreamspinner Press Author’s Workshop in early March.

The happiness/terror percentage immediately reversed. In the soft Orlando air, a dazzling group of professionals welcomed, educated, and entertained me. We were united in our love of fiction that celebrates the freedom of sexual identity in all its forms.

Dining with authors whose books crowd my e-reader, I was a little star struck. (Okay, a lot. I impressed myself by speaking intelligible English.) At one of the meals, B.G. Thomas asked what had inspired me to write gay romance. I stumbled through an explanation that included the sheer fun of the genre, but even to myself, I’d never been able to articulate a complete answer to that question.

Later that evening, Librarian Kate and I discussed the reasons we love gay romance. Without minimizing the tragedy of any type of gay oppression, we agreed that in some ways women have been thrown into a similar box: we’re rejected for how we’re made. Throughout millennia, women have been marginalized—and worse—for how the cells in our bodies are formed.

Good fiction pulls us into a character’s point of view, and that character’s triumphs provide a vicarious thrill. Gay romance offers a unique type of liberation. The partners aren’t locked into traditional roles of female disempowerment versus male power.

Various difficulties have taught me only those who share my exact life experiences can fully grasp my point of view. I can’t know what it’s like to be another person, but this limitation only adds to my desire to enjoy fictional relationships and stretch my understanding.

Throughout the workshop weekend, an impressive array of experts expanded my awareness with their insights and knowledge. Elizabeth North gifted us with her astute perspective on the industry. Multi-published authors focused narrowly on specific building blocks for characterization, plotting, and marketing. As a disgruntled technophobe, I was particularly pleased with detailed suggestions for working with social media.

At the conclusion of this authorial feast, we enjoyed a tasty dessert: an FBI agent fed our bloodthirsty appetites with a forensics lecture, sprinkled with fascinating tidbits.

The workshop’s biggest impact came from those who generously shared their self-acceptance. I gained a measure of serenity from people who’ve staked their claim to celebrate their appearance, sexual identity, and pleasure in publishing gay romance. They’re flourishing beyond the parameters of a rigid little box.

Our rainbow romance genre is wonderful. Having traveled from coast to coast, I found myself at home.

Clockwork Heart by Heidi Cullinan


Confession: I’m a Heidi Cullinan fangirl. I’ve read and loved a long list of her novels, including the Tucker Springs series, Minnesota Christmas series, Nowhere Ranch, Dirty Laundry, and Family Man with Marie Sexton. My current favorites are the amazing Love Lessons series and the stellar Dance with Me. Heidi’s novel Carry the Ocean, the first book in the Roosevelt series, is so extraordinary I was compelled to praise its gorgeousness in my blog last May.

In every novel, Heidi Cullinan’s emotional IQ hits the top of the mark. Whether her characters are endearing, gritty, super-intelligent, heart-warming, funny, deeply troubled, have special needs, or all of the above, the reader cares deeply about them as they forge their way through challenges and bravely reach for love.


I am thrilled to host her introduction to her newest offering, CLOCKWORK HEART. She has honored me with an excerpt:


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This blog first appeared on the Rainbow Romance Writers website on October 12, 2015:

Publishing fiction is very much like standing naked in a crowd while every flaw is critiqued. The judgment is painful, yet indifference cuts even deeper. (Hey, stark-naked here! See anything you like? Aren’t you at least grossed out?)

I doubt I’ll ever grow accustomed to exposing myself.

Introverts are drawn to writing because we get to work in solitude, yet we’re compelled to share our stories. Sharing requires publishing, and publishing requires marketing. Marketing conflicts with introversion.

Anxiety ensues.

It’s not as if we haven’t already grappled angst to get the writing done in the first place. Real life obstacles hinder us at the same time they provide creative fodder. We blend hopes, fears, and imagination into words, and then we toss our stories to the crowd for adjudication.

Is the writing good? Will it sell?

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t taken a single step on the publishing path without longing for a magical guide to hold my hand and give me very specific instructions.

I am reminded of a suspense novel I read as a teen. A woman travels alone in Eastern Europe, and through no fault of her own, ends up in jail. For long hours she sits on a cell bench, staring at a high window in a thick stone wall, waiting for someone to save her. The realization slowly sinks in: no hero is coming. She will suffer in a foreign prison for the rest of her life.

The woman stands on the bench, leaps up to the window, and grabs the stone ledge by the tips of her fingers. She falls. She does it again. Then again. And again. She’s in agony, exhausted, her fingers shredded, but she keeps throwing herself at the ledge. Finally, she maintains her grip and is able to escape.

I’ve forgotten the title and author of the book, but that scene has stayed with me. The prescient author foretold current expectations: In the face of adversity, we develop our own strength and courage. We might enjoy fictional champions and occasionally encounter a genuine hero, but most of the time, we save ourselves.

Authors have been forced to take over much of the publishing process. Even when our work is accepted by a formal house, we often serve as our own agents, wrestle with technology, and suffer the exposure of social media. A finely-honed torture for introverts.

So we take action. We consult with experts and learn tricks. We tap dance with technophobia. A good portion of our lives is spent online and in classes and writing groups. If we’ve been consulting therapists for those pesky real life problems, we leech them for help with writing fears as well.

We write, and we market. When anxiety peaks, we take a break and then we return to the computer. We do it again. And again. Like the woman in the novel, we keep throwing ourselves at the publishing ledge until we’re able to hang onto it and climb over.

Standing naked in our words, we rescue ourselves.

Authors are autoheroic.


You’re wrong. You can stand there and be wrong in all your wrongness.

Funny, but ouch. That’s me. No whining here, only truth: I’ve never done anything quite right.

Okay, that statement might be slightly inaccurate. Every now and then I do something right, but then I get scared and quickly do something else wrong. My world order restored, I can go on with my familiar wrongness.

I know there are more of you out there. I’ve spoken with you. You look at something you’ve accomplished and then tell me what’s wrong with it or that the good thing doesn’t count because of all the other stuff that’s wrong.

And then there’s the wrongness in the world that’s pounded into us from every direction.

I’m not saying “poor me.” Not giving you excuses for my perspective, either, but I can give you a reason: harsh early training. I’ll even give you a second reason: general wrongness.

In other words, depression. A genuine condition.

Depression is even a cultural mindset.

However, we’re also given all kinds of positive messages about hope and surging forward with confidence. I particularly like one saying:

What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

Whoa! All my gears immediately shriek, thrown completely out of whack. I can’t fail? Nah. No, no no. Don’t fall for that one! It’s wrong.



Since I’m hardwired for wrongness (depression), I need to be sneaky and fool myself. I feint to the left and strike on the right. I do that magician’s thing, tricking my focus. Look at how wrong I am over here…and then I secretly do something right at the same time.

But I can’t do too much right, because then there are the shrieking gears and self-sabotage.

You know what I mean. If too much goes okay, then there’s going to be an earthquake, a car crash, or a terminal illness, especially since all those bad things really have happened to me and mine.

So when my gears slip and clunk from the occasional rightness that threatens me with looming self-sabotage, I grind my way to my magical mechanic (therapist) and receive a much-needed tune up. And I go on to more self-trickery.

My favorite birthday card depicts a frantic Daffy Duck on a screaming yellow background: “No, no, NO! You’re doing it all WRONG!”

My second-favorite card: “My therapist says it’s not all your fault, Mom. Dad screwed me up a bunch, too.”

It’s good to laugh at my wrongness.

Now I sit here at my laptop, currently safe and unshaken by foreign confidence, because what I just wrote is all wrong. I’m a writer, after all. We never get it right. (See? I didn’t even intend to make that pun.)

An inescapable conclusion: depressed thoughts can be recognized and managed. Really. Honest and for true.

I’m not wrong.

*Daffy photo from a Looney Tunes Hallmark card

*Therapist photo from Carlton Cards


I’ve encountered a few angels. Have you?

I’m not talking about the sweetly generous ones, though there are plenty of those around. Anyone who helps the sick, injured, and frightened wears an invisible halo.

The angels who’ve earned my particular admiration work with the emotionally disturbed. They grit their teeth and work day after day to improve the lives of people who frequently and most emphatically do not wish to be helped. These unhappy souls can be angry, resistant to treatment, addicted, and even violent. Progress is measured in tiny increments. Backsliding is more common than not, and angel burnout is inevitable.

Children are especially vulnerable to the quality of care they receive. Upset, acting out, socially inept, and unable to learn easily, they flourish under skilled leadership that impacts the rest of their lives, and by extension, the lives of their families.

I’ve seen miracles. The very best angels have allowed my agitated young relatives to experience that most elusive feeling: acceptance.

So if you work with the mentally ill, the emotionally disturbed or any other type of sick, injured and scared people, stand tall. Regardless of your personal weaknesses or flaws, your halo shines.

And thank you.


Mental Illness is a Magnifying Glass

I’ve been an unwilling witness to various forms of mental illness all my life. Recently I figured out the illness serves as a giant magnifying glass.

My sick relatives suffered terribly intense emotions. Every feeling, every fear, every reaction was far stronger than what I experienced. Some relatives had access to the time-consuming, difficult process of finding a medication cocktail and therapy that helped. Many chose to quiet the storms in their minds with addiction.

A psychiatrist who treated a young relative once likened the child’s illness to wearing a belt of straight pins pointed inward. Despite this torturous belt, the child was expected to behave well and learn in school.

How would I behave if I was stuck with pins all day, every day?

 My mother’s illness used religion as a point of obsession. She was terrified of hell, and in turn she terrorized her eight children with the threat of damnation. She needed us to reflect her beliefs exactly. Independent thought was perceived as a threat and earned severe punishment.

My dad needed Mom to take care of the eight kids he was working to support. Guilt made her feel bad, and when she felt bad, she turned to addiction. So he discouraged her guilt for the child abuse. We needed the discipline, he explained.

On the surface, Dad was a very loving man. He never realized he’d converted his spousal impotence into more subtle abuse. While dodging his wife’s rage, his fragile male ego couldn’t tolerate the feminine strength and intelligence of his six daughters. He ground down our confidence, belittling and disempowering us.

I don’t know why mental illness exists, but like a magnifying glass, it showed me with great clarity that threatening others with hell is truly crazy. It’s crazy to force others to think like you and then reject and abuse them when they don’t.

Mental illness taught me that only deeply frightened people discourage strength in others.


My Sick Mom’s Pearls

My poor mother. She had a multitude of children. We were what they used to call a “good Catholic family.” I was one of the younger kids.

On the frequent occasions we refused to listen to her instructions or follow her advice, deep frustration would goad her to drop this special pearl of wisdom: “Well, then you can just DIE DUMB!”

Of course we laughed helplessly, even if we still refused to give in.

What steals my breath as I write this is the self-fulfilling prophecy. My mom had died dumb after refusing to treat her mental illness. Instead she’d chosen to indulge several addictions.

As she lay dying from nicotine damage surrounded by several of her children, I offered in a wobbly voice, “Do you want us to pray with you?” She looked uncomfortable with our focused attention but agreed.

As we said the Hail Mary, I was reminded of our family’s old custom of reciting the rosary after supper. Mom made sure we were on our knees in the darkened living room, properly respectful. I’m told I once disrupted the reverence with a cross-eyed look that triggered a domino-effect of siblings toppling over in laughter. Only my extreme youth had saved me from dire punishment.

Beside her deathbed, after we finished the prayer I dared to ask, “How do you feel?”

She gave an impatient click of her tongue and threw up her arms. “I feel dumb!”

We all laughed helplessly, and then we went on with the business of helping her die with grace.

I’m happy to say her blunt humor was passed on, sprinkled here and there among the generations. It has its uses.

During a tense restaurant dinner with relatives, I noticed the utensils matched ours at home. I tried to lighten the atmosphere by lifting one and commenting, “This looks familiar.”

A young relation looked at me as if I weren’t put together quite right. “It’s a FORK.”

We all laughed helplessly.

So thanks, Mom. You were funny even when you didn’t mean to be, and if your mental illness was carried forward, so was your blunt honesty.

Love you.