Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Truth is Stranger than Fiction: Fake News, Facts and Writing

All Truths Are Easy To Understand Once They Are Discovered; The Point Is To Discover Them. 
Gallileo Galilei
by Jamie Freveletti

We're talking about story premises or facts that are true, yet so strange that an author is unable to use them in their novel for fear that their readers will be unable to suspend their disbelief enough to read the story. I've come across many facts like these, but, sadly, with the onslaught of Fake News on the internet, many of the previously unbelievable truths can now be written about in a novel. 

We've always had Fake News and unbelievable stories--just consider the tabloid newspapers that our parents and grandparents laughed at in the checkout aisle, or the use of propaganda by governments to sway the populace. All of this is fake news.The difference now is that there are masses of people creating these stories and throwing them on the internet in order to obtain money-each click and they get paid. Unlike the tabloids, the clickbait Fake News doesn't require you, the reader, to actually purchase the tabloid in order for the newspaper to make money, it only requires you to click it. And hence, the problem. As we've all heard time and time again: follow the money and you'll find the true source (in the case of fake news, figure out the angle of the person creating it-what do they want to gain?)  

The answer both to fighting the Fake News phenomenon and using true- but- wild- information in a story is the same: you need to educate the reader before you hit them with the truth. For example, a disease exists that makes one suddenly fall asleep for weeks on end.The victims fall into a type of coma, yet come back awake spontaneously.This disease may have been the basis for the Sleeping Beauty folktale. It has no cure, is rare, and puzzles scientists. I used it in my fourth novel, DEAD ASLEEP. Before launching into the disease, though, I wrote in a character who is a scientist and who explains to the protagonist that the disease exists. This way the reader learns from the scientist just as I did as the author or the protagonist does.  

Some things, though, a reader will not forgive, even if the fact is actually true. I read with interest this week's story about the man who bought into a fake news story regarding a restaurant in DC running a child sex ring. I had to hand it to the writers of this fake news, they managed to get a lot of people to click their story, repeat it, and try to sell it to the rest of the country as true.Then, one gullible man actually went to DC to "self-investigate" the bogus story. With a gun. To a pizza place. Looking for alleged underground tunnels. 

I can't even tell you how many incredulous emails from readers I would have gotten had I written that in a book. You know what they would say? Something like this: "Really? Why didn't the protagonist simply call the DC police with his concerns and ask them to investigate? Or the FBI?" 

I call this the "turn on the light" phenomenon. How many horror movies have you seen where the heroine heads into a dark room where she can't see the monster lurking? Don't you want to yell "turn on the lights!" at the television screen? It's the same thing as the question above. Protagonists can do wacky or stupid things, but you'd better set the stage beforehand or you'll be caught out writing something stereotypical and you'll lose the reader. And once you've lost the reader you'll be hard pressed to get them back again. 

If you like this post click here to subscribe! 

I'll post again on the 21th and until then, Happy Holidays!

Jamie Freveletti







Monday, December 5, 2016

Welcome Our Guest: Alexandra Sokoloff

Invited by Karna Small Bodman . . .

I am delighted to welcome Bestselling and Award-winning Author Alexandra ("Alex") Sokoloff as our guest blogger.  We all know Alex as a member of International Thriller Writers where she was nominated for the Thriller Award. We love her supernatural, paranormal and crime thrillers which The New York Times has called, "some of the most original and freshly unnerving work in the genre." 
Alexandra Sokoloff

A multi-talented young woman, she majored in theater at U.C. Berkeley and wrote, directed and acted in productions from Shakespeare to street theater and later worked as a screen writer, selling suspense and horror scripts to Sony, Fox, Disney, Miramax and penned a terrific "how-to" manual in textbook format  for aspiring screenwriters titled Stealing Hollywood.


 
Today Alex tells us about the extensive research she does when penning her great novels:

"I love research as a discussion topic – it’s my second favorite part of writing a book (the best part, of course, is FINISHING a book).

There are two kinds of research I’m doing all the time.

One kind is very specific to the particular book I’m writing - which always includes going to key locations of the book to get a sensory feel for the place and the people who live there, so I can give my readers the real sense of the place. My Huntress Moon thrillers are an FBI procedural series, and
my agents are constantly working with other law enforcement agencies, so I need to do interviews and reading about how particular investigations would play out, both within the FBI and in collaboration with local agencies.

The other kind is a more general research into topics that are part of my personal thematic DNA as an author. I’m always reading broadly about forensics, criminal psychology, paranormal experiences (I have several standalone supernatural thrillers, too…), theories of evil.  I’ve been researching all of these subjects for pretty much all of my adult life. And you never know when all that random reading is going to turn up story gold. I have tons of examples, but one particular nugget has turned into a five-book series , which I’m also developing for television.

Here’s how that happened.

I worked as a screenwriter for eleven years before I snapped and wrote my first novel, and in that time I worked on several film projects featuring serial killers. (Hollywood loves its serial killers…) One of my core themes as a writer is “What can good people do about the evil in the world?” – and as far as I’m concerned, serial killers are an embodiment of evil. So for several years I was doing targeted research into the subject every way I could think of besides actually putting myself in a room with one of these monsters. I tracked down the FBI’s behavioral science textbook before it was ever available to the public. I stalked psychological profilers at writing conventions and grilled them about various real life examples. I went to forensics classes and law enforcement training workshops, including Lee Lofland’s excellent Writers Police Academy.

And while I was doing all that research, one fact really jumped out at me about serial killers. They’re men. Women don’t do it. Women kill, and sometimes they kill in numbers (especially killing lovers or husbands for money – the “Black Widow” killer; or killing patients in hospitals or nursing homes: the “Angel of Death”) — but the psychology of those killers is totally different from the men who commit serial sexual homicide.  Sexual homicide is about abduction, rape, torture and murder for the killer’s own sexual gratification. 

I have a real problem with the way most authors portray serial killers -  because it’s so incredibly dishonest. They romanticize and poeticize serial killers – portraying them as evil geniuses that play elaborate cat and mouse games with detectives and law enforcement agencies. Yeah, right. These men are not geniuses. They don’t leave poems at crime scenes or arrange their victim’s bodies in tableaux corresponding to scenes of great art or literature. They are vicious rapists who brutalize their victims because the agony of those victims gets the killer off, and a large number of them continue to have sex with the corpses of their victims because they are that addicted to absolute control and possession.

I know, I know – you’re going to bring up Aileen Wuornos, “America’s only female serial killer.” But I’ve questioned every profiler I’ve ever interviewed about exactly this, and they’ve all said the same thing: Wuornos was not committing sexual homicide; she was a spree killer with a vigilante motivation.  (I write about her case, and the psychology of other real life mass killers, in the Huntress Moon series.) 

I find that psychological and sociological distinction fascinating.

So this fact, gleaned from research – that women don’t kill this way, has always been at the back of my mind while I’ve been writing other books and scripts. And finally it clicked how I could take that fact and build a series around it.

Because – also for years – I’m becomes so sick of reading crime novels and seeing movies and TV shows about women being raped, tortured, mutilated and murdered.

I’m not too happy about it happening in real life, either.

I do get that one reason novels and film and TV so often depict women as victims is that it’s the stark reality. Since the beginning of time, women haven’t been the predators — we’re the prey. But after all those years (centuries, millennia) of women being victims of the most heinous crimes out there… wouldn’t you think that someone would finally say — “Enough”? 

And maybe even strike back?

Well, that’s a story, isn’t it?

So then I had my series through line. The Huntress Moon books turn the tables.  The books follow a haunted FBI agent on the hunt for what he thinks may be a female serial killer, who kills men – lots of men. As a former profiler Agent Roarke knows that women don’t kill like this.

And the tension and mystery of that: Who is this killer, what is she really doing? – is what pulls both my agent/detective and my readers in.

It took me YEARS to figure out how to do that right. But it’s by far the most satisfying writing I’ve done in my life.

So do your research. Dig. You never know when you’re going to strike it big."

- Alexandra Sokoloff
And Alex tells us there is a special sale going on right now - check this out:


US Amazon Prime members can currently read HUNTRESS MOON for free:  https://www.amazon.com/Huntress-Moon-FBI-Thrillers-Book-ebook/dp/B00NKTTDH4
Thanks to Alexandra Sokoloff for being with us today. Leave her a comment below about her extensive research and great stories.
.....Karna Small Bodman    

Saturday, December 3, 2016

KIDNAPPING: FACT VS. FICTION

by KJ Howe

I equate kidnapping to purgatory.  When you're a captive, you're alive, but you're not really living.  You have no freedom to do as you wish, you can't work towards your life goals or have any real life at all--you are at the mercy of others for absolutely everything.  The reality is you need to find a way to endure the hardships of captivity, to combat the uncertainty and boredom, get through the days, weeks, and potentially years until you are finally freed.  That takes great patience, strength of character, and determination.

This week's theme involves truth vs. fiction.  Many literary experts expound that truth can be stranger than fiction, and to make fiction believable, one has to offer a logical reason for events.  As the following two actual kidnapping cases demonstrate, sometimes there is no logic, no easy explanation for actual human behaviour.

John Paul Getty III

Getty Oil is an American-based company with operations across the world.  J. Paul Getty III grew up in Rome in the 1960's, a rebellious young man who was expelled from his private school.  His life changed instantly on July 10, 1973 when he was kidnapped.

Beware the boy who cried wolf.  JPG III had often joked that he should kidnap himself for financial reasons, so when the 17 million dollar ransom demand came in, many relatives scoffed at it, thinking it had all been staged.  The kidnappers sent another demand, but the Italian postal service went on strike and delayed its arrival.  After several weeks, the family asked the patriarch, J. Paul for the ransom, but he refused, worried that paying it could endanger his other grandchildren, make them targets.

Frustrated, the kidnappers send a lock of JPG III's hair and his severed ear, demanding a ransom of 3 million dollars along with a note that threatened to send the rebellious young man back to his family piece by piece.  J. Paul finally agreed to pay--but only agreed to send 2 million dollars, the amount that was tax deductible.  And he would only loan the money, expecting repayment with interest.


JPG III was finally released the week before Christmas.  Of the dozen kidnappers who were hiding him, only two were ever convicted.  JPG III had reconstructive surgery on his missing ear.  But the experience scarred the young man forever.  In the early 1980's, he was disabled as a result of a drug overdose, and he remained in poor health until he died in 2011.

He came from a wealthy family, became a target as a result.  But when he was taken, no one believed it, and then no one wanted to part with the money.  Only in extreme circumstances did he finally come home, but by then his life had been forever altered.  Could a fiction writer get away with a story like this or would it be too incredulous?

Patty Hearst

The granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper magnate, Patty was kidnapped from the apartment she shared with her fiancee when she was nineteen in February 1974.  Her kidnappers belonged to the Symbionese Liberation Army.  The term symbionese refers to symbiosis, living together in interdependence and harmony--ironic, given the circumstances.  The SLA wanted to trade Patty for the freedom of certain jailed SLA members.  When this failed, they demanded that the Hearst family donate hundreds of millions of dollars of food to the needy in California.


Patty's family immediately donated 6 million dollars to groups that fed the poor in the Bay area.  But the SLA refused to release Patty because they felt the food was of inferior quality.  Fast forward to April 1974, when the SLA release a tape featuring Patty denouncing her former western values and capitalism.  She had now joined this militant group, and took on the name of "Tania" after the name of Che Guevara's comrade Tamara Bunke.

Later that month, Patty was caught on security footage participating in an SLA bank robbery in Los Angeles.  The heiress toted an M-1 carbine while shouting orders at bank customers who were now her captives. After a shootout and a police siege leading to the death of many SLA members, Patty was arrested in the fall of 1975 along with several comrades.  She served twenty one months of a seven year sentence.  President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence, and in 2001, she received a full pardon from President Bill Clinton.

This case is a prime example of Stockholm Syndrome, where captives develop trust, affection, and empathy for their kidnappers.  But would this story be believable to you as a reader?  Could you imagine that an heiress with the world at her fingertips would turn on this gilded world to become a revolutionary in a few short months?

Hollywood even made a movie about Patty's experience.

There are countless true stories of kidnappings that really stretch our imagination.  But in fiction, are we hemmed in by tighter standards?  Only the reader can be the judge.


Friday, December 2, 2016

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

S. Lee Manning: In this round of blogs, we are writing about truth stranger than fiction. Specifically, we are supposed to be writing about truth discovered through research into our novels that our readers might think is too out there to be credible.

I have a problem.

My problem is the truth that is most unbelievable but most closely related to a novel that I’m currently writing – isn’t something that I found through research. It’s been widely reported in the news.

In Ride a Red Horse, my Russian-born, American-naturalized hero, Kolya Petrov, reluctantly returns to his former agency after weaponized uranium has been smuggled into the United States. He’s the only one capable of talking to a possible source back in Russia.  Not to give up too much, the plot turns on a misinformation scheme set into motion by Russian officials.  Not only are American operatives fed misinformation,  Russian sources plant fake news stories on line to whip up public sentiment. Purpose: confuse and mislead the United States into allowing Russia to invade and take over a country that was formerly part of the Soviet empire.


My worry in coming up with this plot was that it might not be sufficiently credible. After all, credibility is critical for espionage fiction. The reader has to feel that events put forth in the book could happen, even if they probably won’t.

Now the elephant.

When I came up with this plot about a year ago, I had no idea how close my book’s plot would be to what occurred over the past year. The American intelligence community has verified that Russia did indeed launch sophisticated cyber attacks on the United States, using hacking and misinformation, in an effort to undermine the democratic process of the presidential election.

Russia hackers invaded the e-mails of the Democratic candidate and the DNC. Russians put up fake news sites. Legions of Russian trolls and botnets tweeted false information back and forth.  

Russian manipulation of social media didn’t start with this election. In 2014, researchers found various social sites advocating for the return of Alaska to Russia. The posts were traced back – you guessed it – to Russian trolls. Russia trolls also attacked people criticizing Assad in Syria. They’ve spread misinformation about a second coup in Turkey, and about Disney World. They sometimes seized on a target’s ethnicity, using that as a basis to launch personal attacks that others would join.

Russian intelligence relied not only on an army of hackers and trolls, and on sophisticated bots, but on “useful idiots” who picked up on Russian misinformation and continued to spread the false information as if it were true. The Russian campaign was further aided by news organizations that reported in-depth every e-mail released by Wikileaks, even with the knowledge provided by US intelligence that the releases were part of a cyber attack to undermine the Clinton campaign.


Why did this happen? Clearly, Putin preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, for reasons I will decline to explore at this point. The fact, however, that Russian cyber warfare may have been a factor, possibly the deciding factor, in a razor thin win by one side in an American Presidential campaign should be the stuff of fiction. But it’s not.

Then the question turns to Putin’s ultimate goal with this campaign in America. That’s not completely clear, but it is clear that Europe, especially Eastern Europe, is very worried. There is a lot of discussion that Putin may feel emboldened, rightly or wrongly, to advance in Europe after various statements about NATO and Putin himself made by the President-elect over the course of the past eighteen months. Clearly, Putin has had designs on Ukraine.  He may also have his eye on other countries that split from Russia. Today, as I’m writing this, Marines are going into Norway, on the border with Russia, because Norway is concerned about the potential for Russian aggression. Unfortunately, this is not the terrifying stuff of fiction. This is the terrifying new reality.

On a slightly lighter note, it’s scarily close to what I’ve been plotting out and writing for a year.  It has me a little worried. First, because life now seems to be paralleling my plot outline – it gives me some grandiose ideas of my ability to look into or influence the future. If everything I plot out comes true, we’re in real trouble.  (I think I just came up with another idea for a novel.)

Second  – I’ve put a year into working on this book. Probably have at least six months more to finish the writing, and then a minimum of a year to publication. Maybe more. At the rate we’re going, current events could overtake the events described in my novel. And that would be a bad thing for my novel.

It would be even worse for the world.






Wednesday, November 30, 2016

STRANGER THAN FICTION?


Gayle Lynds:  How do you know whether what you’re reading in a novel is fact or fiction?  Right now, in this very moment, I’ll bet you remember that the grand old Mississippi River flows south through the U.S.’s midsection, pouring into the Gulf of Mexico.  Would you be surprised if I told you that in some authors’ spy books, real-life rivers flow in the wrong direction, international commercial jets land in small regional airports, and sound suppressors are screwed onto revolvers?  Seriously.

In my second spy thriller, Mosaic, my heroine is blind, regains her sight, but then loses it again.  Sound like a lie?  Probably, if you haven’t heard of shell shock, or battle fatigue, or conversion disorder.  All refer to the same illness, in which a patient “converts” a terrible psychological trauma into a physical symptom.  Blindness is at the top of the list.  Can you guess what the treatment is?  And it’s all true.

In my third espionage novel, Mesmerized, my heroine has a heart transplant and apparently inherits tastes, ideas, even memories from her donor, a former KGB officer.  Unbelievable, right?  Not completely, not according to the growing scientific studies backing it up. 

Then there’s the real-life global race to create the world’s first molecular — or DNA — computer, forging an unprecedented bond between life science and computational science.  I wrote about that in The Paris Option.  Imagine a computer so fast it’ll break any code or encryption in seconds.  All of America’s missiles, NSA’s secret systems, NRO’s spy satellites, the entire ability of the navy to operate, all defense plans, our electric grids . . . anything and everything that relies on electronics would be at the mercy of the first molecular computer.  Not even the largest silicon supercomputer would be able to stop it. 

Oh, the grandeur of unusual ideas woven into an adventure story.  Sigh of pleasure. 

But this fascination of mine means I’ve failed in today’s assigned task. . . .  For Rogue Women’s next series of blogs, we’re writing about “Stranger Than Fiction: What we’ve discovered in our research that’s so weird we can’t use it in a book.”

My problem is that if I can’t use it, I forget it.  But at the same time, when I stumble on research that seems to me particularly juicy and challenging, it lingers in my mind, niggling, enticing.  For instance, did you know there’s a spectrum in sociopathy among stone-cold killers?  And did you know one of the most difficult characteristics to hide consistently is a person’s walk?  Those two ideas are fundamental to my most recent spy thriller, The Assassins.

Hmm.  Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about . . .  No, no.  Although some might find it strange, I think that’s going into my next book.  Back to work!

What item or items have you found that are truly stranger than fiction?”

Monday, November 28, 2016

GIVING THANKS

by Christine Goff

Rogue Women Writers at ThrillerFest
With Thanksgiving behind us and the holidays fast approaching, I want to take time out to say how grateful I am for my fellow Rogue Women. Writing is at times a lonely business, and it's even lonelier when you're a woman writing espionage and political thrillers. In a genre dominated by men, its true there is strength in numbers. I'm thrilled to be counted among them!

The best news is—everyone has great books out, available for holiday gift-giving!

Gayle Lynds is not only a New York Times bestselling author, she is one of the most generous and genuine women you will ever meet. We first met bobbing around the Biltmore pool at the inaugural ThrillerFest, held in '06 in Phoenix, Arizona. I was published in traditional mystery, but wanted to transition thrillers. I will never forget how she helped me brainstorm that day, or mentored me over the years, or how she stepped right up and offered to read my book for a cover quote. The Associated Press aptly called her "a master of the Modern Cold War spy thriller." Her latest novel, THE ASSASSINS came out in hardcover and e-book in 2015, but the paperback just hit the stands in June.

Former spy Judd Ryder is walking home when he spots a man wearing his clothes and who looks just like him. Moments later the imposter is killed in a vicious hit-and-run that’s no accident. Was the double the intended victim, or Judd himself?

Karna Small Bodman is always quick to step up and pitch in to help in the success of Rogue Women Writers, and she's a tremendous resource for Washington "insider" information. Her books are inspired by the six years she served in the White House, first as Deputy Press Secretary, and later as Senior Director and Spokesman for the National Security Council where she was the highest-ranking woman on the White House staff. As Nelson DeMille said, her work is "frightening with the crystal ring of truth." Her latest novel, CASTLE BRAVO, deals with a threat to national security that was and still is very real.

White House Director of Homeland Security, Samantha Reid, receives intelligence about a possible new threat to the country's national security: a hostile enemy intends to detonate a small nuclear device over the U.S. that would literally send shock waves across the country, knocking out the electricity grid and setting us back to the year 1910!

Jamie Freveletti has taught me a lot about the business end of writing—something for which my husband is eternally grateful. This Barry award winning and internationally bestselling author of the Emma Caldridge series, Jamie also writes for the Estate of Robert Ludlum's Covert One series, is smart, creative and often the voice of reason. According to Book Reporter.com, her "grasp of fast-action suspense and understanding of international politics, as well as martial arts combat training, brings real-life action to a continuance of Robert Ludlum's original creations." It's high praise for her latest novel, THE GENEVA STRATEGY.

On one evening in Washington, DC, several high-ranking members of government disappear in a mass kidnapping, including Nick Rendel, a computer software coding expert in charge of drone programming and strategy. Armed with his knowledge, the kidnappers could reprogram drones to strike targets within the United States.

Francine Mathews has been a friend for—well, a really long time! When our children were little, we lived in the same small mountain town and our kids attended the same school. Several years before we met, I had discovered her Nantucket Mystery series and fell in love with her writing. She has always been supportive, encouraging and she sets the bar high--inspiring me to be a better writer. A former intelligence analyst at the CIA, she brings an authenticity to her work that is beyond compare. Her Nantucket series is being re-released, while her latest standalone, TOO BAD TO DIE, received a starred review in Publisher's Weekly and was a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice pick.

November, 1943. Weary of his deskbound status in the Royal Navy, intelligence officer Ian Fleming spends his spare time spinning stories in his head that are much more exciting than his own life…until the critical Tehran Conference, when Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Josef Stalin meet to finalize the D-Day invasion.

Sonja Stone writes the kind of books I wish were around when I was a young adult. I feasted on Nancy Drew before graduating to Agatha Christie and Helen MacInnes, but Sonja's book DESERT DARK is totally kick-ass. And Sonja is the most daring of us all. To get her facts right, she attended survival school (the same one where Tom Hanks prepared for Cast Away. While there she learned to throw knives, fire guns and navigate the desert—all while raising two covert agents masquerading as teenagers. She's my hero!

Blacklisted by her ex-boyfriend, sixteen-year-old Nadia Riley transfers to an elite boarding school hidden deep in the Sonoran Desert. Turns out, it's a top-secret training facility for the Black-Ops Division of the CIA. When she's framed for treason, Nadia's situation takes a deadly turn: the real double agent will stop at nothing to remain concealed—including an attempt on Nadia's life.

K.J. Howe has to be the most organized of all of us. She not only is launching her debut thriller, THE FREEDOM BROKER, in February, but she is the Executive Director of ThrillerFest and RWW's liaison to all thing tchotchke—hats, mugs—and she knows everybody! #1 New York Times Bestseller James Patterson says, "THE FREEDOM BROKER combines terrific thriller writing and fascinating research about hostage rescues. This is fact and fiction at its best." I couldn't agree more. This book is out in February, but it's available for pre-orders.

There are 25 elite professionals who travel undercover to the deadliest spots in the world to bring hostages home safely by any means necessary. Only one of those 25 elite response consultants is a woman. She brings everything a man does to the job as well as her intuition. She is the inspiration behind professional kidnap negotiator Thea Paris. 

S. Lee Manning brings ideas and enthusiasm. She has embraced her fellow RWW members as family and keeps us on task, providing the much needed ideas for our blog posts and giveaways. Formerly the managing editor of Law Enforcement Communications, she worked as a lawyer before tackling her first in the Kolya Petrov series, TROJAN HORSE. Orphaned when her publishing house closed pre-publication, she has great quotes from the likes of Gayle Lynds and Steve Berry, and we can't wait until this book finds a home.

And me—my thriller, DARK WATERS, featuring DSS Agent Raisa Jordan is still on the shelves. Set in Israel in the midst of the Palestine-Israel conflict was called "Absolutely masterful" by Manhattan Book Review. The sequel, RED SKY, will be hitting the stands in June 2017. It is available to pre-order today.

More than anything, all of us are so grateful for all of you. Thank you for reading the Rogue Women Writers blog. Thank you for coming out and supporting us at events and signings. And, most of all, thank you for reading our books. We hope you'll keep coming back. We have some great things in store for you in 2017!



What has been your favorite blog topic this year? Anything you'd like us to talk about?




Sunday, November 27, 2016

HOW TO KILL THE JOY IN YOUR HOLIDAY SEASON

By Sonja Stone


HOLIDAYS WITH A PERFECTIONIST

Fruit and cheese platters: the breakfast of champions

Well, the holiday season has officially begun. I know this because a few nights ago I had my recurring seasonal nightmare. It happens every year, usually not for a few more weeks, but here it is: It’s Christmas Eve, about 11:55 pm, and I’m tucked in bed. Suddenly I wake and realize that Santa forgot to fill the kids’ stockings. There are no gifts, no wrappings, no bows. They’ll be up in a few hours. They’ll pad out of their bedrooms to the Christmas tree with hopeful little faces and discover that Santa didn’t come this year.

The same dream. Every. Single. Year. 

For whatever reason, I have a terrible fear that I won’t create the perfect holiday.

FIRST THINGS FIRST: THE FOOD

The seasonal festivities are launched with Thanksgiving dinner, hosted by yours truly. I prepare for days leading up to the event, usually accompanied by tears and cursing (I do the cursing, not the crying). Every year I vow, “Never again!” but by the time I’m halfway through the meal, basking in accolades, I’m planning how I can kick it up a notch the next time.

The reason I stress so much is, of course, due to my perfectionism. This year it was the pumpkin pies. 

Though I carefully covered the hand-crimped edges of the pies for THE ENTIRE BAKING PROCESS, each pie came out of the oven with a half-burned crust. Maybe I wouldn’t be so obsessive if I hadn’t used fresh-roasted pumpkins, the flesh carefully scooped from the hot shells and forced through a potato ricer, then lovingly mixed and poured into my made-from-scratch crusts, the edges of which were adorned with tiny fall leaves, complete with etched veins. The pies tasted delicious, but each compliment was batted away with, “Do you not SEE the burned parts?” 

Let me tell you how to suck the enjoyment out of your guests’ meal: refuse to accept compliments. Who wants to spend Thanksgiving with a neurotic chef? 

My very public humiliation: burned edges.
AND THEN THERE’S THE TREE

Later today I’ll put up the tree. It’s the same one we’ve had for a decade. It’s the right height, fullness, width. The branches are strong enough to hold my heaviest ornaments. It’s the perfect shade of green. It used to be pre-lit but the lights burned out and I replaced them with spools of warm LEDs. For years I’ve searched for a suitable replacement—an easy-to-assemble, already-lighted tree. But the newer models just aren’t right.

Last year it went like this: after I assembled the tree, I decided I didn’t like its location, so I dragged it across the hardwood floor. Not far—maybe four feet; still not quite perfect. But it moved so swimmingly that I continued to drag the tree (rather than disassemble and move it properly). Except by now I’d reached the area rug. So I negotiated the flimsy stand onto the low shag, then got down on all fours to push from the base. Just so you know, a Christmas tree cannot be pushed across a carpet. The base began to buckle—which I didn’t realize until I’d stood to pull the tree toward me. It fell onto me, scratching my arms and jabbing into my eye. 

After returning from Urgent Care, I decided to string the lights. I wanted a brightly lit, twinkling tree, so I painstakingly wrapped each strand around each branch as I circled the tree. More scratching of the arms, but it would be worth it. I got three-quarters of the way done and realized I was out of lights.

Here you might think, “Big deal. Go to Home Depot and get more lights.” Nay nay—my lights are from Balsam Hill. Gorgeous, ridiculously expensive, and not something I cared to reorder due to poor mathematical skills. And I CERTAINLY wasn’t going to have a Christmas tree with mismatched lights. 

I’m sure you know where this is going—I ripped off the lights and had to redo the entire thing.

THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM

As with everything that goes wrong with anyone’s life, I blame my mother. She created the most magical Christmas mornings. My sister and I continue to hold the expectation of a perfect Christmas. Sometimes we meet the mark, sometimes not so much. 

It might be time for me to let go of my expectations. My kids aren’t little anymore. It probably doesn’t matter if I can’t find quince preserves for the cheese platter or the ornaments don’t hang perfectly from the tree (I like them to gently sway for passers-by). Maybe I’ll deliberately place the strawberries next to the raspberries on the fruit plate (I’m sure you know, two red fruits should be separated by a fruit of another color—blueberries, or slices of bananas sprinkled with cinnamon sugar). Perhaps I’ll purchase store-bought bows, instead of wrapping multiple colors of coordinating curling ribbon around each perfectly wrapped package. 

I get it—I do. Intellectually, I completely understand that if I’m going to enjoy the holidays, I need to set aside my perfectionist tendencies. I’ll have more fun, the kids will have more fun… They’ll stop referring to me as “the big angry head.” I’m not like this the rest of the year; I don’t feel the compulsion to make people happy or comfortable or create the perfect home. So what gives? 

I think that’s it—I feel like I fall short for the rest of the year, and maybe I can make it up in the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Be the perfect mom, the gracious hostess, the thoughtful friend.

You know what? I’ve just made a decision: This year will be different. This is the year I will *gasp* delegate.

Who knows… With enough therapy, I might even be able to replace my Christmas tree.

What about you? Anyone else suffer from Seasonal Neurosis? Leave your stories in the comment section below!