Gwen Hernandez

Author of romantic suspense. Scrivener expert.

The travel tree

pic of Bermuda airportI love to travel. I will forgo a new car, a fancy house, eating out, and an updated wardrobe for the chance to visit somewhere new. On many of our trips, we’ve bought a Christmas ornament to adorn what I call our Travel Tree.

Looking at the tree is a visual reminder of our travels over the years, and it always makes me smile.

Here are a few of my favorite ornaments from places we’ve gone specifically during the winter holiday for vacation. (We tend to alternate between visiting family and going somewhere new.) And while I was going through old travel photos, I noticed that we apparently like to put our boys in stocks for Christmas, so I added those pics too. ;-)

Do you have a favorite tradition from this time of year? Do you tend to stay home for the holidays or travel?

(click any photo to enlarge)

Making connections (or Six degrees of Rudyard Kipling)

group of wordsHave you ever learned of a new-to-you word, historic event, interesting fact, or famous person only to see a reference to it again within days?

In school, I loved being able to make those types of connections between classes, especially if they were in different disciplines. Now I find them all over the place.

For example, I was watching Prison Break⁠1 a few weeks ago and one of the characters mentions that he stole a baseball card collection that included a Honus Wagner, not realizing it was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. That one card bumped his crime up to grand larceny, which carries a much heavier sentence than petty theft.

The name Honus Wagner wasn’t really that important—and given a month or two I would have forgotten it—but they made a bit of a deal out of it, so it stuck with me beyond the episode. A week later I was reading The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry for my book club and the main character likens a rare copy of Poe’s Tamerlane to a Honus Wagner baseball card.⁠2

I swear, it was like having a slot machine hit the jackpot. My brain went bing, bing, bing and I got a little thrill down my spine. (I did manage to resist jumping up and down and screaming.)

It happened again a few days later. I’m currently reading What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes for research and personal interest. A few days ago in an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.⁠3, Agent Ward was reading Marlantes’ other book, Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War. Just a week earlier, his mention would have gone right over my head.

In the book I’m reading, Marlantes mentions Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Tommy.”⁠4 Not familiar with this poem—or any of Kipling’s work, though I knew his name—I looked it up online. The third stanza refers to the British soldiers in their red coats:

But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll.

Thin red line. Wait, like the movie with Jim Caviezel and every other famous actor of the day who wasn’t in Saving Private Ryan that year (1998)? Why, yes. Turns out the book by James Jones, on which the movie was based, was named for the line in the Kipling poem.

Bing, bing, bing.

I liked “Tommy,” so I started reading about the poet. As I learned more about the context in which he wrote, I found myself even more interested in his work. I put book of Kipling’s work on hold at the library, and when I went to pick it up today the woman told me they’re hosting a Kipling program in a few months.

I almost laughed. The connections never stop. Things I’ve never heard of are suddenly everywhere.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace popped up in both book club readings and in a friend’s Twitter feed within a three week span.

Two summers ago on a tour of the UK, we visited the Lake District in Wales. A week later I unwittingly read a historical romance where the hero went to the Lake District in Wales…

These connections enrich the experience of reading, watching, living. They’re one of the reasons I love learning and exploring so much. For me, it’s not about feeling smart, but about finding a commonality of experience in unexpected places.

Have you made any interesting connections lately?


1 Season 1, episode 19 “The Key”

2 Chapter 2, page unknown since I was reading electronically

3 Season 1, episode 2 “0-8-4”

4 Page 87

(Book) clubbing

image of people reading togetherSomehow, despite being an avid reader for most of my life, I’ve never belonged to a book club.

I used to read “book club fiction” and literary fiction, mainly because I thought I was supposed to, not necessarily because I enjoyed it (though there were a few gems). Looking back, I think some of those books would have been a lot more interesting if I’d had people to talk them over with when I was done.

When we moved to the Boston area this summer, I figured joining my local military spouses’ book club would be a good way to meet other readers and force myself to sample outside of my usual literary fare. Turns out, it offers that and more.

Aside from the shared experience of having read the same book, I love getting other people’s perspectives. When they talk about what they did or didn’t like—or how they felt about a particular aspect of the book—I pick up things I didn’t notice during my own reading.

As a writer, I’m better able to articulate what bothers me—or works for me—than I was before I started writing. It also means I notice things that I didn’t before. Hopefully, this perspective lets me add something valuable to the conversation (though I haven’t yet “outed” myself as a writer).

Reading for a group discussion changes how I read. I generally devour a book, often in only a day or two. But when I’m reading for book club, I slow down a bit, take notes on things that might be interesting to talk about with the group, and think a little more deeply about the book’s effect on me.

Normally if I start a title and can’t get into it, I’ll quit reading. But for the club, I try to finish every book. Sometimes I’m glad I did. Other times, not so much.

I like that the group discussion solidifies the story or topic in my mind and takes me deeper. This is especially nice when the book contained a world, subject matter, or set of characters that I enjoyed, but it can also give me a new take on a book I didn’t connect with.

It’s kind of like looking at reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, and then following up with questions or discussion points for the reviewer. But in a friendly way, with appetizers on hand. ;-)

Someday I’d love to be part of a romance book club so I can discuss the books I love most with others who feel the same way. But I’m having fun meeting new people and stretching my reading boundaries beyond romance and research.

Have you ever been part of a book club? What did you like/dislike about it?

Thanks for a good life

Happy Thanksgiving image

I like Thanksgiving. Unlike the über-materialistic-buy-buy-buy madness of the four weeks that follow, Thanksgiving encourages us to focus on being grateful for the people and things we already have in our lives.

Who doesn’t enjoy gadgets and clothes and vacations and a nice house? But I don’t think they make us happy. Not really. (Okay, well, travel makes me pretty damn happy, but it’s best when I’m not alone.)

I’m most grateful for the things I can’t buy:

– My family and friends

– Good health

– The freedom to pursue the career I want

Boys with clown faces

Seriously, that’s it. That’s all I need. I could even live without the last one as long as I had the first two. Though I’d rather not. ;-)

My iPhone might make my life easier, and even more fun, but I’d never trade it for my husband or one of my kids, or even a friend. Honest!

You laugh, but the rat race that so many of us are on because we feel like we have to have that car or live in that house or wear those clothes—just to impress a bunch of people who don’t love us—forces us to give up our time with those who do love us.

When my first son was born I really, really wanted to stay home with him, but I couldn’t because we had bills to pay. It never—not once—occurred to me that we could adjust our lifestyle to lower our expenses so I wouldn’t have to work.

(BTW, I’m not saying that staying at home is the right thing to do, only that it was the right thing to do for me.)

By the time I had my second son, we had been introduced to authors like Stephen R. Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) and Thomas J. Stanley (The Millionaire Next Door), and we were thinking very differently about our money, our lives, and what matters.

I had quit my job to start a consulting business and wanted to continue working from home. We sold both of our newer cars and paid cash for an old van. I drove my husband to work on days I needed the car. We cut down eating out to once or twice a month at cheap restaurants. We budgeted everything down to the penny (still do).

Best thing we ever did. Tightening the belt doesn’t feel good—it’s hard to cut back on the lifestyle you’re used to—but it was worth it to be home with my babies.

Boys standing in the rain

It was worth it again in 2008 when I quit my 55+ hour/week job as a manufacturing engineer. That time was even harder because we had a big house in a nice neighborhood—the kind where everyone is trying to keep up with the Jones’—new cars, and a trip to Europe planned.

But we had learned our lesson. Since we’d been living below our means, we were able to get creative with our budget, postpone the trip to Europe for two years, and keep the cars and house.

The stress levels in our house plummeted. My kids finally had someone at home to help with their homework and pick them up from sports practice. My husband and I weren’t both getting home late and scrambling to put dinner on the table. We no longer had to spend our two precious days off each week running all the errands we couldn’t get done while working.

There’s something uniquely satisfying about stepping off the treadmill, backing away from the culture that tells us we need more, more, more to be happy, and refusing to be owned by the things we own.

We had less money and less of “the good life” and a lot more happiness.

Which would you prefer?

Boys sitting on grass facing away

A simpler lifestyle requires less cash. When you need less cash, you suddenly have more freedom in the work you choose.

Sure, we all need enough money for the basics, and not everyone can afford a safe roof over their head or good, healthy food on the table. But if you can, I’d encourage you to think about what you’re truly grateful for this year.

Does the life you live let you enjoy those people and things that matter most?

If not, are there things you’d be willing to give up so that you can enjoy them?

I hope I didn’t get too preachy, but I feel very strongly about making the most of this life we’re given. At the end, none of us will care if we’re surrounded by cars and computers, wearing fancy clothes and lying on satin sheets. We’re going to want our loved ones at our side.

I hope you have yours by your side this holiday.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Why I read

Image of woman using laptop inside giant book

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.
~ Stephen King

You can find amazing things between the covers—actual or virtual—of a book.

I’ve been a book lover since I first sounded out the words detailing Spot the dog’s adventures. As an only child with lots of time on my hands, reading offered adventure, romance, education, and thrills during long, boring summers (and pretty much any other time of year).

I became one of those awkward teenagers whose friends made fun of her for knowing weird, “big” words—though not necessarily how to pronounce them—like gauche and risqué. By age sixteen, I had solved dozens of mysteries with Nancy Drew, visited exotic places full of intrigue with Mary Stewart’s independent heroines, run with spies, chased down terrorists, lived in worlds of pure fantasy, and traveled in time.

Not that I spent every moment buried in a book. I’ve always loved to travel, explore, hang out with friends, and be active in the real world. But reading was by far my favorite way to fill downtime. During the summers in junior high and high school—before I could drive—I would burn through 10-14 books a week.

Thank you library.

I can still read like that, but I rarely do. There are too many other things I want and need to do.

And yet, as a writer, it’s imperative that I continue to read for more than research or obligation. Not only because I still love stories, and they soothe me, but because they refill my creative well.

As a reward for finishing the first draft of Blind Ambition (Book 2 in my Men of Steele series)—insert happy dance here!—I bought Joanna Bourne’s latest book, Rogue Spy. [If you love history, romance, intrigue, spies, danger, daring and exciting characters, and twisty plots all wrapped in prose so beautiful it makes you want to cry, you must check out her books. I wrote more about her here.]

Twenty percent of the way in, I was struck with the need to take notes for the book I’m working on next. Something about the way the hero viewed his world—through the eyes of a painter and a spy—got me thinking about how my own hero must see his world—as a photographer and a sniper.

I know this stuff. I’ve studied it. But sometimes seeing it done well is better than reading a craft book, attending a lecture, or taking a class on the topic. These are lessons I already know, but reading a good book can inspire me to see my own work in a different light, and apply those lessons in a new way.

The only way to become a better writer is to write. Absolutely. But writers also need to read. Reading is what fed my passion to write in the first place. It’s where I acquired my intuitive sense of story structure and narrative and character.

Reading inspires me as a writer the way a painter might be inspired by walking through a museum.

Reading a really good book also just makes me happy. :-)

That’s why I read. What about you?

Snow and showdowns

Snow on field and bare trees

We had our first “sticky” snow of the season overnight. It didn’t last long, and I know it’s just the beginning, but it still made me smile. Especially since the sun came out.

If you’re working on NaNoWriMo this year, let me know how it’s going.

I have my own goal for November—to finish book two in my Men of Steele series—and I’m really close. I’m struggling with the final showdown, but I keep reminding myself that I just have to get something down on the page so my brain can start figuring out how to make it better. It helps.

Whatever you’re working on this month, good luck!

Brain on fire

Pic of woman with ideas around her headMy brain is on fire.

In a good way.

I’m not officially participating in NaNoWriMo this year, but I’m still writing as much as possible. One of the benefits of working on my book every day is something I’ve noticed during NaNo in years past: The more I write, the more ideas come to me at all times of the day. Last night I even had a dream that rehashed the scene I was working on, something that rarely happens to me.

I love this state.

The joy, this constant flow of ideas, is how I felt when I first started writing nearly six(!) years ago. I thought about my characters while walking the dog, jogging, driving, shopping, eating, sleeping, cooking… At any time, I might get hit with the solution to a troubling scene, an idea for how to make the stakes higher or deepen the emotional impact, or a great twist.

Sadly, this phenomenon also works in reverse. Worse, I’ve tested the theory several times. ;-) The less I write, the less motivation I have to write, the more time passes between great ideas and thoughts of my story, and so I write even less. I sit down and stare at the page with no idea where to go next.

That loss of excitement and flow is the reason I signed up for NaNo the second time (and 3rd, 4th, 5th). To remind myself that consistency was the key to getting my writerly brain back, banishing the infernal internal editor who blocks me, and rediscovering the joy of telling stories.

It also reminds me that I can write way more words than I think I can.

When it comes down to it—like with anything—the key (for me, anyway) is to keep working at it. When it’s a slog, I brainstorm, free write, or reread parts of the story that I’ve forgotten. I do research or write backstory scenes to get to know my characters better. Anything to keep my head in the game.

Anything to keep my brain on fire.

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