I figured that title would get your attention. After my last blog was shared over 3,000 times, I’ve been a little worried I had to follow up with something catchy, something profound, something to make all 3,000 of you buy my latest book, Heart Of The Game. I thought and thought and thought but came up with nothing.
You see, most of the time I’m not that poignant. I’m just a boi who likes stories. I like characters. I like romance. Long before I ever had any intention of writing novels, I loved to read them. One summer in middle school I found The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. Did you know she (yes, she was also a woman writing as man) was 15 when she started writing the book? Well she spoke to me as a teen. I loved that book so much I carried around with me. I had a paperback copy that fit in my back pocket, and I carried it around the neighborhood and would just sit down and read little snippets. Part of a page got ripped out at one point. The spine cracked, the cover got bent, but I loved that book so much I didn’t want to be outside its world for too long, so I kept it close at all times.
I’ve always been that way with my books. I disappear into them. I sink in so deep I forget what time it is, what season it is, what city I’m in. When they end, I mourn them. I often have “memories” that I never really experienced except from the point of view of some exquisitely drawn character. I’ve seen so clearly places I’ve never actually visited, and I suffer scars that never felt a wound. I don’t read books; I inhabit them. I love my books like a child loves a stuffed animal, and if stories work like Velveteen Rabbits, I have loved more than a few sets of characters into full existence.
Yesterday, I choose to return to one of those old favorites, a classic. In honor of Katherine V. Forrest’s birthday, I picked up Curious Wine again. I don’t know how many times I’ve read that book since college, but it’s one I just sink into like an exhausted person might fall into a feather bed. From the opening pages, from the first glorious appearance of Lane Christianson, I am a swoony puddle of romantic mush. “Your looking is like touching.”
Suddenly the boisterous, playful baseball boi is big ole girl longing for candlelight and a bubble bath. And I am in touch enough with my feminine side to give it what it asks for.
I posted that photo and immediately got a comment saying “If you drop that book in the water, you are dead to me.” It was from my editor Lynda Sandoval, and she quickly added a “just kidding.” And she was just kidding. I’ve been to her house. I’ve seen the books everywhere! But the comment still got me thinking about the idea that some books are just too precious to risk getting wet or bent or dirty. I get that as a way of honoring them, of holding them up as the precious treasure they are, but for me a good book isn’t like a piece of jewelry or fine china. A good book is much more like a beautiful woman, something to touched, explored, held close no matter where you are. To enshrine a set a books high on some shelf like a showpiece seems somehow akin to having Halle Berry and not taking her to bed for fear you might muss up her hair.
It’s fine that people collect books, that they save them and protect them and get obsessive about keep them pristine, but at the same time, please don’t feel the need to do so for my sake. Not with my books. That’s not how I’d like my books to be cherished.
I don’t want to write the book you give a prominent place in your bookcase. I want to write the book that stays on your bedside table for so long someone uses it as a coaster.
I want to write the book you bend the spine on because you stayed up reading so late you just set it beside you in bed and ended up rolling over on it.
I don’t want to write the book you never bend or dog ear the pages of. I want you to fold down the pages and star the margins of passages you want to go back and read again later.
I don’t want to write the book you make people wash their hands before they touch. I want to write the book you get Cheetos on because you can’t put down it down long enough to eat a real meal.
I want to write the book you get sand and sunscreen on because you took it to the beach and got so absorbed in it the tide snuck up on you.
I don’t want my titles to be collected for collector’s sake. I don’t dare hope to achieve the longevity and beloved status that Katherine Forrest has. I don’t expect to ever write a book on par with Curious Wine, but if some time down the road, someone who isn’t even born yet finds a copy of Heart Of The Game and thinks they’ve stumbled onto a lesbian romance classic, I hope they won’t be afraid to go ahead and take it into the bubble bath with them.
There’d be no better compliment to me than if readers let my characters into their hearts do deeply they couldn’t help getting them a little wet or dirty in the process.
So the news the last few weeks has been kind of bad. Between the bigot who blasted my family on Facebook and trans kids being bullied to death and Indiana going bat shit crazy, it’s easy to get caught up in our national back swing. Never mind that rapid social progress is always followed by conservative blowback. Never mind that any seasoned activist will tell you it’s always two steps forward and one step back. Never mind that for every crazy politician spouting hate there’s two more moving closer to full inclusion. It still hurts.
I’ve been out for fourteen years. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but I still feel the burn of shame in my cheeks when I hear a pastor rail against my family. My stomach clenches when I have to explain to my son why he’s not a boy scout. My shoulders still tighten in anticipation every time someone I don’t know asks me what kind of books I write. It’s not that I think these people are right. It’s not that I’ve bought into the bigotry. It’s not that I lack the courage of my convictions. It’s the opposite. It still hurts because it’s personal.
To the man who railed against queers on my uncle’s Facebook wall and then said he wasn’t talking about anyone personally, yes, yes you were. To the governor of Indiana who says he wasn’t motivated by a desire to hurt anyone specifically, yes, yes you were. To people who say, “that’s so gay,” then say they didn’t mean “gay,” yes, yes you did. Your pretending like you didn’t mean anything personal doesn’t change the fact that those things are personal. We are people. I am a person. My wife is a person. My son is a person. My uncle is a person. Our church members are people. Your words, your laws, your discrimination are all personal to each and every person who is gay, or questioning, or loves someone who is gay or questioning. We are real people with real feelings (and real dollars to spend) and real families to care for. Every hurtful thing you say about gays and lesbians is about real people.
But you know what? The responses are personal, too. From my uncle, Mr. Blue-collar-union-electrician and all his blue-collar union friends who verbally beat down the Facebook bigot, they are real people, too. The CEOs who pulled their companies out of Indiana, they are people. The people who pull their own kids from scouting, or create alternative activities that our family is welcome to join, those are real people too. The students who march and hold candles for trans kids they never met, they are people. The straight man who read Heart of the Game because he likes books about baseball, lesbian characters or not, he’s a real person. The women at my church who clipped out an article about my book in the local paper, they are people. They are good people. Honorable people. Loving people. They aren’t gay, or necessarily liberal, or highly educated. They don’t live in trendy neighborhoods or always know the pc terms. But they are people who take our feelings, our rights, our lives seriously. They take issues that aren’t their own and they make them personal.
That’s why we’re going to win this fight, why we’re already winning it. To us, the big tent collective of not only queers but also anyone who’s ever loved a queer, this time it really is personal.
I know I owe you a blog, and I want to write it, really I do, but some crazy lesbian romance writers have descended on my house! Maybe you recognize them:
Yes, that’s Melissa Brayden on the left and Georgia Beers on the right. So now there’s wineries to be toured, food to be consumed, mischief to be made, and selfies to be taken. But in the midst of all that, Heart Of The Game became available in the Kindle store yesterday. I know I have told you all several times you can get the Kindle compatible ebook directly from Bold Strokes Books, but I’ve also heard from a lot of you who like to shop the Kindle store. If you’re in the latter group, now’s your chance. You can get your copy of Heart Of The Game right here, right now! I sure hope you’ll give it a read and let me know what you think.
In the meantime I’m going to get back to those selfies.
I am proud and seriously excited to announce that Heart Of The Game is now available in from Bold Strokes Books! This is my eighth book, and it never gets any less thrilling (or nerve-wracking) to know that the characters I have poured my heart into for over a year are now in your very capable hands.
The book actually went live last Friday, ahead of schedule, and I want to thank everyone who’s dropped me a line saying they already got their copy. If you have gotten yours yet, don’t fear. Just go on over to the website, where you can buy it in print or download it in epub (iPad), Mobi (Kindle), or PDF (all the things) format.
I know I am biased, but I think the timing of this release couldn’t be better. For most of us in the United States (and parts of Europe) harsh winter weather has dragged on for entirely too long. We are all ready for the smell of fresh cut grass, warming rays of sunlight, and yes, a little bit of baseball. And we’re in luck because Spring Training games started yesterday, and the hope of a new season, a fresh start, and even an early taste of summer is in the air. All those things are also in Heart Of The Game, along with a sweet romance that also happens to offer you a good look at a new season, a fresh start, and an early taste of summer.
If you’re not sold yet (why? why? I ask you) I hope you’ll do me a favor and at least go check out the full first chapter excerpt of the book on the Bold Strokes website, because even if you don’t end up falling in love with Duke and Molly the way I did, it would sure make me happy if you at least got to meet them for a little while.
And once again, thank you to everyone who has already bought the book. I appreciate it greatly, and now I start the long, nervous process of pacing the floor, wringing my hands, and waiting to hear what you think of my new baby!
We are (less than) one week from the official release of Heart Of The Game! I cannot wait! Can you feel the excitement radiating from me through the interwebs? Or is that just static electricity from the winter weather? Either way, spring is coming (someday), and so is baseball, and so is the latest lesbian romance novel from yours truly. You can pre-order Heart Of The Game now right here. And if you aren’t sure yet about wanting to buy it (why not?), you can read on below where I share with you the first scene of the book (after the pre-game, which I shared last week).
This is the opening scene of the present-day part of the book, and our whole cast of major players are here for your introduction. I sure hope you like them!
Top Of The First
You Can’t Win ’em All if You Don’t Win he First One
Sarah Duke stood in the first row of the stands with nothing but a low green wall separating her from edge of the field. She could have easily stepped over if she’d had to, but she didn’t. Instead she ran her fingers slowly over the press pass hanging from a lanyard around her neck. The little badge was her ticket to virtually any part of Busch Stadium. The small, laminated index card granted her access to even the field itself during batting practice. A thrill coursed up her spine as the security guard swung the gate open wide. She nodded gratefully in his direction, but the emotions clogging her throat prevented her from actually saying “thank you.”
Taking a deep breath, she stepped through the doorway. Her foot hovered only a second on the rising cloud of old memories before landing firmly on the clay of the warning track. She stepped slowly forward until she was almost directly behind home plate, enjoying the crunch of the dry ground beneath her feet. Then looking down, she kicked up a little cloud of burnt orange dust simply because she liked the way it settled across the toes of her shiny black shoes. It didn’t matter that she’d polished them earlier that morning. Nothing ever looked as good as it did with a thin sheen of ballpark on it.
She playfully scuffed up another little cloud of dirt, then glanced over her shoulder, still half expecting someone to scoop her up and carry her away, but no one paid her any attention. Not security, not the trainers or the grounds crew working at the edge of the field, not even the players gathered around the batting cage. Everyone was right where they were expected to be, diligently performing the task they’d been assigned, playing their part in this magnificent play, and now she was one of them. It might have taken twenty-six years from that first game with her father, but she’d earned her spot on this field. No matter what anyone else said or thought, she belonged here.
The crack of a bat drew her attention long enough to confirm the ball would land safely away from her, but, like a child, her focus wandered quickly to the next amazing detail. Stepping forward a few paces to the side of the batting cage and into foul territory, she crouched down between the dugout and the back stop pretending to eye the pitcher or the batter. Then, hiding another smile, she bent low and ran her fingers through the short grass. She relished the prick of the soft blades against her palms and wondered if there was any scent in the world more invigorating than freshly cut Kentucky bluegrass.
Behind her, the crowd filed into beautiful Busch Stadium. She could hear them now, their jubilant, anticipatory sounds filtering in through her sense of awe as they all clamored to get a better view of last batters to warm up. Those masses she’d waded through so many times were to her back now, and every person in the crowd would love to be in her shoes. The glee was almost too much to contain. She snatched up a single blade of grass, then, standing, released her grip and watched the grass flutter to the ground. She wanted to do it again, but press pass or not, she shouldn’t play around out there so close to such an important game.
Shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun, she turned and took in the mammoth stands of the stadium rising red and gray until she had to tilt her head back so far she almost toppled over. Expected attendance for the Cardinals’ home opener was over forty-two thousand people, teeming mobs of fans decked out in a sea of red and white. Already, hordes of young, and young at heart, stacked five or six deep around the wall closest to the dugout, each one jostling for a better position. They held hats and balls, trading cards and jerseys, in their outstretched arms as they called to the players still warming up. An autograph wasn’t likely forthcoming at this stage, since the players were as keyed up as the kids, but she didn’t blame the fans for trying anyway. She’d been covering the club every day for the last four weeks of spring training, and she still got the urge to ask for an autograph when one of her favorites brushed past on his way to the clubhouse. Of course, it wouldn’t do much for her credibility as a serious sports journalist to ask an interviewee to scrawl his name across her notebook, but she still thought about it occasionally.
Members of the grounds crew bustled around her as they began to clear the field. The final players and coaches had cleared out, and the crew was hauling away the batting cages. She recognized her cue to leave. Glancing at her note pad once more, she confirmed again that she already had everything she needed. She’d been at the park for six hours already. She’d submitted her pre-game comments half an hour ago, and they were likely already up on the website. The clubhouse and players were now off-limits to the media as everyone entered their final warm-ups. She had nothing left to do until she started her in-game Twitter feed once the Cardinals took the field. Maybe she’d comment on the Opening Day ceremonies, but even those wouldn’t officially begin for another thirty minutes. Eschewing her formal seat in the press box for the excitement down below, she decided to spend a few minutes being a spectator.
She flashed her badge, and once more the security guard swung the gate open wide. Ambling into the stands, she threaded her way through the crowd of boys around the dugout. Their numbers had dwindled significantly with the end of batting practice, but a handful of enthusiastic holdouts remained. They leaned on the rail and called out, “Hey, mister! Hey, mister!” at the batboy or the trainer or the security guard, anything to get a leg up on the competition. She admired their commitment. They all went after what they wanted, ceaseless in their efforts.
All except one of them.
A few feet back, a lone child sat in the seat closest to the dugout, but didn’t seem to pay any attention to the scrum gathered there. He was dressed like the rest of them in his white jersey and blue jeans. His red baseball cap and round glasses shaded his face, nearly covering the smattering of freckles across his nose. He chewed lightly on the end of his pencil while he balanced a notebook on his knees, a steady look of concentration creasing his otherwise youthful features. Why wasn’t he clamoring to be noticed like the others? He didn’t even glance in their direction when their noise level rose at the sight of a player entering the dugout. Instead his eagle-eyed focus remained centered on the outfield, or perhaps something just beyond.
She scooted closer and scanned the direction he was watching. There were no players in the outfield. Had something on the Jumbotron caught his eye? No, he wasn’t looking up quite that high. Was it the fans over the outfield wall? Curiosity got the better of her. She crept closer and bent down behind him, trying to match his line of sight. Maybe it was her reporter’s instincts, or maybe she was nosy, but she had to find out what could hold a little boy’s focus in such a chaotic environment.
His shoulders tensed and he turned slowly, suspiciously to look up at her, his little brow furrowed. “Am I in your seat?”
“No.” She straightened quickly and stepped back, embarrassed to have been caught trying to scoop a child. “You’re fine.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, uncertainly. “I can move.”
“No, really.” She laughed nervously as she realized how creepy she probably seemed to him. “I’m sorry. I should get back to work.”
His eyes widened in sudden recognition. “You’re Sarah Duke.”
“Yes, I am.” She squared her shoulders, inordinately pleased at having been recognized publicly for the first time and surprised that it came from a kid. Some of the players didn’t even know her yet, and she’d covered them for weeks. Of course some of them ignored her on purpose either because she was new or a woman, but her response remained the same in both cases. Hard work, dedication, and raw skill had answered every question ever raised about her over the years. It would prove the naysayers wrong here, too. This boy didn’t seem to require any convincing, though.
“I read your column on MajorLeagues.com this morning,” the boy said with a seriousness exceeding his age.
“Yeah? What did you think?”
“I think Molina is going to have a good year, too. Maybe MVP kind of stuff.”
She chuckled. “Glad we’re on the same page.”
“It’s bad luck to have to start against Cary Pistas, though, with the wind blowing in from right field.”
Duke glanced out to the outfield wall. While the flags on the third base side were barely stirring, the ones on the right side of the field were blowing harder, directly back toward the pitcher’s mound.
“Huh. You’re right, and it’s chilly, too, which will deaden the ball.”
He nodded thoughtfully, then flipped open his notebook and scratched a few marks in the top corner.
She peeked over his shoulder to see him add “game time temp” to an already elaborate heading with the date, start time, and opposing team. All things she’d already made note of on her own tablet.
“That’s not an autograph book.” She stated the now obvious.
“No, it’s my game notes.”
“Then you better add starting pitchers, too,” she said, amused once again by his seriousness. “When you review it next time the Pirates come to town, you’ll remember who started each game.”
“Thanks.” A sparkle of light shone in his dark eyes beneath lenses a little too big for his face. “Do you think Ben Cooper will have his good stuff today?”
She considered the question and then glanced at her watch. “You know, now actually might be a good time to get some inside info. Maybe I should head out to the bullpen and do some scouting.”
His shoulders slumped slightly, and a frown pulled at his smooth face. “Yeah, okay. Thank you for talking to me.”
He looked like a sad little puppy who’d been told to sit and stay. She wanted to pat him on his head. Instead, she arched an eyebrow questioningly. “You wouldn’t want to put a few notes in your book, would you?”
He hopped up eagerly. “I could come, too?”
“Well, it’s too late to go down on the field, but I know a good place out of the way where we could peek into the bullpen and make our own assessment of warm-ups if you want.”
“Yes ma’am.” He jumped up and grabbed his things eagerly, his excitement magnifying hers. She remembered being that age and loving the game so very much, but not being seen as part of it, or even worthy of having an opinion on the subject yet. She would’ve loved to talk baseball with anyone who would listen, much less someone who had inside information. Okay, maybe she was showing off a little bit, too, but she’d finally earned her dream job, with the access every kid craves. Who could blame her for wanting to flaunt that to someone who could appreciate it? She indicated a direction and happily loped on alongside the boy as he moved excitedly toward the end of their section.
She was about to steer him into the tunnel under the stadium when a voice sent her skidding to a stop.
“Joseph Landon Grettano, freeze right there.”
And freeze they did. The hair on her arms stood on end and the muscles in her neck tensed instantly as if a cold blast of artic wind had raked across her back. The boy whirled around, and his profuse apologies starting to flow immediately.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to run off. I got excited. It won’t happen again. You can trust me to sit closer on my own. I promise. I just, I met Sarah Duke.”
Way to throw me under the bus, kid. She turned around slowly to see a young woman raise her hand, cutting the boy off mid-sentence.
Her sun-kissed skin stood out against her white jersey, a bold contrast to the dark hair flowing freely down her back. Her stunning brown eyes smoldered, making her look older than she probably was. The curly-haired child perched on her hip didn’t do anything to highlight her youthful features either. Still, in another place, a beach, or a bar, she might have passed for a co-ed if not for the expression on her face, which couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than that of an angry mother.
The boy, Joseph Landon Grettano apparently, shifted quietly from one foot to the other as he awaited his sentencing.
“I trusted you, and you broke my trust. It’s time for you to come back with us until you can prove yourself to me again.”
“Yes ma’am,” he mumbled, hanging his head.
Duke felt guilty for getting him in trouble. She hadn’t thought her offer through, but how could she know he wasn’t supposed to run around the stadium? It wasn’t her fault he didn’t ask his mom first.
She quietly slid back, hoping to fade, unnoticed into the crowd.
“And you,” the woman said, slowly, deliberately turning her focus. “Who do you think you are?”
“Um,” she glanced down at her press pass, suddenly unsure of the answer to that question, “I’m Sarah Duke. I’m a sportswriter.”
“A sportswriter who lures little boys into dark tunnels?”
“No. I mean, yeah, but”—that sounded horrible—“not like that.”
“Seriously? You try to abscond with my child without telling me, then lead him into the underbelly of a sports stadium to some place I don’t have access to and cannot see.” She waved her free arm so wildly it flipped her hair over her shoulder dramatically. “And all you can say for yourself is, it’s ‘not like that’?”
“Uh, well.” She squirmed much the same way the boy had. Could anyone in the world stand a mother’s scolding when they knew she was right? “Look, I’m sorry. He was sitting alone and—”
“He was not alone,” she snapped. “I was ten rows back, and I had my eye on him the whole time.”
“Okay, fine. I didn’t know.”
“You didn’t know anyone one was watching him so you thought you could take him?” She shifted the younger child to her other hip while giving Duke a moment to realize how bad that sounded. “I should call the police on you.”
That was just what she needed on Opening Day. “I said I’m sorry.”
“When it comes to my kids, sorry doesn’t cut it. What were you thinking?”
“I wasn’t thinking, obviously.” She shrugged. “I’m a massive moron who wanted to do something nice for a kid who seemed, I don’t know, smarter, or more together, or just better than the rest.”
The women’s expression softened, so Duke plowed on. “He asked me some intelligent questions about pitching, so I wanted to show him where the pitchers warmed up. Clearly that was stupid of me.”
“No.” The woman sighed exasperatedly. “That was nice of you. You were stupid not to think he had a mother somewhere who would worry herself sick if he disappeared. You were stupid to think it would be okay for a stranger to take a nine-year-old boy into a tunnel at a sports stadium. You were stupid to—”
“‘Stupid’s bad word,” the child on her hip said around the two fingers in his mouth.
“You’re right, honey.” She paused to kiss him on the forehead, and for one second, her entire being transformed. The tension in her face relaxed. Every line softened as she closed her eyes and pressed her lips tenderly to his smooth skin. Then, as if exhaling all her anger, she blew out a heavy breath and asked, “Sarah Duke, do you have children?”
“No,” she said quickly.
“Then you have no idea what it feels like.”
“What does it feel like?” she asked, captivated by the change in the beautiful woman before her.
The woman raised her eyes, deep, dark eyes awash with fear. “Like I watched you pick up my heart and carry it into a place it might not return from.”
Duke thought she’d been sorry before. She’d certainly felt sorry while getting yelled at, but now with her stomach clenched and her breath caught in her throat, she understood true remorse. “I am so sorry.”
“Fine.” She sounded exasperated and tired.
“Does this mean we can go now?” The older boy asked in a tone that suggested he already knew the answer.
“No,” his mother said. “You’re still ballpark grounded. You’re not to leave my side. Got it?”
The kid looked absolutely crestfallen but managed to mumble, “Yes ma’am.”
“It’s hot dog time?” the younger boy asked, clearly immune to the trouble his brother was in.
“Not until the third inning, honey.” His mom handled the non sequitur gently before she turned back to Duke. “Don’t you have work to do?”
“Yes ma’am,” she replied, then waited, unsure of what she should do. Had she been dismissed? Should she apologize once more? Offer to make it up to them somehow? Or run? Clearly getting out of there was the best option. Something about the woman’s disapproval and her son’s disappointment constricted Duke’s chest. “Okay, then I guess I’ll go. Really, I’m very sorry, to both of you.”
The woman said nothing. She didn’t even acknowledge her retreat. She’d clearly returned her focus to her family, leaving Duke on the outside of the circle.
We’re in the final weeks before the release of my next novel, Heart Of The Game! Today I’m going to give you the first sneak peak of the book. It’s the prologue, so there’s no real set up needed, but by way of introduction, I will say I’m pretty proud of this piece. If you like it, too, why not head on over and pre-order yourself a copy?
The crowd pushed around her, a mass of denim and skin blocking the sun and even, at times, the air. Tall trunks of legs rose past her line of sight, a solid forest uprooted, flowing and shifting like a river and carrying her along. Everyone towered impossibly high and swift around her, a legion of giants, but such is the worldview of every four-year-old. With her small hand engulfed securely by her father’s, she found nothing disconcerting about her inability to see beyond the blue jeans in front of her. She allowed herself to be pulled along in his wake, content for once to be part of this stream of people with him for once. She even looked like him now, almost. Her overalls were only a shade lighter than his pants, and they covered her legs the same way even if they did come up higher and have silver buckles. They also said “Oshkosh.” She liked that word. Her mother had said it when she pointed to the blue label. Her father didn’t have a blue label, but he wore a red shirt like hers. Red like a fire truck, red like a crayon, red like the little bird on her hat. It wasn’t her hat, though. It was Aidan’s, but Aidan was sick, so she got to wear it.
She also got his ticket. “Ticket.” She said the word loudly enough to be heard by her own ears, then float away on the sea of moving trunks behind her. She liked word as much as she liked the slip of paper protruding from her tight fist. She’d seen it at home but hadn’t been allowed to touch it until they’d come into this cavernous hallway. Once in the dim night and the forest of knees, her father had handed it to her. She sensed its importance without understanding its purpose and silently hoped to prove herself worthy of this thing, this ticket.
She felt more than saw their path change. There was a pause, then a step to the left, a few more steps forward, then over. Soon they were near a wall, close enough she could have touched it, but she didn’t. She followed only the denim knees she recognized as his as they turned down another smaller hall. This one wasn’t as crowded. Light slipped in among the legs ahead, and the gray slab walls on either side offered shelter from the pushing, grinding river of bodies. Her father slowed, allowing the tension in their joined arms to slacken, and she scooted up even with him. Gradually the layers of legs before her stepped away, each one leaving more slivers of sunlight for her eyes to adjust to until finally the last of the legs stepped away, revealing the most beautiful sight her young eyes had ever seen.
The enormity of the view seeped in slowly, like the gentle warmth of the setting sun against her cheeks. The path before her descended steeply to a low wall, separating this plain of cold, gray concrete from a vast open field of colors more vibrant than anything she had in her box of crayons. The dirt was a rich shade of orange, but not like an actual orange, burnt, crumbled, and cut through with stark, bold white lines. They offered a dry contrast to the lush green of the grass, which stood bright and deep, rippling into patterns. Rows crossed one another in the faintest shades, lighter or darker, like those left by her mother’s vacuum across their living room carpet. If someone had vacuumed the field, it must have been God. Surely no person could have done something so big and so perfect. Even though the concept of the divine hovered foggy and uncertain in her mind, she knew God lived in the stained glass and tall pipe organ of her church, and she knew instinctively He lived here, too.
Men, or rather, big boys occupied the field. They dotted the richly colored grass, the brilliant white of their clothes signaling to her they were part of the field, or maybe the field belonged to them. They ran about, back and forth, or swung bats. Some of them simply sat in the grass, arms and legs outstretched, bending and straightening languidly. They were playing. The formality of gods blended with the youthfulness of children to draw her closer.
A group of younger children brushed passed her, their hands clutching cotton candy, popcorn, snow cones, but her eyes remained locked on something more compelling than any petty treat. The men on the field had birds on their shirts, red birds, bright and definitive against the white, the same little bird she had on her hat. She drew steadily nearer now, slowly but purposefully inching closer, over the lip of each stair. She’d let go of her father’s hand, but still felt anchored, as if tethered to him. He had brought her here. He wore the red bird, so did those boys in white, and so did she. Her mind made connections loosely, rapidly, freely, but her feet moved to a rhythm set to a reason she could only sense.
She stepped to level ground, the last of the gray concrete beneath her feet, before the low wall, and saw her opening. A little door, a small gate, towering bodies of men shifted all around, but they were dull and faded compared to the sharp pull beyond. She strode with an unnamable confidence now, threading her way nimbly around obstacles too big to pay her any mind. Her foot struck out, both of its own accord and of her deepest wish, then hovered, suspended over the burnt orange clay. Inches from Eden, she halted, then was whisked backward and upward as her father scooped her swiftly into his arms.
“You scared me to death, Sarah. Don’t ever wander off like that again.” The harshness of his words was undercut by both relief and exasperation as he carried her slowly back up the muted gray stairs.
She struggled against his hold, squirming around to see the field over his shoulder, her face scraping against the dark stubble of his beard. “I want to be out there, Daddy.”
“So does everybody else who’s ever picked up a baseball,” he snapped, then sighed. “We all want to be out there, but we’re not allowed.”
“Then why are those boys out there?” She pointed to the players.
He turned slowly toward the direction indicated by her outstretched hand. He stared at the men on the field, his blue eyes seemingly focused on something bigger or farther away than the players in his line of sight. He didn’t speak, and she waited, captivated by the pensiveness in his gaze, the sag of his shoulders, the slight crook at the corners of his lips. He’d always been a giant in her eyes, but for a moment he changed in a way a mythical creature may be timeless, or boundless. They stood, transfixed for what felt like a long time before he sighed heavily. His shoulders dropped and the deep creases along his mouth returned as he turned back to her and said, “Some of those boys are blessed, some of them work harder than all the others along the way. Most of them are both. Either way, they earned the right to go on that field. The rest of us are just lucky to be able to see them play.”
He set her down on the stadium seat, then with a smile even a child could tell was fake asked if she’d like a hot dog.
She ignored the question and tried to focus on the feeling slipping away. “Blessed,” she repeated as she stood on her bright red chair and looked out once more on the field, the colors, the boys, and their play. She didn’t know if she was blessed, but she did understand hard work. If that was what she needed to do to get closer to that game, then that was what she’d do. Somehow those men with the bird on their shirts had earned their spot in this place. She turned to her dad one more time and said, “Someday I’m going to earn it, too.”
First of all, I want to thank Dawn, who won the auction for the first ever copy of Heart Of The Game!
Second, next week is going to consist of a Q&A session about Heart Of The Game. If you have any pre-release questions about the book, please post them in the comments section, or email them to me at Rachel_Spangler@yahoo.com. I will answer anything that doesn’t lead to a spoiler.
And now, on to the central question of today’s blog: What’s in a setting?
Well, sometimes, not too much. Some of my books, like Learning Curve, have a very generic setting. Part of this was purposeful. I wanted it to feel like “Everytown, USA.” Smallish, nondescript, a small college, a small gay bar, cute little houses all in a row. The kind of place every person has been. And I think that worked because I got email from all sorts of people saying they knew exactly which town I was talking about. They had been to that college, they had been to that bar. It amused me, and still does, that something so nondescript could actually carry such strong associations for people.
In other books, like Trails Merge and Spanish Heart, I had to assume most of my readers had little to no knowledge about the settlings I was working within. Small ski hills in Upper Wisconsin and Mediterranean beaches are not places your average American visits often. I had to paint that picture and very carefully draw connections for the reader about how the settling affects the characters and the plot to the point that the setting almost becomes a character itself. There are points in both books where I feel I accomplished this, and times where I probably could have done better, but that awareness of place and the burden of conveying that to the reader never left my mind.
Then came Heart Of The Game. A large portion of the story takes place in baseball stadiums, mostly Busch Stadium in St. Louis. I do have a friend who, as an adult American had never seen a baseball game at all, and that was a learning experience for both of us, but I found that most Americans I talk to have been to a baseball stadium of some sort or another. Many of the people I talked to have very strong memories of attending ballgames as a child. They all have their favorites. They all have their associations. Many of them feel quite strongly about their baseball stadiums, the new ones, the old ones, the places they used to be, the people we used to be in them. Taking on a setting like that is actually a lot of weight for an author to bear.
But you see, I feel that weight, the weight of all those baseball park memories because I share them. I grew up first on the gulf coast of Florida at a time when the only baseball we saw was spring training games. My father would take us out of school to take us to games, Pirates games, Reds games, Cardinals games, and later Yankees games. I saw the places where ball teams were made and ball players were broken. To me they were the real thing. Then when we would go to visit my grandparents in Illinois, and later when we moved there full time, I got my glimpses of the big leagues. I saw my home field. I saw, what to my young eyes appeared to be, a holy church of the game. I remember the first time I learned there was a Catholic Basilica just a couple blocks from Busch stadium. I went inside to find it dull and hollow compared to the collective spirit I felt moving down the road. It wasn’t that I found faith or God empty. I just felt the glory of his creation clearer amid the sun-kissed fields and fresh air and the sea of red and white all moving together with the same hopes. To me that collective basking in the goodness of God’s creation felt more like Christianity at its finest.
But I digress, or do I? To me baseball and faith are hopelessly intertwined, and the more I talk and travel, the more I suspect that viewpoint is not as unusual as I may have initially thought. When my son was born, Susan and I decided that we wanted to show him every baseball stadium in the country before he graduated high school.
To date we have seen ten of them, and everywhere I go people are the same. They want to show you their home field. They want to tell you about their memories there. They want to tell you about their first game. They want to show you their favorite spot, the hidden gem, this thing of beauty. They want more than anything for you to see what they see, to feel what they feel in that place.
And that was my challenge with the setting for Heart Of The Game. It wasn’t to make something out of nothing, and it wasn’t to make something foreign feel familiar. The challenge in setting a book in a baseball stadium was to take something so many of us already feel so strongly about and give them a vision strong enough to validate what they already know deep in their hearts. I hope I was able to tap into those emotions and give my readers the kind of connections worthy of the memories they carry with them.
I guess you can tell if I succeed or not in just four more weeks.
Alright friends, the countdown continues.
Today I want to lead off with exciting news. I am going to auction off the very first copy of Heart of the Game (autographed of course) right here on this blog! The proceeds will go to support my friend Lynda Sandoval’s efforts to start a yoga studio in our economically depressed area. The book will come from my own personal author copies and should arrive well before the official ship date for major retailers. So, you can help a good cause and be the first person to ever get a signed copy of Heart of The Game weeks before it is released to the general public. All you have to do is go down to the comments section of the blog and state your bid. I will cut off bidding at 5:00pm on Saturday, January 31 Eastern time (not WordPress time). The person who has the highest bid at that point gets the first book!
Alright, now it’s story time. This story is about how I came into the world, and how something that happened simultaneous to my arrival shaped me into the person who felt compelled to write Heart of The Game.
I was born at a very young age. I know. I hear you say, aren’t we all? Well, I was born early, too early, actually. So early that my mother was in Springfield, Illinois visiting my grandmother when she went in to labor. My father was not there. He was in my hometown, about an hour away. As the story goes, my mom’s water broke quite unexpectedly, and she called my father. His friend answered. She said, “Alby, I’m having a baby.” Apparently he said, “Yeah, I know, in a couple weeks now, right?” She excitedly replied, “No, right now!”
Alby quickly pulled my father away from the baseball game they’d been watching and he jumped into the car, promising he’d be there soon. An hour went by, and he didn’t arrive. Another hour went by, and my mom, now at the hospital and in full labor, was freaking out. She just knew something was wrong, and as much as grandma tried to tell her otherwise, as time went on, she came to the same realization. But this was pre cellphone, and the baby was on the way whether dad was or not.
But Dad had been on his way. He’d managed to get about halfway there before he got hit full on by a drunk driver. Thankfully Dad sustained only a few minor injuries, but his car was shot, and he had to wait for the police to arrive, which took time. At least when they did get there, it didn’t take long for them to figure out who was to blame, because the other driver opened another beer right in front of them. They took the man into custody but left poor dad sitting on the side of the road. Thankfully the man whose yard his car had spun into came out to check on him, and when he heard the situation agreed to drive my dad to the hospital.
Dad finally arrived, and not a minute too soon. The nurses initially tried to make him go to the emergency room to be treated for the car crash injuries, but mom could hear them fussing over him, and then he heard her and there was no keeping them apart for the big moment. Yours truly burst into the world not long after midnight, a month early and weighing a whopping 4 pounds.
I’ve heard that story many times. It was a favorite of mine growing up, and when my parents told it, they usually chalked all those dramatic events and the ensuing medical bills (for a few weeks in an incubator) up to my flair for the dramatic or my insistence on making a big entrance. I’ve also heard the story cited as evidence of my impatience and my insistence on doing things when I want to, regardless of what anybody else says (kind of how I came out of the closet, too, but that’s another story). While it’s true that I am a bit dramatic and impatient and stubborn, I have another theory about why I had to be born so early.
You see, the night my mom went into labor, my parents had been watching game six of the 1982 World Series. The Cardinals had taken a commanding lead over the Milwaukee Brewers, saving themselves from elimination. It was clear there would be a game seven, winner-take-all showdown, and I think even in utero, something in me knew I could not miss that event.
October 20,1982, was an important date in my life because I was born and because the Cardinals won their 9th World Series Championship later that night. It was the first time they’d done so in 15 years. They would not do so again until a couple of months before my own child was conceived, but that moment, that night, that game, was the start of a beautiful relationship. For me, my birth, that championship, and the team who won it have always been inseparable. I hope that comes through for each and everyone of you who read Heart of The Game.
Yes, you read that right, we’ve only got six short weeks until my newest baby is in your hot little hands! I am so excited. I’ve been working on this project for more than a year now, and let me tell you, it was fun. I can’t wait to hear what you all think of it.
Are you just dying to know what it’s about? Honestly, it doesn’t matter what your answer to that question is because I am dying to tell you, and it’s my blog, so here’s the blurb:
Sometimes baseball is just a metaphor for life, and sometimes it works the other way around.
All Sarah Duke ever cared about was baseball, and she’s finally earned her shot as a full-time sports writer. She loves the work, she loves being one of the few women to ever gain access to a man’s world, but most of all, she loves the game. When Duke meets Molly Grettano and her two sons at the ballpark, she instantly connects with the young family, but Molly isn’t sure Duke’s ready for something more. Molly wants someone softer, more feminine, and more importantly, someone steady. She and her boys have been abandoned before, and she’s vowed to never to put them in that position again. If she were ever to trust anyone, it would have to be someone fully dedicated to her and her children. Duke has a lot of heart, but neither woman is sure there’s enough room left in it for anything other than baseball.
So there you have it. Now can you tell why I am so excited about this one? Those of you who know me even a little bit or who have even read my full author bio know I’m kind of a baseball nut, or more specifically a St. Louis Cardinals fanatic. I love the game, and I love that team, so a chance to put myself in that setting for a whole read, even fictionally, was one I really jumped at. Then as if that wasn’t enough to make me love this book, I also got to throw in a mom. I always say that being a writer is the coolest job in the world, and that’s true of paying jobs, but the most fun and fulfilling work I’ve ever done is actually parenting. I genuinely enjoy working with kids, especially my own. In previous books, I’ve had kids on the periphery, but in this book I get to really revel in the force of nature that is a three-year-old boy.
Baseball, writing, lesbians St. Louis, and kids, oh my! This book has a lot of me in it, not in that it’s my life so much as it’s my own personal version of awesome. Of course because it’s also a romance, so even if you are not a sports fan or a big kid yourself, you will get a healthy dose of dykes and drama to round out the plot. Plus they are sexy, super sexy, so there’s that. Actually there’s quite a bit of that.
Are you excited yet?
If so, then please feel free to follow along over the next six weeks as I introduce you to the the characters, the settings, and even a few sneak peaks of the story itself. If you have anything specific you’re just dying to know about the story, its inspiration, or the way it came to be, just ask your questions in the comment section and I’ll pick a couple to answer each week. Finally, if you are good and pay very close attention, I may just even throw a win-it-before-you-can-buy-it contest your way, so don’t be shy. Click “subscribe.”