Tag Archives: mystery novels

Stay Calm and Wash Your Hands

by Kassandra Lamb

We interrupt our regular blogging schedule… This is not what I had planned to write about this week, but it’s an important reminder to stay calm. Not only for our mental health, but for our physical health as well.

Why is it important to stay calm? Because stress reduces the effectiveness of our immune systems. So stressing about getting sick can increase the chances of getting sick.

We humans have a variety of mental defense mechanisms that our psyches employ to cope with stressful and scary stuff. Some of these defenses are helpful and some, not so much.

The Unhelpful Ones: Denial, Minimizing

Pretending the coronavirus is not a big deal, not in your area yet, etc. (it probably is; just no reported cases yet) is denial and minimizing. Buying into the idea that it’s no worse than seasonal flu is denial and minimizing. The facts say otherwise.

The World Health Organization has declared it a pandemic. The goal of that declaration was not to have everyone either panic or go into denial. It was to get us to take measures to stop the spread of the disease before it gets out of hand in this country and others.

The Potentially Helpful Defenses: Rationalization, Repression, Sublimation

First, do the things you’re hearing that you should do in order to prevent and/or prepare for the worst-case scenario. Wash your hands. Be aware of what you touch and try NOT to touch your face. Wash your hands.

Stay calm and wash your hands.
Meme created on imgflip.com

Stockpile, within reason, food and medicines, etc. in case you end up quarantined. (Just got home from the grocery store myself.) Then wash your hands.

Practice social distancing by leaving space around you and subbing a wave or a slight bow for a handshake or hug. Wash your hands. Avoid crowds or going out in public if you can. Wash your hands.

Then, once you have done all that, tell yourself that you and those in your household will most likely be okay. You’re doing everything you can do. It will be fine. (Rationalization.)

Is this lying to yourself? Maybe. Maybe not. You don’t know if the disease will hit close to home, but you might as well assume that it isn’t going to—AFTER you have taken the needed precautions to lower your risk.

There’s no psychological benefit to assuming that you or your loved ones will get sick. That’s pessimism and it’s also unhealthy. More on this in a minute.

Then Push the Thoughts Aside

Don’t let your mind dwell on the disease any more than is necessary to maintain the precautions you have taken. To stay calm, actively push those thoughts away when they come up (Repression) and distract yourself with other things. Read an engaging book, finally do some of those projects around the house that you’ve been putting off (look out bathroom, I’ve got my paintbrush and I’m coming in), do something creative, etc.

This latter idea is called Sublimation—actually channeling the emotional energy into something else. A whole lot of my author friends are currently writing stories about pandemics. Most of those stories will never get published, but the writing process keeps those authors sane (or as sane as authors ever are 😉 ).

(Read more on defense mechanisms here.)

The Proven Benefits of Optimism

Why should we bother to try to fool ourselves into believing all will be okay? First of all, for many of us, it will be okay. We’ll go through a scary time of worrying about our own health and that of our loved ones, but either no one in that group will get the disease or they will have a mild case of it.

And if and when the disease does strike a harder blow, well that’s soon enough to worry about it. As my grandmother used to say, “Don’t borrow trouble.”

Remaining optimistic has been proven again and again in scientific studies to have all kinds of health benefits. Optimism reduces stress, improves immune system functioning, makes people feel happier and helps them live longer. Being pessimistic, has the exact opposite effect. (For more on the benefits of optimism, here’s a good article.)

The first American study evaluated 839 people in the early 1960s, performing a psychological test for optimism–pessimism as well as a complete medical evaluation. When the people were rechecked 30 years later, optimism was linked to longevity; for every 10-point increase in pessimism on the optimism–pessimism test, the mortality rate rose 19%.

~ Harvard Health Publishing, Optimism and your Health, 2008.

But Isn’t This Just Another Form of Denial?

Yes, it is. I call it healthy denial. And all of us exercise this defense mechanism every day. Otherwise, we would never get out of bed, much less leave our houses.

Stay calm and run like hell! A tornado's coming.

Every day, we assume that we will not be mugged that day, we will not be run over by a truck, we will not be swept up by a tornado, etc. Even though those things will happen to some people somewhere.

Without healthy denial, we couldn’t function. We’d be paralyzed.

And that’s what I’m trying to fight here—the paralyzing effects of fear. Because we all need to do what we can, including remaining optimistic, in order to slow and eventually stop this pandemic.

And slowing it is extremely important. Because by slowing it, we keep it from overwhelming our healthcare system. This article has an excellent chart that shows this better than I could explain it (Note the dotted line that is labelled “healthcare system capacity.”)

Easier Said Than Done for Some

Some of us have been blessed with a naturally optimistic personality. Others have not. Those folks are going to have to work harder at this whole stay-calm thing.

Just as we try to become more aware of the surfaces we touch (or don’t touch, in the case of our faces), we need to become more aware of our thoughts. We need to catch ourselves if we are obsessing on the situation too much. We need to redirect our thoughts.

Stay calm and stop those negative thoughts,
Photo by Will Porada on Unsplash

One very simple but very helpful technique that therapists teach clients with OCD is called thought-stopping. When you notice your thoughts going down an obsessive track, you literally say, “Stop!” either out loud or inside your head.

A variation for visually oriented people is to imagine a big red stop sign in your mind’s eye.

Then you intentionally redirect your thoughts to something else that is engaging.

Laughter Is the Best Medicine

Keep your entertainment lighthearted during this crisis. Someone said to me just last night that they started to watch a show about the Nazis in Germany and had to turn it off. It was too much on top of worrying about the coronavirus. Good for her!

Even if you feel yourself drawn to heavier, more negative topics (understandable), don’t go there right now. Positive, uplifting, and even silly books and TV shows are preferable, to help maintain our optimism and healthy denial.

And keep those hysterical memes coming on social media. Promote laughter as much as you can.

Let’s all do our part not just to stop the spread of germs but to increase the spread of positive energy during this difficult time.

What helps you the most to stay calm at times like these?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

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The Importance of Backstory (Or How the Brain Connects the Present to the Past)

by Kassandra Lamb

I’m over at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University today, talking about characters’ backstories, the human brain and implications for writers.

Here’s a teaser…

First, a brief excerpt from my own backstory—I recently let go of someone whom I have loved dearly my entire life. I did so because he was acting in a way that was far too reminiscent of my dysfunctional family.

I spent many hours and beaucoup dollars in my youth on therapy, and it was successful. For a very long time now, I’ve hardly given a thought to all that craziness I grew up with. So when this person, after experiencing a highly emotional event, suddenly began acting like his crazy father (the brother of my crazy father), I had to make a tough choice.

I contemplated letting it slide for the sake of family peace, but I repeatedly found my stomach, chest and throat tightening up in a very uncomfortable way. It took me awhile to sort out that this was the same uncomfortable feeling I’d had all too often as a child—a combination of confusion, fear and hurt.

Why am I telling you this sad story? Because it provides some excellent examples of the connections that I’m about to explain—between our minds, our bodies, and our emotions—and between the past and present.

How Our Brains Connect Us to the Past

Some people still scoff, to this day, at the idea that our past affects our present and future reactions. But there is actually a scientific explanation for how this works.

There is a part of the brain called the hippocampus. It is a component of the limbic system, located between the cerebral cortex (the thinking part of our brain) and the brain stem (the part that controls automatic functions, like breathing).

The Importance of Backstory: How the Brain Connects Past to Present

The limbic system, comprised of several structures and organs, is the emotional center of the human brain. One of the hippocampus’s most important functions, as part of this system, is processing memories.

And right next door is the amygdala, the part of the brain that feels anger and fear, and produces our instinctive knee-jerk reactions to those feelings.

The hippocampus not only processes memories—without it, we would have no long-term memory—but it also remembers the emotions (and the physical sensations associated with those emotions) of past events. Read More

Implications for Writers—The Importance of Backstory

First of all, we need to give our characters backstories that match their current neuroses. Any time a character overreacts (or under-reacts) to a situation in the present, there has to be something in their past that explains it.

Then, how do we show the reader that very important backstory…

Read More…

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

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IRL Mysteries: The Mystery Behind That Annoying Tamper-Resistant Packaging

by Kassandra Lamb

You know what I’m talking about – those frustrating, multiple layers of plastic, foil, paper, and/or cotton that keep you from the pill that will wipe out your headache, calm your anxiety or dry up your allergy-produced drippy nose.

Pills weren’t always distributed that way. Here’s the in-real-life (IRL) mystery behind tamper-resistant packaging, which is still unsolved to this day.

In 1982, seven people died mysteriously. Three were in one family, but the rest were scattered around the Chicago metro area. Other than the family members, there was no connection between the victims.

The Investigation

The mystery behind tamper-resistant packaging
Photo by Amanda Jones on Unsplash

The police quickly discovered that they had all taken Tylenol® shortly before their deaths. The capsules were tested and were found to contain potassium cyanide, along with the actual medication.

Someone had tampered with the drug, with no particular victim in mind and for no apparent motive. The hardest type of crime to solve.

In the next few days, there were several copycat tamperings and more people died.

The drug’s manufacturer, Johnson and Johnson®, determined that the contamination was not happening at their plant, but nonetheless they immediately implemented a massive recall. Investigators soon decided that the tampering had happened in the stores.

The Response

So Johnson and Johnson came out with the first tamper-resistant packaging. Their quick response to the crisis saved their company, and also saved many, many lives since then, as such packaging soon became the norm.

Some of the copycat tamperers were caught, but the one who started the whole mess was never found.

The police thought they had their man when James W. Lewis sent a letter to Johnson and Johnson demanding a million dollars to stop the killing. He was convicted of extortion, but there was no evidence that he had actually done the tampering. He had just taken advantage of the situation.

Other leads were pursued but no culprit was ever definitively identified, and the Tylenol-tampering murders remain unsolved today.

So the next time you are cussing at that pill-bottle you can’t get open, remember this mystery behind that tamper-resistant packaging.

It’s there for a good reason.

To read more about this case and Johnson and Johnson’s response to it, see this article in The New York Times.

This is the first in a new series here on misterio press, regarding IRL mysteries that remain unsolved. In some ways, it’s a rather grim topic, but we are mystery writers after all, so we find such things interesting. We hope you do as well.

Are you old enough to remember the Tylenol-tampering in the 1980s? Do you know of any other in-real-life mysteries?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

To see our Privacy Policy click HERE.

An “Off” Week Goodie: Why Hugs Are Good For You

by Kassandra Lamb

I saw this article yesterday and wanted to share it.

Hugs are good for you
Photo by C.Valdez on Unsplash

I don’t know about the whole Chakra thing, but it is true about the cortisol levels going down and hugs encouraging the release of oxytocin.

The latter hormone makes us feel good, and also facilitates more social interaction.

In other words, the more we hug, the more we like being around people, and thus the more likely we are to get hugs.

I’m not sure about Virginia Satir’s numbers, though. I suspect a few hugs a day will suffice for well-being, and I’m pretty sure hugging cats and dogs and other cuddly pets counts (snakes and lizards, maybe not).

Also, a word of caution. Not everyone is comfortable with hugs, so never hug anyone unless you’re sure they’re okay with it (you can always ask, though).

Virtual hugs from us to you!! (Not as satisfying, but the best we can do. 🙂 )

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

To see our Privacy Policy click HERE.

Why Is the Divorce Rate So Low? (encore)

by Kassandra Lamb

No, that is not a typo in the title—I am asking why the divorce rate is so low. As I contemplate the approach of the 44th Valentine’s Day I will spend with my husband, I thought this was a fitting time to again offer up this post I originally wrote in 2012.

I am absolutely amazed that anybody makes it for 44 years, or longer even, without divorcing. Or committing homicide.

The Divorce Rate is Lower Than You Think

Why is the divorce rate so low

My mother and I going into the church before my wedding. I had no idea what I was getting into.

The common myth is that the divorce rate is 50%. This is just plain not true, but like most myths, it gets repeated so often, with absolute certainty on the part of the person saying it, that we all believe it.

This frequently quoted statistic is based on comparing the number of marriage certificates issued in any given year with the number of divorces filed in that year. That number indeed hovers around 50%, because the number of people getting married has been going down at the same rate as the number of people getting divorced.

The Real Divorce Rate

Counting the number of people who are STILL married in any given year and comparing that to the number of divorces is a more complicated and costly process, so it isn’t done very often. (This data, by the way, is collected by the Center for Disease Control. So I want to know which is the disease, marriage or divorce? I’m assuming the latter. But I digress.)

Comparing those getting divorced to those still married paints a very different picture. The divorce rate in the U.S. actually peaked in 1979 at 23%  (yes, that is twenty-three percent; it has never been 50%). These days it hovers around 20%. Much better odds than 50-50!  (If you don’t want to take my word for it, here is a good article on the subject at PsychCentral.)

So why am I saying the divorce rate is surprisingly low, if it’s actually a lot lower than everybody thinks it is?  Because it just isn’t all that easy to stay married for decade after decade.

Stresses on Marriage

First we’ve got that whole men-and-women-don’t-really-understand-each-other thing going on. (See my gender differences posts for more on that topic.)

Then, throw the stress of parenthood into the marriage mix. Are we clueless about what we are getting into there, or what? But then again, if we weren’t clueless, the species would have died out by now. If we knew in advance how hard parenting is, nobody would do it!

Why is the divorce rate so low

Me giving my mother heart failure, before the age of seatbelts and air conditioning.

And we’ve got the whole aging process, and the fact that people change over time, as they experience new and different things. We don’t always change at the same rate or in the same direction as our partner does. So it takes a lot of work to stay on the same wavelength.

And we should keep in mind that marriage was invented back when the average lifespan was twenty-five years! As recently as the early 1900’s, one partner or the other was bound to die after a couple decades–from childbirth, disease or a cattle stampede.

And I can’t help but suspect that, before the days of modern forensics, a certain number of household accidents were early versions of a Reno quickie divorce.

So how have hubby and I made it this long?

Choosing Well

First, you’ve got the making-the-right-choice-to-begin-with factor. We lucked out there, or perhaps it was divine intervention, because I had definitely dated my share of losers before he came along.

The most important part of making that right choice is marrying someone who shares your values. You don’t have to have all the same interests or even come from the same background or ethnic group. But you do need to care about the same things in life. And fortunately we do.

The Most Important Factor in Surviving Marriage

Communication. You gotta talk to each other, every day, about the little stuff and the big stuff, and about how you feel about things. It’s real easy to get out of the habit of doing this, or to decide that a certain subject is just too painful, or will start a fight, so you don’t go there.

Study after study has found that the single most important factor in marital satisfaction is that both spouses consider their partner to be their best friend.

So Happy Valentine’s Day to my best friend! I hope we have many more, but I’m not taking anything for granted, because marriage is hard work.

Why is the divorce rate so low

When you stop laughing at hubby’s funny-looking tuxedo, please share your thoughts on the important factors in keeping a relationship strong.

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

To see our Privacy Policy click HERE.

6 Questions to Ask to Avoid New Year’s Resolution Failure

by Kassandra Lamb

Avoid New Year resolution failure
(image by Nevit Dilmen CC-SA-BY 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

I sat down today to write a New Year’s post. I looked at past posts, seeking inspiration, and decided that I couldn’t improve on last year’s, so I’m re-running it. If you find your resolutions/goals are out the window by February, here are 6 questions to ask yourself to avoid New Year’s resolution failure.

The problem may be with how you are wording the resolutions/goals. Or perhaps they aren’t quite the right ones for you.

1.  Is the goal/resolution too abstract?

I will be the best person possible sounds good, but it is doomed for failure as soon as you make your first mistake of the new year. Instead, ask yourself what traits or behaviors you would like to improve and make the goal more concrete and specific.

I will strive not to interrupt people during conversations is much more doable.

2.  Is it too big?

avoid New Year's resolution failure -- chunk it down!

Chunk it down into more manageable sub-goals. These can be celebrated as they are achieved, versus only looking at the big goal that feels so far away and difficult.

I will write and publish my first novel this year feels overwhelmingly hard. But if you chunk it down into:

  • I will finish the first draft by June.
  • I will strive to do two self-edits by September.
  • I will send it to a professional editor by October 1st.
  • I will investigate what is involved in getting my book published.
  •  I will set the publication process in motion by the end of the year.

3.  Is it something within your control?

When I was a novice psychotherapist, I foolishly thought that I could readily help people lose weight. I had studied hypnosis and figured it would be a great tool to get people to eat less and exercise more.

And the hypnotic suggestions usually did work, but I soon discovered that weight management was much more complicated than that. Even when people did everything they should do, they didn’t always lose weight. Sometimes there were physical issues—slow metabolism, medications, genetics, etc.—and sometimes there were psychological barriers. And sometimes it was a plain old mystery why the pounds weren’t coming off.

Note that I’m calling it “weight management,” not “weight control” as it is more often labeled. The reality is that we cannot directly control certain things, and our weight is one of them.

Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.

― Epictetus (Greek Stoic philosopher, circa 55-135 AD)

So to avoid New Year’s resolution failure, look at those resolutions and ask yourself if the end goals are totally within your control.

I will research and establish healthier eating patterns and increase my activity level is more realistic than I will lose thirty pounds.

4.  Are you “shoulding” on yourself?

Is this a goal you really want or are you setting it because you believe it is something you should be doing?

Does I will find a better-paying job get shifted from one year’s resolution list to the next? Maybe you really like your job, but it just doesn’t pay enough to make ends meet. Are there other alternatives, such as asking for a raise or looking for a second-income source?

Maybe, after asking these questions, you realize you really should pursue the goal, even though you don’t particularly want to, but being clearer about why you are doing it may help you get there.

So the resolution may become I will look hard at my finances and try to find a way to ease them, which may require changing jobs.

5.  Is your measurement criteria accurate? Or to put it another way, are you judging success based on the right aspect of the goal?

avoid New Year's resolution failure -- use realistic criteria

One of the frustrations I encountered when working with clients on weight management was their obsession with the scale. The reality is that the number of pounds we weigh is not always the best measure of our health or even our appearance.

After a while, I started asking clients to put their scales up in their attics and use a measuring tape instead to keep track of how many inches they were losing as they lost fat and toned muscles (which get denser and heavier when they are toned). Going down three clothing sizes was a better indicator of success than how many pounds they had lost!

6.  Is your resolution related to a goal or dream that you have lost interest in or one that you don’t care enough about to put in the effort required?

This can be a subtle reason why New Year’s resolutions fail. Sometimes, things we used to be gung-ho about aren’t so important anymore, and sometimes a goal turns out to be too damn difficult to be worth the bother.

It’s also sometimes hard to admit this to ourselves.

So ask this question, when you find yourself feeling lackluster about a resolution/goal: Are you giving up due to lack of confidence but you really do want it? (In which case, figure out what you need to improve your skills and confidence and push yourself to get there.)

OR are you not willing to make it happen because it’s just not important enough anymore?

There’s no shame in this.

And it doesn’t mean the goal was stupid to begin with—things change over time, including our enthusiasm and willingness to commit resources to something. And it may be a goal that becomes important again down the road, when the resources are more readily available. 

My first novel, 17 years in the making. Now I have 20-some books out. (Multiple Motives is FREE on all ebook distributors.)

I started writing my first novel 15 years before it was finished and 17 years before it was published. For the first 5 of those years, I will finish my novel was on my New Year’s resolution list.

And every year, I would fool around with it some—change the opening, add a scene or two—but then I would get discouraged and put it away again.

I finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t willing to put in the effort to get it published once it was written. This was back in the days when traditional publishing was the only viable alternative.

I knew getting a publisher would be difficult, involving many factors I couldn’t control, and I HATE not being in control of my own destiny.

At that point, I stopped putting it on my resolutions list and told myself I would pursue my writing dream once I was retired and had more time and energy. The story languished in my hard drive, all but forgotten, for years.

But after I retired, I decided to finish writing it, even if it never got published. In retirement, I could justify “wasting time” on something that might never pay off. I sat down and finished the first draft in 6 weeks. 🙂

Hopefully these tips will help you modify your resolutions/goals this year, so that they are less likely to end up on the trash heap. Can you think of other ways to avoid New Year’s resolution failure?
Fireworks for avoid New Year's resolution failure
HAPPY NEW YEAR!! (Photo by Leandro Neumann Ciuffo CC-BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

To see our Privacy Policy click HERE.

A Short But Loving Holiday Message from Misterio

Our blog is officially on hiatus until January 7, 2020, but we thought we’d share some fun music. This first one isn’t exactly a Christmas song per se, although it’s on Pentatonix’s Christmas album this year.

But it very much expresses how we at misterio press feel about you, our readers. You’re the best!!

And another fave Christmas song, also a cappella!

Hope Everyone has a Great Holiday!!! See you in 2020.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

To see our Privacy Policy click HERE.

10 Tips for Making Your Imperfect Holiday a Happy One (encore)

by Kassandra Lamb

Here’s an oldie-but-goodie post. I’m posting it partly because I’m busy with my own holiday preparations, but the message bears repeating — how to make your imperfect holiday a happy one!

This time of year is supposed to be joyful – full of good food, time spent with family, tinsel and bright lights, and lots of packages under the tree.

We tend to have high expectations for the season, and also to feel that we have to meet others’ expectations so that everyone has a fabulous holiday. The reality sometimes falls short, and all too often in our attempts to make the holidays perfect, we end up short – as in short-tempered… and major stressed out!

Maybe we need to loosen up on some of those expectations and prioritize what’s most important for ourselves and our families. It’s okay to have an imperfect holiday, as long as it is a happy holiday.

First, let’s break things down a bit, to look at what makes an imperfect holiday a happy one. We have gifts, decorations, food and family (I refer to Christmas below, but the same ideas apply to other holidays of the season.)

Tips for making your imperfect holiday a happy one -- cull your gift list and shop early.
A shopping mall in Toronto, Canada (photo by Benson Kua, CC-BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

GIFTS: Some people (like me) love to shop; other’s loathe the process. If you fall into the latter category the first thing you can do is…

1. CULL THE GIFT LIST. Do you have people on your list for whom you have no idea what they want or like? Then you probably don’t know or like them well enough to be spending money on them. Are there relatives on the list with whom you exchange token gifts, neither party really caring whether the other likes what they get?

See if you can get them off the list without offending them. Suggest that you not exchange gifts, just enjoy each others’ company. (They may very well agree with great relief.) Or buy them something inexpensive and consumable, and repeat next year. You don’t have to be creative when nobody cares. (My mother-in-law got scented hand lotion from me every year. She was fine with that.) Suggest your extended family draw names and each person gets, and gives, just one gift.

2. SHOP EARLY. Whether you love or hate shopping, this is good advice. Yes, there are great bargains closer to Christmas but there’s also a lot more pressure. And these days, retailers often have sales going off and on throughout the fall.

Christmas shopping tends to bring out the procrastinator in many of us. It feels like such an overwhelming task. But the longer we put it off, the worse it will be. On the flip side, the sooner you start, the less pressured and the more fun it can be.

I begin in October, usually with an all-day shopping trip. It’s a fun, low-stress day, because it’s only October and I have lots of time to find those items that didn’t jump into my cart that day.

3. DO YOU HATE TO WRAP? Or do you love it? If you love it (as I do) starting early on your shopping means you have plenty of time to enjoy the wrapping process. I make it part of my evening routine as I watch TV. Wrapping three or four packages a night, I’ve got it done in no time. And it gets me in the holiday spirit!

Tips for Making Your Imperfect Holiday a Happy One -- gift bags!
Photo by Melinda & Cristiano, CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr/Wikimedia

But if you hate it, I have two words for you…

Gift Bags!!! For a buck or two apiece, your wrapping is done!

DECORATIONS:

4. DECORATE FOR YOU AND YOUR FAMILY, NOT THE WORLD. Unless you totally get off on decorating (I know a couple of people who do), keep it simple. Ask yourself what is most important for you and yours?

For years I struggled with those #%@&* outside lights, stringing them over trees and bushes and freezing my tuckus off in the process. Today, the inside of my house is a Christmas wonderland, because I enjoy putting up those decorations. But outside, there’s a wreath on the front door and a pre-lit table tree in the dining room window. That’s all my neighbors are getting from me.

And you know what? None of them have complained.

5. MAKE IT A FAMILY AFFAIR. When I was a kid, my father was in charge of decorating the tree. He was meticulous. All the ornaments had to be balanced, the tree totally symmetrical. (He was an engineer.) He would carefully put one strand of tinsel on each branch.

Tips for Making Your Imperfect Holiday a Happy One -- let the family decorate the tree, even if it does end up lopsided
A slightly off-kilter tree, but still gorgeous! (public domain–Wikimedia)

He made my mother nuts!! And my brother and I fled to our rooms until the tree was done.

The blinkin’ tree doesn’t have to be perfect. Get the whole gang involved and it will be done in no time. And if you must have symmetry, you can move a few ornaments after everyone else is in bed.

FOOD: If you love to cook, go for it. If it’s not so much your thing (like me), look for ways to keep it simple.

6. PREPARE AHEAD OF TIME. I learned this from my grandma. Every year, she came over to our house on Christmas Eve. She made the dressing that night, and prepped the turkey. The next morning, Mr. Turkey just needed to be transferred from the fridge to the oven.

7. IS THAT BIG MEAL REALLY WHAT YOU WANT? Again, ask yourself what really matters. You just had a big turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. Is it crucial that you have another one a month later?

A few years ago, my family was facing some stressors around the holidays that made us want to simplify things as much as possible. We decided we would have a cold buffet for Christmas dinner, for just that year. I baked two turkey rolls the day before and my daughter-in-law and I made or bought various salads. I was sure it would be a letdown not to have the traditional big Christmas dinner.

Guess what? We didn’t miss it one bit! The meal was just as tasty, and so much less stressful. Instead of spending inordinate amounts of time in the kitchen prepping and then cleaning up from a big meal, we spent that time balancing plates on our laps and laughing and talking as we enjoyed each other’s company. We’ve been doing Christmas dinner that way ever since!

FAMILY: Being with family is the heart of Christmas and perhaps the most important component in making an imperfect holiday a happy one. But how do we define our families?

8. SPEND CHRISTMAS DAY WITH THE PEOPLE WHO MATTER THE MOST. One of the mistakes I sometimes see people making on Christmas is that they spread themselves too thin. Christmases were special for me as a kid because they were relaxed. We opened our stockings, then had a leisurely breakfast. We opened our presents, then had a leisurely dinner.

Tips for Making Your Imperfect Holiday a Happy One -- celebrate Christmas with the extended family on a different day.
Christmas with the extended family, on 12/26. We’re having a ball, can’t ya tell? 😉

We went to visit the extended family the day after Christmas, or the following weekend. We saw everybody eventually, but NOT on Christmas Day!

The first year I was married, my husband and I tried to keep everybody happy. We got up extra early to exchange our own presents, then went to my parents’ house for brunch. Then we jumped in the car and drove for two hours to have Christmas dinner with his family.

Never again!

9. WHAT IS YOUR FAMILY OF CHOICE? If you don’t like your biological family, do NOT spend the most precious day of the year with them. Politely tell them that you want to spend Christmas with just your spouse and your children. If you’re not married, it’s okay to make your close friends your family of choice. If it feels too hurtful to say no to your biological family on December 25th, then designate another day—perhaps Christmas Eve or the day after Christmas—as your “family of choice” Christmas.

Last but definitely not least…

10. BE JOYFUL. The bottom line here is that this is supposedf to be a joyful time of year. So do your best to set it up so it is fun and relaxing for you and those who are most important to you. A less stressful, imperfect holiday makes for a happy holiday!

Any other ideas for simplifying Christmas preparations and minimizing holiday stress?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and the cozy series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

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7 Do’s and Don’ts When Writing A Series: An “Off” Week Goodie for Writers

by Kassandra Lamb

I’m over at Jami Gold’s cyber-home today, shooting the breeze with her subscribers about the Do’s and Don’ts of writing a series, whether it be a mystery or romance series. Come on over and join the discussion.

do's and don'ts when writing a series

And this seems like a good time to tell you all that I have the first 5 Books in the Kate Huntington mystery series all bundled up in a sweet little package for you. Five books for just $9.99. Half what you would pay for them individually!

On AMAZON ~ NOOK ~ APPLE ~ KOBO ~ and it will be live on GOOGLE PLAY soon.

Now here’s a preview of my post on writing a series…

7 Do’s and Don’ts When Writing a Series

After ten years of writing, I’m beginning to get the hang of it. 😀 I’ve completed one 10-book mystery series and am writing Book 9 of another, plus two romantic suspense series (under the pen name of Jessica Dale).

When I started out, I had no idea what I was doing. I knew how to tell a story, but I was oblivious to the many pitfalls when writing a series.

I’ve learned a thing or two since then, by trial and error mostly—I’m hardheaded that way—and I’d like to share with you all what I’ve discovered. Here are some do’s and don’ts when writing a series.

#1 ~ Do make your main character flawed, interesting and likeable.

You’re going to be living with this protagonist for quite some time, so give him/her some careful thought. I did not do this starting out.

When I began my first series, I thought “flawed” meant things like she’s a lousy cook (go ahead and laugh; I do every time I think about it).

I made my protagonist, Kate Huntington, way too put together. Okay, she’s a psychotherapist so we’d kind of expect her to be better put together than most, but… I had no clue that “flawed” meant emotional wounds!

Fortunately, her vocation was intriguing and caught readers’ interest. And since these were murder mysteries, I could make bad things happen to give poor Kate some fresh wounds to deal with.

I did manage to make her likeable. Only a few readers have complained that they didn’t like her, usually because she was “too perfect.”

With my second series, I gave my main character a failed first marriage, commitment phobia, childhood taunting, and a bit of an impulsive streak. I couldn’t do really heavy wounds, since this is a cozy mystery series.

But now, as I’m planning my next series—a police procedural—I’m contemplating some darker emotional wounds for my MC. *rubbing hands together in glee*

#2 ~ DO have your main character grow and change over the course of the series.
do's and don'ts when writing a series
I have grown and changed as a writer also, over the process of writing this series.

This is one of the most common complaints I hear about some series (not mine, of course), that the MC never seems to learn or develop as a person. They keep doing the same things in their daily lives, and they keep going into the dark attics, ignoring law enforcement officers’ warnings, etc. Their personalities never seem to develop beyond where they started.

Also, make sure their important relationships grow and change, as in real life. One of my fave authors has an MC with a particularly passionate marriage, which makes for an interesting series subplot. But after so many books, that subplot stalled. Every story, it’s the same routine—she overworks herself on a new case; he makes her stop to sleep and eat; they make passionate love; she goes back to crime-fighting.

Rinse and repeat… Even the sex scenes got boring after a while.

#3 ~ In later books, DON’T give away the outcome of earlier stories, but DO drop hints.

Readers don’t always read a series in order. They may first discover your series when you’re releasing Book 4. Or they may accidentally skip a book, or get mixed up about the exact order.

If you give away the conclusion of earlier books, they have no motivation to go back and read them. But if you just hint at those earlier storylines, hopefully they will be intrigued and read the entire series.

These hints should occur when a character would naturally think about an earlier experience… This is not as hard as it sounds. READ MORE

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and the cozy series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

To see our Privacy Policy click HERE.

7 Life Lessons From My Summer Vacation

by Kassandra Lamb

Remember those essays we had to write in school…What I Did on My Summer Vacation?

Well, I went to Europe on mine.

It’s a trip that hubs and I had begun to plan multiple times (starting in 2015), and something always happened to derail the plan. So this year, we were determined.

The trip was all about seeing some sights we’d been wanting to see for years—which we did—but I also picked up a few life lessons along the way.

Lesson #1 — People can be family even if they don’t speak the same language.
Our friend Nathalie, with the baguette for dinner, in the town nearest her home.

The first week of our trip was spent in Brittany, France, visiting a friend of twenty some years now. My husband, the linguist, speaks fluent French, but me, not so much. He sees this friend and her family every couple of years, when he’s overseas doing what linguists do (after 43 years of marriage, I’m still trying to figure out what that is). I’ve been over there four or five times now.

Dessert our second evening in France.

The French are fairly reserved with strangers, but once they get to know you—and if they decide they like you—then you’re family. We were welcomed with open arms, bised (kissed on the cheeks) by every man, woman and child in the extended family, and then fed until we almost exploded!

And every meal was accompanied by lively conversation (most of which washed right over my head) and lots of laughter.

It was a wonderful, joyful time and a great way to start our adventure!

Lesson #2 — Our lives today would be radically changed, if a few things had happened a bit differently in the past.

Our second stop was Brest, France, the city where our friend’s eldest daughter lives and works.

View of Brest from our Airbnb’s window.

Brest is a major French naval port. During a visit to the naval museum there, we discovered that the French Navy, and this port in particular, played a pivotal role in our War of Independence.

Four-hundred and fifty ships of the Royal Navy were dispatched from Brest to intercept and blockade the British Navy near Yorktown in 1781. They kept supplies and reinforcements from reaching land, a turning point in the war that eventually led to the signing of the peace treaty.

The tip of the iceberg. Underground are several stories of the German installation, now a museum.

On a more somber note, a visit to a World War II museum, in a former Nazi artillery bunker on the coastline near Brest, poignantly reminded us of how much France and Europe had suffered during that war.

The artifacts of the war included possessions, drawings and photos of specific, real people—military from both sides and French civilians—accompanied by audio recordings of actors playing those people and telling us about their experiences (based on diaries, journals and letters). The hair stood up on the back of my neck a few times.

A profound sight: the juxtaposition of these remnants of a devastating war against the tranquil countryside and the sea beyond.

Brest was a very strategic port for the Germans, and therefore it was bombed regularly by the Allied Forces. Most of the city was destroyed and had to be rebuilt.

It was quite an experience, looking out over the cityscape of modern buildings from our Airbnb’s window, and suddenly having one’s eye stopped by a surviving church spire, a castle tower or an ancient house—the only reminders left that this city was founded before the Middle Ages.

Can you spot the castle? (No, it’s not the tall tower slightly to the left; look a bit to the right instead.)
Lesson #3 — Online friends can be just as wonderful as IRL friends.

Next up was a visit with a friend in Glasgow, Scotland, and a trip to her “wee cottage” on the Isle of Arran.

The side wall of my friend’s “wee” cottage and the view from her front window.
I discovered when I got home that I hadn’t taken any pics of my friend. 🙁 But I did get this one of her wee dog, and my friend’s shoes.

This friend is someone I’ve “known” online for several years now, and I was so excited to finally meet her in person.

She showed us a delightful time!

And I am now proud to call her an in-real-life friend.

Lesson #4 — Some things resist being checked off the bucket list.
No, it’s not Hogwarts, it’s the University of Glasgow on a typical Scottish cloudy day.

We felt like we “did” Glasgow sufficiently (plus a day trip to Edinburgh).

But the Isle of Arran gave us a taste of the beauty of the highlands that left us wanting more. So we’re hoping we can spend some time again on the island, soaking up that beauty at a more leisurely pace.

Maybe we’ll rent one of the lovely holiday cottages that are so plentiful on the island.

Lesson #5 — Sacred spaces come in all shapes and sizes.

High on my bucket list was Stonehenge, and hubs and I are also cathedral junkies. So a trip to Salisbury was the centerpiece of our week in England. After a stop-over in Stratford-upon-Avon for a Shakespeare fix, our train chugged into Salisbury on one of the few sunny afternoons during this leg of the journey.

We dumped our bags in our room and walked the few blocks to get a look at the outside of the cathedral. And stood with our mouths hanging open for a while.

Salisbury Cathedral, built between 1220 and 1238, is one of the biggest and most magnificent cathedrals we’ve ever seen (and that’s saying something).

The next morning we attended the 10:30 mass before shifting into our tourist roles. It was a lovely service, especially in such an awe-inspiring space.

And we visited with the local parishioners for a while afterwards, during the “coffee hour” that is part of almost every Episcopalian/Anglican service in the world (I’m Episcopalian).

Then we wandered around the cathedral’s interior for quite some time (with more mouth-hanging-open moments), before having tea and scones for lunch in the refectory.

The next day, we went to Stonehenge, and we weren’t nearly so lucky with the weather there. It was rainy and dreary the whole time.

We kept asking ourselves why we were walking around in the rain just to look at a bunch of rocks. And yet, we kept walking, and staring.

And stopping to take “one last photo” of those stones that were obviously intentionally placed in that field, in some particular arrangement for some sacred reason, many centuries ago.

Indeed, some of the stones have a blue cast to them that identifies them as a type of rock NOT naturally found in that area. The constructors of Stonehenge had dragged those huge rocks on sledges across many miles to that spot.

Archeologists are still piecing together the whys and wherefores of the phenomenon that is Stonehenge.

Lesson #6 — The justice we take for granted in the West is not universal.

Salisbury Cathedral houses one of the few remaining original copies of the Magna Carta. I hadn’t given much thought to that part of the visit beforehand, assuming that this would just be another historical memento I would glance at and think, “That’s interesting.”

But the Cathedral folks have done a really good job of pointing out the significance of this document, signed begrudgingly by King John of England in 1215.

With various displays around the room, they remind visitors that rights we take for granted in “Western” countries—such as the right to not be arrested without due process and being considered innocent until proven guilty—all stemmed from this incident in British history.

And these concepts are not universal in other countries.

Lesson #7 — Nobody’s getting any younger, so go where you really want to go sooner instead of later.

We were really sorry we’d waited so long to make this trip, especially since we found the lugging of suitcases, the climbing of steps and the many miles of walking much more challenging then in the past.

So our next big adventure will be happening a lot sooner. Before our old bodies give out on us completely.

How about you? What did you do on your summer vacation? And what’s still on your bucket list?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and the cozy series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

To see our Privacy Policy click HERE.