Gina’s Debate: Hair vs. Exercise (and Boyfriend)


In my novel Life in Spades, Gina expresses annoyance at not only training for a marathon with her boyfriend  but now she also has to rearrange her salon appointments to make up for all the sweating and unstyling her hair is going through.  The boyfriend is white, he doesn’t understand her hair struggles, she whines.  How many of us go through this same balance – physical fitness training and keeping a good looking hair style?

According to a 2012 study at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, hair styling and maintenance is a predominant reason for African-American women exercising less than prescribed.  There’s of course, implications for general health and weight maintenance issues when we neglect some sort of exercise regimen for the sake of our locks.  But it makes sense – who wants to spend hours at the hair salon, spend a good piece of your paycheck, and then go sweat it all out?  Is it worth a few pounds?

My hair is naturally curly, and admittedly, relatively “easy” as hair goes, but I still think about the hair styling issue when I’ve taken the time to flat-iron it or need to plan doing my hair into my schedule for the day.  Running or weight-training isn’t too bad – a ponytail, a headband, a bandana can keep the strands pretty orderly. But a swim or even a stop in the sauna and I’ve got to start all over.  I’ve found, however, that a rinse with water and a dollop of conditioner will hold a pulled back bun just fine until I settle down and wash my hair properly.

Thus, Gina faces the same question. Her boyfriend is sure that running this marathon will convince Gina’s mother about their commitment to each other.  But Gina’s hair appointment schedule is suggesting maybe there’s a better way. Granted, the workout outfit is cute, but still – the hair!

This all brings me to the Philly Natural Hair Show this weekend. I’ll be in the Literary Nook with Gina, Cookie, Sherry, and Laura enjoying Life in Spades – and hopefully picking up a few hair tips for us all!

Share in the Comments: How do you manage your hair and your workout?



Maya Angelou – May Your Wings Fit You Well

I imagine that everyone will have a say on the passing of Maya Angelou.  A quote from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a line from Phenomenal Woman or And Still I Rise or some other favorite poem.  That includes me, just my thread to add to the story quilt of memories about this amazing woman.

On my list of life regrets, will always be that I never took her class at Wake Forest. Even though I was in graduate school for my MBA, it seemed like a thing I should do – wander over to the lecture hall and sit in, and listen to this legendary writer who shaped American literature and gave a unique voice to the African-American story.  In my first year, by the time I found out that THE Maya Angelou was a professor on campus, she wasn’t teaching. Then in my second, well… you always think there will be time, right? As another option, I imagined just walking over to her house (Winston-Salem is only so big, how hard could it be to find) and having a glass of tea while listening to her rumbling voice tell stories and sing poems.

I was fortunate enough, however, to see her speak once or twice. Something she said in one of her talks makes me smile whenever I have to speak in public. She said, “when you get nervous, just sing.”  And then she sang this little song about there always being a rainbow in the cloud.  Well, if there’s anything worse for me than speaking in public, it’s singing. But this makes me laugh to myself whenever I stand in front of a crowd and I smile and relax, so I guess her suggestions works just the same.

I’ve shed a few tears today, for I feel like I lost a friend.  But whenever I get a little nervous, I hum a little melody-less tune and hear her voice, reminding me to sing.

Dr. Maya Angleou – we pray that your wings are gonna fit you well.  Rest in peace.

May 28, 2014



A Raisin In The Sun

What happens to a dream deferred?

I had the pleasure of seeing Raisin in the Sun on Broadway this past weekend. Set aside for a moment the fact that Denzel Washington stars as Walter Lee Younger, our flawed dreamer. The message of the Langston Hughes poem and the play that expands on the question is one that we each must answer.

For me, it was perfect timing, as I celebrate this week the 1-year mark of publishing Life in Spades, my debut novel. This idea of being a published author, was for a long time, a dream put off, set aside, unrealized.  It’s a dream that I’m still in, that is becoming more true everyday.

In brief, Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, Raisin in the Sun, is about a working class family, who upon the death of the father, is the recipient of a $10,000 insurance benefit payment. This sudden influx of cash allows everyone to dream, for a moment. The mother embraces the idea of a garden. Walter Lee, the adult son, married with a son of his own, wants more than out of life than driving rich White men around and, instead hopes to own his own business. Beneatha, the adult daughter, wants to be a doctor. And Ruth, Walter’s faithful wife?  We interestingly never hear directly what her hopes are, other than moving out of the apartment that they all share.

The play explores this idea – what happens when we feel constricted and restrained in our dreams? What does it do to a person to see everybody else being able to fulfill their potential, and they are stuck doing the same thing they did yesterday and the same thing they will do tomorrow? How does a man define himself, see himself, when he can’t provide for his family in the way that he wants to? And what does it mean for a woman to support her husband in his desires, and at what cost to her? In the play, we see how when 1 person’s dreams seem just beyond their grasp, how their frustration, turmoil, and emotional pain can affect every life around him.

Think about this in terms of our own lives. What dreams are we holding onto, not sure how, if ever, we will ever attain them? In not pursuing our dreams, whether because of fear or lack of resources and opportunity, there is a change in who we are. Perhaps the frustration makes us blind to other options. Perhaps the pain causes us to lash out at the people we love. We can’t celebrate the success of others because we are filled with jealousy of their achievements.   Does the idea of a dream deferred answer the question of what’s going on in our inner cities? Are those who commit crimes and use drugs trying to achieve something they don’t seem to be able to do in a legitimate manner?  What happens to our heart and soul when we feel that we are not all that we could be?

When dreams do not seem to ever come true, do we at some point stop dreaming at all? Or, as Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry suggest, do we explode?

Looking for Family in the National Archives

I recently read an article in the Washington Post about the documents verifying sale and “shipment” of Solomon Northrup, the author of the memoir, and now Oscar winning film, 12 Years a Slave.

The excitement, and validation, of reading an ancestor’s name written in that old-style, curly, elegant handwriting, on a century’s old document reminded me of my experience as a part-time, amateur genealogists conducting my own family research. I literally almost screamed when I finally found my family listed in census records, and cried when I eventually located the actual marriage certificate of my great-grandparents, bearing their “X”s, in a courthouse in Virginia. Even my mother was impressed. I mention the idea of knowing your family’s history in my novel, Life in Spades, as one of the characters tours a family plantation.

Check local courthouses for personal records such as marriage licenses, birth certificates, and death records.

Check local courthouses for personal records such as marriage licenses, birth certificates, and death records.

In case you have been inspired to look up your family, here are a few lessons learned from my time spent in the National Archives and country courthouses.

The Census is a good place to start, to give you a general picture of where people were when and with whom. The records will tell you who is in the household – head of family, spouse, children, anyone else living there, family or not, and all their personal data – age and/or birthday, occupation, race, number of children, etc. This information is free in the National Archives and you get to use those microfiche skills you learned in school that you always wondered when you would ever use (yes, I’m telling my age there).

The 1900 Census provides plenty of personal date: names, relationships, race, age, place of birth, relationships, occupation, literacy, and home ownership.

The 1900 Census provides plenty of personal date: names, relationships, race, age, place of birth, relationships, occupation, literacy, and home ownership.

Select which side of your family you are going to work on – maternal or paternal, before you even start your research. Write out in chronological order as much information as you know – names, ages, cities lived in, spouses, children. Make notes of information you aren’t clear on – “maybe married” “about 25 years old.” On my first days sitting in the National Archives, I became very frustrated not being able to find anything about anybody, but finally realized I was looking in the wrong cities at the wrong times for the wrong people.

Look for spelling changes of surnames, especially with foreign names. Genealogy data is often coded by what the Last name sounds like, the “Soundex” code, because spelling changes and can be recorded “incorrectly” over time. For instance – the surname “Johnson” may be coded the same as “Jonson,” “Johanson,” and “Jonsen.”

Organize everything. I had a binder and folders, with a tab and sections for each family name. I kept a family tree, that I updated, in the front of the binder. Once you get through several generations and several branches, it can get confusing. Especially once you realize that folks in each generation were all named after the same ancestors. Our family has at least one James, Joseph, and William on every branch. If you are using a software system (and I advise that you do if you are doing this seriously) each person will be given a code to distinguish between granddad Samuel, Uncle Sam, and cousin Sammy.

Use blank census forms for note-taking.

Use blank census forms for note-taking.

Read several pages from your family’s census listing. Old census were taken by a person who went from house to house, so above and below your family will be their neighbors. It was common for families to stay near each other, or perhaps, you will find that your ancestor married their neighbor – now you have all of the “in-laws” information, too. As an added bonus, you may find the census taker’s notes on the records; I have one with “Mulberry Street” scribbled along the side.

Use several sources to verify information. Just because your family name is Blacksmith and you find a Blacksmith in the records, look for other proof that that is your family. Ages, occupations are pieces of information that can help.

Use historical data and maps to help you figure out your story. Searching for records in Richmond, Philadelphia? It would be helpful to know when there were major battles and what buildings and records were lost in fires. Male ancestors in their late teens or twenties during the 1910s, 1940s? You might look for military records, too. This one stumped me – why don’t the older relatives have Social Security numbers? I’ll let you do the research on that one.

Make some smart assumptions and follow that lead. I found a deed of sale for a parcel of land, purchased by a White man with the same name as several of my ancestors in the county my family is from, in 1880.  County records list the property as a plantation.  Is this the home and employer, or plantation and owner, of my father’s ancestors?

Land records provide useful information about location and ownership.

Land records provide useful information about location and ownership.

Fill in your statistical date with family stories from your living relatives. The records will show your family moved from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, but your relatives will tell you why. Your research may spark some memories, hopefully pleasant ones. And the stories will add life to your research.  Who knows, all your notes and research may become your next book.

Are you inspired or have you already started researching your family? Let me know in the Comments.

Good Rules for Bookclubs

One thing I’ve really enjoyed since publishing Life in Spades is meeting with bookclubs. I’ve not had a group yet that didn’t have a good discussion about not just what was going on in Gina, Cookie, Laura, and Sherry’s lives, but how all that resonated with them and the glimpses of their own lives.

This weekend, I met with a group that calls themselves the Diverse Divas and they each have a Diva name, such as “Bossy Diva,” “Quiet Diva”, “Deputy Diva”, and “The Diva”; the host was “Foxy Diva.” That was really fun – and has me pondering what would be my diva name? The group has been together almost 10 years and reads across genres. As the meeting went on, I realized that there were actually some rules to this group – much more than my own bookclub. Some of the other groups I’ve met with also had rules for the club.

If you are in a club, starting one, or trying to restore some order to your’s – here’s some of the rules I’ve come across in various book clubs.

-The first person to arrive, receives a prize. From whom? The last person to arrive, due at the next meeting.

- Anyone who doesn’t read the book, pays the hostess a fine.

- Specific genre for book selections ( my book club generally reads women of color)

- A designated person provides discussion questions – could be the hostess or another member

- An application process for membership

- A membership fee (not sure what it covers, perhaps refreshments?)

- Bookclub t-shirt/attire for group outings

- The person who suggests a book must have already read the book

What other rules does your bookclub have? What rules should your bookclub have?

By |February 25th, 2014|Bookclubs|0 Comments

There is a Somebody for Everybody

Love of a lifetime. Soulmate. Perfect match. Complete me.  The one.  Our Valentine.

It’s what we’re all looking for – that one person in the world who was made gloriously and divinely just for us.  From our time as children when we were told of that one special prince who showed up with the magic kiss to awaken the princess, we’ve been convinced and assured that there is someone out there just for us.

How do we find that one person? Is it fate, dumb luck, happenstance?  If you hadn’t gone into that bar that night, would you have met him at the grocery store check-out line instead?  Did you find love alphabetically, being assigned to sit behind her in history class?  What if your parents would’ve decided to move to the next town over and you went to a different high school, would you have somehow ended up at the same college?  Was it the one time that you believed that your co-worker was a good matchmaker and accepted his offer to meet his friend with a great personality?  Or was it the precisely accurate bio and great photo on your online profile that attracted the perfect match?

We’re driven to find that person because we believe that’s the one who is going to be the other part to fulfilling the romantic part of our lives.  What if the prince never found the one girl who fit the glass slipper?  Because so much of who we are does, I believe, depend on with whom we spend our time and our life.  We each need someone in our life who supports our dreams, but will also help us see reality, too.  To be our full selves, we have to have a life partner who sees our vision and is not threatened by our hopes.  We each need someone who will be there when we laugh, whether they get the joke or not, and stay there when we cry, even if they don’t feel the same pain.

They may not like the same food we like or share the same hobbies.  They may sit back and let us dance, run while we walk, sleep when we’re up at dawn. That’s okay. We can’t get caught up because we and our partner don’t like everything exactly the same.  The question is, are they there when we need them?  All the other stuff aside – can you trust them to catch you when you are about to fall and hold your hand when your moving forward?

It’s human and natural to want to find that one. Though, often times, when we’re single we act like we don’t need anybody and when we’re coupled we act like we could live without the other person.  But, no matter what we say – we are all meant to have another side, someone to balance us out.  It is why, after creating all the other creatures on earth, God finally made Eve. Because Adam was lonely and needed a mate.  And for each of us, I do believe that there is somebody.

Share in the Comments: If you are coupled – how did you meet your somebody?  If you are single – where are you looking?

The Soundtrack for Life

What songs are in your life's soundtrack?

What songs are in your life’s soundtrack?.

“There’s a soundtrack for Life in Spades?” People have asked when I mention certain songs that relate to the characters.  Yes, there is music mentioned throughout the book as the women work through their challenges of love and family.  And yes, there is particular music I think of in my own head when I consider Gina, Laura, Sherry, and Cookie’s stories.

While I’m working on a writing project, whether my next book or blog post, I listen to the Life in Spades ”soundtrack”, as well as other music I’ve pulled up on my iPod or Slacker.  Depending on whether I’m writing, editing, re-reading, or trying to get over a stumbling block, yes, the genre changes.  Although I can write to Bruno Mars, I have to edit with instrumental in the background.

Music plays such a key piece in our lives, so it’s not surprising really that it would play a part in our creativity and productivity.  Every major life event has a song.  Birthdays, weddings, holidays.  Even births invoke certain songs – Isn’t She Lovely? – as do deaths – Precious Lord, Take My Hand.  Getting on the school bus, whistling on our way to work, going to bed after a long day.  And just as we celebrate life’s milestones with song, our memories are triggered by music, too.  What song did your mother hum to you as a kid?  Where were you when the Thriller video premiered? (And if you are not old enough to have that as a living, specific memory, well, just keep that to yourself.)  What was your first music concert?  What grade, who were your friends?

It was a source of entertainment to consider what music Gina, Laura, Sherry, and Cookie would be listening to as they got together for a game of spades, went out for happy hour, and swept across the dance floor.  It also gave my brain another creative puzzle to figure out.

Sam Cooke crooning “You’re nobody unless somebody loves you,” spoke to Laura’s feelings as she struggles with her feelings about being a professional escort and what that meant for her personal life.  Later, Porgy & Bess illustrated the universal choice of choosing the man who loves you versus the one who can provide things that you think you want.  Cookie’s heart recognizes that love may be lost, but there are second chances and that’s okay, as David sings to her from the music festival stage.  As Sherry gulps a drink, sure that all she wants is to dance with somebody, we wonder, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?”  And what is playing on Gina’s iPod as she runs behind Alex. Is life really, so simply “Black & White”?

Music in our own lives is fun, it’s memories, it’s a time marker.  In Life In Spades, it serves as mood and texture for who the women are.  As the author, it kept me humming along as they bopped and shimmied along onto the page.  I hope my readers feel like tapping their feet along to their story, too.


Share in the Comments – What songs mark important moments in your life?

An Afternoon of Books & Lunch at Busboys & Poets

I don’t know what took me so long, but I finally made my way to Busboys & Poets.  I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Andy Shalal, the owner, at the Hurston Wright Awards, and my daughter had studied the Harlem Renaissance in school recently; I took these as signs to visit the namesake restaurant for one of the premiere writers of the era, Langston Hughes.

Busboys & Poets, Washington DC

Busboys & Poets, Washington DC

The restaurant is cozy, reminding one of a friend’s chic dining room, that is, if you had a friend who had 20 or so tables and modern art hanging in their dining room.  There were proper tables, as well as pillow-laden couches surrounding low coffee tables as dining options.  We enjoyed a delicious meal – including a great crabcake. And being from Maryland, Baltimore specifically with a good amount of time on the Eastern Shore, I am a bit of a crabcake snob.  This one was truly meaty and tasty.  For dessert, my daughter ordered the vegan cookie and ice cream. She’s not a vegan, but for some reason, likes vegan cookies.  And for a vegan cookie, it was really pretty good; so much so that I’m looking for a recipe to try at home.  (Feel free to share if you have one.)


Pesto Lasagna @ Busboys & Poets

Shrimp & Crab Fritters

Shrimp & Crab Fritters @Busboys & Poets

Crabcake sandwich

Crabcake sandwich @Busboys & Poets

Vegan cookie & vanilla ice cream

Vegan cookie & vanilla ice cream @Busboys & Poets

After lunch, we hung around in the bookstore part.  I get e-books, and of course, Life in Spades is available on Kindle and nook, but there’s something about physical, touchable, flippable pages.  I am one of those dinosaurs who still wander to the bookstore to kill time and walk out with a stack of books.  As we did this time.  I was excited to be in a book space filled with writing by people of various races and nationalities.

A selection of books at Busboys & Poets

A selection of books at Busboys & Poets

And something I haven’t done in years? I bought a book of poetry.  I love poetry, but admittedly, sadly, rarely buy poetry books.  I picked up Jamaal May‘s debut collection, Hum, and look forward to folding myself into a chair with a cup of tea and gliding through his words.  I also bought Hannah Weyer‘s On the Come Up and James McBride‘s The Good Lord Bird to add to my to-read pile.

As far as hanging out with your kid moments? I enjoyed having my daughter along.  Like me, she’s a reader and has commented before on the lack of diversity in teen books.  There was a bookcase of young adult/teen reads, from which she selected a couple of books.  I was excited to see that she was learning about the Harlem Renaissance in school – the cultural history and the literature.  She knows of the Cotton Club, Hughes, and learned to do the Charleston.  I wonder if I had been exposed, if I had known about Black authors when I was in middle school or high school, what would I have done with that knowledge?

Selection of books, including teen/young adult, at Busboys & Poets

Our reading stack from Busboys & Poets

For one, I would’ve been introduced to Janie and Teacake much sooner in my life.  But at least, I’ve also finally made it to Eatonville, named in honor of Zora Neale Hurston and located across the street from Busboys & Poets.  We enjoyed a delicious dinner there (I had the pecan pie for dessert) last month.

I’m happy to check both of these local “must do’s” off the list – and to return to both soon.

Chocolate Cake with Caramel Latte Frosting

One of the most common questions I get while promoting Life in Spades – whether at bookclubs or book festivals or (wo)manning my booth at a community event – is “are any of the characters based on you?”  The lovelorn baker, the don’t-wanna-be marathon runner, the divorcee, or the escort?  Nah.  All these friends climbed out of my imagination.  But that’s not to say that we don’t share some of the same characteristics, likes and dislikes.

Cookie, for instance, does have a dream job.  Baking all day in her self-owned bakery?  Would love it!  Absolutely.  During the holidays, I step into the full-time baker role. I don my apron, stack up my recipes (I often make the same cakes and pies, but have a terrible memory for recipes), pour myself a drink, and start baking.  My regulars are red velvet cake, pound cake, sweet potato, pecan and apple pies.  I supplement those according to my mood at the time – carrot cake, peanut butter cake, Hummingbird cake, upside down cake.  I really like the ten-layer Smith Island Cake, but haven’t made that in a while.


Chocolate cake is my ultimate favorite cake – chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, with chocolate ganache, with chocolate shavings… Get it?  But as much as I love it, well, I don’t need to eat too much of it or my next most popular activity will be buying new clothes.  I did however make a chocolate cake to bring in the new year.

I used a chocolate cake recipe from Southern Living, which has great, full-butter, all-sugar recipes from before the trend of healthy, low-fat, reduced sugar baking. And, as always, had to experiment with some aspect of it, so I went with the frosting.  Sitting on the kitchen counter was a new package of Caramel Crème Latte Drink Mix I had just unpacked from a Tastefully Simple order, so I decided to make Caramel Latte Frosting.

Use flavored coffee drink mix for a delicious cake frosting.

Use flavored coffee drink mix for a delicious cake frosting.

Caramel Latte Frosting

Mix the following together – in your mixer or by hand, your preference.  Makes enough to frost a 2-layer cake.

  • 2 sticks – butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1 pound – confectioners’ sugar
  • ¼ cup – Tastefully Simple Caramel Crème Latte drink mix.  Adjust to taste.  You could also try another powdered coffee mix you have on hand, for instance, International Cafe or something similar.
  • 1 tsp – vanilla
  • a few tablespoons of milk – for desired consistency

This tastes delicious with chocolate cake. Especially for people who may not like or want chocolate on chocolate.

Enjoy a slice with a hot cup of coffee.  And a good book.

When Your Muse Takes a Break

You’re going along, tapping away on your keyboard or scribbling in your notebook, the story, the words, the ideas are coming to you at a good, creative pace.  And then all the sudden – your characters sit languidly on the couch, they drive down the street just staring out the window, or they take a nap. Now what?

When it seems that my beautiful writing muse has taken a lunch break, I need something to call her back, or at least a substitute until she returns.  I’ve found a few useful techniques to get the story going again.

Read what you’ve already written.  Maybe you are in a “no edit” mode, but this doesn’t violate that rule.  Reading over what you already have might show a hole in your plot or raise your own question of “why’d they do that?” or “how did they get there?”  Filling in the answers will get your brain cells firing for a while and then may push you to the next point in your writing.

Read something else – a book, the newspaper, the comics.  I have no scientific evidence of such, but I believe reading other materials gets your brain cells working, too, and often an idea, possibly not related at all to what you just read, will fly your way from left field.  But sometimes it is related.  Perhaps reading about the Ravens game on Sunday, you will decide to send your character out to throw a football with his son. Or his girlfriend. Or kick the relationship to the curb.  Or grab a crabcake for lunch on his way to Edgar Alan Poe’s house.

Consider writing prompts.  Elementary school teachers use them, so they must be good.  Prompts are generic suggestions of situations for your character or plot to spur your creativity.  There’s books, there’s online sites full of them. I’ve posted some on my Pinterest page.  For each story, for each writer, the prompt will veer the story into its own path.  For instance, a prompt may say “a stranger offers your character something to eat or drink.” In one story, the character may be a young girl who shrinks and wanders down a rabbit hole; in another, a man may be meeting the love of his life at a bar; yet another, the main character may awaken days later to find a tiger in his bathroom.  Or perhaps, your character will be the stranger.

Refer to writing prompts to get your creativity going again.

Refer to writing prompts to get your creativity going again.

Describe your surroundings.  Whether in a coffee shop or sitting in your office, describe what you see.  What kind of chair are you sitting on? Who else is in the room or area with you? What do you smell, hear?  Describe someone who has just walked by.  Where are they going, what are they leaving?  You’d be surprised what characters might walk into your next story.  Indeed, this is how I found “Michael” in my novel, Life in Spades.  He walked in and sat next to me in a train station.

Take a break, too. When the muse is gone, don’t futilely beat your head against the keyboard.  Hit “save” and walk away.  Check Twitter, see what your friends are doing on Facebook, go for a walk, call your mother, fix yourself a drink. Do something totally not related to the story. I’ve been happily surprised when the “perfect” line or turn of plot comes to me while swimming laps or wandering through the grocery store picking up dinner.  Sometimes your muse wants to sneak up on you and it can’t do that when you’re sitting there looking for her.

Will everything you right using these techniques be part of your next great novel? Not necessarily. But neither is whatever you were going to right while trying to break through your writer’s block. Perhaps, though, it will intrigue your muse enough to wander back and peek over your shoulder.  And if all that doesn’t work? Eat chocolate.


Share any other techniques to get your ideas going in the Comments below.