My Stupid Human Trick is the ability to list the kings and queens of England from 1066.
I devour books on English history. One of the many reasons Julie and I are so compatible is our shared anglophilia. Between us, we’ve been to England five times and yearn for more, though we’d also thought of visiting Westphalia in Germany, my ancestral Vaterland.
Imagine my surprise when she came home from work and suggested a trip to Paris for her fiftieth birthday. Not for the boutiques of the Champs d’Elysees, but for the royal mausoleum of St. Denis, and the long buried walls of the original Louvre.
If Julie wasn’t demonstrably smarter and more attractive than me, I’d think she was the same person.
At the same time that she decided she’d like to visit France, I was reading Queen of the Conqueror by Tracy Borman. “Conqueror,” of course, refers to William the Conqueror, the first king of the modern line of English monarchs. But he wasn’t English. Never learned contemporary English. Didn’t much care for the English. He was from Normandy, which is in France.
I had already started writing as therapy for insomnia caused by a stressful career gone hopelessly sideways. To reduce my anxiety—and gut—I took daily walks through Denver’s lovely old neighborhoods. I imagined the amorous X-rated activity going on behind the expensive lacquered oak doors.
A particularly ugly Neo-Modern in Wash Park inspired the raunchy story of a middle-aged woman in an open marriage seducing her college-aged neighbor. Julie said, “Ooh, I wanna try!” (Writing, not seducing). She added her own fun ideas to the story, and our writing skills and sex life vastly improved.
With dramatic scenes from Queen of the Conqueror and a trip to France in my mind, I decided to write about it. When I told Julie, she immediately said, “I’m in,” and began doing research.
Julie finished Queen of the Conquerer and we talked seriously about how to bring the Duke and Duchess of Normandy to life. William and Matilda’s Norman empire inspired us to fictionalize their lives and to build our own literary empire: a dozen M.J. Ortmeier books at the top of the bestseller lists, adapted into movies and Netflix series. At the 2025 Pulitzers, Julie would lunch with Eloisa James and I would graciously accept membership into the Rock Bottom Remainders from Stephen King.
William and Matilda, Michael and Julie, working towards their conquests. The Conqueror wasn’t humble, either, and look where it got him.
The words, the stories, fly from our fingers. Several of William and Matilda’s family and friends have great stories of their own. Talvas the Ogre splits into its own short story, as does Mabel de Bellême. Crafted, sanded, and polished we sent Talvas out into the world as our first experiment in self-publishing.
Telling the world what we’re trying to do necessitated Facebook, Twitter, and our own website. Mabel is being slowly serialized on mjortmeier.com. The learning curve of digital publishing and social media promotion is steep. It’s obvious we still have a great deal to learn, but holding an actual copy of Talvas the Ogre in our hands makes us feel we’re onto something.
The world of the Normans continues to grow, as does the world centered around Mark and Jen Oberg, the couple in the tawdry bit of erotica we used to practice and stretch our creative muscles in. We first called it Animal Instincts, but it’s evolved into Higher Minds, a complex, full-length novel that has 85% less tawdriness.
Our first submission to a literary agent resulted in a polite and encouraging boilerplate rejection. Silence is the normal form of rejection in the querying process, so we kept the email as a trophy. We’ll frame it and hang it in the study of the summer house in the Contentin. Whoops, caught me daydreaming again.
A series of spinoffs have emerged and are quickly taking shape. We’re calling the second one Better Natures. The first draft is more than halfway done.
As a team, Julie and I have only gotten better and stronger. Like our twenty year marriage, we are filling in the gaps for each other and killing it in the areas where we both excel. We’re gonna build the empire on our love! Adorable, right?
Yeah, we know, it doesn’t work that way. If we want an empire, if we mean business, then we have to be tough on each other. Julie knows just when and how to boost my ego when I’m feeling defeated and unappreciated. I nimbly follow her when she zig zags from one idea to the next, indecisive and plagued with self doubt.
These tricks have kept our marriage strong, but for the business of building the empire? The slaps stung at first. “What do you mean it won’t work? I worked a week on this chapter and it’s genius! You just don’t get it.”“But I don’t want to work on that story anymore. You can’t make me.”
It’s gotten easier to stifle hurt feelings because our critical skills are keeping us on task and making us better.
We still have to keep those annoying jobs that pay the bills. One day we’ll teach our employers a lesson for giving us money in exchange for work, but until that glorious day we have to write, edit, promote, and—horrifyingly—leave our comfort zone and talk to strangers on our own time.
Julie works mornings and I work evenings, so weekends are a flurry of collaboration. The work we’ve done separately during the week is discussed and critiqued, then incorporated or ditched. Lots of texts are exchanged like <Thoughts?> and <Interesting, but I don’t see it going that way>. Texting is not the best format for discussion.
Book signings and critique groups usually occur on weeknights, which makes it difficult for a couple of introverts to be active in the community. She’s shy, and I’m working and unable to push her out the door. Really, we allow our schedules to be convenient excuses to beg off, but there’s difficult challenges even in dream jobs. William couldn’t take Matilda to Hastings, Julie has to go alone to the Belmar Critique Group. Their spouses will be sent for later.
I’m sitting here now in the comfy writing chair (coveted by the both of us), groggy from last night’s Ambien, wounded by another rejection, languishing in that job that Sting perfectly described as a humiliating kick in the crotch. Paris doesn’t seem any closer, maybe even further away than it ever was. William stewed in Rouen, rejected from what was promised to him.
The next step is to call it a day. It was fun while it lasted, but it was never meant to be. I’ll wince a little less every year when I hear “Paris.”
No. That path is easier and much too well-worn. The next step is on that tougher, longer path, but it points towards Paris. Through more rejection and heartache. Sharing it with Julie, my best friend, my everything, bolsters my courage, tamps down familiar trepidation.
Refill the Ambien. M.J. Ortmeier are just getting started.
Michael and Julie write separately, but when they write together they are...M.J. Ortmeier!