May Reads – Midnight, Texas series

Charlaine Harris writes my kind of candy: small towns filled with weird, diverse characters who have depth and appeal, with an element of the supernatural to keep things interesting. I gobbled down the Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood series on a gloriously hot Memorial day weekend. I was on vacation in St. Simon’s Island and ended up not seeing much of it.  The shorter Harper Connelly series went by in a flash. I can’t remember when I read it, only that I longed for more. Rumors still fly that it’ll be a series on HBO. I’ve got my finger crossed.

So it’s probably no surprise that her latest series is my May read. The third book came out at the beginning of the month and I’m already scouring the web hoping for rumors of the next one. The series feels like Harris is having fun, collecting left over characters from other books and plopping them down in the improbable small town of Midnight, Texas. Harper Connelly’s favorite psychic friend, Manfred lives on the corner. He’s two doors down from Sookie Stackhouse’s ex-boyfriend the weretiger, Quinn. Somehow a town of less than a dozen permanent residents contains vampires, assassins, witches, murders, angels, and few normal seeming folks who aren’t all that normal.

Each book brings the townspeople together to confront a ‘big bad’. The big bads range from the mundane to the almost unbelievable but the battles and confrontations always ring true. The very small town functions as a sort of extended family – a diverse family with people of various colors, sexualities, and ages who all want to keep to themselves. That never works, and each book shows us another towns-person having to reveal secrets or share parts of their past they hoped would never come to light.

One of the things I enjoy so much about this series is the very different ways everyone has of handling things. When a murderer is discovered in town responses range from ‘call the cops’ to ‘let me get my gun’. Each chapter is told from a different person’s point of view and I enjoy seeing each person thinking through the goings on. The only character who doesn’t enjoy a chapter of is own is the wonderfully grumpy talking house cat (who reminds me a lot of my rabbit editor).

When I ran into another Charlaine Harris fan at my local book store we enjoyed a good long talk about all the hidden references to other books. The stories do stand on their own though. I had no idea the pawnshop owner came from another book series – one Harris wrote that doesn’t have any supernatural aspects. I’d never read any of those books, but the character still felt fully developed.

The books won’t help meet my goal of reading more books about people who have disabilities as I talked about in a previous blog. Everyone is fully able bodied and even the character who endured serious abuse as a child seems completely free of mental issues. These books aren’t going to change the world, but they are fun. I hope I get to read more like them.

Renaissance Festival Fun

I use reenactments and historic society gathering as research.  When I’m writing about WWII era life or fourteenth century Germans I find reenactors give me a more real life perspective on the time. It’s the difference between knowing people wove cloth and seeing someone weave cloth on a reproduction loom. Reenactments are a great way to see a fairly close to realistic piece of history.

Renaissance festivals are the opposite. They’re not concerned with realism or even getting things pretty close to right. You’ll pass a tent set up as a Victorian tea shop on your way to one selling medieval garb made of rayon and nylon. Ren Fests, as they’re lovingly called, are all about having a good time. Most Fests pursue this with abandon, setting up multiple drinking areas, usually in the shade of a large tree. A band will play, and the songs may stray into bawdy drinking ballads. It’s probably the closest thing you’ll find to live Dungeons and Dragons game – assuming you’re not into LARP (Live Action Role Play). When the Georgia Renaissance Festival opened back in April I took advantage of the first cool sunny day to check it out.

I was stunned by how very anachronistic and clearly out-to-have-a-good-time the Georgia Renn Fest was. The Fest holds a series of themed weekends – pirate weekend, Celtic weekend and so on. My visit fell on pet weekend, which also happened to be time travelers’ weekend, which I’m sure explains (some how) the Batmobile parked out front:

It played a series of audio clips from the 1970s Adam West Batman tv show. For a small fee you could get your photo taken inside.

It played a series of audio clips from the 1970s Adam West Batman tv show. For a small fee you could get your photo taken inside.

Pets were on display, but not the type I expected. I imagined large dogs like dire wolves, parrots on pirates’ shoulders, and maybe a well placed iguana or two. Instead, I saw all sorts of fairy dogs wearing wings. There were scary fairy dogs with gargoyle-like wings and pretty princess pugs with light gossamer wings.

Bat Dog on the right, winged-something dog on the left.

Bat Dog on the right, winged-something dog on the left.

And then there were the Ghostbusters:

 They brought their dog too. He’s in a Ghostbusters uniform, but couldn’t sit still for the photo. I couldn’t blame him.


They brought their dog too. He’s in a Ghostbusters uniform, but couldn’t sit still for the photo. I couldn’t blame him.

The Fest offered an array of distractions, like any sort of food you could imagine served on a stick. My favorite was the macaroni and cheese on a stick. Deep fried cheesy nuggets of pasta skewed and served up hot is my new favorite once a year indulgence. On the other side of a grassy area a unicorn waited for someone to purchase hay for a dollar. Feeding the majestic white pony with a wooden horn attached to its head felt like an act of kindness. Not petting the bunnies next door in the petting zoo felt equally compassionate. A reptile group displayed a menagerie of rescued animals, including a tortoise who plodded about with a bucket on his back accepting tips.

Fire eaters, mud throwers, and a belly dancer who danced on a bed of nails rounded out the entertainment. I skipped the jousting match, but enjoyed the glass blower demonstration, as well as the women spinning wool. I almost came home with a wicked looking dagger, but the “Made in China” sticker stopped me at the last minute. If you’re in the area, or if you’re lucky enough to have a Ren Fest in your area, I heartily recommend spending an afternoon as part of the foolishness. It’s a good time, even if it isn’t realistic or really educational.

 

Is your hero a jerk?

I’ve found some of my favorite authors by judging a writing contest each year in the spring. I’ve been a judge for several years now, but I’ve never seen this many “jerk” entries. That’s my pet name for romances where the hero is, deep down, a jerk. Thus I give you, signs your hero might be a jerk:

Your hero doesn’t let his heroine make decisions.
It doesn’t matter how he does it, withholding information is just as bad as sharing but ignoring her opinion. In either case, or any other situation you can think of, not letting an adult decide what will happen with their life makes you a jerk. I recently threw a book across the room because the hero refused to share with the heroine what was happening to her. He’d turned her into a vampire, but he wouldn’t say what that meant or how it would happen. While she (literally) sat in the dark wondering, he set up a car accident to fake her death, bought new clothes for her, and generally decided how her life would go. Jerk.

Your hero decides what the couple will do. All. The. Time.
The heroine wants to talk through an issue; the hero wants to have sex. They end up having sex instead of talking. The heroine wants to run errands; the hero wants to go to the game. They go to the game. Partnerships require communication and compromise. The hero picking every activity, meal, and sometimes even the heroine’s clothes isn’t fair. I don’t mean the hero should always do what the heroine wants. In The Mermaid and the Murders, the hero turns down sex, twice. Both times Danika, the heroine, is ready, willing, and excited, but the hero, Sam, isn’t. Now if Danika was a jerk, she’d insist or belittle him. She doesn’t. She’s still frustrated but she talks to him about why he said no, eventually coming around to his point of view. A hero who turns aggressive or pouts when he doesn’t get his way? He’s a jerk.

Your hero plays tricks or tries to catch the heroine in a lie.
People make mistakes and tell white lies. Accepting that and forgiving your partner is part of being in a healthy relationship. Tailing them to confirm they’re going out with who they say they’re going out with, using the “find my phone” feature to track them, or insisting they call you when they reach their destination is a jerk move. This behavior pops up in historic mysteries too. One of the books I judged had a hero who waited in the alley outside the heroine’s, watching her. Another set up a dinner where the guests could test the heroine’s knowledge of India to ‘help her’ prove she had really been there. If you’re hero can’t trust the heroine at all, he might be a jerk.

Your hero shouldn’t rape. Ever.
I hate that this has to be said, but I saw in two books this year. Here’s the deal – rape is an unforgivable crime. I can’t move past it to care for the hero. There are no circumstances where rape is okay. Not if the victim is a prostitute and the hero gives her extra money after the assault. Not if the hero uses supernatural powers to make the victim forget. Not if the hero is part of culture where rape is okay. There are no heroes who rape.

I’m not saying every man in a romance novel must be perfect – flaws make characters real. There’s a big difference between a flawed character and a jerk. A flawed person apologizes when they screw up. They recognize what they did was wrong and try not to do it again. They might not always succeed but their apology is meaningful and sincere. You can see that they’re making an effort to be better. The jerk doesn’t think he’s screwed up. He might apologize but it’s an insincere effort to get something. Maybe he’ll do something the heroine wants, once or twice, but always with the idea of quid-pro-quoi in mind.

I read romance to see a healthy relationship develop over the course of the book. I expect to see the couple talking, considering each other’s feelings, making decisions together, and generally working through their troubles to have a healthy, happy relationship. I don’t need them to be perfect people but I require kindness and respect.

Because at this point in my life, real heroes aren’t the guys with abs or bags of money; they’re the guys who do the dishes, take care of the kids, and remember my favorite flavor of ice cream. I’m more impressed by people who show they genuinely care. Diamonds are lovely, but taking the day off work to sit with me in a doctor’s office when I’m scared is priceless.

Of course not every guy is going to do that. It’s asking for a lot, but at least the guys in romance novels shouldn’t be jerks.

April’s Read: The Haunted Mansion Comic book

Disney’s Haunted Mansion #1, grab it from your local comic book before it disappears forever.

A year ago I committed to sharing one book recommendation a month on the 20th. I tend to read at least a book a week, some weeks I read three. Picking a good book to share wasn’t hard until I discovered Amazon samples for my Kindle.  Samples have changed the way I read.  Each one is free three chapter preview.  I find myself reading more and more samples, but buying fewer books. That’s because good samples end on a hook, leaving me desperate to buy the book while bad samples leave me wondering why anyone would bother.

It’s easy to eat up two or three hours on a dozen samples and not find something to read. Sometimes I read a sample so bad I give up on reading for a couple of days, like the one that claimed to be a ghost story about a teenage heroine who struggled with her father’s alcoholism. The sample turned out to be a historic piece written in archaic language by a girl pregnant with a demonic baby. That one drove me out of the virtual book store.

Haunted Mansion #2, a better story than the last dozen novel samples I read.

Thankfully I found myself in a comic book shop, and thus discovered this month’s read: a comic book. Not a fancy graphic novel with deep meanings and hidden allegories to the current political climate, but an actual slick fronted paper comic book. Despite its penny dreadful trappings the story – a young boy learns to be brave after the death of his grandfather – has really grabbed me.

It’s the Haunted Mansion’s story, and I don’t think you have to be fan of the ride (like me) to enjoy it. The second issue came out on the 20th, but the first is still available in most comic book stores. While the boy and his grandfather don’t come from the ride at all, most of the other characters and a good bit of dialogue do. I can’t wait to see how the story turns out and if the young man can muster up the courage to save his Grandfather’s ghost from being trapped in the Mansion forever.

 

 

The Mermaid and the Murders Cover Art Reveal

Meet my new friend, Danika, the mermaid:

A mermaid rests on the bottom of the ocean, stretching her hand out toward a dead body floating on the waves.

Isn’t it perfect?

I started writing Danika’s story as a way to reconnect to my memories from Key West, FL. Danika lives in a house I stayed in one summer. I was there as the hired help, but still enjoyed the private beach, boat dock, and three levels of ocean front porches. You could see pods of dolphins from the kitchen’s deck, they found their way into the story too.

As did some of the less than postcard worthy moments of my life like the ugly fights I had with my mother. I’m sure those aren’t unique to my teenage years, just as Danika struggles with lust and desire but wanting to do right thing aren’t unique to mermaids. Danika’s mistakes when she takes her driver’s license exam are pretty unique – uniquely mine. My driver’s ed teacher was the perfect model for her mean, loud, and unwilling-to-bend-on-mistakes teacher.

Danika’s last name came from a very dear friend of mine, a real life pirate who lived on a sail boat. One of my first feminist friends, the two of us talked long into the night about how young women’s’ sexuality is muzzled by society. Danika grew out of the conversations, long before I ever started writing her. She’s not thinking of marriage or finding true love, but craving passion and physical release. It was a lot of fun creating a world where the woman, not the man, is the sexual aggressor.

While sex and boys are on her mind Danika also loves books and learning. As the novel opens, she’s gulping down every bit of information she can get before her time on land runs out. Fitting in and never letting anyone know she’s a mermaid helps that time last longer. That’s what matters to her until the moment you see captured on the cover. When Danika finds a dead body on her reef she realizes sometimes you have to risk what you want to do the right thing.

The Mermaid and the Murders, Danika’s story, will be available for pre-order soon, and released worldwide on June 10th. I hope you all have as much fun reading it as I did writing it.

Editing myself out

Editing a novel involves a lot of back and forth with your editor. While you may burn the midnight oil to ensure that your email is waiting promptly when she gets into work it turns out that valiant lady of letters is working with other authors. Not only is she working with them, but sometimes she puts them before you.

Shocking.

Thankfully, a career as an author requires you to have multiple irons in the fire, or manuscripts on your desk as it might be. While I was waiting for the next round of edits for the Mermaid and the Murders, I was also editing Fire in Her Blood, the sequel to Under a Blood Moon. Flipping back and forth between the two books made me realize that editing is a bit like traveling back in time to talk to the person I used to be.

Manuscripts, like wine, must age before they can become books. Fire in Her Blood was drafted back in 2009. That was the year my beloved mother-in-law ended her twenty-eight year battle breast cancer. The manuscript was in its first revisions a year later when I buried my best girlfriend after a drunk driver took her life. It’s probably not surprising that the first draft was fairly obsessed with religion. Coming in at just over 160K words, in between tracking a serial arsonist my character visits a number of churches, arranges for her vampire boyfriend to attend a Catholic mass, argues with another cop about the difference between conservative and regular Southern Baptist congregations, and debates with her own partner about the Catholic belief in transubstantiation. She also ends up at a pair of pagan churches, one for the Fire Goddess, and one for the Air God.

None of the scenes were bad, but from a distance of seven years it’s clear that my own struggle with faith bleed out on to the page. I removed most of the religious overtones as I edited, taking the manuscript down to a much more reasonable 110K words. Then it went back to my editor, in hopes that she’ll like it enough to champion it for publication.

Meanwhile, she returned The Mermaid and the Murders back to me. Reading her notes I realized when I wrote it the balance of a personal desires over family needs was at the forefront of my mind. Danika, the mermaid of the title, wants to live her own life, away from her pod. It’s a choice her mother doesn’t agree with and they fight constantly. Through the course of the story Danika comes to realize that constantly having the same fight isn’t working. Instead she stands up for herself, weathers the consequences, and when the battle is over, finds peace with her choice. I’m not sure I’ve gotten to that part, but I know I sympathize with the way she feels pulled in both directions.

Early on in my career, I attended a great lecture at the RWA national conference. An award winning author told us all that putting your own emotions on the page gave the story depth and a realism that couldn’t be duplicated any other way. That’s a great idea, but I want to be sure I’m telling my characters’ story and not my own. I’m grateful to my editor for helping me pull back and lend my own experiences without over shadowing the story.

March Reads – Ellie Jordan Ghost Trapper

Ellie Jordan, Ghost Trapper cover

My search for books with disabled or minority characters wasn’t doing too well when I stumbled on to the Ellie Jordan, Ghost Trapper series by happy accident. One of the main characters, Calvin, is an ex-homicide cop who happens to use a wheelchair. Calvin is the brains behind the paranormal investigation firm. His wheelchair use is never the most important thing about him, and it never stops him from doing his job. When he drives too fast it’s because as an ex-cop he never worries about getting caught not because he isn’t using the regular gas pedal. Two things made his character great for me: first, how he came to be in a wheelchair isn’t even discussed in the first two books. We learn about him as a person, about his dog, the food he likes, and so on before we learn about his injury. Second, when we do learn about his injury the information is presented as fact, not a tear-jerking story or a reason to celebrate his accomplishments. Instead, the information comes out naturally, as part of the story.

A story I devoured like kettle corn. I’m three books into the series, and I’ve only known about it for a week. The books are filled with old-fashioned ghost stories. Bride ghosts who were wronged at the altar. Abandoned ghosts who have gone mad with loneliness. Addict ghosts who are still searching for a fix. And those none of those are the main ghost stories, they’re just fun side trips on the way to the really scary stuff.

The first novel, Ellie Jordan, Ghost Trapper, introduces Ellie, Calvin, and the newest recruit to their firm, a young  former beauty queen, Stacy. Stacy acts as a surrogate for the reader, asking all the questions we would want to ask. Ellie isn’t pleased with Stacy’s eager outlook but when what appears to be a simple haunting turns out to be multiple ghosts, including one with nasty ties to the occult, Stacy grows up and stands strong. In addition to the ghost story there’s some great interaction between Ellie and her client’s little girl who is terrorized by the haunting. The girl’s father is written as a jerk, a very believable misogynist sports-obsessed jerk. I give the author huge kudos for writing someone so unlikable and not torturing them. While I hoped the man who get his comeuppance, the more realistic ending was a better choice.

In the second novel, Cold Shadows, a family moves into a house where the toys play with themselves and water drips from dry ceilings.  This story repeated the best parts of the first one: Calvin giving advice, Ellie and Stacy relating to the clients with empathy, and the ghosts turning out to be bigger, darker, and scarier than they first let on. Trigger Warning/Mild Spoiler Alert – the ghosts in this story come with a history of spousal and child abuse. But this is handled well, without any apology or aggrandizing. The ghost family dynamic plays out while the ghost trappers struggle to free the live family from the haunting.

Cold Shadows over

In the third novel, The Crawling Darkness, we learn that Calvin was hurt on the job, shot by ghostly bullets that severed his spine. The ghost that created them is actually a Closet Monster, a literal boogeyman that feeds on fear. By this point in the series Ellie has opened up as a person, learning to trust her team members. She even takes Calvin’s advice to consider getting a personal life. Stacy shares more of her own background, revealing hidden strength and old scars. I was glad Calvin wasn’t magically healed through the battle with the entity. His disability didn’t get “fixed” in the end, just like Ellie didn’t get over her fear of fire.

I’m half-way through the series of six books, and I’m already sad there aren’t more. Set in historic Savannah with characters that feel like real people instead of cardboard cutouts and filled with scary ghosts, these are a fun read. They’re exactly my kind of candy.

Building a Brand

It’s common for authors to think of blogs as “building a brand”. It’s a phrase used in many blogging classes and conference sessions. The theory goes that while authors once sold stories, back in the olden days of the 1990s, now they sell themselves, their brand as an author.

If  I followed this notion, my blog would be a collection of posts that sold you what was unique about me, and how that point of view informed my writing. I’ve been advised by great agents and wonderful authors to consider things like: my disability, my take on feminism in fiction, and/or my pet rabbit.

The rabbit thing actually works.

The rest, I’m not so sure. I want my stories to be read. I can’t deny that, but I want them to be read because they’re good, because they resonate with people, or because they provide a glimpse into a world that makes readers happy. Books should be a mirror, showing you the best person you can be, or a window into another world. The interaction between a reader and a book may start with the author’s vision, but it shouldn’t end there.

Not long after Under a Blood Moon was published a reader asked how I would feel if someone thought Mallory was black. I’d be delighted. If a black reader identified with my character enough to think she wore the same skin color as they did, well, I’d count that as a win.

Because the book isn’t about me, and when someone reads it I don’t want to get in their way. I want the story to speak to them.

This blog was due to be posted on 3/15. It wasn’t.  I was editing, and working on a manuscript submission.  Thus I’m writing this on 3/28 and back dating it, which is cheating but, hopefully, the forgivable kind. I don’t want to cheat in my writing, but when it comes to my brand, I’m a little less concerned. My stories get first priority. Writing them to be the best they can be, polishing them, and making them immersive and real enough that people forget about me when they read are my goals. You might even say, that’s my brand.

My Blue Couch

In 2005, Tiger carried me over the threshold of our first single family home. The rental was small, and at $2450 a month it didn’t leave much for furnishings. We picked up a couch at Ikea, I don’t even remember the name of the style, just that we couldn’t pronounce it.

A little more than a year later I had a stroke on that couch. A few months after that I began writing a novel in the same place. In February of 2007 I wrote “The End” propped up against the couch’s cushions. It became a favorite place of mine. The marshmallow-y blue pillows held my laptop perfectly. Eventually, my rabbit editor learned that treats came more readily when he joined me on the couch. I wrote in the mornings, usually with a warm but unattractive robe over my pjs and the rabbit by my side.

An author and her editor (post breakfast)

We moved. We moved again. We moved again and again. We took the couch with us. When we finally bought a house we splurged on grown-up furniture. It didn’t come from Ikea. It wasn’t nearly as comfortable as my blue couch. I wrote there, but I found myself back on the blue couch, now regulated to a rarely used room.

The cushions tore, but I was superstitious and kept the couch. Our last move came in the middle of my embrace of minimalism. I got rid of antique family photos, heirlooms, and art. I kept the couch. It went back into the most used room, and I went back to writing on it each morning. But one tear made another, and I knew the couch would fall into piece during the next move, one that would take it several states away.

What I saw when I looked past my laptop, most mornings for the last decade or so.

What I saw when I looked past my laptop, most mornings for the last decade or so.

I posted it on craigslist, free to a good home, expecting no one would reply. I steeled myself to face facts, cheap couches don’t really last more than a decade. It needed to go to the dump. Instead last week a family came. They recently made America their home, traveling from the war-torn Middle East. They took a table and two chairs, a TV stand, an arm chair, and the blue couch. The torn cushions didn’t bother them, they were happy to cover it with a sheet. They thanked me for helping their family. I welcomed them to our country and wished them the best.

I miss that couch. Not going to lie, I was up at 5:41 this morning and knowing I didn’t have a blue couch with a rabbit sitting on the end made it harder to pull myself in front of the laptop. But the rabbit was there in the living room, happy to sit next to me on the newer, but still not-quite-comfortable, couch. I wrote, because couches aren’t magic, hard work is. But I’ll always smile when I think about the twelve books that came from ten years of good writing on that couch.

February Reads – Timothy Wilde Mysteries

I adore the Timothy Wilde series by Lyndsay Faye. It’s a great set of mysteries that teaches you more than a little about the history of the New York police department. It’s also a wonderful showcase for minorities including a main character with mental health issues. (warning this blog post has all sorts of spoilers for the series)

The first book, The Gods of Gotham, introduces Timothy Wilde, barely survives a great tenement fire and finds himself destitute and without a job. It seems no one wants to buy beers from a bartender so badly scarred they can’t stand to look at him. Without other prospects he joins the Copper Stars, the first New York City Policeman. Timothy is free of prejudice, having listened to the tales of drunks of all kinds, his best friend is black, his brother, Valentine, is bisexual, and there’s Mercy, the girl he loves.

Mercy Underhill is prone to flights of wild fantasy. Most of these can be contained in her writing, a secret career we don’t learn about until the end of the first book but the rest plague her. Her father has similar delusions that he relates to his own career as minister. Before the end of the series Timothy (and the reader) realizes that both of them suffer from mental illness – likely a dissociative disorder or schizophrenia (a breakdown in the logical thought process). But the book surprises by not treating that as the single thing that defines either character. Mercy has plans for her future, makes difficult decisions, and loves Timothy. Her illness is neither the sole focus of her being nor trotted out once and then completely forgotten.

The first mystery, The Gods of Gotham, centers on a series of kidnappings where the victims are Catholic children forced to work as prostitutes. One of the children, Birdie, survives to become a part of Timothy’s life and her past is handled beautifully. In the third book as she starts dating, Timothy acts as an ersatz-father. He behaves exactly as any father would, without ever blaming or shaming her for her past.

The second story, Seven for a Secret, focuses on the horrible acts of slave-catchers who prowl New York looking for escaped blacks and unwary freedmen, who they sell back into slavery. The novel avoids the concept of the great white savior, instead showing a community not interested in outside interference. While the mystery of a stolen black family unfolds Faye explores the idea of justice at a time when the legal thing to do is the most immoral.

The final novel, The Fatal Flame, brings Mercy’s mental illness to center as she and Timothy work together to solve a series of arsons. Mercy has taken in an orphan who is also mentally disabled; despite this the girl might be the key to solving the mystery. More importantly she’s a wonderfully developed character. The book is stuffed with them actually: sex workers who aren’t vilified or defined by their profession, recent immigrants who aren’t stupid despite not being assimilated yet, and as many different ethnicities and religions as there were in New York in the 1840s.

My first read of the series was a protracted thing, a year between novels is a bit long for the dense, rich, historic details. I’m looking forward to reading them again, in rapid succession. Some desserts are best gulped down.

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