Research at Cafe Du Monde

Some days the best part of writing is the research:

The next Mallory book is going to take place in and around New Orleans. I was lucky enough to spend some time in the French Quarter soaking the essence of the city…and sipping hot chocolate while eating beignets from Cafe Du Monde. Walking around New Orleans I can’t help but wonder about the person I might have been if I had followed through on my carefully detailed plans to run away to the city the day after high school graduation. Would I have written the same books?

Five Star Review for Blood, Dirt, and Lies :)

Blood, Dirt, and Lies was available to book reviewers and libraries on NetGalley for two weeks after it was released. In such a short time, and over the holidays, I didn’t expect a lot of notice. I’m delighted to share that it earned a five star review:

Blood, Dirt, and Lies has ended its time on NetGalley, but the you can still read the full review.  My favorite part is “The novel itself was fast paced with a fresh/different plot than the norm. The protagonist, Mallory Mors, was incredibly well-written, and even though her character was flawed, it made her all the more likeable and able to empathize with.” I’m grateful to reader Kel M for her kind words.

I’m getting over my usual December funk (so much easier to deal with now that I recognize it each year). Moving into January my goal is to write 20k words on the next Mallory book.  There’s no working title yet, but I’m already 20k words in. If I meet my goal I’ll be at the half-way point, and past the dreaded start-of-the-middle stall. Wish me luck!

Who I write for

I want to tell you about Jen. She runs triathlons, and has a couple of kids. I know their names and the races she’s going for. It turned out we like the same kind of books, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, vampire smut, that sort of thing.

I’ve never met Jen.

We follow each other online, and she reads my books. She loves them. She says nice things about them on Goodreads and, most importantly, to me. She’s the first reader who got a copy of Blood, Dirt, and Lies, and she sent me a message filled with love for the characters after she finished.

Someone else I’ve never met but follow online is a book reviewer. They hated my book. They wrote a scathing review about subtext I never meant and don’t think is there. (I promise you, when I say someone is a werewolf, that’s what I mean, an actual werewolf. Werewolf is not a stand in for any race, gender, sexual orientation, or creed.) I read their review.

Every author will tell you never, ever read reviews. It depresses you. You can’t argue back. You can’t convince them that, honest, the werewolf was just a werewolf. Nope. The review is their opinion and arguing is a waste of breath.

Reading the review threatened to start me in a downward spiral. If my work was that bad, why was I investing so much of my life in writing? I’ll be brutally honest here, it takes me more than a year to get a book drafted, edited, polished, submitted, edited again, and (finally) published. For that effort I can make as little as eight cents per copy sold (sometimes that number goes up as high as a dollar). I’m not in this for the money, but for the joy it brings when someone loves my characters. If people hate them, why not spend that time doing something less horrible?

And I stumbled. I fell. I dropped into that place where writing doesn’t seem worth it. But I remembered Jen, who liked my book just as much as the anonymous person hated it. (Although Jen’s message to me used fewer curse words.)

I’ll now be writing for Jen. I hope everyone else reads my books, and likes them. But if I focus on everyone else and on all those potential negative reviews, I’ll never get any words written. So if you like a sex scene now and then, along with a good mystery about strong, supernaturally powered people who happen to be diverse and three-dimensional, feel free to join Jen and me. For all those folks that don’t, reviewers or not, it’s okay not to like me. I’m not writing for you.

Blood, Dirt, and Lies, Death Witch Book 3

I’m emerging from my editing cave, delighted to announce I have a release date for the third book in the Death Witch Series. Blood, Dirt, and Lies will be available on December 18th. While I don’t have a link yet, I do have some amazing cover art:

This book takes Mallory’s story in a bit of a new direction. She’s more experienced at her job, but also handling a difficult case. I wanted to show her working hard on ­­­a case that wouldn’t crack. She’s forced to take over more often as her more experienced partner gets stuck dealing with issues related to his supernatural heritage.

I’ve hinted about what Danny is and how it shapes his character in the past. In this book you’ll learn more about him, meet his sister (a formidable woman), and find out about his less than morally upright childhood. The contrast between how he was raised to think the rules didn’t apply to him, but is now the guy enforcing those rules, was one of my favorite parts of his personality. He’s deliberately made a break with his family, rejecting their values. This book gives readers a chance to see why.

There’s also some surprising insights into Mallory’s life as she contemplates moving her relationship with Jakob forward. There are some things the two lovers don’t discuss, secrets they both keep. Over the course of the story, a few of those come out. As much as I enjoyed making Mallory share those painful, sticky secrets about her magic, delicately drawing a picture of her tendency to run when things get tough was a bigger triumph. The Death Witch series starts off with Mallory escaping from her life, and in this book I got to write her thinking it might be time to run away again. (Don’t worry, Jakob won’t let that happen.)

Jakob’s subplot reveals a pair of new vampires – best friends he hasn’t mentioned. A married couple, the sexy, slightly crazy wife, Rowan is a great character to play with. She has a very small role in this story, but it nicely illustrates the divide between how the vampire community behaves and how Jakob strives to live his life.

And, of course, there’s the crime. A confusing, layered, event that starts with a simple murder, but spirals into a larger, darker conspiracy. The victim’s ghost begs for help, but as the investigation goes on her character comes into question. This is the first case for Mallory where she doesn’t really like the person she’s helping, the first case where the victim is (arguably) less redeemable than the culprit.

When I started writing this book, I wanted to move everyone forward in predictable ways – there’s a romance, an unexpected baby, family drama, tension over aggravating relationships, but as the story developed it focused on the difference between how people want to live and the lives they really lead. An unexpected theme of how we respond to the choices we face, either doing what we must, what’s best, or what we want, came out. I’m excited to see how my readers react to that, and delighted to see the story in its final form.

Erotica in art and my writing

The news came just before a big vacation, a once-in-a-lifetime trip. After three years of planning and saving, suddenly all I could think about was the proclamation so casually dropped in my lap:

“If your book has more than four sex scenes, it’s erotica.”

And just like that all the times I’ve tried explain that my books have sex scenes but are actually mysteries with supernatural elements became a lie. All those jokes I’ve told about writing “vampire smut” became my truth. I write…Erotica.

While I spend a lot of time writing sex scenes, making sure that the action is sizzling but also true to the relationship on the page, I never put myself in the category. I write about women, and they have sex. So yes, my characters have sex, which is described in about the same detail as their meals and their clothes. All of those things are important to them, I couldn’t write out all of the sex to focus only on being a police detective and still give you a realistic picture of Mallory’s life.

Instead, you’ll get (roughly) four sex scenes per book, always when it’s natural and called for as part of the plot. In Under A Blood Moon, I counted them out to be sure the pacing made sense. In Fire in Her Blood, I ended up cutting nearly 60k words and two sex scenes. In the next book, Blood, Dirt, and Lies, I “shut the bedroom door” to make sure there were only four at my editor’s request.

Turning a detailed scene into a single line (something like “they melted together, in a dance of passion and love”) doesn’t bother me. Writing out sex all together would. I write my books to escape from the mundane-workday-world, I don’t want to escape to someplace that doesn’t have any passion.

But the label haunted me as I went through great places in Europe. I visited the palace where Mark (from Under a Blood Moon) grew up, a wine cellar that will show up as a future vampire’s bedroom, and a baroque estate that’s a perfect residence for Jakob for the 1600s. In the back of my head I wondered: does all this matter if it’s just erotica?

And then I went to the State Museum of Egyptian Art in Munich and saw this:

An ancient Egyptian statue depicts a couple having sex.

Ancient Egyptian Erotica on display. In a museum. Where you go to learn about culture. Shocking.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks sex is part of a normal, healthy life. And while my work may now be classified as “erotica” the stories haven’t changed. I’m still writing thrillers with romance and spooky parts. I’m still showing normal relationships with ups and downs, jealous moments and tender parts. I hope that’s something the world will still read, because I wouldn’t want to write any other way.

 

My Vampires are Cursed

I started writing the Death Witch books just weeks after a brain hemorrhage, when I had no idea if I would survive to turn thirty. I’m not embarrassed to admit I choose a vampire for a hero because of the very attractive idea of immortality. As I struggled to recovery, I knew vampirism (eternal life with eternal youth? Never getting sick? Sign me up!) wasn’t much of a ‘curse’ anymore.

Because while I can appreciate the tension in knowing everyone around you will grow old and die while you stay young, it never felt like a terrible problem to have for me. How could I make the ‘curse of a vampire’ into something more than the “all my friends are dead” trope? How could I make a vampire, creatures long associated with sex and sensuality, into something deeper?

I decided in my world, the curse wasn’t eternal life with eternal youth, but an inability to change as society around you does. My vampires don’t age physically, but they also struggle to change their morals and beliefs. While they can come to accept changes in technology, the values and beliefs they held as mortals stick, even when everyone else has moved on. They may be pretty and powerful, but the vampires always end up as the odd one out – the person who doesn’t quite fit in, who sees the world as generally wrong.

For Jakob, an illiterate peasant from the late 1300s, anything other than the truths his church taught him seemed shocking. When Mallory meets him he’s over six-hundred years old but he hasn’t shifted his basic life views: a good man strives to protect his community from outsiders and the immoral. The point of a relationship is to one day marry and have children. As someone who lost family in two great famines, Jakob will always believe the greatest luxury a man can have is abundant food and exotic fruits. It’s taken him years to learn how to read, but he’s not sure reading for pleasure isn’t a sinful indulgence.

Meanwhile, Mark, raised in the courts of Elizabeth I of England, is used to have plenty to eat, plenty of amusements, and the constant threat of political destruction. Mark remains suspicious and distrustful, even four hundred years after he loses all his political power. Mark becomes a vampire to avenge his family, who were slaughtered by werewolves. No longer Prince Woldemar Anton Ludwig Hohenzollern, Mark leaves behind his name and his position, but can’t shake the ideas that came with it: life is a series of manipulations, love isn’t an option for him, and a stray word can destroy lives.

Then there’s Amadeus, who joined the story in the last book, Fire in Her Blood. As I finish editing the third Death Witch book and start plotting out the fourth, he’s the character I’m really sinking my teeth into. Both Jakob and Mark are generally good people. Jakob is overly religious, his flaws fall along those lines – he’s overly protective, conservative, and uncomfortable with a lot of modern values. Mark is impolite, rudely pushing people away because he thinks he’ll be rejected (after all he has nothing to offer politically, so why would anyone want him?).

But Amadeus…He’s white trash from a romanticized era. He grew up poor in the antebellum south, a musician struggling to make ends meet. Amadeus is turned when he’s just sixteen years old, with all of the head-strong nature of a sixteen-year-old and all of the emotional turmoil of a civil war solider. He sees people as tools to help him achieve his goals. His maker taught him to exploit witches most of all, and he quickly learned to use his good looks to get women to do things for him. He could learn to be better, but he doesn’t have a reason too. The way things are going for him in this next book, he might not live long enough.

Hopefully, all of them will learn to overcome the prejudices and false beliefs they held as humans. Their curse makes it hard to free themselves from outdated ideas, but even if you can’t stop thinking something, you recognize it’s wrong and to minimize its influence. Anyone can overcome an ingrained idea if they work hard enough.

Time to Take First Things First

In my last blog, I talked about time-tithing. I was gripped with a fever to give back to the writing community and impressed with the way giving back helped me as a person and a writer. I followed through with what I posted, and volunteered as a last-minute judge for the annual writing contest.

It’s important for me to judge books the way I would want my own to be judged. I’ll never forget the seasoned, privileged romance novelist who, upon hearing a summary of Under a Blood Moon, immediately said “you could never pay me enough to read that sort of trash”. Now serial killer werewolves aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but that doesn’t make them trash.  While I might not like your topic or the way your heroine thinks, that doesn’t make a book trash. I spent about half a day on each book, looking at the mechanics of the story and not how my own values applied to the characters.

I also volunteered my time to a local quilt guild, and inspired a great story idea. My work judging novels helped my writing and motivated me to join RWA (Romance Writers of America). So time-tithing was a success! But that great story idea demanded my immediate attention, with the words running like quicksilver through my fingers, teaching me another important lesson:

You need time to do the things that matter most.

The story idea came to me at 3am on a Saturday morning. I gave up about six hours of sleep planning and plotting. I started my writing time an hour earlier and kept going an hour longer than usual. I shorted myself on sleep, whittled my morning beauty routine down to a quick five minutes, and barely made it to my day job on time. I spent all of my time writing and editing. I didn’t cook meals (sorry, Tiger!), clean house, or go out with friends. A story grabbed me and I held on tight.

In a week I wrote nearly 7,500 words.

I have a clean plot. I have a character reference sheet. I know how the story will go and how I can promote it. And I hope to all the Gods above the words keep coming. Because there’s really nothing better than writing. While the idea would never have come without the volunteer work, the words wouldn’t have come if I didn’t shut everything out.

I’m very lucky to have a partner who will support me and a day job that isn’t jeopardized when I go on a writing spree. But I also need to make good choices and set clear boundaries. It’s easy to lose time on meaningless things: TV shows, facebook, internet “research”. There a million metaphors about managing your time. YouTube videos show people putting large rocks into glass jars, then smaller rocks, then pebbles, then sand, until finally the jar must be full. But no! There’s room for water. Search a little longer and you’ll find the advice that a woman should have four things in her life – her work, her family, her health, and one other thing. (Not two! You can’t ever have two jobs or two hobbies, nope not enough time.)

I don’t agree with all the advice that’s out there, but this last week has made it clear: I need to do what matters most first. For me that’s writing. My commitment to my writing – whether it’s this blog, a guest blog, a short story, or a novel – comes first. Any other commitments need to wait. If they can’t wait, I don’t have time for them in my life.

Researching Were-Jaguars and Mayan Culture

April Fools’ Day seems like the perfect time to announce that everything I’ve told you about the third Death Witch book has been a lie. Or rather, a bad miscalculation. I had book three – working title “Blood, Dirt, and Lies” written and ready to go, when I was seized with the desire to make book three Indigo’s story. But the more I wrote, the more I realized my childhood stories weren’t enough. I needed to do more research.

At the same time, I went back and gave Blood, Dirt, and Lies a thorough re-read, only to discover it really worked as the third book. It flowed naturally from where the story ended in Fire in Her Blood. Adding a book in between would mean a tight timeline (the mystery could last a week or two but no more) and reworking a lot of relationship details for the supporting characters (Anna, Phoebe, Mark, E). Indigo’s story excites me, but it needs to wait until I have done the research to write it well.

So I sent the manuscript to my editor on Thursday, and was at the Michael C. Carlos Museum researching jaguars in Mayan culture on Saturday morning.

When the sun leaves our sky to visit the underworld, it does so in the form of jaguar. An incense burner depicting the Mayan Sun God as an old man during the day and a jaguar at night.

The bedtime story jaguars I grew up with came from tales set in Honduras. Before the Spanish invaded in the early 1500s, the area was Mayan. Most of the jaguar stories I know are from the Mayan culture, where shaman transformed themselves into jaguar spirits.

The change didn’t happen the way it does in my books – shaman didn’t shift completely into animal form, but instead took on traits of a jaguar to become an animal-self. One of the ways to tell if an artifact shows a shaman in jaguar form or a jaguar is to look for the tail. No tail means it’s a shaman, not a jaguar. I didn’t want to appropriate a culture I loved, so I made a point of using a more ‘Hollywood’ style transformation. Indigo isn’t a man using mystical knowledge to transform his spirit. He’s a shape-shifter who completely becomes a large cat but retains consciousness, thoughts, and sense of humor.

The jaguar on this vase as no tail, which means he’s actually a shaman’s animal-self. The vase was part of the collection at the Michael C. Carlos Museum.

My first real life jaguar came when I helped build the Brevard County Zoo. The majestic cinnamon (yellow-brown) jaguar was in residence in his enclosure as I volunteered building the boardwalk in front of it. It didn’t take much of an imagination to think he could understand English. If anyone stopped and complimented the jaguar (saying pretty or wow) he would leap on to the highest rock and pose. A lot of those poses made it into Under a Blood Moon.

But culturally, tawny jaguars aren’t the most revered, that position goes to the black jaguar, whose fur is covered with deep black rosettes. Black jaguars are a mystical animal because of their ability to disappear into the night.  Oddly, black fur is a dominate trait not a recessive gene. A pair of black jaguars can have young with a variety of fur colors, while a cinnamon jaguar will only have more cinnamon offspring. Indigo’s daughter originally had cinnamon fur. While that’s still genetically possible (I haven’t explored her mother yet at all) I’m not sure it makes as much sense. She might need to have a dark coat like her father.

KaKaw vessels, also from the Michael C. Carlos Museum.

But my museum trip influenced more than the look of my new character.  The ancient people of Honduras traded their salt for chocolate. The chocolate drink, also known as kakaw, was a status symbol. The drink was prepared cold and unsweetened, sometimes with the a few vision inducing chemicals and held in tall, straight sized pitchers decorated with complex designs and mythological scenes. A number of chocolate pitchers were on display, and a few of them will make them to Indigo’s shop.

Irish myths, legends, and more

It’s almost St. Patrick’s day and as an Irish Girl I’m obligated to talk about Irish things. Thankfully, I love a lot of Irish things like my grandmother and my mother, strong Irish tea, and crusty soda bread. Some of those Irish things even influence my writing, here’s a list of the big ones:

Darby O’Gill and the Little People
When this movie came out in 1959 it was meant to be wholesome family entertainment. It’s terrifying. I saw it as a child one stormy day and have lived in fear of fairies every since. Darby is a good man who’s a bit of a slacker. He and his daughter are about to be kicked out of their home because of his habit of drinking instead of working. Thankfully his replacement, a very dapper, singing Sean Connery, adds some levity. Darby ends up extorting three wishes from the fairy king. They go rather badly; like death’s carriage in the sky and a banshee that still appears in my nightmares. While it has a happy ending, it’s spooky enough to be a scary movie for eight-year olds and people like me.

The Secret of Roan Inish
This Irish/American independent film tells the story of Fiona, a little girl who is sent to live with her grandparents. While there she discovers her family tree may include a selkie – an Irish seal shapeshifter.  Fiona has a baby brother, Jamie, who has been lost at sea. She comes to believe her selkie ancestor is keeping him. Convinced  the selkie will only return Jamie when their family lives on the island where the seals live, Fiona sets out to make that happen. This movie is filled with magic and I rewatch it every year. It’s responsible for at least three of the characters in the Death Witch series.

Tropical Brainstorm by Kirsty MacColl
NPR’s Celtic music show, Thistle and Shamrock, is a weekly listen in my life. Unfortunately, there are weeks when I have to switch it off, Irish music can get a bit depressing. That’s why I love Kirsty MacColl’s final album so much – the hit singer took inspiration from a trip to Cuba and blended the upbeat Latin rhythm into her Celtic songs. Yes there are some sad songs (AutumnGirlSoup), but the story telling (like ‘England 2 Colombia 0’, a catchy song about adultery and lies) is perfect. This album is perfect for dancing around the kitchen on gray gloomy days.

And then there are the books. My two favorites are Classic Celtic Fairy Tales by John Matthews and Irish Folktales by Henry Glassie (Editor)  Classic Celtic Fairy Tales is beautifully illustrated, with each story followed by a notes section filled with references. Irish folktales contains well documented stories arranged by topic (faith, war, ghosts). Each story is preceded by the first name of the teller and the county they lived in. This anthology with stories from 1825 to the ‘present day’ is perfect when I want to pull a piece of folklore from a specific time or place. These two are the books I go to when I’m looking for a new monster or need inspiration for a character. Movies and TV shows are great, but these more scholarly treatments feel closer to the source. Someday, if I’m lucky, I’ll get to visit my grandmother’s home town in Ireland. I imagine the stories I hear there will be the ones in these books, with dangerous, beautiful fairies, brave men, cunning women, and a lot of magic.

I plan to capture them all in stories of my own.

 

 

 

Timelines and the Next Mallory Story

Fire in Her Blood released on February 15. While I’m spending a lot of time obsessively clicking on Amazon to see if it gets any reviews, I’m also at work on the next book. I’m afraid written myself into a bit of pickle.

Fire in Her Blood was meant to have a subplot with Indigo, my favorite werejaguar. Werejaguars came into my life through stories my father gathered in his travels in Central America (Mesoamerica). The powerful, protective jaguar-spirit wove itself into Indigo’s appearance in Under a Blood Moon. When Indigo saves the day and provides a bit of light hearted fun, I’m recreating the balance of scary, blood thirsty animal, and lovable, caring cat god. I wanted to explore more about Indigo, working the stories I knew into his (only hinted at) complicated, dark history.

The jaguar cards from Dad’s tarot card set.

Which is how I ended up with way too many words in Fire in Her Blood. Ultimately, I decided to focus on the serial arsonist and revealing more about how vampire culture worked. When I edited Indigo out I knew his story had to go into another book. But at that point, the draft of the book that should have the third in the Death Witch series was already finished. And edited. Twice.

Which left me written into a corner.

The would-be-book-three starts during a rare February snow storm in Baton Rouge. Fire in Her Blood ends on Halloween. Unless this new Indigo-focused book ended up a Christmas story there wasn’t any room in the timeline for it.

I mean, I could have moved would-be-book-three to the next year, and put Indigo’s story in the center of the second year? But then I would need to add more books to explain what Mallory did with her year. And then there’s Amadeus…

When the spotlight wasn’t on Indigo, Amadeus really shined. His cocksure attitude and the way he enjoyed shocking everyone by proudly being a vampire sex worker created some of my favorite scenes. The dynamic between Mallory and Amadeus was fun, but the tension between him and Jakob was priceless. Would-be-book-three gave Amadeus a new role, forcing both of those relationships to grow.

I don’t want to wait to explore those relationships.

Which leads me back to Indigo’s story. It will now be book three. The would-be-book-three will need to be re-written a bit. The snow storm can’t be moved, so Indigo’s story is going to fit into a tight timeline from mid-November until early January. Amadeus is going to be forced into a supporting role somehow (he’s a difficult character to rein in). In his place are a collection of new characters and mythological creatures.

Aside from Anubis (Egyptian god of the afterlife) and a very scary wraith, Laumės (woodland spirits from Lithuanian mythology) make an appearance in the SIU squad room. They traditionally have a bad relationship with men so Mallory’s usual partner, Danny, can’t work the case. That gives me a chance to add a very tough female cop to the SIU, Kaniesha King. She’s used to working with the Muslim communities of Detroit, wears her hair natural, and takes no shit. You can see reference photos for her and most of the characters on the Pinterest board for this book: https://www.pinterest.com/GravesRachel/death-witch-book-3/

You’ll also find the Ursuline nun (a vampire from the 1600s), Charlotte (the girl the Laumės discover), and the biker bar from Fire in Her Blood (it’s quickly becoming my favorite place to leave a body). I’m having a lot of fun writing and adding reference photos as I go. I know the path to publication is long, but if I’m lucky you’ll be able to read this one by the end of the year.

That is assuming, of course, that I can come up with a title.