04/1/17

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.

03/1/17

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.

02/1/17

Fire in Her Blood – First to Finished photo

My dear friend taught me if you do something three times it’s a tradition. Thus, this is the traditional photo of Fire in Her Blood.

It’s here! Time for the “from first to finished” photo. Below you see the first draft of Fire in Her Blood, so big I had to wire it together, and the final novel, a compact page-turner. I printed the first draft on March 9, 2008, and the final novel will be released February 14, 2017.

I did the first round of edits on paper during a four hour road trip. You can see them in the picture. It wasn’t an easy trip.

The first edition came in at 155,000 words, long enough for two novels. After my road trip a dear friend who edited for her local newspaper took a red pen to it. When she finished I put the manuscript on the shelf. There were dark themes, plots about controlling relationships and giving people what they want only to have it go horribly wrong. I needed a break, some time to get perspective.

When I came back to the story last fall I ruthlessly cut sixty thousand words, taking out a romance for Mark, a subplot about Indigo, and a vampire-porn star. (At least two of those are going to get written into in the next Death Witch book.) I changed the story’s focus, softening one character and making another even more hot-headed. I cut out two crimes and all of the characters they involved. I felt bad about ignoring some of the characters from the first book, but sometimes you have to choose.

Like choosing how one of the best scenes in the book would go. You’ll know it when you read it, the scene with the alligators. It had to be re-worked. A lot. My editor at Wild Rose Press hated it. Eventually, I realized she was right. The story reads better with the final version, but the first version will always be close to my heart. I usually let the rabbit editor shred the original paper copies, but I’ll keep those pages.

When I wrote the first draft of this novel, being an author seemed very simple: write, edit, edit more, write more, edit again, and then get it published. Now I worry over things like advertising (does it work?), social media (is it a time suck?), and if I should self-publish or pursue an agent (???).

I don’t worry about the story. When it’s not right, I can’t write it. I’ll stomp around the house for hours, ignore my laptop for days. I’ll be an absolute monster to the world until I find a way to work out the story. When I mess up the plot, the writing just stops. It makes me crazy. But it makes me love the finished draft.

I loved this story. Some of the funny parts still make me laugh, even after a dozen readings. Amadeus shines as my favorite new character. I loved setting him up as a foil to Mallory, and forcing her to deal with the idea of a vampire sex worker. She fails against his manipulations but her frustration was always fun. I don’t think I’ve gotten him out of my system in one book. I’m already searching for a good way to force the two of them to work together again.

There’s the jeep, Phoebe’s character changing (but not too much), and intriguing developments between Mallory and Jakob. When I remember all the writing I did and all the hours spent editing, I’m glad. The story was worth it. I hope you all think so too.

12/15/16

December, again? Really? Must we? Fine.

I was struggling to come up with a blog post this evening, so I checked back on what I posted last December. December 2015 found me apologizing for a late blog post with precious few words, and summing up what was going on in my personal life. December 2014 produced a review of what I was reading and a sentimental post about what was going on in my personal life. December 2013 had only one post and it was about my personal life.

It seems December steals my words and leaves me with nothing creative to say every year. I’d love to tell you “Not this year!” and reveal some great truth about writing, but I’m afraid I’m fresh out. Well, unless you count a few hard learned lessons:

  • Being published does not magically solve all of your life problems.
  • It’s hard to separate yourself from your writing when you get a bad review.
  • It’s hard to decide what the right choice is when you’re writing.

I suspect those are not shocking truths to anyone. Just like I suspect those who know me well can understand why this time of year hits me hard.

(This is the part where I tell you about my personal life – because hey, by now it’s a tradition.)

My father fell into a diabetic coma on Thanksgiving. I will never know what ended his life, rolls? Stuffing? One more slice of pie? Maybe if he hadn’t fallen asleep in front of the TV after his meal. Maybe if someone had thought to check on him sooner. A thousand maybes and unanswered questions and then his ashes were delivered to my house on Christmas Eve.

I’m afraid December has never recovered.

But I’m lucky to have my blog to look back on. It tells me that by January (just a few weeks away) I’ll feel more like myself again. And, of course, February is time to start planning for Halloween (only 7 months!). Then you’re into the good weather months, April and May. The summer is Con season, crowned by DragonCon on Labor Day, which starts of the best time of year – Halloween time! From Labor Day until November 1st, it’s pretty much all skeletons and smiles around here.

I can accept bad reviews, because I know that not everyone will like my books. They still hurt, but they’re part of writing. And I can accept December, it still hurts, but sad times are a part of life.

Sadness and December, like fear, will pass:

    I must not fear.

    Fear is the mind-killer.

    Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

    I will face my fear.

    I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

    And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

    Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

– from Dune by Frank Herbert (One of my Dad’s favorite quotes)

 

So, see you next December to talk about my personal life. Maybe we’ll chat about how I don’t have kids. Or how I can’t decide if it’s more offensive to write characters from other races/genders/cultures (which is basically saying I think I know what they experience) than to only write white cisgendered heterosexual characters (which isn’t diverse, erases other people, and gets boring).

10/15/16

October’s editing and events

It’s Halloween Season! That’s the busiest time of the year for me, with a thousand great things to do every weekend and plenty of amazing Halloween shows to watch during the week. On top of that, I’m in copy edits for Fire in Her Blood, the sequel to Under a Blood Moon. Thus, today’s blog is more a photo heavy review of the cool stuff I’ve been doing.

Sunday in the Park at Oakland Cemetery

I’ve talked about the amazing green space/public garden that is Oakland Cemetery before, but I might have failed to mention that they also hold large scale community events. This morning was a 5k race entitled “Run Like Hell”. A couple of weeks back the event was “Sunday in the Park”, which included a picnic, costume contests, tours of the cemetery, a classic car show, along with vendors and community booths.  Here’s a few of my favorite shots:

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One of the many wonderful classic Cadillac cars on display among the tombs.

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Civil War reenactors dancing among the unmarked graves while surrounded by picnic-ers.

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Two local costumers who remind me of the covers from my favorite Steampunk series – Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate.

Atlanta Greek Festival

I’m editing Fire in Her Blood, but I’m drafting The Siren’s Stalker, the sequel to the Mermaid and the Murders.  While I sort of know what happens in the story, I’m still getting to know the characters. Ashley, the queen bee from Mermaid and the Murders is the focus. There’s a lot about her that Danny, the mermaid, never knew. One important thing, Ashley was raised in a conservative Greek-American family. To flesh out the details of her culture, I enjoyed an afternoon touring a Greek Orthodox Cathedral and eating amazing Greek food. Some of the best parts of my day:

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A Greek YiaYia (Grandmother) teaches the crowd how to roll dolmas (stuffed grape leaves)

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Candles lit for prayer intentions

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A mosaic showing the moment on Easter when Jesus either broke down the gates of hell, crushing the devil (according to the tour guide) or went to Hades to free all of the souls trapped there (according to the deacon).

 

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08/15/16

Connecting with Strangers from Far Away

“I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter. “ Agent Peggy Carter

That geeky quote served as my mantra for most of June and July when sales for The Mermaid and the Murders were less than wonderful. I knew my second book was a good story. I trusted my editor, publisher, beta readers, and copy editors. One of them, somewhere along the line, would’ve told me if the book was an epic failure. I paid for advertisements. I ran a Goodreads giveaway. Still, silence echoed back at me, as if I released the book into a void.

On August 1st, The Mermaid and the Murders was posted on NetGalley. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, NetGalley is an online service for librarians and book reviewers that allows them to download stories free of charge. I didn’t expect much, and to be honest I haven’t looked at my sales numbers to see if they’ve gone up.  I have  gotten a handful of really great reviews, which is wonderful, but the feeling of awe and wonder at where those reviews have come from blows me away.

Chen Mermaid quote

Chen Argote, called my mermaid amazing, said her town was “scary yet fascinating” and that she “loved my trip there in this reading adventure.” I’ve never met Chen. She lives in Manila, Philippines, a place I’ve only read about in books. But she gave me hours of her life as she read my book. When it was over, she was glad to have given me that time.

That’s incredible to me, in the classic sense of the word. Almost impossible to believe that someone so far away loved a story I put together to drive away their winter gloom.

In Sudbury, Canada, a place I had to look up on the map (and now need to visit) , Chelsie picked up my book and “didnt want to put this book down”. She saw herself in my mermaid, saying “I could relate to her struggles”.  She called my story “entertaining with a wonderful love interest and some great intrigue.”

Image of CharmedChelsie's twitter feed about my book

My first Twitter connection with a reader. Squee!

She connected with my characters even though we have very different lives. Did she love everything? Nope.

 

Sprinkled in my positive reviews have been tiny flecks of criticism; valid, important criticism that I’ll use to make the next book better. I haven’t had a terrible review yet. They’re all four or five stars. I’m grateful, but not arrogant. A terrible review will come. When it does, I hope I remember the wonder and joy I’m feeling right now, because even if someone hates my book, they still read my words. They slipped into my world, explored my ideas, and (hopefully) came away from it with something to think about. I might know my worth, but I never felt my connection with a reader, until now. I’m humbled, awed, in love, grateful, and praying it never goes away.

 

 

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07/15/16

My blog so far…

I started this blog in November of 2010, eager to share a thousand things with the world. I blogged without a schedule, telling myself I’d get a great post out each week. Some weeks were more of a struggle then others but I made my goal. My plan included at least one short story each month. Inspiration didn’t always come when I needed it but I wrote some stories I dearly love on this blog.

Then in 2012 my writing life took a hard sideways turn I hadn’t expected. Somehow my blog became the only writing I did for a year. I succeeded at blogging but failed at actually writing and editing, not to mention the business side of authorhood. In 2013, I decided it was time to focus on those things more. When I did (predictably) the blog suffered. My posts followed a haphazard schedule, coming in between giant writing jags that produced two competed manuscripts. One of those was the Mermaid and the Murders, which is now published, so while I regret that blog neglect, I don’t regret it too much.

Still I came out of 2013 well aware that I needed structure, something to keep me on track with the blog.  I switched to blogging on the 1st and the 15th of each month. The hard deadline kept my blog going but I found that short story ideas melted away from me like a ghost in moonlight. My blog turned more toward writing and my experiences, places I went and things I did. It’s a change I’m comfortable with.

About a year ago now, I added monthly book reviews on the 20th of the month. Like my early blogging days that started out easily enough. I read about eight books a month, sometimes more, so I picked the best ones and dashed off a few excited sentences about the story.

But my reading habits have changed. I’m reading more samples and fewer complete novels. It takes a lot to wow me enough that I want to recommend a book to the world. So, from here on out, my reviews won’t come on any set schedule. When I’m wow’ed by a book I promise to share it, but the regular review posting on the 20th is over as of last month.

If I’m brutally honest, part of this blog reflection is because I’m in edits on the sequel to Under a Blood Moon. The working title is “Fire in Her Blood” and I’m enjoying polishing it for publication. I really love writing, crafting a story, researching a setting, and editing it until the manuscript shines. But while I’m happy to give up writing reviews on my blog for the chance to do more of that, at the same time I’m not willing to give up on my blog. It’s brought me too much joy to walk away.

06/15/16

Picking Sea Monsters Georgia Aquarium

I grew up hearing my father’s sailing stories of fierce mermaids who tore ships to pieces and drown sailors for fun. Between Dad’s stories and the mermaids in classic literature, I had pretty much all I needed to start the Monster Beach books with The Mermaid and the Murders. As I grow the series, I need new sea monsters, which meant a Research Road trip to the Georgia Aquarium.

I have two plot outlines sketched for alligator shifter novels, but neither of them include an albino ‘gator like the one who posed for me. I haven’t found any good alligator shifter lore, so I’d be creating something from scratch. I like the idea of a white alligator being more magical than the rest. They were certainly prettier than most of the gators I’ve seen in the wild.

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Otters are one of my favorite creatures. I doubt they’ll make it into a book, but I couldn’t resist watching them for an hour or two. They’re tool users, and most aquariums challenge them to solve puzzles like how to break into a block of ice to get the shrimp froze inside.

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Another personal favorite that I can’t find a way to fit in is the cuttlefish. These colorshifting Cephalopods look back at you with intelligence. Urban legends swear that you can mimic the movement of their tentacles to interact with them. Besides the great Cthulu, there isn’t a lot of lore surrounding these calm creatures which is odd when you consider that some of them are toxic enough to cause blindness or death when touched. They’d be a good character, but I’d have to think of something better than just “cuttlefish-shifter” to do with them.

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Here’s where inspiration struck, the whale shark.

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This picture doesn’t do the size of the shark justice. At 18 feet long they’re the largest of all fishes. Their graceful glide filled me with awe, immediately reminding me of Dakuwaqa – the shark god of Fiji. Dakuwaqa can shift form between being fully human, half human/half shark, and a very large shark. Unlike the whale sharks I saw Dakuwaqa has massive jaws to devour anyone who harms his reef or his people. While I’d be uncomfortable putting a god in my story, a descendant of the shark god might slip into a romance. Perhaps in a story inspired by this picture:

When I made up the salt golem sea monster (an ocean dwelling salt vampire) for The Mermaid and the Murders, it felt like I had to do a lot of explaining. I worked hard to weave the explanations into dialog and story scenes. I’m hoping my next monster will be a bit more familiar.  I want something easy to relate to but also a little scary. The aquarium gave me some good ideas, now it’s time for some book based research…and maybe a trip to the swamp.

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06/1/16

Author’s Copies! The Mermaid & the Murders

The Author’s copies of The Mermaid and the Murders have arrived!

A stack of my new books, finally free of their shipping box.

A stack of my new books, finally free of their shipping box.

While the rest of the books won’t be shipping until June 10, I’m delighted to have these editions on my shelf. My mother claimed a copy, and some will be given away on Goodreads.  One will always be on my shelf though, a wonderful reminder of the challenge I set for myself one snowy February.  At the time, I wanted an excuse to daydream about my long-ago home of Key West. I wanted to walk the halls of the palatial home on Porpoise Point, where I’d watched dolphins from the private beach before going back to my job as a glorified baby sitter. I missed the heat, the smell of the ocean, and the strong Cuban coffee. I wanted to capture the fierceness of life on that island, the way women  were as strong and sexy as the men and no one felt the need to fit in.

The book that came out of that wintry month wasn’t the one I expected to write. But this scene, probably my favorite in the whole book, is exactly what I wanted. I hope you all enjoy it (and the rest of the book too).

Even as I thought about finding something meaner, I shadowed the six-foot shark. Stalking it felt natural to me. I stayed behind my prey, waiting for it to be distracted. The shark sensed my presence and took off, swimming fast to deeper water. I chased it, my tail going faster. Soon we were side-by-side, coal black eyes staring at me as the beast turned to bite. I threw my shoulders back and sent my tail forward, wrapping around it like a lover. I squeezed and my scales released blood into the water with a thousand small cuts. The shark thrashed, fighting against what it must’ve known was coming.

I felt my teeth grow in my mouth, sharp fangs coming forward. When the shark came forward to bite me, I moved quickly and bit it first. My teeth sank into gills, the flesh rough like sand, the slits in the skin moving between my teeth. I kept biting, my tail pushing the life out of the beast.

Around us, other sharks gathered, large and small, brought by the smell of blood. I ignored them; focusing on the death I intended to deliver. The creature in front of me had seconds left but I knew it could still hurt me. Fighting off my hunger, I drew back, ducking around the mouth. My arm moved too slowly and I felt the intense pressure of its bite. Pounds of pressure started to come down, enough to crack a lobster’s shell, enough to break my bones. The pain left my vision red and my tail moved in deadly instinct.

A tight squeeze with a sideways motion, one I’d never made before, and half the shark fell away. Even in death, it was reluctant to let go of my arm.

 

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04/1/16

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.