08/1/17

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.

 

07/15/17

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.

03/15/17

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.

 

 

 

11/15/16

Fire in Her Blood Cover Art!

I turned in my final edits on Fire in Her Blood at the beginning of the month and received in return a wonderful email with my cover art. Author wisdom tells you not to release your cover art until you have buy links and a publish date. I usually try to follow that advice, but I’m too in love this time. I mean, come on, just look at the gorgeous cover:

The cover shows a young woman standing in the center of a city. She's surrounded by flames as everything burns.

The perfect cover for my story about arson and fire witches. (Click to enlarge)

Things I love about this book:

  • It’s got a coming out story, where sharing the news is mixed with witchcraft.
  • Thanks to a fun-to-write Samhain party at the end of the book, I got to show the diverse backgrounds of Mallory’s friends and fellow witches. That means Jew-witches and Latinas, but also a chance to mention Poi.
  • The story includes a supernatural brothel filled with sexy mythological creatures, which means I got to show how sex workers live in Mallory’s world. (Hint: better than in our world.)
  • A short subplot contains my favorite friendly ghost, Marcus. The ghost stories Mallory deals with every few days are a joy to write.
  • I got to drop lots of little hints about the next book. (The draft is in the very early stages.)

Here’s the back-cover description:

Death witch and Detective Mallory Mors arrives at the scene of an out-of-control arson called by a victim who desperately wants to die. Using her powers, Mallory battles the strongest fire witch in town to help the woman cross over. When she’s forced to work with the angry fire witch, she discovers their lives are linked in complicated ways. As all the other fire witches in the city mysteriously lose their powers, the heat is on to solve the case. Saddled with a vampire assault at the local supernatural brothel, a missing person who doesn’t want to be found, and a mess of vampire politics, Mallory struggles to put together the pieces before the city burns.

As soon as I have that precious pre-order link I’ll update this page, and also add a general page to my website.

Oh, and my inbox got a bit more good news: The Mermaid and the Murders  ­­was recently named one of  “5 Amazing Underrated Books”.   I’m working on the sequel now, the Siren’s Stalker, and the encouragement of a good review helps. Actually I’m working on the next in the Death Witch series (no name yet), the Siren’s Stalker, and developing the materials to submit a third manuscript. Lots to do, but cover art like this makes it all worth while.

Save

Save

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:

img_1373

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

img_1376

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

img_1383

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:

img_12941

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

img_1301

Candles lit for prayer intentions

img_1311

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).

 

Save

Save

Save

06/20/16

June Reads – Hard Truth by Nevada Barr

I stayed up until 1 am reading and it wasn’t until the next day that I realized this book helped fulfill my goal of reading more books with disabled characters.

Heath, a strong young woman, is confined to a wheel chair after injuring her spinal cord in an ice climbing accident. In the first pages of the novel she bitterly wheels her wheelchair through an accessible camping lot, only to fall out onto a pair of lost girls. The two girls, one twelve and one thirteen, have been lost in the wilderness for almost a month.  They’re nearly naked, horribly traumatized, and unwilling to be parted from Heath.

The book is part of the Anna Pigeon series, so Anna is the main character. Heath gets a lot of page time though, and is able to help the lost girls both because of, and in spite of, her status as a paraplegic. Her character moves from being angry and bitter almost all the time, drinking and smoking, to fighting for others, working hard, and accepting that her new status doesn’t change who she is. The book included a great passage about her wheelchair going from being “other” to being a part of her body.

There was also a very fine mystery going on. The girls turn out to be part of a religious cult/commune that practices polygamy and child marriage. Their parents are firmly against any psychological counseling. They don’t want the police or anyone else involved in their life. Questions arise about demons; did the girls see one? Is it responsible for the dead animals and strange attacks in the night?

Trigger warning: torture of animals and violence towards women (including rape). While the worst abuse takes place off stage, the story doesn’t shy away from portraying uncomfortable scenes. When I got to the end I was surprised by the depth of the villain’s depravity and unsure that all the characters would recover well. So while it kept me turning pages, this book might not be for everyone.

I was fairly sure I had the mystery figured out at least five times, only to change my mind twenty pages later. I stayed up late reading because I had to know how it all came together. I suspected all sorts of things for the characters, which include a handful of park rangers, a youth pastor, and the girls’ families. Most of what I guessed didn’t come to pass. It was nice to see a book that didn’t rely on the usual tropes.

I’m looking forward to reading more of the Anna Pigeon stories, hopefully they’ll all have characters as good as Heath.

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

05/20/16

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.

05/1/16

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.

04/20/16

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.

 

 

04/14/16

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.