04/20/17

Crafting a Creature: Were-Alligators

I drafted my first treatment for a were-alligator novel in April of 2012. In March of 2016, a new idea came, this time for an alligator-shifter romance trilogy. I worked out the treatment in a rough sketch of the plot and characters, but also a few thousand words of scenes. Somewhere lost on my hard drive are the plots for books two and three. They aren’t the sort of thing I usually write (is alligator-shifter-romance/erotica-thriller even a category?), but they catch my eye from time to time.

When I headed to the Georgia aquarium looking for monsters for the next book in the Monster Beach series, the white skinned alligator reminded me of those stories. I’d love to introduce my alligator-shifters in that book – establishing them as a culture but giving myself more time. I need to find a reference for how alligator-shifters would work. I don’t want to create characters or start a new manuscript until I find a good myth to base the alligator culture on. I want a solid grounding with rules on how the alligators would work, like the way we all know werewolves shift on the full moon. Easy, right?

Except there are no alligator-shifters.

Not that I can find anyway. I’ve read a lot about sea monsters, swamp monsters, lake monsters, cyrptids, and urban legends, and I can’t find a single culture that has a monster that’s human by day and alligator by night/full moon/etc. There are a few modern paperback books out there, most of which make the were-alligators up as victims of a voodoo curse. With its connection to Louisiana, voodoo-magic seems like a logical choice, but it leaves the ‘how does that work?’ question unanswered. I’m not happy with that idea.

I’m also not comfortable appropriating culture. As an outsider to many cultures, I don’t know when a monster is actually a monster, or if they’re really a deity or guardian-style spirit. I don’t want to turn a sacred creature into something offensive. Taking traits from myths and legends is one thing, using only the name or a handful of characteristics sounds like the path to trouble to me. I’m not a superstitious person, but I was raised to be respectful of the Others.

A photo of Kappa illustration from the book Yokai Attack

The Kappa entry in Yokai Attack

Japanese Kappa
Kappa are one of the most popular Yokai (Japanese monsters/spirits/demons/ghosts). Turtle like with a long beak-style mouth (sounds like an alligator mouth to me), Kappa are known for challenging their victims to a wrestling match. Like an alligator’s famous ‘death roll’ Kappa drag their prey under the water, twisting and turning while they drown. Like selkies Kappa can remove their skin, and must do so in order to sleep. I can see a lot of fun writing coming from that, so while my favorite reference (Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide) shows me they don’t look like what I want, Kappa certainly act like. I’m not sure how I could justify a Japanese monster in the swamps of Florida though.

Bunyips
These Aboriginal-Australian  creatures first came to my attention in Temeraire series, where they are described as being somewhat dragon-like in appearance. A silhouette drawing supposedly dating back to the 1850s shows them as more of whale-like creature, except with the addition of two stubbing forearms (or maybe legs). A widely quoted newspaper article from 1845 describes the creatures as a half-horse, half-alligator, while another source says the head is more like a crocodile. Fascinating stuff, but there’s almost no trustworthy research out there, so until I can head to the Outback to track them down myself, I’ll have to pass.

Lizard men
More urban legend than monster, lizard men show up in modern culture the way Bigfoot does. The manlike cryptids have scaly skin and huge amounts of strength. They tend to live near swamps (I found a lot of stories set in South Carolina) and show up in the media as being responsible for damage to cars or houses. They look more like frog-men in Ohio, and reports from Canada are more like ‘the Creature from the Black Lagoon’ (Thetis Lake Monster) or have two tails (myths from the Queen Charlotte Islands). While I’m impressed that reptilian humanoids are still being reported, the stories are, once again, lacking.

None of them really work, so it’s up to me to create something new. My stories are set in South Florida, near the swamps inhabited by the Seminole Indians so I’ll use the Seminole language for their name: halputta-is-te (alligator people). I’m familiar with selkies and there’s a lot of source material about them, so I’ll likely take from those legends. There are also a lot of Kappa tales that overlap with selkie lore. That intersection will be where I ground my alligator-shifter stories as I start to write them.

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.

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).

12/1/16

New Cover Art for Under a Blood Moon

Cover art is an interesting puzzle. Authors don’t have creative control over their cover art. Before the artist begins we’re asked to supply a few details about what we had in mind, remembering that the details may be ignored completely. If we’re consulted, it’s usually after the cover is created.

There are a few cover art rules about what sells and what doesn’t. You may have never noticed it, but there aren’t very many romance covers featuring men with hairy chests. Similarly, the YA book world seems obsessed with white girls with long, blond hair.

When I worked on my debut cover art, I was more than a little clueless. It was super important to me that the girl on the cover look exactly like the character. Her weight, body shape, hair color, all of it had to be an exact match. When I couldn’t get the match I removed the girl, which explains why I ended up with a spooky, atmospheric landscape cover. It didn’t do a very good job of conveying a sense of my story.

Luckily, when it came time to pick cover art for the sequel, Fire in Her Blood, my publisher agreed to give me another chance. Thus, I can reveal the much improved, amazing cover for Under a Blood Moon:

underabloodmoon_w9453_750

The Mallory on the cover is almost exactly as I describe Mallory in the book. Her magic, which shows as lightening, is the perfect highlight. And the moon? The huge blood moon, which inspires a werewolf killing spree in the book, got to stick around. I’m delighted with it!

It feels great to know that both of the books will share a look. I can’t wait to see them on my bookshelf together.

 

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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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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.

03/15/16

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.

12/16/15

Apologies

When you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.

That’s the best piece of advice I got in college. It came from my favorite professor, a man who happily called himself a wizened old gnome. He did research in Chernobyl half the year and spent the rest of the time relaxing. To a tiny cult-like group of followers he was everything, to the other students he was a weird prof to be avoided.

This post is a day late, and my Dec 20th post may also be late. I’ve made some decisions lately – large, personal life decisions – that I’m not sure about. Sometimes it takes years to see you made a mistake or months to congratulate yourself for having avoided disaster. In writing I deal with heavy topics, life and death situations, dangerous choices, and loaded guns. In real life the distinctions between a great decision and one that leaves you filled with regret are much more subtle. I’m trying to see that subtle difference, and it’s taking a lot of my time.

In the middle of all that, my editing goes on and, as usual, takes more effort than creating a wildly rough first draft of a story. I always miss writing when I’m editing, but I also see the way it makes my work better. So while I don’t always know where I’m going, I can see progress as I move down the road. For that I am grateful.

I am deeply sorry to for the delays in blogging, reading,  and writing new drafts. I promise to get back on schedule soon.