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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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.

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.

Happy Pagan New Year! Among Wiccans and Pagans the year ends at Harvest (Samhain) and enters a period of rest and restoration. The dark winter months are for sleeping, getting stronger, and boosting the ties between family and friends.

I’m not completely Pagan. I grew up mixed.  Dad told stories from every Pagan God he knew, while Mom dutifully took us to an Irish Catholic Church each Sunday.  Neither religion stuck very hard, but Halloween-time always feels like a giant end-of-the-year bash. That’s why my blog gets a new look each November – the New Year means a new format, new colors. And, of course, I make a few resolutions:

Edit less, write more
Last year I published my first novel. I never expected there to be so much editing. Rounds and rounds of edits, each perfecting the story just a tiny bit more. Editing is largely a process of subtracting for me, taking away overused words (apparently I’m addicted to ‘just’) and removing stray ideas that don’t really contribute to the plot. I tend to think of editing as the opposite of writing, an act of ‘uncreating’. It makes my work better so I would never want to stop editing all together, but once you start looking for things to get rid of you find more and more of them. Last year was the first year since I began writing in 2006 that I didn’t complete a new manuscript. I edited several. This year I’m looking to balance my editing with creating.

Blog more
My blog schedule evolved from ‘when I think of things’ to ‘worry about it twice a month, get it done whenever’ to the lovely 1st and 15th schedule I put in place in 2014. I don’t always hit the exact date (spoiler alert: I’m writing this on the 2nd), but having a fixed time on the calendar helps me plan for better posts. I toyed with the idea of going to a 1st, 10th, and 20th schedule, but I don’t want to fix something that isn’t broken. Instead, I’m going to add a third blog post around the 20th of the month.

Share what I read
That new monthly blog post will be about books. I read three books a week, but I tend to keep it to myself. Selfishly, I hope sharing what I read will bring me more recommendations and help me find new authors to love. Authors are warned never to give a bad review and be cautious about saying anything about anyone in the industry, so you’ll only hear about the books I like.

Play with new ideas more
Like the Queen of Wonderland sometimes I believe six impossible things before breakfast. A jumble of characters, scenes, and ideas rattles around my head but I stop them from getting out by worrying about the details. Will the story be interesting enough? What is the heroine going to do with her time? Where’s the bad guy? I’ve long lamented the 20,000 word mark, where good stories seem to die. All those 20,000 word pieces feel like a thing left unfinished, a black mark on my to-do list that can never be crossed off. This year I want to look at those pieces differently. I want to see them as an exploration, one that doesn’t have to result in 90,000 polished, published words. I write in two lengths: 600 word blog posts and 100,000 word novels. (The first draft of the sequel to Under a Blood Moon came in at 150,000 words.) I don’t know when writing became a one-or-the-other thing for me, and I don’t like it. I’m giving myself permission to write shorter, write weirder, write sweeter, etc. etc. etc. Play with the ideas and see where they go, instead of locking them away because they might not work.

I have a lot of great plans for the next year. I’ve started a new contract with Wild Rose Press (more on that when it’s official) and there’s a long list of fun writing projects that need attention. A second not-much-shorter list of life projects needs attention too. As we say goodbye to the bright autumn sunlight and prepare for the long, dark days of winter I’m excited about the things ahead. I hope you are too. From my hearth to yours, best wishes and bright blessings for the New Year.

How important is preserving the past? And which version of the past do we keep?

When the paperback copies of Under a Blood Moon arrived I quickly snapped a photo of one on top of the original draft. Under a Blood moon first draft to final copyPrinted in March 2007 that draft only roughly matches the story in the finished novel. I intended to shred it the next day, not out of anger or malice, but because I didn’t need it any more. I mused about leaving the past to the past, and focusing on the future. But then I hesitated.

A story will change with the telling, altered as people apply their own point of view. It changes more when the author writes a sequel or explains things in other works. One of my favorite series began with the heroine being saved from a pair of attackers by the (eventual) hero. In the first book she was alone and desperate. Later in the series we learn another person was watching the shadows. By the end of the series some seven people were there and only the hero moved to help. Critics were quick to point out the inconsistency, but does it really matter?

I’m editing the second Mallory novel now. The third is ‘proofing’ and my mind is chewing on what will happen in the fourth. I’m tempted to re-read every word I’ve written, from beginning to end, before I start on that fourth story. It would give me a more consistent, more ‘correct’ version of the story but I want to write what’s in my mind now rather than trying to recapture what I felt then.

One of my first readers of Under a Blood Moon is a friend who I met at my day job. After reading the book she asked me an interesting question – would it bother me if Mallory was Black? There’s nothing in the text that specifically makes her White, and a reader might imagine her as a Black. I told her it wouldn’t almost instantly, but the more I thought about it the more I realized I want readers to imagine Mallory as Black, Latina, Asian, or whatever she looks like inside their mind. I want them to read my story and make my characters real.

Which is why I finally shredded those first manuscripts. A story isn’t just words on a page, but an evolving idea. I don’t want to look back at what I might have meant but instead move forward toward what my stories can become. I want that more than I want to remember what the story once was. Holding on to the past leaves your hands too full to reach for the good things to come.

I’ve been editing Under a Blood Moon this month. It’s become the main focus of my life. Luckily, I ended a 15 month volunteer commitment in January. All my other hobbies suffer greatly, no weight lifting, barely any running. My quilting sits neglected the antique sewing machine silent. Why this all consuming obsession?

I have always believed that editing is reduction. To quote Stephen King the formula is “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%”. I can’t count the number of drafts Blood Moon has undergone. I have documents labeled ‘maybe final’, ‘final’, and ‘really final’. Somewhere along the way I cut too much. My editor advised me to add back-story, to flesh out the characters. She pointed out readers will feel blindsided by a vampire mentioning his son for the first time on page 200. I’ve lived with these characters so long it never occurred to me that someone wouldn’t think 600 year old vampire, 36 year old son, kid must be adopted and move on.

My secret weapon is an hourglass:

An hourglass filled with purple sand, rests in the snow

Not even snow can freeze time. My Haunted Mansion hourglass.

I bought it as décor. It doesn’t keep time very well. I suspect most of my hours are actually a bit longer than that. I’m learning to adjust to longer lengths though, to let things develop on their own. I sit down at my writing desk, a rickety combination of silver steel and glass that looks better than it functions, and I flip the hourglass over. For that time I do nothing but edit. If I think I need to fact check something on the internet, I note it for later. The door to my office is shut and email turned off. If I absolutely must take a break, I lay the hour glass on its side, stopping the flow of time and sand.

I wish I could tell you that I often find myself working past the end of the hourglass. Instead, I find myself shaking it, wondering if something got stuck. Putting words back into a work leaves a lump. I go back time after time, smoothing it down with both hands like making a bed, hoping some future reader won’t see the bulge.

We’ve had a bad winter storm, leaving me alone in the house with my words. I’ll write three sentences of dialog, short little lines. The hour glass finishes. Liberated, I move on to something else. But an hour later, my mind is still on those sentences. Two hours later I rewrite them, saving the first ones just in case they were better. Then, five hours later, lying in bed, the perfect set of replacement sentences comes to me. I repeat them over to myself, twenty words chanted like a mantra while the lap top boots up. Finally, they rest beside their kin, perfect, exactly what I wanted, twenty words out of the five or ten thousand I swore to myself I’d add by February 28.

I promised one short story a month on the blog, but lately that’s become ‘a custom more honored in the breach than the observance’. There’s no room in my head for other stories, for matching clothes, or preparing meals. I’m sure I bore people; the long road to publication (8 years!) can’t be thrilling to anyone but me. Someone mocked me because I have no social life. I’m not sure I need one. After all, I have a book. It makes me happy, angry, frustrated, excited, and tired but mostly happy.

My current manuscript is set in 1973. Writing in an historic setting is new to me, and it’s been quite a challenge. In an effort to get things ‘right’ I’ve interviewed people who were the same age as my main character and spent time in the library reading the magazines and news reports of the era. I’m listening to the hit songs, and checking out the fashions online. Still, there are things that worry me.

Normally I write about paranormal worlds, so far no vampires or fairies have been upset by me appropriating their culture. I don’t want to take the same license with the Civil Rights Movement, women’s liberation, or the gay power movement. I’m going to write about those things through the eyes of a white girl, which is something I know, but I want her friends, black, gay, or whatever they are, to be a realistic, fully faceted portrayal.

I thought I was doing a pretty good job until this weekend, when I was invited to a Jerusalem Market. Having never heard of such a thing, I went more out of curiosity than anything else. A sign at the front made it clear that while the event took place during Passover in the time period of Jesus’ life, it would not be historically accurate. I’ve been to a few Renfests, so that didn’t bother me.

The Wailing Wall did.

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The Western Wall is one of the most sacred locations for the Jewish Culture. At the Jerusalem Market, it was a wall where children were encouraged to write prayers in chalk. I assume this was a nod to the practice of slipping slips of paper with prayers written on them into the cracks of the real Western Wall. I assumed because no one explained the wall, why it was there, or what made it important. I’m struggling to come up with an equivalent for the Western Wall, something sacred and yet public, a part of everyday life. If I could find something as important to my culture as the Wall is to many religions, I think I could decide if this model was offensive.

The Market was clearly not meant to be offensive. Most of the booths talked about some aspect of Jewish culture during Jesus’ life. Roman centurions wandered the grounds. One man was dressed as a Rabbi. A booth held samples of the herbs used at the time, explaining what each one was used for. Another let children experiment making clay pots. There was a puppet show about Jesus, and a chance to listen to an actor dressed as Jesus teach lessons under the trees.

At the matzo baking station I began to doubt that the intention was what mattered. I’ve heard stories of Passover from Jewish friends. I know just a little bit about the deep cleaning a house goes through and how not even a crumb of leavened bread can be left behind. I didn’t learn anything like that while I mixed my flour and water. The only discussion of why Jews don’t eat leavened bread during Passover was “they were running away from Pharaoh, so they didn’t have time for the bread to rise.” When the matzo was finished we were offered a mixture of apples and walnuts to spread on it. “It’s supposed to look like the mortar in the wall,” the volunteer told me. She didn’t remember what it was called, but encouraged me to try it anyway.

As a member of the majority, I can’t decide what offends the minority. I’m not Jewish, so I don’t get a say in what is and isn’t okay to be a children’s activity. Still, to me, taking a part of another culture and turning it into a learning activity for kids might not be bad. Taking a part of another culture, not bothering to learn what it is or the meaning behind it, and making it a fun activity for kids crosses the line to me. Then again, when I posted about it on Facebook a Jewish friend wasn’t offended, saying that at least learning was going on.

So if everyone isn’t offended by the same thing, and I can’t decide what is and isn’t offensive, how do I know what’s okay to write? My plan going forward is to tell the story, making the characters as real as possible. I’m going to stay away from stereotypes and base my characters on the people I interview, not the common idea of what someone of that race, gender, or minority should be. I’m also hoping to find some beta readers from the cultures I’m writing about, people who can tell me if I’ve missed something important.

I don’t know if that’ll be enough, but hopefully it’s a good start.

Some of my stories start with a synopsis, all the important details written down in a fury of typing, or back cover copy, two paragraphs that are meant to hook people. Example:

###

Srgt. Steve Carter barely remembers the combat accident that stole his soul. Being dead for five minutes wasn’t bad, coming back to life as a remnant, without morals and with no way to love, is horrible. Discharged from the Army for conduct he can’t control, Carter drifts trying to get back to the man he was.

ER Dr. Jessica Kelly has just found an interesting set of anomalies on the MRI scans of a patient who died briefly on the operating room table. The changes might explain her patient’s sudden shift in personality and behavior. And if she can explain it, she can fix it. Before she can gather more data she finds herself targeted by shadowy organization, a group willing to kill to keep the remnants as they are.

###

It’s sad to say but stories that come to me like that, where I know who the players are and what’s going to happen in the end, rarely get finished. It’s the stories that appear as tiny germs of an idea, with one or two crystal-clear scenes, that catch my interest enough to keep me writing for 100,000 words. Here’s one that popped up a few days ago, I wicked curious to see what it becomes.

###

Seventeen year old Katie has spent her life happily living in her sister’s shadow. Karen is the pretty one who learns magic with ease. She’s the one their Mom loves, the one who will fight this generation’s battle with demonic forces without any trouble. Karen’s going to continue the family legacy that started hundreds of years ago. Except that Karen and her Mom die in a car accident. Now Katie, the one who can never concentrate, the awkward, gangly one, has to fight the forces of evil, and she’s only got a couple of months to figure out how to do it. On top of that she’s moved to a new town, has to make new friends, and oh yeah, try to graduate from high school if she can live long enough.

The bell rings behind me, the noise almost hidden by the high bushes. I came here looking for a little peace and instead I find Katrina, or a statue of her. She posed on a broomstick, like she’s ready to jet off into the night. Cheesy, and incorrect, it’s not the pose that gets me, it’s her face. Because Katrina’s face is Karen’s face, and I’m back in my bedroom again, looking at my big sister, talking to her, laughing with her. Except none of that will ever happen again.

Katrina. It’s Katrina. I repeat it over and over again. Katrina your great-great-great-whatever-grandmother, but you’ll tell everyone she’s you Aunt. I can hear Dad’s voice repeating the rules in my head. When they notice the resemblance you tell them Aunt, not grandmother. Except there isn’t any resemblance.

Karen looked like Katrina. Mom looked like Katrina. I look like Dad. My nose is too big and my ears aren’t exactly level, and somewhere a sculpture caught Karen’s expression, that exasperated-my-god-I-can’t-believe-you’re-my-sister expression as if she sat in front of him. It’s Karen looking down at me, and any minute now I’m going to cry. The statue is ringed with benches, and I sit down, hugging my knees to my chest. I used to sit this way on your bed, I think the words at the statue. I used to sit this way when you told me about college and how great it was.

Someone comes up the path, but I’m too sad to move. Maybe if I sit here, just like this, they’ll feel awkward and walk away.

“Oh hi. It’s Katie, right?”

So much for walking away. I glance up at the voice and see that it’s the Adonis from the parking lot. He swapped his football for a backpack, slung over one shoulder, but he looks just as good.

I nod. “Have I met you?”

“Will.” He offers his hand and I have to uncurl to shake it. “I think we’ve got some classes together.”

“English?”

He laughs, because we should both be there now. “Yeah. I just, I needed someplace quiet to think.”

I know all about that so I just nod. He takes the bench not far from me and for a few minutes that’s all it is, two people in the same space, just sitting, looking at a statue of the town’s most famous witch. I want to ask him what he sees when he looks at it. I want to tell him what I see but Dad’s voice is in my head again, lecturing me to keep to myself until we know what’s what.

“Are you going to the bonfire?”

The question comes out of nowhere and I’m completely lost. “The bonfire?”

“I guess no one told you. We have huge bonfire each year. It’s a big deal. Always held on the day they burned Katrina at the stake.” He gestures up toward the familiar face.

“She was my Aunt.” The minute I say it his expression changes. A second ago he was maybe asking me on a date, now he thinks I’m crazy. I shouldn’t have said it but I was thinking about Karen. I’m an idiot. “I mean like, my great-great-great Aunt, a thousand times removed probably.”

“Oh.” The ‘she’s crazy look’ has gotten a little better, but he’s not talking, so I do, trying to fill the silence.

“My sister was named after her, sort of.” And then I stop myself, curling my hands into fists, the nails cutting into my palm. The pain is important, it stops me from talking. If it wasn’t there I’d tell him about everything Karen knew, about the books she studied and the spells she could do. I’d finally tell someone about me, how I’m the replacement-Karen and I’ll never be as good as she was.

“Does your sister go here?”

“She and my Mom died in a car accident.” I continue my streak of saying the absolute worst things ever. “That’s why we moved back here. Dad thought if I grew up in Mom’s hometown, went to her high school, I’d have some sort of a connection with her. So I’ll probably end up at the bonfire, if I can find it.”

“I could take you.” He smiles, and I fall in love. It’s not enough that he’s this big jock of a guy with perfect hair, he’s got a killer smile.

“That’d be great.” And I finally say something right.

###

The clouds look like dirty cotton, fluffy and gray, while the rain comes down like mist. It’s not a good day for a parade but the whole town has turned out. Dad gives me a push toward the bleachers.

“All the teenagers sit over there. The floats throw candy but the kids are too cool to dive for it. When you sit there the candy comes right at you so…”

“All the teenagers, huh? It’s something you and Mom did, isn’t it?”

He nods at me, and I can see him blinking as if he’s going to cry. As much as I don’t want to bond with my peers, watching Dad cry would suck more.

“I’ll be at the bleachers.” I offer him a cheerful grin as I bounce away.

When I finally find a spot it’s between Trina, the blond girl who helped me in math, and Raven, the one who’s trying so hard to convince everyone she’s goth. Trina and I talk a little about the parade, but Raven just gives me the cold shoulder.

“You don’t have a bag?” Trina seems genuinely concerned.

“Just my purse, why?”

“For candy, silly.” She pulls a folded up plastic bag out of her pocket. “Don’t worry, I brought two, just in case.”

Raven rolls her eyes and snorts at this. She’s got a thing against candy, or she’s just generally a bitch. Whatever. I thank Trina just before the band goes by. There’s Jeremy and the other kids I saw at lunch. They can’t wave but I notice a wink that might be directed at me. Then the floats start, all of them Halloweeny but not scary. A haunted house with little kids dancing for ghosts, followed by a smoking cauldron sponsored by the local bakery, it only takes a few floats before I’m snatching candy out of the air and laughing. For a second it feels good, it feels normal, and then a float turns the corner and I see them.

Demons. Real ones, with glowing green eyes. Two of them in the center of a float with people I’ve seen in town beside them. They make the same motions as the people around them, ahdns dipping into bags of candy. Except the demons don’t thrown mini-chocolate bars, they’re throwing handfuls of blood. No one else reacts. None of them can see it. Then the blood splatters on to the bench in front of me and I lose it, screaming.

“Chill,” Raven hisses at me. Her condescension cuts off my fear. “I’ve got it.” She reaches over to the spot and cups her hands. A second later there’s a spark of magic going from one palm to the other. Her magic is purple, like electrical sparks. When it hits the puddle the blood sizzles and then evaporates.

“Are you really doing that in public?” Trina asks, wide-eyed with disbelief. Her voice gets louder as her incredulousness grows. “Today? At the parade?”

“Well I wouldn’t of, but the new girl was freaking out.” Raven tells her, when I know it wasn’t about me at all, it was about showing off.

I’ve never been any good with being treated like some weaker, kid sister. Not even when my amazing big sister was doing it. “It’s no big deal, anyone can do that.”

The spark I build between my hands starts out bright white, but sizzles into a black core. Karen’s magic stayed white. Mom said it was because she focused better. My magic always went through all the shades, white, white-purple, purple, purple-black, and then black, crackling black. I’m thinking about Karen and Mom, the way they would shake their head at my attempts and finally send me to some other room so they could practice. I never minded being sent away. It didn’t matter if I missed half the lesson. It wouldn’t have ever mattered if it wasn’t for the old lady in her Buick.

“You’re one of us?” Trina asks me, her voice barely a whisper.

The last float is coming by, no demons here. It’s sponsored by the church. They’ve put some girl in the center of a fake bonfire, some girl who doesn’t look at all like Karen or Katrina.

“I’m one of her descendents.” I’m supposed to say her niece. Because everyone in town knows Katrina burned at the stake when she was twenty. But everyone in town is wrong. Katrina was too strong to burn, she left and swore to come back every twenty years when the demons rose. When she died her daughters started doing it. It’s what Mom did, it’s what Karen was going to do. Now I’m here and-

“Cool.” Raven breaks into my thoughts to give her approval. “We’ve never had a descendent in the coven.”

“You have a coven?” Now it’s my turn to be shocked.

“Sure.” Raven tips her backpack to me, it’s filled with new age books and moleskin grimoires. “Witches have been coming here for years to keep things safe like Katrina did.”

Mom never told me about that.

“We meet in my basement.” Trina is texting furiously on her phone, and I feel my own vibrate with the message. “You should come over tonight, get to know everybody.”

###

 

I know blogs are meant to be about an author’s ‘brand’,  marketing platform, and blah, blah, blah… But today I want to gush about a great book I finished reading, Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia. Thanks for humoring me.

A little background: every March I judge the Daphne du Maurier writing contest. Thus I get to/am obligated to read several romance-mystery novels in a limited time.  When my judging deadline rolls around I’m usually sick of romance novels and bored with happily ever afters.

It was so refreshing to read a book when I didn’t know how it would end. The delicious tension as I gulped down the story one hundred pages at a time can’t be explained. Would the hero live? What about the girl he loved? At any point any of the characters I’d come to care about could’ve been killed. Several of them were, some more than once. The story went fast, made sense, and avoided every cliché I could think of. The love triangle at the end of the book I was dreading never materialized. The bittersweet self sacrifice? Totally avoided. This was a fresh story, with a lot of fun elements for someone like me who loves monsters, myths, and legends.

And guns. Lots of them. Big guns. Small guns. Artillery. Nukes. Oh my, Correia knows his weapons and he uses them just so. Gun nuts will find lots to love here. There’s no ever refilling magazines here or shooting for hours with no one bleeding. People run out of ammo, guns jam, knives slip out of bloody hands in the middle of a fight. Realism and technical details go together to make great fight scenes.

But I’m a demanding reader. Great scenes and a great story aren’t enough for me. I want writing skill, I want finesse with words. I want someone who commands a symphony of nouns and verbs, who builds a story like a tapestry, weaving threads in a way that surprises me when I step back and see the whole image.

On this aspect alone Correia deserves an award.

The crowning achievement is Holly. Holly is not a main character. I’d put her at tertiary – the character who makes funny quips to break the tension.  She’s a throw away character introduced as an ex-stripper from Vegas. Not much there, right? Wrong. Correia shines with Holly. When the other characters share their back story Holly abstains. It’s not until 50 pages later that a nothing line gives you any indication of what happened to her. It takes another hundred pages before a completely unrelated character in a totally different setting reveals enough for the reader to piece together Holly’s experience. Even then, Holly herself doesn’t discuss it for two hundred pages.

Completely woven into the story, never forced, with just enough information to tease the reader into wanting more. A brilliant piece of character development and it isn’t even his hero.

I’ve read 15 or 20 romance novels this year, along with a dozen mysteries I can remember and a few books that were in between like the latest Charlene Harris. The stories were interesting at the time but nothing special.  They didn’t stick with me. Monster Hunter International is in a whole other class, rivaling the very impressive The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bedsole to be the best book I’ve read this year.  Go read it.

I’m working on a conference proposal this week about a subject that makes me rant: the portrayal of motherhood as weakness in modern speculative fiction. I’m posting this blog in the (perhaps insane) hope that a few brilliant authors will agreed with me, and want to be on the panel to discuss it with a group of fans.

In mythology and religion, motherhood has been treated as a position of strength as well as gentleness. While depictions of meek mothers certainly abound, strong mothers are also present. The Hindu goddess Durga is a wonderful example. Durga is a fearless mother, who protects with weapons clutched in her eighteen hands. Fierce and feminine, this divine mother rides a tiger into battle.

Historic maternal figures like Queen Isabella of Spain or Queen Victoria, who continued to show their strength after having children, should provide ample inspiration for speculative writers.  Even criminal mothers like, Ma Barker who famously took care of gang members, even eventually shielding them from prosecution, could become a fine character. But where are they? Too often having a baby signals the end of a character’s ability to grow and develop in any direction except a maternal one.

Only two decades ago science fiction had a wonderful example of a mother-warrior, Ellen Ripley. She’s tough. She can fire a gun and run a loader, but at the same time she comforts Newt, connecting with her as she washes the child’s face. She’s exactly the role model I crave: competent, strong, and caring.

She’s also probably lonely, as I can’t think of another strong mother like her. Doctor Who’s Amy Pond can fight off any number of space monsters, but she completely ignores her daughter for several months after the infant is kidnapped. Padme Amidala fires her blaster and works in the intergalactic senate… until she has kids, then she’s too weak to survive heartbreak. Sarah Connor can take down a terminator but we never see her making her son laugh or taking care of him.

Hopefully I’m wrong and the comments will be filled with a thousand examples of characters that don’t suddenly lose the ability to think, fight, or be fierce simply because they’ve managed to reproduce. If I’m not though, and you’d like to talk about why there aren’t any tough mothers in genre fiction today, drop me a note. With luck I’ll find a few brilliant authors, and along with a handful of creative fans, will generate some solutions to the problem.