The #Writing #Inspiration Found in Local Lore

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Huzzah, fall is here at last! My favorite season of sunlight caught in autumn leaves and chilled breezes. Granted, summer had its highlights. My family met with fellow indie author Anne Clare’s family in July for a day, and it was…oh, just a day to fill the heart. Our kids played together, Bo got to catch up with his longtime friend, Anne’s husband, and I got to sit and talk with Anne about life, storytelling, reading–the lot.

Just a couple of creative kindreds. 🙂 Love ya, Anne! xxxxx

Bo and I also took our three Bs northward to Eagle River for a few days of mini-golf, fishing, and swimming. No Paul Bunyan days, sadly, but it’s probably for the best that I didn’t bring Biff and Bash near any chainsaws.

The one morning my kids slept in: a dawn all to myself.

Actually, that trip northward is why I changed my topic for today’s post. I originally intended to discuss everyday absurdities and how they can play nicely into humor writing (don’t worry, we will get to that before 2021 is over), but visiting a Wisconsin “monster” got me thinking about the oddities created where we are and how they can inspire our storytelling.

Back in October 2018 I shared a few of Wisconsin’s peculiarities with the fantastic author Shehanne Moore. This land is the birthplace of an infamous source of inspiration for horror and suspense icons. Tucked among the rocks is a house so strange the gods didn’t even believe it could be real. The state’s stunning natural beauty hides dangers both imagined and…well, “discovered” by lumberjacks.

I wasn’t able to touch much on the history of this local monster in previous posts, so allow me to share a few highlights from The LaCrosse Tribune. The beast was first mentioned in the news back in 1893 by a lumberjack named Gene Shepard. Reports transitioned from killing hodags to capturing a live one that was then exhibited at a county fair in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Was the beast real? Well, its hide was made of actual animal hides, so there’s that. It also moved about in its cage (thanks to the puppetry work done by Shepard’s friends), causing many to cry out in fear as they were shuffled quickly through the small, dim tent “for their safety.” Shepard did confess to his prank…well, after East Coast newspapers picked up on his story and hailed it as a scientific discovery. Shepard’s life took a downturn, and Rhinelander did not mourn his death in 1923. After about a decade, though, the town started to take a liking once more to the Hodag, using it as a mascot for schools, businesses, and the town itself. You can get a really nice detailed history from this Wausau Daily Herald article if you’re interested.

Why oh why would Shepard make up something like this Hodag, and how on earth could the story have been considered legit? First, there are Native American legends to give a bit of history to this “discovery.” The Anishinaabe spoke of an “underwater panther” called the Mishibizhiw, whose depictions in art strike a number of similarities to the Hodag. Lumberjacks could have easily seen such art and spread the tale through the woods of Canada and down into the Midwest. The Wausau Daily Herald article then notes that the lumber industry was stagnating at that point in Wisconsin, and in the North Woods, the lumber industry was EVERYTHING. Plus, it’s important to add that towns in the northern half of Wisconsin are often very small, and very widespread among the forests there. Wisconsin’s got a lot of farmland, sure, but that mainly lies in the southern half of the state. North, only small farms took hold in the wilderness. In fact, driving by such farms in my youth inspired one of the settings in my Fallen Princeborn series. They are isolated and alone in the unknown, and when one’s walled in among endless tall pines, maples, oaks, and birches, the calls of cougars, bears, wolves, and eagles can sound like just about anything.

Imagination is a powerful thing. All it takes is a single sight, a single sound, a single story to manifest into that which cannot be forgotten. Even if the legend transforms year to year, its root remains the same.

Or in another case, its face.

A lone doll in an attic window may not sound like much of a story, but in a small, isolated town in Minnesota, that doll has been the source of many stories ghostly and tragic. The Janesville Doll, as it is known, sat in this window for decades. It watched my parents travel to Minnesota for college. It watched me travel to Minnesota for graduate school.

Oh yes. I saw this doll, and I saw it often. It was impossible not to when driving at night through Janesville and the only light upon the street came from that attic window. The doll transformed into a dark specter at night, its features lost until dawn. Some say it walked the attic. Some say it cried out in the night. Some say it was a memorial created by parents who regretted isolating their daughter from the town only to discover her hanged in her room. Some say the doll was an old man’s revenge against the community after its children mocked his disabled grandson and drove the child to hang himself. Some say it was just a curious discovery by a local antique collector who wanted to display something in the attic window and left it there. Some say the truth is locked away in the town’s time capsule, only to be revealed in a hundred years.

No matter what some say, the legend left its porcelain handprint upon the Midwestern imagination. Years later I still think upon that doll, and I think on what could be–not likely, and yet–true.

BLUE HOUSE DARE

You stand outside Blue House with a candy bar in one hand and a pocket knife in the other. I’m behind the light pole, where the attic window’s light cannot reach. I try to tell you how important it is that The Doll shouldn’t see you first, how the attic light itself is how The Doll touches the world beyond Blue House, but you don’t care. You’re new here. You have something to prove here. I do not.

Cam and his gang go quiet from their hiding place under the Sunderson Porch. Everyone knows the Sundersons have the only house older than Blue House because of the fire back in 1903, so anyone brave enough to watch a Blue House Dare always hides somewhere on or near the Sunderson Porch. That a bunch of football players can squeeze themselves under there is beyond me. All I know is I will not fit with them and that you should have said No.

You think we’re stupid for being afraid. I saw it in your face when our bus stopped for the stop sign outside Blue House this morning and everyone—everyone—went quiet except for you. Sure, you thought it was something you said at first, but then you noticed us all looking away from Blue House.

Don’t look, I whispered. Never look at Blue House from a bus. It looks for eyes.

So of course you looked with your bright green eyes.

Why? You didn’t even whisper. It’s just a shitty house. Is that…fuck, there’s a doll in the window. Shit, that’s creepy.

Only after the bus turned onto School Street away from Blue House did anyone else say anything, let alone breathe.

The hell is wrong with you? You asked, even laughed. One of Cam’s gang was sitting in front of us—the shock of white hair above the right ear marks all of them. His glare shut your laugh up quick enough.

Stories move quickly through a small school in a small town. Maybe if you had moved in during summer, I could have prepared you better. But your family didn’t arrive until yesterday, and they sent you out this morning assuming small town equals safe town.

Idiots.

Comments or feedback on the tale so far? It’s a strange yet delightful pleasure, writing these Outer Limits style stories. 🙂 Perhaps a look into your own local lore will uncover peculiar tales that are bound to spark something new in your storytelling, something strange, something that could not be told anywhere else but where you are.

Time to start digging.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’m really excited to share the rest of this story with you next month, as well as a little conundrum I have with worldbuilding here. Another author interview is on its way, too! Plus, Blondie promises to share some of her latest story with us, and yes, I AM going to talk about humor for realsies. After watching my children interact with a Hodag, how can I not?

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#AuthorInterview: #Wisconsin #Mystery #Writer Patricia Skalka Shares Setting Inspiration and Tips on Writing a Unique Detective

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A stormy August has descended upon us here in Wisconsin, my friends. Not only has rain come at last to our parched farmlands, but so has the lightning, thunder, and even tornados. We’ve had to huddle in our basement a few times in the last week around the transistor radio to hear of funnel clouds taking shape, of lightning striking power poles blocks away, of tornados destroying homes miles away. But we are all safe and well, and no deaths as of yet been reported. A prayer of thanks for that!

While storms will always trigger memories of flooding in our home, I know storms can also be an amazing inspiration for storytelling. There is something about that dark and stormy night that puts us all in the mood for a good ol’ whodunit…

…and I cannot think of a better series to tuck into during the next storm than the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery series by Patricia Skalka. Not only was her first book a delight to sip on my podcast Story Cuppings, but I was happily surprised–and yet not surprised at all–to find out USA Today selected her first book, Death Stalks Door County, as THE story readers “traveling” the States through fiction should read to experience the Wisconsin setting. My fellow creatives, I am pleased as beer cheese to introduce you to the one and only, Patricia Skalka.

Niceties first! Please tell us about yourself.

I was born and raised in a blue-collar Chicago neighborhood, so I’m a city girl from way back, but I have a strong connection to rural Wisconsin thanks to my mother. Her parents, my grandparents, were Polish immigrants whose pursuit of the American dream led them to a small dairy farm in the north central part of the state, near the paper-mill town of Mosinee. I spent many summers on that hard-scrabble farm: milking cows, driving the tractor, baling hay, and staring at a night sky filled with stars. On one memorable night I even saw the aurora borealis flicker and dance above the horizon. To me, Wisconsin was always a magical place. I didn’t discover Door County until I was a young adult, but the majesty and sheer beauty of the area reinforced the notion.

Oh, yes, there is something magical in this land of forests and fireflies, I agree! Let’s get back to that in a moment. First, let’s explore the magic of the stories you enjoyed as a child.

When I was growing up books were a luxury we couldn’t afford. But I was a reader, and the books I enjoyed came from the library. Every Tuesday the bookmobile parked outside the neighborhood A&P grocery store and opened for business. Every week I walked in the front door –a seven-year-old proud to have her very own library card — and then marched out the back door with five books, the most you were allowed to check out. For the longest time, I was fixated by the biographies of famous women – women like Clara Barton, Betsy Ross, Molly Pitcher, and Florence Nightingale. Then one day, my Aunt Jean loaned me her childhood copy of The Secret Garden.  

My love of fiction began with that classic children’s story. The Secret Garden took me to a different time and place in a way that the biographies did not. Maybe it was the language or the fact that the story was about characters closer to my age, but I fell in love with the book. Just as Mary and Colin discovered the door to the hidden garden, I discovered a door to a limitless universe of literature, one that demonstrated the power of imagination.

Ah, so you were a frequent visitor of the library as a kid as well. I distinctly remember getting a small illustrated version of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and that cinched it for me as far as the genre went. After going through all the Nancy Drew stories the library had on hand, I devoured Colin Dexter’s Morse stories, P.D. James’ Dalgleish stories, and of course, Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Did you experience a similar journey through the mystery genre?

Growing up I loved the Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes, and Miss Marple stories. Here were people following clues and solving puzzles, figuring things out.  Then I read Dorothy L. Sayers, and my sense of what a mystery could be shifted to something more.  Her books about Peter Whimsey and Harriet Vane did so much more than simply solve the crime. They revealed the pain and struggle of the human heart. They were windows to the soul.

I’ve had the same experience reading other mysteries, books such as The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre, Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, and The Secret History, by Donna Tartt. In each instance, the mystery was essential to the story, but in each instance the story encompassed more. These are tales of human strength and weakness, stories of internal conflict and struggle.

Thank you for these recommendations! I’ve not read Tartt or Smith, but I’ve enjoyed a number of Le Carré novels in the last few years. Now, what of your own fascinating mystery series? Just as Sherlock tells Watson in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”–

“It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

–you create suspenseful tales of murder not in the urban land of Chicago, but the quiet, rural peninsula of Door County. What inspired that choice?

I always wanted to write a mystery, but I had no idea of where, who, or what it would entail. One day, I was sitting on a Door County beach looking out at Lake Michigan. It was a perfect day – blue sky, blue water, warm sun. The kind you could sell for a million dollars if only you could bottle it up. That night I sat in the same spot. Heavy cloud cover obscured the moon and stars; it was inky dark – and eerie. I kept looking over my shoulder and thinking: anything can happen here. The contrast between day and night prompted thoughts of light and dark, good and evil. And the idea was born: I’d write a mystery about a picture perfect location (Door County) where sinister forces were at work beneath the surface.

What were the sinister forces; who was responsible for them; what happened as a result; who suffered and why; who stood to benefit?  I wanted to write a story in which the contemporary crimes were linked to past events. People in Door County tend to know each other’s histories. My protagonist had to be a stranger –enter Dave Cubiak. A former cop from Chicago who could track a killer, a man with his own burdens, a man who didn’t know anyone and would have to ferret out the clues and follow their trail until he stood before the culprit and asked Why?

Death Stalks Door County was meant to be a stand alone. One and done. When I began my career as a mystery writer, I couldn’t imagine writing a series. But as I was going through the long initial process of writing and revising and hoping to find a publisher, different story ideas kept popping up and slowly the notion of writing a series loomed not as an impossibility but as a logical next step. By the time I had signed a contract for the first book, I was half way through the initial draft of the second book.

Along with Cubiak, I, too have been on a journey. Writing his story, his books, has taught me two lessons that I believe every writer must learn and embrace: one, believe in your story and two, believe in your ability to tell it even as you continue to hone your craft.

Dave Cubiak is indeed on a journey! Meeting him in the opening pages of your first book gave me such a powerful picture of a man trying to hide from his grief as much as move on from it.

(If the above podcast link does not appear, you can click here for my post with the podcast episode.)

Do you find it difficult to write a protagonist of a different gender? What tips do you have for other writers who struggle to write outside of their gender?

I don’t find it more difficult to write a male protagonist than a female protagonist. Either way, I need to know them fully – who they are, where they come from, their struggles, dreams, disappointments, weaknesses, strengths, values, foibles, fears, how they walk and talk and think.  Dave Cubiak evolved with the idea for Death Stalks Door County. He was an integral part of the story before I wrote a single word. In many ways, the book – and then eventually the series – is his story.

My books are more than mysteries; taken as a whole they trace Cubiak’s journey from the pivotal moment that changed his life to all that came after. One male reader said he felt they were stories of hope for anyone struggling with loss. Another man said he liked Cubiak because “he’s real.”

The challenge, then, is not to write either a male or female protagonist, but to write one that is real, one that belongs in the story.

The keys to writing outside your gender are empathy and observation. Try to understand that character; walk in their shoes; feel for them.  Watch how they act; listen to how they talk. Invite them into your imagination and live with them for a while. Put them in different situations (finding an injured kitten; stumbling on a wallet stuffed with cash; getting a letter from an old lover seeking forgiveness for the unforgiveable) and see how they react. If you can do all that, you can write the character.

You mentioned earlier that Death Stalks Door County was meant to be a standalone, but your imagination created more conundrums for Cubiak and inspired you to write a series instead. A happy change in plans, I’d say! Yet I should think such a change in plans requires a change to one’s writing process. How would you say your writing process changed after publishing Death Stalks Door County?

I’d been a staff writer for the Readers’ Digest and a professional nonfiction writer for nearly twenty years when I decided to write my first mystery.  Death Stalks Door County was years in the making. I’d read plenty of mysteries and literary novels, but I’d always written nonfiction articles. Even a seven-thousand-word piece pales by comparison to a book of seventy-thousand plus words. With the first book I had a lot to learn. I wrote and edited; I revised and submitted. I got rejected. Repeat. And then again. At one point, I printed the manuscript and let it sit on a shelf for two years. One day I picked it up, fully intending to toss it in the trash. But as I flipped through, I realized that (1) it was decently written; (2) I really liked my characters; and, (3) I was the only person in the world who knew the story and if I didn’t tell it, then it would never be told. Sitting on the floor of my office, I decided that I would give it one more try. One more read through; one more edit; one more round of queries. And that’s when the magic happened. The email read: “Please send full manuscript.” Music to any writer’s ears.

I wrote Death Stalks Door County as a pantser. I had an idea and started writing a book. As I struggled with the process, I slowly evolved into a plotter. I began to think in terms of chapters, then scenes. Bit by bit, I broke the story down into pieces. The smaller the pieces and the more of them that I had, the better handle I had on the story and the more confident I became.

Last month I finished book seven and what changed from writing the first book to the way I wrote the rest of the series was my approach. Starting with Death at Gills Rock, the second volume, I realized that I needed to know the details of the story before I could write it, so I began to plot every step of the action. In essence, I created a road map that carried me from beginning to end.

There are writers who shudder at the thought of plotting the story first, and it’s not a technique that will work for everyone. But many will benefit from it. There are very clear advantages: Plotting ultimately eliminates writer’s block – with a well plotted story, you never sit in front of a blank screen or empty page and wonder now what because you know what comes next. Instead of writer’s block, however, you will have thinker’s block. Working out the kinks and inconsistencies and struggling to make sense of the story line takes work. It’s not easy but ultimately it means that you don’t toss out ten or twenty thousand words because you changed your mind midway through chapter three.  

I was once asked if detailed plotting doesn’t take the fun out of writing. Not for me, it doesn’t. In fact, it makes me more comfortable and confident and eager to write.

A seventh book in the works? Huzzah and congrats! I know just what you mean about pantsing. I enjoyed this style of writing quite a bit during the years I participated in National Novel Writing Month, but you’re absolutely right that when it comes to crafting a strong story–especially a mystery!–one needs to know where the clues are hidden, which characters are where and when, how the reveals happen, and so on. Having the plot planned takes a lot of the panic out of writing, to be sure.

You have been such a joy to converse with here, Patricia–thank you so much for sharing your time and talent with us! May we please close with any other tips you have for aspiring writers? There are so, so many traps writers can fall into, and any trap sprung often wounds, even scars, a writer’s imagination and motivation.

Based on what I have learned from presenting and attending various workshops and listening to aspiring writers discuss their work, I’d say there are three common traps.

  1. Not being clear on the kind of book you’re writing – this is most likely to be a problem for  first-time writers. To paraphrase Socrates, “To know thy book is the beginning of intelligent writing.”  Different types of books have different rules. Something as simple as word count varies from one kind of book to another. Taking the time to figure out what you want your book to be – memoir or historical fiction, cozy mystery or thriller – helps the writer focus and start and stay on the right track.
  2. Misinterpreting the advice to “show don’t tell.” We’ll all heard this dozens of times. Unfortunately, many new writers interpret the advice to mean that you show everything, but that is not what is meant. As a writer, you show the important parts and tell everything that happens in between. As I see it, we have a responsibility to hand the reader a finished story on a silver platter, not to present the verbal equivalent of an unedited video of everything that happens in a character’s life and expect the reader to ferret out the story.
  3. Trying to please everyone. After Death Stalks Door County, my first mystery, was published I was invited to a book club whose members included both men and women. Listening to the book club members discuss my work was an enlightening experience. One woman said she really like X about the book; her husband said X was what he liked least. Then a man said he wished I had included more Y, and the woman across the table said, oh, no there was quite enough of Y for her. As the back and forth continued, I asked myself: which of these people should I be trying to please? It didn’t take long to realize the futility of trying to write to accommodate the preferences of a specific individual or type of reader. My takeaway from the experience: Write the book you want to read. Write to please yourself.

And so we shall, Patricia. So we shall. x

My fellow creatives, you are welcome to visit Patricia Skalka’s author site as well as book review site for more information on what she writes and reads.


~STAY TUNED!~

Blondie and I are keen to share our own writing updates! It’s also high time, methinks, for a bit of creative nonfiction crafting when it comes to those everyday absurdities. x

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

It’s #Murder in the #NorthWoods on this #PrivateEyeJuly #Podcast : Death Stalks Door County by Patricia Skalka

Good morning, my fellow creatives! Today’s selection comes in thanks to my mother, who is an avid listener of Wisconsin Public Radio and heard about a series set in one of her favorite places in all of Wisconsin: Door County.

A rural mystery series set in Wisconsin? Sign me up! So let us take a break from the fantastical (though if you want a bit of fantastical Wisconsin, check this out!) and enjoy a traditional cozy set in the American Midwest.

Let’s take a sip together to taste the campfires, the lake, and the murder in Death Stalks Door County by Patricia Skalka.

If the embedded link recording is not showing up, you can click here to access the podcast site.

Next week we’ll wrap up Private Eye July with another cozy featuring a detective I’ve never read before, much to my husband’s chagrin. x

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#WriterProblems: Finding #Worldbuilding #Inspiration in #SmallTownLife

Hullo hullo, fellow creative souls! It’s lovely to have you back in this, Wisconsin’s Fake-Out Spring. (Never let the first thaw fool you. We’re bound to be snowed under for Easter.)

Once upon a time I shared some posts about the hidden pieces of historical inspiration as well as the peculiar locations in one’s small town that feel like a piece of fiction come to life.

I’d like to continue on this path today, as this pandemic has kept many in their homes. Some homes are in the midst of a bustling city, others out in the middle of nowhere. I’m not in one, but not quite the other, either. My town has neighborhoods (including one on the other side of the tracks), two gas stations, two bars, a library, and a post office. (We shan’t discuss the curious carnival or rock shop today…or the RV campground someone thought would be great to build between a cornfield and old industrial area. Yup, that’s scenic, all right.)

My town, you could say, is small. Built around a river mill and railroad, like so many other rural towns in this country. Just one of thousands, right? The kind teens are so determined to escape to “find themselves” elsewhere.

Well in all my travels through all the small towns as a kid, two towns always struck me as a little weird. Oh, they looked fine from the car: post offices, gas stations, bars, maybe a little general store, or a mechanic operating out of a shoddy barn. Bait and/or feed supplies. Houses of old siding and older brick with uneven sidewalks and prim gardens. The park playgrounds have lost their happy colors, the benches more often used for sharing crude notes than motherly conversations. I didn’t understand those notes as a kid, thinking them a sort of secret code. I bet such notes could be a secret code in a future story, couldn’t they? We’re so quick to dismiss such scrawlings as adults. We complain that the benches should be replaced, or at least painted. Then we remember that small towns often can’t afford such frivolities, and we let it all pass out of mind, just as we let the small towns we drive by pass from our minds.

Except, for me, the Ashippuns.

Let me explain.

First, there would be Old Ashippun.

Then, barely a few miles later, there would be…Ashippun.

Why on earth are there two Ashippuns, and why are they so close to one another? Was there some vicious family feud? Did someone lose land in a legendary poker game? I bet if you look at your state, province, county, parish, etc., you may just find your own version of the Ashippuns, too. Perhaps their origin stories tell the tales of escaped convicts, smuggled ales, or buried treasure. Or, perhaps their origins are blandly pleasant, full of nothing but nice people nicely settling down to build a nice town just a little ways up from the other nice town.

Or not.

Come on, I just HAD to share a bit of Hot Fuzz in a post like this. And if you haven’t seen Hot Fuzz, do. (Not with little kids, for the record.) It’s a masterpiece.

Are the Wisconsin Ashippuns rooted in seedy beginnings? Sadly, Wikipedia says we can blame the railroad for not coming close enough to the original settlement, founded a few years before Wisconsin achieved statehood. Still…the whole town didn’t move, just a portion. And the portion left behind was left to the past, to decay into posterity among the grassy hills and broken county roads. It reminds me of the small farming town where I grew up, a tiny gathering of homes around a railroad station hardly used, held at the mercy of a river that can irrigate plenty of cattle and corn farms one season or simply flood over all of them the next. No one stops at such a place, not when all the highways bypass it. Who would care about strange goings-on in a nothing sort of town with nothing sort of people?

I wondered about that as a kid. I wondered about that a lot as an adult. I wondered so hard I had to make up my own versions of the Ashippuns and put them in a story.

Old Sanctuary had never bothered with paved roads, let alone road signs. Who needed them in this dirt hole of a so-called town?

It would take a certain kind of soul to visit such the old, forgotten town, let alone live there. That certain kind of soul wouldn’t visit on a whim, either. There’d have to be a purpose, a special purpose, to come to a “so-called town” like this one. I was reminded of the Autumn Carnival in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, its Autumn People eager to harvest desperate souls from small towns along its travels. Stephen King had a similar approach with the nefarious demon LeLand Gaunt selling people the one thing they desired most in Needful Things. Then another book came to mind: Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker.

And I knew what I needed to write.

See, The Boneshaker is a fascinating story. You’ve a young girl named Natalie coming into her own but still fiercely protective of her sick mother as they make ends meet in a small town. Many have their own little problems in a small town, problems that surely can be solved by the miracle cures advertised by the stranger Jake Limberleg and his traveling medicine show. But those cures come at a price. They always do.

We still see people paying that price in the real world, don’t we? Just replace “tonic” with “essential oil.” “Mixture” for “shake.” “Sure thing” for “time freedom.”

You’ve probably seen the ads on your social media, or gotten the messages from a person you went to school with ages ago. Social media has blessed those in every small town with the ability to reach out and connect with anyone anywhere, so they gather up the school year books and find the names online, and ding! The messages pour in. They say they want to catch up…and then invite you to a “business opportunity.”

All too often, people drink the dream. All too often, people drink nothing but poison.

Herbalife. Younique. Avon. LuLaRoe. Amway. Beachbody. Mary Kay. Scentsy. Shaklee. It Works. La Vel. Monat. DoTerra. Young Living. Optavia. Norwex. Color Street. There are dozens more, rising and collapsing every few years. They promise you the world by “social selling.” You can “change the world” by working in “pockets of your time” on your phone selling cosmetics. Insurance. Vitamins. Kids’ books. Weight Loss. Shampoo. Cleaning products. They have oils that can cure Autism and cancer. They have silver cloths that can be used to clean a toilet and your face in one go. They have wax melts to calm animals and plastic wraps to eliminate your fat.

They have everything the evil doctors and big corporations don’t want you to have. Capitalist society is such a crime. You can escape it and come to the real people who care about you and want you to succeed in the true way. You can be a part of the multi-level marketing family…for a start-up fee. For a monthly renewal fee. And be sure to get your inventory updated. Be sure to try the products for yourself. Be sure to sell the life to your family, your friends, your neighbors. And if your loved ones don’t support you? They’re toxic. Cut them out of your life. You don’t need them, you have your new family…

Nicole points to her Suzy Ray! bag with her drink straw and smiles extra-wide. “Suzy Ray! Living is, well, it’s not just body care. It’s really a way of life.” Nicole leans back and closes her eyes as usual, emphasizing her one-ness with the sunlight. “Suzy Ray! can heal your hair or skin, your gut, your muscles, your spine. Their specialized formulas that no other doctor’s been able to match bring vital nutrients to your marrow. They even,” Nicole opens her eyes slowly and looks upon the water pump and those sitting by it, “can bring function back to muscles that haven’t worked before.”

There are many YouTube creators warning people of these multi-level marketing (MLM) scams, and plenty of news outlets continue to show just how many people who cannot afford to lose money are giving hundreds and even thousands to these companies in the hopes of “financial freedom.” The creator Munecat’s deep dive into the company Arbonne is an excellent one, I think, as it shows how this company not only scams people, but grips them tight with cult tactics. Click here if you’d like to see it. I’m still working out how I can talk to my own family members and friends involved with the companies like Norwex and Optavia. They’re spending hundreds to have the right nutrition powders and latest cleaning cloths on the off-chance someone on their Facebook pages will buy them. There are women in my church who swear by Shaklee vitamins to the point they won’t take their own kids to the doctor because “those are just pills. These vitamins are made from plants, from God’s earth.” Heck, I have a friend who keeps changing MLMs, always changing her “business” to whatever sounds good at the time and insisting that “this time” it will work. Right now? Board games. Yes, there’s an MLM for frickin’ board games.

I suppose “The Hungry Mother” is born out of that frustrated confusion, that desire to show my loved ones they are not in any sort of family with those companies. To an MLM, they are nothing but dollar signs.

Nicole looks past the water pump. Beyond the road and wall of tall shrubs is a trailer park full of people, poor and desperate people praying for easy answers. And Nicole’s bag is just full of easy answers, priced to catch and never release. All it takes is one yes to snag the rest, and that yes is due any minute.

When I queried journals about “The Hungry Mother,” I emphasized the current double-pandemic of our country: the grip of COVID, and the grip of MLMs taking advantage of frightened, unemployed people. I’d like to think this is why a Wisconsin e-zine accepted “The Hungry Mother” for its Spring 2021 issue available March 1st.

I hope you’ll check the story out, and please, PLEASE do what you can to encourage loved ones to leave these MLMs. Such “business opportunities” promise nothing but loss: loss of money, loss of friends, loss of family, and loss of one’s own integrity.

~*~

Admittedly, I get weary of the small town life at times. The kids, too. It’s just the same library, the same playground, the same streets day after day. I’m very blessed the three little Bs enjoy taking off into their own imaginations, using whatever space ship, robot, or dragon will carry them into any Elsewhere they can think up.

Thank goodness they enjoy drawing! I wish I could say the same. When Aionios Books asked me to make a map for my first book Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, I cringed the whoooole time. It makes sense in MY head, I wanted to say. Who needs a map?

But after studying Tolkien’s The Art of The Lord of the Rings at our small town library, I better understand why such maps can be so important.

The book is a lovely collection of Tolkien’s brainstorming in art form. From sketches on scraps to detailed drawings with color and scale, the book reflects on just how immersed Tolkien was in Middle Earth. As the magazine Wired‘s review of the book explains:

HOW DID J.R.R. Tolkien create The Lord of the Rings? The simple answer is that he wrote it….The more complicated answer is that in addition to writing the story, he drew it. The many maps and sketches he made while drafting The Lord of the Rings informed his storytelling, allowing him to test narrative ideas and illustrate scenes he needed to capture in words. For Tolkien, the art of writing and the art of drawing were inextricably intertwined.

This is such a vital point, one that I need to remember as I dive into series writing with multiple lands and locations. Though these places only reveal themselves to me as I write them, I must still map their locations and details so they are not simply forgotten like the small towns of the real world. Readers need the guide, and frankly, so do writers. We can’t afford to switch locations around or forget where the mountains are. Even if the mystery of borders is a part of the story, the writer needs to know them. And if you’re a writer like me who doesn’t really know them until the story’s done, then you better map them as you go so that when the time comes to revise, you can walk the same road without losing a step.

I suppose the biggest obstacle I face with drawing is, well, my pride. I am NOT an artist. I am fine with that. But to be required to look at my own drawings, even for reference, just makes me squirm as one may squirm with having to dissect a dead frog. Blech. And Tolkien makes it look so bloody easy!

But The Art of the Lord of the Rings is an important reminder that Tolkien wasn’t aiming for perfection every time. Just look at that drawing of Helm’s Deep. He did that on a student’s examination paper! He didn’t care. It came to mind, and he drew it. How much detail and how “good” it was didn’t matter. He just had to get it down so he wouldn’t forget it when he did have the chance to write.

The world [Tolkien] built extended into his art. His art breathed life into the corners of that world he would never find the time to write about. At the same time, those drawings, maps, and doodles also helped readers immerse themselves in his never-before-seen invented realm, “a world,” Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis once noted, “that seems to have been going on before we stumbled into it.”

From Wired

THAT is the lesson to be learned here. What one draws and how one draws it shouldn’t prevent a writer from exploring a story-world, especially when one is building anew. Besides, technology allows writers new options if they don’t wish to draw their own. My fellow indie fantasy authors Wesley Allen and Michael Dellert both have extensive maps for their stories, but they didn’t publish their own sketches. Wes loves using special map-making software, and I confess–it looks pretty sweet! Michael commissioned a designer online to craft a polished map, and it’s a perfect reference to include with any of his stories.

So, it’s time I “Suck it up, Buttercup” and get mapping. After all, Charlotte’s not the only one who must explore the unknown. Two brothers must win a race through worlds to beat the crying sky, and Meredydd and her comrades must find where the Cat Man hides before he poisons the gods of their land.

Time for these teens to leave their small towns behind and discover what they are truly capable of.

~STAY TUNED!~

More interviews on the way, of course! I’ve also got to do a school presentation on names, and considering the importance of naming characters, I thought I’d share some points of discussion with you, too, you lucky devils. 🙂 I’ve also been reveling in some fantastic adventure music which is bound to get your own characters racing to victory, so don’t stray far! We’re too close to Hell to back down now…

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

At Last, the Time Has Come! #FallenPrinceborn: Chosen is Here. Add some #Indie #DarkFantasy to your #FallReads today!

Once upon a time, I made this banner.

When plans changed, I wasn’t sure I could follow through on that banner, if this book would be “coming” at all.

But it has come. Thanks to the support of amazing souls like you, I was able to bring this book together and put it on the virtual bookshelf.

You wouldn’t let me give up. You saw something in me worth saving. You gave me hope.

You are the community that keeps me reading, writing, sharing, exploring. Your friendship is a blessing I thank God for each and every day.

You’ve even been sharing your reviews on Booksprout, Goodreads, and Amazon!

Already captivated by Jean Lee’s first book in the ‘Fallen Princeborn’ series, I was excited to get my hands on the ARC of ‘Fallen Princeborn: Chosen’. And I was not disappointed at all; what a richly told tale this continues to be.

The reader is launched straight back to where we left Charlotte and Liam at the close of ‘Fallen Princeborn: Stolen’. The action is intense and the wonderful world-building welcomes the reader back to this highly original, magical fantasy world.

The story continues and the action ramps up another notch. We are in familiar, yet unfamiliar territory of shape-shifting creatures, dark magic, old friends and even older and more frightening foes. Real page-turning excitement (and dread). How will Charlotte, and the magical folk, who are now her surrogate family, survive?

Not only is the story immersive, the principle characters are complex and the author’s depth of description provide a camera-roll of powerful images for the reader. From the Stellaqui sea creatures to the celestial Celestine and the House, we have a spellbinding array of classy cast members. Battles are fought and guts are ripped out; dark and dreadful scenes of sexual abuse and violence are played out too. These scenes are not for the faint-hearted, but not one of them is gratuitous.

Some ‘middle’ novels don’t quite cut it, but this one certainly does. So much more of this rich series plays out and the reader is left breathless for more.
“Nothing smells as amazing as hope,” says one of the characters. It’s my hope that book three will not be too long in coming.

I received a free copy of this book via Booksprout and am voluntarily leaving a review.

You rock, Chris Hall! She’s got her own awesome series of stories, too–please click here to check them out. I’m looking forward to sharing more of your reviews over the next couple of months.

In the meantime, there’s school work to tend to, so allow me to leave you with the first chapter. If you like what you see here, I hope you’ll give this series a go!

~*~*~*~*~

Cold Dawn, Colder Drums

Ashes. Paper. Tea. Pie.

Charlotte blinks once, twice, to living color dancing about the library.

The library?

Yes, she’s sitting at Liam’s feet, having fallen asleep with her head resting on his knee. Liam’s fingers have wound themselves into her hair.

The hearth is cold, and the stale food… unsettling. Shouldn’t Arlen be in the kitchen by now, scolding Dorjan for raiding the fridge? Shouldn’t there be a kettle whistling for the velifol tea? How in brewin’ blazes are they going to defend Rose House against Campion and the Lady?

Charlotte slowly slips her hand beneath Liam’s to free his fingers from her hair. Still too many cuts and burns for her liking on his calloused skin. The Lady’s claws must have struck near his neck, where angry red inflammation peeks out from under Liam’s white tunic. The leather brace for his blood dagger seems to restrict the rise and fall of Liam’s chest, so Charlotte holds her hand up to Liam’s mouth and nose, and feels fitful breaths. Dreaming, maybe.

The teeniest, teeniest bit of space buffers her palm and his lips. She could close that space. Not, not too much: Charlotte’s thumb caresses Liam’s upper lip. Just once. It’d be nice to know his lips feel… oh yes, they feel so very different when not covered by musty facial hair. A dull violet glow emanates from just beneath Liam’s chair: the stone from Orna’s ring. Charlotte bends forward, chin on the floor, eyes almost crossing as she gazes deep into such a simple little thing, like marble, opaque with an inner shine. That shine’s got a power even Arlen doesn’t wanna touch. We better hide this, House, before a nasty Incomplete snatches it from Liam. She poises her thumb behind the stone, sticks out her tongue as she aims, and with a flick, the stone rolls into a little hole in the wall beneath the stained glass window. One eyeblink later, and the hole’s gone. Eight ball in the corner pocket. Thanks, House.

Time to find Arlen.

Charlotte hugs herself against the chilly summer morning as her feet pad softly down the corridor into the kitchen. No Arlen, no Dorjan.

Morning air clings to the Rose House’s walls, wary. Scared.

“House, where are they?”

A moment of silence. Then voices and distant footfalls: the third floor. But not Arlen or Dorjan: the gravelly voice booming orders has got to be Devyn, leading the other scouts to harvest the velifol flowers.

So Charlotte checks the patio. It did sound like the uncle and nephew went outside last night. Maybe they’re harvesting mint, or parsley, or whatever it is they use for pies—Charlotte never really paid attention to the cooking stuff. “Arlen?” She cups her hands to yell, “Dorjan!” Frost glitters upon the flowers beneath Rose House’s shadow, but under Charlotte’s feet the frost feels different.

It’s not melting.

And there is a rhythm.

A drumming.

Squeaks run through the silent halls and out into the kitchen: Poppy as her mouse self, scared.

“What’s going on?” Charlotte asks as Poppy changes before her. Though I think I can guess.

“Danger, Miss Charlotte, Danger!” Poppy says before her whiskers have the chance to vanish. “Terrible, terrible things below. Campion and the Lady, they got all juiced up and stronger than before and they’re just totally super angry, and they wanna get the Incomplete meanies up here, and they wanna just, they wanna, oh, they wanna—”

“Retaliate.” The human version of Ember lands on a patio chair, feathers not fully transformed into orange patchwork fabric. Her skin reflects the early morning sun from the hall window, turning her white with the frost. “Something’s helped the Lady regain her strength. Eating an Incomplete, perhaps, heart’s fire knows, but she’s moving through the tunnels, and Campion’s at her side,” she says, her voice cracking under her former friend’s name.

 “So Devyn’s getting the scouts to take the velifol?”

Distant thunder rumbles under a blue sky. Then Charlotte realizes the thunder’s not from above. Oh. Shit. “Arlen and Dorjan, where are they?”

Ember’s voice remains smooth, but biting her lip doesn’t hide the trembling of her chin. “Not in Rose House, we’ve looked. The wolf kin can protect Arlen, I’m sure.”

Charlotte nods, but this idea of the Lady of the Pits somehow getting out again and acquiring new power despite Liam slicing her face off and taking that magic violet stone from her ring…. How the hell does she find more power inside a bunch of tunnelsAnd Campion’s bones were broken to bits. Something is wrong, way too damn wrong. “Okay. You’re right. They can take care of themselves.” Because to say it out loud makes it feel more possible, more true. She will not allow her body to shake as Poppy’s does, even  And Poppy’s shaking only makes it worse with the thunder rippling through the ground again, this time upsetting the patio stones. She will not let the fear freeze her as frost does a flower.

Ember nods curtly. “We must hope Master Liam’s tree withstands the attack. Come, Poppy, we need to carry what we can.”

Poppy grabs Charlotte’s arm. “But we can’t leave Miss Charlotte! She’s my bestest friend, and she’s so nice, and she could come with us and be super helpful and—”

But Charlotte shoves Poppy towards Ember. “No, stay together. I’ll get out with Liam.”

“But Miss—”

“She is right, Poppy.” Feathers tuft through Ember’s neck and hands. “Upstairs.”

“But—”

“NOW.”

Another rumble. A patio chair topples.

Poppy gulps a breath, then two, then takes off, changing as she goes.

Ember takes a steadying breath. “You will hide,” she turns to Charlotte, “won’t you?”

Well what do you know. She kinda actually cares about the human in these here parts. A little. Maybe.

The frost thickens, latching onto Charlotte’s toes. “Long enough to see what that snake bitch’s hatched, yeah.” Another rumble bumps them both up and down. “You go, the House’n’I will buy you some time.”

Ember’s exhale mingles with the cloud of ash and feather already taking shape round her body. “We’re going to the far side of Lake Aranina. It is hopefully too far for the misshapen limbs of the Incomplete to run.”

“Far side, got it.”

Arms are wings, legs are shrinking. “Let us hope your luck carries us all through this day.” The orange bird soars up, plucks something from the rooftop, and darts south for the lake and beyond.

~*~

Ashes touch the air.

And a cackle.

A shriek, far and away.

Two entrances out of the Pits, both unlocked. One out in the woods.

And one inside Rose House.

“Liam!” Charlotte slams the patio door, locks it—idiot, it’s fucking glass—and bolts for the library.

Liam has yet to move, eyes closed, breath still slow.

“Liam you have to wake up!” Charlotte shakes him, cups his cheeks, brings her face close—dammit, this isn’t time for that, so she slaps his cheek. “Liam!” She yells in his ear.

Pounding, pounding below her feet.

They are coming.

~*~*~*~*~

Click here to scope out Fallen Princeborn: Chosen‘s Amazon, Booksprout, and Goodreads pages. If you read the ARC already, I can’t wait to see your review appear. Again, thank you all for your support! Stay safe, stay sane, and be the reason someone smiles today–you’ve already blessed me with a happy creative heart. x

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

A #writer’s thoughts on boundaries in #magic. Plus a #CoverReveal and #ARC access to my new #YA #Fantasy #Novel!

Wisconsin’s upper half is filled with roads like this:

Narrow strips of asphalt and concrete wind their way through woods of towering pines, oaks, and birches. Turkey, deer, ravens, and squirrels keep a mindful watch of the roads we meager humans travel, feeding in the nearby grass and trees, unafraid to cross what little land we claim for our own. The North Woods may have its cabins and towns, but make no mistake–it is a wild place of bears and coyotes, wolves and cougars. It is not a place for wandering off the known paths.

Yet it is so very tempting, especially when someone has been there before…

I don’t know what it is about ropes, chains, and logs being used to mark a territory, but they always make me smile. I suppose it’s because they assume we Wisconsinites are polite folk adequately deterred by a rope. “Someone put up a rope? Well, I can’t go there, then.” It’s just a rope, not barbed wire. All it would take is a little slip under.

Not that my goody-goods of kiddos would allow it. “You can’t go in there, Mom!” Blondie says. “It says no trespassing!” Bash says. “Can I call the police now and tell them what your’e doing?” Biff asks. This then devolved into who would get to talk to the police officer, who would get to sit in the driver’s seat of the police car, who would get to use the radio, aaaaaaaand I didn’t get to cross over. Probably for the best–I don’t want them wandering off where wolves will happily greet children with toothy grins. But oh, my friends, that desire to explore was so very strong, for magic buzzed among the cicadas and dragonflies that day. And who doesn’t feel the magic when surrounded by trees so tall the sun only greets your face at midday? Who doesn’t follow the herons’ call as they soar overhead? Who doesn’t sit upon the lakeshore to watch the eagles swoop across the water to pluck thrashing fish with their talons? Who doesn’t feel their spirit glow green as the moss upon the rocks, eager for the North Woods to burn bright crimson, orange, and yellow in the coming autumn?

All it takes is a willfulness to cross into the forbidden.

It’s the start of so many beloved stories, isn’t it? The Father in Beauty and the Beast is a classic example, or Alice crawling into the White Rabbit’s hole in Alice in Wonderland. Many of Diana Wynne Jones’ stories involve crossing into new lands and/or worlds, be it Deep Secret, House of Many Ways, Fire and Hemlock…heavens, there’s a lot. The first that came to mind, though, was Enchanted Glass. The entire story revolves around Aidan and Andrew defining the invisible boundaries of Andrew’s “field-of-care” bestowed upon him by his wizard grandfather so they can determine who’s siphoning magic away for their own purpose. In Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Agnieszka defies village law and enters The Wood, a place full of cursed, angry magic, to rescue her best friend. In Peadar Ó Guilín’s The Call, Faerie re-define their own borders by surrounding the Emerald Isle in a timeless fog. Nessa and other youth must face The Call, that moment when they are transported into the Faerie realm, or find that access point to the realm first. The mound Nessa finds that marks the entry point reminded me of the mound Camilla Bruce creates in You Let Me In (a wonderful review by fellow indie author S.J. Higbee put me on to this dark adventure). The protagonist Cassandra has been involved with Faerie all her life, and in this moment she describes that initial crossing from “her path” to the Faerie path to the mound.

The shift was subtle, like the beginning of a rainstorm with oncoming mist. My trees gave way to strange ones, taller and wider, older by far, thick roots curling at their trunks. Their branches brushed my head as we walked beneath them, felt like fingers with very long nails. The path beneath my feet shone dimly in the faint light, scattered with fist-sized leaves, it was like walking on glass or silver, or on a frozen stream…the ground turned soggy and moist; the trees were drooping shapes with clusters of leaves brushing the ground…Finally, we came to a halt by a circular shape in the landscape, a grass-covered mound studded with jutting stones…They parted for us when we approached. Smiling faces, glimmering eyes. Hands that patted and touched.
Inviting me into their nest.
Into the dark, dark earth.

And then there are portals through boundaries so very ordinary that no one bothers to notice them. The wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe comes to mind. In Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife, Will finds a typical looking knife that it is capable of literally cutting through the boundaries of time and space and into other earths. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, passages between the muggle and magical pieces of the world can be separated with very commonplace things, like a tavern or a train station’s wall. Recently I read the graphic novel version of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, where unlike the stop-motion film, the door to the Other Mother looks like any other door in the house. But we all know what looks can be, don’t we?

She walked into the drawing room and looked at the door. She had the feeling that the door was looking at her, which she knew was silly, and knew on a deeper level was somehow true.

In another Neil Gaiman novel, a town next to a magical border is literally named Wall.

Immediately to the east of Wall is a grey rock wall, from which the town takes it name. This wall old, built of rough, square lumps of hewn granite, and it comes from the woods and goes back to the woods once more.

There is even a guard who watches over the wall. Sure, those who live in Wall think that guard is crazy for thinking anything interesting could be beyond the wall, but the guard knows what lies beyond is not ordinary at all…

Such a wall became an inspiration for my own fantasy series, Fallen Princeborn. Readers first experience the Wall’s power with protagonist Charlotte when she’s stranded on an old farm with her sister. The farmer’s daughter, Jenny, trusts Charlotte to tell her about what it’s like to live in this unnatural place:

Chattering. Outside.
Charlotte looks out to see the full moon blanketing the woods in pale light. The Wall glows but for its shadows, and one in particular: a tiny shadow moving swiftly along the stones. The squirrel.
It stops. Faces them.
Jenny’s body seizes.
“Shit—” Charlotte blinks.
“Where’s my Charlie? My badge could use a shine.”
Charlotte blinks. What the—? Dad? No—
The squirrel, chattering.
Charlotte pulls the window shut and hugs Jenny to her chest. “Breathe with me, kid, one, two. Breathe with me, okay? Come on, he’s gone,” she lies, afraid of the squirrel’s chatter because it shouldn’t be able to create ghosts out of wishes and dreams—
A howl, long and furious. A swift black shadow runs along the Wall’s edge.
It leaps into the air toward the Wall and—with a streak of violet and shadow—is gone.
Charlotte waits for the squirrel to return, or that wolf, but nothing comes.
Even the stars seem to move and search the Wall, their light transforming the
clouds into fleeing ghosts.

Jenny’s face breaks from relief. “D can’t do much in the day, but at night he
chases the nightmares away.” She puts her head to the floor and listens.
Television voices keep talking. The hall floor doesn’t creak. Mrs. Blair never
heard them.
“But where do they go? Where do they come from?”


“The Wall.” Jenny crawls to one side of the sewing table while Charlotte positions herself on the other. Together, they can just see different pieces of the Wall exposed by moonlight. “My parents have never gone over it, and they’ve never talked about anyone living back there. It’s not marked as a nature preserve or conservancy or anything. It’s just… there. It’s been there as long as this farm. Longer.”
“Some wall, if it can’t keep them in.”
“I don’t think it’s about keeping them in so much as keeping us out.”
Autumn so often brings traces of smoke in the air from those who burn leaves or have final campfires. This evening there is a smell in the air, but it’s not leaves: it’s thick. Sticky. Persistent.
Hate.
Jenny pulls another sheet from her book, a page ripped out of a literature textbook. Jenny’s circled the four-line refrain over and over and over:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
“Yeats. ‘The Stolen Child.’ You think…” Charlotte has to pause, because to
say this is even possible… No, she couldn’t let this be possible. “You think those
animal things are fairies?”

Now, at long last, we can continue Charlotte’s story beyond the Wall, where another wall, this one underwater, awaits her crossing into the unknown…

It towers above them, surely taller than Rose House. Yet it stands incomplete: the wall runs about the width of Rose House, but the lake waters continue on either side. And directly in front of them there’s a large hole in the wall, as if it was built that way. Unlike the Wall above, this one allows life to grow upon it: seaweed, old and frayed as an ancient mariner’s hair, yes, but still, it is something growing upon the rock around that hole. The hole has a pull to it, a current that barely touches them with soft fingertips, but it is there, palpable, and Liam’s wings feel its pull. He has not known such a pull since traveling the Water Road so very long ago… “Where does that go?”
Blinkey sneers, steps backward. “Nowhere. Everywhere.”
“On pain of death, we’re bound by magic to remain within the Wall of River Vine—”
“Is that what you are afraid of?” Blinkey grins, displaying two solid rows of teeth shaped like little white Ws.
Charlotte feels the muscles in Liam’s arm tighten as he replies, “I am not afraid.”
“Think, Blinkey: your queeny can’t talk to us if these cursed tattoos kill us first.” Charlotte holds her right wrist up actually hoping the thorns will start moving. But they don’t.
Blinkey lazily twirls her spear as she steps out of the air bubble back into the water. The magic that reshapes her legs into a tail comes and goes, but the smile has not yet left her face.
Charlotte wishes it would.
Liam can’t take his eyes off the hole in the wall, or the seaweed that fails to sway with the current flowing through the wall. The seaweed is still. Resistant. It keeps all its fronds away from the hole. The water beyond the hole, it looks… dark, unfathomable.

Yup, this last bit is an excerpt from Fallen Princeborn: Chosen, the second installment in the Fallen Princeborn series. Despite what happened with my publisher, you all encouraged me to fight the good fight and write on, so write on I did! Now at last Chosen is ready to be shared with you via ARC–Click here to access and get started. Come the week of Halloween, the ebook (and paperback, I hope!) will be ready for purchase.

The Blurb!

CHARLOTTE’S FAMILY MAY NO LONGER REMEMBER HER NAME,

BUT HER ENEMIES WILL NEVER FORGET.

Charlotte just wanted to start a new life with her sister Anna out of the reaches of their abusive uncle. When their journey led to Anna’s disappearance from human memory, Charlotte hunted for her sister and the mysterious creatures that took her behind an ancient Wall that hid a land of magic the world had long forgotten. Charlotte woke the Princeborn Liam Artair, and with his return the conflict between factions of the magical Velidevour turned cursed and deadly.

Now Charlotte must end this conflict before the land of River Vine and the inhabitants she’s befriended are consumed by Orna, Lady of the Pits, who is still very, very eager to see her beloved return. And Orna is not the only one who wants hold of the Princeborn Liam’s heart. These Velidevour come armed with firey wings, crimson claws, and pale fire, and like dead magic, they know no kindness.

The Bloody Days are soon returning, and they will not end until a choice is made, a choice that could tear the heart of River Vine apart.

Fallen Princeborn: Chosen is a direct continuation of Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. Recommended for fans of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, Brigid Kemmerer’s A Curse So Dark and Lonely, and Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Mist and Fury.

I am thrilled beyond measure to finally reach this milestone, and I cannot thank you again for encouraging me through all my doubts and fears. You, each and every one of you, are a blessing to cherish in this community.

Do you have a favorite story with a boundary into a magical realm, where a character willfully crosses into the unknown? Please share in the comments below!

~STAY TUNED!~

I’ve got some fantastic interviews underway as well as music both cozy and creepy to get our autumn adventures started. I’ll also be sharing more excerpts from Fallen Princeborn: Chosen and the sources of inspiration that helped create pivotal moments.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#Publisher #Interview: #submitting #shortstories or #bookproposals to @SOOPLLC

Happy August, my friends! It is difficult to fathom that summer is already on its way out. The school supply displays are up–heck, I saw Halloween candy at Dollar General–and the fireflies have all but departed. And yet, time still feels frozen from the lock-down begun in March. Biff and Bash’s school will continue to be online until __insert random date because they’re all just “we’ll evaluate weekly” __, but unlike the spring, we’re expected to recreate the school day here at home, which means proctoring all these online lessons over the course of 7-8 hours while somehow doing my OWN job so I don’t, you know, lose it.

I know I’m not the only one in this situation. I know none of us would wish this situation on anyone else. Lastly, I also know that it is crucial to put as much positivity into the situation as we can because our loved ones feed off the feelings we share.

So, let’s focus on the chances for inspiring one another, telling stories to one another, and just being the spark that helps ignite another’s creative soul. Here’s a publisher that loves sharing authors the readers vote for: Something Or Other Publishing out of my very own Wisconsin. One of its directors, Christian Lee, was kind of enough to share his time with me so I could share a bowl full of SOOP here with you. 🙂

1. Let’s start with names. How did you come up with your brand Something or Other Publishing (SOOP)?

Our brand “Something Or Other” signifies openness to diversity and opportunity. When our Founder, Wade Fransson, was looking for avenues to publish his book, he envisioned a “full service traditional” publishing service which allowed creative control, a higher share of the royalties and direct access to decision makers in exchange for a willingness to share the responsibility of promotion and marketing. He realized that such a model could enable a diverse range of voices to be heard, on equal footing. Since there didn’t seem to be an appropriate label for this model, “Something Or Other Publishing” was born to serve these types of authors.

2.  I’d love to hear a little history behind the creation of SOOP–especially because you’re located in Wisconsin, my native state.

Madison’s Capitol Square, Photo via The Edgewater

Wade spent almost three years in Strategy and Operations for Deloitte Consulting, and then two years as an executive helping an expanding national company grow from thirty to 60,000 employees. During this time he gained extensive experience integrating emerging technologies with business strategy. He then left this corporate role to help launch an Internet startup called GoHuman.com, and it was around this time he met a woman. The startup failed, but that new relationship didn’t. After getting married and expecting their first child, they moved to Wisconsin to be closer to her family. Wade began to write his own book and realized that with the rise of self-publishing, print-on-demand, social media marketing, and other innovations, there should be a publishing model suited for authors who share responsibilities to market their books in exchange for higher royalties and more creative agency.

3. You have a unique system for your publishing company: Author-Driven Book Publishing. How does this work?

Instead of traditional submissions with a massive slush pile approach, all of our books start as a “Book Idea” where readers peruse the synopsis and vote to indicate they would read the book if it were published. This approach puts the author in the driver’s seat, allowing them the opportunity to get a publishing contract, so long as they build a verified following. Throughout the voting process SOOP works with the author to sharpen their understanding of the “Three P’s” of publishing: product, platform, and promotion. SOOPworks through these elements with the author as the book progresses toward publication. As a result, SOOP’s publishing process is a more collaborative process between author and publisher.

4. So, let’s say an author wants to submit a book to your site. What kinds of books are you looking for?

Primarily, we look for the right author before we look for the right book, so an entrepreneurial author who is eager to roll up their sleeves and collaborate alongside us is the ideal author and partner. In terms of specific genres, we publish a wide variety of genres, provided that they fit our editorial standards. For example, we recently published an anthology that was a mix of genres. We also have a particular interest in children’s books and just released a new one illustrated by Michael Gellatly, who did the maps for the Game of Thrones books. We have recently published a few books with religious subject matter, although we’re not a “religious publisher,” and we’ve also published a political book. In summary, we publish  a wide variety of authors first, and books second. We can always help an author improve their book. It can be difficult to make things work with an author with whom we’re not aligned.

5. As a publisher, I’m sure you’ve got a few peeves regarding what authors send your way. What should authors avoid when submitting to SOOP?

Our biggest challenge is addressing authors’ misconceptions on what the publishing industry really is, and how it should work so we want authors to keep an open mind to the process. With our Author-Driven Publishing model, we invite authors to learn about the business side of publishing as they go, with no initial commitment either way. Many authors underestimate the difficulty and expense of marketing a new work, and that the publisher needs the author to be on the front line, bringing their network and “platform” to bear in achieving initial, local success.  We provide many tools and considerable support, but the author needs to be behind the wheel and “drive” this up and through the initial book launch.

6. As an indie author, I’ve got to do, well, pretty much all my own marketing for my work. How do you and your authors work together to build a platform for your books?

Our voting system has platforming built in. Each vote is added to our extensive database of potential readers, which is a powerful marketing tool of ours. Closer to publication, we develop a three month marketing plan with the author, which we jointly execute on digital channels and “in real life,” to support key goals such as a successful pre-order campaign, becoming a #1 Hot New Release on Amazon, and being well reviewed.

7. What do you see as a major problem in the publishing industry? How is SOOP tackling that problem?

The Washington Post published an article in 2018 about the ongoing decline in leisure Reading that we’ve been experiencing for many decades. Simultaneously, there is an explosion of self-publishing that has greatly increased the supply of books. Add vanity and indie presses to this, and any business person can quickly see why the industry is in a kind of free-fall. This is why we have created a model that is completely different, one which curates works from motivated authors, to ensure that there is at least a minimal demand in place before we add to the supply. Traditional publishing relied on a few mega-stars as inspiration for the masses, to keep a steady flow of wanna-be’s lining up for lopsided contracts. Vanity publishing seeks to force authors to pay-in-full up front for the privilege of being professionally published. Self-publishing converts the slush pile into “books” that sink like rocks to the bottom of the ocean.

Our goal is to train authors before they get up to bat, and make sure they have a base hit, and are legitimately in the game. Where they go from there depends not only on the quality of their work, but on their belief in themselves, and their capacity to work diligently to build on the success our platform enables.

Thank you so much for sharing your unique publishing platform with us, Christian! I hope you continue to collaborate with authors and bring more powerful stories to our lives.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’m preparing Fallen Princeborn: Chosen for ARC reviews! The ARC will be available by the end of the month. It will be available on Booksprout to review, and if you’re a book blogger who’d like to post a review on your site, contact me and we’ll work something out! The first chapter is still on my Free Fiction if you’d like to get a taste of what you’re in for. And if you’re interested in reviewing the first book of the series, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, feel free to ask!

Catching up to 2019 here. Better late than never! 🙂

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#lessonslearned from #AgathaChristie: one #narrative #pov does not fit all #stories.

In Wisconsin, summer is a time for nature immersion. Whether you hike in the woods, take to the lake in a boat, or hunt for bugs’n’birds’n’fairies, this is the season for journeys into the wilderness of the North Woods.

Every venture “Up Nort'” requires mysteries for road reading. Since Bo had gotten me some Poirots for Mother’s Day, this seemed like the perfect time to catch up on them. (Bo can’t read in the car because a)motion sickness and b)my driving style freaks him out.) What was meant to be a little simple escapism turned into a reflection on narrative point of view and how it helps–or hurts–a story’s ability to hold a reader.

Back when I was researching the nonfiction writing workshop I had to give at my university last month, I came across an article that referenced “Fleming Method.” This method, the author said, called for blasting through a story by writing only key elements: the dialogue, the action, etc. All the other elements were to wait for the next draft. Doing this allowed Ian Fleming to complete the initial draft of Casino Royale in a few weeks.

After reading Sad Cypress–published years before Casino Royale–part of me now wonders if Christie came up with the Fleming Method before Fleming did.

The premise is clear-cut.

Beautiful young Elinor Carlisle stood serenely in the dock, accused of the murder of Mary Gerrard, her rival in love. The evidence was damning: only Elinor had the motive, the opportunity, and the means to administer the fatal poison.

Yet, inside the hostile courtroom, only one man still presumed Elinor was innocent until proven guilty. Hercule Poirot was all that stood between Elinor and the gallows.…

The story itself is divided into three parts: Elinor’s flashback through all the events preceding the murder, Poirot’s investigation of the murder, and then the trial. Again, clear-cut.

Yet when I finished the book, I let out a “hmph” and tossed it onto the car’s dashboard.

Bo’s not used to me doing that, especially after what was, by all accounts, a good morning. We had successfully completed a walk and lunch at a beer garden with the kids–a HUGE accomplishment when two out of three are picky eaters. “Wasn’t the book okay?”

The mystery itself, I explained was fine. There’s a love triangle of sorts, a girl gets murdered, Poirot eventually shows up to investigate, yadda yadda. But the way Christie tells it was weird.

Bo gave me a look. “What do you mean?”

I show him a thick pinches of text–Part 1, the flashback. It’s all quite narrative, with descriptions, exchanges, changes of scene. Part 2 changes point of view character-wise, from the accused murderess to Poirot. Again, we’ve got multiple elements of storytelling. Grand. Part 3, however, drops almost all pretense of story-telling and moves forward almost entirely through dialogue–that is, through the exchanges between witnesses and lawyers during the trial. After 200 pages of “traditional” storytelling, 50 pages of almost pure dialogue jolted me so much I found myself nothing but irritated with the story when the mystery was resolved.

Bo considered. “Has Christie done that before?”

I don’t think so, I said. The cynical teacher in me imagined Christie was on a time crunch, didn’t much care for the story, and decided to just slap together the ending so she could move onto something she did want to write. Or maybe she was so mentally drained from writing And Then There Were None the year before that she needed to put out SOMEthing to appease the publishers. But I don’t know for sure, I said with a shrug, and the reception on this road sucks too much for me to do any deep digging.

“So how does Christie normally write a mystery?”

I stared at Bo so long that Biff scolded me. “It’s rude to stare, you know!”

How did Christie “normally” write a mystery? Was there such a thing as “normal”?

I looked at the other books I had packed along: Dumb Witness, After the Funeral, and Death on the Nile. I thumbed through them, sharing observations with Bo as I went…

Dumb Witness

Everyone blamed Emily Arundell’s accident on a rubber ball left on the stairs by her frisky terrier. But the more she thought about her fall, the more convinced she became that one of her relatives was trying to kill her.…

On April 17th she wrote her suspicions in a letter to Hercule Poirot. Mysteriously, he didn’t receive the letter until June 28th…by which time Emily was already dead.…

This story had a mix of methods I both liked and disliked. The first few chapters involve a lot of head-hopping amongst the characters of the victim-to-be’s family. I have written about this head-hopping before–nope, not a fan of this “I’m thinking murderous thoughts” to “and I’m thinking murderous thoughts, too!” to “oh, we’re just aaaaaaall thinking murderous thoughts, aren’t we?”. After those opening chapters, however, the unreliable-yet-charming Captain Hastings takes over as narrator until the end of the book. I’ve also written about benefits of the unreliable narrator for mystery writing, and in Dumb Witness those benefits were seen once again: clues quickly dismissed by the narrator Hastings carry crucial importance, and characters Hastings suspects or respects often tend to be something else entirely.

I always enjoy a trip alongside Poirot and Hastings; the two have a wonderful chemistry that allows for light-hearted moments, such as when the victim’s intelligent dog takes such a liking to Hastings that Hastings feels he knows what the dog is saying.

If Christie had written every Poirot mystery with Hastings, though, the misdirections would grow tedious, the joviality stale.

In other words, we’d get bored.

After the Funeral (also known as Funerals are Fatal)

“He was murdered, wasn’t he?”

When Cora Lansquenet is savagely murdered, the extraordinary remark she had made the previous day at her brother Richard’s funeral suddenly takes on a chilling significance. At the reading of Richard’s will, Cora was clearly heard to say, “It’s been hushed up very nicely, hasn’t it. But he was murdered, wasn’t he?”

Did Cora’s accusation a dark truth that sealed her own fate? Or are the siblings’ deaths just tragic coincidences?

Desperate to know the truth, the Lansquenet’s solicitor turns to Hercule Poirot to unravel the mystery. For even after the funeral, death isn’t finished yet . . .

I hope you like head-hopping, because this story moves from character to character in an entire family tree throughout the whoooole novel. For the record, I didn’t throw this book out the car window because a) I recalled some of the plot from the David Suchet adaptation, but not all the bits and that was really irritating, and b) the kids would have yelled at me for littering, which would have been even more irritating.

But, I must admit, there was something else here, a good something that kept me wanting to remember the solution. For all the head-hopping, there remained a consistent uncertainty between characters, a singular dread of not feeling entirely comfortable around one’s own family, of relief for getting money and the simultaneous guilt for being thankful someone died so that money could be given. By giving these characters that mutual guilt and suspicion, the narrative no longer jostles readers about. We’re still following that dread, catching the little things that make the characters unique instead of having those things hit us in the face page after page after page to remind us who’s who.

Death on the Nile

The tranquility of a cruise along the Nile was shattered by the discovery that Linnet Ridgeway had been shot through the head. She was young, stylish, and beautiful. A girl who had everything . . . until she lost her life.

Hercule Poirot recalled an earlier outburst by a fellow passenger: “I’d like to put my dear little pistol against her head and just press the trigger.” Yet in this exotic setting nothing is ever quite what it seems.

I feel like this is the mystery that inspired spoofs like Monty Python’s Agatha Christie sketch or the movie Clue–you know, where someone says, “I saw the ___ who did it!” And just before that someone says a name, the lights go dark, a shot rings out, someone groans, and thud–another murder.

(I’m likely quite wrong on this, but that sort of scene is in Death on the Nile, so it’s all I can think about now.)

Blessedly, Death on the Nile is told with an omniscient narrator who mostly follows Poirot about, only occasionally lingering with other characters if there’s a romance arc to propel along.

The narrator never focuses readers away from what Poirot’s doing, nor does the narrator give unnecessary attention for the sake of distraction or red herrings. Being a third person limited point of view, readers don’t get insight into Poirot’s head, either, so we still don’t learn the full solution until Poirot’s ready to “do his thing,” as it were. And that’s fine.

It’s all fine.

Honestly, it is. The head-hopping, the unreliable narrator, the traditional omniscient–each are appropriate approaches to telling a story. Even a chapter of pure dialogue has its place. What matters is that the chosen method encourages readers to continue the story. Can the reader get the information by following one character around, or are multiple viewpoints needed in order to get the big picture? Would readers enjoy the guessing game that comes with unreliable narrators, or does the plot require a more neutral voice to share it? Does the scene’s power come in what is said, or what is not?

It never hurts to experiment and find which approach is the best fit for the story at hand, for like our kids, every story is different. So long as we consider the heart of the story–spurned love, broken family, desperate greed–we can take a step back and consider how readers should reach this heart. We don’t want it to be a simple straight path, nor the path we know so well we could write it blindfolded. Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the understanding in that?

So, try directing readers to different characters to help them appreciate the multiple relationships. Let them follow the outsider to reach that inside perspective. Leave them with one soul and see if they will trust that character–or not.

Just don’t commit the Unforgivable Writing Sin, one that leads to readers abandoning your story to the Did Not Finish shelf, never to be journeyed again:

Thou Shalt Not Bore.

Have you ever been intrigued by an author’s choice in narrative point of view? Befuddled? Disappointed? I’d love to hear about it!

STAY TUNED!

Interviews, music, and fantasy fiction lie ahead! I’ll also provide more updates regarding my new novel, Fallen Princeborn: Chosen and how YOU can get your hands on an ARC.

(Yes, I know this says 2019, but IT’S HAPPENING, dagnabit, and that’s what counts!)

Thank you for companionship on this writing journey. You help make my corner of the world a brighter, saner place. x

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

Many #thanks to @ReviewAlholic for this #BookReview of my #YAFantasy! Now may we all #weatherthestorm and be #grateful for what we have. #ReadIndie

Hello, everyone! June’s been quite the river rapids of change for me. From the cancellation of my elementary summer school gig to the delay of my return to graduate school, life’s been…unpredictable.

Yet there is always something to be thankful for. Quiet mornings with nature and that first cup of coffee, for one.

Blondie, Biff, Bash, and Bo are healthy. I still have my university teaching, and Bo still has his job. Parks in communities around us have opened, so the kids can experience playgrounds again. My mom is getting married to a kind, funny man later this year. Our house is still dry despite a tropical storm traveling across the country and flooding the Midwest. This drastic change-up of commitments also means I can now commit to my biggest writing goal: publishing at least one novel before 2020 ends.

And as always, I am thankful for you, each and every one of you. Our family trip into the North Woods kept me offline, but I’m still excited to spend what remains of June wandering through your corners of the writing-verse and catching up with you. I’ve got some swell interviews lined up, Blondie’s promised to share her doodles, Biff and Bash may allow me to record their storytelling, and lo and behold, there’s been a new review of my novel!

This review is what I thought I’d share today. Briar, you have my deepest gratitude for sharing your recommendation of my book. You’re a dear!

This summer may not be what many of us intended, but we still have a lot of creative fire burning in us. No storm will douse our flames, Friends, remember that.

Read on, share on, and write on!

My #Top20 #Countdown with #DianaWynneJones’ #Fantasy #Writing to #Celebrate #WyrdandWonder Continues…with a #Breakout from #DistanceLearning

Good evening, everyone! May is almost at an end. I’ve informed Biff and Bash’s teachers that they will not be continuing in school after this week; there’s only one week left after this, and from what I’ve been told, the week’s going to consist of nothing but Zoom meetings. Oh, they can call them “Ph Ed Parties,” “Sing-Alongs,” or whatever else. In the end, it’s a Zoom meeting with kids who have the patience of a gnat as far as cameras go. Soooooo nope. It’s time we break out of the school year and escape to freer lands of imagination, where Lego robots and Cuddly Crews roam free.

Not that I’m one to equate school with prison.

There’s always opportunity to learn when we step out. The village executions, for instance, always help us learn something new.

EXECUTIONS are frequent in any COUNTRY not ruled by a Good KING. They take place in public in a holiday atmosphere. People flock to Executions and bring their CHILDREN, and sales of snacks and rinks are vast. Methods of Execution are various but are generally designed to be as much of a spectacle as possible. Thus burning at the stake is a great favorite, along with impaling, crucifixion, disemboweling, etc., while suspending the victim in a cage to starve is also very popular. Hangings and beheadings, being over rather swiftly, are generally done only in batches of ten or more. Some Tours will generally include an Execution in their schedule, but on most Tours the Management wishes to spare its Tourists the sight of anything so painful. You will be irritated to find you have just missed it.
The approach to the CITY will be flanked with stakes and crosses carrying fresh corpses; its streets will be lined with severed heads or rows of throttled dangling bodies; its walls will be hunt with desiccated cadavers or skeletons in small iron cages; and outside there will be large charred patches smelling of mutton chop. But you will be too late to witness anyone actually dying
.

See? We now learned that witches weigh the same as ducks.

Oh stop, you know I’m joking. Wyrd and Wonder is almost at an end. The school year is almost at an end. The confinements of math sheets, recitations, and journals suffocate more than ever before. Like good ol’ Calvin and Hobbes, we want out, darnit!

TORTURE is obligatory at some stage on the Tour. Generally this takes the form of being tied to rings in the wall almost too high for you to reach, and then being flogged. But on occasions worse things happen. Tourists usually find the Management blanks their minds to the details afterwards.

(I originally found that image of Gollum being tortured in Fellowship of the Ring, but Calvin’s cries are all too fitting with what I’ve been hearing the past few weeks.)

Springtime sun beckons my kids to bike rides outside, to sidewalk art, and to bubble battles. The last thing they want to do is be stuck inside and learn about clocks. On these golden days, when the bumblebees meander from yard to yard, and the neighbors pull out their firepits for an evening of beer and lazy chat in lawn chairs, our school space in the house may as well be Azkaban prison.

PRISON is really a lot of DUNGEONS in one place, plus a fairly grisly TORTURE chamber. The prison will be reached by a stone stair, dampish, lit by torches in brackets on the walls, and guarded by sadistic soldiery. Most of these GUARDS are rather careless: they think no one can escape. All Tours tend to prove this assumption wrong.

So, I admit it: I’m not all that restrictive these days. Much like the GUARDS in Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, I’m not going to be harping on anyone too much unless I absolutely have to.

GUARDS are the TOWN Watch and quite useless. They always arrive too late to quell a TAVERN BRAWL or riot. This is because there are too few of them and all of them are stupid. Tourists will be glad of both these facts at the point when they are trying to leave the Town unseen.

While I’ve never passed out like an elf at the table, I do get lost in coffee and grading, Biff is all too eager to escape with his bike for a trip around the neighborhood. For that kid, his bike = Biff’s happy place.

UNDERGROUND PASSAGES are usually there when you need them. No FORT, CASTLE, MONASTERY, or TEMPLE is without one. Thus your escape from an uncomfortable PRISON or situation is assured. Traditionally, the Underground Passage will be down some stone steps from the cellar or DUNGEON, where you may have to clear away some rubble, and then it will be wet and slimy with puddles underfoot, because it always takes you under the nearest RIVER. It will bring you out a good healthy distance from the DANGER you were escaping usually into a clump of prickly undergrowth. This is how the Management takes care of its Tourists.

Yes, we all could use an escape. While I can’t ignore teaching for the university, the twins and I are most certainly ready to break free of 1st grade shackles and move on to summer freedom. We want to return to the playgrounds, the rivers, the ducklings. We don’t want to worry about reading assignments, music glyphs, or *#Y#)#%*$#@ Zoom meetings.

Let’s get out. So long as we don’t run into any wizards, we’ll be okay.

DAMMIT!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!