The Childhood of an Unlikely Shield Maiden: Wynne II

What follows is a continuation of last month’s installment of free fiction–a dialogue between me and Wynne, a character from my Shield Maidens of Idana fantasy series. Today we learn of her town, her love for music, and a unique friendship that brings light in an otherwise dark life.

Good thing you didn’t vomit on that snob of a rich trader.

Really? I rather wish I had.

I am not strong, you know. Not like Morthwyl and his family, who haul as many plants, logs, and rocks as any oxen.

I am not creative, like the artisans who take bits of hide, metal, and clay and transform them into tools or art.

I am not intelligent, like the farmers who read the whims of soil and air with ease.

What I am, truly, is afraid. I see my family, and I dread that in but a few years time all love of Galene and Morthwyl will be slashed and burned to make room for wealth, comfort, status.

I am afraid of losing my Morthwyl.

I am afraid of losing my freedom.

What meager virtue in my possession can possibly protect us?

Hey, don’t focus on your fears. Focus on the better things. Here, is there something you enjoy doing? Apart from visiting Galene and Morthwyl, I mean.

This will sound foolish, I’m sure, but I rather enjoy music. Not the music of my sisters, which is always some tragic, romantic ballad. No, I mean the music of the land, and of Galene. Even the silence of the world moves in a harmony, when one sits. Here, let us rest beneath the cottonwood.

You may cease your curious glances to my back. No, it is no staff, but a flute. I am not supposed to travel about with it, but I like to show my gratitude to kind passers-by with a brief song.

I remember the moment: my fourth birthday. Almedha had just come of marrying age, and my sisters were already learning music, art, and domestic pleasures. Now it was my turn to become yet another cog amidst the turning wheels of Mother’s industry.

“Now, dear,” Mother licked her thumb and ticked the air. “You’ve one, two sisters on the lyre, so I’m sorry, Wynne, but it simply is not to be for you. And truly, if not for Morwenna’s obsession with Almedha, I’d not have her on the strings, either. Don’t gawp, Morwenna, that’s a commoner’s face, and we are not common.”

Cordelia arranged an armful of spring blossoms in a pitcher yet again. It seemed the Irises were giving her more trouble than one thought possible of flowers. “What of the garden, Mother? I would love a pair of hands willing to cut and prune for me.”

Even then, I noticed it: she wanted “pair of hands,” not “another pair of hands.” Cordelia’s hands entered the home every evening without a single smudge of dirt. If only our gardener did not worship her so!

“Don’t be silly, Cordelia,” Mother’s eyes bulged a bit more than usual at any idea which began outside her own mind. She shook her hand at the maid for wine as though a fly circled her wimple. “Wynne hasn’t the sense for sharp objects, and she comes home soiled enough as it is.”

Cordelia’s head drooped like the beleaguered irises. “Yes of course, Mother.”

“Can you imagine the laundress? She’d have fits until Hifrea’s Coming if Wynne were in the mud every day!”

“How silly of me, Mother.”

“Now that’s the first word of sense from you all day.”

I took care to sit my straightest with hands primly folded, even as my feet dangled…and I thought what a peculiar sensation it is, to be without ground under one’s feet. Would one’s whole body feel this way were it to dangle? Oh dear, that would mean a noose, wouldn’t it? What a strange feeling for one’s body to know just before death…

Wynne are you listening?

“Yes, Mother.” It rarely felt safe to speak truth in my house.

“Oh, whatever shall I do?” Mother’s head often rolled about when she began another fretting spell, as I called them. All was lost, and we daughters were hopeless…until things fell in line with her plans, and then suddenly all turns promising again. It felt as though we were a ship on the ocean, and there was no telling when another storm would hit us. Surely nothing else could compare, what with the slaving crew, the bossing captain, the waves crashing about, and lots of lightning, and wind, and—

WYNNE!”

Yes, my young self decided. Even the smells of the tannery fit the stories of life a’sea that Caddock told after lessons along Galen’s shore. “I’m listening, Mother.”

“Listening! You! Hmph! Isolde, bring me that blanket you finished trimming, my frail constitution simply cannot withstand this offense. You missed a corner, dear. No, no matter.” Isolda moved always with her head down so that firelight would better capture the tears eternally jeweled at the corners of her eyes. “You are a young woman of style and grace, Wynne. It’s time you showed it.”

“I’m four years old today.” Our housekeeper Heledd and the maid Ysball had said happy birthday to me, so surely other grown-ups thought this worth noting.

Mother nodded. “Exactly. You’re not a child.”

Father looked up from his desk of records for the first time since dinner. “Perhaps the art of a needle is just the thing to keep her attention, my dear.”

“No, no, her fingers are too fat and her lap too thin. And what’s more she’ll never hem straight with such posture.”

Almedha paused in the cleaning of her lyre. “May I make a suggestion, Mother?” Her voice was the softest, and therefore the sweetest. She always sang in the garden during the larger market days and festivals, and if she could sing louder than a cricket, Mother was sure she’d win the first heart of the merchant who heard her.

Mother waved her handkerchief at Almedha, a signal to go on.

“I was thinking of the minstrels who came for Beltane Fair. They had a fiddle, a cwidder, a recorder, and a flute. Perhaps—”

“Aha! Just my thinking, Almedha. Oh Master Adwr, have we not a most excellent firstborn?”

“Indeed we do, Madame Ffanci.” Our parents shared a doting look upon Almedha, who positively glowed.

“If only her chest would come along properly. She hasn’t the look of one who can mother…” Mother had a knack for dowsing kind thoughts. “Ah, but there are wet nurses, I suppose.”

My sisters immediately took to studying their own fronts while my eyes watched my feet dangle and pondered the words “wet nurse”: what a silly idea! Why should someone soak themselves before healing the sick? Wouldn’t the water ruin poultices, or make a mess of the bandages? Not to mention the nurse would catch cold in any wind, and shivering makes dressing a wound nigh impossible—

WYNNE!

“Mo-ther, Mo-ther, Wynne can’t bother to be bo-thered!” Morwenna chanted as she plucked two of her lyre strings.

“Morwenna, by the gods, stop that noise! Oh, oh, oh!” Mother’s eyes closed, and the expected streams of tears quickly took course down her pinched cheek bones. A pool soon formed in the folds of her wimple. “We’ll be penniless paupers all thanks to our common, ungrateful children, Master Adwr!”

Father rolled his eyes until they settled on me. “Nonsense. No girl in Idana can possibly match the beauty of our daughters, Madame Ffanci. Wynne is old enough to learn a skill to keep her out of the dirt.” The final word filled his mouth with distaste, as though the sight of my spattered dress and boots were enough to make him ill. “I believe Garnoc has acquired some fresh rosewood. I’ll commission a flute to be made for Wynne in honor of her birthday.”

The wailing “Oh!” tumbled back down Mother’s throat and bubbled up anew as an “Oh!” of ecstasy. “Oh Master Adwr, how intelligently thought! A flute will call attention to Cordelia’s voice, and will harmonize both Almedha and Morwenna’s lyres beautifully. Perfection, my husband, perfection!”

“But who is to teach Wynne?” Cordelia gently spread the iris petals about the table with one hand while holding the pitcher of broken flower stems in the other. “Mistress Carryl only knows the lyre.”

“I’m sure Heledd will know someone,” said Father.

“Hopefully not too low,” added Mother. “I won’t have any tinkers speaking with my children.”

So that is how this flute came to be in my possession.

Am I upset with the choice made for me? Hardly. There is no defeating my mother in battle, especially when I learn my teacher is to be Caddock, who traveled with minstrels before settling in our town, Cairbail. It was a sure scandal that I had to take lessons at a warehouse rather than in our house, but I promised never to sully my tongue or ears with common food or language.

A promise I spoke within the house. And you may recall what I said about words I speak in my house.

Here, let’s take a break from the questions. Take us through Cairbail.

Then let me bid you follow, if you please, through the northern farmlands. The reeds are soft with summer, and Galene sings when the sun shines upon her. Listen with me. Does not the water over stones make you think of seasoned lyre strings? I like to sit here, where the tannery does not hurt the water so. The goddess has been kind so far, but I have no doubt a day will come when she finds herself too sickened by Cairbail’s industry, and we will all wake to find our river gone. Never underestimate a goddess—or any girl, I think—of strong mind.

Here the sun dances like my feet. When the sun warms skin, when the bees feast among the blossoms, when the fish leap from water for dragonflies, I forget the grime and odors of town, and turn to kinder, gentler things. When I think on the beautiful, my heart aches to follow the Galene further north where another heart touches mine as the orpines meet with love’s promise.

But alas, my dance must end, for today my father is due to arrive with a caravan, and my mother has stressed all daughters be present for his arrival. Will you walk with me through town? Let us cross these last fertile, rolling slopes, and bid farewell to spring and all its sweetness. Look to the Galene: her happy waters grow stronger crops here. Take care with your feet lest you trample seedlings or droppings. I care not to task Cairbail’s farmers. Visiting caravans are rarely kind to them, and never face punishment for gleaning.

Step this way, please, to the oxen-path. Oh, Galene, you flow as falling stars before Cairbail, yet we send you off soiled and used. Abused, I should say, but a merchant’s daughter is not allowed such thoughts. Trade is life, and industry is trade. At least the tannery is there, a short ways south of town, so the water is not so terrible until Cairbail’s end. Our mill to the north carries waters to the fields, see it? We already passed it some paces ago. Rather hidden by the trees, it is, but if you ignore the farmer yelling at the mule, you can just hear the clack-clack of the buckets tipping.

Cairbail is neither tulmain nor city. There is a street of homes, true, and it connects to the warehouse street, which turns there, sharply, for the ancestral shrine, annoying river and land caravans alike. We must have good pasture for livestock, a stretch of sand for small boats and long docks for bigger barges. Our high street is dedicated to eateries and artisans. We are a perpetual hayloft for travelers, with our own wares barely noticed. Perhaps that is best. Those attracted to our town are not the sort I care to think about.

Mind our rock fences–they are rather low, I’m afraid, just enough to scrape one’s ankle terribly if not careful. Turn here. Market Street may look wide enough for a joust, but that is only because the selling carts have left for the day. They sit in the middle, and the shops remove their shelf-shutters, and this place soon overflows with traveling caravans, farmer’s wares, the tannery’s wares, and tinkers. Even artisans from villages nearby will come once a month before midday to set up near the edge of market for the sake of shadow from the sun.

See how the tracks stay clear of this shop? I am sure you can smell why now. The tanner Congol comes here with his treated hides, as some merchants care more for the materials than finished goods. A whisp of a man, that Congol, from living so much among the dead and putrid substances. Would you believe he has tried courting Isolda not once but thrice? Father would have enjoyed such a commercial alliance, and Mother was willing to push my sister to accept the smells as necessity of industry and status, but then he had to ride to town with his perfect features and glittering rings…

But let me show you further. I must ask of you to not look upon the mule bleating at us. It is an angry, sickly thing, and also the favorite pet of the leather-tooler Aedh. For a man who takes pleasure in snapping necks of rabbits and deer, he can’t bear to see a single child make fun of his four-legged companion. He holds the breadth and strength of an ox, having broken many doorways in anger and drink. I am quite certain if not for his craft Lord Murdach would have found reason to be rid of him long ago.

Ah, the charcoaler’s here, and there the road up to Lord Murdach’s manor. His officers live here, without the shelf-shutters, as they are still open. This is the only corner of Market Street where my sisters will walk alone, as officers of a Lord have been deemed better company. It also helps that chamberlain’s wife Carryl knows the lyre well, and instructs as Mother pays fit.

At last, the kinder side of Market Street. Do you not smell it? Fertile earth, freshly cut greens, squeezed fruits, drying herbs. The farmers live on this side, ready to sell their latest gatherings from plots and fields alike, but only Adyna’s family takes time to clean her door, baskets, and shelf-shutters daily. Where Market Street turns to Traders Street you’ll see a house of a most curious paring: our sage, and our physician. I must confess, I do not trust a sage who foresees the Galenegaining strength from the tannery. He will sit and smoke his pipe idly as citizens come to his wife for aid, and declares he knows precisely what ails them before they speak. Indeed, there was a time last year when he was even correct in his deductions. Truly theirs is a match made by the gods, for he is often sick, so she is bid to tend him, and she is oft in predicted danger when gathering herbs, so he is bid to save her before danger can fully manifest itself. He arrives so early, in fact, that not one of his visions of terror has been ever witnessed by another. But many see the potential of truth in his words, including Mother. Whenever he sees Mother instructing us in posture, he is certain that whatever tea she drank in the last five days will result in a mild illness ranging from headache to runs and another symptom beginning with the letter Tinne…unless, of course, she would be so kind as to accompany him back to his wife’s surgery for examination.

Ah, here we are. Yes, the house with the wooden fence at waist height. Can’t afford to block the view of potential suitors. Just as an artisan proudly displays his wares, my mother makes an exhibition of her children for potential wooing. We’re quite the collection, my sisters and I.

Yes, well, let’s not go back in there just yet. Is there any other sanctuary in Cairbail besides the Galene?

Hmm.Yes, I will concede to one, one I learned at that tender age of 4 with the promise of music lessons, you may recall.

Heledd showed me the swiftest, simplest route from our home to the warehouses. How large they all seemed then! Full of flying feathers, foul jokes, fouler smells. Sacks of drink, of bean, all spilling about helter skelter while men shrieked for other men to be careful, curse you, that’s money you’re losing! The scales tended by guards and men with brows forever set heavily over their faces.

“Never you mind them, little love. Keep to your business, and they keep to theirs.” Heledd carried her buxom figure like a weapon, and it disarmed many. She was but a few years older than Mother, but she moved with as much ease as Almedha, and drew just as many looks.

“What about the slavers?” I could see one in that moment with a beard deep in drink and lips full of talk with a few others. His other hand dangled a collar too big for any dog.

Heledd saw him, too. “Pfft. No one crosses Caddock.” We stopped before the largest, noisiest, oldest warehouse on the street. It needed no windows with the number of loose boards hanging about, the door had surely been kicked in several times. Even its air was different, sweet, but pungent. Why oh why would Lord Murdach put the most valuable spices in this, surely the poorest of warehouses? Even I knew the guard upon the front door looked a waste of a man, and I was but a four-year-old child! “You there,” Heledd bowed forward and knocked upon the man’s head. A fly fuzzed out of his hair, and he grunted angrily until he looked full upon my companion. “Fetch Caddock, if you please. Tell him it’s Heledd.”

He rolled himself up and through the door with a gurgly “Yes’m.” A moment later the door opened, and there stood a tall man of dark hair and eyes. He wore no braids, and kept his beard short—he seemed strangely tidy for a resident of this street, even wiping his hands of dust before greeting Heledd. “Good afternoon, Mistress. I must confess, I thought your message to me a jest. Surely no daughter of that mule-head Adwr—”

Ahem.” And she nudged me away from her skirt. I gripped my flute like some sort of, oh, almost like a staff, except I knew nothing of weaponry. All that I knew was that it was big, and heavy, and if I swung it with enough force, I would make him hop and holler like a fool.

Caddock narrowed his eyes for a moment in study of me—or perhaps my flute, for it did hide half my face while I shut up the other—before requesting we follow him in.

What a place! I had never seen such the likes of it before. Any journey with Father was to meet caravans on the road, or perhaps at Quinntoryn, the King’s Stronghold. Mother had not wished her daughters sullied by the looks of laborers in the warehouses and along the docks. Perhaps it best, as I was too young to appreciate the dangers a nefarious will can inflict upon others. But my first steps in that warehouse made me feel as though life in a home was a waste. The roof, as tall as clouds! Boxes and chests and sacks filled with things that moved, things that sparkled, things that emanated smells of life, love, hunger, disgust. All the world had been transported here, kept here. And Caddock moved about the sacks with ease, throwing nuts and fruit into one crate where what looked like a hairy child snatched up the food with glee. He plucked an apple for himself from a barrel and bade us follow him around a tower of crates to a small room with a fire, table, and chairs. Two men had their feet upon the table, laughing over something about a pumping fist. One thumb from Caddock, and they left without a word. He sat, then Heledd, but I knew not how to sit without dragging the flute upon the floor, so I remained standing.

A knife appeared, small and slender, in Caddock’s hand. Its point moved swiftly through the apple and cut a thick slice for Heledd. “What’s all this really about?”

Heledd often chewed and spoke at once, like time could never be wasted on one meager task at a time. “She’s a far different sort, make no mistake. Prefers the Galene to her manor house any day, don’t you, little love?”

I nodded and wiped the juice sprayed upon my cheek.

“A river child?” Caddock slowly worked his knife through the fruit’s flesh. “The river’s shore is no source of comfort for town-folk of your stature.”

“That’s not true,” I said with a mighty thud of the flute’s end upon the floor. “Galene’s shown me all sorts of lovely places. You’ve only to listen to her properly, is all.”

The adults shared a look above my head, something warm and pleasing, I could see, as Caddock’s face lost all the study and came over with a smile—a real smile I’d seen other mothers and fathers have for their children. “She speaks to you often, the river goddess?”

Now narrowed my eyes at him. “It’s not all in my head, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Far from it. Your sisters mock you for this?”

“And her parents.” Heledd rested her hand on my shoulder. “It’s all I can do not to whisk her away from that horrible house.”

Caddock nodded slowly as he popped another slice off and held it to me on knifepoint. “Trade?”

I sat at last, happily munching, as Caddock held the flute to his eyes. “Garnoc knows his craft. A pity Lord Murdach does not commission him to make a few more. The hills of Gleanuaine would welcome such flutes for their shepherds. May I?” Imagine, a man like that asking a little thing like me for permission! Yet he refrained from playing a single note until I bid him play. His fingers explored the flute’s holes, finding their proper homes, and then his eyes closed. His whole face seemed to close as the flute touched his lips, and all expression passed through his breath and into the melody of cottonwood trees and sparrows, of fawns tickling the Galene’s hands as they drink their fill. I laughed and clapped and told him what I saw as he played.

Another look was shared over my head. I feared a joke coming on, but instead Heledd hugged me. “A river child, indeed! So, what say you, Little Brother?”

Little brother! “Have you sisters, too, Heledd?”

“NO, thank the gods, no, child. Caddock and I alone were more trouble than our home could handle, weren’t we?” He laughed and set the flute upon the table, not really looking at me, or his sister, or anyone, it seemed. “And speaking of,” Heledd stood and straightened her shawl, “I best go back to prepare dinner. Have her back by then, or we’ll both of us get another round of poison from Madame Ffanci’s tongue.”

Caddock nodded without looking. I heard Heledd snap “Mind your eyes!” at someone before the door closed. That someone turned the corner: the slaver man.

“Any trouble, Caddock?” He looked at me, his fingers toying with that dreaded collar.

For a heart of courage in that moment! But I am little more than a coward, and remained still, frozen.

Caddock stabbed his apple knife into the table and looked at him. The table apparently received such treatment often. “None. Quite the opposite, actually. This lass is my student, and therefore, under my protection. Is that clear?” A slow, heavy nod came from the slaver, and he shuffled off. “You can breathe now, he’s gone.”

I didn’t know I’d even stopped. “When we’re done, will you please take me home, Sir?”

“And deal with the likes of your parents? Not for three dozen of my sister’s raspberry tarts. No, girl, you’ll walk to and from alone, and you’ll be fine. He’ll tell the others. No one crosses Caddock, and that,” he leaned forward with the flute for me, “includes my friends, and now my pupil. Gods, this is a first.” A smile played upon the corner of his mouth. “You can call me Caddock, if I may call you…”

“Wynne.”

“Wynne. It’s nice to know the goddess still speaks.” I knew my eyes grew very wide, and I leaned in, too, like we were sharing the most prized of secrets. “We used to talk often, Galene and I. But I stopped listening when arms and coin promised a more adventurous life. I do not regret the adventures, but I do regret losing her ear.” He wrapped my tiny hands around the flute. “And you’ll lose it, too, if you listen to your family. So let’s practice hard, you and I. With a few breaks for air, of course. Out back. By the river.”

And that is how I came to the sanctuary that was Caddock’s warehouse, and how I could move about Hafren’s seediest corners without fear. For a time he was my source of human friendship, but his tales of adventure, of discovered treasures and conquered beasts, made me yearn for adventures of my own, with a friend my own age…

Ever feel like you need to be forgiven for something?

I want to tell you how much I love my family, of the bundle of sticks tied together is never broken by whatever storm or creature befalls upon it. Yet I cannot speak this lie of my own accord, for truly, I do not love them.

This sin is my own, and I must carry it with me always.

Your parents don’t exactly seem to inspire much love, so you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself.

No, ’tis true. And I would not wish to be like Adyna, an old maid of forty years who never set foot off her father’s farm. Her name is the joke of many rhymes I hear the farmers’ children chant as they pick weeds and rocks. A child should grow to separate from her parents, just as the maple’s seeds break free and spin themselves high into the wind to land either near or far to grow. I want to grow far. I need to grow far.

But my sisters…how I wish I could carry them on the wind with me!

But you’re not friends. Why should you care?

Because I think that if not for Mother, their souls would have a chance to grow. They stare into the looking glass, insult each other for the merest blemish, stuff their bodices for deceitful chests, all for the sake of Mother’s approval. To them, beauty is everything. No music, no flower, no tapestry compares to the beauty of their forms. If they are not beautiful, then they may as well be dead.

How can one believe such words and yet manage to really live?

Mother said those words once. Oh yes. Not with Father around, for I think that such an extreme declaration would have stirred even him from his inventory for a mild chastisement. Father travels south once a year on the Galene to the ocean’s shore for dealings with the Sea Barons of the Dracicocht Isles. This time of year is always difficult with Mother, for she thrives upon the echo Father gives to her sentiments. Oh, Heledd, does her best, but her common sense flusters Mother more than anything.

The day those words were uttered was…oh, I must have been six years. My flute play was adequate, but not yet proficient, especially as the instrument was still rather big for my small body. Mother wailed in the first week of my tutelage to not “slay doves in the house,” so thanks to music, I had an easy time escaping her sharp tongue for the Galene. Bless her! No one is so patient with a struggling musician as the river goddess. That she did not send a fish to knock my flute in the river gave me hope that I was marked for improvement.

If only my sisters had come with me, I thought as I trumped in through the kitchens. I felt much better in the kitchen with the maids. They always spoke in whispers, like bees buzzing in the meadow, and gave me such sweet smiles. Any child would think herself blessed to have such women for a mother. They smiled upon me that afternoon, and gave me a bit of bread and honey to nibble on when—

“Isolda, this hill is much too steep! Rip this all out and do it again.”

“Yes, Mother.”

I still remember the look they shared: Wrinkles filled with flour, juice, and grease, their faces were a bit like those painted for plays on festival days. One was stiff and straight like a narrator; the other all grimace. That was Heledd whenever Mother spoke out of sight.

I continued eating. By then, I thought Mother’s criticisms came and went like a certain other bodily function: foul when it comes out, quickly dispersed, and not spoken of in any company.

“Morwenna, what has happened to your face? Dear, if you pull your braids back too tight you’ll look as though a caravan ox has stepped upon it. You’re ridiculously too stretched and pinched for anyone of good class to take notice of you. Go upstairs and do it again, and if you fail again I’ll have Heledd do it properly, and then she’ll rip it out and you will follow her example.”

“Yes, Mother.”

Heledd tapped my shoulder and waved her finger in front of her lips. I nodded and huddled by the table, eager to stay there for the next several weeks.

“And Cordelia, what on earth are you doing wearing that flower ring in the house? You’ll bring in the bees!”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Almedha, daughter, help me with your sisters!”

“Yes, Mother.”

“And where in Hifrea is Heledd? I need my tea, she knows how I can’t live without my afternoon tea lest the headaches come on, not to mention the shakes and the sweating and the—”

“I’ll see to it, Mother.” And there was Almedha, her own braids perfect, bodice unstuffed as her own chest was progressing to Mother’s approval, wrapped with cords for measuring a new dress. “Ah, Wynne, there you are. I didn’t know you were home.”

“She just got in, Mistress Almedha,” Ysball said before any interrogation could start.

Almedha was sixteen then, already full with ideas of running a rich merchant’s household any day now. “You are a lady of the family, Wynne. You should be entering through the front of the house, not the back like a servant.”

I stuffed the last bit of bread in my mouth. “Ah wash pachktizin.” I must confess, this was not very good manners, and not in any way excusable, but by Galene, I was hungry, and, and—I wanted to finish my food, for goodness’ sake!

“Well now that you’re here, I’m sure Mother would want to see you.” And my sister approached to take my arm.

“No she wouldn’t.”

“Wynne! What a thing to say, honestly.” And up I was taken, honey fingers and all, to the parlor where Mother sat surveying Isolda’s stiches and Cordelia’s flower sachets. “Wynne’s just returned from practicing her flute, Mother.”

Mother’s eyes darted round the room to me as a frog who’s found a fly. “Practicing, my foot! She’s gotten into the larder again, eating us out of house and home. No one wants a fat wife, Wynne, remember that.”

No one dared look at Mother’s pear-shaped body squeezed into the chair.

“I just gave the girl a bite as she wasn’t here for lunch, Madame,” Heledd said as she set Mother’s tea firmly—very firmly—upon the table. “Your tea.”

Mother rolled her eyes and drank. “Well you certainly reek of the river. There again?”

I nodded. How did I reek? I was north by the mill, where all the dead animal urine and bile of the tannery didn’t go.

Almedha nudged me. “Speak when spoken to, Wynne.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Well? Prove it, then.”

“Mother?”

“Oh, child, have a sense. Play me something!”

“Now?”

Mother gargled and croaked, “But of course now, when else?”

“But…” And I held up my fingers, sticking together from the honey bread.

“Do as Mother says!” Almedha hissed. I heard a door open above us—Morwenna must have stepped out. Cordelia paused with her roses, Isolda with her thread.

Couldn’t they see past Mother’s commands? I even held my hands up to Almedha so she could see the honey. “But I’m—”

“Confounded, stupid girl.” Mother banged her tea cup and pried herself free of the chair. “All of you, confounded and stupid. You’re all lucky you’ve got some beauty, otherwise you’d be better off dead.”

Madame!” Heledd stood in the doorway as Ysball brought the tea in for the rest of us.

Once, just this once, has Heledd openly defied my mother. My sisters stood agape, horrified that one of lower class would be so imprudent. I’m sure Mother thought so, too, but perhaps, and I do hope this to be the case, even Mother realized she had gone too far. Nothing was said by anyone, even Mother, for the rest of the day. The natural order of life within our fence had been utterly upheaved, so much so that Isolda left her sewing in a pile on the floor, Almedha’s lyre went unpolished, Cordelia’s bouquet received no water, and Morwenna’s braids laid against her face half-finished.

I rushed back to the Galene to wash and tell her all that had passed. The current wrapped round my hands and seemed to squeeze an assurance to me: life would get better. Somehow, life would get better. I had only to listen to her, follow her lead northward, beyond Cairbail…


If you didn’t catch the Pride and Prejudice vibes before, I bet you do now! Mrs. Bennet was a HUGE inspiration for Madame Ffanci. I welcome any and all thoughts on Wynne, her family, the setting of Cairbail–any thoughts, at all, really. Reader input rocks!

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


#writing #music: #JamesHorner & @samuelsofficial

After wading through the muck’n’mire of Cancel Culture, I’d like to celebrate Spring’s arrival with you. It comes upon the choir of strings, written by a beloved composer, performed by dynamic voices.

Stringed voices.

Norwegian violinist Mari Samuelsen and her cellist brother Hakon have been performing both together and separately for years. Like me, they’ve always adored the music of composer James Horner–how can one not? This man’s music brought life to blockbusters like Braveheart, Aliens, and Titanic. His music filled the movies of my childhood: Something Wicked This Way Comes, American Tail, and Start Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, to name a few.

Just as writers and readers dream of meeting the authors who inspire them, the Samuelsens dreamed of Horner composing a piece for them.

And, as the happiest of stories go, this dream came true.

Mutual friend and Norwegian director Harald Zwart finagled a meeting with James Horner and the Samuelsens. After performing for Horner, Mari asked if Horner would write a concerto for them.

He said yes.

I feel like I’m transported to the classical style Horner himself loved. The beginning cello solo here reminds me of the bassoon opening Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Then the violin enters, and I can’t help but think of Firebird Suite,also by Stravinsky. It’s no coincidence both works were adapted to accompany visual stories of creation and destruction in Disney’s Fantasia and Fantasia 2000.

And Horner himself is a storyteller, such a storyteller. The cello and violin are the characters of this story; its setting, the dawn of spring. Can’t you just feel the encroaching sunrise with the muted swell of the woodwinds? And here come the strings: warmth, growth. Green shoots struggle for freedom from thawing soil. Cello and violin walk–no, dance–through the landscape, casting out the final frost fairies to welcome spring’s sprites. The sprites run as the orchestral strings unleash them into the air.

I could go on, but I am sure your own imaginations picture this dance of change and color. It delights me to hear beloved themes from Horner’s other work woven into this tale: the strings bring forgotten magic from Something Wicked This Way Comes, a touch of kindled love from Titanic. The orchestral woodwinds remind me of the bravery buried in Wrath of Khan. Yes, I hear many loved harmonies of my childhood fantasies come and go until the final moment, when all is silent but for the violin and cello, an echo of the song’s beginning.

It helps the harmonies are played with such passionate players. I must find more of the Samuelsens’ work–their expression with bows and breaths are unlike any I’ve heard before.

If you loved Part 1, then please, listen to Part 2 and Part 3 of James Horner’s concerto. It’s such a stunning work, and one of Horner’s last; he died the year this album was released, 2015.

I am so thankful to have found Pas De Deux, and cannot wait to write more about the composer who led me to this album. But that will have to wait. Until then, let me give you a sample in the form of his contribution performed by the Samuelsens. May this song bring you dreams of Spring’s duet, its color and storms ever dancing with ribbons of sunlit magic.

But most of all, may this song fill your heart with a hope defiant of all darkness.

Thank you so much for reading this small journey through music’s inspiration. I hope you’ll take a moment to check out my novel and free fiction, as well as subscribe to my newsletter.

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

Fallen Princeborn: Chosen Sneak Peek

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 tunnels? And 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.


Any thoughts, comments? Please share them below with my thanks!

#writing #music: “Wallflower” by #PeterGabriel

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There comes a time when all veneers must fall.

So many of us want only our brighest, strongest, best of selves to be seen. We don’t want anyone to know how broken we are. We build up the face we know others like to see on us, are comfortable seeing on us. Others wouldn’t know what to do with our weak, broken selves. They’ll mock our pain. They’ll shrug us off, bored of us. They’ll stand off to the side with limp arms, silent, waiting for us to fix ourselves so they don’t have to.

But for many–me included–one cannot fix one’s heart alone.

I think that’s why I’m drawn to the concept of soul mates. I know not every writer, let alone the romance writer, is keen on the idea. Real and fictional young people do fall in and out of love, after all. It’s happened to our friends and family, to characters like Feyre in Sarah J. Maas’ court series. Or there are those like my mother, widowed, daily debating if she can risk her heart with another person when the one she’d once vowed to grow old with died before his 60th birthday.

One of the most difficult things to do–more than facing one’s monsters, more than fighting one’s own murderous demons–is sharing the broken parts of one’s self with another soul. Your own two hands must grab hold of your ribs. Snap them open. Hold out that charred, cut, beaten thing called a heart, that thing you’ve done your damndest to not think about for years. It’s not like you’ve really needed it to live. Look how far you’ve come without it. Isn’t that enough?

You may tell yourself yes. You might yell yes time and time again to fill your ears with so many yes‘s it must become true.

And yet there will always be at least one echo that comes back to you:

No.

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This is where I come from when I write with the voice of my novel’s heroine, Charlotte. She’s been showing everyone her angry self, her superior self, her musical self for years. Those selves helped her wake up every day without screaming.

But what happens when she meets someone else who wears his own version of a “best” self, whose past is nothing but glass shards sharp enough to draw blood the moment they’re touched?

I have never had much of a romantic nature–Bo can attest to that–but the orchestral music of Peter Gabriel‘s New Blood has a way with my imagination, inspiring it to draw the intimate moments when two at last find the courage to discard every veneer and share all that they are–not just the brightest, nicest selves, but the bloody and broken, too.

Give your characters some time alone with the piano and strings. Let the tentative build  guide their hands to open themselves and share those broken pieces. And when the strings and piano swell at last, may your characters find that even the sharpest edges fit together.

And become one.

Thanks so much for reading. Check out my Books page for more on Fallen Princeborn: Stolen as well as links to my FREE short story collection, Tales of the River Vine.

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

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#CoverReveal & #Giveaway #Countdown to Fallen #Princeborn: Stolen. Six Days & Counting!

Copy of We have all of us had our bloody days, Charlotte. For many it is easier to remain in them than to change. To change requires to face a past stained by screams.

I am so so soooooo excited for this giveaway.

I hope you’ll subscribe to my newsletter, too.

In need of some more free fiction to tide you over until the giveaway?

Check out my short fiction collection Tales of the River Vine 

on Amazon, Nook, and other platforms.

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

 

 

 

#writerproblems: catching #characters

Often times writers are told to go people-watch for character inspiration. This is certainly all well and good if your senses are allowed to wander about the town, in the library, at the pub, and so on.

And then, there’s parenthood.

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(Yes, both Biff and Bash are missing their top two front teeth. God has a sense of humor.)

I thought for sure a trip to the North Woods would give me at least some opportunity to catch a few interesting characters. After all, this is the land of the columned white arrow signs. You better keep your eyes open for these, or you’ll never know where stuff is.

 

 

This is the land of quiet waters, of river-kissing mists departing with dawn’s light.

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Of eagle homes hidden among the oaks and evergreens.

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Unfortunately, the only eagle we spotted all week was this one:

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Still, the kids were all able to find their special little somethings. Blondie found snail shells.

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Bash found his grumps.

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Biff found his chainsaws.

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No, he didn’t grab one (this time). Bo was able to keep the kids a safe distance away from the carving demonstrations at the Paul Bunyan festival.

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I’m not sure what was so Paul Bunyany about it–there was no blue ox, no giant lumberjacks. Plenty of beer and football signs, though. Nothing says Wisconsin like sports and alcohol!

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Just guess how many of these signs are about drinking. I dare you.

Surely a festival drawing in a wide range of tourists and locals would provide SOME opportunity for characters, right? Bo knew I wanted to walk around with my camera, so he took advantage of the chainsaws and stuffed the kids with chocolate-covered graham crackers so I could take a quick look around.

I did spot one crazy individual. Honestly, who dares wear Chicago Bears gear in Packer territory? This woman’s lucky she didn’t get a cow pie thrown at her back.

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Biff notices my absence all too soon, and jumps over to my side of the street. Despite the lumberjack quartet trying to strum banjos and harmonies, Biff belts the theme to “Ghostbusters” at the top of his lungs and dances down the walkway. I hold up my phone to take a video of him singing, but then…oh, but then…

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Who in Sam Elliot is THIS? An older man–70s, I’ll say. Jeans and flannel despite summer warmth. Cowboy hat. Glasses, mustache. Baby carrier. Dog. A wide-eyed, scared-stiff, shaky little dog. In the baby carrier.

Character. FOUND.

So don’t fret if you can’t get out much, writers, or you’re not able to let your eyes wander. Sometimes it’s when our focus is distracted from the hunt that we find what we’re hunting for, and then some.

Speaking of hunting, if you’re looking for a wicked read to welcome Autumn, then I do hope you’ll check out my debut dark fantasy YA novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen.

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In rural Wisconsin, an old stone wall is all that separates the world of magic from the world of man—a wall that keeps the shifters inside. When something gets out, people disappear. Completely.

Escaping from an abusive uncle, eighteen-year-old Charlotte is running away with her younger sister Anna. Together they board a bus. Little do they know that they’re bound for River Vine—a shrouded hinterland where dark magic devours and ancient shapeshifters feed, and where the seed of love sets root among the ashes of the dying.

You can snatch up a paperback on Amazon today! If you’ve got an e-reader, I have a couple different versions of the novel available: the green edition, which is the first part of the novel for just 99 cents, or the platinum edition containing the complete novel and bonus content. All online versions are FREE on Kindle Unlimited, too!

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

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#Sharing #Blogging & #Writing #Love Around the #Campfire With Delicious S’Mores of a #CoverReveal & #Giveaway

While on a brief family holiday in the North Woods of Wisconsin I find myself blessed with another award from fellow writers JI Rogers and Ann Marie Swaim. I do hope you will check out their stories and sites—they never cease to amaze me!

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Let’s settle in around this campfire, well stocked with boxes of crackers and chocolates, marshmallows and cider, and talk as the cedar’s smoke soothes us from a long summer’s day in the water.

Do me a favor—keep Bash away from the extra kindling, please.

What’s your favorite water sport? To play and/or watch.

Apart from kid-watching, you mean?

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Look, my son Biff’s over there in the yard now. You hear him with that soccer ball? He’s throwing at the campsite’s sign and yelling, “I tackled it! Home run points!”

That should tell you how involved we are with sports in my family.

What book would you recommend that everyone read?

13140843My answer hasn’t changed in years: Diana Wynne Jones’ Reflections on the Magic of Writing. There is so so so SO much here to unpack. She’s got lots to share about craft in the way only Jones can: with firm experience and wicked humor. She’s also open to sharing her thoughts on the stickier points of being an author, like conflicts with publishers and horrible school visits. But what I love the most is her openness about her life. She had a nasty childhood during World War II, and learning how she battled such dark years with stories made me feel like I could battle my own depression with stories, too.

What book do you wish you never read?

The fourth and final book of the Twilight saga, Breaking Dawn.

And that’s all I’m going to say about that, because if I start, I will not stop.

What can move you more, images or words?

This is a tough one. Often I daydream in words, but I find myself more often moved by images around me. I can see something—a peculiar clump of trees stranded in a corn field, for instance—and a story just, well, comes. I wonder what’s in the trees, and can imagine a long-forgotten cabin, walls cracked and falling in, mold creeping in from every side, bat scat and raccoon refuse littered about…save for one corner, where a trap door remains, pristine and perfect, waiting for just the right curious hand to open it…

Who in your life (living or dead) provided you with the best inspiration?

You know, a year ago, I’d probably have said my dad. After all, he and I spent hours together going over my stories, polishing them to perfection for school.

Now, I answer: my children.

It’s not so much because of the yarns Bash spins—just as he does now, turning his chocolate into a superhero to save his marshmallow from falling into the fire. The stories he spins have certainly inspired me in the past.

No, it’s that I have children. My children need me sane.

I am their caregiver. I am their lap, their hug, their kiss goodnight. I am their maker of macaroni and cheese. I am their bedtime reader. I am their music finder, movie player. I am their clean underwear finder and silly face laugher. I cannot be any of these things unless I have a clear head and steady heart. How do I get these? By dumping all the nastiness of me onto the page before it infects them.

Biff, Bash, and Blondie are my drive to write on. I write to be what my kids need me to be.

What I need me to be.

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What has been the hardest struggle to overcome to keep on blogging?

So often I worry that what I’m writing isn’t worth reading. Why should anyone care what I think about this composer/author? Who really wants to read m’ramblins’ about raising children?

Speaking of which, mind Blondie doesn’t eat another hot dog, that crazy little carnivore. Biff, stop throwing marshmallows into the fire!

Ahem.

In the Writer’s Digest article “Bare Your Soul,” Maria Walley makes an excellent point about the power of vulnerability:

Your writing will make you vulnerable. After all, we’re taking the innermost parts of ourselves—our ideas—and translating them into words intended to provoke thought and, in some cases, emotion.  It can be painful to do, but it’s also what makes good writing worth reading. It’s what make stories resonate.

Over the course of three years, I’ve learned that artists don’t just struggle with craft, but with Life. They’ve got their own issues with kids. Their battles own with grief. Their injuries with abuse, with depression. When I feel like I have nothing to say as a writer, then I write as a parent, a child, victim. There is always a part of me that has something to say. It’s just a matter of finding that part.

 What do you feel is the best blog post you’ve written to date and why?

Oh man. Um…let me get the kids into the cabin first. I need to move my chair, too…the smoke always finds me, draws tears from my eyes.

 “The Machete and the Cradle” is the very first post I published on Jean Lee’s World, and it deals with just how dangerous my postpartum depression became during my children’s early years. It’s a time I cannot think upon without cringing from myself. I look at my sons now, poking each other with a koala and a bunny while nestled into their Planes: Fire and Rescue sleeping bags, and to think how close I came to abandoning one of them…

It’s…hard.

But I overcame that shame in the shadows, and managed to find the words to cast those shadows into the fire. This burning is one of the most difficult things I ever did, and considering where I and my family are now, it is most definitely one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Do you plan your blogs in advance and schedule their release or just blog by the seat of your pants? Or a combo?

It’s a combo. Sometimes I get a fire of ideas I want to share and I whip out a month’s worth of blogs in one afternoon, while other weeks (especially this past summer) I’m up late Wednesday night typing for Thursday’s post.

When you’re being creative, do you prefer quiet or some form of sound (music, audiobook…) in the background?

Always music, always! I get frustrated when I don’t have the right music to write, so much so the story gets muddled in my head. 95% of the time I use instrumental music, but every now and again a song with lyrics hits the atmosphere just right, especially when the words speak to the characters’ feelings.

Favorite composers include Alexandre Desplat, Mychael Danna, Ennio Morricone, Hans Zimmer, Daniel Pemberton, Peter Gabriel…obviously, I can go on.

 

Cat, dog, or other?

DOG.

If your home was on fire and you could only save one book, which would it be?

I wouldn’t go for a typical book. I’d grab whatever creations my children made: the boys’ drawings, Blondie’s stories. Those will always mean more than any other book. There could be a signed copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in my house, and I’m still goin’ for the kids’ work, because THOSE can never, ever be found anywhere else.

If you had to choose one of your current projects to tell a group of strangers about, what would it be?

As the stars take hold of the sky behind the plume of fire’s smoke?

Well.

Campfires are the perfect place to share the darker stories. Be they the fantasies of my childhood, like Dark Crystal or Witches, or the epics beloved by my father like Highlander and Dune, we sit here with the dying embers surrounded by countless dancing shadows of tales. Anyone, anything could be prowling around out there, beyond the fire’s reach, just waiting for its moment to sit, be seen, be heard.

My Fallen Princeborn Omnibus dances among such shadows. It comes from the hidden lands of magic, escaping from shapeshifters cursed and gifted, wielding weapons wicked and beautiful. Not only do these stories come for the thrill of the spirit and heart, but to help define what it is to be a family.

I hope that, after all is packed back into the truck and we’ve returned to civilization’s  plumbing, you’ll stop by for my cover reveal and ARC giveaway.

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I’m giving away 1,000 copies of Stolen through BookFunnel and Instafreebie starting September 1st. Yup. One THOUSAND. That be a whoooole lotta copies! But this is my first novel, and I’m keen to hear how readers see the world I’ve seen in my head for years. Next week, as I sit us all down in the cluttered living room for punch and a slide show from my vacation, I’ll start the countdown to the cover reveal of Stolen and the giveaway. Don’t be late, now!

If you’re like me, and you need stories to survive the long drive home, I’ve got three short stories from the Omnibus available for free download:Athanasius-TitleImageStory #1: “The Boy Who Carried a Forest in his Pocket”

Rural Wisconsin. A warm lazy Sunday after church. Perfect for goofing off with friends, comic books, and lemonade under a big shade tree. But something’s off at Blair farm—stay away from the old stone wall. And whatever you do, don’t talk to strangers walking in from the woods. Welcome to the magical world of River Vine, where things are not what they seem.Stray-TitleImage

Rural Wisconsin. Eight-year-old Millie loves to play make-believe with her new friend, a cat from the woods. But something’s off about Captain Whiskers…. Not all strays should be rescued.
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When does the hunter become the hunted? When the hunter fails in her hunt. Ember was sent into the human realm to select the choicest prey for her Master. But she set out to teach him a lesson instead, and now she must pay for her defiance.

Three more stories will be published in the next couple of months, with Stolen hitting online bookshelves this Halloween.

Now, before I look into the cabin to see who’s jumping on top of whom for a comy circus show, I’d like to nominate 11 more artists for the Liebster Award. Wander this endless campground and stop by their sites sometime. Their fires each burn with unique passions in art, photography, music, writing. Rekindle your own creativity with a shared s’more and smile.

Questions to pick my nominees’ brains on creatin’ and stuff:

  1. What would you consider to be your earliest creative work that foreshadowed the passion to come? Be it taken on a disposable camera, doodled in a school book, or tooted on a kazoo, those school-day scribbles count for something!
  2. If you could gain you favorite living artist’s permission to create an homage of their work (for example, writing a fan fic story with your favorite character), who would you approach and what character would you write with?
  3. I’m always looking for strategies to fight back the distractions. How do you focus yourself in the sea of Life’s Noise to create?
  4. What are the three most inspirational places you’ve ever visited?
  5. Time for the dead artists now! If you could sit down for a cuppa or a pint with any dead artist, who would it be and why?
  6. What’s one stereotype people always apply to you because of who you are/where you’re from? Just for an example—I grew like a corn stalk when I was a kid, so EVERYONE assumed I was really good at sports like basketball. Guess what I suck at? ALL SPORTS. Because I live in Wisconsin, people around me just assume I’m a fellow Green Bay Packers fan. Guess what I hate watching? FOOTBALL.
  7. If there’s one book on craft in your passion you’d recommend to every fellow artist in your field, what would it be?
  8. Favorite grilled food? The answer should be bratwursts, but because you’re friends, I’ll try to keep an open mind. 🙂
  9. Okay, I’m not, I repeat, NOT, a huge Disney fan, but even I’ve got a few favorite Disney films, like Something Wicked This Way Comes. What’s your favorite Disney film? No, Pixar doesn’t count.
  10. And speaking of films, what’s one movie you’re kind of embarrassed to admit you like, but you just can’t help yourself? (Krull, since we’re sharing.)
  11. Share your current endeavors! C’mon, you deserve a chance to plug your work. 🙂

I hope to inform my nominees over the next few days.

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

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

 

 

#writing #music: Queen

My headphones are often absconded.

“I’m in the control tower. Roger roger!”

“Mommy, we have to join the pit crew so Lightning can race across the finish line. Oh no, Doc Hudson crashed!”

Because of this, I have to watch what music I play while writing during the day. Sure, the kids know ACDC and The Who, but we’ve taken care to play only a few songs of each without certain, shall we say, bluntly crude language. I’ve already made the mistake of allowing the boys to listen to Weird Al Yankovic’s polka medley of Rolling Stones songs. Heaven help me if Biff belts out “Brown Sugar” around adults who know what he’s singing.

So of course, staring at Bo’s music collection, I grab the first kid-friendly band I see: Queen!

Yeah, yeah, I know. “Bicycle” is, um, mostly clean, and if I’m fast with the volume knob we can listen to “Don’t Stop Me Now.” But there’s always “We Are the Champions,” “We Will Rock You,” “You’re My Best Friend,” and their kickin’ theme to Flash Gordon!

One song, however, speared my memory good and deep. I love digging through music old and new for writing inspiration, but a few weeks ago Writer Me experienced a different sort of epiphany.

Just as the trauma of childhood influences how we write, so do the stories that engaged us as kids. I reveled in the adventures of discovery on Star Trek. I swung my play sword alongside She-Ra. I outwitted all the baddies from the Batman comics. Aaaand I begrudgingly liked the romance of Beauty and the Beast.

(Hey, every action junkie’s going to have that one romance that gets’em every time.)

Now I finally have the age and wit (half a wit, anyway) to see the connection between a cult movie’s theme song and my current project for Aionios Books, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. 

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“Princes of the Universe” was one of three songs written by Queen for the 1986 film Highlander, a story of immortals living among humanity and dueling each other with swords because “there can be only one.” The original film wasn’t intended for any sort of sequel or series, so (spoiler alert) we find out that The Prize all immortals must fight over is the gift of mortality.

When I started writing Fallen Princeborn the fall after Blondie’s birth, I had that title before I had a setting. I didn’t really ponder why I was using the term “princeborn.” It simply fit. My immortals are created with skills and abilities that by all accounts make them “superior” to humanity. As the song says, no man can be their equal. What else are they than “born to be kings”?

In Fallen Princeborn, the antagonists are keen to do just that, while the protagonists, each broken and discarded, must learn to rise up or die trying.

Highlander went on to spawn some sequels and a television show, all of which my dad loved. So, week to week, Kid Me would hear this song while immortal men, women, and yes, even the occasional kid whipped out massive claymores, slick katanas, wicked rapiers to duel in dark alleys and ancient forests. There is almost always a Quickening: the loser beheaded, lightning floods the scene as the victor absorbs the power of the defeated immortal.

When I listen to “Princes of the Universe” now, I realize it wasn’t just the lightning and rock that stuck with me. Freddie Mercury’s lyrics buried themselves just as deep.

Here we are, born to be kings
We’re the princes of the universe
Here we belong, fighting to survive
In a world with the darkest powers

Here we belong, fighting for survival
We’ve come to be the rulers of you all

I am immortal, I have inside me blood of kings, yeah, yeah
I have no rival, no man can be my equal
Take me to the future of you all

Born to be kings, princes of the universe
Fighting and free
Got your world in my hand
I’m here for your love and I’ll make my stand
We were born to be princes of the universe

9835e4dede16d58a385e85e9f2238856This beaten down defiance drums as hard as Roger Taylor. Even just reading these words, you can feel glares burning through you like Christopher Lambert’s eyes. Whoever’s spitting these words may be bloody and bruised at your feet, but their faces tell you they’re nowhere near defeated. No power upon this earth can break them.

Such are the  heroes I am proud to give readers.

Give your protagonists a battle-song to defy the odds, and their heroics will live on in the reader’s imagination long after the final page is read.

 

 

 

 

#lessons Learned from @HollyBlack: Start the #storytelling with #writing the departure from the #characters’ normal.

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Snagging readers is always one of the greatest challenges writers face. First fifty pages nuthin’. We gotta grab readers in the first five pages. Heck, if we can’t grab an agent or publisher with the first five sentences, we are out of luck.

Holly Black establishes just enough intrigue within her first lines of The Cruel Prince to hook readers and keep’em on the line until the last page. Let’s dissect a few of these opening sentences, as well as the entire first chapter.

(Yes, I said entire first chapter. Don’t groan yet.)

Prologue:

On a drowsy Sunday afternoon, a man in a long dark coat hesitated in front of a house on a tree-lined street. He hadn’t parked a car, nor had he come by taxi. No neighbor had seen him strolling along the sidewalk. He simply appeared, as if stepping between one shadow and the next.

Inside the house, Jude sat on the living room rug and ate fish sticks, soggy from the microwave and dragged through a sludge of ketchup. Her twin sister, Taryn, napped on the couch, curled around a blanket, thumb in her fruit-punch-stained mouth. And on the other end of the sofa, their older sister, Vivienne, stared at the television screen, her eerie, split-pupiled gaze fixed on the cartoon mouse as it ran from the cartoon cat. She laughed when it seemed as if the mouse was about to get eaten.

The first four sentences take care to show something abnormal is in the works. While the first sentence of “a man in a long dark coat” sounds ominous, it’s a common sort of ominous–oh no, a dude in a coat. Aaaaah.

The next sentence plays upon our reality’s norms and begins to trim them off: no car, no taxi. There go the typical, nondescript forms of transportation. Black’s not going to insult our intelligence and list other vehicles not used, like RVs, semis, and so on. If my son Biff’s taught me anything, it’s that kids will notice any vehicle bigger than a car, and they will make a big deal about it. “Mommy, a truck! Mommy, a bus! Mommy, an RV!”

The third line continues to nullify yet another assumption: he didn’t walk there. If Black can say no neighbor saw him “strolling along the sidewalk,” then that means neighbors are currently outside to witness such things.

But no one did. Which means that when “he simply appeared,” he literally did just that.

Now that is abnormal.

In the next paragraph we meet our protagonist Jude and her two sisters. Black has situated this family in a very typical setup: snacking and watching television.

It is this sort of normal the man of the long dark coat penetrates.

I don’t have to share the rest of the prologue with you to know there was something abnormal in Jude’s normal–her elder sister Vivienne has “eerie” split pupils. As the narrator explains, Jude and her sister accept this without question; after all, they’re identical twins, which is weird enough. For them, this is normal, and therefore requires no further explanation.

But they do get an explanation with the man’s arrival.

He is not human.

He is also their mother’s first husband, and Vivienne is his daughter. Jude’s father tries to fight him, and dies. Jude’s mother tries to run, and dies.

He takes all three girls back to his home in Elfhame.

51j9XTR5oZL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Now here Black makes an interesting writing choice: while the prologue is given in 3rd person past, Chapter 1 shifts us into first person present.

CHAPTER 1

In Faerie, there are no fish sticks, no ketchup, no television.

That’s the whole chapter.

(Told you not to groan.)

What good is a one-line chapter?

For starters, Black’s story isn’t about little kid Jude and her sisters. In Chapter 2 we learn ten years have passed since General Madoc killed their parents and brought them to his home. The Cruel Prince will share the tale of these girls finding their place in–or out–of Faerie. 

Ten years is a HUGE amount of time to cover in any book, let alone a sentence. So let’s see what Black did to help us make that leap.

First, she establishes the time with “are.” The events of the prologue are done. The narrator’s in a new time.

What place? “Faerie.” For all the variety of worlds made about fairies/faeries, we do tend to make similar assumptions about what these magic folk don’t have: cars, for instance, or computers. Black builds on this concept–ruling out what isn’t in the world before building on what is–by listing the three simple things that symbolized the normal of Jude’s life: fish sticks, ketchup, television.

“Television” clearly encompasses technology of all sorts, but for a kid, no tv is, like, huge. It’s a primary resource for entertainment, education, distraction. It’s challenging enough to limit a kid’s screen time. Can you think of completely removing the tvs, computers, tablets, phones, and all the rest out of your life, let alone a child’s? Let that sink in. Now you appreciate that dose of culture shock for Jude and her sisters.

“Ketchup”–so often associated as the go-to dipper for kids. They’ll draw pictures in it, squirt each other with it. Adults can show their age if they like by using more “sophisticated” fare like oils, glazes, marinades, or sauces constructed with food processors and farmer’s markets and sweat, but if a kid’s got the choice between some organic garlic beet radish kale compote and “ketchup,” what do you think he/she will take?

Same with “fish sticks.” Microwaved, no less. One of the staples in a family’s fridge, fish sticks are a primary example of the pseudo-nutrition parents like to use to keep kids’ stomachs placated. Heck, I used’em for Blondie last night. (Biff and Bash don’t like them. Hmm, maybe they’re from Elfhame. It would certainly explain their ever-warring natures…) The easy, go-to processed food kept frozen by technology and heated at the click of its buttons is only memory to Jude.

By grouping this little trio of food, pleasure, and entertainment in the normal of Jude’s young life, and emphasizing with three No’s that these do not exist in her new normal, Black successfully jars readers out of Jude’s childhood and shifts them into the plotline for The Cruel Prince, told by Jude with intimate immediacy.

If your story needs a setup, consider how much you can pack into a single line. Think about what will separate this setup from the rest of the story, and what voice is best suited to prepare readers as well as engage them for the story proper. Do not think you must provide a detailed summary of the time passed over between setup and story; rather, consider what can symbolize that which is now lost, or gained, or transformed. Let that symbolism speak the necessary volumes for you while you lure readers into the shadowy realm that is Chapter 1.

#Writing #Music: Mychael Danna

 

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I use several of Danna’s albums when I write, The Sweet Hereafter especially when I need an atmosphere of unsettlement. There is no orchestra here; often only a few string or woodwind instruments play at a time. Percussion is limited. Harmonies come and go like sunlight beneath a breaking cloudbank.

My protagonist flees an abusive home. She finally is in control of her fate…until a bizarre accident wrecks her bus. No one questions the circumstances, nor does anyone think it strange when another bus, empty of passengers but filled with everything the stranded travelers need, just so happens to come along on an otherwise abandoned stretch of interstate. Only the protagonist feels the wrongness of it all, from the ground beneath her to the sudden stillness of the trees.

I could not have closed my eyes and worked this through if not for Mychael Danna’s The Sweet Hereafter. I visualized the empty road easily enough, but I enjoy the quiet of Wisconsin’s empty places. I could not make myself uncomfortable.

And then I put the tracks “Bus,” “Bus Stop,” and “Why I Lied” together, and found myself shivering inside my protagonist’s skin.

Danna’s music also makes a writer’s point: use only what you need, and use it well. It’s all too easy to dive into sweeping descriptions of the world’s logistics. Background, right? Context? Readers need it!

No, no they don’t. Keep it simple. Share just enough to catch the reader’s eye. Keep him a few steps behind. Then, you may broaden the reader’s vision as the story advances. Danna’s “A Huge Wave” is the perfect track to reflect this idea, for the instruments build slowly from strings, to percussion, to wind instruments, to crest in volume and slink slowly away into the mists once more.

If ever you need your characters to feel unsure of the world about them, lose them in Danna.

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

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed