Jilly: Homes With Character

Would you read a book that had a house or piece of land as an important character?

Long ago, in class, we discussed the role of the antagonist, aka the Bad Guy or Girl. We learned that a strong, smart, all-powerful opponent makes for great genre fiction, because their actions will push the heroine to her limits, forcing her to make difficult choices and in the process to grow and change before she eventually triumphs.

We also learned that Nature (a desert, a mountain, a storm) does not make a good antagonist, because it isn’t sentient. Even if it tests and challenges the heroine, it doesn’t respond to her actions. It doesn’t push back, so the story lacks zing.

That made sense to me at the time, but lately not so much. Because in a fantasy world a piece of land, or a house, can be sentient. If it can react, it can be a character, and lately I’ve read a few interesting books and series that use this trope. It’s an idea that holds so much potential. Part of any story’s power is what the reader brings to it, and almost all of us have deep ties to and strong feelings about places we’ve lived. Imagine if that place also had strong feelings about us, and the power to express those feelings? It’s not that much of a stretch if you’ve ever visited somewhere and felt stifled and claustrophobic, or instantly at home.

Ilona Andrews’ self-published Innkeeper series is set in a magical B&B in Texas that provides accommodation to visitors from other planets. Inns are grown from seed, but only thrive and grow powerful under the care of an Innkeeper and with guests to care for. The relationship between the heroine, Dina, and her Inn, is symbiotic and deeply emotional. The Inn responds not just to Dina’s instructions but to her thoughts and wishes. If she’s hurt, it feels terrible pain. In this world Dina is the leader, the inn is her trusty and beloved sidekick, and they stand or fall together.

KF Breene’s Magical Mid-Life Madness has a forty-year-old, recently divorced heroine who’s trying to create a new normal for herself and takes a job as caretaker of a house belonging to a family friend. She visited the house as a child and felt a strong connection with it, and when she returns as an adult she discovers that the house is a magical mansion that chooses its owner. By accepting a bond with the house, Jacinta (Jessy) gains her own power, reinvigorates a hilarious ensemble cast of ageing magical types, strikes sparks off the over-protective alpha of the town, and draws the attention of covetous, powerful, dark forces. I’ve only read the first book in what seems to be a long-running series, but so far the house strikes me as a picturesque, desirable repository of power. It has agency in that it welcomes or repels visitors and changes its configuration depending on what it wants them to see, but so far it feels to me more like a McGuffin than a character. I’m curious to see if that changes in later books.

Kate Stradling’s Kingdom of Ruses has a heroine whose family has spent generations maintaining the illusion of the Eternal Prince, a mysterious and powerful protector figure who watches over their small but magical kingdom. There are two special relationships in the book—one that develops between Viola and a mystery man who may or may not be the Eternal Prince, the other that has existed for generations between Viola, the Moreland family, and the kingdom of Lenore. I’d say Lenore as a character falls somewhere between the Innkeeper books and the KF Breene ones. The land is magical and that makes it desirable to outside forces. It responds only to special characters. The thing I like best is that it blooms as Viola learns that she can’t just draw on her relationship with it, she needs to tend it, too. I’m totally on board with that sentiment.

AJ Lancaster’s Stariel may be my favorite. The Lord of Stariel is about a magical estate that chooses its own ruler from among the land-sensitive Valstar family. The heroine, Hetta Valstar, doesn’t live on the estate anymore. When her father dies and she returns to Stariel to participate in the mystical Choosing ceremony, she expects either her prickly older brother or her land-hungry cousin to become the next lord. Obviously things don’t work out that way. All the Valstars feel a connection with Stariel, but the bond between the lord and the estate is off the charts. The lord can feel the estate—every person, animal, blade of grass—but what I love most of all is that Stariel is a quirky personality in its own right. It’s powerful and stubborn, and it knows what it wants. It can’t talk, but actions speak much louder than words, and Stariel can misbehave quite spectacularly if it doesn’t like the way things are going. Stariel’s not an antagonist, but it is a wild card. Its quirks and tantrums add an extra dimension to a very fun, feelgood read. I’ve read all three Stariel books (The Lord of Stariel, The Prince of Secrets, and The Court of Mortals) and I’m waiting impatiently for the final book (The King of Faerie), due in early August.

Have you read any good books that use this trope? What kind of character does the house or land play?

Do you like the idea, or does the thought of a sentient house knowing your every move and expressing an opinion on your behavior send you screaming?

Jilly: Secret Declarations

Happy Valentine’s Day, if you celebrate the occasion! Chez Jilly, 14th February falls between our wedding anniversary (flowers, champagne) and Mr. W’s birthday (cake, treats) so we don’t make much of it.

I enjoy all the online hoopla, though. It takes me back to my teens, when receiving a valentine card brought major bragging rights at my girls-only high school. Extra kudos for multiple cards, and most of all for unknown senders. I wasn’t the prettiest or the most popular girl in my class, but one year I received three valentine cards and had no idea who’d sent any of them. Whoo!

I can still remember the giddy, fizzy excitement of it. And ever since those long-ago days, the secret/unilateral/unconditional love declaration has been one of my all-time favorite romance genre tropes. Of course, it’s especially delicious because the reader knows the secret will eventually be uncovered, even if she knows not when or how.

The greatest secret declaration story must be Pride and Prejudice. Reserved, uptight, principled Darcy uses his considerable power and influence to save Lizzy from social ruin by bribing a man he rightly despises to marry his beloved’s disgraced airhead of a younger sister. Darcy uses his personal capital to give credibility to the unlikely wedding, whilst doing his utmost to keep his involvement under the radar. He does it all for love, but he’s genuinely embarrassed when Lizzy finds out and confronts him. Swoon!

I think one of the most delightful examples is Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion. When country-mouse Kitty persuades rich, good-natured Freddy into a fake engagement so that Kitty can sample the delights of London society (and win the heart of handsome rake Jack), it gradually becomes apparent that Freddy has fallen head over heels in love with Kitty, with no expectation that his feelings will ever be returned. Kitty’s meager budget is wholly inadequate to meet the costs of living among the ton, so Freddy quietly finds ways to meet the shortfall, leaving Kitty in a Cinderella-like whirl of beautiful clothes and exciting new experiences. When his benevolent duplicity is finally revealed, he simply shrugs and says he wanted Kitty to have everything she ever wished for. Nothing more, nothing less. Sigh.

It works wonderfully in fantasy, too. Take The Talon of the Hawk, my favorite of Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms series. The hero, Harlan, is the (smart, hot, principled) leader of a team of foreign mercenaries hired by a capricious High King who doubts the loyalty of Ursula, his dutiful daughter/heir. Ursula’s distrust of Harlan is deep and powerful, but that doesn’t deter him from making an irrevocable commitment of his own and signaling it in a deliciously oblique manner. A secret declaration combined with another of my most favorite tropes–a hero who’s all-in, long before the scales fall from the heroine’s eyes.

I could go on, but I feel the urge to break out the champagne truffles and go on a re-reading binge 😉

How about you? Are you a fan of the secret declaration trope? If not, which ones make your heart beat faster?

Jilly: I Want That!

Did you ever see, read, or hear about something and immediately think I want that for myself?

It happened to me this week.

Writing fiction is, for me, a joy and a privilege. I feel very lucky to have the resources to pursue my passion, and the time to build a successful indie author business on my own terms. The key word here being successful 🙂 .

Joanna Penn, in her book Business for Authors (How to be an Author Entrepreneur), suggests that it’s important to identify your personal definition of success, and to know how you will track and measure that success.

She offers some possible options:

  • I want to create something I’m proud of
  • I want to see my book on the shelves of a bookstore
  • I want to reach readers with my words
  • I want to sell x copies of my books
  • I want to win a prize and win literary/critical acclaim
  • I want to make a full-time living from my writing
  • I want to create a body of work that I’m proud of over my lifetime

The most important definition for me is the last one—to create a body of work that I’m proud of. I will feel I am on the way to achieving it when I have published my remaining Elan Intrigues prequel book and the five-book fantasy series that succeeds it. I guesstimate that may take me another five years or so.

I have an ambitious writing/publishing plan, but I never set myself an ambitious financial goal. I treat what I do as a business, and over time I intend to make it profitable, but that’s always been about being able to afford quality professional services to make my books as good as they can be. Necessities, if I’m to create a body of work I’m proud of. Not luxuries.

Until last Wednesday, when I saw this post on Ilona Andrews’ blog.

New Art from Luisa Preissler

The authors commissioned a family portrait of the Baylor sisters, the heroines of their bestselling Hidden Legacy series, and it is absolutely gorgeous. It captures the sisters and the tone of the books perfectly, and it includes lots of small details that make it extra special. I love it.

So now I have an extra benchmark of writerly success. I still want all the things I listed above, but I also want to make enough extra money from my writing to commission an artist whose work I really admire to create a portrait (portraits?) of my favorite characters. How cool would that be?

So how about you? Is there something you’d really, really like, not because it’s necessary or useful, but because it would feel amazing?

Jilly: Sleep Is My Superpower

Do you find that a good night’s sleep helps you with problem solving?

This week (finally!) I settled down to work on my current WIP, The Seeds of Destiny. I already had some ideas written down and a couple of scenes sketched out, but I put the project on hold while I published The Seeds of Exile and uploaded my freebie novella The Pulse of Princes.

The heroine of The Seeds of Destiny is a healer called Annis Benkith. She belongs to an elusive, nomadic, mountain-dwelling tribe. The Kith are highly attuned to their environment and have some unusual elemental powers. Their abilities affect many aspects of their culture and are particularly important for healers.

So I need to understand and be able to describe clearly how the Kith’s powers work. And I need to think through the wider implications. I know how those powers create the crisis that launches Annis into the story of The Seeds of Destiny, but that leaves a whole world of related questions to be answered.

How, exactly, does Annis do what she does (avoiding spoilers here)? How do I show it so that a reader can see it in her mind’s eye? I’ve always thought that it would involve colors, but this week, when I created a chart for the colors I imagined and considered all the possibilities, I got a palette of outcomes that made the concept look like the aftermath of a paintball game. Argh. So not what I needed.

Also, what’s the difference between what healers do and what other Kith can do? If Annis’s mentor is the Kith’s greatest healer, how come she never discovered this problem before? And if these healing skills are so useful, why don’t the Kith just use them the whole time? I need Annis’s problem to arise in the now, and to be a shock, not an oversight. I need it to lead to difficult and dangerous choices, because that’s a great test of character—for Annis and all the other characters affected by her choices. If the problem can easily be solved, there is no story 😦 .

I wasted a whole day and a good few pages of my newest Moleskine notebook trying to brainstorm answers to these and other fundamental world-building questions. Then I gave up and went to bed. The following morning, in that wonderful semi-conscious relaxed state between sleeping and waking, I realized that I had all the answers.

This happens to me quite often. I guess it’s my subconscious, working on the problem with nothing else to distract it, but it feels more than a little magical. I never take it for granted or try to direct it—I’m just thrilled and amazed whenever it works.

Does sleeping on a problem work for you? Exercise? Knitting? Watching TV? Or some other method that often does the trick, even if you don’t quite know why?

Jilly: Sound Effects

Do you prefer background noise when you work, or are you a work-in-silence type?

In the past I’ve created playlists for individual books, finding songs or pieces of music that I associated with particular characters, places or themes. If I played them often enough, they became so familiar that my ears tuned them out and my subconscious took them as a soft signal that it was time to write.

That worked well for me before covid-19. Until last year I was happy on my sofa, writing in my isolated story bubble, because in the rest of my life I was out and about, interacting face to face with real live people and getting my daily fix of human connection.

Now we’ve been confined to home, more or less, for almost ten months, and close personal interaction with others is something we’re exhorted to avoid if at all possible. I have my husband, thank goodness, and we catch up with friends and family via technology, but we’re feeling the lack of variety in our day-to-day interactions, and somehow it’s affecting my writing routine. At the moment I don’t want to get wholly swallowed by my story world. I prefer some kind of pleasing background noise that doesn’t intrude on my thoughts but quietly offers reassurance that there’s a real world out there, occupied by real people.

I’ve found the perfect solution. Cricket commentary 🙂 .

For those unfamiliar with this very British sport, it’s a bat-and-ball game played by two teams of eleven players on a circular or oval shaped piece of grass—usually with a diameter of around 450 or 500 feet. The game is believed to have originated in Medieval England, and it’s mostly played in countries that were or are part of the British Commonwealth, like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka, the West Indies, India, and Pakistan, though all kinds of other countries are now getting into the swing of it.

Because it’s such a very old, very upper-class game, it has all kinds of arcane rules and language (a maiden, a duck or golden duck, silly point, a googly, a bouncer). In its longest form, matches are spread over five days, and a series would be (say) five matches of five days each. A match usually starts mid-morning and lasts for around eight hours, with breaks for lunch and tea (those are the official names). If it rains, the players retire to the pavilion until the ground is dry again. There might be breaks of several hours, or even whole days with no play. If it’s too cloudy to see the ball clearly, the umpires will take the players back to the pavilion until it’s brighter. And at the end of all that, it’s quite possible that a game or a series might end in a draw.

All of which means that the tv or radio commentary for cricket works beautifully for me as a writing accompaniment. The commentators are intelligent, courteous, and highly educated. The matches may be fiercely competitive, but they’re so old-school and such a marathon that there’s no place for screaming commentary. Just a warm, soothing flow of observation that has time to wander off into history, geography, geology, the weather, local sights, customs, wildlife, and anything else that catches the commentators’ fancy.

Even better, many international cricket grounds are to be found in spectacular locations. The England team are currently playing against Sri Lanka in Galle, overlooked by a historic fort and fringed on two sides by the Indian Ocean. It looks gorgeous. I’ve been getting a vicarious travel treat every day, and while it’s not as good as a vacay, it’s a lovely reminder of what will (I hope) be possible again soon.

Fortunately for me, when the England cricketers finish their tour of Sri Lanka, they’re off to India. That takes care of my soundtrack for February and March 🙂 .  I’m hoping they’ll help me build up some momentum on The Seeds of Destiny.

Do you like background noise whilst you work? Have your aural preferences changed during the pandemic?

Jilly: Incubating in Caldermor

Happy New Year, all!

I had plans for my first post of 2021, but my brain seems to be off on a frolic of its own. Whether I’m asleep, cooking, tapping at my laptop, or walking around Hampstead Heath, my gray matter is in Caldermor, mulling over Annis, Daire, and my new WIP. Not working out specific plot points, just noodling around what kind of people they are, what they want in their deepest, most private selves, why there would be a deep/unique connection between them, and what would make a true HEA for their love story.

I get this distracted feeling from time to time, and I’ve learned from experience that when it happens, I should relax and give my subconscious free rein. I’m reassured by the idea that creative incubation appears to have some scientific basis 😉 .

Nancy Andreasen is a leading neuroscientist and psychiatrist at the University of Iowa whose specialty is research into the creative mind. She was originally a professor in the English Department, and her research was partly informed by her proximity to the talented writers participating in the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

I’ve linked before to her one-hour Aspen Ideas presentation titled “Secrets of the Creative Brain,” but not since 2017. I revisited it today and thought it an hour well spent, so I’m sharing it again.

Among many other things, Ms. Andreasen says that there are four stages in the creative process:

  • Stage 1, Preparation: the assimilation of basic information to build on.
  • Stage 2, Incubation: a relaxed time when connections are made, often unconsciously.
  • Stage 3, Inspiration: the Eureka! Moment
  • Stage 4, Production: putting the insights or concepts into a useful form, or something that can be communicated to others.

I need to get The Seeds of Exile into Production soon, so I’m hoping all this Incubation will lead to Inspiration. I’ll keep you posted 😉 .

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, and creatively satisfying 2021.

See you next Sunday!

Michille: NaNo Not So Much

NaNoWriMo is no more. My word count was abysmal. But I’m not counting it as an abysmal failure. I started writing again. I started thinking about story again. Characters started talking to me again. That hasn’t happened for a while – several in the win column. Plus, I found some new sources of inspiration – some video series’, some blogs, etc.

One of the things I found when I was noodling around was screenwriting. It started out as some folks who do the Hallmark movies. I watched two of those and found surprising inspiration. I know Hallmark movies, and some that are now showing up on other networks, are very formulaic, but they also have to tell a story in a very compact format. So when the folks in the videos were explaining the process and the key turning points and the character goals and arcs, it took what I know about writing books and reframed in a way that stimulated my imagination and creativity.

The night before last, when I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep – which is a very common occurrence – movie scenes for my very first manuscript started running through my head – which is a very uncommon occurrence. Another in the win column. Last night, when I woke in the middle, the opening couple of scenes for the next two manuscripts ran through my head. Hmmm. This is worth exploring. Of course, that will be after my 12-14 hour workday load lessens. Regular grants + pandemic grants = AAAHHH!!!

So although I didn’t get a NaNo win, I got several other wins, so I’m calling it a win in general. How about you? Did you have any November wins?

Jilly: Same Prince, Different Cover

Almost the end of October, and we’re inching toward the end of the weirdest, suckiest year of my life so far. Really hoping 2021 doesn’t turn out to be more of the same.

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my character Prince Daire of Caldermor—ostentatious, wealthy, and not half as empty-headed as he appears. He has a wild mop of curly hair and a love of showy clothes, which encourages people to underestimate him.

In my debut novel The Seeds of Power Daire is an important secondary character—the pointless princeling who’s supposed to marry a very useful princess (she’s older, fiercer, and determined not to wed him). In The Seeds of Exile, the new novella which is almost ready, Daire is the hero whose political skills are tested to the max in a power struggle with his younger brother. Stiff-necked Prince Warrick finds Daire’s flamboyant style unseemly. Warrick thinks he’d do a better job as crown prince, and challenges Daire for the throne. Battle is joined.

My plan was to make The Seeds of Exile a free read for newsletter subscribers, until I realized that giving away the middle book of a trilogy isn’t the best way to introduce new readers to Daire and Caldermor. So I decided to publish The Seeds of Exile and write a new novella to give to newsletter subscribers. That story will be called The Pulse of Princes.

The Pulse of Princes introduces Daire and elan, the mysterious golden beans that give Caldermor its wealth and power. It’s kind-of-sort-of Daire’s origin story, set in Caldermor just before he inherits the throne. He’s eighteen. His father’s dying, his mother is dying to take control of Caldermor. Daire has to assert himself or he’ll become Princess Irmine’s puppet before he’s even crowned.

I commissioned a cover for The Seeds of Exile way back in April. I found a great model for twenty-six-year-old Daire, thinking that would be his only cover appearance. In The Pulse of Princes he’s eighteen. I had to find a new image and ask Deranged Doctor Design if they could imagine the same character, but younger, skinnier, and altogether less experienced. Anne, my copyeditor, had previously suggested that he’d look great in purple, so that’s what I chose.

What do you think? I hope you like the new cover as much as I do.

I’d love to know what signals it gives you. Does it look like your kind of book?

Thank you in advance for your comments, whatever they may be.

And huge thanks to the team at Deranged Doctor Design, who are a delight to deal with, not to mention brilliant creatively and technically. I feel very privileged to be working with them.

Michaeline: The REAL* Ghostwriting (*for certain values of real)

Agnes Guppy-Volckman flying over London supported by angels and cupid flying on what looks like a beer bottle. She has a pen in her hand, and is dressed like Queen Victoria.

Oh, wave your magic wand, and let flights of fancy give you wing! (Agnes Guppy-Volckman flies over London with a pen in hand.) (Image Via Wikimedia)

When I was a pre-teen, I haunted the libraries of my school and town for books about the unknown and supernatural – Salem witch trials, Atlantis, pyramids . . . I loved them all, and it seemed somewhat surprising that they’d actually be publicly available in my small town. But they were – I guess stories of the odd and eldritch are popular everywhere.

I can’t remember which book talked about automatic writing – the idea that a spirit or your subconscious could work through your body to write meaningful sentence without conscious control of your hand.

Messages could be spelled out with a Ouija board, but some spiritualists used just a loosely-held pencil on a piece of paper. Wikipedia cites William Fletcher Barrett (1844-1925) as a source for this method. In the case of dowsing (searching for an object or resource with a hand-held rod), Barrett thought that the individual’s muscle twitches were responsible for the movement, but that the individual’s unconscious would pick up information through clairvoyance and guide the ideomotor responses. That’s pretty much the theory my half-remembered book put forth.

Some spirits writing messages to the living are often frivolous and write nothing to purpose; others write mysteries hidden in half-riddles. But, there are others who wrote whole books, or at least, so the writers claimed.

Pearl Curran, a housewife in St. Louis in the 1910s, channeled a spirit called Patience Worth, who wrote poetry and two novels through Pearl. This fascinating article from The Smithsonian online details Pearl’s short life and acquaintance with Patience, but as a minor celebrity, there are plenty of contemporary sources that describe her method.

Pearl used a Ouija board, and at first, spelled out each word with the planchette. Eventually, though, the tool proved unnecessary, and just touching the planchette would provoke contact and a recitation. Her husband often took down the words spoken.

There was quite a bit of controversy about Patience’s reality. She didn’t share details of her “life” readily, and she avoided predicting the future. (Ruth Montgomery was a journalist, and popular automatic writer, in the 1960s and 70s who predicted that Atlantis would rise in 1999 due to a polar shift . . . and had to write another book in 1999 pushing back the timeline. So, either her spirit guide was imaginary, or completely unreliable.) In this way, Pearl was able to avoid having Patience being definitively proven false. Many mundane reasons were produced to explain the Pearl/Patience connection, including a split personality.

The Smithsonian article posits that the real truth was in a short story written by Pearl Curran (not her spirit guide) about a young lady who pretends to have a spirit guide in order to get more fun out of life. Perhaps that’s all Pearl wanted, too. At any rate, the flights of fancy attracted the attention of the nation during a world war and an influenza epidemic, which is more than a lot of would-be authors can boast.

I am not proposing that anyone try automatic writing – do your research if you are interested and decide for yourself. I think 2020 is a year full of anxiety and mental instability, anyway, and playing around with it could lead to unhappy confrontations with one’s psyche. I mean, a fly lands on a debater’s head, and the internet went crazy for it. OMG, omen! What would happen if your automatic writing was eerily on point? Never mind there’s at least a 20 percent chance of ANYTHING happening this year. I would be surprised but not shocked if Atlantis made a late appearance and apologized for keeping us waiting.

However, if you are writing ghost stories this month, automatic writing can be a fun driver of the plot, and a way to provide information your characters don’t consciously realize. Fiction is a safe way to play with weird stuff. Enjoy your writing time!

May 1, 1920. Saturday Evening Post A young woman stares rapt at the ceiling as her hands delicately touch the Ouija planchette. A young man stares raptly at her neck, while he also holds the planchette. His feet invade her space, and they are knee-to-knee. Both of their cheeks are glowing.
Ouija fun in the parlor. What kind of ghost do you think they contact? (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Michaeline: Meditation on Japanese Rain with Cat

It’s been a rough and rocky week — not so much for me personally, but for the people around me, and in the news, and on social media. So, here’s a nice one-minute video of cool, soothing rain on a Japanese farm . . . with guest voice cameo by Greebo, the cat.

Rain on a Japanese farm — a meditation. With Greebo doing a voiceover at the 0:17 mark. Only one minute of peaceful rain — enough to calm your mind and let ideas float to the top. (E.M. Duskova) Flowers: Blue salvia, red salvia, dusty miller. Begonias near the greenhouse in the background. Bees keep flitting, even through the pouring rain.

short-haired chonky black cat stretched out under a yew tree. Grape leaves and scented phlox are in the foreground. He's glaring at the camera.

Greebo, during sunnier days. (E.M. Duskova)

Greebo is a Grumpy-cat mix. He’s mostly black with a few orange markings that look like battle scars from a former life. He isn’t afraid of people, but he has no use for them unless they come bearing saucers of milk. (I know this because Auntie gives him a dish of scalded milk every morning, and he’ll let her pet him. Everyone else, he hisses at, then stalks away. Not runs. Stalks, with great dignity and he’s so affronted that you dared to approach him without a tribute for the conqueror.)

They say there are only two stories in the world: someone leaves home, or a stranger comes to town. I wonder what would happen if Greebo, anthropomorphized, showed up in my fictional town . . . .