Jilly: Taking A Break

Are you looking forward to the summer? Feeling ready for a break? Me, too.

Apart from essential trips to the dentist and doctor, one decadent haircut last October, and daily sanity-maintaining walks with Mr. W, I haven’t left home since mid-March 2020. I haven’t even taken the tube into town, except for one unavoidable hospital appointment.

I like my home. I love sitting at my dining table, writing. But after twelve months of covid-confinement, I feel as though the lack of variety and absence of external stimulus are taking a toll on my creativity. It’s taken me three months and I don’t know how many rewrites just to get a first scene I’m happy with on my current WIP, The Seeds of Destiny.

In normal times I’d take a vacation, break out of my comfort zone and fill my creative well with new experiences—sights, smells, ideas, food, people, places.

Right now that’s not possible, though I have my fingers crossed for 2022. 

In the meantime, since I can’t change my surroundings, I’ve decided to break my routine, take a pause from blogging and change it up by taking on a few new challenges from the comfort of my own home.

I’ll still be commenting on the other Ladies’ posts, and you can always find me via my website or my newsletter.

While I’m recharging my battery, I’d like to thank you for your company and wish you a safe and rewarding summer 😀 .

Jilly: Easter Eggs!

Happy Easter, if you’re celebrating today!

Do you enjoy Easter eggs? Story ones, not the chocolate sort 😉 .

In this context, an Easter egg is a bonus nugget—an object, action, character, or phrase—that isn’t critical to the story and may be overlooked by many readers or viewers but which is somehow significant and provides an extra hit of geeky pleasure to those who notice it.

Easter eggs may offer a wink and a nod to a sub-genre. Here’s an easy one: I have lost count of the number of romance heroes who say “As you wish,” when being ordered around by the heroine. No explanation is ever asked or offered, but most romance readers would immediately recognize the homage to William Goldman’s 1973 fantasy romance The Princess Bride, or more likely Rob Reiner’s wonderful 1987 movie adaptation. It’s what farm boy Westley says frequently to Princess Buttercup, and it means, of course, “I love you.”

Or they could be a tiny detail within a book or series that adds a little extra zing. In the final book of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, when the eponymous hero has finally found his HEA, there’s a quick exchange where his beloved says “You can give me a brooch. A sapphire one.” He answers, “But will you take care of it?” Which harks back to their very first encounter, in the very first book, when she’s a ten-year-old child. Lymond questions her to verify her father’s honesty. It’s frightening and dangerous, and when it’s over he pins a beautiful sapphire brooch to her nightshirt by way of apology. She rips it off, hurls it to the ground and grinds it under her shoe. Yay Philippa! Yay, Dorothy Dunnett!

An Easter egg could also be a reference to pop culture. The heroine of Ilona Andrews’ most recent book, Blood Heir, was an important secondary character in their bestselling Kate Daniels series. In the Kate Daniels books she’s Julie Olsen, but in Blood Heir she returns to Atlanta with a new face, a new name—Aurelia Ryder—and a whole raft of new superpowers. She becomes a temporary member of the chivalric Order of Merciful Aid, which makes her Knight Ryder. I laughed out loud the first time I read this. Because if you’re as old as I am, you might remember Knight Rider as a 1982 TV series starring David Hasselhof, a police detective who’s rescued after a near-fatal shot to the face and returns to town with a new face (thanks to plastic surgery) and a new name to become a hi-tech, modern crimefighter. I guess it was most likely a joke that became a book.

Easter eggs are everywhere. Peter Grant’s car (a Ford Asbo) in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London/Midnight Riot. Google it if you don’t know what an ASBO is. Ford Prefect’s name in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Quentin Tarantino’s sneaky cameos in many of his movies. A quick glimpse of John Thaw in a mirror in the Inspector Morse prequel TV series Endeavour.

I think they’re a nice bit of added fun. I enjoy them when I spot them. I don’t mind too much if they sail over my head.

How about you? Are you an Easter Egg fan? Do you have any favorite examples?

Jilly: One For The Diary

This week marked the one-year anniversary of the UK’s first national lockdown. In late February 2020 Mr W. and I had lunch in a crowded London restaurant with a bunch of friends, celebrating a landmark birthday without a care in the world. A month later we couldn’t set foot outside our home at all without an approved reason.

The change was sudden and drastic. Like everyone else I know, we were more than a little shell-shocked.

I’m reminded of a night, many years ago, on vacation in the Himalaya. A group of us camped on a ridge, high above a vast plain. We had supper, sang songs, played word games around the campfire, and retired to bed in excellent spirits. Around midnight we awoke to a storm the like of which I have never seen before or since. The waterproofing on our tents was rapidly overwhelmed and a fast-flowing river sprang up under my sleeping mat. Fortunately we had some dry clothes in a sealed bag, because everything else was soaked. Staying inside the tent was grim but going outside was worse. The following morning we all sat silently on our saturated kit bags, bedraggled and bemused. Our guide, who’d doubtless seen worse, looked us over, rubbed his chin, and thought for a moment. “One for the diary,” he said.

The Year of Covid probably deserves a whole diary to itself, but a page is more than enough for me. Below are my current top ten entries.

  1. Don’t take today for granted. Life can change in a heartbeat.
  2. Lasting good can come from terrible catastrophes.
  3. Humans are social animals. Technology can connect us, but it will never fully replace face-to-face contact and caring touch.
  4. Humans are adaptable and innovative. It’s mind-boggling what we can achieve when we co-operate together.
  5. Our world is deeply interconnected. We can’t just fix bits of it and expect the whole shebang to work.
  6. Don’t mess with mother nature.
  7. For the writer in me: character is choice under pressure.
  8. Also, language is also adaptable and innovative. A new crisis will spawn new words and concepts.
  9. Further: everything, however grim or inspiring, is story material.
  10. And for the eternal optimist: nothing but good times ahead.

What would you record in your 2020-21 Covid Diary?

Jilly: Virtual Vacay–My Father’s Island

Do you like to travel?

As a child I dreamed of exploring the world, and as an adult I’ve been lucky enough to visit some spectacular places. I’m glad I didn’t wait until I retired. Right now, thanks to covid, we aren’t even allowed a day trip to Brighton.

I know it’s not the worst consequence of the pandemic, but I feel sad that our skies and borders seem likely to stay restricted for some time to come. I hope we’ll find a way to open up again.

In the meantime I’ve been recapturing that sense of wonder by re-reading some of my favorite travel books. I decided to share one or two here, in the hope that you might be inspired to refresh your own post-covid bucket list.

This week’s treat was My Father’s Island by Johanna Angermeyer, which I first read in 1997, just before we visited Galapagos. I love this book. It’s memoir, but the author’s story is fascinating enough to be fiction. To borrow from the dust jacket:

In 1935 Hans Angermeyer and his four brothers escaped from Nazi Germany and sailed to the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles west of Ecuador. Surviving incredible hardship, the Angermeyers began an extraordinary Robinson Crusoe existence surrounded by giant tortoises, tame birds and prehistoric iguanas.

When Hans met Russian-born Emmasha, the couple set out to make a life together on what truly seemed to be their portion of paradise. But Hitler’s war caught up with them, shattering their idyll and sending Emmasha back to the United States with three young children.

Johanna Angermeyer, the youngest daughter, always daydreamed about her father’s island but never expected to go to the Galapagos—until one day she saw her long-lost uncles on a TV adventure programme. Seeing her cousins, ‘children born in paradise, their toys are the wild animals,’ and hearing about her people who ‘made their own shoes, delivered their own babies, built houses from lava blown from the bowels of the earth…’ left nine-year-old Johanna with a dream and a vow to return to the Enchanted Isles. With determination her family returned to South America, where the author began piecing together the story of her parents’ extraordinary marriage and her father’s tragic death.

My Father’s Island is a wonderful story—funny, moving, surprising and satisfying—and the descriptions of the Galapagos Islands after Darwin but before tourism, before the archipelago became a National Park, are some of the most vivid word-pictures I’ve ever read.

Reading this book wasn’t as good as a Galapagos vacay, but it left me refreshed and delighted. It’s not available as an ebook, but if you’re tempted it looks as though second hand print copies are quite readily available for a fraction of the cost of a plane ticket 😉 .

Do you have any recommendations? Favorite travel books or destinations for my post-covid bucket list? Thank you!

Jilly: Does Age Matter?

Would you choose a book because the main character is a certain age?

I’ve mentioned before that I read and enjoyed KF Breene’s Magical Midlife Madness, the first book in her Leveling Up series. I’ve since learned that the series is part of a new and fast-growing subgenre—paranormal fiction for women of 40 and over, or paranormal women’s fiction.

Apparently a group of savvy, successful romance and women’s fiction authors thought that there would be an eager readership for stories with female protagonists kicking ass and finding empowerment in their 40s, so they got together to make it happen. Their initiative has been a raging success. Good for them!

I have to confess, though, I’ve been trying to get my head around it. I think perhaps part of the appeal is the idea that it’s never too late. That a woman’s best years are not behind her at 30, or 40, or whatever.

I’m a woman of 40 and over. Ahem. I’m actually a woman of 60 and over. But when I look back over my life, I’m satisfied with how it’s gone so far. I’ve been married to the same man for more than 35 years and I wouldn’t trade him for anyone. I had a rewarding professional career, and when I turned 50 I exchanged it for writing fiction, a vocation that I love.

So I already know that middle age can mark the beginning of a fulfilling second life.

I love reading, and while I’m lost in a fictional world I definitely put myself in the protagonist’s shoes. I like my heroines smart and scrappy. Interesting rather than beautiful. I want them to face and overcome a near-impossible challenge and to gain a happy, rewarding new life. But as long as they are old enough to know their own mind, confident enough to trust their instincts, and they never give up on their goal, I don’t think I want their challenges to be defined by their age.

In short. As long as I find the heroine and her challenge fascinating, I don’t much care who or what or how old she is. I’ll even identify with Murderbot, and it’s an artificial construct with an attitude problem 🙂

How about you?

Jilly: Scrappy Underdog v Flawless Beauty

How do you like your heroines? Scrappy or stunning? Do you care?

A couple of weeks ago I re-read Ilona Andrews’ Blood Heir. The book was indie published in January and became an immediate bestseller. It has nearly six thousand ratings on the US Amazon site, almost all five stars. I’d been counting the days to publication, bought it as soon as it was available, and read it right away.

I enjoyed it—Ilona and Gordon’s books are an auto-buy for me and I don’t see that changing —but I didn’t love it the way I expected to. I don’t think my reaction had anything to do with the writing. The book was set in a familiar fictional world, with a nice blend of old and new characters. All the usual elements were present—kindness, humor, adventure, action, mythology, community, and snappy dialogue. I think my problem (if you’d call it a problem) was in what I brought to the book as a reader.

The heroine of Blood Heir is an important character in the hugely successful Kate Daniels Atlanta-set urban fantasy series. In that series she’s Julie Olsen, an orphaned, feral street kid who’s adopted by Kate. Julie gains a family and a community, finds trust, love, and protection in a dangerous world. She grows up and discovers her own considerable magical powers, but she remains scarred by the crucible that formed her. For example, she always carries food, even though she never goes hungry anymore, because she spent her childhood in a state of near starvation. Julie is pretty enough. She’s feisty, attitude-y, and independent, with some well-hidden vulnerabilities. I find her a relatable, fascinating character.

In Blood Heir Julie returns to Atlanta from her new home in California because a prophecy has revealed that an ancient and super-powerful Big Bad will try to kill Kate and destroy all that Julie loves. Except she’s not Julie now. She’s been re-born as Aurelia Ryder, a high princess of an ancient and powerful magical dynasty related to Kate. She has a new, flawless face and body, incredible superpowers, wealth, education, even a new scent. She can’t tell anyone she’s home, because if Kate finds out, Kate will face the Big Bad and die.

When I first read about this set-up, I was just super-excited to read a story about Julie. I speculated privately that maybe the new name, new face, no Kate setup might be somehow related to contractual publishing matters. Or alternatively that it might be a way to start a spinoff story without reinventing a super-successful series that had been drawn to a satisfying conclusion.

Blood Heir has a powerful emotional element. Julie/Aurelia is back in Atlanta, but isolated from the family she loves and the community she cares deeply about. She can’t tell anyone who she is, and she can’t go home. Add in the reappearance of a wolf shifter she’s had a lifelong crush on—he also has new name, a new pack and massively enhanced magical powers—and you have a heroine with material, magical, and physical advantages carrying a terrible emotional burden.

I’m sorry to say, I didn’t care about this as much as I should have, and I think it’s because Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Jilly: Searching For A Cozy Niche

How easily do you find the kind of books you like to read?

I love character driven stories—heroines and heroes with clear, strong goals. I like romantic elements but I want an engaging external plot as well as true love. I prefer historical, paranormal or fantastic settings. Adventures and quests are good. And there must be a happy ending.

Over the last year, though, more than anything I’ve wanted the cozy. Warm, feelgood stories with lightness, humor and no painful grimdark, written for adults.

I don’t think I’m the only one, because lately I’ve found a number of new-to-me fantasy authors who really hit the spot. I feel as though I’m on a great reading discovery streak and I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. The only thing is—and I find this really weird—these stories have so much in common, but there seems to be no convenient category grouping for them. No accepted term. On Amazon—usually super-smart about these things—they’re mostly dotted around the sci-fi and fantasy sections.

If I search ‘low fantasy,’ I get mostly role-playing products. If I search “cozy fantasy” I get mysteries or magic series with smiley cartoon cats, witches, or haunted houses on the cover. They look fun, but they’re not what I’m after.

A few titles from my kindle that I’d say all share a niche are shelved on Amazon as follows:

T. Kingfisher, Paladin’s Grace: fantasy romance, romantic fantasy, fantasy & futuristic romance;

Gail Carriger, Soulless: steampunk fiction, steampunk science fiction, historical fantasy;

Olivia Atwater, Half a Soul: teen & young adult historical fantasy;

Charlotte E English, Wyrde and Wicked: Gaslamp fantasy;

Ilona Andrews, Innkeeper series: paranormal & urban fantasy;

AJ Lancaster, Stariel series: Gaslamp fantasy, fairy tales;

Kate Stradling, The Legendary Inge: Fairy Tale Fantasy, Mythology & folk tales;

I’m really happy to have so many fun reads to hand, but amazed that I have to scout around to find them. And no wonder I find it difficult to select a better description than “historical fantasy” for my own books.

How about you? Do you read in a specific niche or two? How easily can you track down the kind of book you prefer to read?

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?