The Birthday of Doom (promo post and free story)

It’s my birthday, and I’ll cry if I want to. Which I do, because it’s the kind with a zero at the end. And a four at the beginning. Damn.

However, since a birthday is nothing without presents, I have a little something for you…

I wrote a short, scary (and somewhat sexy) story, The Caldwell Ghost, about a Victorian ghost hunter named Simon Feximal, journalist Robert Caldwell and a rather unusually haunted house. Then, because it turns out that writing Victorian pastiche gay romance ghost stories is really good fun, I wrote another one, Butterflies, in which Robert and Simon’s paths cross again when two bodies are found choked to death on butterflies. (I blogged over at Boys in our Books  about the inspiration behind these.)

butterflies

Cover design by Susan Lee.

The Caldwell Ghost is available from Torquere Press and at the usual places. But, because it’s my goddamn birthday, I’m making Butterflies a free download. Don’t say I never do anything for you.

I hope you enjoy it!

Catch up with me discussing romance and horror over at UK Gay Romance on Halloween, or talking about the inspiration for the stories over at Boys in our Books, or lurking in the pub pretending I’m still 39. You’re buying.

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Everyday Terror: thoughts on scary stories

I’m writing scary stories at the moment. (I was meant to have written one scary story, but the characters kind of ran away with me and now I feel a novel coming on.)

My stories are the tales of a Victorian ghost hunter. Now, if you’re writing Victorian ghost stories, the master is MR James. ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad’ and ‘Casting the Runes’ are probably two of the greatest ghost stories in the English language, and if you haven’t read them, you should. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is available on Gutenberg or as a free download on Amazon.co.uk at the time of writing.  Go on, get it.

James is a master of classic Victorian sinister trappings – the ancient tomb, the crumbling manuscript, the faces in the yew trees. But an awful lot of his worst horror comes from very domestic details. The thing in ‘Oh Whistle’ has ‘a face like crumpled linen’. Effectively, it’s a haunted bedsheet. It’s terrifying. In ‘The Diary of Mr Poynter’ the haunting comes through the pattern of the curtains. (Laugh it up, till you read it, and then decide to replace all your curtains with blinds, just to be on the safe side.)

The most sinister line James ever wrote is in ‘Casting the Runes’, where the pursuing force finally catches up with its unfortunate victim. He puts his hand under the pillow in the dark, and finds

a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it

That’s all. No long bloody passages dripping with gore, no mutilation, no vampire spider death cults, just a mouth, with teeth, and hair, under your pillow. It’s one of the most frightening stories you’ll ever read.

Talking of terror, here’s a passage from E Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle. This is a children’s book, but don’t let that stop you from feeling utterly unnerved by it. Statues walk the castle grounds at night, and there is a magic ring so sinister that you’ll be looking around hopefully for a giant eagle to fly you to Mount Doom. In the most memorable passage of this extremely memorable book, Gerald and his sisters have made a set of guys out of old clothes, broom handles, pillow cases, with painted paper bags for faces. Unfortunately, the creatures come alive (the ring again). And this happens:

. . . the hall was crowded with live things, strange things all horribly short as broom sticks and umbrellas are short. A limp hand gesticulated. A pointed white face with red cheeks looked up at him, and wide red lips said something, he could not tell what. The voice reminded him of the old beggar down by the bridge who had no roof to his mouth. These creatures had no roofs to their mouths, of course they had not. “Aa oo re o me me oo a oo ho el?” said the voice again. And it had said it four times before Gerald could collect himself sufficiently to understand that this horror, alive, and most likely quite uncontrollable, was saying, with a dreadful calm, polite persistence: “Can you recommend me to a good hotel?”

I read this thirty years ago. It terrified me then and it terrifies me now. And the reason it is so terrifying is that this creature, made of stuff lying around the house, behaves just like a normal person. If it was roaring and trying to rip Gerald’s head off, we could cope with that. The request for a hotel – a good hotel, mind you – is what makes the horror so dizzying.

Because, like so much else, fear begins at home.

I grew up in a house with a cellar. There was a door that I could see, out of the corner of my eye, from my seat at the kitchen table. The handle was a little loose. Sometimes, if my siblings were running down the stairs, it rattled, just a bit. There were eleven stone steps down to the hard-packed floor, and you had to turn round them to get to the far corner and the freezer. Which meant, in order to take anything from the freezer, you had to turn your back on the door. You could leave it wide, prop it open, but that didn’t alter the fact that you had to turn your back.

I knew that one day I would turn back and the door at the top would be shut. I knew, when that happened, it would not reopen. And if I ever return to that house, I can promise you I won’t be going into the cellar.

(There is a scene in The Magpie Lord where our heroes are thrown into a cellar to wait for death. I didn’t describe that cellar in the book, but believe me, I could draw you a picture.)

Not to say fear always has to come from the mundane. I like a good monster or a haunted-house tale with special effects as much as the next woman (my first ghostly story, The Caldwell Ghost, features a full-on haunting). But when I came to write my second ghost-hunter tale, I started with the most harmless thing in the world: a simple butterfly.  Because it’s the little, innocent, normal things that get you in the end.

The Caldwell Ghost (a short, spooky m/m romance featuring ghost hunter Simon Feximal) is out from Torquere Press now. The sequel, Butterflies, is available as a free read from Smashwords.

The ego has landed: Musing on reviews

This week I learned that The Magpie Lord would be coming out in print. I am not a print snob – it’s a real book if people read it – but there is still something entirely delicious about the idea of putting a copy of my book on my shelves, and knowing that in years to come, the kids will pick it up and scream, “Ew! Mum, you wrote sex! That’s disgusting!”

Anyway, along with checking my print galleys, I’m required to put together a selection of review quotes. I’ll be honest, putting a bunch of nice reviews together into a single document is a whacking great ego boost, of the kind that causes you to wonder if it would really be that bad to get them printed up on, like, a mug, or maybe a T-shirt. But as I went on, it began to feel rather odd.

People have read this book and thought about it and applied serious consideration. People have embraced the characters, burrowed into their backstories, got in touch with me to ask about them. People have recommended it to their friends, sometimes with amazing enthusiasm, or even bought it for them. (! !!! Just … !)

Not to say that everyone loved it. Some people wanted to convey that there were very few spelling mistakes and the file was well formatted. Some people wrote really thoughtful reviews that analysed exactly why it didn’t work for them. Some people put a surprising amount of energy into explaining why they hated it.

I sat there, bewildered that so many people I’ve never met have found the time in their life to discuss my book. To tell the world, “here is a good book, read it”. Or “a bad book, avoid it”. Or “a book with no spelling errors, react accordingly”. I thought: That is one hell of a lot of work that people have put in on my book.

And then I realised that I was completely wrong to think that.

People have written about The Magpie Lord. Not “my book”. It stopped being “my book” when it was published, ie made available to the public. Once the book is out there, the interaction is reader/book, not reader/author. Robert Jackson Bennett wrote interestingly on this.

I did this for you, for you to read. I didn’t do this for me. And when you discuss something I made, what you are discussing is what you read, but not – and I really cannot stress this enough – it is not what I wrote.

… I cannot tell you if your opinion of me or what I wrote was wrong, even if I feel it obviously, obviously is: what you read is what you read, and I shouldn’t have any say in that.

There has been a lot of discussion, since the recent Goodreads kerfuffles, of negative reviews. What’s appropriate for reviewers to say, and how should writers respond? How much should you engage with reviews? Is that good social media behaviour, or unpleasant heavy breathing down the reader’s neck?

Well, it seems to me, if a review is part of an interaction between the book and the reader, then for the author to force her way in to that is like joining in someone else’s conversation on the tube. (I’m a Londoner. Having strangers speak to me on public transport is the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.) Anyone who’s read a published book, is entitled to comment on it as they choose (within the confines of the law) – positive, negative, overwhelming joy, seething hatred, total indifference. And unless they actively invite me in to their conversation with the book by bringing it to my attention/talking directly to me, I think I should keep out of it. Much as I want to leave grateful comments on every positive review or send round black-clad chocolate delivery ninjas to everyone who said something nice; tempting as it might be to respond to someone who said something that wasn’t. I think I just have to put it out there, let people get on with it, and concentrate on writing the next one.

What do you think? Should authors interact with reviews or keep a distance?

In Someone Else’s Story: life as a minor character

Back in the day, before I became a responsible washing-machine-fixing parent type, I travelled round Egypt with a boyfriend. This meant many interminable, uncomfortable bus journeys. On one of them, we were sat next to a pair of American backpackers. My boyfriend and the male backpacker talked across the aisle, while the girlfriends in the window seats read books.

Two months later, my boyfriend emailed me at work:

Remember those backpackers from the coach to Abu Simbel? I told them to look me up when they got to London and we arranged to do something tonight, but I forgot I have to work this evening. So I’ve given them your address and they’ll be there at 7.

It’s OK, I dumped him.

Anyway, they turned up at my tiny flat which I shared with two friends, neither of whom was excited about having a couple of randoms interrupt our planned viewing of the World Cup…

And it was brilliant. The conversation went from stilted hellos to hilarity within minutes. We all talked non-stop. They moved from ‘isn’t soccer a girl’s game?’ to screaming and leaping with excitement at every goal, the god Phoebus Apollo was playing for England in his incarnation as the young David Beckham, we didn’t run out of beer though I have no idea how. They stayed till the last tube, and after they left, my flatmates and I had this conversation:

Flatmate 1: You know something weird? We’re in their travelling story now. “Remember the time we met that English guy in Egypt and ended up watching the World Cup and getting hammered with total strangers in London?” They won’t bore on about Big Ben when they mention visiting London, they’ll be talking about hanging out with us.

Flatmate 2: You mean…we’re like…their supporting cast?

Flatmate 1: … Oh my God. I’m a minor character.

Me: Do we get our names in the opening credits? “Special Guest Star  – KJ Charles?”

Flatmate 1: You wish. Half way down the end credits. *And* you’ll only be listed as “Girl in Flat”.

The thing is, we’re all supporting cast in each other’s stories. George Eliot in Middlemarch puts it significantly better than my flatmate:

[A mirror] will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement.

The relevance of all this to writing? (Yes! There is relevance!) Supporting cast are not supporting to themselves. They may have a place in the book purely because of their interactions with the main characters, but that can’t be their motivation. If the doctor makes sexist remarks purely so the heroine can show off her snappy comebacks, he’ll be implausible. If the policeman pursues the heroes because the plot requires a secondary antagonist, he’s not a character, he’s one of those annoying Hero’s Journey archetype things.

So move the candle. Before writing the pursuing policeman, try imagining the story from his point of view, with everyone else as his supporting cast. What’s he actually after? How much does he care about arresting our heroes, as opposed to just improving his arrest record somehow? If he’s going to doggedly pursue your heroes through three books, why? Does he do that with everyone he wants to arrest? Why would he have this obsession if not because he’s a secondary character in their story?

That doesn’t mean that the reader needs (or wants) to hear about the motivation and backstory of every character. (Regular visitors may recall that I’m big on the author knowing things that she doesn’t tell the readers.) I’m currently editing a novel in which the author has given all the minor characters a ton of backstory (from the lawyer’s irrelevant childhood on an army base to the father’s favourite film) and I’m going Red Pen Crazy because all that stuff is bringing the book to a grinding halt.

But when that’s all gone, it will still be detectable that these characters have a hinterland and a personality, not just a plot role. Because the author knows who they are and what they want, her knowledge informs the writing in a thousand tiny, subtle ways. They have individual, plausible reactions. The main characters interact with them as people, not as information providers or Threshold Guardians. They have their own needs that aren’t neatly aligned to the main characters’ story. And that makes the book richer, probably better plotted, and more true.

But That’s What He’s Called! Late-stage changes to a character name

When The Magpie Lord was in edits, my editor asked me (very carefully, and giving the impression of typing while positioned behind a protective surface) to change the name of one of the heroes.

This was a perfectly reasonable request. I’d made a schoolgirl error in giving the two main characters names beginning with the same phoneme.  Sounds trivial; is not. At a normal reading pace you chunk* text, rather than taking in each letter, so that you don’t so much read the name ‘Crane’ as see ‘Cr—’ and fill in the rest. Therefore, if Hero 1 is Crane and Hero 2 is Crispin (which he was), readers may actually get confused – not because they’re idiots but because that’s how reading works.

So, fair play to my editor, she was quite right. Nevertheless, being asked to change my hero’s name was unbelievably hard.

I know it’s absurd. I know these are imaginary people I made up. I know it’s a story. The fact remains that when I got that email, I stared at the screen for about five minutes, with a hollow feeling in my stomach. I actually felt sick. I went for a very long walk on my own, and spent the first half of it getting my head round the very idea of changing the name. I described the request on my book group as ‘the most invasive thing that’s happened to me since my son’s suction-assisted birth’, and I stand by that as a not-at-all-overdramatic statement. (Ahem.)

Then I got over it and renamed the character ‘Stephen’, which is a far better name for him –still with the cadence and that slightly Old England ring to it, which was what I needed, but more solid, less fragile – and now I can’t remember why I ever imagined anything else. Listen to your editor, kids, she’s always right.

Of course it’s easy for writers now. David Copperfield started life as ‘Thomas Mag’, which is so glaringly wrong it’s almost impossible to imagine. Dickens’ notes show he went through Trotfield (horsey), Trotbury (clerky), Copperboy (weirdly metal) and Copperstone (too hard) before finally hitting on Copperfield. (Victorian nerd klaxon: Dickens readers may recognize that Trot– and –stone were important sounds for the book that made their way into other major character names.)

But Dickens couldn’t write the book with Thomas Mag and change it in edits. No search and replace for him.  You had to get it right at the start, or live with it. My husband has a theory that Thomas Hardy named his characters as a shorthand reminder of their plot role — “Hmm, this guy needs to be angelic, sturdy and very English. I’ll remember that if I call him Gabriel Oak.” — and then found himself stuck with them. (Thomas Hardy fans, please address critiques of this theory to my husband. It’s nothing to do with me.)

There’s a lot to be said for doing it the old-fashioned way and getting it right at the start. Not least that I never want to change a main character’s name again.

* this is a real technical term, honest.

 

Ever changed a character name? Can you imagine your favourite characters called anything else?