KJ Charles: my big news

This one’s all about me.ToE Blog Tour Banner

First, just so we know, the Think of England blog tour is underway, with a giveaway through the tour of a copy of the book and a $25 gift certificate to All Romance ebooks. Here’s the dates, links as they go live:

Sunday 29 June            MM Good Book Reviews (“The suspense was excellent! … There are also a lot of layers to this story, which I find to be the best marker for success of any plot. I loved it all!”)

Monday 30 June            Boy Meets Boy Reviews (Spotlight)

Sinfully Sexy Blog post about Edwardian attitudes to homosexuality, and separate giveaway, plus lovely 5* review. (“Downton Abbey meets M/M romance ~ an absolutely brilliant historical novel with industrial espionage, murder, blackmail and two unlikely heroes up against the odds. What more could I wish for?”)

Downton Abbey meets M/M romance ~ an absolutely brilliant historical novel with industrial espionage, murder, blackmail and two unlikely heroes up against the odds. What more could I wish for? – See more at: http://sinfullysexybooks.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/think-of-england-by-kj-charles-review.html#sthash.njfvEWNG.dpuf
Downton Abbey meets M/M romance ~ an absolutely brilliant historical novel with industrial espionage, murder, blackmail and two unlikely heroes up against the odds. – See more at: http://sinfullysexybooks.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/think-of-england-by-kj-charles-review.html#sthash.njfvEWNG.dpuf
Downton Abbey meets M/M romance ~ an absolutely brilliant historical novel with industrial espionage, murder, blackmail and two unlikely heroes up against the odds. – See more at: http://sinfullysexybooks.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/think-of-england-by-kj-charles-review.html#sthash.njfvEWNG.dpuf

Tuesday 1 July               The Blogger Girls (Excerpt) and a great review

Charlie Cochrane’s blog (interview)

Wednesday 2 July          Boys in our Books (Interview)

Thursday 3 July              Prism Book Alliance (Excerpt)

Friday 4 July                  Joyfully Jay (Guest Post on sex and the inexperienced hero). Also a fab review: ” another fabulous story from K.J. Charles. I have totally fallen in love with Curtis and Daniel and was thrilled to hear Charles plans more for them.  Excellent story and very highly recommended.”

Saturday 5 July              Love Bytes (Excerpt)

Sunday 6 July                The Novel Approach (Guest Post)

Think of England is out 1 July. Lovely reviews coming in already (“witty banter and rich dialogue…sizzling erotic tension…a fast-paced, action-filled plot full of imaginative twists and quirky ideas and a smoothly flowing narrative.”). It’s a Heroes & Heartbreakers Best Read of June with a fabulous review by Kate Rothwell (“I love those two separately, but they’re even better together—which is the mark of a successful romance, after all.”)

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After all that… The big news is that I’m quitting my job to go freelance. This means bankruptcy and doom more time to write; it also means that I’ll be available for editing work from September (years of experience! reasonable rates!). There will be details on my exciting brand-new website in due course.

I’m really excited about this. I’ve spent nearly two decades in publishing and there is no denying that the admin-heavy treadmill of book production gets draining. I’m doing too little of what I love and am good at: the actual getting MSS into shape and making them work as their authors hoped and readers want. And I have a lot of stories of my own to tell, too.

This is inevitably going to mean marketing. I have a Facebook page and, more interestingly, a Facebook group. Do join the group if you want sneak peeks into works in progress or forthcoming MSS, advance info, and general chat about my books and stuff.

I’m also racing through a Regency short for a charity anthology, and then I have a whole lot of exciting writing plans to make for my new life. Given all that, this blog may go a bit quiet for a couple of weeks, because there’s only so many words a woman can scrape together at one time. See you on the other side of Promotional Mountain.

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A Very Big House in the Country

My new book Think of England takes place in a country house called Peakholme. It’s an ultra-modern building, packed with ThinkOfEngland72webcutting-edge technology for the absolute latest in comfort and luxury. We’re talking hot-water heating, electric lights and – get this – a telephone. Neat, huh?

I should have probably mentioned, the book’s set in 1904. Electric street lighting had come in, in the towns and cities anyway, but most people didn’t have domestic electricity until the 1930s. Hot water radiators demanded investment in terms of boilers and installation and space that most people didn’t have. The telephone system was well established in the cities but rural and domestic connections were another matter. For an isolated country house in the north of England to have all of these things would have required an astonishing amount of wealth. You’d have to put in your own electrical generator, your own telephone exchange, and invest an insane amount of money.

Luckily (for them), some people had it to spend.

Peakholme was loosely inspired by a real and astonishing house called Cragside. Like my imaginary country house, although built a few years earlier, Cragside was created out of nothing, on a bare rocky slope miles from anywhere. It was a work of genius, taking a green approach to energy at a time when ‘green’ was a colour achieved by adding arsenic to paint and then using it for baby chew toys and kitchen shelving. Cragside was the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity. It had hot and cold running water, showers, and its own Turkish baths. The lightbulbs were specially designed for the system. The kitchen spit for roasting meat was turned by electric power to save labour. Its creator surrounded it by astounding gardens, importing trees including giant redwoods from all over the world, turning the bare ground to a thing of beauty.

Cragside olden days

It was the Victorian equivalent of a Bond villain’s ultra-tech hideaway and, no kidding, it was built by an arms dealer. Well, where else do you get that kind of money?

For the record, there is no similarity between the historical Lord Armstrong who built Cragside and my own wealthy arms manufacturer Sir Hubert Armstrong. Except for the job. And the surname. (Come on, it was irresistible. The phenomenon of people having jobs that sound appropriate to their names is known as nominative determinism, since you ask.)

Lord Armstrong (real) seems to have been a reasonably decent man: he gave large sums to charity, was strongly in favour of clean, renewable energy, and said of his arms business, “If I thought that war would be fomented, or the interests of humanity suffer, by what I have done, I would greatly regret it.” He added, “I have no such apprehension,” having sold guns to both sides in the American Civil War and developed battleships and gunboats, but nobody’s perfect.

Cragside is now run by the National Trust, and if you should ever find yourself in the region of Northumberland, I strongly recommend a visit. It’s a fascinating place to spend a day. (Photo from their website: the planting worked out pretty well.)

Cragside 2

Peakholme isn’t Cragside. I changed the location and the timing, updated the tech and altered the layout. I also, and with the greatest reluctance, abandoned its subterranean Turkish baths, despite the amazing potential of a subterranean Turkish bath in a romance novel. (There is a cut scene…) But Peakholme does have features that you might recognise if you visited Cragside, such as the terrifying quantities of stuffed hunting birds in murderous postures. Nothing like a dead eagle with a rat hanging from its beak to brighten up a room.

Peakholme, unlike Cragside, and despite the mod cons, is not somewhere you’d want to go. It’s seething with secrets, and very bad things have happened to some of its guests. When Captain Archie Curtis comes to stay he finds himself mixed up in espionage, betrayal and murder, and forced into an unwilling alliance with fellow guest Daniel da Silva, a decadent poetic foreign type and the last man Curtis would choose to trust…

Yeah, I’d visit Cragside, if I were you. It’s safer.

The first review of Think of England is in; the book comes out 1 July.

Curse you, Captain Exposition!

I was playing the fool on Twitter the other day.

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(This reminds me to note that Alexis Hall’s Shadows & Dreams, the second Kate Kane book, is out 15 June. The first, Iron & Velvet, was one of my favourite reads of last year, and if you like noir, urban fantasy, hardboiled lesbian detectives and/or laugh-out-loud funny writing, snap these up right now. But I digress.)

Captain Exposition is a menace. His pernicious influence is particularly apparent in historical and fantasy writing, where Terry Pratchett dubbed it ‘As you know, your father, the king…’ In this form, characters sit down and explain things to one another purely in order to inform the audience.

As you know, General, you led the invasion force that toppled our neighbouring country of F’l’zz, bringing the F’l’zz’rahi people, for such you know they call themselves, under our rule for the first time. You lost an eye in that conflict, to the sword of the notorious rebel known as the Black Persimmon.

You can just imagine the General muttering, ‘I know. He stabbed me in the eye.’

Exposition is vital to a book, of course. It’s how you convey backstory, setting and systems. What happened to the hero, which countries are at war, how the magic system or the terms of the grandfather’s will or the secret service division operates. The question is, how to convey it in a non-glaring fashion that doesn’t destroy characterisation or bring the plot to a screeching halt.

Exposition in narrative

You can, of course, plonk it on the page with all the bravura of a farmer tipping a pile of manure off a spade.

Rachel and Kirsty had a secret. Unknown to their parents, the girls were secret friends with the fairies and often helped them when they were in trouble.
(Daisy Meadows, every goddamn Rainbow Magic book ever)

My children, aged 5 and 6, are capable of spotting this, and will chorus a scathing ‘Infodump!’ at any adult foolish enough not to skip this bit when reading aloud. (Then again, when my daughter gets asked to ‘make a book’ for school, she always puts an ISBN and barcode on the back and writes a blurb, eg ‘A brilliant story for all little children.’ Editors shouldn’t breed.)

If you have the right narrative voice, of course, you can tell the reader anything you want.

But first a word must be said about Peter. He was the man that taught me all I ever knew of veld-craft, and a good deal about human nature besides. He was out of the Old Colony – Burgersdorp, I think – but he had come to the Transvaal when the Lydenburg goldfields started. He was prospector, transport-rider, and hunter in turns, but principally hunter. In those early days he was none too good a citizen. He was in Swaziland with Bob Macnab, and you know what that means. Then he took to working off bogus gold propositions on Kimberley and Johannesburg magnates, and what he didn’t know about salting a mine wasn’t knowledge. […]

He was a man of about five foot ten, very thin and active, and as strong as a buffalo. He had pale blue eyes, a face as gentle as a girl’s, and a soft sleepy voice. From his present appearance it looked as if he had been living hard lately. His clothes were of the cut you might expect to get at Lobito Bay, he was as lean as a rake, deeply browned with the sun, and there was a lot of grey in his beard. He was fifty-six years old, and used to be taken for forty. Now he looked about his age.
(John Buchan, Greenmantle)

Shameless exposition, sure. But the spirit of place rolls off it. The reader is flatteringly included – I have no idea what Bob Macnab did in Swaziland, but I’m pretty sure it was dangerous and maybe illegal, and I like the narrator’s confidence that I’m part of his in-group even if I’m not. The exposition doesn’t just tell us about Peter, but about the narrator’s past and character, and about the world we’re in, and the kind of story this is.

Exposition in dialogue

Exposition can be conveyed through dialogue, with one character explaining things to another, but you need to beware Captain Exposition here most of all. The above speech about the Black Persimmon would establish the speaker in the reader’s head as a tedious cypher, and the General as some kind of idiot with short-term memory loss (‘Who was it stabbed me in the eye again? Oooh, his name’s on the tip of my tongue…’). If you find yourself typing ‘As you know’ or, even worse, having the victim of the exposition exclaim, ‘I know all this!’ then junk the conversation and do it again.

Characters should say things for a reason that isn’t ‘the reader needs to know’. In Think of England I have a crucial bit of exposition around the terribThinkOfEngland72weble thing that happened to the hero and his comrades in the war, which needs to be spelled out early on. I decided to have the hero insist on explaining it at a dinner party, to some social awkwardness, because he’s trying to get a reaction out of the other guests. It clues in the reader at the same time, of course, but as far as the character‘s concerned, he has every reason to say it.

It can work to have a rookie character, to whom everything can legitimately be explained (the Will Smith role in Men in Black), but apply some sense. I have read many a scene where the new recruit arrives on his first day at the paramilitary antiterrorist organization and is walked through their purpose and mission, and I sit there thinking, ‘Did nobody explain this to him before he signed up? Your recruitment process sucks.’ (Once again, Men in Black rocks this and makes it work.)

Make sure the conversation is worth having in itself, not just for exposition. If it helps us get to know the characters and shows their reactions and thoughts, it’ll feel much more like an interaction that humans might have.

You can use character thoughts for the same expository effect as dialogue, but again, fear Captain Exposition. ‘He reminded himself about the history of the Black Persimmon’ should set off the Infodump Klaxon just as much as ‘As you know’ in dialogue.

Also, beware the pluperfect in character thoughts.

The General had been tasked with tracking down the Black Persimmon, but when he had arrived in Fl’zz he had had second thoughts.

Too much makes for a painful reading experience.

Exposition in flashback

At least you can avoid pluperfects, and show action. But flashbacks must be controlled. Spread them out, make them clear so the reader doesn’t get temporally unhitched, and make them work for their place. They shouldn’t just be there to inform the reader, but to build character and increase anticipation. They absolutely cannot be allowed to stop forward momentum in the overall story – they should inform and drive the main narrative, should hold information that the reader is desperate to learn.

My latest MS, Jackdaw, has a huge amount of backstory (it starts with an established relationship that has fallen apart, and the flashbacks give the story of the relationship up till the collapse). I tell it with flashbacks throughout the first half for three purposes:

  1. Avoids infodumping it all in one go.
  2. Tantalizes the reader: we know from the start that a terrible thing happened but you have to wait till half way through to find out exactly what it was.
  3. Varies the tone. The main story begins very dark and angry, the flashbacks are at first to a wonderful happy time, which lifts the angsty mood and shows us different aspects of the MCs, as well as supplying necessary information. The flashbacks bring us up to where the main narrative started, and right as the two strands converge, we reach a turning point. Telling the whole story in narrative order would make the turning point feel less climactic. So the exposition supports the structure of the book instead of feeling tacked-in. (I hope.)

Incluing

Your best way of handling exposition is what fantasy and science fiction author Jo Walton calls ‘incluing’ (clueing in the reader). This is “the process of scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information.” Know your world and systems and setting. Allow your characters’ backstories to inform and bubble through their current reactions. Show it all in action.Don’t tell me that F’l’zz is a slave-based economy: show me slaves as a casual accepted part of the background. Don’t tell me the Black Persimmon stabbed the General in the eye: have a F’l’zz’rahi prisoner refer tauntingly to it, and show us the General’s reaction of quivering with remembered fear, cutting off the prisoner’s head in a snit, or reflecting that the Black Persimmon was kind of hot apart from the eye thing.

Let information trickle out in dialogue and thought and narrative and description, as part of character and events. Put it there for the reader to pick up on, let it soak in as you go, and have confidence in your story. You don’t have to tell everything at once in a big rush. Some things you might not have to openly ‘tell’ at all.

 How do you like to see exposition handled? Do you hate flashbacks? Got any good or bad examples? And will Captain Exposition defeat his arch-enemy Doctor Metatext? Tune in next week!

KJ Charles is off to the UK GLBT Meet for authors and readers 6-8 June so probably won’t be around for a bit. Think of England is out 1 July.