Demon Drink and Another Free Story

So there is another free Charm of Magpies short story available right now. Another! There was one last month!

Here’s what happened. Samhain, my publisher, at that time published print a year after the electronic version. They have a minimum length at which a book can go into print, and A Case of Possession, Charm of Magpies #2, squeaked in a little under that. Now, I really wanted it in print. Because print is fun to have, but also because it’s dedicated to my friend Caroline, and she informed me that if she didn’t get a print copy to show people, I’d be in serious trouble.

I have been friends with Caro for thirty years. I know what trouble means. So I suggested to Samhain that I could write a bonus story to bring the book up to print length. They went for it, to be released electronically at the same time as the print book (hence its appearance out of series order), and even said it would have its own cover by Lou Harper. Now all I had to do was write something.CaseOfSpirits-A300

This was less easy than you might think. I was hopelessly stuck on Magpie 3 at this point, so stuck that I’d actually written an entire and totally different novel that came into my head while I was fretting (Think of England, the world’s longest example of ‘oh look, a squirrel’). So coming up with a story that fitted into a series arc that I wasn’t sure about…whimper.

I had no idea what to write.

I went for a drink with Caro and her bloke Simon, and ventured a quiet murmur of mild complaint (which I may have phrased as ‘your bloody story is doing my head in, you utter moose, now buy me a drink’). Simon asked about what I was writing. I spoke of Victorian London. And Simon, who works in the drinks trade, asked, did I know about the black cat signs they used for bootleg gin?

Tell me more, I said.

Well. It seems that the very many brewers of bathtub gin would identify their product for sale by a black cat, as a universal sign of ‘Get very cheap drink here!’, in the same way that a red and white pole indicated a barber, or three golden balls indicated a pawnbroker. I haven’t been able to find any very serious sources on this, but here’s one version as presented by Hayman’s, gin manufacturer:

dramdrinkerBack in 1736, one Captain Dudley Bradstreet lucked into both a piece of London property and a stock of gin. Bradstreet hung a sign depicting a painted cat in the window and let it be known that doses of sweet mother’s ruin could be had at the address. “Under the cat’s paw sign was a slot and a lead pipe, which was attached to a funnel inside the house,” reads a history put together by Hayman’s. “Customers placed their money in the slot and duly received their gin. Bradstreet’s idea was soon copied all over London. People would stand outside houses, call ‘puss’ and when the voice within said ‘mew,’ they would know that they could buy bootleg gin inside. Very soon Old Tom became an affectionate nickname for gin.”

It is, at the least, a cool story. And it got me thinking. It got me thinking about what drives people to drink, to remember and to forget, about cold dark wet Victorian streets. I started thinking about what my characters had that they might want to forget. A plot came swimming out of the depths, a piece depicting one of Stephen’s justiciary cases that turns personal…

And with it came a revelation about what two of my secondary characters had been up to offstage while I was writing the main story.

I realise that this is the kind of thing that makes non-writers roll their eyes and mutter, “Obviously they aren’t doing things behind your back, they’re made up. By you.” All I can say is: Sorry, that’s how it works. I realised when I wrote this story that two characters had embarked on a relationship. That realisation isn’t pivotal to A Case of Spirits, as such…but it gave me the handle on Magpie 3 that I needed.

Suddenly I could see the shape of Magpie 3. I could see how the stories interlocked and what was driving everyone on, and what was piling strain on the main relationship. The whole book that became Flight of Magpies clicked into place. It worked. Thanks to Caroline (by accident) and to gin.

Story of my life, basically.

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A Case of Spirits is available from Amazon and all the usual places. It’s free (because it’s free with the print book) and comes between A Case of Possession and Flight of Magpies. It’s more a mood piece than anything, and has no series spoilers so feel free to sample if you haven’t read the others. I hope you enjoy it!

A Charm of Magpies reading order:

The Magpie Lord

Interlude with Tattoos (free)

A Case of Possession

A Case of Spirits (free)

Flight of Magpies

Feast of Stephen (free)

Jackdaw (coming in February, and a linked story)

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Seeing the People in your Head: characters in cover art

I once edited a romance author who would not describe characters. She mostly wrote tight third person on the heroine (that is, reader in the heroine’s head), and never had her heroine itemise her looks in a mirror, so her heroines were entirely featureless, and her heroes were given the absolute minimum of ‘tall,dark and handsome’. Asked to fill in character description sheets for the art form, she would refuse point blank and demand a landscape cover. She insisted that the reader should be able to physically identify with the heroine, to become the heroine, and that description just got in the way.

Obviously this makes a huge and rude assumption about the motives of romance readers (I don’t need to imagine a different life for me, thanks), not to mention their gender and race. Also, it meant her characters were fairly indistinguishable. And mostly, romances with landscape covers never sell. So I politely attempted to suggest that she might just fill in the goddamn cover form and stop bitching already, and got an email in return informing me that she would not tolerate a cliched, trite stock image on the cover that looked nothing like the characters in her head.

Which is, I suspect, what the ‘no description’ thing was about. She had a long career, she had written many books back in the days of illustrated covers where you could dictate what the characters looked like rather than having to sacrifice your firstborn to the Stock Photography Gods in the hope of someone roughly the same species as your hero, and she couldn’t handle having the person on the cover be different to the one in her imagination.

(Incidentally, the designer did a cover with a random guy in a jumper, safe in the knowledge that the author didn’t have his phone number. She went ballistic.)

Ask any author and you are likely to get wails of agony about cover models. The grossly overused ones (there is a whole blog series about this), the ones that look nothing like the character. Ask a cover artist and you’ll get wails about authors doing ludicrously specific descriptions and the difficulty of finding anything halfway decent on Shutterstock. Ask a reader and they’ll probably complain that the cover doesn’t look anything like the person in their head, who is not the same as the person in the book anyway.

No, not kidding. Stephen in A Charm of Magpie series is 5’0 tall, a fact which is repeatedly made clear. Yet I’ve seen readers insist, point blank, that he’s taller, or at least fight against it.

In The Magpie Lord, my inclination was to make Stephen taller.  Unfortunately, the text kept reminding me that he was not tall. (Kaetrin, romance reviewer)

Equally, Jake in the Adrien English series by Josh Lanyon is a dark-haired cop, unless you read what the author actually wrote, which is that he’s blond. I have to tell you, this is wrong: Jake is dark, dammit. I am not alone in this opinion, so much that Lanyon has commented with bewilderment on it. The books do actually make it clear he’s blond.  But…well…not in my head, he’s not.

I quoted Kaetrin above, from her blog post on the default hero and heroine. She says she has a tendency to ‘reset’ her mental image of heroes to a particular physical default (e.g. dark-haired six-foot white guy) unless the writing prevents her.

Do other people have their own default characters?  Might this explain (at least in part) why, when two people read the same book, they might see something completely different in the characters?

Certainly, two people can read a book and come out with a totally different mental image of the main characters. I was browsing reviews of a book I liked recently, one with both heroes on the cover, and came across a string of reviews which said:

  • the cover was perfect for both characters
  • the cover had a good Hero A but Hero B was nothing like the character
  • the cover had a good Hero B but Hero A was completely wrong
  • the cover was totally wrong for both characters
  • the cover was just a routine stock image thing with no effort put into it

(The last of which…I feel for the designer.)

I have, to date been incredibly lucky with my covers. If they aren’t the people in my head, they are at least in the same postcode. The one I had the most trouble with is the model used for Stephen. He’s not bad, I like him, he just isn’t how I see Stephen. Interestingly, he’s also the one for which I have had the most reader comments…and they have all been how lucky I am to have such a perfect model for the character.

Obviously, I want to howl He doesn’t look like that! But I’m wrong. Because if the reader thinks he looks like that, then he does. The reader’s Stephen is an intersection of their brain and my book and the character himself and possibly the cover image. That will always be the case, and it’s why my author was absurd to refuse description to ward off anyone seeing her characters in the way she didn’t want. The readers were never going to see what she saw anyway. They were going to make their own characters. All that her anti-description stance did was to ensure that they saw a default stock image.

Did I “create” Mr. and Ms. Default in response to a certain… blandness in characterisation in my reading?  In other words, was there a vacuum and Mr/Ms. Default was created by my imagination (aided perhaps, by pop culture) merely to fill it? (Kaetrin)

***

I have been musing on this because I received an epic compliment this weekend. Reader Lydmila Tsapaeva sent me a drawing she did of the main characters of Flight of Magpies (and if you’re thinking this whole post is just an excuse to share it, ssshh).

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Obviously, I love this, and the fact that she did it, and just everything about this. I have rarely felt so thrilled. But what’s fascinating for me is, here are my characters visually mediated through a reader’s mind. I can see how she sees them. The Magpies cover designer, Lou Harper, is outstanding but she’s still stuck with finding and using existing photos of actual people*; Lydmila is going from my imagination via her own to the page, putting in characterisation and movement and interaction and life. This is as close to me seeing someone’s experience of reading me as it’s going to get.

For the record: Crane (the arrogant blond) and Jonah (the dark-haired pest) have been teleported from my brain here: we are in full agreement. Crane is quiveringly perfect for me. Lydmila’s Stephen (short redhead) is more, ooh, manic, less vulnerable than mine (though a lot closer than the cover photo model), and my Merrick (gentleman’s gentleman) is a lot rougher than hers. Which isn’t to say they’re ‘wrong’. They can’t be wrong: they’re how she sees the characters. But it’s fascinating to see how they work against (with? alongside?) how I see them, to consider the elements in what I wrote that may have led to her interpretation, from book character to image. And if you’re a Magpie reader, I’d love to know how they stack up against your version.

(Here, for comparison, are the photo versions of Crane, Stephen and Jonah (on the right of Jackdaw). For me, Crane is 8/10, Stephen 5/10 and Jonah 9/10 if he was a bit skinnier. I told you I was lucky.)

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*Let us all take a minute to consider that the Magpie Lord cover model actually exists as a human being. My God.

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Give me cover art complaints, criticism, funny stories or an explanation of why I’m wrong about Stephen in the comments!

Flight of Magpies is out now. Jackdaw is out in February. Huge, huge thanks to Lydmila Tsapaeva for the glorious art.

Anachronism and Accuracy: getting it right in historical novels

I’ve been editing, reading and writing a lot of historical fiction recently, and I have anachronism and accuracy on my mind.

Now, of course any historical fiction will be anachronistic by its nature, even if the author does her best to think herself into the worldview and language. There are people who can do an incredible job of that. Paul Kingsnorth has just written a novel that ventriloquises 11th-century English in a mostly comprehensible way.

With my scramasax i saws up until his throta is cut and blaec blud then cums roarin out lic gathran wind.

For 273 pages. Gosh.

For most of us, telling the story comes before authenticity, certainly at this level. I have no idea how many years of knowledge and hard work Kingsnorth or Adam Thorpe or Hilary Mantel have to call on to do their impersonations of the past, but most of us don’t have the time and space for that kind of ultra deep research, nor is that what most readers necessarily want, certainly not in genre fiction. I will be reading the Kingsnorth book, as it looks amazing, but I don’t have any regrets that Alex Beecroft’s recent and lovely Anglo-Saxon romance isn’t written this way.

Still, there are a number of pitfalls for those of us without history degrees that you can at least look out for.

The most obvious is use of anachronistic language. I’m not talking about using ‘Okay’ in a Regency romance here, I assume you’re better than that. (Though people do it. My earliest spotted use of Okay was in a flung-across-the-room thriller starring William Shakespeare.

‘Shakespeare, I need Macbeth finished tomorrow!’

‘Okay, Burbage!’

As it happens, ‘Okay’ is recorded in English as early as 1908. However, nobody will believe this, so you are well advised not to use it till the Second World War.)

However, it’s easy to be caught out even if you’re careful. As far as I’m aware, nobody has yet set up an online etymology checker so you can plug in the year 1888, run your MS through the OED and have it flag words dating from later. (I wish someone would. Get on that, IT people.) So you have to be very word aware. Read in the period, look hard at what you type.

Slang, mindless jargon and dead metaphors (phrases whose origin has been forgotten) are particularly dangerous because they date language yet they’re so easy to use without thinking. A recent BBC drama set in 1950 referred to people working ‘twenty-four/seven’. In 1950? And your Victorian hero cannot ‘kick start’ the heroine’s moribund lace-making business because that’s a phrase that comes from motorbikes. You might as well have him reboot it.

I’m currently editing a book set in 1650 in which the narrative describes a character as silhouetted against the sky. But ‘silhouette’ is an eponym, a word derived from a person’s name. It comes by a meandering path (‘meander’: a winding Greek river; you’re fine with this unless you’re writing prehistoric, in which case ug ug grunt) from Étienne de Silhouette, a French finance minister of the 1760s, whose austerity measures made his name synonymous with cheap stuff, like cut-out black paper portraits instead of oil paintings – the eponymous silhouettes.

So you obviously can’t have a character in a medieval novel talk about a silhouette. Does it mean the narrative can’t use it in description? I say no, you shouldn’t, because it risks jolting the historically minded reader out of period, just as I wouldn’t allow a Regency character to carry out a boycott or a Victorian to act as a quisling. But I’m well aware those are examples of words I know. There will be a lot I miss.

Then there are habits of mind and action where it’s equally easy to be thoughtlessly modern. Let’s say we’re in a medieval setting and the gang of vagabond rogues need to search a house in a hurry. One says, ‘Meet back here in five minutes.’ How do they know? They don’t have watches. Church clocks don’t chime minutes. Can people who’ve never had easy access to timepieces even think in terms of five minutes?

Or swimming. Prior to the late Victorian age, if your character can swim, you need to know how they learned and why, because most people simply couldn’t. The brilliant Patrick O’Brien Napoleonic War novels show that the hero Jack Aubrey can swim, but stress how unusual that was. Most sailors, if shoved off the edge of a boat, went under. You can’t simply assume your heroes can get over the river that way.

There are other modern habits that are hard to break. My bugbear is smoking, or the lack of it. I don’t smoke, I have very few friends who smoke, I don’t have it in my house and it’s banned in public places. Smoking is not part of my life. Therefore I am perfectly capable of writing an entire book set in Victorian or Edwardian times where nobody smokes. That’s absurdly unlikely.

I probably won’t ever do a smoking hero for three reasons:

  • Lots of readers see it as deeply unattractive
  • The inevitable copy edits. (‘The hero has lit a cigarette three times in this scene without smoking or stubbing one out. Please review.’ ‘He fell in the water, how has he got a cigarette lit?’ ‘Hero hasn’t smoked in five chapters, isn’t he craving yet?’ ARGH.)
  • I don’t want my hero to die of lung cancer twenty years after the book ends. (This is my real reason, embarrassingly.)

But this shouldn’t stop villains or minor characters or someone from lighting up. My historical books should be wreathed in smoke. Yet it never crosses my 21st-century smoke-free mind to put it in.

Ahistorical attitudes are a blog (or a book) in themselves and one I’ll be doing later on. I merely note here that if your Regency hero believes in racial equality and the rights of man, hangs out with his servants, treats women as equals and doesn’t care what people think of him, you need to explain how and why he got all these attitudes because they definitely didn’t come as standard. My Victorian hero of The Magpie Lord does at least three of those things because his very specific backstory – gay, exiled to China as a young man, living on the streets with his servant/henchman, loathes his family – has caused him to see the world differently. Yours might have a completely different reason. As long as there is one.

Oh, and one more thing: names and titles. There is no excuse for sloppiness here. The names will probably be in the first sentence of the blurb; if you get them wrong it’s hard to believe anything else will go well. Take ten minutes to look at period documents and see what people are called. For British titles, look up how to use them here. It is insultingly lazy and embarrassingly cloth-eared to refer to Sir Richard Burton as ‘Sir Burton’; it’s really not hard to find examples of how that works. (Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart are all over the internet, and never as Sir McKellen and Sir Stewart.) The next time I see this, the book is going back to the author wrapped around a rock.

Some authors may well feel that their fast-paced paranormal romantic thriller doesn’t need to be burdened by a ton of research just because it’s also Victorian. Fine, yes, the world is full of readers like Rachel from Friends:

What period is it from?

It’s from yore. Like, the days of yore, you know?

Yes, those readers won’t notice anything odd in Duke Bobby Smith of Manchester, or alternatively will call your research sloppy because your Victorian novel has trains and everyone knows trains are modern. Life is hard.

But if you’re making any attempt to write historical fiction, rather than contemporary fiction in silly hats, you need to write (and edit) for the people who do know and care, to the best of your abilities. Which makes historical fiction much like any other kind, really.

How much do you care about accuracy? What’s your favourite historical blooper? Who gives good history? Tell me your thoughts…

 

Magpie Lord vs Captive Prince: all done

Edit: Captive Prince triumphed in DABWAHA round 3, and I’ll be voting it all the way to the final. I’m really happy to have got to the last 16, and very grateful for all the support, votes, lovely messages and general niceness. Thanks!

The free story as promised in the first round exists in my head, and will be written after the non-negotiable first edits of Flight of Magpies and completed draft 1 of Jackdaw. I’ll keep you posted!

 

 

The Magpie Lord is through to round 3 of DABWAHA, which means it will be facing up to Captive Prince by CS Pacat. Voting is now on, to 11.59 CST, or 5pm GMT. Vote here .

Let’s face it, this isn’t going to be pretty. Captive Prince has a huge and well-deserved adoring audience – I love the first two books, have fangirled the author myself, and can’t wait for vol 3. It’s a great read that stands a really good chance of winning the whole contest. And it has already beaten Abigail Roux and Joanna Chambers in the first two rounds, which is company I’m proud to get kerbstomped in.

All that said, buggered if I’m going down without a fight.

It’s bribery time!

I have already promised a Lucien and Merrick story from Shanghai days. That is happening. But, my additional bribe to scrabble together votes in round 3…

There is a passage from Magpie Lord that a lot of readers have talked about. Stephen asks Lucien why he has seven magpie tattoos.

“Whim. I was being forced to have a very large and expensive tattoo, and it seemed a change from the usual dragons and carp. I rather liked it, as it turned out, so I added more.”

“…forced to have a tattoo?”

“It’s a long story.”

If I win round 3, I will tell you that long story. It involves mayhem, Merrick, magpies, and a very steep learning curve for a young and stupid Lucien.

That’s what I’ve got. Bring it on, Captive Prince. I can take it.

/winces/

Vote for Magpie Lord here (please?) on 28 March, 00.00 to 11.59 CST, or 5am-5pm GMT. No need to register, it takes 5 seconds, and every vote counts (to me, anyway). Thanks!

Bribery and corruption: will write for votes!

The DABWAHA (Dear Author Bitchery Writing Award for Hellagood Authors) tournament voting begins on 20 March. The Magpie Lord is one of the contestants, and I need your votes as flowers need rain/Justin Bieber needs a good hard look at his life choices.Magpie Lord

Basically this is a tournament of romance novels with six rounds of voting. Books are paired up and you have to vote for one in each pair. (Me! Me!)

To say it’s competitive is understating things. I need your votes. And am allowed/encouraged to offer inducements for them. So, vote for me or I change the ending of Flight of Magpies and kill them all!

No, wait, that’s a terrible idea. OK, here we go, my hostage to fortune:

If I get to round two, I will commit to writing a free story about one of Lucien and Merrick’s adventures in Shanghai, with chaos, adventure, magic and romance.

In the unlikely event I win round two (ie get into the final of the GLBT category) I will raise the stakes…

2014Nominee-DABWAHA

All you have to do is vote for me! And get your friends, colleagues, loved ones and milkman to vote for me. And keep voting for me in lots of rounds. Go on, you know you want to really. (Please?)

If you dropped by for writing talk/publishing snark, and have no idea if you want to grant me your vote (you do!), you could check out the following freebies:

The Smuggler and the Warlord (a short story of Merrick and Crane in China)

Interlude with Tattoos (a story set after the end of Magpie Lord)

Butterflies (a Victorian occult horror story from The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal)

Remnant (another Simon Feximal story written with Jordan L Hawk)

Oh, and if you’re wondering who else to vote for in the other brackets, I suggest Provoked by Joanna Chambers, because a) it’s fabulous and b) she will do a hilarious romance pastiche and you want to read that.

Click here to vote on 20 March!

I promised it would be back to normal service and it’s still all promo. Sorry about that, it’s a bit fraught.

Self promo, bribery and free stuff (a post about me)

I hate self-promo. So do you. Therefore, be warned that this post is an update on me and what I’m writing/doing, rather than writing advice or publishing snark, and feel free to run away. (Although there’s a free story, if you make it that far.)

Big award nomination news

The Magpie Lord is a 2014 DABWAHA (Dear Author Bitchery Writing Award for Hellagood Authors) Finalist. This is totally the best possible name for an award and I am delighted and honoured. Even better is that it’s up there with Joanna Chambers’ wonderful Provoked, which is one of my top three of last year. DABWAHA is run by Dear Author and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, two of the best blogs, so this is a big deal and I am very thrilled.

There are several rounds of voting starting 18 March, and apparently it’s kosher for me to offer bribes. Cool! So stay tuned for shameless offers of…something. Feel free to suggest what in the comments. Not money, or my children, otherwise I’m game. I’m thinking a free short story, open to suggestions as to what you’d like to see, or I’ll come up with something next week.

Remnant (free story!)

I’m a big fan of Jordan L Hawk’s Whyborne & Griffin series, occult mystery/romances set in 1890s America. As it goes, I’ve written a couple of stories in that time period myself, featuring Simon Feximal, a British occult detective, and his lover/narrator Robert Caldwell. Therefore, once Jordan’s characters decided to head to Egypt via London for W&G book 4, it all came together like peaches and cream. Or, more accurately, like the Titanic and the iceberg.

Remnant (cover once again designed by ubertalented Susan Lee) is a mystery starring all four occult investigators: Simon, Robert, Whyborne and Griffin. Jordan and I wrote it in alternate chapters, with a lot of transatlantic evil cackling, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we did. It’s available on Smashwords and ARe right now, and it’s free, so dig in.

Non-Stop Till Tokyo

And now for something completely different: I have a contemporary romantic suspense thriller coming out in April. Kerry is a hostess in a Tokyo bar, drifting along in a sea of generous tips, until she is framed for the murder of a yakuza boss. She’s soon trapped in rural Japan, running for her life – and the one man who’s got her back may be poised to stab it.

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Non-Stop Till Tokyo is a bigger book than my published stuff to date, and my first contemporary, and my first het romance, and and and. Very different from what I’ve published to date, but what the heck, it’s nice to try something new! I’m happy with it, and I dearly love the cover by Angela Waters.

Think of England

My next m/m offering, Think of England is an Edwardian pulp adventure with derring-do, stiff upper lips, country-house parties, shameless homage to Victorian and Edwardian adventure fiction, and a bit of social subversion going on. More on this one nearer the time.

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Again, the cover is gorgeous, this one Erin Dameron-Hill.

Flight of Magpies (A Charm of Magpies 3)

I’m delighted to say that I’ve signed the third book in the sequence that started with The Magpie Lord. Flight of Magpies, to be published by Samhain 28 October, brings back Stephen and Lucien. This time they’re in trouble with old enemies, new enemies, and unsuspected enemies. Which is a nuisance, because they’re having quite enough problems with their friends…

Underway

Current projects include: A historical story for a charity anthology. More Simon Feximal stories. Think of England 2. But first, another story set in Magpie-world, starring a secondary character from Flight of Magpies who pretty much demanded his own book as the price for not stealing that one. This book is writing itself so far, having elbowed its way to the front of the queue rather than waiting its allotted turn. This is typical of the character in question. Watch your pockets.

Oh, and I should have a proper website very soon. Woop!

Normal unpromo service will be resumed next time. I’ve saved up plenty of sarcasm.

Two For Joy: publication day

My second book, A Case of Possession, is out today.Woo-hoo!Image

I blogged about how it feels to have your first book published (conclusion: pretty cool). Second book is definitely different. Still good, but different. It’s not a novelty now; there are the ‘difficult second album’ worries over how it will compare to the first; and really, I’ve been somewhat preoccupied with blogging for it, planning publicity for my totally different third book, doing cover briefs and copy edits on the fourth book, writing the fifth one…

But there is a big new exciting experience here, and that is that Case of Possession is a sequel, and some people actually want to buy it for that reason. People have actually been waiting, many of them impatiently, to find out what happens to the characters in this book. People want to know more about my characters and be involved in the stories that previously just happened in my head. It is quite hard to convey just how that feels.

(It feels really good. Master wordsmith at work, there.)

I have a third book about those guys to finish, and I have blogged myself and probably everyone else to exhaustion this week, on rodents and romancewriting historical paranormal, secondary Imagecharacters, the shady side of Victorian London, and whether sex should be real or fictional. So I think we’ll all be relieved that there’ll a bit of radio silence coming up on this blog while I do some actual book stuff. See you on the other side. Continue reading