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mystery, research, world-building, writing

A Day of Research

Canton, N.Y. is a small town tucked between the Adirondack Mountains and the St. Lawrence River. It is home to St. Lawrence University as well as SUNY (State University of N.Y.) Canton. The Grasse River winds its way through the town, as well as numerous streams and brooks. The park in the center of the village has been there–if not as long as the town has existed, then pretty darn close. It shows up on every old map I’ve seen, and I’ve looked at a lot of them.

It is my hometown, where I was born and raised, and it is also the setting for the Pauline Gray mysteries. All the characters in the Pauline stories are fictional, but I have done my best to keep the setting as authentic to Canton in the 1930s as possible. The photos and memories posted on the Historian Town & Village Canton Facebook page has been one great resource for this; family has been another.

In the end, though, nothing beats poking around the town in person for inspiration and authenticity. For all that I spent my formative years there, there’s a lot of the town I never explored growing up, and so now I take advantage of any trip up to visit my folks to drive around and re-familiarize myself with the landscape.

(I am embarrassed to admit that all the way up until the final proofread of Candles in the Dark, I had misplaced the street where Pauline lives to the other side of the village–even looking at a map hadn’t helped me properly orient it until I actually drove down it and said, “Whoops.”)

On this most recent jaunt to the north country, I corralled Carl as my chauffeur so I could focus on the landscape and not on the road, and we set out to figure out which street looked the most promising for the setting for a murder. It didn’t take long before we found it, on the road that leads to Morley (readers of Candles might remember that Morley is the home of the mill that was the setting for that murder). It was a beautiful day, with the sun shining and all the fields shining greenly in the sun thanks to the frequent rains this month, a light breeze blowing … the kind of idyllic day in the country people dream about but rarely get to experience. Just right for a mild little adventure.

My specifications were fairly simple: it needed to be by the river, fairly lonely, not frequently traveled, and beautiful. Off Rt 27, we found the exact right side road. Don’t you love it when that happens?

All these houses are far too fancy for my fictional house that is the heart of this story, but they certainly provided plenty of inspiration as well as admiring gasps as Carl drove very slowly past while I took frantic snapshots out the windows.

Back on Rt 27, we stopped by St. Mary’s Cemetery to poke around a bit–ostensibly for research purposes, but mostly because I have a hard time resisting the lure of old gravestones. So many fascinating stories hidden behind the names and dates and epitaphs!

Both so young–obviously the twelve-year-old even more so, but the twenty-three-year-old as well.
I never think about Canton being a hot spot for immigrants, but there certainly were a lot of Italian and Irish names here in the Catholic cemetery.
What a full and adventurous life Patrick must have had! I bet he had stories to tell his grandchildren.

I got the lowdown on the different roads (and what they would or would not have been called in the ’30s) from my dad when I got back to the house, which made for the perfect cap to the day.

Sometimes research looks like hunching over a computer or old books, poring over details to make sure yours match, and that has its charm (though it’s best if one remembers to take frequent breaks to rest one’s eyes and stretch one’s back), but this sort of research has to be my favorite. A beautiful day, a drive through the countryside with my husband, followed by a chat and reminiscing with my dad. It doesn’t get much better than that!

mystery, publishing, writing

Organization Achieved

The votes are in! The final tally is:

  • Pauline Gray: 6
  • Caledonia: 5
  • Whitney & Davies: 4

I will admit, the results surprised me. I didn’t realize until after I counted up all the votes that I had fully expected Maia and Len to win by a landslide. Instead it was a tight race, and they came in third!

So, Pauline it is. In honor of the choice, here’s an unedited snippet from the third book, accompanied by an illustration borrowed from a fashion illustration of the 1930s.

“How about a cup of tea before you go, dear?”

Miss Lewis said this every time, and every time, Pauline smiled and accepted. She didn’t care very much for tea, but she had said “yes” the first time out of politeness, and now it had become something of a ritual.

She enjoyed watching Miss Lewis prepare the brew. First she brought the kettle to a boil while she washed out the flowered china teapot. Then she poured the boiling water into the pot to warm it while setting out the two delicate teacups and adding a cookie from her always-filled tin to each delicate saucer.

Once the pot was warmed, Miss Lewis emptied it, added the fragrant black leaves, filled it once again with boiling water, turned her three-minute hourglass over, set the fine wire mesh tea strainer over the first teacup, and at last, when the three minutes were up, poured the tea.

It was an elaborate process, and it put Pauline in mind of the Old World, and the ritual that afternoon tea had been in Victorian England. She appreciated this touch of European elegance into her life, and in truth, the flavor of the tea wasn’t so bad once one got over wishing it was coffee.

Today’s cookie was molasses, much to Pauline’s relief. Some days it was a peanut butter cookie, which took all her grace to eat without grimacing. Those were the days she had to hurry home and eat an apple or drink a glass of milk, anything to rid herself of that cloying taste and feel in her mouth.

Today, she was happy to linger over the tea, looking out the kitchen window at Miss Lewis’s garden. Mostly vegetables, there were occasional bursts of color and bloom from various types of old-fashioned flowers: sweet peas, peonies, narcissi, sweet-smelling lavender, and of course roses.

“There is such a peacefulness here,” Pauline said, a trace of wistfulness in her voice.

“I do love to give out my books and flowers. I let the neighborhood children pick flowers out of my garden to take home to their mothers, you see. They do the weeding that my arthritic hands can’t manage anymore.” Miss Lewis looked ruefully at her gnarled fingers. “That’s the way to get through life, Miss Gray. Give what you can to others, and allow them to give to you when you have need.”

Pauline’s motto was more along the lines of “take care of oneself and never be beholden to anyone,” but she thought Miss Lewis’s way was, perhaps, the better.

Cycling back home with Barchester Towers and Cranford nestled into her basket beside a nosegay of roses and campanula, she was sure of it.

That passage is from Secrets of the Past, and I hope you will enjoy meeting Miss Lewis as much as Pauline does, and the story that unfolds from that meeting.

1920s, fantasy, goals, mystery, publishing, Sci-fi, writing

Organizing Projects

If you’ve spent any time at this blog at all, or even if you wandered here wanting to learn more about my other writings after reading one of my stories, you probably know that I have three “universes” I mainly write in: The Whitney and Davies universe, aka Golden Age Detective Fantasy, aka Whodunnit Fantasy, aka Agatha Christie with magic; what I call the Caledonia universe, or the setting for From the Shadows; and the Pauline Gray historical mysteries, no magic at all.

I currently have projects in mind for all of these universes, and choosing between them for what to work on next can be almost as much of a challenge as the writing itself–or at the very least, a distraction from actually doing the writing. So I thought I might toss the options out there and see if there’s a preference from readers as to what project I turn the majority of my attention to first. So far my plan of “write whichever one strikes my fancy at the moment” has resulted in a pile of unfinished drafts, shockingly enough. (I KNOW. Who would have thought?)

The first question, then, is: which universe are you most eager to read another story in?

  • Whitney & Davies
  • Caledonia
  • Pauline Gray

After that, it gets a little more complex.

For Pauline, the options are fairly straightforward: the next installment of the series. Actually, that’s not “fairly” straightforward, that’s completely straightforward, and it’s not even “options,” it’s one choice: the next novella.

For Caledonia, I think it would look like a long short story that works as an interlude between the events of the first novel and the events of the next, followed by said next novel. It is possible that I might be able to jump right into the next novel without the interlude, but the way things stand for story development right now that would leave a gap between the stories, and so I think we really do need that bridge.

In the W&D universe, the choices are:

  • Another collection of short stories, this time mostly featuring Maia, Len, Gwen, and Becket
  • A one-off novella or long short story set in the same world but featuring entirely different characters
  • The next novel in the series

My instinct here is to get the next novel out there, but I don’t know, are people interested enough in the short stories that they would be a nice filler between novels? Is the novella something only I would be interested in? Would readers like the occasional short story in between novels but not necessarily an entire collection of them?

So these are the questions I am asking you all to answer: what do you want to see next from me–the next Pauline Gray novella; the continuation of Riss’s story; the next W&D novel; a short story or stories around W&D, or a novella set in their world but featuring different characters? Feel free to answer with only one option or with putting your choices in order of what you want most to read down to least.

As I shuffling off the responsibility of organizing my work onto my readers? Yes, I absolutely am. Do I feel guilt over this? Nope, not a bit.

Let me know in the comments, or send me an email if you’d rather keep it private! Also feel free to let me know some of what you hope to see from any or all of these universes by way of long-term storytelling. I know what my ideas are for the futures of these stories, but what are yours? Let’s chat!

1920s, publishing, writing

Rabbit Trails and Sub-Genres

Between the previous post, FB, Twitter, Tumblr, and in-person conversations, the votes for “Golden Age Detective Fantasy” and “Whodunit Fantasy” are split pretty much evenly, with one extra suggestion of “Roaring ’20s Detective Fantasy.” So I still haven’t come to a conclusion as to what name I should coin for this specific sub-genre of “detective fiction in the style of Christie, Sayers, Allingham, etc, with a splash of magic.”

The points for “Golden Age Detective Fantasy”:

  • Evocative
  • Specific
  • Intriguing even for readers who aren’t familiar with mystery sub-genres
  • Sounds more alluring than Whodunit Fantasy

Points for “Whodunit Fantasy”:

  • Short and snappy
  • Easily understood even if readers aren’t familiar with mystery sub-genres
  • Covers more ground than Golden Age Detective Fantasy
  • Since “Golden Age Detective Fiction” is technically only used for authors who were writing during that between-wars era, Whodunit Fantasy is a more correct name

How’s a poor hapless author to decide? I know it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but it would be nice to have a name to put on back copy and on the series page of the website. I’m still mulling it over!

In other writing news, I’ve had a great deal of fun recently concocting a magical wardrobe for Maia created in-story by Helen. There are practical aspects: dresses that fold to no larger than a handkerchief, and when unfolded are wrinkle free! Dresses with pockets that can hold more than a handbag and yet don’t alter the line of the dress! Then there are the decorative aspects: embroidery that literally sparkles; the ability to alter a hemline or neckline or change the sleeves from long to short with simply the correct word to release the spell.

I try not to go too overboard describing clothing in the books, because too many details can take a reader right out of the story, but it is sooo tempting when I have so many wonderful options to use as inspiration!

This is a fantastic demonstration of a dress that a clever magician could create to change from a day dress to a dinner dress with one snap.
I think Maia is definitely the type to wear a cape, don’t you? Even if she secretly feels it is a bit over-the-top, she just can’t resist the swoop and swish of it. And the dress beneath is practical enough even for her.
The green frock here is very close to one I just had Helen create for Maia–except hers has more embroidery, and the floaty bits at shoulders and hip are gold rather than green. I love it, and I wish I could have one myself!

This is just a tiny sampling of the patterns I’ve been drooling over these last couple of weeks. If my next blog post sheepishly admits that I broke down and made myself a 1920s dress, you’ll know why. I can justify it all as research, right?

If you are an author, what sort of fun rabbit trails does your research tend to take you down? If you are a reader, what bits of extra detail are your favorite to read about in a story? And for both parties, if you haven’t already, please weigh in on whether you prefer “Golden Age Detective Fantasy” or “Whodunit Fantasy”!

1920s, Books, fantasy, fiction, mystery, publishing, stories, writing

Categories and Genres

Genre, sub-genre, categories … when trying to find a home for a story on the shelves of a bookstore or library, the options can sometimes seem overwhelming. Is this fantasy or science fiction? Historical mystery, cozy mystery, or some other type of mystery altogether? Thriller or adventure? Memoir or autobiography?

This is made even more difficult when you have an author who likes to cross two or more genres in one book. And yes, I’m talking about myself and the Whitney & Davies series here. Since the beginning, these books have been hard to categorize. Do they go on the fantasy shelf or the mystery shelf? (One local library solved the puzzle by sticking Magic Most Deadly on the “fiction” shelf–going more generic instead of less, I guess!) It wouldn’t matter so much, aside from causing headaches to librarians and bookstore owners, except that muddled categories can make it difficult for readers to understand what sort of book they are looking at, and thus make them less likely to pick it up and read.

The basic premise of the Whitney & Davies series–taking an already-existing genre and adding a magical twist to it–is not unique to me. My first exposure to the concept was with Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s marvelous fantasy of manners Sorcery and Cecilia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot. Other well-known Regency fantasies are Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories, and of course Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

Then there’s the “gaslamp” or “gaslight” fantasies, which take the same idea and place it in a Victorian or Edwardian England setting. Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series would likely fall into this category, as well as Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent.

However, I’ve not yet found anyone besides myself taking Golden Age Detective Fiction and inserting fantasy into that, and I’ve been racking my brains for ages now trying to coin a phrase to neatly sum up this sub-genre to make it clear from one glance what type of a story the reader is getting. “Mystery-fantasy set in 1920s England” is, let’s face it, way too clunky.

I’ve narrowed it down to two options, although I am open to suggestions for something else! I like “Golden Age Detective Fiction” for its descriptiveness, but on the other hand it is still long and a little bit clunky. Then there’s the short and snappy “Whodunit Fantasy,” but the downside to that one is that it doesn’t necessarily convey the sense of time and place–between wars in England–that the other does.

So I am tossing the choices out there for my readers! Which do you prefer? Which one conveys the feel of Whitney & Davies best to you? And if you haven’t read my books yet, you may still feel free to comment–I’d like to know what type of story you think of when you see either of those two categories.

I would also be curious to know if you have any comparison books or series that come to your mind when thinking of W&D–you know, the old, “If you like _____, you will like Whitney & Davies.” The closest I’ve come up with is Martha Wells’ Death of the Necromancer, and I’m not exactly sure that’s the best match. I think that’s the sort of thing that is difficult for an author to judge about his or her own work, especially when one of the main reasons for writing the books is that no one else out there is!

publishing, stories, writing

Castles in the Air

Last year–almost exactly a year to this day, in fact–I was in Bavaria, visiting Neuschwanstein Castle for the first time. That trip–planned mainly because I wanted to visit the München Christkindlmarkt–came so close to not happening: both Carl and Grace were recovering from the flu; Carl had just gotten back to Cambridge from flying to Texas to see his aunt in the hospital and say goodbye to her (she died of pancreatic cancer the day we returned from Germany to England); we had just made the incredibly difficult decision to cut our time in England short and return to the US after Christmas; life was more than a little overwhelming.

And yet. We knew we’d never have a better chance to do this. For some reason, it was incredibly important to me to see Munich. We decided the fresh Alpine air would do Carl and Grace good, and we also decided that if we needed to spend the entire trip resting in our AirBnB we would. So we went.

The first time I saw the Alps out the window of our rented car, I burst into tears. (Yes, I was obviously emotional from all the other situations. All the same, crying over mountains is not a usual emotional response for me.) The landscape, the scenery as we drove to Neuschwanstein … it was magical. I suddenly understood why the Germans are so steeped in fairy tales and folklore. I could believe in gnomes, dwarves, dragons, and talking beasts here.

After all that, the castle itself was a minor letdown. Fancy … but not real. We were glad to have toured it, and Joy especially was thrilled to see “the” original fairy tale castle, but a castle meant to imitate fairy tales was just that: an imitation. The real magic was outside.

The rest of our trip was incredible–we visited Oberammergau, in large part because of my love for the Betsy-Tacy books, and bought ornaments, gifts for family, and our very own Christmas pyramid there. We did make it into Munich–or München–and met up with an old friend, who took us to lunch at the Hofbräuhaus and showed us some of her favorite Christmas markets, and we watched the Rathaus-Glockenspiel strike noon, and drank mulled wine (Carl), hot chocolate (the kids) and hot gin toddy (me), and brought home the mugs, and bought yet more ornaments, and made incredible, incredible memories.

But perhaps the best of all was the magic of driving around the Alps.

So, when we had returned to Cambridge and I was writing the monthly flash fiction for my Patreon supporters, there was only one story I could tell: that of someone looking for inspiration at a fairy tale castle, and finding it … well, I won’t tell you where. You’ll have to read it for yourself.

Today, that story has been published in New Myths, and I’m so happy to be able to share it with the world. Go ahead and give it a read–hopefully it will make you fall in love with Bavaria just as I did.

Castles in the Air, available now at New Myths