The Last Defense

My short science-fiction story, The Last Defense, is available today at Empyreome Magazine. If you enjoy that sort of thing, go check it out!

The Last Defense

This is my first traditionally published story, and I’m very proud of it. It was a real challenge to write and stretched me outside of my comfort zone more than once, but the end result was worth it.

Happy reading!

First Month

Somehow the second half of January has seemed to last much longer than the first. I look at my last post and think, “wow, was that really only two weeks ago?” And yet … I’m not sure we really did that much. I think more it’s been interior stuff, lots of thinking and pondering and feeling. Life as an HSP can get exhausting sometimes, even when everything seems calm on the surface. Plus, all the turmoil in this country right now is draining. Trying to keep my candle glowing against the darkness gets harder some days than others.

We have had some lovely moments. Carl’s sister came and spent a weekend with us. She spent one afternoon playing games with the kids while he and I snuck off on a date, and the next afternoon the three of them made supper (from the kids’ cookbooks) while Carl and I went for (decaf) coffee. The rest of the time we just hung out and enjoyed being together. A lovely family time.

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Wine tasting date! It was lovely. (The wine was good, too.)

We went to public skating this past Friday, and the kids did great and had a blast. Especially impressive considering Joy hasn’t been on the ice since we lived in Albany, and Grace hated (with a fiery passion) her skating lessons the first winter we lived here. They’ve come a long way. And then, as we were getting ready to leave, another mom and her daughter came to skate, and it took me a few minutes, but then I recognized her from my home club. Back in Canton, NY, when we were both teens. We both live here on the North Shore now and we didn’t even know it! It was great fun to reconnect, especially since it was so unexpected.

It was also fun going out for doughnuts and hot chocolate afterward. Skating is definitely going to be a weekly activity for the rest of the season. (doughnuts, maybe not every single week.) Even Carl is thinking about getting in on the action–for the first time ever he’s contemplating getting skates so we can do this as a whole-family activity! I am delighted.

I got very excited, as usual, over the US Figure Skating Championships. This year there was a little more to get excited about than usual–Nathan Chen made history by landing FIVE QUADS in the men’s free skate. And Karen Chen (no relation) was brilliant in the ladies’. Overall, figure skating looks stronger in the US than it has in at least ten years (except for ice dance, which has been strong all along and is merely continuing the tradition of greatness). In a country racked by division and suspicion, it’s beautiful to me to see the diversity, inclusivity, and joy represented by the world of figure skating.

We had our first Family Meeting this weekend, figuring out chore allotment and allowances and basically cementing the fact that we are so not in the little kid stage of life anymore. It was surprisingly fun.

I have been continuing with my French lessons on Duolingo, finding more things about the app that frustrate me no end, but at the same time I’m progressing and getting better, so it is working. I still would hate to have gone into this without at least some prior knowledge of the language, however far back in my past. And I AM getting a proper French grammar book at some point, because Duolingo never explains the rules. As my mother and any other teacher I ever had could tell you, I need explanations.

My fountain pen arrived and I promptly fell in love and never want to use any other kind of pen, and also want to write all my stories by hand again, like I did in the ancient times of my youth before computers were a thing. Even getting my grandmother’s old electric typewriter was a red-letter day when I was younger! But yes, this pen is a joy to write with, and now Carl wants one too.

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Finished Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season and found it, as usual with her books, a blend of immensely frustrating and immensely uplifting and encouraging. One thing I will say, she always makes me think. Ultimately, it has helped me recognize some of my difficulties with having a still mind, and I was able to come up with a few strategies for minimizing the constant noise in my own head, so very worth it. I’m now in the middle of re-reading Agatha Christie’s autobiography (Christmas present from my in-laws), and finding that bracing, encouraging, laugh-out-loud funny, and just wonderful. My fiction reading has been less memorable. I dutifully recorded each book, but none of them are worthy of repeating here.

Oh, and I taught the kids to knit.

And now we see what February has in store. Fingers crossed it will bring some snow …

Two Weeks In

We are (almost) halfway through January! How is the month looking for everyone else?

Here, we’ve had:

Rearranged our living room and can’t figure out why we waited 3.5 years to set it up like this.

Trip to Grandma’s house to finish off our holiday traveling/festivities.

We had snow this past weekend, enough for sledding, and by Wednesday it had all vanished. No one in this household is particularly pleased about this. I want to use my cross-country skis; the kids want to play in the snow; Carl, believe it or not, wants to shovel. Plus we all just prefer winter to be winter. Hmph.

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but the sledding was fun while it lasted. as was throwing snowballs at daddy.

Kids are enthusiastically participating in the Read-Aloud Revival 31 Days Challenge–they have only missed a few days of reading out loud for at least 15 minutes. Gracie, at least, usually goes longer. Joy is more these-are-the-rules-so-we-should-follow-them and so even if she’s at a really good place, she stops as soon as the timer beeps. It’s great for Gracie in building her confidence (she’s a fantastic reader but thinks she can only handle easy books) and for Joy in forcing her to slow down and process what she’s reading (she reads SO FAST that I’m certain she only takes in about 80% maximum of whatever she reads).

I finally passed the halfway point on my current draft of Magic in Disguise, the next Maia and Len book. Technically this is the first book in the Whitney & Davies series, as this is the one that really starts them off on their detecting careers together, but it is the second book about them–Magic Most Deadly, I’ve decided, really works best as a prequel when compared to how I want the rest of the series to go. Is that over-complicated? Sorry. At any rate, every step of the way with this book has been a slog, but the fog is starting to lift. I had it ready to send to my critique partner (which is when I consider a story done the same way a cake is done–all the editing and polishing I do after that is icing and decorating, but the heart of it is finished) last May, and ever since she sent it back to me I’ve been crawling on it. But I’m getting there, and it’s going to be ready for beta-ing by the end of the month, barring any unforeseen accidents like spraining an ankle or some such nonsense (rap wood).

We got back to Classical Conversations (the kids’ homeschool co-op) and back to school in general. We aren’t quite where I’d like to be yet–our morning time keeps getting started late, so we haven’t been able to work in our Shakespeare memorization this semester yet, and schoolwork keeps spilling into our free time in the afternoons–but we’re getting there. It’s always tricky settling back into our routine after winter break.

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working on their nature journals. sunny but windy today!

I am taking a break from refined sugar and wheat for January, in an attempt to break my body of its dependency on both. I know from experience that a little is fine, a lot wrecks me, and thanks to the holidays, I’ve been having a LOT of both. I’ve also started exercising again, something that slid away when I sprained my ankle last May (see above) and never got picked back up. So far, I’m grumpy and sad because of the diet change, but the exercising is going well.

I’ve managed to catalog each of the books I’ve read so far this month in a book journal. Whether that means I’m reading more mindfully is still up in the air.

Getting prepared for the Bible Study I’m co-leading this semester for the women in our apartment building. We’re going to be going through Philippians this semester, which should be great. I’ve discovered somewhat to my surprise that I really enjoy teaching and leading a study, and thanks to Carl, I have commentaries a-plenty at my fingertips. And I can always ask him if there’s any particularly tricky translation issues!

The only other really interesting thing that’s happened this month is that Carl finally convinced me to give Duolingo a try, and I’m diving back into French. Parts of the app really frustrate me (like when you fail a lesson because they expect you to know something they haven’t yet taught you), but overall it’s been fun. I thoroughly enjoyed taking French back in college and have always wanted to get back to it, and so now I am! I’m already wondering what language I should tackle next after this, Russian or Welsh. I desperately wanted to learn both of them in high school, and now I have a chance!

Oh, and I also got to do an impromptu mini-presentation at CC this week–all the kids have to give an oral presentation each week, and this week they got to pick a topic out of a hat. One of the drawn topics was “why are books so important,” and the tutor laughed and asked me if I wanted to take that one, so I said sure. It wasn’t anywhere near as dramatic as my library presentation last March, but it was a lot of fun and made me think how much I’d love to give a proper, adapted version of my “why stories matter” speech at a school or children’s library sometime. Add that one to my dream list!

And that is my mid-January report. Nothing tremendously spectacular, but I don’t want to look back in December and not remember anything about this month, so I’m writing it down even if it seems simple and small. It’s the little moments that add up to a life anyway.

In Defense of the Detective Novel

This essay came out of some thoughts I had on detective novels and their function in society. I’m not sure any of it is terribly earth-shattering–I’m fairly certain it’s all been said before–but it was important to me, so I wrote it all out, then decided it was worth polishing and sharing. So here it is.

Truth, justice, mercy. All very big, abstract concepts that can be hard to wrap our heads around in concrete terms. What is truth? How do we balance justice and mercy? To whom do we show justice, and when is mercy appropriate? If I were to tell you I was writing a story exploring these concepts, you might reasonably expect some weighty, literary piece of work, with dense prose and a somber tone. What you might not expect would be a detective novel.

Yet it is in mystery stories that I have had some of my most profound realizations regarding said subjects. From Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot I have learned that the truth has a beauty and a virtue of its own, quite apart from its subject. From Lord Peter Wimsey and Brother Cadfael I have learned the importance of understanding human nature and acknowledging one’s own weaknesses. I have grasped the concept of not setting oneself above others–that elusive idea we call humility. These books have taught me the danger of shrugging one’s shoulders at small evils, because they open the way for larger ones. Above all, I have learned that justice must be pursued for those who have no voice of their own, that it the responsibility of everyone who can be heard to speak for those who can’t.

In Dorothy L Sayers’ second Lord Peter novel, Clouds of Witnesses, Lord Peter falls victim to a bog in which he is almost lost. At first glance, it can read as cliche, but I think there’s a deeper metaphor to be drawn from it–whether Sayers meant it or not. Sometimes, in the pursuit of truth and justice, it is easy to get lost in the fog, to get stuck in a mire and lose our way, nearly drowning in uncertainty and confusion. It is only through steadfast patience–as Bunter showed in keeping Lord Peter up until rescue came for them both–and light to show the way that we can make it out.

As a result of his unplanned fall into the bog, Lord Peter comes across the clue which allows him to unravel the entire mystery. The origin of the word “clue,” as I’m sure many of you already know, comes from the ball of thread Theseus used to guide himself through the Labyrinth. In that way, mystery stories themselves can act as clues, providing a thread for people who are stumbling in the miry dark, trying to see truth, walk the path of justice, practice mercy. In the assurance that justice will come, that the killer will be punished, that the dead are not left voiceless, mysteries act as lights against the darkness that can sometimes cause us to despair as we look at all the injustice and horror in the world around us.

I think it is no coincidence that the “Golden Age” of detective fiction was the between-war period, a time when life was changing, the rules by which everyone had always lived were upended, the values and morals they had always held immutable shifted and changed under their very feet. It was a time when an entire generation was trying to learn who they were, and what sort of a world they lived in–perhaps more importantly, what sort of a world they wanted to build. In a time of chaos and uncertainty, when the very ideas of truth and justice seemed like fairy tales, detective stories provided some assurance that good could conquer evil, and that justice was worth pursuing.

We are living in a time of chaos and change ourselves. We hope that the change will be for the better, but sometimes we can lose faith when we look at everything around us. I see an entire generation passionate for justice and truth, and sometimes getting too weighted down by the burden of those concepts to keep going, sometimes feeling like they are one lone voice shouting against the dark. Now, more than ever, we need detective stories to help give us that clue, to help guide us through these times, to remind us that we are not alone, and that even the small acts of justice, mercy, and truth we can do in our everyday lives matter.

Underrated Books

I saw this theme floating around today, and I was intrigued. The stated limit is “books with under 2,000 ratings on Goodreads,” and I cheated a little by including one with 2,039 ratings. I was pleased to see how many of my favorite books were not as underrated as I always suspected–Emily of Deep Valley, for example, had too many ratings to make it onto the list, as did several of Lloyd Alexander’s books. I still managed to find ten, though, and probably could have kept going did not supper interrupt!

Seaward, Susan Cooper. I love The Dark is Rising series, but this book of hers is little known, and deserves better. It is haunting and mysterious, hope-filled with a hint of terror behind it, and it’s the sort of book that stays with you for days afterward. Lovely, lovely writing. More people should read it.

The Rope Trick, Lloyd Alexander. Much as I love Lloyd, I did not love this book the first time I read it. The second (because even an unloved Lloyd warrants at least a second read), I realized it was one of the more powerful books he’d written, and that the very aspects that turned me off at first were its strengths. By the third time I read it, it had become one of my favorites. Again, it’s the sort of book that seeps into your soul and stays with you for a long time after you’ve closed it.

Clover, Susan Coolidge. More confessions: I don’t really like What Katy Did. The next two books in the Carr family series are better (What Katy Did At School will always be cherished by me if for no other reason than it introduces the always-delightful Rose Red), and this one’s my favorite. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people give up before they get to this point. Don’t. As with Louisa May Alcott and LM Montgomery, and Maud Hart Lovelace, these books are more revolutionary and progressive for their era than they appear at first. Plus, this one has some of the most gorgeous descriptions of Colorado I’ve read anywhere in it. I’ve never been further west than Minneapolis, but boy does this book make me want to.

The Keeper of the Mist, Rachel Neumeier. I haven’t come across a Neumeier book I dislike yet, but this one is my favorite of them all. Dreamy, fairy-tale-ish, with a strong edge of practicality, with fabulous characters and beautiful prose. My review on Goodreads itself says it all!

The Gate of Ivory, Doris Egan. Sci-fi that is sheer fun, with some more serious matters snuck in around the edges. Can you say tailor-made for me? It’s delightful.

The Runaway Princess, Kate Coombs. This is the book that goes 39 ratings above the limit, but I don’t care. It’s so much fun, and it’s shamefully under-read. Plus it’s the book that introduced me to one of my best internet friends (hi, Amy!)–after reading it, I looked up the author online, discovered her blog, started commenting on her blog, discovered another blogger who shared my love for Henry Tilney also commenting on her blog, and the rest was history.

Resistance, Laura Josephsen. Laura is one of the first indie authors I ever discovered, and the one who proved to me that independently-published fiction could in fact be brilliant, gripping, and well-written/edited. Sadly, this book and its sequel are now out of print, but I believe you can read them, broken into four parts instead of two, on Wattpad.

The Grass Widow’s Tale, Ellis Peters. I love Peters’ Brother Cadfael books, but I also thoroughly enjoy her lesser-known Inspector Felse books. The Grass-Widow’s Tale focuses on Bunty, Inspector Felse’s wife, and it is another one of those books that makes me want to shout with joyous strength by the time I finish.

The Castle Behind Thorns, Merrie Haskell. A Sleeping Beauty retelling that is really well done, something hard to find for that particular fairy tale. Cinderella, Snow White, even Rapunzel … those all seem easy enough to put a spin on that remains true to the original intent while still making it engaging for readers. Sleeping Beauty, not so much. Which is understandable, given that the heroine of it has pretty much zero agency throughout her entire story, and in order to give her agency one has to twist said story into something else entirely. Haskell manages to avoid both pitfalls, and create an engaging story to boot. It’s lovely.

Seventh Son, A.M. Offenwanger. I am the lucky beta reader who gets to see each tale in this series before publication, and have watched this world and these characters grow from the first. Offenwanger is another of my dear internet friends, and her books are always a joy to read. Seventh Son is especially fun, combining fairy tale elements with everyday life, and introducing some truly lovely characters. I would love to see these books get more appreciation!

As an author who has yet to break double digits for Goodreads reviews myself, I know how hard it is when your books continually fly under the radar–especially when self promotion is so hard to do without being tacky*. So, give some of them a chance and try one or two from my list, and see what you think!

*granted, for the dead authors on my list self promotion is well nigh impossible, and they aren’t exactly weeping into their morning coffee over lack of reviews, but I’m sure their heirs would appreciate the attention.

Magic in Disguise: Progress

I have passed the halfway point on Magic in Disguise!

This book has been more exhausting than any I’ve ever worked on, published or unpublished. I started it immediately after publishing Magic Most Deadly, which was released September 2013. Since then, the plot has changed about five times, and I took a long break to work on From the Shadows instead, as well as starting Rivers Wide (which is currently in the beta-reading stage), and have discarded many, many drafts.

This one, though … this is the one that’s going to stick. The last draft was close, gave the skeleton of the story, and this one is making sense of it and filling it in. I think I had a couple femurs in place of humeri before and was missing a patella or two, but I’m getting them all sorted now.

How’s THAT for a metaphor of story-writing?

This book takes place in London 1925, when Maia has been apprenticed to Aunt Amelia for a little over three years. The London setting means we won’t see the return of certain characters such as Merry and Ellie or Julia and Dan (though we might get a cameo for one of them …), but never fear, Maia and Len and Becket are all present, as is the indomitable Aunt Amelia (for at least part of it). There will also be some new characters introduced, such as Helen Radcliffe, a young lady magician who has become good friends with Maia and gets caught up with great enthusiasm in their current investigation. The threat this time is more personal, with danger entering Aunt Amelia’s house and attacking Len, but the stakes are no less high for that. This book also delves a little bit deeper into the magic system itself, giving more spells, potions, and other ways of practicing magic while Maia learns how to control her ability and attempts to not blow too many things up in the process. And, of course, we get to see the relationship between Len and Maia grow and develop, but whether or not that includes romance I’m not telling!

It’s fun to write, even while it is exhausting, and I am getting to that point where I am eager to finish it so as to find if others will find it as enjoyable to read as it has been to create. We’ve got a long way to go still, but little by little, slowly but surely, it is coming.

The Importance of Story

(Note: This is the first part of my presentation at the H-W Library, edited for this blog. The rest of the talk was on From the Shadows specifically, which may or may not make it into another post; we’ll see.)

I believe stories are immensely important—even essential—to us as human beings, because they convey truths we can’t get at in any other way. Which is a tricky point to attempt to elucidate, because as soon as you ask, “what sort of truths, Louise?” I say, “well, I can’t exactly explain them, that’s why we need stories,” and there we are. But I would like to try to delve at least a little bit into what I mean by that.

Truths we can’t get at in any other way: what does that mean, and how does it affect us? What sort of truths, and why do we need them? How can “mere” stories help us live fuller lives? We’d need far more than a blog post (or two) to fully cover this. But I think we can at least touch the edges of the concept.

There’s a moment in Tolkien’s Return of the King, toward the end, when Gandalf and the hobbits are nearing the Shire and realizing that there are problems there needing to be dealt with. Merry comments that they won’t have any difficulties there, because they have Gandalf with them. Gandalf’s reply is this: “I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for.” All their epic adventures—the greater story they got caught up in, as Sam mentions more than once—was preparation for living an everyday life. The great journey, the destruction of the Ring and overthrow of Sauron, the establishing of the true King, as great and important as those things were in and of themselves, they weren’t the end goal. They were giving the hobbits the tools they needed to live more deeply and more completely. They have returned to their own world, but not the same as how they left. “You are grown up now,” Gandalf continues to them. “Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.” And of course he is right. They overcome the trouble in the Shire with wisdom and wit, mixing mercy and justice with a shrewd hand, and restoring to right all the ills that had been done there.

In mulling over this point, I realized I had come up with a catchphrase for my own writing: carrying the epic into the everyday.

Something that is epic is, by its very nature, larger than life. Gods, magic, and heroes, as in The Iliad or Beowulf, which are two of the first stories that come to my mind when I hear the word “epic.” Stories that are meant to inspire, to carry us out of ourselves and into greater realms where a hobbit can be a hero and a schoolboy become a king. But we cannot live in that exalted realm, after all. We are not gods or monsters; we are human, living in a world of school and work, families, paychecks and taxes. We live in the everyday; we need the epic to help us make it a glorious adventure in and of itself.

This is what stories do: they sink into our hearts and give us the tools we need to live more fully, more richly, in the everyday world around us. As the hobbits found their grand adventure—their story—was giving them truths and tools they could then carry back to their world and use to live a fuller life, so we find the wondrous epics of story make us more fit for living in our world. The very best stories do far more than entertain or even enlighten us; they transform us into more than what we are, into the better version of ourselves, so to speak. One comes away from the best stories saying, “Yes, I may not be able to put it into words or even understand it completely, but something about this story makes me see things a little more clearly, love more deeply, speak more truly.” They show us truth about this world, about ourselves, about all possible worlds, in ways we never could have seen on our own. They can raise us up or humble us—sometimes both at the same time—encourage and exhort us.

But they are not instruction manuals thinly disguised as entertainment! Perish the thought! If you set out, in writing a story, to point a moral or teach people something, you have failed before you’ve even begun. No, one starts with the story—whether it be the characters, the plot, even the setting, whatever seed it is that each writer’s story grows from—and it shows one its own truths as it grows. That is the only way it can reach the reader. Otherwise there is no joy in it, no life, and no truth. That’s the miracle of the best stories: they start as one simple thing and grow to become more than themselves—which is just exactly what they do for their reader, as well. We can feel, after reading Return of the King, as ready to face the small troubles in our world as the hobbits were for theirs, because we have journeyed right along with them, to Rohan and Gondor and Mount Doom, and have grown up right along with them. Or take Narnia—when the children are told, at the end of various books, that they have gotten too old for Narnia, it is not a punishment or a statement that Fairyland is only for children. The point is that they have gained what they needed from Narnia, and now they must apply that to their real world. Narnia was their training, so to speak, and now the training is complete and they are ready to put it to use. And in The Last Battle we see that even the real world had its ending for them, that they had learned and grown and gleaned all they could from that and were now ready to move to yet deeper and truer adventures. How lucky are we as readers, that we are able to return as often as we need, to remind and refresh ourselves of those lessons and those truths!

I could list so many books to illustrate my point—Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence; Lloyd Alexander’s—well, everything he ever wrote, really, there’s a reason he is my favorite author, but especially his Prydain Chronicles; Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet, Diana Wynne Jones’ books … all of them able to delight and entertain us, as well as strengthen us. They give us a little piece of epic to tuck in our hearts and carry with us to strengthen us for the everyday. Are there other mediums that can do that as well? Yes, of course. Art, music, dance—I am a passionate lover of figure skating, which also has the ability to move and transport its viewers. But a story works more directly, and, I believe, is more universal. But I admit to being biased. After all, I AM an author. In any case, it doesn’t have to be a competition—one can appreciate and respect the nature of story without in the slightest diminishing any other artistic mediums.

You may have noticed, when I rattled off the authors I find inspirational, that they were all writers of speculative fiction—speculative fiction, for any who are not familiar with the term, is the catch-all phrase covering fantasy and science fiction. I mention them specifically not because I don’t think you can convey profound truths through everyday, realistic stories. You can. I love LM Montgomery, Maud Hart Lovelace, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens … and don’t get me started on my love for mysteries, which is a post for another time! I have enormous respect for those who can convey truth and beauty powerfully through realistic fiction. But I think the kind of truths I’m speaking of here, that epic in the everyday, are most easily conveyed through speculative fiction. As Neil Gaiman puts it so succinctly in his paraphrase of GK Chesterton: Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten. Speculative fiction allows us the best kind of symbolism, the kind that stands on its own at the same time it stands for something deeper. One can read Lord of the Rings as a fantastic adventure—because it is! But even reading it on the most surface level leaves one with a sense of satisfaction that evil can be beaten, that good can overcome due to the efforts of the smallest and most humble of all, and that everyone has a vital role to play in life, whether we can see it or not. And that’s only one level down beneath the obvious! One can go deeper, and deeper again—or, as Lewis puts it, “further up and further in.” There are always richer truths to be discovered behind the fantasy. I believe speculative fiction strikes chords within the human heart that other kinds of fiction cannot reach.

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Still round the corner there may wait A new road or a secret gate, And though we pass them by today, Tomorrow we may come this way And take the hidden paths that run Towards the Moon or to the Sun. -JRR Tolkien