Journal as Story

I recently finished a re-read of Andrea K Höst’s Touchstone series (I almost wrote trilogy, but since she’s added two books to the original three I think it’s definitely a series now), and am currently reading Melissa McShane’s “The Summoned Mage,” which is a fantasy written in journal format (I’m about halfway through and enjoying it so far), and both are reminding me of the experience of writing From the Shadows.

I don’t generally write even in first person, so writing FTS was a new experience for me in a lot of ways–first person, journal format, and oh yeah, my first time writing science fiction. It was also the first time I wrote a novella and then stretched it out into a novel (a short novel, but a novel nonetheless).

Journal format is interesting, because it lets you inhabit your main POV character in a way even first person doesn’t. It feels very real, and I know FTS felt far more personal to me when it was finished than Magic Most Deadly or any of my other (non-published) novels. Even though Riss wasn’t me (yes, we have a lot in common, but this was not a thinly-disguised autobiography), by the end I had almost become her, so to speak. Which sounds a whole lot creepier than I intended.

It’s also a challenge to write in journal format without making it sound too tedious or ridiculous–nobody actually writes in a diary or journal the way we have to do it in a novel, reporting conversations in dialogue and giving background information and the like. So the author either has to ignore that and hope the readers can suspend disbelief enough to enjoy the story, or else give a reason for why everything is written the way it is. I went the route of “someday this might become historical record and I might become the official recorder for this journey so I’m going to start organizing my entries that way now,” and I think it worked pretty well, though there obviously still has to be some suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. However, since FTS started with time travel and involved aliens, faster-than-light travel on spaceships, and a future earth where humans live in harmony with nature, the story format was not likely going to be the thing a reader got hung up on (though I will say I did MOUNDS of research so as to make all those things, if not believable, at least as easy-to-accept-and-move-on as possible. It involved a lot of conversations about physics with my engineer husband, also, weirdly enough, conversations about infrastructure).

The biggest difficulty for me with using the journal format for FTS is thinking about replicating it in any possible sequels (not that there’s been a great call for sequels, as the book has a pretty small readership as of this point, but you never know). For Riss, her journal was her safe place to express her feelings. By the end of the book (this is spoiler-ish but only in terms of character development, so I think it’s safe to continue even if you haven’t read the book) she had gotten to the place where she doesn’t need to rely on it anymore. So why would she pick it back up? Another historical record-type thing? (Like in the Cecy & Kate books?) Because she decides she likes the act of writing down her experiences, even though she doesn’t need it in the same way? I don’t want her to go backward in character development, that’s one thing I loathe in a series, where each book starts with the main character somehow back to where he or she had been at the start of the previous book, and all that character development in said book is wiped out (or in TV shows, where that sort of thing is all too common).

Or would it be possible to write any future books in straight first person, not as a journal? Or even in third person? I’ve written a few short stories* set in the FTS world, and in all of them, including the Riss-centric ones, I use third person. Which works for a short story, but I’m not sure if it would be too jarring in a novel. Megan Whalen Turner might be able to get away with switching POV characters and bouncing from first to third POV (and back again), but hoo boy, I don’t know if I’ll ever reach her level of prose mastery.

So I don’t know–I don’t know that I’ll ever write another story in the FTS world, or if I’ll ever write another story in journal format. I am, however, deeply grateful for the experience of having done it once, and reading the stories that I am right now are making me smile as I remember the experience. I loved that world, and those characters (I think I might have to do another post sometime soon on how the story and the characters developed), and I know working on it made me a better writer overall, no matter if I never use that style again. I can’t give much higher praise than that.

*I have written six short stories revolving around the FTS characters at different points in their lives, but I haven’t yet figured out what to do with them. Offer them up as freebies here on the blog? Publish them together as a FTS short story collection? Release a second edition of FTS with one or two of the stories included at the end? I’m still undecided, but once I’ve made up my mind, I’ll let you all know.

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Candles in the Dark Cover Reveal

All kinds of exciting things happening at StarDance Press this summer … new logo, new projects … new book covers! Today I get to reveal the cover for my mystery novella, Candles in the Dark.

Pauline Gray, journalist and secret novelist, discovers anonymous letters are being sent to a young widow, insinuating that her husband did not die by accident. Pauline’s compassion and journalistic instincts combine to help her to seek an answer to who is sending these letters, and why. Was Bob Ferris really murdered, and if so, by whom? Before long, Pauline is stirring up secrets some people would remain buried along with the dead. Despite the danger, Pauline won’t stop until she has shone a light into the hidden places of the past and seen justice done for the grieving widow and her son. Even if it costs her everything …

Candles in the Dark is not necessarily a cozy mystery–it doesn’t have a quirk or a particular theme to carry each book along. It is closer to a cozy mystery than most other mystery sub-genres, however: no emphasis on gore or grimness, no “adult situations,” no spending any time in the killer’s twisted mind. It is, like many cozies, set in a small town, with an amateur detective, and if this turns into a series rather than a one-off, I hope many of the characters will be recurring.

In coming up with a cover for it, I wanted something to reflect the nature of the detective (a writer), the feel of the mystery (not too creepy but not exactly chipper either), and the idea behind the title (shining light into dark places). THIS is the end result:

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I’m so pleased with it! I’m using “Louise Bates” as the byline for this one to help distinguish it from my speculative fiction, which is always published under E.L. Bates.

I still don’t have an official release date–the end of June is the best I can do right now–but once I know for certain, I will put that information on the site as well. I’m so excited to share this new venture with all of you!

NEW Mystery Novella, Coming Soon!

Back in September, I wrote this tweet:

The response was overwhelmingly positive, and the next day, I tweeted this:

That idea ended up being a 20,000 word mystery novella set in my hometown of Canton, NY. It’s titled Candles in the Dark, and here is the blurb:

Pauline Gray, journalist and secret novelist, discovers anonymous letters are being sent to a young widow, insinuating that her husband did not die by accident. Pauline’s compassion and journalistic instincts combine to help her to seek an answer to who is sending these letters, and why. Was Bob Ferris really murdered, and if so, by whom? Before long, Pauline is stirring up secrets some people would remain buried along with the dead. Despite the danger, Pauline won’t stop until she has shone a light into the hidden places of the past and seen justice done for the grieving widow and her son. Even if it costs her everything …

It was a step outside my comfort zone, writing-wise, to do a story that was not fantasy or sci-fi, and to try to capture the flavor of a real place in a real time. Thankfully, along with local historians (the Facebook page Historian Town & Village Canton was hugely useful, the photos alone were amazing), I could call or email my dad any time I got stuck on something, and he could pass along memories from his parents, or stories he’s heard from other folks of the previous generation. He was my first beta-reader for this story, and was able to correct a few of the physical details I’d gotten wrong, and confirm places where I’d hit the nail on the head. This was my first time writing a story where the setting turned out to be as much of a character as the people themselves.

In the end, I really loved it.

Of course, the problem with writing a mystery novella is that they aren’t easy to get published. Short stories or novels themselves can find homes well enough, but a novella is a strange beast, neither one nor the other.

So, I’m publishing it myself.

I don’t have an exact date yet, but it will be coming soon–possibly even next month!–and I will update here as I get more details down.

I hope you enjoy Pauline and her adventures in my hometown as much as I do! If I get a positive enough response to the story, I might even be able to turn it into a series after all.

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.