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.
In my most recent blog post, I spoke about the defaults I revert to when writing characters. Today I’ve been thinking about one of my other storytelling defaults, which is the importance of community.
I was going to say that this theme shows itself most strongly in From the Shadows, but then I thought, No, actually it comes out most strongly in the Pauline Gray series, and then I dithered about it for a while before realizing hey, it doesn’t have to be a competition. So let’s simply look at the three different worlds I’ve built and see the way community plays out in each, without holding one against another, shall we?
First up, From the Shadows. On the surface, it looks like the main problem of the book for our protagonist, Riss, is that she’s stuck on a spaceship in the future with no way to get home. But actually, as the story develops, we see–and Riss learns along with us–that her real problem is her deep, unsatisfied need to be part of a community where she is valued both for her own self and for her gifts. The community aboard the Caledonia is a close, tight-knit, self-contained group, and Riss’s struggle to figure out if she could belong there is really what makes up the heart of the story.
Then there’s Pauline Gray. The need to find and/or build community doesn’t play as active a role in Pauline’s stories, but the community of a small, rural town in the midst of the Depression is the firm backbone of the series. This is a place where the people look out for each other, and even if they don’t like each other very much, they come together in difficult times to do what needs to be done. That’s why murder is such a shattering thing each time it happens in Pauline’s world–because it tears apart the fabric of the community, and it breaks the unspoken trust that people have in their neighbors. Pauline is less aware than Riss of her need for community, but she feels the tearing of it even if she is not aware that’s what the problem is.
Well, what about Whitney and Davies? I will admit the theme of community isn’t quite so strong in these books as it is in the others I’ve already mentioned–but it is there. In Magic Most Deadly, Maia’s discovery of magic allows her to enter into the community of magicians, and in Glamours & Gunshots she starts to figure out what she wants her role in that community to be. Len, meanwhile, is moving out of the community he’s always been part of and searching for a new one, one where he doesn’t always have to hide who he is and what he does. Together, they are forming their own microcosm of a community and seeking ways to serve the larger community at the same time.
When I was younger, I was pretty oblivious to the human need to exist within a community, but the older I get, the more I value it. I’ve lived in places without any sort of community–was a young mother in some of them, which I 100% do not recommend–lived in others where there ought to have been community and wasn’t, and hardest of all to endure, lived in some places where they was a community and I was on the outside of it. Those experiences have all shaped my own deep desire to be an active and valued member of a community. Not a selfish wish to be part of some hidden “inner circle”–like Mark in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength–that’s when community turns into a clique, and is one of the ugliest things in the world. But a genuine community, where people look out for each other and take care of each other and help each other out when needed, and everyone has something to give and everyone’s lives are woven together.
I don’t talk about politics on this blog, but it isn’t political to say this country is experiencing a deep division right now, a tearing apart of what we value and how we view the world and our place in it. There is a limit on how much each ordinary person can do to change that on a grand scale. But here’s what we can do: we can look out for our neighbors. We can take care of the vulnerable in our towns, villages, and counties. We can cut down that limb from the tree in our yard that is threatening to fall on the next-door neighbor’s house. We can thank our town officials for their hard work during this election season. We can buy a coffee for the guy (6 feet) behind us in line at the local bakery, just because. We can make a meal for the new parents down the street. We can encourage our kids to talk to the outsider at school, the one shy kid who always stands in the corner and can’t seem to believe that anyone would want to be their friend.
Community doesn’t exist simply by a group of people living in close proximity to each other or being part of the same activities. It comes about when people commit to caring for one another, to seeing each other, to not living as though others don’t matter.
That’s a message I keep needing to tell my heart, which is probably why it keeps cropping up in my stories. Maybe you need the encouragement as well? Covid-19 has created a lot of loneliness for a lot of us, and made community something out of reach in many cases. I hear you–moving to a new place in the midst of a pandemic means it’s been awfully hard for our family to do anything toward finding a community. But it’s worth it to keep trying.
And if you can’t find it in real life right now, I hope you can find enough of a community in books to tide you over until you can.
Yesterday was Agatha Christie’s 130th birthday. I wanted to write a tribute to her, but I was already late for the Self-Published Fantasy book recommendation post, and I didn’t want to push it back yet again. So I’m writing my tribute today!
When it comes to fiction authors, there are two who top my personal list for “writing stories that shaped me.” Not necessarily stories that I love the best, though these two are always on that list as well, but stories that have played the largest role in shaping who I am and how I view the world: Lloyd Alexander and Agatha Christie.
They might seem an odd combination, a writer of children’s fantasy stories and a writer of murder mysteries, yet their stories share certain important traits. A passion for truth. The constant struggle to find the appropriate balance between justice and mercy. The need for integrity in every aspect of one’s life. The importance of humility, and what happens when humans lose that.
As well, they share a warm, wry tone, a way of slicing through the deceptions we humans surround ourselves with, seeing the very heart of a person, and then displaying it with love. They both seem to say throughout all their works, “Look at how funny we humans are!”
It is one thing to be able to incisively see humanity without rose-colored glasses; it is one thing again to be able to warmly embrace and love our fellow humans. It is far rarer to be able to see humans as we are, and to recognize the same follies and flaws in one’s own self, to show it without falling into either satire on one side or gush on the other, and to include oneself in that portrayal. Mrs Oliver and Fflewddur Fflam alike are some of the only authorial inserts into a story that really work, and that’s because their creators are as unsparing of their own flaws as they are of others, and as warmly amused by them.
The first Christie book I ever read was The A.B.C. Murders, and it is still one of my all-time favorites. So much so that my husband bought me the gorgeous new hardcover edition for our last Christmas in England, and I adore it.
My mystery reading up to that point had been mostly Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown (I was twelve); I’d been wanting to try Christie for a while but my mom was concerned I might get nightmares. I don’t remember exactly why she decided I was ready, but I remember getting so drawn in, despite the creepiness of the cover (this one), that I couldn’t put it down, and promptly went on to read all the Christies Mom owned, and then pillaged the library for more. The only book I refused to read for years and years was Curtain, because I couldn’t bear to read Poirot’s last case (now I think it’s one of the most brilliant books she wrote).
At twelve, I loved Poirot the most, for his cleverness. In my late teens and early twenties, it was Tommy and Tuppence, for their zest for life and clever banter (more on that in a moment). At this point in my life, I adore Miss Marple, for her keen wits and gentle ruthlessness. I probably identify most with Mrs Oliver, though!
In my mid-twenties, I struggled with finding joy in my writing (that has happened more than once since then; this was the first time, however, such a thing had happened to me). I had written a bog-standard epic fantasy that was, in retrospect, dreadful; I had written a light romance that was also dreadful; I was having fun with LM Montgomery and CS Lewis fanfiction but really wanting to write something of my own, yet not having any sort of ideas or characters. I had one idea, of an eldest sister in a fantasy world turning out to be the one to save the day rather than the traditional fairy tale convention of the eldest sister being the bad one, but I couldn’t gain any traction on it, and then I read Howl’s Moving Castle, and clearly there was no point in me trying that story when Diana Wynne Jones had already perfected it.
Then I picked up a Tommy and Tuppence story to re-read for fun, and slowly, ever so slowly, a few glimmers of light came to me. What if Tommy and Tuppence were in a 1920s England … with magic? Solving magical crimes? Working for a magical intelligence agency? What if I swapped their personalities, so that the Tommy character was the one who worked off impulse and instinct, and the Tuppence character was calm, stolid, and practical?
The mostly-abandoned eldest sister project came back to me at that point and the story started to fill out. What if the practical Tuppence character had two younger sisters? What if her parents were fairly useless and her sisters given to drama and the entire family leaned on her to keep them going? What if she was bored, fed, up, frustrated with being the responsible one, and looking for adventure? What if she suddenly discovered she had the use of magic, and got thrown into this new magical world that existed underneath the real world, and had to partner with this exasperating magical intelligence agent to solve a crime and save the day? What if underneath his flippant exterior the exasperating intelligence agent was kind, thoughtful, and really tired of always having to put on a mask for everyone, and he delighted in the elder sister’s wits? What if they became friends and partners?
I started writing. There were a few false starts, and plenty of difficulties along the way, but eventually all those “what ifs” turned into Magic Most Deadly, a book I chose to self-publish because it was so different from anything else out there at the time I thought no publishing house would look at it. It was my debut novel, and while looking at it now I can see all its rough spots and places where I would now write it differently, I’m still proud and fond of it, as well as of Maia and Len, my two detectives.
I don’t know that I’ll ever achieve a Christie-like insight into human nature, or her ability to turn those insights into characters that live and breathe and sparkle through her stories, but she has given me something to strive for in my own writing, not to mention principles that have stayed with me through all the ups and downs of my own life: the importance and beauty of truth; the need for justice balanced with mercy; the value of humility; the necessity of a good sense of humor no matter what life throws at you.
Thank you, Dame Agatha. May your legacy continue for years and years to come.
Happy September, friends! We survived the summer, and now we get to enjoy cooler temps, harvest delights, cozy sweaters (that’s cosy jumpers for my friends across the pond), your hot beverage of choice … and self-published fantasy books galore!
I saw Self-Published Fantasy Month advertised yesterday and decided it was the perfect chance to highlight some of my favorite self-pubbed authors, as well as hopefully finding some new ones to appreciate as well. I’ll try to do one post every Monday morning after this week–but we’ll see how well I am able to keep up that schedule once school begins for the kids!
I am starting off with my three most favorite self-published authors, and the ones whose books I return to again and again.
These books follow Cat, a woman whisked from our world to one where magic is subtle, domestic, and omnipresent, and where she has a particular gift of her own. The cast of characters expands as the books progress, as does the world, yet they never lose that quiet, close-knit feel.
Next is Stella Dorthwany, who has written Sand & Storm and Blood Traitors, as well as some short stories in the series, and has newly released a standalone book, Song & Flame (I have this on my Kindle but I haven’t read it yet–I’m saving it for a time when I really, really need a brand-new good read. I know it won’t disappoint).
Dorthwany’s books contain some of the most detailed and complex world-building I’ve come across, fascinating magical structures, and characters who are vivid and complicated. Warning: these are not stories that are easy to put down!
Finally, for this week anyway, is Laura Josephsen, whose Dust & Gold is one of my favorite comfort reads; I find myself picking it up along with Miss Read, Agatha Christie, and LM Montgomery on days when I feel particularly gray. She’s also published the Rising quadrology, which is heart-rending in places but ultimately hopeful.
If you’ve ever wondered how the characters in a fairy tale might really react to their situations, Josephsen is the writer for you. Dust & Gold, as well as the Rising books, looks at the personal consequences that would come out of kingdom conquests and other standards of fantastic fiction, and then manages to bring redemption, love, and even joy out of them. These stories never sugarcoat pain, nor is magic ever a, well, magic cure for anything, but the darkness is never allowed to triumph, either.
And there are our first three authors for this month! I hope at least one of those has whetted your appetite. Go, check them out, and then come back to let me know how much you loved them!
You can also purchase a paperback copy through Amazon
Wow, that’s great, Louise, you might be saying right now. But why should I buy this book? What’s it all about?
I’m so glad you asked!
Diamonds to Dust is the second book in the Pauline Gray mystery series, though it can be read and enjoyed on its own (if you do want to read the first book first, it’s on sale right now for $.99 at all the above retailers–links can be found at this page.)
Pauline Gray is a single woman in her mid-twenties, living in the small town of Canton, NY, nestled in the foothills of the Adirondacks in northern NY state. The year is 1934; Prohibition has just been repealed, the country is in the thick of the Great Depression, and rural farming communities in the northeastern part of the US, though not suffering as badly as other parts of the country, have all had to pull together to try to get through this.
Pauline thinks of herself as a scholar, first and foremost. Yes, she writes a column for the local newspaper to pay the bills, and yes, she secretly writes cheap adventure novels on the side to supplement the newspaper income, but in her heart, she is still an academic, dreaming of the day she can return to the world of study and research she loved so well in college. In the meantime, those traits serve her well when unsolved mysteries trouble her neighbors and friends. Pauline’s compassion and drive for justice combine with her ability to sort facts and sift truth from falsehood to make her a formidable detective. Not that she ever seeks out trouble, mind you, but somehow it always seems to find her …
The Pauline Gray mysteries are for you if you like:
Mysteries with plots that keep you guessing all the way through
Stories set in and informed by the 1930s, or historical periods in general
Stories set in small towns with a tight-knit community
People doing the right thing even when it’s difficult or unpleasant
Women supporting other women
Justice served for those the world tends to overlook.
Sound like your cup of tea? Then pick up your copy of Diamonds to Dust today! What are you waiting for?
A few years ago, as I was struggling to find my footing for the sequel to Magic Most Deadly, I was struck instead with inspiration for a science fiction novella, a tribute to Star Wars, Star Trek, and other hope-filled space operas. It demanded I put aside everything else and write it–so I did.
(That version of MMD’s sequel was terrible, anyway.)
Somehow or other in the writing of it, the story turned into so much more than this light-hearted tribute I had originally intended it to be. A theme of found family, of home, of finding the place where you belong, wound its way through. It became a letter of solidarity with all the other people in this world who feel stuck in the shadows of life and have a hard time feeling they belong in the light.
When I finished the novella (the song in the final act was written late at night, after I was supposed to be sleeping, because it came to me complete with tune and I was afraid that if I waited until morning I would lose it–which proved to be a good call, as I re-read the song the next day and said, “Wait, I wrote this?”) and sent it to my beta readers, they one and all sent it back saying it needed to be longer; it needed to be a novel.
Nah, I said. The story did what I wanted it to do. It was just a fun side-project. Now I needed to get back to my real work, that darn sequel.
But the story wouldn’t let go of me, and finally I broke down and expanded it. Filled out the side characters a bit more, developed the plot more deeply, made the protagonist’s journey a bit more winding, less jumping from Point A to Point Z without anything between. As usual, my beta readers were right. This was what the story needed.
This was the second book I self-published, and I made a lot of technical mistakes with it. The font was too small, the margins off, etc. So a couple years after publishing it, I went back to it. I loved this story, and I believed it deserved a better package. I went through and did a basic copy-edit, cleaning it up a bit without changing anything significant. I altered the font on the cover and made the back copy a bit cleaner. And I fixed the font and margin size and other issues in the physical copy. I added a brand-new short story at the end as a bonus, since the novel itself is on the shorter side of the spectrum.
From the Shadows is still my least popular published book. Yet those who have read it and reviewed it love it just as deeply as I do. My friend Laura still nudges me every so often asking when I’m going to write a sequel (I keep trying, but so far all the plots are too dumb or contrived. If it’s meant to happen, eventually something will come to me). My dream for it is that eventually it finds its own family, that the people for whom it will mean the most will discover it and take hope and encouragement from it.
To that end, I occasionally do things like write this blog post, reminding people that I did, once, write a story that was not a detective and/or fantasy tale, and that if space opera, character-driven stories, found families, and found homes, sound like something you would enjoy …
As a favor, to those of you who have read and have not yet left a review anywhere, would you mind doing so, either on one of the above sites or on Goodreads? They really do go a long way toward helping others who might also enjoy the book discover it. Those of you who have already done so: thank you! The more we all spread the word, the more we help this story, and these characters, find its, and their, home. After all, as one of the major themes of the story and the title of this post says …
It’s sale time! From now until November 30, my first-in-series and stand-alone books are only $0.99.
Magic Most Deadly, my first published novel, the first in my Whitney & Davies series, combines murder, mystery, and magic in 1920s England. It’s Agatha Christie with magic!
From the Shadows, a sci-fi stand-alone (so far …). A journey through space and time that is really all about finding one’s place in the world. This story is especially dear to my heart!
Last but not least, Candles in the Dark, an historical mystery novella, set in the Adirondack region of NY State in the 1930s (aka my hometown). Written under the name Louise Bates to distinguish it from my fantastic writings, this is currently the only title in the series, but Book 2 is coming soon, and I hope will be followed by many more.
Happy reading, and Happy Thanksgiving, friends! I hope this week is filled with love and laughter–and good books–for all of you.