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, 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!

1920s, Books, fantasy, mystery, publishing, Sci-fi

All Books, All Retailers

The switchover is complete, and just in time for the holiday season to begin! You can visit each book’s page to click on the new link, but for your ease, I’ll also include them all in this post.

Magic Most Deadly

For Maia Whitney, life after the Great War is dull, monotonous, and drab. Nursing soldiers in the bloody fields of France hadn’t been easy, but it was better than life at home, standing in her sisters’ shadows. There seems no chance for a change until the night she witnesses a murder in the woods.

The last thing Magic Intelligence Agent Lennox Davies needs is this outspoken, independent lady crashing his investigation. Bad enough that a murder happened on his watch; much less that she had to see it happen. He works alone, and he does not have time for Miss Maia Whitney’s interference.

But as Maia’s own magical talent blossoms and danger thickens around the two with every step they take, before long Len and Maia must rely on each other in a fashion neither has ever done before. If they can’t learn to work together, England itself might topple. Even worse, if Maia doesn’t learn to control her magic soon, she might do more to destroy them even than their shadowy enemy.

Can they set aside their stubbornness and self-reliance in time to save themselves—and all England?

Glamours and Gunshots

Maia Whitney has held men as they died before, but never in peacetime, and never in her aunt’s front hall. And this unexpected death is only the beginning. Someone is stealing magic and life from England’s magicians and using them for his or her own gain. No one is safe, not even Magical Intelligence Agent Lennox Davies, whose targeting by the parasite brings him his own set of challenges to work through. Though she is only an apprentice, Maia will not sit back and wait for others to bring about justice, and teams up with Len as she did once before. Using a blend of magical skills and detective work, together Maia and Len dig deep into a case that has its roots buried in the shadows of the past … and could leave one of them magic-less forever.

Magic and Mayhem

Four exciting short stories set in the magical England of the Whitney & Davies series!

The Third Thief: Maia Whitney has returned home for her sister’s wedding determined to stay aloof from family dramas. Alas, the disappearance of a valuable and possibly cursed bracelet alters her plans. Can this magician’s apprentice solve the crime and save her sister’s wedding from doom and disaster?

Many Magical Returns: On Susannah’s seventeenth birthday, she learns why her mother has always insisted she never use magic in front of Uncle Ernie. Escaping her uncle’s greed and learning magic on the run are tall orders, but one thing is certain: this is a birthday Susannah will never forget.

Passion & Practicality: Steady, sensible Evelyn has always looked after and protected her flighty, feather-brained older sister Violet. So when Violet accidentally kills a man, of course Evelyn is going to take the blame. But her former fiancé Henry, now working for the magicians’ Domestic Protection Agency, has other plans.

Masks & the Magician: Who is the mysterious woman? Is she the Grand Duchess Anastasia, as she claims, or a fraud? The English magician calling himself Merlin has his own ideas, but untangling truth from lie is a difficult task in this mission. When everyone wears a mask, who can be trusted?

From the Shadows

Whisked from her troubled, solitary life to a spaceship centuries in the future, widowed folk musician Riss Waldon must first figure out how she got there, and then if it’s possible to get home. Before long, she is visiting strange and deadly planets and meeting new alien races, and forming friendships with the crew. Even as they strive to discover a way for her to return, she wonders if it possible to step out of the shadows of her past life and stay here. But when the well-being of the entire crew rests on her shoulders, she isn’t sure she’s up to the task. What if she fails them? All she can do is try …

Candles in the Dark

Pauline Gray, journalist by day and novelist by night, 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 uncovering evidence of a local smuggling ring and stirring up secrets some people would rather 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. No matter what the cost …

Diamonds to Dust

What starts as an intriguing puzzle soon takes a more sinister turn when a dead body shows up. When all of the clues only make matters more murky, how can Pauline Gray make sense of it all? This case will take all her wits and investigative ability to solve … but the body count is growing …

Horace Van Camp, of Clayton, NY, is dead, and his wealth has been divided among strangers. Arabella Warren cannot understand why she should have inherited a diamond necklace from a man she never met, and she asks Pauline Gray to look into the matter. Eager for a new challenge, Pauline takes the case. The deeper she explores, the more complicated matters become. Why was Van Camp’s great-nephew disinherited? Did the pompous lawyer have anything to do with it? How were the twelve beneficiaries chosen, and why?

When a dead body turns up on the Van Camp estate, the puzzle takes on a more sinister aspect. With the police dismissing it all as a series of coincidences and accidents, it is up to Pauline to set things right in the face of the greed, deception, and fear that lie at the heart of this disquieting case. It will take all of Pauline’s ingenuity to solve this case, but she is once again determined to see justice done for those who cannot seek it for themselves.

Whew! Long post, but there you have it. All my books, one post, each with one simple link to get you to all the stores where they are sold. If you are looking for something to read over Thanksgiving (or over the weekend, for non-Americans), now’s your chance!

1920s, Books, characters, fiction, influences, mystery, reading list, stories, writing

Happy (Belated) Birthday to the Queen of Crime

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.

Books, fiction, mystery, publishing, writing

Pauline Gray Sale

I had a book come out this past weekend!

Which is, naturally, tremendously exciting.

But! I have other exciting news.

I don’t know about you, but I hate having to start a series in the middle. So, to make it easier for people to introduce themselves to Pauline before jumping into Book 2, I have put Candles in the Dark (i.e. Book 1) on sale for the rest of this month. Now, for only $.99, you can find out all about Pauline’s first venture into the world of detecting before you read about her second.

So don’t delay, pick up your copy of Candles in the Dark first and then snag Diamonds to Dust to read as soon as you finish! As novellas, they are the perfect bite-size read to enjoy in these last few days of summer. Not many more beach days left to us, so make the most of them!