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!

Books, influences, publishing, research, writing

Last Sale Day

Today is the last day to get Candles in the Dark for free! It’s had a fantastic opening weekend, THANK YOU to everyone who has bought a copy and/or spread the word. It means so much to me.

The seed for this story was planted last September–I had finished a reread of Elizabeth Gaskell’s “North & South” and was thinking how rare characters like Margaret Hale are in fiction: quiet, strong-willed, filled with integrity, passionate about justice, willing to acknowledge when she’s made a mistake, fiercely loyal, yet still, and I repeat myself here because this is the rarest bit, quiet.

That mixed in with thinking about how fun it would be to read a mystery set in the Adirondacks with a scholarly protagonist along the lines of Harriet Vane. I grew up “in the foothills of the Adirondacks,” as we always described ourselves in Canton and Potsdam, two towns about ten miles apart with four colleges between them. So many mysteries–or indeed, stories in general–set in small towns focus only on the quirkiness of them, a la Gilmore Girls; or else portray the people in them as small as the towns themselves, narrow-minded and blindly prejudiced.

I wanted my story to show my small town as I knew it–warm, welcoming, open, accepting, full of hard-working, real people. I wanted my protagonist to have that same integrity and passion for justice that Margaret Hale had, with the scholarly mind and desire for honesty Harriet Vane shows. I wanted my story to show the real struggles of a rural, northern farming community during the Depression, which were very different from rural farming communities in the south and midwest. Above all, I wanted it to be a story where justice and truth prevailed and light shone in the darkness.

CANDLES_final

As to how well I succeeded in all those goals, only you, the reader, can tell. Pick up your copy of Candles in the Dark today, for free, and let me know what you think in a review!

The old Grist Mill I based Wharton’s Mill on, situated on the beautiful Grasse River.

This photo essay shows a little bit more of the Canton I know and love as it is today. It is indeed a beautiful little village!

1920s, characters, editing, fantasy, publishing, research, world-building, writing

Magic Most Deadly Sequel! (Soon)

Well!

Thanks to Camp NaNoWriMo, I managed to get the entire first draft of Magic Most Deadly’s sequel written in a month. One month! I started at the end of June, and finished right before the end of July. That’s … mind-boggling, really.

Now granted, it’s just the bare bones of the story. It needs about 20,000 more words, not to mention more clues, more suspects, more red herrings, more everything that makes it a mystery. But the skeleton is there, and fleshing it out will be the fun part (is that a gross metaphor? Sorry).

This sequel … I’ve been working on it ever since I published MMD, so … since fall 2013. That’s almost two full years, and it’s taken me this long to get the first draft written. So you can see why I’m pleased.

I like the direction it’s taking Len and Maia – some of the plot twists surprised even me, leaving me scrambling to catch up. I like the character developments, getting to know these people a little more, digging a little deeper into who they are than I did in the first book. And I like the plot, messy as it is right now! I think it’ll be a lot of fun once it gets cleaned up, and I hope will leave readers guessing until the final reveal.

One of the fun things about this book is that I was inspired to break out of my preconceived notions of 1920s England. I did some research, and as a result I get to introduce some new and diverse characters in it. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Julia and Dan and Sgt. Andrews and all the rest from MMD, but it was really exciting for me to broaden my scope and take the notion that magic breaks down class and gender roles, and realize that means that it would also break down racial walls, and then explore what that looks like.

I’ll be doing more posts about the world of MMD and the characters in the upcoming months, as I work on the next draft, so let me know if there are any questions you have or topics you’d like to see me tackle!

For now, I’m taking a little break to let the story settle, and working more on From the Shadows, which I hope to be able to publish late fall or early winter. And I haven’t forgotten about Rivers Wide, either! That’s due to begin serialization also this winter. It’s going to be a busy season, but a fun one!

Books, characters, fantasy, favorites, fiction, influences, research, world-building

Lloyd Alexander and Diversity

An incomplete (but pertinent) bibliography of Lloyd Alexander’s works for young people:

Time Cat, 1963. Takes place in ancient Egypt, Rome, Britain, Ireland, Japan, Italy, Peru, Isle of Man, Germany, and America, all extensively researched and handled with great respect and affection.

The First Two Lives of Lukas Kasha, 1978. Takes place in fantasy Persia, extensively researched.

The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, 1991. Takes place in fantasy China, patterned after Chinese folklore and fairy tales, extensively researched.

The Arkadians, 1995. Takes place in fantasy Greece and neighboring islands, patterned after Greek myths with very obvious affection.

The Iron Ring, 1997. Takes place in fantasy India. Patterned after Indian myths, incorporates traditional Indian caste systems and the importance of honor and karma, extensively researched. (Also the first Lloyd Alexander book I ever bought with my own money.)

Gypsy Rizka, 1999. Features a Romany heroine.

The Rope Trick, 2002. Takes place in fantasy Italy, pre-unification.

The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio, 2007. Takes place in Arabia.

In all the calls for the need for more culturally diverse books, I have not seen anyone mention Alexander’s works, and that’s a shame. Because I grew up enthralled with fairy tales and folklore of many different lands, and infused with the desire to immerse myself in and explore all sorts of “other” cultures in my writing, and I never considered that an odd way of thinking, and that is due almost entirely to Lloyd. To me, respectfully, excitedly, and lovingly exploring different cultures through fantasy was normal, and sticking with basic European traditions was weird.

We do need diverse books. So let’s not forget the man who was writing them long before any campaign for such notion began, the man who wrote diverse books solely because he loved the richness of them.

I would also like to note that all of the female characters in Alexander’s works are strong, no-nonsense (except for the ones who like nonsense), independent, intelligent, witty characters, at least if not more so as well-rounded as the male characters. And most of them are capable of physical fighting as well, though they tend to be clever enough that they avoid the need to fight much of the time.

(Lloyd Alexander has also written a few picture books which are beautifully illustrated and also culturally rich. The Fortune-Tellers, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, is set in Cameroon, and is witty and charming. Dream-of-Jade: The Emperor’s Cat I (sadly) have not yet read, but it is illustrated by D Brent Burkett and set in Ancient China and looks just as marvelous as all Alexander’s other works. The King’s Fountain, another I’ve not yet read, is illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats and set in the Middle East.)

TL;DR

Lloyd Alexander was awesome.

1920s, characters, families, research, world-building

Welcome to Stanbury

Hello! Welcome to Stanbury, ancestral home of the Whitney family. Come right in! Let’s use the side entrance; it seems more friendly, doesn’t it?

Maia used to swing on the gate when she was a child. It drove her mother mad, of course, but she loved the freedom of swinging combined with the ability to see the world passing by on the road. Even if “the world” were usually only a few stray escaped sheep.

Mind your step here. You wouldn’t want to trip on these stairs. Ouch!

Shall we pop into the kitchen a moment? Mrs Humphrey won’t mind. If we’re lucky, she’ll even give us a cup of tea (and possibly a slice of fresh-baked bread).

The sitting room gets marvelous light, wouldn’t you agree?

Mrs Whitney says it’s terribly draughty, though.

Yes, the bathroom is rather small. But so elegantly decorated! Ellie insisted on that.

The Whitneys are so very proud of this room, an addition the current Mr Whitney had built after he was married (but before the War, naturally. One doesn’t indulge in unnecessary expenditures in this day and age. Have you heard that they had to sell the London house? Terrible shame, but one can one do? Mr Whitney was only thankful to be able to hold onto Stanbury).

And here we are back onto the grounds! Sorry we couldn’t take more of a detailed tour, but really, it is terribly gauche to peek into people’s lives too much, don’t you agree? Besides, you wouldn’t have wanted to see Ellie or Merry’s bedrooms, believe me. They are a terrible mess, especially since Merry keeps chasing away all the maids with her Socialistic notions.

I hope you enjoyed the tour! Stanbury might not be the grandest showplace of the county, but the local folk are proud of it all the same. After all, as Maia says, it has character, and that’s even better than impressiveness.

All pictures are, in reality, of the Old Vicarage in Croxton Kerrial, Leicestershire. I love real estate websites for finding house inspirations.

1920s, Books, characters, favorites, fiction, heroes, heroines, influences, publishing, research, world-building, writing

Truth

I recently read Emma Thompson’s charge against the current generation of film stars, how they don’t seem to believe enough in their work to promote it, and that if one loves what one does enough, one should be willing to shout it from the rooftops.

It hit home. Because I have been doing a terrible job of promoting Magic Most Deadly. Granted, it’s not because I don’t believe in it, but it’s fear of being found annoying or arrogant or pompous. Or who knows? Maybe it is a lack of self-confidence – not it the book, but in me. I’m not going to try to psycho-analyze myself too deeply here. I just know that, to do justice to my book, I need to be bold about it.

So, truth:

Magic Most Deadly is the best damn thing I’ve ever written. It’s not highbrow literature. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea. But it is a fun story, with characters who became very real and individual people to me throughout the writing, and with a twisty and entertaining plot. It’s my tribute to Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and Lloyd Alexander and Brian Jacques and all those writers I’ve mentioned in every one of my “Influences” posts.

I loved writing it. I even enjoyed editing and polishing it. I researched the heck out of that thing, and even enjoyed that part. I grew as a writer (and a person, really) throughout its creation process.

It’s a great little book. And I hope everyone who likes mystery and fantasy and humor and English country houses and strong-minded heroines and a hero who respects that and a fussy, stubborn mentor in the background will pick up a copy and give it a read.

Not because I want to be rich and famous and everybody loves meeeeee and thinks I’m wonderful! But because I really, I honestly do, think you’ll enjoy it.

Magic Most Deadly. Get your tickets today.

(Did I do okay, Ms Thompson?)

philosophy, research, stories, writing

The Joy of the Library

Thank you all for your encouragement on my last post! I did get out my journal (and my fancy pens that I bought for art and then never used because I haven’t started the art book yet) the other day, but I haven’t written in it yet. Mainly because I started a new writing project (I am calling it Jane Austen meets Alias meets Diana Wynne Jones, which gives you a glimpse into how my brain works) and am having too much fun with that to try anything else.

Carl and the kids dropped me off at the library Friday late afternoon, and after wandering around for twenty minutes in a blissful daze about being able to pick out books without distraction, I meandered to the back, sat at a table, pulled out my laptop, and wrote.

Aside from the one tutor who breezed through the DESIGNATED QUIET AREA (seriously, there are signs!) talking at the top of his voice to his clearly not-hearing-impaired student, it was bliss. Forty minutes of quiet writing time, no one needing me, no guilt over the household chores staring at me, no need to hop right up and get supper started, nothing.

So I wrote, and I plotted, and I looked up the differences in address as regards a contessa vs a countess, and I wrote some more, and finally I got up with a happy sigh, checked my books out, went into the foyer, called Carl, and talked him through the last few steps of supper prep (basically: “Stir, turn the oven off, leave the dish covered.”). Then he and the littles came back for me, we went home, and ate the dinner that I’d started before I left and Carl finished. It was delicious, by the way. Lentils and rice!

We are definitely attempting to make this a weekly thing. Coffee shops are fun, but a quiet (or MOSTLY QUIET yes I’m talking to you obnoxious tutor who was supposed to be in the teen room anyway) library with all sorts of wonderful resources (not just the internet!) at my fingertips is far better for me. And it gets me out of the house, and even one hour of not having to be “mommy” is wonderful.

I love libraries, always have, ever since I was very young and enthralled by the one row of picture books at our local library (it was teensy-tiny, for a teensy-tiny town, but far better stocked than you might think). Library nights were the highlight of the week for our family for years: Dad would get home from work, we’d all pile in the car and drive to the library (the one night it was open late), browse for a while, check out an enormous stack of books apiece, stop at the gas station on the way home for soda (or Clearly Canadian – Mountain Blackberry was the BEST) and chocolate bars, then go home, Dad would make popcorn, and we’d all sit in the living room with our books and snacks, and read until bedtime.

The first thing I do in every new town we move to is find the local library. Sometimes the local library sucks and we have to go further afield to find the best one for us. We’ve been lucky these last two moves – we’ve ended up only five minutes away from a wonderful library each time.

The big excitement for Joy when she turned five was that she could finally get her own library card. Both the girls love going to the library, admittedly for the toys as well as the books, but also for the thrill of SO MANY books in one place, and all for the reading of anyone who wants. It really is a wonderful thing, when you think about it.

So it makes sense, for me, that the library would bring a sense of peace to my soul when I go there to write, that it would feel just right, comfortable and natural in a way that no other place can quite match. I’m already eagerly anticipating my next writing visit there.

Maybe this week I’ll get around to attempting some poetry.

Where is your favorite out-of-the-house place to write?

Joy signing her name for the library card

Enthralled in a book that she checked out all by her very own self!