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!

influences, mystery, world-building, writing

The Story Behind Pauline Gray

A few years back, I had finished a re-read of North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell, and was pondering on what an unusual protagonist Margaret Hale was. Someone who was quiet and reserved, yet passionate for justice and a fiercely loyal friend. It was her quietness that stood out the most to me. How often do we see a protagonist who is deeply reserved, quiet, and yet never a pushover and rarely passive?

I had already, at that point, been mulling over the possibility of writing a straight-up detective story, no fantastic elements involved at all, and one set in my home town, or at least the region around where I grew up.

My ever-present love for Dorothy L Sayers’ scholarly-minded and ruthlessly honest Harriet Vane combined with my appreciation for Margaret Hale, and behold, I had the start of a new character for a new series: Pauline Gray.

Picture cropped from a vintage dress pattern

Set in my hometown of Canton, NY, in the 1930s, the series begins with Candles in the Dark. In it, we meet Pauline Gray, a young woman and scholar who graduated from St. Lawrence University with honors and has struggled to find work she considers meaningful ever since. She writes a regular column for a local newspaper and secretly supplements her income by writing cheap adventure novels, something which she is ashamed of, as she considers it an affront to her dreams of writing something that matters.

Into this imperfect but well-ordered life comes a mystery which she feels compelled to solve, because no one else cares or has the ability to pursue it. Even though her instinct is to stay as far away from anything so sordid as murder and anonymous letters as possible, her sense of justice won’t let her indulge such fastidiousness.

In Diamonds to Dust, the second novella, Pauline is a little more ready to jump into a mystery when asked to help, though she still struggles with the ugliness of it all. She has found she takes both intellectual satisfaction as well as moral satisfaction from solving troubles no one else can or will. She would still prefer not to have to write her adventure stories, but so far no better work has turned up. (It might take her a while to get her priorities straight and figure out the true nature of meaningful work.)

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Pauline, as well as her friends and neighbors, through these first two novellas. This series combines two wonderful things for me as a writer: a character I find challenging and satisfying to draw, and a setting that reflects an area I know and love well.

I am already working on the next novella in the series, and I have tentative outlines for three more after that. After that, who knows?

If this description of Pauline Gray has intrigued you, Candles in the Dark is available to purchase through all the usual channels, and Diamonds to Dust will be out August 14. One small request: if you read and enjoy Candles in the Dark, would you be so kind to leave a review at whatever retailer you purchased it from, and/or at Goodreads? The more reviews a story has, the easier it is for other readers to discover it. Thank you so much, and happy reading!

1920s, characters, fantasy, favorites, fiction, heroes, heroines, influences, publishing, stories, world-building, writing

Easter Eggs

“Think how exciting it would be,” went on Tuppence, “if we heard a wild rapping at the door and went to open it and in staggered a dead man.”

“If he was dead he couldn’t stagger,” said Tommy critically.

-Partners in Crime, Agatha Christie.

If you’ve read Glamours and Gunshots, the above passage might ring a faint bell. I open G&G with:

Merry birdsong filled the air on that bright April morning when the dead man stumbled into Aunt Amelia’s front hall.

Technically, he was dying, not dead, else he couldn’t have stumbled anywhere; corpses in general being no longer animate.

Glamours and Gunshots, E.L. Bates

I try not to do too many obvious “Easter Eggs” in my books, since it can be irritating to a reader when an author goes overboard with clever allusions (or allusions that attempt to be clever) to other works. This one, I hoped would be subtle enough to pass without annoyance to anyone, and I had to include a tip of the hat to Tommy and Tuppence–Maia and Len wouldn’t even exist without them.

I’ve shared this before, but it’s been a while–the idea for the story that eventually became Magic Most Deadly sprang from having recently finished reading Patricia C Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s The Enchanted Chocolate Pot immediately after having read a Tommy and Tuppence book, and wistfully wishing someone would write a Tommy-and-Tuppence-with-magic story.

Being a writer, my very next thought was, “well, if no one else has written it, I guess I’d better,” and voila, the seed took root.

I swapped the personalities around so that Tommy’s steady and cautious nature became Maia’s, while Len had Tuppence’s craving for excitement as well as tendency to act on impulse. As the characters came to life their personalities grew more rounded and took on characteristics of their own, but the initial forming remained at their core.

Today is three weeks since I published Glamours and Gunshots; three more days marks Magic Most Deadly’s fifth birthday. This world and these stories have come a long way from that initial seed, but my appreciation for Tommy and Tuppence has not abated. My opening sentence of G&G was a small, private way for me to show that appreciation.

(PS: there’s also a subtle nod to Dorothy L Sayers in the book–did you spot it? Hint: it’s NOT the conversation Maia and Len have regarding detective stories.)

A brief reminder that reviews for Glamours and Gunshots are most appreciated! So far it has one on Amazon and one on Goodreads, but it needs more than that in order for it to fit into their algorithms and help other readers find it. 50 or more reviews is ideal! I’d settle for making it into double digits.

Have a wonderful weekend, friends! We are one week and one day away from leaving for England, which means my next post will be written on the other side of the pond!

Books, publishing, world-building, writing

Candles in the Dark … FREE!

It’s here! And it’s FREE today, tomorrow, and Monday, so snag it during this opening weekend!

CANDLES_final

Candles in the Dark, a mystery novella by Louise Bates

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 …

Candles in the Dark is set in my hometown of Canton, NY, during the 1930s. It does not feature any of my family members, or friends-and-acquaintances, not even borrowing any last names. Nevertheless, it is as true a representation of that town as I could write. For the first time in any of my stories, I understood how the setting could become another character. Even the parts of the town that have changed since then—the Town Hall burned down long before I was born; the Hotel Harrington has been replaced by a Dollar General; the train station is now a bar—came alive in my imagination as I wrote the story. My dad was always available for all my “Canton in the old days” questions, and I pored over the old photos and memories shared on the Historian Town and Village Canton NY page.

Yet this story was not just a tribute to my home and roots. As it developed, a fine sense of justice for the oppressed, and light shining in the darkness came through. Which is why, as I said in my last post, it is so fitting that this story comes out during the Advent season, the season of coming hope, of promised justice, of peace triumphant, the season of knowing light is returning to the world even if it is not here yet.

So here, as a gift from me to you this Advent, is my mystery novella. I hope it brings as much light to your hearts as it did to mine in the writing of it.

Candles in the Dark, free for Saturday, Sunday, and Monday on Amazon.

Books, influences, Sci-fi, world-building, writing

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.

Books, heroines, publishing, world-building, writing

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.

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!