Research for historical romances

This week Scribe Brian O’Conor let us know that he’d have to leave us. I’m bummed because I’ll miss his posts, and wish him the very best in the future! This post first appeared Monday on Dale Cameron Lowry’s blog…though I might have tweaked a word or two, since I’m never ever done editing….

This last couple weeks, I’ve been busy celebrating the release of my 1950s m/m romance Aqua Follies. Since the past is on my mind, I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned about research for a historical romance.

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There are probably as many ways to do handle research as there are writers out there doing it. My two most recent releases were set in the middle of the 20th century, long enough ago to qualify as ‘historical’, but not so distant from contemporary times. With both these projects, I approached the research as a series of layers, and I did my best to balance information and story.

First, I tried to place my stories as specifically as possible in time, to figure out where they fit in the big picture. For example, Aqua Follies takes place in late July until October of 1955. With those dates in mind, I framed the story with current events. WWII had ended ten years before, but the Korean War ended in July ‘53 so it made sense for the characters’ life experiences to be influenced by those conflicts.

In the mid-50’s Senator McCarthy was in power, and there were several incidents of gay men being rounded up and arrested or sent to asylums. At the same time the Mattachine Society – an early gay rights group – was spreading, and same-sex establishments were in operation in Seattle, their patrons’ safety reliant on a system of police corruption. Those were the kinds of real events that became the framework I crafted the story around.

Once I get the dates plotted out – the top layer – I look for information about what life was like in the time-period. Google is a gold mine for this kind of research. Pretty much the only limit for what you can find is your tolerance for digging. For Aqua Follies, I was able to find everything from essays on cultural attitudes towards homosexuals to the daily weather report, all of which helped me create the world where the story takes place.

It’s the details that will make the world ring true. My final layer of research is seeking out first person accounts that describe aspects of the story. One of the huge benefits of writing a story set in the ‘50s is that I could talk to people who been alive then.

My friend’s father-in-law, Overton Berry, played jazz in Seattle from the early ‘50s, and he was a huge help in filling in the good bits. Overton talked about how professional musicians operated, what the standard repertoire might include, and he also gave me a feel for what society’s attitude toward musicians might be. If I was working on an earlier piece, I’d look for diaries, old catalogues, and magazines to help with the fine detail. I will never truly know what it was like to live in 1950s Seattle, but I learned as much as I could to make readers believe I was there.

And what happens with all this research? Like ol’ Ben Franklin says, “Do everything in moderation, including moderation.”

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A good story will incorporate historically accurate facts without beating the reader over the head with them. This example might be kind of a cliché, but you don’t need a paragraph on how the Colt 45 was manufactured in the middle of a fight scene, and you don’t want a dissertation on a Victorian woman’s undergarments in the middle of sexytimes. Research should inform the story, not become the story.

In my work, I find the process has a real give and take; I write until I hit a detail I need to research, then dig around enough to feel comfortable writing more. In addition, research has helped me solve story problems. For Aqua Follies, I needed something dramatic that would keep my two heroes from coming together. A small story in the Seattle Times digital archives described how one of the real Aqua Follies synchronized swimmers mistimed a dive and nearly drowned. That two-paragraph article became a key event in the novel, and was definitely not something I would have come up with on my own.

Even with the best intentions, though, it’s possible to throw in an anachronistic detail. Despite something like eight beta readers and two content editors, it was the proofreader who recognized that Buddy Holly was still in high school in 1955, so couldn’t have had a song on Skip’s car radio. If there are other little slip-ups and a reader calls me on them, my best bet is to smile, apologize, and add them to my notes so I won’t screw up the sequel.

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I recently read a historical romance that I described as “the Glee version of a Regency”. The author had most of the details down, but there were enough little bumps either in characters’ attitudes or the language they used that I didn’t quite believe that version of the time period. The book sold very well, so clearly not every reader is going to throw their Kindle at the wall if a subordinate forgets to address a duke as Your Grace. Good storytelling is worth the effort, though, and I love the process of excavating the layers of history and finding a balanced way of bringing them to life.

If you’d like more information on writing historical romance, check out these articles by Elizabeth Crook, Chuck Sambuchino for Writer’s Digest, Anne M. Marble for Writing World, and KJ Charles. Thanks very much!

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The 1950s. Postwar exuberance. Conformity. Rock and roll.

Homophobia.

Russell tells himself he’ll marry Susie because it’s the right thing to do. His summer job coaching her water ballet team will give him plenty of opportunity to give her a ring. But on the team’s trip to the annual Aqua Follies, the joyful glide of a trumpet player’s solo hits Russell like a torpedo, blowing apart his carefully constructed plans.

From the orchestra pit, Skip watches Poseidon’s younger brother stalk along the pool deck. It never hurts to smile at a man, because sometimes good things can come of it. Once the last note has been played, Skip gives it a shot.

The tenuous connection forged by a simple smile leads to events that dismantle both their lives. Has the damage been done, or can they pick up the pieces together?

 

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7 Deadly Sins of SFF World-Building

Writing science fiction and fantasy is fun, and in my opinion, world-building is the bestest most funnest part. Whether you’re writing urban, historical, or alt-world fantasy, or a science fiction set in a galaxy far far away, world-building is a crucial part of the story-telling process. The world (or universe!) you create must be complex and multi-layered; it must be a place your characters operate in and interact with; and it must set the stage for your plot. It’s no easy task, and there are countless pitfalls at every stage of the process of creating a world.

Read to jump in? Here are my top cliches and tropes to avoid, listed in no particular order.

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Basing your other world TOO much on Earth

This is one of the biggest and easiest traps to fall into. Earth’s history and many cultures are far-reaching and complex, and it can be tempting to borrow elements whole-sale without bothering to do much work creatively. Think of how many famous fantasy worlds resemble Medieval-era Earth completely, right on down to the rampant sexism and casual racism (*cough* Westeros *cough*). There’s nothing wrong with using our world’s history and cultures to inspire your made-up world, but make sure it doesn’t become a lazy short-cut. If there’s sexism or lack of diversity in your world, you need a better reason than “that’s how things were back then.” You’re writing fantasy, not historical fiction. Get creative!

Over-use of common nouns

You know what I’m talking about…

The Keeper of the Shadow Throne awaits the Birth of the Kindred.

A Rim-born Elder must name the Crystal Celebrant on the Day of Undoing.

Don’t get me wrong–naming things is half the fun of writing fantasy and science fiction. And capitalizing a regular old word or concept can definitely lend it a sort of otherworldly gravitas. Just be careful not to over-use this trope, or your world will quickly begin to feel lazy and unoriginal.

perfect_planet-626x1024Making your races/cultures/societies too homogenous

So the indigo-skinned Topworlders enslaved the ruby-eyed Burrow Folk a hundred years ago, and now they hate each other with a vengeance. That’s fine, but does every Topworlder relish owning a Burrow slave? And do all Burrow Folk agree with the politics of the Burrow Queen who surrendered to the Topworlders’ superior technology instead of fighting for their land?

Here’s where taking cues from humanity is a good thing. I could strike up a conversation with the person sitting beside me on the bus and within ten minutes we’d be able to think of at least a few things we disagreed on–politics, religion, whether cilantro tastes like soap. Races, cultures, even sub-cultures don’t have monolithic beliefs that trump individuality. Make sure the individuals in your alien races or fantasy societies reflect this diversity.

Introducing a world-changing technology/magic without taking into account all its ramifications

“It’s like our world, but everyone can teleport!”

Yikes. The minute you start talking about wide-spread teleportation, it ceases to be anything like our world. How could it be? Something as potentially life-changing as that would have first-order, second-order, and third-order effects on the way a world was structured and the way its citizens operated within it. Do your world the service of thinking through massive changes in technology or magical power, and what kind of structural changes might arise from that.

Language that doesn’t reflect the world

Contextual short-hands and idioms are rife in the English language (or whatever language you’re writing in!) and they can really trip you up if you’re not careful. This is something I’m constantly correcting in my own worlds–if a concept or idea doesn’t exist in the world you’re creating, why would the character make any kind of reference to it? Good examples of this might be “inching along” if the unit of measurement isn’t inches, or “red as a rose” when there aren’t roses in space.

paperback04Not thinking about minutiae

Do you ever have that moment when you’re watching an intense adventure movie and you think to yourself “Good thing none of them have had to poop this whole time.”?

Worlds, at their core, are pretty boring. Your character may be battling the Dark Overlord of Doom, but the rest of the world isn’t. There’s waste removal and food service and communication infrastructure and architecture and the menial jobs that hold a society together. While your novel doesn’t have to focus inordinately on these things, it helps if you as an author have a basic understanding of how these processes work in your world, so there’s a seamless backdrop for the story to play out against.

Unless you’ve created a magical and majestic world were people literally just don’t poop.

Basing one-dimensional fictional ethnic groups on real-life ethnic groups

Okay, this is basically a continuation of the very first point, but it’s kind of a biggie. Rule of thumb, if you want to have Italians (or Native Americans, or the Irish, or Nigerians) in your fantasy or science fiction novel, you’re going to have to do your utmost to create an accurate and nuanced view of Italian culture. What you cannot do–please please don’t–is name them Etolians and have them running around shouting “Mamma Mia!” while they stuff their faces with spaghetti.

Any cultural or ethnic group within your novel should have multiple dimensions and a believable culture regardless of whether your main character comes from this culture or sees it as “other.” And this is where it gets tricky–the more your fictional group resembles the real-world group, the more you’re going to have to worry about being respectful and true to life. This becomes especially true when dealing with marginalized groups, but should really be implemented across the board. When in doubt, find a sensitivity reader, but that should be your back-up plan. Do your homework, and make sure you’re not basing a fictional ethnic group on a real-world ethnic group just because it’s easy.

Well, that’s world-building in a very large nutshell. Any questions? At the end of the day, creating a made-up world as complex, multi-faceted, and often nonsensical as our own world isn’t something that happens overnight. Take your time, be creative, and don’t rely on short-hand to make your point.

What are your favorite/least favorite SFF world-building tropes? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

 

Back to Basics

Here at Spellbound Scribes, most of us are old pros when it comes to writing. Whether we’ve published several books and stories or have just been at the grind for years, the mechanics and spirit of writing have been ingrained upon our lives, etched in black ink for all to see. Which can make it easy to forget that not all writers have gotten so far in the process. Some writers are still at the very beginning, grappling with questions of how to write, and perhaps even more importantly, why.

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Be inspired

Sometimes I dabble in answering questions at the community-sourced Q&A site Quora. I recently stumbled upon a question from a young writer who reveled in the simple pleasures of putting language to paper, but wondered whether that was enough. Should one have a literary voice that came through on paper? And did it count as writing if there was no deep meaning or profound content? The questions shook me, and I realized it’s been so long since I thought about the simple but deep-seated questions at the very heart of being a writer.

Here are my thoughts:

Writing for writing’s sake, whether poetry or prose, is enough. I strongly advise any young/new/inexperienced writers to unburden themselves of any expectations or assumptions about what writing is, what it looks and feels like, or what it’s supposed to accomplish. Words have power—feel them thunder through your veins, hungry for freedom. Then let them tumble forth, unbridled. Enjoying yourself while putting words to paper is wonderful, and not something everyone is lucky enough to experience.

In fact, after years and more manuscripts—finished and unfinished—than I care to mention, this purity of feeling arising from the act of creation has changed in many complex, indefinable ways. My relationship to setting words to paper has altered irrevocably, and I linger with occasional envy on the memory of what it was like to write before I was a writer. Never for long—after all, that impulse is what brought me to this point. Still, no one should ever apologize for writing for the joy of writing.

Personality comes from practice. In writing, having personality bleed through into your writing is called voice. Some writers have very strong internal voices that inform their writing (think Chuck Palahniuk, Ernest Hemingway, or Maya Angelou) and leap off the page, as recognizable as faces or names. Developing your voice as a writer is a process that can take years, and the Spellbound Scribes have discussed it at length in various blog posts throughout the years. Here’s the TL;DR on the basics:

Read widely. Non-fiction, fiction, magazines, novels, blogs—read everything you can get your hands on. Exposing yourself to a broad variety of voices will allow you to begin to grasp what appeals to you, or clenches your jaw, or echoes in your bones with a feeling you can’t name.

Be sure you grasp the basics of grammar, syntax, diction, and punctuation. Some of the most well-known authors bend these rules in pursuit of voice, but intention is key. You have to understand a rule before you can effectively break it.

Let your real voice shine through into your literary voice. Do you swear a lot in real life? Swear in your writing. Do you use slang? Figures of speech? Are you brusque and to the point, or do you prefer poetic turns of phrase and flowery descriptions? Identifying your real-world voice can help you define your literary voice.

Be true to yourself, but also don’t be afraid to experiment. As Steven King says in On Writing (a book I highly recommend for any writer, new or experienced):

“You may find yourself adopting a style you find particularly exciting, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When I read Ray Bradbury as a kid, I wrote like Ray Bradbury—everything green and wondrous and seen through a lens smeared with the grease of nostalgia. When I read James M. Cain, everything I wrote came out clipped and stripped and hard-boiled. When I read Lovecraft, my prose became luxurious and Byzantine. I wrote stories in my teenage years where all these styles merged, creating a kind of hilarious stew.”

There is no Platonic ideal of “meaning” in writing, nor should there be. Meaning arises from two areas in the practice of writing: what an author means or intends in their writing, and how any given reader interprets that meaning upon reading what the author has written. A writer are responsible for only one of those areas—the first.

Nietzsche wrote: “Thus the man who is responsive to artistic stimuli reacts to the reality of dreams as does the philosopher to the reality of existence; he observes closely, and he enjoys his observation: for it is out of these images that he interprets life, out of these processes that he trains himself for life.”

Watch, listen, read, write, repeat. Live a life rich with adventure, and emotion, and intention. Fill the well of creativity with beautiful, strange, incomprehensible things. Be present in your life, fly on magic carpets to faraway lands, cavort through dreams and night-time fancies. Everything else will grow naturally on its own. In the meantime, enjoy the wild ride!

“I have to be rent and pulled apart and live according to the demons and the imagination in me. I’m restless. Things are calling me away. My hair is being pulled by the stars again.”

Anais Nin

You Can Take a Break; You’re Still a Writer

The last two posts have been about being stuck while working on a writing project. I’ve seen a lot of this lately; so many creatives are struggling to work in the climate we’re all facing.

When I was young, a teenager, I reveled in my dark, black moods to create my best work. I even did better writing term papers when I was unhappy. And some people stay that way their whole lives — they need that dark place to tap into their creative muse to get words or other art done.

But as I’ve grown older, as I’ve turned this into a job, I’ve found it much harder to work when I’m in a dark place or when life is being difficult. I don’t want to create magic and monsters and adventure. I want to curl up and be alone with my dogs and husband and shut out the world. Even if I’m working on something dark or difficult and it brings me down while I’m working, so much so, that when I leave my office I have to physically shake it off, I don’t need to first be in that place to write those words.

I participated in Camp NaNo in April. I set myself a goal of 40k words. In the beginning, it went like any NaNo usually does. I had my outline and was ready to get started and felt good about my daily word counts. But, as the month went on, and things in my life weren’t perfect and outside things started to drain away my energy, I found each word that much harder to type. When I finally hit my 40k word goal, I was relieved. I had one day to spare, but I did it. Obviously, that’s not the whole book. But with everything else going on outside of writing, my hubs and I agreed we needed a week to decompress. So I promised myself if I hit my NaNo goal, I was going to take a week off from writing to get my head right again.

That was last week. This week, these are the first words I’ve written. We planned our “take a break” week from everything but the bare minimum at just the right moment. We run a business together and we had an emergency happen last week that, had I been writing, would have taken any energy away from my daily goals. We’ve weathered the emergency and I think the ship is righted and we’re going to be okay, but I am so glad I gave myself permission to take a break from my book.

This book is from my favorite series and if I had continued to write while dealing with so much, I think it would have suffered and when the editing came around, it would have been a snarl of a headache to fix.

I used to say you had to write every day when you’re working on a project. Yeah, take the weekend off, or a day here or there if you like working on the weekend, but don’t abandon the project because you’ll lose momentum and the narration and it’ll be so much harder to pick back up. But I needed that break. It’s okay to take a break. The book will be there when you get back and if you’re serious about writing, you’ll go back to it.

I’m 40k words in, the beginning is always a huge hurdle and I’m almost half-way done, so there’s no reason for me to be scared that I can’t pick it back up.

We have to give ourselves permission to take a break when we need it. Burn outs and break downs are real and horrible and if you can see one coming before it hits, you should do whatever you have to to avoid it. We all need self-care and sometimes that means dealing with life while your imaginary friends take a seat and wait for you to come back.

Well. This isn’t quite where I thought this post was going to go, but there you have it. I’m nearly 20 books into the business, so I think I can safely say that each book is different, each book will ask different things of you and you just have to trust your gut with each one. Some will come hard and fast and you’ll never take a break because you’re just trying to keep up with the words yourself, and others will take their time and give you the space you need, you just have to let yourself take it.

It’s okay. You’re still a writer. Every book has its own process.

On Being Stuck

The subtitle of this post should be: thoughts on how to regain forward motion.

Here’s the thing. In the last year, I’ve finished two books with my co-writer Irene Preston and a novella set in that same world. Before I edited this paragraph, the line read “I’ve only finished…” but I took the “only” out, because a novel and two novellas are definite accomplishments. In fact, you’re probably thinking I should be happy with three completed projects, and I am.

It’s just that I could have done more.

 

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In between the finished novel/novellas, I sliced and diced an old project, trying to make it work better, and began two other stories, only to stall out every time.

That’s a lot of crap, lemme check Facebook to see if I can shake something loose.

Those stories I fizzled out on? One is almost 200 pages long, and the other is just over 100 pages. (That’s double spaced, 12-font TNR, ~ 300 words a page.) The old project I fiddled with is even longer. My point is, I’ve invested a fair amount of time, creativity, and emotion into each of these and I don’t want to see all that energy go to waste.

Any time you’re doing something creative, false starts are part of the game. I’ll get an idea, slap it down on the page, and see what comes of it. I’ve got several of those; two or three thousand words sketching out a main character along with some bullet points regarding the plot, the kind of thing I can throw together in an afternoon, then set aside to see if anything roots.

But you figure if – at best – I write 5000 words a week, it probably took me 3 months to get to 200 pages. That’s too much for me to toss aside, and while I’m one of those writers who loves the process of editing, I can’t fix what isn’t on the page.

So now you know a couple of my dirty secrets. I give up too easily and then whine about it.

Oh, and to complicate matters, I’m doing Camp NaNo this month, the abbreviated spring version of NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. I committed to writing 20,000 words in the month of April. I’m at 17,600 words with three days left, which means I need to get one of these projects moving again.

 

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Basically I made this post in the hopes I’d find a way out of this pickle.  I did a google search for “how to get unstuck fiction writing”, and in the interest of helping others in the same situation, I want to share some of what I learned.

The author of an article on The Center for Fiction website said her blocks usually come from not knowing the characters well enough. She recommended doing some free writing from the main character’s point of view, asking them why they’re so pissed off. (That’s not as crazy as it might sound. Jump HERE for the full post.)

An article on the website thinkitcreative.com also recommended focusing on the characters to move the plot forward. The author here suggested working on the backstory to get insights into what could happen next. One of their ideas involved going to an online dating site to get a list of questions for the characters to answer, which kind of cracks me up, but just might work. (Jump HERE for the complete post.)

I also liked an article on the Writers Digest website, because it recommended brainstorming “what could happen next”, then choosing the option the reader is least likely to expect. The article’s second bullet point was even more succinct:

Kill someone.

Heh. Yeah. That’d definitely shake things up.

Finally, they suggested meditation, to let your mind go quiet and see what ideas wander in.  “Stillness is the native language of creativity, yet it’s astonishing how we try to avoid silence.” (Jump HERE for the full article.)

So yeah, maybe I’m not really stuck. Maybe I’m just giving my ideas more time to blossom.

Or maybe I should spend less time on Facebook, and more time exploring. I’m going to go walk the dogs and see what I can come up with. If you’ve got ideas for how to move through a block, share them in the comments. Would love to learn from you!

 

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Shameless Self-Promotion/New Release

If you’ve been following me on other outlets then you know I’ve been working on the very first companion novel to my Ash & Ruin Trilogy. I’ve turned it into a full-fledged book with a full cast of characters, some of whom will get their own spin-off books. And this one ended up earning a TBC ending even though I really intended for it to be a one off.

Books. Whadda gonna do, right?

Anyway, this baby drops in just under twenty days on 4/25/17 and you can pre-order your ebook copy now at all the outlets. If you’re a paper book person, never fear, this will be released in paperback as well!

So, are you ready to see it?

At fifteen years old, Gwen’s world has ended. Not because she’s gone through a break-up. Not because her parents are ruining her life with a lame curfew. Not because her grades are struggling. Not in the way a fifteen-year-old’s life usually ends.

At fifteen years old, Gwen has burned the dead bodies of both her parents and fortified her home against the plague-spreading monsters who killed them, waiting for her sister, Maggie, to make her way back home in the apocalyptic landscape that is the world now.

At fifteen years old, Gwen’s world has ended, but she’s not giving up. She’s not giving up on life, her home, or her sister. Because all you have left when the world ends is hope, so that’s what she’s got, a BB gun and hope.

Hopefully it’ll be enough.

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(It, along with all of my other books, are available on all of Amazon’s sites, but there are so many to list, so just do a quick search for it and you’ll find it!)

English Majors Unite!

The other day there was a bit of a kerfuffle on Twitter. I know, quelle surprise!

A very successful writer was asked for a bit of advice from a young fan as a new English Major.

The writer’s response? English Major = “Do you want fries with that?”

I mean.

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She told the fan to get a degree in something that would get them a lucrative job and write on the side.

Yeah. Sure. Some people totally do that. But to completely belittle the fan’s already chosen path while also tearing down the service industry? REALLY?

You won’t be surprised to find out that I, myself, was an English Major. I have a loverly BA in English with a concentration on Creative Writing. A major I created myself because it didn’t exist at my school at the time. I was very lucky that my adviser was also the department chair at the time so getting it approved wasn’t quite the battle it could have been.

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I am damn proud of my degree. I have both dyslexia and dyscalculia. Believe me, getting dyslexia under control has been much easier than my dsycalculia–there was no way I was going to be a math or science or business major. But guess what? As a self-published writer, I am running my own business. My husband also runs his own business, but I also help with that. I run the office for both of us. And my degree helped me, believe it or not.

English degrees teach you critical thinking, creative solutions, and so much more.

Now, do you need an English Degree to be a writer? Of course not. I know many writers who are also something else. Writing isn’t paying the bills just yet for them. But it might some day.

Did I need an English Degree to be a writer? To be a good one, yes.

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I can say with a little confidence that I had “raw talent” when I was younger. When I got to be creative with my English assignments, I always did well. I actually remember my senior English AP teacher writing “I can’t wait to see what happens next!” on a paper I turned in. It was an amazing feeling. I really thought I could write. I thought I was a good story teller.

Then I went to college.

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I had professors who were published novelists and playwrights and poets.

And they let me know raw talent wasn’t enough then and it wouldn’t be enough in the future. They tore my papers apart. I had one professor (the aforementioned adviser) who knew I was turning in the first drafts of papers and would automatically deduct a full letter grade because of it. I went to him, demanding to know why I kept getting B’s on my papers and he told me. He told me even if the paper was an A on the first try, that just told him the second try would be that much better.

My poetry was ridiculous. It was flowery and vague, like I didn’t want my reader to know what I was talking about. My professor shredded my poems until I learned to paint a damn picture that he could see.

I am the writer I am today because of the lessons those professors gave me. It was well worth the time and money. Maybe I would have gotten to that point as an English Minor, or just taking a couple of classes for fun, who knows? But I know being an English Major changed my life and I am damn grateful for it.

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Do you need to be an English Major to be a successful writer? Of course not. Or maybe you do. None of us are the same. Some of us need the instruction, some of us don’t. Some of us will write a NYT bestseller in our 20s and others will do so in their golden years. You are special and different and need to decide what is right for you. Don’t let some random person–even if they are a NYT bestseller themselves–tell you what is the right path for you.

Oh, by the way, I was a waitress all through college. It was the most thankless, degrading job I’ve ever had and I worked in insurance after college. Never tear down the service industry. Customers are assholes and service industry people are overworked and treated like shit every day. Everyone should have to wait tables on Mother’s day, or run a cashier over the holidays. People would be far, far nicer and learn some damn manners.

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Now. Thanks to that English degree, I’m putting out my 16th novel (under this name), and it is up for pre-order now! If you were a fan of my Ash & Ruin Trilogy, this is a companion novel, maybe you’d like to take a peek?

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