I love horses. We had ponies and horses when I was a kid, and they’re just wonderful creatures. My first job was exercising horses for an elderly man. I couldn’t get enough of them when I was young.
Unfortunately, I haven’t had access to horses in years. I live in the suburbs now, and my housing association frowns on having them in your backyard. So, I had to throw some horses into my latest novel. (They’re in the upcoming sequel, too!)
First, there’s Merlin. Merlin is Thomas Carillon’s magnificent black Morgan stallion. My favorite horse growing up was a chestnut Morgan with a large white blaze named Dannyboy. As clever as he was beautiful, he had smooth gaits and a big attitude. I thought about giving Thomas a Tennessee Walker like one of the horses I exercised for the elderly man because that one was like sitting in a rocking chair. You couldn’t ask for an easier ride. Thomas ended up with a Morgan because they are small in stature—and Dannyboy was such a great horse. Since Thomas is lame, I thought he would have an easier time mounting a Morgan.
Merlin is stout-hearted and fast. He’s gentle and well-suited to his kind owner. Unlike many stallions, he isn’t aggressive to other horses and rides well with Bucephalus, Hadrian’s mustang.
Hadrian Burton named Bucephalus after Alexander the Great’s horse. (The story goes that only Alexander could ride the wild stallion.) Bucephalus is a buckskin mustang. Mustangs are tough horses that still roam wild in the United States today. They are descended from the horses of Spanish conquistadors and come in a beautiful variety of colors. Bucephalus is a buckskin. These are horses with golden coats and black manes, tails, and points. They don’t have the black dorsal stripe of dun horses, otherwise, they look similar.
Both Thomas and Hadrian have disabilities. Thomas has clubfoot, and Hadrian has PTSD. Their horses provide them with both transportation and emotional stability. In our modern world, horses, the animal we so depended upon in the Old West, continue to help us. Horses are used in therapy to help people with disabilities, including PTSD. They are such amazing animals!
I think my latest book, Carillon’s Corpus, is up and on its feet again. It’s still wobbly, but at least it isn’t a dead heap in the mud.
Some people in the writing community look down on romance books as if they are fluffy and easy to write. (Some romance books probably are, but I think there’s a touch of misogyny with that thinking, as well, since it tends to be a women’s genre with an audience primarily consisting of women.) I had a friend, a female, who said romance was fluffy and not serious to my face. I kept wondering if she forgot what genre I wrote, but I think she did it because she was a jerk.
Carillon’s Corpus, like Carillon’s Curse, is a M/M paranormal romance with a Western setting and a mystery. In both novels, disabled gentleman Thomas Carillon, a medium, helps lawman Hadrian Burton track down a killer with the help of the victims’ ghosts. I’m basically weaving together two parallel stories—a romance and a mystery. I’ve written a couple of epic fantasy books with several subplots, but I find romances like this more challenging. Neither storyline is a subplot. They are dual plots. You can’t throw one out and still have a story.
To make matters more fun, it’s told in two points of view, and each POV (point of view) character sees the events differently. Since both of these novels are written in third person—close, that means each character’s scenes are written to reflect the POV character’s language as well as perspective.
So I have a lot of things to keep my eye on as well as all of the aspects of story structure, setting, and dialogue a writer has with any book. Since I also do extensive research with all of my romance books (except for the Chainmail and Velvet, a M/M romance fantasy D&D parody series—that was pure fun), I’m also trying to be careful about what words I use, what items furnish the scenes, where the events take place, etc. Oh, yeah, and I also have to write well.
But sure, it’s all a bunch of meaningless fluff. (I wouldn’t spend so much of my time writing this stuff if I thought, even for a minute, that that was true.)
Whatever genres are your favorite to read or write, don’t let anyone put you down for enjoying them. Sometimes other people just don’t get it. And sometimes they’re jerks.
Writers will tell you there are three types of writers:
Pantsers, those who write extemporaneously (by the seat of their pants.)
Planners, those who write using outlines and by planning ahead.
Plantsers, those who utilize a combination of the two.
I’m a plantser…but not by choice.
Although a lot of my character development happens when the characters start talking to each other, I begin by planning them, and I like creating a skeletal outline for the plot that I fill in as I go along. I also answer a set of questions before writing each scene.
But with every book, all of that planning falls apart at some point.
Maybe instead of a skeleton, I’m creating outline spider webs. It’s frustrating and frightening. Sometimes, it’s a characters fault. (Thomas Carillon, don’t look away. You know who I’m talking about.)
Often, however, it’s simply because I forgot to look at my notes and got carried away. It’s like swimming in the ocean, looking back, and realizing you’re a lot further out than you intended. You’re out with the sharks now. Land looks faraway and your blanket and cooler are barely visible.
I’m treading those waters now. My throat is clenched with fear, and I’m worried about that thing that just bumped against my leg.
I hate feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing. Out of control. The bones all nothing but wispy fragments. I know I’ll work through it and find my way back to the story I had planned—to those scenes I was waiting eagerly to write and the Happily Ever After that has kept me going. By the time I finally get to that HEA and do a few revisions, I should have something a little different than I had planned, but better.
Sometimes being a writer means clutching spiderwebs in your hands and swimming with the sharks.
I enjoy giving my characters gifts to help them through the story. I don’t mean wings or magical abilities—although sometimes I give them those, too. I’m talking about in terms of backstory and friends. Other writers probably do this; they simply might not recognize it as a gift they give to their characters.
My mother died recently. She was an abusive narcissist, and our relationship was complicated. I suppose because of this, it comes naturally to me to write characters with abusive parents or guardians.
I consciously chose not to do that with Thomas Carillon of Carillon’s Curse, my Western gothic paranormal romance, and the sequel to it I’m writing. I had already made Thomas’s life difficult. I gave him clubfoot in the 1800s, when it wasn’t easily—or successfully treated, a sensitive nature, and the sometimes troublesome ability to talk to ghosts. He’s also gay at a time when this could have landed him in prison in Texas and could have possibly resulted in his death
How awful would it be to give him bad parents on top of all of that?
Thomas is a sweet character, and I love him. I gave him a gift I never had—two kind, loving parents who wanted only the best for him. I gave him wealth and privilege. I gave him, as an adult, a staff of servants who cared about him and Gracie, a cat who senses ghosts. (They didn’t have emotional support animals in the 19th century, but that’s basically what she is.)
In Lover, Destroyer, my m/m fantasy romance, I cursed Kite with a terrible, destructive power that separated him from other mages and made people fear him. When the book opens, he’s a child who has destroyed an entire city at the emperor’s behest. Nothing is left behind, not even a baby’s shoe. An army of mages takes him back to the emperor—all of them fear, even despise, the boy in their care. Kite is a sad, scared, lonely little boy.
So, I gave him a gift. Cinder from my only m/f fantasy romance, The Inquisitor’s Gift. It’s the same universe, the same land. Cinder, at this time, is about to become a teacher at a prestigious magic school in the capitol. He’s good-hearted and fearless with a silly sense of humor. He takes Kite under his wing, and does what he can to help him through a frightening period.
This doesn’t mean that Kite grows up to be a healthy adult. He’s twisted and dark. Sadistic. Mercurial. A secretive, haunted man who thinks love isn’t meant for him.
Although I enjoy plunging characters into the depths of despair, I always like to give them special things that I wish I’d had when I felt alone or desperate. For me, it’s one of the joys of writing.
One of the fun things about writing Carillon’s Curse, my gay paranormal western gothic romance, was researching Austin, Texas, in the late 1800s. I love doing research. For Carillon’s Curse, I spent a lot of time researching old Austin, the actual serial killer who terrorized the city in 1865, and how the Civil War continued to impact the lives of Texans in the late 1800s. I love learning about different periods in history. This period was called the Gilded Age in the United States. (We didn’t have a queen named Victoria.)
I’m back there again, writing the sequel, and rubbing elbows with Thomas and Hadrian. Although the clothes and furnishings, in my opinion, are elegant and beautiful, many of the attitudes and norms are not. The term “Gilded Age” was coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley and refers to the process of gilding an object with a thin covering of gold so it looks gold. It’s not actually gold itself. It’s artifice. Instead of a golden, the era was fake—a mere pretense of the beauty and success it promised.
Online encyclopedia britannica.com describes the Gilded Age as a period of “gross materialism and blatant political corruption.” At the same time, in the South, Jim Crow laws were in effect. Many of them would remain in effect until 1965. They segregated Black people and made it difficult for them to vote. Some of these things remind me of current events. There’s a taste of racial inequality in Carillon’s Curse, but expect it to play a larger part in the sequel.
The way the US seems to be separating itself into two worlds upsets me deeply. That’s going in the book. It’s still going to be a hot love story, but the background will look, unfortunately, a lot like our own time.
On the bright side, Thomas and Hadrian are going to get to walk together on a beach and play in the warm, gray waves of the Gulf of Mexico. As with any time period, no matter how difficult, life is not without its pleasures. They will grow even closer and more deeply in love. Love is always beautiful—even when everything around it is ugly.
I’m delving into the past, but I’m spending a lot of time with Thomas and Hadrian on the beach.
There are many phases to writing and publishing a book. I’m in my least favorite phase. The part right before the book releases. I’m trying to use this time to work on my next project, but it’s difficult. I feel sick and excited and scared all at once. I’m too emotional to get lost in the new story.
I never look for huge market success. I’m not Stephen King. I don’t sell millions of books and make fat wads of cash. What I live on are reviews. Every good review means I did my job—I connected with a reader. Every negative review makes me die inside.
I’m supposed to have a thick skin by now. I’ve been at this for a few years. I shouldn’t be bothered by negative reviews. One author friend advises against even reading them.
But the whole reason I write is to communicate with people. I’m shy. I don’t see many people. Being asthmatic and at high risk during the pandemic, I see even fewer of them these days. I talk to people through characters and stories. I hope they have a good time, that they were lifted from their normal day for a while. My only window into that are reader reviews.
It’s not simply fear of negative reviews that makes this time difficult, for something awful happens at this time with the characters. They leave me. Thomas and Hadrian have been my friends for months. Thomas, especially, has held my hand through some terrible things that happened while I was writing it.
Now, because the book is going to be published soon, he’s gone. I’m not sure why this happens, but I like to imagine it’s because they’re getting ready to visit the readers. It’s not exactly that they’re abandoning me, it’s just that they have other places to go.
I’m toying with the idea of writing another book with them, so they will have to visit me again at some point, but for now, they’re getting ready for a big adventure. I hate it. I’m afraid for them. I’m worried they’re headed into a bloodbath, and I exposed them to it. True, they had some harrowing adventures in this story, but I controlled everything. I was the monster pulling the strings. Now, anything could happen. I can’t protect them. I can’t even feel them.
So, if you see Hadrian and Thomas, tell them I miss them.
I’ve finished Carillon’s Curse. It’s due to release Dec.10th, 2021. I should be happy about that. This is the time that always makes me sad, though. By the end of a book, I really know those characters. They’re my friends, and I hate telling them goodbye.
I left Thomas and Hadrian in a good place, as good a place as I could within the confines of their time period. But I already miss them. Acutely. I would love to write a sequel—or even a series with them—but I can’t tell yet if anyone would read it. If the book does well, I might play with them again, but, for now, I’ve had to abandon them.
In the meantime, I’ve started a new book. It’s a paranormal romcom. I’m not attached to the characters yet. I’m still trying to figure out the rules of the world, the setting, and what exactly makes these guys tick. We just met each other. One hugged me and cried on my shoulder. The other hugged me and stole my wallet. It’s going to be that sort of story. Everything is relaxed right now. I’m gathering ingredients, heating the water. It’s a quiet business. It’s very different from the frenetic insanity I was in last month.
Last month was a bubbling, splattering mess. It was all Thomas’s fault. (I’m kidding, of course. Thomas was lovely to write.)
If all goes well, in a few months this romcom will be in full boil, and I’ll be able to release it at some point. For now, I’m trying to enjoy the process of getting to know this new world and these new characters.
Romance, whether it’s male/female or male/male, is full of tropes. Opposites attract, friends to lovers, insta love, grumpy/sunshine, etc. In other forms of fiction, these might be things to buck against. (Looking at you George R. R. Martin, you dirty, rotten fiend!) In romance, however, authors ignore or change these tropes at their peril. Romance tropes are like that cozy sweatshirt—the one with the pills and possibly stains—that feels oh so good when you put it on to watch your favorite movie or YouTube channel. If it was different it…well, it wouldn’t be the same.
With that in mind, I’ve coined a new trope—Insta Book Boyfriend. This is where a character, or in the case of m/m romance, possibly both characters, start off wonderful from the beginning of the book. They’re instant boyfriend material. They’re the perfect guy, and the reader automatically wants to snuggle with them. They start off great and end up… great.
I don’t write stories with two Insta Book Boyfriends. At least one of my guys is usually a jerk. He’s going to have to change and prove himself in order to get his HEA (happily ever after). That’s because I like to write what author and mentor K.M. Weiland calls the Positive Change Character Arc. This means the character starts off not so great and ends up wonderful. He might even save the world. At the very least, the story will have changed him, for the better, by the time the book ends.
If he doesn’t change (internally) at all, that’s a Flat Arc. There’s nothing wrong with a Flat Arc. Harry Potter is a good example of this. He starts off as a good guy and ends up a good guy. That’s the kind of character arc an Insta Book Boyfriend has. He starts off as a sweetheart you want to date and ends the book exactly the same way. That’s not to say he didn’t have some adventures and tribulations along the way. It just means the story didn’t fundamentally change him. He’s basically the same person from beginning to end.
Personally, I don’t like to write Flat Character Arcs. I don’t find them as exciting as Positive Change Character Arcs. I’ll often write one main character with a Flat Arc. He acts as both foil and mentor for the other main character. That other main character starts off kind of screwed up. He might be surly and emotionally stunted like Frank Hope, in Know Thy Demons, or conceited and elitist like Pox in Because Faery Godmonster (or the duology, Chainmail and Velvet). They don’t start out as someone you want to date. In fact, you might want to punch them in the nose.
However, by the time the story ends, usually with the help of the other, sweeter protagonist, he ends up a hero deserving of a beautiful happily ever after. I like this formula because at least one of the main characters has to really struggle to win that HEA. He has to change, on some fundamental level, to earn it. Often, he needs to discover what love really means, and grow up to find it.
That’s just what I enjoy writing about. Growing. That’s what makes me happy. It embodies my philosophy that people can change and that love is something we choose. These are the beliefs I cling to in times of strife, as the US is experiencing now, that give me hope people will eventually come together and work for a brighter tomorrow. That might be the kind of fantasy only fiction can birth, but I’m an idealist, and I need to believe bad things can get better.
If you’re a writer, you’ve probably run into this hideous monster—the bland scene. I woke up to that sucker this morning. You know the one I mean, right? That ho-hum scene you don’t feel like writing? The one that needs to be there because it conveys some information or does something that moves the protagonist forward but is just…blah. Have you been there? I struggle with at least one of those in every book.
The hard truth is, if you’re bored writing a scene, chances are high your readers will be bored reading it. There’s an easy remedy for this. Before I start writing a scene, especially one I’m anticipating will be boring, I ask myself two questions:
1. What does the protagonist (or POV character) want in this scene?
2. What is the problem? Or what is the obstacle standing in the way of the character getting what he wants?
These two questions help me develop the conflict in the scene (if I don’t already know it.) Friction is the fuel of writing. Without it, everything is easy and perfect, and there’s really no story.
Who cares if Mr. Perfect with his perfect life goes to his favorite cafe and gets a latte with a perfect foam panda in it? On Facebook or Instagram that might be fine. In a book, it’s horribly boring. What if Mr. Painfully Shy goes to the cafe he kind of hates because that’s where his ex dumped him, but he’s there because he has a crush on the cute but arrogant barista who works there? Or maybe he’s being chased by the mob and needs a place to hide, but the barista is giving him a hard time for not buying something before locking himself in the bathroom? Maybe the barista turns into a flame-breathing dragon and starts cooking everyone in the cafe?
Okay, so those are really stupid examples, but you get the idea, right? By declaring to myself what the character wants and identifying what is standing in his way in that particular scene, the scene becomes more fun to write.
In the scene I’m writing today, my protagonist (yes, that would be Thomas if you’ve been reading this blog) must help his lover question the victim of a crime. The protagonist’s scene objective is to get information on the criminal, so he and his lover can bring him to justice. That’s pretty straightforward. And boring. Hello, ho-hum scene. Why? Because I haven’t identified an obstacle. If the victim is cooperative, and everything goes smoothly, what’s the fun in that? Why should I expect a reader to care?
So, the problem is the victim is severely intellectually challenged. He’s traumatized and getting him to talk is difficult. To make matters worse, my protagonist’s lover is impatient and brusque. His bad cop style isn’t useful in this situation. Now, my protagonist has two problems: getting information from an especially vulnerable, traumatized victim while protecting him from his hot headed lover—and getting that lover to cool down. (Really, I guess, that’s three problems.) Another monkey wrench I threw in here is that Thomas, being physically disabled, identifies with the disabled victim more than the average person might. This makes his internal reaction to his lover’s insensitivity especially painful.
Not only is this scene much more interesting to write, it will be, hopefully, more interesting to read. Is Thomas up to the task? Of course he is! But making it difficult for him is what makes writing the scene and reading it interesting. Making Thomas solve problems and giving him difficult things to do makes him a better person. He becomes more real, both to me and, hopefully, to readers.
There’s a scene where the protagonist, Frank, tries to get back with his ex, Jovan and fails. Earlier in the day, Jovan offered to stop by the restaurant where Frank works to help him with a problem. (Frank understood the demon they summoned in class and is deeply confused.) This could be a simple scene where Frank asks Jovan out on a date, and Jovan declines. After all, getting back with Jovan is Frank’s scenic goal, and failing is what I need to happen. But that’s a big snorefest.
So, Jovan doesn’t show up at the restaurant alone. He’s there with his new girlfriend. And Frank is busier than normal because he offered to take a large, hopping section of the restaurant for his sick friend. Frank has ADHD (something I don’t reveal in the series, but is sort of an Easter egg) and doesn’t always deal well with high stress situations. Basically, I’ve set him up for failure and taken away his ability to meet his scenic goal. He accosts Jovan in the men’s room and ends up punching a wall and hurting his hand. Jovan takes care of him, but doesn’t simply tell him he doesn’t love him—he says he feels sorry for him. Ouch.
This plunges Frank into the depths where I need him to be before something happens that changes his life forever. A setup scene that could have been pretty mundane ended up being an intense dramatic scene that I enjoyed writing.
With a little spice, bland scenes can become some of your favorites. So, spice it up and have fun!
So many sad, disturbing things are happening in the real world right now, so, of course, I have to go inside my imaginary writer’s world and make things weird there, too. I’m writing a paranormal romance novel set in 1888 in the Old West of the U.S. Today, because I’m living through such “interesting” times, I started thinking about what things would happen in the lives of my main characters.
In 1888, they’re in their early twenties. They’re Civil War babies. In some ways, they have just escaped it, but its effects and racism still loom over them in 1888. Thomas will be forty-nine when the Great War breaks out. U.S. servicemen in World War I ranged in age from eighteen to sixty. I don’t think Thomas would have been eligible to serve, since he is disabled, but Hadrian is fit and a police officer. I’m sure he would have been conscripted. He probably would even volunteer. What sort of adventures would he have? Would he make it home to Thomas?
And what would Thomas do while his lover is abroad, fighting on foreign soil? I’m sure he would do most of his typical Thomasy things. Talking to restless spirits. Going around town in his invalid carriage with his cat. Cars would be in fashion, so he would probably have a car by then. Would he drive it himself? The idea of my rather uptight Thomas driving a car makes me smile.
Thomas would be fifty-three in 1918, when the Spanish Flu pandemic hits. If Hadrian survived the Great War, what sort of condition would he be in? Would he survive the pandemic? What about sweet Thomas? He’s already in poor health. With his asthma, I’m not even sure how he made it to twenty-three. What would the pandemic be like for him? Would he make it? Would he hole up in his mansion with Hadrian? There was no Amazon, then. How would they get things they needed?
What will they think of World War II? They’ll be in their seventies then. It must seem terrible to see such a thing having lived through World War I. How cataclysmic it must seem. How frightening. They would have survived so much, but time keeps whirling by, a plow through hard earth throwing up weeds and dirt.
They’ll be long dead before they’re ever able to legally marry in the U.S. Would they even be buried together?
It’s not like I’m even planning a series or anything with these two. It’s simply that some weird part of me worries about them and almost needs to write more stories about them just to make sure they’re okay.
This is the kind of thing I don’t think many readers understand about writers. Our characters are real people to us. They live and breathe. We have coffee and tea with them. We worry about them going out into the wide world like a mother kissing her kindergartener goodbye on the first day of school.
We give them to you as an act of love, because they have been our friends on whatever journey we have taken, and we hope they will be yours.