In many ways, my latest work-in-progress, Carillon’s Corpus, has been one of the most difficult books I’ve ever written. So much happened while I was writing it—both in my private life and in the outer world. It has felt like I’ve been swinging from one catastrophe to the next.
There have been many days I didn’t feel like writing. Some days, I gave myself a break and either took the day off or gave myself a small vacation from writing. Others, I wrote anyway. I have a habit of writing every day, even if it’s just a thousand words. A thousand words builds up over time, and it will often lead to two or three thousand.
The sad truth is, words don’t always flow, even for “experienced” writers that have finished multiple novels. Sometimes the muse doesn’t sing to you. Sometimes she turns her back or leaves the room entirely.
You don’t always need her. Write anyway. It’s easier to get something down rather than hide from your book. You can edit and revise a heap of jumbled words. If you write nothing, all you have at the end of the day is…nothing.
I’m unhappy with this manuscript. I know the places where I felt like I was working in a freezing garret all alone. Still, I have clay now. I can mold it into something I like. I can crush it between my hands and let it ooze out my fingers.
The best advice I can give any aspiring writer is: learn to love revising and editing. They are your best friends. Unlike that slinky, fickle muse, they are steadfast companions ready to help you as much as you want.
Sometimes, you have to take a break. There’s no shame in that. If you can, however, write even if it hurts. Write when the world is tumbling into chaos. Write when your heart is breaking. Write when your thoughts are dull, dusty things that don’t want to coalesce into anything sensible. Know that in the end, editing and revising will be there to help you make sense of it all.
I have Covid again and am feeling addled. I’m trying to work on my latest work-in-progress, and it feels like my brain is sealed in bubble wrap. I can see my work. I know it’s there. But I can’t quite touch it, can’t quite make it out. My husband thinks I’m an idiot for trying to write like this. He’s probably right. (He usually is, which makes him a terrible pain in an argument.)
Yet, to some extent, writing is often like that. I live in a world that’s dark and fuzzy. It’s not even a world—it’s a void. I get a glimpse of something—usually a character—and start to imagine things around him. Situations, settings, other characters, a past. But everything is dim and murky. It’s also usually quiet. If I’m lucky, that initial character who showed up will talk to me. Sometimes, he’ll chatter incessantly, and I almost wish he would shut up. I love it when he starts talking to the other main character, though. Despite everything being so hazy, I always relax somewhat when that happens.
I usually start with some notes. The main characters help me with those. The outline, however, is my own boss battle. It feels like pulling a rope from a vast, dark lake and not knowing what you’ll find at the other end. I like to sketch everything out as fast as possible, going with my gut and subconscious—letting everything fly and then land where it wants.
With this framework of thin bones, I go into the darkness once again. There’s an archaeological feel about this part, like building a prehistoric creature for a museum display. I have to figure out exactly what the bones mean, what kind of hide the creature had, what color fur or feathers. I have to discover the flesh that clothes the bones I excavated. I have to do this blindfolded, arranging coils of intestines and molding mounds of fat, sightless, with my bare hands until I decide the animal feels right. Sometimes, it’s not what I was expecting. Sometimes I knew it in the womb.
So, despite my husband’s sound warnings, I’m working today. I’m used to the dark. It’s my companion and my workspace. The fog, the diffuse bubble wrap covering everything—I can deal with that.
There’ll just be a lot of editing once I’m well. Editing is turning on the lights and watching the critters scatter. I’m almost ready for that part, but I’m going to play in the dark for a little while longer.
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!
Sometimes the world intrudes on my writing. I have problems with intrusive thoughts as it is, but current events often affect what happens in my stories. In this case, I’m not talking about the themes or the outline for the plot. It’s nothing as on the nose as that. (Although I certainly draw from the world’s problems when I create.)
I mean when I’m angry, characters tend to die or get beaten up. I’m writing the sequel to my dark m/m paranormal romance, Carillon’s Curse, right now and my irascible lawman main character, Hadrian, is pretty much punching all of the side characters. I realized today that I have three scenes where he’s punching people.
I’ll have to cut some of this when I do the initial edit. It’s repetitious. I know why I’m doing it, though. He’s a tough guy, and I’m using him as my righteous instrument to release my anger and frustration.
Meanwhile, Thomas isn’t doing well. He’s my sensitive main character in this book. I think of him as the soul of it. He, I guess, is representing my pain. Hadrian is defending him. It’s how I’m feeling right now. Guarded. An artichoke. The thorny outer layer protecting the soft core.
Writing is a strange thing. A blessing and a curse. It eases my anxiety and vexes me at the same time. It’s a balm, yet it creates its own wounds. On the artichoke days, however, it’s the thing that keeps me going and saves me from punching people. I have Hadrian for that.
I had a funny interaction with a fantasy writer today who said that his characters don’t do a lot of normal, day to day things on the page. I don’t do that, either, unless I think it might be interesting. I write M/M romance now, so, unless my characters are going to do something interesting in the shower, they never take showers. They don’t bathe, brush their teeth, comb their hair, or trim their toenails. They are a bunch of unkempt, reeking men with failing organs because they never use the bathroom or fart. Flies swirl around them and no one can get near them without gagging.
Erm. No. They do all of their grooming and pooping off page. Actually, since it’s romance, they are ethereal beings who simply don’t poop. They’re like the angels. Unless angels poop. Do angels poop?
Thomas, oh, yes—that Thomas—Mr. Carillon, my troublesome medium—peed in the woods once. He also vomits when he imbibes too much absinthe. Frank Hope vomited a few times. I was pretty tough on poor Frank. Let’s face it, he had it coming, nasty Necromancer. I don’t know if those things upset any of my readers since no one has ever mentioned it—yet. Someday, someone will and I’ll regret upsetting them. Whatever anyone might think, I don’t enjoy upsetting my readers. That’s for writers like G.R.R.M. I’m an idealist. I love a happy ending.
In other genres, like fantasy or sci-fi, it seems like the way to add some grit is to make your characters do a few things (like poop). A few mundane touches can add a bit of realism that gives the fantastic elements authenticity. We believe them more because they occur in a world that shares enough in common with ours that the other stuff seems real, too.
It doesn’t have to be that way, of course, fantasy and sci-fi characters can be as pristine as my romance men. I’ve written fantasy stories where people were immaculate. I have to confess, however, I loved writing a story where I made the lead character, a mage, get a bad case of the runs. I never described anything about the actual sickness, just the fact that he was slowing down his prince’s band of warriors. The warriors kept having to take turns to stay behind with him, and no one really wanted to. It was a bit of comic relief in a story that leaned toward somber. It also allowed one of the warriors to have mercy on the lad and take him under his wing. They built a brotherly relationship that impacted the overall arc of the story.
In any case, the amount of reality one allows in a story depends heavily on why it’s there. If it doesn’t move the story forward, add something to the flavor of the story, or build characterization, it can probably just be skipped. Not everything needs to happen on the page. In the case of my romantic leads, some of it doesn’t need to happen at all.
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.
I love when a character tells me something new about him. When I’m constructing a main character, I make notes about his physical features, emotional make-up, his past, his great “wound” or “ghost,” KM Weiland’s “Lie,” and various other things about his life and surroundings.
But I don’t know everything. I never know everything. Once I’m done with all of that construction, the character comes alive. He’s no longer completely under my control then. He’ll often surprise me in the middle of a scene that I painstakingly outlined, tossing his lines to the floor and ad libbing. Characters are horrible things sometimes. Maybe it’s because I don’t pay them. I can’t fire them, either. I suppose I could delete them, but that would be very rude.
I’m busy writing the sequel to Carillon’s Curse. In 1889, Thomas, a medium, and Marshal Hadrian are investigating a murder in Corpus Christi, Texas. They are about to talk to Father Bardales, the priest of a small Catholic church with a mostly Hispanic congregation. As Hadrian and Thomas enter the castle-like building of rustic, blonde stones, Thomas whispers to me, “I was raised Catholic. This is quite bittersweet for me. It reminds me of my parents. You know how much I loved my parents.”
“No. You’re an atheist. I already said so in the last book, Thomas. Don’t be difficult.”
“That boarding school you said I went to? It was a Catholic boarding school. I’m a lapsed Catholic.”
“I don’t think they say ‘lapsed Catholic’ in your time.”
“We’re talking in your time. I’m attempting to communicate with you. One would think you would be more gracious.”
“If that’s the backstory you want, then fine.”
He coughs, affronted. “It’s not the backstory I want. It’s what happened.”
Hadrian chimes in. “Why are you picking on Thomas?”
“He’s adding to his backstory without consulting me. He says he was raised Catholic. And I’m not ‘picking on’ him.”
“Oh,” says Hadrian, turning to Thomas. “I like that.”
Thomas beams. “Yes, it adds another layer to this scene. We’re here simply to see if Father Bardales knows Eduardo’s last name, but being in the church—the soft glow of the stained glass, the odor of waxed wood—it will make me feel sentimental. It will be yet another thing in this story that reminds me of my parents and that loss.”
“Is this scene in your POV?” asks Hadrian, tipping back his Stetson. “It should be. It’ll be more sentimental if it’s from your POV.”
“This was supposed to be from Hadrian’s POV,” I tell them.
“Given my backstory, it would be much more poignant from my POV,” says Thomas. “It will take a rather flat and boring police procedural sort of scene (why was that there in the first place—this is a romance!) and makes it more personal and emotional.”
“Firstly,” I say, “this is a dark paranormal romance with a murder mystery thrown in, and we need scenes where you actually investigate the murder. Don’t roll your eyes, Thomas. And stop it with the side-eye, Hadrian. Secondly, yeah, okay. We’ll do it from Thomas’s POV and let him be all emotional.”
Thomas sniffs. “I’m sensitive, and I have a touching backstory.”
“That’s right,” says Hadrian, crossing his arms over his chest. “Thomas is sensitive, and I’m rough. That’s why we compliment each other. So, he’s going to go in there and be all sentimental, and I’m going to be brooding. Then I’m going to lose my temper!”
“No!” Thomas and I say in unison.
“Father Bardales is proud but kind. You’re going to be respectful. He will have some news for you that will be critical to your investigation. It’s the First Plot Point. So, I need you two to listen to me and not screw this up.”
Hadrian huffs and transfers his hands to his hips. Thomas tilts his pretty head to one side as he stares at me. I set his ever-present, ghost-sensing cat, Gracie, on his shoulder. “You can trust us,” Thomas says with classic Thomas gentleness.
And I do. Most of the time, the characters are right. Part of writing is listening to them. The rest, really, is fighting to represent what they’ve told me in a way other people can understand.
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.