Smell My Characters!

Raise your hand if you’re a writer who wants to smell like your characters! Or a reader who enjoys imagining what characters smell like.

This might not always be a good idea. I’m not sure I would want to smell like an orc or something with tentacles. I’m sure Frank Hope, the protagonist from my Love Songs for Lost Worlds trilogy sometimes smelled like BO and/or vomit. I kind of put Frank through the wringer. Poor guy. He was, however, the villain of the first book, so he kind of deserved some payback.

In the novel I’m currently writing, Carillon’s Curse, my Victorian gentlemen (who happens to be a medium), Thomas, washes with lavender soap and wears violet water. I know what lavender smells like. My husband and I have used Jason’s Lavender Body Wash for years. (We had a cat who really loved it. He would be all over us whenever we were freshly showered.) But I had no idea what violet water smelled like. I have never even smelled a violet, let alone violet water.

The first time I ever heard of violet water was in Paul’s Case by Willa Cather. When I was researching Victorian colognes, I ran across an article that said respectable Victorian gentlemen could wear violet water. Since another popular scent, ambergris, is basically whale diarrhea, I decided Thomas would wear violet water.

I wanted, nay—needed—to smell it, so I found a shop on Etsy that creates and sells all natural cosmetics based on historical compounds, LBCC Historical Apothecary. You can find them at http://www.littlebits.etsy.com. I highly recommend trying their products. I bought some violet water, hair pomade, and lip balm and love all of it.

Violet water has a light floral scent, but I found it surprisingly gender neutral. I bought it simply to smell Thomas, but I’m going to wear it myself. It’s perfect for transitioning and suitable for a man.

Hadrian, my co-protagonist, smells primarily of leather and horse sweat. I had horses in my youth, and miss them, so I don’t need to buy anything to see what he smells like. All I have to do is remember. (Horses, in case you don’t know, smell wonderful!)

So, those are the sexy scents of my sexy men. What about you, writers? What scents define your characters?

Don’t forget to look for Carillon’s Curse, coming to Amazon in December 2021!

I think these are violets. I’m not certain, honestly. My search for ‘violets’ came up with a lot of things I *know* aren’t violets. I did the best I could with my limited horticultural knowledge.

Spicing Up a Bland Scene

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.

Here’s another example from my book, Know Thy Demons: Book One of the Love Songs for Lost Worlds Trilogy, in which a protagonist fails his scenic goal.

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!

Available on Amazon and free with Kindle Unlimited

Imagining Characters Through Time

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.

Be a Writer, Not a Jerk

Someone who will never really be a writer.

This really should go without saying, but if you want to be a writer, don’t be a jerk—especially to people in the industry who are trying to help you.

I follow a popular writing blog by an author of some amazing fantasy works as well as a series of helpful writing books. For years, she has been helping writers and authors, trying to lift people up. When people comment on her posts, she answers them—even when the answer to the question should be obvious. She will even answer the old posts if they ask a direct question. She’s just a really helpful, nice person.

Some guy has been commenting on her latest post acting like he knows everything. I can almost guarantee you this dweeb has never published anything—either traditionally or independently. I’ve taken creative writing classes and been involved in writing groups and attended writing conferences for about thirty years. I’ve seen this type of writer before way too many times. The dilettante. The guy who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know—a walking illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect. The bully who thinks he can elevate himself by dragging others down.

Don’t. Be. That. Guy.

Part of being a writer, part of being an artist, part of being a decent human creature, is humility. Yes, we often feel like gods when we’re constructing that perfect outline or are writing in that heady flow where words and images flash in our minds faster than our fingers can type. But it’s also important to remember that we are, at the end of the day, mere mortals—fallible beings reaching for stars we might never catch. If we’re smart, we’re always learning. Eternal students forever striving to perfect our craft.

You don’t know everything. Neither do I. That’s the beauty of the struggle. That’s part of the excitement. Part of the joy that should wake you up every morning and encourage you to write your heart out.

Don’t hurt people who want to help you. Don’t thumb your nose at mentors and teachers. Every one of them will tell you they don’t have all of the answers, either, but they may well have some that you don’t. Don’t write angry letters to editors and agents who reject your work. It only makes you look bad.

Be gracious. Be humble. Be kind. The world has enough prima donnas, enough jerks, enough Dunning-Kruger morons. What the world needs are your stories—maybe now more than ever. It doesn’t need egotistical posturing.

So don’t be a jerk, be a writer! Soak up every bit of knowledge you can! And write, write, write!

Scheduling Time for Writing—and People

Cat absorbed in creativity.

Writers often tout the importance of writing every day—even if it’s a thousand words. Simply “showing up” is part of the discipline that allows one to become a working writer. I agree with this whole-heartedly. It builds a good habit and is also therapeutic.

I don’t always accomplish it. I have three autoimmune diseases and frequently cope with depression. Some days I need to sleep all day or simply recharge my battery in some other way. Other days, if I’m struggling to write, for whatever reason, I do research on different aspects of my WIP (that often leads to writing!) or play around with my outline to see if I’m stuck because something isn’t working on the skeletal level.

However, although I’ve become pretty good at “showing up” for my writing, sometimes I’m not great at “showing up” for my life. I’m an introvert and enjoy time by myself. I love writing—even when it’s driving me insane. Through the years, I’ve realized I need to pay attention to and be as disciplined about nourishing my relationships.

I realized this morning that I haven’t seen my best friend in about three weeks. Because her husband and I are immunocompromised, we waited to get fully vaccinated before seeing each other. I’ve seen her twice since then. Part of my hesitancy has been a fear of the delta variant, but a larger part of it has been this novel. (As usual, I’m blaming Thomas. *shakes fist at sweet Thomas*) Even on days when I’ve struggled with this novel, I’ve been completely absorbed by it. I’m vowing, as I write this, to make a concerted effort to see my friends more frequently.

One of the things that seems to help me is creating a schedule. Giving the people in my life the same importance I do my writing, helps me tame that elusive creature “work/life balance.” I’ve noticed the success of this with my husband. He has worked from home since the beginning of the pandemic. Because we were both depressed and anxious, I decided early on to drop whatever I was doing—including writing—at 4:30 pm, when he got off work—so we could hang out. We started calling it happy hour and included drinks and snacks and a relaxation video on YouTube in the background. We discuss our day, news, whatever and basically just enjoy each other’s company until it’s time to make dinner around six.

It has become a time of day I cherish. Now that it’s a habit, I usually find myself winding down a scene right around then. I’m basically using the same discipline I used to train myself to build a solid writing schedule to make time for someone I love.

I wonder if other writers, especially introverts, find balancing writing with life difficult, too.

If you like M/M romance, check out my completed paranormal series, Love Songs for Lost Worlds. You can find the first book, Know Thy Demons on Amazon here.

Writing While Evil

Sometimes writers feel like gods. At the moment, I feel like a fiend. My favorite character this time is Thomas, a shy gentleman who happens to see ghosts. He’s also a virgin when the story begins.

Plots are like roller coasters. With each scene I’ve been writing, I’m ramping up to a pivotal scene (the Midpoint) that will plunge my characters into a huge, stomach-flipping dip. It’s going to devastate Thomas. In the mean time, I’m watching him grow more in love, watching him venture farther out of his comfort zone and into a bigger, wider world than he has dared to imagine.

And I’m there, barely discernible in the shadows, whispering lines into his ear, telling him things that aren’t quite true. He’s such a gentle, good character. He has no idea I’m fattening him up for the kill.

It’s not, of course, an actual death—and I’ve already hurt him quite a bit—but this scene is going to wound him deeply. I’m not looking forward to it. I’m actually writing this blog to avoid it just a little longer. Unlike some writers, I don’t relish hurting characters—especially characters I love. And I love Thomas to bits. I hope readers love him at least half as much as I do.

I guess it’s time to slink away and break poor Thomas’s sweet heart. What’s worse, perhaps, is I give him the terrible advice afterward. Like some cruel, sabotaging friend, I’ll turn him in the wrong direction and give him a push. I feel sickened just thinking about it.

But I’m doing it because it wouldn’t be much of a story if everything was perfect. ( I suppose there are stories like that, but I don’t care for them.) If you, like me, enjoy riding an emotional roller coaster, check out some of my gay romances! None of my HEAs come easily.

Why I Write

Recently, someone asked me, “Why do you write?”

I had to think about that longer than I would have guessed. I write because sometimes I need to hide from the stresses of the real world, the wolves at the door that howl for blood and bone. Writing allows me to sink into an imaginary world I can control with characters I create who are braver than I am. At the same time I’m hiding, I’m also processing things that are happening in my life, or things that happened in my past. So, it’s a different kind of hiding than covering my head with a blanket, although sometimes that’s good, too.

Recently, I released the last book in my Love Songs for Lost Worlds trilogy, Infernal Hope. (The whole trilogy is available on Amazon.) I had traveled through three books, a horrendous presidency, a global pandemic, and an insurrection with Frank and Kasimir. I watched them grow at my fingertips, watched their love blossom. I saw my sweet (okay Frank’s not always that sweet!) boys grow into young men. They were not only my friends, they became a part of me like few characters ever have. I finished their story and let them go.

And then I became quite depressed. I had a new book outlined and waiting for me, but, after writing furiously while the world seemed to collapse, I found myself unable to write now that things were calmer. I wondered for a while if I truly had any more books in me. And if I did, would anyone read them? None of my books are best sellers. They’re such odd little things, they’ll probably never be.

Once I thought about it, I realized that I did, in fact, need to write no matter how many people read my books. I need to write for me. Being able to share my works with the world is a bonus, and I’m grateful for all of the people who read my books and connect with my characters. At the end of the day, though, I need to write to calm that feeling of static that rises from my skin. Writing doesn’t simply keep the wolves from my door, it gives me the power to make them my friends.

And that is why I write.

My Fiction is My Truth

nature red field spring
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Therapists often recommend journaling to people dealing with mental illness and trauma. I’ve never liked journaling. Maybe it’s because I get too self-conscious or because even my old wounds often feel too raw to record in some blunt, dry fashion. Instead, I write fiction. I’ve dealt with my trauma through fiction from a young age. I’ve learned to cover my experiences with layers of grit, imagination, and distance to create weird pearls that I hope others will enjoy. This is how I process pain, both personal and existential; this is how I grieve, scream, cry—this is even how I plead for justice or beg forgiveness.

Right now, someone reading this who has read my books is cocking his head like a confused beagle. “Um…your books are romances about kinky people getting it on and fantasies about people with horns. Some are comedies. How, exactly, are you dealing with anything writing stuff like that?”

While journaling can feel like trying to mold clay filled with broken glass, the creativity of writing allows me to be honest while wearing a mask.

I change people, places, and things—but the emotions and some of the basic building blocks have my soulprints all over them. While journaling can feel like trying to mold clay filled with broken glass, the creativity of writing allows me to be honest while wearing a mask. I guess it’s like Oscar Wilde said, “Man is less himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

So, while I’ve never lived in a pre-industrialized dystopian empire like Elarhe in Lover, Destroyer, he and I both know what it’s like to be an outcast, to mourn a murdered friend, to be homeless, and to yearn for things that seem beyond your grasp. While I’ve never destroyed an entire kingdom like Kite, his shame and insecurity resonates with me because it’s how I felt when the relative who sexually abused me died when I was sixteen. I didn’t feel as relieved as I did ashamed—like I had somehow killed him with my quiet, clumsy rage.

I wrote the last pages of the silly romantic comedy, His Dungeon Discovery, with tears streaming down my face because a situation reminded me of the death of my beloved emotional support cat, Sand, after his long battle with kidney failure and heart disease. The situation in the book is actually quite different from my real life tragedy, but the feelings are similar.

In Zen Alpha, a contemporary gay romcom, Bradley’s mother is a narcissist who belittles and gaslights him. My own mother was a toxic narcissist who committed murder by proxy, killing pets to frighten and control her children. Bradley’s mom doesn’t seem quite as evil in comparison, but Zen Alpha is intended to be a heartwarming story, and it was more fun to write about a self-absorbed old belle than it was to write about dead animals.

Fiction allows us, both as writers and readers, a safe space to dance with our demons and slay our evil stepmothers.

Speaking of child abuse and mentally ill parents, it isn’t a coincidence Petal, the heroine of The Inquisitor’s Gift, feels coerced by her abusive stepfather to live a life to which she’s not suited. I imagine most children who grew up in homes with abuse, addiction, and mental illness know what it’s like to keep secrets and to wrestle with becoming the person they want to be rather than the person the secrets shaped.

Dealing with trauma through writing fiction isn’t some technique I created. J.R.R. Tolkien dealt with his service in World War I, and fears inspired by World War II, by writing about hobbits and magical lands. Rod Serling’s WWII traumas helped give us The Twilight Zone. I believe so many fiction writers through the centuries have been plagued by depression and anxiety, not because they’re writers, but because they write in order process their feelings. That’s one of the main reasons I write. It’s also why I read. Fiction allows us, both as writers and readers, a safe space to dance with our demons and slay our evil stepmothers.

So, if you’re a writer, don’t be afraid if your prose is cathartic. I would worry more if it weren’t. And if you’re a reader, thank you for allowing writers like me to don our masks and reveal to you our truest selves.

focus photography of white mask
Photo by Laurentiu Robu on Pexels.com

 

A New Look–and My Fox Fetish Explained

My website has a snazzy new banner created by the talented Kyleigh Castronaro of Free to Be Covers and Designs. She also designed the logo using my little spirit animal, the fox, and two of my favorite colors. If you’re an author, you should really check out her Facebook page here. She has premade book covers at fantabulous prices, and she also does custom work.

SWG-Small-White

Why foxes? Because I love them. Like a genderqueer person (like me), they are sort of a creature between–not quite a dog, not quite a cat. They are their own unique beastie. I’ve loved them since I was small. My first story written in English (previous attempts were penned in scribbles) was about saving a family of foxes from hunters. I’m not quite sure why, but I’ve always been drawn to trickster gods and trickster animals. I suppose it’s because they live by their wits, depending on their brains more than their brawn. They’re also often misunderstood. Two of my favorites, foxes and corvids (ravens, crows, jays), are often seen as nuisances or are associated with evil. No animal is ever evil.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the new look!

Writing with Suicidal Ideation

cliff-2213614_640Recently, in my blog entry Writing with Depression, I revealed how depression affects my writing and talked about the depressive episode that has thrown a shadow over my past few months. I was trying to exercise my way out of this recent depressive episode. That didn’t go so well.

In Writing with Depression, I said that medication didn’t help me. I’m bipolar and take mood stabilizers that help prevent manic episodes. They do little to nothing for depression. The popular antidepressants used to treat unipolar depression don’t work for me because they throw me into a ‘mixed mood’ and usually result in a suicide attempt. To treat bipolar depression, doctors prescribe antipsychotics or atypical antipsychotics. I’m extremely sensitive to the side effects of these medications and basically hate them. However, they have their place.

July is a hard month for me. Its anniversaries remind me of death. July, so sultry and sun-drenched, so full of promises of summer pleasure, doesn’t charm me at all. I know that she is full of death and shadows, that her breath is as fetid as it is hot, and her kisses bruise and burn. July quit being my friend years ago.

This July, I was depressed, but I thought I could take care of myself and fend the depression off. If things had been normal, maybe I could have. Honestly, though, things are never normal, are they? I had a stressor that came as something of a shock. Under normal circumstances, I think I would have been more resilient. This time, however, I was already depressed, so I just sank. I went from ‘kind of down but mostly okay’ to suicidal in a matter of minutes. It happens like that. Fast.

I hatched a quick plan and started to implement it. At a pivotal point, I had second thoughts. I actually thought about that depression blog entry and called the suicide hotline that I mentioned. They were really nice and talked me through the maelstrom. Afterward, I called my therapist and made an appointment for the next day, then followed up with my psychiatrist a few days later. During the time between the call and the psychiatrist, I felt constantly plagued by thoughts of suicide. Having suicidal thoughts is called suicidal ideation. (Suicidal ideation sounds like a band I would have liked in my twenties. Sadly, it’s not as fun as it sounds.) I felt like I was caught in some kind of loop. I thought of better plans. I settled on one that met all of my requirements, held it close and nurtured it. The morning of my psychiatric appointment, I dressed in the clothes I thought would work well for my best plan in case she had nothing to offer. I wanted to be ready.

I didn’t tell her that. I did tell her that I was having constant suicidal thoughts. She put me on an atypical antipsychotic called Vraylar. Honestly, so far, I don’t like it. She said it would give me lots of energy, but it makes me sleepy and lethargic. I’m having to drink a lot of caffeine to stay awake. It did, however, stop those destructive thoughts. It stopped them cold. Now, I feel embarrassed for having them, and I can see that it was all over something that shouldn’t have bothered me so much.

I apologize that this entry is even more pointless and self-indulgent than usual. I just thought, since I write about depression and bipolar disorder and have tried to be transparent and honest about my illness, I should admit to what happened with my self-care strategy. I’m hoping I can get off of this medicine soon and go back to trying to self-care my way to normalcy again. Despite this post’s title, I haven’t been writing much since everything blew up. My characters are bothering me to get back to it, and my cats have been trying to get me to go into the office where I do most of my writing. I’m trying to give myself some space, but characters and cats have little patience.

If you’re reading this and having suicidal thoughts, please seek help immediately. I know everything might seem clearer now than ever before and that suicide is the only way out, but I can promise you that pain is clouding your judgment. Please call one of these numbers: