• Ideas to books,  Mysterious Powers

    Idea to Book: The Hare and the Oak

    Welcome to this week’s installment of “Idea to Book”, this time taking a look at The Hare and the Oak. It was a chance to take a look at three different strands I hadn’t spent much time wtih before. First, a deeper look at some of the implications of the Great War and the land magic. Second, what it’s like for someone who’s magical but not folded into Albion’s culture to figure it out. And third, a later in life romance (and what that means for Cyrus, in particular.) 

    As always, there are some mentions of things that are spoilers (though I’m not getting deeply into the plot details of the book). 

    The cover of The Hare and The Oak displayed on a phone, surrounded by a white peony, small pieces of jewellery. The cover has a silhouetted man and woman talking to each other on a green and brown background, circled by stars, with a hare leaping out of an oakleaf inset in the top left corner.

    Land magic and the implications of the war

    One of the things I think about a lot – fairly obviously if you read more than a few of my books – is the way the Great War changed people. Specifically, and also repeatedly, how it changed their relationship to the land magic. Great Britain and Ireland weren’t touched by direct fighting the same way as continental Europe war. (Or as they would be in the Blitz and other bombing raids of the Second World War.) And yet, there were an awful lot of changes to the land as a result. 

    There were even more changes for the people who went and fought and came back. The sheer fact of being in the trenches would be destructive to many people’s land sense. That’s even before you get into issues like shell shock, trench collapses, or the sheer awful misery of trench warfare in general. 

    A variety of experiences

    Geoffrey Carillon, in his various books, recovered his through a set of chance timing. It brought him back to Ytene at a key point in his own life after he’d been pulled out of the trenches for other war work. Some people, like Adam in Mistress of Birds recovered some of it, but a lot more slowly and uncertainly due to other parts of their War.

    Right now, I’m editing Old As The Hills and Upon A Summer’s Day, books that focus on Gabe and Rathna. More than one person notes that Gabe is unusual for not having had that particular damage to his landsense to work around. His injury happened just before he could have enlisted.

    Other ways that could go

    But there are lots of people who are still struggling with that, and who like Lionel did not necessarily get some of the tools or magical approaches that might have helped bridge the gap. It’s possible, for example, that if Lionel’s father had lived a bit longer, Lionel might have recovered enough of the land sense without being responsible for managing all of the implications yet. Or maybe not. 

    A new view of Albion

    One thing I wanted to do somewhere about this point in my writing, was have fun with a character who was coming into Albion’s culture – and especially its assumptions about that culture – as an adult. Nora’s not a point of view character, but her opinions about some of this nonsense are quite obvious on the page. She’s not afraid to question the things that seem foolish to her. But she’s also willing to listen to the fact there might be a reason for them. 

    Nora’s a teacher by profession, and she’s curious. But she also doesn’t have a lot of previous experience to match against, because her background is so different. This means there’s a lot of fun to be had with Cyrus and Mabyn trying things out. They have to figure out what she responds to, and whether she can learn what’s needed promptly enough. 

    A later in life romance (and Cyrus in particular)

    Finally, I heard from more than a few readers that they really enjoyed seeing an older couple (in Seven Sisters). I wanted to spend a bit more time with a romance like that. Cyrus, of course, first got significant page time in Sailor’s Jewel, where he’s a significant secondary character. I wanted to contrast the death of his wife (very young, and in traumatic circumstances that led to a number of Cyrus’s later choices, including his challenge for the Council) with Mabyn’s. 

    Her marriage was a good one by the standards of the Great Families, but it was not at all happy. It was emotionally constraining at the very least. Quite arguably it was emotionally abusive and neglectful for significant periods of her marriage. Seeing how she was willing to look at things again, and how building some trust with Cyrus in other areas changed her view of him – and other parts of her world – was great fun. 

    I particularly love the way they balance each other, in terms of personality, magical interests, and background, without actually overlapping all that much except for both being on the Council. (Don’t worry, there’s more coming, as an extra, about Cyrus’s time as head of the Council starting in 1932.) 

    Do these intrigue? Check out The Hare and the Oak.

  • Ideas to books,  Mysterious Powers

    Idea to book: Fool’s Gold

    Fool’s Gold has a slightly different origin than many of my story ideas. Kiya (my friend and editor) had been talking to a friend of theirs who loves a disaster elf. Kiya told me about that. And then promptly said I should do something more with Robin, I hadn’t done a villain redeemed book yet.

    Which, to be fair, is exactly what Robin is made for. 

    Cover of Fool's Gold displayed on a tablet, set on a desk with a pink rose, a fountain pen, a jar of ink, and paper.

    Villain redeemed

    Robin turns up in two earlier books. He appears briefly in Wards of the Roses, wanting to get more involved with the research that begins at the end of that book. Kate isn’t at all sure what she thinks of him, and Kate has good instincts. 

    Here’s how she describes him then: 

    Kate paused, then cleared her throat. “He did the thing where a man reaches to kiss your hand, a little click of his heels, the precise angle of the bow, and the – gleam in his eye. Not the sort who’d push you into a convenient dark corner for his own pleasure, but the sort who uses his charm to get what he wants.”

    And of course, if you’ve read Seven Sisters, Robin has definitely been up to no good, and with some potentially dangerous results. He’s so bent on what he’s searching for that he doesn’t see anything else, or doesn’t think about the consequences. 

    The question with Fool’s Gold was how to write a story where he could be an engaging protagonist and have a romance that was satisfying. That meant he had to grow up a little and get more honest about what he wants. Leaning into Robin’s own skills of persuading people (and being a con artist himself at times) and what that meant when he was in a situation where he wanted to use them to help someone was lovely. Rolling around in Robin’s love of colour and art was even more.

    Cousins and Fool’s Gold

    Of course, the other thing that comes up here are the Cousins, the lines of families descended from the Seven Sisters, seven Fatae women who might or might not be deities, it’s hard to tell. As Vivian says in response to Cadmus’ question here, in Seven Sisters:

    “That was a, do you call her a goddess?”

    “I call her Grandmother Electra, so I don’t have to think about that, mostly, actually.” Then she continued. “You watching, it’s not, I said this, it’s not a dangerous thing. But it’s an intimate one.” 

    Fool’s Gold gave me a chance to spend a lot more time with the Cousins, and with them being there on the page. (Robin’s terrifying aunts, as well as Vivian and Robin himself.) I hope to dig into the Cousins a bit more in some future book, because their particular family traditions fascinate me. 

    It’s worth noting that there are more human-shaped Fatae in existence than just the Seven Sisters (you’ll be seeing some of them in Old As The Hills, out in May 2023).

    The Cousins downline from the Seven Sisters have tended to intermarry with humans more, and to build up a larger communal culture centered on particular kinds of magic (including the areas around particular portals). They’re also generally more able to tolerate living in iron-rich spaces like modern cities, while other of the Fatae descendents tend to prefer more isolated homes. 

    Banking and the custos dragons

    I was not sure, until I got into the chapter where Emrys first appears, if the custos dragons talk. Clearly, they do, and the problem is more often getting them to shut up so you can get a word in edge wise. However, I’d been doing a lot of thinking about what a magical currency actually does. 

    The Scali (and the other banking families present in Albion, the Bardi and the Grindlay) all have large networks of trade with other banking families. The Scali and Bardi are off-shoots of historical Italian banking families in Florence. In real-world history, the Scali went abruptly bankrupt in 1326, due to a combination of factors, including Edward III not paying his loans. The Bardi hung on for about another twenty years, but then had the same problem. 

    However, it made sense to me that some portion of the family might have hung onto the magical banking aspect, and slowly rebuilt the rest of the banking after the Pact. 

    A brief digression into the gold standard:

    So what’s that magical aspect? Goblin Fruit mentions that the actual metal of the coins hold magic, especially those that have travelled widely. Every so often, coins need to come back and spend a cycle or so under a dragon, who tends them, syphons off the magical energy that might get disruptive, and smooths everything out. 

    This works out fine as long as we’re working with a gold-backed currency system, but that’s getting very shaky in the 1900s. (As Beatrice points out, Britain has been on and off the gold standard several times. I thought about trying to map out the timeline for that, and then decided that it was entirely too confusing to get into, and also Robin didn’t care about the details.) However, that magical effect and needing to cycle the coins through is still necessary in the magical community. 


    And of course, if there are dragons, they have to have some people to hang out with. George is named George for multiple reasons. I keep wanting to name minor characters George, you see. (I tried to do it with four different people in Outcrossing, and Kiya pointed out quite reasonably that this was confusing. Even if it was an incredibly common name for a couple of hundred years for men.) However, I promised that if I called this one George, I’d stop trying to do it elsewhere. That’s worked quite well! And given the legends of St. George, naming the dragon-tender for him just amused me too much. 

    George is, as noted, also functionally a Cousin, though not descended from the Seven Sisters.

    Does this intrigue? Check out Fool’s Gold. (Though as always, you might want to read Seven Sisters, first to get the full arc of Robin.)

  • Ideas to books,  Mysterious Powers

    Idea to Book: Eclipse

    I love all my books – and all my point of view characters – but Thesan and Eclipse are particularly near and dear my heart. (I love Isembard too, mind you.) This staffroom romance at a magical school has a special place in the series, too.

    Copy of Eclipse on a white cloth, with various small ritual items - sprig of rosemary, talisman, cards - beside it.

    Education and the foundations of Eclipse

    I grew up in the US, but with British parents. Every year, my father would go off to spend a week or so in England – for research, to see shows in the West End (he was a theatre professor), and to see friends. He’d come back with his suitcase half full of books, many of them for me.

    School stories

    There’s a whole glorious literature of children’s school stories in British children’s lit. The ones I grew up on were mostly Enid Blyton’s St. Clare’s and Malory Towers books, and the Chalet School books (there are many, and the first half or so are set in a school in the Austrian Tyrol, but run on a British girls school model, before it moves due to the Second World War.) 

    But there are many many other books of that type and certainly many references to the boarding school experience. The houses, the rivalries between them (even when you’re put in them in purely pragmatic ways), and the many things that students get up to when they’re not right under a teacher’s nose (and sometimes when they are) were all part of the tapestry for me. 

    My own education and work

    A little later in my life, I spent the last two years of high school at a private boarding school (in the US sense). There were a lot of things I loved about it, like many of my classes, the music, the various events and performances on campus. And there were many things I found incredibly challenging, both in terms of an immense and intellectual demanding workload and on a social level. We had massive amounts of homework (5 to 6 hours a night), everyone felt like they were under a lot of pressure to excel. And the social dynamics could be hellish if things weren’t going your way. 

    And then I spent a decade working in a private day school in Minnesota. Much less of the strong identification based on which dorm you lived in, but it gave me a look at that environment from a teacher – or in my case, librarian’s – point of view. I got to sit in on a lot of conversations about how you balance a range of classes, both in any given year and across a given student’s time in the school. I heard a lot about which kids seemed to have it all, but were really struggling, and which were blooming with a bit of support.  More on this in a minute. 

    Eclipse’s antecedent

    From 2007 to 2015 (before the more recent revelations), I was part of a long running Harry Potter alternate universe project, startign very much as a dystopia and moving toward a more hopeful end. It played out in online journals with (for the last three years of the project), the same 12 people writing and plotting across about 90 characters. It taught me a tremendous amount about how to write across a span of time and a wide range of characters, and it also posed a number of questions around worldbuilding. 

    Among other things, how on earth the Hogwarts class schedules work with the stated number of teachers without manipulating time. 

    Starting with some basics of time and space

    There’s a reason that when I started thinking about this writing idea I had, the first two things I did was to figure out some baselines for demographics (how many people total in Albion, then broken down by ages and education). And then I did a class schedule for Schola. Which admittedly works somewhat more on a “do a bunch of work on your own and your teacher gives feedback” model than US (or modern UK) systems, but is functional.

    Character dynamics in Eclipse

    Thesan in particular is very much a result of that project, as was my wanting to play with the dynamics that come out in Isembard and Alexander. Most of all, I found myself wanting to spend more time looking at what it meant to set up a magical school that made pedagogical sense to me, that made sense in terms of historical development of the teaching of magic, and that had biases and preferences, but on a more complex level.

    The implications of the houses and subjects

    Alchemy and Ritual magic are the two most respected magical specialities (along with the various magics that go into duelling, for those that like that sort of thing). But almost no class exists in a void: you need Time and Place (the advanced astronomy class focusing on locational and chronological magics) to manage some kinds of advanced ritual preparation and planning, for example, or certain alchemical potions and mixtures.

    Similarly, I have a lot of thoughts about what it means to have houses that are based on magic, and what the different house magics might affect. We’ve seen some of these discussed briefly, but there will be more coming in the 1946-1947 school story that’s the last book in the Land Mysteries series, where our protagonists are in four different houses (Bear, Fox, Horse, and Salmon), and we’ll get to see more of the different implications of the house magics.

    In general terms, Fox, obviously, is the socially preferred house, but the others all have their proponents and for good reasons.

    Astronomy and magic

    This brings us more or less tidly to astronomy. For many many centuries, astronomy – the observation and analysis of the movement of stars and planets – was closely woven with astrology, which ranged from calendrical systems around which rituals were based to magical implications, to divinatory. If all you know of astrology is personality focused, there’s a lot more forms of astrology out there!

    In Albion, what Thesan teaches is on the more scientific end of the scale, in the sense of “Can we reproduce this effect?” Various alignments of the stars (as seen from our particular spot in the universe, as she points out), have some impact on different kinds of magic. Using these techniques to time a ritual, expose materia to particular conditions, or make relationships between time and space can all be powerful tools.

    The Quadrivium

    Astronomy is also one of the four pillars of the quadrivium, a set of sciences that drive the world and help us make sense of it. I couldn’t use this in the book, but there’s a modern description of them that talks about them as pure numbers (arithmetic), numbers in space (geometry), numbers in time (music), and numbers in time and space (astronomy).

    Every student at Schola takes Trivium (the arts of rhetoric, composition, and generally being able to use your words well), and then can take one to all four of the Quadrivium classes. All first years also have a class session every day where the Quadrivium teachers teach the basics of their particular fields (emphasis on what you need to know for other magical skills), so everyone gets at least some broad exposure. 

    And as Thesan points out, astronomy has a lot of other implications for how you look at the world, about seeing what’s there by what you can’t see and how it affects things. 

    The complexities of being a teacher

    Finally, but by no means least, I really wanted to write about the complexities of being a teacher, and trying to be a good one. Like I said above, I worked at an independent high school for twelve years. The last eighteen months or so, I was the teacher librarian, and so had a homeroom, advising duties, and so on as well as being a librarian. 

    More than you can see: Eclipse’s large cast

    The thing I’d already  known – but I learned even faster – was that there’s always dozens of things going on in a school that you only know about tangentially. No matter how good a teacher you are, you cannot keep up with the individual private lives of even a couple of dozen students, never mind several hundred. (The school I worked at was about 400 in grades 9-12, so larger class size than Schola, but not that many more students.) 

    There were some kids I got to know really well, and still miss (and sometimes wonder about) and those conversations were pretty wide ranging. What they were up to in the arts, in sports, in their classes, what they were considering for college. There are a bunch where I had very specific kinds of conversations with them – they’d check in on the daily trivia question in the library, for example. Or where I knew they liked these books a lot. But I often didn’t know a lot about their classes, their sports. Sometimes I’d pick up bits and pieces sitting with other teachers at lunch time.

    But there were also plenty of kids where I maybe knew their name and that was about it. For whatever reason, we hadn’t connected on something specific, they weren’t the ones who hung out in the library whenever possible, they had other places to be. 

    What that means as a teacher

    Sometimes the kids I knew needed a lot more time and attention – the chaos of a friend breakup meant they needed somewhere quiet to figure out what to do next. Or they were stressed, and needed somewhere to hang out that wasn’t associated with grades directly. Or where I’d look the other way if they listened to music with headphones on.

    (I still have the librarian death glare that can shut up people being too noisy at twenty feet or better, but I also believe strongly that if you’re in a library minding your own business, you should get to listen to music on headphones if you want to. Or read what you want to, even if it’s not what you ‘should’ be reading.) 

    And sometimes I knew something was up with them, but I wasn’t the right person to help (or to help more than tracking down someone they knew and trusted a lot more).

    Thesan and Isembard

    Thesan and Isembard are right there in that mess during Eclipse. There are some students both of them know fairly well, and more where one or the other knows them, but not both. There are also just plain a lot of students! Thesan has some advantage, because she’s one of the only teachers (the other three Quadrivium teachers are the others) who actually teaches everyone in an academic course, however briefly. 

    We have more to come of Schola in 1946-1947. That’s the school story, and one of the student protagonists and point of view characters in that is Leo, Thesan and Isembard’s son and younger child, who has lived his whole life at Schola. I’m very much looking forward to sharing more of that in due course! It’ll be out in May of 2024.

    Curious? Eclipse has all this, and quite a lot more! If you want more about Schola (and Thesan and Isembard), Chasing Legends (found in Winter’s Charms) takes place on their first anniversary. There’s also an extra, With All Due Speed, available via my newsletter, that covers their engagement and wedding. Later on, they appear in Best Foot Forward, and there’s more of both of them to come in the Land Mysteries series.

  • Ideas to books,  Mysterious Powers

    Idea to Book: The Fossil Door

    Welcome to our Idea to Book post for The Fossil Door! I’ve been spending a lot more time with Gabe and Rathna recently, thanks to writing Old As The Hills and Upon A Summer’s Day (coming out in May and June 2023), and getting to spend time with both of them at two different points in their lives has been fantastic. 

    The Fossil Door has so much that I love – an amazing location, portal magic, and of course the way Gabe and Rathna get to know and trust each other.

    Cover of The Fossil Door displayed on a cell phone, lying on a scattering of tumbled stones in shades of purple and green.
  • Ideas to books,  Mysterious Powers

    Idea to Book: Carry On

    The next book in our Ideas to Books series is Carry On, set in 1915, almost entirely in the Temple of Healing in Trellech. 

    eReader with cover of Carry On showing on it, on a bed of pale pink rose petals.

    When I started thinking about the Mysterious Powers series as a way to look at what was going on with the various institutions of Albion during and in the aftermath of the Great War, I knew I needed to be a little more consistent about planning out my timeline. (Unlike the Mysterious Charm books, which bounce around the 1920s out of sequence.) 

  • Charms of Albion,  Ideas to books

    Idea to book: Pastiche

    Pastiche is my first Edwardian book, mostly set in 1906. That year turns out to be interesting for medical history reasons, but it’s also in the middle of a period rich in artistic and creative activity.

    Living well with chronic illness

    Alysoun, the heroine of this book, lives with what we’d call fibromyalgia today. At the time of the book, they don’t quite have a name for it: fibrositis (the earlier name) shows up in the medical literature for the first time late in 1906.

    What she knows is that her body aches – often and also unpredictably. She struggles with fatigue and brain fog, wanting to have an engaged and active life, and yet also not wanting to spend her limited time and energy on social events she doesn’t enjoy.

    The trick is that she is Lady Alysoun, married to Lord Richard, who not only has those obligations to the land magic, but who is also a member of the Guard (Albion’s equivalent to the police, more on that in the next section), and who is asked to become a magistrate in the course of the book. Being a magistrate comes with a number of additional social obligations for both of them, as well.

    My chronic health stuff is not exactly the same as Alysoun’s – though at points in my life, I have had a lot more of all of her main symptoms than I do at the moment (if sometimes in slightly different modes.) Writing that experience, however, comes straight from my desire to have someone like me be loved, have pleasure, and find a place in the world that suits her.

    Alysoun’s experiences are also rooted in many conversations I’ve had with a dear friend who shares some of her symptoms too. Specifically, “If I’m going to hurt if I don’t do this thing that would also bring me pleasure, and I’m going to hurt if I do (maybe a bit more), I’d rather have the pleasure, too.” Navigating that, moment to moment, day to day, year to year, is always a trick. Alysoun’s still learning it in Pastiche, but has found a lot more rhythm and balance by the 1920s, and the later books we see her in.

    Now, this is Albion, and so there is a touch of fantasy here. Veritas, the Edgarton family home, started as a Roman villa, and the hypocaust system has been tended over many years. She can therefore retreat to a series of baths I absolutely envy, including the deep multi-person hot soaking tub.

    The Guard, power, and responsibility

    I wrote the draft of Pastiche between November 2019 and February 2020. I was editing it over the summer of 2020, as George Floyd was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis. (I lived in the Twin Cities for more than a decade, my last few not too far from Lake Street and Minnehaha Ave.)

    I did a lot of thinking about this particular book, about the history of policing, about the ways any system (and especially those dealing with authority and law enforcement) can be abused and manipulated. I did a lot of talking with my editor, Kiya.

    For one thing, while British policing isn’t perfect either, as I did more and more research, I realised that the history of how organised policing developed was rather different. (And in Albion, coordinated law enforcement in various forms became urgently needed following the Pact in 1484 and establishment of additional portals and means of rapid transporation in the next couple of hundred years.)

    I also thought about what I’d already established in Albion (Wards of the Roses features Kate Davies, my other character who is a member of the Guard proper, though in that case, very much in an investigative magical role.)

    And I looked at what I’d already embedded in both this book in particular, and in the larger world: the idea of magically enforceable oaths. Every magical person in Albion makes one at the age of 12, and various other professions and occupations make them as well. (Pastiche in fact already had the scenes of Richard taking the magistrate’s oath and the effect it has on him.)

    Here’s the thing that was already in the draft, but that I expanded far more thoroughly:

    The Guard make something that’s equivalent to a chivalric oath, as Richard describes in the book. It isn’t a perfect protection, but it does mean that people who wish to abuse their power tend to fail out of apprenticeship or are redirected into other roles.

    And as Richard points out, a lot of their work is more about solving problems, directing people to appropriate help, seeing to the actual physical and magical safety of people in the community. (This last part is particuarly important since people experimenting with magic they don’t fully understand can have a wide range of implications for the safety of those around them.)

    It’s a complicated issue, and a complicated role.

    Arranged marriage to love match

    I first wrote about Richard in Outcrossing and Alysoun and Richard both appear in Wards of the Roses and On The Bias, where it is clear they adore each other and work well in tandem.

    But I also knew they’d been basically an arranged marriage, and I wanted to know how they fell in love.

    They married knowing of each other (similar family circles) but not knowing each other well. They married more rapidly than they might have due to Richard’s father’s decline in health. And for the first few years, they are cordial and pleasant, but not close.

    Richard had been brought up not to be a bother to women (his mother, who is not a pleasant human, had strong opinions about this.) He thinks he’s being polite and considerate, when Alysoun deeply wants more of his time, attention, and preferably affection. It’s only through the events of the book (and a bit of help from those who are wiser in these things) that they figure out how to navigate that.

    (When my beta readers got their hands on this one, they left comments of “RICHARD, TALK TO YOUR WIFE” in many places.)

    More of the Edgartons

    It turns out I can’t let them go! They have secondary roles in a number of my other books so far (as well as some upcoming works.)

    Richard appears briefly at the end of Outcrossing (in his role as Captain of the Guard) as well as in Complementary, when he gives an assignment to Elizabeth Mason. Richard is Kate’s commanding officer during Wards of the Roses (and Alysoun appears at the end.) They’re both present and helpful during the climactic events of On The Bias.

    And then there’s Gabe. Their son has his own romance in The Fossil Door, and his parents also make an appearance in the extras associated with that book. (Sign up for my newsletter to get access to those and upcoming extras.)

    They’ll also be making an appearance in Ancient Trust (a prequel novella about Geoffrey Carillon inheriting his title, available in the summer of 2022) and Best Foot Forward (out in November 2022) and some of the extras for that. I’m also chewing on a book about Charlotte, their daughter, though I’m not yet sure exactly where that will fall in my upcoming writing plans.

  • Ideas to books

    Idea to Book: Seven Sisters

    Seven Sisters is simultaneously an outgrowth of some of the larger worldbuilding and my (somewhat odd) Classical education. It’s also about the density of history, the role of time, and the question of how much of other people we can begin to understand, anyway. Also a touch of sign language and magic.

    Cover of Seven Sisters set against a crescent moon, shrouded by purple fog and glowing light.

    The Fatae

    First and foremost, this was a chance to explore the Cousins, those who descended from the more human of the Fatae, in this case the seven Grandmothers. (There may be others out in the world, for the record, even in Britain.)

    The Grandmothers have a sizeable number of opinionated and very busy descendants, who refer to each other as Cousins. Some look entirely like other humans, others have features that are a little less so – particularly odd eye colours, sometimes hair. They work closely with a number of the non-human shaped Cousins, everything from the custos dragons (see Fool’s Gold for one) to the Belin (see Goblin Fruit), to the trees we see in this book.

    (There’s more about Robin in Fool’s Gold, as well, and his particular Aunts. And a bit of Vivian.)

    One of the things I wanted, as I wrote about the Cousins, was the sense that they are a large sprawling clan. They know of each other, but they may not know individuals very well. They have interconnections, they end up at the same rites and festivals every so often.

    But they also have their own individual preferences and priorities, and those may or may not overlap. There are customs, but a lot of room for personal choice. (All right, and quite possibly some disapproval for some choices.) 


    When I started writing this book, I had a very hard time making Cadmus interesting. I kept trying different things, and none of them quite worked. Around about chapter 8, my editor, Kiya (who sees all my completely raw drafts as I finish chapters, since they’re also a long-time friend), nudged me and suggested I lean into the geekery of the Classics. 

    That was absolutely the right decision, and made Cadmus make much more sense – to himself, to me, and I believe to the reader. 

    I worry, sometimes, that I’m leaning too much into my geekery. But then I remember that if I’m finding it fun, that comes across. I can explain why it’s amusing or interesting, or give people who might not be familiar with that particular topic some ways to understand it. I love that part.

    In this case, Cadmus is drawing heavily on my own background. My father was trained as a Classicist (and read both ancient Greek and Latin easily), though he ended up as a professor in a different field. I didn’t learn Greek until after his death, but I’ve had a number of his translations to draw on. 

    Cadmus translating Herodotus, however, comes out of one of my Greek classes. It was a small class – just four of us – and I regularly studied with someone else in the class. We’d alternate looking up words in the lexicon, which made the process both more enjoyable and go a bit faster. 

    What Herodotus is writing about basically falls into one of two broad topics: 1) the customs of people who are not Greeks, and 2) fighting and battles. We quickly figured out that if it was a noun we didn’t know in the first category, it was probably about food or entertainment. If it was a verb we didn’t know in the second, we could translate it as “to attack” and work on it from there. 

    (There is a verb he uses in the battle of Thermopylae that can reasonably be translated as “to make pincushions out of one’s enemies with spears”. Attic Greek has a lot of variations on ‘to attack’.)

    Mostly, I just wanted to have fun with how ridiculous it can sometimes be. 

    The density of history

    This book brings out how you have so many overlapping points of view. You get a glimpse of it, with the range of residents at Thebes, people whose varied stories have brought them to this place at this time. Some because they’re academics, and it’s convenient to their work. Some because they need somewhere different to be, that isn’t reminding them constantly of who and what they’ve lost. Some for other reasons. (Hello, Robin.) 

    And then you’ve got the question of what that history means going forward – Fool’s Gold is partly an answer to sorting some of that out, one way it might go. It doesn’t mean forgiveness, necessarily. It doesn’t mean an apology mends everything, and the house is one big happy family again. For one thing, it didn’t start that way. But it does mean that you can look at where you’ve come from, and move forward.

    That’s where Cadmus is, too. After a deeply traumatic experience in Afghanistan, he has choices to make about what he does now. He and Farran have choices about Farran’s apprenticeship. And that’s the thing – they do have some choices. Not all the choices in the world. Not the choices to change the past. But they have options going forward, if they wish to take them.

    (As does Vivian. As does Robin. As does everyone else.) 

    Sign language

    Finally, Lena, the housekeeper at Thebes, is deaf (she wouldn’t identify as culturally Deaf) and uses sign language with both Cadmus and Farran, but also, it turns out, with Vivian, who learned it in slightly different circumstances.

    I had a chance to spend an afternoon with someone before a professional conference who is Deaf, and from New York state. We were down in Texas, and their conversation over lunch was the two of them sorting out regional signs and how to navigate that (just like every other language, ASL has regional accents, basically. And that’s before you get into things like how to sign specialised professional language or names.)

    I wanted to explore some of that, people who share a language, but who come to it from different places, who learned it for different specific reasons, and how quickly Lena gets a (quite accurate) read on Vivian. I also had a fun time figuring out what name signs Lena might use for different people. Name signs usually reflect something about the person’s name, but also about their personality or interests.

    If any of this intrigues, and you want a touch of magic, some dangerous roses, and a house with history down to its bones in your life, check out Seven Sisters

  • Ideas to books,  Mysterious Charm

    Idea to Book: On The Bias

    On The Bias came to pass from a couple of distinct ideas. I’d been deeply curious about Thomas Benton, valet to Lord Geoffrey Carillon, since my first books. But I also wanted to spend some time dwelling on the glorious fashions of the period. And then there are my three dangerous birds.

    Thomas Benton

    Of course, there’s a syllogism here: as Geoffrey Carillon is to Lord Peter Wimsey, so is Benton to Bunter. Only, of course, Benton and Carillon are very much their own people, whatever the starting inspiration.

    Thomas Benton is highly competent, but in a fairly specific way. As I mentioned back in a discussion of neurodiverse characters in my books, Benton is definitely somewhere on the autistic spectrum. For him, the structured expectations of service in a great country house were often reassuring, rather than restrictive. The great houses ran like clockwork, with clear delineations about who was doing which task (and in a well-run house, with clear instruction in what those tasks involved.) The social interactions were the same way: there were clearly identified things you might do on your afternoon off, who you spent your time with, and so on.

    (Obviously, there are a lot of people for whom these things were limiting, too restrictive or even abusive. But it’s also clear if you read historical sources that there were plenty of people for whom that structure was comfortable in varying ways, or at least a good fit at a particular point in their lives.)

    Benton came into the trenches in the Great War, and was assigned as Carillon’s soldier-servant. The trenches were absolute chaos, of course, but Benton devoted himself to learning the things that made them a little more bearable, including judicious applications of magic to dry socks, warm water, and take the damp out of bedding.

    It also brought him into close contact with Carillon, someone who he could look to for steady direction. When Carillon left the trenches for Intelligence work, he brought Benton with him – and into a long string of adventures and expeditions. When the world changed again, and they returned to Albion, Benton settled into managing his lordship’s household. (It would have been far more common to have a butler as well as a housekeeper, but until Carillon marries, the primary residence at Ytene does relatively little entertaining, and is quite small even by 1920s standards.)

    Anyway, On The Bias is the tale of how Benton’s life changes again, and what that means for him. (And for Carillon.)


    The 1920s are fascinating for clothing in a number of ways. Of course, styles change dramatically from the far more encompassing clothing of the Edwardian and many previous ages. Skin is bared, ankles and even knees in evidence. But it isn’t just the cut – it’s also about new and modern materials, about different colours available through the magic of new dyes, and so much else.

    I spent a lot of time looking at references to period clothing and other aspects of fashion.

    At this time, clothing was beginning to transition from clothing provided either by specialist creators (like Cassie) or by people in the home (a time-consuming process) to off the rack, commercially produced clothing. However, there’s still definitely a place for people like Cassie for bespoke and custom-designed clothing (such as is needed at the highest reaches of society.) And of course, magic adds a number of possible elements, in construction, materials, and design.

    Two resources I came back to a lot (for ease of finding images and using them as references) are VintageDancer and Glamour Daze – the latter links to some fascinating guides to cosmetics, hair, and other aspects.

    Three dangerous birds

    Every so often, I write a book and a theme emerges that I hadn’t expected. In this one, it’s three dangerous birds.

    We started with the rooster, because my editor had been chatting with a friend of theirs about a machine translation of a romance novel that, when translated back to English, translated a key phrase as “dangerous rooster”

    Which makes a person want to do something with that.

    So when I realised Benton needed to find some people doing some illegal things, a cockfight it was! (Benton is rightfully dubious about that.) This led to swan-taking (treasonous, though Benton is not particularly worried about that part), and then to Theodora, Carillon’s much loved eagle-owl.

    The coming prequel

    This summer, I’ll be sharing (for everyone on my mailing list) a prequel novella of Carillon inheriting, which is alternating between Carillon and Benton as the point of view character. It takes place in the first half of 1922, and includes a bit more of Theodora, as well as a glimpse of the mystery of Temple Carillon’s death. Keep an eye out here, there, or on my Twitter or Facebook for more about that when it’s out.

    (There’s more about that in Best Foot Forward, which takes place in 1935, and will be out in November 2022.)

    If any of these things intrigue you, check out On The Bias.

  • Ideas to books,  Mysterious Charm

    Ideas to book: In The Cards

    Copy of In The Cards displayed in a silver picture frame, with a deep purple high heel shoioe and orchids framing the image. The cover has a woman turning away from a man in silhouette, in shades of vivid pinks and purples.

    In The Cards takes place largely over the course of a week on a remote island off the coast of Cornwall. It has references to a number of aspects of the 1920s, everything from the after-effects of the War (both in terms of injury and in terms of love and consequences) to Tarot, chronic illness to the way we build networks in our lives.

    Locked room murder mysteries

    I love a locked-room murder mystery, and they’re certainly a staple of the mystery genre (and of Golden Age mysteries, in particular.)

    Unsurprisingly, they’re also rather tricky to write! My editor and I went back and forth on how to make the plot of In The Cards come out right, and how to layer in the available clues in a useful way. 

    The other trick for this book is having three point of view characters, all of whom knew they didn’t do it. (And who can confirm that to each other fairly early on after the murder.) This is rather different than many mystery novels, where you’re only dealing with a single point of view, and often that of a detective, amateur or otherwise.


    As you may or may not know, Tarot has a long and complicated history, some of which we’re not entirely sure of. What we do know is that by the 16th century, various decks were circulating around Europe. Some were used for playing card games (notably tarrochi, which is played in the book, and was still reasonably common in Europe in the period.) 

    The decks usually involve four suits (like a modern playing card deck), with four court cards in each suite (traditionally something like page, knight, queen, and king) as part of the Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana are an additional 22 cards with more esoteric leanings, depicting archetypal concepts like the Lovers, Death, the Tower, or the Star. 

    Notably, most decks up until the introduction of Rider-Waite-Smith (Pamela Coleman Smith was the actual artist) did not include images for the pip cards (the ace to 10 in the four suits).

    When I started looking at historical Tarot decks, none of them quite had the symbology I wanted . Especially for Albion, where Christianity is present but not as central in the magical community as it is in the historical community. Again, one of these days, there will be a book more about that, I’m sure. 

    I therefore created the Howard Tarot (yes, the same Howards as Katherine Howard: it’s historically a huge family, who were on basically every possible side of ever difference in British history for hundreds of years. That’s very useful for my purposes.) 

    I’ve described some cards, and have ideas for a number of others, and I’m sure the deck will show up somewhere else eventually. (If you happen to be or know an artist who might be interested in a commission of a few cards, I would love to talk. Get in touch through the contact form, please!)

    You’ll notice a few changes in labels in the Howard deck – for example, the court cards are Child, Apprentice, Lady, and Lord, and there are a few differences in the Major Arcana, as well. (Notably, “The Devil” in most decks is “Umbra”.


    One other key in this book is the experience Laura has with tuberculosis. Here’s the thing: statistically speaking, tuberculosis should be looming all over every work in the 19th and pre-antibiotics 20th century, as well as before that. (And to be fair, if you read vampire fiction, there it is.)

    There are times in this period when it was the cause of 1 in 10 deaths, enver mind the number of lives permanently altered by it. Many people did survive, but only after extended periods away from family and loved ones (and a very strict regimen of treatment, mostly involving fresh air, not moving at all, and sometimes painful surgeries.)

    Laura talks at several points in the book about what this did to her instincts, about needing to please people in order to not have unpleasant experiences while she was isolated. (Something many people with chronic health issues and disabilities still experience today.)

    If you’d like to read more of the history, Spitting Blood: The History of Tuberculosis by Helen Bynum is a great starting place, with a solid overview both of the medical aspects and of social responses and implications. There’s also a brand new history (out on February 1, 2022) Phantom Plague: How Tuberculosis Shaped History by Vidya Krishnan that I’ve just requested from my library.

    Views of relationships

    One of the things I was thinking of in this book is the different forms of relationship. (If you want a polyamorous romance from me, check out Casting Nastutiums, collected in Winter’s Charms, In The Cards is not that.)

    But it is about how we have friends and relationships and connections to other people in a variety of ways. And about how some people can be wonderful friends to us, but not good as a romantic (or sexual) partner. Don’t worry, we’re getting more time with Galen (and some time with Laura and Martin) in the upcoming Point By Point, out in May 2022. We’re also getting some more time with Julius there too.

    If any of this sounds intriguing, check out In The Cards.