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.
You can get a copy of Pastiche free through April 30, 2022 thanks to the Escape into History promotion, a collection of historical romance, fiction, and mystery titles. Check out the whole list and see if anything else suits your fancy! (I’ll remove this note after the 30th.)
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 particualrly 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
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wards of the Roses remains my favourite title so far, given that I get to pun on the era, and on the walls of impenetrable roses around the manor house that’s central to the book.
I wanted to do several things with this book: write about the experience of blindness in the 1920s, talk about the creation of the Pact, and gesture at some of the forms of ritual magic in play both historically and during the time of the books.
Blindness in the 1920s
I have plans to do a post entirely about this, so I’m going to save the details for that. However, the 1920s were a particularly interesting time in the history of blindness.
Part of this is directly because of World War I. Damage from the new gas attacks, as well as injuries from bullets, shrapnel, and explosion, as well as better medical care that meant people did not die from initial injuries led to improvements in blindness rehabilitation.
People had previously been using four or five different methods of reading (embossed text, braille, Moon Type, among others). By 1919, the United States had standardised on a single form of braille (as the UK had a few years before that.)
Two things we associate with modern blindness – the long cane and guide dogs – both come directly out of the the 1920s and 1930s, thanks to various rehabilitation efforts. Both a lot more independent travel – the cane by giving a lot more information about what’s around you, and guide dogs because they can help make independent decisions about what’s going on that might be a risk.
(I’m quite sure Giles takes to a long cane with glee, and he has a guide dog by the mid-30s.)
So Giles is, at the time of the book, on the cusp of a number of these advances, but there are still a wide variety of tools in play, and learning to master them (or at least figure out which ones you wanted to use) was a key part of blindness rehabilitation work. For the record, St Dunstan’s was a real place, now Blind Veterans UK, and The Refuge was a magical equivalent, housing a small number of people at a time.
The one exception to the historical tools is magic duplicating later technology – Giles uses small charmed tokens to orient himself in rooms he uses often (like his home). Modern tech can do something similar, but this is something sympathetic magic would make pretty easy.
Obviously, the Pact is a major part of the history of Albion. The Pact is the agreement Richard III made in 1484 with the Fatae that created some protections, and transferred responsibilities for certain magical rites from the King (or his chosen representative) to the Council.
This book only touches on some of the implications of that, but I wanted to write about the fact that not everyone thought this was a good idea. Change in the fundamental structures of your magical life is hard!
I also wanted a glimpse at the more ritual-focused forms of magic, the kind of thing that involves arcane drawings on the ground in specially prepared chalk. A staple of the grimoire traditions of magic from the 15th and 16th centuries, there are lots of different forms. They often involve a number of calculations, picking a particular date, hour, even minute, and so on.
One of my basic principles in how magic works in Albion is that there are lots of ways to do magic, but not all of them are mutually compatible. And not all of them will work the way you hope they will, especially when you’re working toward the limits of their capacity. That’s before you get into whether the individual doing the magic is skilled, knowledgeable, or competent enough to do the thing they want to do (or sensible in their choices!)
Intrigued? Get your own copy of Wards of the Roses. You can find a bit more of Kate and Giles together in Country Manners, found in the Winter’s Charms novella collection, over the Christmas of 1921 between their engagement and marriage.
Welcome to the next in this series of posts about ideas behind my books. Today, we’re talking about Magician’s Hoard, which takes place in 1926, featuring Pross and Ibis.
Egyptology offers so many opportunities.
And the 1920s are a tremendously rich period in the history of the field. (I’m pretty sure we’ll be revisiting sometime later in my writing). In 1926, when William Matthew Flinders Petrie was actively excavating and sending materials back to what would become the Petrie Collection at University College London.
In 2015, I visited London, and was able to go to a lecture at the Petrie Collection (on the Egyptology behind the Doctor Who episode, Pyramids of Mars, which had its 40th anniversary that week.) It’s an amazing collection, with all sorts of little treasures and unusual items. Exactly the sort of thing Ibis could usefully apply himself to.
Who would do this?
I knew I wanted to do a book centering on Pross Gates, who appears in Outcrossing as a secondary character. She’s intelligent, resourceful, and independent – not looking for love, but rather stuck in a rut. The more I wrote about Ibis, and his goals and priorities, the more fascinated I was about how they fit together.
Ibis and his religion.
Here’s another bit of worldbuilding. One of my goals for the series is to write a cultural sense of religion that was not purely Christian (or religions of the Book, for that matter…) Many of the characters in my books have family practices related to deities associated with places, family lines, or particular professions.
Ibis, though, Ibis is very clearly a devotee of Hetheru (also known as Hathor) and Djeuty (also known as Thoth). You can see the little pieces of this through the descriptions of his office, his rooms – and his invocations while making love.
(I should note that Christianity also exists among the magical community – just that it’s one option among many, not the religion of a significant majority. More coming about that in the future.)
Of course, I also have an advantage here – besides my own lifelong interest in Egyptology, my most excellent editor, Kiya Nicoll, has done far more and has also written about it. (The Traveller’s Guide to the Duat, a guidebook to the spirit world of ancient Egypt. Comes with poetry of a variety of flavours and great good humour.)
I admit I’m also delighted about working a discussion about the complexities of Rudyard Kipling into a romance novel, and the character’s various reactions the ongoing colonialism (present in the 1920s in both Egypt and India.) There are a lot of things about Kipling that hold the memory, but his politics could be exceedingly awful.
The challenges of growing up in that environment (and how it affected Pross, who has not had the direct nearby support of her parents since she was 10) and Ibis (whose family other than his youngest sister are in Egypt, and who also had to deal with being visibly not like many of his peers in school) were something I wanted to bring out.
And of course, I wanted to gesture at some other common magical ideas, the ranges of what magic can do, and spend a little time at Schola, one of the five focused schools of magic in Albion. (We’ll be seeing more of it in a future book.)
Finally, without getting into spoiler territory, who doesn’t love a hedgehog? Most usefully for my purposes, besides being appropriate to the application, they are classic animals of both the British Isles and of Egypt.
Let me know if you’ve got more questions about my ideas or how they make their way into books! And of course, you can get your copy of Magician’s Hoard if this intrigues.
The idea for Goblin Fruit was actually the first idea for the series. Long story short, it came out a fannish project where we were coming up with books and works that might have been read.
I have loved the Dorothy L. Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey books since I first read them (sometime in my early teens), and Lord Geoffrey Carillon is very much meant to be cut from a similar cloth as Wimsey.
They’re both intelligent men who underplay their brains to be more effective investigators in varied social circles, and they’re both younger sons of respected noble families. And they both had a bad war that included some amount of intelligence work in the midst or aftermath. But Carillon has inherited the title (and its obligations), and had to return from his explorations abroad to take over his duties. That, naturally, includes finding someone to marry so there is a next generation.
I’m also fascinated by Christina Gabriel Rosetti’s famous poem, “Goblin Fruit” about two sisters, one of whom tastes the food and drink of the trooping goblins and is enchanted, saved by her sister’s loyalty. That formed the core of the plot for this book, figuring out what kind of magical temptation would be there, and how Lizzie and Laura would deal with it.
I wanted to talk about tuberculosis. I knew from the beginning that part of the reason Lizzie was so protective of her younger sister was because Laura had been in poor health for most of her adult life so far. The more I thought about it, the more tuberculosis – still a very present threat in the 1920s before the discovery of antibiotics – was the thing I needed to talk about. I love how that plays into part of the solution of this book (skills that Laura learned from long years in sanitariums and dealing with medical staff) and how it plays out in Laura’s own book, In The Cards.
Other bits of worldbuilding: This was also an excuse to explore non-human magical beings (there is more of that to come, in various ways), and I loved the idea of exploring a magical costume party. (The women dressed as Upper and Lower Egypt may well make a further appearance down the road…)
(Added, February 2022: Psst, there is more Carillon goodness coming later this year. Sign up for my newsletter to be the first to hear all about it.)
This post talks about the ideas behind Outcrossing. (There are no major spoilers here, but I do talk about some general setting and plot inspirations.)
Talking about the idea for Outcrossing is a little odd, because it wasn’t the first book in the series I knew I wanted to write. (That was Goblin Fruit). Instead, I wanted to think of a book that would set the stage for Goblin Fruit (which has a fair amount of explicit magical worldbuilding) and serve as an entry to the world as a whole. What does that mean?
I wanted main characters who were not highly skilled at magic. I didn’t want to risk losing the reader in lots of complex magical theory early on, and one of the easiest ways to avoid that is to not have either of the main characters have much knowledge about it.
In this book, we have two different takes on that lack of skill. We have Rufus, magically quite powerful, but who has had only enough training to stop him being a danger to himself and others. Ferry, on the other hand, went to one of the best magical schools, and yet wasn’t allowed to take the courses that she might have been really good at. She did well in school academically, but it didn’t lead to a life she wanted to live.
I wanted a strong sense of place. Some of the books in this series take place more strongly in the magical community, but I wanted the first one to be in a village that would feel at least somewhat at home to anyone familiar with village life in Britain in the 1920s.
I wanted places I could suggest more complex magic and worldbuilding. There are mentions in this book of things I wanted to develop later on. The mention of a wand as a complex magical item that’s roughly equivalent to somewhere between a high-end computer and a car. The idea of the Silence (and that some places are Silence-warded) without doing extensive explanations that the characters would not go into. The mentions of ritual magic at the end of the book. The fact there’s a Guard who does some kind of law enforcement. I didn’t want to develop any of these things too far, but I wanted to lay the seeds for what kinds of stories might come up further into the series.
From there, the plot was driven by those choices. Smuggling is an age-old activity along the southern coast of England, and there are quite a few stories of harrowing events in the New Forest and the nearby harbours. And of course, if you have magical creatures whose feathers or flowers have special properties, some people will try and steal them.
Welcome to a series of posts about each book (find the others in the ‘ideas to books’ category.) Authors start writing from very different points.
I start my books with characters, usually. I want to get to know my characters, and figure out their stories, their connections. I want them to be in complex interconnected worlds, and I want to get a sense of what that means for them.
The Mysterious Charms books are what is sometimes called a loosely connected series. You can read them in any order, but they have related characters. (And, I should note that the publication order is not the chronological order of the series.) As I write, I think about which secondary characters I’d like to explore in future books. Because the books are tightly focused in terms of point of view and character goals on the main characters, we see only slices of the much larger world they live in. Each new book is a chance for me to explore a different slice of that world.
As I write this blog post, I’m recently finished book 6 in the series, On The Bias. It’s the story of Thomas Benton (Lord Geoffrey Carillon’s valet, seen briefly in earlier books), and Mistress Castalia Jones, a dressmaker. I’ve been describing this one to people as “Valet and dressmaker foil plots.” I’m in the process of learning more about both of them, and to focus on people who aren’t well-off, or from well-off families.
But how does that play out?
I start with a character or two (now that I’m well into the series, I have a list of about eight future possible books, usually starting from a secondary character in a previous book I want to know more about). I’ve got a particular interest in writing characters who are dealing with things that affect how they interact with the world, whether that’s the after-effects of the Great War, surviving tuberculosis, a stigmatised but also useful magical ability, or something else.
(Why? I’ve got my own host of chronic health complexities and I’ve also got friends with a wide range of chronic stuff. I want to write books where we aren’t sappy inspirations, but get to live our lives, do interesting things, and find love. Also, there were a lot of people dealing with these things in the 1920s, and I don’t want to leave it out of the story. That’s lazy worldbuilding and bad history.)
Then I figure out what they’re interested in, what kinds of puzzles they might want to solve or things they’re trying to do with their lives. Sometimes they want to keep advancing professionally (and do something more interesting than traffic duty), like Kate in Wards for the Roses. Sometimes they’re trying to figure out how to get a bit of freedom from their family (Ferry, in Outcrossing). Maybe they’re going along living their lives when an interesting puzzle drops in their lap. (Ibis, in Magician’s Hoard).
And from there it’s a matter of outlining the basics of what’s happening, sitting down to write regularly, and seeing how the story unfolds.