I had a fabulous time working with the map designer who did my previous two maps to do a map of Schola.
(Note: this post talks about death and grief and the complicated ways we know other people.)
Last week, I found out that Catherine Heloise had died suddenly, while on vacation. As I said in the memorial post on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (where she’d been a reviewer for years), in my religious tradition, we talk about “What is remembered, lives.”
I’ll be remembering her for the rest of my life.
I never met her.
To the best of my knowledge, I never even had a direct one-on-one conversation with her.
And yet, there’s this tremendous gap in my life now that feels impossible to find words for.
Once upon a time, a while ago
I’ve been a reader at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books for ages. I started sometime in my Minnesota years, which puts it between 2005 (when the site began) and mid-2011. Maybe 2007 or so. I’ve long appreciated their wide-ranging reviews in the romance genre, but also delighted in a lot of other posts – baking, knitting, commentary on the state of Romancelandia, and of course the Cover Snark posts.
Some online communities I’m extremely active in, others I read and enjoy, but don’t say much. SBTB was one of the “don’t say much”. I often felt a little uncertain of my footing among people who read more widely in the genre than I could manage. (The problem of loving a bunch of genres is that you are never as immersed in any one of them as someone who lives there full-time.)
I’m pretty sure it was the Eurovision posts where I first noticed Catherine Heloise’s name reliably. (My own personal name server is erratic and names often don’t stick until I’ve had a few memorable points of connection.) Those posts were a delight, and I’d cue up a range of videos, but also just enjoy the sheer joy of them. People sharing their love of something, whole-heartedly, has always made me perk up my ears and want to know more.
Time went along, and I began writing romances myself. My first book came out in December 2018. By early 2021, I’d built up a small but steady readership. I know perfectly well I’m writing books that are out in the edges of the genre in several ways – time period, focus, the arc of the romance. I am delighted by each and every person who also wants those things, but it’s a smaller audience in a lot of ways.
In May, Catherine Heloise mentioned my Eclipse as part of one of the regular Watcha Reading posts, saying “They are just so relaxing to read, and it’s possible that they were written to plug directly into all the happy places in my brain.”
I love all my books – and all my main characters – but Eclipse is, for a variety of reasons, particularly the book of my heart. (And while I am a librarian, not an astronomer, Thesan is perhaps closest to me of all my characters so far, though my friends have additional commentary on that topic.)
It lit up my month.
In June, Catherine Heloise posted a long-form Squee review of Eclipse, a long-form review about what she saw in it, and what she loved, and all the joy of it.
Here’s where I have to stop, and cry. Because this is about being seen.
And it’s where I have to stop and talk about reviews for a moment.
By and large, I don’t read my reviews. Reviews are for readers, and while they can (and often do) contain information of use to me as an author, they’re not for me. I go through a couple of times a year and make notes of things that help me describe what I do better, or that might help people who’d like my books find them. But not very often.
There’s more than one kind of review.
My father (who died in 1990) was a theatre professor, and he was directing a play a year, every year, sometimes more. Conversations with him were full of commentary of things he saw and read, everything from Asterix and Obelix to Doctor Who to Dorothy L. Sayers novels to Blackadder to various professional theatre productions (and we saw many of those.) My brother has been an arts critic and editor for most of my adult life.
That kind of review isn’t just about whether the reviewer enjoyed the work or why (as useful as that can be in many ways). They talk about what’s going on, internal to the work. Does it follow its own logic, what does it do well, how does it make the heart sing? This kind of review, at its best, also puts the work in a larger context, whether directly by comparison, or indirectly by articulating how it fits into the genre or style of production, or whatever other geography that might apply.
Seeing the landscape
Much of what she talks about there, those are things I’d thought about. Many of them are intentionally in the book, even. Only, I hadn’t been able to find words to explain them.
The way she articulated what that book does, what my writing does, blew me away.
She saw and named things I hoped people would notice and appreciate. She made it easy for other people to see and find those things. Writ loud, writ wide, shared with the world. And – even better, the thing you can’t expect from any review, any commentary – all her sheer joy of love of the book came through, even while she brought thoughtfulness and reflection and inspired commentary to it. She ends that review by saying:
That review? It made last year for me. It is making this year. It will make my future. All sorts of verb tense conjugations I can barely imagine.
First, her review and comments have made my writing better. They made me more sure of leaning into some kinds of subtle complexity, knowing that people saw what I was doing and liked it. It’s helped me talk (in my own head, as well as to other people) about some of how I think about plot, about story, about intimacy and coming together, and hope.
Of course, I started paying more attention to her reviews after that, reading back through what she’d shared. The most recent book I’d read because she recommended it was Susanna Allen’s A Most Unusual Duke, which predictably I also adored (also the first book in the series, which I immediately read next.)
Catherine Heloise also mentioned my books in the year-end wrapup podcast episode (there’s also a transcript at the link). She’d had a broken ankle and a lot of frustration, and I was delighted when I heard the podcast that my books had been the right company for her at that particular time.
Sometimes she’d like a Tweet I made, never commenting, just noticing and enjoying.
She mentioned – and adored – Lord Geoffrey Carillon, who comes out of my immense love of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. I was thinking of her a lot as I started writing again about Carillon in January and now February (a prequel novella in January, and a book set in 1935 that’s my current book in progress).
I can’t even count how many times in the past couple of months I wrote something, and wondered what she’d think of it. And looked forward to whatever comment she might have when the book was real in the world.
I found out about her death from a post from someone I know through entirely other circles. It was only reading that post (and the links to Catherine’s other online spaces) that I realised we’d been in almost overlapping online spaces for a long time. A mailing list here, Dreamwidth circles there, half a dozen other places where I might have got to know her much better.
When I was writing about it privately, and about this complicated feeling of grieving for someone I didn’t know nearly as well as I wish I had, who I had this very particular relationship to, I got the perfect comment from a friend of mine.
She’s also an author (more on that in a moment), and she said, “I’m so sorry you lost such a perfect reader and a potential friend.”
Yes. All of that.
What makes this perfect, what makes me be able to trust it so well, is – this particular friend? I have adored one of her books since I read it in 1994. It shaped my experience of college, my desire to walk toward the numinous, and my connections to other people, many of whom are decades-long friends now. It’s been reliably on my list of my favourite books ever since, even as others have come and gone.
First, I knew her by her writing. Then we ended up in the same Usenet community. Later, I moved to her city, and we had all the interactions you do when that happens, at local conventions and the occasional party. I moved away, but she is always a glowing light of kindness and gentleness and deep thought, one of the people I am always thrilled to see pop up somewhere.
The ways we know each other, the ways we touch each other, are so varied, especially online. But they are real and solid. Words mean things, words carry things.
And that’s why I will be remembering Catherine Heloise until the day I die. Knowing that she knew me, by my words, in all the ways I want most desperately to be known. That I was lucky enough to know her better by what she shared, as small and fragile and shattered as that feels at the moment.
Most of all, that those great gifts last and matter. That that knowing is real. And that being seen, being heard, that is where the heart and the magic live.
Hello, and welcome to 2022! I have aspirations and intentions of doing more regular blogging about my books and writing this year, so I thought it’d be great to start out with what I’m hoping to write and publish this year.
(As always, my newsletter gets all the news first, including some additional details that won’t be on the blog. Also some extra scenes or short stories from time to time as I’m inspired to write them.)
(2021 was an amazing year! The Fossil Door, Eclipse, Fool’s Gold, Sailor’s Jewel, Complementary, and Winter’s Charms all came out thanks to my being home a lot more. I’m expecting my writing speed to drop a bit in 2022, but I also have a lot of things I want to write, so I’ve got some ambitious goals.)
(Likely) coming out in 2022:
I’m hoping to release 4 books and 2 novellas in 2022. Because of the way I draft and edit, three of the four novels already exist in draft (or will within a week or so, I’m finishing one of them right now.) My goal is to hit the months indicated, but it’s a changeable world out there, so dates may shift somewhat in the process.
The Hare and the Oak: A later-in-life romance featuring Cyrus Smythe-Clive (seen in Sailor’s Jewel as Rhoe’s older brother, and briefly in Carry On and Eclipse). When Lord Baddock shows up at the Council Keep looking for help, Cyrus and Mabyn Teague (seen briefly at the end of Eclipse) need to figure out why the land magics are failing, find a lost heir, deal with Lord Baddock’s difficult mother, and decide how much they’re willing to trust each other. Out sometime in February 2022.
Point By Point: Lydia needs to make a name for herself as a journalist, but she needs an entry point into the right social circles to investigate a particular story. When Galen (last seen in In The Cards) agrees to help, they’re drawn into a world of horse racing and dangerous secret societies. Fortunately, with the help of the Dwellers in the Forge, including Martin (Galen’s best friend), they’re able to find a way through. (Alternately, ever wonder about the aftermath of Magician’s Hoard? This is also about what happened next.) Out in May 2022.
Mistress of Birds: When Thalia’s great-aunt needs a rest cure, Thalia agrees to stay at her estate on the edge of Dartmoor to keep an eye on the place. (Thalia’s career as an author isn’t going very well, so getting room and board doesn’t exactly hurt.) Once there, she discovers a mysterious man in the apple orchard, and a series of odd and spooky events around the ancient house. Out in August 2022. Last book in the Mysterious Powers series.
Also coming out in 2022 if all goes well are three things that I haven’t written yet…
In the writing stack
When I wrote Eclipse, my editor Kiya left a note at one point saying “I now sort of want the buddy cop story in which Alexander and Carillon team up to utterly destroy a munitions smuggler.” Every single one of my early readers (all friends) left comments wondering how they could encourage that to happen. Since I can take a hint, I started thinking about how to make it work.
Best Foot Forward is going to be the result. Here’s the trick: while it’s about friendship and chosen family, and caring about other people, it’s not actually a romance. (Alexander is both asexual and aromantic. He doesn’t have the terms for either, though he’d grab them with both hands if he could.) Carillon, mind, is still very happily married to Lizzie (see Goblin Fruit and On The Bias), so there’s going to be some needful conversations and sorting out what to do about this man who is, in other ways, very much Carillon’s type.
I’m going to start writing this one in February, and it’s looking like it’s going to be a grand set of adventures across the Contintent in 1935. (Probably mostly Germany and Switzerland, but I reserve the right to change my mind later if I have a better idea.) It should be out in November 2022.
I’ve been saying I didn’t want to get into the Second World War, but having had this idea, it feels wrong to just do one book in the time period. I have now laid out the bones of two more books (to make a trilogy). Chances are decent there will eventually be some surrounding novellas, too.
The second book doesn’t have a title yet, but it’s going to deal with Gabe and Rathna (from The Fossil Door) in 1940 and focus largely around their relationships with their apprentices and communities. Why? For a lot of the book, they’re going to be in different places. (Yay for magical journals and direct speedy communication? Makes a long-distance relationship so much easier.)
Also, it will be full of land magic, the Magical Battle of Britain from Albion’s perspective, and a bit more portal magic applied in service of getting people to safety. I plan to start writing this one in August 2022 and it will be out in May of 2023 if all goes well.
The third book? Well, for the moment, let’s just say that sitting down to work out the next generation (i.e. who of my extant characters had kids in the late 20s and 30s, and what’s going on with their families) led to an idea that is also decidedly not a romance.
It is, however, set at Schola. (I’ll be sharing more with my mailing list about this, first, so check in there if you want more details.) I don’t plan to start writing this one until February of 2023.
Now that I’ve finished a second series of 1920s books, I need to start a new one, right? I’ve got all these secret societies attached to Schola, and only one of them has gotten any serious time on the page (the Dwellers at the Forge, in both In the Cards and the forthcoming Point By Point.)
I haven’t actually sketched out the details of this series yet in more than very broad strokes, but they’ll
a) Take place during the 1920s (or maybe the Great War)
b) Each book will have at least one main character who’s a member of one of the seven secret societies.
c) Each will focus on some sort of art (or craft) – I’m thinking about things like music and dance and theatre, but also considering things like bookbinding, perfume making, illusion performances, jewellery making, or dyecrafting. If you have something you’d love me to think about, drop me a note via the contact form or email.
Once I figure out the sequence, my plan is to write one in May 2022, and one in November, with them coming out in 2023. (I normally write over a 3 month period, and then it sits for a bit before I edit. This is why I can be fairly predictable about release dates, if you’d been wondering that…)
I’ve been chewing on a prequel novella about Carillon inheriting the title for a while, and in December finally figured out how to structure it properly. It will be a freebie for signing up for my mailing list (you’re always able to immediately unsubscribe if you’d rather…) and I’ll announce it here and on social media when it’s available. I expect it to have a lot of Carillon and Benton, and also spend some time with how Carillon, Richard and Alysoun Edgarton, Giles Lefton, and Hippolyta FitzRanulf connect to each other. This one’s set in 1921.
Time and energy allowing, I’m also hoping to do a prequel novella for the Mysterious Powers series, focusing on how Roland Gospatrick’s parents (seen in Carry On) decided to marry each other, and how that started.
I’m aiming for the Carillon novella to be out sometime over the summer, and the Gospatrick one sometime after that.
I have somehow written a lot of books! I know it can be confusing to figure out who’s in which book, or the complete timeline, or where things are located.
Help is on the way, however. I spent my vacation time over the holidays working on a solution. It needs some more hours to get everything sorted the way I want, but I’m expecting to be able to share the core of it starting in January or maybe February. Keep an eye on my newsletter for more (including a sneak peek) and let me know if there’s a topic you’d particularly like me to cover.
(Or for that matter, if there’s something you’d like me to blog about. I’m aiming for every fortnight, aka every two weeks, and I’m going to start with some “Idea to book” posts.)
If you’ve read more than a couple of my books, chances are that you’ve noticed a number of them have characters who are what we’d now describe as neurodiverse.
Neurodiversity is a term that encompasses a lot of conditions or experiences of how people think and interact with the world. They can include a wide range of things we have some names for, and plenty of things we don’t.
Some you’ve probably heard of include autism, ADHD or ADD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dyspraxia Tourette’s Syndrome and some mental health conditions. Some estimates suggest that 30-40% of people fall into at least one of these categories (there can be overlaps, which make statistics harder…)
There’s also a huge range of experiences and ways this shows up for people. Each and every person has a unique brain and set of life experiences. All sorts of factors like family support or expectations, educational support, professional support and guidance (if testing and/or medication is part of the picture) make a difference in what it means for an individual.
We also know that while the term ‘neurodiversity’ is quite modern (it was coined in the late 1990s by Australian sociologist Judy Singer), that neurodiverse folks have been part of the world since, well, there were people.
For example, John Donvan and Caren Zucker wrote In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, a history of autism. As part of their research they discovered records from the mid-1800s that pretty clearly describe what we’d call autism today, and they talk about some earlier examples where there are less thorough notes.
One theory about why we see more people with these diagnoses or identifications these days is that modern society is a great deal more complex. Most people are asked – as part of ordinary daily life – to deal with a huge range of different situations and stimuli and expectations.
These include plenty of different noises (traffic, sirens, background music in every store ….), bright lights, dealing both with people who are well-known and a lot of total strangers (especially in the kind of work often open to people who are either still in school or are figuring out what they want to do with their lives.)
Modern life often expects us to reach a certain level of skill with a huge range of things, rather than being focused on a small number. Just think about all the skills someone needs to be competent in for a high school diploma – not just the subjects themselves, but technology skills, a certain amount of social skill (all those group projects…), and often many other non-academic expectations like community service.
It’s a big difference to the historical past. Even fifty years ago, many (though certainly not all) people might live much or all of their life in their home area or around people they’d mostly known from childhood. Even people who travelled or emigrated often did it in a context where they knew people with them, or where a situation was entirely new and challenging for everyone. Or it had some sort of structure to the expectations. In those cases, working through the situation could be more transparent and shared by everyone.
In addition, some people have an easier time than others of interacting in neurotypical society (or seeming to work with those expectations, anyway). Others have a much harder time. For people where the effort of doing so isn’t obvious, others may not realise what’s going on inside their head. They may only talk about it with a few close friends or family members. They might not talk about it much with anyone at all.
In my books
At this point, I’ve published five books that have neurodiverse characters. Three of them probably wouldn’t define themselves as being notably different from other people, but those experiences and how their minds work definitely shapes their interactions with the world and their stories.
On The Bias features Thomas Benton, who went into service in a great country house at age twelve. It’s clear from his comments several times in the book that he found the structure and clear expectations very reassuring. A country house ran rather like clockwork: each person had their set of duties and knew the expected standards they had to meet. Even the social interactions were laid out pretty clearly – who you socialised with below stairs, what you did on your afternoon off, what the next step in advancement would involve.
Benton eventually became a valet, and then was thrown into the chaos of the trenches of World War I. He did his best to become very competent at what he could control (he is, for example, extremely good at charms to heat up water – a comfort in the trenches.) Once he came into the sphere of Lord Geoffrey Carillon, there was someone he could look to (in a socially expected and structured way) for what he should be doing, and how to do it. At the same time, his attention to detail and a certain determined focus on his work meant he was a superb valet for an adventuring younger nobleman. He trusted Carillon would explain what was needed on the adventuring side, and then he set about making it happen.
Cadmus Michaels, in Seven Sisters is in somewhat of the same position. While he has his strong interests and his preferences for how things are done, he happened to be born into a life where those things fit with what was expected of him. Mostly. A man of his class and education is permitted a bit of eccentricity, after all. If the money is there, being a somewhat reclusive classicist is an entirely acceptable mould for a man. Even his time in the Colonial Service was largely expected, and a place where the needed skills and social expectations were well-known.
Gabe Edgarton in The Fossil Door is the exception in my list above. He – and his family – are quite clear his mind isn’t like most people’s. While Gabe doesn’t have a term like ADHD to work with, he knows he skitters around between ideas, that he’ll make startling choices. And he definitely should not be left entirely alone with his impulses without some moderating influence.
He was lucky enough to have parents who didn’t entirely understand how he thought, but who made sure he had the support to figure it out for himself. He didn’t go to tutoring school (common for people of his class and privilege). Instead various of the adults in his life made sure he got additional resources for learning. He bounces around too much from topic to topic to make friends easily, but in among people who also love the endless puzzle, he does fine. Better than fine.
Thesan Wain in Eclipse is possibly the character where it’s least obvious. When reading her point of view chapters, it becomes obvious that sometimes the world is too fast and too bright and too complicated for her to sort out right in the moment. Stars, her beloved field, are very far away and don’t generally move quickly at all. The others in her field tend to appreciate steady reliable work and a certain obsessive focus on detail.
However, if you were to ask her about it, I think she’d blink a lot. From inside her head, many of the things she struggles with are about issues of class, expectations she doesn’t fully understand (often related to class and social niceties), and the eternal question of dealing with widely varying students. That these things also are partly about neurodiversity, well… that’s why sorting this out gets complicated.
The last published work so far is Complementary, a novella about Elizabeth Mason, which makes it clear that she (like Gabe) is somewhere in this set of experiences. She is, perhaps, slightly less likely to fling herself out a window as a resolution to a problem. (Though compared to Gabe that’s not a high bar to get over.) But she is a tad impulsive, a very non-linear thinker and problem-solver, but capable of intensive focus. She’s also very used to working with people who tolerate or even admire her admittedly many quirks and preferences.
In Casting Nasturtiums, a novella due out in December 2021, Golshan Soltani also has what we’d call ADHD, and before that novella begins, has funnelled it into a mix of duelling, Materia training, and running a music hall with its endless challenges. When injuries during the Great War change what’s practical for him, he has to rearrange a whole lot of expectations about how to handle the bees in his head.
Why does this matter?
As with much of my other writing, I want to write books where people like me, like my friends and loved ones, get to have romance and love. Where they get to have adventures and come safely home. (And have a home that is safe to come to…)
That’s as true when we’re talking about how someone’s mind works as their body.
I owe many things to my editor, Kiya Nicoll (an author in their own right), who is also a long-time friend. But I especially owe them a lot of thanks for helping me figure out how to best show the neurodiversity of my characters on the page. And also for nudging me to write this post in part to highlight Thesan, in particular, as a model of neurodiversity that often goes unremarked.
I spent last night staring at my computer screen in utter delight (and a fair bit of ‘wait, is this real?’), due to the lovely comments on the latest Whatcha Reading? (May 2021, part 2) post from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.
Thank you so much to Catherine and all the other commenters who’ve said such kind and glowing things about my books. I’m ecstatic that people have enjoyed them for all the reasons I hoped people would. I’ve been a reader at SBTB for many years (sometime before 2010), and it’s one of my go-to sites for discovering new books, with thoughtful commentary about a wide range of books.
The comments there did make it clear I really ought to add some information to my website, though.
If you’d like to try out my books, you can get my first book, Outcrossing, for free by signing up for my newsletter. (It’s my first book, and I’ve learned a lot about writing since then. I recommend Pastiche as a starting point to see what I think my books do best.)
I have a page of questions and answers, talking about:
- Reading order (see below)
- Where you can get my books
- Getting my books from your library
- What helps me most as an author
- Finding out about what’s coming next
- Why I’m (mostly) writing in the 1920s
- Why disability representation is a thing I care about.
- Where to learn more about historical tidbits
- What’s in my newsletter and why you might want to subscribe
- Why my books aren’t in Kindle Unlimited
- How to get in touch if you have other questions
The question I’ve been seeing most is about where to start. Taken from that questions page, here’s my answer as of May 2021.
You can read my books in any order. (One note: I do recommend reading Goblin Fruit before you read On The Bias.)
- If you’re someone who prefers internal chronological order, here’s a timeline.
- Start with Pastiche if you want to read just one of my books, and get a grand sense of what they’re like.
- Start with Carry On if you’d like to start with the current series.
- If you like a locked room murder mystery with your romance, try In The Cards
If you’re looking for particular kinds of stories, or want to avoid a particular topic, check out my content notes for more information about each book. I have a project in the works to make it easier to find out if a character you love appears in any other books.
I’m so delighted to be able to share Eclipse with all of you.
Schola is the most elite of the magical schools of Albion, devoted to preparing the best and brightest young adults for a life of magic, innovation, and perhaps service. Students hurry from class to class, learning everything from writing to duelling, alchemy to astronomy.
Thesan is now established as the Astronomy professor, but is still one of the youngest and newest teachers at Schola. She is eagerly anticipating the upcoming eclipse, a rare event, as well as her usual classes and projects.
Isembard came to Schola last year to teach Protective magics and act as bodyguard and mentor to two sons of Council Members. He has settled into a pleasant life with a great deal of time in the duelling salle, and an amiable beer in the pub on Saturday evenings while he and Thesan mark assignments. This year promises to be even better, since Alexander, his own mentor, will be teaching Ritual classes.
No school year is ever simple. And it never goes the way you think it will.
Eclipse is full of astronomy, what makes a good teacher, student dramatics, glittering social events, academic politics, students who are possibly up to something, and whether a relationship might work between two people from very different backgrounds who have their own professional goals and expectations. Set in the 1924-1925 school year, Eclipse explores what it means to live, work, and love at Schola.