Happy birthday, Dickens Magic!

dickens-magicHappy birthday, at long last, Dickens Magic! I feel like I’ve been waiting forever! And what better way to celebrate my latest book in my magic series than by indulging in a little of the magic of the day?

I try to release my magic books on Halloween for a couple of reasons. First, it’s Samhain, the day the Celts believed the veil lifted a little between this world and that of the dead. It’s a sort of “in between” time and magic abounds. For instance:

  • Bat magic. Bats are messengers. Did you know you can send a message with a bat to the other side of the veil on Halloween? Just ask when you see one out and about tonight.
  • Spider magic. Don’t squash spiders on Halloween! If you find one inside, it’s probably a dead relative come to visit.
  • Black cat magic. If you find a stray black cat curled up on your doorstep, don’t scare it off. It’s there to guard your house against evil spirits. Or it’s a witch’s familiar sent to spy on you.
  • Jack-o-lantern magic. You probably have one guarding your front door. My favorite legend of the jack-o-lantern comes from the Southern Appalachian Mountains where I grew up. One of many “Jack Tales” I read and heard over the years. I especially like the one from Richard Chase’s timeless collection. In this version, Jack the troublemaker made the first one when, after tricking the devil into agreeing not to take his soul to hell, he was also refused entrance to heaven. The devil, taking pity on poor, homeless Jack’s soul, tossed him a coal from hell and Jack put it into a hollowed out gourd to light his way as he wandered the earth. If you haven’t read the Chase collection, it’s available here: Jack Tales.

Second, it just so happens that the master of escape magic, Harry Houdini died on Halloween. Even he couldn’t avoid the inescapable clutch of death, it seems. Or could he? Toward the end of his life, Houdini was alternately fascinated and disgusted by the “mediums” of the day. He spent a large amount of his time studying their tricks and exposing them.

And yet, he and his wife Bess promised each other that whoever passed away first would find a way to contact the other with a secret code that spelled “Believe”. So, after Houdini’s death, Bess arranged a seance on the anniversary of his death every year until her own death, after which it was taken up by other believers.

I wonder about the death of Houdini. What better way for an escape magician to cross the veil than when it is, by Celtic belief, at its thinnest? And surely, if he so desired, he could escape that veil. Yet so far, no one has heard from him. If you’re curious about this year’s seance, you can find out more here: Houdini seance.

Maybe this year he’ll tell everyone to buy Dickens MagicIt’s not totally out of the realm of possibility, you know. He and Dickens shared a real interest in the paranormal. More about that later.

What’s the Date? Writing for a Different Season

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Charles Dickens began writing A Christmas Carol in October 1843. It was published December 19, 1843 and sold 6,000 copies by Christmas.

One of the things I used to love about reading Stephen King books was the way he would put in the dates of when he started the book versus when it was published. Cujo, for instance, was September 1977 through March 1981. Three and a half years he spent on that book.

I think I must know how he felt when he got the idea. It was September and, in Maine, at least, the season is fall. (In eastern N.C., it’s hurricane season.) The dead leaves were skittering across the pavement leaving a wet smell of decay behind, and all the sounds were louder, crisper. Like the bark of a dog. A really big dog.

Of course, that’s all conjecture, and far from how I conceive my own ideas. I decided to write Dickens Magic right after I starred as “Woman 3” in our community theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol. One problem. There’s no time to write around Christmas. Seriously. National Novel Writing Month takes place in November for a reason.

So I ended up putting it off starting the book until spring. By then I’d gained some more stage experience but the Christmas spirit was worn down and put away until this year. I’m only starting to want to put that spirit back on. So how do you write about Christmas in seventy-, eighty-, and ninety-degree weather?

It’s a question every writer eventually has to answer. How do you put yourself in another time? It helps to think of the things you like about that time—sights, smells, sounds. I listened to a lot of Christmas carols, which actually helped me with the magic show at the end of the book. It also helps that snow isn’t really a thing here in eastern N.C., and especially not at Christmas. You might see some in January or February, but not December.

And of course I have to thank Charles Dickens. His story is timeless in more ways than one. It does the soul good no matter what time of year you read it. Considering he sort of self-published it (and did not make the fortune he should have), it does make sense that I would feel a sort of kinship with him about this story.

So, though I didn’t keep exact track of my writing, I think I can guess what the dates at the end of Dickens Magic would be. March 2018-October 31, 2018.

Leaving the backlist behind

Over the past week—especially since Wednesday when I discovered my dog had chewed through my computer cord—I have been working on getting the last three of my self-published books online at Smashwords. Smashwords will make these books available in multiple formats at multiple outlets, so that you aren’t just limited to Kindle if you wish to read in ebook format. In a few days, every one of my books will be available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Kobo, iBooks—you name it, I’ll be there. Every format.

Revisiting my backlist became less of a chore than I’d imagined it would be. I actually found myself giving my last three books (Weeds and Flowers, Ducks in a Row, and Saturday Love) a thorough proofreading…and enjoying it. I haven’t read those books in ages.

Weeds and Flowers isn’t even a romance like I write now. More of a coming-of-age story that was written in a sort of patchwork quilt way—bits and pieces that I stitched together to make a novel. Appropriately, it was actually probably the first novel I wrote, though not the first one published. I had forgotten how much that book meant to me, though. It’s the only one—so far—that has something in it that actually happened, not actually to me, but to people around me. Re-reading it was like reliving some of my own childhood, even if I was more watching than experiencing at the time.

As for the other two, Ducks was the most difficult book I’ve written thematically. I think of it as sort of an anatomy of both a marriage and an affair. I actually still dislike the heroine, though she did grow a lot during the course of the book. And I fell in love with one of the male characters. So much so that he ended up getting his own book, Saturday Love, because I just couldn’t leave him hanging like he was at the end of Ducks. Regardless of my feelings for the characters, however, re-reading those books was like visiting with family I hadn’t seen in a while. And it revived a past resolve to write a third book in that series. If I can ever get past the two or three other projects I have waiting for me now.

But for now, I am returning to work on Dickens Magic, my next in the Sleight of Hand series and my first ever attempt at a holiday-themed book. I’d reached a sort of roadblock on that one. I couldn’t quite figure a believable way to drive a wedge between the hero and heroine but over the course of the week, I had a brainstorm. I plan to give myself two more weeks to finish the first draft of Dickens Magic, then I have another start on a not-magic-related book and at some point I have to get to work on Magic at Sea… 

But maybe that would wait. Maybe I could start my third book about the Hubbard family, Agape Mou (Greek for “My Love”). There’s a reason it’s Greek. If you read Ducks and Saturday Love, you’ll understand. I have plans for a very good-looking Greek hero for that one, but his ties to the Hubbard family are very complicated and bound to result in some drama. Especially when he gets involved with the daughter of the family…

Oh crap. If I’m not careful my imagination will get stuck in sunny Greek vineyards instead of a theater all decorated for Christmas. Better get back to work! Herete, my friends.

Begin at the Beginning

IMG_5147You know how you have a story to tell sometimes and you can’t figure out where to start? And then some smartass says “Begin at the beginning.” That’s not always easy, is it? Because maybe you start with waking up that morning and then you realize that you were late because you had a hangover and you had a hangover because your best friend from college was in town last night and you met and had drinks, but to begin with she was in town because she’s getting married… Well, maybe you get the idea.

My point is, finding the beginning of a novel is sort of like that. Sometimes you kick off your novel with a great first line. Like I had this awesome first line for my current work-in-progress. At least, I thought it was pretty good. Want to hear it? “I’m doing Dickens.” So I started there and proceeded…and realized pretty soon after that, damn it, that’s not the beginning of the story. It’s actually about a chapter in.

I tried flashbacks and having the characters discuss how they got to the point they were at, but I knew it wasn’t going to work. I would just have to sacrifice that perfect first line.

So now I no longer have the perfect first line. However, I do have what I feel is a pretty good beginning. I thought I might share it with you. This one will be a Christmas romance. It’s tentatively titled Dickens Magic, and may or may not be a part of the Sleight of Hand series. It’s still early, and I’m toying with making it a standalone. Tell me what you think in the comments!

Kate Joiner pulled another tray of hot biscuits from the oven, tossed four into a basket, and hit the bell for the waitress to pick up before turning back to make sure everything was running well in the rest of the kitchen. It was. Like a well-oiled machine. Her well-trained kitchen staff knew the drills perfectly. Even a busy summer brunch rush couldn’t throw them off.

If only her wait staff were as dependable. She frowned at the basket of biscuits still sitting on the counter, picked it up and stalked around the partition ready to scold whichever teenage waitress was neglecting her duties. However, as she rounded the corner, a young girl dressed in jeans and a “Book Marker Café” t-shirt almost ran into her.

“Quinn!” Kate gasped, stumbling backward and catching the girl in the same movement. “What’s the meaning of this? You guys all disappear during the busiest hour—”

She stopped, her eyes narrowing. “Why are you giggling?”

Quinn was undoubtedly laughing, but her eyes wore a more cautious, almost shocked look. As if she were amused but wasn’t sure she really should be. She got control of herself at Kate’s stern look, however, and swallowed hard. “It’s just—the…out there. There’s a woman in her nightgown.”

“Her nightgown?” Kate peered past the girl and her heart collapsed. There was indeed a woman in her nightgown. Alex’s mom. Mrs. Lawrence. One of the most fashionable women in town who seldom ever left her home without lipstick now sat at one of Kate’s front tables in a lace nightgown, her hair unbrushed and no makeup at all on her translucent skin. Kate nearly dropped the biscuits. “Oh my God.”

“We didn’t…know what to do. The other customers are pointing and whispering and some of them are leaving.” Quinn’s voice held no trace of laughter now. Evidently Kate’s reaction had convinced her which side of amusement she needed to come down on.

Kate took a deep breath. “Get the others in line. Take care of the other customers. Pack up orders to go. Give it to them for free if they don’t want to pay. I don’t care. Just, for God’s sake, don’t let anyone else point and laugh at her.” A lump rose in her throat and she swallowed hard. Then she straightened her back and hurried over to Patty Lawrence’s table, thinking the whole way about the mother of her best friend who’d made her chocolate chip cookies and given her rides to play rehearsals with Alex and had, more than once, organized a cast party for them. The sweetness of the memories gave her strength.

“Mrs. Lawrence.” She smiled as she set the biscuits on the table in front of the woman. “It’s so good to see you.”

Mrs. Lawrence looked up, blinked once and then smiled back. “Katie! It’s been ages.” She looked around. “What are you doing here?”

She doesn’t know where she is. She doesn’t know this is my café. Kate struggled for control. “Oh, Mrs. Lawrence. Don’t you remember? I went in on the business with my mother. She runs the book store and I run the café?”

“Oh. Oh, yes. Of course.” Mrs. Lawrence nodded, but she still looked a little befuddled. “Strange, isn’t it? Having books and a café? All…mixed up. Sort of like New York.” She spread her napkin primly over satin lap. “Well, I’ll start with coffee. The biscuits smell wonderful. Did I order them?”

Katie reached across and touched the woman’s hands. “Those are on the house. My specialty, Mrs. Lawrence. Tell me, have you spoken to Alex recently?”

“Oh, he’s so busy with his plays and things on Broadway.” The older woman fluttered her hands as if speaking of her son’s foibles and hobbies and not the Broadway career he’d built for himself. “I keep saying I’m going to go up and see this last one.” She leaned across the table, lowering her voice confidentially. “You know he plays a gay man, don’t you? But he’s not gay.”

“No, he’s not gay.” Katie squeezed her hands gently.

“This is a very nice place you have here, dear. It’s a little drafty, though.” Mrs. Lawrence shivered. “Maybe you could turn up the heat?”

“Turn up the heat?” Katie blinked. It was June and the thermometer was already at seventy-five degrees when she got up that morning. “Um…sure.” Seeing her chance, she half rose. “But maybe I can get you a sweater or something, Mrs. Lawrence. To keep you warm until—”

“A sweater? Don’t be ridiculous. I’m wearing my winter coat.” As she spoke, Mrs. Lawrence looked down and a horrible change came over her face. She looked back at Kate, then back down at her nightgown, covered her face and began to sob quietly. Kate helplessly knelt in front of her, put her arms around the woman and held her. And even as she did so, she thought, Now I have to call Alex.

****

A Christmas Carol: A new adventure, an old love

7A241F6E-D057-4BE3-8D35-3CB616A54869.jpegThis is my father’s copy of Dickens’ Christmas Stories. It’s seen better days. It was old the first time I laid my hands on it, when I was about nine or ten. Someone—probably me—drew on the first pages. You can see the binding is loose. It wasn’t a well-made book to begin with and many readings have pretty much destroyed it.

It’s one of the most precious things I own.

My father gave me this book when I left for college. I’d read it many times during the years and he knew how much I loved it. The very first story in it is A Christmas Carol. Has there ever been a better first line than this one?

Marley was dead, to begin with.

If ever it was necessary to end a sentence with a preposition, this is the one. From the first line to the last, “God bless us, every one!”, I was hooked. And the description of the Fezziwig party! “…three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were  not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.” I always felt as if I were there, dancing and singing and reveling, and I always wished I really was.

When I heard our local theater was going to do a musical production of A Christmas Carol, I knew I had to be involved. This was my chance—or as close as I was likely to ever get—to join in the parties Dickens described. I have no experience at all acting. I can’t sing. I didn’t know, at the time, if I would be able to dance. But my daughter convinced me that we should audition together, so I threw my hat in for a non-singing role.

Now, less than a month away from the first show, I’m glad I did. I’ve learned most of two dances, one of which is in the Fezziwig party. I’m enjoying the company of the rest of the cast, all of whom have more experience than me in this sort of thing. They’re wonderful people, every one of them, and they’ve taught me a lot. Even the ones who are younger than me.

But mostly, I’m loving experiencing first hand a new (to me) way of storytelling. I imagine when Charles Dickens sat down to write A Christmas Carol, he never imagined it being adapted to the stage. He never thought of the way his beautiful story of self-discovery and redemption could be told through song and dance, visualized by a director and translated by actors on a stage.

I’m sure he never thought of it, but I believe he would have liked it.