Help Me Help You (The Editorial Process Part 2)

In my last post, I wrote about the editorial process and why it takes so long, and I promised that the next one would be suggestions and strategies writers can use to make that process go more smoothly and, hopefully, a little bit faster. In the interim, I have finished up edits on one big book, acquired two more manuscripts to edit, and written two difficult chapters in my own WIP. So, you know, the monster lurches on. But anyway, as promised ….

Stop Sending Me Your Ratsafrackin First Draft: And trust me, I can always tell. I’m starting with the harshest, most blame-the-writer-y directive because this is the one factor in the process that you, the writer, can absolutely control. I don’t care if you’re Stephen King, N.K. Jemisin, or Charles Dickens finishing Edwin Drood from beyond the grave, your first draft is NOT the draft you want me to see. Because it is not the draft you want the reader to see. Because the reader does not live inside your skin and will never, ever, ever understand it or engage with it or love it the way you do. You know that vitally important thing you figured out about your protagonist just as you were turning the corner on the second act? And that amazingly mind-blowing twist that came to you in the shower just when you thought you were stuck? And the way you kept going back and forth on how to spell the supernatural antagonist’s surname? All of that stuff needs to be revisited and worked through the manuscript as a whole (a hint of foreshadowing here, a corrected spelling there) before you submit it to an editor. And no, Grasshopper, running it through search and replace will NOT take care of it.

At the end of your first draft, you have the story, you have an arc. But you haven’t made it plain what’s important and what isn’t; you’re still just then at that moment figuring out which details the reader needs to notice and which details need to barely register and hang around in the back of their brain until you start setting off your bottle rockets and springing your traps. You probably have a few rockets and traps you haven’t even set up yet. And if you don’t go through your story again and refine your rhythms and shore up your foundations and fix your continuity snafus before you send the thing to me, I’m going to have to do it for you. And even if your first draft is really good and you and I have worked together really well for a really long time, I’m not ever going to be able to do it as well as you could because it’s not my story. I’m gonna screw it up. And that’s gonna piss you off. And we’re going to have to not only fix the problems, we’re going to have to get past the fact that I pissed you off and that you pissed ME off by sending me a first draft you weren’t really ready to see edited. And that’s going to slow our process down.

And btw, kittens, this goes double for anybody submitting for publication in the first place. Any time a writer tells me they’ve sent out a project to a dozen editors and gotten a dozen rejections and they’re ready to give up writing and join the circus, I ask them, “how many drafts did you write before you sent it out? How many other people read it and gave you feedback on it? How much rewriting did you do based on that feedback?” If they tell me several and lots, I sympathize and offer to help however I can. If they tell me they just finished it, got their mom to proofread it, and sent it out, I wish them luck with the elephants. Also, if you’re one of those super-artistic pantser types who writes your stories in a supernatural fever of inspiration from beginning to end, letting the muse and the characters tell you where your story needs to go until you collapse over your keyboard, spent and done with a story that’s a piece of your very soul still dripping tears and hearts’ blood, too precious to be imperfect . . . yeah, don’t send me that shit. Save us both a lot of heartache.** And on a related note . . .  

Don’t Send Me an Unfinished Draft: If you’ve still got one more piece of research to do or one more plot hole to fill or one more subplot to work out or one more name to choose or one more scene to write, you aren’t ready to show me your story, and I don’t want to see it. Nothing sends me into a rage frenzy faster than spending hours and hours editing a book, sending it to an author with my notes, and having them send me back a completely different, completely rewritten book that doesn’t so much address my concerns as render them moot. Because when that happens, I have to start all over again, and everything I did before was useless. And that makes me testy. If you’re not ready to submit, it’s okay; I’ll totally understand. Keep working until you’re ready to send me what you consider to be the finished form of your book.

But please note, this doesn’t mean I won’t make any changes or suggestions or comments. It means the changes, suggestions, and comments I do make will come only from stuff you couldn’t possibly have seen from the inside. That’s the whole point of editing. I work with so many writers who seem to take every critical note I give their story as some kind of commentary on their talent or intelligence—nothing could be further from the truth. Like I said in my last post, I already know you’re an amazing writer. If I tell you I don’t understand why Sally Jane killed the fly with her flipflop in Chapter 9, make it clear she didn’t have a fly swatter. Don’t feel like you have to rewrite the universe so flies don’t exist. You don’t have to be perfect; you can’t be perfect. I’m certainly not, and neither is any other writer. This is a process, not a test. I’m not grading you; we’re making a product together. So relax and work with me, okay?

Meet Your Deadlines: Which I know sounds like a complete contradiction to everything I’ve written so far. But here’s the deal with deadlines. We set them, usually in a collaboration between the writer, me, and the publisher, not just so we have one but so we can plan ahead for all the other steps that have to happen to make the great story you made up into an actual book for publication and for the glorious moment when that book is finally released into the world. If shit happens and for whatever reason you can’t make that deadline, we are not going to be mad at you or fuss at you; we’re going to totally understand and give you whatever time you need. But we’re not going to bring the big machine that is the publishing house to a grinding stop to wait for you to finish; we’re going to move on. Your book loses its place in line; the next finished book behind you moves up into your slot. So when you do turn your book in and ask me “so when’s this going to come out?” I’m going to tell you, “I don’t know, but probably no time soon.” Not because I’m mad you missed your deadline, not because I’m not still wildly excited about your book; I’m not and I am. But just like at the doctor’s office, I gotta work you in. So if your book was due on December 1, 2020, for a release on May 1, 2021, that doesn’t mean if you turn it in on February 1, 2021, it’s going to come out July 1, 2021. Other people’s books are already taking up that space. It means it’s going to come out just as soon as we can get it through the editorial pipeline and find a spot on the roster for it. So it might just come out May 1, 2022. (I say this with authority—the dates I used in the previous example were my own when I missed my original deadline for Stella 4. It was meant to be a ConCarolinas release, but it wasn’t ready for ConCarolinas 2021. So we held it until ConCarolinas 2022.) Again, it’s not that anybody blames you or doesn’t understand why you couldn’t make your deadline. It means your missing your deadline threw off the schedule, and we’ve gotta find a way to make it work.

Be Flexible and Let Go: Like the deadline thing, this is not something you have to do or even that you always should do or even can do. But the more you can do it, the less time it’s going to take to get your book through the editorial pipeline and out into the world. I’m talking about stuff like editorial suggestions, copy edits, and cover art. Your book is your book; that is never in question. And it’s only natural that you should have a vision for it as a story and as an object and that you should care deeply about that vision. But if you don’t trust a publisher to know what they’re doing in polishing and packaging your book, don’t sign with that publisher. Don’t roll over and play dead; if you have an idea or a problem, speak up, that’s part of your job as a writer. The trick is realizing which details really matter and which you can give up.

As far as editing, my own process as a writer is simple. I get my edits, and I read them, and every nice thing slides through my brain so fast I barely see it and every criticism digs in like a rusty fishhook and makes me scream. And scream I do, and cuss, and disparage the ungodly entity that brought me to this pain (my editor) in every possible way for anywhere from ten minutes to two days. And then I read them again and realize not everything is quite so egregious as I thought it was. At that point, I’m able to start the process of making decisions as to what the editor is dead right about and what they might be right about and what they’re so wrong about I can’t stand it and what I can let go. And that’s the version of my response that my editor actually sees, and usually, we work it through very well and come up with a version that pleases us both.

Cover art might be trickier because I have a weird outlook on it. I got so battle-scarred with my first big publisher regarding cover art, anything that doesn’t make me cry seems glorious to me now. Other authors are very much not the same. Again, you gotta be you, but for your own sake, I’m going to say this. The people choosing and/or creating your cover art know a lot more about that process than you do, including what’s selling and what isn’t, and you couldn’t be objective enough to be smart about it even if they didn’t. This is your story; it’s been living in your  head and your heart for a long, long time before you ever start thinking about cover art. So nothing anybody else can think of, find, or create will ever match the vision in your head in a way that feels adequate to you. But the less you’re willing to compromise, the more tightly you clutch that Platonic ideal of a cover in your head, the longer it’s going to take for your book to come out. And sadly, the less likely it is that you’re going to get another contract with that publisher—again, cover artists are busy people, too, and usually quite expensive. So don’t let us make your book ugly. But don’t die on that hill.

Sorry this is so long, but I hope it helps. Bottom line, I want your book to be the best it can possibly be and to come out into the world as fast as it possibly can. You know, just like you do. So let’s do it together.

**PLEASE NOTE: I do not mean to suggest pantsers don’t write great books; of course they do. But the good ones take that first exploratory draft and craft it into something leaner and more focused that speaks to the reader as clearly as it spoke to them. No, I’m being hateful about the pantsers who feel that once they’ve typed “The End,” they’re done, that any change will mar the chaotic perfection of their art. And yeah, I got no time for that.

What Is Your Editor Doing?

… when she’s not editing your book?

Like every writer I’ve ever known or heard tell of, I’m a fretful ball of nerves every time I send in a manuscript. Back in days of yore when I was writing my first books on stone tablets and had never edited anyone else in my life, I would start bitching as soon as the trader’s mule train crested the closest hill that it was taking too damned long for my edits to come back. “It’s taking her longer to edit the thing than it took me to write it!” I would rant to my nearest and dearest. “What the hell is she doing?”

Now that I’m an editor, too, I know. Sadly, unfortunately, tragically, boy howdy, do I ever know.

1.         Her day job: I used to think that editors had offices or cubicles or at least dedicated desk space somewhere at which they planted themselves every morning with nothing to do ‘til quitting time but edit books. If you still think that, bless your heart. These days, even the Big 5 NYC publishers (five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . ) employ very few full-time fiction editors. And the ones they do employ spend at least as much time on stuff like marketing, statistical analysis, and helping their boomer boss download their email as they do actually editing.

            In my case, I have a full-time, nine-to-five, five days a week day job as a domestic court paralegal. My dedicated desk is here to help people get divorced, not edit books. Do I cheat? Most certainly—don’t tell my boss. But that cheating time is strictly limited by the need to keep up with my paralegal tasks so I don’t get fired. Editing your book fulfills my soul, and I love it. But it doesn’t pay my light bill.

2.         Writing her own book: In the wonderful, madcap world of small press publishing, virtually every editor is also a writer. And for most of us, no matter how much we love you and your book, our own writing comes first. By the time we get to the point in our writing career that we’re qualified to edit, we’ve learned how necessary it is to make our work a priority. As a writer who probably also has a day job and almost certainly has a life outside the stories you make up, you know how hard it is to find the time, energy and inspiration to write a book. So when that opportunity arises, by scheduled design or divine intervention, you’re going to grab it, and so am I. Put another way, if I’m letting my husband walk the dogs alone and letting the dishes pile up in the sink to get this chapter finished, I’m letting your manuscript wait for me, too.

3.         Editing somebody else’s book: When I started editing, I made it a solid policy to never work on more than one book at a time. I thought that was the only way I’d be able to edit and still write my own stuff. But yeah, that went out the window a while back and doesn’t seem likely to return.

4.         Doing promotion, packaging, physical sales, and everything else that goes into fiction as a business in the year 2022: Again, at a small press, the same people who are editing the books are doing everything else, too, from creating social media content to working the sales booth at conventions. In addition to the marketing and promotion work I do for my own work (a full-time job all by its itty-bitty self, I assure you), I try to be an advocate and resource for the authors I edit. I do what I can to help them create their own marketing plans and make sure their voice is heard in the packaging and promotion of their work within the publishing house. As your editor, the person who works for your publisher and has been where you are many times before, that’s part of my job, and I’m more than happy to do it. But like everything else, it takes time.

5.         Reading, watching TV, eating tacos: The TV and tacos are pretty self-explanatory, but the reading is more than just a fun release. To be a decent editor (and writer), I have to read other books in my genre—NEW books. Books that are selling. Books that were created for and are being marketed to the audience my authors and I are trying to reach. It’s fun, and I love it. But it’s also necessary—and time-consuming.

6.         Answering your emails: I hesitate to even mention this because I never want any author to feel weird about getting in touch with me for any reason at all. And if you have a problem or a question; if you’re stuck trying to transition into your third act or you hate the first mock-up of your new cover or whatever, please, by all means, speak up; I’m keen to help. But if you’re just “touching base,” or “checking in” or “seeing where we are,” I will be very nice to you. I love talking to my authors; they are some of my favorite people in the whole wide world. But inside my head, I’ll be thinking, “I’m here; I remember I owe you an edit; I care about that a whole bunch; and I’m doing my fucking job, I promise.”

            And I know that sounds harsh and pissy. I mean, all you’re asking for is a three-line email, right? Five minutes of my attention, tops—hardly too much to ask. Except you need five minutes. And she needs five minutes. And he needs five minutes. And they need five minutes. It adds up fast, particularly when you consider everything else on this list. An editor with a much longer list of clients than mine (and a much more successful sales record with their own work) recently told me, “I could fill my entire week doing nothing but reassuring authors I haven’t forgotten about them.”

And that makes sense. Being a writer is hard; waiting to hear your editor’s reaction to the story you’ve worked on so hard for so long is torture; I know that. Waiting with your hands folded for your book to be published is like dying; you wrote it to be read. The process of getting it from your pen to the bookstore shelf (or your keyboard to Amazon) does take fucking forever; I know that, too, and I’m so, soooo very sorry.

But here are three things your editor is absolutely NOT doing while she’s not sending you your edits:

1.         Kicking back in some dark, seedy basement club for editors, swilling gin and laughing as I read your latest email aloud to my equally vicious colleagues so we can mock your pain together: Honest. I swear.  

2.         Ignoring, forgetting, or ghosting you: I keep a list of my pending editing projects on my computer and physically written down on a piece of paper stuck inside the notebook where I’m writing my own stuff. I see it a hundred times a day. I feel guilty every time I see it. I hate that it takes me so long to get your edits back to you, and all this other stuff notwithstanding, I do carve out hours and hours every week to edit. It’s an important priority for me, not a sideline. And when I’m working on your book, you have my undivided and entirely enraptured attention, I promise. Because here’s the thing; you write great books. Which leads me directly to …

3.         Avoiding the discomfort of telling you your writing sucks: This is the one I hear most often from writers and the one that’s the most ridiculous. First of all, if your writing really did suck, I would want to tell you as quickly as possible to get you out of my editing life, and I probably wouldn’t feel all that uncomfortable doing it. There’s too much good writing in the world to waste time polishing turds. Secondly, if your writing sucked, you wouldn’t be working with me in the first place. My publisher wouldn’t have acquired your book. We wouldn’t be looking forward to making money off your gift—because ultimately that’s what publishing is. My boss buys the books he thinks will sell. He assigns them to me for editing not because he wants me to fix them but because he wants me to help you make them even better. So they will sell more. And make even more money.

Okay, this is already way too long, so I’ll stop. But next week, I’ll be back with some suggestions for writers to make this hideously drawn-out process go a little more smoothly and maybe even a little faster.

The Princess and the Peonies – sneak peek!

So you know how Stella has been engaged to George Barrington since the end of Guinevere’s Revenge? Well, in Stella 4, The Princess and the Peonies, they finally cross the finish line. In more ways than one.

But don’t let me spoil it for you. How about a sneak peek at Chapter 1?

_____________________________________________________

Stella had always thought Barrington Hall looked like a fairy tale castle with its towering spires and lush green gardens. The first time she visited for her mother’s wedding to Lord Henry Barrington two years ago, she found it cold and unwelcoming, a museum full of snobs. But now, coming back to the English manor from Hollywood for her own wedding to Henry’s nephew and heir, George, she knew she was coming home.

She and George were back exactly one week before the wedding. “Ridiculous. I ought to spank both of you,” Stella’s mother said as they took off their coats and hats and handed them over to Hennessey, the butler. “I can’t believe you’ve taken so long to get here.”

“Hello, Aunt Grace,” George said. He shook Lord Barrington’s hand. “Hello, uncle.”

“My boy,” Henry said. “So good to have you home.”

“Honestly, I don’t see how on earth we can manage,” Mom went on. “You must think I’m some sort of magician. Do you realize your Granny Hart is due to arrive here tomorrow?”

“And you and Hennessey have everything well in hand,” Henry said, patting her shoulder.

Stella couldn’t speak. For more than a month, through the most horrible, disheartening, frantic weeks of her life so far, she had clung to George and dreamed of the moment when they’d finally make it home. Finishing her latest picture had been an absolute horror show with a nasty real-life murder smack dab in the middle of it. Now that the murder was solved and the movie was finished and they were finally here, all she could do was cry. “Oh Mom,” she finally choked out. “I’m so sorry.”

“Oh, my darling.” Mom gathered her up in a hug. “My poor sweet girl.” George put a hand on her back as she had a little weep against her mother’s shoulder. “It will all be fine now,” Mom said, stroking her hair. “It will be beautiful.”

“You must both be exhausted,” Henry said. “But no murders on the boat this time, I trust?”

“None that we knew about,” George said. Stella let go of Mom and hugged him, and he squeezed her tight. “We left strict instructions with the steward that unless the victim was Sophie, Sid, or a member of the Royal Family, we didn’t want to be disturbed.” He kissed Stella’s cheek. “All right, then, sausage?”

“Yes, thanks.” She let him go and laughed, pulling herself together. “I can’t imagine why I’m so soppy.”

“Brides are meant to be,” Henry said. “You were, weren’t you dearest?”

“All three times,” Mom said. “But come on, this is England, isn’t it? We should have some tea.”

“Actually, I was thinking of having a nap,” Stella said.

“Think again, puss,” Mom said. “You have much too much to do. Did you have lunch on the train?”

“We barely had breakfast,” Stella said.

“George, darling, you must be starving,” Mom said. “Hennessey, send down to the kitchen for some sandwiches with the tea.”

“Can’t I have a sandwich too?” Stella said.

“If you can eat while you help me plan a seating chart for the reception,” Mom said. “Come into the drawing room so we can get started.”

***

The seating chart was only the beginning. Mom spent the next hour pummeling Stella with what felt like a million details—food, flowers, clothes, guests, the whole pageant of an English society wedding. Henry slipped the leash and fled after the first cup of tea was drunk, but George, heaven bless him, stuck it out at Stella’s side.

“George, your Mr. Knox is apparently out of the country until Monday, but he has promised to be here then,” Mom said. “Though why a boys school math teacher needs to spend so much time abroad is beyond me.”

“It’s a mystery,” Stella said, exchanging a smile with George. The best man was actually a spy for His Majesty’s government, but Mom didn’t need to know that. “But why do we need him so early?”

“Early?” Mom said. “The rest of the wedding party will be here by tomorrow.”

“Rest of what wedding party?” Stella said. “You mean Oliver and Jeremy?” George’s Cousin Clara’s two boys were very much favorites of the happy couple. Jeremy, the youngest at age six, would be the ring bearer, and Oliver, who was nine, would be a very short but very handsome usher. “I thought they were coming with their parents today.”

“They are—their train is due in half an hour,” Mom said. “Clara has promised to help, bless her, and Michael is finally home from the Amazon. So he’ll be here to help wrangle the boys if nothing else, But no, puss, I meant your bridesmaids and Brooks.”

“My bridesmaids?” Stella said.

“Who is Brooks?” George said.

“Stella’s cousin, my brother’s son,” Mom said. “He and Stella were very close when they were children.”

“We spent one summer together when we were five years old, and I’ve seen him less than half a dozen times since,” Stella said. “Mater, where have you acquired bridesmaids? Central casting?” As a silent film actress who was either working or traveling all the time, Stella didn’t have many girlfriends. And she doubted the ones she did have would meet Mom’s criteria for bridesmaids. Her best female friend in all the world was her lady’s maid, Sophie, who had already politely declined the position as a duty she didn’t need.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mom said, fussing with her pearls—a sure sign she was about to spring a trap. “Your cousin Veronica is coming with your Granny Hart.”

“I suppose that’s only to be expected,” Stella said. She hadn’t seen much of her late father’s family from Newport, Rhode Island, since she was seven. But she did remember her Aunt Julia who lived in Kentucky having a daughter, Veronica, who was about Stella’s age. “George, we should fix her up with Knox.”

“And Henry thought it would be nice if you asked Jack Pitts’s daughter, Caroline,” Mom said, obviously trying to sound innocent and just as obviously failing. “So you did—or rather, I did on your behalf.”

“Oh Mom, do you really think that’s a good idea?” Caroline Pitts’s brother, Monty, had been murdered on an ocean liner, and Stella and George had solved the case. But the killer had been a man named Charles Ferguson who had been one of George’s best friends and Caroline’s former fiancé. He had been hanged a couple of months before while Stella and George were in Hollywood.

“That does seem potentially awkward,” George agreed.

“I’m sure it will be fine,” Mom said. “Jack is Henry’s oldest friend, and he’s concerned that Caroline isn’t getting out enough these days. And as it turned out, she was actually quite pleased to do it. In fact…” She trailed off, glancing over at George.

“In fact what?” Stella said.

“She asked if she could bring along a friend,” Mom said. “And I thought why not? The more the merrier. Three bridesmaids will look perfect.”

“And what is this merry friend’s name?” Stella said.

“I’ve never actually met her, but I’m sure she’s charming,” Mom said, getting up. “Hennessey, what time is it?”

“The name, Mom?” Stella said.

“Nearly three, my lady,” the butler said. “Shall I send the car to the station?”

“Yes, please,” Mom said. “Better send the big car. Heaven only knows how much luggage they’ll have brought with them. Henry told Michael to bring his things from the expedition.”

“Mom?” Stella said.

“Alisande St. John-Smythe,” Mom said. George sputtered over his teacup. “Her name is Alisande St. John-Smythe, and she’s meant to be lovely.”

George looked stricken. “Aunt Grace, why?”

“I am so sorry, darling,” she said. “I didn’t realize until it was too late to say no.”

“Didn’t realize what?’ Stella said. “What’s wrong with this girl besides her ridiculous name?”

“Nothing,” George said. He caught her hand and hauled her to her feet. “Come on, Mugsy. Let’s hit the station and round up the rest of the gang.”

“But wait,” she said.

He kissed her. “I’ll explain later,” he said with his crooked smile. “Honestly, it will be fine.”

The Passion of Miss Cuthbert

Stella 2 Passion of Miss CuthbertI have a new book out. It’s called The Passion of Miss Cuthbert, and it’s the second in my series of romantic mysteries starring amateur detective Stella Hart. Stella is a silent movie actress in the 1920s whose stepfather owns an English manor house. Her fiancé and partner in crime-solving is George Barrington, Thirteenth Baronet of Kingsley-on-Pike. Stella is white. George is white. Stella’s mom and stepfather are white. Stella and George spend this installment on an ocean liner where the passengers we meet are all white, including the corpse, the killer, and Miss Cuthbert, the frumpy chaperone whose passion ignites the plot.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past couple of weeks, you begin to see my problem.

The book was actually released as scheduled on June 4, 2020, a/k/a Day 10 of the protests following the murder of George Floyd by officers of the Minneapolis Police Department. That morning, my publishers and I talked it over and agreed that yeah, any kind of big promo push for my book that day would be disrespectful, tone deaf, and just generally gross. We all had friends on the front lines of the protests. More importantly, we had friends and colleagues whose lives were in danger every time they left the house.

I won’t pretend it made me happy to ignore my book release. I worked really hard on that story, and I’m proud of it. Plus it’s the first book I’ve ever written specifically and completely for Falstaff Crush, the Falstaff Books romance line, and I think that’s kind of cool. And trust me, I’m as arrogant and self-involved as any writer alive, and I really, really want to sell books. But not even I could stomach doing commercials for an easy-breezy story of a white girl on a cruise ship last Thursday.

John, Melissa, and I decided to wait to do any major promo until tomorrow, June 9, and as you can see, I’m blogging about it today. Is that any better? Is it still too soon? Honestly, I don’t have a clue.

Diversity has been on my mind with these books since the beginning. My original inspirations for this kind of story were  two of the most overtly racist popular writers of the twentieth century, Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse. (If you don’t know what I’m on about, Google it. I don’t have the heart to tell you.) I knew going in I had to fix that, that my main characters were going to be sensitive to the world view of people not like them and aware of their privilege. And I think I’ve stayed true to that; I hope I have. But in these first two books at least, everybody is still #sowhite. I actually toyed with the idea of making Stella’s lady’s maid, the wise and fearless Sophie, a Black woman. I even floated the idea to my alpha reader, my sister, Alexandra Christian. Together we agreed it was a bad idea for two reasons: one, I’d only be doing it to have a Black character in the story, and two, if my story was only going to have one Black character, she did NOT need to be a lady’s maid.

So in Book One: Guinevere’s Revenge, which is set at that English manor house, everybody’s white. The second book I actually wrote for the series was The Baronet Unleashed. It takes place in Hollywood and has multiple Black characters, at least two of whom are scheduled to turn up in future installments. But when I started writing the Miss Cuthbert story, I realized it needed to happen before George saw Hollywood, so The Passion of Miss Cuthbert became Book 2, and The Baronet Unleashed became Book 3. If we’re all still around and books are still a thing, it should be coming out sometime this fall.

I wrote The Passion of Miss Cuthbert in January, February, and March of 2020 as the dumpster fire that my own personal life had become exploded outward into the dumpster fire that has engulfed everybody else. Writing it was my comfort, my escape, and I make no apologies for it. It’s a damned good book. Do I wish that for the week of its release, half of America was not at war with the other half? That we weren’t all in danger of getting sick and/or making one another sick, that some of us weren’t threatening violence for the right to make our neighbors sick? That Black Americans could live their lives as safely and fearlessly as I do mine, that we as a country could collectively agree to that as their inalienable right instead of brutalizing them in the public streets for even asking? I do, of course I do. I wish that every day whether I have a new book out or not. I’ve written lots of words that speak to that wish both in fiction and not, and I’ll keep doing that because writing words is the thing I do best.

But this week, I’ve got Stella, and she’s good. She’s fun. She means well. If that seems wrong to you, I get it; ignore me. My feelings won’t be hurt. But if you could use what my editor calls “All goodness and light with just a little touch of murder,” let me hook you up.

The Paperback Rack at the Big Star

Every writer has a touching story about their favorite bookstore or library as a child, the place where they discovered the ineffable delights of literature. I can go on at great length about my love for Miss Daisy at the Chester County Library or my swoon of ecstasy the first time I walked into the original strip mall location of The Bookworm in Rock Hill or my nostalgia for The Intimate Bookshop at the chichi-poopoo mall in Charlotte. But if I’m honest, the repository of fiction that influenced me most strongly in the years I was becoming the writer I am was the paperback rack at the Big Star grocery store. It was right inside the doors, just past the buggies, across from the produce section, and I hit it up every single week. And if I didn’t hit it up myself, my sweet mama hit it up for me. She’d be on her way out the door, and I would emerge from my headphones full of Alice Cooper or the Bay City Rollers and holler, “Mama, find me something to reeeeeeead!!!!” And bless her precious soul, she always did.

So I read the top of the paperback bestseller charts, about six months behind, for the entirety of my adolescence. (A book had to be a pretty safe sales bet to make it all the way to the Big Star.) And y’all, those books were awesome. I grieve deeply for the variety and insanity of the Big Star book rack. It taught me story, crowd-pleasing, popular story, the stuff that’s kept us author types in business since we were buying our place at the fire with our fresh new take on Beowulf. I read some great literary novels–back then, literary novels came out in pulpy paperback all the time. But it’s the genre fiction, the “trashy novels” I devoured like popcorn that really branded themselves on my brain. I can see their influence now in every book I write.

salems lotSalem’s Lot by Stephen King: I still stand in awe at Mama’s perception in picking this out for me. This was the first King book I ever read and my first contemporary, grown-up horror book, and it came to me at the bottom of a bag full of frozen fish sticks and tater tots when I was about 13. I stayed up all night reading it, loved every single syllable of it. As soon as I finished it the first time, I flipped back to the beginning and started reading it again. If I had to pick one writer who has influenced my style and my focus and my beliefs about writing as an art and a job the most, King would be it. And that all started with this book. There’s an element of horror in almost everything I write, no matter how sweet or romantic it might be, and that came from here, too. And oh yeah, vampires … mine evolved to be very, very different (thanks, Anne Rice and Frank Langella!), but Uncle Stevie also introduced me to vampires. My bestselling book series so far has been about vampires, and I’ve got a WIP going about them right this very now.

lonesome doveLonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry: This is one of those literary novels I was talking about–I mean, it won the Pulitzer Prize–but it’s also a gloriously pulpy, down and dirty western. I’ve blogged before about how I grew up watching western movies with my dad and how that influenced my writing. But with all appropriate apologies to Zane Grey and Louis L’amour, this is the first western novel I ever read that really spoke to me. For one thing, the women are just as layered and interesting and just as important to the story as the men–there’s a lot of the actual lonesome dove, Lorena Wood, in Daisy, the protagonist of my own weird western stories. McMurtry’s book and its sequels and outgrowths gave me a clearer, more realistic picture of the real world behind the western myth, and I hope that comes through in my work.

laceLace by Shirley Conran: Holy Moses on the Nile, y’all, have you read this book? Forget Judith Krantz; forget Danielle Steele. This is the ultimate trashy women’s novel, the ultimate guilty pleasure, the ultimate lurid potboiler. I plowed through it in less than a day, exclaiming in delighted shock at regular intervals, and when I finished, I gave it to Mama who did the same. She gave it to one of my aunts, who gave it to one of her friends, and so on and so on and so on. The premise is Einstein-level genius: a beautiful and notorious movie star invites four fabulously wealthy and successful women from four very different worlds to tea and says, “All right. Which one of you bitches is my mother?” And of course we find out that these four women were all roommates at boarding school, and we flashback to each one’s story in turn to discover the answer to the question. And every plot twist is more outrageous and deliciously awful than the one before it. American Starlet and its upcoming sequels are very much my hopefully-fresh take on this kind of book. They are my Lace; any time I get stuck on my plotting, I think, “what would Shirley do?” and go as wild and wooly as my imagination will allow. I can only pray I am doing her legacy justice.

He’s never been anything but kind and encouraging, but I suspect I drive my publisher batshit crazy with this stuff. Standard wisdom in the book writing business right now is pick a series and stick with it. Or if not a series, at least a genre. I try, y’all. I really, really do. And there are definite, discernible connections between all of my books. They all have strong relationship plots; they all feature smart people; most of them are pretty sexy, even–especially–if they have vampires. (Sorry, Uncle Steve.) But in the ways that make them easy to tag for the Amazon search engine, I’m afraid they’re all over the place. For better or worse, I write for that paperback rack. So I really hope y’all keep wanting to read it.

demon's kissbury me notamerican starlet

Free E-Books, No Stealing!

adult-blur-bracelets-1324859Everybody loves free stuff. Some readers love it so much, they’re bankrupting writers by supporting pirate sites. The crazy thing is, it is perfectly possible to get all kinds of great free fiction without bending the rules or pissing off your favorite author. Sites like Prolific Works have shiny, well-produced, absolutely-bug-free E-books from every genre available for download—short stories, excerpts, even full-length novels.

For example, I have an excerpt listed from my latest full-length novel, American Starlet. It’s not a sample; it’s a short-story-sized chunk with a beginning, middle and end. And it should give you a good idea of what the book is like (snarky and steamy and just a little bit over-the-top) for the ever-popular bargain price of absolutely nothing:

https://claims.prolificworks.com/free/Y8XyPWW2…

Patrick Dugan, author of the Darkest Storm science fiction series (including Storm Forged, winner of the 2019 Imadjinn Award for Best Science Fiction) has an extremely nifty steampunk adventure up—and did I mention it’s free?

https://claims.prolificworks.com/free/DPYANcbB

Science fiction/urban fantasy authors Gail Z. Martin and Larry N. Martin and their M/M romance-writing alter ego, Morgan Brice, have all kinds of great stuff listed. And they’ve tied them in with multiple group giveaways so you can get access to all kinds of great stuff with one easy click:

139 FREE fantasy & paranormal 2019 Reading Giveaway @Prolific_Works with my full Restless Nights @MorganBriceBook story & excerpt from Spells Salt & Steel @GailZMartin Ends 11/4 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/td69kKw8e6DiegzGQp1n

17 FREE fantasy & scifi reads in Good Omens giveaway @Prolific_Works giveaway w excerpt from Sons of Darkness Ends 11/10 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/2WydAYcc1ft3a4z41HZb

9 FREE scifi reads in Electric Dreams giveaway @Prolific_Works w excerpt from Salvage Rat @LNMartinAuthor Ends 11/10 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/NHINlDscEUuqpFKYbu5y

17 FREE paranormal reads in Something Wicked giveaway @Prolific_Works w excerpts from Spells Salt & Steel and Sons of Darkness Ends 11/10 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/7zZmgq0kpCiVkVlkTGNs

106 FREE sci-fi/fantasy reads in Discover New Series giveaway @Prolific_Works w full Reconciling Memory and The Last Mile stories + excerpt from Salvage Rat Ends 12/31 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/LXvGYAaAlhqYVuDmiBaH

155 FREE sci-fi/fantasy reads in Fantastical SF giveaway @Prolific_Works w full The Last Mile story + excerpt from Salvage Rat Ends 12/31 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/NzQXkP23yQLrLYlM62dA

77 FREE sci-fi reads in Discover New SF giveaway @Prolific_Works w excerpt from Salvage Rat Ends 12/31 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/MtsrZbfglhUGB5jprvnD

50 FREE paranormal/horror books in Things That Go Bite in the Night giveaway @Prolific_Works w excerpt from Sons of Darkness @GailZMartin Ends 11/1 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/ulH61YGooVnHnQIlPRd8

Some of these are ending soon, so check’em out now! Happy Halloween!!!

 

My Heroes Have Sometimes Been Cowboys

bury me notThe first grown-up movie I ever saw in a theater was The Cowboys, starring John Wayne. It came out in 1972, so I would have been eight years old. My dad has always been a die-hard Wayne fan (oh, the raging fights we’ve had about McClintock!), and in those days, first-run movies didn’t hang around our local theater long. My guess is my grandmother wasn’t available to babysit the one weekend it was playing, so Daddy told Mama most of the cast was under the age of sixteen and told himself I’d be fine. Either way, the first time I found myself in a movie that didn’t start off with a nature documentary or a Mickey Mouse cartoon, I saw John Wayne get shot. And it was glorious.

If you haven’t seen it, John Wayne is a cattle rancher who loses all of his ranch hands right before the big cattle drive and has to recruit a bunch of boys barely old enough to climb into the saddle to replace them. Bruce Dern plays the squirreliest, dirtiest, most evil polecat of a rustler ever to grace the silver screen. He’s the one who shoots and kills John Wayne, and his eventual comeuppance haunts me to this day. (If you ever read me write a villain getting killed by horse-dragging, rest assured, I bear them a grudge.) I suspect I only understood about half of what was going on in the story, but it sucked me in completely. And while I can’t find much good to say about John Wayne as a human being these days, I’m still a sucker for an even halfway decent Western. My current favorite is the remake of 3:10 to Yuma with Russell Crowe (swoon!) and Christian Bale, which incidentally, my father the purist who loved the original absolutely hated. And yes, I have even seen Young Guns and Young Guns 2 multiple times; why would you even ask?

My own latest book release, Bury Me Not, blends this love of cowboys with my usual focus on history, horror, and romance. In three connected stories, saloon dove-turned-outlaw Daisy and her notorious gunslinger lover Cade battle zombies, vampires, and Krampus. (For those most beloveds who’ve been reading me since Little Red Hen Romance, two of the stories were released through LRH as singles, but the vampire story, the longest of the three, is brand new for this book.) And I love those two so much, I’m sure sometime soon I’ll have them battling something else. I can’t even tell you how much fun they are to write. As you can probably tell, these stories aren’t exactly serious; neither Larry McMurtry nor Annie Proulx has much to fear from me so far. But I think they do put across just how much I still love the great mythology of the American Wild West. I hope I get the details right enough that my dad might like them, too.

The Dark Lady – a freebie for Pride Month

In honor of Pride Month 2019, here’s a short story I wrote for a 2016 anthology Falstaff Books put together to raise money for LGBTQ support and awareness. Get your copy of the full anthology HERE. In my story, a transgender woman who found herself as a boy actor at Shakespeare’s Globe makes peace with the playwright she loves as  father.

The Dark Lady

Burbage expected a scene of squalor. But he found a neat little house of fresh plaster and timbers built on the edge of the suburban village he had never heard tell of before. He was ushered into a second floor parlor and told he might wait if it pleased him. A fire was burning in the hearth, and the mantelpiece was lined with polished silver plate.

He had just taken a seat in the best cushioned chair when the door opened and a lady swept in. “Forgive me, mistress,” he said, getting up again with his old player’s grace. “I fear I must have come to the wrong house.” She was a very pretty lady, too, with thick, glossy waves of dark brown hair drawn back in a veil of gold net and wide, bright hazel eyes. Her gown was plain but rich, black brocade with white linen collar and cuffs, and she wore a simple choker at her throat with a dark red stone in the shape of a heart. As he bowed to her, she smiled, and a dimple appeared at the corner of her mouth. And suddenly he knew her. “God save us!” He fell back into the chair, all courtesy forgotten. “Orlando!”

“Hello, Dick,” the little monster said, still smiling. “And if you don’t mind, it’s Mistress Thatcher now—or Rosalind, if you must.”

“Monster!” he said. “It’s an outrage. It’s indecent! I’ll have the sheriff on you, you impertinent pup!”

“Are you a magistrate now, Dick Burbage, that you would lecture me on decency and threaten me with the law?” she said, her cheeks flushing pink. “My father-in-law is, and he loves me well.” The arch of her eyebrow was familiar, too, a trick she had used to great effect against him in battles of wit on the stage. “He will stake his considerable purse and influence to defend my honor, should you accuse me. Think you, player, that you are his match?”

Burbage considered the silver plate along the mantelpiece and the jewel at her throat. “Forgive me, chuck,” he said, tempering his tone. In the old days back at the Globe, he would have boxed the creature’s ears for speaking to him so, but now this seemed imprudent. “I was but surprised to see you so—I loved you so well as a boy.”

“Loved me?” she said, her smile returning. “Nay, Dick, not once, though not for lack of trying. Will you have a drink?” Without waiting for his answer, she poured a cup of malmsey wine and put it in his hand.

“Thanks, Mistress…Thatcher, did you say?” he said, taking a drink.

“I did.” She poured a cup of her own and sat down. “But call me Rosalind. You did so once before easily enough.”

“On the stage, aye,” he said. The wine had calmed his nerves, and he was able to look at her again and smile. “But that is all the world, isn’t it, chuck? So our Will did say.” He drank again; the wine was excellent. “You always were a pretty thing.”

“I thank ye kindly, sir.” Rosalind surveyed the old ruin with weary affection. “But have you come just to pay me compliments and threaten me with shackles? ‘Tis a funny sort of visit.”

“I’ve come for Will.” The old actor’s eyes were red from more than drink, she thought. “He is dying, Orlando—Rosalind. He has fallen into a stupor, and I thought it would ease him to see you again.”

“And why should you think that?” She took a long swallow of wine to mask her sudden grief. Will Shakespeare dying? It couldn’t be so. “’Tis twenty years since I left London. ‘Twould be passing strange if he remembered me at all.”

“Go to, monkey,” he said. “As if any of us could forget you, whatever you might have become.” For a moment, she was offended, but his eyes were twinkling, and she couldn’t be angry. She raised her glass instead, and he returned the salute. “He spoke of you right recently, in fact,” he said, holding out his empty glass. “Drayton and I made a party to visit him in Stratford a month or so past,” he said as she refilled it. “He had just made his will, and Michael asked if he felt well. He said he felt content but for a few small matters now out of his power to help.” In his eyes and manner, she could see the great tragic player he had been. She knew how dearly he loved Will; in his eyes she saw he was telling the truth. “I asked him what small matters, and he mentioned you. He said your parting still troubled him, and he would give much to speak with you again.”

Her eyes had filled with tears as he spoke. “A month ago this was?”

“Aye, chuck,” Burbage said. “It has taken me a fortnight to find you—I began when he fell ill.” He leaned forward in his chair and offered her his hand, and after a moment, she took it. “Will you not go to him, Orlando?” he said. “Our Will did love you once.”

“Don’t try to be Hamlet to me now, Dick,” she said. “You haven’t the legs for it anymore.” But she couldn’t be cursed with him, not now. “Of course I will go.” She went to the door and called in the maid who was eavesdropping there. “I must away to Stratford-upon-Avon with Mr. Burbage to visit a sick friend,” she said. “Call for my carriage and bring me my cloak. And if any do have need of me before I return, tell them I may be found there.”

“At New Place,” Burbage said. “But God’s life, sirrah—mistress—will you not change your costume?”

“Nay, sir,” she said. “I go as myself or not at all.”

After a moment, the old player nodded. “Aye, chuck. As you will.”

 

 

For the first few miles, Burbage kept up a lively monologue, catching her up on what he knew of all their old friends from London. But old age conspired with the gentle rocking of the carriage and the wine he had drunk, and soon he was asleep, leaving her alone with her thoughts.

She had ridden this rutted road with him before, though not in comfort. She’d still been Orlando then and had perched like a monkey on top of a wagonload of scenery. They had been bound for some further place, some country manor or other, to play Romeo and Juliet for a rich noble and his household outside the plague-ridden danger of London. Juliet had been Orlando’s first noteworthy role with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men; he had been barely fourteen years old and as a boy looked younger because of his size. Will Shakespeare and Dick Burbage had stopped off at Stratford-upon-Avon on the way, and they had taken Orlando with them for reasons neither had bothered to explain.

Dick and Orlando had waited for Will in a sort of orchard across the road from the house where Will’s wife and children lived with his in-laws. “You must cheer him up when he returns,” Burbage had said, settling on the ground against a tree as if he expected a long wait.

“Why does Will need cheering up?” Orlando had asked. The playwright had been sad and quiet since they’d left the Globe. “Dick, what’s happened?”

“Never you mind,” the older player had said, pulling his hat down over his eyes. “Just be ready with your best japes when he returns and none of your tragedy.” Orlando had been a clown before Will had cast him as Juliet, and to Dick’s mind, he ought to have stayed one.

Dick was soon asleep, leaving Orlando alone to wait. More than an hour had passed; he knew it by the chiming of the village church bells. But he saw no sign of Shakespeare’s return. Finally, reckless with boredom, he left Burbage sleeping and ventured across the road.

He didn’t have the nerve to knock on the front door, so he sallied around to the back of the house like he knew where he was going. There was a stable and a flock of geese in the yard, but all was strangely quiet. From an open window upstairs, he could hear a woman crying and the soft voice of a man who might have been Will. But he couldn’t make out the words.

“Who are you?” a voice spoke behind him. Turning, he found a girl of what looked to be his own age.

“Orlando, mistress.” He made a deep bow as Burbage would have done, on-stage and off. “At your service.”

“What are you doing here?” She was a pretty girl with serious brown eyes that were very like Will’s.

“I’ve come with Will Shakespeare,” he said. “I’m one of his players.”

“Oh!” She looked more interested. “Then you must be wicked.”

“Must I?” He rarely talked to girls his own age and never of this class. “Who says so?”

“My mother,” she said. “Will Shakespeare is my father. I’m Susannah.” She walked around  him like he might have been a camel displayed at the fair. “You’re very handsome.”

“I have to be,” he said. “I play the lady’s parts. Or in truth, I play the whole lady. Her parts are hidden—as they must be, mind, as I am playing her.” She didn’t even smile. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mistress Susannah,” he said, bowing again. The girl continued to stare at him. “Are you glad to have your father home to visit?”

This had seemed the most harmless of questions, but the girl’s expression crumpled. “Yes.” She turned her back on him and hid her face in her hands. “Go away!”

“What is it?” He put a hand on her trembling shoulder. “What ails you, child?”

“I said go away!” She ran from him down the garden toward the orchard, and for a moment, he thought he’d let her go and go back to Burbage. But that seemed cowardly. The girl was obviously upset. So he ran after her.

He found her leaning on the gnarled trunk of an apple tree, sobbing like her heart was broken. “Don’t look at me,” she ordered, looking back when she heard him approach. “It isn’t decent.”

“What isn’t decent?” He touched her shoulder again. “That I should see you cry?” She nodded, crying all the harder. “Susie, why are you crying?”

She turned to him. “Because my brother’s dead.”

“Your brother?”

“Hamnet.”

“You poor darling.” Without thinking, he pulled her close, and she pressed her hot little face to his breast. “I’m so sorry. No wonder you have to cry.”

“Mother says I mustn’t,” she said. “She says Hamnet has gone to heaven, so we must rejoice. But I don’t feel like rejoicing.”

“Of course you don’t,” Orlando said, stroking her hair. “And just between us, your mother is a horse’s ass.”

She almost giggled through her tears. “No, she isn’t,” she said. “She’s a very godly woman.”

“In a pig’s eye,” he said. “I promise you, Susie, I know my business. My father was a priest. He would have been a bishop if he had lived. And when he died, I cried and cried for a fortnight in the bishop’s own house, and no one once told me to stop.”

“You lived with the bishop?” she said.

“I did indeed until I ran away,” he said. He handed her his handkerchief. “You were right before; I am very wicked. But I promise you are not.”

“I don’t think you are either,” she said. “I think you’re very kind.”

Will stepped out of the shadows of the trees. “So do I.” He held out his arms to Susannah, and she ran to him. Orlando turned away, not wishing to intrude. From a discreet distance, he heard the girl’s soft weeping and her father’s tender voice speaking comfort. Tears stung his own eyes, and he wiped them away.

He was just about to leave them in peace and go back to Burbage when Will spoke to him. “Is Dick drunk in the tavern yet?”

“Sleeping where you left him,” Orlando said, turning back to him. Will had his arm around Susannah, and she was tucked close to his side. “Shall I tell him we’re going on without you?”

“And who will be your Friar Lawrence?” Will said. “No, I must come, too.”

“Please don’t go, Papa,” Susannah said.

“I must,” he said, hugging her close. “But we shall be back in three days’ time, after the performance.” He kissed her forehead. “In the meantime, Orlando was right. You must weep for Hamnet all you like, you and Judith both. I give you my permission.” He had tears of his own on his cheeks.

“Yes, Papa.” She wiped away her father’s tears with Orlando’s handkerchief. “I will see you in three days.”

Walking back to Burbage, Orlando hadn’t known what he should say, so he kept silent. But before Will woke up Dick, he suddenly turned to Orlando and hugged him close much as he had Susannah.

“I’m sorry about Hamnet, Will,” the boy she had been had said, half-choked with tears.

“Thank you, chuck.” Burbage had let out an almighty snore, and they had both laughed. “I am sorry, too.”

 

 

 

The village of Stratford-upon-Avon had changed very little in the twenty years since her last visit. But Will Shakespeare’s family’s fortunes had obviously improved. “Our William did very well for himself in the end,” Burbage said as he climbed down from the carriage in front of the fine New Place. “Though perhaps not so well as you.”  Rosalind stood in the door of the carriage waiting, one eyebrow raised. “Oh, God’s almighty teeth,” Dick swore. “Come on, then.” He offered his hand for support, and Rosalind took it and climbed down. “Insolent puppy,” Dick grumbled.

Rosalind just smiled. “That’s insolent bitch to you.”

Will’s wife was none too keen to welcome either of them. “How dare you come back here, Richard Burbage,” she said, coming down to stop them as soon as they crossed the threshold of the hall. “’Twas you put my husband on his deathbed, you and Drayton. Carousing so at your age and dragging him with you. And what strumpet is this that you’ve brought to my house?”

“Mistress Rosalind Thatcher,” Rosalind said, making a deep curtsey that would have passed muster at the royal court.

“Go to, both of you,” Anne said. “Out of my house at once.”

“Mother?” A younger woman was coming down the stairs. “Is this not still my father’s house?” With a shiver of shock, Rosalind recognized Susannah. “Think you he would not wish to see his friends?” She offered her hand to Burbage “Well met, Dick.” When she turned to Rosalind, her eyes widened in recognition. “And you…Mistress Thatcher, did you say?”

“I did,” Rosalind said. “At your service.”

“My father was most eager to speak to you,” Susannah said as her mother made an ugly snort that added nothing to her meagre charm. “Won’t you come upstairs?”

She led her to a bedroom with windows facing west. “He always wants to see the sunset,” Susannah explained in a hushed tone. “He says the twilight is the best time of day.”

“So has he always done,” Rosalind said. She could hardly believe the man lying so still on the bed could be Will.

“It is safe to come near him,” Susannah said. “My husband says it is a fever of the brain that ails him, not the plague. He’s a doctor, my husband.”

“I wouldn’t mind it either way,” Rosalind said. She sat on the edge of the bed and lay her hand over Will’s. He felt warm, and his face though lined now with age and pain was just as she remembered. “I would risk much more than plague to speak with him again.”

“He mostly sleeps now,” Susannah said. “But he has awakened twice since yesterday to ask for water and to talk with me and John. I believe he might wake again for you.”

“May God so will it,” Rosalind said. “Do you remember me, Susannah?”

“Of course I do.” She still had her father’s eyes and her father’s sad, sweet smile. “You still play the lady’s part, I see.”

“It is no part,” Rosalind said. “Not anymore.”

Susannah put a hand on her shoulder. “Then we must be as sisters,” she said. “My father loves you as a child.” Before Rosalind could answer, she had gone, leaving her alone with Will.

“Is that so, ancient Will?” she asked, clasping his hand. “Can you love me as a daughter as you loved me as a son?” But he didn’t answer.

She waited beside him holding his hand as the shadows crept across the floor. Susannah came back in every hour or so to look in on them, but otherwise, they were alone.

As the sun was setting, Rosalind went to the window. “I love the twilight, too,” she said. “At the Globe, Hamlet would just have been dying now.” Ophelia had been one of her last roles. It was said even the Queen herself had been moved to tears by her performance.

But her last part had been as Rosalind in As You Like It. She remembered her last performance. Her last night on the stage. Her last night as the boy Orlando.

She had lingered long after she thought all the others had gone until a messenger came with a bundle she had saved her wages for weeks to buy. In the empty tiring house by the light of two small candles, she took off her boyish habit for the last time and put on her new clothes, a plain gown such as a shopkeeper’s wife might wear. She combed out her hair, grown long for years so she never had to wear the wigs that so plagued other ladies on the stage, and pinned it in coils under a white linen cap.

She was just fastening a ribbon around her throat when she saw Will Shakespeare reflected in the copper mirror in front of her. “What new mummery is this?” he asked.

“None at all,” she said, tying her ribbon. “I am leaving, Will.”

“Who has procured you?” She heard the fury in his tone but knew it wasn’t for her. He had thrashed a minor player within an inch of his life two seasons before for playing pimp between nobles and another boy. “If your purse is light, why not come to me?”

“My purse is fine,” she said. “I’m not playing whore, Will.” She stood up and turned to him. “I’m leaving. Leaving the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, leaving London. Leaving Orlando.” She could see from his face he didn’t understand. “I can’t playact innocent girls any longer. I am ready to be a woman.”

“Queen Gertrude,” Will said. “Lady Macbeth. Cleopatra—are these not women?”

“Aye, Will, but they are imaginary parts,” she said. “Your parts, the women who live inside your head. I am ready to be myself.”

Finally she saw the beginning of understanding in her master’s eyes. “But you can not be this woman, chuck,” Will said not unkindly. “I made you a woman for the stage, but God made you a man.”

“Do you mean now to preach me a sermon?” she said. “You know me, Will, as well almost as I know myself. Was Rosalind not written so that the world might see me as I am, as you do?”

“Rosalind was written to amuse a mob,” Will said. “She is a thing of air and fancy.”

“Aye, but I am not.”

“And who has taught you this strange text?” Will asked. “What wizard has promised to transform your parts and make you his bride?” She blushed and turned away. “You are right, boy, when you say I know this malady.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “But malady it is, a fever of the mind, not magic that may undo nature. I would have you escape this hell, Orlando, and for my part in bringing you to it, I must beg the pardon of Almighty God.”

“You’ve done naught but be as a father to me!”

“And a right poor one, too, methinks,” Will said. “I have made you believe you are a monster.”

“Then what of your noble patron?” Rosalind said. “Your most beautiful beloved, your holy soul? What manner of monster is he?”

Will slapped her so hard he sent her sprawling. “A poison tongue does not become thee, Orlando,” he said, his voice trembling.

“Orlando isn’t here, Will.” She wiped blood from her mouth. “What’s more, you know he is not, else why strike me with your open hand and not your fist? If a man so offended thee, why not draw thy sword?” She could see from Will’s horrified expression that he understood. “I am younger than you are and stronger. If I be a man as you are, why should I allow you to strike me down?”

“Get up, for pity,” Will said. “Get up and stop this.”

“’Twas your Almighty God made me a woman, Will, not you. You know I am no monster, and you know I am no man.” She climbed to her feet. “I have taken nothing from the company but honest wages. I ask nothing of you but your blessing. The blessing of a father to his daughter as she leaves his house.” Tears were streaming down her cheeks. “Will you not grant me that?”

For a moment, she had thought he would. She had seen in his eyes that he wanted to, that he loved her still. Then he had turned away. “Go to, boy,” he said, the last words he had spoken to her. “Go to.”

Now twenty years later she went back to Will’s bedside, tears brought on by memory wet on her cheeks. “Fairly met, master-father.” She went down on her knees beside the bed and clasped his cold hand between her own. As cold as any stone, she thought, remembering the death of old Falstaff. She had played the boy in old King Henry’s play, her first time ever on the stage. She had been paid for it with the first good meal she’d had in weeks, an orphan and runaway apprentice alone on the streets of London. “You saved me, Will,” she said. “For certes, you must know that.” She brushed the last wisps of his hair back from his fine, handsome brow. “Dick Burbage said you wished to see me,” she said. “I am here.” His lips were pale, and his eyelids looked bruised purple. Old Hamlet, she thought. How many times had she seen him made up as the ghost? She held his hand against her cheek. “Will you curse me again with your silence?”

Will’s eyelids fluttered. “You,” he said, a rasp barely louder than a whisper. “Is it you?”

“Aye.” She smiled.

He smiled, too. “My lady still…” He stroked her cheek. “Ophelia, then?”

“Nay, love. Rosalind.” She kissed his wrist and felt the flutter of his pulse against her lips. “A merry wench, I promise.”

“Good.” He frowned as if something pained him. “Aye me…” She gripped his hand more tightly. “Blessing….” He laid his hand on her head. “All blessings, daughter,” he said, smiling as she cried. “All my blessings on thee.” She leaned down and kissed his cheek, and she felt him kiss her back. But when she drew back, his eyes were closed, and he was sleeping.

 

 

She returned to her own house in the morning, and her own sweet Lydia met her in the yard. “Well met, beloved,” her wife said, kissing her. “Well met, wife.” Rosalind dissolved in tears against Lydia’s breast, and she held her close. “Welcome home.”