A sneak peek at The Devil Makes Three

The action of my new Southern gothic horror novel, The Devil Makes Three, kicks off on Indigenous People’s Day. And the book officially releases this week, October 14. So I thought now would be a good time to show off a sample chapter. xoxo Lucy

Serena had come home to Saxon County two years before because she’d had no choice. Once upon a time, she believed she would do great things, but the world taught her better. Now she just survived.

That Tuesday, she woke up at seven a.m. in the bed her late husband had slept in as a child. She ate toast and drank a smoothie while standing at the kitchen sink. Her mother-in-law fixed bacon and eggs for her father-in-law, and he sat at the table reading the morning paper. The three of them chatted, exchanging pleasantries and discussing the news of the day, nothing she could have remembered later if she’d thought to try. She told them she was leaving for work, and Claudine, her mother-in-law, told her to have a blessed day. She said she’d try and told them to do the same.

“You be careful, sugar,” her father-in-law, Henry, known as Rooster, called as she walked out the door.

As she got into her car, her eyes happened to fall on her keychain. It was a thick, clear plastic rectangle encasing a stylized portrait of an African goddess. Her late husband bought it for her at a gift shop in New Orleans on a long weekend away. “She looks like you,” he had said, and she had laughed.

The name of the goddess, Oshun, was printed in gold script across the portrait, a beautiful woman with an elaborate braided hairstyle who held a little round fan poised against her chin. Serena had looked up the name on the internet and read a few website articles about the Orisha, but she wasn’t really interested. She’d been raised Baptist and wasn’t in the market for any new gods. She was a historian, not a mythologist. She kept the keychain because it was a gift from Trey, and usually she didn’t notice it at all, any more than she noticed she had five fingers on each hand.

But that morning, she saw it. She stared at it, her mind wandering for several seconds. Mama, she thought, a word that rarely passed through her mind. Mama had one like this. Then she broke the trance and put the key in the ignition.

She pulled her car into the parking lot of the Briarwood Community Center half a minute behind Miz Rae, the branch librarian, just as God and Miz Rae intended she should. She helped her boss unload a monster-sized pumpkin from the trunk of her ancient Cadillac. They put it on the porch next to the library door. “Get that old scarecrow out of the storeroom,” Miz Rae said when they went inside. “And did you get those leaves?”

“Yes, ma’am, I did.” She put her mid-morning snack in the refrigerator and turned on her computer. She checked the book drop—a James Patterson hardback and three cowboy movie videos. Kirk Benson had been by.

She spent the rest of the morning decorating while Miz Rae sat at the front desk. She dusted off the scarecrow and stapled down a hank of his yarn hair that had gotten yanked loose the year before and fluffed his floppy felt hat to cover the spot. She put him on the porch beside the pumpkin. While she was out on the porch, she chatted about the weather and the relative dangers of trick-or-treating with a homeschool mom while Miz Rae dealt with the woman’s wild-ass children inside. She pasted colored paper leaves on the glass doors leading from the community center proper to the library, making swirls across the glass.

At noon, Miz Rae’s best friend, Miz Regina, turned up with lunch for the three of them—white Styrofoam plates from the Columbus Day hot dog and bake sale at the Briarwood Baptist Church with Styrofoam cups of sweet tea. Serena put up the “Be Back at 1:00” sign, locked the library doors, and joined the older ladies in the back office.

They ate at the work table in the back, and Miz Rae made Serena and Miz Regina laugh until they cried, talking about the people at the church. “You bad, Rae,” Miz Regina said, wiping her eyes with her paper napkin. “You know you so bad.”

“I’m just telling the truth,” Miz Rae said without cracking a smile, but Serena saw the twinkle in her eye.

At 12:45, Serena had just traded her little bag of barbecue potato chips for Miz Regina’s slice of lemon poundcake when the back door from the parking lot suddenly opened.

Tom Stewart, the director of the Saxon County Library, had let himself in with his key. “Afternoon, ladies,” he said. “Don’t let me disturb your lunch.”

“You can’t disturb us,” Miz Regina said. But of course, he could. He was a man, and he was White, and technically he was the boss. His arrival changed everything. Miz Rae grunted in a way he was welcome to interpret as pleasant.

Tom was nice enough; they all liked him fine. But he was the boss, even though Miz Rae had worked for the library for forty years. She had worked at the main branch in town when Tom and Serena had each gotten their first library cards. When the library board passed over her to give the director’s position to Tom and his graduate degree, they had opened this branch at the Briarwood Community Center and made Miz Rae branch manager as a way to smooth things over. Mostly it had worked. Tom acknowledged the branch as her special queendom, and Miz Rae didn’t make waves. But he knew, she knew, and Serena knew he would always be that White boy the board had given Miz Rae’s big job to.

“What are you doing working today, Tom?” Serena asked. “I thought county council decided to close down everything in town for the holiday.”

“Oh, we’re closed,” Tom said. “We don’t work hard like y’all do.” The Saxon County Council, all Republicans, had decided they were all aggrieved on behalf of Christopher Columbus and would make a big show of recognizing his holiday. Miz Rae thought that was foolishness. She kept the Briarwood branch open and put “Happy Indigenous People’s Day!” up on the big sign out front.

She also stayed open all day on Saturday instead of just the morning with the help of high school volunteers (Serena had Saturdays off), and she refused to allow public use computers. Tom left these issues to her best judgment, and they both slept better because of it. “Carol Ann Sweatt called me at home.”

“Oh lord,” Miz Rae said, immediately sympathetic. Carol Ann was a real estate agent and the chairwoman of the library board, a go-getter from Atlanta who thought the whole county belonged to her and her husband, the president of the bank. “What does she want now?”

“Y’all will never believe it,” Tom said. “She sold the Briarwood place.”

Both the older ladies cried out in shock. Miz Regina turned over her tea. “You can’t mean it,” she said, grabbing it up before the lid came off.

“The old Briarwood plantation?” Serena said. “I didn’t even know it was for sale.”

“It’s always been for sale,” Miz Rae said. “But didn’t nobody ever believe there’d be somebody fool enough to buy it.”

“I couldn’t believe it either, but that’s what she says,” Tom said. “Serena, you’ll never guess who she says bought it.”

“Who?” Serena said. Miz Regina wasn’t looking well, she noticed.

“Jacob McGinnas.”

This time it was Serena who gasped. “You’re kidding!”

“Who is that?” Miz Regina asked Miz Rae.

“That writer who writes all those horrible books about monsters and demons and I don’t know what all ungodly mess,” Miz Rae said. Miz Rae’s own reading tended toward Maya Angelou, Jane Austen, and Agatha Christie, with the occasional biography thrown in. “You might know it’d be some kind of fool like that.”

“Carol Ann is supposed to be meeting him over at the Briarwood house this afternoon,” Tom said. “She wanted me to come and bring him copies of everything we had on the house and the murders.”

“You need to go out there and tell him he’s crazy,” Miz Regina said. “Don’t nobody need to try to stay in that house.”

“Is it really haunted?” Serena asked. She had moved away from Saxon County when she was seven years old. Her husband had been the real native, but she knew about the murders.

“Ain’t no such thing as haunted,” Miz Rae said, fixing Tom with a baleful glare that dared him to dispute her. Tom was a semi-professional paranormal investigator. Miz Rae was a Baptist.

“I don’t think the trust that owned it has ever let it be investigated,” Tom said. “Maybe if he buys it, McGinnas will.”

“That’s probably why he’s buying it.” Serena was a huge fan of Jacob McGinnas’s books. She’d been reading him faithfully since she was a teenager. “Maybe he’ll write a book about it.” She had liked his last two non-fiction books, but she yearned for a new novel.

“Carol Ann seems to think that’s the attraction,” Tom said. “I thought I remembered there being a whole file of stuff in the local history room at the main branch, but I couldn’t find it. So then I thought since this branch is closer to the actual site, it might have gotten moved out here.”

“I’ll go look,” Serena offered, getting up.

“I don’t think we’ve got anything,” Miz Rae said, also getting up. “You’re going to have to talk to Miss Creighton about that.”

Miss Florence Creighton was the former director of the library. She had held the post from the Monday after she graduated from the Winthrop Training College in 1922 until her forced retirement due to advanced dementia four years before. She was the one who hired Miz Rae in 1960, staring down a segregationist board with her watery blue eyes and daring them to tell her she couldn’t. When she was forced to retire, the present-day board had brought back Tom, who had worked at the main branch as the local history librarian for a year and a half before he went to grad school. Miss Creighton now lived in a rest home in the mountains and was, by all reports, withered as a raisin and entirely out of her mind.

“Let’s just look,” Tom said, giving Serena a glance. “You never know.”

***

But Miz Rae was pretty much right. All they found in the tiny walk-in utility closet that functioned as the archives for the branch was a single thin folder in the vertical file with a photocopy of a newspaper article Tom himself had written ten years ago when he’d been the local history librarian.

“This is good,” Serena said, reading through the first few paragraphs. “I didn’t realize you were such a good writer.”

“Yeah, well, that was back when I had time to practice.” He took the article from her. “I know there was more stuff, though. I used it to write this in the first place.”

“Maybe somebody borrowed it and forgot to bring it back.” Serena couldn’t stop herself wondering if Tom had neglected to put it back himself. He was a great guy but the classic absent-minded academic. His wife, Evie, swore they’d need a second house soon just for his books and papers. The missing file could be stuffed in a box in his attic with a bunch of comic books. “What are you going to tell Carol Ann?”

“That we’ll keep looking, I suppose.” He closed the file drawer. “Go to hell, if I could tell her what I want to tell her.”

Serena smiled. “Which you absolutely cannot.”

“Which I absolutely cannot.” He looked at his watch. “And I’ve got to go.”

“I’m sorry, Tom.” The door was open, and out in the library proper, she could see Miz Regina was still there, standing at the desk with Miz Rae. The two of them were huddled together like they were planning a heist. “Hey, can I come with you?”

He looked surprised but not unhappy. “Yeah, if you want.”

“I’ve always wanted to see that place.” Miz Rae was watching them, she realized. She pretended to be listening to her friend, but she was really watching over Miz Regina’s shoulder. “And you know what a big fan I am of Jacob McGinnas.”

“Come on and go, then,” Tom said, grinning. “I can use the help.”

Sneak peek – Chapter 1 of The Baronet Unleashed

The third Stella Hart mystery is available now for pre-order from Falstaff Crush. This is the one that takes place in Hollywood in the 1920s, and it’s an absolute scream. You’ll love it, I promise. Click the cover to … oh. You want a sample before you’re ready to commit. Fine then. Have a look at Chapter 1.

xoxo

Lucy

The Baronet Unleashed – Chapter 1

Stella was chained to the castle wall with shackles that were becoming damned uncomfortable. “Do your worst, Lord Blackguard!” she exclaimed with much tossing of her waist-length locks. “I shall never submit!”

“We shall see about that, my dear!” Blackguard snarled, bracing an arm over her head. He leered down at her, his hot breath smelling suspiciously like gin and tonic. “Is your virtue worth your father’s life?”

“You heartless fiend.” If her hands had been free, she would have slapped a delicate wrist to her forehead. As it was, she made do with flopping her head sharply to one side, trying not to dislodge her wig in the process. She closed her eyes and heaved her bosom, such as it was. “How can you be so cruel?”

“Easy,” Blackguard said, leaning too close for the camera to see his lips. “Your friend Sylvia wrote me this way.”

“Eddie, I swear to heaven,” she hissed through clenched teeth as she bit her lower lip in maidenly revulsion. He had made her laugh and ruin three takes already, the swine.

“Unhand that damsel, you cur,” a props assistant droned from off camera. Blackguard, also known as Edgar Worth, Hollywood’s most celebrated heavy, recoiled toward the camera, and Stella broke out in her most elated smile.

Lance Laramie swung in on a rope tied to a crane, a stunt he had perfected on his and Stella’s first picture together, The Ape Man Unleashed. But this time, alas, he missed his mark. Instead of landing lightly between Stella and her villainous attacker, he overshot and crashed face first into the wall.

“Darling!” Edgar cried, dropping character to run to his lover’s aid. “Oh, your poor nose!” Everyone on Maid of Avalon knew Lance and Edgar had been much more than roommates for years, though the rest of the world was in the dark.

“Now, Eddie, don’t make a fuss,” Lance honked as his hand filled up with blood.

“Cut!” the director shouted, incensed. “For God’s sake, get some ice!”

“You poor darling,” Stella said.

“Oh, I’ve had worse, I dare say,” Lance said gamely. “Not to worry…” His eyes rolled back in his head as he collapsed.

“Somebody get the nurse!” the production assistant called as the director flung down his bullhorn, followed by his hat.

“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Stella said to Edgar, who looked on the point of hysterics.

“His nose is squashed flat!” Edgar said.

“It is,” she had to admit. She would have liked to have given him a comforting pat or something, but she was still chained to the wall.

“Clear the way, please,” a medic said. The nurse led Edgar gently away as Lance was heaved onto a stretcher.

“Say, Eddie,” Stella called as they all walked away. “Do you have the key to these shackles?” But no one seemed to hear.

“That’s a wrap for today, everyone,” the assistant director called through his boss’s dented bullhorn. “See you all tonight at Mr. Scott’s party—sober, if you don’t mind; it’s for charity.” Lights were going off all over the set.

“Excuse me!” Stella shouted as people started disappearing from the stage like rats deserting a sinking ship. “Isn’t anybody going to turn me loose?” She gave her shackles a healthy tug, but the props department had outdone themselves. They didn’t budge. “Oh come on,” she cried as all the lights but a single spot went out. “This is ridiculous!”

A man’s silhouette stepped into the spotlight. “Pardon me, miss,” a familiar voice said. “Are you in distress?”

“George, thank heavens,” she said, laughing with relief. “They’ve all gone off and left me.”

“So it seems.” Her fiancé, George Barrington, thirteenth Baronet of Kingsley-on-Pike and the future Lord Barrington, came out of the light. “That’s rather a pickle you’re in, Miss Hart, if you’ll pardon my mentioning it.”

“My handsome hero,” she said. And he was, too; he looked very dashing and just a bit disreputable in a stylish leather coat. “Go quick and find out who has the key.”

“Oh, I have the key,” he said, holding it up with mischief dancing in his eyes. “But what makes you think I’m the hero?”

“Oh dear,” she said. “The villain, then?” She felt a lovely little flutter in her stomach. “Will you ravish me before you set me free?”

He leaned closer, bracing a hand on the wall the same way Edgar had. “What an intriguing suggestion.” His lips were so close to hers, they were almost kissing already. “I suppose I could.”

“I’ll scream,” she warned.

“Will you?”

“Well, maybe not scream,” she said as he nuzzled behind her ear, making her shiver. “More like sigh…and maybe the odd moan or two.” He made a bit of a moan himself as he kissed her, pressing her to the wall.

“Miss Stella!” her maid, Sophie, bellowed, her heels clicking on the concrete floor. “Are you still in here?”

“Damn the woman,” George grumbled, banging his forehead against the wall over her shoulder.

“George, darling, stop,” Stella said, laughing. “You’ll be concussed.” She kissed his cheek. “Over here, Sophie!”

“Hey, what’s this?” Sophie said, coming into the light. “Mr. Barrington, I’m surprised at you!”

“If it helps, I’m thinking of dead puppies,” Stella murmured in his ear.

“Thanks for that, sausage,” he muttered, stepping away. “Sorry to disappoint you, Sophie.” He unlocked the shackles.

“Oh, I’m not disappointed,” Sophie said. “Just surprised. You ought to leave her chained up there until she promises to stop postponing the wedding.”

“It’s not my fault!” Stella protested. “No one expected The Ape Man Unleashed to be such a smash.”

“No one who hadn’t seen you and Mr. Laramie in those rags they called costumes, anyway,” Sophie said.

“And Bertie said we really needed to strike while the iron was hot,” Stella finished.

“Bertie said,” George said. “You mean Nathan Stanley said.”

“Him, too.” Nathan Stanley was her stepfather’s partner at Pinnacle Pictures. He was also the one man on the planet she had ever seen George openly dislike. “The point is, Maid of Avalon was already in the pipeline, and Lance and I were under contract. I really had no choice.” They both looked skeptical. “Anyway, we’re almost done. We should be one more week at the most. Just as soon as we wrap, we’ll be on the train to New York and on a boat to England in plenty of time to be home at Barrington Hall for the new wedding date.”

“And our visit to your grandmother in Newport?” George said, arching an eyebrow.

“We may just have to give Granny Hart a miss,” she said.

“There’s a shocker,” Sophie said.

“Trust me, darling, it’s no great loss,” Stella said.

“Say, are you folks almost done?” one of the stage technicians called from the shadows. “I’d like to lock up sometime before midnight.”

“All right, keep your shirt on,” Sophie called back. “We’re coming.”

#

With Sophie’s help, getting out of her costume and into her jodhpurs was the work of moments. “Call ahead and tell Bertie we’re on our way,” she told Sophie as she tossed a scarf around her neck. “I’ll see you at the house.”

“No taking any long, romantic rides,” Sophie ordered. “You’ll need a full overhaul before that party tonight.”

“See you later, kid,” Stella called back over her shoulder.

George was waiting outside the stage on his shiny new red Indian motorcycle. “It’s a bit chilly, sausage,” he said, handing her a pair of goggles. “Would you like my coat?”

“No, thank you.” She slid the goggles over her curls and climbed on behind him, snuggling close. “I’ll be fine.”

And that’s it, kittens! To find out what happens next, get your copy starting July 29!

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:

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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?

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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

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

 

WIP: The Adventuress and Her Monsters

blur-calligraphy-close-up-51159Heya Kittens!

Since my real life is boring as the summer winds down, I thought y’all might prefer a sneak peek at my current work-in-progress (aka the thing I’m escaping into lately). It’s a a true gothic romance set in late-Victorian England, and the heroine is an American heiress doing the husband-hunting tour. And she meets this dangerous but oh so gorgeous guy …

This bit comes about 10,000 words into the book. I’m hoping to be done by the end of the year, so come 2020, watch this space!

♥♥♥♥♥♥

When Arabella arrived home from the ball a scant hour before dawn, she found a letter waiting on her pillow. “Maisie, what is this?”

“A man brought it around midnight,” the maid said. “The hotel manager brought it up himself and said the man insisted you receive it as soon as you returned.”

“So you didn’t see the man who left it?” The heavy envelope was sealed with an old-fashioned wax seal marked with an elaborate “D.”

“No, miss. But I got the idea he must have been someone very important or else …” She broke off. “No, miss. I didn’t see him.”

“Or else what?”

“You’ve seen the hotel manager,” the girl said. “He’s a right old dragon who thinks himself mighty as Herod. But I would almost say he looked frightened. He made me swear I would give you that before you went to sleep.”

“And so you have.” She set the envelope on the tray with her cocoa. “Thank you, Maisie.”

The gray light of dawn was creeping around the heavy drapes when she settled back on her pillows and slit open the envelope.

“My dear Miss O’Bryan,” it began in a clear, bold hand. “Arabella. I realize it is hardly proper that I should write you such a letter or deliver it in such a fashion. But I will not be easy in my mind until I know I have done all in my power to warn you. Once you have read this, you must proceed as your own conscience, heart, and judgment might lead you. But I will consider myself absolved.

“My cousin is not what he seems. He is as kind and as intelligent, and his wealth and position are all that any man might hope for—or that any woman might desire in a husband. But he has other qualities and other passions beyond the scope of the usual English gentleman. There are aspects to his character and person which are not so generally to be desired nor so easy to explain.

“Reading this, you may believe I consider you a fortune hunter unworthy of my bloodline and that I mean only to frighten you away. I assure you, Arabella, nothing could be further from the truth. As soon as we met this morning, I saw in you a rare spirit and intelligence, a worthy soulmate for any man but particularly suited to Gabriel. I am convinced he has fallen in love with you and with good reason. I wish I could rejoice at this, but I cannot. Impetuous and hot-tempered as he can be, it is not his habit to grind young men of the peerage under his heel as he did this morning. Nor is he known for making himself the object of gossip. He would have done neither of these things if you had not captured his heart and were not worthy of its loss.

“But there’s so much you don’t know.

“I wish I could explain my objection more plainly, if it is even an objection at all. But some secrets are not mine to tell. So I will only caution you thus. Do not take up Gabriel as a lark. Do not mistake his humor for lightness of spirit or his charm for shallow art. He means everything he says, even—especially!—when it seems he does not. He may play the fool, but he is a man of deep purpose. And his quest is all. If he makes you a part of his world, you will not easily escape it. And your reputation is not all you will imperil if you try.

“Tread carefully, Arabella.

“Your servant—Dante Durant.”

She refolded the letter with trembling fingers. Her first animal instinct was to throw it into the fire, burn it to ashes, and pretend she had never received it.

But that was foolishness. She was jumping at shadows because she was so tired. For all his pretty protests to the contrary, Dante obviously found her unsuitable—too American, too vulgar, too much trouble. She resolved to set his letter aside and get some much-needed rest. In the morning, she might well destroy the letter. She might respond to it. She might even keep it to show Gabriel—not immediately, of course, but some sweet future time when it would make him laugh. Who knew? Perhaps the three of them might someday laugh about it together. She tucked the envelope under her book on her bedside table and turned down the lamp.

But she couldn’t sleep. After tossing and turning for half an hour as the sun rose behind the drapes, she got up and went to her writing desk.

“Dear Dr. Durant—Dante,” she began.

“I’m not sure what you meant to accomplish with your letter. If I were really in some kind of danger as you keep hinting, common decency would compel you to tell me precisely what that danger is. If you have the affection for your cousin you pretend and the regard for me you wrote of, what reasonable objection could you have to our forming an attachment?

“But like you, I’ve gotten ahead of myself. You write of love and marriage—good heavens, Dante, I barely know the man! Let us get to know one another, please, before you predict disaster. Or in the alternative, keep your predictions to yourself.

“In short, my very dear sir, write what you mean or kindly leave me and your cousin in peace.

“Yours in friendship—Arabella O’Bryan”

She finished her signature with a flourish. She blew on the ink to dry it, then folded the letter into one of her own monogrammed envelopes. She copied Dante’s address carefully from his own letter, then took the packet out to the parlor, still dressed in nothing but her nightgown.

“Good morning,” she said to the hotel maid who had paused in her dusting to gawp at her. Judith’s morning correspondence was stacked neatly on the sideboard, waiting to be taken down to the hotel post. Arabella slipped her letter to Dante into the middle of the stack. Then she went back to bed and slept soundly until well past noon.

WIP: The Devil Makes Three

Just to prove I am still writing things – a snippet from the work-in-progress, a Southern gothic horror novel. Who likes a haunted house? The “he” is Jacob McGuinness, a rich and famous Irish horror writer. The place is an abandoned plantation house that’s been abandoned since a mass murder took place there in the 1840s. Jacob, poor soul, is thinking that he might buy it.

‡‡‡‡‡‡

Half a mile in, the drive curved sharply to the left and broke free of the taller trees. He stopped the car and took his first long look at Rosewood.

The house stood at the top of a hill with what must once have been a magnificent sloping lawn laid out before it. Now it was covered with the same kind of scrub pine and underbrush as lined the driveway, but the effect was still quite striking, like something out of a movie. The house itself seemed remarkably intact. From his vantage point at the foot of the hill, he could almost believe it was still habitable. The white paint was worn gray, but the lines of the structure seemed solid.

It was much bigger than he had expected, a Greek revival rival for the massive country estates rich Englishmen had been building in Ireland at about the same time Rosewood was built, the early Victorian age. With its massive columns and round east wing, it looked more like a public building than a family home, some great parliament or temple more than a farmhouse. Looking up at it, he had to remind himself to breathe, and his heart was pounding. Imagine the labor that went into that, he thought. Slave labor, like the pyramids, no doubt. But he didn’t feel righteously indignant; he felt sad, almost angry. How dare anyone abandon such a beauty, whatever might have happened there? How could they have left her to die and disintegrate alone?

The drive forked at the top of the hill. The branch leading to the back of the house was completely overgrown, and a rusted farm gate hung on newer, shiny chains across it. The other branch looked fresher, as if the brush might have been cleared from it once or twice in the past decade. Jacob drove slowly around to the front of the house, the V8 engine in his rented beast rumbling like a dragon’s snore. He parked in front of the steps and got out.

The dry grass was as tall as his hips and brittle with autumn frost where it was shaded by the shadow of the house. Up close, Rosewood was no less grand but much more obviously deserted. There was no path worn through the grass, no footprints in the thick, mossy mud caked on the steps. He could have been the first human to approach the house in centuries—the first living thing, for that matter. The high grass and scrub should have been a haven for mice, rabbits, even quail, but he didn’t hear a sound or see a single stir of movement. The whole place was as dead still as an empty tomb.

So why was the front door standing open?

He stood at the foot of the steps, leaning forward to peer through the shadows. The clouds had thickened; it was as dim as twilight on the porch. “Hello?” he called. No answer. He was half an hour early for his appointment with the real estate agent, and there were no other cars parked out front. Anyone inside would have had to either fight the gate and brush to pull around back yet leave no sign of their passing or else hike in from the road on foot.

He walked up two steps, his own work boots leaving clearly discernible footprints in the mud. “Is someone here?” Between fluted Corinthian columns, the open doorway yawned at him in silence.

He crossed the porch with purpose, boots clomping. The thick wooden door was massive, at least eight feet tall. It seemed to be intact, and the lock was unbroken. No one had forced it open. He touched it lightly, and it swung back further, hinges squealing like a cheesy sound effect.

He stepped into the vast empty cavern of the front hall. Directly in front of him was a grand, curving staircase, and more columns were set in perfectly straight lines leading up to it. Floor to ceiling windows lined the front wall. They were shuttered from the outside, but gray light filtered in between the slats. Turning to look at them, he didn’t see a single pane of glass that was broken or even cracked; every window was perfectly intact. Each was hung with great velvet drapes, sagging and blackened with age and dirt, but also still intact and still tied open as if to let in the sun. The floor was bare wood and strewn with dead, crumbled leaves over a thick coating of dust—again, no footprints.

Double doors stood open to his left as he turned back to the staircase. In the shadows beyond, he could make out a long dining table still covered with a cloth. Moving closer, he saw a massive sideboard still set with an elaborate silver service, black with tarnish but otherwise untouched. Who would just abandon such a thing? Looking at it, he realized his mood had turned. A feeling of dark oppression seemed to have gathered around him like the clouds outside, pressing down on his psyche like a moldering pillow might be pressed over his face.

He had felt this way before. On their honeymoon, he and Gloria had gone to Spain. Touring the dungeon of a castle where heretics had been walled up to die, he had lost himself completely, sobbing uncontrollably and fighting off anyone who tried to touch him. Poor Gloria had been covered in scratches and bruises by the time she’d managed to drag him back outside into the light.

What could have possessed him to come here now?

He had decided to go back outside and wait for the real estate agent when he noticed the footprints on the stairs. Someone had tracked some dark liquid on the pale wood, something dark brown, almost black, like paint . . . like blood. Moving closer, he kicked away a thicker scattering of rotten leaf matter and saw the prints led away from a larger, darker stain on the floor of the hall just at the foot of the steps . . . blood soaked deep into the wood.

“Bollocks,” he muttered aloud, but the hair on the back of his neck prickled, and his flesh turned cold. Surely it was a fake, a prank, something staged for a camera or to frighten some dupe in the recent past. No real bloodstain could have lasted so long. But then if the story he had read of Rosewood’s abandonment was true, who would have been left to clean it up?

Without stopping to think any further, he followed the prints up the staircase, trying not to notice how perfectly his boots matched them as he walked. As he climbed, the prints faded out from full shoe shapes to smears to mere smudges at the top that led a few steps down the hall to the right. The man with bloody feet had climbed the stairs for a reason.

His heart was aching in his chest, and tears stung his eyes. Wallpaper hung in tattered ribbons on the walls, and the floor was scarred in two straight lines down the middle where a carpet runner had been ripped up. The smell of dust and rot was closing in on him and making him feel sick. He imagined he could smell the blood; surely he must be imagining it.

He followed the smudges to the right then around the corner; he seemed to know exactly where he was going. He turned a glass doorknob at the end of the hall and went into a small room at the front of the house. The drapes in here were silk, some pastel color gone gray, and the shutters were open. Going to the window, he looked out over the second floor gallery and down on his own rental car parked below. It looked so solidly vulgar, so real, it made him smile. Gloria had been right. He’d been crazy to come here, mad to think of buying such a place. When the real estate agent showed up, he’d tell her he had changed his mind. Just as he was deciding, he heard the sound of motors coming closer, two cars coming up the drive. It was fate.

He was just about to turn away from the window and head back downstairs when he smelled something else. When he smelled her. Over the damp, ancient rot of the dim, cold house, he smelled the cleanest white cotton being warmed by the summer sun. He smelled soap and the lightest hint of lavender, and clean, sweet skin underneath. He felt the warmth of a woman’s presence, soft hands touching his back. He braced his hands on the window frame, holding himself up. His knees had gone weak. The feeling of oppression dissolved like a mist in morning sunlight, and wild joy seized his heart. There was life in Rosewood, not just death. He wasn’t mad to come here. He belonged here. She had called him to come.

End of snippet

Cowboys & Krampus – A Christmas Romance

cowboys-and-krampusSo in honor of the season, I’ve written a sequel to my insane zombie western, Dead-sperado, called Cowboys & Krampus. It’s available here right now from Amazon, and it starts off something like this:

Two days before Christmas, we had been on the run from a bank job for a week and a half. I had expected us to head south toward old Mexico, but Cade had led us straight north. The rest of the gang seemed to know what he was doing and trust him, and I had only been riding with them since Halloween, so I kept my mouth shut. But looking up at the sky, I was pretty sure we were headed straight into a blizzard.

Just as it started to snow, we rode up to a two-story hotel in the literal middle of nowhere. The hotel and its stable were the only buildings in sight in the middle of a flat, open plain surrounded by mountains.

The little round innkeeper came out from behind his desk as soon as we walked in the door. “Mr. Cade,” he said as we huffed and stomped and peeled out of the frozen layers of our coats. “Danke Gott! When we received your telegram, I was afraid you’d be lost on the road.”

“Telegram?” I said, raising an eyebrow. As far as I knew, we’d been riding for our lives. When had he stopped and sent a telegram?

“Of course. We couldn’t just show up without a reservation, Daisy.” The smile on his face made him look like a man I’d never met. Elbert Cade was not a smiler. “That would be rude.”

“But who is this?” the innkeeper said as I unbuttoned my duster. “Daisy? You have brought your young lady?”

“Mr. Bhaer, meet Mrs. Cade,” he said. “Daisy, honey, meet our host, Mr. Bhaer.”

To my credit, I didn’t faint from shock. “Pleased to meet you,” I said, giving Cade a slant-eyed look that should have shaved off one of his sideburns. Rule number one of the gang was never dispute our fearless leader in front of decent folks, so I wouldn’t. But I wasn’t no more Mrs. Cade than I was the queen of Sweden.

Mein Gott!” Bhaer said. “Mother, come quickly! Cade has taken a wife!”

“Uh-oh,” Thomas, Cade’s second-in-command, said with a grin. “Now you’ve done it.”

The swinging doors behind the front desk opened, and people came pouring out, a stout little woman with blonde braids wrapped around her head and half a dozen little tow-headed kids. “You don’t mean it!” the woman exclaimed in the same thick German accent as her husband. “Congratulations!” She kissed Cade on both cheeks, leaving flour in his whiskers. “Papa, look!” She took my hands and beamed at me. “Ain’t she lovely?”

“Daisy,” Bhaer said. “Her name is Daisy.”

“Mr. Cade, are you crazy?” one of the kids asked, a freckle-faced little bruiser with mischief dancing off of him like sparks off an anvil. “Whatcha want to get some stupid girl for?”

“Klaus!” his mother cried, scandalized.

“Well, Klaus, to tell you the truth, I didn’t have much of a choice,” Cade said with a bit of mischief in his own eyes. “I fed her one time, and she followed me home.”

“Klaus, you are a very naughty boy,” Mrs. Bhaer said. “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Krampus carried you away tomorrow night.” She smacked Cade on the arm. “And you, too.”

“I don’t think Krampus will be traveling tomorrow night,” Mr. Bhaer said. “Not in this storm.”

“But Papa, what about Saint Nicholas?” one of the other kids said, this one a girl barely as tall as her papa’s boots. “Ain’t he coming either?”

“Not to worry, poppy seed,” Thomas said, swinging the little girl up in his arms. “Saint Nick can always make it through.”

“Something surely smells good in the kitchen, Mrs. Bhaer,” said Luis, Cade’s other lieutenant. He’d been all but hopping on one foot since we came in.

“I am baking gingerbread, Mr. Gonzales,” she said. “Or did you mean Clara?” Her husband and all the other men but Luis laughed at her joke. Me, I thought I must have fallen off my horse and hit my head at some point without noticing. This had to be a crazy dream. “She’s been waiting for you all day,” Mrs. Bhaer went on. “You’d better come see her. Papa, get everyone else settled into their rooms. I’m sure Mrs. Cade is exhausted.”

“So how long have you two been married?” Bhaer asked.

“Not long at all,” Cade said.

“No kidding,” I muttered.

“We’re still on our honeymoon,” Cade said, stepping on my foot. I bit back a shriek of pain.

Wunderbar,” Mrs. Bhaer said. “The bridal suite it is. Come, children, help me fetch Mrs. Cade a hot bath.”

“Aw, nuts,” Klaus grumbled, making me laugh. That child was a caution and cute as he could be.

“That’s quite enough from you, young Klaus,” his father said. “Go now and help your mother.”

When we got to the top of the stairs, Cade went so far as to carry me over the threshold. But as soon as Bhaer left us alone, he set me down, and the honeymoon was over.

“What in hell has gotten into you?” I said.

“Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer are good Christian folks,” he said. “They’d be mightily offended if they thought I’d brought some…” He let his thought trail off.

“Some what, Elbert Cade?” I said. “And remember, I have a gun.”

“They ain’t like us, Daisy, he said. “They’re good and kind and peaceful, and they don’t understand that the rest of the world ain’t like that.”

The rest of the world like him and me. “Which makes me wonder how they know you,” I said.

“I got shot up real bad a couple of years ago about twenty miles from here,” he said. “The rest of the gang thought I was going to die, and most of them skinned out and left me. But Thomas and Luis loaded me up on a half-busted wagon and tried to get me to help. Just when they figured it was hopeless, they found this hotel.”

“And these folks took you in?” I said. I was shaking just thinking about him getting hurt so bad, but I’d have sooner died than let him know it. “A wanted outlaw?”

“Thomas told them we were scouts,” he said. “He said we’d been set upon by bandits when we were leading a wagon train west, and that I had fought off half a dozen men single-handed to save the rest of the party.”

“Lord God Almighty.”

“Hey, I had—they just happened to have been a lawful posse.” If I hadn’t been so mad, I might have thought his little grin was charming. “Anyhow,” he said, seeing my frown. “The Bhaers got me a doctor, and when I woke up, I was a hero. And we’ve been coming back here every Christmas since. Luis and the cook even have an understanding to wed.”

“And they don’t know you’re outlaws?” I said.

He at least had the decency to look embarrassed. “Like I said, they’re good people.”

“Stupid people, maybe.” When I had taken up with him, I had known I was giving up any hope of eve being respectable, that I wasn’t ever going to be the nice married lady I had always dreamed I’d be. But I had wanted him so much, I had told myself it didn’t matter, that there were things more important than being respectable. But now here we were, and he expected me to pretend.

“Now don’t be like that,” he said. “I didn’t tell you we were coming here because I wanted it to be a surprise. I thought you’d like it.” He took my hand and tugged me closer, and I let him. “Just think, darling. A clean bed.” He kissed me on the forehead, sweet and soft. “A hot bath.” I couldn’t help but smile, slumping against him. “When was the last time you had a hot bath?”

“It has been a while.” The last time had been in Carson City, and a fine time it had been.

“We can stay here and ride the storm out safe and sound, eating Clara and Mrs. Bhaer’s fine cooking.” I twined an arm around his neck, and he kissed my mouth. “Sleeping as late as we like.”

“That does sound nice.” Getting up before the sun was the thing I hated most about being an outlaw.

“No posse breathing down our necks.” He nibbled the back of my neck. “No Thomas or Luis snoring one bedroll away.” He kissed behind my ear. “No biting my shoulder to the bone, trying to keep quiet.” I giggled, and he kissed me on the mouth. I melted against him, and he walked me backward toward the bed. “And I was thinking,” he said, nuzzling my throat.

“Thinking what?” I untied the bandana at his throat.

“When the storm does break and we do ride out…” He kissed me again, cuddling my head in his hand the way he knew I liked. “…you could stay on here a while.”

I broke the kiss. “Beg pardon?”

“Just for a little while.” He put up his hands like I might have been a sheriff with a shotgun. “Just until the weather warms up and things calm down a bit.”

“You want to just dump me?” I said.

“Of course not.”

“Have I ever once whined or told you I was tired?” I demanded. “Did I ever cry when I got shot at or fail to shoot when I had to?”

“No, honey. I just thought–”

“I ride as good as Thomas and better than Luis.” I had never been so mad at anybody in my life. “If you’re sick of me, Cade, all you’ve got to do is say so. If you’re ready for another piece of–”

“Stop right there!” He didn’t holler at me often, but when he did, it was impressive. “I don’t want no other women, damn it! That’s the gawddamn point! I want you to be safe!”

“Then you ought not to have let me come with you in the first place!”

“You think I don’t know that?”

I caught my breath like he had hit me. Truth be told, I wished he had.

Somebody knocked on the door. “Mrs. Cade?” It was Mrs. Bhaer. “We have your bath.”

Cade reached out a hand to me. “Daisy…”

“Get out.” I couldn’t stand for him to see me cry. “Just get out.” I opened the door. “Thank you kindly, Mrs. Bhaer,” I said, putting on a smile. “Elbert was just leaving.”

Check out Cowboys & Krampus and the rest of our holiday stuff at our website, http://lucybluecastle.wixsite.com/littleredhenromance. Merry Christmas! 

 

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Comma

chasing the dragon coverAs a lot of people know, my sister, Alexandra Christian, and I are pretty much the entire standing staff of Little Red Hen Romance. We both write stories and novels for the press, and we edit one another. There are many advantages to having your beloved sister as your editor. But there are times, particularly for Lexie, when it’s a real pain in the ass.

Lex has just finished a truly amazing Sherlock Holmes novella that should be coming out in the next few weeks, and I’ve been working on the copy edit. Lex is one of the most amazing, original, intelligent writers I know, and her grammar and punctuation are almost perfect. But that girl will party hearty with a comma; she gets it drunk and lets it sprawl naked in the most ungodly places or forgets it entirely and leaves it dead in a ditch. As a former composition instructor, I tend to lose my mind about this on a regular basis. And since this is apparently becoming a hot topic issue (see here: Daniel McMahon for Business Insider 5-2-16), we thought it might instructive or at least entertaining to see our latest exchange on the subject:

THE SAME STUPID COMMA MISTAKE THREE TIMES, ALL FROM THE SAME PARAGRAPH!!!!!!!

Okay, you’re gonna learn how to do this if it kills us both.

Example Number One:

As written by the brilliant Lexie Christian:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise and this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

This sentence is two independent clauses joined by the conjunction “and.” As are all of these examples. And it’s the EASIEST FREAKIN THING IN THE WORLD TO IDENTIFY!!!!

So, what are our two clauses? How do I know we have two? We start with the verbs. What are the verbs?

1) offered

2) managed

Okay, so who or what offered? The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat – so there we have the spine of clause number one, “coat and hat offered.” Everything that tells us information about the coat and hat (whose it was [the doorman] and what he was like [unfortunate]) and what they offered and how [an easy disguise]) are part and parcel of that clause. So Clause Number One is:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise.

So our next verb is managed. Who or what managed? He, Sherlock, our intrepid hero. Everything about him and what he managed is Clause Number Two:

This time [when he managed] he managed [there’s that spine] to pass through the doors [what he managed to do] without incident [how he did it].

Because neither of these clauses begins with an adverb like when or as or because or anything else that would turn it into a dependent clause/super-adverb supporting the other that can’t stand alone, these are two independent clauses joined with nothing more than the most common and beloved of all conjunctions, and. So you put a FUCKING COMMA IN FRONT OF THE AND!!! And thus after edits it becomes:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise, and this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

SIDE NOTE ON DEPENDENT CLAUSES WHICH YOU ALMOST NEVER USE AND USUALLY GET RIGHT WHEN YOU DO: To make these the joining of a dependent clause to an independent clause, one of these clauses has to become a super-adverb. If it comes at the beginning, you need a comma:

Because the unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise, this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

But if it comes at the end, you don’t:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise when this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

Your way, the two independent clauses is MUCH BETTER; it’s stronger and gives the reader chunks of easily visualized information. It was Mark Twain’s favorite sentence construction. AND HE ALWAYS PUT THE DAMNED COMMA IN IT!!!

So on to Example Number Two. As written, thus:

A small stage had been set up along the back wall and the cozy chaises by the fire had been moved aside to accommodate more tables.

What are the verbs:

1)had been set up

2)had been moved (accommodate is also a verb, but by adding the “to” to it, you’re using it as part of an adverb modifying had been moved; it tells why the moving was done. Lesser minds would be confused by this; I know you can see it.)

What had been set up? Stage

What had been moved? Chaises

So our two clauses are:

1) A small stage had been set up along the back wall.

2) The cozy chaises by the fire had been moved aside to accommodate more tables.

What is joining them? There’s our lil buddy and again.

So our edited sentence becomes:

A small stage had been set up along the back wall, and the cozy chaises by the fire had been moved aside to accommodate more tables.

And finally, coming to you live from the exact same descriptive paragraph, I bring you Example Number Three:

The entire room was swathed in red and gold and the heavy musk of opium hung in the air.

Verbs?

1) was swathed

2) hung

What was swathed? Room

What hung? Musk

Two clauses then?

1) The entire room was swathed in red and gold.

2) The heavy musk of opium hung in the air.

Add our friend and and the comma it should have rode in on:

The entire room was swathed in red and gold, and the heavy musk of opium hung in the air.

If you could ever just absorb that this is WHY this comma needs to be there, I promise, you’ll just put it there naturally without having to go through this half-assed diagraming of the sentence. But just saying, “Fuck it, I can’t do commas; sue me,” looks like a consistent, habitual amateur mistake, the kind of thing that can make less imaginative editors who don’t love you and your writing like I do dismiss you as a lightweight. And that just is not acceptable. Every one of these sentences is brilliant; you’ve compacted massive amounts of vibrant information into just a few words and created a whole scene. So just get the commas right!

An Improbable Truth: The Paranormal Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Coming October 27!

SHA_finalHey kittens, guess what? I have a story in this anthology coming out October 27, 2015 from Mocha Memoirs Press. Doesn’t it look awesome?

“When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most recognizable characters in Western literature.  Conan Doyle’s inimitable detective has been the subject of literally thousands of books, movies, television shows, plays and even songs.  With the rise of the BBC series and the release of all copyrights, the beloved character has found a new life among modern audiences.

In An Improbable Truth: The Paranormal Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 14 authors of horror and mystery have come together to create a unique anthology that sets Holmes on some of his most terrifying adventures.  A pair of sisters willing to sacrifice young girls to an ancient demon for a taste of success, a sinister device that can manipulate time itself, and a madman that can raise corpses from the dead are just a few among the grisly tales that can be found within these pages.

Curl up with a warm cuppa and leave all the lights on.  This is not your grandfather’s Sherlock Holmes.

Wanna sneak peek? Here’s an excerpt from my own story (and first ever mystery tale), “The Fairy Pool:”

Watson packed his case with grim determination, preparing for an outing to the countryside as if for a bivouac through the wilds of Afghanistan. But the most perilous frontier to be crossed was the front parlor of his own London lodging where his accustomed adversary lay in wait.

“Watson, where are you going?” The ambush came as he’d expected from the dim recesses of Holmes’ library, a shout through the open door.

“I told you.” He placed his case by the door and went calmly to the cupboard for his overcoat and hat. “Mary and I are going to visit an old school chum of hers in the country.”

Sherlock popped out of the library like a jack from a box. “It’s a lie.”

“It is not.” Watson smiled the mild smile of the righteous man. “Why should I lie?”

“Well done, John.” His friend’s color was high and dramatic. Either he had already imbibed some chemical stimulant at nine in the morning or the mere fact of John’s leaving had sent him into the first stages of frenzy on its own. “For once, you’ve hit upon the crux of the question without prompting. Why indeed?” John removed the train tickets from his pocket, and Sherlock snatched them from his hand. “Ravenglass,” he read.

“In the Lake District,” John said, taking them back. “Mary’s friend Seraphima grew up there. It’s meant to be quite lovely.”

“In summer perhaps.” The great detective was obviously unconvinced. “In October it will be a miserable bog. And really, John, Seraphima? Is that the limit of your invention? Seraphima is the name of an Italian carnival dancer, not the school chum of one’s respectable fiancée.”

John was inclined to agree. “Nevertheless, that is her name. Her aunts are the novelists Nora and Mirabel May. Perhaps one of them chose her name.”

Sherlock frowned. “That does seem plausible.” He took the tickets again and sniffed them. “As spinsters and the most prominent and financially successful members of the family, they would no doubt exert a certain influence over the naming of offspring, particularly those from poorer branches of the clan.”

“Seraphima was orphaned at an early age and brought up by the aunts,” John said. “So I’m sure you must be right.”

“One hardly follows the other, but yes, I must be.” He sniffed the tickets again. “When did you purchase these?”

John took them back. “Yesterday afternoon.” He put them back in his pocket. “I had just returned from the station when I told you about our trip.”

Sherlock’s smile was positively demonic. “That is a lie.”

“Holmes, really—“

“Those tickets rested for no small time in close proximity to the bare skin of your fiancée—next to her bosom, unless I miss my guess.”

John’s eyes popped. “I do beg your pardon!”

“They reek of her perfume—an ordinarily subtle scent intensified precipitously by abundance, heat, moisture, or some combination of the three. Since Mary is an extremely hygienic young woman not given to bathing herself in perfume or acts of great physical exertion, I deduce that she carried the tickets next to her skin while in a state of anxiety which resulted in greater than usual perspiration.”

“Have you been sniffing my fiancée?!?”

“Don’t be absurd.”

“No, but really!” Ordinarily Holmes’ deductions were a source of wonder and no small delight to his friend, but this seemed not only improper but highly perilous. “Who are you to recognize her scent?”

“I recognize the presence of Mrs. Hudson’s favorite hack driver by the lingering aroma of horse shit on my hall rug,” Holmes said. “This in no way represents a symbolic romantic attraction.” Now that he had the upper hand, his smile was almost warm. “Tell me the truth, John. Why are you going to the Lake District? What has Mary so frightened?”

“She isn’t frightened, Holmes; don’t be so dramatic.” He handed over the newspaper clipping Seraphima had enclosed with her frantic letter. “Merely concerned.”

“Search continues for missing child,” Holmes read the headline. “Hope fast slipping away—good lord, who writes this drivel?”

“The missing girl apparently has some connection to Seraphima and her family,” John explained. “She’s only seven years old, and Seraphima feels responsible for her in some way. She wrote Mary to ask if I might come and offer my assistance to the police.”

“You?” He handed back the clipping. “She asked for you?”

‘Why not?” John said, trying to remain unruffled. “She has read my accounts of your exploits, so she is aware of my expertise in such matters.”

“Your accounts, my exploits.” Holmes was heading for his bedroom. “Expertise indeed—do they want a nicely typed story for the newspapers, or do they want the girl found?”

“Perhaps they don’t want their lives turned upside down by a raving madman whose methods of investigation require the emotional ruin of everyone even remotely involved.” John followed and found him throwing a seemingly random collection of personal belongings into a case of his own. “Holmes, you are specifically not invited.”

“Nevertheless, I shall go.” He latched the case and handed it to John. “Come, come, Watson; Mary will be waiting. We mustn’t be late.”

“No.” There was no use arguing, and if put to torture, John might have admitted to feeling a wee bit relieved. “All right. Let’s go.”

End of excerpt – sounds pretty good, right? And here’s a list of the rest of the stories and authors involved – they all look fantastic to me:

 

Sherlock Holmes and the Hungry Ghost by Katie Magnusson

The Diamond Carter Ghost by Matthew Wilson

The Haunted Branch Line by Tally Johnson

The Arendall Horror by Thomas Olbert

Worlds Collide by S. H. Roddey

Time is Running Out, Watson by Adrian Cross

A Voice in the Blood by Dan Shaurette

The Hunt of the Red Boar by Thomas Fortenberry

The Canaries of Clee Hills Mine by Robert Perret

The Chase by Melissa McArthur

The Adventure of the Missing Trophy by Mark W. Coulter

The Case of the Rising Dead by Trenton Mabey

The Adventure of the Slow Death by Harding McFadden

Because life is too short to read crap

the king's tutor coverLike more than 20 million other people, I read e-books on a Kindle, and my favorite genre is romance. A quick search on Amazon for romance titles this morning yielded me 365,065 options to choose from. I know from experience that there are treasures to be found all the way up and down the charts. But the vast majority of these 365,065 e-books calling themselves romances are total, unmitigated, stinky, slimy, sloppy crap. The Wild West world of e-publishing combined with a media that continually broadcasts romance as that world’s most popular and therefore most potentially profitable genre have shaken stuff out of the bushes that would make Grace Livingston Hill say “Fuck this noise” and switch to thrillers. Well-meaning amateurs who couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper sack with a box cutter and a blowtorch have unwittingly conspired with cynical assholes who say flat out they hate romance as they write the dumbass porno to prove it. Together they’ve created a digital Bog of Eternal Stench where readers who actually love the genre can only cling to the few writers they already know they can trust and pray for daylight—and better pricing.

Life is too short to read crap. That’s the idea that inspired Little Red Hen Romance, a smallest-of-the-small-time e-book publisher that I hope will give me and readers like me a better option. The plan is to publish at least four new romance short story titles every month starting on May 1. The stories will be absolutely free for their first week of release (and only available through Amazon) then 99 cents forever thereafter (and available from B&N and iTunes, too). If things go well, we’ll do longer anthologies and maybe even full-length books, but for now, we’re trying it out with the shorties, 3000-8000 words each. But short as they are, every story will be an actual romance by a criteria that might be entirely subjective to me but that I really think a lot of readers have been missing. When I started thinking about what I wanted and wasn’t getting from new romance, I came up with a list of three things:

1 – Sparkling dialogue: Nothing kills a love connection for me faster than dull, flat, lifeless talk, and what passes for romance these days even on the bestest of bestseller lists is full of it. Before I can care about people falling in love, I have to like them; I have to want to listen to them; I have to see the sparks fly between them. Not every story has to be a laugh-a-minute romantic rollick (though there will definitely be some of that, too), but I promise, the characters in the stories from Little Red Hen will be able to carry on a conversation before they start stripping off their clothes—and after.

 2 – Tender sensuality: I love me some smut. Explicit sexuality has been a hallmark (and some would say the major selling point) for romance since the 1970s, and as a reader, I want and expect it. And I’m not squeamish about the mechanics—twosomes, threesomes, up, down and sideways, with handcuffs or without; I’ve read books that rocked my world from all of these, books that I would definitely call romance. What set them apart was the attitude of the characters getting it on toward one another, their reasons for hopping in the sack (or the haystack or the space bunk or that big ol’ hot tub full of banana puddin’) in the first place. Not every character who has sex in a Little Red Hen book will be madly in love when they start, but they’ll at least be considering it by the time they finish. The person or persons they’re sexing will have value to them as people, and their physical actions toward them will reflect that. Nobody is going to get genuinely humiliated in a LRH book (and no monster will ever “turn anybody gay” because that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of in my life, and I work at a law firm). We in the Hen House want to turn our readers on and make their toes curl but let them still feel clean and able to look their preacher in the eye afterwards.

 3 – Heart-melting romance: This one is the most important. It’s what’s most often missing from the books I hate, and I think it’s what embarrasses the haters most about romance, far more than any kind of sexual content ever could. If a story is going to be a romance by the genre definition (not the literary, which is a whole different thing involving a much wider range of happy endings), it has to be a love story; it has to be the series of events which leads the characters into (or deeper into) love. It doesn’t have to end in marriage or a marriage proposal or a declaration of eternal devotion. But it’s got to mean more than an orgasm, a contract, or the acquisition of a business partner to pay the household expenses. It’s about people touching soul to soul, something I believe in very strongly. Otherwise, for me, it’s not a romance. Every Little Red Hen story, whether it’s historical, contemporary, paranormal, steampunk, straight, LGBT, funny, dramatic, or just plain weird will be a love story by this definition.

For more information about the press or the individual titles coming up at our launch on May 1, please drop by the website at http://lucybluecastle.wix.com/littleredhenromance or come like us on Facebook. And by all means, come hang out at our Facebook launch party on Wednesday, April 29, at 8 pm EDT—yes, we’ll mention the books, and yes, there will be preview giveaway swag, but mostly it’ll be a bunch of romance lovers chatting and snarking and having fun, and we’d love to see you there: https://www.facebook.com/events/807514879343283/

In defense of “Write What You Know”

librarianIn a recent writers roundtable over at comic and fiction writer Sean H. Taylor’s blog (Bad Girls, Good Guys and Two-Fisted Action, and if you’re not reading it, you’re missing out), we talked about the best and worst advice we’ve ever received as writers. More than half of us piled on the hate for that cursed pearl so loved by high school creative writing teachers everywhere: Write What You Know. What a load of crap, we agreed. How boring would fiction be if writers only ever wrote what they knew? There’d be no science fiction, no fantasy, no horror that didn’t make you cry and throw up, and very little romance of the slightest interest to anybody but the parties involved. I was part of the lynch mob, I freely admit. I think this idea of writing what you know has produced more soggy, self-indulgent crap calling itself story than any concept ever devised with the possible exception of “why do vampires have to be so mean?” Most of us in the roundtable write speculative fiction of one kind or another, and we rejected this nonsense out of hand. “Write what you know,” indeed.  But now that I think more about it, I’m not so sure we were right.

After all, the advice isn’t, “Write ONLY what you know.” Very few of us have autobiographies that the average reader would find enthralling, no matter how artfully we might present them. There are exceptions, of course, and different readers will always be interested in and inspired by different things. But anybody who has a friend or cousin who posts every breath they take, every move they make, every leaf they rake to Facebook knows what I’m talking about. That being said, we all of us have our moments, and for writers those moments “recollected in tranquillity” (to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth just this once and never again, I promise) are what bring our stories to life and make them uniquely ours. Isaac Asimov presumably was not a robot, nor did he own one. But after reading the Foundation trilogy, I’m pretty sure he spent a fair amount of time is some situation which caused him to consider the need for and dangers inherent in altruism and the search for identity in plain, old, ordinary humans. Closer to home, I’ve never experienced a romance with a vampire, angel, or immortal faery prince. But I’ve loved and lusted people whose power felt out of proportion to my own, physically or otherwise, stayed in relationships that I weren’t sure were good for me because I cared for the other person so much, fallen hard for the bad boy. Because I know how that stuff feels and because I can write what I know, I can, hopefully, make a relationship between a human woman and a supernatural being live for a reader. And the same holds true for smaller, more specific details. I met my husband in person after knowing him online for two years. So when my heroine in Christabel’s Tale is nervous about meeting her internet beloved, I can describe just how she feels, even though my husband is not supernatural in any way but the way he manages to love me first thing in the morning. What I know combined with what I can only imagine is what makes my anything-but-hard-reality fiction come to life.

And there’s more than one way to know stuff.  The advice isn’t, “Write ONLY what you know FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE.” Research isn’t always necessary when you’re writing fiction. Too much research can be deadly if you try to shoehorn in too many “true facts” than your story can support. (Paging Diana Gabaldon; Phillipa Gregory wants you on the phone.)  But if you’re writing about a time or place that actually exists or existed, you’d do well to read up on it first, even if you mean to deconstruct it down to rusty rails and put a steampunk topper on it. Nothing takes a reader out of a story faster than crashing into a detail that doesn’t belong. In the very first chapter of my very first Lucy Blue book, My Demon’s Kiss, my heroine walks through the cellar of her medieval castle past a basket of potatoes. Not magical potatoes, not vampire potatoes, just potatoes, set dressing, no big deal. Except nobody in medieval England had ever tasted, seen or even heard tell of potatoes. And oh my kittens, did I hear about it, and rightly so. That one mistake on page one destroyed the fragile experience of that story for the very sort of reader it most needed, a reader interested in living in a fantasy of the real medieval world. They could accept the existence of vampires because I focused all my gifts as a writer on making vampires plausible within that world. But those stupid potatoes I threw in a corner of a cellar and forgot just didn’t belong, and it was my job to know it and get them out of there. So don’t do that. Get your facts straight. Write what you know.

Right now as I write this, I’ve just started work on a horror novel set in the here and now in a small town in South Carolina very much like the one I’ve lived in all my life. I’ve written a short story or two set here in the Beautiful South, but never a novel, and rarely anything that explores the gothic version of this world as I see it.  I’m writing what I know, and it’s liberating and very, very scary. The story is very much supernatural horror, and I wouldn’t wish what happens to these poor people on anybody, bless their poor sweet hearts. But ghosts and demons notwithstanding, they live in a world I know very well, and so far, I have to say I like it.