Colby Marshall is a writer by day and a ballroom dancer and choreographer by night, as well as a member of International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime. She kicks off her new FBI profiler series, starring Dr. Jenna Ramey, with Color Blind. The FBI has detained a mass murderer, but his partner is still on the loose, so Jenna has been called in to put a stop to any future murders.
Marshall and her heroine share a rather unusual trait—they both have synesthesia, a neurological condition that triggers color associations with people, places and things. We wanted to know—and apparently, everbody Marshall meets wants to know, too—how much of her own experiences contributed to Color Blind. Her answer may surprise you.
As an author, I won’t deny that I love answering questions, even if only so for a minute I can pretend I’m the latest runaway best-selling author letting loose in an exclusive interview for People magazine. Some questions readers ask surprise me. Others come up over and over again.
And while frequent-flier questions aren’t always the same types of things I’d ask an author—I’d rather hear what earned her the most time-outs as a kid than where her ideas come from (mostly because I’m pretty sure we all snag ideas the same way, from that guy on the corner selling them out of his van)—I guess I can understand the curiosity of a reader, a bookstore patron . . . or a stranger I’ve cornered at a party who I’m pretending is my number one fan. If you don’t enjoy or make a bad habit out of telling stories, I guess the details surrounding how we think up imaginary people, make them have sex and then kill them could be interesting, whether in a fascinated way or a the-more-you-know-the-better-you-can-hide-from-the-lunatics way.
Yet, one question used to surprise me every time, no matter how often it cropped up. It’s been put to me by the neighbor dying to sneak a gossip-gathering peak inside my garage door, by the glove-snapping gynecologist only talking to distract me from the forthcoming, oh-so-cold evil, by my mother’s hairdresser in between not-so-subtle hints that I could use a few highlights, and by my devious nemesis of a mailman, who I’m convinced starred in at least one Nightmare on Elm Street sequel before he was featured on "America’s Most Wanted" when I was 8. But I digress . . .
That two-part question asked at every family reunion and inside every white-walled church fellowship hall is: Do I write about myself, and do I get my characters from those who fill real-life roles in the crazy one-woman show that is my life?
Until recently, this question routinely set off a seemingly pre-programmed string of thoughts through my head. Is this a more common practice than I realized? Could all of my favorite authors who have entertained and wowed me with their ability to weave mesmerizing fiction (read: big fat lies) out of nothingness be, in reality, regurgitating personas they see every day onto their books’ pages? Are they using their manuscripts like public journals, only ones they’re willing to turn toward the people close to them to serve as honest-but-sort-of-fictionalized-even-if-most-of-it’s-true mirrors?
My second thought always hit like clockwork: If all authors do this, then damn. After the things Thomas Harris has seen, he’s bound to be a vegetarian by now. And I bet R.L. Stine wishes his parents would’ve moved him to a town where he could’ve taken piano lessons from a teacher without a creepy hand fetish . . . and maybe lived on a cul-de-sac with fewer shadowy homeless men carrying cursed cameras.
But with my newest book, I’ve gained some perspective. A few years ago, I found myself writing about an FBI forensic psychiatrist—something I, a 5’1”, indoor, glitter-heel-wearing blonde girl, am not—and giving her a little bit of something I am. I gave her a brain quirk. Made her a graphemeàcolor synesthete. A neurological phenomenon that causes a person to associate colors with everything from letters to days of the week and even people and emotions, graphemeàcolor synesthesia doesn’t have many practical uses in my own life, unless you count the time I filled awkward silences at my spouse’s company Christmas party by entertaining acquaintances with the colors my brain links to two particularly unpopular high school foreign language teachers with whom everyone in the group happened to share an F-filled history. But for Jenna, it’s useful. It can’t do her job for her—a flying-off-buildings kind of superpower, it ain’t (sadly)—but the subtle flashes of color in her head can illuminate important details and fine-tune theories as she sifts through clues she already has.
On paper, Dr. Jenna Ramey does lots of things I don’t: I like movies with explosions, but she actually shoots at bad guys. I research abnormal pathologies for stories, but she’s a trained expert at getting inside the minds of those relevant to her case. I dream of reaching the cereal box on the top shelf; she stores dishes on all three levels in her kitchen cabinets. But she and I are alike in a big way that helps her life and career run smoother. That little bit of me I used from real-life guarantees she—and I—can save fictional lives in a way no other FBI agent can. At least, none in Jenna’s world.
Maybe in the past I’ve taken the idea of authors pulling personas from their Rolodexes too literally. (Do you know anybody who still owns a Rolodex?) After all, your main character’s partner-in-crime doesn’t have to be an exact replica of your own best pal right down to her neverending coffee mug collection and penchant for breaking the news that the joke you thought was so hilarious five minutes ago only made you laugh because one Fuzzy Navel was affecting you way more than a single wine cooler ought to be. If an author does her job, a character trait can be inspired by someone’s quirks or killer fashion sense and still shape an entirely imagined character. That way, the front-of-the-book disclaimer that says any resemblance of the story’s characters to real-life people is unintentional can hold stronger legal teeth than semantics and a prayer.
Heck, an author can even pay homage to a pal if he likes. As long as he doesn’t blab about his bud’s embarrassing fourth nipple removal (while changing only one letter of her first name), coloring stories with distinctive habits and idiosyncrasies can be just what a book character needs to transform her from so flat she might as well be a paper doll to someone . . . well, someone readers might want to meet. Maybe even hang out with for a while.
Next time I run into another author, I think I’ll ask if he uses people in his real life in his writing. Who knows? I might find out something plucked from reality is that thing I love most about a favorite character.
Thanks, Colby! Readers, Color Blind is out today.
Author Sarah Kennedy set her thrilling new series during one of the most intriguing eras of British history—the Tudor era. It stars an "everywoman," Catherine, a former nun who has lost her vocation due to Henry's shift from Catholicsm to Anglicism. More than 400 years after this dynasty died out, why do they continue to fascinate? In a guest blog post, Kennedy—who holds a PhD in Renaissance poetry—explores this idea.
Guest post by Sarah Kennedy
Henry VIII. Anne Boleyn. “Bloody Mary” Tudor. Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare. Who doesn’t love the Tudors? Or love to hate the Tudors? Lust, power, betrayal, the church, the state—they embody it all. The Tudor era still looms large in our imaginations, from The Other Boleyn Girl and Wolf Hall to Shakespeare in Love and Anonymous. We love to follow the intrigues, romances and betrayals of these glamorous historical figures. But why?
Henry VIII’s six wives have always intrigued us, partly because there were so many of them and partly because each woman was different and had her own impact on the politics and religion of the time. How many times have we watched Anne Boleyn win the king then lose her head? We know what has to happen, but those of us who admire her pluck and daring are usually hoping, somewhere deep inside, that she’ll make it this time, that she’ll have that son or that she’ll somehow escape to the countryside with her daughter. Those who favor Katherine of Aragon see her as the tragic heroine who led her people into battle and tried valiantly to be a successful queen over a foreign country—and with a husband who grew to despise her. Jane Seymour, of course, died providing the desired heir, who didn’t live to be an adult, and she was followed by poor Anne of Cleves, destined to be known as the “mare of Flanders” because the king found her unattractive. Catherine Howard, the girl-queen who clearly didn’t know what she was getting herself into, was summarily executed for misbehavior that the court seemed to wink at, and Catherine Parr, that strong-minded widow, managed to survive by playing to the aging king’s ego.
It’s the very stuff of drama—human personalities clashing and contending while the country reels from one religion to another. The royal characters of the Tudor era are both larger than life and real. They fight and they kill and they lie . . . and they love and dedicate themselves fiercely to their beliefs and their families.
And then there is the second generation: Edward the son, who suddenly falls ill in his teens and tries to “give” the crown to the tragic Jane Grey. The outcast older daughter, Mary Tudor, or “Bloody Mary,” was the first real queen regnant in England, and her half-sister Elizabeth ruled over the island’s “golden age”—but refused ever to marry.
The Tudor era was a time of massive change in Europe, but the family didn’t last long, which is another reason we go back to them. The 16th century in England is dominated by Tudors, but after Elizabeth’s death in 1603, they’re gone. In a hundred years, everything has changed, and the Tudors almost immediately become the family of legend. Henry’s break from Rome caused an upheaval in his country that rocked the very foundations of everyday life: the Church. Like us, people in Tudor England struggled with fundamental questions of belief and authority. What is the right relationship between religion and politics? What moral authority does the king have? What moral responsibility do people have to follow a leader they see as ungodly?
My first novel, The Altarpiece, tried to provide some possible answers, and the Cross and the Crown series follows a young woman who tries to make sense of her world and her God as she navigates the tricky waters of the Tudor court. Catherine Havens is a kind of everywoman. Like us, she wants to follow her conscience . . . and she wants to live a “good” life. And like us, she is trying to figure out what that life might . . . or must . . . or can be. Will her own intelligence be her guide? Or will she follow the dictates of her king?
It’s a question we all still ask ourselves, and the Tudor era continues to offer a dramatic stage on which writers, filmmakers, and playwrights can play out these human spectacles. I also wanted to consider the particular problems for women, who were seen as inferior to men—but who governed and taught and led both king and country. My Catherine is strong-willed and educated: a true Renaissance woman. But she is still a woman, who must take care not to seem smarter than the men close to the king—or than the king himself.
Why the Tudors? They are close enough to us to show us versions of ourselves, but also far enough away in time that the picture comes more sharply into focus. We know what they should do, but we also know what they will do, and our pleasure come both from hoping that things will go better this time around and watching the tragedies and triumphs play out as we know they must. And when we close the book or turn off the film, we’ve learned more about our past—and more about ourselves here in the present day.
Thanks, Sarah! The second book in the Cross and the Crown series, City of Ladies, goes on sale today (BAM | B & N | Indiebound | Amazon) and the third book will be published in 2015. Find out more on her website.
Valerie Bowman looks to the great Oscar Wilde for inspiration in The Accidental Countess, a Regency romance filled with Wilde-style antics. In this guest post, Bowman discusses her love of the historical romance genre and the art of adaptation.
There is nothing I like better than a romp, a farce. As an English literature major in college, the comedies I read captured my imagination with a far-tighter grip than a tragedy ever could. My medium, however, is the historical romance novel. It’s a genre I adore and am extremely proud to write. I think I fell in love with it when I first read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s These Happy Golden Years. That’s a romance novel, don’t you know?
When I was coming up with my Playful Brides series, I knew I wanted to include my love of romp plays in the stories. Oscar Wilde was always on my short list. He’s a great master of the romp, after all. The Importance of Being Earnest has long been one of my favorite stories ever told and, while it is a bit outlandish, its absurdity is exactly what makes it so entertaining. What could be more fun than inventing a person who does not exist to get out of unwanted social obligations? The moment I read the word “Bunburyist” I was hooked.
The challenge, however, was making that sort of tomfoolery work in a historical romance novel. The Accidental Countess is my attempt! Penelope Monroe has invented a fictitious friend, Patience Bunbury, to avoid seeing her fiancé newly returned from Waterloo. When Captain Julian Swift mistakenly believes Penelope’s cousin, Cassandra, is the elusive Patience, Cassandra may just have the opportunity she’s always dreamed of: spending time with the man she’s loved from afar for the last seven years.
I managed to sneak in a couple of scenes from The Importance of Being Earnest, including the infamous muffin scene and a few of the quotes as well. My favorite line: “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”
There’s plenty of angst as well as comedy, and I hope some tender moments as well, for as Wilde says, “The very essence of romance is uncertainty.”
Now what’s not to love about that?
In honor of National Reading Group Month, we asked best-selling author Chris Bohjalian to share a story from his many book club visits. What we got was certainly unexpected—and a heartfelt tribute to the indomitable spirit of readers!
By Chris Bohjalian
It was 13 years ago this autumn that I vomited in front of a lovely reading group from Illinois. When I’m with a book club, I hold nothing back.
It was a Friday afternoon and I was on my third plane of the day, this one a Dash 8 turboprop from Denver to Steamboat Springs. The next day I was joining Jacquelyn Mitchard, Andre Dubus III and Sena Jeter Naslund for the Bud Werner Memorial Library’s annual Literary Sojourn, an all-day celebration of what words and reading and books can mean to the soul. It’s a terrific event and lots of book clubs make a pilgrimage there—including, that year, one from Illinois that was on the Dash 8 turboprop with me.
Now, I really don’t mind the Dash 8. But that day I had been traveling since about six in the morning in Vermont, where I live, and there was the usual Rocky Mountain clear air turbulence. I was on my third flight of the day. The book group on the airplane recognized me instantly as one of the authors they were coming to hear, despite the fact that soon after takeoff my skin was airsickness green. And so we chatted and I sipped a Diet Coke and set the air vent above me on “wind tunnel.” Surreptitiously I kept reaching into the seat pocket, trying to find an airsickness bag amidst the magazines and Sky Mall catalogues. Somehow I had two of each, but no airsickness bag.
The group was, like most groups, all women. We talked about books as we flew to Steamboat Springs, and the unforgettable brilliance of the first sentence of Sena’s new book, Ahab’s Wife: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.” We discussed the heart that fills all of Jacquelyn’s work. And we shared the page-turning dread we had all experienced as we read Andre’s House of Sand and Fog.
At some point I reached into the pocket of the seat beside me for an airsickness bag. There wasn’t one there, either.
Looking back, I really thought I was going to make it to Steamboat Springs with my dignity intact. I fly a lot and it’s rare for me to feel like I’m going to lose my lunch. I was sure I could remain in this book group’s eyes an author they found charming and open, the sort who didn’t vomit on Dash 8 turboprops. This is called hubris—and, in hindsight, naïvete.
It was on our initial descent that we hit the bump that finally did me in. Now, I did feel it coming. And so without an airsickness bag handy, I showed an instinctive skill with origami I hadn’t known existed somewhere deep inside me: I ripped a few pages from one of the catalogs in my seat pocket, twirled them into a snow cone, and folded the bottom into a seal. Yup, somewhere around 15,000 feet in the air, I created a snow cone of vomit.
"I was sure I could remain an author they found charming and open, the sort who didn’t vomit on Dash 8 turboprops. This is called hubris—and, in hindsight, naïvete."
Now, here is why I am sharing this story with you. The woman in the book group beside me actually offered to hold my handmade Sky Mall biohazard so I could wipe my mouth and rinse with the last of my Diet Coke. So did the woman behind me. That’s support. That’s kindness. That’s the sort of heroism that is way above any reader’s pay grade.
But people in book groups are like that. I’ve been talking to book groups via speakerphone (and now Skype) since January 1999. I began because one of my events on The Law of Similars book tour was snowed out, and a reading group that was planning to attend contacted me with questions. (A lot of questions, actually.) And so we chatted via speakerphone. These days, I Skype with three to six groups a week. Some weeks I have done as many as 12.
I do it for a lot of reasons. I do it as a way of thanking these readers for their faith in my work. I do it because it helps me understand what makes my novels succeed aesthetically—and, yes, what makes them fail. (Most book group readers share with me exactly what they think of a story.) I do it because it is one small way I can help the novel—a largely solitary pleasure—remain relevant in an increasingly social age.
And, yes, I do it because once upon a time a book club member offered to hold my snow cone of vomit on a Dash 8.
Chris Bohjalian’s most recent novel, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, was published this summer. If you would like him to join your book group via Skype or speakerphone, simply visit his Reading Group Center.
author photo by Aaron Spagnolo
Elizabeth Hoyt's latest romance in her Maiden Lane series, Darling Beast, is out today. In this guest post, Hoyt writes about her love of myths, second chances and the unexpected inspiration behind the novel.
Myths and fairy tales have always fascinated me, perhaps because they’re a pre-Freud peek into how the human brain works—what frightens us, what awes us and what we desire deep in our hearts. Fairy tales and myths are storytelling at its most basic. There is no room for character development. Dialogue, setting and description are all usually very sketchy. What remains are stories in which the fat has been removed; underneath are bare, beautiful bones in which it’s easy to trace motif, themes and morality.
I like to include an accompanying fairy tale in each of my books as a sort of foil to the main story. My latest book, Darling Beast, is no exception. The hero of Darling Beast, Apollo Greaves, Viscount Kilbourne is on the run from the law after escaping Bedlam. He’s a big, rather physically intimidating man, and he’s lost his voice after being viciously beaten by the guards in Bedlam. Apollo is in hiding in an isolated, ruined pleasure garden where he’s supervising the restoration of the grounds. Living in the back of the burned-out theater in the gardens is Lily Stump, a successful actress and playwright who’s a bit down on her luck. As far as Lily knows, she has the gardens to herself. . . that is until her 7-year-old son, Indio, comes home one day and informs her that he’s seen a ‘monster’ in the gardens.
Now you might think that the obvious fairy tale for this story would be Beauty and the Beast—and in a way you’re right—but I chose a much older myth to highlight the story—The Minotaur. If you know your Greek myths, you’ll remember that the Minotaur was half man, half bull, born out of the unnatural union of a spell-bound queen and a magical bull. The Minotaur was a monster in the true sense of the word—in the original myth he lived at the center of a labyrinth and he ate human sacrifices. He provokes some of our most basic fears: deformity, unnatural sexual urges, cannibalism and being eaten by a big scary monster.
But what of the Minotaur? What does he think about a fate he never asked for? After all, he didn’t choose to be born a monster. Is he a cannibal by choice or because no one ever sends in anything else to eat but nubile youths and girls? In the original myth, the Minotaur has no voice. He’s simply a thing to be feared. He has the head—and tongue—of a bull and, like Apollo, he’s physically unable to speak. And isn’t speech the thing that makes us human and sets us apart from the animals?
Here’s the thing. I believe that often monsters—both in real life and in myth—are simply ourselves in a form we cannot recognize. We get caught up in that bull-head thing, in primitive fear and faulty first impressions, and fail to look beneath the outer horror.
Fortunately for Apollo, Lily is a kind woman—a woman willing to allow her opinions to change when she gets to know more about him. And isn’t that all each of us needs? Kindness and the willingness to give people—even monsters—a second chance.
Miranda James is the pseudonym for Dean James, a seventh-generation Mississippian who now lives in Texas and is the author of the best-selling Cat in the Stacks mysteries.
James' new Southern Ladies series introduces the "sassy mouths and big hearts" of two ladies we won't soon forget. And as James shares in a guest post, these women aren't as fictional as you might expect.
Every small Southern town has them—those indomitable women who run all kinds of organizations, from garden and bridge clubs to charitable agencies. Often they come from the town’s oldest families, generation after generation of club women who oil the wheels of the social engine. These were exactly the women I needed when I was working on Out of Circulation, the fourth book in my Cat in the Stacks series.
The story revolved around fund-raising efforts for the local public library—in this case, the fictional Athena (Mississippi) Public Library. I needed strong characters for the Friends of the Library Board of Directors, and I counted on disagreements among the members. Has there ever been a committee when members didn’t butt heads over even the most minute of details? Perfect starting point for conflict in a murder mystery, I thought.
In the spring of 2011 I attended the first-ever Daddy’s Girls Weekend, an event put together by my friend and fellow writer, Carolyn Haines, author of the Sarah Booth Delaney series. There I met two sisters, An’gel Ducote Molpus and Dickce Ducote Little, who inspired me to create their fictional counterparts, Miss An’gel and Miss Dickce Ducote.
The fictional sisters are several decades older, unmarried and childless, yet their characters owe much to their real-life inspirations. The Ducote sisters are the true grandes dames of Athena society—intelligent, hard-working and intolerant of pretention and snobbery. The conflict between them and the character of Vera Cassity was an essential element of the story, and I had great fun with the scenes involving these characters.
Not long after I finished Out of Circulation, I was working on ideas for a second series, one that would feature two older women characters. After discussion with my agent and my editor, we settled on making the Ducote sisters the main characters. I loved them, my editor loved them, and evidently so did my readers. Thus was the new series born.
The first book in the Southern Ladies mysteries, Bless Her Dead Little Heart, is officially out on October 7. The Ducote sisters are on their own as amateur detectives, because Charlie Harris and his family are in France on vacation. They do have the assistance of Diesel, the Maine Coon cat, who makes a cameo appearance in the book. An old sorority sister, Rosabelle Sultan, turns up on the sisters’ doorstep one August afternoon and claims that someone in her family is trying to murder her. Miss An’gel and Miss Dickce know that Rosabelle loves being the center of attention, but this sounds a bit over-the-top even for this self-absorbed socialite. When Rosabelle’s family members follow her to Athena, however, the sisters quickly discover that one of them does have murder in mind.
I had great fun writing this book, letting the sisters have their way. I hope readers will have fun, too, getting to know Miss An’gel and Miss Dickce.
Thanks, Miranda/Dean! Readers, Bless Her Dead Little Heart is out now!
Author photo credit Kathryn Krause.
Occasionally our interviewers give us a peek behind the scenes of their chats with authors. Here, longtime BookPage contributor Alden Mudge talks about some of Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley's more unusual writing habits, revelealed during their discussion of her latest book, Some Luck.
Out of curiosity, I often ask writers to describe their workspaces. I blogged about this once before for BookPage, when, to my surprise, I discovered that several young writers I interviewed in close succession told me that they write in public at their favorite coffee shops.
Jane Smiley’s description of her workspace interested me in a different way. Yes, she has a dedicated writing space, a room of her own, if you will. She mentioned a window looking out on the hillside behind her home in Carmel Valley and stacks of books sharing floorspace with “a lot of dog beds.” Nothing about a desk, a notebook, a computer, a favorite picture on the wall. Instead, what seemed to matter most was that her writing room had doors that connected to other parts of the house. “So I can jump up and run and see what’s going on at any time.”
Smiley once said she has “a basically sunny personality." That was my experience of her. She laughed often throughout our conversation and seemed very much at ease with herself. For her, writing seems to be as natural as a sunrise.
Not that writing doesn’t present its challenges, even after all these years and more than 20 books. Smiley said she “was tearing my hair for years” over her novel Private Life. And for Some Luck, the captivating first novel in her The Last Hundred Years trilogy, the difficulty was deciding what to leave out.
“What I had do was cut, cut, cut. . . . This was an effect of having to do the research. I would learn something and then I would sort of yack about it a little too much. So I would come back and cut the section so that it was just about what was happening rather than about what I was thinking about as I was writing it. That was a good lesson for me, this idea that part of your writing process is talking to yourself about what you’re writing and then eventually having to cut it so that you just have the narrative.”
I was still curious about her workspace. So I asked her whether it was also her library, the place where she did most of her reading.
“Oh no!” Smiley said. “I usually read in the hot tub.” She laughed. “It’s a California tradition, you know.”
Marriage is hard enough, but you're adding a whole new level of trouble when you and your spouse share the same hopes, dreams—and career avenues. David Bajo, author of the new medical thriller Mercy 6 and husband to novelist Elise Blackwell, knows all about that. But it's not like he's keeping score or anything.
You have no idea how hard it is to pretend you are the second best writer in the house. I should have married a doctor. That way I could have spent my late mornings indulging in biscotti and cigarettes while composing brilliant novels in the inner sanctum of my study. I could have taken long afternoon walks to clear my mind’s canvas. But no, 25 years ago I made that great MFA workshop mistake and married another writer.
For the first eight years, we lived in a Victorian farmhouse and grew rare subtropical fruits to supplement our income. We gardened, using the Seed Savers Exchange to grow endangered vegetables and grains. She somehow translated this into an idea for a novel. Right? Who wouldn’t want to read about people who desperately try to save seeds. I said “we” gardened. But I was the one slipping pollen filters fashioned from pantyhose over heirloom okra flowers—while she took notes and corresponded with other seed savers. I was the one who made like a bee every afternoon at four when the cherimoya blossoms began to morph from female to male, using a paint brush to swipe and insert pollen—while she composed elegant sentences (that I would help her revise once my fingers stopped cramping).
Okay, so she published her novel first, a well-received and timeless piece of work about starving Russian scientists who saved seeds. It’s built up a nice following over the years. The Decemberists wrote a song about it. I’m not even in the acknowledgments. Look, I would have published first if I hadn’t been so busy trying to control the sex lives of cherimoyas and okras. And once you fall one novel behind, it’s almost impossible to catch up.
When event organizers find out about us—and factor in the cost of one accommodation instead of two—they think it’s cute. Married novelists. I bet we can make them squirm and fight and dish during the Q&A. We got invited to a festival in Ireland. I’m pretty sure it was my book that first caught their eye, but once they got a look at her dark hair and pale beauty, they put her photo on the flyer and her name first. I understand. Marketing is a shallow pool.
Speaking of shallow pools, we did a panel in Los Angeles. We sat on opposite ends. I think we were fighting over some bookfest swag, you know, like who gets the Pynchon coffee mug and who gets the Philip K. Dick glow sticks. The audience had no idea we were together, but as the Q&A progressed, they started to smell the scintillating ozone of domestic tension, the battle for literary number one. It became a game and the ignored panelists in between us were pissed. I fielded one question, she fielded the next. Why do you keep pointing at her? Why does she say your name like that? Which one of you two got the biggest advance? Who got the most foreign deals? Did any cool bands record a song about your novel? I let her win because I knew that would look best and sell the most stock.
Mercy 6 keeps me one novel behind. The first time she knew anything about it was when I read from the first draft during a reading series held in a bar. “I didn’t know you were writing a medical thriller,” she said to me, ready to take the stage after I had wowed the room. “Can you fetch me another Jameson’s? The show’s about to start.”
Thanks, David! Readers, Mercy 6 is out now!
In Janet Chapman's Spellbound Falls series, time-traveling Scottish Highlanders (you read that right) keep popping up in a small Maine town. Luckily for the women of Spellbound Falls, they're a handsome bunch. The Highlander Next Door, the latest novel in the series, focuses on Birch, a no-nonsense woman who harbors no desire for a man in her life. Watching her mother's four divorces and running a women's shelter has made her swear off men for life. The case for males is not helped by her gruff, stubborn neighbor, Niall MacKeage. But that Scottish brogue is quite charming, and as Birch discovers, Niall is not at all like other men.
In this blog post, Chapman discusses how her foray into time travel began—and how much fun she's had on the journey.
When my agent set out to sell my first book, Charming the Highlander, I asked her to please tell the editors she submitted it to that this time-travel gig was a one-time thing, as I really wrote contemporary romance and didn’t want them to expect more magical stories from me. (If only I’d been listening at the time, I would have heard the Universe laughing its ethereal head off.) But in my mind even that book was a contemporary, because besides the prologue, the entire story took place in 21st-century Maine.
I think readers believe authors are deliberate creators—which may be true for many—but for me, the characters are in control. They suddenly show up in a book and start demanding a book of their own, and no matter how outrageous their stories are, I am compelled to tell them.
Good Lord, I actually rearranged my wild and beautiful state of Maine! Well, it was really Maximilian Oceanus who moved those mountains and turned a large freshwater lake into an inland sea, but I wasn’t about to argue with the powerful magic-maker. And anyway, the Bottomless Sea gave me an even more amazing venue for my stories.
Wait. There. Do you hear that? The Universe is still laughing.
And so we come to Niall MacKeage, a 12th-century highlander who was brought forward in time as one of six suitors for Maximilian’s sister, Carolina. Niall wasn’t really interested in marrying Carolina; he just wanted to see if the fantastical tales his long-lost, time-traveling father had told him were true. And becoming Spellbound Falls’ chief of police gave the displaced warrior a good excuse to stay, for not only did Niall embrace modern technology, he also found himself attracted to 21st-century women—and to Birch Callahan in particular, the pint-sized spitfire hired to run the town’s new women’s shelter.
I often feel like nothing more than a stenographer furiously taking notes.
Oh, yeah; instead of leaving me alone, the magic seems to be ramping up. But I suppose that’s what I get for letting my fictional characters run the show. Yes, I know they’re not really real, but I simply don’t have the heart to tell them. And besides, they keep providing me with all sorts of wonderful—albeit outrageous—stories.
I silently chuckle when people say they’re amazed by my imagination, because what they don’t know is that instead of being a deliberate creator, I am merely. . . heck, I often feel like nothing more than a stenographer furiously taking notes. Oh, sometimes my characters let me make suggestions, and sometimes they even use them. But for the most part I graciously do their bidding, since they in turn graciously allow my name to appear on the cover of their books.
So with that being said, I invite you to come join me in Spellbound Falls by way of The Highlander Next Door, and let’s see if I can’t persuade you that the magic truly is real. Okay, the mountain-moving part might be a bit of a stretch. But all that other stuff in my stories? Well, I can’t imagine anything more real than the magical power of love.
Today's guest post comes from writer Shelly King, whose first novel, The Moment of Everything, goes on sale next week. It's set in a used bookstore, where former Silicone Valley employee Maggie has found part-time work after the failure of the tech startup she was working for. When Maggie finds a lovers' conversation written in the margins of a used copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover, she embarks on a quest to discover who they were—and what happened to their romance.
In a guest post, King—who moved to California from the South and once worked for a Silicon Valley startup herself—explains the mystery of found objects and shares some of her favorite found objects in literature.
I was 15 the first time I found a letter in a used book. I was in Montana visiting family and had wandered into a used bookstore. There I found Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters. I hadn’t read Hemingway yet, but I knew he was an important writer and that he’d spent a lot of time in Africa. I opened the front flap and saw it was covered in writing. It was the letter from a father to a young boy.
The details are fuzzy, but I remember the father was traveling in Africa. I thought it was nice that he was sending his son a book about another man who had been to Africa. He missed his son. He signed the letter “Papa.” I fell in love with this letter. But I didn’t buy the book. I didn’t have much money, so I left it behind. But that letter stayed with me. I thought of it for days, wishing that I’d bought that book, not for the letters of Hemingway, but for that letter written in the book. I finally told my mother about it, and she took me back to the bookstore. But the book was gone.
About 15 years after I first found that letter from the father in Africa, I was in Seattle at another used bookstore where I saw a copy of Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters. I smiled thinking of that other copy I found years ago in Montana. I opened up the front flap, and there it was—the handwritten letter from a father traveling in Africa to his son. Only this time I was more familiar with Hemingway, whom I now knew was also known as Papa. And this time, I noticed the letter was dated decades before this book was published. When I looked closer, I realized the letter wasn’t written in the book. It was a reproduction of a Hemingway letter that decorated the inside flap.
Even though the letter was not what I thought it was, I’m grateful for my misunderstanding. It started a lifelong search for treasures of the past in old books. Over the years, I’ve found drawings, letters, postcards, ticket stubs, restaurant receipts, photographs, recipes, and inscriptions. The people who owned these books before left a bit of their lives in them. I love not just the story the author intended but also the story of the book itself.
My favorite novels (and one play!) that have someone discovering something in a book: