Give me the wit and flair of the interaction between Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. The smoking chemistry of Maddie and David in Moonlighting. The rapier-sharp exchanges between Beckett and Castle (in the early days of the show when it was still fun). Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence. Nick and Nora from The Thin Man movies.
There’s nothing I love better than snappy dialog, unless you pair it with a mystery to solve as well.
Which is why I went after the slow burn (crockpot) relationship development between Bishop and Knight in the Redclaw Origins series. I knew I wanted to tell more stories about these two, and so slowed their relationship down so we could watch the progression over the arc of the series.
I’m having so much fun writing about recurring couples, that I’ve decided the next series will feature the same. But right now, I’m close to finishing the first draft on Bishop’s Gambit and am looking for a late summer/early fall release date. For now, here’s a little sampling of why I find Rhett and Peter so much fun to write. Here’s an excerpt from Bishop Takes Knight:
I could see his point. And since I had him here, I asked about something that had been on my mind since the day of the mechanical spider. “What do you think is the purpose behind these artifacts?”
He leaned back in his chair to the point he risked toppling it over backward. The front legs lifted until he settled the chair back in place with a thump. “That’s the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question, isn’t it?” His raised eyebrow implied both curiosity and concern. The combination was frankly compelling. “Where do they come from? Who or what is behind the technology? It’s beyond anything I’ve ever seen, and I’ve worked on some top-secret projects. My guess? It’s not from this planet.”
My mouth dropped open. “You mean…alien?” I sputtered.
He nodded in all seriousness.
“You seriously believe Martians or Moon Men or something like that is seeding our plant with their gizmos?” The shock of his statement having worn off, scorn now laced my voice.
His shrug was eloquent. “Maybe. I think it more likely an advanced race implanted these devices millennia ago, knowing at some point we’d develop nuclear technology, hence the activation of said devices now.”
He shook his head. “A test? A trap? Who knows? Maybe the awakening tech triggered some kind of signal to the developers and even now, they’re on their way to greet us.”
I wondered if we would disappoint them. It was a distinctly disturbing thought. “Is this a working theory or are you just blowing smoke?”
His devilish smile made an appearance. The way it peeped out of hiding, combined with the fall of that rebellious lock of hair over his intense eyes when he leaned forward, would have charmed the pants off most women I know.
I don’t charm that easily.
“My dear, I just tinker with the gizmos.” He leaned back in his seat once more, his clever fingers toying with his spoon as he spoke. “I’ll leave winkling out the motives of the artifact-builders to the scary people, like you and Ryker.”
I straightened. “Me? Scary? What on earth have I done to give you that impression?” Ryker, I could understand. We knew so little about the shifters, how they lived, and what they could do. The way Ryker had tossed Billy around that day in the office was a fair indication he was stronger than most men, and of course, there was the rapid healing thing as well. More than that, I didn’t know.
I wrinkled my nose. “Am I supposed to thank you? That makes me sound like every other woman in the workplace. Standing behind the boss and making him look good.”
His laugh caught me off guard. “No, you have it all wrong. The smart man stands behind the girl with the ray gun.”
Okay. Perhaps I could be charmed a little.
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Most people who’ve met me know I’m a big fan of Marvel’s Peggy Carter. I love the Captain America movies, but I adore the fact Peggy is competent and kick-ass without being a superhero. She is what she is by dint of training and hard work, and a healthy appreciation of her self-worth. There’s an iconic line in the Agent Carter series where Peggy says, “I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter.”
I love that line. I try to embody it, but the truth is, I’ve spent more time running myself down than building myself up. I grew up in a household where the standards were impossibly high, and I could not possibly ever be pretty enough, smart enough, talented enough… in short, Good Enough. Under those circumstances, it’s frequently easier to put yourself down before others can do so. Over time, it becomes a bad habit, teaching you to settle for less than you deserve because you don’t believe you deserve better.
One of the things I love doing is creating heroines who have this potential living in them, but they need to find it for themselves. Part of that is by giving them heroes that build them up, that believe in them. Not to rescue them. But helping them to see they can rescue themselves. I also write supportive heroes because the world is a tough place. You might be able to go it alone, but it’s easier to keep fighting the good fight when you have a support team on your side.
My SO and I currently have to maintain separate households because of the pandemic. I’m an essential worker. The SO can work from home. So we made the decision for him to self-isolate with the high risk family members in their home, while I, as an essential worker exposed to the public every day, am staying on the farm to take care of the animals.
I had a REALLY crappy day at work yesterday. Exhausting, frustrating, and incredibly stressful. I came home to find a package waiting for me from the SO. He’d sent this mug:
It immediately brightened my day, but it wasn’t until this morning that the real message struck me… by sending me my favorite quote from a favorite character, he was saying heknew my value too.
Wow. Just wow.
So I recommend to you all: find someone builds you up when you’re feeling down. Who makes things easier for you, not harder. Who knows the tribe is strongest when we support all members. Who believes in you. Who knows your value.
The Panther’s Lost Princess features just such a couple. Ellie is a waitress seeking to change her future. What Jack knows about her past changes everything. On Amazon and Kindle Unlimited. Only 99 cents for a limited time!
Ellie stared into her mug as though she might be able to divine her future there.
She looked up sharply.
“What’s not to be okay about?” Her words had a definite snap to them. Before he could speak, she leaned across the table so she could hiss intently, “You waltz into my life, telling me that not only am I the long-lost heiress to a kingdom I’ve never heard of, but apparently I can turn into a dragon and I’m some magical musical messiah to boot. I’m supposed to just give up everything I’ve worked so hard for—hell, even my identity—and go live with people I know nothing about? Oh, yeah, and someone is trying to kill me as well. Forgive me if this is a bit too much.”
“Well, if you put it like that…” He smiled, hoping she’d see the humor in it.
“Look, Ellie. I know this is a lot to take in, and believe me, I think you’re handling this really well.” Her expression registered on him and he continued hastily. “Amazingly well. Seriously. You have no idea. I wish I could have explained it better somehow. I don’t know, broke it do you more gently or something.”
Ellie leaned in over the table to speak in a low hiss. “Exactly how would you have explained that I can turn into a dragon more gently?”
Jack shrugged a little helplessly. Ellie rolled her eyes and sat back in her seat with a huff.
“Look, I’m telling you this because you need to know, but also because I don’t know what’s going to happen from here on out. If we get in a jam, I want you to shift and get yourself out of it, you hear?”
Ellie frowned. “I thought you—we—shifters had rules about changing in front of others. At least, that’s the impression you gave me. Isn’t that the whole reason you don’t want me at Nightingale?”
Jack glanced around the diner. No one seemed to be paying them any attention. “You’re right. The current atmosphere is pretty anti-shifter. If the US president goes forward with his plans to start internment camps, it would be bad for anyone to know you’re a shifter. That’s one of the reasons we don’t tend to shift in front of the general public. That’s why there are special resorts and compounds—so that shifters can change at will without fear of persecution. But if it comes down to protecting your identity or saving your life, you have to shift.”
“I don’t know how.”
He laughed at that. He couldn’t help it. “Honey, most people don’t know how to have sex the first time they try it but they figure it out. Instinct kicks in.”
Her face reddened. She didn’t meet his eye. Instead, she fiddled with the empty paper packet of sugar. “I don’t see what the rush to get me back home is. It’s been almost twenty-five years—why can’t it wait a few more weeks?”
“I think it’s a timing thing. Your birthday is next week. Your grandfather wants to bring you home and introduce you to the kingdom with a combined birthday celebration and coronation. And, uh, besides, there’s the Prince to meet.”
“Prince.” She spoke the word with the flat coldness someone else might have used to say, ‘spider’ or ‘snake.’
Jack coughed. “Um, yes. Prince.”
“As in my brother? Another family member I’ve yet to meet?” She tapped her spoon on the table in irritation.
Oh hell. “Not exactly. More like as in your betrothed.”
“My betrothed?” She didn’t shout the words, but she rose out of her seat and planted her hands on the table to lean over and snarl at him. A small puff of smoke released from her nostrils and she gasped and sat down again, her hands clasped over her nose. Her pupils widened into black holes, and her eyebrows climbed up into her hairline.
“I’m starting to think even the amulet can’t hold you back much longer. Why don’t you ditch it and accept who you are?”
The Panther’s Lost Princess is the first book in the Redclaw Security series, but each story can be read as a standalone. Check it out today!
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I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time focusing on anything right now. I’ve mentioned in other posts the difficulty I’ve had writing, and how I can’t watch anything new, relying instead on old tried-and-true formulas.
This lack of focus has been especially true for me when it comes to reading. I normally read anywhere from 2-3 books a week. Now, it’s a challenge to finish anything. At first I blamed the books I attempted to read–but after I DNF the seventh book in a row, I realized the stories themselves were not to blame. I needed to apply the same criteria to my reading that I did to my television watching: something familiar enough not to hurt me but still powerful enough to engage. In short, my comfort reads.
When compiling this list, it occurred to me that many of my favorite comfort reads are set in the past. I’m not sure why that is. I enjoy period pieces as a rule (hence my love for Agent Carter and The Miss Fisher Mysteries), but I don’t think that’s the entire story when it comes to comfort reads. I suspect it’s because the setting is different enough that it takes me out of my current existence, and that’s one of the important criteria for a comfort read for me. I like crime dramas because I like the mystery and the satisfaction of solving the puzzle. But also because it bears no resemblance to my daily life. I can’t watch House because as compelling as the drama and the actors were, I found myself competing with the residents to solve the medical mystery before the end of the episode. Too much like the day job, thank you very much.
I think it’s also because one of the beauties of many period pieces is that the stakes are often much lower. There’s something soothing about having the biggest trauma in your life being cut dead at a social gathering or having your sister run off to Gretna Green. After struggling to read anything from my enormous TBR stack, I went back to my old favorites. And I noticed two things when I did this. By sliding back into the well-worn groove of reading, I hit that quiet zone that not only allowed me to enjoy newer material as well as old favorites, but I found myself writing again, too.
If you’re having a hard time being creative right now, I suggest turning off social media, the news, and the television. Pick up a book and read. Reading is a form of meditation, and I believe it primes the brain for writing.
And although comfort reads are intensely personal, (and what one person finds comforting is not necessarily the same for another) I thought I’d share mine. No doubt you’ve heard of or read most of them yourself, but I hope I can introduce you to some new reads.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I know. I know. I can see some of you backpedaling away right now while others are nodding and smiling. But hear me out. The works of Jane Austen are probably the cornerstone of the Regency Romance Genre. I recommend going to the source to find out why the tropes are so compelling. While I enjoy all of Austen’s books, Elizabeth Bennett is my favorite of her heroines, and Darcy is the Original Grumpy Hero who is captivated by a Sunshine Heroine. Not to mention, but P&P has been adapted into movies and mini-series again and again, so not only do you get the pleasure of reading this book, but you can watch the story in all its many forms. I highly recommend the 1995 BBC mini-series with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. I think due to the length of the series, this is one of the most faithful adaptations of the book. There is, of course, the famous scene where Firth as Darcy walks up in a wet linen shirt from having taken a dip in a pond to find Elizabeth unexpectedly a guest in his home. For many, this is the quintessential adaptation. And I love Ehle’s portrayal of Elizabeth–it’s probably my favorite. Ehle is also reading P&P from quarantine on her Instagram account right now. So worth watching!
Then there is the 2005 movie version with Keira Knightly and Matthew MacFadyen. I think they did a bang up job of condensing the book into movie form. The cinematography is breathtaking. But it is the chemistry between the leads that is truly compelling to watch. So in addition to being able to read Austen’s delicious words, you can immerse yourself in these lovely adaptations.
For a complete 180 on subject matter, the next comfort read I’m recommending is the In Death Series by J.D. Robb. I can hear you now: What are you smoking, McKenna? How can a series with the word “death” in the title be a comfort read? Trust me, they can. In part because the good guys win. I don’t know about you, but these days, I need to know the good guys are going to win. Unlike most of the books on my list here, the In Death books are futuristic gritty crime stories featuring Lt. Eve Dallas and her enigmatic billionaire husband, Roarke. Robb (aka Nora Roberts) has produced something like fifty books in this series (while also writing under the Roberts name–her productivity is amazing), so you have a LOT of books to read.
When I was going through the worst of my personal losses, I read one of these books every 24 hours. The crime pulls you in from the first page, but it’s the characters that bring me back again and again. My favorite television shows feature teams and I love team dynamics and found families. When I finished the series, I turned around and started it all over again. It’s not without some trauma at times but overall, you know the key players will be okay. (The series is ongoing, so it may shock me at some point…)
My hope is one day to create a series as compelling. I know, reach for the stars, right? I want the same kinds of things: the team dynamics, the found family aspects, the push-me pull-you between the leads. I love case-based stories too, and by setting them in the Redclaw Universe, I can follow a team of Redclaw agents as they solve crimes, as opposed to couple-based stories in the current Redclaw Security series (each of which can be read as a standalone). I doubt most people would consider the In Death series a comfort read, but there is great comfort in knowing what to expect when you pick up a book. I’d watch the hell out of a Dallas and Roarke series too.
But in general, I reach for period pieces when I need a comfort read.
The Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters. I love these books. I tend to re-read them a lot, especially the first three in the series. These are truly delightful stories. Amelia Peabody is bluntly outspoken and forthright at a time when women were supposed to be decorative, delicate creatures. Her inability to see the humor in her own statements or actions adds to the hilarity, and in the irascible Radcliffe Emerson, we find the only man that is her match. Peabody dashes in where angels fear to tread, usually brandishing a pistol and packing a first aid kit that would allow her to perform minor surgery, if called upon. I have a deep love for archaeology, and the details of Emerson’s work fascinate me, though very little progress is made on the digs due to the frequent nature of criminal activities that must be investigated each season.
A word of warning: on a recent re-read, I became aware of a degree of fat-shaming I hadn’t picked up on before. It doesn’t come up often (and I suspect it’s generational; my mother was the same) but it’s disappointing and I can see where it may be enough to put some off the series. It’s dimmed my love of these books somewhat, and yet I still reach for these books when I need to be comforted. For the life of me, I don’t know why they haven’t been made into movies. We NEED Amelia Peabody on our screens!
Make Way for Lucia by E.F. Benson. Another period series, this is quite different from the recommended reads in that the stories center around Mrs. Emmaline Lucas (“Lucia” to her friends) who is a well-to-do middle-aged woman in England in the 1920s and 30s. Lucia is a force of nature: vain, opinionated, and pretentious. She pretends a fluency in Italian with her platonic friend “Georgie” Pillson that she doesn’t possess, claims a scholarly interest in Greek and Latin, practices Mozart on the sly so she can pretend she’s never seen the piece before when asked to play, and in general is the Queen of Riseholme, the village in which she resides at the beginning of her story. Halfway through the series, having vanquished all her foes in one small English town, she moves to Tilling, where she finds a more formidable adversary in Miss Elizabeth Mapp. Like any true Tillingnite, we wait with baited breath to see who will win the current round in this clash of the Titans. Will Mapp expose Lucia’s Italian deficiencies? Will Lucia retaliate when Mapp orchestrates the rejection of her painting to the Tilling Art Society? Newcomer Lucia is pushy and irritating, and some long to be out from under her yoke. At the same time, life would be terribly dull without her. As reviewer Phoebe-Lou Adams for the Atlantic once said, “Nothing Lucia and her enemy, Miss Mapp, did was ever of the slightest importance, but they did it with Napoleonic strategy, Attilian ferocity, and Satanic motive. It is a sad fact that Benson borrowers usually become non-returners.”
You don’t have to read the whole series–you can jump right in with Mapp and Lucia to get at the heart of the conflict–for it is not until these two meet that Lucia finally faces a worthy opponent. But to appreciate the series in delightful detail, I’d strongly recommend reading it from the very beginning.
Another series I adore (but also has some problematic issues, particularly with stereotypical portrayals of Jewish characters) is the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers. Written in the 1920s and 30s, we follow the adventures of the younger son of the Duke of Denver, who finds his brains and his talent for playing the fool in public advantageous in solving murders. We also see the character growth of Lord Peter over the series, from a dilettante solving murders for his own amusement to the man who falls violently in love with mystery novelist Harriet Vane while she is on trial for murder–and he must act to find the real killer to save her from the death penalty. The Harriet Vane books are among the best in the series, and you can start with Strong Poison if you like. The only non-Harriet Vane book that I re-read for the sheer pleasure of it is Murder Must Advertise, which in addition to a murder mystery, is a searing insight into the workings of the old-style advertising firms of the 1930s.
Gaudy Nightremains one of my all-time favorite books. It contains one of the most powerful scenes of sexual awareness I’ve ever read, and I point to it as the book that taught me what healthy adult relationships should look like. I wanted what Harriet Vane had with Lord Peter, and I refused to settle for less. When I recognized the same qualities in my husband, I knew I had a keeper. 🙂
The 1987 BBC series starring Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter is a treat, if you can find it anywhere online.
But I can hear some of you hoping for something a little more contemporary. Well, I adore the London Celebrities series by Lucy Parker. I love all these books, but Pretty Face may be my favorite. As a former actress (on a very small scale) I love stories about the theater, so I was drawn to the series by the first book, Act Like It. Parker does Grumpy Hero and Sunshine Heroines extremely well, which is another plus for me. It’s not always easy to make a hero justifiably grumpy without also making him an asshole, but Parker handles this conundrum with ease.
I also appreciate the fact her characters face real challenges to being together–not the sort of misunderstandings that make me want to clack heads together and tell the leads to get over themselves. There’s character growth over the course of each book, another factor that places these stories in the re-read stack. And I’m all about the slow-burn romances! It’s also happy-making to have characters from one story turn up in another because they all inhabit the same universe. But it’s the satisfying resolution to each installment in the series that places these books on the comfort read list for me.
I could go on. I could list the horse and dog books of my youth, or the Dick Francis mysteries, always a good way to spend an afternoon. There are series that I love (like the Hidden Legacy books by Ilona Andrews, or the Psy-Changeling books by Nalini Singh) that I’ll re-read given the chance, but they don’t quite make the comfort read list. I’ve read some really outstanding books this year, and it feels odd not to mention them here, but you can love a book without it being a comfort read, if you know what I mean. Comfort reads are so personal, so individualized, and I find it interesting that my needs during COVID-19 are somewhat different than my usual levels of stress. What made my list might not make yours. But I hope you enjoy these suggestions, particularly if some of these stories are new to you.
What are YOUR comfort reads? I’d love to know what you choose and why! Make your case. Perhaps you’ll convince me to try out your comfort read. 🙂
Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man movies. Remington Steele and Laura Holt. Jonathan and Jennifer Hart (does anyone remember Hart to Hart but me??) The Scarecrow and Mrs.King. Maddie Hayes and David Addison. Rick Castle and Kate Beckett.
What do they all have in common? Couples that banter their way into a relationship while solving crimes.
I love this trope. It’s my personal catnip.
While I love romance stories, I love action and adventure, too. I love mysteries, science fiction, and paranormal stories. I WANT IT ALL.
And I can get it with stories that combine these elements. Even better, when I fall hard for a particular couple, I want to spend more time with them. I want to go on a series of adventures with them. I love watching them meet, seeing the sparks fly, longing for them to get together—but I also believe the story needn’t end when they fall in love or say “I do.”
Granted, I think a TV show that’s built entirely on UST takes a big risk of imploding once the characters finally get together. (I’m looking at you, Moonlighting.) I want to see progression of the relationship, but I also believe it’s possible for the relationship to continue to be interesting and relevant after the couples are an established pair.
It’s like when I first began reading fanfic. I concentrated heavily on first-time stories until I found my OTP, and then all of the sudden, I couldn’t get enough of that pairing. I wanted MOAR, and I didn’t care if they were just meeting for the first time or celebrating their 50th anniversary together. I wanted to spend time with that couple in their universe.The more stories, the better.
From a storytelling perspective, I think writing established relationships is tougher than first times. In part because we romance readers are geared toward Happily Ever After being the end of the story—and I’m not saying romances shouldn’t have HEAs or Happily for Now endings! Far from it! What I’m saying is it’s harder to depict a happy couple as having the kinds of conflicts that make their continued stories interesting.
But it’s what I crave.
I wish I knew how to categorize these stories. Are they considered romances? Genre-based stories with romantic elements? I don’t know. To me, they are romances, even if the genre storyline is a somewhat bigger player than the love story. I know people will argue with me on that point, and I get it. The general rule of thumb which says “if you can remove the romantic elements from the story and it doesn’t fall apart means it’s not a romance” holds true for the most part.
Except when you get hooked on a pairing.
For me, all bets are off if I fall for a couple. I’m going to eat up their series with a spoon because in addition to fighting mages/shifters/criminals/ and solving the crime/murder at the village fete/mystery surrounding buried treasure, I’m there for watching my couple trade witty comebacks and do their mating dance. And I don’t care if it takes a couple of books to get there, as long as I can see that it will.
Take Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. I only recently started this series, but even I can see where things are headed between Kate and the Beast Lord. I’m enjoying watching these two powerful beings battle it out as they move closer together, loving the little hints (and clues left in plain sight) as they dance their way toward a committed relationship. I got my husband hooked on the series as well, and one of the things he likes about it is that the characters are working their way toward love.
Finding the love people have for this series has lead me to start the Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh. And every time I find a new-to-me series that features a long, slow dance between the lead couple, I fist bump the air and go, “Now that’s what I’m talking about!” Mind you, I want to know my “pair” will get together. Extra points if the first story ends with them in each other’s arms. I’m just saying if I can see the pairing coming, I’m willing to give it some time, too.
Recently, I had a conversation with fellow paranormal romance and urban fantasy author Jenna Barwin about her own Hill Vampire series, which includes her 2019 Rone Award Nominee, Dark Wine at Sunrise. I asked her what drew her to write a couples series?
She said, “I write a paranormal romance couple series because I love that genre! As a reader, when I fall in love with a couple, I don’t want their story to end at getting engaged or married, I want to see how their “happily ever after” plays out over the long term, long after they say “I do.”
The Hill Vampire series features an exclusive community of winemaking vampires and their mortal mates. They live on vineyard estates in the Sierra Escondida foothills.
My Hill Vampire series follows the romantic relationship of Cerissa and Henry, who, along with other members of their community, are trying to stop the vampire dominance movement (VDI), a vampire conspiracy that is determined to kill the leaders of Sierra Escondida and take over. The VDM plans a political coup, and once the path is cleared, will turn mortals into blood slaves. So it’s equal parts steamy romance and paranormal mystery/suspense. The mystery/suspense plot is strong enough to satisfy urban fantasy readers, and the romance between Cerissa and Henry is hot enough to satisfy romance readers.
The series begins with Dark Wine at Midnight, in which research scientist Cerissa Patel must find a way to save humanity from a vampire conspiracy without revealing what’s hidden beneath her skin. But her cover story isn’t enough to fool vampire Henry Bautista—he’s dark, dangerous, and will do anything to protect his town, including stopping her.”
So you can see, I have another series to add to my TBR list!!
As for me, I’m trying my hand at writing my own couples series: Redclaw Origins. If you’ve read my books, you know the Redclaw Security series features a new pair in each book, with cameos from previous books and introductions of future characters as well. Redclaw is an elite paranormal agency tasked with investigating matters in the shifter realm as well as securing dangerous artifacts that became active at the same time shifters began making a widespread appearance.
In Redclaw Origins, I introduce Bishop and Knight: two humans hired by the recently formed Redclaw Security to be its newest secret agents. Bishop Takes Knightopens in 1955, and the advent of nuclear technology has triggered the activation of latent shifter genes in an unsuspecting population, while at the same time activated powerful alien tech. Rhett Bishop and Peter Knight proved to be such a delightful pair, I knew I wanted more of their adventures together.
I also have another planned couples series in the Redclaw Universe: The Better Off Red series, which will concentrate on a single team within Redclaw, the Major Shifter Crimes Division, and its lead investigator Morgan Delaney. When Morgan butts heads with her boss’s half-brother, Rian Stirling, over a series of shifter murders, she must resist the pull of fated mates and the appearance of a conflict of interest while she hunts down the real killers.
Of course, this means I need to get cracking on the next book, right? Right. But I’m smiling as I envision all the trials and tribulations I’m going to put my couples through before they get their HEA.
I can’t believe it! Bishop Takes Knight is ready for pre-order and will be released NEXT WEEK!
I can’t tell you how excited—and nervous—I am about releasing this new story in the Redclaw universe.
Let me share the nervous part first and get that out of the way. I’m nervous because this story is a departure from me in many ways. It’s a historical (the origin story for Redclaw Security), set in the 1950s. It’s also told in 1st person POV from the viewpoint of Henrietta Bishop, our intrepid heroine. The characters have big obstacles to overcome before cementing their relationship, so while it ends HFN, it’s going to take further stories and adventures before we see the relationship come to fruition. As for seeing that, while Rhett, as she prefers to be called, is a passionate woman, she doesn’t tend to share all her personal details on page.
Whoa. That’s quite a difference from my previous stories in the Redclaw Universe. I have a feeling people will either love or hate Rhett Bishop and her new partner, Dr. Peter Knight.
But I’m hoping you’ll love them.
Rhett Bishop is delightfully dry, frequently witty, resourceful woman trapped in an era where women were largely decorative or homemakers, preferably both. Peter Knight is bitter, brilliant, and desperately unhappy until he meets Rhett, who soon teases him into crawling out of the hole of despair he’s fallen into and using his brains for something other than sulking.
Knight is sarcastic, inventive, and clever. He thinks fast on his feet, and has never met a piece of tech he couldn’t manipulate. He’s spent the last two years frustrated by the lack of justice for his wife’s murder, but his time with Rhett reminds him of who he used to be before Margo’s death.
Both are out of their depth when they take up with Redclaw Security: part detective agency, part enforcement team for The Council, a longstanding secret organization of shifters living among us.
No superpowers. No shifting ability. Just their wits and nerve to see them through the search for Margo’s killer, a cache of missing artifacts of immense power, and the rival criminal syndicates who want to get their hands on the technology.
OMG, doesn’t this sound adorable? If you adored that new Falling Inn Love movie on Netflix (no spoilers, I plan to watch it this weekend!) then this should be right up your alley!
The Fixer Upper
Abby Callier is more in love with Shakespearean heroes than any real man, and she’s beginning to wonder if there is life for her outside the pages of a book. It doesn’t help that her esteemed parents tend to view her as they would one of their science experiments gone wrong. On the eve of finishing her dissertation, she escapes her staid existence to live in the house she inherited from her Great Aunt Evie in the small town of Echo Springs, Colorado. Because, let’s face it, when a woman starts comparing her life to horror films, it might be time for a break.
Sheriff Nate Barnes believes in law and order and carefully building the life you want. In his spare time, he has been remodeling his house in the hope that one day it will be filled with the family he makes. But Nate doesn’t like drama or complications and tends to avoid them at all costs. And yet, when Miss Abigail Callier, his newest neighbor, beans him with a nine iron, he can’t help but wonder if she might just be the complication he’s been searching for all along. It doesn’t hurt that he discovers a journal hidden away by the previous tenant and decides to use Old Man Turner’s advice to romance Abby into his life.
Abby never expected her next-door neighbor, the newly dubbed Sheriff Stud Muffin, to be just the distraction her world needed. The problem is she doesn’t know whether she should make Echo Springs her home, or if this town is just a stopover point in her life’s trajectory. And she doesn’t want to tell Nate that she might not be sticking around—even though she should because it’s the right thing to do, the honest thing—because then all the scintillatingly hot kisses with the Sheriff will come to an abrupt halt. Did she mention that he’s a really great kisser?
Praise for The Fixer Upper:
“Maggie Mae Gallagher writes with warmth and a wonderfully compelling voice – I loved The Fixer Upper!” NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR HEATHER GRAHAM
“Maggie Mae Gallagher makes the reader forget the actual words on the page so they can just enjoy the story as it unfolds.” Nancy Berland, NBPR, Inc. President
Like many in Romancelandia this morning, I woke to hear about the hatchet piece done on NYT bestselling author, Nalini Signh, by someone named Vicki Anderson for New Zealand’s Stuff magazine. I won’t link to the post. Suffice to say, not only is the overall tone condescending about the romance industry and community, but the best part is Ms. Anderson attended the romance conference she skewered as a paid guest of Nalini Singh.
Yes, you read that right. Ms. Anderson entered a $1500 all-expenses-paid scholarship contest held by Ms. Singh so that two recipients could attend the Romance Writers of New Zealand conference.
After opening with a scathing commentary on how the participants of the conference are discussing “beautiful jiggling breasts” and “manly bulging thighs” while “the Amazon burns”, Ms. Anderson then blasts the romance industry further by sneering with the voice of literary purists, describing romance authors as laughing all the way to the bank as they peddle their soft porn.
At this point, I have to ask Ms. Anderson: who hurt you, baby?
In all fairness, I, too, have said E. L. James is laughing all the way to the bank, but my tone was more of envy than scorn. Ms. Anderson has nothing but scorn for the genre, though she admits to liking many of the people she met at the conference, including the lovely Ms. Singh. She also admits that attending the conference basically amounted to a free weekend away from the kids, so whoo-hoo! Let’s go.
As she describes her weekend experiences, you can tell the conversations and the people are making a difference to Ms. Anderson. Her descriptions become less arch, her attempt to be witty, cutting, and clever as a store-brand Dorothy Parker fades as she becomes more involved with her subject. But as the weekend draws to a close, she has to go back to her real life, and her bitterness and cynicism resurface.
It would have made for a better, if still unethical, article for Ms. Anderson to say how the experience of attending the conference changed her mind about romance stories. That she now understood the joy that brings romance writers together, that as a community, we believe in hope. I might have forgiven her dismissive and belittling manner if she’d come to that kind of conclusion, but she did not. She finished her post with a reminder that the Amazon still burns.
I can see where she might be bitter and disillusioned. I’m angry too.
I’m livid that the wealthiest people in this world aren’t content with what they have, and must grab more to the detriment of us all. I’m furious that people can willfully deny climate change, and that we’re escalating to an unsustainable world habitat that will destroy societies and take us back to the Stone Age—if we survive at all. Daily I despair over the irreplaceable loss of species, and how toxic algal blooms that can kill your dog are becoming more widespread, how arctic ice is melting, and extreme weather events will only become more common, and how these end-game climate changes are likely to take place in my lifetime, to say nothing of the mess we’re leaving behind for our children. Perhaps that’s also why Ms. Anderson is so mad.
But I have to ask, why is her sneering disdain reserved for romance writers? Why not mock the scores of people who sit fixated in front of television sets or packed into stadiums this weekend to watch football or soccer? Why not rail at the parents taking their kids to Little League, or the theater-goers piling in to see the latest blockbuster?
Because making fun of romance isn’t new, and oh by the way, Ms. Anderson, your misogyny is showing too. And if you’re so bent about the fires being set in the Amazon, fires that the President Bolsonaro of Brazil refused financial aid to battle, tell me, what are you doing about the Amazon? Didn’t you just get $1500? How much of that went to fire relief?
Readers share the series that got them through chemotherapy or that terrible divorce. Books that helped them survive crushing depression, when it was all they could do to get out of bed. The books that gave them temporary respite from their lives as caretakers to the elderly, or suffering from chronic pain, or a job that sucked the life out of them. Please tell me how reading a romance is somehow a stupid waste of time, an activity to be mocked, but being obsessed with Game of Thrones or a video game is not? (I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with things either. Hey, man. Whatever gets you through the day…)
I went through a spell a while back when I read a book every 2-3 days. For months, this was the only way I got through the day without panic attacks or taking a fistful of pills. I tried meditation apps, counseling, binging-watching The Nanny (do NOT judge me!), but reading made the most difference to my mental health. The only thing that stopped the loop of anxiety and depression.
I call my representatives in Congress to urge them to do the right thing, even though my voice shakes. I attend marches, despite my extreme fear of mass shooters and crowds in general. I donate to causes I believe in. Most days I have to choose: do I send something to the candidate I support, or help out a friend’s GoFundMe for medical bills?
Ms. Anderson’s take on reading and writing romance is akin to my boss thinking I’m not a hard enough worker because I read a book during my 20 minute lunch break, despite the fact I’m putting in a 10-12 hour workday. It’s like telling a soldier they should never try to take their minds off the battle ahead, or a climber Mt. Everest must be scaled in a single day, forget acclimating to the thinner air or taking shelter when a storm blows up.
I’ve said it many times, but while I dream of hitting bestseller status, I don’t write for that reason. I write because life is pretty crappy most days, and we get inundated with horrible news on a daily basis. I write because spending a few hours in my own universe every day, one where I can make sure the good guys win and the heroine gets her happy ending, keeps me sane. I share my stories because if I can take even one person out of their crappy existence for a few hours—to make them forget their chronic pain, their financial woes, their mean boss, their dying family member, the fact the world is a dumpster fire and we’re all going to die—even for a brief time, then I’ve done my job as a storyteller.
When I think about why this is, and why writing stories with happily-ever-after endings MATTER, damn it, I can think of no better way of putting it than this statement by a very good friend of mine:
Just this past weekend, I typed the words “The End” on the first draft of my paranormal romance novel set in 1955.
Writing a story set in a different time period comes with a special set of problems, not the least of which is the research necessary to get things right. Frequently I’d have to mark text with the intention of looking up a phrase or piece of technology to confirm its use in the 1950s. Sometimes I’d wind up down the rabbit hole of research, discovering interesting tidbits that had no bearing on the story but fascinated me anyway.
For me, setting a story in another time period is more than just learning the slang or studying the clothing, however, both of which I did. It’s about attempting to understand the mindset of the people of that time, what their hopes, dreams, and fears might be. What makes them tick. That’s one of the greatest appeals of writing historicals for me.
I tend to do a lot of background reading as a result, even if the material never ends up in the story itself. It’s there in the structure of the story, how the characters act and think. To me it’s as important as costume design or a soundtrack is to a movie. It sets the stage for the characters and for the reader to enter their world.
In addition to the Internet, I rely a lot on books about the various periods I’m interested in, hence the photograph above. One of my late purchases arose out of my research (and I’m still trying to justify it to myself): Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook.
Did you know there was never any such person as Betty Crocker? She was the brainchild of an advertising firm hired by a flour-milling company that eventually became General Mills. She was created as part of a 1921 ad campaign to solve a puzzle and win a pin in the shape of a bag of Gold Medal Flour. The response to the contest was unexpected–in addition to the 30,000 women who solved the puzzles, the company was flooded with letters asking baking questions. Betty Crocker was created to answer those questions and by 1950 was an amalgamation of the forty-eight women who worked for the Home Service Department of General Mills, the largest customer-service department in the industry, fielding up to 2,000 letters a day to help homemakers solve a wide variety of cooking and baking problems.
The first Betty Crocker cookbook was published in 1950, became a runaway bestseller, and has been a favorite ever since. When I opened my copy, I recognized both in the layout and the nature of the recipes within all those old timey comfort meals I’d grown up with copied from those “Church Lady cookbooks” that every major church I’ve ever been associated with has published at one time or another. The recipes I associate with my grandmother and the holidays. Truth be told, that was the real reason I bought this copy of the original Betty Crocker cookbook, complete with all the salt, sugar, and fat of the old recipes. On her death, I discovered that my mother had given away all the treasured church lady cookbooks, and many of those recipes were lost to me as a result. Now I have them again. And with them, a little piece of my past.
By the 1950s, Betty Crocker was a callback to the past, a font of maternal advice that was missing in the lives of many post-war young women widowed or settling down with former soldiers to build families in communities such as Levittown.
Isolated in suburbia from the generational women who would have taught them the ins and outs of the homemaking, modern brides were leaving behind their mother’s old-fashioned ways and complicated recipes–and prepackaged mixes were replacing traditional baking. It only made sense for General Mills to produce a cookbook using General Mills ingredients and Betty Crocker as their substitute mother.
Another brilliant marketing move by the company was to remove powdered eggs from the mixes, instead having the homemaker provide her own eggs, which allowed the baker to feel as though she were ‘making the cake from scratch’ by contributing to the creative process. I confess, when I make brownies or cakes from a mix, I consider them “homebaked” desserts, and pat myself on the back as though I’d grown the wheat and ground the flour myself. Such is the rarity of my having the time to cook for my family these days. And that’s what Betty Crocker allows us to do.
That iconic red spoon and that readily identifiable signature was part of the brand that helped homemakers recognize the advice they trusted. The irony here is that my fictional heroine might be an even worse cook than I am–so she would definitely need this cookbook. Ah well, maybe in the next installment of the series.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a new set of characters. My heroine has been through some tough times and has come out the other side not liking herself very much and looking to rewrite her story from this point out. I’ve started a notebook just for these characters and this new series, but it’s still mostly blank. I’m in the homestretch of a WIP with a June-July deadline and I can’t allow myself to get distracted by the new-shiny right now. But her story seems more interesting to me than the one I’m working on and it wasn’t until this morning that I realized why.
I’m in the same process myself.
Yesterday, I did something highly unusual for me. I went shopping.
I dislike shopping in general. I tend to get sensory overload fairly easily, so an hour in a large shopping mall has me screaming for the exits. I also resent the time-sink. I have so little free time on a given day that to waste hours in a department store is just mind-boggling to me. I’d much rather shop online, which can be done at my convenience. The biggest downside to online shopping is returning something that doesn’t fit, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay so that I can pick out a pair of boots at midnight. Truth be told, I don’t do much shopping no matter what. I tend to make do with utilitarian clothing that suits my lifestyle.
Only I’m not so sure what that lifestyle is anymore.
For years, my life has been dominated by my work–both professionally and at home on the farm. I’m most comfortable in boots and jeans. I wear a lot of graphic T’s. I have jewelry, makeup, and dresses I rarely wear. I don’t really need to shop.
But like the first shoots of green breaking through the ground in spring, I find myself after several years of heartache contemplating change. I’m also realizing that colors and styles that worked for a young brunette with long hair no longer work as well for an older woman with a blonde pixie cut.
And yesterday, instead of coming home from work and starting in on the endless list of chores to do around the house, I remembered I have This Thing at the end of the month and decided to go shopping instead.
I didn’t have any expectations of finding anything I liked. To be honest, the mustard and olive green colors that seem to be in fashion this year don’t do a thing for me. Part of the reason I’ve always disliked shopping was because my Inner Critic has always been so mean on these outings. Not thin enough. Not pretty enough. No sense of style.
Well, the last one is a fair assessment. I don’t have a good sense of style. I’ve always chosen value over fashion, which means sturdy materials, doesn’t show the dirt, and can be worn at the barn without changing clothes first. A quick view of my closet looks as though I shop at yard sales. I’ve thought about trying one of those box set things where someone sends you a ready-made outfit, including accessories, each month. Kind of like meal plans, but for clothes. Given the lack of success I’ve had with the meal plan kits, however, I decided the clothing kits would be wasted on me.
But yesterday, not having any expectations going into it, I didn’t restrict myself when it came to trying on things. I tried on outfits I wouldn’t normally consider and found myself buying something that unexpectedly pleased me. I also bought clothing because it was comfortable and looked nice, not caring or stressing about the size on the label, which is pretty remarkable, considering a couple of hours in front of a full-length mirror usually reduces me to tears. Even more remarkable is that I’m significantly heavier and older than that young, critical version of my self used to be, and that alone should have been enough to make me despise the process. It didn’t. This new me didn’t give a rat’s ass. Remaking myself held more power than destroying myself, it would seem.
I also bought new makeup, refreshing my color palette and replacing products that should have been tossed years ago. I topped off the shopping trip with a stop by the ice cream parlor, walking out the door with a cone. To my surprise, I’d spent hours at the mall and didn’t begrudge a single minute of it. In fact, I came home in a good mood, better than it’s been in a long while at the end of a work week. Finally, I understand the phrase ‘retail therapy.’
This morning I spent an hour or so going through my closet and pulling out everything I knew I’d no longer wear, no matter how much I’d liked it when I bought it *cough* twenty -some-odd years ago. Or worse, the clothing mistakes: items with tags still in place that never quite made it off the hanger. Off with the old. Bring on the new.
It took me time to reach this point. I didn’t just wake up one morning and think, “I love shopping!” and want to be a fashion plate after years of being a tomboy. I’m not convinced I do love shopping or that I’ll wear my new clothing more than once or twice a year, only that I had a lovely afternoon focusing on doing exactly what I wanted without having to answer to anyone else. I suspect it could have been any activity that I chose solely for myself.
But the fact it was part of a re-imaging of myself was a scoop of ice cream on a hot spring day. No regrets.
Most writers are familiar with the saying, “Everything is grist for the mill.”
Our life experiences, especially those that brought us pain or had to be overcome, have a way of ending up in our stories. Perhaps not in the same form, but transmogrified to convey the same elements within the structure of our stories: the way it feels to sit beside a family member in the hospital, or to know your nemesis is waiting to beat you up after school. It’s there when we imbue our characters with the knowledge of what it feels like to be other, and when we give them the joy of knowing home and family aren’t necessarily the standard experiences.
Sometimes we base our characters themselves on people we know. Not directly, and certainly never such that the people in our lives could recognize themselves. It may be a prototype: a frenemy from your past, an encouraging mentor, a domineering parent, a supportive lover. What prevents these depictions from being two-dimensional characterizations are the little quirks we give them. On any given day, we human beings are a complex mix of conflicting emotions, drives, and desires. It’s what makes us interesting as people, and it’s what gives life to our fictional characters.
I’m not a girly-girl. I live on a farm with dogs, cats, and horses. My footwear tends toward hiking boots, usually covered in mud. I live in blue jeans and graphic T-shirts. I rarely wear any jewelry, makeup, or perfume.
But I love these things.
I have a major weakness for nail polish. Growing up, nail polish was one of my main identifiers of my not so readily apparent feminine state. Blessed with the ability to grow thick, strong hair and nails, I took these things for granted. My nails rarely chipped or broke. Hair clips frequently trembled and sprang open under the weight of my hair. People stopped me on the street and asked if my nails were real and what I did to make them grow so long and strong, and hair stylists joked about how I should stop putting Miracle-Gro on my hair.
Once, when I was opening a can of soda with my nails, someone asked me if anything ever broke them. I smirked and replied, “Kryptonite.”
When I was in theater, I had the best of both worlds–the ability to be my tomboy self 90% of the time and yet indulge in my desire to go all-out in costume, complete with makeup, hair, and nails. When we had our full dress rehearsals, the act of putting on the outfit, whether it was a period piece or something modern, transformed me into that character. Putting together all the outward trappings of my character was like slipping into a suit of power and I became the person I was portraying. It was a very heady feeling.
Recently, I’ve discovered the joys of having my nails professionally done. I tend to be a bit on the conventional side when it comes to polish. I like strong colors, and I adore temperature sensitive polish like the one depicted in the picture above. But I don’t have the patience for nail art. Durability is the key for me now, and while getting manicures is a pure indulgence, it’s one of the few things I do indulge in. With the advent of SNS powder, a manicure can last me 3-4 weeks now, a far cry over something that needs to be touched up every few days.
So it doesn’t surprise me that I gave this love of nail polish, makeup and vintage clothing to one of my characters. Another loves horses and rode competitively as a teenager. Still another has a secret girly side at war with her no-nonsense professional image for work. Another is a sci-fi fan, while yet another can sing along with every Disney Princess.
But while these traits come from me, those characters aren’t me. They’re weaker in some respects, stronger in others. They have a different story arc. Sometimes they’re more selfish, frequently they are braver. They react when I probably wouldn’t, and I’m pretty sure I can’t turn into a panther or a dragon (though I’d dearly love to!) So while I put a little of myself into every character I write, when you see one of my characters, you’re not seeing me. Just a sliver.
But the next time you read one of my stories and I’m describing nail polish, you’ll smile and know where that came from.