Fall for the Indie Book: Dying for a Living

I'm a little late this week, because last week was crazy busy with writing and producing a new short story. But here is the latest review for the Fall for the Indie Book Challenge

This time I'm tackling Kory M. Shrum's Dying for a Living (A Jessica Sullivan Novel) or maybe I should say giving this book a great big hug rather than tackling it. There is so much to like about this story. 

Here's a little summary:

Jessica or Jesse makes her living as a Death Replacement Agent thanks to a genetic variation that makes her a Necronite, someone whose body can restart itself after dying. So she acts as a kind of death magnet when accidents happen she can step in and die on behalf of someone, then reboot herself after a brief down period. But one day a "client" tries to kill Jesse permanently. In trying to figure out why, Jesse uncovers a rat's nest of conflicts and conspiracies within the agency she works for and various other authorities. On top of that she's trying to manage a personal life including friends, a lover and someone who is somewhere in between. 

One of the toughest things about a book like this is making the fantasy of Necronites and their place in society and how society reacts to them believable. I'm happy to say that Shrum does a great job with this. I was impressed with how well-thought out the scientific, social and political aspects of this sort of thing were in this book. Shrum builds a world that behaves exactly as you would expect our society to deal with finding out that there are people among us for whom death isn't a permanent condition.

In addition to creating a believable world for this story. The characters are also highly credible. Jesse is snarky, funny and sharp about a lot of things, but a bit thick about emotional issues. Given her backstory which I won't spoil for you, she is exactly what you might expect. She's likable, but still has her share of faults and manages to confront some of them in the course of the story. The supporting characters like her lover, Lane and friend/coworker Allie, and mentor Brinkley also have depth that makes Jesse's relationship to them interesting to the reader and makes them effective plot movers rather than just props.

Overall, I am very glad that I read this one, and will likely read the next in the series, Dying by the Hour.

Meaner, Smarter, Sexier

I ran out of banked blog posts, so I was wondering what I was going to write about this week. I didn't want to do another Outlander related post because I did one last week. While this is not exclusively an Outlander blog, there is a lot to learn from this adaptation process. It opens up new avenues of discussion on material many of us are already familiar with and I like that. I'm don't do weekly recaps, or reviews. I like analysis and the debates that arrive from discussing the many layers of this story.

One of the things that has come up in some forums after The Wedding episode is the question of whether Dougal MacKenzie is made to seem more of a villain in the show than he was in the books. I don't think so. I know what you're thinking, I'm Dougal's chief apologist and to a certain extent, you're right. I love Dougal, because he's a challenge. Who doesn't love a guy who is described like this?

One thing to be said for Dougal MacKenzie was that an encounter with him stimulated the mental processes, out of the sheer necessity of trying to figure out what he was actually up to at any given moment.
— Dragonfly in Amber

However, I could just as easily be an apologist for Laoghaire or Jack Randall (Yeah, I said that.) That's because one of the things I like most about Diana Gabaldon's books is that none of her characters are purely bad or purely good. They're all human. The ones we love, like Jamie and Claire make mistakes. I won't mention them for the sake of spoilers. And the ones we hate like Jack, Loaghaire and Dougal have some goodness in them. They have some vulnerability. Dougal for example cares very deeply for his men and his clan. We saw that when Geordie got gored by the boar, and we'll see it again in Dragonfly in Amber. Jack loves his brother and in a strange, twisted way I think he loves Jamie. And Laoghaire is just immature and insecure. This is true of the later books as well. Antagonists like Stephen Bonnett and Malva Christie, show some vulnerability. There is a reason why Disney saw fit to make an entire film, Maleficent, around one of their classic villains, because we like villains. And we like it when they have weaknesses.

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The antagonists in my work have their own vulnerabilities. Blackbeard in The White House despite being brutal and single-minded in a way that I think Dougal MacKenzie would admire is also tired and lonely. Dr. Manney in A Fond KIss, just wants the best for his children although his idea of what's best isn't always the same as theirs. I won't name the bad guys in The River Maiden, but they're there and trust me, they're not purely bad either.

It reminds me of a favorite quote from Steven Pressfield's The War of Art. (see image to right) DG likes to relate a story of sitting down to lunch with some readers all talking about how evil Jack Randall is not realizing that she is Jack Randall. She's also Dougal, and Loaghaire and Bonnett and Malva and Rob Cameron...That's how this fiction writing thing works. 

We're like actors, except we don't need costumes or make up and we write the scripts as we go. I've just spent the last several days trying to find the voice for a particular character. This one has given me fits, because she's pretty different from me. I was having a hard time finding that common thread that tied me to her so that I could write HER words. Much like an actor might search for the right sense memory to get into a scene or a character's head, writer's do the same. Music is a big help for me. Certain songs can pull me into the head of a character or set the tone or pacing of a particular scene. I've heard other writer's talk about using certain hats. I do have a shawl that I find especially helpful for a certain character. Tobias Menzies has said in interviews how important his costumes are for helping him switch from playing Frank to playing Jack. Because those things whether they're clothes or music or a certain scent (lavender anyone?)  put us into those characters. 

Still, no matter how immersed I am, there's always something of me in the characters, "even the villains. Especially the villains."

Fall for the Indie Book: Return of the Rose

In keeping with last week's time travel theme, I went with another time travel book this week. I chose Theresa Ragan's Return of the Rose. There is a little twist in this one, because the heroine had already traveled through time once, she just didn't know it.

Morgan Hayes was actually born a twin in the fifteenth century, but was born sick and in a desperate bid to save her, her father let a witch send her forward to a time when she could be healed. Morgan grows up in the modern world, but through a strange series of events involving a suit of armor gets sent back to her original time and is mistaken for her twin sister. She finds herself unwittingly betrothed to a Derek Vanguard, Lord of Braddock Hall. Naturally, the modern girl butts heads with Lord Vanguard and his fifteenth century sensibilities and has a very difficult time convincing him that she is not her sister, Lady Amanda. Meanwhile, Amanda's true love is also fooled and keeps trying to get Morgan to run away with him. 

If you are looking for a fun, romantic adventure, and aren't too concerned about historical accuracy, then you might enjoy this book. Because that's what it is. Unfortunately, I'm history nerd, so I get bothered when the fifteenth century servants call for "doctor" or when the Lord of Braddock Hall is repeatedly called Lord Vanguard instead of Lord Braddock. It's a bit like calling Prince Charles the Prince of Windsor instead of the Prince of Wales. One is a surname, the other is a title. There is also the issue of Morgan convincing some of the castle women to go swimming in homemade bikinis. 

One thing this book got very right however is the hero's comeuppance in the end. It's a common romance novel formula to have the heroine insisting one thing is true, while the hero refuses to believe her and punishes her/abuses her/breaks her heart wrongly. In the end when he realizes the error of his ways, he offers a mea culpa that melts her heart.  There's nothing wrong with this formula, in fact I quite enjoy it. However, I when I read those mea culpa scenes, I'm frequently left feeling like she forgave him way too easily and quickly. Without giving any spoilers, I'm happy to say that wasn't the case with this book. He had to work for it, and she really thought about whether things would work out. I found that scene to be the most realistic of the book. 

Now, Theresa Ragan is a bestselling author, so obviously there are a lot of people who enjoy her books and obviously she knows what she's about.  I mayl pick up one of her contemporary fiction books in the future. 

The River Maiden - The song

In The River Maiden, Sarah spends her time chasing down a particular song. That's where the book get its title. This song itself is fictional. I wrote the lyrics to match the legend of The River Maiden. The legend is also invented but is an amalgam of various motifs commonly found in Celtic folklore. 

Just as the legend employs common Celtic themes, the song uses a common structure found in Scottish folk songs. I confess that the Gaelic version might not have exactly the right amount of syllables per line to make it properly poetic. I wrote the original in English and had it translated by the incredibly helpful Caroline Root at Daily Gaelic

Like most folksongs, I borrowed the tune, or at least my mental imagining of the tune from another traditional Gaelic song, Blar Inbhir Lochaidh. It's a hauntingly beautiful song about the Battle of Inverlochy during the Scottish Civil War, and it makes me cry every time I hear it. Here is Mary Jane Lamond giving a

More importantly it follows a common structure in which each verse contains two lines that tell the story alternating with two punctuating lines creating a dirge-like rhythm. These punctuating lines can contain a repeated declaration or lament. They can also be simply a series of sounds that create the right rhythm. 

The structure looks a bit like this. 

‘S gur e mise th’ air m’aineol
Na i ri ri si ri o ro
O gur mise th’ air mo leònadh
Na i ro ri o ho

O gur mise th’ air mo leònadh
Na i ri ri si ri o ro
Bho latha Blàr Inbhir Lòchaidh
Na i ro ri o ho
  1. First line of story
  2. Punctuating line 1
  3. Next line of story
  4. Punctuating line 2

Here are some lines from Blar Inbhir Lochaidh as an example. 

The punctuating lines here don't translate. They either have no meaning or it has been lost in several hundred years of being passed down.  You can see the full text and translation here

There are many other songs that follow this structure. Most commonly they are laments or ballads. I used that structure when constructing the song for The River Maiden. As I said, I wrote it first in English, then had it translated by a pro, because my Gàidhlig is not good enough for that.

Here is the text of whole song with the Gaelic translation on the right. Note: The entire song never appears in one place in the book, only in parts. 

The king was wandering, miserable
The king was lost in the mist
He sat to brood beside the river
He will rise again

A maiden swam on the surface
The king was lost in the mist
What troubles you, king?
He will rise again

The tribes are at odds with each other
The king was lost in the mist
What I wanted was peace
He will rise again

Join me in the cool water
The king was lost in the mist
It is so very soothing
He will rise again

He swam in the river beside her
The king was lost in the mist
They drifted down the river to a hidden island
He will rise again

He said, “We are lost.”
The king was lost in the mist
She said, “No, this is my home.”
He will rise again

She led him to the high fort
The king was lost in the mist
This is my father, king of your people.
He will rise again

The old king had a sickly yellow pallor
The king was lost in the mist
And he was lame in one leg
He will rise again

There was a big pot on the hearth
The king was lost in the mist
There was food aplenty in the pot
He will rise again

He was given a bowl of delicious stew
The king was lost in the mist
Eat up, the pot will make more
He will rise again

She led him to a hidden cave
The king was lost in the mist
There was a great stone in the cave
He will rise again

This is the heart of my people
The king was lost in the mist
He kissed her on the stone
He will rise again

A raging storm attacked the island
The king was lost in the mist
The island sank under the water
He will rise again

The young king awoke on the shore
The king was lost in the mist
The maiden was beside him with the great pot
He will rise again

He had a son with that woman
The king was lost in the mist
The son became king of all people
He will rise again
Bha an rìgh a’ siùbhlach, gu tùrsach
Bha an rìgh air chall ‘s a cheò
Shuidh e ri taobh na h-aibhne lan smaointinn
Eirichidh e a-rithist

Shnàmh mhaidean air an uisge
Bha an rìgh air chall ‘s a cheò
Dè tha a’ cur drag ort a rìgh?
Eirichidh e a-rithist

Tha na cinnidhean an adhaidh a cheile
Bha an rìgh air chall ‘s a cheò
‘S e an sìth a bha mi ag iarraidh.
Eirichidh e a-rithist

Trobhad a-steach dhan uisge comhla ruim
Bha an rìgh air chall ‘s a cheò
Tha e cho ciuin
Eirichidh e a-rithist

Shnàmh e anns an abhainn ri a taobh
Bha an rìgh air chall ‘s a cheò
Dhrioft iad sìos an abhainn gu eilean falaichte
Eirichidh e a-rithist

Thuirt e “Tha sinn air chall”
Bha an rìgh air chall ‘s a cheò
Thuirt i “ Chan eil. ‘S e seo an dachaidh agam”
Eirichidh e a-rithist

Stiùir i e dhan dùn àrd
Bha an rìgh air chall ‘s a cheò
Seo m’athair rìgh an cinneadh agad.
Eirichidh e a-rithist

Bha coltas tinn agus buidhe air
Bha an rìgh air chall ‘s a cheò
Agus bha e crubach
Eirichidh e a-rithist

Bha poit mhòr air an gealban
Bha an rìgh air chall ‘s a cheò
Bha pailteas de bhiadh anns a’ phoit
Eirichidh e a-rithist

Bha bobhla stiubha blasta air a thoirt dha
Bha an rìgh air chall ‘s a cheò
‘Ith gu leòr, Ni am poit barachd
Eirichidh e a-rithist

Stiùir i e gu uamh falichte
Bha an rìgh air chall ‘s a cheò
Bha clach mhòr anns an uamh
Eirichidh e a-rithist

‘S e seo cridhe mo threubh
Bha an rìgh air chall ‘s a cheò
Thuig e pòg dhi ‘s iad air a’ chlach
Eirichidh e a-rithist

Bhuail stoirm gu cruidh air an eilean
Bha an rìgh air chall ‘s a cheò
Chaidh an t-eilean fodha
Eirichidh e a-rithist

Dhuisg an rìgh òg air a’ chladach
Bha an rìgh air chall ‘s a cheò
Bha a’ mhaidean ri a thaobh leis a phoit mhòr.
Eirichidh e a-rithist

Bha mac aig an rìgh agus a’ bhoireanach
Bha an rìgh air chall ‘s a cheò
Chaidh a chrùnadh mar rìgh nan cinndhean uile.
Eirichidh e a-rithist

I did leave off the mysterious last verse that Sarah is unable to decipher to avoid spoilers. The story lines of that last verse are neither Gaelic nor Welsh, but a blend of the two. Just as the proto-Celtic language likely was before the Q-Celtic and P-Celtic languages split.. The meaning of those lines will be revealed in the next book. 

Shh...Do you hear that?

It's the sound of all of those 'poutlanders' left speechless by this week's Outlander episode, The Garrison Commander. I'm talking about those folks who watch with books in hand decrying every difference between the book and the show.  I'm not sure whether it was the watch through your fingers goriness of the flogging scene or the outstanding performances of all involved, or maybe those picking apart every previous episode have just given up, but there seems to be a distinct lack of complaints this week about things that are different from the book.

And there was A LOT that was different from the book this week, but at its core there was a lot that was the same. One key difference actually started last week in the form of the dashing Lt. Foster, which I also don't think I heard much griping about. Foster and his gallant offer to help Claire provides the impetus for taking her to the inn where she encounters Jack Randall. Now, in the books Dougal doesn't need any reason other than to see if she is a spy. This works in the book because it's a lot easier to convey the subtleties of the relationship between the Scottish nobles and their English occupiers in print. Unfortunately, that doesn't make for great TV drama. It would have been difficult for viewers not versed in Scottish history to understand the sort of tense cooperation that characterized that relationship. 

Instead, we get handsome, heroic  Lt. Foster saving the "English rose" from her savage hosts and taking her to what is possibly the most tension filled dinner since Walt and Hank took Skyler and Marie to Gardunia's Taqueria. (One of my favorite TV moment ever!) 

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Here is where we get to see that "respectful" occupation played out in all it's subtext laden glory. When Lord Thomas acknowledges Dougal's nobility, but makes his disdain obvious as well, he's summing up the Scottish/English relationship in a nutshell. In fact despite all of his fawning over Claire, he gets so carried away with his genteel bullying that he completely forgets there's a lady in the room until Dougal reminds him. He even struts about claiming to like being a "man in the field". Seeing Lord Thomas's behavior deteriorate so quickly makes the idea of the Kurtz-like descent into madness that Jack claims later almost seem believable. This entire scene is invented for the show and it works incredibly well with the likes of Graham McTavish and John Heffernan in the Walt & Hank roles here. 

Once Dougal leaves, things relax and Claire can charm the officers until Jack arrives and we get THAT scene. Readers will know that in the books we piece together the details of the flogging from Dougal and Jamie's memories. While repetition and exploration might have more impact in the course of an almost 900 page book, television requires a more direct impact to convey the gravity of the events. I love that they chose to give us that direct account through the eyes of Jack Randall. This gives us not just the impression of the acts themselves, but of the crowd's reaction and of his own reaction instead of  just Jamie's or Dougal's speculation about it. 

I absolutely love this whole conversation and Tobias Menzies and Caitriona Balfe deserve every accolade they get for this scene. There is so much going on here. He's coming out to her as a depraved sadist (No offense intended to actual sadists who gain consent.) She's learning more about Jack's character and developing an even stronger admiration for Jamie's character. She's searching for a way out of that inn, whether to Inverness or anywhere Jack Randall isn't. She's also dealing with the horror of a man with her beloved husband's face and voice describing his gruesome enjoyment of that brutal act. What was a relatively short but impactful scene in the book, became a drawn out character piece full of juicy dramatic goodness. 

The flogging parts in Jack's flashback and his voice narrating does a far better job of conveying just how sick Jack is. Tobias Menzies absolutely disappeared in this segment. I believed that he got a sexual thrill out of flogging poor Jamie. And Sam Heughan deserves a lot of credit for that scene as well. For all he spent most of the time facing a pole, his physicality in this scene conveyed the right balance of physical pain and determination of spirit. The dynamic between the two of them in that scene deftly sets up the unfinished business that book readers know is coming. We won't need Claire's narration to tell us that when the time comes. We won't be likely to forget it. 

This episode of Outlander arguably departs from the book the most of any episode so far, but it also stays true to the core of the story. Those departures make this story that much more exciting for TV audiences. It also gives book fans a different view, a further exploration of the story that many of us know inside and out. We're not just watching scenes that we've wanted to see on screen for decades, we're exploring that world that we love from new angles. And I for one, feel like the story is richer for it.

 

Fall for the Indie Book Challenge: Out of Time

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I found this book through some of my Outlander pals, and it sounded like an interesting time travel romance. What history nerd doesn't like a good time travel romance, right? Imagine my surprise when I started reading only to find that part of the book is set in my hometown of Fredericksburg, VA, even more so when the main character's mother lives a "few miles up the Rapphannock" on what is probably the same road I grew up on. So, my review might be slightly biased from familiarity alone.

I will say that it's clear that Truscott knows the town. Having lived there almost all of my life, I can attest that no matter how big it seems to get Fredericksburg is still a small town. She does a great job of capturing that small town, feel for a family that has generations of history there. When she was describing some of the characters, I could easily have seen them walking down Caroline Street.

Location aside, I really enjoyed this book. I found that I had a hard time putting it down. Right from the start we learn about some of Kathy Lee's back story and the challenges that she faces, and they are many. Her mother for one thing has an interesting history, and her husband is no prize. She had given up on her marriage, but is reluctant to admit it to anyone but herself. The action really begins when she inherits a house in Pennsylvania from an uncle she hasn't seen in ages. It offers the perfect opportunity for her to step away and clear her head so that she can deal with the breakup of her marriage.

As she's cleaning up the house she discovers a Revolutionary War Era British officer in her garden shed. Neither one of them really understands how he got there, and they spend the rest of the book working together to figure out how to get him back. Add to that the potential danger of another time traveler and someone who wants very badly to get his hands on Kathy Lee's new house and you've got the potential for lots of action and tension. Of course, there is also plenty of tension between Kathy Lee and Robert the dashing officer.

The key characters have rich back stories and stay true to who they are throughout the book. It's the complexity of the characters and the situations they are in that make this book work. They have more to puzzle over than the figuring out how Robert got into the woodshed. Kathy Lee has to figure out how to end her marriage and what she and her children will do once that is done. Robert has his own emotional baggage to deal with on top of being stuck in the twenty-first century. The story is much richer for all of this complexity. The action does slow down a little in the middle, but when it picks up it really moves. It is a romance after all, so the ending is a little predictable, but getting there is a lot of fun.

Out of Time is also the first of a series. The next book, In the Nick came out last April. I look forward to reading that one too.

Win a signed copy of The River Maiden

To celebrate kids going back to school and me being able to FINALLY dive deep into writing the next book in the series, I decided to do a Goodreads giveaway. So, 5 lucky readers can win a signed copy of The River Maiden. All you have to do is sign up below.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The River Maiden by Meredith R. Stoddard

The River Maiden

by Meredith R. Stoddard

Giveaway ends September 16, 2014.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Not on Goodreads yet? I highly recommend that you join. It's great for reading reviews, and discussing books with other readers. Just click here. You can even login with your facebook login so there's no extra typing and finding your reader friends is easy.

Hope, fear and narrative power

I had originally planned another post about the music behind The River Maiden. In fact, I wrote one and have it sitting in the bank waiting to be published. However, something in the news yesterday caught my eye. It was this article in the US edition of The Huffington Post. The gist of the article is that the campaign for Scottish independence or the "Yes Campaign" came out the leader in a poll for the first time. 

I write FICTION about neo-Jacobites on the cusp of the twenty-first century, so I've been watching the referendum debate much closer than your average American. But, I am American and don't live in Scotland, so don't have a dog in this fight.  I'm just an outside observer. I like to think of myself as a perceptive observer and I am a professional story teller. Now, it would take history and economics lessons far longer than I can fit into a blog post to explore this issue, and the referendum itself is not really what this post is about. I'm writing today because of the stories being told by the campaigns on either side. 

I confess I'm a political nerd. Here in the states I watch campaigns and have even worked some, and (money aside) the campaign that is successful is always the campaign that can tell the better story. I learned in over a decade in software sales that the most popular product wasn't always the best product. It was always the product with the best marketing. Sometimes that means the most coherent story, but more often it means the story that people respond to in an emotional way. In the jaded world that we live, people want a positive story. They want hope. And THAT is why the Yes campaign is gaining ground. 

The majority of the argument that has come from the "Better Together" campaign has been stoking fear about what would happen if Scotland became independent. You hear things like: "The economy will go into a tailspin.", "Who will manage the National Health Service?", "If Scotland becomes independent Wales and Northern Ireland will want to leave too?", "The oil will run out and then Scotland will be poor and helpless." There are all manner of straw man scenarios that have been floated that would be the supposed result of devolution, but they're all hypothetical. 

This scare mongering is perfectly exemplified in the following ad that was released last month. 

This is possibly the most insulting political ad I have ever seen and believe me we have plenty of them here. According to this ad, Yes voters are irresponsible gamblers, but No voters are just too busy to get informed and have their heads in the sand. And don't even get me started on the blatant misogyny going on here. In fact, the ad is roundly trashed that it has prompted a wide array of memes. I think one sums it up. 

It might be more accurate to call the "Better Together" campaign the "Don't rock the boat campaign" or the "Shut up and eat your cereal campaign".

Contrast that ad with this one for the Yes campaign. 

It's a much more positive message. It's not saying vote status quo because change is scary. It gives people something to vote FOR. The message here resonates because it gives people HOPE. Grant O'Rourke (2:30) actually makes me a little teary in this video. It's hard to look at the hope in his eyes and not get a warm feeling. It's the Scottish version of "Yes we can!" and that worked pretty well here. 

If you want more specifics you can watch the debates between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling on Youtube. However, even during the debates you will find that those for independence have a plan with specifics and those who are against independence, don't have a plan for improving life in Scotland. They just want to shoot holes in the independence plan. 

Either way the majority of the argument presented by Better Together appears to be more about the potential horrors of parting than a plan to actually make it better for people in Scotland. That is until the late last week when a list of promises to move toward self-rule were released after the polls started showing a shift. This seems to be viewed as a panic move, sort of their version of John McCain suspending his presidential campaign to go to the White House to solve the financial crisis when no one asked for his help. Nice to see them offering some sort of plan, but I think it's a bit too late in the political narrative for that. It just winds up looking desperate. 

As I mentioned before, I write FICTION about Scottish independence, but it's just that fiction. What's going on right now is very real. And story telling is a very important part of convincing voters either way. At moment it appears that the Yes Campaign owns the narrative. They are simply telling a better story, and if the momentum continues it might just carry them to independence.

Fall for the Indie Book Challenge - How To Be Alive

For my first review of the Fall for the Indie Book Challenge, I picked Mary Chris Escobar's How To Be Alive. I have read and reviewed Escobar's Neverending Beginnings in the past and enjoyed that book. So, I had a reasonable expectation that this would be a positive start to the challenge. 

I was not disappointed. The book starts with Jen Emerson attempting to get back to something like a normal life after her fiance dies in a car accident. The trouble is that when Jen starts reflecting on that life, she realizes that not only isn't it the life she and her fiance planned for themselves, but that their relationship wasn't what all it was cracked up to be. She's assisted in this realization by the escalating harassment and manipulations of her fiance's high school sweetheart. She attempts to start a new life, but blunders into the path of a friend from her past with whom she has some unfinished business.

One of the things that I love about this book is that the characters are very real. They're not perfect. They make mistakes, have foibles, and sometimes even let each other down. It is easy to find yourself wanting to sit down and have a beer with them.  So frequently in books like this characters can end up being trope-y. There's the gently wise best friend, and/or the saucy straight-talker and the hero who comes in a fixes it all. Those characters are here, but the wise best friend has her own thing going on. She's not there just as a foil for the main character. The saucy straight-talking pal is starting a new romance. And the hero for all that he's a good guy, doesn't swoop in an fix everything. He also has the irritating habit of mansplaining to Jen just what she should be doing. 

Where the book wins is that Jen manages to figure a lot of things out for herself. She finds she can be happy for her friends and their successes. She also calls the hero on his mansplaining ways. To his credit, he can admit when he's wrong. Where so many books that begin with the death of a partner devolve into syrupy stories of loss recovery. This one manages to keep the characters grounded and not taking themselves too seriously.

There is a twist toward the end of the story that has the potential to upend all of Jen's progress. I won't spoil it, but I did see it coming. It gives Jen the perfect opportunity to test her progress in recovering from where she was at the beginning.

Which brings me to the other thing that I love about this book. Jen fixes her life herself. She doesn't rely on a new guy to fix things for her. And she doesn't just fall into a new situation. She shows a lot of independence and strength. Sure, she made some mistakes, but I think How To Be Alive leaves us hoping we would be able to recover as well as she does. 

You can find out more about Mary Chris Escobar and her books on her website

Next up Out of Time from another Virginia writer Deborah Truscott.

Follow up: 2 Sides of the Same Coin

My blog post 2 Sides of the Same Coin from last December on the parallels in character and the relationship between Jamie Fraser and his uncle Dougal MacKenzie is my most read post EVER. So, I've known for a while that I would need to do a follow up now that I've seen some of the show. I originally thought that I would wait until the mid-season break, but then I saw Episode 104: The Gathering. First of all for a Dougal fan like me, this episode was a delicious meaty dish of subtext. The writers made it just as much about Dougal and Jamie as it was about Jamie and Claire. And Graham McTavish OWNED it. It's like the writers read my post or something.  

Spoiler alert! Don’t read any further if you haven’t seen Episode 104.
Poor Dougal had a rough couple of days. 

Poor Dougal had a rough couple of days. 

Seriously there was so much Jamie/Dougal interplay in this episode that I half expected them to start arm wrestling at any moment. The key with this episode is that Dougal taught Jamie how to navigate clan politics just as much as he taught him to fight and play shinty. But now the student is surpassing the teacher and it is eating Dougal from the inside out. With the exception of Geordie's death and telling Claire that they were going on the road, there was nothing in this episode that Dougal did that Jamie didn't also do.  I almost thought that game of shinty was going to end up with them lifting their kilts to compare their goods. Tough part for Uncle Dougal is that in all those things they both did, Jamie did them better. 

  1. Save Claire from being accosted by drunken, lecherous faceless clansmen.
    • Dougal: Saves Claire, but then proves himself dangerous by also accosting her. 
    • Jamie: Saves Claire and gets himself knocked on the head for it by Rupert. Sure he got knocked out, but wins chivalry points for not pawing at her when he has the chance.
  2. Manhandling Claire.
    • Dougal: After rescuing Claire from the clansmen too drunk to find a privy, Dougal procedes to demonstrate that his interest in Claire isn't only because he thinks she's a spy. (Incidentally, Graham McTavish could pin me up against a wall any day. Hottest scene of the show.)
    • Jamie: Tumbles Claire in the hay when she almost trips over him. Loses points to Dougal on this one for pulling a knife. Gains them back for that smile and the fact that he didn't take advantage of her when she was in that position. Lord knows Dougal would have. I'm calling this one a draw
  3. Thwarted Claire's attempt to leave.
    • Dougal: Notices Claire's sack of provisions and nearly calls her out for it, but is too drunk and gets knocked on the head instead.
    • Jamie: Logically convinces Claire that it would be futile to try, and tries to help her get back inside without trouble. Points to Jamie for treating Claire like the intelligent person that she is.  (If you're keeping score that's Jamie 2, Dougal 0, and 1 draw)
  4.  Lusting after Claire. (Well, who wouldn't?)
    • Dougal: Dougal spends some time in the hallway drunkenly staring into Claire's eyes before groping and kissing her. He certainly gave Jamie a run for his money in the eye sex department, which is a pretty tall order after last week. Loses points though for being drunk. It's hard to tell when a guy is drunk if he's really into you or just having trouble focusing.
    • Jamie: Just more of what we saw last week. Seriously, Sam Heughan could teach classes in smoldering looks. 
  5. Swearing an oath
    • Dougal: Goes first, does it with eloquence and gravity, as he should. 
    • Jamie: Manages to 'split the baby' by swearing an oath of obedience while on MacKenzie lands, but not out right allegiance. Very wise. Dougal of course looks on feeling a little thwarted by not being able to kill Jamie on the spot. Colum on the other hand seems impressed with Jamie's ability to navigate such a tricky situation. We're left wondering if Dougal would have been as wise had he been in Jamie's shoes.
  6. Drinking more than required with the oath
    • Dougal: Early in the episode when Dougal gives his oath, he drinks from the quaich and then steps away and drinks considerably more. It's like the little bit of leadership (or oath taking whisky) that he shares with his brother isn't enough for Dougal. Of course, we all know it's not, but Dougal doesn't say it openly, he goes off to the side and swigs with gusto while Colum is hearing the oaths of others.
    • Jamie: On the other hand, Jamie publicly and obviously drinks every drop in the quaich. In Jamie's case, he's not saying he wants more. He's saying he appreciates the MacKenzie hospitality and will honor it as long as he's there and he REALLY means it.
  7. Playing Shinty - This was great addition for the show. It really demonstrates the competitive and paternal relationship that these two have. Dougal clearly needing to blow off some steam after watching his friend die chooses Jamie as his punching bag because Jamie has been besting him left and right during The Gathering. Jamie accepts some of that out of respect. He clearly doesn't fight back as hard as he could. But when he's had enough, he flips Dougal over his shoulder. (Don't click Play yet.)

Still keeping score? That's Jamie 6, Dougal nil, 1 draw.

WARNING: Minor Dragonfly in Amber spoiler ahead. Do not read anymore if you don’t want to know where this is all going.

One of the benefits of making a show based on a book series is that you can in episode 4 foreshadow something that won't happen until nearly the end of the second season. Just look at the image above (providing you haven't clicked play yet. I did tell you not to). I know the script for this episode says, "I taught you this game." but I can't help looking at Dougal's face and hearing...

Come here to me, fox cub. I’ll kill ye quick for your mother’s sake.

(You can click play now. I'll wait...)

Naturally, Dougal does manage to assert his power in the end by declaring that Claire will go with them. Sure, he says he needs a healer on the road, though that reasoning sounds flimsy. Those of us who have read the books know that he's also going to take her to Fort William to see if she's a spy. Still, after being shown up by Jamie at the oath taking and shinty, it seems a little more like Dougal is pointing out that he can take away Jamie's new friend and depending on what happens at Fort William it could be permanent.  He's reminding Jamie and anyone else who might doubt it that he's still Colum's right hand man. 

I should also say at this point that Graham McTavish and Sam Heughan are giving fantastic performances. Much has been made of the on screen chemistry between Heughan and Caitriona Balfe, but I think there is terrific chemistry between these two gents. I can easily believe that they are uncle/foster father and nephew/foster son. I can't wait to see them on the road in Episode 105.

Mouth Music

In The River Maiden, much we are first introduced to Sarah's chosen profession when she and her partner Amy are invited to give an example of mouth music or puirt a beul to a Gaelic singing workshop.  I have gotten a number of questions about this style of music, so I thought I would do a post on the topic.

Here is how Dermot describes this kind of music.  

...Well, believe it or not, in Scotland, there isna always a fiddler or piper handy. So we ingenious Scots developed a style of singing that allows us to mimic the rhythms of those instruments. This style tends to be fast like a reel or a strathspey. It’s meant to give people somethin’ to dance to.”
— The River Maiden

To which Sarah adds. 

The lyrics in puirt à beul are really servants to the music and are meant to be more percussive than poetic,” Sarah said. “Unlike what you’ve been studying this week, these songs are strictly for fun, not usually for storytelling or lamenting. So some of the words might not make a lot of sense. They are loads of fun, though.
— The River Maiden

She's absolutely right. They are loads of fun to sing. If you enjoy singing, I highly recommend giving it a try.  Although, you might want to start with some other Gaelic songs first. The speed of these songs would be challenging in English, in Gaelic they take a lot of practice. 

Of course, you don't have to take my fictional grad student's word for it. Wikipedia has a pretty accurate article on the matter. 

Usually, the genre involves a single performer singing lighthearted, often bawdy lyrics, although these are sometimes replaced with meaningless vocables.

In puirt a beul, the rhythm and sound of the song often have more importance than the depth or even sense of the lyrics. Puirt a beul in this way resembles other song forms like scat singing. Normally, puirt are sung to a 4/4 or 6/8 beat.
— Wikipedia

I won't subject you to my own puirt a beul efforts here. Although if you happen to meet me and feed me enough whisky I might be convinced to provide a live example. For now, you can click play on one of my favorite songs below to hear this kind of music in action. This one is from Mary Jane Lamond, a Gaelic singer/musician from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. 

Here is a snippet of the lyrics in Gaelic. 

Ciamar a nì mi ‘n dannsa dìreach
Ciamar a nì mi ‘n ruidhle bòidheach
Ciamar a nì mi ‘n dannsa dìreach
Dh’fhalbh a’ phrìn’ ás bonn mo chòta
Ciamar a nì mi ‘n dannsa dìreach
Ciamar a nì mi ‘n ruidhle bòidheach
Ciamar a nì mi ‘n dannsa dìreach
Dh’fhalbh a’ phrìn’ ás bonn mo chòta

Dh’fhalbh a’ phrìn’ a chuir air chlì mi
Dh’fhalbh a’ phrìn’ ás bonn mo chòta
Dh’fhalbh a’ phrìne a chuir air chlì m
Dh’fhalbh a’ phrìn’ ás bonn mo chòta
Dh’fhalbh a’ phrìn’ a chuir air chlì mi
Dh’fhalbh a’ phrìn’ ás bonn mo chòta
Dh’fhalbh a’ phrìne a chuir air chlì mi
Dh’fhalbh a’ phrìn’ ás bonn mo chòta

And here's the translation. You can find the whole song and translation here.

How can I make a tidy dance
How can I dance a bonny reel
How can I make a tidy dance
The pin went from the hem of my coat
How can I make a tidy dance
How can I dance a bonny reel
How can I make a tidy dance
The pin went from the hem of my coat

The pin went and that put me astray
The pin went from the hem of my coat
The pin went and that put me astray
The pin went from the hem of my coat
The pin went and that put me astray
The pin went from the hem of my coat
The pin went and that put me astray
The pin went from the hem of my coat

This is a perfect example of what the Wikipedia article was talking about. The lyrics seem inconsequential (unless you write fiction in which case they're a smashing writing prompt, but that's for another time). The key is the rhythm, and that comes with the repetitive and percussive 'ch' and 't' sounds at the end of each line. Juxtaposed with the rise and fall of the 'i' and softening 'a' sounds it makes a nice dance-able tune. 

I'll leave you with another fine example of three songs from Uist sung by the very talented Julie Fowlis.

Fall for the Indie Book Challenge

For an independent author there are 2 steps to selling books. 

1) Letting people know that you have a book out. This frequently involves tweeting, posting on facebook, shouting from roof tops, getting your family and friends to tweet post and/or shout from rooftops, Courting media such as your local paper, book bloggers, and/or pretty much anybody with a megaphone. If you're as lucky as me you also have an adorable 10 year old "publicist" who tells every adult he sees including wait staff, nurses at the doctor's office, car rental agents...that his mom wrote a book and they should really check it out. 

2) Convincing people that it's worth buying and reading. The best way to do that is with REVIEWS. 

It's a simple fact that reviews sell books. Whether they are on Amazon, BN, Goodreads, or book blogs. There is no substitute for readers telling other readers that your book is good. The difficulty is getting people to review your books. 

Sure there are plenty of book "blogs" out there who will allow you to pay them for what they call reviews. These reviews tend to paraphrase the back copy of your book and then gush for about a paragraph. This might serve to get the word out, but discerning readers can tell the difference. As a rule, I don't pay for reviews, nor do I accept payment for reviews. 

I also don't have the marketing and advertising budget to blast ads for my books all over the place. I would contend that most other indie authors don't either. I do however believe in Independent publishing, and indie authors. 

That's why I signed up for the Fall for the Indie Book Challenge. Author, S. Usher Evans proposed this challenge as a way for authors and readers to help each other find quality independent books and celebrate independent publishing and the freedom that writers have when gates are left open. 

Here is how it works:

  • Starting September 1st read 1 independent or small press published book each week for 15 weeks. 
  • Write reviews on the books you read. You can post them on blogs, Goodreads, your preferred ebook retailer, whatever platform works best for you.

"But, Meredith, I can't read a book every week," you say. That's why it's called a challenge. Personally, I usually read at least a book a week, but there are times when other obligations might slow down that rate. I am trying to write another book after all.  No worries, if you miss a week or two or ten, you are still supporting indie authors even with just one review. 

To communicate with other participants and get or share ideas on what to read, you can join the Fall for the Indie Book Challenge Group on Goodreads. There are threads for discussing and recommending books by genre (They're not all romance.) and even a thread for genre benders like mine. 

If you are a reader: Please join and recommend some of your favorite indie books for others to read. 

If you are an author: Please join and remember to promote others before you promote your own. I would suggest recommending 2 indie books in addition to yours. 

I look forward to seeing everyone's recommendations as well as your reviews and of course I look forward to some great reading ahead. 

Sneak peek

I am happy to announce that you can now get The River Maiden in paperback from Amazon. Other retailers should be able to order it in the next few weeks. 

The number one question that I get asked on when folks finish The River Maiden is, "When does the next book come out?"

This is a difficult question to answer. I confess work is moving slowly, because with summer vacation and travel, there isn't a lot of writing going on. I do however, have the book outlined and have started writing and researching.

To prove it, and because I love teasers. Here is an excerpt from the new book which currently has the working title of Cauldron. Enjoy!

 

Sarah tapped her fingers on the handle of her suitcase as she watched each floor tick slowly by in bright red numbers. She was only going to the sixth floor, but this was possibly the longest elevator ride of her life. She had hoped that leaving Raleigh before dawn would have helped her sleep on the flight over, but no such luck. Nerves, her seat, and the loud talker in the row in front of her had kept her up the most of the way. 

Now, she was practically swaying on her feet while the elevator crept at a pace that made her wonder if it wasn’t being pulled up manually. Finally the six appeared with a soft ding and the door slid open to reveal a long gray hallway dotted with mostly closed doors. She couldn’t help but be a little disappointed. She was expecting the University of Edinburgh to look more old world, but this building was 1960’s modern. With a sigh she stepped out of the elevator dragging her suitcase behind her. As she made her way down the hall she noticed small signs next to some doors stating what the offices housed. Most of them seemed to be university administration offices.

She could see one door nearly at the end of the hall that was flung wide open. On the floor outside was a stack of cardboard boxes. She made her way to it to find a sheet of white paper with ‘Scots Preservation Field Team’ scrawled in black marker taped over the little plaque beside the door. ‘Looks like this is the place,’ she thought taking a bracing breath and stepping inside.

The large room appeared to be in disarray. Several desks were pushed into one corner while a few chairs were shoved into another. There was one long table up against the wall next to the window. Boxes were stacked on almost every available surface and a petite dark haired woman with her back to the door was rummaging in one of them.

“Pardon me,” Sarah cleared her throat and said, “I’m looking for Dermot Sinclair.”

The woman turned around and arched an eyebrow at Sarah. She looked to be in her mid-twenties, pretty, and obviously annoyed at having been interrupted. She rolled her eyes before walking toward a narrow hall that Sarah hadn’t noticed. The young woman leaned into the hallway and said loudly. “A’Dhiarmad. Tha an bean an seo.” (Dermot, there is a woman here.)

Sarah heard a muffled voice from the office say something but she couldn’t make out the words. 

The woman made a clearly unhappy face. “Ma thogair! Tha ise Aimeireaganach.” (Who cares! She’s American.)

The last bit was said with a decided sneer, and Sarah wondered how jarring her accent must be to folks around here. The words had the desired effect. After a sound that must have been a wheeled chair smacking into a wall, Dermot came barreling out of the office and into the larger room his eyes aflame.

He made straight for Sarah. She thought for a second that he would grab her, but he caught himself abruptly a few feet away. His eyes scanned her from head to toe. His face looked thunderous. “I don’t know whether to kiss ye or throttle ye.”

Sarah gave him her most beguiling smile. “I know which I’d prefer.”

“D’ye have any idea how worried we’ve been?” She could tell he was upset when his ‘worried’ sounded like ‘wuhrrit’. Sarah felt just the tiniest bit of satisfaction that her stunt had gotten under his skin.

She cut her eyes over to the young woman who was avidly watching their exchange. “And here I thought you’d be glad to see me.”

Dermot pulled his shoulders back and she could tell he was making an effort to calm down. “I am glad. I just wish ye would have told me ye were coming today.”

“That’s better,” Smiling, she turned to the dark haired woman and extended her hand. “I’m Sarah MacAlpin. I’m going to be helping with the fieldwork.”

The woman looked at Sarah’s outstretched hand then at Dermot. “Aimeireaganach? Bheil gu dearbh?” (An American? Really?)

Dermot looked sharply at the young woman. “Kirstie, don’t be rude. This American…”

Sarah stopped him before he could say more. “It’s no problem, Dermot,” She smiled sweetly before addressing the young woman in flawless Gaelic. “I may be American, but I’ve spoken Gaelic all my life. I learned it from my Grandmother who emigrated before The War. It’s nice to meet you, Kirstie.”

The other woman’s face turned red and she grunted before turning back to the box that she had been digging in before.

Dermot eyed her and Sarah had a feeling Kirstie would be getting a little talk about teamwork and professionalism in the near future. He looked back at Sarah and held out an arm indicating the direction of the interior hallway.

Sarah walked ahead of him and found her way to the first door on the right. She glanced over her shoulder in question and he nodded. She stepped into a tiny office that could barely fit a desk and two chairs. Dermot stepped in behind her.

As soon as the door was closed he turned her around and pulled her into a rib cracking bear hug. Sarah buried her face in his sweater and inhaled filling her lungs with the scent of wool and soap and him. She felt a small easing of the tension she’d been carrying around for weeks.

“I thought ye’d run away.” He whispered into her hair without loosening his grip.

She’d thought about it many times, wondered if she’d have made it, if she’d have been successful where her mother had failed. “And leave you here to have to explain why,” She pressed her cheek to his chest not caring that the wool of his sweater was scratchy. “Would I do that to you?”

 

***

 

She tore his heart out almost daily without even trying. Who knew what she would do when she set out to hurt him? He’d been holding his breath since getting the call from Fleming that Sarah hadn’t been in her apartment this morning. Now, with the solid shape of her in his arms and her curls tickling his nose, he could breathe again. His Sarah was safe.

Safe. Not his. Reluctantly he released her and stepped around his desk. He didn’t look at her again until the desk was between them. She stood in the same spot as if she was waiting for him to come back and hold her again. When he didn’t she sat in the chair on the other side of the desk. When her eyes met his they burned with that quiet determination that he’d seen before. She may be here, but she had her own agenda and Dermot was sure it probably ran contrary to his.

“Ye’re a week early,” He said.

“Well, there wasn’t much to stay for. I packed everything up and Amy was gone for the holiday. I thought I would get out of the way before she got back.” He didn’t miss the note of sadness at the mention of Sarah’s friend and roommate.

“How is Amy?”

Sarah took several seconds to answer, her eyes drifting down to examine a scuff on the toe of her brown clog. “It’s hard to tell. You saw her when she got the news. There are a lot of different emotions going on there. I think she understands intellectually that Ryan was playing her, but she still doesn’t want to talk to me. I called her on Christmas Eve, but she wouldn’t talk, so I just left a message with her mom.”

“That’s ballocks!” He hated that there was a rift between the two girls. They’d been like sisters when he met them.

“Like I said, a lot of emotions. Besides she doesn’t have all the background information that we do. She just thinks a psycho pretended to be her boyfriend to get close to me so he could kill me,” A ghost of a smile floated across her face. “I can cut her some slack, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to hang around there feeling guilty and awkward while she works it all out. I’d rather get a head start here.”

“Aye, and here ye are.” He watched her carefully as he asked the next question. “What exactly does that mean?”

She lifted her eyes to his. They burned with the same fire that lit them when she’d told him how she would get over being held hostage by her roommate’s boyfriend just 3 weeks ago. “It means that I have a dissertation to finish and that’s just what I’m going to do.”

“And James?”

She again seemed fascinated with the scuff on her shoe. “James is a big boy. And no matter how much his family has spoiled him, at some point he’s going to have to learn that he doesn’t get everything he wants.”

He made one of those equivocal noises that Sarah called his mumbly grunts. If anyone could challenge James Stuart, it would be Sarah. Dermot just hoped that there would be something left of her after she tried.

King o' Men (Spoilers)

(Warning: If you haven't read Diana Gabaldon's Outlander Series up to The Fiery Cross you might not want to read further.)

By now, those of us awaiting the Outlander TV show, have heard that producer Ron D. Moore and show's crew have taken to calling Jamie Fraser the "King of Men". However, I don't think many fans of the books or show get the reference. Admittedly, I don't know anyone working on the show, so this could just be a guess. However, I do know a bit of Robert Burns, and am fairly certain that the "King of Men" title is a reference to a line from his song. "A Man's a Man For A' That"
 

 If not, it at least reminds me of the song and with very good reason. It's a favorite of mine, and what with working on the sequel to The River Maiden, I've been thinking a lot lately about kingship and what it really means.

The song itself is an indictment of the aristocracy and its pretensions toward grandeur and an endorsement of a meritocracy. Here's the text at robertburns.org including lovely links explaining the less obvious of the Scots words) But it's much more fun to watch this lovely video of some Scottish luminaries reciting it (slightly abridged). 

One of the things that I love about the Outlander books is it's humanization of both the invented characters and those characters from history. Diana Gabaldon is a genious at creating characters that resonate with us because of their unavoidable humanity even for those characters who history may have built up to be larger than life.

In these books, dukes lust after stable lads, princes get bitten by monkeys and climb on roof tops, and kings feel free to risk poisoning people to settle arguments. At best, I'd say the highest levels of aristocracy as they are portrayed in the books come off just as human as the rest of us. In some cases, Charles Stewart comes to mind, their surety of their own exalted position becomes their biggest weakness. This brings us back to our song and it's lines:

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord, 
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that; 
Tho' hundreds worship at his word, 
He's but a coof for a' that: 
For a' that, an' a' that, 
His ribband, star, an' a' that: 
The man o' independent mind 
He looks an' laughs at a' that. 

Luckily, we readers get to see those characters like Louis, Charles and Sandringham through the "independent minds" of Jamie and Claire. Being of independent mind they are able to show us the flaws in these characters. Claire especially reminds us that history books only provide two dimensions to these figures at best, It's up to the fiction writers to make these characters more than mere facts on a timeline, and I think the way that Gabaldon does this follows along the same sentiment as Burns's song. By that I mean that those who trumpet their own greatness or seek it out are less likely to actually BE great. 

A prince can mak a belted knight, 
A marquis, duke, an' a' that; 
But an honest man's abon his might, 
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that! 
For a' that, an' a' that, 
Their dignities an' a' that; 
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth, 
Are higher rank than a' that. 

Which brings us back to Himself. Jamie doesn't seek those the trappings of power or wealth or even leadership. They are thrust upon him by circumstance when his older brother dies, and then when he's in Ardsmuir. He doesn't lead people because he wants power or position. He finds himself leading because he's a person that people trust. It's his honesty and his forthrightness that make people trust Jamie and want to follow him. It also helps that he's very observant and makes some pretty wise decisions. Even when he lies and he does, it's always to the benefit of those people he feels are relying on him whether that is his family, the people of Lallybroch, or the Ridge. 

Eventually, Jamie does seek a leadership role when building the community at Fraser's Ridge, but even then he's not looking to build his own fiefdom. He wants to prove himself a "man of worth", by which he means a man of value to his community. He wants to reunite those men who he feels are/were his responsibility at Ardsmuir. He's also worried that he won't be up to the task. Hence the dream about his frantic efforts to crown a new King of Ireland at the beginning of The Fiery Cross

"I was in charge o' the horse," Jamie informed me. "And everything went wrong. The man was too short, and I had to find something for him tho stand on. I found a rock, but I couldna lift it. Then a stool, but the leg came off in my hand. Then I tried to pile up bricks to make a platform, but they crumbled to sand..."

The dream is a prime example of Jamie's worthiness. He doesn't even put himself as the king subconsciously. Instead he puts himself in the role of the person responsible for making sure everything works smoothly and reveals his fear of failure. His earnest insecurity coupled with his desire to be valuable to his community shows that he has precisely the "pith o' sense and pride o' worth" that Burns was writing about. 

Jamie displays these traits not just when he's Laird of Lallybroch or the landlord of the Ridge. He shows that kind of leadership even when he's penniless and in prison. It doesn't matter if he's dressed for the French court or in rags. He's a worthy leader wherever he goes. 

What though on hamely fare we dine, 
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that; 
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine; 
A Man's a Man for a' that: 
For a' that, and a' that, 
Their tinsel show, an' a' that; 
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor, 
Is king o' men for a' that. 

 

A Word About Spoilers

...and why I don't hate them.

 Tomorrow I will be lucky enough to go to a book signing at the National Press Club with Diana Gabaldon (super excited). It occurred to me when I opened her latest, Written In My Own Heart's Blood on my Kindle this morning that there will be A LOT of spoilers for me tomorrow. The book has been out for a week and I have barely cracked it open. I know from many tweets and Facebook posts that many of the people I'm meeting up with tomorrow have already finished it and will very likely be unable to contain their excitement. I thought about this for approximately one second and then shrugged and read on.

Unlike some folks out in the reader/viewer world I do not hyperventilate at the thought of knowing what's going to happen, nor do I stick my fingers in my ears and shout LALALALALA...when my friends/family/coworkers start talking about something I have yet to watch or read. Much is made around the water cooler and online about spoilers and avoiding spoilers. People get up in arms or downright cranky if they think they've encountered even a hint of a spoiler and seem to place the responsibility of keeping their worlds spoiler free on everyone around them. 

The trouble with that is, that it implies that the book or film or TV show is nothing more than its plot and that knowing any points of that plot (no matter how obscure) ahead of time ruins the whole experience. Quality of the writing? Not important. Strength of the characters? Inconsequential. Performance of actors in a part? Could be done in clay-mation or with mannequins. Direction, set-design, costumes? Who cares? This slavish and sometimes neurotic avoidance of spoilers suggests that HOW a story is told doesn't matter, only the story matters. 

If that's true why ever bother rereading anything? Why go to movies if you've read the book? Why watch a show if you already know what's going to happen? Or why watch a remake of an original movie? Who cares that Jane Austen's writing is elegant and beautiful? What does it matter than Aaron Sorkin's writes snappy dialogue makes us all feel smarter, or that Elmore Leonard creates characters that you just want to follow around to be near them?

Not so. There is so much more to a story than it's plot points. There is context and voice. There are characters and how they react to events. There is frequently a sea of emotion and any number of resulting actions or events that come from a single plot point. Knowing one plot point, or even a few shouldn't ruin the effect of the whole story. Stories and the work of the story tellers in whatever medium are worth so much more than that. 

I've probably read Pride and Prejudice a dozen times, and I still get chills when I Darcy proposes to Elizabeth again, whether it's delivered by the Darcy in my imagination or Colin Firth (to Elizabeth Bennet or Bridget Jones) or Matthew Macfadyen or anyone else. I still cheer at Elizabeth's spunk when she refuses him the first time, but I've watched every adaptation I came across. And they've ALL shown me something new. I read all the Hunger Games books, but I'll still go see the movies, because I want to see how they translate. And you'd better believe that I'll be glued to my TV come August to watch Outlander even though I know exactly what's going to happen. I've reread the whole series several times over, not because I forgot what happened, but because the author does such an incredible job of telling the story. 

I get it. I like to be surprised sometimes too. The Red Wedding blew me away. I had no idea what the secret to The Crying Game was. Those were great moments of surprise. But, once the shock wears off, I'm left with to marvel at the quality of the performances, or the direction or the editing. I don't NEED the element of surprise to appreciate the beauty of the work. 

With that said, I'm not going to tell you what's next for Dermot and Sarah. But I might post a few lines now and then, and they MIGHT give away some very minor plot points. You've been warned.

The River Maiden is now available!

 

I've finally done it! Well actually, I did it about two weeks ago. I've been remiss in updating things here because I was also wrapping up another project, which I'll talk about in another post.  However, I am happy to say that The River Maiden is now available as an ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Scribd and iTunes. You can download samples to your device or you can read the first seven chapters on Wattpad.

I am working now on making it available in paperback. I have some proofs from one printer that are being reviewed and am awaiting proofs from another printer. 

The feedback I've been getting so far is great. Check the reviews on Amazon and ratings on Goodreads.  Many of my twitter followers have had glowing things to say, and are already asking about the next book, which IS coming. I've got an outline and some passages written. I might even have a little preview for folks this summer just to whet appetites. 

I am SO gratified that it has been received as well as it has. I can only hope that with some more marketing attention that I wasn't able to do while wrapping up the other project, the momentum will only keep building. 

I have more to say about the process of getting this book to market, but I will save those things for other posts over the next few weeks. 

This girl keeps popping up in my head

I shared this on facebook and twitter earlier today, so I thought I would elaborate a little.  I get asked by a lot of people who read The White House what happens to Lizzie Poole after that story ends. 

For a long time the truth of it has been that I don't know and I kind of liked it that way. I like leaving readers hanging. I like getting asked what happens next because it means that people care about Lizzie. I certainly do. 

The funny thing about Lizzie is that she was introduced to me, the same way she was introduced to you. I needed another female character in The White House, if for no other reason then to provide a foil for Annie. So I thought I would add a servant girl, and just to show what a louse Silas Poole is I thought we would meet her when he reached out to cuff the back of her head. 

That was when something magical happened. Lizzie ducked. I didn't expect it anymore than the rest of you did. With that one action, the story was no longer just about Annie, or Israel or even Blackbeard. It suddenly became a story about this girl. She just took over. For a writer to have a character surprise us or do something that even we as their creators don't expect is an incredible experience. 

I fell in love with Lizzie Poole, and even though I've moved on to other worlds and other characters that I also love she just keeps popping up in my head. Every once in a while I'll start to wonder what happens next for Lizzie. Where did she go? What kind of opportunities would there be for a girl on her own in the colonies in 1718 and what would Lizzie make of them?

With that said, a few ideas have popped up. Bear in mind that I've done very little research, have no outline, and I have a whole host of other characters to be exorcised before I can get back to our Lizzie. Still, she's there in the back of my brain standing on the porch of the white house looking left and right trying to choose where to go next. 

Which is where this morning's passage came from. It's short, but I think it's a promising start. 

WARNING: Spoilers ahead. If you haven't read The White House, you might want to stop now.

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You wouldn't think it would take a man's head so long to rot when mounted on a stake in a marsh, but even now Lizzie could see tufts of his famed black whiskers that clung to the slack jaw hanging in mute mockery. He'd been jolly once, a right jovial character for all he'd just as soon kill a person and laugh with them. She reckoned it was the cold that had kept it preserved these weeks hanging at the mouth of the river. Still, she hadn't expected it to look like the man she'd known. She hadn't imagined that it would bring back so many memories of the man himself. For unlike many of the others gawking at the rail as they sailed by, Lizzie Poole had known Blackbeard.   

It was less than a year since she'd seen him last. He'd been loud and boisterous as he'd pulled her into his lap, his ale sour breath wafting over her face as she looked up across the table into the eyes Israel Hands.  For the first time in her life, she'd seen a man that cared enough about her to be bothered by the old pirate's rough handling. It had given her hope. Of course, that was before Teach had ordered the murder of the only friend Lizzie had ever known, before Mr. Hands had beaten her father near to death and Lizzie had learned that hope only got a girl so far. 

The broad woman in filthy homespun beside Lizzie snorted noisily and spat into the water below. "I reckon he got what he deserved." 

"Mmmm," Lizzie muttered, not taking her eyes off the pirate's head. "I reckon he did."

A verra pressing question about dialect

Last fall at the James River Writer's Conference, a literary agent whose name I can't remember (probably a good thing) told a room full of aspiring writers that she would NEVER consider representing a writer who wrote in dialect. If I could remember her name I would certainly be crossing it off of my list of potential agents, as I'm sure she would quickly disregard my dialect laden prose.

She's not the first person I've heard express such a sentiment. I think every writer's forum must have at least one who chimes in whenever anyone mentions dialect and informs everyone that it (much like Prologues) is to be avoided at all costs. If you've read any of my fiction, I'm sure you realize that I don't subscribe to this philosophy.

I love dialect both as a reader and as writer. I firmly believe that a character should sound right off the page as they would sound in reality. So if a character is Scottish, or from the South or of a particular ethnic group or economic stratum, then he or she should sound like it. There is so much efficient characterization and rich atmosphere to be had using dialect. 

The next time you meet someone new think about all the judgments that you make when you hear them talk. You can usually tell where a person is from, and what their education level is by the way they talk, sometimes after just a few sentences. 

If you write historical fiction or fantasy, dialect can go a long way in creating the atmosphere of the world in which you write. People in the eighteenth century didn't talk the same way that they do in the 20th century. Likewise people in the 1950's didn't talk the way that people did in the 1970's. Dialect can create that sense of time and place. 

Would we be as enchanted by William Faulkner or Zora Neale Hurston if their characters all spoke perfect classroom English? Would Huckleberry Finn be nearly as engaging if it didn't sound like it was being told by an adolescent boy from the banks of the Mississippi? 

And would Jamie Fraser be anything close to the heartthrob that he is if, "Dinna fash, Sassenach."  was instead, "Do not worry, English lady."? I think not. 

Even the great (no sarcasm here) William Strunk and E. B. White cautioned against dialect.  It's actually #15 on their "List of Reminders" in The Elements of Style.  

"Do not use dialect unless your ear is good."

I've added the emphasis on the last part. I actually think that is the most important thing. Bad dialect can be jarring and take the reader right out of the story. Good dialect sounds like the voice of the character. Bad dialect sounds like a writer trying too hard to be clever and failing. 

I once read the first 70 pages or so of a best selling novel by a famous writer who I will not name. This writer however seemed to believe that all she needed to do to write Scots dialect was throw in three or four extra R's whenever her Scottish character was talking. Thank heavens there was only one Scottish character or the book would have been considerably longer than it was. I say I only read the first 70 pages that was how long I managed to put up with it. Had her Scot been one of the main characters I don't think I would have lasted that long. 

The key in working with dialect is making sure "your ear is good". Read it out loud. Does the way it sounds in your head match how it looks on the page? Have other people read it. Can they understand it? Did any of it make the reading difficult? All of the authors I named previously have good ears. Their dialect fits for the characters and times and places in which they are writing.  

And they know when to use it and when not to use it. Again, Strunk and White.

"The best dialect writers, by and large, are economical of their talents; they use the minimum, not the maximum, of deviation from the norm, thus sparing their readers as well as convincing them."

Think of it as seasoning. When you're cooking Italian, you use oregano and basil. When you're cooking Indian you use curry powder or cardamom. Hungarian? Paprika. No matter what seasoning you use, too much of it makes the dish unpalatable. 

A few years ago, I got it into my head that I wanted to learn a bit of Scots. So, I picked up Lewis Grassic Gibbon's A Scots Quair.  Now it can debated whether Scots is a dialect of English or a language all its own. However, what cannot be debated is that Gibbon set out to write that series entirely in Scots. I made it through, but it was a laborious read. Slowing my pace to mentally translate every sentence meant that I wasn't as emotionally engaged as I would like to have been.  So, the book did it's job as an academic and cultural exercise, but wouldn't be likely to appeal to a wider audience. 

Too much seasoning for the average non-Scots reader. 

To sum up, don't be afraid of dialect. It's remarkably efficient at creating atmosphere or building character. However, make sure it sounds to the reader the same way it sounds in your head. And use it sparingly. 

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S-Twist Update

Just wanted to mention, since it's not on the front page, but it's a project that I'm really enjoying. I posted a new episode of my serial love story S-Twist. Please check it out.

This is the story of two lives that have become frayed by loss, and how they bond over music and wool. A Scottish sheep farmer and an American tourist's lives twist together to become stronger than they were before.

If you haven't read S-Twist from the beginning, you can catch up here.