Cover of Unfit to Print

Stuck in the Middle: the story of a stalled project

This is a post about the genesis, exodus, and resurrection of a book. It’s for anyone who’s ever got 20K words into a project and thought, “…oh shit”, aka most writers. Gather round.

Some time ago, I came up with an idea for a romance trilogy. It would be Victorian London and it would focus on the people who don’t normally get romance novels—not just in terms of sexuality, gender and race but also class and occupation. My working name was “The Other Victorians”, based on Steven Marcus’s landmark study of Victorian pornography. Here’s the publisher pitch.

Set in the 1870s, among the dubious, the déclassé, and the dishonest, The Other Victorians is a romance trilogy about high birth, low life, inheritance, family secrets, blackmail, betrayal, deception, murder, the love that dare not speak its name, and the love that speaks its name very clearly indeed from inside plain brown wrappers.

A pornographer ­­­­­and a left-wing lawyer join forces to investigate murder in London’s gay underworld…

A fraudulent psychic and a sceptical journalist get tangled up in the search for a deadly family secret…

And a music-hall trapeze artist becomes the unwilling heir to an earldom–if a private enquiry agent can keep him alive long enough to claim it…

The premise of book 1 was that one hero is an earl’s bastard, who works as a pornographic bookseller. The brother dies leaving a collection of dirty photos, a suspiciously large number of which depict rent boys who have been murdered. Our hero goes to a crusading lawyer he used to know, hoping to dump the problem on his lap. This sets off the romance whereby the self-righteous firebrand needs to loosen up while the self-centred bookseller has to rediscover his moral centre. Shenanigans ensue including two intertwined crime plots, and a lot of bonking. Sounds pretty good, yes?

No. Oh God no.

I hated every word I wrote including ‘and’ and ‘the’ (as Dorothy Parker nearly said). I gouged out twenty thousand miserable words by sheer bloody-mindedness, and by the point I stalled for good I was considering faking my own death.

As it happens we were at my parents’ house for half term, and my mum has a sideline as a careers coach. She sat me down for a session to talk through whatever the issue was. We made pros and cons lists for writing it. (Pro: I’ve signed a contract so I have to. Con: I hate the book, the story, the concept, and the characters.) It culminated in her telling me to visualise the book sitting on a chair opposite me and asking me to describe my relationship to it, and me saying, “I don’t have one.”

At which point, because she’s rather good at her job, my mum said, “Well, what do you want to write?” She listened patiently while I yattered about how I hated my characters because they were basically not nice people and I didn’t want to write three books about these harsh, unkind people at war, I just wanted to write someone kind, and interesting, and I’d been looking into Victorian taxidermy recently and I really fancied writing a taxidermist because, like, if you actually look into Victorian taxidermy it’s not all weirdos killing sacks of kittens to pose them like Sylvanian Families, it was a real applied art that could be done with incredible sensitivity almost as a branch of natural history. Then she looked at me in the way mums do until I said, “…so maybe I could talk to my editor about changing the synopsis?” and she said, yes, why don’t you do that. Dear.

I worked out a new story, in which our heroes were a quiet, reserved taxidermist and a gentle, kind lodging-house keeper, and I went back to the publisher and said, “You know that erotic enemies-to-lovers full of sex and violence? You’re getting a sweet story about taxidermy instead,” and to their credit the publisher blinked a bit and said, “Fine.”

I learned a bunch of stuff from this. Most importantly, I realised when I started writing version 2 that actually the trilogy wasn’t about dodgy geezers as the pitch had said, it just featured them. What it was actually about was kindness to others: that was the deep theme of all three romantic conflicts and the overarching plot, and ended up becoming the series title. (It’s now called Sins of the Cities, which refers to the sin of Sodom: “She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”) That was an important realisation for me on a lot of levels. I have tended not to know what my books are about until they’re published, but it turns out that it’s pretty helpful if you work out what your subconscious is trying to write during rather than after the part where you type words.

So. There I was, finished the series, wrote some other stuff, left 20K of abandoned book throbbing in a file called USELESS. 20K is a lot of work and this 20k had been more than most. A year or so later, I opened it, wondering if I’d still hate it as much, and…

It was almost embarrassingly obvious. The characters weren’t bad: the problem was that I’d told them wrong. I’d focused on the angry clashing swords and shields, not the vulnerable bits they protected. But—and possibly because?—the actual big block was the whole ‘murdered rent boys’ plot. That was not a story I wanted to tell. There’s already infinitely too many stories about queer people being murdered for their sexuality or identity, and it’s not my job to add to piles of pain. I couldn’t write that story because I had no goddamn business writing that story, on a number of levels, and my subconscious knew it even if I didn’t. Thank you, lizard brain.

However. If that wasn’t the story…if I removed the macho posturing from the characters and the stuff I didn’t want to write from the plot…if I focused in on love, not hate or fear, and let the story flow from there…

Ding ding ding. I rewrote the existing 20K in two days, had the second half down in a week flat, and it’s coming out tomorrow (10 July) as Unfit to Print. There’s still the Holywell Street setting, the illegitimate earl’s son turned bookseller, the crusading lawyer, even a murder to solve–but the entire feel of the book is so different from the first draft it’s startling to me. It’s now a story about love lost and found, about rebuilding trust and letting yourself be vulnerable, about opening up rather than closing down. Turns out I work better if I’m lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. Who knew.

What can you learn from this? Don’t ask me; do I sound like I know what I’m doing? But here are my takeaways for getting stuck on a book:

  • Take a step back and ask yourself if something’s making you uncomfortable. When I find I really don’t want to write something, there’s usually a reason.
  • Take a longer step back and ask yourself what your story is about. Not the elevator pitch (“It’s about Victorian jewel thieves”) but the deep heart (“It’s about being true to yourself and when that clashes with love”). If you can’t dig out what the deep heart of the story is, that may be your problem.
  • Play with what would happen if you flipped something. If your hero’s strength was kindness instead of kicking arse, if you gave your vulnerable heroine power…
  • Remember where it started to go wrong? You may be able to cut it back to there and take it off in another direction. If it sucked to write from the start, learn from that.
  • Sometimes you need a year to see why it’s not working. Give yourself time and space.
  • If you’re really buggered, call my mum.

This is not to say that every project that isn’t working should be dropped, or that every dropped project can be salvaged. But if you look at the twin questions of “what am I actually writing here?” and “do I actually want to be writing it?” you may find a lot becomes clear.

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Unfit to Print is a 40k novella, out 10th July.

Cover of Unfit to PrintWhen crusading lawyer Vikram Pandey sets out in search of a missing youth, his investigations take him to Holywell Street, London’s most notorious address. He expects to find a disgraceful array of sordid bookshops. He doesn’t expect one of them to be run by the long-lost friend whose disappearance and presumed death he’s been mourning for thirteen years.

Gil Lawless became a Holywell Street bookseller for his own reasons, and he’s damned if he’s going to apologise or listen to moralising from anyone. Not even Vikram; not even if the once-beloved boy has grown into a man who makes his mouth water.

Now the upright lawyer and the illicit bookseller need to work together to track down the missing boy. And on the way, they may even learn if there’s more than just memory and old affection binding them together…

All buy links here!

More on the Sins of the Cities series (aka the one with the taxidermist).

Do Not Mess with the Happy Ever After: defining the romance novel

There is a recurrent thing in discussions of romance novels which bubbles up every couple of months: Books That Aren’t Romance Being Listed As Romance.

Obviously this isn’t car manuals sneaking their way in. It’s books that are marketed as romance novels (or series) when one of the protagonists dies, or they part for good, or the romantic relationship in which we’re invested is otherwise ended or ruined. It’s lists of romance novels that include, say, Wuthering Heights, where they both die and about time too, or Me Before You, where the disabled hero serves the heroine’s emotional growth and then commits suicide (shall we not), or much of Nicholas Sparks’ oeuvre (death and tragedy represent) and so on and so forth. These are stories about romance and romantic relationships, yes, but they aren’t romance novels.

Let’s do a thing. Think of the one word that defines the romance genre. What is it you go to romance specifically for, what are you expecting and needing to find? I’ll give you a clue, it’s got four letters, ends with ‘e’.

If you said ‘love’ go to the back of the room. You get love in all kinds of books, including those mentioned above. The guy in Lolita is in love, in his way, and if you call that a romance we have a problem.

What romance novels specifically offer us is hope.  Hope that two people can come together and be better happier humans as a result. Hope that marginalised or disregarded or unhappy people can find love and joy in a hard world; hope that however flawed you are, however scared, however much you feel like a piece of the jigsaw that doesn’t fit, there is a place and a person for whom you are just right; hope for the future. That’s the HEA/HFN promise that the romance genre offers (Happy Ever After/Happy For Now) and the key word there is happy. If a book doesn’t fulfil that by leaving us with the protagonists happy and together (for whatever definition of happy and together works for them) and us hopeful for their future as individuals and as lovers, it is not a romance novel.

This isn’t a criticism of books without HEA/HFN. Wuthering Heights isn’t a bad book because Heathcliff and Cathy don’t live happily ever after; it would be a far worse book if they did. It’s absolutely fine not to have an HEA/HFN. It just isn’t a romance novel without one.

Nor is this, as many idiots think, an indictment of the romance genre. The HEA/HFN requirement is not a limitation, it’s a definition. The HEA/HFN is to a romance novel as being warm-blooded is to a mammal: you can have a lot of variety within that classification, but if you don’t have that specific characteristic, you’re not part of that kingdom.

The reason this taxonomical stuff matters is because when you market a book–when you give it a title of a certain sort, with carefully chosen typography and cover treatment and a well-crafted blurb–you are making readers a promise as to what they’ll get. Imagine a book called The Sallow Road. The blurb reads, “In a surreal land, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.” The cover shows a shadowy road stretching through disturbingly unnatural scenery, and four odd-shaped silhouettes: three sinister humanoids, the fourth all too clearly a schoolgirl. All that adds up to some kind of warped dystopian fantasy horror, quite possibly by Clive Barker. And the reader will thus have every right to be annoyed when they open it to read, “Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife.” (Credit to Rick Polito for this amazing blurb for The Wizard of Oz, tweaked for my purposes.)

Say I write a novel where we see a named person commit a murder in the first chapter, and the book is about the murderer living undetected, and the impact of the unexplained death, which is never suspected or investigated, on her and on the people around her. This sounds like a pretty good read in a dark Gothic psychodrama way, or even a savage social satire, but the one thing it isn’t is a detective novel. Detective novels need a crime to be solved and a solution, and if I market my no-puzzle no-solution book as a detective novel with a mystery-type title and cover and blurb, and my advertising is specifically directed at detective-novel readers, I will get a lot of angry one-stars on Goodreads. This doesn’t say anything meaningful about the merits of my book vs the detective-novel genre as a whole, or about reader expectations vs the right of authors to tell whatever story they like. It’s just the inevitable consequence of offering A for sale and then supplying the purchaser with B.

Let’s put this another way because I’m hungry: You order gazpacho for lunch. You sit there happily awaiting the cool joy of a cold, tangy, refreshing tomato-based soup with a garlicky kick. And what you get instead is a hot, steaming bowl of minestrone. “What?” says the waiter. “It’s a Mediterranean tomato-based soup with vegetables and garlic, isn’t it? Yes, fine, I told you I’d bring you gazpacho, but don’t you think it’s a bit childish and predictable to expect every bowl of gazpacho to be cold? This isn’t your mother’s gazpacho! We’re reinventing soup!”

Well, you might eat the minestrone; you might even love it. But I suspect you’d be far more likely to send it back and/or leave a one-star on TripAdvisor, because you ordered gazpacho, your tastebuds are lined up for gazpacho, your personal circumstances, sitting in a Spanish courtyard on a hot day, are calling for gazpacho, and in the end it doesn’t matter how good the minestrone might be because if you’d wanted goddamn minestrone, you would have ordered goddamn minestrone. And this goes for the people who are ‘reinventing romance novels’ by writing things that aren’t romance novels but marketing them as romance novels in the hope of getting a slice of the largest and most voracious reading demographic, and then claim to be doing something special instead of just misleading advertising.

Of course some people can play with genre and even change (some of) the rules. Agatha Christie turned detective novels on their head with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. (I won’t spoiler: if you don’t know the twist do not Google, just read it.) There was a furious outcry and it remains a jaw-dropper even now. Sometimes you positively want to be played with: Heston Blumenthal’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant The Fat Duck, is all about presenting you with a thing that your eyes/brain say will taste a certain way, but does not, and it is indeed amazing. That’s fine for Agatha Christie, and a selling point for Heston Blumenthal. But it isn’t a licence for every passing jerk to serve minestrone while selling it as gazpacho.

The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

–Carl Sagan

When I pick up a romance novel, I might get werewolves; I might get dukes. I might get people desperately carving out happiness in dark oppressive periods of history, or a demographically implausible special ops team, or a small town where every family has six hot brothers who get married in birth order, or pretty much anything else. But what I am sure I’ll get when I close the book (or finish the series) is a sense of hope. Of love that lifts up the people involved, of people caught in a golden moment, of joy and fulfilment and things just being right, for once. That’s why people read romance novels, that is what romance novels do, and if you promise us that catharsis and snatch it away, you’re letting readers down.

It’s as simple as that. Don’t make false promises and you won’t get angry readers. (Well, not about that particular subject at least.) And if your question is “But KJ, how do I get my hands on all that sweet romance cash if I don’t want to write yawnsome predictable happy endings that don’t satisfy my soul’s dark cravings/desire for higher literary status?”, my answer is: You don’t, so don’t call your stuff romance and we’ll all be fine.

*****

Relevant to the above: My new book The Henchmen of Zenda is a queered version of the classic pulp adventure The Prisoner of Zenda. It’s packed with sex, swordfights, and skulduggery, and I had an enormous amount of fun with it. I would probably call it “pulp adventure with strong romantic elements”, and romance readers who need to know about endings first should check my GR review and click on the spoilers.

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Swordfights, lust, betrayal, murder: just another day for a henchman.

Jasper Detchard is a disgraced British officer, now selling his blade to the highest bidder. Currently that’s Michael Elphberg, half-brother to the King of Ruritania. Michael wants the throne for himself, and Jasper is one of the scoundrels he hires to help him take it. But when Michael makes his move, things don’t go entirely to plan—and the penalty for treason is death.

Rupert of Hentzau is Michael’s newest addition to his sinister band of henchmen. Charming, lethal, and intolerably handsome, Rupert is out for his own ends—which seem to include getting Jasper into bed. But Jasper needs to work out what Rupert’s really up to amid a maelstrom of plots, swordfights, scheming, impersonation, desire, betrayal, and murder.

Nobody can be trusted. Everyone has a secret. And love is the worst mistake you can make.

A retelling of the swashbuckling classic The Prisoner of Zenda from a very different point of view.

Readers say:

…a classic ripping yarn of swashbuckling Ruritanian highjinks, which is unabashedly gay AF.

… KJ Charles is always a delight and this book is no exception – her nuanced exploration of historical queer identities and her restoration of women into the narrative puts the complexity of history back on the page. Sarcasm, swordfights, and sex – what’s not to love?

… a story with murder, treason, double and triple crosses, where characters change allegiances every few chapters, where all the players have their own motives, and the reader is left breathless, wondering what in the hell could possibly happen next.

…an absolute delight.

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Of Course You Need More Books: a recommendation post

I have been reading a lot recently—like, a lot—so I thought I’d share some joy. I have divided these into the reading experience rather than genre (because I felt like it, sue me). Somewhat less romance than usual as I have not been in a romancey mood recently.

Books to make you feel warm and fuzzy

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/32075853-erotic-stories-for-punjabi-widows

A glorious story of a Sikh Londoner who inadvertently finds herself teaching a remedial English class for the widows of the title, who then start writing erotica, which then starts getting circulated in their community… It’s lively and hilarious and moving, and a spectacular first novel.

Abroad

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34605048-abroad

Another debut novel, this a m/m romance and one of the best of the year for me. Nick is a Russian Jewish immigrant to the US now studying in London, dealing with his sense of rootlessness and not belonging as he slowly comes out of the closet. I can’t wait for book 2.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22733729-the-long-way-to-a-small-angry-planet

Incredibly endearing picaresque tale of the motley crew of a spaceship, with wonderfully likeable characters you won’t want to leave; highly readable even for non SFF fans as it’s very much character based. Book 2, A Closed and Common Orbit, made me sob uncontrollable happy tears for about half an hour, and they can be read independently, but why not glom both.

Kith and Kin

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35126537-kith-and-kin

Another book that made me happy-cry. A really engaging, delightful found-family novel, as a gay couple attempt to adopt while struggling with screwed up family and friends.

The Nothing Girl

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22349087-the-nothing-girl

This is like the literary equivalent of a hot bath and a nice cup of tea on a rainy day. It’s warm and comforting and indulgent, and anyone who has a problem with those things lacks soul. Taylor’s writing has that kind of British fictional 1950s quality, of a comfortable world where terrible things happen but everything is basically okay. Pure escapism.

 

Fun fun fun

Jackalope Wives and other stories

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35058181-jackalope-wives-and-other-stories

I have read everything by T Kingfisher recently and could have recced any of them here. I picked this one because this story collection is superlative. A wonderful wry writer with a deceptively elegant style, magnificent imagination, deep kindness and a dry-as-a-bone hard edge. Read one, glom everything she’s written.

The Glamour Thieves

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34998187-the-glamour-thieves

Sci fi with romance plot (which is not finished in this book, the first in a series, so HEA-needers be warned). It’s about elves and orcs in a hi-tech world stealing cars and fighting necromancers with neuro-controlled drones while alternately pining and having wild elf-orc sex. I mean, you want that or you don’t. (I would. It really is enormous fun. )

Turbulence

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9544621-turbulence

This and its sequel Resistance are more superhero fun than every single Marvel movie put together. Just gleeful. Funny, imaginative, wry, with some brilliant powers, great action sequences, and excellent jokes. Loved the pair of them, massive recommend.

Gunpowder Alchemy

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22837890-gunpowder-alchemy

Nineteenth-century Chinese steampunk! I bought this ages ago and lost it, and then read it with great enjoyment only to discover the books had gone out of print so I couldn’t get the follow up. Fortunately, the author is bringing them back this autumn. Am dying to find out what happens next.

The Prey of Gods

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30129154-the-prey-of-gods

I just loved this SF/fantasy hybrid. Gods and hi-tech in future South Africa with a wonderfully diverse cast (gay and trans MCs, lots of women, I think pretty much all POC) and magnificent imagination. Stonkingly good storytelling and vivid adventure with tons of heart along with the ideas. I couldn’t stop reading this one.

The Djinn Falls In Love and other stories

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30753517-the-djinn-falls-in-love-other-stories

A really good story collection, with something for everyone, which sent me down a lot of rabbit holes reading other authors.

 

Not feelgood, still amazing

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/32606889-the-lamb-will-slaughter-the-lion

Queer American dystopian horror, as an off-grid community is attacked by the protective animal spirit they summoned. Gory, dark, and funny, and the first of a series.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7194279-the-secret-lives-of-baba-segi-s-wives

Do not let the cover persuade you this is chick lit. A compelling and almost soap operatic look at a polygamous household in Nigeria. Secrets both ridiculous and horrendous come spilling out when the ludicrous patriarch Baba Segi can’t get his fourth wife pregnant, balanced by the darkly comic narrative style.

I Do Not Come To You by Chance

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6265288-i-do-not-come-to-you-by-chance

Another book set in Nigeria, this one a look at 419 email scammers. It’s a fascinating look at the people who do these, the social and economic pressures that drive them, the excuses we make to ourselves. Thoroughly engaging and bitterly funny, a terrific and enlightening read.

Escape From Baghdad!

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23013966-escape-from-baghdad

Absolutely bananapants gonzo adventure of two arms dealers and a torturer trying to find hidden treasure in Iraq post Saddam’s fall and getting mixed up with ancient mystic cults, also militias and general madness. A stonking book with a massive on page body count and no holds barred, so not for the faint of stomach.

The  Magic Places

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35023468-the-magic-places

There’s a few books recently about children who went to magic worlds and how they cope when they come back. (Every Heart a Doorway and Among Others are two I’ve read recently.) This one is more literary than fantasy, interspersing the story of a long ago summer and a boy who didn’t come back with that of the girl who didn’t go, now an adult and embarking in a wildly inappropriate relationship with the missing boy’s married father. It’s magical and human and reflective about imagination and solitude; I thought it was wonderful.

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If you need more books after that lot, my latest is a 1920s m/m paranormal romance, Spectred Isle, and An Unsuitable Heir is out on 3 October. 

 

Spectred Isle: new series

I’m thrilled to share info about my new paranormal series, Green Men, which launches on 3rd August with Spectred Isle.

The Green Men series is set in England, 1923. The Great War is over, the Twenties are roaring in, the Bright Young Things hold ever more extravagant parties. It seems as though the world has changed for good. But some far older forces are still at work, and some wars never end.

The occult battles fought in the War Beneath the War have torn the veil protecting our world from what lies outside. With most of the country’s arcanists dead, and the Government unwilling to face the truth of the damage done, a small group pledged to an ancient duty must protect England from supernatural threat.

The Green Men series covers a motley crew of occult experts, jobbing ghost-hunters, and walking military experiments as they fight supernatural and human threats, save the land, and fall in love.

The story starts with a m/m romance, Spectred Isle (yes I am quietly smug about that title, thanks for asking) in which a disgraced archaeologist finds himself unwillingly dragged into a series of bizarre supernatural events, and only an aristocratic and evasive arcanist can save him. It was a joy returning to paranormal, which I haven’t written in two years, and I had a glorious romp around in real British history as well as ancient and modern English and London myths.

Here’s the stunning cover by Lexiconic Design!

KJC_SpectredIsleFronti

And the blurb…

Archaeologist Saul Lazenby has been all but unemployable since his disgrace during the War. Now he scrapes a living working for a rich eccentric who believes in magic. Saul knows it’s a lot of nonsense…except that he begins to find himself in increasingly strange and frightening situations. And at every turn he runs into the sardonic, mysterious Randolph Glyde.

Randolph is the last of an ancient line of arcanists, commanding deep secrets and extraordinary powers as he struggles to fulfil his family duties in a war-torn world. He knows there’s something odd going on with the haunted-looking man who keeps turning up in all the wrong places. The only question for Randolph is whether Saul is victim or villain.

Saul hasn’t trusted anyone in a long time. But as the supernatural threat grows, along with the desire between them, he’ll need to believe in evasive, enraging, devastatingly attractive Randolph. Because he may be the only man who can save Saul’s life—or his soul.

The Green Men series is set in the world of The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal a generation on. It’s not necessary to have read the Secret Casebook, but if you have you’ll recognise a few characters and references. If you haven’t but would like to, it’s in a super-bargain LGBT Fantasy Storybundle for just two more days at the time of writing (check it out, it’s an amazing value offer including some absolutely marvellous books). Otherwise the Secret Casebook is available here.

Spectred Isle publishes 3 August. It’s going up for preorder now (depending on how fast the stores get the links up), and print will be available via Createspace.

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An Unnatural Vice: out now, with more art!

An Unnatural Vice, book 2 in my Sins of the Cities sequence, hits the ether today. unnatural vice

Sins of the Cities is my take on the Victorian sensation novel. There’s murder, family secrets, disputed inheritance, peculiar lines of work, ongoing love stories, and fog. Lots of fog.

In fact, An Unnatural Vice is set during a real fog which was one of the worst of the 19th century. And I don’t just mean it was a bit murky out. The combination of pollution from home fires and factory chimneys and the murky atmosphere of a low-lying city in a river valley meant the air basically curdled. The 1873 fog lasted for a full week, during which time the Smithfield Cattle Show was held: more than 50 prize cows died of suffocation. Theatres had to be closed because nobody could see the stage. People died of respiration problems, in their hundreds, and also because they walked into ditches and the river.

A reporter wrote of a different and less severe London fog:

Night appears to be pressing close against the window-panes at noon-day… Traffic is not interrupted, although daylight is completely extinguished–so long as the pall remains above the housetops. When it descends to the surface of the ground, the discreet remain indoors; belated pedestrians are conducted home by link-boys […]; cabmen lead their horses, and vehicles moving at a snail’s pace frequently come to grief; the driver of the tram-car is unable to see his horses, and the conductor is hardly able to distinguish the hand that passes the fare.

To reiterate: that fog she’s describing is less bad than the 1873 one I use in An Unnatural Vice.

They called them pea-soupers for a reason. The air was thick; the fog would create banks in side streets and enclosed areas. You could not see to cross the road; lifelong Londoners would be hopelessly lost in their own neighbourhood. Now imagine you’re dodging a murderer…

An Unnatural Vice is set in that fog, and stars journalist Nathaniel Roy and fraudulent spiritualist Justin Lazarus, as they try to see their way clear in every sense. Nathaniel is a privileged moral crusader still mourning his long-dead lover; Justin is a gutter-bred scam artist who pretends to contact the dead for a living. It goes as well as you might expect…

“Spirits, if you wish to share your names now, give us that gift. Mark them where we may see them, if we are worthy to be told. Let us see now.” Lazarus closed his eyes, tilting his head back to expose his throat, a priestly action that had a wholly secular effect on Nathaniel.

Justin Lazarus was without question a disgraceful fraud, but as his lips moved in silent prayer, Nathaniel could not help the thought that he looked like a glorious fuck. The bad kind, of course; the kind that left a man feeling dirty and ashamed and degraded in his own eyes. The kind Nathaniel had never had in practice, and wouldn’t have admitted to imagining, but could see all too clearly. Bending the medium over his own table, holding him down. You want the furniture to move, Mr. Lazarus? That can be arranged.

All About Romance gave it a grade A/Desert Isle Keeper review, saying “I thought the first book in the Sins of the Cities trilogy was terrific, but this one is even better.  …  Their mutual enmity and lust are palpable, and the evolution of their relationship – from bitter enemies to devoted lovers – is gripping and romantic.”

I hope you enjoy it!

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The Sins of the Cities trilogy has an ongoing series plot (think of it as a sort of inside-out three-decker Victorian novel), so while you can read this one alone if you must, it’ll make more sense read after An Unseen Attraction. Book 3, An Unsuitable Heir, is out in October.

And to celebrate, let’s have some Mila May art…here’s Nathaniel, Justin, and Justin’s housemaid Sukey. The complete set of cards dealt so far can be seen here.) Enjoy!

CARD_NATHANIEL(2.25 x 3.5)CARD_SUKEY(2.25 x 3.5)CARD_JUSTIN(2.25 x 3.5)

The Writer Brain and how (if, why) it works

Writers frequently get asked by aspiring writers how we come up with stuff. Should you plot it all out first using those spreadsheets and index cards and lists of “beats” , or make it up as you go along? Do you know from the start who the bad guys are and what’s going to happen? Is the thing about “my characters take on a life of their own and they do what they want?” the pretentious tripe that it sounds? (Some thoughts at the end, if you care.)

The only real answer is: it depends. There is no one answer, no right way. Writer to writer, book to book, sometimes even page to page, it depends. Write the way that suits you, whether you plot according to a rulebook or start every day with no idea what will happen, and that will be the best way for you to do it.

However, a thing recently happened in my head that I found interesting, so I present it here.

I’m currently writing a book called Spectred Isle which will be the first of my new Green Men series. English-set alt-1920s historical paranormal romance, and I am having more fun than is probably legal. The basic concept for Green Men:

April 1923. The Great War is over, the Twenties are roaring, the Bright Young Things hold ever more extravagant parties. It seems as though the world has changed for good. But some far older forces are still at work, and some wars never end.

Unknown to most, an occult war was fought alongside the trenches, the fallout from which has done possibly permanent damage to the fabric of reality. Strange, chaotic forces are easier to summon now, and the protections against them are very fragile indeed.

The Green Men series follows a motley band of aristocratic arcanists, jobbing ghost-hunters, and walking military-occult experiments, as they try to protect the country, prevent a devastating attack on London, and find love while they’re at it.

So. I had my usual sort of synopsis for Spectred Isle, which is to say it follows this pattern:

1) Detailed introduction, characters, setup
2) Fully worked-out beginning of the romance
3) Introduce the Big Problem. Get the characters into a terrible mess
4) IMPORTANT PLOT STUFF OF SOME KIND KJ FILL IN LATER
5) Fully visualised dramatic ending that is apparently impossible to reach from Stage 3

I do Stage 4 pretty much every time, even when I think I haven’t. Stage 4 is the point where I run to my writer forum wailing about how useless I am, and usually end up stuck there for a week. When I was at Stage 4 on Flight of Magpies I ended up writing a complete 60K novel, Think of England, as displacement activity. I hate Stage 4.

The set-up of Spectred Isle is that posh arcanist Randolph and disgraced archaeologist Saul are stuck in a very tricky magical sort of trap (Stage 3). The next part I knew in detail was the ending sequence (Stage 5). But a massive section was missing: how they get out of the trap, how they get into and out of a subsequent situation that needs to happen, and how I could not only get them to the ending but give Saul any role in it whatsoever, let alone the pivotal role I had visualised for him. (It’s a magical showdown. He isn’t magic. Well done, KJ, useful as ever.)

Anyway, after a futile week mostly spent grumbling on Twitter I went to make a cup of tea and the answer came to me in a single, instant brain-dump. You know when Keanu says “I know kung fu!” in The Matrix? Like that, but with a full quarter of my book. I’m not in any way exaggerating this: I stood in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil and the entire missing plot section turned up in my head at once, as though I’d always known it and had just briefly forgotten. It was, I have to say, pretty cool.

Here’s the thing, though.

The solution–a pivotal event that gets them out of the trap, sets up the subsequent situation and gives Saul exactly the right role in the ending–was entirely based on stuff that was already in the MS. Not important plot-relevant stuff, either. Stuff that had no other purpose whatsoever. Stuff that I had written for no reason at all, just giving the characters things to talk about, which I had thought even while I wrote was padding and would probably need to be cut. A background problem to undermine a character’s apparent assurance. A minor character who was just there to give one of the MCs a bit of post-war survivor guilt. Fleshing-out text, grace notes, nothing I had a plan for, and all of which proved to be absolutely integral to the book’s structure.

I won’t have to rewrite or add anything in the earlier parts to make my just-thought-of solution to a full quarter of the plot work. It is all there, as if I had planned it from the start . But I didn’t.

So what I want to know is, did my subconscious pick up all the loose ends I was leaving, and play with them till they became something useful? Is that why I left all the loose ends, to give myself some rope? Or more scarily: did my subconscious put those specific details in there because on some level I already knew how the plot would go, even if I didn’t have a clue on a conscious level?

Answers on a postcard. I will say, I talked about this in my writer group and a lot of people reported experiencing similar jaw-slackening plot revelations. Maybe if you write enough stories, you train your writer brain to pick things up and use them. But don’t ask me how to do it, because if I could write Getting Your Subconscious To Do All The Hard Work On Your Plot, I’d price it at £9.99 and retire to the Seychelles on the proceeds.

All I know is, I’d like to thank my subconscious for its efforts. I couldn’t do it without you, scary unknown bit of my brain. Don’t even think about influencing how I spend the royalties.

***

The questions above

Should you plot it all out first using those spreadsheets and index cards and lists of “beats” , or make it up as you go along?

Do exactly as suits you, which will probably change per book. I plot more than I did, but I have written a complete fully fleshed, even-knew-what-would-happen-at-stage-4 synopsis twice, and both times I couldn’t write the book. Dead on the page. I had to jettison the synopsis both times, recast, and start from scratch. (Both of these were contracted to publishers on the basis of the synopsis, and one was book 1 of a closely linked trilogy, so that was fun.) What I mean is, if you aren’t naturally inclined to work everything out from the start, don’t feel compelled to exhaust yourself trying.

Do you know from the start who the bad guys are and what’s going to happen?

I do, generally. Others don’t. Often you realise you need extra or different things as you go along. Sometimes bad characters turn good and vice versa, according to the needs of the story as it develops; I think that’s an excellent sign of a working story. Sometimes you just need to give yourself a kick. Raymond Chandler famously said “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand,” which is good advice (substitute woman, nb person, dragon, sword, soul-stealing magic pen etc to taste), and Lawrence Block has written multi-suspect locked-room-murder type books without knowing the culprit when he started. I think I would have an aneurysm if I tried that but YMMV.

Is the thing about “my characters take on a life of their own and they do what they want?” the pretentious tripe that it sounds?

Yes. What it means is, “my conception of the characters has developed and now is at odds with my original conception of the plot, and my writer brain is refusing to fit an apple into a banana-shaped hole”. This is surely amazing enough in itself without getting all twee about it.

Cottingley_Fairies_1

This is not, in fact, a picture of a writer and her characters.

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Watch this space for news on Spectred Isle. Next release is An Unnatural Vice, Book 2 of Sins of the Cities, publishing in June.

 

Sins of the Cities: deal them in…

In which I introduce my new Victorian Sensation queer romance trilogy, with FAQs and illustrations. (Art by the ubertalented Mila May.)

What do you mean, Victorian Sensation?

I’m glad you asked me that. The Victorians were far from being the repressed nothing-on-Sunday bores of popular imagination. The snobs and the moralisers are always with us, but if you look at what people were actually up to–books, plays, newspapers–they loved scandal, drama, melodrama, murder, sex, mysteries, booze, romance, sentiment, off-colour jokes, raucous music hall, theatrical spectacle, and pretty much everything that is fun.

Victorian Sensation was basically what we now call genre fiction, on crack. Sex! Murder! Secrets in high places! Slumming! Mysterious strangers! Femmes fatales! Aristocratic families brought low! Ludicrously implausible coincidences! Everything happening in three volumes! If you fancy a read, Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon were the acknowledged rulers of the genre. I particularly like Lady Audley’s Secret with its antiheroine running rings round the posh boys; Armadale is distinguished by a magnificent villain continually off her face on drugs, and no fewer than four characters called Allan Armadale, one of whom very reasonably calls himself Ozias Midwinter to avoid attention.

What I’m getting at is, this is not going to be drawing-room tea parties, and nobody is putting frills on their piano legs.

Go on, then, tell me about it.

The Sins of the Cities trilogy (obviously it’s a trilogy; everything Victorian happens in three volumes by law) is set in London, winter 1873, a year distinguished by one of the worst fogs ever recorded.  We begin with An Unseen Attraction, in which we meet Clem Talleyfer, an unassuming lodging-house keeper with a lovely sweet pet cat.

Clem’s busy running his house, managing the lodgers, getting by, and maybe just slightly pining after his newest lodger: the taxidermist next door, Rowley Green. Meet Rowley.

Just two gentle, reserved, quiet men getting along. Two of the nicest characters I think I’ve ever written, actually. What could possibly go wrong?

Yeah, right, KJ. We’ve met you.

OK, so it’s possible things may take a very slight turn for the murdery. But just a bit.

You’re not fooling anyone but yourself.

Fine. Sex! Murder! Secrets in high places! Slumming! Mysterious strangers! Femmes fatales! Aristocratic families brought low! Ludicrously implausible coincidences! Everything happening in three volumes!

Ah yes. Three volumes?

Each book is a standalone romance featuring a separate couple, and each has a proper ending. But there’s also an overarching story running across all three books–so don’t expect all the loose ends to be tied up till book 3. They all feature the same cast of characters, many of whom are linked because they go to the Jack and Knave, a discreet and unassuming pub for a particular clientele. Would you care to meet some of the Jack and Knave’s regulars?

Go on, then.

We play the Diamonds in book 2, An Unnatural Vice. For now, meet Nathaniel, lawyer turned journalist, wealthy archbishop’s son, and upstanding member of society. Unfortunately, let’s just say, his love interest is very much a knave. (Nathaniel is kind of screwed.)

And here’s the Jack of Spades: private enquiry agent Mark Braglewicz. A practical man. His King of Spades…well, you’ll find out in due course. I couldn’t give everything away now, could I?

And that, for now, is where matters stand. A quiet taxidermist, a gentle-hearted lodging-house keeper, and his friends from the pub…oh, and the Queen of Hearts. Did I mention the Queen of Hearts?

Well, go on, then, who’s she?

That, my friend, would be telling.

The hands are dealt, the cards are on the table. Let the games begin.

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An Unseen Attraction will be hitting the e-shelves on 21 February at all the usual places. (This post is a bit in advance but I’m going on holiday tomorrow and will be incommunicado for a week at least. I say at least because we’re going to the Yorkshire moors, so the chances of being eaten by a giant spectral hound are like 50/50 tbh.)

Samhain Closure

A quick post re Samhain Publishing’s imminent closure and what that means for my books.

Samhain have announced that they will be shutting down, with their website going dark at the end of February. For me, the affected titles are the entire Charm of Magpies series including Jackdaw and Rag and Bone, and the standalone titles Think of England, Non Stop Till Tokyo, and The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal. That’s…quite a lot of my books.

***If you bought books directly from the Samhain site, DOWNLOAD THEM.*** Get everything to your library. There should be time enough that the site won’t fall over from demand, unlike the disgracefully rushed ARe closure, but if you’re having problems, take screenshots.

Books will start going off third party vendors (Amazon, Kobo etc) at the beginning of March (again, if you have Samhain titles stored in the cloud, download now).

Print titles will be available for a while longer as stock is sold through, but if you really want a print copy of anything Samhain, consider buying it now.

March is when they’ll start officially giving authors their rights back. My books may not be available for a period while this chunters through. I haven’t decided on what I do next, but assuming I self pub, it will take a while to reformat, tidy up, and get new covers done, and if I move to another publisher it will take considerably longer. On the other hand, there will probably be cool new cover art. That’s always fun.

A bit of good news is that return of rights mean I will at last be able to do audio books. This is something readers have been asking for, and hopefully I can get that in motion soon.

More news once I work out what to do; fist bump to all the authors affected as well as the excellent professionals who worked with Samhain–designers, editors, in house staff. This is a sad ending, but I had a very happy relationship with Samhain for a long time, starting when they offered to publish The Magpie Lord and changed my life. I’ll always be grateful for that.

A more cheerful post about EXCITING NEW SERIES follows!

KJ’s 2016 Reading Roundup plus giveaway

This year I mostly read the news, obsessively, while everything caught fire. But I also read some books.

I’ve been making more effort to review on Goodreads recently, in large part to jog my terrible memory. I didn’t think I’d been great about it this year, but in fact I still have enough fabby reads listed for a good hefty summary post, so here it is. Romance, SFFH (that’s sci fi, fantasy and horror) and a bit of non fiction.

I have been trying to diversify my reading and seek out more own-voices writers, particularly in romance—it was not flattering to me quite how much of a conscious effort that took at first—and it’s made a huge difference to my reading enjoyment, with the vastly increased range of ideas and perspectives, characters and topics and settings and lives on offer for me to splash in.

These are in no particular order apart from Documenting Light, which is first, and for which there is a giveaway if you scroll to the end. (But read the post first. I put effort into this, you know.)

A competent person would include covers but I have a stinking cold and a sick child, so, not competent.

Romance

Documenting Light by EE Ottoman (trans, m/nb)

If you’re going to read one book based on this rec list, make it this. Real, emotional, beautifully written, fascinating story of two people, one trans, one nonbinary, who are really just trying to get by and find one another. It’s all about being seen, now and in history; about small touches and little braveries that add up to big stuff, and it’s lovely.

A Champion’s Heart by Piper Huguley (m/f)

Extending her series about sisters finding love in the early years of the 20th century. This one is set in the Great Depression, with a boxer returning to find the woman he left behind. Superb historical detail—the black family’s journey out of the South is hair-raising; the casually dropped racism is hair-curling—and intense spirit of place and time, as ever with this author, who is also not afraid to show her previous heroines in an unsympathetic light. /applauds wildly/ Faith informs the book very heavily, but doesn’t offer easy answers.

Listen to the Moon by Rose Lerner (m/f)

This historical series is so good with its small-town setting and concentration on local life and interaction. This book is the story of a starchy valet turned butler and the freewheeling housemaid he falls in love with. It’s brilliant on the minutiae, which brings the atmosphere to life and feeds into the characters, and a hot, sweet romance too. And how often do you see servants in starring roles in British historicals? Not enough, that’s how often.

Fit by Rebekah Wetherspoon (m/f)

Another great series, this one contemporary. I glommed all three in like 36 hours but the first remains my favourite. BDSM that doesn’t take itself seriously—this book is laugh-out-loud funny—and a gorgeous heroine who is properly fat and doesn’t have to get thin for her HEA. All too rare. Loved it.

Eleventh Hour by Elin Gregory (m/m)

I LOVE THIS. A world weary spy is partnered with a back-office chap of no experience but a talent for cross-dressing in order to carry out a surveillance operation on an international terrorist of the Joseph Conrad school. Wonderful 1920s atmosphere, great sexual tension, utterly delightful leads, exciting plotting. Just gigantic fun.

Daughters of a Nation by Alyssa Cole et al (m/f)

A historical romance anthology from the authors of the excellent The Brightest Day collection. Tough, timely POC-focused romance set at various point in the struggle for suffrage in America. This is important stuff that needs to be remembered and written and these authors are doing a cracking job of that.

Gays of our Lives by Kris Ripper (m/m)

I love this whole contemporary series with all sorts of leads, including f/f and trans characters, and recommend them all so far. This one is laugh-out-loud funny at points and its narrator, Emerson, may be the grouchiest hero ever committed to paper, a gloriously misanthropic git.

Coffee Boy by Austin Chant (trans, m/m)

I don’t think I can improve on my description of this as a hot bath and fluffy towel of a book. Delightful happy-making short read with a prickly young trans man and a really irritable boss getting to know one another. Give yourself a lunchtime lift.

Roller Girl by Vanessa North (trans, f/f)

A really lovely, uplifting book about the women of a roller derby team. I kind of want a book about each one of them. Loved Tina and Joe and all the female friendships and fun. Actually wanted to play roller derby for a brief moment. Lovely.

Shatterproof by Xen Sanders (m/m)

Dark, lyrical, weird, magical, scary. A very fairytale feel for a paranormal story about depression and despair, and about finding hope in the darkness. A super intense, immersive read of the kind that really takes over your brain. I loved it.

 

SF, Fantasy, Horror

The Fall of the House of Cabal by Jonathan L Howard

If you haven’t read the Johannes Cabal series and you like sarcastic and occasionally lethal necromancers, Lovecraftian parody, genre bending, and fun, oh boy you are in for a treat. I love all five books. For heaven’s sake read in order, this is #5. I think Johannes Cabal The Detective is my favourite but all of them are hilarious, plotty, gleefully demented and sometimes deeply warped.

Bonesy by Mark Rigney

I glommed the entire Renner and Quist series. American gothic horror with a sense of humour, pairing a redneck and a dodgy ‘priest’ investigating mysteries. Very likeable, frequently very horrifying indeed.

Skin Deep Magic by Craig Laurance Gidney

This and his other short story collection Sea Swallow Me are outstanding. Gidney is a terrific, inventive, evocative writer who ought to be more widely known. Romantic, fantastical, strange, sometimes really dark and scary. Superb stuff.

Point of Hopes by Melissa Scott and Lisa Barnett

Is it another series I glommed like a cartoon squirrel going through a tree? Why yes it is. Absolutely wonderful fantasy with an understated m/m romance at the centre, delightful world building, huge warmth, interesting plots and a new one coming out next year oh my god I cannot wait. Read them all!

The Serpent by Claire North

The first of three linked spec fic novellas with a lovely concept about a mysterious mystic game-playing sect. You need to read all three, really, but I think this was my favourite. I want the author to write more in her Kate Griffin persona though, I miss Matthew Swift.

Stiletto by Daniel O’Malley

Sequel to the utterly glorious urban fantasy The Rook. I loved this one just as much. Ingenious, funny, twisty, well-plotted, lovely strong female leads, and vast quantities of gleeful inventiveness.

Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones

Not sure whether to put this under romance or fantasy, both are valid. A nice twisty political/mystical conspiracy plot in a well developed mitteleuropeanish fantasy setting; a delightful slow burn f/f romance. Hugely readable fun.

 

Non-fiction

The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla et al

This has been getting column inches for a reason. A terrific collection of essays about the British immigrant experience, from all kinds of perspectives that often don’t get space. Often angry, often hilarious, always thoughtful. Should be required reading for every Brit.

Dirty Old London: the Victorian Fight against Filth by Lee Jackson

Let’s not mess about. Either you read that title and thought, Wow, Victorian drains, plumbing and rubbish disposal? That sounds intriguing! or you didn’t. If you did, I highly recommend this. Packed full of fascinating and often stomach-churning facts.

Bright Young People by DJ Taylor

I was thinking of writing a romance series about the Bright Young Things of the 20s and 30s, but then I read this book and realised I’d rather floss with barbed wire. It’s noteworthy they couldn’t even tolerate themselves. Really interesting social history of a generation at an extraordinary point in time, as long as you don’t mind shouting “Oh my God you insufferable entitled twat!” at the pages a lot.  A useful companion to this would be Among the Bohemians, which is about people around the same period who were kind of like the Bright Young People but generally with less privilege and more talent, so you’ll be shouting “Oh my God you insufferable smug twat!” instead.

If you are going to read about the Bright Young Awfuls, I strongly recommend Crazy Pavements by Beverley Nichols which is a pre Vile Bodies expose novel, and also a queer romance under the thinnest possible veil, written in the 1920s.

Richmond Unchained by Luke G Williams

Biography of a black British boxer who competed for the English title, became a national superstar, and was a guard of honour at the Prince Regent’s coronation as George IV. An amazing story, as thrilling as any novel. The author’s a boxing journalist, and it shows because the accounts of Richmond’s two big fights are heart-stoppingly exciting.

Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Frances Larson

It’s about the history and practice of decapitation. What would you like me to say?

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Because it’s Christmas and because I want people to read it, I am giving away an e-copy of Documenting Light to a randomly chosen commenter here. Just name one good book you read this year in the comments to be considered! Draw will be made on 16th December.

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My most recent release was the story ‘The Price of Meat’ in the All In Fear queer horror anthology. Wanted, a Gentleman releases on 9 January, and then my new Victorian trilogy Sins of the Cities starts in February with An Unseen Attraction.