KJ Charles logo

What Is He Thinking? (or, how to make non POV characters show themselves)

On one of my regular forays onto Twitter begging for blog post ideas, Sarah Drew asked “How do you subtly suggest what a non POV character is thinking?”

That is an excellent question, and one that looms large in the minds of anyone writing single POV romance: how do we ensure we know what the other MC thinks and feels? I think the difficulties with that are an excellent reason for the popularity of dual POV romance.

Here I will note that it’s not unknown to do scenes from one POV and then repeat them from the second person’s point of view to give the reader full information. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a terrible idea. I can imagine good reasons to do it and when it might work. But I cannot currently think of a romance where it is anything other than a terrible idea in practice, so, you know, there’s a rec challenge.

Right. So, how do you get into the feelz of a non-viewpoint (NVP) character?

Well, the first question is: do you want to? Presumably you picked your POV character for a reason, if it’s single POV, or if you’re alternating, you decided that this scene had to be played from A’s perspective. So it’s worth considering how much of B’s feelings you actually want to give away, either to A or to the reader.

This can vary dramatically. My book Any Old Diamonds is narrated entirely from the POV of Alec, who hires jewel thief Jerry to rob his father. Jerry is presented as very hard for Alec to read, and because he is very deliberately excluding Alec from his feelings, we the reader are excluded too. They have sex, and Jerry teases out Alec’s wants and also listens to him, but we’re in chapter six (of 14) before they kiss. This is very much a book where, like the hapless viewpoint character, the reader can only look at the moments of consideration or tenderness on Jerry’s part and hope they add up to something. And thus, this is very much a book where you can’t skip the sex scenes.

Are you hard now?” Alec grunted affirmatively. “Good. Don’t touch yourself. Christ, you’re beautiful.”

Alec looked up sharply. Jerry’s eyes were wide and startled, as if he was shocked by his own words, then his lips curled deliberately. “With a cock in your mouth, I meant to say.”

I did it this way for three reasons.

  • Alec is carrying a huge amount of damage and insecurity. We go deep into that. If I’d also dug directly into what the hell is wrong with Jerry (a lot) it would have been 500 pages and glacially paced.  
  • This book is very much about how hard it is to know the truth of people. So it’s important thematically that the only head we’re in is Alec’s, and all we see of Jerry is what Alec sees (from which we can draw our own conclusions).
  • Let’s be real, Jerry the enigmatic, sexually dominating jewel thief is just more fun than “Jerry Gets In Touch with His Feelings”.

Of course, you have to make up for this sort of thing. Jerry eventually comes up with a multi-page grovel/declaration of feelings, plus a massive Grand Gesture. It felt the least I could do.

So: you might not want to clue the reader in with more than direct visuals of how the NVP character looks. Or, you may. Let’s now look at how we might do that.

My latest book Masters In This Hall is a single viewpoint. John (VP) is a hotel detective who lost his job when Barnaby seduced him to distract him from a jewel theft. (I do actually write books that aren’t about jewel thieves occasionally but this one is in the same series as Any Old Diamonds.) Masters is single viewpoint because the main plotline is John starting off devastated by Barnaby’s betrayal (they were just starting a relationship), and the mystery / gradual reveal of why Barnaby did it. If I’d done Barnaby POV I’d have had to spend a lot of the time in Barnaby’s head while deliberately holding back that information from the reader and it’s possible for that to get annoying.

So I went for single POV. But honestly, it’s a Christmas romance novel, we all know Barnaby must have had a good reason, so let’s see how we know what he’s feeling. Deep dive ahoy!

(They are both in Abel Garland’s country house where Barnaby Littimer is master of ceremonies for the medieval-style Christmas celebrations and John Garland is the uninvited poor relation.)

Littimer leapt lightly onto a chair like the hero in a pantomime, tossing his over-long hair back. The arrant ponce. … Littimer’s grin glittered in the candlelight. “A programme of festivities with roles for all who wish them, and enjoyment for everyone. As your Lord of Misrule, I shall direct the house, and I must implore the fullest obedience. All will be revealed, lords, ladies—”

His gaze swept the room, and snagged on John at the back. Their eyes locked. The smile died on Littimer’s face for a full half second.

Then it returned in full force as though he’d never stopped. “And gentlemen!” he concluded, and swept a dramatic bow.

Here we see John”s mere existence shake Barnaby’s confidence and polished persona. This guy is no Jerry, able to control his emotional display, but he’s very good at performing and John nevertheless puts him off his stride.

That sets the tone. We have a couple of exchanges where Barnaby is being irritatingly mysterious and trying to get John to leave. Is he trying to clear the decks for a robbery, or something else?

Littimer made a strangled noise. “If I swear to you that I don’t want to rob your uncle, or your cousin, if I promise on my life not to do anything that will harm you or your family—”

“As if I’d believe you.”

“—is there any chance you’d go away?”

John struggled to form words. Finally he managed, “You actually think I’m that gullible?”

“I’m not trying to gull you. But I really do promise it would be better if you just go home and let events take their course.”

“Why?”

Littimer gave a mirthless smile. “Because I’m trying to keep several balls in the air at the moment, most of them made of nitro-glycerine, and I’d prefer you to be somewhere else when I drop them.”

“What do you mean?”

“That I’m facing the immediate and unpleasant consequences of my own stupidity. If you think you fell into a trap and brought trouble on yourself, I can only say you are speaking to a master of that art. I’ve bollocksed things up so badly that all I can hope to do now is limit the damage. I think I owe you that.”

That had come out in a raw-voiced rush. John had no idea what to make of it. “Are you in trouble?”

Littimer swallowed, hard; John saw his throat move, and remembered how he’d kissed it, how it had convulsed when Barnaby spent. “A quite remarkable amount.”

His words say he’s sorry and cares about John still. He could be lying. But we’ve also got some clear physical indications of Barnaby’s distress (strangled noise, mirthless smile, rushed speech, swallow) along with the dialogue to support the idea that he’s telling the truth. Also, that he’s actually not very good at this stuff and not coping very well. He’s visibly frustrated and unhappy, which allows us to believe that he’s telling the truth with his indiscreet confession. The final para gives us a physical movement that emphasises the desire between them, but also gently nudges the reader to believe Barnaby is telling the truth: we’re being specifically shown it was an involuntary reaction that betrays his feelings.

Small touches, but they set John, and us, up to believe that Barnaby is yearning to tell John the truth, that he’s every bit as unhappy as John, that they are on their way back together. And thus, when he does confess all, we’re primed for belief and reunion.

The physical underpins the dialogue. Even showing an absence of reaction does something. Here’s Jerry again, looking through Alec’s sketchbook when they’ve had a massive break-up because of a terrible thing Alec did.

Jerry leafed through the book, page after page, unspeaking. There were the face studies, various sketches of eyes and eyebrows, and then he turned the page to reveal that accursed full-face drawing, and Alec decided he really did now want to die. He’d tried to catch Jerry’s expression in that long moment after they’d made love kissing—that intent look, the tenderness—and he’d put so much of his own yearning on the page that he didn’t believe any viewer could miss it.

Jerry looked at that picture for what seemed hours, face unreadable. He didn’t speak, he didn’t move, and Alec watched him, throat as constricted as though Jerry’s hand was gripping it tight.

At last he closed the sketchbook, though he still didn’t look up. “You’ll have to take a few of those out.”

The absence of reaction is a reaction, and the reader can draw their own conclusions onto that blankness. Here it’s crucial to show not tell (a maxim for which I have little time otherwise) because this passage would really not be improved by a detailed explanation of his probable feelings. Jerry is hanging on to his emotional coolth by his fingernails, as we see from the fact that he doesn’t look up: we may well conclude he can’t control his features.

Which leads to an important point: if you want the reader to know what the NVP character is thinking, you have to know what they’re thinking. I knew what was going on in Jerry and Barnaby’s heads throughout, and one of the things I looked for in editing was making sure their (offpage) motivations and thoughts were as sharply defined and consistent as any onpage ones. If you have a NVP character come in being offensive because the plot requires it, rather than because you know what put them in that place, it won’t convince.

That’s MCs. What about showing other, minor characters’ feelings? I’m going to cherrypick a few more examples from Masters In This Hall. Here’s Lord Sidney Box talking about his host (Abel Garland who is an industrial millionaire), whose daughter is to marry Lord Dombey, Lord Sidney’s best friend.

“Garland’s a fool as well as a vulgarian. But, a rich fool. And to be just, he is lavish to his daughter. One cannot fault Miss Garland’s dress, whatever one might think of her breeding, or looks.” They both chuckled again. “Well, Dombey’s not much of a judge of horseflesh, so it scarcely matters, and I trust her to forget her origins once she has her coronet. The ironmonger will have to celebrate his pagan festivities alone next year, and one can only hope he ceases to make a mockery of a house that deserves to be treated with a little more dignity.”

The bite in his voice was startling. The other man said, “Yes, this was your place, wasn’t it? I say, Box—”

“I really don’t care,” Lord Sidney drawled. “I regret seeing it in such ludicrous hands, or course—like witnessing a lady of whom one was once fond plying her trade on the street with a painted face. But it was always inconvenient and really, we barely used it. My father was lucky to get it off his hands, and Garland paid through the nose for it. I won’t deny that it stings to see part of our family history lost in such a way and to such a vulgarian, but it’s all of a piece.”

What do we know now about Lord Sidney from these two paragraphs? He will sneer at a man while living off his lavish hospitality. He’s got a pretty grim attitude to women, and a strong belief in the superiority of the upper classes. And he is trying to sound sophisticated and blasé with all his drawling, but we see the flash of uncontrolled temper when he reflects that his old family home has been sold to an industrialist. You are unlikely to be surprised when he turns out to be the villain.

Or how about Abel’s daughter Ivy? She is a formidable woman making an exceedingly calculated marriage to an earl:

The Earl of Dombey was not a very impressive specimen, being of no more than medium height, with rounded shoulders, limited conversational horizons, and a tendency to let his mouth hang open. On the other hand, he was the Earl of Dombey, and thus a remarkably good catch for Miss Ivy Garland, who had no claim to noble birth and brought to the marriage nothing but shrewd intelligence, superb dress sense, and a massive amount of money.

She manages her father ruthlessly, and she will clearly manage Dombey ruthlessly. He is without question an inbred idiot and she’s marrying him to become a Countess. But she’s on John’s side (ish) and it’s a Christmas book. So I put in this tiny sequence at the Christmas table:

“That footman’s got a nerve.”

It was Barnaby Littimer. John ought to have told him to find another seat, clear off, go to the devil. Since all his energies were being spent on digestion, leaving very little for thought, and his general mood was of befuddled benevolence, he said, “Which?”

“The one who just offered Lady Jarndyce gin-punch. I bet she’s never touched gin in her life. No, you fool, don’t offer it to Box. Argh.”

At the far end of the table, Lord Sidney Box recoiled from the steaming jug with a pantomime of dismay. “He could just say no,” John remarked. “You’d think they were giving him horse piss.”

“If only,” Barnaby said. “Look, Dombey’s having some. I didn’t expect that.”

John watched the peer take a glass of gin-punch and raise it to Abel. “Good for him. Though he’d probably drink horse piss if you gave it to him. Jolly good vintage, eh what?”

Ostensibly this is showing us John and Barnaby ganging up to mock the toffs, enjoying one another’s company, the start of a reconciliation. But we also see that Lord Sidney deliberately make a point of his contempt for the working-class gin punch favoured by their host, whereas Lord Dombey shows fellowship and courtesy.

And then at the end, when Lord Sidney is exposed as the villain, we see Dombey’s reaction.

Dombey nodded slowly. “Yes. I beg your pardon, Garland: I believed him. My friend, you see.”

Ivy squeezed his arm. “I’m so very sorry, my dear. This is dreadful for you.”

He put his hand over hers, and their fingers linked. “Well. Box. Very poor show. Not sure what to think. Dare say you can tell me, eh?”

He may be thick as mince, but he’s decent, and he recognises that Ivy is the brains of their outfit, and that plus the moment of mutual linking fingers—comfort, allegiance, relying on one another—tells the reader that in fact there’s more to this marriage than exchanging money for title.

I didn’t want to make a big deal of it; it’s not their story. I absolutely did not want to hammer the point home because urgh.

He put his hand over hers, and their fingers linked. “Well. Box. Very poor show. Not sure what to think. Dare say you can tell me, eh?”

John sighed with relief. It looked as though his cousin might even be making a love match in her own way after all.

There’s no need to explain everything. As with any lie, fiction becomes less plausible if you overdo the supporting details. Just drop the hint and let the reader pick it up.

And that, I think, is the key to clueing us in to NVP characters’ thoughts. Don’t over-egg it. Trust the reader, show us words and reactions, and let us draw our conclusions even if we’re not in their heads. After all, that’s how we understand people every day.


Any Old Diamonds and Masters In This Hall are both in the Lilywhite Boys series. Get your Victorian jewel thieves here.

My Best Books of 2022

Inexplicably, we’re once again trundling towards the end of the year so it’s time for my annual books post. Goodreads tells me I’ve read 248 books, although that omits the rereads: the Agatha Christies and Georgette Heyers that were all I could manage during the worst weeks of Covid, the Murderbot and Kate Griffin reread in Covid recovery, and the huge Terry Pratchett glom after reading the bio.

My romance list is very sparse. This is because, with deep regret, I am excluding all HarperCollins books (which includes Mills & Boon and Avon) since the union, currently on strike with incredibly reasonable demands that the company is ignoring, have asked that people don’t review/promo HarperCollins titles for the duration of the strike. HarperCollins: start negotiating and pay your staff properly because this sucks for staff and authors alike. (I think I caught all the imprints but if I’ve messed up let me know in the comments.)

(It is absolutely fine to buy HC books, the union has just asked for a hold on reviews and promo, btw. Do not boycott.)

Romance

Delilah Green Doesn’t Care by Ashley Herring Blake. Wonderfully real contemporary f/f, messy characters, super queer, with glorious female friendships as well as the central romance. And very well written, too. A fabulous and hugely enjoyable story of people finding their place and each other. Enormously recommended.

Red Blossom in Snow by Jeannie Lin. M/f romance with a melancholy feel–a magistrate and a courtesan, both of them haunted by their pasts. Low-key a lot of the time but no less passionate and intense for that. The historical detail rings wonderfully true while never overwhelming the story, and it’s a gorgeous understated romance between two hurt people who can stand for themselves but still need each other. The Pingkang li series has got better with every book, and this one is a triumph.

What a Match by Mimi Grace. Absolutely delightful contemporary m/f romance. The tropes are deployed cleverly and enjoyably, the characters are real and terrifically likeable, and the romance feels really well developed. Most of all, the writing is funny, assured, with a light touch and a great line in dialogue, and the editing is top notch (rare and precious). And the cover is gorgeous.

Honey and Pepper by AJ Demas. A new AJ Demas book is always a delight. I adore the alt-ancient Mediterranean world with its cats-in-a-sack politics, sexual fluidity, very dark elements, and wonderfully realised setting. This is the very sweet and tender m/m love story of a cinnamon roll cook and a twisty lawyer-type finding one another, while both coping with their recent freedom from enslavement (very sensitively handled).

A Lady for a Duke by Alexis Hall. Lovely m/f Regency with a trans woman lead. Starts with a certain amount of angst, none of it centred on the heroine’s transness but rather on the hero’s war trauma and bereavement, then morphs into a delightfully fluffy romp with a delicious secondary cast.

SF / Fantasy

She Who Became The Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. I actually read this last December but after my books of the year post, and it’s too good to miss out. Absolutely tremendous alt-historical epic with a touch of magic. A nameless unwanted peasant girl takes on her dead brother’s name to become a monk, a warrior, a leader. Terrific sweep and narrative drive with a beautifully drawn cast.

Kundo Wakes Up by Saad Z. Hossain. A wonderful, strange addition to Hossain’s climate-collapsed world of djinn and nanotech. A strikingly moving story of loss, love, friendship, and building something real in a broken world. Can be read as a standalone, but read the whole lot anyway (start with Djinn City, thank me later).

The Devourers by Indra Das. Proper werewolves. Very intense writing, lush and horrific and physical, about love and exploitation, colonialism and queerness, myth and culture. Magical, compelling, tremendous stuff. I loved it. CWs for on page rape, violence, and body horror.

Dust-Up At The Crater School by Chaz Brenchley. Think the Chalet School on Mars, with schoolgirl hijinks aplenty, including here a couple of pupils quietly but determinedly pursuing their own genders. Also, Russian spies, dust storms, midnight feasts, and aliens. Huge fun.

The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older. SFF f/f (say that after a drink) with a gaslamp Holmes and Watson on a planet spanned by rails. A magnificently imaginative setting, a nicely developed and satisfyingly resolved mystery, a beautifully understated central romance, and a lot of thought-provoking ideas make this an immensely satisfying read. Does more at novella length than many books manage in three times as much.  

The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi. Absurdly, gloriously entertaining. A story that hits all the beats and tropes you might think, and that’s not a criticism: you read this book with a knowing expectation of what will happen, plus gleeful anticipation for how you’re going to get there. Diverse cast, entertaining banter, lots of good swearing, cathartic dealing with 2020, and just massive enormous-monster-based fun.

The Scar by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. A wonderful read. Intense, slightly dreamlike story structure with marvellous characters, telling a fable about toxic masculinity and how it could just not. It’s a classic fantasy plotwise, and the anti/hero becoming a decent person through his magically enforced cowardice is a profound pleasure to watch. Hugely readable, excellent translation.

Under Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings. A crappy and chaotic set of space bums and criminals on a junk ship in the middle of a terrible war find themselves 150 years in the future … where they are the sanctified heroes who ended the war. Beautiful world-building and terrific construction of the time travel plot plus a wonderfully human story. This is very much a book about allowing people nuance and failings and redemption: lovely.

Nettle & Bone by T Kingfisher. Classic T Kingfisher – a fairy tale that delves deep into the darkness and horror that underlies those stories, both in sinister magic and in human cruelty. But there is also kindness, and friendship, and love, and hope. A magical tale with high stakes and a lot of humour.

Literature, basically

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley. A glorious translation that hits a perfect balance between modern language (“bro!”) and archaisms. Brings gender to the forefront, including the less and more toxic varieties of masculinity, making it feel very much in the vein of the cowboy poet or pub storyteller. Triumphant.

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo. I enjoyed this enormously. A disparate group of deserters, criminals and people escaping violence stick together to survive homelessness in unfamiliar, desperate Lagos. It’s a scary world where terrible things happen, but also a place where people can be kind, and loyal, and loving. A hugely engaging read with characters about whom we care intensely, and a really satisfying plot.

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis. Brilliant in the full meaning of the word. Structurally clever and adventurous–two chapters composed entirely of ellipses, which works perfectly. Staggeringly good characterisation of the self-centred, self-regarding, worthless Brás Cubas. Really funny observations. Massive moral heft in the casual asides regarding poverty, slavery, inhumanity. Intensely readable and just so good.

The Movement by Ayisha Malik. Woman inadvertently starts the #ShutTheFuckUp movement, and Non-Verbalism sweeps the globe. In the olden days this would have been called a Novel of Ideas: it’s an intriguing concept, brilliantly explored from multiple angles, with a gloriously sour view of people underpinned by a profound need for improvement and justice. Also highly entertaining on book-publishing bullshit. Funny, absorbing, and thought-provoking.

Vetaal and Vikram by Gayathri Prabhu. Retelling/reframing of a set of Indian stories that have been retold and reframed for centuries by Indian writers, and were then retold and reframed by Richard Burton. The stories are excellently told, with a strong queer sensibility (including trans and queer protagonists, most of them misbehaving because most people in these stories are misbehaving, but with a couple of achingly lovely moments of hope and yearning too) and a powerful feminist feel.

Non Fiction

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. Excellent reportage account of the Theranos startup, aka massive scam. Reads like a thriller, and genuinely shocking.

Vagabonds by Oskar Jensen. Fascinating look at London street life and how the poor survived in the late 18th to late 19th centuries. Social history as it should be: fascinating, inclusive, well-written, passionate, revelatory, and deeply humane. A necessary read if you’re at all into London history.

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham. Truly horrifying account of the nuclear disaster. There’s a lot of backstory here which is vital in depicting the wider context, and the details of the explosion and its aftermath are compelling, but the book never loses sight of the individual human stories, of people, mostly trying to do their jobs well, who did not deserve this.

The Dark Queens by Shelley Puhak. Extremely interesting book on two Merovingian queens. If you don’t have a clue what a Merovingian might be, don’t worry about it, nor did I. Nasty and brutish story of two powerful women scrabbling for supremacy, and very well told with loads of atmosphere and world-building. Fascinating stuff.

The Devil is a Gentleman by Phil Baker. Excellent bio of a hack writer. Dennis Wheatley was a towering figure of popular writing, and pretty much invented the British occult. This is a fascinating deep dive into his life, British publishing, the wine trade, implausible true crime, wartime shenanigans including being part of the deception teams that helped D-Day happen, and the business of being a mega-author. Wheatley himself kind of sucked but this is great.

Africa is Not a Country by Dipo Faloyin. Very well written set of essays covering different aspects of Africa and its relationship with the West. Evocative, vivid, often extremely funny, with biting sarcasm but also immense generosity of spirit, which really makes you read with a sense of hope as well as fury. Compelling reading, highly informative, and highly recommended.

Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes by Rob Wilkins. A great biography and discussion of the books, but also a dreadful account of what dementia did to a wonderful brain. Intensely moving and deeply upsetting. A great tribute to a marvellous author and very kind/grumpy man.

Index, a history of the by Dennis Duncan. A much-more-interesting-than-you’d-think history of the index. Fascinating book stuff, and hands down the best title ever.

Glomming of Obscure Authors

I read a somewhat bonkers ten books by DE Stevenson this year, all of them feelgood, gentle-but-with-an-edge stories set in the 30s to 50s. If you need a place of safety, these are great. Start with the utterly delightful Miss Buncle’s Book, in which a woman of no importance writes a roman a clef about her English village, causing total mayhem but also significant improvements. One of those books you just hide in for a while.

I also read, and I am struggling to believe this myself, eighteen Tommy Hambledon thrillers by Manning Coles, including three I had to order second hand in print (and I have three more in my TBR pile right now). I have no excuses. Spyish stories starting in WW1 and going on till the 1960s with a bit of sleight-of-hand on the main character’s age. If you too have lost your marbles, try the delightful Without Lawful Authority, the story of a disgraced Army officer who meets a burglar (officer class but down on his luck), as they form a dynamic duo who go after Nazi spies in the run up to war. A bit of regrettable period-typical bigotry, sadly, but 97% fun.  

I would also commend Now or Never, a bonkers post-war one which is not such a good book overall but which does have the spectacular recurring secondary characters Campbell and Forgan, a heftily coded gay couple who make model trains for a living and annoy Nazis/bad guys/the police for a hobby. They’re introduced in the fantastic A Brother for Hugh/An Intent to Deceive but that hasn’t been digitised, inexplicably. I’m going to stop talking about this now.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­________________________________________

If that isn’t enough books for you, try Masters In this Hall, by me, out now!

Masters In This Hall: New book out now!

So I wrote a surprise book, as you do. (I didn’t announce it because I wasn’t sure I’d have time to do it. Then I realised I absolutely didn’t have time to do it. So I did it. Huge thanks to Kanaxa, who created the lovely cover in an afternoon to make this possible!)

Cover has a sepia look and Victorian-medievalist text, plus flower and greenery garlands in deep reds, greens, gold. two newspaper-sketch style Victorian gentlemen with somewhat shifty expressions in the foreground, an old house in the background. General look of a Victorian illustrated paper or possibly Christmas card.

Masters In This Hall is a 30K story set in England, December 1899. John Garland is a disgraced hotel detective, sacked from his job because of the callous actions of stage designer/jewel thief Barnaby Littimer. Now Barnaby has a job managing the Christmas celebrations at John’s millionaire uncle’s home. And John intends to stop whatever he’s up to…

This is set in the world of the Lilywhite Boys, some four years after the end of Gilded Cage. It’s a standalone story so you don’t need to have read that series, but if you have, you may see cameos.

I’m not religious, but I like carols (not the ‘sweet baby Jesus’ ones, the ‘It’s very cold outside and we’re going medieval on your arse’ ones). Masters In This Hall is named after my favourite carol and I made a Spotify playlist with all the carols mentioned in the book, for your enhanced reading experience.

There are many Dickens references, and I am waiting with anticipation for the first person to complain about the particularly inexcusable pun.  

It’s out now on all the usual e-stores (some are taking a bit longer to come through). Enjoy!

Seven for a secret: a covers gallery

I was overjoyed this week when I got the Japanese cover of The Magpie Lord. This is my most-translated book and one of my chat group commented it would be a good idea to do a gallery. Which, clearly, it is. Herewith the various incarnations of the Charm of Magpies series: six full versions plus the first in the Japanese series.

The first are my Samhain covers from the original edition; the second are by Lexiconic Design for my self pubbed edition. We then have the wonderfully moody Hebrew (compare to the self pubs: super ingenious), the even moodier French, the Thai set for which I would quite literally die, and the abstract and swoony Taiwanese. At the bottom you can see the first of the Japanese ones, and it is worth waiting for.

And finally the new Japanese cover. If the other ones are going to look this good, it may edge out the Thai versions.

Amazing. I have always felt blessed in my covers for this series, but seeing them together is…yeah, I’m a jammy cow.

A Thief in the Night is out!

I have a release day, for the first time in a very long while. (This is basically because I’ve started going with publishers instead of self publishing. When you finish a book that you’re doing yourself you can get it out in a very short time: I had Subtle Blood out in less than a month after I finally signed off the MS. Publishers take the best part of 18 months for print. You see the problem.)

Anyway, we’re slowly getting back into a schedule, and here’s the first: A Thief in the Night, a Regency romance starring Toby, who you may remember as Robin’s long-vanished brother from The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting.

“Toby left us. Up and vanished one day. He was our big brother, our best friend, the one who stood in front of us when Lordship was free with his fists, but he didn’t even say goodbye, and we have never heard from him again. He’d fought with Lordship every day of the five years before that, you’d have thought they hated each other, but Lordship was never the same once he’d gone. Well, he was worse.”

I always wanted to know what happened to Toby. Now I do, and you can find out too, simply by reading this!

Cover, in cartoon style. Old house with peeling wallpaper, a leaded window outside which we see a night sky with stars, a table covered in old books and a chipped cup. Toby has his back to the table. Miles (dark hair, smart Regency clothes, taller) is leaning over Toby looking menacing. Toby (sandy hair, no coat or cravat) does not look menaced. He's got one hand on Miles's hip in a trusting way. The other, behind his back, is concealing a gentleman's expensive fob watch.

You will have to read it with your ears initially because this is an Audible Original, ie an audio exclusive. The ebook will be out in April 2023, and I’m doing a print version in a short story bind-up then, but for now it’s only audio, ably read by Ryan Laughton and James Joseph. The lovely cover is Elizabeth Turner Stokes!

Here’s the link: I hope you enjoy it.

Best Books of 2021

Another year, another book post. (I know we still have most of December to get through but you might be looking for Christmas presents/holiday reads, and I’m procrastinating.)

Goodreads informs me I have read 283 books this year, not counting the DNFs I didn’t trouble to list or the rereads (Murderbot and T. Kingfisher, mostly). Hilariously, if you’d asked me, I would have said I found it very difficult to read this year: certainly there’s several highly regarded books on my TBR on which I am still inexplicably and depressingly blocked. Still, I read some crackers, so without further ado, my faves. This year I am confining myself to four per category.

Romance

Fine, I lied about four per category.

Strong Wine by AJ Demas. Third in the lovely alt-ancient Mediterranean trilogy with a retired soldier and a genderfluid eunuch sword dancer/part time spy. This is set around a murder but it’s really a domestic piece in a lovingly detailed world. Read the whole series.

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall. Very funny ensemble romcom that still tackles some hard stuff about biphobia, with a bi single mum on an alt-Bake-Off finding love, trust, and confidence. Some really excellent swearing.  

Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron. Gorgeous contemporary with real, flawed, likeable characters, a lovely supporting cast, and a joyous romance. Heron’s greatest strength is her compulsive readability: I gulp her books.

Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert. Deep kindness (especially about human flaws and quirks) without sentimentality, terrific snark, great one-liners, swoony and hot romance, assured writing, and two neurodivergent leads.

Wild Rain by Beverly Jenkins. Tough heroine, cinnamon roll hero, fantastically realised historical setting, Beverly Jenkins, enough said.

Falling into Place by Sheryn Munir. Delightful slow burn f/f romance with strongly realistic and likeably flawed leads and a beautifully depicted Delhi setting. Terrific writing.

Sweethand by Natalie Peltier. Zizzy, charming modern romance with a lovely slow burn and genuinely hilarious banter in a well-drawn Trinidad setting. (Talking of well drawn: the best illustrated cover of the year to my mind.)

Seven Days in June by Tia Williams. Excellent contemporary romance with two Black writers with troubled pasts finding one another again. A lot of heavy stuff but a lot of joy, and a hilarious look at the US literary scene to boot.

Fantasy

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard. Gorgeously written novella in a Vietnam-influenced world with a princess being used as a pawn, who finds a tiger spirit on her side. It’s about reclaiming yourself in the face of abuse, and hugely uplifting with it.

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho. Urban fantasy set in modern Malaysia, with a young woman haunted by her grandmother and meddling in the affairs of gods. Funny, scary, angry, vivid, and brilliantly played out.

Paladin’s Strength by T. Kingfisher. Could have been in the romance section tbh. Second in this delightful series dealing with the paladins of a dead god, the oppression of gnoles, and in this case an order of shapeshifting bear-nuns. As ever the worldbuilding is effortlessly immersive, the mood sharp-edged but ultimately kind, and the characters a delight. Paladin’s Hope is also wonderful but this one had the edge for me.

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse. Tremendous fantasy set in alt-America (pre and sans Columbus). Complex plot, characters, and worldbuilding, all effortlessly conveyed to make a marvellously readable story. Dying for the sequel.

SF

Three Twins at the Crater School by Chaz Brenchley. Literally an old-fashioned girls’ school story set on Mars. Is everything you hope it will be from that description. Played absolutely straight and note perfect.

The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers. This one is entirely a character piece. A group of people are stranded at an intergalactic truck stop and almost nothing happens. It’s compulsive reading and made me cry so hard (in a good way) that I could barely breathe. Vitally hopeful.

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine. Just stunningly good. Cannot possibly sum up how good this and the first book are as a pair. I’d say it was a novel of ideas if it wasn’t a wonderful character exploration except it’s also a terrifically tense adventure as we race to stop a war. For heaven’s sake, read these.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I mean, this book is literally about giant spiders, but I nevertheless loved it, rooted for the spiders, and even read the sequel, which is also about giant spiders. Which should tell you how well plotted, clever, engaging, and thought-provoking it is, but I do not wish to think about spiders any longer so let’s move on.

Crime/thriller

Journey Under the Midnight Sun by Keigo Higashino. Epic scale thriller covering twenty years and a lot of changes in Japan. Violent, disturbing, compelling. I glommed this author’s backlist but I think this is his best. Hard-hitting stuff.

Jane Doe by Victoria Helen Stone. Gleefully evil revenge fantasy as sociopath Jane takes an abusive man apart by underhand means, which include not caring about his goddamn man-feelings. Good Lord, I needed that.

Dial A for Aunties by Jessie Q Sutanto. A truly glorious caper comedy about a young Indonesian/Chinese American woman, her overbearing aunties/mum, and the disposal of a body. Of a guy they kind of accidentally killed. Whoops. Absurd and at points very dark farce plotting, but written with a light touch and a warm heart.

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots. Cracking superhero thriller from the perspective of a woman who temps as a villain’s henchperson. Funny, violent, dark, thought-provoking, and a hugely absorbing story. 

Litfic

Mostly a bit Shania Twain for me this year, but two cracking reads.

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters. Astonishing novel covering a detransitioned man, a cis woman, and a trans woman, negotiating a very messy set of relationships. Sharply observed, nuanced, very intelligent, and deeply connecting. A must-read.

Blue-Skinned Gods by SJ Sindu. Enthralling story of a blue-skinned boy touted by his father as the tenth incarnation of Vishnu. About family and faith and why people are so desperate to believe. Plus a really tender and human look at friendships and sexuality and gender.

Non Fiction

The Address Book by Deirdre Mask. Takes what seems to be a small topic and makes you see how big it is. Addresses are about state control, and society, and memory, and hope, and racism, and the wealth divide, and a shedload more. Genuinely fascinating, well written, and immensely readable.

Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe. Horrifying, compelling, rage-aneurysm-inducing account of the greed-monster Sackler family and how they pushed OxyContin. You need to read it, then you need to take some very deep breaths to calm down, then you need to overthrow capitalism and guillotine the bastards.

Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear by Lev Parikian. Memoir of an amateur birdwatcher’s efforts to spot 200 species in a year. Very British, very funny, really charming, with some lovely nature writing, and enormously absorbing. Also, genius earworm title.

Semicolon by Cecelia Watson. An entire book about semicolons. Terrific on the history and the extremely weird and frankly scary ways people interact with semicolons; really interesting on the concept of punctuation in general.

History

The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge. I went on a wild Angevin/Plantagenet binge this year, such that I briefly considered having a whole Angevin section in this list (I regained my senses). This is a terrific bio of a really impressive man at the heart of the period, which gives us a feel for the person as well as the culture, society, and turbulent politics of the time.

The Burgundians by Bart van Loo. Phenomenal history that reads like a saga novel and keeps you hooked. I didn’t know why I should care about the Burgundians, or indeed exactly who they were, and now I’m desperate to go to the Low Countries and see art galleries. Hugely engaging, exactly how history should be written.

The Anglo-Saxons by Marc Morris. Terrific in-depth look at the various little kingdoms that got merged into England. Morris is always highly readable, with a gift for description and a good sense of story. Highly informative, and does not leave you thinking that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ was a descriptor to be proud of.

The Fighting Jew by Wynn Wheldon. The story of Daniel Mendoza, and his life as a boxer, a Jew, and a sporting superstar in Georgian London. Deserves reading alongside Richmond Unchained to get a picture of life for marginalised Georgians who literally fought their way to wealth and fame.

_______________________

I would be promotionally remiss not to mention a couple of things:

The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting is one of the New York Public Library Best Books of 2021 (“A surprising, satisfying, and steamy Regency charmer”).

Subtle Blood is one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2021 (“wit, sexiness, humor, and heart”).

The Sugared Game is out!

Cover of The Sugared Game. Will and Kim toast each other against a 1920s pulp backdrop. Will has a knife. Maisie and Phoebe are silhouettes in the background.

Here is is: The Sugared Game, book 2 of the Will Darling Adventures, my 1920s pulp adventure series. Meet some of the cast!

  • Will Darling: soldier turned bookseller
  • The Messer: Will’s emotional support knife
  • Kim Secretan: disgraced aristocrat and secret agent, apparently?
  • Phoebe Stephens-Prince: Kim’s emotional support flapper
  • Maisie Jones: it would save a lot of trouble if someone just put her in charge

There are also dodgy nightclub people, Bright Young Things (I use the word ‘bright’ EXTREMELY loosely), unlikeable aristos, couturiers, cocktails, champagne, dog-rough whisky, and some really yummy chocolates. Enjoy!

All buy links for The Sugared Game

Gumroad (direct files, epub or mobi)

Goodreads

For the avoidance of doubt: this is book 2 of a three-book arc. The series won’t have a full HEA till #3 (Subtle Blood, working on it) and it will make a lot more sense if you start at #1, Slippery Creatures.

Cover of Slippery Creatures: Kim, dark man in evening dress, standing with book; Will, fair man in casual suit, holding a knife.

As it goes, Slippery Creatures will be a $0.99 Kindle Deal in September, which I will price match at other stores, so if you’re not sure whether you want WILD 1920s PULP ADVENTURE ROMANCE WITH SINISTER GANGS AND CARS AND BOOKS AND FLAPPERS, for whatever reason, maybe take a punt then.

I’ve really loved writing this series despite the, er, hiccups of 2020, and I’m rolling around in Subtle Blood right now. I hope you enjoy it!

Any Old Diamonds release day

It’s release day for Any Old Diamonds! This is the first of my Lilywhite Boys duo, about two Victorian jewel thieves in the 1890s. This one’s m/m, and stars ex-Army professional thief Jerry Crozier and illustrator Alec Pyne.

The thing is, Alec is actually Lord Alexander Pyne-ffoulkes (yes, ff). Alec is the estranged second son of the Duke of Ilvar, and when he hires Jerry to steal a priceless diamond necklace from his father’s remote castle, things quickly get complicated.

There’s secrets! Lies! Betrayal and murder! Impersonation! Family trauma! Lady detectives! Ill-judged sexual encounters!  I think this one definitely qualifies as angsty. Also, Jerry is just a tad on the sociopathic side.

“You’re not inclined to repentance?” Alec repeated. “What, ever?”

“Never.” Crozier’s eyes glimmered dark in the electric light and the glitter of glass and silverware and mirrors. “I’m not sorry.”

“For what?”

“Anything.” Crozier tilted his head, eyes hooding slightly, gaze roaming over Alec’s face. “Except missed opportunities. I regret those, but that’s a different matter, isn’t it?”

“Mmm.” Alec didn’t want to think about his own missed opportunities now, the what-ifs and if-onlies. “I don’t suppose you have many of those, do you?”

Crozier’s smile widened a fraction. It looked a little bit dangerous, and it made Alec’s toes curl delightfully. “Not many. They’re such a waste. And so often what one wants is there for the taking, if one only makes the effort to reach for it.”

Spoiler: the effort is made. Eventually. *evil face*

I had a lot of fun with this book, which I hope is shown in the cover (art by Vic Grey, design by Lennan Adams). I hope you enjoy it!

Any Old Diamonds features incredible plot twists, amazing characters, shameless flirting, sex at some pretty inopportune moments, and some f***ing horrible peers of the realm. So what I’m saying is, why haven’t you ordered the book yet?”–The Book Corps

“Super fun, yummy romance, twisty plot, more-ish characters, excellent revenge, lots of banging. Get it now for all of your comfort read needs.”–Malka Older

Buy links to your favourite e-store right here; print edition will be coming in about two weeks (there was a delay on the file, sorry). Audio TBC.

KJ Charles logo

What Editors Owe Authors (and vice versa)

I did a talk on edits and editing for NECRWA (which looks like it ought to be a necromancers’ club but is in fact a regional RWA chapter) and this has spurred me to commit some thoughts to keyboard. Thanks to Tamsen Parker for inviting me to speak!

The editor-author relationship can be a fraught one. It doesn’t have to be, and when an editor ‘gets’ an author, is in sympathy with her voice and intentions, and helps her nurture the book into something bigger and better and more wonderful, it’s magic. Nevertheless, it can be a scary world for new authors. There’s a range of people insisting you must get an editor, but they’re expensive, they all seem to offer slightly different things, you hear all these horror stories, and then there’s Chad in the writing group who says he wouldn’t dream of letting an editor change his vision or get their mucky paws on his text. Are you being messed about? The editor has suggested sweeping changes that made you feel like throwing up; do you have to do them? How do you cope?

So here’s a few basics of what an author ought to be able to expect from an editor, and then vice versa.

***

Editors owe authors the appropriate edits for the stage of the book, from a position of sympathy for what you’re trying to do.

The development edit should be a development edit: concentrating on plot, character arcs, pacing, story shape, the high-level stuff that the book is about. The development editor should not be picking up typos in text that might well be rewritten anyway; conversely, the copy editor should not be putting in their tuppence worth about not finding the MC sympathetic enough. (Exception: sometimes a copy editor or proofreader will call out something disastrous—racism, a huge plot hole–that’s got through the development and line editors. That’s an emergency service, though.)

There should be edits. A development edit that says “nothing to suggest!” worries the hell out of me. There’s no book that can’t be improved, and if you tell me your book has gone through edits without a single change, I’m going to draw conclusions about your editors rather than your genius.

Those edits should ‘get’ the book, even if the editor proceeds to gut the book. If an editor hates a book they need to hand it on. As a freelancer I refuse all books including noncon, dubcon and eroticised torture not because of a moral stance but because I would do a really bad job of it. (“Consider inserting explicit consent on pages 41, 67, 99, and 140-176 inclusive.”) If an editor declines to work on your book, that’s not an insult, but a professional assessment that they don’t feel they’re the right fit. Be glad they said no.

The editor should look at what your book wants to be (which may not be exactly what you thought it was going to be when you started, but that’s the fun of writing). They are not there to make it the book they want it to be, or to impose their voice. Editors who are novelists manqué are bad news.

The editor needs to respect your style (and, let me say here, I think there needs to be an incredibly good reason for house style to override authorial voice or intention).

Editors owe authors courtesy.

Having come to writing after twenty years in UK publishing, twenty years of being told that author management is one of the most important editorial skills and publishing is an author service industry, I have been gobsmacked by some of the lack of courtesy I’ve seen. (I will observe here that anyone can sell their editorial services, including people who feel qualified to call themselves editors because they’ve read a lot of books and hold opinions such as “you should never use the passive tense because ‘I went’ is much stronger than ‘I was going’.”* Ask for references or work history, is my advice.)

*Yes, I have seen this. Don’t get me started.

The editor may not leave snide remarks on the MS, or make jokes about whatever dumb mistake you made. All authors make silly mistakes; it’s the editor’s job to fix them, not point and laugh and belittle. The editor may not rant about how much they hated an aspect of the book: they need to point out why they think it will be problematic for the readership.

The editor may not take to social media to mock author mistakes. When an editor tweets laughing about the book they’re working on and the author sees that? Relationship destroyed. (That doesn’t mean never talking about work in progress, which can be done in a fun and engaging way, but the editor needs to think three times and tweet once.)

The editor ought to be on your side. They ought to be able to gut your book like a herring and make you feel better at the end of the process because you’ve achieved something better together. If the editor gives you the impression she’s cleverer than you and out of patience with your fumbling, you need a new editor because that one isn’t very good at her job.

Editors owe authors a timely response.

This is one of the commonest complaints. Editors in publishing houses are all overworked, freelancers are all trying to cram in as much as possible, and people don’t tend to go into the book trade because of their amazing administrative skills. Nevertheless, you ought to be able to ask for an ETA on your edits, get one, and be notified if it slips.

If there is slippage from the editor, they must not make it your problem. It is all too common for  authors to wait months for overdue edits and then be told they only have a week to turn them round in order to keep to schedule. That is unacceptable behaviour, and publishing needs to deal with it.

If you’re using a freelancer, get a schedule at the beginning of the process. Life happens, so don’t be a jerk if there are problems, but if a freelancer fails to deliver and doesn’t keep you updated on delays, do not use them again or recommend them. A one-line email is a doable courtesy.

NB: A publishing contract should have editorial and publication schedules built into it. For example: the book will be published within 18 months of delivery of the completed MS/the date of the contract; the edits will be done in a timely fashion and the author will have four weeks to respond to edits, two weeks for proofs. Make sure your contract has these clauses. Do not accept a contract that says the book will be published within X months of edits being started, or of a completed edited MS being agreed. Make sure you have a solid inarguable date from which the failure to publish clause starts counting down. More on this here.)

 

***

 

And now let’s look at your obligations to the editor, because this is a two-way street.

Authors owe editors a MS that is completed up to the stage you’re at.

Don’t send the first nine chapters and promise you’ll deliver the rest soon unless by prior agreement (and if your editor agrees to that she’s nicer than me).

Don’t send the MS with [INSERT SEX SCENE HERE]. If you have done this, take a moment to hang your head in shame, and don’t do it again.

Don’t send rewrites mid edit, because the editor will end up wasting work or having to interpolate new stuff. This is a recipe for mistakes and misery. Finish it first, and save your changes till you get the edit back.

Authors owe editors a reasonable MS.

Editors are paid to clean up your MS but that doesn’t make them garbagemen. If you send your MS full of stray mistyped charact!@ers, missing chunks of text, unfinished sentences etc because you couldn’t be bothered to read it over, it’s pretty unprofessional. And if you send that to a freelancer, you will be paying good money for her to tidy up your trash. If I, as a freelancer, have to spend two hours fixing your ‘“Yes.” said Jim’ punctuation throughout the MS, that’s fine but it will cost you $80 plus and I will look upon your work with a jaundiced eye because it’s really very boring to do.

Plus, editors are only human. If I’m cleaning up your garbage, stitching up the big holes you left because you didn’t finish a paragraph, or retyping the two paras that go into dp,r yrcy yjsy ;ppld ;olr yjos because you were touch typing while watching TV and your fingers slipped*, there is every chance I will miss something else.

*Yes this did happen to me as editor. Two full paragraphs.

You will save time, money, and stress for everyone if you deliver a professionally competent MS to the best of your ability. You can learn a lot of this stuff. I have done two blog posts on self editing, here for devs and here for lines, and two on punctuating dialogue, here for basics and here getting fancy.

Authors owe editors a fair hearing.

Edit letters can be very tough to read. Authors are generally highly invested in their work, not to mention reluctant to strip six months’ work down for parts and do it again. But digging your heels in and rejecting everything outright, or throwing a fit across social media, is not an appropriate response (unless the editor is a catastrophic mismatch with your book).

By all means feel overwhelmed by an edit letter. Then take a walk / a deep breath / a drink, sleep on it, and come back to make a sensible list of changes that you agree will strengthen the book. Look at ones you disagree with and see if you can work out the underlying point. (Example: the editor says “this scene with Clarissa serves no purpose, suggest cutting.” If you say “NO I NEED IT GO AWAY” you get nowhere. If you say, “I think we need it to establish Clarissa’s relationship with her father because of chapter 30”, then you can work out whether you can do that elsewhere, or whether you can amp up the scene to make it earn its place in other ways.)

It is possible and sometimes right to reject edits (see here on the power of stet) but you need to do it after rational thought, not in a spirit of high dudgeon that the person you’re directly or indirectly paying to edit your book has, er, edited your book.

And remember, it is better to see your book professionally done over by an editor in private than to see it get a kicking from 200 reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads when it’s too late.

Authors owe editors a timely response.

What goes around comes around. Tell people in good time if you’re going to be late, warn about holidays, don’t leave edits to the last minute and then go silent for three weeks, and don’t expect to do any of the above and still have the editor keep to the original schedule.

Authors owe editors money.

Ahem. But seriously, if you’ve had the work, pay your freelancer, and do so on time.

___________________________

KJ Charles did twenty years as an editor before becoming a full time author. Her next release is The Price of Meat, a Victorian penny dreadful short, details here.