I’m in the throes of prepping for the release of Slippery Creatures, book 1 of my new 1920s pulp adventure/romance series, and I realised something startling.
This will be my twentieth novel. Twentieth. (26th book if you count novellas/novelettes, but then you have to think about short stories and look I’m trying to homeschool my son and he’s doing algebra, take the numbers away.)
The Magpie Lord published on 3rd September 2013, so not quite seven years ago, since when I’ve become a full time writer, and published about 3.5 books a year. I didn’t see this coming when Samhain accepted my ‘didn’t entirely mean to write this whatever-it-is paranormal historical Gothic Victorian m/m romance’.
I quit my publishing job in summer 2014 to try writing full time. This is generally not recommended, but in fairness I hated the job. At my leaving do, the uberboss asked me what I was going to do, and when I said be a full time writer, she laughed and said “Good luck with that.” Let us take a moment to note that the senior exec of a major publisher laughed at the idea of someone making a living off writing. This is a valuable lesson for an authorial career.
Notwithstanding, it seems to have worked out because it’s somehow 2020 (not so much ‘the year of our Lord’ as ‘the year of oh my God’) and my 20th novel. Gosh. Even more satisfyingly, my twentieth novel is…a Twenties novel. I swear I didn’t plan that.
(Slippery Creatures btw is the story of Will Darling, a Great War veteran turned bookseller, and Kim Secretan, a disgraced aristocrat, dubious character, and one-man game of Fuck Marry Kill. There are conspiracies, cocktails, flappers, plots, and all the fun of the Roaring Twenties. Out 13th May. Check it out.)
So! I’m going to do a Twentieth Novel Bonanza giveaway. In an ideal world that would be any of my books but I want it to be available on all platforms and all countries, so that means it’s my self-published books only. Which is 14 plus the aforesaid novellas/novelettes, so still not too shabby.
Twenty winners will be picked at random, and each winner can pick two books from my self pubs, in epub or mob format. (Important: Your email will be used only for this giveaway and I will not contact you unless you win. I will not sign you up to my newsletter or any such annoyance. However, if you actively want to sign up to my newsletter, feel free.)
legal bumph: The competition offers 20 winners each two free ebooks from my self-published books. No alternative prizes. Over 18s only. No purchase necessary. Just fill in your email to enter. One entry per person, duplicates will be discarded.
EDIT: competition is closed
If you want to check out the books available, here you go:
NB, if you are new to my work, a) hello and b) you may wish to check out the content warnings here for both general and specific warnings.
Happy entering and good luck!
All my blog posts, seven years worth, disappeared yesterday due to ?weasels? idk. I didn’t have a back-up because, although I had paid GoDaddy for a back-up package, they had not, in fact, backed anything up. Another useful lesson there. Alexis Hall, who is a tech genius as well as a quite amazing author, stepped in to save me and retrieve my work, preventing me from having a quite spectacular meltdown. Thank you. <3
If you too would like Alexis to make you feel better, I strongly suggest hitting preorder on Boyfriend Material, his forthcoming romcom, which is just gorgeous. It made me cry laughing, proper-cry, swoon, and stay up til 2am reading just one more chapter because it was too feelgood and engaging to stop. It might not fix your borked website, but it’s otherwise perfect.
There is an ongoing debate on whether and how to use italics for non-English words in English text. This used to be convention, most often in speech, and sometimes for words in the narrative.
“Bonjour, Madame, I am Inspector Blanc of the Sureté .”
I piled my plate high with tamales, frijoles refritos, and chile con carne.
This convention is now changing, and it’s worth having a serious think about what you’re doing and why.
First, watch this video by Daniel José Older (who I believe started the current drive to reconsider italicisation) right now. Go on, watch it, it’s less than two minutes long and funny.
Older’s point is that speakers who drop non-English words into their speech aren’t suddenly talking differently. If you say you’re having tamales for dinner, even if you pronounce it with a Spanish accent, it’s still just part of your connected flow of speech. This is inarguable when it comes to a character speaking (or their point of view narration) if the words are familiar to them.
Let’s do a quick test to clarify this point. What if any words would you italicise in the following?
- We went to a karaoke bar and Jim sang ‘As Time Goes By’ because he fancies himself as Sam out of Casablanca.
- “What?! He can do a sudoku puzzle in twelve seconds?!”
- Breakfast is a croissant, lunch is a cheese baguette, dinner is steak with mange-tout, cavolo nero, and chips, with creme caramel for pudding.
I am prepared to bet that in no. 1 you italicised Casablanca because it’s the title of a film, but not karaoke. I’d further guess that in no. 2 you considered italicising ‘what’ and/or ‘twelve seconds’ because of (or to replace) the punctuation, but not sudoku. And I will put cash money that you didn’t hit up anything at all in no.3. (If you did and are English, please rethink.)
Let’s just try that last one styled for foreign words:
Breakfast is a croissant, lunch is a cheese baguette, dinner is steak with mange-tout, cavolo nero, and chips, with creme caramel for pudding.
That looks utterly laughable to me because those words are part of my vocabulary, absorbed into English. (I mean, really absorbed. I know several people who say mange-tout with the first part to rhyme with ‘flange’ and the second to rhyme with ‘out’.) Karate, sushi, ninja, tsunami: would you italicise any of them? Of course you wouldn’t. And if you did, you’d be actively impeding the average reader, who simply would not expect to see these common words set apart like that.
Italicising marks text as different. If you’re writing a Roman gladiator’s POV and you have him talking about his gladius, that makes me think the weapon is unfamiliar to him as well as me.
As a retiarius—a fighter styled on a fisherman—I carried a tridens, a three-pronged spear, a rete or weighted net in which to trap my opponents, and a puglio, a small dagger.
This style of historical writing makes people lose the will to live. Let’s try it in a more familiar context, shall we?
As an author, or writer of books, I work at a keyboard, a device on which I type words, while drinking a lot of tea (the characteristic hot beverage of my people, imported from faraway lands), and futzing about on Twitter, an internet site from hell, or place of eternal damnation.
Do I sound like a demented anthropologist? So does your gladiator. I don’t believe in a professional fighter who holds his weapon at mental arm’s length like it’s a foreign object. Find a more elegant way to drop in the explanations, and make your reader feel like they’re in the world, not sitting outside it. You want your reader to be absorbed in your story; italicising shoves them out.
As with absolutely everything about the presentation of words on a page (grammar, punctuation, spelling), the purpose of setting text is to help convey the writer’s intention to the reader as clearly as possible. This trumps everything, particularly house style. The purpose of italics is to set text off—to indicate emphasis in speech:
“You might be happy. I’m not.”
Or to mark out words as eg a title:
I watched Stand By Me last night
He sailed on the HMS Surprise.
Or to pick something out (as an alternative to quote marks)
In print publishing, pages are called folios and may be recto or verso, right or left.
And, yes, to mark foreign words in English.
The Latin name for magpie is Pica pica.
But as we have demonstrated above, just because a word is from another language, that doesn’t make it ‘foreign’ to the speaker/narrator/reader.
Italicising serves as a nudge to the reader that they’re not expected to recognise or understand a word. That act very much assumes who the reader is. If you italicise all your Spanish in a book written about Mexicans, that rather suggests you don’t expect your book to be read by Mexicans. It is othering—and in many cases that can look like saying, “Those people are different from me and you, the writer and the reader.”
Of course, that might be what you want. If you’re writing a character who has been shipwrecked in 18th-century Japan, you might well go for italics as deliberate distancing to show how strange the new world is to your protagonist.
The people here wear a loose garb which they call kimono.
You might want to mark up as ‘foreign’ for other reasons too. I have a scene in my book Band Sinister where the heroes discuss Latin poetry and vocabulary while getting hot and heavy. (This is one of the sex scenes I am proudest of, thank you.) I went back and forth on it, and eventually put the Latin in italics because, frankly, it’s a sex scene and I wanted readers to be able to skim over the Latin words with a mental [sexy classical stuff here] if need be, so as not to hold things up.
But Latin is a dead language. Spanish is not. If you mark up your Spanish text with italics, are you saying the reader can just fill in [foreign chatter here]?
Obviously it’s not always straightforward in practice. The Filipino romance collective #romanceclass has developed a policy of not italicising Tagalog words. However, there’s a recurring issue with the word ‘ate’, which means ‘big sister’ and is one of those kinship words used widely. If you read #romanceclass books (and you really should) you might come across a sentence like
Has your ate eaten? / Have you eaten, Ate Mina?
That could trip up an English reader, severely if it’s their first meeting with the word, and for about 1.4 seconds if they are a #romanceclass aficionado. It’s enough of an issue that authors consciously look out for workarounds and change their phrasing. Does that mean it might be better to italicise after all?
As a (white English) reader, I don’t want that. I read Filipino romance because, along with fantastic love stories, a great range of characters and topics, and the best ever Evil Ex Girlfriend getting her own book, I additionally get the privilege to swim in a world not my own for a while. I can sit in the grey concrete drizzle that is London and be absorbed into Manila. I don’t want the process of reading the book to constantly remind me ‘Hey, you aren’t a part of this, it’s foreign to you’—even when I don’t know specific words. I want it to be not foreign to me. That’s why I read.
And of course that’s a perspective of English privilege. It surely means a great deal more to Filipino readers to see their words and language belonging on the page like any others, not marked out as different or special or foreign.
None of this is intended to get at people who have books full of non-English in italics. My early books all do; it’s been convention for ever. The point is to think about it now and, as we go forward, to open up our horizons and consider our impact, and judge cases on their individual qualities, not as a blanket house style issue. Mina V. Esguerra of #romanceclass says,
Sometimes it’s like each new book comes with a new choice regarding this, and as authors and editors we make the call and then evaluate later if it was the right one. We’re aware that each Tagalog word we don’t translate and italicize becomes part of the vocabulary our readers will learn, and we take that seriously.
And there’s the heart of it. If we (and I especially mean here white people from English-speaking countries) italicise words solely because they’re ‘foreign’ we make a subconscious decision to set them apart, to keep them out rather than taking them in to ourselves. Let’s think hard before we do that, to words or to people.
Big thanks to Mina V. Esguerra for her help with this piece!
I have read a lot of books this year. In fact I have read 275 books that I reviewed on Goodreads, plus however many more that I DNFd without reviewing or which were second reads. That’s a lot of books.
You could just trawl through my reading (here and feel free to follow or friend), so I’m not going to list everything or this will be the world’s longest post. I’m going to do this by eccentric classifications of my own choosing, not just genre, because I can.
Ready? Sharpen your credit card, here we go.
Most Read Authors
I read nine of Therese Beharrie’s romance novels this year. Nine. She does lovely South-Africa-set romances—low heat, some angst, but overall with a deeply comforting feel. Go on, get A Wedding One Christmas, you know you want to.
In second place, I read six by Jackie Lau—modern diverse Canada-set romcoms, mostly, with lots of family. Try Grumpy Fake Boyfriend, which is one of the great titles of our times.
And I read five of the magnificent Beverly Jenkins who needs no introduction from me. Rebel, the start of her new series, was a marvel.
I also glommed the first five of Mick Herron’s terrific Slough House series, with a group of failed spies doing boring admin led by the appalling evil-Falstaff Jackson Lamb. Not comfort reads *at all* and I’m still building up the moral fortitude to read the latest one, but terrific.
Talia Hibbert’s terrific Get a Life Chloe Brown has met with much-deserved praise for its diverse rep, feelgood plot, and blend of serious issues with a proper romcom. I can’t wait for the next book.
Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin is a Muslim take on Pride and Prejudice, with a really lovely fundamentalist religious hero. That is not something you get a lot. Bright, breezy, immense fun.
AJ Demas is one of my favourite historical romancers for her delightful alt-ancient Mediterranean queer stories. Sword Dance has a house party, a sinister plot, a spy, a soldier, a lovely romance and a mickey-take of Greek philosophers. A pleasure.
For something completely different, Wilding by Isabella Tree is non-fiction (and you don’t get much of that under feelgood) about turning land back to the wild and seeing how nature recovers left to itself. It’s a fascinating, hopeful read.
Plaintive (Is that what I mean? Books with sadness as well as joy)
Not for Use in Navigation by Iona Datt Sharma is a really excellent SFFR collection of stories—haunting, beautifully written, deeply imagined. Don’t miss this one, it’s very, very much worth your time.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow is a triumphant historical fantasy using Mayan myth. Compelling story, fantastic characters. One of my favourite SFF of the year with a bittersweet, wonderful ending.
Lord of the Last Heartbeat by May Peterson is a spectacular debut with densely beautiful writing, a gnarly mystery in a fantasy world, and a wonderful m/nb romance. A sad feel, with the characters weighted by loss and pain, but the light shines through and takes us to a triumphant happy ending.
Another romance that gets us to the HEA via heavy lifting is You Me U.S. by Brigitte Bautista, a really excellent, realistic f/f set in seedy Manila. The heroines drink too much, have sex with other people, and one of them is trying to get a green card marriage. It’s brutally real, which makes the way they finally forge themselves an ending all the more joyous. I loved it.
Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill is…okay, it’s a set of lit-crit biographies of various famous Australian writers. Except they’re fictional ones, and actually this is a magnificent meta sarcastic takedown of literary twerpery, with some bonkers running jokes, lots of extremely clever interlacing, and a hidden plot which…all I can say is, don’t skip the index. Which is not a sentence I’d often write. Extremely clever and very very funny.
The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall is an absolutely glorious Holmes/Watson riff where Holmes is a drug-addled pansexual sorceress in a Lovecraftian-fantasy world, Watson is a gay trans man refugee from a puritan nation, and the whole thing is just a mad, delightful romp. Intensely enjoyable.
Every book by Saad Hossain is a gem, if you like your gems violent, unpredictable, disturbing, and plotted by a maniac. The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday puts djinn, nanotech, and a detective story through a blender to tremendous effect.
And for a wild card, the forgotten classic Fowlers End by Gerald Kersch set in 1930s London. I described this as Dickens on meth in my review and I stick to that; I also highlighted so many hilarious bits that my ereader crashed. Absurd, scabrous, sweary, awful, laugh-out-loud.
I reread the entire Johannes Cabal series by Jonathan L Howard for the nth time. This is a fabulous 5-book urban fantasy about a sarcastic necromancer with no social skills. It riffs gleefully off Lovecraft, is immensely readable, and has a surprising amount of heart under the violence. Deeply enjoyable.
I also reread the wonderful Astreiant books by Melissa Scott. A pure pleasure, tracing an m/m couple (policeman and blade for hire) in the matriarchal fantasy city of Astreiant. Understated romance, great mysteries.
And I glommed the entire oeuvre of T Kingfisher all over again, for the comfort of their marvellous imagination, kindness, sharp-edged morality and terrific wit.
I read an interview with Booker Prize winner Bernadine Evaristo that got me thinking. (Evaristo is one of the UK’s most exciting writers, and if you haven’t discovered her yet, RUN DO NOT WALK. Mr Loverman is an absolutely cracking story of an elderly British Caribbean gentleman—married but with a long-term male lover—finally facing up to his sexuality in public as well as private, and the family chaos that ensues. The Emperor’s Babe is a verse novel set in Roman London. It’s like nothing you’ve ever read, and honestly fantastic. I haven’t read her Booker winner yet but I’m looking forward.)
ANYWAY. In this piece, Evaristo says this pure brilliance:
I don’t believe in writer’s block. If there’s a problem with getting words on the page, it needs to be investigated. I think that the act of naming it as this thing called ‘writer’s block’ actually exacerbates the problem and makes the writer feel powerless and the issue insurmountable. What’s really going on? Lack of confidence? (Most likely). Lack of skills and understanding of the importance of structure when it comes to writing a novel or of form when it comes to poetry? Lack of informed constructive feedback? Lack of commitment or patience? Does the writer read books in their chosen genre, which is creative writing 101? And so on.
Ooooh boy, let’s talk about writer’s block.
First things first: I don’t believe in writer’s block either. That doesn’t mean the experience doesn’t exist. I have absolutely stared at a blank page without a thing to say, or found myself unable to turn the ideas in my head into remotely satisfactory words, or sat there wondering how the hell you write a book while 20-odd copies of my novels sit on a shelf two feet away. It happens, and it sucks tremendously. I feel slightly nauseous thinking about it.
But Evaristo is spot on about naming. When we call it ‘writer’s block’ we frame it as an external obstacle, a boulder in the road, a curse that has been laid on us. Authors talk about it like it’s some sort of malign mystical affliction, something to be spoken of with dread in case of tempting Fate. We have persuaded the whole world it exists, as is entirely to be expected from people who tell elaborate lies for a living.
It’s deeply unhelpful. In part because we’ve conjured up a sinister spectre looming over us, which is a bad thing for people with overactive imaginations to do, and mostly because as Evaristo makes clear, ‘writer’s block’ isn’t a single thing with a single cause. In fact, it isn’t a thing at all, any more than virginity is a thing. Virginity is an absence, not a possession: it means you have not done a particular act. ‘Writer’s block’ is an absence, not a set of chains: it’s you not currently feeling able to do a particular act. (Notice that Evaristo frames the problems not as obstacles but as a series of lacks, of absences. There’s a reason for that.)
So first off, let’s change the framing, because words matter. Absence of doing requires a verb, not a noun, and ‘block’ has a horribly final sound. We’re now talking about struggling to write.
So why do people who want to write, love to write (for a given value of love that involves a lot of time complaining about it on Twitter) and quite possibly depend on writing for a living find themselves struggling to write? After all, as my dad pointed out when I was being self-important about it, there is no such thing as plumber’s block. Electricians don’t turn up at your house and mumble about how they just can’t seem to wire a fusebox any more.
Well, there are a million reasons. Let’s start with two linked ones that really should go without saying before going back to Evaristo’s list.
You don’t have the spoons
You’re physically or mentally unwell, debilitated, run down. You don’t have bodily health and energy; all your mental energy is taken up with trying to cope. Your work, in or out of the home or both, is demanding. You’re in despair at the state of the world. You’re grieving. You’re tired.
Look, writing is hard work. It requires a massive time commitment, a lot of mental effort and absorption, a lot of self belief. It’s even physically tiring, because sitting at a keyboard for however many hours it takes to write and edit a 70K novel is crappy for your back and wrists and eyes. If you aren’t in a mental and physical place to write, for heaven’s sake don’t beat yourself up for it, and really don’t call it writer’s block. Maybe you need to take a total rest, or to dramatically change your expectations of how fast you can write, or to dedicate a fortnight’s writing time to self-care instead. Give yourself some kindness and acknowledge you’d have to be in a better place to write a book, just like you’d have to be in a better place to run a 10km race.
The well is dry
You just wrote a book, yet it seems completely impossible that you could ever write a book again.
I’m currently here (which is why I’m blogging). I wrote a book in less than two months, finished it last week. That was 70K in about six weeks; the thought of putting fingers to keyboard seems totally implausible right now. This means nothing more than that I used all the hot water and I have to wait for the boiler to refill. Yes, there are people who can write ten romances a year: there is no shame in not being one of them.
Lack of confidence
We all feel it, and if I could fix this in a blog post I’d make it a book instead and retire in luxury. I can tell you this: every writer who ever lived has sat there wondering how the hell to write a book, or why anyone would read this crap when there are so many better writers out there, or what possibly qualifies them to do it, or whether they’ll get eviscerated in reviews, or if they only ever had one book in them, or or or.
I can tell you this too, and sorry in advance: Nobody else, no reassurance or rave review or success, is going to fix this for you. I once escorted a multi-award winning household-name kids’ author to an event. There was one single big award he hadn’t won in his massively successful multi-decade career: he told me with trembling-voiced sincerity that he was fundamentally a failure because he’d never won it. And have you noticed how often the author going into a traumatised meltdown about a bad review is one with a huge following of adoring fans?
Every working author has a bag of tricks to get over self-doubt. Not reading reviews; telling themselves they won’t publish this one and it’s just for fun; compartmentalising the insecure self and the writing self in a psychologically dubious manner; being a mediocre white man; repeating “Don’t get it right, get it written!” until words lose all meaning; remembering that everything really can be fixed in editing; printing out the beginning of The Da Vinci Code and sticking it to the wall as a reminder that people like terrible books; just goddamn writing it with set teeth, word by painful word. Whatever does it for you.
NB: If you follow a lot of authors on social media, you’ll see a lot of posts that are barely disguised pleas for confidence boosts. (“I feel like such an untalented hack today, maybe I should just give up!”) Don’t do it. The dopamine high of a compliment is not going to fix the underlying issue for more than about twelve seconds.
NB also: A lot of authors feel insecure because they read advice that tells them they’re doing it all wrong. However, a lot of writing advice is pig-ignorant, garbage, or pig-ignorant garbage. Read this post please.
Lack of structure / skills
This one is fixable. Read some craft books. I am a big fan of Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit because he talks about his process in a way that makes you feel like writing is a doable job. I am not a fan of prescriptive books myself but they work for some people. Romance writers might find something like Romancing the Beat helps you develop an outline if that’s what you’re scrabbling for.
You can develop these skills. I’d suggest taking your three favourite books of your genre and deconstructing them. Read slowly, looking at what each exchange, each scene, each plot turn is doing. How are the main characters introduced? How is the conflict developed? Where are the nodes as storylines interact, or the change points in the relationship, both positive and negative? What does this scene add to the characters, the story, the world, or all three? Why is the author withholding this information and giving that? If something doesn’t work, why not?
You can learn to start thinking structurally, and once you can do that for someone else’s book, your own may become clear.
Lack of commitment / patience
Ouch. But the truth is, while we all know that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, it’s quite possible to get daunted by the million steps you have to do after that one. And when you work all day in a white hot blaze and then the word count at the end of it is 4,043 and you have another 90,000 words to write, it does feel like a very long haul indeed.
Here’s a thought. If you write 500 words 6 days a week, you’ll have a 70K novel in less than six months. 500 words is not so much. You can do 500 words.
Here’s another thought: if word counts aren’t psychologically useful to you, don’t look at them. The book will be the length it needs to be.
Are you reading?
If you don’t know where your romance is going, reading other romances may help. This doesn’t mean ‘steal the ideas’. It means look at other books, what other writers have done with the genre and the tropes, what you want to avoid, different paths their stories could have taken, different ones your story could take.
If I’m not in a mood to read romance, that frequently means I’m not in a place to write it. Sometimes you need a break from a genre. Switch your reading, try writing something else. Or go explore authors from a demographic or subgenre you don’t normally read. You’ll probably discover a ton of amazing authors and a whole lot of new ways of telling stories.
Mindfully reading books in your genre is research, and counts as valid use of writing time. Do it instead of staring at a screen.
Need for feedback
I wrote about using a book doctor here. If you’re stuck, it may be because you’ve taken a wrong turn and your subconscious is digging its heels in. Paying someone to work through it could be the answer. I say pay because a) it is expert work and you want a professional and b) we tend not to appreciate advice that we’re given free. If you can’t afford a book doctor, and you’re lucky enough to know a really good critical reader who will do it for free or as a skills exchange, make sure you appreciate the effort.
It’s the wrong book
Sometimes we get stuck on a book because it’s not the story we should be writing, or it just doesn’t work. That happens: here is a post on when it happened to me. I could easily have believed I had writer’s block: actually I was telling the wrong story so it didn’t work. Be prepared to take a break, even to write something else, and come back to the first MS at a better time. (Sometimes the better time is ‘never’.)
I have more than once written a book to distract myself from the book I was supposed to be writing but couldn’t. I know ‘go with the flow’ doesn’t sound helpful when the words aren’t flowing, but at least stop banging your head against a rock.
When you’re struggling to write, that’s you sending yourself a message. The message may be “I’m too tired”, or “I’m scared” or “This isn’t any good” or “This secondary plotline is going to torpedo the entire book in the final third and you haven’t realised you dumbass, abort, abort.” The message may or may not be correct, which is irritating, but you need to listen to it in order to work out what your problem is, because only then can you fix it.
Ditch “I have writer’s block”: it never did anyone any good. Say “I’m struggling to write right now because…” and you might get somewhere.
My latest release is Gilded Cage. Get your lady detective/Victorian jewel thief romance here!
You want Victorian jewel thieves? I got Victorian jewel thieves!
I am extremely pleased to say I have two new books coming in the Lilywhite Boys series that started with Any Old Diamonds. This is late Victorian (1890s) and covers the romantic and criminal shenanigans of thieves Jerry Crozier and Templeton Lane, and their fence Stan Kamarzyn.
The first release is a novelette with Stan’s story. It’s set two years before Any Old Diamonds.
The Rat-Catcher’s Daughter
Music-hall singer Miss Christiana is in serious debt, and serious trouble. She owes more than she can pay to a notorious criminal, and now he plans to make an example of her. There’s no way out.
But Christiana has an admirer. Stan Kamarzyn has watched her sing for a year and he doesn’t want to see her get hurt. Stan’s nobody special–just a dodgy bloke from Bethnal Green–but he’s got useful friends. Friends who can get a girl out of trouble, for a price. Christiana’s not sure what it will cost her…
The two slowly reach an understanding. But Christiana is no criminal, and she can’t risk getting mixed up with the law. What will happen when Stan’s life as the fence for the notorious Lilywhite Boys brings trouble to his doorstep?
A trans f/m asexual romance novelette (17,000 words) publishing 25th September.
The second book is Gilded Cage, a full novel, and it’s the story of Templeton Lane and lady detective Susan Lazarus (who regular readers will recognise as Sukey, the snotty 12-year-old from An Unnatural Vice). And here is the absolutely glorious cover–art by Vic Grey, design by Lexiconic Design.
Once upon a time a boy from a noble family fell in love with a girl from the gutter. It went as badly as you’d expect.
Seventeen years later, Susan Lazarus is a renowned detective, and Templeton Lane is a jewel thief. She’s tried to arrest him, and she’s tried to shoot him. They’ve never tried to talk.
Then Templeton is accused of a vicious double murder. Now there’s a manhunt out for him, the ports are watched, and even his best friends have turned their backs. If he can’t clear his name, he’ll hang.
There’s only one person in England who might help Templeton now…assuming she doesn’t want to kill him herself.
Publishing 23rd October.
I am very excited to actually get a series finished (I have been having issues with writing series for a couple of years, and I can assure you nobody finds that more exasperating than I do). I’m also excited about these stories. I haven’t written an asexual romance before, and Gilded Cage is my first m/f historical. Plus, I loved writing my shameless, violent, thieving, and unrepentant Lilywhite Boys and I hope you enjoy them too.
BTW Any Old Diamonds (Lilywhite Boys 1, m/m) is going on sale at 99c/99p later this month, so if you want to glom the whole lot, watch out to grab a bargain.
I’m going to finish with this tweet because it’s a pun so spectacularly bad the court should take it into consideration for sentencing. I thank you.
One of the trickiest bits of writing a book is the part when you realise you don’t have a clue what you’re doing.
The problem is, when the author is in the weeds, it can be extremely difficult to see what shape the story ought/wants to be, and this can make or break a book. This is a bit hard to talk about as it always ends up sounding mystical, but here goes.
A lot of problems come down to not really understanding what shape the story should be, or trying to push it the wrong way. A plotline goes on too long, an emphasis is off, the peaks and troughs don’t come at the right times, the narratives don’t balance, something needed a different amount of weight. You’ve read a lot of books like that, many of them published by Big Six houses because development editing costs money and takes time. It really does not go without saying that every author can find their book’s shape, or that every editor can help them. A lot of the time they can’t and don’t, and what you get is an unsatisfactory read.
This is incredibly hard to give useful advice about, because so much of it is a matter of the individual story. Plus, of course, it’s easy to see something’s wrong but a lot harder to work out how to put it right. It’s a bit like the apocryphal story of Michelangelo’s explanation of his work: “I get a block of stone and chip away everything that isn’t David.” Yeah, thanks for that.
Digging out the shape a story wants to be is a serious editorial gift. NB: this doesn’t mean the editor imposing their vision on the author’s MS. It’s the editor seeing what the author is striving for, when very frequently the author doesn’t have a clue.
Because yes, authors are frequently oblivious to what their books are about. When you’ve been face down in a pile of words for months, it’s hard to step back and take a view of the whole thing. Example: I wrote my historical fantasy romance Flight of Magpies about a mystical plot in which our heroes are entrapped and threatened by various murderous baddies, characters walk on air, and someone gets cut in half on page. My husband’s response to it was, “I can’t believe you wrote a book about my job.” He was a) a marketing manager, and b) absolutely right (thematically). I had not meant to do that.
So. I’ve been writing Gilded Cage, a companion book to Any Old Diamonds, in which jewel thief Templeton Lane and private detective Susan Lazarus have a lot of unfinished business plus a murder to solve. I whizzed to about 35K on this feeling really good about it. I got to about 50K, slowing down, with an increasing feeling of plodding through mud. Then I wrote another chapter and realised a number of things:
- I’d gone wrong.
- I didn’t know where I’d gone wrong.
- I had two important plotlines going on (both flagged from the start) which were diverging instead of converging, and there was no way to reconcile them to create a single cohesive climax. It was the wrong shape, and getting wronger with every word.
Point 3 was as far as I got. I am a pretty good development editor, and not a bad hand at seeing the shape of my own books, but…I was stuck. Screwed. No idea where to go from here, or even how to retrace my steps.
So I did two things. I accepted a freelance writing job that would last for two months to get away from the bloody MS, and I hired a book doctor.
This is sort of like a development editor but in some ways a harder job. With a development edit, you’re working off a finished MS. It’s got a shape even if it’s wrong, and the editor knows where the author wanted to end up, which makes it easier to see alternative ways of getting there.
Whereas a book doctor may well be faced with an unfinished “oh my God this is a mess, I went wrong somewhere between 20,000 and 55,000 words ago, i don’t know the ending and this may never work at all” project. One for which there could be multiple options, multiple places to strip it back to, a dozen different ways to finish it, or maybe none and the only useful advice is “kill it with fire”. The book doctor’s job is to pinpoint the important parts (themes, character arcs, plot points) that suggest what shape the MS should be, and find ways to reshape existing text towards that. A brilliant book doctor will guide the author to a new vision of the book that both resonates with the plan they didn’t know they had and helps them forget the grimpen mire they’ve been stuck in for months.
This is not the same thing as telling the author what to do, or providing a completed outline to follow. Don’t expect that from a book doctor, and if you get one, be very prepared for it not to work. It’s not their book. Their job is to help you see your book with fresh eyes, and with a conscious awareness of the things you were trying to do–which will lead towards the things you should do now.
So I called upon an excellent editor for book doctoring. She sent me a massive critical analysis that pulled out the key themes, the individual character arcs, the romance arc, the antagonist roles, the way plot and character intersected, the undeveloped McGuffin, and the big honking massive great elephant in the room that I had completely not thought about across 55,000 words because it’s not like I’ve done this before or anything. She asked a bunch of relevant questions: what does this character want, what does this character need? And by the time I had finished reading her email, I could see what shape the bloody book should be. At last.
(Since you ask: I cut a huge plotline down to a character theme, ditched three chapters, rebalanced the central romance, and understood where I’d let a character fool me into thinking she was absolutely fine when she wasn’t. And it was a doddle to do, because once I understood what I’d been trying to do–once I could feel the shape of the book–it all clicked into place.)
A good book doctor won’t give you the answers: they will ask the questions that help you find the answers. Because once you understand what you were doing all along, it’s a lot easier to work out where you go from here.
I worked with May Peterson, who is fantastic.
There are many good book doctors available, and also many, many people who offer this service based on, apparently, having read some books. Seek personal recs (anyone who’s had a good experience will be dying to recommend) and look at references.
This is a time-intensive specialist editing service that requires professional experience and nous. Expect to pay accordingly. I realise professional editing is not within everyone’s budget, but that doesn’t make it overpriced: editors need to eat too.
Gilded Cage publishes 23 October.
Romance has a phenomenon that doesn’t occur to anything like the same degree in other genres: the linked books with different MCs. You don’t get murder mystery series with constantly changing sleuths, and it’s pretty rare for epic fantasy trilogies to pick out a new humble farm boy or feisty vizier’s daughter in every book. Whereas we in romance love our changing MCs from the motorcycle club, university friends, group of Regency gentlemen who go to the same club, or small town where everyone knows and boinks everyone else.
There are a lot of good reasons to do this. For the writer, it allows worldbuilding on a larger scale, showing many different aspects. For the publisher, who may also be the writer, it allows for easy marketing—you liked that book? Here’s this one! And for the reader, there’s the pleasure of familiarity along with a new story, and the chance of seeing more of the people we loved before, even if their time in the spotlight is over. We want to see how our old friends are getting on!
That’s the tricky bit.
The temptation in writing mixed MC series is that the fans may well be clamouring to see their faves again, and even if they aren’t, the author is. It is almost irresistible to populate the character list with previous MCs and drop in little references to previous books, or indeed huge ones.
Sara sauntered down Blue Blossom Valley’s main street. To her left was Joanie’s knitwear shop. They’d had a wild time when the terrorists had taken Joanie hostage, but now she was safely married to Sara’s brother. On the right was the library, now being rebuilt after the earthquake that had tested them all last year, but brought the pastor and Miss Ellie together at last. She was thinking happily of their forthcoming wedding when she saw Marco—the town’s bad boy turned millionaire and father of two adorable babies with Flora, who had come to Blue Blossom Valley a young widow and tamed Marco’s free spirit with her gentle nature—pull up on his motorbike.
I barely exaggerate. We’ve all read book 17 of the Blue Blossom Valley series, and no matter how much the publisher assures us “this book can be read as a standalone”, it has that irritating feel of turning on the TV and watching episode 2049 of a soap opera you’ve never seen before.
There are three main ways authors use what I am going to call NPCs (non player characters, i.e. the MCs of another book as minor characters). Let’s go over these.
Past MCs explained
This is probably the commonest and most obtrusive method of bringing in NPCs.
Kelsey waved hello to Jane, whose cupcake business had nearly gone under last year until she met bad boy turned billionaire Mike, and was now glowing with expectant motherhood, and ordered coffee.
If we care about Jane we’ll remember the cupcake thing anyway. If we’ve forgotten who she is, or never read her book in the first place, it’s a pointless infodump.
The key here is relevance. If Jane is just there to nod at the reader, this is padding. The regular reader may think, “Oh, it’s Jane and she’s up the spout, how nice for her!” but that’s all you achieve. Meanwhile, the new reader feels irritated by a complete stranger’s cupcakes intruding on the story.
If Jane is going to play a meaningful part in Kelsey’s book, by all means introduce her, but think about what information you need to include. Does Mike play a role, and if so, can we wait to introduce him till he’s on page? Is the prior economic instability of the cupcake business relevant to Kelsey at this point, or at all?
I am very fond of closely linked mixed MC series, and the MCs of my Society of Gentlemen series are all over one another’s books like a rash. I am also well aware of the difficulty of trying to introduce NPCs with vast amount of backstory, and of the numerous times I’ve got it wrong myself. The conclusion I have now reached is this:
Pretend they’re new.
Forget you wrote 80,000 words of pining, arguing, hot sex, and murder-solving starring these people, and treat returning NPCs as brand new characters—whether secondaries who need explanations, or minor characters who pass like ships in the night. That will show you how important any individual detail is. Would you mention Jane’s past business travails, or let her giggle about her amazing sex life and announce her pregnancy, if she was a new character just there for Kelsey to talk to? Maybe you would, in order to cast light on Kelsey’s character or plot, and that’s fine–if you’re doing it for the sake of Kelsey’s book.
My Sins of the Cities, Society of Gentlemen and Lilywhite Boys series are all set in the same world. Here’s Any Old Diamonds as the MC reflects on the jumped-up Duchess of Ilvar:
The Duke could buy his wife a private railway line for her convenience, and jewels as other husbands bought flowers, but he’d never been able to purchase public approval or liking. Even time hadn’t managed that. There were music-hall brides who had claimed their places in the aristocracy more effectively than Her Grace—not, perhaps, the appalling Lady Euston, but certainly the Countess of Moreton, who had been a trapeze artist and killed a man, yet was universally popular. Then again, Lady Moreton had charm, humility, and a delightful sense of humour. The Duchess had none of those.
My aim here was primarily to put the Duchess’s unpopularity into a social context, and secondarily to slide Lady Moreton into the reader’s awareness as primer for when she turns up in person as an important minor character later on. The fact that I am bringing Greta Starling / Lady Moreton back from An Unsuitable Heir may be satisfying to me and to some readers, but it’s very much not the main intention of the passage. Decide for yourself if it works.
Handling NPCs becomes a lot harder when you have a plot arc linking books, because previous events and characters will have to be explained as part of cluing the new reader in. (When I am Supreme Dictator of the Universe, there will be Words about starting closely linked trilogies at book 3.) I am right now writing book 2 of the Lilywhite Boys duo where the plot requires me to go over events and introduce characters from book 1, and one character is heavily motivated by childhood events that relate to a different book altogether. This could very easily slide into plot summaries of previous books.
So pretend they’re new. Ask yourself what’s relevant to the plot/MCs now, what’s valid texturing detail now, and mainly, what’s the absolute maximum re past books you can leave out. If you focus ruthlessly on the current MCs and plot, you are less likely to get bogged down in callbacks to previous glories–and readers will be less afflicted by the sensation of coming into a soap opera too late.
This is hard to do and one person’s idea of texturing detail will inevitable feel like another’s unnecessary callback. It’s worth remembering that, because you the author know the NPCs, they will almost certainly come across as vivid, real, and important even if you’re not making a conscious effort to present them that way. Less may well be more.
Past characters not explained
It is incredibly tempting (for me anyway) to fill books with Easter eggs—passing mentions of NPCs in a way that won’t stand out to new readers but will spark joy for those who know the books. I absolutely love this in my reading as well as writing, but it can be self-indulgent and irritating if done poorly.
I’m now going to embarrass myself for your sake. Here is a deleted sequence from An Unnatural Vice. As you read it, bear in mind that Justin has been nearly murdered and he and Nathaniel are hiding with Nathaniel’s posh titled friends to avoid being killed.
Justin looked around the drawing room, since he had nothing to add to the reminiscences of Binky and Bledsoe and old Potty. It was a very comfortable room, not in the modern style but bright, with yellow walls rather than the fashionable green, and a profusion of pictures. One in particular caught his eye, and he rose to examine it. It was a large portrait, in oils, of an elderly man bearing some resemblance to his host: a big, deep-chested bulky fellow. It would have been much like every other painting of unknown rich people Justin had ever seen, except that in place of the usual spaniel or hunting hound, he had a fox at his feet, its russet coat also frosted white by age. Man and fox looked out of the portrait with disturbingly similar expressions of calm determination.
“Sir David Wilkie,” Rodmarton said behind him.
“The painter. The subject is my great-uncle.”
“It’s a superb piece,” Justin said, basing that on the fact it was hanging in here, rather than the artistic judgement he didn’t have. “Is the fox a symbol of his rank, or arms, or was it a pet?”
“My dear chap, one couldn’t have a pet fox. Vermin. Gnaw your vitals out like the Spartan boy.” That was the kind of gibberish Justin’s wealthier clients often came out with. He gave a smiling nod, as though he knew what the man was on about. “No, it was an odd whim of his. No meaning at all.”
“Oh, Roddy, really, of course it means something.” That was a female voice from behind them. Justin turned to see a short, smiling, plump woman. “Good evening. You must be Nathaniel’s friend?”
Her husband beamed. “This is Lady Rodmarton. Justin Lazarus, Tommy.”
Justin took her hand with the best bow he could manage. She looked startlingly ordinary for the wife of a marquess-to-be.
“Delighted to meet you, Mr. Lazarus. Is that a French name?”
“Not to my knowledge. Thank you for your hospitality.” As if it was her rushing around to make all ready.
“Not at all. Nathaniel always brings us excitement, one way or another. I desperately want to hear about it when you’ve both eaten. You were admiring the portrait?”
“Tommy has a theory,” Rodmarton said with a fond smile. “Great-Uncle never married, you see, and Tommy will have it he had himself painted with the fox as some sort of secret message to the particular woman he didn’t marry, if you follow me.”
“That’s a touching story,” Justin said.
If you have read my book A Gentleman’s Position you may well be squeaking with excited glee at this passage. My FB chat group loved it as a snippet; it meant a lot to me to write it. But if you are in the (inexplicably much larger) group who has not read that book, you will be sitting there thinking “Weren’t they on the run from murderers? Why the bobbins are we talking about paintings of dead people with random animals?” and you will be absolutely right to. This passage gives us a sense of Justin’s personality, and the class divide between him and Nathaniel, so it’s not entirely self-indulgence, but call it 90%. Maybe 95%. I cut the entire plotline.
Also known as sequel bait: the NPC waiting their turn for stardom. This is a bit harder because the author may need to lay groundwork for a future book, and will want to get readers interested in a later MC—but you must not do it at the expense of the current book. If the ultra-glamorous Lord Flashheart of book 3 steals the show of book 2, you’ve weakened book 2’s MCs, plot, and the reader’s experience.
The trick is to remember whose point of view you’re in—which is one or both of the MCs who are falling in love. They should be the centres of each other’s attentions, thoughts, even worlds. We do not want to find a third party far more interesting, attractive, and striking than their lover through their eyes–and we really don’t want the sense that the author would rather be writing Lord Flashheart’s book. (Nor, may I add, do we want to read an advert for another book in the middle of this one.)
And here I will add that the same goes for returning NPCs—if they steal the show, you’ve weakened your book. You do not want your reader to walk away from book 4 thinking, “Wow, that reminded me how much better book 1 was, and how much more I liked that other character.”
Every in-book appearance of NPCs, whether as passing mentions or major secondaries, has to serve a purpose in this book, not be fan service for the last. Make them work. If they are genuinely relevant to the MCs’ characters and their plot, they won’t feel shoehorned or irrelevant. If their only/main purpose is to remind the reader of past stories and glories, you have not done yourself or the reader a favour.
I’m not downplaying loyal readers’ urge to know how past MCs are getting on. That’s a wonderful thing–but it must never overwhelm the current story. If you want to host a dinner party where seven previous heroines show off their accumulated children and pregnancies, or whatever equivalent for your MCs, there’s a lot to be said for making it a free story for your newsletter, rather than a chapter in book 8. That gives readers a good wallow without unbalancing the new book, and drives your newsletter subs.
Because it’s great that readers loved your previous book—but don’t let that stand in the way of making them love this one too.
My most recent book is Any Old Diamonds, which ties into my Society of Gentlemen and Sins of the Cities series. Why not buy it and see if I can put my money where my mouth is? /marketing face/
I have just read a review of a British-set histrom. The hero is a duke, but he has a problem: the conditions of the title stipulate that if he isn’t married by the age of thirty, he will be stripped of the dukedom and it will pass to the next heir. Great romance set-up, right?
No. Oh God, no.
There are historical realities you can muck about with, tons of them. Have a zillion dukes by all means. Let them marry governesses and plucky flower girls, fine. These things are wildly implausible, but this is historical romance, and we’re here to play.
And then there are things that you cannot mess with, because they don’t play with the world, they break it. Chief amongst these in British aristocracy romance would be, er, destroying the entire system of British aristocracy. Which is what this plot does.
The point of a system of primogeniture—the whole, sole, single, solitary purpose of it—is to establish that nobility is bestowed by birth. The monarch can bestow a title on a commoner because of their merit on the battlefield/skill in the sack, but once it is granted, it operates under the rules. Nobody ever gets to decide who will inherit their title—not the monarch, nobody. It goes to the first in line: end of story. And once a peerage is bestowed it cannot be removed by anything less than an Act of Parliament or Royal prerogative. Certainly not by a previous holder’s whim.
If inherited titles can be given or withheld on any other basis, if you start asking “Does the holder meet basic standards?” or “But is this really the best person for the job?”, the whole system falls apart. It is infinitely better for the aristocratic system that a chinless idiot should make an absolute mess of his earldom than that the right of firstborn nobility should ever be questioned.
Hence this isn’t a matter of suspending disbelief / plot implausibility: it destroys the entire house of cards. Allow me to quote GK Chesterton:
Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing-room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand.
A duke marrying a lowly chimney-sweep’s daughter is merely implausible. But a duke whose title can be removed if he doesn’t meet a certain standard of behaviour, or a nobleman who can disinherit his older son and bestow the title on his second? That violates the laws of the aristocratic primogeniture-based world you’re writing in.
Some readers won’t notice of course. But many, even those who aren’t versed in the specifics of those laws, will pick up that you neither know nor care to know about the world you’re writing. And that does rather raise the question, why bother?
Herewith some Inheritance FAQs for UK historical romance authors. See this other incredibly long post for more on getting titles right.
Can my bastard hero (the illegitimate kind of bastard) inherit his father’s title?
Not in England, possibly in Scotland.
A bastard (born outside wedlock) cannot inherit his father’s title or any property entailed to it. He could be raised to the peerage, i.e. given his own title, by the monarch, but he can’t inherit one because that would break the system of primogeniture. A title could fall into abeyance (stand vacant while waiting for someone to claim it) and potentially then be awarded to the bastard son by the monarch, but it would not be in his father’s power to leave it in his will.
In England a bastard cannot be legitimised by the marriage of his parents unless your book is set after 1926, when the law was changed to retroactively legitimise children if their parents married (as long as neither parent was married to someone else at the time of the birth). The legitimised son of a peer is not entitled to inherit the peerage, though he would be able to use a courtesy title if one was available.
However, if a Scottish bastard hero’s parents married as above, he would be legitimised and able to inherit the title, as that has been Scottish law for ages.
Can my hero renounce his title? Can he nobly give it to his cousin instead?
Not before 1963 but see below, and he can’t ‘give’ it to anyone.
When a peer dies, his heir claims the title by making a petition to the Crown, giving his claim in detail. The heir can use the title while waiting for the formal approval to be granted (start calling himself Earl of Bingley) but it’s not actually his until it’s granted. Hence you could have two rival claimants walking around London both calling themselves Lord Bingley, to everyone’s embarrassment.
The petition is reviewed and, if straightforward, presented to the monarch for rubber-stamping. However, if there are complications, the petition goes to the Committee for Privileges. While this is happening, anyone else who believes they have a claim can petition the House of Lords to have it heard.
Let us say the time and place of Lord Bingley’s marriage to his housemaid are shrouded in mystery, but they lived as a married couple and have an acknowledged son, John. When Lord Bingley dies John petitions the Crown for the title. He can’t give details of his parents’ marriage, so the petition is referred to the Committee for Privileges. Meanwhile his cousin Peter comes forward to claim that Lord Bingley wasn’t legally married and that the title should instead come to him. The whole thing then gets thrashed out in the Lords, whose decision is final.
If John doubts his own claim to the title but has no proof either way, he can decline to make a petition to the Crown, and then the title would simply lie in abeyance until his death, at which point Peter could petition for it. Or if the title has been granted to John already, he can refuse to use it and call himself Mr. But while John lives, the only way for Peter or anyone else to be Lord Bingley would be for John to be conclusively proven illegitimate before the title was granted.
The only way you can mess around with renouncing a title is with an heir who isn’t generally known to exist. Let’s say Lord March was a bigamist, has a son Terence by his first marriage who lives quietly in a village, but as far as the world is concerned, his son James by the second, bigamous marriage is his heir. While this remains secret, James and Terence can decide between themselves if Terence is going to lie low or if James is going to nobly declare himself illegitimate–or indeed knowingly lie to the House of Lords to claim the title. But this entirely depends on Terence’s identity remaining a secret. If it becomes known to the Committee of Privileges, only Terence will be awarded the title, and John is out whatever happens.
NB: It was not possible for a peer to disclaim his title until 1963 when the law was changed. A disclaimed title lies unused until the former holder dies and then inheritance operates as normal.
Can my heroine inherit a title of her own?
English titles usually descend down the direct male line. For many titles it is specified that the title passes to “the heirs male of [the holder’s] body”, i.e. legitimate sons only. If you run out of legitimate sons, the title goes into abeyance.
However, some titles are deliberately created with a special remainder allowing it to pass to women/down the female line. Many more Scottish titles than English are created this way. And lots of the older English titles descend in fee simple, meaning the title can go to a female heir, or to other relatives if the line of descent has died out, without going into abeyance. These are almost all baronies or earldoms. Where an English title is in fee simple, sons have precedence over daughters.
Take the earldom of Polkington. The earl is called Alan, and has children Lady Bertha, Charles and David, in that order. Alan’s younger brother is Eric.
In the heirs male system, Charles is heir, with David next in line. If both of them die the title falls into abeyance. Eric can then petition to inherit as the only surviving son of the last-but-one Earl; Bertha is out.
However, if the earldom is held in fee simple, the order of inheritance would be: Charles, David, Bertha, Eric. So if you want a heroine to have a title in her own right, there you go.
NB that if Bertha becomes Countess of Polkington in her own right, her husband John Smith does not become Earl of Polkington or get any courtesy title. He remains Mr Smith unless given a title of his own. (He might well take her surname under these circumstances so their children would have the earldom’s family name.) If Bertha’s husband was Sir John Smith, he keeps his title of Sir. If Bertha, Countess of Polkington marries the Marquess of Mandrake, she will probably style herself Marchioness of Mandrake because it’s higher status.
My hero’s mother was playing away and he isn’t the duke’s biological son—can the villain threaten to disinherit him with this knowledge?
It is not easy to disinherit the heir to a peerage (because primogeniture). If Lord and Lady Welford are married, Lady Welford’s eldest son is the legitimate heir to the marquessate and entailed property, even if he bears a striking resemblance to Lady Welford’s lover. Lord Welford’s heir could potentially be disinherited if it could be proved beyond doubt that Lord Welford could not have had sex with his wife for a goodly period around the time of conception—but that would be “could not” as in “she was in England, he was in China”, not just a claim that they weren’t sharing a bed at the time. (For once, the man’s word on the matter doesn’t carry all the weight! Woop!)
Moreover, Lord Welford would need to repudiate the child from the first and stick to that decision. He can’t come back from China, forgive his erring wife, bring up the boy with his name, then change his mind in five years’ time. And even then the case would have to be thrashed out in the Committee of Privileges.
Can my hero be stripped of his peerage if he fails to fulfil the terms of a will, or removed from the line of succession by his irate father because of his rakish ways?
Literally, and I cannot state this clearly enough, no.
The irate father can leave unentailed property/money elsewhere, but titles are not in anyone’s gift. The legitimate firstborn son will inherit the title. Peerages can only be granted along the line of succession and, once granted, can only be removed by an act of Parliament. This virtually never happens, and only for things like treason, which tend to come with other (terminal) consequences. Once the title is formally granted, that’s it.
This is the case even if there is an obvious error. Suppose Lord Manders has an eldest son Roger who died abroad, and a second son James. James will need to provide proof that Roger is dead in order to inherit the title, and if he can’t, it will not be granted. If it is granted, and then Roger turns up a few years later explaining it was all an amusing misunderstanding, James can’t just renounce the title of Lord Manders and let Roger have it.
But I really want my elderly duke to force his handsome son, nephew, and bastard to compete over who will inherit the dukedom!
Tough shit. They’ll just have to fight over money like everyone else.
Talking of bastard dukes, my latest release is Any Old Diamonds, in which Victorian jewel thieves collide with degenerate aristocracy.
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.”
“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.
I read a lot this year. A lot. In fact, according to my read shelf on Goodreads I have read 200 books this year as of 7th December, and that doesn’t include the DNFs that I didn’t bother to track. It is probably worth noting that I read when I feel stressed about current events.
Moreover, I read some damn good stuff. The following list is thirty books and could be significantly longer. I decided not to add more than one book per author as a matter of self control, but just for the record, I have read multiple books by Talia Hibbert, Mina V. Esguerra, T. Kingfisher, and Melissa Scott this year, and I heartily recommend glomming their complete backlists.
This list is romance, fantasy, general fiction and a couple of non-fic, and these are the books I read this year, not necessarily recent publications. I am also including the absolute goddamn worst thing I read this year just for the sake of venting.
Top Ten SF/Fantasy
The Apple-Tree Throne by Premee Mohamed
A weird and haunting novella set in an alt-Britain with an Edwardian feel. The narrator is one of the only survivors of his regiment after his commanding officer’s calamitous incompetence got the rest killed; he is now living with the disgraced man’s family and haunted by his ghost. A wonderful story about wounds, kindness, cruelty, and how to go on living.
In the Vanisher’s Palace by Aliette de Bodard
This novella will make a lot of lists. Set in a post-colonial fantasy alt-Viet world, where everything has been wrecked and twisted, with a slow burning romance between a young woman and the shapeshifting lady dragon who abducts her as a sacrifice. Packed with imagination and strangeness and thoughts about trying to live in an unhealthy world.
The Wounds of the Dead by Vikram Paralkar
This blew me away. A weird and ghastly fable about a disgraced doctor attempting to run a clinic in rural India when a dead family arrive one night. They’ve been promised they’ll live again at dawn—but they need their wounds repaired first. Subsequent events mix clinical ghastliness with the mundane horror of a deeply corrupt system, and just enough hope to make it unbearable. Thought-provoking topics along with a compelling plot and superb writing. This is the Indian title: it’s getting a UK release as Night Theatre presumably for the usual inexplicable publisher reasons.
Blackfish City by Sam Miller
An intensely plausible post-climate-change dystopia set on a floating city in the Arctic waters. Another SFF, magic/technology combo, with people bonded to animals via both shamanism and nanobots, and a sexually transmitted disease that leads to people sharing each others’ memories. Absorbing, thought-provoking, haunting, and a rattling adventure plot with lots of drama and violence and queer romance.
Temper by Nicky Drayden
Indescribable. Absolutely extraordinary set up of magic, tech, religion, and fable that plays with some really wild ideas in a totally committed way without ever losing sight of the people at the centre of the story. There is no weird-ass plot turn that this author will not take, which makes for a spectacular ride if you’re happy to hang on. I can see how it would not be to everyone’s taste because bananapants; I absolutely loved it.
Point of Sighs by Melissa Scott
I adore the Astreiant series–it’s stunningly immersive, so fully realised and well drawn that it’s actually disorienting when you stop reading. Nico and Philip are terrific leads with their low key romance, the mystery in this has some spectacularly creepy horror elements, and there’s a real sense of doom. Fabulous, beautifully written fantasy mystery romance. This is #5; start at book 1 and prepare to glom. (I also read Scott’s The Order of the Air series written with Jo Graham and loved those too.).
Not So Stories by Cassandra Khaw et al
A fantastic collection of stories riffing off Kipling. Some are new stories in the Just So style like the brilliant Cassandra Khaw opener, or retellings of actual Just Sos; others are more loosely related. Pretty much all of them are about power and its abuse–male power, white supremacy, colonialism, slavery. Thought-provoking in multiple directions, blood-boiling, often hilarious, great writing, diverse casts, and there’s not a dud in the collection. Highly recommended.
The Devil’s Standoff by VS McGrath
This series deserves far more attention than it seems to get. A tremendous read: a brutal fantasy Western with complex magic, twisty plotting, flawed characters, impossible problems, and some spectacularly nasty meanies. Also doesn’t shy away from really gritty unpleasantness in the racism and colonialism on display. Hettie is a wonderful character and I am dying for book 3 (out soon!). Read in order.
Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw
An enormously enjoyable urban fantasy heavily based in period pulp (any book where Varney the Vampyre is back and has anxiety is all right with me). Greta is a lovely moral heroine, her gang of vampires are great fun, there’s a delightful slow burn romance, pacey adventure, and a gleefully crap modern edgelord vampire villain in body glitter. Humour, adventure, kindness, and fierce morality. Can’t wait for the next. Book 1 wasn’t as good and I’d basically forgotten the plot but had no trouble picking the story up, so jump in here by all means.
Swordheart by T Kingfisher
This could have gone in romance, it’s so lovely. A warrior’s soul was magically bound to a sword; now he’s a living immortal weapon bound to obey his wielder. Unfortunately, she’s a put-upon widow in a provincial village who just wants to avoid being forced to marry a cousin. Their subsequent adventures and romance save her self-respect and his humanity. Curvy mid-30s heroine, important nonbinary character whose identity and pronouns are never an issue, queerness unquestionably accepted. Glorious funny dialogue, intense but clearsighted compassion and humanity, a fair bit of highly enjoyable murder, and lovely well-developed world-bulding brimming with ingenuity. An absolute joy. I also read and adored the two-part Clockwork Boys story, set in the same world.
Top Ten Romance
A Girl Like Her by Talia Hibbert
Honestly I could have filled my top ten with Talia. A hero who is kind, considerate, consensual, reasonable. A heroine who’s prickly and angry and allowed to be. A joyously life-enhancing plot, a bad guy who is bad without overshadowing the book, a love that heals people in the way happiness does. Written with exuberant confidence and humour so it whips along gorgeously. Might be my best of the year, although if you want a howl-with-laughter romance try her Mating the Huntress. Or anything else of hers, come to that.
Tikka Chance on Me by Suleikha Snyder
An exuberant novella featuring a desi woman dragged back to her miserable US small town by family obligation, and the bad-boy-made-worse in a motorcycle gang (not actually a racist thug). This is breezily done, with the concentration very much on the thoroughly enjoyable romance which manages to be low angst despite the set up thanks to the hero’s cinnamon-rolldom and the heroine’s tremendous self-possession and common sense. Sex positive, full of funny lines, and with a gorgeously warm heart.
House of Cads by Elizabeth Kingston
Regency. Marie-Anne is a marvellous heroine: French immigrant, super sex positive, loves her food. She lives fully and enthusiastically, and with her own personalised, clearsighted morality. Her romance with Mason, an eight-years-younger American con artist, is lovely, sexy, and very much led by her. Very funny and extremely lighthearted, with a strongly Heyeresque feel to the subplots–the heroine must sort out the inappropriate romances of three sisters–and despite the house party setting, has the sense of a diverse larger world so often lacking in Regencies. A gleefully feelgood read.
Salt Magic, Skin Magic by Lee Welch
A terrific paranormal historical. The opening is terrifically creepy and compelling, the magic system is really unusual and intriguing–John’s magic is gloriously inventive in particular–the romance is emotional and hot, the setting is Gothically vivid, and the author manages, extraordinarily, to make me absolutely desperate for a sequel starring a character that we haven’t even seen on page. Highly recommended. (Disclaimer: I edited this just so you know.)
Something Human by AJ Demas
Set in an alt-Mediterranean sort of world, with a Germanicish tribe at war with Greekish colonisers. Two enemy soldiers save one another post battle then hole up in a temple to recuperate, falling in love on the way. Beautifully written, with fascinating worldbuilding that supports the characters, a lovely romance that manages to be both moving and unsentimental, and lots of chewy and intriguing thoughts. Plus, it pulls off the rare trick of making you feel better about people. I read it in a sitting and enjoyed every minute.
Snapdragon by Kilby Blades
An absolute stormer of a sexy romance. Doctor daughter of a Republican scumbag politician meets supersexy high flying architect and they agree on a no-strings no-stress sexual relationship. Yeah right. It’s well written, at points very funny, hot, lot of dark undercurrents without plunging into excessive angst. NB this is book 1 of a two-parter so you don’t get your HEA yet; Chrysalis, the second half, is also fab.
Wild Sweet Love by Beverly Jenkins
I read a lot of Ms Bev’s backlist this year but this was my favourite. Teresa July, outlaw bank robber, is fresh out of jail on parole, and forced to live with a do-gooder to reform. She must learn manners and ladylike ways to avoid going back to prison. Ahahaha no, she remains 100% hard-drinking leather-wearing and gun-toting, just acquires more wardrobe options and a hot city banker with a past. Bliss.
Fail Seven Times by Kris Ripper
Justin, a prickly, self-loathing jerk, is in love not just with his bi best friend Alex but with Alex’s girlfriend Jamie. He loves them; they love him and want him to join them in bedwith hope of a proper relationship. The entire conflict lies in Justin’s horrifically aggressive-defensive personality and terror of vulnerability, which causes him to deflect, push away, walk away, and screw up. It’s very hard to pull off a totally convincing romance where all the conflict is internal and based on such a frustrating person, but we see Justin starting to open his mind and heart in multiple directions to get the HEA and it works magnificently. A glorious, affirming book of happiness achieved in the teeth of a lot of stuff. I cried several times.
What Kind of Day by Mina V. Esguerra
I have glommed this author’s entire backlist. Esguerra’s writing is always terrific–vividly realised characters, well drawn settings–and this one works particularly well. Slightly older characters with very relatable career and family and life issues. More steam than usual for her. Mostly a really convincing romance because it shows marvellously how the right person can turn a bad day good, but never falls into the trap of suggesting that love can fix things. Ben and Naya can help one another, but they don’t turn their connection into a HEA till they’ve both got a grip on their own lives. A marvellous romance.
I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif
Rich jetsetting Palestinian Tala, on her fourth engagement, meets middle class British Indian Leyla who works in her dad’s insurance company but wants to be a writer. They fall hard; now both have to come to terms with their sexuality and also with the different cultural pressures. It’s hugely readable, fantastic storytelling, with a lovely soap-opera compulsive-reading quality and a lovely glow of hope. Also absolutely hilarious at points, I laughed out loud. Shoddy editing but I enjoyed it too much not to rec.
Top Ten Other
The Lady Sherlock series by Sherry Thomas
I’m cheating, sue me. But the three books are very tightly linked and I’m glad I read them back to back. A wonderful riff on Holmes, with sharp writing and plotting and enormously engaging characters. Also a real Victorian London feel. Glom them all.
Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee
This mystery series gets better with every book. Brilliant at evoking the feel of the last years of the Raj and the 1920s Indian atmosphere; mystery plots deeply rooted in the history, which makes them work terrifically. Sam Wyndham is a great character, a decent and progressive Englishman of his time, yet so much unconscious racism and assumed cultural superiority is revealed in his narrative. A really superior read.
Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
Yes I am late to this party. A gigantic epic sweep over India since Partition as told through a Hindu gangster, Ganesh Gaitonde, and a Sikh policeman present at his suicide, Sartaj Singh, plus side stories of a huge cast of minor characters. It’s brutal, tender, funny, hopeful, despairing, filthy, religious, political, violent, divided, diverse and pretty much everything else you can get into 800 pages. Which is a lot. I am glad I read it on holiday so was able to glom it over three days, as the stories interweave over a very long stretch and it would be easy to get lost. A hell of a ride.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
A Japanese combini worker loves her job because the strict rules tell her exactly how to behave in a bewilderingly incomprehensible world. But the pressures of society force her to attempt a stab at being ‘normal’ by letting a dreadful misogynist parasite of a man into her life. This book is a paean to being yourself, whoever you are, and watching our heroine regain her balance and reclaim her niche in life is wonderful. Immensely enjoyable, funny, and surprisingly uplifting.
The Madonna of Bolton by Matt Cain
The story of a Bolton boy growing up gay in the 1980s, and his parallel journeys through uni and work; through internalised homophobia and self-destructive hedonism to self-acceptance; and through Madonna’s discography. It’s really lovely. Charlie’s main struggle is learning to accept and love himself, and the overall arc of the book is triumphantly upward, full of promise, hope, and joy. There’s plenty of snarky humour, mostly at his own expense, but also of his various milieus (Cambridge, crap TV, life in Bolton), and one of the joys is how the many minor characters move from entertaining stereotypes to rounded deeper personalities as Charlie’s own understanding and self-obsession change. I was happy-crying like a baby reading this, in public. A glorious, warm, funny, lovely read.
What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
Staggeringly good collection of short stories. Beautifully written, moving, thought provoking, every one with as much meaning and insight into human relations and thought and emotional heft as you might hope to find in a novel. I haven’t read anything this good in a while. Honestly exceptional, not surprised it won prizes, and even if you don’t like short stories or read literary fiction, you want to make an exception for this. Stunningly good.
The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh Shukla
A really engrossing family saga. It’s split into four stories of a Kenyan Asian family come to the Midlands in the 80s and coping with hostility in the immigrant community as well as racism from outside. The synopsis sounds really depressing (racism, cancer, failure and death) but it isn’t depressing because it’s so real and human. The little connections, the moments of happiness, the real love among flawed people all come through strongly and make this a story of hope and endurance and survival, and making the most of the life you’ve got. A hugely engaging read and very well written.
The Ravenmaster by Christopher Skaife
A marvellous book about a bizarre job. Skaife is a Yeoman Warder and in charge of the Tower ravens because if they ever leave the Tower, the country will fall. (He actually shows that to be a relatively recent myth, but that doesn’t make it any less true IMO: every story has to start somewhere.) This is very much a book of stories, one of those reads that feels like you’re in the pub with a really interesting bloke. Chatty, discursive, a lot about the life that brought him to this point, and loads about the ravens he adores.
The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Kate Bradbury
I did not expect a book about wildlife gardening to make me cry. This is extraordinary: the tale of a woman, a decked, concreted, crappy patch of worthless city garden, and her mission to bring it back to life by attracting bees, birds, insects and wild plants. It’s not the usual gardening writing when everyone plans stuff and has magic perfect soil and twenty acres and an unlimited budget. This is the kind of gardening you do when you’re drunk, or you decide to randomly scatter seed like a rebel and then have no idea what you grew, with plants that die and mistakes and looking like a scratty mess. No spoilers but when a particular kind of bee finally arrived I broke down into sobs. A polemic and a lament and a song of praise in one.
The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Absolutely astonishing history of cancer diagnosis, treatment, and the search for causes. It’s extremely well written and intensely, compellingly readable, with some pretty terrifying details, and completely clear even for this scientific illiterate. Mukherjee never loses sight of the humanity of researchers or patients, which helps us understand decisions, responses and deductions that look pretty shonky from the outside. Seriously informative; a real tour de force of popular science.
And One Bloody Awful Book
The Way of a Man with a Maid by Anonymous
I write sexy historical romance, which requires reading period erotica. The goddamn things I do for this job, because this Edwardian “erotic classic” (says the hell who?) is perhaps the single worst book ever perpetrated, combining a spectacularly gross rape/torture/humiliation/forcedincest/male gaze lesbian voyeur fantasy with a bizarre, cloying tweeness that makes you wonder if AA Milne had a weird secret life. I mean, the narrator calls his rape/torture chamber “the Snuggery” and I think we should all pretend this never happened.
Feel free to follow me on Goodreads if you like a lot of recs. I got ‘em.
My own new books this year were:
The Henchmen of Zenda (swashbuckling pulp with swordfights, lust, betrayal, murder, skulduggery, and bonking in shiny boots)
Unfit to Print (upright lawyer and downright rascal rekindle a romance in the murk of the Victorian porn trade)
Band Sinister (Regency with a hellfire club, a bastard baronet, and an innocent country gentleman)