Archive for February, 2021

A Very Remote Connection

February 26, 2021
Mei-Ling and Roary Contemplate a Journey

This week, I can’t find any connection between what I’m reading except that I am the person reading it.  That amuses me greatly.  Okay.  There is one.  I’m absolutely not reading anything overtly dark right now.  Elements, sure, that’s fine, but not as the whole dish.

For those of you unfamiliar with this column, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.  The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.  And it’s also a great place to tell me what you’re reading. 

Recently Completed:

Paladin’s Strength by T. Kingfisher (aka Ursula Vernon).  I sent the author a blurb, which I will share here:  “Paladin’s Strength dances on the delicate edge between horror and humor, providing ample helpings of heart-wrenching romance and heart-stopping action along the way.  I enjoyed it immensely.”  Available for pre-order!

In Progress:

The Renaissance by Will Durant.  Audiobook.  After a long and interesting section on Leonardo Da Vinci, we’re looking at other artists of the time.

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey by Trenton Lee Stewart.  More anxiety than the prior book, less humor, still very readable.


Back to Archeology and American Archeology.  I have said this to my (professional archeologist) husband many time: some archeologists feel a need to find proof of things that common sense should say is there.  He laughs and agrees.



February 24, 2021
Adapting to Uncomfortable Situations

For many years, my standard answer to the often-asked question: “What do you think is the most valuable quality for a serious writer?” has been “Persistence.”

I still stand by that because, without persistence, a writer won’t write, won’t finish, won’t proof, won’t eventually learn about markets, and all the rest.  However, this last year has made me think about a trait I’d like to add: Adaptability.

I sold my first short story in the late 1980’s.  My first novel came out December of 1994.  Since then, I’ve seen publishing change dramatically.  Most, if not all, of the tidbits my dear Roger Zelazny shared with me about the marketplace wouldn’t apply today.  Time and again, I’ve had to adapt.

But that’s not what I’ve been thinking about.  I’ve been thinking about adapting as a useful skill for a writer.  Why? Well, because when something goes wrong, all that persistence can be made switch direction.

Here’s one example.  Late in 2020, I was just beginning to exchange e-mails with David Weber, with whom I’m writing the “Star Kingdom” novels, narrowing down what we’d be putting in the fifth novel (SK5) in the series.  Then he was diagnosed with Covid-19.  He inaugurated the New Year by spending  nine days in the hospital and, as of this writing, is still less than his usually energetic self.  Has this impacted on my schedule?  Of course…  How could it not?

Nestled In

Here’s where adaptability comes in.  One thing I learned a long time ago was that when a project is finished and sent out, forget it and move along to something else.  Although I thought I’d be writing on SK5 by now, I’m not.  Instead, I’m contently nestled in with a project that has, in revision and self-editing, morphed from one very long, unwieldy book into two much more reasonable-length novels. 

Sounds self-evident, doesn’t it?  It’s not.  You won’t believe how many creative people get stuck with what “should have been” and so miss out on the chance to work on something that might give them a lot more pleasure than fussing.

Now, forgive me for not chatting longer, but if I work steadily I can finish off my revision of another chapter or two before I need to take a break and work on…  Bleah.  Tax stuff. 

Catch you later!

FF: Found!

February 19, 2021
Roary Sneaks Up On A Fun Book

Last week, I wasn’t sure what novel I would read next.  I found it by the end of Friday.

For those of you unfamiliar with this column, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.  The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.  And it’s also a great place to tell me what you’re reading.

Recently Completed:

Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster.  Every time I re-read this, it’s a different book.  Originally published in 1912 (my copy is a reprint with updated spelling conventions, but otherwise the same), this epistolary novel follows an orphan from a restrictive (but not cruel) orphanage into a privileged girl’s college.  Her outsider view of the culture she is suddenly immersed in makes this almost an “alien among us” story.  Oh, and it avoids all the cheap “mean girl” tropes one would expect, but is warm-hearted and intellectually stimulating.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart.  Since I had interesting orphans in mind, I next picked up this much more modern (2007) tale.  SF light, it is a wild romp with sly comments about things we take for granted.  My favorite: Grow the lawn.  Mow the lawn.

In Progress:

After an unexpected delay, I have an ARC of the forthcoming T. Kingfisher, Paladin’s Strength.  An indirect sequel to Paladin’s Grace, which I adored.  Focuses on different characters, setting, but a continuation of issues raised in Paladin’s Grace.

The Renaissance by Will Durant.  Audiobook.  Just finished the Bonfire of the Vanities.


Back to Archeology and American Archeology.

Behind the Mask of Mirrors

February 17, 2021
Dandy: Inspired to Cosplay

Jane: Last week, I was happy to introduce you all to M.A. Carrick, the creative team consisting of Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, whose novel The Mask of Mirrors was released in January.

Although The Mask of Mirrors is the first novel in the Rook and Rose trilogy, I can reassure you that it stands very well on its own.  Last week we talked a bit about how the collaboration came to be.  This week, we’re going to dance around spoilers to talk about some of the rich detail that makes this novel stand out.


Marie: Bring it on!

Jane: I really liked the subtlety with which you handled issues of social status and economic status, both for individual characters and for the world in general.  I will admit, I tend to shy away from stories where a scam is at the heart of the action, but you take that trope and turn it on its head, using it to reveal the complexities that drive so many of your characters’ actions.  By the end, it might be said that everyone is running a scam, not just Ren.

As collaborators, how did you work out all these varied motivations?   In advance, or did they evolve with the story?

Marie: Con artists are tricky, aren’t they? It can be fun to watch them at work, because competence is cool, and a scam is like a high-wire social performance with some serious consequences if they fall. But at the same time, it really sucks to be on the receiving end of a con — because fundamentally, that whole process is about gaining somebody’s trust and then betraying it. There’s a point in the story where Ren realizes somebody else has tricked her, and while you might expect her to shrug and say, “Eh, well-played,” what actually happens is that she’s profoundly hurt. From the start, we definitely had our eye on the fact that there are people on the receiving end of Ren’s lies, and it’s going to wound them pretty deeply if they find out the truth. We wanted to make sure we developed those people as sympathetic characters, and gave them their own motivations as well.

Alyc: Some of these elements were workshopped in the game version, especially all the pies Ren, Vargo, Grey, and House Traementis have their fingers in. Some, we ended up developing as we wrote — in at least one case, a particular character got an entire personality transplant in revision because they weren’t dynamic enough for what we needed them for. But that revision led to one of my favorite sequences in the book, so it worked out nicely.

Jane: As the title indicates, masks are a key element in this novel.  They definitely work on a variety of levels, including serving as a metaphor for the fact that no one is telling anyone the whole truth.

However, with the Rook, you take on the much-used trope of the Masked Hero.  Given that this has been used repeatedly (Zorro, Scaramouche, The Scarlet Pimpernel, up to and including legions of masked superheroes),can you talk about some of what you did to make the trope your own?

Alyc: It’s a bit ironic, because the protagonist of my first set of novels is also a masked vigilante who hides their face with a fedora and shadow manipulation, so I was also working against my own previous character. For the Rook, we looked at the role itself as a kind of mask: if you’re going to go iconic, then go really iconic. Embrace the melodrama, the panache, the flirtatious flair, and then dial it up to eleven. I feel like that’s what we did with the Rook rather than trying to make him an individual.

Marie: But of course, the question we invite readers to chew on is . . . who is the Rook? Because as much as there’s melodrama and panache dialed up to eleven, there’s also a person inside. We can’t say too much about that without heading into spoiler territory, but every time the Rook shows up on the page, there’s a whole submerged iceberg you don’t see that’s us thinking about how that appearance fits into the story of that individual. Which is a story the reader can’t see right away, but we have to ensure it will make sense in hindsight.

JANE: As someone who has written collaborations, I did find myself speculating what sort of discussions you two might have had as you worked out who knew what about whom.  I will refrain from talking about what elements I was weighing against each other as I read, but I had a great amount of fun.  My enthusiasm was such that, as soon as I had finished the ARC, Jim grabbed it.  Then I had the fun all over again of listening to him speculate as to who the Rook might be.  So, good job!

One of the many things I loved about this novel was how you interwove elements of setting into plot and character.  Perhaps the most clever of these interweavings was—pun somewhat intended—the use of fabric.  Who decided that fabric wasn’t just going to be a temptation for costumers to do cosplay, but a major story element?

Marie: The specifics of the clothing are almost 100% Alyc’s work; I think my contribution there consists of changing the color of one outfit in the second book. But it amuses me to see you talking about us “interweaving” things, because textile imagery is all over the place in this story. And weirdly, that’s almost an accident! We definitely knew we were going to focus on clothing because that kind of thing is important in an aristocratic society; being well-dressed is a source of power, and the specifics of how you dress can communicate all kinds of messages. But then we happened to settle on “pattern” as the name for the deck of divinatory cards used by Vraszenians, and the next thing we knew, Vraszenian culture was Textile Metaphors Ahoy.

JANE: I did wonder at the use of the term pattern, since it’s also integral to Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels, another series that uses a Tarot-like deck of cards as an integral element of the magic system.  However, after my initial “I wonder if there was an influence here?” I felt you gave both pattern and cards their own integrity

Marie: I’d forgotten that about the Amber novels! (This is where I shamefacedly admit that I’ve read Nine Princes in Amber, but years ago, and none of the books after it.) We were thinking in terms of the Greek Fates and the thread imagery around them; I have no idea if the same idea influenced him.

Jane: Probably somewhat, as he was a great reader of myth and folklore, but there were other elements as well. Part of what helped me separate your use of the terms from Roger’s was how important clothing and fabric was to the cultures and characters.

Alyc: The importance of clothing was one of those things that got worked out early in the game version of the story. Marie’s character only had so much starting money, and making herself into a fashion icon was one of the easiest and cheapest ways for her to appear wealthier than she was (in large part thanks to her sister/my NPC Tess).

I love that our use of fashion has been embraced by so many readers. Clothing and fashion are so integral to how we signal to each other who we are, where (and if) we belong. Clothing matters, probably more than any other material signifier, because it is part of how we embody our identities every day. There isn’t a time in history or a culture in the world that didn’t weave meaning into what we wear.

Then again, the book I mentioned at the beginning of this interview, The Magic House, has a story in it about the buttons from the gowns and costumes of fairy tale characters — Cinderella, Peter Piper, Little Red Riding Hood — gathering together to tell stories about the clothes they came from. So maybe clothing-as-story is something I’ve always had an affinity for.

JANE: Once again, we’re reaching the dreaded TLDR limit, so I’ll sadly put the rest of my questions away, but I’ll remind my readers that your excellent website provides a great deal more background details.  Thank you so much for your time.

FF: Finished Up

February 12, 2021
Persephone Relaxes With A Good Book

I haven’t chosen what novel I’m going to read next, but am sampling a variety of shorter works, most of which aren’t holding my attention.  Probably I need to go stare at my bookshelves and see what appeals to me.

For those of you unfamiliar with this column, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.  The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.  And it’s also a great place to tell me what you’re reading.

Recently Completed:

Agent of Change by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.  I’ve meant to try a Liaden book for years, and am finally getting there.  Strong characterization, even of minor characters.  Great setting.  Plot is action-packed, after the fashion of a spy thriller.  Oh, and I loved the Turtles (aliens).

In Progress:

The Renaissance by Will Durant.  Audiobook.  Looking at the shifting of visual art styles from Medieval to early Renaissance.


Back issues of Vogue.

Meet M.A. Carrick!

February 10, 2021
A Very Well-Read ARC

Several months ago, I had the phenomenal pleasure of reading an advanced copy of The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick.  It’s an open secret that M.A. Carrick is a pen name for two long-time friends, Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms.  (You can find out where the pen name came from on their website.  Look under “Extras.”)

In fact, their website provides a tremendous amount of material about the book, including a place where you can tell your fortune using the Tarot-like system that is a key element in The Mask of Mirrors

I always start these interviews by asking the same question, so here it is…

Jane: In my experience, writers fall into two general categories: those who have been writing stories since before they could actually write and those who came to writing somewhat later.

Which sort are you?  Bonus question.  If you’re the same type, does this help your collaboration?  If you’re different types, does it hamper you?

Alyc: Definitely the first type. I was nine when I “wrote” my first book. It was a collection of made-up stories, poetry, and family folklore. That book was a reflection of a book my parents read to me when I was very young called The Magic House by Louise Harvey Butler. It’s about a brother and sister who meet a stray dog that can talk thanks to a playhouse the kids built out of mermaid-touched driftwood. That ends up being a framing narrative for the dog’s many wonder tales from his travels — stories about mermaids and giants, little girls turned into birds. I think I imprinted on Gruff (the dog, who was very fox-like), because I was a pretty quiet kid except when I would tell stories. I would tell stories to myself, my family, friends. I always had my head halfway into elsewhere, bringing back tales of my travels. 

Marie: I’m the same, except the “book” I wrote when I was nine was a mystery story about somebody kidnapping pets. I suspect the majority of kids make up stories; it’s just that some of them stop, and some of those come back to it later. We’re the type that just never stopped. I don’t know if that directly affects the way we work together (because I’m absolute pants at identifying why I do things the way I do), but it’s certainly the case that our collaboration benefits from us being very similar — but not quite identical! — in our approach to writing. There are some differences, both in content (Alyc likes economics way more than I do; I handle most of the fight scenes) and in working habits (Alyc is a morning fox and I’m a night owl; we had to figure out compromises on that), but it’s always been the case that when I’m stuck, Alyc is the best person for me to wail at in order to get un-stuck. We think along similar lines, in terms of what we want the story to do and how.

Jane: I’m sure you’ve answered this one, since your official bio notes you’ve gamed together.  However, as a gamer myself, I can’t resist.  Does The Mask of Mirrors have any relation—plot, setting, character—to an actual role-playing game (RPG) you played in?

Marie: Ren is my game character. >_>

Alyc: A few years ago, I started running a tabletop RPG for Marie as a birthday present. The game was supposed to be a short-run, out-of-the-box module adventure — but that intent lasted for about ten minutes after opening the module because I immediately started making modifications and doing rewrites and customizations. About six months into the game, Marie wanted her character to run a caper with a couple of my NPCs. It was the sort of thing that wouldn’t have worked well as a game session, so we decided to write it up as a scene. And then we wrote another scene. And another. At about 50k words of game fic, we said, ‘Maybe we should collaborate on something’.

Jane: For those of you don’t game, NPC means “non-player character” and means any character—from the grimmest antagonist to the helpful shopkeeper—the player characters interact with.  So, Marie, what happened next?

Marie: Mind you, our original plan wasn’t to write the story we’d been developing in the game. We’d just figured out that we enjoyed writing together, so we started trying to brainstorm ideas for a joint book or series. Step one was to make a list of tropes we both liked . . . and after a while, I found myself thinking, “You know, a lot of those things are in the story we’ve already been telling.” Which I resisted saying for a while, because my brain was also trying to scratch that itch by developing a different idea, riffing off my short story “The Širet Mask,” and I was worried the two would be too similar. But finally I acknowledged the elephant in the room and asked Alyc over chat one Friday night if we should think about filing the serial numbers off the stuff we’d already been writing — and before the weekend was over, we had plans for a trilogy.

Jane: That’s cool. What sort of changes did you end up making from your original?

Alyc: We ended up dumping the setting and plot of the game and rebuilding all of that from scratch. We preserved what drew us to write those scenes in the first place, which was the characters, their relationships, and the growth of the dynamic between them.

Marie: I called it the “invertebrate novel” for a while, because we had all this meat, but no bones to hang it on! We’re pretty pleased with the skeleton we came up with, though.

Jane: Again, sorry, I know you must have answered this, but how do you divide the writing?  Do you each have pet characters?  Do you think this will vary in future books?

Alyc: This developed pretty organically out of the writing we did for the game scenes. Ren was Marie’s character, so she would write Ren’s dialogue, internal thoughts and feelings, etc. I would write the people she interacted with, the challenges she ran into, various world details in the way a GM might. This meant we were trading the text back and forth (in a Google doc) at a very granular level — usually the line or paragraph. When we made the jump to the novel, our roles blended a bit.

The plot and conflicts of the novel aren’t hidden from Marie like they were in the game, so we both collaborate on those as well as things like worldbuilding. We do still tend to have characters we take point on — Marie for Ren, myself for Grey, Vargo, and Tess — but the lines blur there as well. I’m much more likely now to write dialogue and thoughts for Ren, and Marie for the characters that started life as NPCs.

Marie: The planning is all shared, too. We’re constantly sending chat messages and emails with ideas for new scenes or twists on the one we’re going to write next, and riffing on each other’s ideas to make them deeper or stronger. We’ll definitely stick with that approach for the rest of this trilogy; if we wind up writing a sequel series (which, yes, we have an idea for), I suspect it will be the same. We find this approach really fun, and tossing the scene back and forth like that helps us both keep our energy up.

Jane: Now I understand why you had to work around one of you being a day fox and the other a night owl!  It’s great that you were able to figure out how to be available to each other.

I happen to be a day fox, and it’s getting late.  How about we pick up with this again next week?

FF: Intrigue and Rebirth

February 5, 2021
Mei-Ling Is Not Quite So Camera Shy

This week my list is a considerable distortion of my reading, because most of my reading time is occupied with my own work, but I do find time to read other things, usually during our afternoon break, and before bed, with a smattering of audio between.

For those of you unfamiliar with this column, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.  The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.  And it’s also a great place to tell me what you’re reading.

Recently Completed:

The Realm of the Gods: Immortals Book Four by Tamora Pierce.  Audiobook.

Three Blind Mice and Other Stories by Agatha Christie.  Featuring a variety of her detectives, and showing off her versatility as a creator of mysteries.

Murder in Three Acts by Agatha Christie.  An Hercule Poirot.  Very clever conceit that I can’t discuss because it would give too much away.

In Progress:

Agent of Change by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.  I’ve meant to try a Liaden book for years, and am finally getting there.  Opening combines non-stop action and a touch of intrigue.

The Renaissance by Will Durant.  Audiobook.  I’m not quite ready to go back to the Dark Ages (The Age of Faith was the last Durant to which I was listening) but I thought I’d give a little later on a try.


Back issues of Vogue.  Each issue, I’ve found at least one article to hand over to Jim.  One about innovative distilleries that are “upcycling” what would be waste from production of another edible into boutique booze.  Another on a “re-wilding” project in England, that makes me want to read the book, Wilding, that it was based upon.  Another about the newly elected Vice President.

Crazy, Good, Creative

February 3, 2021
Scrub Jay On Mount Mulch

This last week has been crazy in a good, creative way.  Last Saturday, I woke up with the full tune and the opening lyrics of a song in my head.  I held onto them, singing them softly to myself as I showered and went about my early morning chores.  By a few hours into the morning, I had the eight lines to go with the melody.

For my birthday last year, Jim gave me a mini-digital recorder, so I was able to save the music as well.  That was a lot of fun.  I also started recording some of the songs I’ve written for our animals over the year, starting with “Snowdrop’s Lullaby” and “Holler When You’re Hungry.”

Also fun was the arrival, completely unexpectedly, of Mount Mulch—the result of an order placed over two years ago with a local tree service that will drop off mulch if they have a full truck and are in your area.  They were, they did, and we now can’t get my car out of the garage until we finish moving it.

Mount Mulch (Shovel for Scale)

Mount Mulch started out close to six feet high (the pictures were taken after we’d removed some) and is being hauled a wheelbarrow at a time into our back yard, where we’re going to use it to cover the ground wherever is needed.  Give how hot our summers have been lately (last July we had a peak temperature of 113), this is pretty much everywhere.  The end result won’t look fancy, but we’re really pleased.  Reworking our mini-ecosystem is a creative act, one that stimulates my storytelling brain.

A couple of weeks ago, I touched on some of what last year’s projects had been, but I didn’t finish, nor did I get to talk about what’s up and coming

2020 was a busy writing year for me.  Early in the year I brought out new e-book editions of my three volume “Breaking the Wall” series (Thirteen Orphans, Nine Gates, and  Five Odd Honors).  This year, now that Jim is more available to me as an assistant, I’d like to get a bit more of my backlist available in spiffy new e-books.

 In May, Wolf’s Soul, the eighth Firekeeper novel came out, concluding the tale began in Wolf’s Search.  I also wrote and sold a couple of short stories.

Immediately after finishing Wolf’s Soul, I started in on the fourth Star Kingdom/Stephanie Harrington novel (aka SK4), written in collaboration with David Weber.  The manuscript is now in at Baen books.  Before Weber caught Covid-19, he and I were brainstorming what would be in SK5. We’ll be back to that as soon his health permits.

Perhaps, the most crazily creative part for me of late 2020 and early 2021 is that I went back and started working on the rough draft of a novel titled Library of the Sapphire Wind. I began this back in April of 2017, and finished a very rough draft in October of that same year, with a word count of something over 150,000 words.  I then put LSW aside while I wrote Wolf’s Search, Wolf’s Soul, and SK4.  Over the last several months, as I’ve been proofing, I’ve expanded it quite a lot, and it looks as if it’s going to become two books…

I think I’ll get back to my proofing and reviewing of the second draft.  Catch you next week!