Jan 25, 2015

Ten Things I Learned About Writing a Series

Subtitle: The Schattenreich series is finished! For Now. (insert huge winking smiley face, dancing, with fireworks going off in the background)

Current conventional wisdom says that readers love series. I know as a reader, I not only love series, I luuuuurve them. I also like standalones, but I'm a hard core series reader at heart and not just trilogies. Four, five, more books. Give me more. And I'm not one of those readers who demands that each book in a series be a 'standalone' either. One or the other cliffhanger is certainly okay if I am confident that the author will be able to deliver the next book (and conclude the series) while I'm still alive to enjoy it (and still fit-of-mind enough to be able to remember what came before).

So you might think that I figured all those things into my plan when I began writing The Schattenreich series of five books. But, as I suspect is the case with how many fantasy series start out, this was not the case. I started off with a sequel in mind that grew to a trilogy and then a short ways into writing the fourth book, I realized I would need five books to finish it. Bad planning, some would say. I agree, but would amend that to 'no planning'.

'Hi, my name is Sharon and I am a pantser.' This means I write by 'the seat of my pants'. It's not entirely accurate. I do a modest amount of planning for each book. Most of the planning goes by the wayside by the time I reach the middle of the book, but that's okay. I've got a goalpost or a signpost or a looming stake-through-the-heart kind of post (write until the end or die) to push me on.

Primary Fault started out as a physical prompt, a small wooden cat that I own (a gift from my sister-in-law). I picked it up and put it next to my laptop the day I decided to sit down and finally write a novel.

I had ideas brewing from actual events (the archeological excavations in Cologne and whether there really had been an earthquake that could have scared Charlemagne enough to abandon the Praetorium as his seat of government) and some imagined backstory (that culminated in the short story The Raven's Curse, first published in The Phantom Queen Awakes anthology and soon to be rereleased).

Even though a couple of the early ideas were flawed (Charlemagne had many palaces, not just Cologne. And whether he really abandoned the city is pure speculation - there's nothing written to substantiate it). And the earthquake around 780/790 C.E that supposedly 'destroyed' the Praetorium, well.......this paper sheds a different light on the whole destructive earthquake hypothesis.

But I adapted as the series grew, coming up with novel ways of dealing with the earthquake hypothesis and with Charlemagne and a whole slew of other problems that raised their ugly heads while writing. I have now officially written The End to the first draft of the fifth and last book in the series, Triple Junction. Barring any unforeseen problems, expected publication will be sometime in early summer, 2015.

To make a long story (or series) shorter, here are the top things I learned about writing a series.


1. You need to love spending time with your characters.

Because you will be spending time with them. Lots of time. Time you're giving up from being with your loved ones (but not your cat - he/she will be right there with you), BFFs, mothers-in-law, etc. Your social skills will suffer tremendously, and people will wonder why you've started stuttering when you're in a room containing more than three people. Get used to it. You don't have to love your characters, but you do need to enjoy being around them, day and night. They will haunt your dreams and make you get up in the middle of dinner to rush to the computer to add something that just occurred to you that Character A needs to say to Character B at just that moment. Your family may end up hating your characters. It is the price you must pay.
I like hanging out
with Caitlin
I love spending time
with Hagen


 2. Do a scene outline before starting each book in the series. Update it when the book diverges.

It will make your life easier. Period. You can subsequently use it to add information to help you keep track of character motivations and history, important objects and events, plot points, series arcs, etc. It will save you from having to search the finished (and already published) books for things. I define a scene outline as a one- to two-sentence description of each major scene in the book. I am thankful to Tish Cohen for first suggesting this method to me.


3. Keep thinking about where the series is heading.

Even though I'm a pantser, I knew the series had to end. I worried a lot about this, especially as the series grew past what I had originally intended. But I had a shimmer of how things should end up. Sorta. Kinda. And that helped. A lot.

4. Be a stickler for consistency.

This concerns mainly characters, but also includes keeping track of past events (see 2. above) and what impact they had on the characters. Characters are what will make people continue to read your xth book. Unless the series is unending, the main characters will (and should) change and evolve, but they should remain predictable in the sense of what and who they represent. In a successful series, readers want to know what will happen, but more importantly, they want to know what will happen to your protagonists. They want to know about your bad guys as well (which is why I'm going to be publishing a novella with Dagmar Abel in it at some point, and muchas gracias to Martha Hubbard for the suggestion.) Fortunately, the more books in a series you write, the easier this will become as you come to know your characters as well or even better than your own family (see 1. above).

5. Be prepared to adapt.

I know. I said be consistent. But the series might make a sudden turn into unexpected territory. If it feels right, do it. This happened to me at the end of the third book, Double Couple, and I had to adjust my thinking accordingly. I originally wanted each book to be a neat, complete, fantasy-suspense plot with some sort of crime behind it that involved a seismic event. But the characters occupying my version of the Otherworld (Ande-dubnos) decided they wanted more air time. And I had to agree with them. I still have a definitive seismic event in each of the books. But the fourth (Shadow Zone) and fifth books serve the series as a whole rather than any preconceived notion of what they should be.

6. Have things worth fighting for.

Death is not your only option
Early on, one of my beta readers warned me that not enough was at stake in my story. I took this warning to heart. It is difficult, but not impossible, to bring across a sense of urgency in a series where the main protagonist has to survive until the last book (if not the end). So it is vital to make their struggles important enough to overcome this built-in flaw. I have a 2000-year old curse of death that threatens Caitlin, my main character. This is a pretty good hook. But if it occurs in Book 2 or Book 3 or even in Book 4 then I am missing a protagonist. Oops. In the meantime, my job is to keep the reader interested until Caitlin gets slammed by the curse. Or manages to overcome it (what - you think I'm going to tell? Ha!) So I made sure she is subjected to numerous other threats - both to herself and to those she loves - along the way. Only the reader can decide if I am successful or not.

7. To Theme or Not to Theme.

I found it helps to have one and to keep it in mind while writing but not to hit the reader over the head with it. I didn't discover my theme until around the middle of the second book, Shaky Ground. It doesn't have to be anything earth shaking (see what I did there?), and I kept my theme simple (and don't know if anyone will be able to guess it until the end).

8. Timeliness is important.

I believe it is important if you commit yourself to writing a series to satisfy the reader's need to have the sequels on a timely basis. If you are a writer, you may feel differently. As a reader, I want the next book now, if not sooner. But I'm willing to wait a reasonable amount of time. What is reasonable is debatable. But the longer it takes, the more you will court reader dissatisfaction. Life may get in the way, there's no question. But I'm writing for readers now, not for posterity. And I appreciate every one who is willing to wait for the next book.

9. Not everyone will love every book in the series. 

It's not the end of the world. Live with it. But don't let it slow you down. And remember to thank your readers for sticking with your series (thank you!) despite this.


10.  Think about the children   what you will do after the series is finished. Plan ahead.

 The day will come. You want to have your characters back. They no longer haunt your dreams, and you  become morose. Your loss seems insurmountable. If you have jotted some story/novel ideas down during the time you were unable to do anything other than write the freaking series, now is the time to pull them out. Unfinished short stories, musicals, your planned opus on the history of nose hairs - anything - this is the time to start working on them.




Was that ten already? I'm sure I've left out a bunch of important things. If you (as a reader or a writer) think of anything to add, please do so!




photo credit:
dedevanderroove via photopin cc

Thalita Carvalho ϟ via photopin cc

Jan 3, 2015

Shaky Ground, Book 2 of the Schattenreich, A New Year's Excerpt

The excerpt takes place close to the halfway point of the book, just after Caitie has had a New Year's eve dinner with Sebastian von der Lahn. She and Gus's neighbor, Samantha Eschweiler, have that...and a few other things...to discuss.

Shaky Ground, Book 2 of the Schattenreich series, on sale for $2.99 through Monday, January 5th, 2015 (oh, and Primary Fault, Book 1 is also on sale for $2.99, just saying)



 ***

Samantha opened the door right away. After I gave her a tight hug, she allowed me inside.

“Hey, Sam, good to see you.” I went straight to the kitchen bar.

She went into the kitchen, and peered into the oven. “Hi, Caitie. How was New Year’s at Burg Lahn?” Her cheerful demeanor surprised me. I had expected at least a few Sam pouts.

“Different.”

She eyeballed a question at me.

“Sebastian and I cooked together.”

She laughed. “You can cook?”

“Not really, but I am good at following instructions.”

“That’s a side to your personality I’ve yet to see.”

I tried to bristle, but failed. “I can be compliant.”

Samantha pulled out an oven tray filled with homemade bruschetta. “So, what in the world did you two have to talk about?”

 “Family,” I said.

“Did you trade reminiscences about vacations on the French Riviera?”

“Ha ha. I was trying to pry information out of him. I think your prejudices against the aristocracy are not warranted in Sebastian’s case.”

“Information? About Hagen?”

“Yes. And Heinrich.”

“Who’s Heinrich?”

“Hagen’s twin.”

Samantha almost dropped the tray. She slid everything onto a plate and set a bottle of red wine and two huge wine goblets in front of us. I grabbed a toasted baguette slice covered with roasted peppers and stuffed it in my mouth.

“Delicious.”

“Nothing special.”

I snorted at her and grabbed another one.

“So,” she began, wriggling on her stool. “Are you telling me there are two men who look like Hagen von der Lahn walking around? God help us.”

“No, silly; they’re fraternal.”

“Oh. I get it. Heinrich is the homely one with the big heart.”

Despite my reservations about Heinrich, I had to admit that what he looked like when he wasn’t in his Scottish wildcat form was the polar opposite of homely. “Um, sorry to disappoint you, but he’s quite handsome; slightly rugged.”

Her eyebrows perked. “Rugged. Soulful brown eyes?”

“Nope. Same dark blue ones as Hagen’s.”

“Really the same?”

“Exactly the same,” I said, sighing.

“Was he there too?”

“Who?”

“Heinrich, at Burg Lahn,” she said, exasperated.

“Oh. No. He stays at his mother’s estate in France in the winter,” I said.

“Told you. French Riviera after all.”

“No. Somewhere in the Bretagne. In Dinard.”

“Oooh. Sounds very Heathcliff.”

“I’m supposed to visit him next month,” I let slip casually.

She chirped at me. “This is serious. First, dinner with Sebastian von der Lahn and then a visit to the country estate. Have you picked out a dress yet?”

“Samantha, I’m warning you,” I said, growling. “How do you know Sebastian anyway?”

“I’ve seen him at Lerbach. He comes in for lunch occasionally.”

“Does he come in alone?”

“No. Sometimes he meets with that banker, Wilting-Boxberg.”

“And otherwise?”

“I’ve seen him with a dark-haired woman,” she said.

I took a healthy sip of wine. “But you don’t know who she is?”

Sam reflected for a moment. “No, but I’d guess they’re family. There’s a definite resemblance.”

A mystery family member? I nibbled on another bruschetta. “The Wilting-Boxbergs are neighbors.”

“That explains a lot,” she said. “My, you’re hungry.”

“I skipped dinner.”

“I can make more—”

“No, it’s okay. The Wilting-Boxbergs were all sitting down to tea when I got there on New Year’s.”

“Susanna too?”

“Yup, she and I had lunch together at Lerbach yesterday,” I said.

Samantha managed to bristle quite well. “Well, you’re moving in different circles now.”

“Sam, for goodness sakes. She’s quite sweet. I still can’t fathom why Hagen would pick me over her.”

“Why do you say that?”

I rubbed my nose. “Susanna’s really pretty. And poised. She’s just so perfect. In every way.”

“That’s Mary Poppins, Caitie. Besides, who wants perfect?”

“Well. They would have made an ideal couple.”

“The only one who thinks that is her mother,” Samantha said. “If Hagen wanted Barbie, he could have had any number of them by now.”

I remembered Sebastian’s words about my not being Hagen’s most beautiful lover. “So you think he prefers Midge.” I felt glum as I stuffed the last piece of toast in my mouth.

She laughed. “If anyone is Midge, it’s me. My mom has an original from the sixties. She looks exactly like me, including freckles.”

“Well, I’d rather be Midge any day. She’s perky at least. Barbie looks like she’s just gotten home from her lobotomy.”

“Who needs brains when you’ve got shoes to go with every outfit?” She giggled, snorting.

“And if you lack a frontal lobe, you really do need to have color coordinated clothes.” I dribbled red wine on my shirt.

We both cracked up. It felt good to laugh hard and it felt nice being there with Samantha. I hadn’t realized how much I missed her company. She refilled our wine glasses and we moved to the couch.

“Have you heard from Hagen lately?”

I just shook my head, wishing we could get off the subject of Hagen. For a minute, I had imagined I was enjoying myself.

“It’s just so strange. First he gives you this beautiful pendant, and then a car, for God’s sake, and goes poof into the night.”

I sighed. “It was morning when he left.”

“What do you mean morning?”

“We spent the night together and he left in the morning before I woke up,” I said.

“Without even a goodbye kiss?”

“My but we’re nosy today.”

“Well, you would have given him a goodbye kiss if you were going away for a couple of months, wouldn’t you?”

I would never have gone in the first place. “Well, since you asked, we had plenty of those in the hours before he left,” I said. And a farewell message, a message that haunted me each night. Words came into my head.

Night is longing without you.
The dawn breaks cold.
With no promise of your touch,
a barren land.

“Oh,” she said, subdued.

The dawn breaks – the morning after. “Let’s see. That was on the winter solstice, the twenty-first. Gus was here the night before, right?”

She didn’t answer right away as she was busy opening another bottle. “He came by for a while. We were busy plotting how to hide your car.”

“But he didn’t stay long?”
“Why do you ask, Caitie?”

Her closed expression. Gus’s reluctance to talk about it. “It’s all right, Sam. Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone.”

“It’s not what you think.”

“What do I think?”

“I’m not trying to muscle in on anybody,” she said.

“Who said that? Shit, Sam, you’ve been raising four kids. And working. And organizing the whole circus by yourself. Why shouldn’t you want someone in your life?”

“We’re good friends.”

“And?”

“And nothing. Sometimes I just need a little affection.”

“And Gus obliges.”

“It wasn’t premeditated.”

“Okay. I believe you. What comes next?”

“Look. Gus is very sweet. But besides friendship, I don’t think anything else would work.”

“Why not?”

“He’s not really my type,” she said.

Gus and Samantha had complementary personalities, but there was no Fourth of July and fireworks – they were more a lazy summer day with a good book.

“Except in certain respects.”

“I like things the way they are. He’s one of the best friends I have, and I don’t want to lose that,” she said.

“And Richard is more your type?” I didn’t attempt to keep a note of skepticism out of my voice.
She swirled her wine, conjuring a pout from the depths of the red liquid. “He was a lot different when we met.”

“I could have guessed that,” I said gently.

She waved her hand. “He was always self-centered. It all worked as long as things went the way he wanted them to.”

I listened, taking a drink of wine. Either this one was smoother than the last bottle or I was.

“I wanted to go back to work, and he balked. With two small kids, it would have taken more of his time to compensate.”

“Uh huh. That’s typical,” I said.

“Yeah. So after things came to a head, we separated to reconsider our options. The separation was mainly his idea.”

Richard had neglected to tell me that tiny detail in his side of the story.

“And you moved in with his mother,” I said.

“My mom and dad are divorced. My mom’s half American, half Irish and moved back to Ireland after they separated, so I can’t just run to her whenever I have a problem. Richard’s mom’s always been a big help. And we get along just fine. She thinks he’s a jerk.”

I choked on my wine. “Really?”

“Yeah, well, her husband walked out on her,” she said.

“And then?”

“Well, Richard and I kept circling each other, trying to figure things out. I got pregnant with the twins. That ended the standoff,” she said.

“I think I know most of the rest of the story,” I said, “at least up until New Year’s.

She looked at me, pout in place again. “Do you know everything about what Richard did?”

“You mean his affair with Dagmar Abel?”

“Not just that. I mean with Gus.”

I hesitated, but there was no longer any reason to hold back information from Samantha. “Richard told me that Dagmar had backed him into a corner.”

Sam continued communing with her glass.

“He left to protect you and the kids…and his own reputation, I’d guess. Then he panicked. She threatened him; he felt he had no other option. I am quite sure she made her threats believable.”

“He wanted to save his own ass,” she said.

I took a long sip of wine. “Okay, Sam. I think that is a given. But Richard also helped me secure Gus’s release. Have you considered giving him a chance anyway?”

After not finding the answer in the wine she was sloshing back and forth, she looked at me. “I told him he would have to go to the police and tell them what he knows.”

“You want him to go to the police? Gus and I’ve spent a lot of our own juice making sure Richard stays out of it.” I hoped my exasperation wasn’t too obvious, but I could already picture the murderous look on Hauptkommissar Miriam Richter’s face when she found out I’d known about Richard all along.

Sam leaned back and closed her eyes. “I know, Caitie. But if it hadn’t been for Richard, Gus wouldn’t have been in this mess to begin with.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. What did Richard have to say about it?”

 She opened her eyes and put her feet on the coffee table. “He said he’d think about it.”
“And?”

“Apparently, he’s still thinking.”

“You mean he hasn’t contacted you since then?”

“No mail. No phone calls. No skywriting. Gar Nichts.”

“Shit, Sam. You called him out and he ran away.”

She got up and rummaged in a kitchen cabinet. She came back with chocolates and handed me the open box. “I’ve been hiding these since Christmas.”

I took one while waiting for her to answer.

“I’ve already talked to a lawyer. If he doesn’t come across, we’re through,” she said.
“Is that the real reason?”

She took a chocolate. “He was very attentive on New Year’s. It could have had a chance.”

I felt tired all of a sudden. “Do me a favor. Let me know before Richard goes charging off to Frau Richter. She’ll find a way to blame everything on me.”

“Okay. I’ll warn you.”

I got up to leave, my head fuzzy from too much wine. “Let’s get together after I visit Heinrich.”

“I want all the details,” she said. “He sounds intriguing.”

I snorted. All the details. I had questions and a lot of anger to get through with Heinrich. I lurched to the front door, glad I only had to walk a few feet before I could fall into my own bed.

Dec 22, 2014

The Schattenreich Recipes: Sebastian's Kitchen

Belgian Waffles

The title should be in blinking red lights and have a diet warning siren blaring out at all times. It should scare away the Paleos and the rest of the low-carb sufferers, the vegans, the low-fat dieters. All of you should run away, run away fast. The 5:2 dieters (if it's not a fast day) and the rest of you - still with me?

A belly full of whipped cream demands a nap
Sebastian von der Lahn prepares Belgian waffles for Caitie in Shadow Zone, Book 4 of the Schattenreich. They serve to help her ground herself again in the waking world after she returns from her journey in the Dreams. Food and...um...sex are two good ways to accomplish this. I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to decide which method was the most successful.

I've reproduced Sebastian's recipe for you here. It was taste-tested by the entire family, including one contented four-legged friend. 

 First of all, I have to admit, I've never ever ever been able to make decent waffles. I've tried the recipe that came with my waffle iron and others in cookbooks, but they always ended up being either hard enough to pave my patio or simply lacking in taste. 

A while back, my son made waffles for me (counts as a minor miracle in itself), and they were delicious. So what was his secret?

"Google has the best recipes, Mom."

Okay. Fine. So that's what I did. I found this recipe, and it looked promising.


Do not fear egg whites.
Two eggs makes this much.
Run over there and get the recipe and then come back. I'll wait. 

The thing to note about this recipe (besides a lack of conversions, which I've roughly calculated at the bottom of this post***), is that you have to separate the egg yolks and whites from each other. Then whip the egg whites until they are stiff. Because of the amount of air incorporated into the egg whites at this point, it's almost guaranteed that the waffles will be lighter. Since only two eggs are necessary for the recipe, I found it easier to whip them in this small container rather than a big bowl.

Another tip for the expatriate Americans (or anyone else who lives in Germany), vanilla extract here is not the same as it is in the states. So, instead of an inferior extract (I usually bring bottles back with me, but I've run out), I used a package of vanilla sugar (vanille Zucker) and added it to the dry ingredients.

I did end up using less butter than the recipe called for (around 3/4 of a cup) and didn't notice any lack of buttery flavor. Other than that, I followed the recipe as it's stated and baked them on a setting of between 4 and 5. Because there's so much butter in the waffles, I found I didn't need to butter my (non-stick) waffle iron.

The recipe yielded exactly ten waffles.

Not perfect to look at, but perfectly edible
Now onto the toppings.

I whipped heavy cream (with another package of vanilla sugar). 

In addition, in keeping with Sebastian's results, I made a strawberry sauce. Since fresh strawberries are ridiculously expensive this time of year, I used frozen ones (about a cup and a half), cooked in a small saucepan with a little bit of water, a couple of tablespoons of sugar and a tablespoon of maple syrup (and a splash).

Cook over low heat until the strawberries fall apart. You can do this while the waffles are baking. I chopped up a couple of basil leaves (yes, that's right, fresh basil) and added them to the sauce after it cooked down. You could also add chopped mint (strawberry mint would be wonderful). 

 Mash or blend with an immersion mixer to desired consistency (I left mine just a little bit chunky). Taste and adjust the sweetness as desired, as not all strawberries pack the same sweetness, even the frozen ones.

Spoon a little strawberry sauce over the waffles. Add a splash of maple syrup if desired, and top with whipped cream. I added a fresh raspberry on top for artistry. And voila! 
A little bit of heaven on earth
 My fazit; these were the best, most delicious, lightest, homemade waffles I've ever made (or eaten). Ever. And the most calorie intense. Ever. We made them our midday meal - I managed to eat two, but regretted it (a little). They are a special meal, to be savored at this time of year and possibly again when fresh strawberries are in season.

They lasted for three days (kept in the refrigerator), and there's not a crumb left.

So if you try this recipe, I'd love to hear your feedback.

***

The recipe doesn't have conversions for liters/grams. According to my kitchen scale, a cup of flour is approximately 160 g. A cup of sugar, around 250 g. Alternatively, use a 250 ml measuring cup as a standard for the cups of dry ingredients, and you should be just fine. A cup of milk or butter is 250 ml. I used medium organic eggs.