Category Archives: Writing Life

Never Say Goodbye

 

Me and Matthew 1993

Me and my brother Matthew, circa 1993

I’ve been working on my fourth novel since 1994. It’s been such a long time that it feels surreal to say that it’s being published this fall. The Muse for this particular story has been around so long that it’s an old friend I’ll be sad to say goodbye to (I’ve come to realize there seems to be a Muse for each one). There has been a special Muse serving as an advisory role for this novel, and it’s one of the reasons why I’ve been almost reluctant to finish writing the novel: my brother, Matthew.

This week would have been his 45th birthday. The idea for this novel came to me the week he died in July 1994. It was my way of keeping him alive, but it has evolved into a complex work of speculative fiction that very much reflects the anxieties of our time: governments exploiting their citizens, big data serving as an overlord of surveillance, and revolutionary movements that struggle to promote their idea of freedom. The first draft of this story included a group that was much like the hacktivist enclave Anonymous, so it was kind of eerie when they actually popped up as a real thing in the 2000s, and really became well-known during the Occupy Wall Street movement. Other unsettling things that I conceived back then came to pass as well, and have matured in the novel.

The basic concept has remained the same: what if ancient Sumer never collapsed, but became a space-age super power? A young woman with the powers of an oracle has been suppressed by her guardians. One night she indulges in a psychoactive drug at a club, inadvertently quotes an ancient text, and attracts the attention of an emissary of the gods, sent to right the balance of power in this society. She re-enacts Inanna’s journey to the underworld, and emerges as one of the gods’ emissaries on earth.

Lords of Kur Cover Draft SMALL

Cover art by Jeff Brown

While mythology plays a strong role, so does the idea of colonizing space. Research and mining colonies are scattered throughout the solar system, but are in early stages of development. The government promotes living off-world, but most people aren’t interested until all the comforts they want are widely available. It’s very much a pioneer’s life, so in order to build the luxury colonies needed, mass incarceration fills the gap by sending prisoners to do hard labor on the colonies. People are convicted of minor offenses (frequently falsely) and sent off-world. This was also an opportunity to explore the Overview Effect, written about by author Frank White. An avid supporter of space programs, White interviewed a number of astronauts about the profound change in perception of Earth after having seen it from space. Because space has always fascinated me, too, I attended several events that featured the astronauts he interviewed (plus, he was in one of the coolest writing groups I ever belonged to, and miss dearly as everyone got caught up in the usual life stuff). You can check out the videos here.

Lords of Kur is the longest novel I’ve written, and the most layered in terms of themes, characters, and worldbuilding. It’s a true departure from following the life of a real woman marginalized by history, as I have done in the first three novels and a few short stories. The fifth novel to come is also one that has been waiting in the wings a long time, so I struggle with impatience. But I’m a few short weeks away from the editing phase, and I’m delighted with the cover art. Very worthy of my brother’s style. It’s been somewhat of a melancholy journey without him. He was the artist; I was the writer. We helped each other on our respective projects, and I can only imagine what we could have accomplished together. I continue the endeavor without him. It goes without saying that Lords of Kur will be dedicated to him. It’s a story that gave me strength for years, and I hope it finds its audience.

Writer, Interrupted

journals

More than two decades of drama–all in one crate of journals!

As someone who loves to blog about food, and connect food and literature, I wanted nothing more than to open this post with a photo of a freshly made loaf of bread and talk about some amazing book I read that featured food in a unique way. The bread’s on hiatus—the blog is not—and I’m getting my life back in order after an unexpected turn of events.

It started as a lark. I work in type 1 diabetes research. Out of scientific curiosity, I check my own blood glucose from time to time. My husband has type 2 diabetes, and it’s become a customary joke to stick my hand in front of his as he prepares to check his blood sugar some mornings. “Ha ha—you can’t catch me!” Then he did. I wasn’t prepared for bad news. 108. Too high for a fasting blood glucose reading.

“Well, what do you expect?” he said. “We had a big Thanksgiving meal yesterday!”

True, and with adequate pacing, I can probably eat my body weight in stuffing. But still. For days after that, I used the hub’s spare meter to check my blood sugar. Always too high in the morning. And the numbers varied greatly otherwise. I kept a chart and made an appointment.

Fortunately, recent conversations with friends led me to start a low-carb/ketogenic diet anyway. The past four years have been intense and have kept me sedentary, and only recently have I been able to work out regularly. I was about 2 weeks into the new diet when I broke regimen at a staff retreat and indulged in a half bagel and tuna sandwich. Post-meal readings went alarmingly above normal. My pancreas is trolling me.

My A1c is just on the edge of prediabetes. In addition, perimenopause has been terribly disruptive, the lack of reliable research on it has been frustrating, and the myriad symptoms have been kicking my literary butt for some time now. Even in this short time on the keto diet, some of those symptoms have abated to a noticeable degree. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when they next check my A1c in six months.

fingerstick

2015 has been a turbulent year, beginning with selling my old place in Somerville and buying a home a few towns over. Then came the unpacking, the renovations, the unexpected house projects (broken water heater, leaky sink, discovering a gas leak that had been “fixed” by the former owners by wrapping a corroded pipe with electrical tape…). Getting back to a regular writing routine has been slow. Frustratingly so. I was certain the fourth novel would be close to done by now. I’m barely halfway there.

Blog posts have been slow but steady. A short story was submitted to, and rejected by, and anthology. These things happen. This novel has been playing in my head for so long, there shouldn’t be any hold-ups when I sit in front of the computer. Alas…

Stress. Distractions. Trying to perfect a strength-training and cardio routine. Family stuff. Life.

Then the short story I wrote blossomed into what appears to be a trilogy, and the abyss Nietzsche warned about was staring back at me.

I already have too many novels on my list to write about in a lifetime, especially if I have to keep my day job. How can I prioritize them?

I’d convinced myself my deadlines weren’t arbitrary because I was aiming for maximum production, figuring I’d be able to keep up the pace until I was about 80 or so. Plus, many years at a high-pressure academic institution has given me a touch of PTSD when it comes to fostering the tendency to be an overachiever to the detriment of wellness. And then suddenly to have an epiphany after years at said institution and realize the toxic morass I found myself in was destroying my true sense of self.

In short, I spend so much time beating myself up that I haven’t given myself the space to deal with a massive amount of physical and psychological change.

I don’t have all the answers yet. I’m still dealing with an unwieldy list of novels to write, and short story ideas pop up all the time for journals and anthologies. But the bottom line seems to be that I need to write what I’m passionate about—and that is many things. I came into the literary world as an author who found real women who were rebels and outcasts, marginalized by history, and gave them a voice to tell their tale. I could spend a lifetime doing that alone. But there’s a speculative fiction novel that’s been in development for years, as well as a fantasy series of who-knows-how-many books. And now a Steampunk trilogy.

My heart is with them all. For someone who has tried so hard to maintain structure and impose deadlines, it’s helped me to remember some things must change. My first two novels were written with detailed outlines and chapter summaries. The third with fewer notes, and I never finished the outline. I’ve made a transition from a plotter to a panster, as they say in the writing world—though the background research I do is still in-depth. Maybe it’s time to take the same approach to the list of novels. Don’t worry about what comes next. When the fourth novel is published, go with my heart when deciding what will be the fifth novel. And if the fantasy series takes off like George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, and that’s all I have time for in the future, is that such a bad thing?

I feel like I’m betraying the women I wanted to write about. Doing all that research for many years—I made a vow to them—and I might break some of those promises. I have to square with that. Or maybe it’s time to pivot, as they say in Silicon Valley. Some may be short stories instead of novels, and those short stories can be compiled into a collection. Does it matter? They all have strong, empowered women, regardless of genre. The women of the fictional worlds have been nurtured by real women of history. Just write.

There are other numbers to be more worried about.

 

Why I Said Goodbye to Facebook Groups

Photo credit: Kevin Dooley CC 2.0 via Flickr

Photo credit: Kevin Dooley CC 2.0 via Flickr

Social media has resulted in a sea-change for how the world communicates. But as everyone knows, it has its downsides. When I published my first novel in 2010, I was grateful for the many groups on Facebook that gathered indie authors to share their experience and talk about the writing life. Now, I can’t deal with groups. The reason behind this was reinforced recently in a blog post that appeared on Indies Unlimited, a great resource for self-published authors. They’re no longer taking paid adverts from indie authors. Why? Because thin-skinned authors can get really hostile about friendly advice.

The Era of the Troll

Alas, many a good thing has been ruined by mob mentality. The “sock puppet review” hysteria in 2012 that gripped the denizens of readers and authors alike led to widespread deletion of reviews on Amazon. Many fake reviews were removed, but a lot of authors lost perfectly honest write-ups that could’ve boosted sales. Also in 2012, the same lynch mob raised their pitchforks to LendInk in the name of ebook piracy, causing the site to be taken down (at least temporarily)—all in the spirit of rampant misinformation and people not doing their due diligence in figuring out what the hell was actually going on. Then bitter tears were cried over bad reviews on Goodreads. Granted, it smarts to get a one-star review, and some of those reviews are really nasty. The Guardian even published an article about an author who stalked a reviewer who gave her book a bad review. Yes, that’s incredibly creepy. But do we all need to light the torches for every perceived slight? Can’t we at least do our research first to make sure the monster in question is real? Or, at least maybe smurf-sized rather than Cthulhu-sized?

Aside from these incidents, which drew a lot of attention, there are daily battles that plague the self-publishing groups on social media and sites like Indies Unlimited—namely, the battles with trolls.

There were some Facebook groups I truly enjoyed, but as they grew, so did the problems. Half the posts were authors disregarding the no promotion policy or launching provocations simply to start a comment war. The other half of the posts were frustrated scoldings by beleaguered moderators. Because politely stated rules of the community were not enough, the banners at the top of the group’s page bore increasingly huge fonts: No self-promo here! We’re here to foster insightful conversations about writing and publishing, dammit! Be respectful, or else!

No matter how intimidating the banner was, it didn’t help. Attacks on the moderators got personal. In one group, the mods were trying to decide whether to shut it down because members had found their personal phone info and called them at home. Threats have been issued in some cases. As Gamergate has shown us, the internet can be a dangerous place, and it isn’t always taken as seriously as it should be. Indeed, the Supreme Court overturned a conviction of a man who posted violent threats against his estranged wife. The women who are still targeted by trolls in Gamergate report death threats all the time—and though this is an extreme example, there are many well-meaning people who volunteer their time curating groups who grow weary of the endless negativity and personal attacks.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore CC 2.0 via Flickr

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore CC 2.0 via Flickr

I began checking in with the groups less. When I did return, I felt as though I had grown out of them. Relevant posts that didn’t break the rules were generally from beginners seeking advice. I’d chime in from time to time, but usually there were already a dozen comments saying something similar. I felt weighed down by the whole experience, and it taught me a lesson in time management. A lot of people I admired in those groups were gone, too. Because they were focusing on their novels. Like I should be. I tend to find deeper discussions on Google+ now; it eventually became my preferred venue for the world of publishing—so far, my stories have landed in an anthology, a literary journal, and I connected with a fantastic cover artist due to my G+ newsfeed.

Some moderators on Facebook pruned down their groups to eliminate the dross, including inactive members. Their newsfeeds became a wasteland, soon to be filled with self-promos with cheesy cover art and typos peppering the first page, if you bothered to click through to where the ebook was being sold. While the bad reputation of self-published authors is vastly overstated in some circles, you can see where it comes from.

There are legions of us who work really, really hard to produce quality work. We do tons of research to ensure the accuracy of the details in our novels. We apologize profusely for typos and fix them. We take helpful advice from our peers. We’re following our vision—and while no book will appeal to everyone, we do our best to be professional.

It’s difficult being an artist because you bear your soul to the world in the form of your work. But if you can’t take constructive criticism—from your editor, from beta readers, or reviewers, you may want to ask your heart if this is really what you should be doing. We all have the dream of our books taking off as best-sellers, landing movie deals, and being able to write full-time from the beautiful house we’ve chosen as our writer’s haven—be it deep in the woods or on a tropical island—but only a small percentage of writers achieve that. That’s not to say don’t pursue your dreams, but truly ask yourself how you feel being in the limelight—in good times and in bad. I may be delusional in saying I wish all “netizens” would follow the Golden Rule, but I do. Battling trolls should be left to hobbits and wizards.

Worldbuilding, 1,000 Words at a Time

Alexandre Duret-Lutz via Flickr CC 2.0

Alexandre Duret-Lutz via Flickr CC 2.0

Six months ago, my writing routine was upended. My husband and I put most of our stuff in storage to properly stage the condo before it went on market. We moved to the new house at the end of March, and several rooms were in serious need of renovation. I didn’t bother unpacking much until the contractor’s crew finished the rooms we decided were part of “phase one.”

The consequence? The fourth novel has been on hold. The Muse haunted me daily. So I delved into the world of flash fiction. One piece won a contest over at Indies Unlimited, and I expanded my literary horizons between the flash fiction site Describli and Chuck Wendig’s (in)famous weekly writing challenges. I tried new voices and genres. I even wrote a piece of fan fiction. The stretch of time gave me insight into how characters could develop, and what features of the worlds I was building would look like. In short, I was still producing—not in a linear or organized fashion—but producing nonetheless.

These spontaneous excerpts have helped immensely. One of Chuck Wendig’s writing challenges, using photos of unusual places, resulted in the final pages of my third novel. Another helped with the details of the fate of one of the characters of the novel I’m currently working on. A fantasy series I’ve been working on for ages has benefitted the most.

A “random title generator” challenge led to the creation of a character and secret sect for the series. (Old D&D fans, dust off that 20-sided dice!) I didn’t expect to get so attached. I was simply trying to add more to this world—the scenery, the ambiance. I didn’t even plan on adding it to the series. A comment appeared below the link on the post of Wendig’s blog: “I want more of this. Now.” So did I. “The Oathkeeper’s Forge” struck a nerve. This character just appeared on a whim, and she intends to stay. Every time I watch the reality show Forged in Fire, I learn something new to help this character in her trade.

Another random title generator challenge inspired me to create a land that was largely believed to be a myth. “Five Days of the Cartographer” gave me a grumpy man who baited people into a dangerous region of the world, where they would be exploited at the whims of a society that wanted no visitors or trade agreements. They take what they want, when they want it.

Then there are the random stories that appear and threaten to become novels in their own right. An “X meets Y” prompt challenged me to blend the worlds of the Matrix and Twin Peaks, and while I was certain the universe would tear itself to shreds at such a combination, the results were intriguing.

Worldbuilding Collage

I’m ending the summer with nearly 40,000 words for my fourth novel, and a wealth of new ideas for works in progress. Now that my life has stabilized and my new writing routine is established, I look forward to integrating more flash fiction into the process. If I feel stuck on the current work, these little writing prompts are a great way to think about something else for a while, or perhaps help me find the missing piece to the current work.

I look forward to returning to the writing workshop powerhouse, Scribophile. I was also recently introduced to Scriggler via Twitter. Scriggler’s a platform for writing and discussion, and while I haven’t tried it yet, it looks promising.

It’s going to be a busy fall as a try to finish my new novel by the end of 2015. I’ll be signing up for NaNoWriMo for sure to help in this endeavor. In October, the fabulous authors behind The Emotion Thesaurus series (a must-have resource for writers!) are launching a new platform called One Stop for Writers with a developer who works for the company that produces the writing studio software Scrivener. I’ve joined their “street team” to help promote the project.

And all along the way, I continue writing, and building new worlds, an excerpt at a time.

Why I Write

When I saw the writing prompt about this week’s writing challenge by Chuck Wendig, I didn’t even have to think about what to say…

LittlePunkRocker

1977: It’s a rainy day in second grade and recess is inside. The fluorescent lights shine with a certain yellow glow under the dark grey skies, and I watch the rain stream down the windows as I think of how to string the words of a story together. I’d stapled some lined and plain paper into a neat stack. Illustrations filled the plain paper, and my shaky writing stayed as close to the blue lines as possible.

A shadow loomed over my desk. “What are you doing?”

“Writing a story,” I said. I still remember the feeling of the thick yellow lacquer on the pencil. It was starting to crack.

The teacher scowled at me. “What a waste of paper!”

I was then instructed to put my head down on my desk and take a nap. My “book” was thrown in the trash.

So much for supporting creativity in schools. My mother was horrified.

*****

I’ve always been obsessed with writing. I’m filled with anxiety if I don’t have a means of putting pen to paper. There is a notebook and an abundance of pens in every bag I carry. (I’m old fashioned. My preferred implement is also a fountain pen. I’m more thoughtful about my words when I do it by hand.) Back then, characters were like invisible friends. I worked out the plots by talking to people no one saw. I suppose it’s still like that to some degree.

Up though high school, my stories were derivative of my favorite fantasy series: Tolkien’s work, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, and the Dragonlance series. In 1994, my brother told me I should see The Crow. I told him I hated stupid love stories. It was the last conversation I had with him. A few days later, he was killed while walking to work by a man who had no business driving. His closest friend brought a copy of The Crow on VHS with him when he stayed with me in the days before the funeral. I wasn’t able to tell Matthew how much I loved the movie, but while it played, I felt a desperate need to keep him alive. Writing him into a novel was the only way I knew how to do that.

Four hundred pages later, I was too wrapped up in the grief and had to put the manuscript aside. I began graduate work at Harvard Extension and found other sources of inspiration. And though I didn’t set out with this as my mission in life, a common theme was evident in all that I wrote: finding real women marginalized in history and giving them a voice to tell their tale.

It began with the consort of Vlad the Impaler. Legend had it she committed suicide during a Turkish siege. In movies, she’s referred to as his wife, but the more research I did, including reading Vlad’s letters, it was evident she was a concubine. I traveled to Romania to do research and stayed in the shadows of the Carpathians. This novel became the focus of my graduate thesis, and I self-published it two years later, in 2010.

People were intrigued by the list of women I kept for inspiration. Friends dropped off biographies of women they thought I should write about. Some made it to the list. Since then, I’ve written about Irish pirate queen Granía O’Malley, who negotiated with Queen Elizabeth I for her family’s freedom. A short piece was published about a woman who dressed as a man to travel with her betrothed, who was fighting for the Spanish armada and she couldn’t bear to be away from him. Her ghost allegedly haunts a barn in England. A trip to an Arizona museum resulted in finding an affidavit about a woman who shot her lover and served as the only female prisoner at the time in an all-male prison. May Woodman ran a cigar stand in Tombstone, and knew all the famous names we associate with that town. Her lover was killed on the same corner as where Virgil Earp was ambushed after the gunfight at OK Corral. May was scrappy and couldn’t stay out of trouble. She was pardoned and subsequently exiled from Arizona after officials discovered she was running a contraband cigar business out of her jail cell.

I delve into all eras and cultures: ancient Mesopotamia, medieval Baghdad, coastal Maine during the War of 1812, and beyond. I’ve branched into speculative fiction as well, bringing Sumer into the modern era as a space-age superpower in my fourth novel, due out next year. Visions of Enheduanna, named by some historians as the world’s first (known) author, link the story to the roots of civilization’s history.

I don’t write about Cleopatra or Anne Boleyn. As much appreciation as I have for the most famous names in history, what draws me to the women I write about is that they’re all underdogs, outcasts, and rebels. I never thought I put much of myself into my novels. I’m thorough in my research and hope to portray the most authentic world possible, no matter which slice of history I’m focusing on. But as I look back over my life, I see that correlation. I’ve always been the rebel and outcast. Like I’m an alien stranded on this planet, listening to dark ambient and space music while I write, focusing on the voices of women who led extraordinary lives but are generally overlooked or misrepresented. I’m so into creating accurate settings that I began a blog series about how food is portrayed in historical fiction, recreating recipes in my kitchen to more closely connect with my characters.

I’m 45 and my fourth novel is due out next year. My list of works in progress continues to grow, and I worry about how many I’ll actually get to. I just hope I’m doing them justice, and that somewhere out there, people are enjoying the books about these extraordinary women I happened to find on my journey through this incredibly strange, frequently discouraging, and yet absolutely amazing world.

Fan Fiction—and an Irresistible Urge to Write Someone Else’s Story

ThiefVistaGarrett

Fan fiction can be a touchy topic. Some authors fiercely protect the worlds and characters they create, while others endorse fan works inspired by them. Hugh Howey happily promotes some fan fiction based on the Wool series. Several years ago, a person who loved my first novel contacted me about writing fan fiction about it. Why not? After all, Vlad Dracula and his family were not of my making. Sure, I took some artistic license in how I portrayed them, but anyone has free reign to write about historical figures.

While some of my earliest unpublished works are strongly influenced by other books or video games, I can’t say I’ve really indulged in fanfic—until now. I feel odd delving into a copyrighted world, even if the creators of the world don’t mind. Knowing 50 Shades of Grey began as fanfic based on the Twilight series doesn’t make me feel any better.

There are many sources of inspiration. People who know me well may guess if I were to dive into fanfic, it may be the Elder Scrolls games or George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. However, there is only one story that captures me like no other: Thief.

In 1998, I pulled the box off the shelf at a store, enchanted by the graphics and description. I wasn’t prepared for how much I’d come to love this world. Every game in the series has been amazing. I’d actually have it share the number one spot in gaming experiences alongside the beloved Elder Scrolls series. The Elder Scrolls has inspired me with its worldbuilding as well, but it was Thief that inspired me to put pen to paper.

In short, the world of Thief had (until the recent 4th installment) two factions of faith. The solemn and technology-driven Hammerites, and the pagans who worshipped nature. Both religions were replaced in the latest 2014 release. I miss the old gods, but look forward to seeing where this new lore may be taking us. It’s always been gloomy world—the City is ancient—one layer built on top of another, with eras of secrets and artifacts. Garrett, a pickpocketing youth, was taken in by a secret organization called the Keepers. Though he leaves them in favor of becoming a master thief, he’s continuously manipulated by the Keepers through the end of the third game.

The revamped version of the story is gorgeously gritty and dark. Yes, the longtime voice actor who played Garrett is gone, and the change upset me for a bit, but after 20 minutes of gameplay I was so deep in the storyline I didn’t care. And I want more.

While there have been consistent elements of the story throughout, there is plenty of mystery. The kind of mystery that tantalizes a writer.

In Thief 4, there are several sets of collectible items Garrett saves for his home in a broken clock tower. The paintings are cool, but it was the little snippets that threaded together the collection known as “The Pinned Castinets” that lured me in enough to write fan fiction.

With each pin discovered, a piece of the story is revealed:

  • It was written that the Castinet daughters were married to lords of the highest standing, all to enrich the family reputation.
  • Perhaps some of Castinet’s daughters found love. Others knew only the shame of a cold bed and an empty facade.
  • But his youngest was lucky enough to find freedom from her family’s expectations.
  • “I will show them all!” she wrote in her diary. “I will show them what true freedom looks like!”
  • They said her broken body was found at the foot of The City’s walls, and all Dayport wept.
  • And every summer for years afterwards, pale butterflies would flock to the site, then scatter.

Granted, it’s always the haunting and slightly morbid stories that light my imagination on fire and summon the Muses. You should see my list of novels in progress.

After recently finishing the game for a second time, I was unable to let this story go. I initially refused to write about it. It’s not my world, after all! But then I checked in to one of my favorite flash fiction sites, Describli, and one of the images used for a writing prompt caught my eye. It may as well have come right out of the City where Garrett dwelled. And the prompt involved a visit to a witch. Suddenly, I knew what happened to the youngest daughter of the Castinet family, and I wrote the following story:

PinnedCastinetsLine

The Butterfly Girl

The girl was crumpled by the hearth in an endless fit of weeping. Her red gown and velvet cloak caused a stir when she rushed down the City’s wharf to get to the witch’s house. She didn’t care. Consumed in her own anguish, she only sought a cure to her problem.

“I won’t marry him!” Sofia said for the twelfth time. “They can’t make me. I’ll run away. All I’ve ever wanted was my freedom!”

“You’re a long way from home, sweetness,” Agatha said, petting the girl’s head like she was a pet. She admired the comb in the girl’s coal-black hair. Shaped like a butterfly, jewels of pink, lavender, and pale blue sparkled in the fire’s light.

The girl looked up at her, confused. “But I’m from Dayport.”

Agatha smiled. “Indeed you are. So knows every thief, pimp, and lowlife in the South Quarter. A little discretion would do you a lot of good.”

“I have to leave the City.” Tears streamed down her face.

“And where do you plan to go?”

“Anywhere…a place where I can be free to live the life I want. To be an explorer, maybe. Do you think one of the sea captains will hire me? I can read, draw well, and can keep things orderly.”

Agatha suppressed a laugh. “My dear girl, women are not allowed on ships for a reason. Imagine one woman on a ship full of men, out to sea for months at a time. You haven’t thought this through.”

“What can you do to help me?” The last words were choked in a sob.

“How much coin do you have?”

Sofia held up her purse. Agatha weighed it in her hand. It was too light to do anything meaningful. The petted the girl’s hair again. “This hair pin will do.”

The girl unpinned it and handed it to the witch without a thought. Agatha expected more of a fight. Some are too easy, she thought.

Agatha stood and went to the window. The hearth’s bright flame played on the dusty windows. In the grimy South Quarter, it was a futile effort to keep the glass clean. The City seemed endless. Superstitious folk who never left their own neighborhoods believed it was endless—and that nothing lay beyond it—no pastures or farms, no meadows or vast forests. That the zealous builders devoured all of nature in their plan to obliterate the pagan faith. In the darkest of nights, when the rain was driving and the hearth’s flame threatened to be blown out from the winds that spiraled down the chimney, Agatha wondered too. Maybe it does go on forever.

“There aren’t many of us left,” the witch said. “All but driven to the ends of the earth. A few communities remain. I know an honest captain who can take you to the sunny coast of Illyria. I’ll write you up a letter, and you can be an apprentice of the witches until you can maintain a shrine of your own.”

A smile broke through Sofia’s tears. “That sounds wonderful. When can I leave?”

“Whenever you wish.”

“Now, if you please. I need naught but the clothes on my back.”

“You can sleep in the attic until I make the arrangements. Shouldn’t be but a day or two.”

As a humble host in the poorest region in the City, Agatha fed her guest well. She shielded her from prying neighbors, who came to this relatively peaceful section of the wharf wanting to know about the pretty girl in the red dress.

The South Quarter factories churned in the distance, filling the sky with smoke and soot. Tradesmen and merchants filed in a never-ending procession down the Baron’s Road, on their way to buy and sell goods, and drink their fill in the mangiest of taverns. The girl watched the City in fascination from the attic window. This was nothing like the luxury of Dayport.

Soon enough, Sofia embarked on a ship and cried tears of joy at the prospect of freedom. She vowed to become the best witch in the land. Agatha waved and walked back to her house on the dock.

A torrential storm hit that night. As if summoned by magic, it rose up and smashed the ships heading out. The storm continued for days.

“The gods are angry again,” Agatha said. “There’s no pleasing them.”

When the news came, the witch endured her creaking knees and sore back to go down to the shore where the shipwrecks lay. The girl’s broken body lay by the city wall. The unusual sight of people from Dayport astonished the residents of South Quarter. Her red dress was sodden like blood and oil.

Pity flickered in the witch’s heart. She stayed until the bodies were cleared, and walked to the spot where the girl’s body had lain. She pulled the butterfly hair pin from her pocket and cupped it in her hand. She whispered a brief spell, and a spirit in the shape of a butterfly emerged from the jeweled piece.

A glittering display of pink, lavender, and pale blue, the butterfly spirit hovered in a circle. With each turn around the spot, another butterfly came to be, until there was a cloud of them.

“We all have to make sacrifices,” the witch said. “But you finally have your precious freedom.”

And from then on, on each anniversary of the girl’s death, a flurry of ghostly butterflies appeared and lit up that dark corner of the wharf for the night.

A Tribute to an Amazing Influence: Tanith Lee

Sappho-Charles-August-Mengin

My mom’s closest friend has been a mentor to be in many ways. Though not a writer herself, we share many of the same interests that helped shape my life as a writer. When I was growing up, it felt like the height of sophistication to visit her in Boston. My mentor, godmother, and pseudo-aunt all in one, she’d take me shopping after my parents dropped me off. We’d stay up late watching Elvira take down the cheesiest of old horror films while indulging in candy and sips of Grand Marnier. It was a great place to be. I was always the only kid in this three-decker full of great friends. I was always treated like an adult. I related to this world far more than the one I knew at school. One of the best parts? The books we shared.

My mom’s friend turned me onto the Gothic path with H.P. Lovecraft and a lot of beautifully illustrated dark fantasy. She introduced me to one author’s work that captured my imagination—Tanith Lee. It began with Sometimes, after Sunset, and I considered Vivia a masterpiece.

Tanith Lee’s books are filled with gorgeous turns of phrase—the kind I’d scribble down and pin to a corkboard for inspiration.

Even though I consider myself a fan, I hardly scratched the surface of her work. She was a prolific writer. There are certain authors whose works I pore over time and again, pulling apart sentences and thinking about why certain wording resonates so strongly with me. I tend to love flowery prose. For me, it’s where literature and painting intersect. I mainly stuck to the florid styles of epic fantasy and literature reminiscent of 1001 Nights, but after being a teaching assistant for a course on Modernism in Paris at Harvard Extension School, Hemingway taught me otherwise. Painting and writing can be fused on a more basic level. It doesn’t have to be so elaborate.

“I was learning something from the painting of Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put n them. I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides it was a secret.” —A Moveable Feast

Authors like Tanith Lee taught me to paint with words. Sparingly or with intricate flourishes, these words provided portraits, landscapes, and rich tapestries that fed my artistic spirit. Her books will always be shelved with the authors who influenced me the most.

I was sorry to hear about the loss of Tanith Lee this week. Her work enriched me as a writer, and for that, I’m ever grateful.

After Sunset