A sneak peek

I thought you might enjoy a little preview of my  novel, Riverbend. It is scheduled for release May 1 from Amazon.  I hope you enjoy it, and–hopefully–are intrigued.

Chapter One

In spite of her shaking legs, Damaris Tilghman stood her ground as the High Sheriff approached. She longed to wipe her sweaty palms on her skirt, but dared not make any movement that he could interpret as fear—or guilt.

The sly smirk on his lips belied the coldness of his gaze as he tipped his hat. “Sale’s nearly over, Miss Tighlman. Sorry the auctioneer couldn’t manage to get a better price for Twin Oaks. It was a grand plantation in its time.” He didn’t sound at all sorry.

“Enough to cover my father’s debts, I hope.”

“Well, Miss, as to that I have to say it didn’t. He owed a great deal of money to a great many people.” The man shook his head in mock sympathy. “Gambling’s a terrible vice—”

“And suicide is a sin. Yet neither of my father’s faults seems to have kept people from coming here and gawking, poking through our possessions….” Her voice began to tremble and she stopped, her heart beating so loudly she was afraid he would hear it in the sudden silence.

“Possessions.” The amiable leer disappeared. “Seems some of your family’s possessions didn’t turn up as part of the sale. Would you know anything about that, Miss Tilghman?”

“I have no idea what you mean.” She jutted out her chin.

“I think you do.” He looked down at the small wooden trunk sitting at her feet. “Maybe I ought to take a look at what you packed to take with you.”

“How dare you suggest such a thing! I won’t have you pawing through my shifts and stockings!”

“I can get a woman to look. If you claim all you have are shifts and stockings, you won’t mind me making certain.” He turned as a boy ran up, calling in urgency. “Sheriff! They’s a fight behind the barn. You need to come quick—one of ’ems got a knife!”

Cursing under his breath, the sheriff lumbered after the boy.

Damaris’s shoulders sagged in relief. She had been given time to think of something—but what? She willed back tears of frustration. If anything, the past few years had taught her the futility of weeping.

She watched the buyers as they lugged their purchases to the line of wagons parked along the winding drive, horses and mules stomping in impatience to begin the journey home. Home! She no longer had a home. Because of her father’s weakness, her dream of marriage and children had shattered like a fine crystal goblet dropped on a tile floor. Her past was irrevocably gone and her future a mystery.

She jerked her thoughts back to her present dilemma. The fight would soon be over. She needed to get away before the sheriff returned.

One of the buyers, better dressed than most in a black suit and embroidered waistcoat, saw her and nodded politely. “Miss Tilghman.”

She recognized him as the man who had successfully bid on the last of her father’s wine cellar. A friend of her father’s—when he still had friends. What was his name? Price? Polk? No, Pope. “Mr. Pope.” She smiled and held out a hand. “Well met, sir. I wonder if you could do me a favor?”

“Of course. If I can be of any assistance…”

“The sheriff promised he will take me to the inn in Wadesborough where I can purchase a seat on the coach in the morning. I fear he will not leave here until the last nail is sold, and I really cannot abide watching this auction any longer.” It wasn’t hard to add a quaver to her voice. “To see my life dismantled, piece by piece….”

“I understand. I would be happy to take you, if you are not embarrassed at traveling without a chaperone.”

Chaperone! I need to get away from here now. She brushed away an imaginary tear and offered a tremulous smile. “I don’t think there would be any gossip. After all, you are a dear friend of Papa’s.”

An eyebrow raised at this, but he lifted her trunk without commenting on her claim. “My wagon is this way.”

He stowed the trunk in the back of his light wagon, assisted her to the seat, and then climbed aboard and sat beside her. He had just picked up the reins when a meaty hand grasped the edge of the wooden plank that served as a seat. “Miss Tilghman. I believe we have some unfinished business.”

Pope stared down, his hands tense on the reins. “Miss Tilghman is my care. What do you want with her?”

“I need to look at her trunk.” The sheriff winked as if they were conspirators. “Just in case.”

“In case of what?” Pope’s tone was as cold as his dark eyes.

The sheriff dropped his hand and stepped back. His voice was curt as he said, “I believe she may be holding on to some jewelry that should go in the sale.”

Damaris stiffened at the accusation. “All Mama’s jewels went to pay Papa’s gambling debts years ago.”

“So you say. I still—”

“Are you doubting the lady’s word?” There was something dangerous in Pope’s voice. He raised the whip. “How dare you, sir!”

“Now, Mr. Pope, no need to get all riled up. I believe her, yes, I do. Good day, Miss Tilghman and good fortune to you.” He tipped his hat fawningly.

Pope jerked the reins and the horse started down the dirt path that led to the road.

“Thank you,” Damaris managed to mumble through a dry throat.

“My pleasure.” Pope glanced sideways at her. “If you did get away with something out of the forced sale, I congratulate you.”

She answered quickly. “He made certain I didn’t. He even sold my personal slave, Pearlie, who’s been with me since I was a child. Everything I held dear is lost.”

If she expected sympathy, Pope failed to offer it. “What will you do now?” he asked briskly.

“I have been offered a position as a companion to a distant relative of my mother’s. She lives in New Bern.” The letter she had received from the lady had been neither courteous nor welcoming, but hinted strongly of duty and God’s will.

“Being at some old lady’s beck and call doesn’t sound like much of a life for a young girl.”

“I am not young, and I have no other choice. I wasn’t raised to earn my living. My parents fully expected me to marry well.” She took a deep breath.  “The problem is, no one has proposed marriage since I celebrated my seventeenth birthday. I should have accepted the offer then. Instead, I have spent the past six years nursing Mama until her death, and then trying to keep house for Papa while he.…”

“Gambled it from under your feet and then shot himself.”

“You put it quite succinctly.”

He shrugged and chirped to the horse, which pricked its ears and began to trot.

As they jolted along the rutted path, Damaris struggled to remember what she knew of Matthew Pope. He owned Riverbend, one of the biggest cotton plantations in North Carolina. He was reputed to be wealthy. No wonder the sheriff toadied to him. He wouldn’t want to offend one of the most powerful men in Anson County. But none of that answered the question of why he had played along with her pretense of acquaintance or took her part against the sheriff.

As she studied him under her lashes, she decided he was not bad looking if you liked dark hair and eyes. She noted a ridged scar over one eyebrow and a bump on the bridge of his nose where it had been broken, spoiling an otherwise perfect profile. His teeth were good for a man of middle years, very white and straight. Not a common asset among her acquaintances.

The horse stopped at a crossroad and she looked at him in question.

“Everyone has choices, Miss Tilghman,” he said as if minutes and miles hadn’t passed since her declaration. He pointed with his whip. “This road leads to Wadesborough and this one to Cheraw.”

“I am aware of that.”

“I am offering you a choice.” He shifted in his seat until he could meet her eyes. “I have a proposition.”

She blinked under the intensity of his gaze. “What is it?”

“Two propositions, actually. One, I need a housekeeper. From what you told me, I gather you have some experience.” He waited for her response.

“Yes,” she said guardedly. “And the other?”

“What? Oh. The other is, I need a wife.”

A touch of amusement lightened her countenance. “And am I to choose which of these delightful occupations I might wish to pursue?”

“I had thought them to be one and the same.”

Damaris intended to reply with the disdain he deserved, but then she thought again of spending the rest of her days caring for elderly invalids.

“I need an answer, Miss Tilghman.”

“Is it to be a marriage in name only? I mean, you mentioned housekeeper first, but I could not accept that, a spinster residing in an unmarried man’s home. But if we were married, gossip would be put at rest.”

“I suppose I should have mentioned the third thing. I am also in need of an heir.”

Her pale cheeks blazed scarlet. She blinked once, slowly.

He waited.

She shut her eyes and drew a breath. “I accept, Mr. Pope.”

He nodded and guided the horse on the road that led to South Carolina, where a marriage license could be obtained in one day. “I see you are very like your father, Miss Tilghman.”

“Why do you say that, Mr. Pope?”

“You are a gambler, too.”

 

Juggling the genres

Last week I was at the beach, enjoying sunny warm afternoons, splashing through the waves in my bare feet.

This week, I dug out my sweatshirts and warm coat, going outside only when necessary.

Yes, this is North Carolina weather. Rather than complaining, however, I used the time to hunker down at my computer. The stories were written, but  it was time for the next step.

The novel I polished at the beach during the writers retreat needed one last-minute check. Then I had to write the synopsis, which I just finished.

I wrote a synopsis before I started, as I may have noted before. This was my guide, my lifeline that made certain I didn’t stray too far afield. But it isn’t the same synopsis that one submits to a publisher. This time, I had to be more careful of my grammar and punctuation while still, hopefully, retaining my original enthusiasm for the project. This I will send off, fingers crossed.

My other novel? I decided to self-publish, so I spent some hours working on the cover design, then formatting the Word document. Luckily, by this time around I know the pitfalls and most of it went smoothly, with only a few corrections to be made. I’m fine-tuning it now, having looked at the first proof copy and deciding the margins were too wide and the indents too deep. Saved about 50 pages there, which allows me to lower the price.

They are wildly different books. One is a contemporary romance and the other is historical fiction with a bit of mystery and of course, a love interest because what is any story without some romance?

It’s kind of an experiment. Which will fare better? Should I stick with light stories, meant for a few hours’ entertainment, or should I continue to tackle the research a historical requires?

If you’ve been following my path, I’ve done women’s fiction, romance, paranormal, and now historical. That may not be the best way to build a firm platform, but I’m not trying to make a name or career for myself. I write what I love to write, and if the genre’s differ from one book to the next, it’s because it expresses my interests at the time.

If I were younger, it’d be different. I’d choose a genre and stay with it, book after (yawn) book. Most authors do well this way. We know what to expect from them and aren’t disappointed.

But I’m not young and so I give myself permission to write what I please. If the book sells, I’m delighted. If not, I write another. So far, the reviews have been positive, so I must be doing something right.

My contention is, if someone picks up one of my books they have only to turn it over and read the blurb to decide if they want to buy it (or borrow it from the library). Who knows, they may decide to try a new story, even if it wasn’t what they expected, and like it.

I love to read and at any one time I may have a stack of books consisting of a biography, a historical romance, an action drama, and a mystery.

So if I like reading different genres, it follows that I like writing them.

I’m not sure what comes next. I have a few ideas …

We’ll see where they lead me.

 

 

 

 

What is your brand?

I have put a lot of miles on the Malibu this summer. Jim would be complaining about the mileage and wear and tear, but I think secretly he would be proud of me for getting out and not sitting home grieving.

I’ve been to Pennsylvania, Georgia, and most recently to Kentucky. I have to say Kentucky has a lot going for it: good roads, lovely scenery, and horse farms. Lots of horse farms.

In Louisville, there are horses everywhere. Not  real, live horses. The city boasts horse statues of every kind. Some are painted in bright colors. They really stand out on a sidewalk. (Click here to see some pictures of the painted horses.)

So from statues, billboards, signs, and even actual horses grazing peacefully in the countryside, you can’t forget for a minute that you are in horse country.

Kentucky knows how to brand herself.

I understand that is important for a writer as well. An author needs to create a brand that is instantly recognizable. What do you think when you see the names John Patterson, Mary Kay Andrews, Elin Hilderbrand?

If you answered fast-paced action mystery, humorous southern romance, and summer beach reads, you know what branding is.

Sounds easy, but it isn’t. Authors work hard to create a brand. Their books are aimed at a specific segment of the reading public. If Patterson suddenly published a sweet cozy mystery instead of his usual drama-packed story, readers would be as outraged as if they had opened a carton of rocky road ice cream and found a quart of strawberry swirl instead.

He might even lose a few fans.

I didn’t know this when I started writing. I wrote women’s fiction, and then switched to a kind of hybrid paranormal. I should have written the latter under a pen name, I suppose, but it seemed like too much effort to create a new Facebook author page and website. And, everyone knows that J.D. Robb is really Nora Roberts, so changing the name doesn’t fool anyone. Except that readers know what to expect when they open her books–under either pen name.

That’s what branding does. The reader sees a familiar name on a book cover and instantly knows what kind of story lies within. Yes, the cover illustration and the blurb on the back help, but the author’s name gives instant recognition.

I haven’t reached that pinnacle where people recognize my name and realize at once what kind of stories I write. But I hope I am slowly, steadily, building my brand.

Book by book.

 

 

 

 

The next step

Believe it or not, there is something more difficult than sitting down and writing a book.

The writing is the fun part: creating characters, plots, and scenes in your head and translating them to paper a Word document.

No, the hard part is the query letter. This is the letter that MUST grab an agent/editor/publisher’s interest and prompt them to ask for a full ms. Just as the first paragraph in your book should grab the reader’s attention and get them to read on, the first paragraph of the query letter should state your heroine’s goal, how she means to attain it, and what stands in her way, and make them beg for more.

I’ve written query letters before. Some have gotten the desired results; others have done nada, no matter how much I tweak them. So I know how important this is. I probably struggle over this as much or more than I struggle over the opening paragraphs of my book.

Still, it is doable. What I really dread, even more than the query letter, is the synopsis. Some publishers or agents want a few paragraphs with a general idea of what the book is about. Others want as many as 5 or more pages of

Jim, me, and our three sons, taken before Jim passed away.

Jim, me, and our three sons, taken before Jim passed away.

detailed, chapter-by-chapter descriptions. I can’t blame them, they haven’t time to read the whole book. They just want to know if it is worth their time to ask for it.

I’m no novice at this game, but each time I go through the same agonies. I suppose that is natural. I  had three babies and the second and third deliveries were not easier than the first!

But the results were worth it. I have three fine sons and three grandchildren I love dearly.

So here goes the query letter. Wish me luck that the results are equally worth the effort!

 

Enter the dog (or cat)

I had a book rejected by a publisher once because the main character wasn’t “likable.” Well, to be honest, she wasn’t. My goal was to have her become more likable over the course of the story, when her inner “niceness” came out.

I learned a lesson then that was reinforced during a workshop when the speaker talked about the need to have your reader connect with (like) the main character. One way to do this, he said, was to give your hero a pet, preferably a dog. People who have dogs, apparently, are instantly likable.

I never thought to add animals to a book. No pets show up in my previously published works. The book I am writing now does have a dog, but it is a minor character’s pet and not mentioned very often. I do have the heroine trust the hero early on because she notes he is gentle with his horse. My editor says she is not “strong,” i.e., someone the reader will cheer for during her struggles and be happy for when she finally achieves her goal.

I am wondering if I shouldn’t give her a pet. Maybe a little dog that annoys everyone else but she loves it dearly. Hmmm.

I can’t think why I haven’t had animals in any of my stories before. I’ve always had both cats and dogs, and usually more than

Bubbie, the shelter cat

Bubbie, the shelter cat

one of each. Right now I have two rescue cats. One just showed up, so I guess she adopted me. The other I got at the shelter where I volunteer one morning a week. It’s dirty work, dumping out litter boxes and washing them, cleaning the cages, and seeing that the cats and kittens have fresh food and water. But I feel that I am doing a little something to make their lives better while they wait to find new homes (the preferred outlook). This week I took home a cat that had been in the shelter too long and was slated to be euthanized. I’m fostering her until I can get her to her forever home (and yes, I found an adoptive family). My two aren’t happy with the newcomer, but I tell them it’s only temporary.

So, since animals are such a big part of my life, I think I might be wise to make them a part of my heroine’s life, too. Maybe being a pet owner hasn’t made me more likable, but I have been assured it will work for my fictional characters.

(The photo  is of my foster cat. She is so sweet. I hate to give her up except I know she will have a wonderful new family to love her.)

 

 

 

When the end is the beginning

Yesterday, I left my romance writers’ meeting and hoped I’d get back home in time for the drop-in celebrating my dear friends’ 50th wedding anniversary.

As I drove, I thought about the many romances that end with the couple still dewy-eyed and flush with first love. Maybe it’s a chaste kiss, or maybe it takes the reader into a more intimate setting, but they all follow that age-old plot: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. And once she’s got, the story is over, we close the covers (or power off the e-reader) with a satisfied sigh.

Not that I don’t enjoy such stories, but at my age, I know they don’t stop there. The story continues after the glass slipper is rightfully restored, the kiss awakens the sleeper, and the beauty realizes the beast isn’t so ugly after all.

There is something to be said for the romance that continues, regardless of bumps in the road, for fifty years. Cinderella might be wearing orthopedic shoes and her Prince might need a hearing aid. Snow White may have needed all fifty years to come to terms with her Prince’s yearning for an apple pie. And the Beast may wonder if his Beauty is ever going get her nose out of a book and cook a pot roast the way he likes it.

What of our sassy heroines and brawny heroes? Are their stories any less interesting as they get older, the wrinkles and gray hair appear, and their steps begin to falter?

It’s the pursuit and capture that grabs our imaginations. To young readers, everything after that goes downhill.

Older readers know better. The same pursuit and capture replay themselves over and over. The story never ends with the first, heated kiss.

It only begins.

Getting my money’s worth: Part Two

Today I am posting some more tidbits of wisdom garnered at the Carolinas Writers Conference. Chris Roerden is an editor and this was her second appearance at the annual conference. Chris knows more about editing than most people I know (including editors) and is happy to share her expertise. Some of what she told us was what we all learn when we start writing, but here are a few things I didn’t know.

  • Attitude: The main character should have an attitude–that is, her world view, how she approaches her environment.
  • We’ve all heard “show, don’t tell.” The character’s emotions are critically important. Don’t say, “She cried.” Show the reader how she cried. (If I showed the reader how I cried, I’d have to say “and snot came out of her nose.” Because I don’t cry pretty.) Showing is judgmental on the part of the author.
  • Read the book you love twice, first for enjoyment and second to figure out how the author did it.

Author Michelle Buckman also made her second appearance at the conference. When we find someone who is good, we tend to ask them back. Here’s what I took away from her workshop:

  • Show the protagonist’s characteristics in the opening page. The opening pages create a sympathetic character or situation.
  • There has to be a reason for everything the character does. Things in the past affect the now and project into the future. (Here is where we can sow little clues in the beginning of the book that bear fruition when we come to the climax.)
  • History is backstory and is necessary for depth but it doesn’t go up front. Your characters must have a history, but scatter it throughout the story. Avoid the dreaded “information dump.”
  • Tie your characters together as closely as possible, but not in the way readers expect. Make the unlikely one step up. Surprise the reader to keep her interest.
  • Create sympathetic characters and intriguing situations or a situation that  relates to the reader’s life.
  • Add enough layers to the character and plot  so both are intriguing.
  • What is her greatest fear? Why? What caused it? Have her face this fear.
  • Who does he love most? Who does he hate? Reverse roles for a new dimension.
  • Who is blocking the main character from achieving her goal? Who is her mentor?
  • Have the lead character do something he would never do. Do the same thing with a secondary character.
  • Find something about your secondary character that ties him to the main character.

You’ve probably heard all this before, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded. I’ve been taking a long, hard look at my WIP to see if I’ve created as many layers in my characters as I could.

Because there is nothing worse than a shallow, cardboard cut-out hero or heroine.

 

 

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