Reading: Subversive by Colleen Cowley

Title: Subversive
Author: Colleen Cowley

Genre: Gaslamp Fantasy
Format: Print

Recommended: Yes

Summary:
First book in the Clandestine Magic trilogy, this book follows Beatrix as she supports her sister Lydia, financially and emotionally, as she attempts to win the presidency of the Women’s League for the Prohibition of Magic. All magic users (wizards) and politicians are men in this alternate history, and the way wizards create spells is by transferring the energy from leaves with a combination of magical commands.

We join Beatrix the day Peter Blackwell, childhood rival and sole wizard to come from their hometown, arrives and compels her to become his assistant. While Beatrix fears Peter was sent on behalf of the government to sabotage her sister’s future, what she discovers is far more dangerous than she could have ever imagined.

Thoughts:
I really enjoyed this story! It has an inventive magic system that lays the groundwork for political intrigue and women’s equality in this alternate reality. There were some troubling use of compulsion against the heroine, but since the characters also struggled with the unintended compulsion, I didn’t see it as a reason to put the book down. The romance was a struggle for me due to the compulsion… but I enjoyed the way Cowley flipped the script by having the unrequited person be male rather than female.

For writers, read this book to learn about how to write a fantasy where magic is not the primary plot driver. This book reads like a political thriller where magic is the weapon rather than machinery. The main characters feel emotionally real by the end of the story, but the true driver the consequences of transferring leaf energy into magic, and just who has access to that sort of magic.

I also really appreciated the Cowley included a note to readers to visit her website if they wanted to avoid any triggering content. She doesn’t give away spoilers, but she does let you know about the compulsion I noted above, and other possibly traumatic events. I wish the cover art was a little more impressive, though… I feel like it distracts from the fine writing hidden between the covers.

Why podcasts are saving me during “lock down”

I’ve never gotten into audio books because even with the best narrator, I lose interest or feel sleepy about 15 minutes into a listening session. This is a big reason why I never picked up podcasts, I assumed the same thing would happen.

Part of the problem was friends were suggesting podcasts that they cared about… I don’t need more politics, or reasons to get frustrated about the inequalities experienced by women and minorities, or the incomplete or biased snippets we get from audiovisual news media. I have plenty of sources for that, thanks, but I appreciate the suggestions.

However, in the last month I’ve craved a way to consume media that doesn’t require using my eyes. I sit in front of a computer for work, and ultimately for writing as well. I stumbled onto Stitcher, a free podcast streaming service, I can’t even remember how, and now realize what I’ve been missing. Many of these episodes are only 15 – 20 minutes long, which is my sweet spot, but I’ve found I can even listen to 45 minute episode because it gets my brain into a writing mode.

Screenshot of Stitcher.com home page
Create your own account at Stitcher.com

Between Stitcher and adopting Notion.so to plan and write my latest book, I’ve never been more mobile and nimble with my writing. The other day I went on a walk with the kid and was able to listen to a full episode and write a little over 150 words into the Notion app on my phone, then later go into my tablet and rearrange scenes, and still later go into my computer to do additional plot tidying and some deeper research.

I don’t think I would have sought out podcasts had it not been for the pandemic. We’ve been one of the families to stay at home since March since I’m a high risk individual. This means we’ve worked full time from home and provided child care as well. We’re not accepting help in order to protect me, basically. This means we’ve been catching an hour or even just 30 minutes each day to ourselves. That’s not enough time to plan and write a book, or so I thought.

I’ve felt burned out and frustrated because I wanted to write, but didn’t know how to start. The lock down started right as I was about to rejoin my writer’s group, which didn’t move to a virtual platform and I probably wouldn’t have dialed in anyway because I’m in so many video conferences for my day job. On top of the whole pandemic reality, I’ve felt insecure about the book I want to write because of the way certain media outlets have twisted the purpose and meaning behind the Black Lives Matter movement. I’ve blogged about my insecurities about writing about someone who looks like me but living in a historical context… mostly because so many people don’t understand that the Black experience in America was more nuanced than “all people from Africa were slaves and no one was allowed to marry them.”

If you want to read another author’s perspective on the matter, check out G.S. Carr’s “Wielding Historical Inaccuracy Against Authors of Color.” It really made me think! Why do I not question when a book suggests a duke could marry a family-less, penniless governess? We clearly know that wouldn’t happen, just look at any of Jane Austen’s works to know that’s too much of a leap. Why do I pause when I read about an interracial relationship in the 1800s? I know they occurred whether in secret or not, and at least here in the United States, not all states had laws against interracial relationships. In fact, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Alaska, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia never had laws preventing interracial relationships!

But I digress. These are the podcasts that I’m following these days:  Writing Excuses and DIY MFA are both great for different reasons, but I credit both of them for strengthening my creative backbone to just try something. I just picked up but have yet to listen to The Self-Publishing Show, Writing Roots, and the Alli Self-Publishing Advice podcasts.

Tell me, is there something you’ve tried that you wouldn’t have if there were no pandemic? How is it going?

Rewriting history in response to today

This past Saturday, I woke at 5:30 AM, troubled by our political climate. As a hobbyist historian, I found myself wondering how we got here and what could have prevented such an ideological divide. The answer lies in studying, among other things, John Quincy Adams’s impact on the Gag Rules, the South Carolina Nullification Crisis of 1833 (the first time they threatened secession), and the Supreme Court rulings following the Reconstruction Amendments that opened the door for state-governed Jim Crow laws.

I was chatting with a co-worker the other day that the Union won the battles of the Civil War, but lost war of cultural change during Reconstruction. So, this picture is my attempt to “fix it.”

My historical fantasy is set in 1873 Columbus, Ohio. My city was doing a lot of good stuff for the education of the general public, including desegregation to deal with the rising population, opening a public library, and founding The Ohio State University (which had women and persons of color in their first graduating classes). However, the political history I mentioned above had an impact that cannot be ignored.

In my alternate history, I tweaked the Reconstruction Amendments to be more inclusive and with less caveats. I allowed Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas to not be so heavily swayed by South Carolina. I even play around with the idea that President Lincoln let’s South Carolina secede for a (very little) while.

In my story, slavery legislation is a state equality issue, where it’s unfair that states with larger populations of people who aren’t citizens (I’m looking at you, 3/5 law) get extra votes. Plus, there’s magic. More on that later.

In the meantime, I felt a little better after rewriting history for 90 minutes. I feel like maybe I can face whatever new sad news I’ll see today about the transition of power between the former and new president. I feel like we’re on the cusp of a new era of Reconstruction, this time perhaps a more focused attempt at bridging the ideological beliefs separating the 70 million who want things to stay as they are from the 74 million who push for equality and unity.

Finding Comfort in Tracking my Reading

I’m sure you’re as tired as I am of hearing about all the “uncertainty” in the world today. Let’s face it, the world has always been uncertain. Excluding the flabbergasting impact the pandemic has had on the total unpreparedness of the United States, 2020 is different only because there is more visibility on issues that already existed. Not to be a total downer here, but these issues aren’t going to go away in 2021 unless we all choose to do something about it.

All that said, I’ve been looking for things that bring a feeling of stability and predictability, such as revisiting favorite books from my personal library. Even if these are re-reads, I keep track of them in my reading journal.

Why keep a reading journal?

I have kept a reading journal since 2006. There’s something oddly comforting about looking over the years at the types of books I read. Some years, it’s clear I was doing research for a new novel. Some years, I was pushing my reader horizons by picking up a lot of fantasy or literary fiction. And some years, like this one, I revisited favorites either to dissect the narrative, or just to have something at hand that I knew I’d enjoy.

My journal follows a light version of bullet journal techniques, meaning I include a:

  • Key to indicate my opinion of the book
  • Index to locate each year (some years span multiple pages/spreads)

Journal key

Photo of my reading journal's "key"

In my reading journal’s key, I have special symbols for the following reading statuses:

  • Started or in-progress
  • “Meh” as in, it was OK but I’d probably not read it again
  • Disliked or hated
  • Liked
  • Quit
  • Loved
  • Try again, as in migrate this title to next year’s list because I didn’t get to it by the new year

And then I have two symbols for the format of the book, because I noticed that I started reading eBooks out of nowhere in 2011, with 2015 being the first year where I read more eBooks than print books.

  • Print book
  • eBook

Noticing reading trends

Photo of my 2006 reading list

This year, I’m back to only reading print books because I’ve been full-time work from home due to the pandemic. I have more than enough screen time with the job and doing DIY home improvement research on my phone, I just have no interest in reading books on my phone or tablet.

I wish I had started this journal back in high school instead of halfway through college. I’ve been seeking out books I liked at the time but didn’t have the money to buy, such as The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. Some books I purchased in college, such as the Abhorsen series by Garth Nix, and some I’m now collecting through eBay to avoid spending too much money.

Photo of my 2020 reading list

Of course, I also have been relying on the local library for newer books, but the new books have been such a hit-or-miss that I’ve given up on new fiction for a while. If you’re concerned about the virus transmitting on shared materials like library books, check out the REALM project from OCLC, which is a study tracking how long the coronavirus lives on such items.

What is something you’ve done recently for comfort?

Some friends keep a daily journal, just jotting notes about what happened that day. Some are keeping a specific gratitude journal. For me, it’s my reading and writing journals. Anything to keep me off another screen! I’m even considering going back to writing on legal pads since the thought of opening a word processor makes my skin crawl.

Best,
Belinda

Misleading Plots

I admitted on Instagram the other day that I’m at a crossroads as an author… Not only am I considering shifting genres from historical fiction to historical fantasy (gaslamp fantasy?), but I’m also taking a hard look at my recurring writing habits with an eye to improve.

While reading WRITING FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION by Orson Scott Card, Philip Athans, and Jay Lake, I realized a hard truth… my plots misdirect the reader. This would be ok if it were done with well-crafted intention, but of course, that is at the reader’s discretion about how well I’m doing that.

Now, clearly I’m improving or I wouldn’t have won the 2017 Self-Publishing Review award for THE LAST APRIL. Even so, I’ve been learning more about the types of stories that populate fantasy and sci-fi and instead learning more about how I should be crafting my historical fiction. Isn’t that funny?

The book mentions four story categories: milieu, idea, character, event, a.k.a. “there and back again,” “answer the question,” “character transformation,” and “bring the world back to order.” At least, that’s how I’m interpreting these to help me dissect my own writing.

Card mentions readers get frustrated when you start with one category yet end with another. This made me reflect on some of the criticism I’ve received for my published works.

For instance, HAUNTING MISS TRENTWOOD starts as an “idea” story. Mary’s father crawls from his grave and we end the first chapter wondering why she is the only one to see this or if she’s losing her mind. The question the story needs to answer, at least based on the set up, is why is Trentwood haunting his daughter? Those who have read the book know this is actually a character story, because the mysteries culminate in a couple character transformations, and while we solve the mysteries, the characters are the true point. I have readers who love this, and readers who felt misled by the gothic nature of the first chapter.

THE LAST APRIL also begins as an idea, but it is more apparent that is has to be a character story because anyone who knows anything about President Lincoln’s assassination knows it had nothing to do with anyone in Ohio. Or at least at this point in our understanding of historical events, that is true. Anyone who has never learned anything about that event will feel misled by the premise. Anyone who is aware will realize this book is about the characters and the feeling of being one small individual caught in the storm of national events.

So anyway, it’s making me wonder why I start my stories on an idea but end with character transformations. I’ve always said I’m a character-driven writer, I’m proud and excited by that fact. The obvious thing to do is stop writing “idea” beginnings and instead write “character beginnings.” Putting this into practice will certainly be a challenge.

Have you read a book that you felt misled you? Did it work for you, or were you left wondering what happened?

Plan Your Novel with Trello

Starting a new project, whether for NaNoWriMo or something longer term, is a great opportunity to seek out new tools and methods for planning your novel. When I worked on The Last April, I found a number of tools that helped me, and I want to use them again for a new project… with some tweaks.

Even though I write first drafts in a paper notebook, most of my planning and research is digital for quick reference. The Last April had spreadsheets for character details and motivations, plot timelines, and news media excerpts. It had book plan documents and plot diagrams. I had to bounce between too many documents to get the big picture.

I need to see my characters, plot, historical timeline, and marketing plan in one location so I don’t lose sight of the objective. Enter Trello.

Why Trello?

Trello is a powerful tool because it is so simple. You create an account, open a board, and start creating lists. Within each list, you create cards.

What do you do with the lists and cards? The lists could be family member names, while the cards are chores for the week. The lists could be phases of a project (to do, in progress, done, blocked) and the cards could be components of the project. The possibilities are endless, but here are some of the reasons why I chose Trello to plan the next book, whatever it may be.

Trello is…

  • Free, though you can pay for a subscription and get additional features
  • Both textual and visual planning
  • Accessed from any web browser and has a mobile app
  • Popular enough for some pretty cool extensions

The extensions are what really make this planning method shine. The default Trello experience is a series of columns in a single row. To combine my character sheets, story arc planning, marketing definition (book plan), timeline, and historical research into one board, I need rows of lists, preferably with a heading so the grouping is clear.

Default Trello is a single row of lists

Trello comes with what they call Power-Ups to extend the experience, but I didn’t see anything that met my need. Plus, for free accounts, you only get one power-up. Enter browser extensions.

Set Up Your Trello Board

Create a Trello account if you don’t have one already.

  • Create a new board
  • Create lists to plan your novel, like
    • Characters
    • Eleven stages of a three-act story
    • References (setting, newspaper clippings, maps)
    • Timeline (my stories span a couple weeks)
    • Book plan (goals, market demographics, marketing plan)
  • If you know the content already, add cards to your lists

Create Your Swim Lanes

For this to work, you need the Chrome or Firefox web browser and its associated browser extension. These extensions only work on desktop/laptop views. I have Firefox, so the instructions at this point might differ for Chrome users.

Swimlanes for Trello is pretty simple. To make a new swim lane, or row, type the pipe character (the vertical bar) into the name of your list. To make a characters row in the screenshot below, I named the first list “Main |Characters.” I waited about two seconds, and the board shifted to having headings above rows of lists. That’s it!

Browser extensions make multiple rows of Trello lists

You will need to follow the instructions for List Layouts if you are on Chrome but I assume it is just as simple.

Success! What was multiple documents is now a single board. The fun thing about Trello is you can add labels to cards; I will like do this for the plot to chart where characters have pivotal moments. You can also add images , which I think will be useful for character sheets, setting, building references, etc.

Caveats and Disclaimers

This stacked list style only works on a Firefox desktop display. Since I write first drafts on paper, often with a mobile device beside me, it is easy to scroll the single list view if needed. When I’m in generative thinking mode and need the entire view, I’m probably on my laptop anyway.

If you make more lists after creating your swim lanes and have to move them around, it can confuse the extension back into a single row. If this happens, refresh the page and everything should return to the stacked view.

Those are the two glitches I’ve found so far, neither of which is a deal breaker for me.

I hope this tutorial helps; let me know in the comments how you set up your board or if you’re using a different tool to plan your novel. If after this post you realize you still prefer pen and paper, check out my Etsy shop where I have novel planning notebooks for sale.

– Belinda

THE LAST APRIL winner of the 2017 Self-Publishing Review Award!

I’m happy to announce that my latest book, The Last April, was announced the winner of the 2017 SPR Award. I would guess hundreds of books apply to this contest since the Self-Publishing Review (SPR) is a well-known and highly-valued resource for book reviews and editorial services.

SPR has been highlighted by The Guardian, The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, Forbes, and Writer’s Digest as a reputable venue for vetting your work.

I am beyond honored and humbled by this award. As the first prize winner, I receive:

  • A GOLD Amazon Reviews Package (30+ Verified Customer Reviews)
  • A Lead Story Editorial Review on SPR
  • An author interview, shared with almost a quarter of a million readers
  • A virtual book tour of 1 week, with 15+ blogs
  • A Category and Keyword analysis for Amazon
  • Rosette artwork for the ebook and paperback book
  • And more!

Thank you so much to everyone who supported and contributed to the journey of The Last April, including my writer’s group at Wild Goose Creative, my beta readers, Ali and John, my editor, Cindy from Second Set of Eyes, and my cover artist, Jenny from Seedlings Design Studio. Most especially, my husband, who reminded me when to go to sleep when I burned the candle from both ends to meet my (self-imposed) deadline.

Stay tuned for updates on my first ever author fair experience, hosted by the Marion County Public Library in Central Ohio!

Happy reading,
Belinda

Dreaming of the Next Book

Now that I’m weaning myself off the honeymoon period from releasing The Last April, I’ve been dreaming of my next book. There always is “the next book” for authors. Kind of like how “there’s always a band” for The Music Man.

I was in our living room, cuddling with the mini-schnauzer while working on my November writing challenge from @pageflutter on Instagram, when I sat straight up with an exclamation.

Can’t see the embedded Instagram post?

“Hunting Miss Trentwood!” I shouted at my husband, who jumped, and then grimaced. No, that was too close to the title for the first book, Haunting Miss Trentwood. But I knew something was there, and abandoned my writing challenge to ideate on possible titles:

  • Hunting Miss Trentwood
  • Seeking Miss Trentwood
  • Seeking Mary
  • Hunting Mary Trentwood <– the tentative winner

In this proposed sequel (my first ever), we follow Mary and Hartwell as their relationship is tested by the pressures of London, Queen Victoria’s Jubliee celebrations, future mothers-in-law, Victorian spiritualism, and hey, Jack the Ripper might make an appearance (at least in newspaper headings).

I’m just starting to revisit my old written notebooks for my Haunting Miss Trentwood research, but the excitement for writing a book is returning!

Can’t see the embedded instagram post of my research notebooks?

Anyway, it’s a good way to end the year, I hope, dreaming about my next book.

P.S. I’m revamping my newsletter to a semi-monthly review of things I’m into that you should totally know about and hopefully be into as well. If you’re not getting my newsletters, you can sign up and read the archives here.

Happy reading,

Belinda

Howl-O-Ween Giveaway featuring The Last April & Haunting Miss Trentwood

This year, I’m giving away digital copies of Haunting Miss Trentwood and The Last April! Keeping it simple this year, you can tweet a message, visit my Facebook page, or post a comment below to win copies of my popular eBooks.

Thanks to The Kids Did It and The Mommy Island blogs for hosting this giveaway hop! If you’ve never done one of these, I’m part of a bunch of bloggers who all signed up to give away prizes. At the end of this post is the full list of bloggers giving away prizes.

1865 Civil War (2017)
YA Sweet Drama

1887 Victorian England (2010)
YA Gothic Comedy

I’m always looking for bloggers to review, so if you do happen to win, I’d love to see your thoughts on your blog, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble!

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