Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Story Snippets: The Half King (Mary)

 Hello everyone! Today I'm super excited to share a brief peek into my current novel project, The Half King! (I'm also a little nervous, to be honest - this is the first time I've ever let anyone take a look inside this project so far!)

The idea for The Half King came to me when I was working as a tour guide at a science and history museum. Every tour ended in the theater room, where guides could share a variety of video presentations with their tour groups, based on the guests' interests. The most popular video by far was one about the legend of Saint George and the dragon. One afternoon while sharing that presentation with a tour group, I was suddenly struck by the part of the story where, after Saint George has slain the dragon, the king offers him any reward he wants--even to half of the kingdom.

Of course, Saint George replied that the only reward he wanted was to tell the people of the city about Christ, everyone was baptized, and it was all very wonderful.

But it got me to thinking: many times in history and legend we hear of kings offering various people any reward they desire, "even to half of my kingdom"...so why does no one ever take them up on that? Then I started to wonder what would actually happen if someone did...and The Half King suddenly took shape.

So without further ado, here is a peek into the world of Edwin Renwickson!


Background: Edwin began the morning shucking the day's supply of oysters for the inn his family owns and operates. While doing so, he discovered a green pearl--said to be good luck. With it, he hopes to improve his family's fortunes. He plans to have the pearl assessed, as soon as he has finished running a little errand...

The midday meal kept Edwin busy well into the afternoon, as usual. Once the majority of patrons had been fed and left, the bulk of the cleaning up from the meal had been done, and Mam and Gemma were busy preparing for the coming evening meal, Edwin occupied himself shoveling the shell heap in the yard onto a handcart, and set out for the builders’ yards. The builders bought shell by the stoneweight, for use in constructing tabby walls, as mortar, and as paving material. They paid next to nothing for the shell, but it got rid of the piles of shells the inn threw away, and every copper was something. After the construction yards, though, he would visit the jeweler, and assess the extent of the day’s good fortune.

Edwin pushed the handcart out of the yard, closing the gate behind himself, and down the narrow alley onto the street. He hadn’t gone far when, ahead of him, he heard a strange, clattery rumble...followed by a scream.

A crash came after the scream, and the rumbling sound was getting louder. Ahead, where the street curved, Edwin saw people begin to scramble out of the street, diving into doorways and alleys. Something was coming.

And then it appeared—a closed carriage pulled by four horses, all of which were galloping in blind panic down the too-narrow, too crowded street. An instant later, Edwin saw the reason for their panic: the back of the carriage was on fire!

Leaving his handcart, Edwin moved into the center of the street, trying to gauge his position to catch the horses as they passed. Not too far away, then he might miss. But certainly not too close, where he would get himself run down and trampled.

The horses were nearly upon him already—he felt instinctively that this was a terrible plan, but there simply wasn’t time to think of a better one. Edwin wasn’t quite sure he was thinking at all, but rather just reacting.

As the horses came nearer he stepped just barely into their path, his hands upheld, calling “Whoa! Whoa!”

They shied a little at the obstacle he created, and their pace slowed—but only a small amount. Still, it was enough that Edwin was able to reach and catch the harness of one of them, hanging on as he was jerked along with them, pain shooting up his shoulder and into his back from the force of the jolt. He managed to keep his feet, though, running but only touching the ground every second or third step.

Another scream, followed by a shrill voice shouting: “What are you doing?!” but he had no time to think about that.

He managed to jump enough to catch a foot in the harness and pull himself onto the horse’s back, where he hauled back on the reins with one hand, reaching to catch the reins of the horse beside him with the other. They resisted, but Edwin held on, and his efforts slowed the animals slightly, but not completely—and there was another curve in the road approaching, this one much sharper than the previous one.

The horses skidded and fought to maintain their footing, and succeeded, but the carriage tipped toward the outside of the curve and crashed onto its side. Two of the horses went down immediately, and Edwin was forced to jump clear as the horse beneath him stumbled and went to its knees.

He tumbled from the horse’s back—that was his first time ever to ride a horse, he realized—and ran back to the flaming carriage. He leaped onto its side, pulled the door open vertically, and peered in. There were two women tangled in the sea of their own dresses, lying on the side of the carriage that had become the floor in the overturn.

“Are you hurt?” Edwin shouted, lowering himself through the door. “Can you climb?”

The interior of the carriage was filling with smoke, and the women were coughing.

Edwin grabbed the nearest one by her arms and pulled her to her feet. Outside he could hear shouting, men trying to put out the fire, others climbing onto the carriage.

“Here!” He caught the woman under her arms and hoisted her up. Other hands grabbed hold of her and pulled her up and over the doorframe to safety.

Edwin pulled the second woman up and lifted her up through the door of the carriage in the same way. Once the others gathered around had pulled her clear of the door, Edwin pulled himself up into the opening, and was helped out as well.

When his feet were on solid ground again, he saw that men had nearly smothered the fire, and others were releasing the horses from their harnesses and helping them struggle to their feet. The two women stood a few steps away, coughing, asking each other if they were unhurt. One of them had a torn sleeve through which a scratch showed on her arm, and her companion had bent down to examine it. When she straightened and turned to look at those gathered around, a collective gasp rushed through the onlookers, and people left and right fell to their knees.

Edwin was bewildered, until someone nearby tugged his arm and hissed “On your knees, man! That’s the princess you’ve just pulled from that carriage!”

Edwin felt his knees go weak and drop him to the ground with no effort on his part. The princess... His heart pounded and he thought he might be sick all over the street.

He had touched the princess. He, a common nobody from the dock ward, had grabbed the princess of Ileria bodily and flung her into the hands of other common nobodies like a sack of oysters.

He didn’t know what the punishment was for such an act, or if the nature of the circumstances would make any difference, but he certainly did not want to find out. The thought of fleeing crossed his mind, but surely the men who had witnessed his deed would report him—these were men he knew, neighbors—they would know who he was, and none of them would wish to take the blame upon themselves.

He thought of the pearl in his purse, with a bitter urge to fling it into the gutter. Some good fortune this was.

Horses and riders bearing the royal standard galloped into view, shouting and moving to surround the princess and the woman with her.

“Your highness!” one of the riders shouted, jumping to the ground and bowing, “are you unhurt?”

“I am unhurt,” the princess answered, “thanks to the valiant efforts of that man, there.”

The horses parted and Edwin could feel eyes on the back of his head, neck, and shoulders, as he bent as low as he could over his knee.

“Him?” a voice asked.

“Yes. The carriage overturned and was burning, as you can see, and he jumped into the carriage and pulled us out, at great risk to himself.”

Edwin’s mind raced, his heart still pounding. It certainly didn’t sound like she was angry or outraged about what he had done...

“You there!”

Edwin cringed, head still bowed low over his knee, certain he was the one being addressed.

“Rise!” the man’s voice barked.

Edwin dared a peek to see if he was the one being spoken to, and saw the man—a knight, by the look of him, towering over him, staring directly at him. Edwin cautiously got to his feet, trying not to show how badly he was shaking, and stood straight but kept his head bowed.

“Name!” the knight demanded.



Edwin swallowed. He’d hoped they wouldn’t ask; he didn’t want his family to suffer for what he’d done, but he couldn’t lie about it, either. It would be easy enough for the palace authorities to find out the truth.


“Edwin Renwickson, rest assured King Osric will hear of your service in rescuing Princess Celise. Where is your place of residence?”

Edwin raised his head, taken aback at the realization that King Osric himself would hear his name, Edwin Renwickson. “I—I live and work at The Half Shell.” He pointed up the street. “Just back that way.”

The knight nodded. “Someone will be sent in a day or two to thank you officially for your service to the crown.” He raised his face to shout to the gathered onlookers. “You are all dismissed! Be about your business!”

The crowd began to disperse, and Edwin went back to retrieve his abandoned handcart. It was a strange sensation to come back to such a mundane task as taking shell to sell, after such an upheaval as accidentally rescuing the princess of Ileria from a carriage crash and a fiery fate.

For an utter disaster, that had gone remarkably well.




Edwin emptied his handcart of shell where the yardmaster pointed, and turned to receive his payment. It was only a few coppers, but Edwin took it cheerfully; he was beginning to come back to himself after his earlier ordeal, and all said and done was beginning to feel quite pleased with himself.

Now it was off to the jeweler’s to see about selling that pearl.

Edwin opened his purse without looking and funneled the coins with his hand into its open mouth...and they jingled onto the ground at his feet.

A sudden sense of cold spilled over Edwin as he stared at them scattered on the stones—a sense of cold every bit as strong as when the princess had pointed him out to her guards. Numbly, he reached for his purse again, turning it upside down to look at the bottom. A tear ran through the thick fabric—no doubt the result of catching on some sharp object or scraping along the stone street when he had fallen from the horse.

He braced himself, opened the mouth of the purse as far as it would go, and worked his hand inside.

The pearl was gone.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Weekend Reads: Grace by Contract by Rachel Rossano (Kimberly)

Happy National Fairy Tale Day! In honor of the day, I'm sharing Grace by Contract, the first book in our own Rachel Rossano's new fairytale retelling series!

Grace by Contract (Once Upon a Duchy Book 1)

My Rating - 4.5 Stars

I'm always excited when a favorite author ventures into a new subgenre. Venturing into fairytale inspired books beginning with my all time favorite fairytale, Beauty and the Beast? Yes, please!

Grace by Contract is the story of a very different Beast and Beauty from what I usually see in retellings and reimagined takes on the classic tale. To begin with our beast, Silas, is a man left scarred by a tragic event but he's far closer to the gentle Beast of the original fairytale (only without the nightly proposal) than to the usual interpretations of a beastly temper to go with the appearance. I love both versions of the beast, but there's something so sweetly adorkable about Silas who is a little grumbly (all the more understandable since he deals with pain and migraines) but a genuinely caring and gentle protector. His injuries caused by a fire in his past help set the stage for Grace entering his life beyond the role of an indentured servant.

Grace is also not your typical Beauty given the fact she is the eldest sister, not the youngest, and her youngest sister is the one actually named Beauty. She's a force to be reckoned with and one of my favorite examples of quiet strength in a woman who isn't afraid of difficult choices when she needs to find a way out of a bad situation threatening her more vulnerable youngest sister. Her lack of fear or pity toward Silas and his scars is endearing. As is the fact she's not afraid to remind him (and a few other characters) of the "proper manners" expected to be adhered to by nobles toward servants such as herself. I can't help smiling over her gentle but stubborn insistence to certain nobles' chagrin.

I adore this story! Silas and Grace's romance is a wonderful interpretation on seeing beneath the surface and coming together as equal partners despite the challenges of class differences among other things. It is such a swoon-worthy relationship that you just have to cheer. The bad guys are perfectly believable in their roles. Whether it's a bully of a housekeeper or a scheming noble who will no doubt cause future trouble in this series, they are excellent characters. Of course, it's not just Silas and Grace or the bad guys who are this vibrant. I love the side characters ranging from a steward with secrets of his own (and a not so secret loathing of sheep) to Valiant the collie pup! I look forward to seeing how the seeds hinting at future stories will be further developed as the series progresses.

This is a series set in Rossano's already established world involving her Rhynan and Theodoric series. However, Once Upon a Duchy is set in its own corner so it's not necessary to read the other series before launching full speed into this series. It is also a completely non-magical world, which I both love and respect because adapting fairytales without using any magic can be extremely challenging. Rossano has pulled it off phenomenally complete with a sweet swoony romance mixed in with a little mystery and intrigue plus brilliant layered characters and worldbuilding.

Grace and Silas' story has swept me off my feet! I cannot wait for the next entry in the series, Reclaiming Ryda, which is a mashup of Rapunzel with East of the Sun, West of the Moon! It will release later this year.

In celebration of National Fairy Tale Day, tell me your favorite fairytale and retelling! Have you read Grace by Contract yet?

Happy Reading!


Thursday, February 25, 2021

Interview with Voice Over Artist Trista Shaye on Audiobook Production

I (Lizzie) am excited to welcome talented author and award-winning voice over artist Trista Shaye back to Lands Uncharted! Last time, Trista talked to us about childrens books and her delightful Big the Barn Cat series. Today, she's giving us an inside looks at the audiobook narration world as both a narrator and as an author.

Welcome, Trista! Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into audiobook narration.

Hello! Thank you for having me. 

I live with my husband and my crazy kitty, Beans. I work as a voice over artist - mostly narrating audiobooks at this time - and on the side I’m an author, crafter, song writer, and illustrator. I dream of moving somewhere warm - hopefully soon! - and having palm trees in my yard.

I got into audiobook narration after I first got married. I had been looking for a job but had had no luck. So I was working from home, trying to grow my crafting business, and thinking about getting back into writing. Out of nowhere, my first audiobook job dropped into my lap. I was chosen pretty much right after I’d auditioned, as they absolutely loved my voice for their story. I was ecstatic. I had always wanted to try voice acting, and here was my first opportunity. Since then, I’ve narrated around 93 audiobooks (5 of which are my own books), voiced a commercial for LEGO, am the voice of a superhero in a podcast, and various other exciting things.

What is your favorite genre to narrator? Any funny stories to tell?

My favorite genre is fantasy. I enjoy the characters and the worlds I get to know and visit. It’s rather fun. But it can also get complicated with all those made-up names! Pronunciation guides for fantasy novels are a must. Fantasy authors take note, provide those for your narrators, they will be eternally grateful!

I find it extremely funny when I’m meant to say one thing but, as I’m looking ahead at what’s coming next, my brain messes up the sentence and it comes out as something totally different. I usually have to stop recording so I can laugh for a minute. One of my favorite instances of this is when I was meant to say “single pre-selected” and instead I said “Pringle.” I laughed pretty hard at that one. 

Does being an author and a narrator change things for you? What have you learned from being on both sides?

I think so? I couldn’t tell you for sure that it does change a lot, because I don’t know what it’s like to just be one or the other. But I like to think that it helps me as a narrator to be able to better understand where an author is coming from, since I know the labor of love they’ve gone through to get their book to this point. I want to treat their book with respect and give it the best narration it can get so both of us are well represented in the final production. 

I think being a narrator has helped me be a better author. And being an author has helped me be a better narrator. I’ve learned what things sound like, and what I do and don’t like about certain writing styles when they’re read aloud. I’ve learned where to pause and where to build because I write with that in mind, and because I narrate with that in mind. It’s kind of an interwoven dance that helps me hone my craft in both areas.  

What do you wish authors knew? Or narrators understood?

I wish both authors and newer narrators would understand that being a narrator is a job and therefore you should be paying them for what they do professionally. Newer narrators think they can’t charge what they should be charging, and so they offer to produce audiobooks for royalty share to “build their portfolio.” While there is a little truth to that, new narrators should be priced at the lower end of the spectrum instead of off the spectrum entirely. Royalty share is a big risk for narrators as it’s producing something for free that they could never see a return on. And it creates an unspoken understanding for authors that they can get their book produced for free, so why should they pay? However, just because you start working at the grocery store doesn’t mean you spend forty hours a week “building your portfolio” for free. You’re getting paid, less than a manager, but you’re getting paid.

As an author, I understand it can get expensive. But so can good cover art, good editing, and good marketing. Plan ahead, save up, and pay your narrator what they’re worth. It’s so important to do, for both you as an author and for your narrator.

Great point. "The laborer is worthy of his wages," for sure! Any insider advice on ACX vs FindAway Voices, Royalty share or Pay Per Finished Hour, Chirp, marketing, etc.?

I personally have more experience with ACX since I can communicate with the author instead of having auditions sent to me blindly. I choose not to perform sexual content or swearing so I always send a pre-audition message to the author (on ACX) to ask if their book contains these things and so as not to waste either of our time if it does. On Findaway, auditions are simply sent to narrators, and I think I’ve had two that have been clean. I always decline the auditions and send them feedback stating that I don’t perform that type of thing. But they don’t seem to read it I guess, because I keep getting auditions with that content. 

So long as you choose expanded distribution and pay for the full production of the project on ACX, you can sell your book anywhere else - Findaway, Chirp, etc. However, ACX has tons of bugs and issues that crop up almost daily. So be prepared for anything if you choose ACX. 

Paying for an audiobook: You can choose to pay a narrator (or not pay them) three different ways on ACX. 

1) Royalty share - which means you pay your narrator nothing up front and they split royalties with you for the next 7 years (50-50 split, but Audible takes a percent so it’s actually a 40-40 split). If you choose this option you have to go exclusive with Audible and can’t choose the expanded distribution option. You’re also going to find you will get more beginner narrators who will audition for royalty share and very few more experienced narrators will touch it. 

2) Royalty share plus - this is one of my favorite options. You pay a smaller rate up front and also split royalties. This way, you don’t break the bank, but the narrator is getting compensated something for their work. Usually the rate is half or less of what the narrator’s full PFH rate is. This option means you only get to go exclusive with ACX, though. 

3) Lastly, PFH rates - this is where you pay a narrator in full for the production - you’re not paying for their time spent, you’re only paying for the final hours of the book. Most narrators who have been doing this for a long time are somewhere in the range of $200-400 per finished hour. But you can find some good ones at $150+ as well. Though expensive, this gives you massive freedom with your final audiobook and files. You get all the royalties from your book from Audible, or anywhere else you choose to sell it, and you can distribute it elsewhere. 

Exclusive Vs. Non-exclusive to Audible. Pros to Exclusive: gives you a higher royalty rate, gets your book on Audible and iTunes, you get free codes to send out to people in exchange for reviews. And sometimes you get a sticker on your book cover saying Audible Exclusive. Cons: You can’t distribute your audiobook anywhere else for at least 1 year (this is only if you pay for the full production, if you’re a type of royalty share, you’re stuck in exclusive), you are subject to seeing your royalty payments disappear as people can choose to return your book and get their money back - a dumb Audible policy that we’ve been fighting for years. 

Pros for non-exclusive: You can take your audiobook anywhere and thus, likely sell more copies. It gives people more options and you keep the royalties for all the sales you make. It gets your book on Audible and iTunes through ACX.  Cons: You get a lower royalty rate from ACX, but only ACX. And you don’t get the free promo codes.

(I personally think a good option is to pay for production, if you’re able, and go exclusive for a year so you can get the codes to get the reviews and then go non-exclusive so you can distribute everywhere.)

I personally don’t have much experience in marketing audiobooks, so I don’t think I’d be much help in this area. Sorry.

That's a lot of great information! I really like the idea of going exclusive for one year and then going wide. I hear a lot of people pushing for authors to get audiobooks done. It feels like the “easy money” push these days. Some even say do it yourself. That might work for non-fiction, but I’m not so sure about fiction! What are your thoughts on this trend? Can you give us a realistic image of audiobook production and sales?

A lot, and I mean a lot of people (authors and narrators), think audiobooks are a get-rich-quick scheme. Let me burst your bubble, it’s not. So don’t treat it like that. Yes, I highly recommend getting your books into audio. Why? People are busy and a lot of them have time to listen but not read books now days. And there are so many scammers out there who steal books off Amazon and get the audiobook produced so they can take the royalties - we call these people code farmers. Use to be only royalty share books were scammers. Now however, I’ve seen more and more paying projects that are scams. One was even paying $200-400 for the production! I’ve also heard it’s been happening on Fiver as well. 

I highly recommend at least creating a profile on ACX (it’s free) and claiming your books as yours, even if you want to wait a couple of years to produce them. Though the sooner the better, as you’re less likely to have to deal with scammers stealing your work. Save up and plan for it as you’re getting ready to launch your book. 

As for production cost and sales, it can be expensive and a lot of times you won’t see the return. Paying your narrator is important, as you likely get one who’s more experienced and this is their job. Sales are rather hit or miss, to be honest. I have narrated several royalty share plus books and some that I would expect to sell don’t, and then there’s a box set I narrated a year ago and we sell one hundred or more copies a month. 

Do you market the book on Amazon and/or other places? Do your readers like to listen to audiobooks? Do you have a professional reading and producing your book? Did you get the whole series turned into an audiobook or just the first one? (Do the whole series! Some listeners will pass up a book when they see the rest aren’t in audio.)

One option to help with the cost of your audiobook production, is to start a Kickstarter campaign. This helps you pay the narrator and it gives you an idea of how well the audiobook might sell. 

I hope all of this information was helpful!

It's very helpful! Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience with us. I personally prefer to read my fiction and listen to my non-fiction, but I have been trying to get more of my books into audio for those who prefer to "read" it in that format, and for those who can only listen. Now I know better how to proceed with future books!

You can connect with Trista and find about more about her work through links:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TristaShaye

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Trista-Shaye/e/B00ILXGJL2/ref=dp_byline_cont_pop_book_1

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/tristashaye/

ACX: https://www.acx.com/narrator?p=A2B9XGW94CY924

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Writer’s Life: Two Hard Truths and a Hug (Desiree)

Becoming a writer takes a special brand of crazy. LOL. :-D 

For real though! Making a career out of writing feels overwhelming and down-right impossible most days.

It can be so hard to navigate the emotions threatening to send our writing dreams careening off course.

Which is why I’m extra thankful for the theme rising up within the writing community. One of building others up verses seeing others as competition. The whole “community over competition” mindset in business gets my vote every time. 

And while I’ve never consider myself an expert, I’ve made tons of mistakes in my writing journey. :-) As such, I’d love to share some solid truths gleaned from those hard-learned life lessons. 

Hard Truth Number One: 

Easy isn’t always Best 

Listen, I’m all for the “work smarter not harder” concepts. But just because a certain avenue might get you from Point A to Point B with less time, less labor, or less heartache doesn’t mean it’s what’s best from a longterm perspective. 

I’ve seen so many writers—myself included—soak up the workflows of the “successful-than-me” authors with the hopes of reaching the end goal faster and with the same flare they possess. 

But focusing on someone else’s highlight reel will only cause you to add stumbling blocks to your own journey. 

And if we’re always focused on racing to the end faster, racing past the lessons and experiences and possible memories, we cheapen the journey. We dim the dream’s overall outcome. 

Now don’t get me wrong, gleaning knowledge and understanding from other's life-learned lessons isn’t a bad thing. Please don’t walk away from this thinking I’m downplaying the value of education—far from it! 

But sometimes we can spend so long looking at someone else’s “success” that it clouds our vision to our own self-worth and purpose. 

To aim for what’s best would require us to take the tools and the skills learned and then put in the labor, building into the dream. 

Because we truly do have value to add to this broken world, and our dreams are needed to make a difference, to shine a light. 

Value the dream by valuing the journey. 

Otherwise, we’re merely existing as writers rather than fulfilling our purpose living as writers. 

Hard Truth Number Two: 

Invest in Patience and Endurance. The longevity of your career requires both. 

Any dream in life requires a steadfast flow of patience and endurance. I cannot tell you how many times I've thrown up my hands in defeat. (Hint: I do it so often that I’m amazed I make any progress. *wink*) 

But one of the hard truths I take to heart is the need to cultivate a steady flow of patience and endurance. One day at a time

If I focus on the length of time a dream will take to complete, I can get overwhelmed and that icky feeling of defeat strives to choke me. 

So instead, I make the conscious choice to focus on today. Focus on this moment in time. Choosing to move forward one thing that will build into the dream, whether that’s writing 500 words or simply editing one chapter. 

Because I know that the sweat, blood, tears, heartache, etc. are evidence of my growth and strength. Evidence of the journey I chose not to give up on.  

Am I where I want to be? Not yet. But at least I’m not where I use to be. I’m making progress, and it’s beautiful. ;-) 

Tackle hugs all around 

I stumbled across some interesting facts about olive trees that I found so purposeful for our chat here. 

Did you know: 

  • seeds for olive trees take 40 days to germinate. Which isn’t any significant growth toward becoming a full-grown tree, if we think about it. But imagine 40 days the little seed spent just to germinate! 
  • olive trees need to mature for 3 to 5 years before they can bear fruit. It could take an olive tree 5 years before it is mature enough to bear fruit! 
  • to obtain oil, olives need to be pressed (aka crushed) and refined (aka purified) before they can be bottled for public consumption. But once ready, the olive oil can be used for multiple purposes! Such as (but not limited to), food / cooking, cosmetics, medicine, soap, and fuel. 

Friend, please know that you may not be where you want to be in your journey. Or you may not have seen the level of growth in your dream as you’d hoped. But that doesn’t mean the entire journey is pointless.

Keep pressing onward to shine your light. Because YOU have value. This world needs the heart you have to share! 

Please keep daring to believe in your dream. 


What’s a writing truth you’ve learned in your journey? 

Friday, February 19, 2021

Weekend Reads: The Near Witch by V. E. Schwab (Lauricia)

Greetings, all!

As I’m writing to you this month, Texas is emerging like a burrowing mammal from our great Icepocolypse. The sun is finally shining in a clear sky, and the temperature is finally scheduled to rise above freezing. Those of you in the north may scoff, but we southerners are simply not prepared for this type of weather. As a meme I saw phrased it, “I love that no one in Texas owns actual snow clothes. It’ll snow and you’ll see everyone outside in mismatched pajamas and a hoodie.” Not to mention four layers of socks on our hands for gloves. It just doesn’t make sense to own clothing for weather that usually occurs only once in a decade or so!

But enough of the weather. We’re here to talk about books you need to read. For this weekend, I recommend The Near Witch by V. E. Schwab.

In the village of Near, the winds on the moors sing a haunting song. It’s best not to listen too closely, though, because bad things happen to those who do. Like the boy Jack, whose mysterious death led to the mob hunt and murder of the Near witch two generations ago.

Lexi knows the story, but still the wind calls, its haunting tune trying to tell her something if only she would listen just a little closer. She can’t let the wind distract her, though, because the children of Near are disappearing, whisked away from their beds during the night. Lexi has to find out why, or her little sister could be next.

The Near Witch is one of those stories that contains everything I love about the fantasy genre: mystery, magic, a touch of romance, and an able heroine I can relate to. It’s a “quiet and strange” story, in the author’s words. Quiet and strange in the style of Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones and Neverwhere and Stardust by Neil Gaiman. Quiet and strange in the way that I am most drawn to in a story.

I don’t remember how I found this book, but I am supremely glad that I did, and that I bought the hardback version because it’s going to have a long life on my shelf of treasures. I hope you adore it just as much.

Until next time, happy reading!

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Story Snippets: The King's Spell (Realm and Wand, book 1) (Lizzie)

 At the end of my first novel, The Rose and the Wand, I hinted at a story about a certain character, a handsome young lord whose heart needed refining lest he end up a full-fledged villain. That story turned out to be much harder to write than I anticipated, largely because I had (and still have) a lot of learning left to do about writing. However, I am excited to announce that Devryn's story, or at least book 1 of 3, will be releasing in April! The following two will release, likely one a year, beginning the next year. I plan on sharing the cover next month, but for now, here's the blurb and part of the prologue, set some years before the main story. The King's Spell is a "Jane Austen romance meets fantasy adventure" tale about a half-magic in search of a redemption, a mischievous enchantress searching for purpose and matchmaking opportunities, and a kingdom in danger.

THE KING’S SPELL, Realm and Wand, book 1

Only a king can banish sorcerers and strip enchanters of their power. Only a king is immune to spells and potions. Only a king knows the truth behind the legends. Until now.

Magic Collector Devryn Ashby may have deserved the curse that saps his magic-manipulating abilities, but it certainly won’t help him with the task King Reginald has assigned him. Instead of allowing him to continue hunting for those who stole the powerful Enchanter’s List, the king makes Devryn trainer-in-magic to the mischievous enchantress Lady Meredith Lofton.

Except for an occasional matchmaking exploit, Lady Meredith has little use for her power of enchantment—until the king asks her to train in magical warfare techniques. This both excites and terrifies her. And irks her, for she refuses to be bossed around by the critical Devryn Ashby, a man she’s not even sure she should trust. 

But as dangers increase and the sorcerers’ schemes unfold, Devryn and Meredith must choose whom to follow—their own desires and prejudices or their king. Only a king knows how much the kingdom depends on their choice.

Look for the cover next month!


Most say there are but two sorts of people in this world—those possessing magical powers and those not. Of those possessing magical powers, there are enchanters, who use only the magic within themselves, and sorcerers, who call on the dark powers to increase their magic. But what most don’t know, or won’t admit, is that there is a third kind. Lost in legends of a dark time, they’re cursed to live half in the world of enchanters and sorcerers and half in the world of non-magics, trusting and being trusted by none.

A History of Magic in Sonser by Alec Hanshaw, seventh king of Sonser

Devryn Ashby, Marquis of Arden, son of the Duke of Maram

Gersemere, in the Kingdom of Sonser, 1764

If not a body, then what? That was the usual fare for a graveyard. I pressed deeper into the prickly cedar separating me from the enchanter with the spade, and knelt to peer under dark green limbs. The man was attacking the earth with the garden implement but not at one of the innumerable graves in Gersemere’s oldest and largest graveyard. Did the cluster of cedars mark some ancient burial mound filled with treasures? No, the trees weren’t that old.

Straining to see with only a sliver of moon and the man’s lantern, I watched in silence as the enchanter dug a roughly circular hole about a foot deep. From his gunny sack, he pulled a carved wooden bowl filled with wooden fruit and lowered it into the hole.

Fruit, I mouthed, disgusted. All this trouble to bury fruit? It could’ve at least been a worthless treasure map! What would my brother and friends say?

I started to rise, but the enchanter suddenly looked about him. I stilled and listened with thumping heart for him to approach. The silence brought no footsteps but something else: a second sense of magic. Closing my eyes, I focused my senses on the magic, just as my father had taught me. There was the enchanter beyond the cedar, loud as a foghorn, and a different sense, one of magic itself, the kind bestowed on an object or made into a spell. It was lower down, in the ground, I fancied, and was growing dimmer. 

I opened my eyes as the enchanter patted the dirt and grass back into place. He peered around the graveyard—always above my level—then hurried away. I dashed around the tree, came toe-to-dirt with the macerated earth sloppily put back together, but couldn’t bring myself to dig up the bowl. I had to get to the trial, after all. I quickly carved a primitive image of a pear into the base of the forked cedar that had overseen the unorthodox burial, then quietly sprinted after the enchanter. 

He lengthened his stride, the sense of his presence lessening with each of his long steps toward the graveyard’s exit. I ducked behind an obelisk-like marker as he once more twisted his lean frame to look about him. It wasn’t the possibility of a fifteen-year-old boy following him on a dare that kept the enchanter on the alert. Not that he’d shown signs of suspecting my presence. Stealth was practically a game in my family, one in which we all excelled. What did this enchanter fear then? There was no evidence of his mission on him any longer. What else? 

Or who else?

I fisted my hands as a shiver tried to run down my spine. Sorcerers sometimes desecrated graveyards, the fearmongers claimed. An enchanter might fear sorcerers, but an Ashby didn’t. Not that I felt any around.

The enchanter ceased his nervous glancing and sped forward. I crept to the next covering of shadows, the grass silent under my feet. 

“Grave robber! Thief! Murderer!”

The enchanter dashed away as the cry broke the silence of the night and heavy blows rained on my back. I spun around, raising my arms to block the blows and confront my attacker. But the graveyard was empty save for its monuments and the thick cedars and dogwoods dispersed among them. 

“Grave robber! Thief! Murderer!” A girl—a girl—cried. 

A strike to my exposed side sent me reeling onto the gravel path. Son of a rogue spell. Where was she? It wasn’t that dark. A sense, more like a dull headache than the clear sense of an enchanter, edged into my mind, and was then nearly knocked out along with everything else. “Oomph. That was my ear! Why you little—”

“Grave robber! Thief! Murd—”

“Enough! I’m not a murderer.” I lunged forward and grabbed at the air, somehow knowing where to find her weapon. My hand closed around wooden strips bound with fabric. It tingled in my hand. 


No wonder I couldn’t see it, or her. The angry sprite had to be an enchantress. Why wasn’t the sense as clear as the enchanter’s I’d followed?

Adensum. Come to me,” I whispered, commanding the magic to leave its object and reveal my attacker. I’d never taken magic like this by myself before—in the wild, so to speak. 

But no warmth of enchantment flowed to my palm. Horror blasted my pride. Had I lost my skill? Or was it dependent on my father’s presence? You know you can take magic on your own, Devryn. Relax and think. Locking the panicked thoughts away, I took a deep breath and tried again. Still no magic came from the fabric to me, but I felt a tug, as if some wanted to come but was held back. Once again my pulse quickened, but with wonder this time. Magic was woven into this thing’s very being; it was no ordinary item covered by a cast spell I could take. Yet, there was a faint sense of a spell, of magic that could be taken. I grabbed at that thread of magic and called it.

My palm warmed as the enchantment passed to me. I tightened my grip on whatever it was and tugged. Out of the shadows stumbled a girl. She gasped, sucking in air like a backwards scream. She gaped at me across the now-visible club, a narrow tube capped with a closed canopy of dusty grey fabric stretched across thin ribs.

“An umbrella?” Disdain dripped from my voice like the rain and sunlight that were supposed to drip from these odd contraptions—in the eastern countries. They were scarce in Sonser. Sensible people preferred a cloak or hat so they’d have both hands free. 

For defending themselves.

She nodded, her mouth agape. “How did—”

“Never mind,” I snapped, remembering Father’s admonition of Never reveal what you are. Our people have suffered too much to trust any save the king with our talents.

“What are you doing out here?” I continued. “Wandering around a graveyard at night by yourself and ambushing folks with umbrellas?” I jerked the thing forward, trying to wrest it from her grasp. “You’re just a girl.” Eleven at most. Surely she wasn’t the reason for the enchanter’s wary behavior, though I could understand why he wouldn’t want to meet with that umbrella of hers.

She stumbled forward a step but didn’t lose her grip. “I … I…” she straightened, drawing her shoulders up, “I am here on a personal and confidential matter that is none of your concern, young man. Now, if you’ll excuse me?” She jerked right back on the umbrella with surprising strength.

But it was a useless effort. “You’re not running away from home, are you?”

“Certainly not.” Her nose went higher in the air, but she ceased her tugging.

Tree frogs erupted in song, and she glanced around the lonely place, her shoulders sinking until she gazed at the ground. “If you must know, I was…” she threw a sideways glance at an elegantly carved monument a few feet away with young grass growing in front of it, “…visiting my mother.”

She sniffled.

“Oh.” Devryn Ashby, you fool. Did you want to make the girl cry? “Well, look. Don’t cry. I wasn’t going to steal anything from your mother’s grave, or from anyone else’s. I’m not a grave robber. No shovel or weapon. See?” I raised one hand, palm open.

Whatever that enchanter had buried, he’d buried under a tree, not in a grave, so even if I did come back for it—it’d be an amazing start to my very own magic collection—I wouldn’t technically be robbing a grave.

“What about the man you were following—the one who passed by a moment ago?” she asked.

“I wouldn’t hurt anyone.” She’d realized I was following him? The thought put an unmanly break in my voice. I cleared my throat and held up my palm again. “No weapon. No tools. Remember? I just like walking at night.” That was true, but certainly not the whole truth.

She sniffled again and slowly looked up, her face a dim outline in the bleak light from the one lamppost keeping watch over this section of the graveyard. She had a curious little face, not particularly pretty, more the kind “that grew on one,” as my mother would say.

“I like walking at night too.” She sniffled again, and I used my free hand to give her my handkerchief, which she gladly accepted. “I’m sorry I hit you. You scared me, that’s all.”

I scared her? Yet she pounced on me to protect the enchanter instead of staying hidden. Why? There was a tremble to her voice suggesting a bravado that could be hiding real fear. Why had she hurled those particular accusations against me? Had she reason to fear for the enchanter and herself? Or was I imagining things? Letting the darkness and the peculiar location unnerve me?

“Grave robbers, thieves, murderers, indeed.” I accented each word with a poke of the umbrella still connecting us. She huffed and tensed against the pokes.

“You’re lucky I wasn’t one,” I continued, pleased she’d conquered her sniffles. “Now, which path will lead me to the palace, umbrella-toter? I have an appointment there.” I was late already, having detoured to follow the enchanter.

She opened and closed her mouth a couple of times before pursing her lips and pointing in the direction from which I’d come. I shook my head. She looked around again, changed hands on the umbrella, and pointed to my left.

“I’m going to the palace too,” she said, “to … to the trial.”

“No, you’re not. Farris was a professor at the boys’ school. We all agreed no girls allowed.”

“Johnny said sisters could tag along if we promised not to start crying.”

“He did, did he? Who is this Johnny?” Uncle Angus, an advisor to the king, was the one to set up the secret room for the boys to watch the trial of one of the most popular professors at our school. We’d had to swear not to tell a soul what we heard. 

“My brother, Jonathan Lofton.”

“Oh.” I knew him from school. Enchanter, proud and quiet.

“I’m Meredith Lofton.”

“Devryn Ashby.” We shook hands over the umbrella. 

“Johnny said he and my cousins Charlie and Tristan would pass this way, and I could follow them. I haven’t seen them. I should have told him I was coming early and would meet him here.”

“Maybe he meant to lose you.”

She stiffened. “He’d do no such thing.”

I shrugged. “Anyway, my group’s gone ahead too. You should go home.” Or follow me. I’d never live it down if I invited the kid. Especially if she hit someone.

Mouth set in a firm line, she eyed me over the umbrella in a calculating way. I stared back, but my attention wandered to the umbrella. Its sturdy fabric, reminiscent of an old travel cloak, felt sadly cool against my palm, as if mourning its magic. I must have taken some sort of magical switch that allowed the enchantress to decide whether the object was invisible or not. She might have need of its power of invisibility, especially if she didn’t follow me to the palace and went home on her own.

With a sigh, I banished dreams of proudly depositing the magic in my family’s magic collection and focused on the odd version of the legendary invisibility cloak. “Recursus. Return from whence you came.” The umbrella slowly disappeared, its texture and a sense of magic all that remained.

“Good night.” I released the umbrella as I turned away. Such a pity to lose it. Collecting was the only way for us to gain magic. Once we had it though, we could manipulate it better even than the enchanters could.

Something clicked. I spun around, bracing for another blow, but none came. She was invisible again.

If I remembered rightly, umbrella roughly meant “little shadow.” How very apt. She had vanished like a shadow when a lantern bursts to life.

For the first time on that muggy, cloudy night, I smiled. I could sense enchantments and collect and return them at will—I’d have a place among my people. A place of honor. And the boys at school couldn’t say I’d gotten it because of my birth order. I’d earn respect as a half-magic, a future duke, and in any position I chose.

With light steps on the grass beside the path, I started toward the secret—well, little known—entrance of the palace. Footsteps followed, crunching on the gravel walkway.

The Little Shadow. That umbrella might hide her from sight, but it did nothing in the sound area. She was making enough noise to raise the … dead. A sudden breeze chilled my skin, and I glanced around at the towering monuments and the burial plots over which they cast their shadows. I picked up my pace, as did the enchantress behind me in her noisy fashion. My chest swelled. I was a knight escorting a damsel—on the sly.