Why you almost never see me do a puppet show at an SF con.

Frequently, when I’m attending a convention as a writer, someone on programming will ask me to bring a puppet show. And they ask me to do it for the children’s track. I understand this impulse, I really do, because people have probably never booked a show before and there’s a fair chance that they haven’t seen one.

There’s a temptation to just send a price sheet over and let the $10,000 price tag stop the conversation, but let me actually explain the math behind this, because I know that I’m not the only performer who gets these requests.

First, let me lay some groundwork. I am a puppeteer. I am a writer. Both of these are jobs.

When I go to an SFF convention, I’m there as a writer and part of my job is promoting my work. But no one is asking me to actually write. Just to talk be on a panel and talk about writing. I’m happy to do that. I’m happy to talk about puppetry, too. These are passions.  When I’m talking with a group of my peers, it’s fun.

Two problems then with bringing a puppet show.

  1. Kids are not my peers.
  2. And folks aren’t asking me to talk about puppetry. They’re asking me to do an actual show.

For perspective… this is the set of one of my kids shows.

It’s 20’w x 20′ deep x 10′ tall and fits into a cargo van. So let’s talk about what it would take to get that to a convention.

  • Flights x 2 – $400 = $800
  • Luggage – $500
  • Salary x 2 – $1000 = $2000
  • Per diem for performers – $600
  • 2 weeks rehearsal x2 – $1600 = $3200   <– We don’t perform on a regular basis anymore, so we’d have to get back up to speed.
  • Director – $800
  • 2 weeks rehearsal space – $500 <– This won’t fit in my living room.
  • 2 weeks refurbishing time – $1000
  • Miscellaneous – $250 <– There’s always something you’ve forgotten.

During all of this, I’m not writing.

Now when I was touring to schools, I could ammortize this because we’d hit multiple schools in a very tight span of time. So I could market the show at $1000. In the 1990s. Now? Ahahaha….

Taking a show to a convention, in a town where I don’t live…  That’s one show that I’m doing all that work for. It’s not like people are going to see the show and then immediately rush out and book me to perform at their school. And frankly, I don’t do that anymore.

My goal has always been to turn down the gigs I don’t want to do. I don’t want to do children’s theater anymore. Which is where the rest of that price tag comes from, because during those three weeks of prep, I. Am. Not. Writing.

If you approach me about doing one of our adult pieces? Yeah. I’m more likely to have that conversation with you, because I do enjoy that. But it’s still going to be expensive because there are a lot of moving pieces.

And please, please, think before you ask if I couldn’t just use someone local to do the show with me. Really stop and take a moment and think about how insulting that is. It’s like saying, “Hey! World class violinist! We’re going to hand some instruments to some random people and see if they can figure out how to play this orchestra. It can’t be that hard, can it?”

Day One at the SpaceX CRS-11 Cargo Launch NASA Social

“This is an operational spaceport…”

These weren’t the first words that I heard at the NASA Social event, but they were the ones that made everything real. I was going to an operational spaceport. It wasn’t a line from science-fiction.

I’m at the Kennedy Space Center as part of a program by NASA to make science more transparent by inviting in a group of social media folks. There are thirty-six of us from a wide swathe of life. There’s a 19-year old college student, a Tesla expert, a concert pianist, and me…  The idea is to reach out past the folks who already follow NASA and make space accessible to everyone.

Well… everyone who is willing to get up at 6:00am in order to to be processed by a bomb-sniffing dog. Am I willing to do that? Heck, yes. Twice, even, because I’m going back tomorrow.

The access that they gave us was incredible. We started the day with an overview briefing of the mission. Then we went to the Launch Control Center. No big deal, that’s just where they launched the moon missions. And the shuttle. As one does. While we weren’t allowed to take photos in certain areas, we were allowed in and shown around three of the four firing rooms.

I have taken pages of notes with details that will find their way into the Lady Astronaut books. For instance…

  • There’s sound dampening material on the interior of the firing rooms in order to keep them from getting too loud with 120 people in their during launch.
  • There’s a literal red button that the flight director can push if she needs to stop the countdown.
  • The flight director watches for changes in body language among her technicians to spot potential problems before they come to a head.

From there, we went to the Vehicle Assembly Building. It is the world’s tallest single story building. The interior is open to the roof and is the equivalent of a 52 story building inside. Here are some of the cool things:

  • The platforms from the Apollo rockets are still present, although stowed to the side.
  • There’s an area that looks like a squat room, that’s actually the underside of the mobile launcher platform that the shuttle was built on.
  • The place has an AMAZING echo if you’re loud.

Next came the terrible joke, “Are you go for lunch?”

Yes. Yes, we were very much go for lunch. Here it becomes clear that NASA spends all it’s money on getting things and people into space. The cafeteria looks like it hasn’t changed since the seventies and is frankly shocking after having gone to places like the Google headquarters. The food is obviously not why people work for NASA. It’s for the rockets and the science.

After that, we got to attend the “What’s on board” briefing, which was broadcast via You can watch it! You can see me ask questions. I kept having to bite my lip to keep from asking ALL THE QUESTIONS, because, really… they let a science-fiction writer loose in a room with a bunch of scientists.

These people are so passionate and enthusiastic. I really encourage you to take time to watch the video because the science that they are doing is amazing. Some of it has clear and immediate applications here on Earth. Other things are designed to make space travel easier, which in turn will make doing science in space easier. And also, just, science. It’s cool.

But here’s the real thing that you should take away… Follow @NASAsocial and when they tweet about a social coming up, just go ahead and apply. Even if you don’t get to attend a launch, it will be worth it.

Meanwhile, follow the hashtag #NASAsocial on whatever your favorite social media is. There are thirty-six of us tweeting about all the different exciting things. And each of us has a unique perspective but we’re all excited.


We’re at a freakin’ operational spaceport. In real life.

My Favorite Bit: J Tullos Hennig talks about SUMMERWODE

Favorite Bit iconJ Tullos Hennig is joining us today with her novel Summerwode. Here’s the publisher’s description:

The Summer King has come to the Wode…

Yet to which oath, head or heart, shall he hold?

Once known as the Templar assassin Guy de Gisbourne, dispossessed noble Gamelyn Boundys has come to Sherwood Forest with conflicted oaths. One is of duty: demanding he tame the forest’s druidic secrets and bring them back to his Templar Masters. The other oath is of heat and heart: given to the outlaw Robyn Hood, avatar of the Horned Lord, and the Maiden Marion, embodiment of the Lady Huntress. The three of them—Summerlord, Winter King, and Maiden of the Spring—are bound by yet another promise, that of fate: to wield the covenant of the Shire Wode and the power of the Ceugant, the magical trine of all worlds. In this last, also, is Gamelyn conflicted; spectres of sacrifice and death haunt him.

Uneasy oaths begin a collision course when not only Gamelyn, but Robyn and Marion are summoned to the siege of Nottingham by the Queen. Her promise is that Gamelyn will regain his noble family’s honour of Tickhill, and the outlaws of the Shire Wode will have a royal pardon.

But King Richard has returned to England, and the price of his mercy might well be more than any of them can afford…

What’s JTH’s favorite bit?

Summerwode cover image


The meeting of Robin Hood and Richard the Lionheart is the stuff of legend. It’s been told in ballads and books, portrayed in oils and watercolours, and played out in dim theatres—particularly on screen.

But with few exceptions (one being the excellent, atmospheric ITV series Robin of Sherwood), Richard is portrayed as the Illustrious Saviour King. He’s the one who returns from Crusade just in time to Right All Wrongs, vanquish the Evil Sheriff, and boot the arse of his sniveling younger brother Bad Prince John. He attends a ginormous kegger out in the forest with Robin Hood and the Merries, who’ve held the green bastions of Sherwood for her Rightful Lord. And he usually hands Marion over as a prize to the loyal outlaw leader.

Well, I’ve never been one to toe the party line.

But I do have to do Richard some justice. He was an efficient warrior with an undeniable magnetism. He must have loved his mother; the first thing he did upon ascending the throne was set her free from the prison where his father had kept her bunged up for years. Brought up a good son of Mother Church, mostly within the continental provinces of his Angevin family, he was well groomed in the predatory games and political marksmanship of medieval rule. Yet it’s likely his reign became a contribution to the already-downward Angevin slide. It’s also likely Richard had little use for the wet, green island where he was King, save as a war chest, or as Royal Forest to enclose and claim just in case he did decide to visit… a rarity.

It’s also pretty well accepted that he didn’t speak English.

Of course, few early medieval kings did.

But such contrary factoids writhe in a writer’s brain, burning. A King who doesn’t speak the language of his subjects. A Maiden who should be more than a mere prize. Even the inexplicable penchant for constructing a massive, impossible outlaw town in Sherwood Forest—one fit to support the aforementioned royal kegger—begged to be addressed.

So when I realised that “my” Robyn and the King were going to meet, I itched to dig in and transform that meeting from less of an exercise in implausibility to something more… well, genuine to my own sensibilities. And since the Books of the Wode were a subversive reimagining from the outset, (Robin, of course, long revered as the maestro of subversion), then why not twist this tail as well?

How can someone who truly believes they have chattel rights to everything—and granted by all-powerful god—be anything but a massively entitled piece of work? And if said person possesses remarkable charm and magnetism as well as that crown, then it just means they’ve an easier time convincing people of their puissance. Might makes right, all that.

And how can a Heathen peasant-turned-outlaw—one who’s garnered nothing but the whip and a burnt home as price for his existence, who has to watch as taxes and a literal king’s ransom not only beggar his land, but try to forbid him the forest he holds sacred—admire such a king? Robyn Hood is on a mission from his own god, by the by, and has no reason to trust Richard. He’s only  fierce loyalty to his sister Marion and his lover Gamelyn. The first has to convince him to try for a pardon, and the second has an inheritance at stake that could provide sanctuary even for those branded wolfsheads, sodomites, and pagans.

Richard isn’t evil, but he’s certainly no peach. So the reality in Summerwode has to reflect how an entitled monarch usually gets whatever he wants—and has the power to either raise it above itself or destroy it.

And he doesn’t speak English! Which made for some necessary translators, twisty conversations, and volatile confrontations between the King of England and the very north English, very arsy King of the Shire Wode:


“He has always preferred the campsite and his men about him to any court. No doubt you, master archer, can understand such things.” Mercadier’s Anglic faltered, trimmed heavily with the nasal hum of Frank talk, but he spoke it well enough. Though he did seem to have more problems understanding Robyn than Robyn did him, and was much less patient than was mannerly.

“Nowt better than a clear night and a fire with t’ Wode all ’round,” Robyn replied, soft.

Mercadier paused in his application of wood splits below the roasting meat and frowned, parsing the words slowly. Richard, lounging with powerful arms crossed, spoke a soft patter of Frank to his captain, chuckled as he answered, spoke again.

It was Mercadier’s, this time, to laugh. “He says his half-brother the Archbishop of York is correct. England’s northern shires do speak a language unintelligible to all but their own.”

Says one who waint arse himself to speak any Anglic tongue, Robyn thought but did not say. Instead he let his speech curl even more into those “northern shires.” “’M fair upskelled tha’s nobles loosed milord King wi’ nobbut ussen.”

Mercadier blinked. Frowned. Robyn hid a smirk beneath a scratch to his beard.

“Again?” Mercadier demanded—and well, but Robyn had to give him that much for tenacity. “Slow, si’l vous plaît.”

No sense of humor, these Franks.

I hope the results are compelling—and genuine.

Many thanks, Mary, for your generosity in sharing your blog space for this newest instalment in the Wode books. Cheers!


Amazon Author Page

JTH Website

Musings blog



The Wode Facebook Page

JTH’s Facebook Profile



J Tullos Hennig has always possessed inveterate fascination in the myths and histories of other worlds and times. Despite having maintained a few professions in this world—equestrian, dancer, teacher, artist—Jen has never successfully managed to not be a writer. Ever.

Her most recent work is a darkly magical historical fantasy series re-imagining the legends of Robin Hood, in which both pagan and queer viewpoints are given respectful & realistic voice.

My Favorite Bit: Rebecca Roland talks about SHATTERED FATES

Favorite Bit iconRebecca Roland is joining us today with her novel Shattered Fates. Here’s the publisher’s description:

The magic barrier protecting the Taakwa from their enemies, the Maddion, is gone. Malia, who led the Taakwa against the Maddion in the Dragon War, must convince the magical being, the changer, to repair the barrier before the Maddion invade to take revenge on her people and the winged Jeguduns who also call the valley home, even if it means reversing the healing the changer wrought for her.

Chanwa, the wife of the Maddion leader, uses the disorder created by the changer to lead a coup against her husband in a desperate attempt to ensure she and the other Maddion women are treated as equals. Her life, and the future of every Maddion woman, depends on her success.

Both women know the only way to succeed is to come together in an unlikely alliance.

What’s Rebecca’s favorite bit?

Shattered Fates cover image


A large portion of Shattered Fates, the third and final novel in my Shards of History series, focuses on the Maddion, a patriarchal society introduced in the first novel. They are a bloodthirsty, dragon-riding society that constantly underestimates women, their enemies, and pretty much anyone who isn’t them. They are, in fact, a huge reason I continued writing this series. The first book was initially meant to stand alone, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters, in particular, the Maddion women. I imagined them living in the aftermath of war as their people continued to die from an illness introduced in the first book. I really wanted to know what they were up to. I really wanted to give them the chance to stand up for themselves and fight for a better life.

But how do you fight back when you don’t want to hurt those you’re fighting against? How do you get the attention of those you love, and who are supposed to love you? How do you fight when you have no weapons to speak of? The Maddion men favor their weapons and their dragons. To them, power is physical strength, might, and knowledge.

Around the time I was writing Shattered Fates, I read a book called Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War by Leymah Gbowee. In her story I saw the story of the Maddion women. Gbowee grew up during the Liberian civil war and was a victim of domestic abuse. She had no power to speak of and no weapons, and yet she brought together Christian and Muslim women to help bring a more peaceful existence to Liberia. They did it without raising so much as a finger, much less any sort of weapon. And in the coming together between Christian and Muslim women, I also saw how the divergent societies in my fictional world were coming together.

My favorite bit of Shattered Fates is the inevitable revolution led by the most vulnerable members of the population. And it serves as a much needed reminder (to me, at least) that often our brains are much more powerful and capable weapons than our fists when it comes to fighting for what is right.


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Rebecca is the author of the Shards of History series, The Necromancer’s Inheritance series, and The King of Ash and Bones, and Other Stories. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Nature, Flash Fiction Online, Fantasy Scroll Magazine, New Myths, and Every Day Fiction, and she is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. You can find out more about her and her work at or follow her on Twitter at @rebecca_roland.

My Favorite Bit: Selena Chambers talks about CALLS FOR SUBMISSION

Favorite Bit iconSelena Chambers is joining us today with her collection of short stories Calls For Submission. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Selena Chambers’ debut collection guides readers out of space and time and through genre and mythos to explore the microcosmic horrors of identity, existence, and will in the face of the world’s adamant calls for submission. Victorian tourists take a virtual trip through their (and the Ottoman empire’s) ideal Orient; a teenage girl learns about independence and battle of the bands, all while caring for her mesmerized, dead mother; a failed Beat poet goes over the edge while exploring the long-abandoned Government Lethal Chambers. Visceral, evocative, and with a distinct style that is both vintage and fresh, Calls for Submission introduces a glowing, new writer of the weird and strange.

What’s Selena’s favorite bit?

Calls For Submission cover image


Calls for Submission is my debut collection from Pelekinesis. It features 15 of my very best short stories, including “The Neurastheniac,” which was nominated for a World Fantasy award last year. There’s Steampunk, Decopunk, Poepathy and Lovecraftiana, weird historical fiction, and straight up Gothic horrors with punk rock twists. Oh, and a lot of ladies.

The title summarizes the collection’s mission statement:  to examine the microcosmic horrors of identity, existence, and will in the face of the world’s adamant calls for submission. It’s also a double entendre as every story in this collection was written for specific editors. While it is easy to loose your mission in doing work for others, I actually found mine, and so this collection also demonstrates how I developed and subverted genre’s calls to submit.

Having said all that, my favorite bit has nothing to do with a story. It’s the dedication page:

“To the Babes: Kat, Lori, Michelle, and Maureen. You all inspired me to pick up the axe, and when that didn’t work out, the pen.”

Babes in Toyland is a punk rock band formed in the 1990s. They produced a total of five studio albums, To Mother, Spanking Machine, Fontanelle, Painkillers, and Nemesisters. They promoted other girls to pick up guitars and get behind the drums, and when girls like me grew up, they inspired other modes of expression, like horror stories.

I was around 12-years old when I first encountered them. I was browsing in the record store and Painkillers had just come out. The cassette caught my attention even though I had no idea what they sounded like. I knew Sonic Youth and Nirvana liked them, so they were probably cool. The endorsements weren’t what made me blow my allowance on the EP, though. It was the Cindy Sherman cover:  a propped baby doll posed in such a way that it appeared its head was that of a grotesque clown mask. Totally messed up!

Broken dolls would be a major aesthetic motif of the band. Front person Kat Bjelland even crafted an entire fashion around it. With blunt bangs barely held together with plastic toddler barrettes and vintage baby doll dresses, she sported a seminal look that would become known as Kinderwhore, and presented a demented domestic look that would be completely shattered when she took the stage with her Rickenbacker.

I was really interested in disassembled dolls back then, having mutilated a few of my own and displayed them in my room to my parents joy. It was an aesthetic pretty easy to indulge in as it was a popular motif among bands at that time. But none of them did it like this. This was about deconstructing womanhood. As I intuited this on a very basic level, my big philosophical question became: “What do you suppose this sounds like?”

Trying to describe what it was like hearing Babes in Toyland for the first time has me stumped. I’m past deadline now trying to get it right. But how do you describe an auditory tornado? Steam roller riffs, skull hammering beats, and the Banshee-Siren maelstrom of Kat Bjelland screaming, swearing, pleading and bleeding all over the studio? Distortion and discord parting and mingling with fragile melody and lyrics hardened by wit and irony to hide the vulnerable, gooey uncertainties in the middle? Ugh, doesn’t even come close, but it’ll have to do.

Everything—from the soft surrealist lyrics, to the single-worded album names to their dumpster baby doll imagery—both suggested and destroyed the notion of femaleness. It was this double-edged femininity I’d continue to be drawn too and utilize to express my own art. It was like all the anger, confusion, frustration, and ambivalence I felt had became justified because these women knew it too. Maybe others did—maybe this was actually pretty normal?

As a grew up, the influences became more implicit and subconscious.

At 24, when I decided I wanted to explore horror in my work, I was driven by a notion to explore fears of the feminine. The examples I had were Modernist and Surrealist influences, but I wanted my efforts to be more graphic, and so to help me work out my mission I secretly labeled my type of horror as Foxcore, after the term eventually applied to Babes, and other bands like L7 and Hole.

At 35, while arranging this collection, I found the same aesthetic motif that attracted me to the Babes—broken dolls, lost children, automata, and women who do it for themselves—were all present. An element further driven home by Joan Horne’s Shermanesque cover.

Without not only their music, but their aesthetic, I would have never been introduced to the possibilities of feminine fierceness, artistic fearlessness that have defined my own voice. For all of that, I am eternally grateful, and that is why my favorite bit of Calls for Submission is the dedication. It is a cue to where it all began. Thanks, again, Babes!


Author website


Calls for Submission is available from Pelekinesis


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Rising Shadow

Indigo (Canada)






24 Symbols


Selena Chambers’ fiction and non-fiction have been nominated for a Pushcart, Best of the Net, Hugo, and two World Fantasy awards. Writing as S. J. Chambers in 2011, she co-authored the critically-acclaimed and best-selling The Steampunk Bible with Jeff Vandermeer (Abrams Image), but has since eschewed the initials. Her debut fiction collection, Calls for Submission, is now available through Pelekinesis. You can find out more about her work and happenings at or on Twitter at @basbleuzombie.

My Favorite Bit: Alan Smale talks about EAGLE AND EMPIRE

Favorite Bit iconAlan Smale is joining us today with his novel Eagle and Empire. Here’s the publisher’s description:

The award-winning author of Clash of Eagles and Eagle in Exile concludes his masterly alternate-history saga of the Roman invasion of North America in this stunning novel.

Roman Praetor Gaius Marcellinus came to North America as a conqueror, but after meeting with defeat at the hands of the city-state of Cahokia, he has had to forge a new destiny in this strange land. In the decade since his arrival, he has managed to broker an unstable peace between the invading Romans and a loose affiliation of Native American tribes known as the League.

But invaders from the west will shatter that peace and plunge the continent into war: The Mongol Horde has arrived and they are taking no prisoners.

As the Mongol cavalry advances across the Great Plains leaving destruction in its path, Marcellinus and his Cahokian friends must summon allies both great and small in preparation for a final showdown. Alliances will shift, foes will rise, and friends will fall as Alan Smale brings us ever closer to the dramatic final battle for the future of the North American continent.

What’s Alan’s favorite bit?

Eagle and Empire cover image


The Mongols are coming!

Yep, Book Three is where everything comes together; where all the wheels that have been set in motion throughout the Clash of Eagles series finally, um, smash into one another. It begins with the city of Cahokia and the forces of Rome in an uneasy alliance that’s constantly on the verge of collapsing into violence and – as must be obvious from the book blurb – powers its way forward to a climactic confrontation with the forces of Genghis Khan on the Great Plains, a terrain so similar to the steppes of Asia that the Mongols hold a significant advantage.

So there’s plenty of action in Eagle and Empire, but there’s also closure for a number of other story arcs that have absorbed me (and hopefully some of you) for many years. Because, while summaries of the books naturally focus on the battles and other large-scale action, I also really enjoy the many character interactions.

In addition to my battered hero, Gaius Marcellinus, we have Tahtay, once seriously wounded in battle, half Blackfoot, but now war chief of Cahokia. There’s Kimimela, Marcellinus’s adopted daughter and an increasingly competent pilot of the great Cahokian Hawk craft – effectively hang gliders made of sticks, skins, and sinew. There’s the precociously smart Enopay, who you can always rely on for a piercing opinion or a wisecrack. These characters we met as kids have now grown up into lives they could never have foreseen.

And then there’s Sintikala, chief of the Hawk Clan, whose face graces the cover of Eagle and Empire. (I am deliriously happy with this cover, by the way. Love what Del Rey have done with all my covers, but this one is exceptional.) And I’ve really enjoyed writing a number of the other characters: Taianita, once a captive in the hostile Mississippi city of Shappa Ta’atan and now struggling to make a future for herself as a warrior; Akecheta, the Cahokian centurion; the warriors Mahkah and Takoda; Hanska, veteran female warrior of Cahokia. The deceitful Pezi. Aelfric, the snarky Briton. The Emperor Hadrianus III and his generals Lucius Agrippa and Decinius Sabinus. I’m getting all nostalgic even typing the names. Each has some big moments in the third book.

And, in whatever space my characters really inhabit, I’d like to apologize to some of them for the things I put them through in Eagle and Empire.

There are scenes in Empire that I’d been looking forward to writing for years. Some are way too spoilery to use here. So for my Favorite Bit we’re coming back to Cahokia, that great Mississippian Culture city of 20,000 inhabitants and 120 platform, conical, and ridge mounds. Cahokia is deep in the heart of Nova Hesperia (located where St. Louis is now), and so central to the story that it’s practically a character in its own right.

In all the years Marcellinus had spent in Cahokia he had never been atop the Great Mound at night. He had stood there when the sun set, first when his life was in Great Sun Man’s hands and later when Tahtay had taken over as paramount chief, but he had always left before dusk was over and full night had descended.

And this night was especially dark. It was the new moon, and heavy cloud blanketed the city in humidity, shrouding the starlight. The cedar steps up the mound were mostly level and even, but Marcellinus had still managed to trip over his own feet several times on his way to the mound’s crest. Once there, he stopped and turned. Despite the heat, Cahokia was studded with cooking fires. Their smoke, along with the aroma of roasting meat and corn, reached Marcellinus even at this height. Within and between the houses, often appearing to float back and forth through the streets and across the plazas, were the faint glows of lanterns in the hands of Cahokians going about their duties before turning in for the night.

Marcellinus looked left. Far away to the east were the bluffs, but he could not see them in the haze. Closer was the steady glow of the foundry in the steelworks and a much fainter glimmer of lamplight from the Big Warm House. In the summer months they let the furnaces idle, but the older Cahokians still went to the baths to soak their aching limbs in the hot air and cool water and complain about their grandchildren.

To his right the fires and lamps of western Cahokia extended as far as the river in cheerful disarray, all but disappearing into the murk. But beyond them the fortress of Legio III Parthica shone bright, its walls and streets defined by rows of brilliant military lanterns. By comparison with the scattered flames of Cahokia the castra looked oddly square and sharp, almost sinister.

And behind Marcellinus stood the Longhouse of the Wings, long and dark.

Marcellinus is there to meet Sintikala, love of his life, but finds a despondent Tahtay there instead. With Rome so near, and so many divided allegiances, it’s the only place they can talk without the risk of being overheard:

“Even in the sweat lodge I cannot speak freely. Only here in the center of Cahokia, where we are the only men on a great and sacred mound inside a tall palisade, while Wahchintonka, Dustu, and a few other trusted men guard the gates below.”

It’s to be their last meeting before Marcellinus heads off to Yupkoyvi, in the desert southwest (the place we know today as Chaco Canyon, with its Great Houses of the Ancestral Puebloan culture). Marcellinus and Tahtay discuss the future: their strategies for dealing with the Emperor and his army and trying to avoid further bloodshed, and the steps that Tahtay will take with the Hesperian League of allied tribes in Marcellinus’s absence. They fumble their way through matters of fragile diplomacy and political intrigue, so alien to either of their personalities. And, finally, they talk of much more personal matters. The topics Marcellinus and Tahtay discuss by night on the Great Mound will ripple through to the very end of the book, and the friendship that is solidified here will be crucial to its resolution.

And that’s my third Favorite Bit, and a wrap for the Clash of Eagles series. Thanks again, Mary, for letting me talk about them all here!



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Alan Smale grew up in Yorkshire, England, and now lives in the Washington, D.C., area. By day he works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center as a professional astronomer, studying black holes, neutron stars, and other bizarre celestial objects. However, too many family vacations at Hadrian’s Wall in his formative years plus a couple of degrees from Oxford took their toll, steering his writing toward alternate, secret, and generally twisted history. He has sold numerous short stories to magazines including Asimov’s and Realms of Fantasy, and the novella version of Clash of Eagles won the 2010 Sidewise Award for Alternate History.

My Favorite Bit: Carrie Patel talks about THE SONG OF THE DEAD

Favorite Bit iconCarrie Patel is joining us today with her novel The Song of the Dead. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Finally, the lost histories of the Catastrophe will be revealed and with them the ultimate fate of the buried city of Recoletta in the dramatic conclusion to Carrie Patel’s trilogy.

With Ruthers dead and the Library Accord signed by Recoletta, its neighbours, and its farming communes, Inspector Malone and laundress Jane Lin are in limbo as the city leaders around them vie for power.

A desperate attempt to save Arnault from execution leads to Malone’s arrest and Jane’s escape. They must pursue each other across the sea to discover a civilization that has held together over the centuries. There they will finally learn the truths about the Catastrophe that drove their own civilization underground.

What’s Carrie’s favorite bit?

The Song of the Dead cover image


The Song of the Dead is the final book in the Recoletta trilogy, which follows the adventures of Inspector Liesl Malone and laundress Jane Lin as they navigate the political intrigues of rival underground city-states. Each book approaches their story in a slightly different way, and The Song of the Dead is primarily a journey novel about their escape from the city of Recoletta and their search for distant lands and difficult answers.

My favorite part of this book is the execution scene at the very beginning in which Malone is led to the gallows by the leaders of Recoletta.

Once upon a time, in an earlier draft, this scene appeared at the end of the first third. My critique partners were giving me feedback, and one of them remarked, “You know, this would make a great opening for a short story.” We all got to talking about what that would mean for the structure of the first third and how it might work, and I realized that was a completely feasible adjustment.

Not only was it feasible, it was better.

First, it’s one of the more urgent scenes in the early story. One of the two series protagonists is being marched to her death by representatives of the city she’s spent two books defending. The scene introduces stakes, tension, and questions right off the bat. How better to begin?

Secondly, it does a better job of establishing the story than a purely chronological sequence would have. The early events of The Song of the Dead take place in Recoletta, and yet most of the story is about the wider world beyond the city. It’s about the intervention of forces larger than Jane or Malone imagined, and it’s about seeking answers to questions that have been raised from the first book—what catastrophe drove these cities underground? Did anything else survive?

What interrupts Malone’s hanging is the harbinger of a distant civilization, a man with many questions of his own. The journey they undertake together—each seeking answers as well as salvation for their own particular civilizations—is what the story is really about.

The beginning of the novel, on the other hand, shows how Malone’s careful plans for peace fall apart. It follows the series of conflicts and dilemmas that send her to the gallows, that exile Jane, and that trigger a transcontinental chase between the two women. These events are critical to the development of the story and the characters, but the execution scene presents a clearer image of where the rest of the novel is headed.

Of course, this restructuring created a quandary. How do you tell the story of the beginning when you’re opening with the middle?

In the end, resolving this led to what is, in my opinion, one of the greater strengths of this approach: the framing narrative.

Ultimately, The Song of the Dead is about the stories people tell one another and the way those stories take on a lives of their own. The first third of the novel unfolds in two parallel retellings, with Malone recounting the story of the events that led to her (aborted) execution to her mysterious rescuer and Jane explaining how she became a traitor and exile to someone else. There’s some careful calculation in what the two women choose to tell their interlocuters, and there’s some obvious miscalculation in what they’ve assumed about each other.

This sets them up for two parallel journeys and two searches for answers that call into question what they think they knew about themselves and their world.

Why save the best for last? Start with the good stuff.



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Carrie Patel is a novelist, game designer, and expatriate Texan. She is the author of the Recoletta trilogy, which includes the science fantasy murder mystery The Buried Life (2015), the political thriller Cities and Thrones (2015), and the upcoming The Song of the Dead (May 2017), published by Angry Robot. Her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and PodCastle

As narrative designer and game writer, she works for Obsidian Entertainment, an award-winning development studio known for story-driven RPGs. She worked on Pillars of Eternity, which was nominated nominated by the Writers Guild of America for Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing, and its expansions, The White March Part I and II. She is currently writing for Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire.

My Favorite Bit: Robyn Bennis talks about THE GUNS ABOVE

Favorite Bit iconRobyn Bennis is joining us today with her novel The Guns Above. Here’s the publisher’s description:

In the tradition of Honor Harrington and the high-flying Temeraire series, Bennis’s THE GUNS ABOVE is an adventurous military fantasy debut about a nation’s first female airship captain.

They say it’s not the fall that kills you.

For Josette Dupre, the Corps’ first female airship captain, it might just be a bullet in the back.

On top of patrolling the front lines, she must also contend with a crew who doubts her expertise, a new airship that is an untested deathtrap, and the foppish aristocrat Lord Bernat, a gambler and shameless flirt with the military know-how of a thimble. Bernat’s own secret assignment is to catalog her every moment of weakness and indecision.

So when the enemy makes an unprecedented move that could turn the tide of the war, can Josette deal with Bernat, rally her crew, and survive long enough to prove herself?

What’s Robyn’s favorite bit?

The Guns Above cover image


I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to admit this, but my favorite bit of The Guns Above is the loveable sexist, Bernat. If you’re hearing an odd sort of whirring right now, that’s the sound of every previous reader of this article rolling their eyes so hard they’ve left a psychic imprint in the HTML. But perhaps we should first take a look at Bernat at his best:

She said in a quiet hiss, “I swear, if that isn’t a roll of coins in your trousers, I will throw you overboard and tell everyone it was a tragic accident.”

The object in his pants was, in fact, a roll of coins—part of his first week’s payment from Uncle Fieren. “My dear captain,” he said, loud enough for the entire work party to hear, “take it as a compliment.”

She tensed even more. “Are all aristocrats such uncouth animals?”

“If I have given any offence,” he said, “you need only call me out, and I will happily offer satisfaction.”

This elicited some snickers from the crew, which Dupre silenced with a glance. “I take that to mean a duel,” she said, “and I am sorely tempted by the thought.”

“Would you prefer pistols at dawn, or shall I visit you in the night with my longsword?”

Many of Bernat’s most sexist moments are based on experiences I’ve actually had, courtesy of people I now despise. Even so, he’s not only my favorite character, but my favorite achievement, because I succeeded in making him loveable in spite of his sexism (not to mention his many other flaws.) I stress the “in spite of,” as Bernat is not meant to be loveable because of his sexism, which is the direction the lovable sexist trope usually goes in.

The entire world of The Guns Above is filled with rampant sexism, which blunts the trope a bit, but what really sells it is that he pays for it in a way that isn’t just the punchline of a joke. He pays with the sort of emotional turmoil and self-doubt that accompanies personal growth. Bernat becomes a slightly better person, but it’s a painful journey. He doesn’t come to an epiphany, nor do the women in his life come to see his sexism as harmless—and they certainly don’t escape harm from it. To put it bluntly, Bernat’s playful sexism threatens to destroy careers and even lives, not unlike playful sexism in the real world.

Yet readers love him. It certainly helps that every major character in the book is some sort of monster or another, so Bernat doesn’t look quite as bad by comparison. Plus, he and Josette share a quick and biting wit. Their verbal sparring matches are delightful, if I do say so myself, and I’ve found that readers are willing to forgive almost anything in a character who can deliver a really killer burn.

“I do apologize for the intrusion, but I simply had to know what put you in such a state of dread at the thought of coming to Durum. Now I see that you were afraid I’d steal your dear mother away and take her home with me. Well, you may put your mind at ease, Captain. It’s such a lovely town, I think the two of us will live here.”

The captain rolled her eyes. “If it would get you off my goddamn ship, I would happily give you my mother, and throw a couple of aunts into the bargain.”

“Your generosity is admirable, Captain. But really, it’s not such a large house. One aunt will do, I think.”

She leaned toward the stairs and shouted up, “Mother! Does Aunt Yvette still live in town?”

Elise’s voice was strangely muffled when she called back, “Why do you want to know?”

The captain’s eyes shifted to Bernat, and back to the stairs. “Just wanted to catch up.”

When early readers expressed their undying love for Bernat, but still saw him as the colossal jerk he is, I breathed a big sigh of relief. I wasn’t sure I had the writing chops to pull that off, but I’d really done it. I’d done it for that small and friendly audience, anyway. We’ll have to see what happens when my little book goes out into the wider world.

Provisionally, however, Bernat is that rare, loveable sexist who doesn’t normalize loveable sexism, making him my favorite bit of The Guns Above.


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Robyn Bennis is an author and scientist living in Mountain View, California, where she consults in biotech but dreams of airships. Her apartment lies within blocks of Moffett Airfield’s historic Hanger One, which once sheltered America’s largest flying machines. The sight of it rising above its surroundings served as daily inspiration while she wrote her debut novel, The Guns Above.

MRK May 2017 Tour Schedule and Newsletter

Hello, Mary here with the latest news about my goings-on during the month of May.

  • Saturday 6 May: How to Fail Gracefully with K. Tempest Bradford (online)
  • Friday 12 May to Sunday 14 May: Short Story Intensive (online)
  • Thursday 18 May to Sunday 21 May: Nebula Conference (Pittsburgh Marriott City Center, Pittsburg, PA)

“How to Fail Gracefully” is a Master Class I teach with K. Tempest Bradford over at Writing the Other, which is dedicated to helping writers learn how to write characters different from themselves in a way that is both sensitive and convincing.

My Short Story Intensive course is sold out, and usually sells out pretty quickly, so keep an eye out for future sessions of this class!

The Nebula Conference is the annual SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) conference, and has panels and workshops in three tracks: career management, professional development, and expert knowledge. Registration for the conference is available to writers of all levels. The Nebula Awards are also hosted that weekend on Saturday evening, and the ballot is full of talented writers and some excellent fiction. Finally, there is a mass autograph session on Friday at the Pittsburgh Marriott City Center, which is open to the public. So, if you’re in the area but unable to attend the conference this is a good opportunity to say hello to some great writers and get your copies of their work signed by them.



P.S. Just a reminder that I am now on Patreon, so if you’re interested in supporting me and my work in that way, you can click here.

On reading fees, and why they are Not Done.

The short form: Reading fees. Don’t pay them.

“What?!” You’re saying, “But… but I paid for a critique at a conference.”

I know. It’s that ambiguity I want to address. Doing critiques is exhausting, but it’s also really valuable to attendees. So as a compromise, some writing conferences offer them with a fee attached. That way the agent/editor/author gets paid for their extra effort and the student gets the individual attention they need. Also, the conference makes money for providing a space, etc.

Personally, I would ONLY do this if if there were a problem with a piece of fiction that I couldn’t identify and thought that this specific agent/editor/author could help me puzzle it out.

Yog's Law says, "Money flows to the writer."I would never, ever do it if I were hoping to sign with that person. Why? Because I know I’m giving them something flawed. AND the ethical ones are super-careful about misusing their positions.

Outside of a conference, you should never pay a fee to an agent or editor for a critique.

(An exception is if you are hiring a freelance editor to actually edit your manuscript. That’s a whole different business arrangement.)

But if you’re looking to sell your work to an agent or editor and they tell you that they’ll look at it for a fee… Don’t. Run. That person is unethical and is taking advantage of you.

It’s like this… everyone knows how desperate writers are to sell their work. It’s super-easy to tap into that and add a little income stream by charging a “reading fee.” What early-career writers don’t grok is how equally desperate agents and editors are for good work. Selling your fiction is how they make their living. So anything that you have to pay them to read? That’s not a thing they’re likely to be able to sell. Right? But the unethical agents assume you won’t know the difference. They’ll use your hunger as a tool and their position as bait to prey upon you.

Never. Ever. Pay a reading fee.

Money flows to the writer.

Beta readers for 5k short SF story?

Apparently, when I’m not under a crushing novel deadline I write a lot of short fiction. Who knew? Anyway, I’m looking for five to ten beta readers for a 5000 word short SF story. Just comment on my site to raise your hand.  I think I’m set on readers. Thanks!

Here’s the teaser.


by Mary Robinette Kowal

The road hummed under the wheels of the reproduction semi-truck and beneath Dude’s hands the steering wheel vibrated with life. He had the diesel engine environment soundscape turned up high so that his ears hummed along with the road.

Why the hell had people given up driving? Sure, automated cars were useful, but there was nothing like the freedom of the open road. Ahead of him, a self-driving car was going exactly the speed-limit.

With a grin, Dude put on his turn signal and sped up. Past the speed limit. He pulled out a piece of beef jerky — processed and vegan, but it looked real — and tore a hunk off. It was like chewing chaw. Except tastier and not going to give him cancer. Yeah, baby. This was life. This was what he was meant to do. Artisanal Trucking LLC. Human hands, door to door.  He wasn’t governed by algorithms or satellites or any of that bullshit. Dude was one with the road and the road was one with him. Like meditation. One with the road and–

A dog darted out in front of him.

Dude had time to see that it was yellow.

My Favorite Bit: Marie Brennan talks about WITHIN THE SANCTUARY OF WINGS

Favorite Bit iconMarie Brennan is joining us today with her novel Within the Sanctuary of Wings. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Within the Sanctuary of Wings is the conclusion to Marie Brennan’s thrilling Lady Trent Memoirs

After nearly five decades (and, indeed, the same number of volumes), one might think they were well-acquainted with the Lady Isabella Trent–dragon naturalist, scandalous explorer, and perhaps as infamous for her company and feats of daring as she is famous for her discoveries and additions to the scientific field.

And yet–after her initial adventure in the mountains of Vystrana, and her exploits in the depths of war-torn Eriga, to the high seas aboard The Basilisk, and then to the inhospitable deserts of Akhia–the Lady Trent has captivated hearts along with fierce minds. This concluding volume will finally reveal the truths behind her most notorious adventure–scaling the tallest peak in the world, buried behind the territory of Scirland’s enemies–and what she discovered there, within the Sanctuary of Wings.

What’s Marie’s favorite bit?

Within the Sanctuary of Wings cover image


My favorite bit of Within the Sanctuary of Wings in specific, and the Memoirs of Lady Trent as a whole, is the ending.

And I mean the very ending. Not the climax of the story, but literally the last 120 words of the book.

Which surprises me, because man, those last few sentences? They’re usually one of the hardest parts for me. It’s tough to end a short story, tougher to end a novel, and a whole series? Yeeks. The weight there is enormous. Five books about Lady Trent, taking her from childhood to her status as one of the most famous and respected people in the world — how do you end that? What knot do you use to tie off the ends when the pattern is done?

I expected it to be incredibly hard. I made my way through the Afterword, handling the usual tasks of denouement, and all the while a little voice in the back of my head was asking, what note are we going end on? What flavor do I want to leave in the reader’s mind when they close the book?

And then it came to me. The instant I thought of it, I knew it was right, and those last 120 words flowed out of me like . . . well, like a couple of tears might have done, had I not sniffled them back.

I could quote the passage to you right now, because it isn’t a spoiler. It’s the inevitable consequence of what the story has been about this entire time — the energy at its heart. But I don’t think it will have quite the same impact when taken out of context, so instead I’ll tell you that Lady Trent’s final words to her readers are about science and the ever-changing face of what we know about the world around us. Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” There are no dragons in our world, and so no one can quite stand on Lady Trent’s metaphorical shoulders; but nonetheless it’s an invitation to do exactly that, to carry forward the work of discovery for generations to come.

Damn it. Now I’m sniffling again.

I hope that when you get there, you do, too.




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Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She is currently misapplying her professors’ hard work to the Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent; the first book of that series, A Natural History of Dragons, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Cold-Forged Flame, the first novella in the Varekai series, came out in September 2016. She is also the author of the Doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy and Chains and Memory, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, and more than forty short stories. For more information, visit

Beta readers wanted: 4200 word fantasy short story

For those of you who are Writing Excuses listeners, you might recall in season 10 that I demonstrated some ideas using a Milliner Assassin. I have actually written that story and am looking for a couple of beta readers.

Here’s the teaser.

A Feather in Her Cap

Biantera stabbed the hat on its stand with a needle as if it were a dead body. Outside the canals of Geveno resounded with the cheerful cries of gondoliers, in sharp contrast to the complaints of her mother.

“You are going to ruin your fingers doing this work. Millinery! Blessed Menos on Her Hearth!” Her mother dabbed at her eyes with a ridiculous scrap of lace. “Rough hands! How will you get the marriage you deserve — or would have deserved. Curse your father!”

Biantera’s needle stabbed into the hat again. Not her mother. She should get an amaretto for that restraint. Biantera took a slow breath and tried to let the tension out of her shoulders. Some of it was from her mother’s constant harping, and some was from scaling that blasted wall last night.  She kept her voice low and sweet as her governess had taught her, once upon a time. “I don’t mind, Mama.”

She made damn good money as an assassin, but if her mother was upset about the supposed millinery business Biantera could only imagine what she’d do about the Other job. Once she received the payment for killing the Maestro of Umbele, it would be more than enough to buy back their family estate.

If you want to read, just comment on my site and I’ll send the story to the first five to ten folks. Okay! I’m set for the moment, but am likely to be making a hefty change to this, based on initial feedback, so if you want to read a second draft… Raise your hand in the comments.

My Favorite Bit: Dan Koboldt talks about THE ISLAND DECEPTION

Favorite Bit iconDan Koboldt is joining us today with his novel The Island Deception. Here’s the publisher’s description:

What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas. But what happens after you step through a portal to another world, well…

For stage magician Quinn Bradley, he thought his time in Alissia was over. He’d done his job for the mysterious company CASE Global Enterprises, and now his name is finally on the marquee of one of the biggest Vegas casinos. And yet, for all the accolades, he definitely feels something is missing. He can create the most amazing illusions on Earth, but he’s also tasted true power. Real magic.

He misses it.

Luckily–or not–CASE Global is not done with him, and they want him to go back. The first time, he was tasked with finding a missing researcher. Now, though, he has another task: Help take Richard Holt down.

It’s impossible to be in Vegas and not be a gambler. And while Quinn might not like his odds–a wyvern nearly ate him the last time he was in Alissia–if he plays his cards right, he might be able to aid his friends.

He also might learn how to use real magic himself.

Continuing the exciting adventures from The Rogue Retrieval, The Island Deception blends fun and mystery into a brilliant new fantasy from Dan Koboldt.

What’s Dan’ favorite bit?

The Island Deception cover image


Quinn Bradley, the protagonist of my series, is a stage magician from Las Vegas who’s hired to infiltrate a secret medieval world. He has access to holograms, electronics, and other modern technologies that the other world hasn’t seen before. Even so, my favorite bit in THE ISLAND DECEPTION is Quinn’s ability to use simple sleight of hand.

In the real world, our world, stage magic is among the oldest performing arts on record. One of the earliest books on the subject, Gantziony’s Natural and Unnatural Magic, was published in 1489. Stage magicians were a common form of public entertainment before the 18th century. Quick-fingered deception, in other words, is hardly a novel concept.

My protagonist just happens to be really good at it.

Is there any natural ability involved? Probably. The inherently dextrous tend to be drawn to performance magic, just as the inherently clumsy tend to avoid glassblowing. Yet what sets Quinn apart — what sets most successful illusionists apart — is a willingness to put in the work. He masters tricks with cards, coins, ropes, and other everyday objects. He practices every trick for countless hours, until he can execute it perfectly every time. Even better, he’s already gone through the training montage when the story starts.

A medieval world offers many opportunities to use such skills. Quinn is not the kind of person to pass them up, either. Sometimes he uses illusions to get out of a jam, or to obtain something the mission requires. Other times, he does it simply because he can. Here’s an example from The Island Deception:

The pocket on his jacket yawned open to reveal one of the fat Alissian gold coins the lab had minted for this mission.
Quinn plucked it out between two fingers, light-touch, and palmed it. “Can’t you help me out? I’ll make it worth your while.” He grinned and held up the coin.
Mendez frowned. “Where’d you get that? I just had one of those.”
“I know.” Quinn flipped it to him so that it spun in the air with that high-pitched metallic ring. I never get tired of that sound.
Mendez caught it one-handed. But when he opened his hand, it was a crude penny. “Hey!”
Quinn still had the gold coin, and now he danced it across all ten fingers. “I can do this all day.”

Sharp wits and quick fingers are certainly advantageous when posing as a magician in a medieval world. But they also have the tendency to get Quinn into trouble, because he just can’t help himself. In the first book, his inclination to show off came with a price: the world has real magicians of its own, and the penalty for impersonating one is death.

Then again, the existence of true magic is what motivates Quinn to return to Alissia in The Island Deception. He’s tasted real magic, and now he misses it. More than that, he can’t help but wonder if it would be possible to bring some of that power back into our world. Real magic would certainly put him “one ahead” (as magicians say), and that’s exactly where Quinn Bradley wants to be.


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Dan Koboldt is a genetics researcher and fantasy/science fiction author. He has co-authored more than 70 publications in Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, and other scientific journals. Dan is also an avid deer hunter and outdoorsman. He lives with his wife and children in Ohio, where the deer take their revenge by eating the flowers in his backyard.

My Favorite Bit: Renee Patrick talks about DANGEROUS TO KNOW

Favorite Bit iconRenee Patrick is joining us today with their novel Dangerous to Know. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Los Angeles, 1938. Former aspiring actress Lillian Frost is adjusting to a new life of boldfaced names as social secretary to a movie-mad millionaire. Costume designer Edith Head is running Paramount Pictures’ wardrobe department, but only until a suitable replacement comes along. The two friends again become partners thanks to an international scandal, a real-life incident in which the war clouds gathering over Europe cast a shadow on Hollywood.

Lillian attended the Manhattan dinner party at which well-heeled guests insulted Adolf Hitler within earshot of a maid with Nazi sympathies. Now, secrets the maid vengefully spilled have all New York society running for cover – and two Paramount stars, Jack Benny and George Burns, facing smuggling charges.

Edith also seeks Lillian’s help on a related matter. The émigré pianist in Marlene Dietrich’s budding nightclub act has vanished. Lillian reluctantly agrees to look for him. When Lillian finds him dead, Dietrich blames agents of the Reich. As Lillian and Edith unravel intrigue extending from Paramount’s Bronson Gate to FDR’s Oval Office, only one thing is certain: they’ll do it in style.

Renee Patrick’s Dangerous to Know beguilingly blends forgotten fact and fanciful fiction, while keeping Hollywood glamour front and center

What’s Renee’s favorite bit?

Dangerous to Know cover image


It’s probably poor form to say our favorite bit is the one that fell into our laps. But that’s where we have to start.

When you write historical mysteries, you’re always researching. Poring over vintage magazines and newspapers, soaking up period atmosphere. (We went so far as to purchase copies of the 1937 Los Angeles telephone directories—Yellow and White Pages—and lost hours paging through them. Once upon a time, the highest compliment you could pay an actor was to say, “I’d listen to her/him read the phone book.” We staged such performances for one another. There were no curtain calls.) You remain eternally on the hunt for that useful forgotten nugget from yesteryear.

And then, on occasion, you strike the motherlode.

Reading a December 1938 newspaper, we happened on a reference to a budding scandal. Jack Benny and George Burns, comic titans of radio and motion pictures, were brought up on federal charges as smugglers. The details were extraordinary, involving a vengeful maid with Nazi sympathies, a bogus diplomat, and trunks full of haute couture gowns.

Understand this: Jack Benny and George Burns were enormous stars at the time, so much so that when we tried to think of comparable contemporary performers for this post we came up empty. The concentrated nature of entertainment in the 1930s gave both men such outsized presences that their indiscretion nudged Germany’s aggression below the fold of the nation’s front pages for a while.

Understand also this: we both grew up obsessed with show business, and had never heard tell of this contretemps before. How, we wondered, was that possible?

Finally, understand this: both men were stars at Paramount Pictures, the studio where Edith Head, the legendary costume designer who is one-half of our sleuthing duo, worked her magic. The universe had just handed us a gift.

The Benny/Burns imbroglio gave us the seed for what would become Dangerous to Know, the second of our mysteries set during the Golden Age of Hollywood pairing Edith with her partner in crime-solving, former aspiring actress Lillian Frost. It was the ideal jumping off point, if not the engine driving the plot.

Building that engine would prove easier thanks to all that research we’d been doing. We’d become familiar with what was happening in Los Angeles and the wider world in the waning days of 1938. Sometimes it was broad cultural issues, like the influx of emigres and refugees from Europe into Southern California, a mass migration that would transform the City of Angels into a world capital of modern music and give rise to film noir. Sometimes it was specific to the region, such as David O. Selznick’s decision to stage the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind despite the fact that he had yet to cast his Scarlett O’Hara, or a screening of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia in one of L.A.’s fanciest clubs with Fraulein Director herself in attendance. And sometimes it was a fascinating story still being excavated by historians decades later, like the secret plan of studio moguls to combat the Nazi presence in Hollywood in the years before World War II.

Real life consistently outstrips the imagination. It does now. It did then. So basically our favorite bit is collecting all of those other bits and weaving them together, combining fact with fiction in the hope of coming up with something that feels true.



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Renee Patrick is the pseudonym of married authors Rosemarie and Vince Keenan. Rosemarie is a research administrator and a poet. Vince is a screenwriter and a journalist. Both native New Yorkers, they currently live in Seattle, Washington.