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Brian and the cover of “Almost Perfect.”

Almost Perfect Except . . .

By Brian Katcher

Brian Katcher is a writer whom one of our usual bloggers, Jan S. Gephardt, met at the science fiction convention Archon 44 (He’s also spotlighted in Jan’s Authors of Archon 44 post). He told this story during a panel discussion in which they both participated. She asked him to share it with our audience, because it demonstrates an issue we also face. The Weird Blog and Artdog Adventures support diversity and representation. As a pair of older, middle-class white women Jan and G. at Weird Sisters Publishing understand an author can confront many challenges when they try to promote inclusivity and multicultural representation in their fiction “while white and straight.”

The Almost Perfect Story

Almost Perfect is the story of Logan, a cisgender boy, who recently had a bad breakup with his girlfriend. He then meets Sage, a new girl in his school, he thinks he’s met the person who’s going to help him move on. When he discovers she’s transgender, however, he is forced to rethink their entire relationship. Can they still be friends? Can they be…more? Almost Perfect won the 2011 Stonewall Book Award for Children’s Literature.

This book started out as a short story. I was looking to write a boy meets girl story that hadn’t been done a thousand times, and I hit upon the idea of writing about a heterosexual boy and a transgender girl. How would a relationship like that work? When I showed a draft to my writers’ group, they told me that I couldn’t do that in 80 pages. To make it into a novel or not to bother.

Brian Katcher received the 2011 Stonewall Book Award for Children's Literature.
In 2011 Brian accepted the Stonewall Book Award for Children’s Literature, for his book Almost Perfect. (Credits below).

Research and Early Responses

Well, transgenderism wasn’t a subject I’d given a lot of thought to, so I turned to the internet for research. I went to forums for transgender people and said that I was writing a book and needed information, both specific and general. Boy, did I get some great responses. And the more I heard, the more I wanted to tell this story. The overwhelming theme I got from older transgender people was the idea of having absolutely no one they could share this with, no one whom they could confine in, and having no idea where to turn or what to do.

I was overwhelmed with the response to the book. The ALA awarded me the Stonewall, I think because I was probably the second YA author to write about a trans character (After Julie Anne Peters’s Luna). Fan mail poured in. I heard from countless transgender people who thanked me for finally telling their story, and praising my research.

Covers for the books “Almost Perfect” and “Luna.”
Two of the earliest books about transgender youth written for young adults, both Almost Perfect and Luna broke new literary ground. (credits below).

Delayed Reaction

However, after a year or so, I started to get blowback. Sure, some of it came from transphobes (The Florida Tea Party tried to get it removed from school libraries), but most of it was from the LGBTQ community. Some of it was taking me to task for poor turns of phrase (I said ‘transgendered’ instead of the preferred ‘transgender’, or having Sage come out to Logan by saying ‘I’m a boy’).

Others didn’t feel that as a cisgender man, it was my place to tell a story like this. But the most overarching criticism was that the story was depressing. Sage is repeatedly used by Logan, assaulted by another man, and ultimately moves away, still trying to live the life she needs to. Why couldn’t she have a happy ending? Why would she fall for a jerk like Logan? Was I trying to say that transgender people are destined to be unhappy and will never find true love?

A snapshot of Brian Katcher near a body of water.
Here’s a more casual photo of Brian. (Brian Katcher).

Brian’s Self-Critique

While I did do my research beforehand, I really should have gotten some sensitivity readers to look at the finished product. There’s no excuse for that omission. While I feel I wrote Almost Perfect with the intention of educating people about how difficult it can be to be transgender, I failed in several respects.

Still, I’ve never once had a reviewer say they didn’t like Sage. More than one person told me the book gave them the courage to come out. And there are at least two women who chose ‘Sage’ as their new middle name. This is my book that gets the most requests for a sequel. Well, it’s the only book that gets requests for a sequel.

Covers for Brian Katcher’s books “Playing with Matches,” “Almost Perfect,” “Everyone Dies in the End,” “Deacon Locke Went to Prom,” and “The Improbable theory of Ana & Zak.” Also Brian’s picture.
If you read Jan’s post Authors of Amazon 44, you might remember this profile image. (Amazon; Brian’s website).

Pitfalls and the Creative Process

When you’re a boring old white straight guy like me, you get into a kind of Catch-22 situation. You don’t want to write yet another book about white, straight people, but is it your place to tell someone else’s story? My advice is to get sensitivity readers, both at the front and the back of the creative process. And be sure to thank them afterwards. If you feel good writing about people like yourself, no problem. And if you’d like to expand who you write about, the world needs diverse books.

But above all, be true to your own creative process. Find a character you and your readers can fall in love with. Remember, you’re never going to please everyone. But when those one star reviews come in, make sure they’re because of your hackneyed writing and unoriginal plots, and not because you misrepresented someone’s culture. And if someone has a problems with how you present someone, listen.

Brian and the cover of “Almost Perfect.”
Here are Brian and the cover of his book Almost Perfect. (Credits below).

IMAGES

Many thanks to Brian Katcher for the photo of him accepting his Stonewall Award, the cover image for Almost Perfect, and his author photo. Learn more about Brian at his website. Read his book reviews (and support the review website if you wish), at For Every Young Adult.

Many thanks to Books Bird for the Stonewall Award image, and to Amazon for the Luna cover image.

BFFs Lynette M. Burrows and Jan S. Gephardt.

A Pair of BFFs Talk about Writing

By Jan S. Gephardt and Lynette M. Burrows

A note from Jan to her readers: My longtime friend Lynette M. Burrows and I belong to some of the same writers’ groups, and first met through the Kansas City Science Fiction & Fantasy Society (KaCSFFS). We bonded over (among other things) our interest in writing, and we’ve been friends literally for decades. We regularly check in with each other to “talk shop” or be each others’ cheerleaders. Earlier this summer, I suggested we co-write a post in which we talk about writing, our personal writing journeys, and our books. This post is the result of that conversation.

Before we Talk about Writing, Who is Lynette M. Burrows?

Covers for “My Soul to Keep” and “Fellowship,” the two books so far published in the Fellowship Dystopia.”
From Rocket Dog Publishing. Cover artwork for My Soul to Keep is © 2018 by Elizabeth Leggett. Cover artwork for Fellowship is © 2019 by Nicole Hutton at Cover Shot Creations

Lynette M. Burrows loves hot coffee, reading physical books, and the crack of a 9mm pistol—not all at the same time, though that might be fun! She writes thrilling science fiction for readers who love compelling characters with heroic hearts.

The White Box Stories, which she co-wrote with Rob Chilson, appeared in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact Magazine.

Her series, The Fellowship Dystopia, presents a frightening familiar American tyranny that never was but could be. In Book One, My Soul to Keep, Miranda discovers dark family secrets, the brutality of the Fellowship way of life, and the deadly reality of rebellion. My Soul to Keep and the series companion novel, Fellowship, are available at most online bookstores. Book two, If I Should Die, will be published in 2022.

Owned by two Yorkshire Terriers, Lynette lives in the land of Oz. You can find her online at her website, on Facebook, or on Twitter @LynetteMBurrows.

Who is Jan S. Gephardt?

Covers for “The Other Side of Fear,” “What’s Bred in the Bone,” and “A Bone to Pick,” by Jan S. Gephardt.
Covers courtesy of Weird Sisters Publishing. Cover artwork, L-R © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk, © 2019 and 2020, respectively, by Jody A. Lee.

Jan S. Gephardt commutes daily between her Kansas City metro home in the USA and Rana Station, a habitat space station that’s a very long way from Earth and several hundred years in the future.

She and her sister G. S. Norwood are the founders and co-owners of Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. Her XK9 “Bones” Trilogy and its prequel novella, The Other Side of Fear, feature a pack of super-smart, bio-engineered police dogs called XK9s. They struggle to establish themselves as full citizens of the space station where they live, while solving crimes and sniffing out bad guys.

The Other Side of Fear tells how the XK9s and their humans found each other. What’s Bred in the Bone begins the tale of XK9 Rex, a dog who thinks too much and then acts on his thoughts. Even after his human partner Charlie is injured and out of the picture. A Bone to Pick was just released last month. In it, Rex and the Pack have new and different problems, even before Rex’s enemy from the past comes gunning for him. Jan’s now working hard on Bone of Contention, in which the dogs must prove to a critical panel of judges that they are truly sapient, before the Transmondians manage to exterminate their kind completely.

Now, let’s Talk about Writing!

Lynette and I developed a list of questions, then each of us answered them. The rest of this post continues in a Q&A format. We hope you’ll enjoy this “conversation,” in which a pair of BFFs talk about writing!

What’s your most recently- or imminently-to-be-published title? What’s it about, and when/how/where can readers find it?

LYNETTE

This banner for “Fellowship” has a photo of a person in a snowy forest and the words, “The AZRAEL are real. The Cleaners are coming. Run, Ian, run!”
Banner and cover for Fellowship courtesy of Lynette M. Burrows on Twitter.

Fellowship, a companion novel to the Fellowship Dystopia, series, is my most recently published title.

Two years before Miranda begins her journey, tragedy shatters a high school senior’s dreams of being a journalist when his parents are Taken by the Angels of Death. Hunted by government agents, Ian and his younger siblings run for their lives. He leads them to the Appalachian Mountains. He knows how to survive, but resources are scarce. The mountains are unforgiving. And winter is in the air. If they are to survive, Ian and his siblings need help. But who can he trust?

I had intended to write a short story in the same world as My Soul to Keep, Book One in the Fellowship Dystopia, series. When Ian came alive on the page, Fellowship, a longer story about trust, was born. Read how, while writing this novel, My Story Went to the Dogs.

Fellowship is available at most online bookstores.

JAN

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.
Jan’s new book A Bone to Pick is widely available in a variety of formats. Cover artwork © 2020 by Jody A. Lee.

My most recently-published novel is A Bone to Pick, Book Two of the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. It should now be widely available in a variety of formats.

The protagonist of the whole Trilogy is XK9 Rex, who becomes recognized on Rana Station as the Leader of the Pack for the Orangeboro XK9s. But an enemy from his past is still gunning for him.

Before Rex came to Rana Station, he ran afoul of Transmondian spymaster Col. Jackson Wisniewski. He deliberately flunked out of the espionage program and threatened Wisniewski’s life. Now Wisniewski wants Rex dead. Transmondian agents watch and wait for any opportunity to strike.

Meanwhile, his human partner, Charlie, faces a different struggle. Injured and out of the action for most of Book One, Charlie now works to recover from  his catastrophic injuries – and comes face-to-face with a once-in-a-lifetime love he thought he’d lost forever.

What is your current work-in-progress, and how does it fit into the rest of your oeuvre?

LYNETTE

I’m finishing up edits of the second book in the Fellowship Dystopia, series titled If I Should Die. It takes place in the same world as My Soul to Keep and picks up Miranda’s story.

Two years ago, former rebel soldier, Miranda Clarke, vowed she would never pick up her gun again. Vowed to help instead of kill. She created the Freedom Waterways and rescued fugitives from the Fellowship’s tyranny. With every rescue, she heard about nightmarish suffering and loss, and her dream of peace grew more and more desperate.

Until the day she received two simultaneous requests: a loved one on the Fellowship side wanted her help to bring peace to the nation, while a loved one on the rebel side would surely die without her help. No matter which choice she made, it would cost her. Dearly.

In a deadly battle between her dreams and loved ones, will she stick to her peaceful principles, or risk everything to settle the score?

JAN

I’ve recently started two projects. One is a short story tentatively titled Beautiful New Year, It’s set on Rana Station and features Rex’s partner Charlie, before he and Rex teamed up.

I’m also at work on the third novel in the Trilogy, Bone of Contention. Rex and the Pack have begun to enjoy the freedom Ranans believe they deserve. But they also have work to do. They’re hot on the trail of a murderous gang that blows up spaceships in the Black Void.

But in the far-flung systems of the Alliance of the Peoples, trafficking in sapient beings is the most-reviled crime of all. The leaders of the XK9 Project that created Rex and his Pack deny any wrongdoing. And the system-dominating Transmondian Government that sponsored the XK9 Project will do anything they must to protect themselves. Even if it means destroying every XK9 in the universe.

How did this series start? What themes did you know from the beginning that you wanted to address, and why? Have you been startled by other themes or ideas that developed in the course of writing?

LYNETTE

This has been one of those stories that cooked for a very long time. I knew I wanted to create a heroine who had survived abuse and ultimately makes the choice to thrive. Exploring abuse of politics, power, and people was a logical offshoot of my original idea.

The thing that startled me the most was that I would think I’d written a brilliant scene about abuse and violence until a first reader started questioning me about the scene. The way I’d written it, the abuse and violence were always off stage.

It took a long time for me to write more active and direct scenes.

JAN

This series started with a “what if?” I’ve been a dog-lover for a long time, and I’d been wanting to write a mystery set in a science fictional milieu. Reading about police K-9s used for scent tracking, I found a quote from an investigator: “It’s not like we can put the dog on the witness stand and ask him what he smelled.”

“Oho!” I thought. “But what if we could?” Science fiction is full of uplifted animals. It was a pretty short intuitive leap from there to Rex and the Pack.

This meme image shows a German Shepherd with its paw on a Bible held by a police officer, in what looks like a courtroom. It says, “ his look of determination: ‘I saw, heard, and smelled what you did. You’re going down, David!’”
Meme image courtesy of ImgFlip.

And when we talk about writing themes, my stories always seem to have an internal “compass.” One way or another, they end up being about interactions between people of different cultures, as seen through a lens of equity and social justice.

How did your book change from the first day of writing to your last day of the final draft?

LYNETTE

I started writing My Soul to Keep as a fantasy with dragons and a Cinderella story arc, which stalled out pretty quickly.

Then I tried setting the story in the future, but it smacked too much of The Handmaid’s Tale. And the writing stalled out again.

What I needed was a world that allowed me to explore the theme of thriving despite abuse. My husband suggested I write in the style of a 1950s Noir Mystery. So I explored that option, knowing this was a character growth story, not a murder mystery.

From there, it morphed into an alternate history. Once I had the alternate history idea, it was a small step to using the Isolationist movement of the 1920s and ’30s to turn America into an isolated religious tyranny.

JAN

It took me a while to research, think, write through, and develop the science fictional elements. I wasn’t sure at first how smart to make the dogs, or how they’d communicate with their humans.

A member of my writer’s group pointed out that my first concept for Rana Station wouldn’t actually work, for a lot of valid reasons. So I surveyed space habitat designs that have been proposed by sf writers and actual space scientists. Then I mixed, matched, and came up with my own (pardon the pun) spin on their ideas. After that, I had fun extrapolating how the inhabitants would design and use the interior.

What is your writing practice? Do you have a ritual to start your day? What time of day? How many hours, and how many days a week? How do you write (machine, dictate, hand write)?

LYNETTE

When I first started writing, I had a ritual. I’d light a candle or incense and start music and then do writing exercises in a journal. Those, I usually hand wrote. Then I’d re-read the manuscript pages I had written the day before. Finally, I’d put a blank sheet of paper in my IBM Selectric typewriter and re-type those pages, revising as I went. Then I wrote the next scene.

I had an infant when I started writing, so I wrote during his naps. Later, I wrote while he was in preschool (about two hours twice a week), and while he was in school.

Now, my dogs and I go to my office after breakfast. I might turn on some instrumental music or I might write in silence. I might review the latest pages. Just as often, I start where I left off. I write for at least two hours, but if the words are flowing, I will write for ten hours or more. I write six days a week with rare exceptions.

An adorable photo of Lynette’s Yorkies, Neo and Gizmo.
Yorkshire Terriers Neo and Gizmo in Lynette’s office, courtesy of Lynette’s Facebook Author Page.

JAN

I’ve never particularly made a ritual of creating a setting in which to write, but I do need to self-isolate. Attempts to write in a coffee shop or library result in people-watching instead. I write best between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. when there are no interruptions, and I write every day, if possible.

Let’s talk about writing tools. I started with crayons on cheap paper when I was four, but I’ve “traded up” a few times since then. I wrote my first complete, novel-length manuscript in 1976-78 on an Underwood manual typewriter. Later I went through two electric typewriters, a Kaypro computer (using WordStar) in the late 1980s, a succession of other PCs, and several Macs. I currently use a 15” MacBook Pro.

For early drafts I use Scrivener. It creates a separate file for each section. That makes it easy to switch their order and keep an eye on word-count. Closer-to-final drafts get copied over into MS Word. It creates a .docx file that’s easy to share for critique, print, or import into Vellum when it’s time to publish.

More specific to this book—do you write with music, tv or radio or silence? Is there a specific soundtrack you used for your book?

LYNETTE

When I started writing My Soul to Keep, I developed a specific soundtrack that I played on repeat. These days, about half the time I write in silence and the other half I’ll write with that soundtrack running or instrumental music that provides the perfect mood for the scene I’m writing. Music from epic movie battle scenes works well for me.

JAN

Sometimes I can write to instrumental music, or to songs with lyrics in a language I don’t speak. I love Two Steps From Hell and movie or show soundtracks. Current favorites include selections from The Mandalorian, as well as Raya and the Last Dragon and Captain Marvel. I grew up listening to Classical music and still enjoy it, particularly when it’s played by my sister’s band, The Dallas Winds.

However, when I’m trying to compose finished work I go silent. I need to listen to the internal cadence of the words I’m polishing, and music drowns that out.

What did you research the most? Did any of your research surprise you?

LYNETTE

What I researched the most is hard to say. It might be a three-way tie between the location and the history of the American Isolationist and the Eugenics movements.

My research constantly surprises me. I start off researching some small piece of history I recall and, in the process of that research, find a snippet that leads somewhere interesting. One of those surprises that became a large piece of My Soul to Keep was the eugenics programs that existed in the U.S.A. prior to World War II. You can read about the Better Baby Contests and the Eugenics movements on my blog.

JAN

I’ve done deep dives into both dog cognition and space habitat design. Like Lynette, I turned both of those inquiries into blog posts. My “Dog Cognition” series explored how much normal dogs understand, surprising canine word comprehension, and canine emotions. The “DIY Space Station” series offered an overview, then specifically looked at Dyson Spheres, Bernal Spheres, O’Neill Cylinders, and the Stanford Torus.

Not surprisingly, I needed to do lots of research into police standards, culture, practices and procedure—and wow, did that ever put me on the cutting edge of current events last year! You’ll find echoes of that research in the way police operate on Rana Station.

I think some of my most surprising research started when I was searching for sources of protein that one could sustainably produce in a space-based habitat. That led me to cultured milk, eggs, and meat and branched over into some of the ideas that underpin the speculative medical technology my characters call “re-gen therapy.”

When you started fleshing out your ideas for the book, did you start with plot, character, location, or something else?

LYNETTE

I almost always start with one or more characters. For me, character starts with a voice or an attitude that I find interesting. Plot and theme arise out of the characters’ needs and wants. And I choose locations because of real-life history, the mood I want to evoke, or an event that needs to happen. I also created locations that are totally fictional, but they provide an element that strengthens the theme or plot.

JAN

My whole series started with the idea of a dog who could testify in court. Stories can start literally anywhere. But it’s not really a story until there’s a character with a problem.

A character wants something, but they’re blocked from getting what they want. The character, their desire, and their obstacle(s) are the initial setup. Without those essential elements you can’t build a plot, although you can (and probably will) imagine snippets of action that may eventually become part of the plot.

Would You Like to Ask Us Other Questions?

The plan is for both of us to publish this as a post on our blog. We thought some of you might become interested in a new writer, or encounter a new idea. We hope you’ve enjoyed our talk about writing our stories.

If you thought of questions we didn’t ask, please ask them below in the comments! We’ll happily continue the conversation, because both of us love to talk about writing.

IMAGE CREDITS:

The banner with the covers from My Soul to Keep and Fellowship and the banner for Fellowship are from Rocket Dog Publishing. Cover artwork for My Soul to Keep is © 2018 by Elizabeth Leggett. Cover artwork for Fellowship is © 2019 by Nicole Hutton at Cover Shot Creations. And the adorable photo of her Yorkies, Neo and Gizmo, is © 2019 by Lynette M. Burrows

The banner with the three XK9 covers and the one for A Bone to Pick are both from Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. Cover artwork for The Other Side of Fear is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk. Cover artwork for What’s Bred in the Bone and A Bone to Pick is © 2019 and 2020 respectively, both by Jody A. Lee. The meme with the K-9 on the witness stand is courtesy of ImgFlip.

In the header image, the photo of Lynette M. Burrows is courtesy of her website. The photo of Jan S. Gephardt is © 2017 by Colette Waters Photography. Gosh. We look nothing alike, do we? Many thanks to all!

Covers for G. S. Norwood's novellas, "Deep Ellum Pawn" and "Deep Ellum Blues."

The Deep Ellum Stories Continue: An excerpt

By G. S. Norwood, abetted by Jan S. Gephardt

00-HEADER-TWO-DEEP-ELLUM-COVERS

Tomorrow is the first anniversary of Deep Ellum Blues’ publication, and some of our readers want to know. Will the Deep Ellum stories continue?

To that, we’re happy to answer an emphatic yes. Ms. Eddy’s adventures aren’t nearly over yet. But when’s the next story coming? Well, that’s a little harder to say. Death in Deep Ellum, the working title for the third story, is a murder mystery. It’s required some theological thinking and some careful interweaving of the plot elements, while G. also works on several other exciting fiction projects.

Oh, yes, and her job. Concerts are starting up again, and the grant proposals never did let up. So G.’s a busy lady in her day job, too.

The Deep Ellum Stories Continue

But yes. Rest assured. The Deep Ellum stories continue! To prove it, this post includes a first look at Death in Deep Ellum’s opening. But before that, a quick look at how we got here.

In the first story, Deep Ellum Pawn, we met Ms. Eddy Weekes, proprietor of Deep Ellum Pawn. Her shop is always there when you need it, and she rocks the most epic storage room and garden-with-water feature that you may ever have encountered.

“The Golden Fiddle is back. The Hell Hounds are Ms. Eddy’s problem now.”
The e-edition of Deep Ellum Pawn in a visualization from Book Brush. Cover artwork © 2019 by Chaz Kemp.

Deep Ellum Pawn Description

The Golden Fiddle is back. Can Ms. Eddy break its curse this time?

What’s a pawnshop owner to do? The cursed Golden Fiddle keeps coming back to Deep Ellum Pawn, the shop where Ms. Eddy Weekes stands guard over the historic Dallas, Texas, neighborhood of Deep Ellum. Each time the fiddle shows up, it leaves a swath of broken dreams and shattered lives, with a pack of fearsome Hell Hounds hot on its trail.

Music, magic, and legends intertwine in Deep Ellum, and things long buried have a way of coming back ‘round again. Only Ms. Eddy can end the fiddle’s curse, but first she must learn its secrets.

Will she have the tools she needs to fend off the Hell Hounds and get to the heart of the Golden Fiddle, before an ancient evil brings the darkness back to Deep Ellum forever?

The Deep Ellum Stories Continue with Deep Ellum Blues

We published Deep Ellum Pawn in November 2019, preceded by three successive blog posts with excerpts and a release-day announcement. People enjoyed it, so G. got to work on a second. You might also enjoy another post with some of the story’s background, and another one on the making of the cover.

We rolled out Deep Ellum Blues not quite a year later, again with a series of blog posts. They included an excerpt, an interview of G. by internationally-bestselling mystery novelist Deborah Crombie, and a look at the making of the cover. We also posted a Setlist with YouTube videos of Mudcat’s songs (scroll down), and a release notice. And we followed its release with a post by G. about the famous song Deep Ellum Blues.

“Mudcat Randall is flirting with disaster. Can Ms. Eddy break through, or will an old and tragic story make Deep Ellum sing a new kind of blues?”
The e-edition of Deep Ellum Blues in a visualization from Book Brush. Cover artwork © 2020 by Chaz Kemp.

Deep Ellum Blues Description

Free will is a rule she doesn’t break.

As the genius loci of Deep Ellum, Ms. Eddy Weekes is a hands-off goddess who won’t micro-manage human affairs. She’d rather sit on the sidelines and enjoy the show. Her motto? “People have the right to make their own hideous, life-altering mistakes.”

But there’s something different about the young blues musician Mudcat Randall.

Maybe if her old friend Waylon hadn’t called him to her attention, she’d have let things be. Maybe if she hadn’t glimpsed something special in his music . . . But Mudcat is flirting with disaster. Eddy’s old adversary wants him to sign a tempting management contract, and there are deadly strings attached.

When a third force enters the fray, everything Mudcat has ever prayed for is suddenly on the line, and Eddy knows the game is rigged against him. Can Eddy break through to the headstrong musician? Or will an old and tragic story make Deep Ellum sing a new kind of blues?

Coming Next: Death in Deep Ellum

We promised you an excerpt. Here’s a glimpse of the current draft’s opening.

Chapter One: Prayer of the Dying

There is no prayer like the prayer of the dying.

As the genius loci of Deep Ellum, the historically Black, funky, happenin’ heart of Dallas, Texas, I hear those prayers, whether the people praying live here or just come to hang out for a while. Think of me as the neighborhood’s resident goddess. You can call me Ms. Eddy Weekes.

I heard Perkins’ prayer just after dark on a scorching summer evening. Perkins was an alcoholic, and a member in good standing of the homeless population that still drifts through Deep Ellum despite all the developers’ efforts to gentrify. I’d kept my eye on him for the past couple of years, but I hadn’t anticipated any sudden downturn in his condition.

Ms. Eddy, a detail from Chaz Kemp’s Deep Ellum Pawn cover.
Ms. Eddy, ©2019 by Chaz Kemp.

When he called, I was with him in an instant. I found him curled on his side by a back-alley dumpster off Elm Street. He’d been shot three times in the gut, and blood was everywhere.

“I’m here, Perkins. I heard you. I can fix this,” I said. The day’s heat radiated up from the crumbling asphalt as I dropped to the ground, but Perkins’ skin was already going cold, his dark skin going gray.

He rolled onto his back, his head on my knees, and I put my arms around his shoulders, trying with all my will to knit his shattered intestines back together.

“It’s my time, Miz Eddy. Don’t worry ‘bout me. It’s my time.”

His voice was a thin thread, only sustained by the force of my will. He had called out to me in need. I had to know what he wanted me to do.

“What happened?”

“I’ze jus’ here, and he come up out of nowhere. Shot me. Didn’t say a thing. Then he’s gone.” Perkins bucked a little against my legs, racked by a cough, a shiver, or some spasm of pain.

“What can I do, Perkins? How can I help?”

“I don. Wanna go. To the bad place. I bin. A drunk. But I ain’t. Bin bad.” His breath was coming in short gasps now.

“You won’t go to the bad place,” I promised. I could see his soul starting to spin out and away from his body, so I reeled it in, holding it close. “What else?”

Perkins made a supreme effort. He used his very last breath to ask one more thing of me.

“Get that son of a bitch.”

He sagged in my arms as I drew together the last tattered fragments of his soul, winding it into a tight ball. Holding it in my heart, as well as my hands, I said aloud, “Nathan Allen Perkins, I see you. I see you in your entirety. I see your heart. I see your mind. I see your soul. You are worthy. You will be missed. You will be remembered. You are safe in my hands, and free to move forward without fear.”

Then I tucked his soul into a pocket of time and space not even my old foe, Nick, could hack into. I sent the little pocket to the store room of my pawn shop, where Perkins’ soul could rest until I delivered it on up to the next level.

That done, I paused a moment to absorb the loss of a man I had liked. I’d given Perkins sandwiches from the shop down the street. He’d kept an eye out for Morsel, my wandering cat. We had shared gossip, and the news of the neighborhood. Perkins’ belief in me had fed my being just as surely as my sandwiches had fed his. I am far too old to trade in human relationships but, as far as it was possible, Perkins had been my friend. I would miss him.

So I took the moment to mourn. Something vital was now gone from Deep Ellum, and I felt the loss.

A detail from one of Chaz Kemp’s working drawings of Ms. Eddy.
Ms. Eddy, ©2020 by Chaz Kemp.

Then I pulled my phone out of my back pocket and called 9-1-1.

It would only take the cops a few minutes to get here.

In those few minutes, I took a look around the alley. I wasn’t interested in the three brass shell casings I spotted at the corner where Crowdus Street intersected with the alley that ran behind a rag-tag assortment of take-out restaurants. I didn’t much care about the view from the youth hostel that loomed above me, or the rusty, reeking dumpster that must have all but hidden Perkins unless someone was looking for him. I saw the bottle he’d been nursing, smelled the rotgut that had spilled from it.

And, faintly, under the garbage, the booze and the blood, I smelled something else entirely. As I rose from the pavement to stand guard over my friend’s body, I caught just the barest trace of brimstone. Somehow, in some way I could not yet see, Nick had had a hand in this.

I would help the police, if I could, to find the man who pulled the trigger, but Perkins had asked me for more than mere human justice. He’d asked me to “get that son of a bitch.” That meant I was going to have to track down the Devil himself.

The Deep Ellum Stories Continue

We hope you’re looking forward to Death in Deep Ellum as much as we are. And we’ll keep you posted on progress!

IMAGE CREDITS:

The covers for Deep Ellum Pawn and Deep Ellum Blues are ©2019 and 2020, respectively, by Chaz Kemp. The character developments for Ms. Eddy are also ©2019 and 2020, respectively, by Chaz Kemp. Many thanks!

the logo for Archon science fiction convention

Because Archon’s Doing it Right

By Jan S. Gephardt

I am happy to report that I’m going to Archon 44 after all. Why? Because—and only because—Archon’s doing it right.

The Email That Changed Everything

At left, a vaccination map of the US, shows Missouri’s vaccination rate is less than 55%, and Illinois is less than 70%. At right, the most current chart available at publication time shows that on Sept. 20, 2021, there were 207,974 new COVID-19 cases in the USA.
The vaccination map at left is by Josh Renaud, courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The chart at right is from The New York Times, via Google.

You may recall that a few weeks ago, I very reluctantly decided to withdraw from this year’s FenCon, a Texas science fiction convention that my son and I have come to love. I had been watching the COVID-19 trends in the St. Louis area and growing more and more convinced I’d have to do the same with Archon. But then I got the Email That Changed Everything.

“The Archon Chairs have decided to require vaccination OR a negative COVID test within the previous 72 hours,” the email said. “Documentation is required for both. . . There are no exceptions to this policy.” This is such an unusual and—sadly—BRAVE position to take in this part of the country that I actually gasped.

Archon 44 Co-chairs Alan DeVaughn and Scott Corwin are boldly going where many regional convention chairs have feared to go. And while they’re at it, they’re going “all the way.”

The state of Illinois has mandated masks for indoor public spaces for anyone older than 2 years old,” they wrote. “The mask must cover your nose and mouth, unless you are eating or drinking. If you are asked to put your mask on by an Archon staff / committee member and choose not to comply, you will be asked to leave. There are no exceptions to this policy.”

At left, protesters hold up signs with slogans opposing vaccine requirements. At right, protesters from a different group hold up signs with anti-mask slogans.
At left, protesters demonstrate against vaccine mandates (photo by John Lamparski, via The Atlantic). At right, anti-mask protesters in Kalispell, MT (courtesy of the Flathead Beacon).

Archon’s doing it right.

Yes, Archon’s doing it right, and I couldn’t be more pleased. I plan to honor their commitment to follow both science and good sense in the best way I know how: by coming with my books, my artwork, and my work ethic. I’m scheduled for nine events and panels—and I plan to show up for all of them as well-prepared as I can possibly be.

I’m also going to do everything in my power to promote their event—for example, on this and my other blogs, and on every social media platform where I have a presence. Because Archon’s doing it right, they have earned my heartfelt gratitude and loyalty.

If anyone reading this was on the fence and wavering about coming to Archon, please make this policy your deciding vote for going!

Oh, and a word to the wise: book your hotel reservations (use the link on their homepage to get the convention rate) as soon as possible. Historically, they fill up fast!

This montage shows views from Archon 42 and 42, held in 2018 and 2019. Above are two art panels. Below, two views of the Gateway Center, one in sunshine and the other in rain.
Top L, artists Brent Chumley, Rachael Mayo, and Allison Stein discuss creating fantasy creatures in 2019. Top R, Rachael Mayo and several attendees discuss art materials at a 2018 panel. Below, R-L, we had much sunnier weather at the Gateway Center in 2019 than 2018. (All photos by Jan S. Gephardt).

I Have History with Archon

As I noted in the article on my Events Calendar, Archon has been around for a while.

The “44” in Archon 44 means this annual convention has been around for a while. G., Warren, Pascal and I all went to earlier Archons when we were just starting in fandom. And a few years ago, Ty and I started going to them again. If you follow my blog, you might remember posts I’ve written about hall costumes at Archon 42 and 43, and the Art Show.

It’s a well-established convention, run by people who generally know what they’re doing and find excellent ways to make it a good weekend for attendees.

After years in the funky, rambling, since-demolished Henry VIII Hotel in St. Louis proper, the convention has found an excellent new home in the Gateway Convention Center and DoubleTree Hotel in Collinsville, IL.

Throughout my career, I’ve had some great moments, and met some wonderful people at Archon.

Photos from the “writing side” of Archons 42 and 43, held in 2018 and 2019. These photos show a variety of people engaged in panel discussions, readings, and demonstrations.
At left, EMT Kevin Hammel conducts a highly informative 2019 presentation on gunshot wounds, for writers who want to get it right. Top center, a 2018 panel on Diversity in SF, which included, L-R, Jennifer Stolzer, Kathleen Kayembe, Camille Faye, and Debbie Manber Kupfer (M). Top far right: I prepare for my reading in 2019. Below center L-R: Donna J. W. Munro, Marella Sands, and Christine Nobbe chat with the audience before their readings in 2018. Below R, Jennifer Lynn discusses Shamans, Druids, and Wise Women in a 2019 presentation. Photos by Jan S. Gephardt, with the exception of one (guess which) by Tyrell Gephardt.

But that was then. What about Now?

ecause Archon’s doing it right, I’ll have an opportunity to show off my new book (readers who’ve followed this blog in recent weeks probably noticed I have one) sooner than next February (looking at you, Capricon 42). And I’ll get to display my artwork in an in-person display for the first time in almost 2 years.

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.
Jan’s new book A Bone to Pick became widely available in a variety of formats after Release Day, September 15, 2021. Cover artwork © 2020 by Jody A. Lee.

I’m scheduled for an autograph session on Friday, a reading on Sunday, and seven panels (several of which I’m moderating). I love doing those things, because they give me opportunities to have great conversations with other panelists and audience members. I get to meet creative, interesting new people (and so can you, if you’ll join us at Archon). And I also get to re-acquaint myself with people I haven’t seen for a while.

I’ll come equipped with an expanded collection of S.W.A.G., badge ribbons and bookmarks for all (or—if that last order doesn’t arrive in time, at least most) of the books and stories Weird Sisters Publishing has produced so far. If you’re a subscriber to my monthly newsletter, and you tell me so at Archon, I’ll even have an exclusive-offer “I’m a Member of the Pack” badge ribbon for you.

Here’s Jan at her Autograph table, surrounded by S.W.A.G.
Jan at her Capricon 40 autograph table (photo by Tyrell Gephardt).

Introducing “Stripped ‘Scripts”

Also because Archon’s doing it right, my son Tyrell will have a first opportunity to present his new service to authors, called “Stripped ‘Scripts.” Through it, he’ll bring his skills as a developmental editor to a new audience.

What’s a developmental editor, and why would a writer need one? In the movie industry they’re sometimes called “script doctors.” While that name gets applied to services from high level plot-revision to hands-on rewriting, the idea is basically that when a plot or a manuscript has gone off the rails, dead-ended somewhere, or developed another kind of structural dysfunction, all hope may not be lost.

A good developmental editor can look it over and offer an analysis. They’ll often have a better idea of what’s wrong and how to turn it into a structurally sound story than an author who’s “written themself into a corner” and run out of ideas. I’ll freely admit that my stories have benefitted from Ty’s “big picture” view. I also appreciate his fresh takes on cultural adjustments to varied technical innovations, and his martial-arts expertise.

Here’s a photo of Ty, along with his business card for Stripped ‘Scripts
Photo and developmental editing business card design are both courtesy of Tyrell Gephardt.

Because Archon’s Doing it Right, We can Relax and Have a Great Con

I know I’m not the only science fiction fan who has missed going to conventions. I’ve blogged elsewhere about why I love science fiction conventions. Not rubbing shoulders with other writers and the fans who keep us afloat has been disappointing, but necessary during the pandemic.

But although it seems as if it’s taking forever, it’s now in our power to make this fourth wave the last one. It’ll be a bit longer, no thanks to the purveyors of an unprecedented flood of misinformation. But we can do it. Spread the word. Speak up in support of those who are doing it right. Kindly (if possible) help to educate those who are sincerely confused.

Science, technology, and government services (sometimes government really isn’t the problem!) have given us the tools we need. They’ve placed research, growing understanding of this virus, and three phenomenally effective vaccines within our grasp. We’re the taxpayers who’ve underwritten much of this historic work. We now have the right and privilege to avail ourselves of these new tools and understandings.

And because Archon’s doing it right, we now can do it at a science fiction convention!

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to Archon’s Facebook Page, for the logo header image. The map showing vaccination rates in the United States was created by Josh Renaud for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The chart of COVID-19 cases in the United States is regularly updated by The New York Times, accessed 9/21/2021 via Google.

The montage images from Archon 42 and 43 are all by Jan S. Gephardt except for one, taken by Tyrell E. Gephardt (of Jan’s reading). Ty also took the one of Jan at her Capricon 40 autograph table. Moreover, he provided the photo of himself, along with the image of his “Stripped ‘Scripts” business card.

Many thanks to all!

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.

Midnight Crop Inspection

A Short Excerpt from Chapter One of A Bone to Pick

By Jan S. Gephardt

“What is that dark thing in Bonita’s quinoa patch?” XK9 Shady Jacob-Belle dialed her vocalizer low, flattened her ears, and growled. Unease slithered in her gut. She drew back from the balcony’s railing.

A portrait of XK9 Rex, a large black dog.
XK9 Rex Dieter-Nell, © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

Her mate Rex had been gazing toward the starry nighttime sky-windows with a dreamy look on his furry black face. Now he crouched beside her in the shadows, tense and focused. He stared toward the quinoa. “I am not sure.” Like her, he’d lowered his volume as far as it would go.

Together they peered through gaps in the trailing curtain of sweet potato vines that hung down from the rooftop garden on the level above them. The leafy vine tendrils provided a handy impromptu blind.

Through their brain link, Shady felt her partner Pam rouse from an exhausted sleep. Physically, Pam was at home, seven kilometers away in the Central Plaza District of Orangeboro. But their brain link gave her the ability to be aware of what Shady was doing. Shady? Pam’s mental voice came across drowsy and disoriented. You okay?

For now. Stand by, Shady answered. Whatever lurked a hundred meters away in their neighbor’s field, it was roughly human-sized. Shady’s hackles rose with a prickle of foreboding. All she could see in the darkness was a lumpy shadow among the meter-high quinoa spikes. Veils of mist drifted on thermals up the clifflike terraces from the river far below. Some were too thick to see through. Air currents carried scents from the quinoa patch away, not toward her.

Mist over Chinese rice terraces.
Misty rice terraces in China. Rice terraces inspired the landforms of Rana Station. (Jack Zhou/Tripadvisor).

She stifled an urge to bark. Better stay silent until they knew more. It might be nothing. But it also might be a Transmondian agent, here to spy on Rex’s Corona Tower home. Spy, or do something worse.

Shall I come out there to you? Pam seemed wider awake now.

Be ready to call it in but stay put for the moment. There may be a simple fix.

Shady activated the neural Heads-Up Display of her Cybernetically-Assisted Perception equipment, then shifted to the thermal-imaging setting. A man’s hot, white form blazed into view among the dark, much-cooler stalks. He’d positioned himself about a meter from Rim Eight Road. “Damn. Definitely a man out there.”

At her side, Rex’s deep growl rumbled like thunder. “Not. On. My. Watch.” He rose from his crouch, then whirled toward his bedroom door. No light flicked on when he entered. He must’ve used the com in his CAP to disable the motion sensor.

A portrait of XK9 Shady, a large black sable dog.
XK9 Shady Jacob-Belle, © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

She followed, of one accord with him. On a different night they might have been less alarmed, although no night was good for prowlers. But tonight their world had changed, very much against the Transmondian government’s wishes. The humans of Orangeboro and Rana Habitat Space Station had publicly declared to the Universe that XK9s were not mere forensic tools, but sapient beings.

News feeds all over Alliance Space had broadcast a presentation that Rex, Shady, and the rest of the Pack had given to demonstrate some of their capabilities. They’d designed it to show that XK9s were capable of sapient-level thought.

The government of Transmondia had tried to stop the presentation. They’d launched hot rebuttals the moment broadcasts began. Transmondian government officials, as well as the government itself, were the XK9 Project’s major backers. They’d sold XK9s to agencies all over Planet Chayko, and planned expansions far beyond Rana Station. Premium dogs sold for millions of novi, a lucrative trade that would end if XK9s were declared sapient and shielded from trafficking by Alliance-wide laws.

Pam is a pretty Latina detective who wears her long dark hair in a ponytail.
Pamela Gómez,
© 2016 by Jeff Porter.

I’m calling it in, Pam said. I’m getting dressed.

Shady’s gut tightened. Her hackles prickled anew.

“Head for the garage,” Rex said. “We can swing through the orchard. Approach from the back of the property. I imagine he will be focused more toward the road, with its potential traffic. He may not expect us to come from the other direction.” Rex had lived here more than two months. He knew the layout of the two-hectare property far better than Shady, who’d only visited a couple of nights.

She and her mate moved silent as wraiths through the apartment, then six flights down. They passed rack upon rack of seedlings, bathed in blue light and fastened all the way down the leeward wall of the stairwell. The young plants’ vigorous, fecund smell hung thick in the air, laced with faint, faded scent-trace from Family members—but not from Rex’s human partner, Charlie Morgan. Charlie was currently in the hospital. The doctors had brought him out of his re-gen coma on Friday, but he still wasn’t healed.

A flat of seedlings under blue LED light.
Blue light stimulates seedling growth. (Dean Kopsell, University of Tennessee/Hort Americas).

I alerted Dispatch, Pam reported. Your backup’s on the way.

Thanks. Shady passed this on to Rex. Gratitude for Pam’s conscious presence and backup through the link filled her with a warm swell of affection. Poor Charlie had worn himself out, staying up to watch the XK9s’ presentation on the vid screen in his hospital room. He probably was deep asleep right now, unable to advise or comfort Rex.

Mist-borne odors of hours-ago supper and the big oak tree at the courtyard’s center mingled with the other smells into Corona’s unique mélange. Rex led her to the underground garage, then out on the spinward side of the tower, opposite their watcher’s location.

They leaped up the embankment by the driveway. “He is crouched in a harvest-ready field, heedless of the damage he is doing to the crop.” She hadn’t been a Ranan for long, but angry disgust soured her throat. “Only an ignorant foreigner would do that.”

Hot rage like charred coals burned in Rex’s scent factors , and deepened the menace in his growl. “Transmondian agent. Got to be. Probably thinks the crop is just tall weeds.”

Her mate was right. No Ranan would make such a mistake. A stealthy foreigner, concealed, spying on Corona, almost certainly came from the Transmondian Intelligence Service. Rex had good reason to hate the TIS, and especially Col. Jackson Wisniewski, the spymaster who’d tried to make Rex one of his assets.

A north Indian apple orchard.
Apple orchard in Himachal Pradesh (Vandana Gupta/Twitter).

Shady followed him toward a grove of fruit trees. By now she’d phased into full guard-dog-on-the-hunt mindset, ready to deal with this trespasser. They’d learned as puppies how to quietly navigate thick, wild brush. Far easier to move in silence through Corona’s well-maintained orchard, but better not get sloppy. Especially not if this guy was from Transmondian Intelligence. She kept her nose up, sorting through the night-smells. At last came a tendril of the stranger’s scent, laced with a telltale touch of gunshot residue.

GSR? Alarm radiated through the link from Pam. Is he armed?

I don’t think so, Shady replied. “Faint GSR,” she texted to her mate, not daring any sound at this point. If only she and Rex had a brain link like the one she shared with Pam!

“GSR confirmed, but maybe a day old,” Rex texted back.

Gunshot residue didn’t wash off easily, although this man had tried. It was yet more proof that he was a Transmondian, or at least a dirtsider from Planet Chayko. Almost no Ranans had either access to firearms or any need for them on their space station home. Good thing this man didn’t smell as if he had a gun tonight.

Misty vineyard rows.
Mist over vineyard rows at Flowers Vineyards & Winery (couldn’t find a photographer’s credit).

They crept closer, screened behind a trellised vineyard row on the leeward side of the tower, their footsteps muffled by clover. A quick dash across a short gap brought them onto neighboring Bonita Tower property, between two rows of leafy quinoa topped by heavy seed heads. Shady brushed carefully between the drying stalks, wary lest they crackle.

She and Rex moved upwind of the intruder, a couple of rows over. She’d already committed his personal odor profile to memory, but now she studied his scent factors. The involuntary exudations betrayed the dusty-smoky smell of fatigue. Perhaps a touch of shuttle-lag? She caught the faint pa-pum of his heartbeat, his careful, even breathing, and then his quiet yawn.

“Wait here,” Rex texted. “I’ll approach him from behind.” He disappeared around the end of a row.

Shady halted, ears up. “How close is our backup?” she texted Dispatch.

“En route,” the dispatcher replied. “ETA about five minutes.”

“Good evening, sir,” Rex said in a calm, moderate tone.

A man stands in a ripe quinoa field.
A man stands in ripe quinoa field. Granted, it’s daylight and he’s not hiding. (Toronto Star/no photographer credited).

The man gasped. Dry stalks crunched.

“I do not believe I recognize you.” Rex’s robotic vocalizer-voice wasn’t capable of much emotional nuance, but from the cadence she pictured him with ears up and tail wagging. Trying to look as non-threatening as an unexpected, enormous black wolf-dog in the night could. “May I please ask what brings you—” The pop of a trank-pistol cut him off.

Shady shouldered between the plants. “Shot fired!” she told Dispatch. “We are engaging!”

“Here, now! There is no call for that.” Rex had dodged the trank bolt. A black blur of motion beyond a last row of stalks, he darted in, snapped his teeth onto—

The man twisted, faster than humans could move. His weapon popped again.

Rex stumbled backward into the quinoa, legs wobbly, then fell over.

Sorry—I did say “short.”

A Bone to Pick, from which “Midnight Crop Inspection” is excerpted, is available for pre-order in Kindle format in both the United States and the United Kingdom, for automatic delivery on Release Day, Sept. 15, 2021. After release it will be available in many formats (including print) from many fine booksellers.

If you’d like advance peeks in the future, as well as XK9-related behind-the-scenes background and bonus material, sign up for my monthly newsletter!

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.
Jan’s new book A Bone to Pick will be widely available in a variety of formats after Release Day, September 15, 2021. Cover artwork © 2020 by Jody A. Lee.

IMAGE and OTHER CREDITS:

This excerpt from Chapter One of A Bone to Pick is © 2021 by Jan S. Gephardt, and published by Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. All rights reserved.

First, many thanks to my wonderful illustrators! To Jody A. Lee, who created the cover for A Bone to Pick (© 2020). to Lucy A. Synk, who painted the portraits of Rex and Shady(© 2020). And to Jeff Porter, who brought Pam to life (© 2016). You all are a blessing!

I also deeply appreciate everyone whose photos helped me illuminate this excerpt. A thousand thank-yous to Jack Zhou, a multitalented fellow. Check out his website! So much gorgeous photography! I found his photo through Tripadvisor. I’m also grateful to Dr. Dean Kopsell and Hort Americas for the photo of broccoli microgreens seedlings under the kind of blue light Uncle Ralph employs in the Corona Tower stairwell.

What a lovely find on Twitter: Vandana Gupta’s atmospheric apple orchard conveyed the look I wanted for Corona’s orchard. I’m also inspired by the photo of the vineyard in the mist from Flowers Vineyards & Winery. Do yourself a favor and spend some time on their beautiful website! And I’m also grateful the Toronto Star provided such a brilliantly illustrative photo of a man in a ripe quinoa field (but in brighter light than what Shady had for her midnight crop inspection). Now you know how a quinoa field looks, and how tall the stalks are compared to an adult human male.

Deepest thanks to all!

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.

The story of A Bone to Pick’s Cover

By Jan S. Gephardt

It’s way too late for this to be a “reveal,” but the story of A Bone to Pick’s Cover deserves telling. Because it was not an easy—or short—journey!

Late update: I unfortunately timed this post just when Jody had retired her old website and hadn’t quite gotten her new one ready. If you’re reading this in late 2021, her links may not work.

The Artistry of Jody A. Lee

For most of my adult life it has been my secret fantasy that someday my books would have Jody A. Lee covers. She and I have a rather long history, and through it all, I’ve cherished an abiding love and admiration for both her, and her artwork. From the very beginning, long before it seemed like even the remotest possibility, I harbored a fantasy. I dreamed that one day Jody could illustrate a book I had written. It seemed like a crazy pipe dream, back then.

Jody and I met through ASFA, the Association of Science Fiction & Fantasy Artists, back in the 1980s. For quite some time in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, my husband Pascal and I acted as her agent for sending her fine art prints to science fiction conventions all over North America. I also created a couple of printed promotional brochures for her, in an early effort to help market her work directly to fantasy art lovers.

Even though those markets have changed, and changed, and changed again, We’ve been friends since then. In recent years we’d grown more distracted by family and career issues. But when I went to her and asked if she’d ever be willing to paint a cover for me, she said yes! My crazy-pipe-dream-fantasy actually came true. Twice, so far! How many people get to say that?

Left to right, some book covers by Jody A. Lee: “The Black Gryphon,” by Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon; “A Study in Sable,” “By the Sword,” and “The Hills Have Spies,” all by Mercedes Lackey.
Jody has range and vision and amazing skill. All of these cover paintings are ©Jody A. Lee (image source credits below).

A Memorable Moment in the Book

Jody reads the current draft of my book before she conceives the cover illustration. She builds it based on a memorable moment. In our first outing, for the cover for What’s Bred in the Bone we considered several scenes. Jody’s portrayal of Shiv and Rex in the Five-Ten worked best. But then came a bunch of those devilish details.

Jody doesn’t normally read a lot of science fiction, especially not “hard” sf. I’d had several readers who were old hands at sf go through the work and have little reported trouble with the descriptions. But Jody was having a devil of a time visualizing some of them. We went round and round on the helmet and background and how to portray them. What did I mean by this or that term? What did one of those things look like?

But eventually we arrived at this characteristic moment for Rex and Shiv, a man who was at that point in the story his SBI “frenemy.” And helping Jody visualize it helped me understand ways to (I hope) make the story more understandable and accessible. I like to think that others are intrigued by the idea of a sapient, talking police dog, even if they primarily read other genres. And maybe they will enjoy the stories more, thanks to my consciousness-raising from Jody.

Left to right, Rex in the Citron Flash; then Shiv and Rex in the Five-Ten.
Two highly characteristic moments from the novels. Artwork © 2020 and 2019 respectively, by Jody A. Lee.

A Fantasy Painter Tackles Futuristic Tech. Twice.

When you read A Bone to Pick you’ll almost certainly recognize “The Scene” that inspired the cover. That scene unfolded somewhat differently in the early (2019) draft Jody read, but it’s definitely still in there. Many of those who’ve read the manuscript as beta-readers or critique partners also pointed it out as a favorite moment. I was tickled by the idea that it would end up on the cover. And I think she has realized it beautifully.

But that beautiful painting didn’t happen without long, hard effort.

First problem: Jody knew she wanted to show Rex in the car. But what did a futuristic self-driving car on a space station look like? It needed to look sleek and science-fictional. The boring little auto-nav boxes that most people utilize on Rana wouldn’t “read” well on a book cover at all! That’s how the Citron Flash was born. In later drafts, it developed into something of a “character” in its own right. If you enjoy that minor subplot when you read the book, chalk up another “thank you” to Jody.

But this wasn’t the first time Jody had approached science fictional tech with initial trepidation. Remember Shiv’s helmet and his weapon on the first cover? That gun-looking thing is an EStee. It’s a dual-function service weapon used by law enforcement officers on Rana. But for a fantasy artist who specializes in painting swords, a futuristic firearm wasn’t part of the normal toolkit. For the underlying EStee design, she and I owe a debt of gratitude to Jeff Porter. He helped me with some initial character development artwork, and he reportedly enjoyed designing an EStee for me.

An early study for the Citron Flash, a detail of Shiv’s helmet and EStee from “What’s Bred in the Bone,” and Jeff Porter’s EStee prototype design.
Artwork is © 2020 and 2019 respectively by Jody A. Lee, and @2016 by Jeff Porter.

Envisioning the Inside of Rana Station

Unfortunately for Jody, that was not the most daunting science fictional aspect she’d have to tackle. The story of A Bone to Pick’s cover involves a particular, peculiar twist. Or should I say “upward curve”? The infernal perspective of the habitat wheel posed a far steeper challenge. This peculiarity of the toroidal space habitat landscape is so marked, it provided an opening for What’s Bred in the Bone, where it bothered the newly-transplanted, planet-reared Rex:

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.
Jan’s novel What’s Bred in the Bone, the first book in the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy, is available right now. Cover artwork © 2019 by Jody A. Lee.

“Damn it, no horizon should bend upward.

“XK9 Rex Dieter-Nell flinched away from the “scenic overlook.” He clenched his jaws on a quiet whimper, but the shudder down his back made his hackles prickle.

“His human partner, Charlie, met Rex’s eyes. I’m sorry. I know you don’t like it. His words flowed through their brain link on a wave of empathy.

“Rex lowered his head, wary of insulting his partner’s beloved home. . . . I guess we’ll see how things work out. He hazarded another look. Ugh. It was freaky-unnatural for a river to run down the wall at one end of the vista, as Wheel Two’s Sirius River did. Even worse for it to run back up the wall at the other.”

–Chapter One, “A Walk in the Park,” from What’s Bred in the Bone
Rex and Shady are silhouetted against the sky-windows of Rana Station.
Rex has since reconciled himself to the view. (background ©2020 by Jody A. Lee; Rex and Shady portrait heads ©2020 by Lucy A. Synk).

The infernal perspective of a habitat wheel

God bless Don Davis and Rick Guidice. They were the first artists to grapple with the technical complexity of painting a landscape as it would appear inside something similar to a massive bicycle wheel in space. They were an essential part of the early NASA Ames Research Center project. In the summer of 1975, they helped a think-tank of genius scientists and engineers develop detailed plans for a habitat in space based on a wheel-like structure, a basic plan first proposed by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1903.

Drawing the thing from the outside was far easier than drawing or painting images of the inside. But Davis and Guidice brought it memorably to life. You’ll notice that two of the three are cutaway views. As the middle image from 1975 demonstrates (below), it’s really challenging to get such an image to “read” clearly. Bending their brains around the crazy view cannot have been easy. But ever since then we’ve had something of a “cheat sheet” to go by.

And also a challenge for their successors. If they could do it, then it can be done.

Visualizations of the interior of a toroid space habitat: Left to right, under construction and a landscape oof the interior; and a cutaway of the interior with homes and landscaped plants.
Visions from the Ames Center in 1975: © NASA; artwork left and center by Don Davis. Artwork at right by Rick Guidice.

An Alien Landscape

Early in the story of A Bone to Pick’s cover, I sent Jody these images from 1975 (she’d already found them for herself, too, I believe). When she sent her first developmental color study, she accounted for the “bent” horizon. Other aspects of Orangeboro’s topography, though? Unfortunately, not so much.

That was my bad. As a writer, it’s easy to airily refer to “the verdant terraces of the Sirius Valley” and go on with whatever is happening in the scene. But an artist has to show it. In considerably more detail than the writer must devote to the subject. No matter how “impressionistic” the artist’s technique may be. And you’ll have noticed already that Jody has a beautiful style, but it’s not notably “impressionistic.”

So, okay, Jan. What do you mean by “the verdant terraces of the Sirius Valley”?

Rana Station is supposed to be a self-sufficient space habitat that is home to more than eight million souls. Those are eight million souls who need not only room to live and work, but who also need to eat. Self-sufficient means they need to grow it all on-Station. And that means they need to maximize their food-growing space. Don Davis gave us a rolling, but basically single-level landscape that didn’t include nearly enough growing space for what I had in mind. Rana Station needed something different. This led me to agricultural terraces and river meanders.

At left, Philippine rice terraces. At right a satellite view of a meandering river.
Rice terraces in the Philippines create crop land on a steep hillside (photo © by Allyson Tachiki), and rivers naturally meander (photo by Google via Robert Hodgin).

The Terraces of the Sirius River Valley

I needed a “horizontal space multiplier,” if I was going to feed all those hungry fictional mouths. I also needed to account for some of the natural patterns we know will develop over time, because: physics. Humans have been “making more arable land” for centuries, using agricultural terraces in naturally-steep terrain.

And even from early on, it was pretty clear that there’d be a river running through the torus. If you water the plants in gravity, where does the water go? Check the Don Davis landscape above from 1975.

Moreover, if water flows, it naturally meanders. My Rana Stationers would have to allow for that, too. I also realized that an undulating valley structure, winding in and out, rather than running arrow-straight along the insides of the torus also would be a “horizontal surface multiplier.” For an unscientific example of this, fold a paper fan. Your fan has the same surface as a flat piece of paper, but the flat paper is much longer. The folds condense the surface area.

Thus, I told Jody not only were “The verdant terraces of the Sirius Valley” built like giant stair steps. They also rippled in and out. So, is that clear enough?

Say, what???

The story of A Bone to Pick’s cover grew kind of complex at this point. The superb horticulturalists of Rana Station don’t tolerate unproductive weeds in any precious cubic centimeter of Ranan soil. But at this point Jody and I wandered off into the tall, jungle-thick, metaphorical weeds of trying to communicate with each other. No. it was not clear enough. Not at all.

Frustrated, I resorted to the same expedient Davis and Guidice had, back in 1975: I started making pictures. More accurately, I started making models. I created what I thought were interesting simulations of the perspective. But my models still didn’t communicate what Jody needed.

Left-to-right, Jody’s first color study for the cover of “A Bone to Pick,” Jan’s photo of the maquettes she’d constructed, and Jan’s cut-and-paste mashup of Jody’s Rex-in-car sketch over photos of Jan’s maquettes.
At left is Jody’s first color study. Center and right are Jan’s attempts to use 3-D paper maquettes to describe the terraces, switchbacks, and a model of Corona Tower cut-and-pasted behind the sketch of Rex in the car. No, they didn’t make sense to Jody, either. (artwork © 2020 by Jody A. Lee and Jan S. Gephardt, respectively).

Something Like Wavy Layer Cakes

It’s a good thing we had started working on this project well before I needed it, or the story of A Bone to Pick’s cover might have turned tragic at this point. It took me a long time to produce a drawing that more clearly communicated what I needed to convey to Jody (see below left). It’s not great art, and since my studio was mostly in boxes while we put in a new floor, I wasn’t able to develop any kind of perspective for the buildings beyond “eyeballing” the angles. It was crude. It was stiff. Frankly, it was an embarrassing drawing.

But once I sent it, we were finally on ever-more-synchronized wavelengths. I had begun to fear we’d never get there. That she’d tell me to take my stupid job and shove it. But Jody is a pro, and she stuck to it. And when it comes to visualizing something that is purely hypothetical and may never exist in real life, I guess you can’t beat a fantasy artist.

I was startled and distracted by how much my terraced hills looked like layer cakes, but by now Jody had a firm vision and a much less meandering route to the finish line. She took things masterfully from there. We exchanged a series of sketches, and she got to work on the final painting.

Left to right, Jan’s first, stiff sketch in a sketchbook; Jody’s response, based on it; and Jan’s refinement on the idea, with more terraces, in response.
A “conversation” between artists: evolving views of the “verdant terraces of the Sirius Valley.” Artwork © 2020 by Jan S. Gephardt, Jody A. Lee, and Jan S. Gephardt,, respectively.

The story of A Bone to Pick’s Cover

So that’s the story of A Bone to Pick’s cover. I hope that this collaboration has not only produced a cover to make you smile (and buy my book???). I hope that the whole process of working through questions of “exactly what do you mean by that?” and “what does that look like?” has made A Bone to Pick a better book.

You can find out for yourself it it did, on (or after) the release date, September 15, 2021. If you’re interested, you can pre-order a Kindle version in either the USA or the UK. After release, it’ll be available from a variety of booksellers in a variety of formats.

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.
Release day is September 15, 2021! Pre-orders available. Cover artwork is © 2020 by Jody A. Lee.

IMAGE AND OTHER CREDITS:

The excerpt from What’s Bred in the Bone is © 2019 by Jan S. Gephardt, published by Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. All rights reserved.

Of course, the vast majority of the artwork in this post is © by Jody A. Lee. The EStee sketch is © 2016 by Jeff Porter. There also are some sketches that are © 2020 by Jan S. Gephardt. And the “head shot” portraits of Rex and Shady are © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

The book covers at the beginning come from a variety of sources. That first cover, for The Black Gryphon, is courtesy of Amazon. The covers for A Study in Sable and By the Sword are courtesy of Goodreads. And the cover for The Hills Have Spies is from Penguin Random House.

Imagery and all kinds of rich information from the NASA Ames Research Center makes my life as a science fiction writer infinitely easier, and continues to yield more treasure each time I explore it. And I can’t begin to express the impact the artwork of Don Davis and Rick Guidice has had, both on my work, and on the conception of Rana Station. Seriously, guys. It’s a debt I can’t ever repay.

Farther down, the photo of the Batad Rice Terraces in Banaue, Philippines is © by Allyson Tachiki via Flickr. It offers a great example of how humans have learned to “make more land” out of very steep terrain. The satellite photo of an unidentified river meander originated from Google. But I found it on Robert Hodgin’s fascinating exploration of river meanders. Do yourself a favor and check out that web page when you have a minute. It’s pretty amazing.

A hot, hazy Dallas skyline

My Summer Getaway

By G. S. Norwood

Well. I finally did it. I made it safely through months of writing major grant proposals. Organized three far-from run-of-the-mill concerts. Took on some new job responsibilities, on top of the two full-time jobs I’m doing already. And I survived. Now, my friends and readers, it’s time for my summer getaway.

I’m looking for a place that will allow me to relax. Spend some quality time looking at outstanding scenery. And be much, much cooler than Dallas, both in temperature and in vibe.

Not that I will actually get away. Between a resurgent coronavirus and the high cost of pet sitters, this year’s vacation is definitely going to be a staycation. Still, I’ve discovered a way to escape to a summer getaway destination without leaving my favorite chair.

Reading. Yep, that’s right. I’ll trade the 100-degree-plus heat of Texas for some prime summer getaway locations through the magic of books. Thanks to the recommendations of friends, family connections, and one stroke of good luck, I plan to immerse myself in several mystery and science fiction series set in places much cooler than Dallas. What more could I ask of a vacation?

Nantucket is Nice

Brant Point Lighthouse by Brian Thoeie.
The Brant Point Light during a gorgeous Nantucket sunset (Insider’s Guide to Nantucket/Brian Thoeie).
Cover of “Death in the Off Season,” by Francine Mathews.
Death in the Off Season (Francine Mathews).

Francine Mathews launched her career as a mystery writer with a series of books about Meredith “Merry” Folger, a detective on the small police force that keeps Nantucket Island safe for the year-rounders as well as the tourists. Starting with Death in the Off Season, Mathews reveals the private face of Nantucket the summer people rarely see.

The island teems with cobblestone streets, cranberry bogs, fishing boats, and homes that pass down through old island families, generation after generation. Mathews makes all of it come alive. You can feel the sea breezes and all but taste the salty air. There are six books so far in the Merry Folger series. More than enough to last through as long a vacation as you choose to take. Or to create a quick summer getaway no matter what time of year it is.

How about the UK?

The Isle of Skye's main town, Portree, and Constable country: Flatford in Suffolk.
Colorful Portree is the biggest town on the Isle of Skye, and Flatford in Suffolk is the onetime home of the artist John Constable. (Planet Ware/Global Grasshopper).
Cover of “A Dream of Death,” by Connie Berry
A Dream of Death
(Connie Berry/Amazon)

I stumbled onto Connie Berry’s Kate Hamilton mysteries by happy chance. Berry has just released the third book in the series, and was featured on my (other) favorite blog, Jungle Red Writers. She offered a copy of her new book to one blog commenter chosen at random. Lucky me! I got the book! Along with a tasty bonus of shortbread and tea bags, plus two very nice bookmarks. (And you know how I feel about bookmarks.)

While awaiting the arrival of book #3, The Art of Betrayal in the mail, I did the only civilized thing: bought books #1, A Dream of Death and #2, A Legacy of Murder on my Kindle. I wound up “chain reading” them. No sooner had I finished the first, but I picked up the second. By the time I was done with that, book #3 was right there, ready to start. After two weeks, I felt like I’d had a lovely (although somewhat murderous) summer getaway in Scotland and Suffolk, and only had one question: Where’s book #4?

Escape to the Wilds of British Columbia

A lake in British Columbia with rugged mountains in the background.
A gorgeous view from Yoho National Park in British Columbia. (Planet Ware/Lana Law)
Cover of “A Killer in King’s Cove,” by Iona Whishaw
A Killer in King’s Cove.
(Iona Whishaw).

British Columbia might be suffering through an epic heatwave at the moment, but in 1947 the climate there was darn near perfect. At least, if you believe author Iona Whishaw. In her Lane Winslow mysteries, Wishaw paints the Kootenay region of British Columbia as a hotbed of English ex-pats, Russian refugees, Soviet spies, and weary veterans, still recovering from the trials of World War I and the more recent World War II.

Into this paradise comes Lane Winslow, a young woman who grew up in Latvia and Scotland, speaks numerous languages, including Russian and French, and just wants to get away from it all. Lane spent the war working for British Intelligence, parachuting into France to help the Resistance, and learning many life-or-death skills along the way. Smart, funny, independent, and always curious, Lane’s character is based on Wishaw’s own mother. She’s just the kind of heroine I like to hang out with for a long summer getaway.

There are eight books so far in the Lane Winslow series. Whether you read them end-to-end as I did, or parcel them out like bites of candy from your big birthday chocolate box, don’t miss them!

The Ultimate Out of This World Summer Getaway

XK9 Rex takes a ride through an exurb of Orangeboro.
Motoring in Orangeboro is particularly thrilling with the windows down. (Weird Sisters Publishing/Jody A. Lee).

Of course, the weather is always perfect on Rana Station, the setting for my sister, Jan S. Gephardt’s book What’s Bred in the Bone, as well as the upcoming A Bone to Pick. Yes, I have read them both. Multiple times, as it happens. And I plan to read A Bone to Pick at least once more, when the final edition comes out September 15.

Rana Station, as it turns out, is the ultimate summer getaway. It’s chock full of interesting characters, unusual cultural customs, aliens, dogs, alien dogs . . . And crime. There’s lots for Jan’s XK9s to sniff out and understand as they explore their new home and examine new ideas about their very nature.

Covers for Books # 1 and #2 in the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy.
The cover art for Jan S. Gephardt’s What’s Bred in the Bone and A Bone to Pick are ©2019 and 2020, respectively, by Jody A. Lee.

And this is the perfect time to dip into the first of the series, What’s Bred in the Bone. Both the books are longer than average—about four volumes if we count pages like we’d count dog years. By the time you finish What’s Bred in the Bone—then go back and savor some of the best parts—it will be time to dive right into A Bone to Pick! That will make your summer getaway last right on through the fall!

What books, characters, or universes do you turn to, when you need a summer getaway? Please share some of your favorites in a comment!

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to Dallas Magazine and Getty Images for the view of a sweltering Dallas, TX skyline. We appreciate the Insider’s Guide to Nantucket and photographer Brian Thoeie (for whom we could find no online profile) for the gorgeous sunset photo of the Brant Point Light. The cover for Death in the Off Season, by Francine Mathews, is courtesy of Mathews’ website. We appreciate it!

We’re indebted to Planet Ware for the photo of Portree, on the Isle of Skye, and to Global Grasshopper, for the iconic shot of Flatford, Suffolk (no photographer credits for either image). The Flatford view was immortalized in John Constable’s groundbreaking painting The Hay Wain. The cover of A Dream of Death, first of the Kate Hamilton Mystery Series, is courtesy of Amazon. Many thanks to all!

Planet Ware strikes again, this time with a photo from Yoho National Park in British Columbia by Lana Law. Thank you! We also want to thank Iona Whishaw’s website for the cover of A Killer in King’s Cove, the first book in the Lane Winslow Mystery Series.

Finally, the “tourist image” of motoring through exurban Orangeboro on Rana Station is a detail from Jody A. Lee’s cover painting for A Bone to Pick, second in the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy of science fiction mystery novels. That cover is © 2020 by Jody A. Lee. Her cover painting for What’s Bred in the Bone is © 2019 by Jody A. Lee. Please reblog or re-post these images with a link back to this post and an attribution to Jody A. Lee and Weird Sisters Publishing. We appreciate it!

The cover of the Advance Reader Copy edition of “A Bone to Pick,” by Jan S. Gephardt, shown as an ebook.

Making ARCs

By Jan S. Gephardt

I’ve been making ARCs recently.

What does that mean? It means I’ve been assembling an assortment of documents into an early version of my latest book, to create Advance Reader Copies. It’s not exactly parallel to a dress rehearsal for a stage play, but for me it’s a necessary step in the publicity rollout for my science fiction mystery novel A Bone to Pick.

I’ve been blogging a lot in this space recently, about A Bone to Pick. Those posts are another part of the rollout. As basically an Indie writer, I’m trying to build a small press publishing company, Weird Sisters Publishing, with my sister, G. S. Norwood. I may not have to face the kind of “gatekeepers” a writer encounters in traditional publishing. But plenty of other challenges attend every attempt to promote and sell each book we “weird sisters” produce and release.

G. and I decided to share part of our approach to those challenges in this blog post. We know some of our blog subscribers will be more interested in this than others. Perhaps you found G.’s post from last week more interesting. But maybe you’ll enjoy seeing me pull back the curtain on part of our process, and the role that making ARCs plays in it.

The cover of “A Bone to Pick,” by Jan S. Gephardt, as an ebook.
The release date for A Bone to Pick is September 15, 2021. (Cover art ©2020 by Jody A. Lee; 3D effect by Book Brush).

The Struggle to find Our Kind of Readers

In an earlier post I explored some of the difficulties an Indie or small press faces, when trying to get the attention of reading public. The first thing we had to understand is that “the reading public” isn’t actually our target. A small subgroup of the global population who reads books—that select group of readers who are interested in the specific kinds of stories we write—is the population we need to find.

It’s a search that never ends. This blog is part of how we search. My website and that of Weird Sisters Publishing are other essentials. Reviews, social media interactions, and targeted advertising provide other ways for us to reach out. Check us out: I have an Author Page on Facebook, and so do G and Weird Sisters. I also have a presence on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Goodreads.

I traveled to science fiction conventions for publicity as well as pleasure, until COVID put a temporary halt to that. Last fall I started building a mailing list for followers of my XK9 stories. They receive a monthly newsletter full of insider glimpses, extras, and exclusive freebies.

Join the Pack newsletter offer with FREE copy of “The Other Side of Fear” novella.
The offer still stands: Get The Other Side of Fear FREE when you sign up for my Newsletter! (all artwork ©2020 by Lucy A. Synk).

The Rollout

Those are all ongoing efforts. The rollout is different. It’s a focused push to let as many of “my kind of readers” as possible know about my new book. That includes advertising. It also includes the series of blog posts we’ve been running. Newsletter updates and excerpts. Changes to our websites.

And, importantly, it includes making ARCs. Because it has taken me so darn long to write the book, and because I’ve been planning a return to science fiction conventions that starts at FenCon, I cut my rollout shorter than would have been ideal, and set my release date for September 15, 2021.

The Kindle version of A Bone to Pick is available for presale now, in both the United States and the United Kingdom. I’ve offered a discounted price for the presale: $2.99 in the U.S. (after release it’ll go up to $4.99), and £2.12 in the UK (post-release, that’ll go up to £3.84).

I wanted, if possible, to have printed copies of the new book available at FenCon, which is scheduled for September 17-19. My proofreader is still carefully combing through the manuscript for errors. But the shortened time frame means I should have been making ARCs weeks ago, not now.

Jan at her autograph table at Capricon 40.
I go to science fiction conventions such as Capricon (where this was taken) and FenCon as part of my ongoing outreach. (Photo ©2020 by Tyrell E. Gephardt).

Making ARCs

So, okay. How hard can that be? What goes into making ARCs? Well, a finished-for-real manuscript, for one! That was the hardest and longest part.

I also have created a Directory of names, places, and acronyms in the book. That was a reader request. I’ve also included one for the first book, in current versions of What’s Bred in the Bone. Both are large, sweeping space opera mysteries, full of exo-terrestrial and multicultural names, police-style acronyms, and a rather large cast of characters. The readers were right!

Thank goodness, I’ve had the cover already created for a while now. But I needed to differentiate it from post-release “official” copies of the book, so I created an identifying element to the cover design. Yes, I could simply have overprinted “ADVANCE READERS COPY” on the cover, but I think this looks better.

What else goes into an ARC? Well, there’s all the “book stuff” you need for the real thing. A title page, with our Weird Sisters Publishing logo and URL. The page with copyright notices. Vellum, the publishing program I use, automatically creates a Table of Contents, but I needed to compose the Dedication’s wording. I added my bio for the About the Author page (with a photo), and there was other material needed for the end of the book. Did you know I also specifically designed the “Wolf Tracks” ornamental break we use in all of the XK9 books? That needed to go in there, too.

Design elements, author photo and a directory all went into the ARC compilation.
Here are some of the elements that went into making ARCs for A Bone to Pick. (Credits below).

Why do I need ARCs?

Advance Reader Copies go out ahead of the release date to my all-important Street Team—and the sooner, the better! Street Team members are people who have signed up to not only be on my mailing list and get my newsletter. They also receive free Advance Reader Copies before release date. In return, they write honest reviews of the book, and post them to Amazon on Release Day. ARCs should go out to current Street Team members today!

If you are interested in being on my Street Team, sign up for my newsletter! You’ll receive more information in the follow-up emails. It’s not too late to get an A Bone to Pick ARC of your own!

Other ARCs go to reviewers, bloggers on review sites, and other authors willing to consider giving me a cover quote. I’m in the process of contacting them now. ARCs are just a part of what goes into the “entrepreneurial” side of being an independent writer. But for me, making ARCs is the step that makes it “real.”

Yes, the book is finished at last! It says what I want, and the Brain Trust has reassured me it’s ready. And yes, others will read it soon! For me, that’s at least as big a thrill as writing THE END.

The cover of the Advance Reader Copy edition of “A Bone to Pick,” by Jan S. Gephardt, shown as an ebook.
Making ARCs is an important part of the rollout process before the release of A Bone to Pick. (Cover art ©2020 by Jody A. Lee; 3D effect by Book Brush).

IMAGE CREDITS

The cover painting for A Bone to Pick is ©2020 by Jody A. Lee. The artwork on my Newsletter offer, including the cover of The Other Side of Fear, is ©2020 by Lucy A. Synk. The photo of me at Capricon 40 with all the S.W.A.G. on my autograph table is ©2020 by Tyrell E. Gephardt. In the montage of “ARC ingredients,” the photo of me is ©2017 by Colette Waters Photography. The Weird Sisters Logo and the “Wolf Tracks” ornamental break were designed by me, and are ©2019 by Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. The photo of the Directory’s first page is a screen capture of the preview in Vellum. The 3-D effects on both the regular edition and ARC images are by Book Brush. If you wish to reblog or repost any of these images, please do so with an attribution and a link back to this post. Thank you!

The recipe that launched this blog post, “pigs in a blanket.”

Cooking is Fun!

By G. S. Norwood

Are You a Cook? Or a Snob?

Do you cook for yourself? Not just an occasional cake mix or pork chop, but really cook? Breakfast in the morning? Dinner every night? I do. Although I didn’t learn a lot about cooking when I was a kid, I can now cover the basics nearly every day. And do you know what? Cooking is fun!

Well, sort of. Once I mastered the simple stuff like scrambled eggs, and grilled cheese sandwiches, I started branching out. Looking for recipes I’d never tried before. And that’s where I ran into problems. You see, some recipes are for people who just want to put food on the table. But some recipes are aimed at hobbyists, and hobbyists are a whole different class of cooks. They look for the challenging recipe that needs special ingredients, special devices, and an elevated level of snobbery to pull off.

Scrambled eggs and beef stew.
The simple stuff, like scrambled eggs and beef stew. (G. S. Norwood).

Special Devices

I once bought a cookbook with a recipe for a delicious-looking blueberry poundcake, only to find that all the ingredients were weighed, not measured. No cups and tablespoons for this chef! And no conversion chart either, for those of us who don’t want to take up valuable counter space with a digital kitchen scale that measures things in grams.

Other food gadgets I’ve been told I “must have” include meat thermometers, candy thermometers, slow cookers, instant cookers, things that cook rice, things that cook beans, and a professional grade stand mixer that costs more than my last four grocery orders combined. I’ve even been told that no Christmas is complete unless I have an ebelskiver pan.

Every gadget listed in this blog post.
Here’s every gadget listed in this blog post. Can you name them all? (Credits below; montage by Jan S. Gephardt).

Clearly, if I don’t invest in all these gadgets, I’m not a serious cook. As if millennia of poor folk developing recipes we now call “authentic ethnic cuisine” had to wait around for the invention of the food processor to get tasty results. Which came first? The ebelskiver, or the pan?

Special Ingredients

And then there’s the “snobbier than thou” ingredient list. Nearly every single hobbyist recipe I’ve ever run across has at least one ingredient that I don’t have on hand. Some of them are not available in my local grocery store. One friend wanted to try a new recipe, only to find that none of the ingredients were commercially available in the entire 910 square miles of her county. And she doesn’t exactly live in a food desert. She has her pick of major grocery stores, plus an active farmers market and countless roadside stands in the summer.

But forget about organic quinoa, Pacific Rim seaweed paste, and rambutan. Let’s talk about salt.

Five ramekin-like holders with different colors and textures of salt.
Here are five of the article’s twelve kinds of salt. (Wide Open Eats).

The cooking website wideopeneats.com lists twelve different kinds of salt. Each has a specific use in the kitchen, and if you don’t use the right one? Well, my dear, clearly your palate is not as refined as it should be. Nor is you bank account as fat. Old fashioned cooks like my grandmother may be forgiven for rolling their eyes.  

Unrealistic Expectations

Sometimes the recipe writers assume the home cook has access to things we just don’t have access to. Not only are we expected to have a top-of-the-line, professional grade stand mixer with all the attachments, we really ought to have multi-level cooling racks, a professional grade gas stove, and a huge refrigerator dedicated entirely to proofing dough, chilling cupcakes, and making the fancy frosting frosty. I recently tried a recipe that had me mixing a simple dough in a “large bowl.” The 12” bread bowl I used was just right.

Then I got to the part about chilling the dough overnight in the refrigerator. I found room in my fridge, but I immediately thought of my grandmother’s refrigerator and my mother’s. It was a running joke in my family that those iceboxes were crammed with stuff wall to wall, front to back. My good friend follows that tradition, and kindly let me take a photo of her fridge. Please tell me where the 12” bread bowl is supposed to go?

Packed-full refrigerator shelves.
Now that’s a full fridge! (G. S. Norwood).

Cooking Is Fun!

Time to take a deep breath and a big step back. If you try to meet every expectation of those untethered-to-reality recipes, you’ll never venture into the kitchen again. But how do you “de-snobify” a new recipe?

Use what you’ve got: If the recipe calls for salt gleaned from the brows of sweaty Tuscan virgins, just use salt. Table salt is fine. Trust me.

Buy locally: If you must buy an ingredient or two, make sure they’re things you can get locally. No, I didn’t have dried cranberries or orange juice on hand when I made that orange cranberry cake, but I knew they were available at any grocery store, and the cake was worth the trip.

Edit: If I’m trying a recipe for something I know my hillbilly grandmother made all the time—like, say, ham and beans—I feel pretty safe in leaving out the seaweed.

Beans and brussels sprouts.
This recipe taught me how to cook beans, but I leave out the seaweed. (G. S. Norwood).

Give yourself plenty of time: That recipe for simple dough that needed to rest overnight in the fridge? From the moment I first mixed the yeast into warm water, to the happy instant I took the finished products out of the oven, I spent 24 hours on that “fun, fast” recipe for pigs in a blanket. Turns out, the dough recipe is enough for three batches of pigs. Maybe a hint that it’s a catering recipe? But the dough keeps in the refrigerator for weeks. The second and third batches are much faster to make, and the “pigs” are worth the work!

When you can bring a recipe back to earth and cut out all the “my palate is more refined than yours” snobbery, cooking is fun!

The recipe that launched this blog post, “pigs in a blanket.”
Worth the work! (G. S. Norwood).

NOTE:

Author G. S. Norwood has written a previous Weird Blog post, “Setting the Table,” about things to eat off of. Jan S. Gephardt periodically writes about growing food in space habitats on this blog.

But “Cooking is Fun!” breaks new ground for us. We haven’t previously written about cooking. What do you think? Would you like to see future posts about cooking? How about recipes? (no snobbishness allowed, of course!) Please leave a comment if you have an opinion or a question!

IMAGE CREDITS:

First: many of the photos (and delicious concoctions) are by G. S. Norwood, © 2021; reuse or reblog with attribution and a link back to this post, please. Montages are by Jan S. Gephardt.

We have lots of acknowledgements for the montage of gadgets. Many thanks to Williams Sonoma for the KitchenAid stand mixers “rainbow” and the nostalgic photo with the ebelskiver pan. We’re grateful to Alzashop for the pic of the Gorenje food processor with attachments, and to Sur la Table for the photos of a meat thermometer, candy thermometer, and digital food scale. Our deepest gratitude goes to Ebay for the Crock Pot picture, to Zojirushi for the big and little rice cookers, and to the New York Times’s “Wirecutter” feature, for the row of Instant Pots. And finally, we’re thankful to Amazon and Fox Run for the great “bean pot with ingredients” photo.

We are indebted to Wide Open Eats, for the photo showing five of the twelve kinds of salt described in their fascinating article. The variety truly is kind of amazing. Thanks!

A Bone to Pick by Jan S. Gephardt

Almost There

By Jan S. Gephardt

To quote Red Leader Garven Dreis, we’re almost there!

In this case, I mean we’re almost to the point where A Bone to Pick is available and ready to read. Almost. We’re close enough that I can at last announce a presale offer on Amazon, in both the US and the UK.

I’m also almost to the point where Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) are ready to go out as review copies. I’ll send them to my Street Team and other selected people (learn more about that process—and how to get one—when you subscribe to my newsletter).

The official release date is September 15, 2021. Take advantage of the presale offer to get it first thing on Release Day, and also to get it at an almost-half-off discount!

"A Bone to Pick.”
Pre-order A Bone to Pick as a Kindle ebook for a significant discount. Cover art © 2020 by Jody A. Lee.

What is A Bone to Pick? It’s the way-too-long-in-coming second novel in my XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. What’s it about? Here’s a book description.

XK9 Rex is a dog who knows too much.

Now his past is gunning for him.

Rex and his Packmates were bio-engineered and cyber-enhanced to be cutting edge law enforcement tools. So smart they’re considered uplifted sapient beings on Rana Habitat Space Station. Rex may be the Leader of the Pack on Rana, but his past is still gunning for him.

Before Rex came to Rana Station, he ran afoul of Transmondian spymaster Col. Jackson Wisniewski. He deliberately flunked out of the espionage program and threatened Wisniewski’s life. Now Wisniewski wants Rex dead. Transmondian agents watch and wait for any opportunity to strike.

Rex takes pains to evade his old enemy. His human partner, Charlie, faces a different struggle. He works to recover from catastrophic injuries – and comes face-to-face with a once-in-a-lifetime love he thought he’d lost forever.

Can Rex and Charlie confront their pasts and secure their futures? Or will events force them to sacrifice everything?

“The Other Side of Fear,” “What’s Bred in the Bone,” and “A Bone to Pick.”
Cover art for The Other Side of Fear, a prequel novella about the XK9s, is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk. Covers for What’s Bred in the Bone and A Bone to Pick are © 2019 and © 2020 respectively, by Jody A. Lee.

Almost There

I’m hopeful that I have made A Bone to Pick complete enough within itself that it will stand alone. Early returns from my Brain Trust look good.

I had a lot of fun writing this book. I enjoyed interweaving a romantic subplot (and making things tough for the would-be lovers). The Izgubil investigation continues, of course, with new twists and revelations. The XK9s face enemies both old and new – and the complexities that come with taking on the responsibilities of sapient beings begin to baffle and bemuse them.

I’ve tried to make this book as entertaining as possible. Some readers may be pleased that I reached gender-parity with the point-of-view (POV) characters in this book. In What’s Bred in the Bone there were three: Rex, Charlie, and Shady. Kinda heavy on the guys. We get to ride along in the head of a new, fourth POV this time, with Hildie’s point of view. I hope you’ll agree that she adds a new dimension.

I could say more, but I’ve hinted at enough spoilers already.

I’ve poured a lot of energy and time into this project, as readers of last week’s post may have discerned. I’m excited for you to read it. But it’s the second book in a trilogy. A reader undoubtedly will get more out of A Bone to Pick, if they read the first book, What’s Bred in the Bone, first. If you haven’t yet read it, here’s your chance!

“What’s Bred in the Bone.”
Published in a number of formats, What’s Bred in the Bone, the first book in the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy, is available from a variety of booksellers. Cover art is © 2019 by Jody A. Lee.

XK9 Rex is a dog who thinks too much

. . . and it could get him killed.

Rex and his Packmates were bio-engineered and cyber-enhanced to be cutting edge law enforcement tools, both smart and verbal. But there’s smart . . . and then there’s sapient. In the star systems of the Alliance of the Peoples, that’s a legal distinction with potentially deadly consequences for XK9 Rex and his Pack.

Sold to a police department on an in-system space station, Rex trails a pair of murder suspects. But his rookie mistake in microgravity, plus a catastrophic spaceship explosion, sideline both Rex and his human partner, Charlie.

But Rex’s keen senses picked up a vital clue about the exploded ship. He knows he must get the humans to listen to him somehow, even if it means breaking protocol. He doesn’t realize that protocol hides an ugly truth: XK9s are more than forensic tools with cold noses and wagging tails. When Rex takes an independent hike to HQ, he blows open an international conspiracy that could destabilize the entire system . . . and place all XK9s everywhere in mortal peril.

If you haven’t read it yet, there’s no better time than the present to get your copy. But maybe you’d like to know more about the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. What’s the idea behind it? Here’s the trilogy’s description.

Can a pack of uplifted police dogs find a home among the stars?

Or will their creators hound them to extinction?

The XK9s are super-smart dogs, bio-engineered and cyber-enhanced to be cutting edge law enforcement tools. But do smart and verbal equal sapient? In the star systems of the Alliance of the Peoples, that’s a legal distinction with potentially deadly consequences for XK9 Rex and his Pack of canine super-sleuths.

When Rex, his Pack, and their human allies on Rana Habitat Space Station tackle a grisly mass-murder case, more than an interstellar pleasure ship blows wide open. Now the people behind the XK9 Project, and their sponsors in the system-dominating Transmondian government, are desperate. They’ll do all they can to erase the evidence of their international conspiracy, before inspectors from the powerful Alliance of the Peoples can investigate.

Will Rex and his Pack run down the perps and defend their sapience claim? Or will their enemies destroy them?

four running XK9s.
XK9s Tuxedo, Victor, Razor, and Rex are headed somewhere in a hurry! Illustration artwork © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

Almost There” is Relative

Don’t get me wrong. I’m really excited to have a finished manuscript of A Bone to Pick. It’s literally the labor of years. But it took fewer years by far than What’s Bred in the Bone. And I really, really hope that Bone of Contention will be ready even sooner than that.

So, then. When do we get Book Three? Well, I’m working on it now. I don’t have a cover yet, but I do have a title, Bone of Contention. And I have an ever-more-detailed concept.

How close am I? Well, I have an established world and characters. Also a lot of ideas, a handful of early-draft scenes, and a partial outline.

And a book description! Can’t forget the book description. It may not be the final book description. But more experienced hands than me have advised that it’s a good practice to write a book description as part of starting a novel project. That way, when inevitable conundrums arise when the author’s drafting the novel, the book description can help keep things on track.

XK9 Rex is a dog who dreams too big.

Now he may lose everything.

Rex and his Packmates were bio-engineered and cyber-enhanced to be cutting edge law enforcement tools. But they’re more than super-smart forensic tools with cold, wet noses and wagging tails. Their human allies on Rana Station claim the XK9s are sapient beings.

Rex and the Pack have begun to enjoy the freedom Ranans believe they deserve. But they also have work to do. They’re hot on the trail of a murderous gang that explodes spaceships in the Black Void of space—killing all the souls onboard.

Mass murder in the Black Void is a hideous crime. But in the far-flung systems of the Alliance of the Peoples, trafficking in sapient beings is the most-reviled crime of all.

Inspectors from the Alliance of the Peoples are headed to Rana, to test the XK9s’ sapience claim. The leaders of the XK9 Project that created Rex and his Pack deny wrongdoing. And the system-dominating Transmondian Government that sponsored the XK9 Project will do anything they must to protect themselves.

Even if it means destroying every XK9 in the universe.

Updates to “Almost There”

This post contains a lot more information than I usually give on “Artdog Adventures” or even “The Weird Blog,” about my projects-in-progress. Those blogs generally cover more wide-ranging topics. (These blogs have featured the same material in recent months, presented simultaneously. Both my sister and I found ourselves stretched too thin to write multiple blog posts each week and cover all the other things we needed to do.)

Why not take a look?
XK9s Petunia, Crystal, Cinnamon, Scout and Shady invite viewers to take a look at ways to get updates. Illustration artwork © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

If you like more “behind-the-scenes” information about what I’m writing and how it’s going, the place to look is my monthly newsletter. Its readers get sneak peeks, bonus materials, and free giveaways that our blog readers never see. If that interests you, please give it a try!

Here on this blog, you’ll see more about A Bone to Pick when we get closer to the September 15, 2021 release date. Meanwhile, next week I’ll return to one of my favorite blog subjects—space stations, in science fiction and real life.

IMAGE CREDITS

Admiration, honor, and thanks to my marvelous illustrators, Jody A. Lee and Lucy A. Synk. See cutlines on individual images for copyright notices. You may feel free to reblog or repost any images used in this post if you want, but please show respect: link back to this post and acknowledge the image creators and their copyrights. We appreciate it!

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