This week’s Tuesday Tease comes from Kaysee Renee Robichaud. Her Bookworm Brigade series continues with a second volume POTBOILER, which is newly available in a paperback edition with a brand new cover design, as well.
This week Kaysee Renee will talk to us about guilt, dark fantasy, and some of the challenges in transitioning from an erotic writer to an urban fantasy writer.
Take it away, Kaysee Renee!
Writing the Bookworm Brigade series started as a lot of fun, and while I love my characters I find myself caught in corners, occasionally stuck in plots, and otherwise scratching my head when it comes to the adventures I want to share. I think I might like my characters too much. I don’t want to see them suffer.
Guilt is not something a good author possesses when writing. We should not feel guilty about exposing our characters to hardship. Guilt is a great topic to write about, but it’s not a great topic to experience while writing.
Take this week’s Considering Stories entry on the works of Donald E. Westlake. Daniel will be tackling the fourth in his Mitch Tobin series of private eye/not-private-eye novels: A JADE IN AIRES, which is a horoscope themed murder mystery novel. In that book, Mitch Tobin gets pulled into events he does not care to involve himself in by a random visit from the owner of a men’s boutique who is searching for the identity of his partner’s killer. The crime was classified as non-homicide by a homophobic detective eager to wash his hands of the matter, but the partner is not content with this verdict. Of course, he botches the job and ends up a victim as well, pulling the real star of the story into the investigation. Although Mitch tries to keep himself pent up in his projects (building a wall, building a subbasement), he cannot keep himself removed from the affairs of his fellow human beings for long. His wife won’t let him. I suspect his nature won’t let him either.
Tobin is no stranger to guilt. Unresolved emotional turmoil is a topic he knows well. He was removed from the police force before the first adventure because he was shtupping a woman (not his wife) while his partner was getting himself killed tracking down a perp they were supposed to be investigating together. Mitch Tobin is a character built on guilt, steeped in guilt, and pretty much obsessed with it. It’s a topic worth writing about, and one worth handling since so many human beings become its victims. The author has written several books about the topic, grappling with guilty consciences (or lacks thereof) in his murderers, his investigators, and his hapless folks caught up in grand events outside their control.
However, I doubt Mr. Westlake ever stopped his writing process to say to himself, “Wow, I’ve really been piling it on this character. I maybe should take a step back. Ease off a bit. Give him some breathing space.” The idea is somewhat ludicrous since readers are eager to see their favorite characters endure adversity. No, they want to see their favorite characters triumph over adversity.
When I sat down to pen the second Bookworm Brigade, I was in the mood to perform pulp writer Lester Dent’s trick of shoveling on trouble for my poor, beleaguered bookworm to endure. Venkat is made of stern stuff, despite being a genuinely sweet woman, and I knew she was more than capable of taking whatever punishment I dished out. She is a crafty, clever character who solves problems more often than not with her head instead of with weapons or magic. She is not your standard urban fantasy protagonist, in other words. No sword wielding, gun fu, shotgun sorceress here . . . I enjoy reading those books, but that wasn’t something I wanted to write this time around. Maybe next series.
However, when I stuck her in the situation relayed in the opening Junk In The Trunk section (excerpted below), I wondered if I might not have gone too far. I felt a bit of guilt at giving her so many problems to overcome. After all, nice people do not want to stick their friends in bad, bad, BAD circumstances. Nice people try to avoid throwing their friends and acquaintances in harm’s way.
The nature of the writing job dictates that writers cannot be nice people. They have to be honest, instead. When a character asks if these jeans make them look fat, the author has to talk about how the denim clings to their curves or perhaps mention the sweat rings around their arm pits. We have to take an honest appraisal. This comes counter to my instincts, sometimes.
I like to think of myself as a nice person. My erotic fiction is as often built on funny moments as it is on the serious stuff. I like to laugh at life and sex is a funny topic (at least it can be) as well as a heartfelt, enriching one. When I made the leap to dark fantasy (I set out to write an urban fantasy with SCARY INTEL, and when I got to POTBOILER I realized it wasn’t quite urban fantasy any more), I discovered how my normal mode of writing just did not work. I liked these people, as I liked the protagonists or secondary characters in my erotic fiction, and I didn’t want to hurt them. Unfortunately, challenge is the nature of the beast we call fiction as well as life. Drama is two people vying for the same thing for equally understandable reasons. False drama is two people vying for the same thing, one for reader-sympathizable reasons and the other for outright, unrepentantly eeeeeeeevil reasons.
So, I may have gone a bit overboard. POTBOILER’s first draft was a bit meaner, a bit leaner, a bit ruder, and it left me a bit depressed for reasons I could not quite comprehend. When my first reader responded, “Can Venkat show her tummy a bit more? Like at all?” I realized I was being perhaps a bit too awful in my efforts. Showing tummy is a code phrase for characters to reveal their softer side. It’s not weakness per se, it’s their humanity. Very few human beings are hardcases one hundred percent of the time, and Parnik “Venkat” Venkateswaran is no exception to this rule. In fact, her character in the first novel was all about softness and kindness. She was the original marshmallow, the sweetness juxtaposed to Marquis’ harsh experience and Athena’s compartmentalized cruelty. She was aware of herself, aware of some of her strengths and many of her weaknesses, but she was generally the beating heart of the bookworm brigade.
In POTBOILER, I teamed her up with a new partner, Charlotte Bennett, who is rude, crude, and casually cruel. She was tied to a bad incident in the past, which left her partners mad or dead, and the incident changed her for the worse. Some of those negative qualities rubbed off on my beleaguered protagonist, I guess. And after I saw the comments from my first reader, I realized that I was being a little too much. I went through and restored the soft marshmallowness to Venkat. I gave her back the soul she had lost along the way. I think POTBOILER is a solid novel, a continuation of Venkat’s adventures, which poses Venkat with some difficult questions about defending your body and psychology from Lovecraftian nastiness as well as the human instinct to create a shell to hide inside. Charlotte is one possible path Venkat might follow, but it just does not suit her for now. How dark will the dark fantasy go in subsequent works? Well, we shall see!
Marquis has a cameo here, and he comes back for the next volume, but he too is different. Marquis got himself hurt pretty bad in SCARY INTEL and is in recovery. This has provided him with the chance few people find themselves embracing: the opportunity for change. Whether he is a changed man due to his exposure to my lovely, leading lady or because he got clobbered is something we can find out together. I’m a bit of a romantic, however, and hope it’s mostly for the former reason. He’s a delight to write sometimes, and a pain in the ass at others. I don’t like him sometimes, while I love him to pieces in others.
Writers are weird that way. We can’t help but be a bit schizophrenic, I think. Well, definitely multiple personality disorder if not full on schizo.
As a writer who got her start with speculative erotica fiction, I have found the transition to urban fantasy/dark fantasy a bit challenging. I know the expectations of an erotic romance story. We need sexy scenes every x-number of chapters/words. We need to have the relationships at the heart of our stories, driving all else. We need to see some down and dirty goings ons and feel the emotions as well as see the mechanics. Fantasy is another beast entirely. I am not sure I am a successful fantasist, but I try my best. I bring the best game I can to my works and when I am done, I try to find a smile. My Bookworm Brigade works may not all end HEA or even Happily For Now (HFN), but they are not really horror novels in terms of their finales. Horrible happenings might occur in the middles, but the ends tend to look up instead of down.
Venkat is a character I enjoy writing about, and there are two more in the series already written at this point. She carries on. The people around her, however, are open game for my sometimes murderous mind. I may not be guilty of actual crimes, but I’m sure if my characters could come after me they would throw the proverbial book at my head. I treat them so bad sometimes . . .
Maybe one of these days, I will write a softer story for poor Venkat or Marquis or Charlotte or George or the others in this world. Maybe one day I will let Daniel R. Robichaud’s Monkey Doctor show up and give them a little medicine for their woes.
POTBOILER is not that day, alas. It’s a dark fantasy novel that earns its genre title. It tackles the questions of guilt and despair and partnership and hardship. It goes some grim places, but the beating heart of the Bookworm Brigade’s newest field page continues to thrum, she continues to hope and aspire to better things. She has knowledge under her belt, dangerous lore burning away in her mind, but still she chooses to do the decent thing more often than not.
If ever there was a Mary Sue quality in my fiction, I suppose that’s it. I want to believe that given Venkat’s history in the series and her future, that I too would remain on the side of the angels instead of succumbing to my baser urges. I don’t think I’m as strong as Venkat, however. I would probably melt in her shoes.
Excerpt from POTBOILER:
Junk In The Trunk
Parnik Venkateswaran breathed through her mouth to prevent even the remotest possibility of smelling the thing Charlotte Bennett insisted on dumping into the Dodge Charger’s trunk. Sure, that thing was double wrapped in plastic, sealed inside the world’s largest Ziploc bag; despite this, Venkat knew in her heart that a single slip would deliver a world of decay and disgust to her nostrils. It would be the sort of smell that would never come away or be forgotten.
Ten years ago, she had made the mistake of helping her freshman college dorm roommate stop to collect roadkill for a proper burial – said roommate had been certain the pancaked carcass two streets away from the dorm had been a known stray, a friendly white furred kitty by the name of Mack the Mange and not the stranger animal it turned out to be – only to accidentally catch an accidental whiff at the worst possible time. It had taken her months to forget the heady, earthy, throat-coating stink of that road-murdered animal. Of course, that animal had been relatively small. The thing they had now? Larger, older and undoubtedly worse. She held no doubts about that. Just participating in the unearthing process had been an olfactory adventure.
Deliberate breaths taken through the mouth took on a peculiar resonance in her inner ear. Similar to SCUBA diving, in fact. The oral versions of the standard inhalation-exhalation scheme granted the activity new characteristics upon scrutiny. Added fragility. Made breathing somehow isolating.
The car’s main key rested in the ignition. The wire-style keychain also held the rental’s spare key and the company’s identification chit encased in a plastic coating scratched almost too badly to allow any of the white letters – the A, the V, the I or the S – to show through. The arterial red background showed up just fine, however. Venkat turned the key in the ignition from off to power and the clock came to brilliant life on the dashboard, the time’s digital numbers illumined in blue and orange. Twenty minutes after midnight. She frowned, nearly lost her concentration on the mouth breathing, but managed to return before it was too late.
We should be on the road. As it was, they would not see the hotel until two, maybe three. Not with dropping off the thing in their trunk. Delivering it, as Charlotte had said. She had not specified where the delivery was to be made, and Venkat was not aware of any Malleus Librum Society chapter houses in the vicinity.
She lowered the passenger side visor, turned on a map reading light, and studied her hair in the vanity mirror. That hair framed a narrow, southern Indian woman’s face. It should have fallen in shiny, dark waves to midshoulder. Unmussed, unfussed, and unperturbed by her labors first to uncover the carcass (not the right word, she knew, but a good enough way to disassociate herself with it) and then to load that thing into the Charger’s trunk. Unfortunately, it had not started out so pretty, glommed with more than perspiration and left spiky. She raked one trembling hand down this to no avail.
With a touch of water shimmer in her eyes that was well hidden by her cats-eye glasses, she thought, Exhumation becomes me.
Such an idea promised new nightmares, as though she had not already over leased her nocturnal hours. This expedition for the Society, her second as an active Field Page, had already brought her far too close to the death angel’s clutching bony digits. Her first operation had not been violence free, but this? “At least it’s almost over,” she whispered to her reflection, and almost like a response the thought came, Or is it? In response, she slapped the visor closed, and new sounds came from the car’s rear.
A solid thunk announced Charlotte Bennett tossing her spade atop the thing, quickly followed by a gunshot trunk lid slam. Closing the thing in a new grave with metal walls and a cheap carpet floor instead of wood surrounded by earth. The solid clap of cowgirl boots on asphalt carried Charlotte around the car’s driver’s side. When she yanked the door open, its rudely awakened hinges groaned. Venkat’s partner cut a mighty figure in her camouflage pants and black tank top. A peaches and cream complexion had been spoiled by too much time under a tanning lamp, her skin an uncanny valley tan job that was not quite orange but not quite right. She had no compunction about hiding her weight trained physique or her moisture. Sweat coursed down her square face as well as her powerful shoulders and arms. Around her right wrist, a black leather band sporting an opalescent stone two inches in diameter – the woman’s mystic receptacle.
Charlotte did not slide into the seat immediately. She paused to scratch at her forehead. Her hands were filthy from digging behind the corrugated steel shed. Dragging those nails along the grooves on her forehead left dirty black-brown smears.
From the circle of trees around them, midnight sounds. The soft buzz of crickets in the green woods. A breeze carried over the heady stink of night blooming plants, carnivorous Venkat had no doubt. Such a strange sound, a strange smell and stranger colors so close to April. As though the travel vouchers in her luggage (in the back seat, thankfully, though even there it was likely to catch that terrible trunk-reek, was it not?) were not guarantee enough, these sensory details clued her in that they sure were nowhere near home.
Charlotte muttered something. Venkat asked, “What was that?” and Charlotte replied, “Ah said ah’d give my last kidney for a cigarette.”
A Southern lilt colored Charlotte’s words, stronger than it had been in Massachusetts. While in the Cambridge chapter house, the accent had been a soft accentuation for only a few words; after they crossed the Mason-Dixie line, the accent had grown notably more pronounced and wider in influence. By the time they crossed the border into Louisiana and stopped off for much needed coffee, Charlotte sounded like a different woman altogether.
“If you want to smoke,” Venkat said, “I cannot stop you.”
In Cambridge, right now, there would be the day’s thawed snow turning into black ice. Sticks for trees. Perhaps squirrels or cats skulking, but nowhere near the plethora of life as here, not mammalian, avian or insectile.
Charlotte huffed and raised her shoulders, holding them in place for almost ten seconds. “Can you stop that?”
“Stop what?” Venkat demanded. “I’m only saying—”
“I’m tired of being adversarial,” Charlotte said with the finality. Or not: “I’m tired of being the bitch. You aren’t all that much better, you know. I’ve been doing this work a hell of a lot longer than you, and you— Fuck, I’m just exhausted. Okay?” With a roll of the shoulders and the accompanying medley of joints popping, Charlotte turned away from the driver’s side of the car to gaze toward the green Louisiana woods. Venkat heard the woman muse, “Maybe one butt.”
More crickets. A fluttering, too – spooked birds taking wing.
From the distant rural road, the sound of an engine passing.
From the trunk, a soft shifting. Crinkling plastic. Like a sleeper under a polyethylene blanket rolling from her side to her back.
Venkat said, “Did you—”
“Shut it,” Charlotte said. “Knock it the hell off.” Quite possibly, she spoke to the trunk and not her partner. Venkat could not be certain.
Somewhere outside the pool of moonlight, a dry branch cracked. Another, nearer. A third, nearer still. Something or things walking nearby, closing in to inspect the rumpus on Cottler’s Farm.
The rental Charger was one of the newer models, a big old road hog of a car. In the beginning, it had seemed like a boat. Suddenly, Venkat found it to be taking on much more claustrophobic characteristics.
Venkat asked, “Are we in danger?” and Charlotte chopped the air in a short sideways request for silence. Still standing alongside the car, she continued peering into the tree line. The dirty forefinger on her left hand drew idle circles around the semi-precious stone on her bracelet. Toying with the grain inside.
Venkat wondered if her partner was also sniffing the air like a beast. The partner she had been assigned to on her first operation, an experienced grain user named Marquis Trial, had been changed enough inside to actually make that work. To sniff the air and smell trouble. He was a regular olfactory Sherlock Holmes. The receptacle/grain performance enhancing properties were indisputable, but the cost associated with that power boost varied wildly from user to user.
Venkat discerned a patch of darkness moving amongst the shadows near the dirty road access to this place. Her breath caught in her throat. “Charlotte,” she said, and received another chop (this time accompanied by a hiss). She continued nevertheless: “I advise you to get in, now.”
As she stared, Venkat could discern qualities in that darkness. An arm, say. Holding something. How like a farming implement. The tines carried a layer of rust, no doubt. What lure, she wondered, could be found in repurposing poorly maintained farming tools for mayhem?
Charlotte slipped into the driver’s seat, dragged the door shut with one hand, and twisted the key all the way to start with the other. The engine roared to life, and she dragged the gearshift to D, trod hard on the accelerator.
“Did you see him?”
“I saw all of them,” Charlotte said. The wheels kicked up a storm of grit and stones.
“About fourteen at my estimation.” The Charger’s rear end fishtailed as it powered toward the gap in the trees. “Surrounding this place. I think our cargo is calling to them.”
Venkat studied the tree line. Saw more movement. “Ohmygod,” she whispered. Then, she understood just what Charlotte had been saying. “How could it call to anyone?”
“That is not dead,” Charlotte quoted, as the figure Venkat had first spotted tottered into the road. Into the headlights. Venkat gasped, and Charlotte muttered a helpless “Ah heyll.”
Much of its body had been a man, once. Or a child’s Crayola idea of a man. Limbs at the right quantity but the wrong proportions. It did not so much hold the pitchfork in its left hand as it assimilated the implement into that limb. Flesh enwrapped wood and rusted steel as though it had grown there. The head was all wrong, heaving and deflating like some leaky basketball that was losing air almost as fast as a pump could deliver it. No skull could be found within that messy flesh sack, behind the drooping and straining and drooping mouth, and yet it leered at them. No eyes filled those pulsating dark sockets, and yet it perceived them. Raised its pitchfork hand. Flesh sluiced down the wood like melted cheese off a slice of fresh pizza.
Venkat jammed one hand’s palm flat against the dashboard while reaching up to grab hold of the handle above the door with the other. She did not scream. She did not shout. She did nothing but wait for the sickening crunch of a speeding mass of steel, glass and plastic to slam into the teetering body before them.
No crunch came. It was a splash instead.
The figure came apart like a six-foot tall water balloon loaded with gelatin. Some kind of gray sludge rode up the windshield, blinding them completely before a claw pierced the windshield. The pitchfork had struck windshield at eyelevel as though trying to drive straight into the driver’s seat. Tines penetrated the safety glass in four circular spots, each talon the center of a two-inch wide spider webs. Then, they curled ever so slightly, like arthritis stiffened fingers trying to clutch a Medicalert transmitter.
Charlotte hammered the wipers’ switch into Mist mode. The windshield wipers swept up and to the side through the unyielding fluid. The sludge was a sticky mess that battled the wipers for dominance, and it stood a fair chance of winning. As soon as the driver side wiper struck the pitchfork, it jammed up, groaning like a fat kid told to run laps. Seconds later, the two wipers swept back down making hellaciously small clean spots on near the dash. Venkat’s was the cleanest, so it was she who saw the tree limbs sweeping down from above like the slow but aggressive arms of giants. “Stop the car!” she shouted, but Charlotte was too busy trying to discern the scene through too small and too unclear a space.
By the time she jammed on the brakes, it was far too late.
The wheels locked up tight, but momentum worked against them. Dirt and gravel road. Slick mess beneath at least two of the vehicle’s tires eradicating traction. A light on the dashboard blipped on, stating traction loss/slip compensation had kicked in. By then, the car was careening to the side, sweeping the driver’s side toward the animated deadfall.
Within seconds, the car struck the tree limb blockade. Her seat belt slammed into Venkat’s chest, holding her tight to the seat. The airbag on Charlotte’s side blasted open, scattering white dust like confetti. Even before it had fully taken the force from Charlotte’s slam it suddenly deflated. Venkat did not have time to wonder why it had gone down too fast to have been effective because the reason became evident soon enough, tiny darts zipping through the bag’s deflated remnants and into the compartment like kamikaze hornets. This was nothing to do with the pitchfork hand, and everything to do with their sudden stop.
In the case of thin branches versus steel, steel wins. The car smashed its way sidelong into that blockage, transforming it from solid six or seven or ten foot lengths into hundreds of tiny wooden projectiles. The doors and back seat took the brunt of this destructive damage. However, it smashed through the driver’s side window as well. Charlotte screamed as she caught shrapnel splinters with her shoulder and face.
Still more whizzed around Venkat, saved from her partner’s fate only by Charlotte’s heroic and accidental sacrifice. Tiny darts fired from dozens of blowguns. Dotting the window and the imitation leather on her door. A few of these dribbled some indistinguishable liquid. Blood or sap or something else altogether.
She did not realize she had forgotten to breathe through her mouth until she caught the odorous mélange of rot, freshly cut vegetation, and something that stank of stagnant swamp water. Three terrible smells that combined into something even worse than their individual components. Had she been sitting in the midst of a compost heap, she would have been in no worse a spot.
Though her stomach rolled, and her head pounded, she still reached over to shake her silent and still companion. “Charlotte,” she whispered. “Charlotte.”
Outside, the crickets had stopped. In fact, she could hear nothing. Could only feel the raw agony in her chest and – oddly enough – her throat. Had she been shrieking her head off, after all? A roll of the head to her right told her that plenty of somethings were on the road behind them. Stumbling shapes moving beneath the moonlight. In another world, she might have been sitting in a cinema (under protest, of course, she did not have the stomach for scary features) and this might have been a lunatic director’s oh-shit big number for his low budget shocker: a sea of zombies tottering toward the heroine and her companion, a familiar and almost comforting image. A horror fan’s delight. This was not cinema screen. She and her partner were in very real peril. And Charlotte was not responding.
“Don’t make me leave you,” Venkat said. “I can’t carry you, Charlotte. I don’t have the strength.” Even on a good day, one she had not spent her muscle power in exhuming a grave, she could not have hoped to lift someone Charlotte’s size. A full head taller, a full hundred pounds heavier? No way.
Blood spilled down the driver’s seat headrest. Soaked the straps on the tank top. Colored the pale complexion. So much blood. Too much.
Hot tears stung Venkat’s eyes as she moaned, “Please don’t leave me alone. I cannot do this alone.”
The approaching nightmares closed in at a leisurely pace. Relentless. Outside the car, so much activity all happening at once. To the driver’s side of the car: the smashed blockade was trying to free itself, limbs wrenching against the binding steel straightjacketing it together. Through the devastated passenger’s side window, marionette fluid sacs on slow approach. There would be no escaping them in as little as five minutes.
Venkat leaned over to listen to Charlotte’s lips, to hear if any breathing was happening at all. The seatbelt reminded her of its presence by pressing on the sore places all at once. My head, she thought, is so full of cotton. Surely it must have cushioned my brain. Surely I should not be feeling quite so . . . so out of it.
She reached down and pressed on the buckle. Her fingers felt so far away and so fat, incapable of producing the precision movements her mind assured her she needed. She struggled with the button without cursing it – the stupid thing was inanimate after all – until the click finally greeted her efforts. The belt sagged around her, and she shoved it aside. Leaned over.
Charlotte’s breaths came shallow and wet. Alive after all.
I can’t leave her, Venkat thought. I won’t.
With the groan of ripping steel, one of the tree limbs wrenched away from the crumpled heap. Another groan accompanied this, something deep and eerie. The tree itself? Just the wood creaking as it restores to the correct angle. Surely, Venkat told herself, it could not be anything else.
She set her fingers to unbuckling her partner’s belt. Found it unresponsive. Jammed. Now the tears were leaving burning trails down her cheeks. When the natural world itself aligned against someone, what hope did they really have?
That was when her eyes fell upon her partner’s bracelet. The promise held within that small semi-precious stone. The potential curse that went with it.
Glances showed the tree limbs vanishing into the dark above. The horde closing in. The clock on the console clicked over to twenty past midnight. How had the hour grown so damned late? She should be sleeping. They should both be back at the hotel, good-naturedly bitching and getting ready for sleep. Not out here.
Venkat should not be out here.
The bracelet’s opalescent stone warmed under her thumb.
Time for deliberation expired.
I must choose. Easier said than performed.
And what of that thing in the trunk. Awfully quiet. As though expectant. Waiting.
I must think of . . .
There was one way.
POTBOILER was the first non-Kindle Worlds entry in Kaysee Renee Robichaud’s Bookworm Brigade series. However, it has never received the paperback copy edition until now. Grab a copy of the paperback or the eBook at Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo or your favorite vendor today.
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