New Blog: Woodsy Studio

Dearest readers,

As my last few posts have indicated, my creative focus has strongly shifted towards interactive stories over the course of the last few years. I continue to write like a madwoman, but I also pour art, music, and programming into my visual novel creations in the hopes of producing an even grander entertaining experience.

Therefore I’ve started a new blog over at Woodsy Studio, which will focus more on my storytelling in the realm of visual novels. My first post, Why Art and Business Must Intersect, addresses some of the intellectual ways I’ve grown as an artist and businesswoman of late. If you’re interested, I hope you’ll take a look and subscribe to me there!

Check out my new blog!

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Published in: on November 3, 2014 at 11:55 am  Comments (1)  
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Interwoven Disciplines: Storytelling, Game Design, and Usability

Today I offer a reflective post, for I have been hard at work on my next interactive novel, “Quantum Conscience,” and as I near its completion I find myself pondering the complexities  of creating interactive media. Those of you more familiar with my novels may wonder why I have yet to announce another book release, but I assure you that I am working harder than ever to create a new narrative experience. It just may not take the form that you’d expect.

One reason I love working on video games is that they force me to pull from every single skill, experience, and discipline in my possession, then line them together in order to make my vision a reality. I have always loved writing, but I’m also passionate about illustration, design, and musical composition. So in my case, the challenge of utilizing every tool in my creative belt is one that I happily embrace.

The best example of this is a tiny little feature that I decided to add to my interactive novel, “Quantum Conscience,” by combining my training in several different fields.

First, some back-story. You need to understand that not everyone in the gaming community would consider visual novels to be “games” in the typical sense. You won’t necessarily find puzzles, platforming obstacles, swordplay, or power/skill loops when you “play” a VN (although some VNs do incorporate such things). At its core, a visual novel is a story, and it requires a hell of a lot of writing and narrative structure. But the story is–in a sense–alive. You can interact with the story by making choices for the characters. Here’s an example from my first release, “Serafina’s Saga”:

In "Serafina's Saga," you can make choices for Serafina that often affect the story

In “Serafina’s Saga,” you can make choices for Serafina that often affect the story

When I started working on my second visual novel, “Quantum Conscience,” I wanted to create an experience that was more interesting and unique. Because the game involves a main character who can read people’s minds, Malcolm Pierce and I brainstormed until we came up with an unusual game-play mechanic. Instead of clicking on a menu box to make a decision, we wanted your subconscious choice of whether to read another character’s mind to directly impact the narrative.

A screenshot from "Quantum Conscience," a visual novel in which your decision to read the minds of other characters impacts the plot

A screenshot from “Quantum Conscience,” a visual novel in which your decision to read the minds of other characters impacts the plot. Background by Michelle Hagewood

Right away we definitely had a unique and profound way of letting you interact with the story, and I had a lot on my plate as far as narrative structure and programming requirements. But several months into the project, I was also honing my knowledge of game design and user experience principles, and I realized that my new game fell short in these categories. I loved my gameplay mechanic, but might you not realize how drastically you had changed the story just by looking at someone’s thoughts? Where’s the fun in an exciting plot twist caused by the player if you don’t even know you had caused it?

When I found out that another VN recently came out with a game-play mechanic that was similar to mine (in “XBlaze – Code: Embryo,”  the plot changes based on what news articles you read), my initial reaction was despair. I worried my game would no longer seem so unique. But spiritual twins like these can happen in any creative field, so rather than wallow in disappointment, I tried to learn from what these other artists had already achieved. How did they maintain such a subtle game-play mechanic while giving the player a sense of accomplishment? And the answer was surprisingly simple.

QC Screenshot 2

A screenshot from “Quantum Conscience.” In this example, the player’s previous decision to read Korah’s mind has impacted the plot, which is then indicated by a “!” symbol to the left of the text. Background design by Michelle Hagewood

So by combining what I knew about usability and game design to my existing narrative structure, as well as learning from other existing works, I created a simple solution. Whenever your decision to read a character’s mind has impacted the plot, you’re alerted by a “!” symbol that appears next to the text (and there are different forms of the symbol based on different effects).

I suppose the moral of my story is a simple one: the more perspectives you can add to a creative endeavor, the better it will become (most of the time, at least). Ideally, you can achieve this by working with a skilled and collaborative team. But if you’re a one-woman team, then learn the hell out of every discipline you can get your hands on. You might be surprised by the ways they connect.

On Games and Creative Exploration

Dearest readers,

If you follow me on Twitter or Tumblr, you know that lately, my creativity has veered heavily towards the world of video games. A few months ago I released my first visual novel, “Serafina’s Saga” (go here to download it for free, either for desktop computers or Android devices) and I have been whole-heartedly touched and pleased by the warm reception it has received. I also completed the 20-minute animation prequel–a project that required so much work and dedication, sometimes I still find it hard to believe that I finished it (you can view it on Youtube here).

For a long time I have been insecure about my drawing/illustration abilities–writing still tends to be my focus–and I know my artistic skills still have much room to grow. But using them to bring my stories to life has been very exciting so far, and the success of my first visual novel has encouraged me to keep trying. I learned from some mistakes I made in “Serafina’s Saga,” and I’m working even harder to create a unique narrative experience with my next visual novel, “Quantum Conscience.” It’s nearing completion (though I still have a lot left to do), so I hope to release it circa July 2014.

Blaire fights to free the galaxy from a tyrannical group of scientists called ARCHON. But when ARCHON grants Blaire the ability to read people's minds, Blaire must choose between loyalty to old friends or seductive power.

In this visual novel, Blaire fights to free the galaxy from a tyrannical group of scientists called ARCHON. But when ARCHON grants Blaire the ability to read people’s minds, Blaire must choose between seductive power or loyalty to old friends.

This entire journey has given me a lot to think about regarding my career and overall creative goals. Having worked in a wide range of mediums at this point, I find that I love working in video games for a huge host of reasons. I love the way games fully engage the reader/player, providing a unique experience and giving him/her some control of the narrative. I love writing more than one ending to my stories and trying to bring those stories to life with art and music. And I could go on.

An atmospheric platformer about one spirit's journey to understand herself, which means accepting both her good and evil tendencies.

An atmospheric platformer about one spirit’s journey to understand herself, which means accepting both her good and evil tendencies.

I’ve worked on a few other games recently through Game Jams and alongside local indie developers. I illustrated the human characters in the game “Artful Intelligence” for iPhone devices (you can download it from here). I’m also working on an atmospheric platformer called “Metempsychosis” (and you can try the GameJam prototype here). I really hope to keep making games, both on my own and (hopefully) working professionally in the industry.

So my creative journey continues, and I hope you enjoy whatever I come up with next!

 

Published in: on April 29, 2014 at 10:06 am  Leave a Comment  
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Grand Traitor Makeover

My free novella, Grand Traitor, has received another makeover! If you haven’t read it yet, now’s the time!

A foreigner surprises everyone in Castle Krondolee when she claims to possess the key to a room that has remained closed for centuries, its contents unknown. Arken Jeridar, descended from the god of greed, schemes to win the key for himself and the queen's love all at once. But success may come at a far greater cost than he ever expected.

A foreigner surprises everyone in Castle Krondolee when she claims to possess the key to a room that has remained closed for centuries, its contents unknown. Arken Jeridar, descended from the god of greed, schemes to win the key for himself and the queen’s love all at once. But success may come at a far greater cost than he ever expected.

 

As some of you may know, I have recently taken something of a break from writing novels to explore other forms of storytelling media. I created an animation and then became involved with game design, releasing my first visual novel October last year online and in the Google App store: “Serafina’s Saga.” Because of the positive responses the game has received, and also my own emotional attachment to the story, I have decided to go back and adapt the game script into a novel. This will give me a chance to dive deeper into the characters, spend more time with them, and release a version of the story that non-gamers can enjoy, as well.

Grand Traitor is the prequel to all forms of “Serafina’s Saga,” and the story also occurs in the same world as the “Broken Balance” Series (Ashes of DearenSands of Hanubi). Depending on how the Serafina’s Saga novel goes, I might write a third book to create a “Serafina’s Saga” trilogy, which will begin to connect the characters of “Serafina’s Saga” with those in Sands of Hanubi. But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.

So I just wanted to let you all know that I am still writing novels, albeit not as quickly as the previous few years, and give you a taste of what’s ahead. One way or another, I will return to the Sands of Hanubi story eventually; I’m certainly not done telling it. If you haven’t read Grand Traitor yet, go check it out for free. Here’s a teaser:

***

Excerpt from Grand Traitor Chapter 3

***

She couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t.

Nadia stood in the hallway, trembling so fiercely she feared for the health of her baby. Elborn mothers rarely miscarried or suffered complications during childbirth. It was one of the many reasons people suspected they carried the blood of Demetral. But Nadia still worried that the fears and burdens she suffered might have some negative impact on her little Serafina. She could not remember the last time she felt so physically unstable. Her hands sweated uncontrollably. Her body felt weak from lack of food. And yet her one bite of breakfast continued to churn in her stomach.

Two rows of Darzian soldiers shared the hallway with the queen, prepared to give their lives to protect her. She wore a crown on her head, ensuring her that everyone on this vast and powerful continent must obey her command. And yet she felt as vulnerable as a small child alone in the wild. Any moment, Arken Jeridar would come strolling down this hallway. She had chosen this part of the castle for that very purpose, so she might intercept him. But the thought of seeing him again—of staring into those fierce golden eyes, full of anger and maybe even hatred—terrified her beyond belief.

“I, uh… I’m not feeling well,” she said aloud, even though the soldiers were trained not to speak to her. Some of them exchanged puzzled glances, as if wondering whether to respond. “I’m going back to my room!” she declared. Then she started to turn around.

But it was already too late. For at that very moment, Arken appeared at the end of the hallway.

He froze at the same time that she did. He stared at her across the stones of the hall, through the bright beams of sunlight from the windows, and she wondered how she looked to him. There she stood, fat and pregnant, her ridiculously large dress spreading out from her swollen midriff, a look of shock on her face. Crowned, bejeweled, and surrounded by soldiers, she still managed to feel pathetic and sickly.

Meanwhile, Arken looked as radiant as ever. He had traded his silk robes for leather riding boots, simple trousers, and a loose-fitting shirt that showed the softly-sculpted lines of his chest. He had pulled his yellow hair behind him, tied with a silk ribbon, though a few soft strands still fell to accentuate the squareness of his jaws and the sharp length of his nose.

He recovered before she did. He resumed walking, and his steps did not waver as he swept his long legs down the hallway. He stopped just a few feet away from her and feigned a graceful bow. Somehow, this theatrical submission felt equal to the most flagrant insult he might have thrown upon her.

At long last, she closed her gaping mouth and tried to recover her breath. But despite how many times she had rehearsed this moment while waiting for him to appear, she could not find the words to say.

He looked up at her, revealing a tiny smirk on his mouth, and found his voice before she did. “Most beautiful and gracious queen. Forgive me for interrupting you on my way through this hallway.”

He might as well have slapped her across the face. And perhaps that was for the best, for at last, she felt her senses returning to her. “Arken,” she said. “I came here to speak with you.”

He straightened from his ridiculous bow, but continued to wear that smile on his face—a smile that, despite its charm, she knew to be fake. Whatever warmth it provided, the coldness in his eyes overwhelmed it tenfold. “Oh really? Why would the great Queen Nadia ever trouble herself with the likes of a man like me?”

He poised the question as a mockery. But she sensed a sincere curiosity behind his words, as well. “Arken, I…” She glanced around at the soldiers. “Leave us.”

The soldiers hesitated. They could not disobey. But they could not abandon her, either. They did not know what to do.

“Wait for me… over there,” she snapped, pointing to the end of the hallway.

With a great shuffle of armor and weaponry, the soldiers obeyed her. Arken watched them go with an amused expression.

“Arken, when you left here so suddenly, on that day… you never gave me a chance to explain myself.”

“What must you explain? You chose to marry another man. Quite… ‘suddenly.’” The fake smirk, the feigned amusement, vanished completely. His lips curled with a snarl. “Whatever you would say to me, I don’t wish to hear it.”

“But you must. I…” Her palms were sweating again. She rubbed them against the fabric of her dress, to no avail. “I did what I thought what was best for the kingdom. I wanted to marry you. But to do that would have been selfish, especially when I realized the repercussions. If I had abandoned the throne without warning, the castle would have fallen into chaos. Relationships between the Houses were so heated, I feared a civil war.”

“I see. Marrying me would have been selfish?” He snorted, a sound that reverberated from one end of the hall to the other. “Gods forbid you do something selfish! I don’t suppose choosing the crown over love is selfish at all? Nor the assumption that you must sit on the throne or the kingdom will fall to ruin? Naturally, you did what you had to—for the kingdom.”

“You know that it’s true, Arken! Our actions could have had dire consequences.”

“But that’s not the full truth, now is it?” His eyes narrowed on her, and she felt as if they pierced her to the core. “If you really worried so much about the consequences, you would have spoken to the Royal Duma about marrying me long before your scheduled wedding with Lord Gerald.” He stepped closer to her, his gaze crushing her as surely as a boot upon her throat. “If we had proceeded more carefully, we might have gained everyone’s approval. So if you cared so much about that, why didn’t you try? Why did you not announce our intentions sooner?”

Nadia opened her mouth, but no words came out. She realized that for better or worse, Arken sensed the truth. He knew that she had loved him. But despite her love for him, she had never believed he could rule as Grand Prince without causing trouble. She worried that he would always want more power—that his inheritance as a Jeridar would get the best of him. And that even if married to the monarch, his power would fail to satisfy the greed in his bloodstream.

“You misjudged me,” he hissed, his breath blowing the red curls from her face. “You thought I cared only about the crown. You were wrong. But not nearly so wrong as I was about you.”

He pulled back, just a little, but she still felt as if he had smashed her to powder against the floor of the hallway. She felt tiny and small, unable to argue, helpless against his accusations.

“May I pass now, my queen?” His voice dripped with derision. “Or must you explain yourself further?”

“I…” She took another deep, shuddering breath. She stared into the floor, finding that her courage increased the longer she avoided his gaze. “I think that you should not go on this ride with Vivian,” she said at last. “I think that if you obtain the key—more specifically, if your family obtains the key—then the consequences will be dire.”

“That’s not really my concern, is it?” She glimpsed a shrug of his broad shoulders. “Such concerns are for the people with crowns. So why should I worry?”

“Arken. I am begging you…”

“Beg all you’d like, Nadia.” This time, a true hint of joy rang upon his voice, and it chilled her to the bone. “But the more you beg, the more you will assure me of my purpose. For I wish you to understand what it feels like to want only one thing in this world—to want it with every fiber of your being—only to have it denied you.”

And then, without waiting for permission, he swept past her.

For a moment, the soldiers grabbed their weapons. Even from afar, they sensed the queen’s distress. But she shook her head, and they let Arken pass.

She had found the strength to deny him, once. But perhaps that strength had broken, just as surely as his devotion.

***

Read the full story

Published in: on February 12, 2014 at 11:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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The King and the Killer

In celebration of the release of the “Serafina’s Saga” animation and visual novel, this week’s vignette shows King Kallias and Xavier Wolven meeting for the first time. People have been requesting to see more Kallias and Xavier–so here you go! 🙂

This scene would take place in the time after the novella Grand Traitor and before the start of Serafina’s Saga.

*

A wiry young man sat alone in large room of stone next to a table piled with gold. He was sixteen years old, and the bejeweled crown upon his head had been so recently placed that his mop of short, candy yellow hair still struggled to hold it upright.

Kallias tapped his fingers upon the table, causing the gold coins on top of it to jingle incessantly. He didn’t mind the sound. In fact, he found it reassuring, and he needed all the reassurance he could get right now. He liked every physical indication of the gold piled in front of him, especially the bright golden glow it cast throughout the dull room of stone, or the sparkles that ignited where beams of sunlight from the window struck the coins directly. He formed a rhythm with the tapping of his fingers and the jingle of the coins, then started to hum a little melody with it.

When the door of his room opened, the melody died in Kallias’s throat with a whimper. His fingers stopped tapping and his body stiffened like a block of stone. His big amber eyes stared at the swinging entrance until the pupils widened into gaping black holes. He watched and waited, his tense body unable to move except to tremble, as a dark figure slipped through the opening.

The man before Kallias was tall and slender, and he seemed to move more gracefully than his own shadow. A long hooded cloak hung from his shoulders, covering most of his body in undulating swaths of black fabric. His soft leather boots barely whispered as he walked across the stones, and as his cloak billowed around him like wings unfolding, Kallias wondered if the stranger secretly flew. Then, just as quietly, he came to a stop in the middle of the room. His hands reached up—two appendages of pale, skeletal white flesh against the dark clothing—and grabbed the edge of his hood.

Kallias struggled to keep breathing as he watched the hood fall back. The shadows retreated to reveal a long, gaunt face with an ashy white complexion. Most startling against his pale skin was his deep black hair which flowed past his shoulders, and eye sockets so dark that Kallias suspected the use of powder to accentuate their sunken appearance. Little emphasis needed to be added to such eyes, however, the irises of which peered forward with sizzling red brilliance.

Just as Kallias began to wonder if he would ever overcome his awe in time to welcome his guest, the Wolven flinched and recoiled, reaching up to cover his eyes.

“Belazar’s blazes,” hissed the stranger. The god of wrath’s name, when spoken aloud, sent chills down Kallias’s body. “That gold is going to blind me.”

“Oh… you don’t like gold?” Kallias’s heart fell to his stomach. Goldons were his only leverage with a man like this. If the Wolven did not want them…

“I like goldons well enough,” grumbled the assassin. “But I prefer them in storage.”

“Ah, yes, of course.” At long last, Kallias found the strength to rise from his seat. He rushed to a window and grabbed the curtains, yanking them across the aperture. Darkness poured over the gold, extinguishing the lustrous glow from the room. Kallias sighed at the loss. But when he saw the Wolven relax, he decided the gesture had been worth it.

“So… you’re Xavier?” asked Kallias at last. “A Wolven assassin?”

The Wolven answered with a nod, so small it was almost imperceptible. But then he tilted his head and narrowed his red eyes at Kallias. “And you’re the new king?”

Kallias puffed up a little, feeling a surge of pride feed his confidence. In this Wolven’s presence, he had almost forgotten his own authority. When he lifted his head, the weight of his golden crown seemed to increase. “Obviously.”

Xavier should have bowed before him—but he did not. “How old are you?”

Kallias’s chest deflated again. “Sixteen.”

“I thought monarchs had to be seventeen years of age in this country.”

“Usually, yes. But Father’s death…” His throat constricted and his breath faltered. Then he planted his fists on his hips, glowering with all the strength of his thin golden eyes. “No matter. I am special enough to be an exception. One way or another I am the king, and you are in no place to question that.”

Xavier grew very still. Then the edges of his thin lips pulled up with a smirk. “You’re very brave to summon me in this fashion, with no guards to protect you. You must want me to kill someone quite important, yes?”

Kallias forced a swallow down his throat. “I don’t need you to kill anyone… at present.”

The Wolven’s smile quickly turned downward. His red eyes narrowed until Kallias thought he felt heat emanating from them. He moved forward ever so slightly, just one foot shifting while his body started to lean, yet Kallias fought the urge to turn and flee the room. “Then why am I here?”

“To… to… establish our friendship.”

Xavier’s eyes blinked and opened wide again. He drew back and studied the young king in silence for a short while. At long last he said, “Friendship?” and his tongue seemed to struggle with the word.

“Naturally.” Kallias didn’t know whether to feel better or worse about the fact he had caught the Wolven off guard. “I understand who and what you are. I know that you’ve killed monarchs before. I know that for the right price, you’ll kill anyone. And though most people around here are happy with me on the throne because I keep the treasury overrunning, I suspect there are those who might tire of me anyway, or become so greedy they want the throne regardless.”

Xavier’s face contorted, and then he began to chuckle. A genuine smile looked strange on the Wolven’s face, as if his muscles were not accustomed to moving in such directions.

“What’s so funny?” asked Kallias, purely curious.

“Only a Jeridar would be so greedy, and you’re the only left in Castle Krondolee. Isn’t that so?”

The words struck Kallias like a bucket of icy water. He bristled and turned away, hoping to hide his pain and discomfort.

He could still feel Xavier’s hot red eyes crawling over him. “I’ve upset you. I didn’t expect to. I thought Jeridars liked being on their own. Less competition that way.”

Kallias remained silent, his heart a frustrating lump in his chest that ached with every beat.

After another long silence, Xavier sighed. “Just tell me what you what you want from me. I didn’t mean to… prattle on. I haven’t talked this much in awhile, so I’m out of practice. Let’s just get to business.”

For one small moment, Kallias sensed something in Xavier that he had not expected from a Wolven, either. Something that no one else might have noticed, but Kallias saw it as pure as golden daylight, for he knew the emotion all too well. Loneliness.

The revelation finally gave Kallias the strength to straighten back up and look at the Wolven once more. This time, Xavier was the one who avoided his gaze. “Right: business. I summoned you here to give you this gold.”

The Wolven shifted uncomfortably. “Payment to a Wolven should only be given upon a job’s completion. And if you don’t want anyone dead, you have nothing to pay me for, anyway. My services are quite… limited.”

“I understand that. This gold is to ensure my own safety. If anyone else tries to hire you to kill me, then you can refuse them, because I’ve already paid you more. And if by Mallion’s miracles they can pay you more than I’m offering now—then I’ll pay you the difference.”

Xavier did not move or speak for a while. Kallias tried to read the Wolven’s face, but failed. Perhaps the Wolven himself did not know how to feel about this.

“I can’t accept it,” said Xavier at last. “It is not the Wolven way.”

Panic fluttered through Kallias’s stomach. “But… but… it seems like it should be. If someone can pay you for death, shouldn’t someone also be able to pay you for life?”

Once again Xavier blinked and stared at the king with wide open eyes. Then even his mouth started to gape open. “I… that’s…”

Seeing the Wolven so taken aback made Kallias hopeful. “Perhaps I can pay you to make an oath to Belazar? One ensuring my safety?”

Xavier bristled. His face twisted, his lips pulling back into a snarl. “Out of the question. Belazar barters in blood, and blood only.”

Kallias considered this. He reached up and twiddled his fingers against his chin as his mind raced for a solution. “Ah, I have it!” he cried out, face beaming with a smile. “I’ll hire you with this money to kill anyone who ever asks you to kill me.”

Xavier’s scowl dissipated. His red eyes flicked from Kallias, to the money, and back to Kallias again. Finally, a smile wound back up his face. “Now that… I can work with.”

 *

Novella prequel to "Serafina's Saga"

Novella prequel to “Serafina’s Saga”

The animated Episode 1 of Serafina’s Saga is now released on Youtube:

charactercollagesmaller

New Blog Theme: Character Vignettes

Dear Readers,

When I started this blog, my goal was to update every Tuesday with either a short story (at the time, I was releasing the “Lost Tales of Mercia“) or an informational post related to the subject of the stories. I succeeded for awhile. But then I got distracted by other things, and life was a bitch, and then I finished the Sons of Mercia series altogether, and then I really didn’t know what to post about here. But I want to keep posting regularly. Therefore, I have finally come up with a new idea for what to post each Tuesday–one that I will enjoy and thus am very likely to accomplish every week.

From now on, I will post every Tuesday with a so-called “vignette”–AKA *very very short story*, maybe even venturing near flash fiction levels of brevity–about whomever/whatever I feel like, but most likely featuring one or more characters from one of my already-written novels. The stories might only be a page long–some might be longer, some might be shorter–but rest assured there will be stories once again on this blog.

My head is already filled with ideas, mostly of scenes that never made it into one of my novels because they weren’t crucial to the plot… or perhaps they happened to a side character and thus the main character never found out about it. Here are some examples:

–from Eadric the Grasper: what Aydith and Hastings were really saying to each other before Eadric found them together

–from Eadric the Grasper: the truth behind Runa’s disappearance

–from Edric the Wild: one of Edric’s many adventures as Silvaticus, living it up like Robin Hood

–from Ashes of Dearen: that entire year Sean spent as King Darius… lots of unwritten material there

–from Sands of Hanubi: the undocumented adventures of pirate captain Greedy Gregor

… and many more. Those examples are the most obvious ones that come to mind. Granted, some of the vignettes I intend to write will probably be about less significant events than the ones mentioned above. My goal will be just to capture the character in a moment that is somehow unusual, interesting, or enlightening.  Occasionally, I might write about a character you don’t know–I have *lots* of unpublished stories–but hopefully you will still find it entertaining.

Given the fact I will be taking a break from my larger projects to write these vignettes, I maintain the right to write about anything that strikes my fancy at the time. That said, please let me know if you have any requests about a specific character, situation, etc. SEND ME REQUESTS!

I hope that you will enjoy the new blog theme!

Published in: on September 28, 2013 at 7:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Prince and the Pretender – Released!

At long last, my historical romance set in Tsarist Russia, “The Prince and the Pretender,” has released!

To this day, the truth behind the supposed death and reemergence of the first "False" Dmitri remains a mystery. Explore this sordid and tragic tale of Tsarist Russia during the Time of Troubles through the eyes of young Xenia, daughter of Tsar Boris Godunov. Xenia must choose between love, lust, and family in the midst of scandals, war, and tragedy. Her decision will change the fate of all Russia.

To this day, the truth behind the supposed death and reemergence of the first “False” Dmitri remains a mystery. Explore this sordid and tragic tale of Tsarist Russia during the Time of Troubles through the eyes of young Xenia, daughter of Tsar Boris Godunov. Xenia must choose between love, lust, and family in the midst of scandals, war, and tragedy. Her decision will change the fate of all Russia.

The novel is currently available in paperback or Kindle format on Amazon, Nook format in Barnes & Noble, and various ebook formats (including PDF) in Smashwords.

I’ve already placed a small excerpt from the novel on my website to give you a little taste of this story. But here’s another!

*

Clip from The Prince and the Pretender, Chapter 5

*

 

The Dormition Cathedral was a place of refuge, beauty, and salvation. Its domed towers and peaked arches provided the foundation of its strength and elegance. Elaborate carvings added to its beauty, and within the looming exterior, Xenia found herself surrounded by a forest of holy frescoes and icons. Sweet incense graced her nostrils, and hundreds of candles twinkled in her eyes.

This magnificent cathedral was often the site of coronations and holy installations. Her own father’s coronation had taken place here two years ago, when she was sixteen, and she remembered it well. Perhaps that was why it brought her so much comfort. In any case, she hoped that it would bring about the healing of her heart today.

Within the nave a few monks and nobles loitered, speaking to each other softly. Everyone stood or knelt, for there were no chairs on which to sit. But for the most part, the large open area was empty, and a pleasant silence filled the chamber. She made her way past the monks to the altar, for she was not yet ready to speak to anyone. A few people glanced at her curiously, but today she covered her hair and face within a satin hood, so she would not be easily recognized.

She pulled the hood further over her head as she passed a group of men she knew. They were three boyar princes, ones she did not care a great deal for—their names were Lykov, Tatev, and Golitsyn. They seemed up to no good, as usual, judging by the way they huddled close to each other and whispered. But why would they do that here?

They seemed to be talking to a monk. Even though that explained the boyars’ presence in the cathedral, it nevertheless unsettled Xenia. Eager to push the unusual sight from her mind, she kept walking.

At the altar she knelt and prayed for a time, searching within herself for the words she might say to the patriarch. How much would she tell him? Would she confess that she lied to her father? Or might God be appeased if she admitted the sinful feeling of lust she had allowed to stir within her? Even now, she could not stop imagining the sensation of Pozharsky’s hands upon her …

“Tsarevna?”

The voice startled her. In such a holy and quiet place, she did not expect the sharp, ringing voice which suddenly rang about the walls. She turned and looked in a daze at the young man standing close to her. To her surprise, it was the same monk she had just seen speaking with the three princes. The princes, however, had since left the building.

She studied the man curiously, but he only seemed stranger the more she looked at him. For one, he wore the plain robes and hood of a monk, but the face and body within seemed anything but devout. Though of average height, he was somewhat lanky and stood with a funny tilt. His head cocked to the side as if trying to look upon the world at an unusual angle. He had bright blue eyes that seemed to smile, even though his mouth remained a flat line. On his right cheek there was a small wart, just next to his nose. He was clean-shaven, but she glimpsed dark red hair beneath his hood. He was certainly not handsome, but something about him held her gaze, nonetheless.

He looked vaguely familiar; she had seen him around before. If she recalled correctly, he was one of Patriarch Job’s favorite monks. But she could not remember his name, nor much else about him at all. This also seemed strange.

“Forgive me,” he said. His voice had such a quality that even when he spoke softly, it rang throughout her whole body. “I would not intrude upon your prayers, but you looked faint.”

“I am well, thank you.”

She thought she might return to her prayers, but the bold monk stood there and continued to stare at her, his eyes glittering.

“What brings the tsarevna to the Dormition Cathedral on a day like this?”

His tone irritated her in a way she could not explain. He sounded as smug as a cat, and in more control of the situation than he ought to be. Nevertheless, she chose to answer him; poor behavior or not, he prodded her to do what she came here to do, but still feared.

“I came to confess to the patriarch.”

“Ah! Why of course.” He grinned, revealing a shimmering set of teeth. “This way, tsarevna.”

“Where are we going?” She usually confessed in the main church.

“Somewhere more comfortable.”

As Xenia stood and followed the monk from the chancel, a strange feeling stirred in her stomach. Why did this man act with such presumption, though she did not even know his name? Or if she did, she could not remember it.

He led her to a small private sanctuary where she might sit on a bench and wait; then he disappeared, saying he would go and get the patriarch. She thanked God for this small mercy, for normally confessions were made out in the open church. But the monk returned only a few moments later, shaking his head sadly.

“I am sorry, Patriarch Job feels unwell today. I am told he has not left his quarters.”

“Oh no! I should send him refreshment.”

“Don’t trouble yourself, tsarevna, he would not want you to. I think it is an upset stomach, nothing more. He simply cannot see you now.”

“Oh … that is unfortunate.” She stood to go, perhaps too hastily. Eagerness nipped at her heels, for God had given her a chance to escape, it seemed.

But the strange monk swept forward, the movement of his lanky limbs surprisingly fast and smooth. She tensed as his fingers wrapped round her forearm. “Now, tsarevna, I hope you will not give up so quickly. Your face is like an open book: your urgent need to confess is quite apparent.”

“Yes, well, I …” She stared at the place on her arm where he held her, very distracted by his grip. He did not hold her tightly, but his hand was firm, nonetheless. “It is important that I speak to Patriarch Job. He is my spiritual guide.”

“He can absolve you of the sin later. But perhaps you should confess it now. I will gladly stand as witness. Whatever is on your mind, you should profess it to God immediately, before the next Holy Communion. If you are unworthy when you receive the Body and the Blood of the Lord, His gifts will turn to fire within you.”

Xenia feared that this strange man was right, even though he continued to speak in a tone that annoyed her, as if everything he said amused him. She had already kept this secret within her heart for two years, like poison. Then somehow, she had worked up the courage today to confront God with her guilt. If she left now, she might never find the will to return. Her sin would remain deep within, rotting her soul to the core.

“Who are you?” she asked wearily. “What is your name?”

“My name?” A spark flared in his deep blue eyes as he smiled. “You may call me Dmitri.”

“Dmitri …” Xenia searched her memory. “I have seen you with Patriarch Job before, if I recall correctly … and during some moments of import.”

He bowed his head, but his lingering smile was far from humble. “It is true that Patriarch Job favors me, and has shown me great kindness. I copy books for him, and sometimes offer him advice. I hope that if you trust him, you will also trust me to—”

“Very well,” she snapped, before she could change her mind. “You may stand witness.”

Trembling, she knelt down before the Holy Table. Upon this lay an open Gospel Book, cloth of golden thread, and a depiction of Jesus Christ upon the crucifix. The strong scent of frankincense wafted up her nose and nearly choked her as she inhaled. She settled her robes about her, pushed back her headdress, and let loose her tears.

Tears were a sign of devotion to God—or at least they were supposed to be. Why did she feel that her tears today were crude and selfish? They collected upon her lips, bitter and salty. She reached up and touched the feet of Christ with her right hand, then blessed the Gospel Book next to it.

“Remember,” said the monk, “confess every sin, fully and separately. Hold nothing back.”

“I will,” said Xenia, and then her body rocked with the weight of her promise. “Oh God, my Savior Jesus Christ, I am a sinful soul. I confess to you all of my evil actions, words, or thoughts, made from my baptism even unto this present day. I …” She was surprised to feel more tears spilling hotly down her cheeks. Did she weep for her sins, or for herself? “I have been sly, mischievous, and deceptive. Two years ago I lied to my father about the behavior of one Prince Pozharsky. I did this to protect the prince, which does not justify my behavior—in fact this makes my sin greater. I lied to my father, the tsar, for a man of low birth; and I lied for myself, who had impure feelings about the prince.”

She sensed the monk stir as he stood in the shadows next to her; she did her best to ignore him as she forged onwards.

“Dear God, forgive me, for instead of coming to you sooner with my sin, I continued to harbor my impure thoughts for Pozharsky. I have since thought of him many times, in a lustful manner. At night I have … I have …” Her cheeks felt as if they were on fire as she blushed, and she was all too aware of the strange monk who stood by, listening. But she must remain humble, she knew, and not let such material concerns get in the way of her confession to God. “At night I have touched myself, in a pleasurable manner, many times, all while thinking of the prince Pozharsky. And I wrongfully excused my deviance with the notion that I would never see Pozharsky again, and that he would remain in my mind as no more than a dream. Yet now I am told he has returned to the Kremlin …”

The sound of laughter cut her confession short.

All the breath left her body as she realized the monk Dmitri was laughing at her. She was so mortified that for a long while, she could not even speak, only listen in shock to the horrible sounds of his laughter.

“Oh, I am sorry, Xenia. Please … please … do continue.” It sounded as if he was trying to control his laughter, but then it burst forth again, worse than before. She saw his face now, for his hood had fallen backwards; his cheek were rosy with merriment.

She stood up, trembling with fury. She felt as if she might explode with anger, but her voice came out of her as a weak, breathless whisper. “How … dare … you.”

“Oh my … I am sorry. I truly do not mean to insult you. But …” He shook with another fit of giggles. “I suppose I am insulting you, nonetheless. I did not know what to expect when I brought you in here, but I could not ignore the opportunity—I was all too curious to hear the confessions of the mysterious Tsarevna Godunova. And I must say, you have surprised me thoroughly. Truly, Xenia—are your lustful dreams the worst of your concerns?”

“Opportunity? Curious?!” Wrath spread through her like none she had known before. Energy filled her limbs and her fingertips itched to claw out his eyes. She rushed towards him, stopping only inches away from him; her own voice shrieking from her throat reminded of her mother’s. “You bastard! I’ll see you defrocked!

He just stared at her levelly. A twinkle remained in his eyes, though they were calmer now, steady as they peered into hers. “Go ahead, Xenia; I was not planning on copying books much longer, anyway. After all, I would not mind losing my frock right now. Perhaps your lustful spirit is contagious.”

She flinched as he stepped towards her, her heart leaping in her chest. But he stopped, his smirk growing with amusement. He remained there a moment, seeming to enjoy her discomfort, then his face became grave again.

“Fun and games aside, Xenia—wake up. Do you feel guilty about deceiving your father? You shouldn’t. Have you any idea of how much he has lied to you?”

This offended her on so many levels, she did not even know which one to address first. “My sin is my own to deal with, and is not relative to the sins of others—”

“You’re the tsarevna!” Dmitri’s rang loudly throughout the chamber, reverberating through her bones. “Of course it’s relative.”

She opened her mouth to protest, but only ended up flapping her jaws uselessly. “But … but …”

Dmitri sighed. “I suppose I should not say it’s impossible to rule well as a tsar and maintain God’s absolute principles—I think I could do that myself. But you are the daughter of Tsar Boris. You have little option left to you other than deception, if you wish to come out from his shadow and cast any light upon the world.”

This man had gone too far. At first, he was a mischievous monk with reckless behavior. But now he insulted the tsar himself. Her mouth felt dry. This man was treacherous, blatantly so, and he did not seem afraid of her at all. In fact, the more she seemed to squirm, the brighter the twinkle in his eyes. What was she to do? This man was dangerous; she sensed it now as if a dog barked a warning in the distance. “You think … you could rule … yourself,” she echoed.

His smile faltered.

She searched her mind for everything she knew about the monk who had claimed that one day, he would rule as tsar. He had been the one to spark all the rumors about the survival of Tsarevich Dmitri. But she knew little else. What had his name been? Who had informed on him to Tsar Boris? Supposedly the monk had been sent away; but what if somehow he returned, or never left in the first place?

He must have seen the wheels turning in her head, for suddenly he assumed an expression of supplication and said, “I suppose I have let my mouth run ahead of me. I should be more wary; lesser men have been expelled from the Kremlin for such treacherous talk, haven’t they?”

She struggled to breathe as his eyes searched hers. When he stepped closer, she stopped breathing altogether.

He stared down at her, so close that she smelled the smoky scent of frankincense wafting off of him. His voice was soft when he continued speaking. “A shame, though. I meant only to appeal to your reason. Strange that to question Tsar Boris’s legitimacy equals treachery; it seems almost as if he has something to hide, doesn’t it? Hm.”

Xenia forced a swallow down her throat, wishing that he would move away from her so that she did not have back away and appear cowardly. The longer she stared at him, the deeper she saw into the facade of his expression; underneath his ever-lingering smirk, she sensed a fear in him, tart in the air as he stared her down. She could see the vein in his neck thumping rapidly with his pulse; she heard a slight tremor in his voice when he next spoke.

“I may not be your spiritual guide, Xenia, but I hope that you will consider what I have said, nonetheless. You are not so cruel as your mother and father, I suspect. So stop fawning over lowly princes and start watching what is going on around you.”

At last he drew away and made for the door, leaving her breathless.

“Thank you for an enlightening morning, Xenia. Until next time.”

With that he left the sanctuary, sweeping into the main part of the church.

For a moment, she stood petrified. This man should be arrested. She sensed it. How should she go about it? Did it matter? The longer she stood here wondering what to do, the more time she gave him to flee.

Finally, she hurried out, running through the church, not caring who watched. She rushed outside, her robes billowing all around her, and called out to the first streltsy soldier she came upon. She indulged a delightful fantasy of the soldier shooting off his harquebus and blowing a hole in Dmitri’s belly.

But when she tried to explain why Dmitri should be arrested, she floundered. “There was a man—he listened to my confession. He tricked me. He …”

The streltsy just stared at her, dumbfounded.

“He claimed to be Dmitri!” she blurted.

The streltsy blinked. “Dmitri who?”

She shook her head angrily. “That is, his name was Dmitri … I suppose he didn’t really say that he was … oh, damn it!” Xenia stomped her foot with anger.

She knew that the monk deserved to be arrested for how he had humiliated her and spoken against the tsar; but perhaps this was not the right way to go about it. She sensed there was more to this man than treacherous boasts. But did she really believe him guilty of claiming to be Tsarevich Dmitri? He had not really done so. In the end, she felt he had only been toying with her, whoever he was. Right now, the worst thing she could accuse him of was listening to her embarrassing confession under false pretenses, which was something not easily proven. She imagined trying to explain it all to someone; would this monk be cruel enough to break the holy seal of confession if she accused him of something? Probably not, but the thought still terrified her.

“Never mind,” she said at last, feeling as if her whole body deflated as she walked away from the cathedral.

The strange fellow had gotten the best of her this time, perhaps. The rascally monk thought he would get away with saying whatever he wanted to the tsarevna. But he had underestimated her. She would not just send a streltsy bumbling after him. She would take this matter to Tsar Boris himself.

*

The Prince and the Pretender

Published in: on September 3, 2013 at 10:00 am  Comments (2)  

Meeting The Monarchs: The Hunt For King Alfred

Today I am pleased to share a guest article written by Evelyn Croft. The recent discoveries of hard-working archaeologists are very exciting, indeed. It makes me wonder if the remains of Eadric Streona might one day be discovered. Alas, given the disgraceful nature of his death, that is highly unlikely!

***

Meeting The Monarchs: The Hunt For King Alfred

Over the last few months the world has watched in awe as the story of the last Plantagenet King of England, Richard III unfolded. With his body being found in a car park, and the resultant tests on the skeleton and facial reconstruction bringing forth much historical debate and scholarly discussion on matters relating to his rule and now how and where his body should be reburied.

Whilst this was happening, in another corner of the United Kingdom, work was also being quietly undertaken to ascertain whether the body of possibly the most well known Anglo-Saxon King, Alfred The Great, has now been found and what this means in terms of research on his life and times.

Alfred The Great

It is thought that the bones of Alfred The Great (c849-899), who ruled from 871 to his death, and who was born in Wantage, Oxfordshire, had lain in St Bartholomew’s Church, Winchester since the 19th Century. He had previously been buried at Hyde Abbey, but when it was ruined during the 1530s, the his remains and possibly five of his family members including his wife were exhumed and reburied in the aforementioned church.

This recent excavation comes about after it was feared that following the successful excavation of Richard III, there may be an attempt to steal the bones or vandalize the resting place. The decision to undertake the exhumation was made by the Parish Council of St Bartholomews church.

Long standing arguments settled

If these are indeed the bones of Alfred, it will settle a long argument as to what actually happened to him after his death, as it was for a long time felt that his bones had been lost forever. This is not an unusual occurrence for the time – as in the following century, Alfred’s grandson King Athelstan (generally though to be first King of England as a united country) died and was buried in Malmesbury Abbey, but his tomb is now believed to be empty and his remains lost.

The University of Winchester is seeking to gain permission to undertake osteo-archaeological and DNA study of the bones exhumed to ascertain whether they do belong to Alfred and his wife and family or not.

The chances that they are his remains are entirely plausible. When the bones were first exhumed from Hyde Abbey hundreds of years ago, they were said to be the oldest there. Monks had only been present at Hyde from the 12 century onwards, meaning the only other burials there may have been higher ranked individuals from previous centuries. Scientists will need to undertake a radio carbon dating of the remains to ascertain their age. If they date from the 10th century or even slightly before it offers an excellent probability that they belong to Alfred and his family.

What his bones may be able to tell us

One of the main issues with the bones, if they are that of the late King, is that they are now so old that DNA might be totally impossible to extract – though it is not impossible.

In 2008, the body of Alfred’s granddaughter Princess Eadgyth was unearthed Magdeburg Cathedral, Germany, more than 1000 years after her own death. Her remains had also been thought lost, but had actually been reburied as late as 1510 in a lead sarcophagus in the Cathedral. On studying the bones they were able to find out that she ate a high protein diet, rich in marine life that she was a frequent horse rider and that most importantly, they indicated that she had been born in the Kingdom of Wessex, which proved beyond all doubt she was Alfred’s granddaughter.

If it was possible for Scientists to be able to take a sample, perhaps from one of the teeth or indeed leg bones that may have survived, this can provide a rich seam of information for the modern historian on everything from his diet, his lifestyle, his overall health and any medical conditions he may have suffered from, including matters pertaining to his sexual health too. Osteo-archaeologists can tell from merely looking at the bones themselves what conditions a person suffered from in life. If, for instance, the King suffered from a condition such as syphilis, the bones of his legs or arms may be pock-marked or take on a honeycomb style appearance. They will show up any mineral deficiencies he may have had and even might be able to indicate whether he suffered from any degenenerative or chronic health conditions that may have shortened his lifespan.

Once permission is gained to begin the study and examination of the bones it is hoped that a whole new interest in a fascinating King and a relatively little known period of history will be re-kindled. Archaeologists involved also hope that in the event the bones are proved to be Alfred’s, they may also be able to find living descendants just as they have done with the late King Richard.

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Article by Evelyn Croft

5/1/2013

 

The Key to Castle Krondolee

Greetings everyone! I bring both good news and bad.

First the good news: releasing much earlier than expected is my stand-alone novella, “The Key to Castle Krondolee.” This story takes place in the world of the Broken Balance series (“Ashes of Dearen,” “Sands of Hanubi”) and introduces some of the characters of the upcoming animation, “Serafina’s Saga.” In any case, it should be a good romp of fun on its own, with some action and romance packed into a book about a fourth the size of my usual fare. Also, it’s free!

You can download it now in just about any ebook format (including .pdf for computer) from Smashwords. Soon it will appear in other retail outlets, as well.

A foreigner surprises everyone in the Castle of Krondolee when she claims to possess the key to a room that has remained closed for centuries, its contents unknown. Arken Jeridar, descended from the god of greed, schemes to win the key for himself and the queen's love all at once. But success may come at a far greater cost than he ever expected.

A foreigner surprises everyone in the Castle of Krondolee when she claims to possess the key to a room that has remained closed for centuries, its contents unknown. Arken Jeridar, descended from the god of greed, schemes to win the key for himself and the queen’s love all at once. But success may come at a far greater cost than he ever expected.

Now for the not so great news… my historical romance, “The Prince and the Pretender,” is going to be releasing a little later than previously expected, probably not until fall. I have been too busy with other projects+life to start promoting it as planned. However, I am looking once more into whether any big publishers want to pick it up. So we shall see what happens.

In the meantime, I really hope you enjoy “The Key to Castle Krondolee.” I had a blast writing it. And please let me know what you think when you’re done. Reviews or direct comments/emails are very much appreciated. Please remember that unless you give me such feedback, I never have any idea that my writing has impacted you in some way. I don’t know that you liked this or that character, or you really loved one scene, but hated another. I’m not psychic. I have no way of knowing these things you specifically tell me. And knowing that people are enjoying my work is what keeps me going (especially when I give work away for free)! So if you enjoy all the writing I’ve done, please take a moment to write back to me, it means a great deal each and every time.

Updates

Greetings everyone! Sorry I don’t post here too often these days, but now I have some exciting updates to share with you.

First of all, “Sands of Hanubi: Book 1,” Vol. 3 of the Broken Balance series, has released online and in paperback. For those of you who like to hold a solid book in your hands, the paperback is only $9.99 from Amazon. This is the first time I’ve been able to make any of my paperbacks so cheap, so please take advantage!

Secondly, some of you may recall that I have been in school for animation. I am still writing as always, but lately I have also been hard at work on my first little animated series. I still have a long way to go as an artist, I think, but I am making progress and excited to see where it might take me in the future. I am working on this animation under my real name and I may promote it separately from my other works, but I still wanted to let you all know about it. The animated series will be called “Serafina’s Saga” and it actually takes place in the same world as “Ashes of Dearen” and “Sands of Hanubi” on a different continent with whole new characters. You can expect some of the same gods to show up as the story unfolds, however.

If you want a little taste of the look and feel of the animation, here is the opening:

Eventually “Serafina’s Saga” will have its own website and much more. For now, I’ve just started a tumblr for it, so follow me there if you’re interested: http://thecrazyanimator.tumblr.com/

Finally, here’s some news for the historical fiction readers out there. Last year I wrote a historical romance about Xenia Godunova, False Dmitri, and Dmitri Pozharsky, all of whom are very exciting figures of Russian history. The novel is heavily researched and also dives into the murder mystery surrounding the supposed death of Tsarevich Dmitri, son of Ivan the Terrible, and his controversial reappearance many years later. I plan to release this novel May 2013. Before then I may post the first few chapters here on this blog. So keep a lookout!

The Prince and the Pretender

Happy Holidays to all of you!

Published in: on December 18, 2012 at 12:05 pm  Comments (1)