Threatening Sky – got a cover, still writing the novel

I was all set to publish the sequel to my debut novel on April 5th. However, discussion with a writing coach left me feeling oddly side-swiped. and that date became far too soon.

Changing the date was the best thing to do. Stress rolled away just like that and I could “forget” about the novel for a couple of weeks. I say “forget” with quotes because it took at least three days before the characters quietened down and before I did too. Some of the coach’s suggestions had stupidly annoyed me but through that annoyance my brain was already working out how to action those suggestions. So I had to force myself to shut that down too; I really did need a break.

By this time, the cover creation was already in motion. I wanted to keep going with it because having the cover would hopefully invigorate my enthusiasm. I’d settled on a “threatening” sky (thanks, Mum), and chose a misty image of the John Hancock Building (it’ll always be this to me) on Michigan Ave to go with it. Fog rolling around skyscrapers is an eerie sight. Just the sort of image I wanted.

The cover, by the same wonderful designer of Mackerel Sky‘s cover, is now finalised and I’m really pleased to reveal it here.

This novel is so much darker than Mackerel Sky, and I wanted that reflected in the images just as much as the title. The peace, happiness, and love that Owen and Andrew had found sits on a knife edge this time. They’re going to have to put up a hell of a fight if they want to survive.

Threatening Sky is now due to be published for Kindle on June 27. Print later in the year.

Finding a Threatening Sky

I wanted to keep the sky theme for the sequel to Mackerel Sky, because originally these two novels were just one giant novel under the working title, Watching Clouds. That title because I love watching clouds and, naturally, so does the main character, Owen.

Up until the end of 2016, Watching Clouds was still going to be the title of the first book. It changed to the mackerel version because that cloud formation happens to be one of my favourites and it has a pivotal scene in the novel.

Threatening Sky came about as the sequel’s title to represent the darker nature of the story within. And, as with the mackerel sky, the threatening version plays a physical part too.

The Clouds

What I didn’t quite realise, when coming up with this title, was how hard it would be to find a sky that could be considered threatening. Or to articulate what ‘threatening’ meant to me. Big? Black? Streaky? Rainy? Flat? The following three images are top of my list at the moment, and they’re all rather different from each other.

Sky One

From 2016, this was taken on my way from Denver to Houston. Houston at the time had been suffering heavy storms and was dealing with the aftermath of floods. We skirted around this monster cloud, allowing me to see quite a lot of it. It’s totally gorgeous, but now that I’ve looked at it again, I can’t see that it’s threatening enough for a cover image (even if it was to have a change of colour).

Sky Two

Part of my daily commute consists of a beautiful coastal train journey, and I’ve taken countless photos of the sea and skies at dawn and at dusk. The view is different daily and I just love it. I like the grey/black of this photo (March 2018) but perhaps the peeking sun might rule it out of being considered threatening.

Sky Three

Ever since I told my mum what the title would be, she has been on the look out for threatening skies. She lives in an area that’s plains on one side and mountains on the other, and temperatures can be extreme. This particular photo was one of a series (December 2018) just before the storm arrived, and I really like it. It’s angry and patchy and promises rain.

The Full Cover

I envisage the cover taking the same format as Mackerel Sky because I want the pair of novels to be recognisable as a pair. So it’s all about clouds and Chicago.

However, because the John Hancock isn’t as significant as it was in the first novel, I don’t need such a close-up view of it. And, with the clouds I’m considering, I’m not sure that their threatening nature is visible enough when half the cover is of buildings.

When I visited Chicago in April/May this year, I walked along the wonderful waterfront trail. I did this because Owen walks there and I needed to see how far he could go from the downtown area and still see the John Hancock. Well, the building can be seen from Evanston, which is a perfect miracle for both novels. I have some good images of the building and general skyline from different distances that I think will work on the cover.

The novel, itself, is going through yet another edit/rewrite/reposition phase. (How many times can you reposition scenes? Turns out, a LOT.) Though I’m sure on the title and the general cover design, I won’t speak to my cover designer until nearer the end of January. The novel should be in a more stable position by then and I should have settled not only on the cloud image but also the novel’s blurb.

Threatening Sky will be published 5 April 2019.

Where Owen’s Story Began

The majority of my writing ideas come from dreams. Considering some of the topics in my novels (sometimes also in my short stories), I’m not sure what that says about me. I also have no idea where those ideas really come from since I’m not usually watching something like it on TV that might influence my dreaming.

Owen’s story is no different. The idea came from a dream and below are the first words written for it, represented verbatim (right down to the double quotes, which I no longer use). Where I first indicated the first person narrator’s name, I had a square. Clearly I hadn’t come up with the name at that point, but I’d overwritten the square at some point with Owen. The notes are dated 24 January 1996.

The original idea

“I have to support 4 brothers + sisters,” I said tiredly. “I have no education, I can’t get a real job. I do this because its easy money – there’s always a customer – it doesn’t mean anything to me + and they pay well.”
“Do your bro siblings know where the money comes from that buys their food + clothing?”
“No,” I said. “I told them not to ask, to just be satisfied.” “I told them I had a supermarket job.”
“Where does this usually take place?”
“Not here,” I said evenly. “I wouldn’t do it here. Usually at their place or a motel.”
“Aren’t your siblings suspicious about your odd hours?”
“I don’t know, no-one’s mentioned anything,” I said.

“What were the cops here for?” Jamie asked.
“There was a robbery at the store,” I said.
“Do they think you did it?”
“No, they’re questioning everyone.”
There was a pause then Jamie asked, “Owen, you’re not one of them people from the Square, are you?”
I looked up, startled he’d said it. “How can you imagine such a thing?” I got to my feet. “No, I’m not.”
“Good, because I can’t eat food or wear clothes that have been paid for by money earned that way.”
He turned and left the room & I sank back onto the couch. Did he believe me? Does he have suspicions?

Do they still exist?

Yes. Both of these conversations – the first between Owen and a cop and the second between Owen and his brother – still exist. However, the first conversation is not featured in the published novel, and the second has changed. Jamie still asks about the Square, but it comes at a far more desperate time.

Owen has always been defensive about what he’s done but in this first idea he was a lot more bold and, I think, openly gay. It definitely reads that way, and that he didn’t care about that or about what he was doing. In the re-write, he’s still bold but that’s because he’s a stubborn kid and will defend what he thinks is right. He still talks back the cop, so that has never changed (poor Sergeant Morrison!), and Jamie’s opinion didn’t change at all either. But… he refuses to admit he’s any sort of gay.

With those notes were two other sections. The first is part of the story that hasn’t been published (but has been re-written), while the second is an ‘idea note’ and written (oddly!) in second person format. Not sure why I did that!

“You said they pay well,” he said. “Do you set a price, hourly, nightly or do they?”
“I don’t have to answer that,” I said.
“True, but we would like you to answer it,” the cop said.
“Why? I’m not doing anything wrong. It’s not illegal. I’m not charging great amounts. I’m not stealing from them.”
“Calm down Owen,” the cop said. ‘It may not be illegal to take money for sex – yet – but you are classed as a minor.”
“So, having sex with a minor is an offence of the law.”
I looked at him. “What do you mean?”
“It’s statutory rape, Owen, even if you’ve consented.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “If I let them do it, & get paid, how can that be rape?”
“You’re under the legal age for having sex.”
“It’s my decision – no-one else’s,” I said. “I can do what I like.”
“You like selling your body for other men to have fun with,” the cop said bluntly.
I shuddered. “Of course I don’t like it, but it’s the only job I have and it’s easy money.”
“Easy money?” the cop asked. “It comes easy to you – just giving your body over to someone else.”
I frowned + bit my lip. “It’s easier than it was at first,” I admitted in a low voice. “The money makes it easy to take.”
“You would give it up if you got a real job?”
I looked at him warily. “No-one will give me a job. I’ve got no qualifications.”

The very first note and this one above are actually together. Owen and the cop are having a conversation in the police car sitting in Owen’s drive. Owen’s not happy to be there but it’s better than being dragged down to the local station. And… once he comes back inside, that’s when he tells Jamie they were just talking about a robbery at work. So, even though the notes weren’t written together, they are together in the story. Just not part of the published version.

The second note is this:

Come home one morning face all bloody & bruised. You’d agreed to go with a man back to his place but then you decided you didn’t want to. He didn’t take it kindly and raped you viciously and bet [sic] you up, taking the money you had on you. You won’t say want [sic] happened to your family. Jamie is worried & finally calls in the same cops who interviewed Owen before. They draw out of him what happened. They’ve got other reports of such events too. They want Owen to list all his clients but he doesn’t know their names. So they want him to go and do his job wearing a microphone. They’re going to charge each one with stat rape. Owen is scared they’ll seek revenge.

The note surprises me a lot, since despite what it says I’d never intended Owen to go off wearing a wire. The note has several lines drawn through it so perhaps I thought to toss it out completely. I didn’t, obviously, since the attack is behind the opening chapter of Mackerel Sky.

I have never written the attack, but it’s in my head as much as it stays in Owen’s. In fact, aside from meeting Andrew in the prologue, none of his customers appear in the story in that particular manner. Owen has been writing a letter as a sort of therapeutic way to work through his memories; the men he was with are in there, but I don’t know that he’ll ever let me publish it.

It’s funny going back to where it all started, and I’m really glad I kept the details. I hand-write everything, but I throw that out once I’ve got a typed version. Much of the original handwritten versions of Owen’s story are gone, but I like to think that the versions that exist now are much better than those originals anyway.

Published, and feeling a little depressed about it

I’ve been writing Mackerel Sky for more than two decades. (I will post the original idea one day soon.) I’ve loved writing it, and I just wrote and wrote and wrote. I had an end in mind, but then I’d write some more and another ‘book’ would end up being created. I’ve probably got around 350,000 total words written for this big long saga.

But today, Mackerel Sky is officially published (via Amazon for Kindle; later aiming for ePub/POD via IngramSpark) and I don’t really know how to feel about it. I’m over the moon, of course, because this is the outcome I wanted for this novel. But a wee bit depressed too that it’s over. It’s been such a huge part of my life that I feel like I’ve lost a little something, and am not even sure at the moment that I can read the story again. That, in itself, makes me more depressed.

But… I’m still writing the sequel. Have got a good two-thirds to write or re-write on that, and I’m aiming for that to be published early next April. So it means I don’t have to say good bye to the characters just yet. And, let’s be honest, I’ll still be writing about them long after even that sequel’s published. So I shouldn’t be feeling depressed at all – after all, I’m published and I’m still writing.

It’s a strange feeling.

Today I saw the mock-up of what the POD cover will look like, and seeing all the trim lines and the barcode put a spark of excitement back in me. I wonder if I’m feeling a little ho-hum about publishing because I don’t have the physical book yet. Maybe I won’t feel like I’m really published until I get that in my hands.

Anyway, wanted to mark today (27 June) because it’s a huge, huge day. And, it’s also the main character’s birthday. Happy birthday, Owen. Love you.

Finding a home in Chicago

Well, first thing, I don’t live in Chicago. My characters do, but up until just recently they lived in an ‘imaginary’ part of the city. All because I had them in a neighbourhood that is a New Zealand neighbourhood and they just don’t really exist in the US. Definitely not in the spots in Chicago where I’d imagined my characters living.

By a New Zealand neighbourhood, I mean individual houses (single or double-storey) on their own land with fences between and fences in front (though not always the latter, but always very much an individual plot). Sidewalks and off-street parking (with or without a garage), letterboxes. Front lawn, back lawn. (Yes, US neighbourhoods have these things but Google what they both look like and you’ll see what I mean.)

The Tremayne house exists in my head (and on paper) with a full layout, and is obviously a major setting for the novel. The outside has more of a role in the second book but that’s such an important role that I couldn’t change the imagined layout of the house or grounds.

When I visited Chicago back in 2014 I thought I’d found the perfect street. It was close enough to walk to Lincoln Park Zoo (which had a small but important role) and there was a community park down the end of the street (which has a recurring role). Thought I had it made, and everything was just perfect. However, when I got to see the street with my own eyes I knew immediately it wouldn’t work. And… and none of the streets around it would work. The houses were multi-story apartment blocks with a communal entrance and no front lawn.

Not feasible at all.

I thought then that it didn’t matter so much, I didn’t need to actually state a street or even a suburb. But I also want this novel to know where it is. It has to be true to Chicago and its environs. I can make things up but I need to be real too.

So… I’m here in Chicago now (two months before publishing) to make things real, and to find a ‘home’ for my characters that suits what I’ve already written.

Yes, sounds like I’m being stubborn – a setting has to fit with my story and not the other way around. But that’s not how it has turned out! I mentioned Lincoln Park Zoo above; well, that’s totally gone. My characters just cannot live close enough to it. I used Google Maps to look at some of the more northern suburbs and streets/houses and spotted both a location that could just work.

Evanston lies lake-side, about forty minutes’ drive north of Chicago. It’s home to Northwestern University, great beaches and some stunningly huge mansions! For a bibliophile like me, it’s got several bookshops! It is, of course, home to a lot more than that: Visit Evanston to find out more. This little park sits between Elgin Road and Clark Street.

The street shall remain nameless. This is because, though it has all the elements I want, I’m going to tweak it just a little bit. Actually, I’m mostly going to tweak the park nearby just a little bit. And, anyway, would you like your street named???

The neighbourhood around my street actually has a New Zealand feel to it. Or that could just be because I’d found my characters’ home. Not sure, but I can very clearly imagine them living there. There are schools close by, shops, main roads, little roads, easy walk into Evanston itself, just as easy walk down to Howard, where the red line starts.

The ability to get out of ‘home’ is important, as is the ability to get into Chicago. The red line takes you all the way in and there are a number of buses that head in too, including a couple that go right past where I’m actually staying. They offer a hop, skip and a jump over to the lake and Owen will use them a lot as he seeks ‘alone’ time far far away from his brothers and sisters!

Calvary Cemetery
There’s one other tiny thing that helped me decided Evanston was their home town – Calvary Cemetery. Yep, a cemetery. The fog was rolling in when I visited last week but it was a lovely peaceful spot, and many of Chicago’s mayors are resting here. A few of Chicago’s architects too, as well as Charles Comiskey of the White Sox.

This quiet spot has taken the place of Lincoln Park Zoo in the novel. I love visiting cemeteries and I’ve imparted that to Owen, though I do think he goes there because he knows his brother won’t follow so quickly.

Mission Accomplished
One of my primary ‘must do’ activities while visiting Chicago and experiencing it first-hand was to find Owen and his siblings a home. It’s an activity I can tick off the list. When I envisage the kids now I can ‘see’ the surrounds and put them out into a wider scene – getting groceries, going to school, public transport, walking about ‘downtown’ – which I couldn’t quite do before.

I just need to re-visit on a sunny day to experience what Evanston’s like during a bright spring day, because the day I visited it was foggy and damn cold!