Image Prompt Response 075 – Courtyard

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I chose the image of the courtyard on a university campus for my twenty-minutes sprint today.  Just playing around with a couple characters.  I hope you enjoy.

Courtyard:

Valerie checked to make sure she had her ID and her office key on her before stepping out into the cool evening air.  She took a deep breath and walked to the path and slowly down toward the end of the little courtyard.  She’d been in her office all day.  First for office hours and appointments with students, and then working on writing up the results for her dissertation.

This was her last semester and the research was all done, so it was just a matter of getting everything written up, edited, and polished.  She reached the end of the courtyard, rolling her shoulders before turning back to pace the other way.  It was important to take breaks to clear her head and the courtyard was one of her favorite spots for that.

At least, it was during the day.  As she began walking back in the direction of the door she realized just how secluded and dark the place was in the evening.  The sun wasn’t quite set yet, but the courtyard was already in heavy shadow.  There was light from a few classrooms and offices that were still occupied in the evening, but the usually bright and cheery plantings were hulking shadows in the dark.

She patted her pockets, reassured to have her phone with her.  She often forgot and left it on her desk.  Not that she should have anything to be afraid of really.  Campus was a pretty safe place overall and this courtyard wasn’t something most people were aware of, tucked away as it was.  You had to get into the building to get to it and only one of the doors was unlocked after six.  There were only a couple night classes scheduled and everyone else with access with faculty or a graduate student.

Valerie did a few more shoulder stretching moves as she walked back toward the door, which was when she noticed the figure.  They were sitting on the bench nearest the door, their butt near the end of the bench as they leaned back, one leg propped up on the other at the ankle.  Had they been there when she came out?  Her eyes hadn’t been adjusted to the dim lighting then.

“Don’t let me interrupt your walk,” the figure said, their voice a light alto and the pronunciation hinting at another language.

“I’m not used to finding anyone out here,” she replied.  At least not after three in the afternoon.  Students tended to use it as a quiet place to eat or study during the earlier parts of the day, but they were pretty scarce near classroom buildings after midafternoon.

“I like to enjoy a little quiet here in the evenings,” the figure replied.  “It’s my first semester here so I’m still finding all the little quiet places.”

“It is usually quiet in the evening,” Valerie agreed.

“I’ve seen you around the building,” the figure said.  “Are you faculty or a grad student?”

“PhD student,” she replied.  “It’s my last semester.”  It was so easy to fall into the standard conversations about studies and progress, even with a complete stranger.

“I hope it’s going well,” the figure replied.

“So far,” she replied.  “Just finishing up the data analysis and starting to write the results section.”  She’d written the introduction and the procedure as she was getting things set up for data collection.  It was so much easier to write all that while she was actively doing the procedure.  Once she had the results written up she could work on the conclusion, update the introduction, and get the abstract together.

“I’m not sure if I should congratulate you or console you,” the stranger said.  “I’m only two semesters away from mine and I remember everyone having strong opinions about whether the work of the experiment or the writing were the worse part of the process.”

“I like both,” Valerie replied.  “Writing has always been a bit of a hobby, so I don’t mind it as much as a lot of my classmates.”  She loved to write fiction when she could carve out the time.  Writing up her research was different, but not distasteful.

“Sounds like a good place to be,” they replied with a laugh.  “I’m Sam Black, by the way.  They just hired me into the open faculty line in Linguistics.”

“Valerie Carver,” she replied.  “I had to miss all the meet and greets for that because they ended up scheduled during my class or office hours.”  She was in the department, and going to things like that was encouraged for the graduate students.  They actually seemed to care about student opinions when they were hiring.

Experiments in Plotting: Success??

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If you’ve been reading here for a while you may have seen me talk about plotting before and the recent (in terms of my entire writing history) experiments I’ve been doing to try to find a plotting process that works with my drafting process rather than against it.  You can read about how I’ve tried planning back in 2019 and the beginning (or maybe the middle) of the plotting experiments I’ve been doing with the third book in the Sword and Shields series this past year if you’re interested.

For most of the more than twenty years I’ve been writing fiction, I’d been what writing communities often call a pantser or a discovery writer.  I have an idea and some characters, and I start writing.  There’s no plan, no plot, just a vague idea of the inciting incident and the eventual end point.  This works great for things I never finish, or for fanfiction where it doesn’t have to be very polished and can meander and change course and no one minds.  This doesn’t work quite as well when the plan is to publish the book at the end of the process.

Most of my experience with plotting and outlining a book comes in the revision stage.  After I have a big messy draft, I’ll do a brief summary of the scenes and make an outline of what’s there, and then work on adjusting that outline to work better.  For the second and third books in the Swords and Shields series, I completely redrafted from an outline written after the initial draft of the book.  I think this ended up being pretty successful for book two (which is out for another round of beta reading at the moment) and I’m fairly proud of how it’s turned out even if it does still need a bit of work.

I spent part of this week rereading book three, which still isn’t quite finished (as in the ending hasn’t been written yet), but is in a lot better shape than I remembered it being.  I’ve spent somewhere between six months and a year away from the draft working on other projects, and in that time some of the problems I was having with the outline, the scene ordering, and the general pacing of the book seem to have fixed themselves in my head.  I know what to do with the scenes now and how to structure the book in a way to keep reader interest while also laying out the story in a way that’s understandable.  Now I just need to write a few scenes missing from the middle, possibly redraft whole sections of the middle as well, and then finish writing the big climactic ending which should be the fun part.

So I think those two plotting experiments have been successful.  I think I’m beginning to get an idea of how to use plotting strategies and outlines to revise a book I’ve already drafted.

I’ve also recently experimented with some plotting before I started drafting.  This was my NaNo 2020 project, which I started brainstorming, writing, and plotting for in October, wrote a little over 125k on in November, and continued working on well into February.  It started out as one idea, which several story beats planned out, a cast of characters, and no antagonist.  It was supposed to be something relatively light, fluffy, and happy.  A slice-of-life anime style low stakes sort of plot.  This is not what I ended up with.  I now have partial drafts of three novels, totaling about 52k, 38k, and 11k respectively.  The 11k one being the original story idea.

All the planning, prep, and plotting work I’d done in advance did help keep me writing for nearly five months on one project though.  Yes I was bouncing between the three books and a good week of that time was pulling all the scenes out of the massive NaNo 2020 document into their respective books, but the outline wasn’t a stumbling block like I’ve experienced in the past.  That’s a big deal, at least for me personally.  I’ve been avoiding outlines for years (in fiction and non-fiction writing) because I think better as I write and my end products have been better when I draft them, then outline them, then revise them to have a better outline.

I think, this might be a practice thing.  I need to practice writing outlines and then drafting them.  I need to practice revising with outlines.  I need to practice having a more structured writing process.  The reason the drafting method worked so well is because I’d been doing it for more than twenty years.  So plotting and outlining is something I need to keep trying, keep working on, and keep practicing so I can get better at it.  Practice makes you better at almost everything.

While I may not have a completed book based on any of my plotting experiments yet, I do have some very positive forward progress.  I call that a success, or at least a success so far.  I’ll likely still do some discovery writing during my outlining process to get to know my characters and better think through who they are so I can better know how they’ll react in various circumstances in the outline.  I’ll probably deviate from and rewrite my outlines as I go.  I’ll occasionally go completely off the rails and write a completely different book (or two) as I did in November.  But that’s okay.  That’s still practice.

I’m going to keep practicing and keep trying out plotting options and planning tools and seeing how they work for me.  I’ll always keep writing no matter what my process looks like.  With any luck, those two things will eventually turn into new books I can share with everyone.

Image Prompt Response 074 – Red

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I chose the image of the moss-covered, stone stairs leading up a hill for my twenty-minute prompt this time.

Red:

After months cooped up inside her apartment, Kelly was glad to get out of the house for a while.  She’d been doing alright with online meetings for work and seeing her friends in online spaces and doing occasional calls with family and her best friends, but it was getting old staring at the same walls all the time.

So she’d driven up the mountain to find a place to hike for a while.  It was safe enough to be out in nature as long as there weren’t too many people.  It was still early in the season, and the parking lot hadn’t been very full, so she figured she’d be alright.  She kept a mask in her pocket anyway, just in case.

The first part of the trail was a little busy, so she put her mask on and picked her way around people a little off the trail most of the time.  She was an experienced hiker and even had a little climbing experience, so she was willing to go off trail a little, always careful where she stepped to avoid damaging anything, and she managed to get out away from the others by taking the more difficult option when the trail forked.  It wasn’t long before she came to her favorite section of the trail.

There were stones set into the side of the hill to help make a rudimentary set of steps to get higher up the hill.  They were covered in moss and could be very slippery in the wrong conditions, which was part of why this was a harder trail, but it was dry and bright today, so she was able to walk up them quickly to the top of the hill.

There were remains of a railing that hadn’t been kept in good repair.  Back from an older period of trail tending.  These days the goal was to change as little as possible.  The trail was there to keep humans off the rest of the mountain, so they didn’t damage things.  It wasn’t necessarily there to make the climb easier.

When she crested the hill, the light blinded her for a moment.  She held up a hand to shield her eyes and blinked quickly, her eyes actually watering from how bright it was.  She hadn’t been expecting that this early.

When her eyes had adjusted, she was able to lower her hands and gaze out at the mountains spread out before her.  She was so glad she’d moved up here.  So much better than being stifled in the city.

“Haven’t seen you around before,” someone said from her left.

Kelly shifted to her right as she grabbed her mask out of her pocket, slipping it over her mouth and nose and wrapping the elastic over her ears.

“Never got that reaction before either,” the voice said.

Kelly couldn’t see anyone on the trail to her left.  That was weird.

“Down here,” the voice said, so Kelly looked down.

There was a fox sitting just off the path, front legs straight, head held high, tail wrapped around it’s feet.

“You seem surprised,” the fox said.

“That’s because foxes don’t talk,” Kelly replied.  Had she slipped and fallen?  Hit her head?

“Oh, right, you aren’t used to this,” the fox said, looking down at itself.  “Is this better?” it asked before being enveloped in a puff of smoke.

The smoke cleared to reveal a slim figure about four and a half feet tall with fox ears poking out of it’s red hair, amber eyes with vertical pupils, and a bushy fox tail swishing slightly from side to side.

“No less unbelievable, but it’s been a weird year, so what the hell, I’ll roll with it,” Kelly replied to the fox person.

“They said belief was down these days, but I didn’t realize it was this bad,” the fox person said.  “How about we start with names, then?  You can call me Red.”

“Kelly,” she replied.  “Nice to meet you,” she added.  “Do you get human diseases?  We’re dealing with a pandemic, that’s why I put the mask on when I heard you.”

“Oh dear, a plague?” Red asked.

“We’d probably have called it that back in the day,” Kelly said.  “It’s a potentially deadly disease at any rate.”

“It shouldn’t hurt me any,” Red said.  “Never heard of a puka getting a disease before.  Probably because of all the magic.  Keeps us healthy.”

“Magic, right,” Kelly said.  “Is that how you do the fox to mostly human thing?”

“That doesn’t take magic,” Red said, waving one hand in denial.  “That’s just something puka can do.”

“Cool,” Kelly said, carefully taking of her mask.  “So what’s a puka doing here anyway?”  She might as well have a conversation.  It had been a long time since her last face-to-face conversation.  So what if it was probably just a hallucination brought on by a head injury.

“I like to visit and people watch,” Red said.  “Been a while since anyone’s been able to see me.”

“Not everyone can see you?” Kelly asked.

“Only humans with a little magic of their own can see us these days.”

January Writing Progress

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It’s been a very eventful January this year.  A lot is happening that is both hugely impactful, hugely important, and entirely outside my control.  So, I’ve been focusing on what I can control, specifically my writing habits.  We’re twenty-nine days into the year and I haven’t missed a day of writing yet.  That’s a pretty impressive streak, especially when you take into account that I started the year with a writing streak of 77 days, which puts my total streak at 106 days.  Possibly the longest I’ve ever consistently written every day.

Those seventy-seven days in October to December were all spent on one project too.  Well, I say project.  It was my NaNo idea for this year and while it was initially supposed to be one novel, it’s currently looking like three or four in a series I’m calling Relationships and Readings.  I ran into a bit of a wall trying to move forward with it this month though (but after three straight months that’s not unexpected).  I played with a writing prompt for about a week for my daily writing sessions and then I returned to an older set of characters I’ve played with on and off since 2017.

If you’re curious about what I’m working on now, you can check out my A to Z Blogging Challenge posts from 2017 (tagged AtoZ2017).  That year I picked out a single word writing prompt for each letter of the alphabet and decided to try to write a continuous story with it.  It was a really fun writing exercise (one I may try to repeat in the future) and I was quite pleased with the story that came out of it (which I’ve recently been rereading).  I also returned to the characters for a couple Image Prompt responses (#28 and #39).

I’ve spent the last few days trying out a few new scenes and expanding on a few characters and I read back through what I’d written before.  I’m having fun exploring and have a few ideas for turning this into either one longer piece, or a collection of shorter pieces.  While I was having fun with Relationships and Reading and creating the entire fantasy world that surrounds it, I’m a little glad to be returning to one of my modern-day setting fantasies.  Over the years that’s become my favorite type of world building, to layer magic and fantasy elements over our own world.

Regardless of what project I’m working on, I’ve been really proud of myself for keeping my daily writing habit going, especially in such trying and uncertain times.  I hope all of you are making progress toward your goals for the year, be they writing or something else.

2020 Writing Year in Review

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Holidays and other traditional posts have made this a bit later than usual, but I still wanted to take some time to look at my 2020 writing year and see what I accomplished.

I’m actually pretty proud of the work I did in 2020 overall.  I did the Get Your Words Out (GWYO) habit tracking challenge again, and this year I actually made my goal, completing some amount of writing work on 314 out of 365 days.  My goal was 240.

Here are a few fun metrics from the data produced by the spreadsheet GYWO provide for tracking.  I tracked time as well as days which turned out to be quite interesting.

I tracked progress on nine different writing projects, one major sewing project, as well as other sewing, ML work, and my D&D prep work this past year.  It came out to a total of 432.6 hours spent on creative projects.

I spent the most time on my NaNoWriMo project, now a series called Relationships and Readings, with 97.1 hours spent.  (All of that in October, November, and December too!)

I spent 241.9 total hours on writing projects and 66.6 hours on making projects (sewing and the like).

I also apparently spent 121.4 hours on ML related tasks, events, etc in October and November.  (I was tracking this largely out of curiosity.)

This averages out to 6 hours a week or .85 hours (51 minutes) a day spent on creative projects.

None of these numbers are perfect, and they’re likely all underestimations as I’m not always great about tracking, but it gives me an idea of how I spend my creative time over the course of a year.

So what did that all result in?

Among all those hours, I spent 54.6 hours working on book three in the Swords and Shields series.  Toward the end of last year I got book two pretty close to finished.  It still needs a close reading for style, grammar, etc, but the basic structure of the story is settled.  Because of how book two and three relate, I want to release them close together, so I moved on to working on book three this year.  Those hours included some hefty rewriting, a lot of reorganizing, attempts to figure out how to be a plotter, and I’m still not happy with or finished with book three.  I burned myself out a bit on the project though, so I set it aside to work on other things.  I’m hopeful that I can come back to it in 2021 with fresh eyes, fresh perspective, and some new spaces to ask for help untangling the story so that I can make substantial progress on it this year.  Book three was the project I spent the second most time on, which I feel pretty good about.

The fact that I averaged nearly one hour a day also makes me pretty proud, especially with that writing spread across more than 300 days of the year.  I did a good job of prioritizing my creative pursuits this year, and that’s something that I want to continue.  2020 was a very hard year in a lot of ways, and I, like many others, spent time thinking about what matters most to me, and one of those things is my creative pursuits.  Some of my creative pursuits, like sewing and writing, have tangible end-products that I can use or share with the world.  Some, like planning and prepping for a D&D session, don’t have a lasting and tangible product, but that doesn’t make them any less important.  Creativity in my life is very important to me.  Writing gives me so much more than just a completed story.  It gives me space to explore my emotions, practice empathy, and through my writing communities (like NaNo and GWYO) a way to connect with others.

I hope at the end of next year I can look back at these numbers and compare them to my 2021 numbers and find that I’ve carved out even more time for my creative pursuits and prioritized the joy and fulfillment I get from them.  I already have a pretty good start with more than 16 hours on creative projects this January.

I hope you’ve all had a wonderful New Year so far, and that you’re making progress on your goals for the year like I am.  Keep writing, making, and creating.

Image Prompt Response 072 – Tired of Third Shift

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I chose the image of the cat on the laundry hamper for my 20-minute sprint today. 

Tired of Third Shift:

Amy was so glad to be home.  Working third shift was harder than she’d thought it would be.  Just managing to sleep properly when it was daylight out wasn’t a simple thing.  Thankfully she’d found a mask that was comfortable enough.

Violet was settled on her laundry hamper as usual, eyes closed and looking content and warm even right next to the window.  As soon as Amy walked in she opened her eyes and meowed loudly in greeting.  For such a lightweight little thing, she was incredibly loud.

“Good morning to you, too,” Amy said, stepping over to pet Violet and scratch her ears and chin just the way she liked best.

Amy heard the bathroom door open in the hallway outside her room.

“Good morning,” her brother Jason said quietly.  “It’s nice that I always know you made it home alright, but that’s the only nice thing about how loud she is.”

Amy laughed softly, still petting Violet.  For as much as Jason complained about her cat being loud, Amy knew he secretly loved Violet, especially when she was in a good mood and curled up on his lap to cuddle.

“Good night at work?” Jason asked, leaning in her doorway.

“Not bad,” Amy replied.  It was a retail warehouse job, it was never going to be great, but at least it meant she made enough for her part of the rent and utilities and at least some of the grocery bills.  Jason was being really great about feeding her when she came up short.  But then, he made bank doing computer security work for one of the big banks, so it wasn’t like he was struggling too.

“I got a pot roast and your usual list of veggies for it if you want to get that in the oven this afternoon,” Jason said.  “I’m going to be a little late getting home, so you don’t have to wait on me unless you want to.”

“Thanks for feeding me all the time,” Amy said, moving over to the door to give her brother a hug.

“You’re worth it,” he said, hugging back.  “Besides, one of these days you’re going to find that perfect job and you’ll be able to spoil me right back.”

Amy laughed again.  Finding work as a graphic designer wasn’t as easy as you’d think.  Yes, plenty of people needed one, but not everyone was willing to pay what you were worth or pay you to just do design and not six other things while you were at it.

“Have faith,” Jason said as he gave her a final squeeze and headed back to his room to get ready.  He had to leave for work soon.

“I’ll try,” Amy replied, heading into the bathroom to brush her teeth and get ready for bed.  At least she was able to keep her sleep schedule such that she was awake in the evening when her brother and their roommate were home.

Amy changed into pajamas and curled up in her bed.  Violet was jumping up to join her only a moment later, curling up against Amy’s chest where it was nice and warm.  Amy smiled as she put on her sleep mask and lay her head on the pillow.  She gently stroked Violet as she let her mind wander, hoping it wouldn’t be too hard to get to sleep this morning.

She was almost asleep when her phone range.

She pushed the mask up and reached for it.  Clearing her throat she answered with a standard “hello.”

“I’m calling to speak with Amy Thomas,” the male voice on the other end said.

“This is she,” Amy replied, laying her head down again.

“I’m calling from Wright Light Design,” he said.  “We received your application for the designer position and wanted to arrange a phone interview if you’re still interested in the position.”

“Yes, I’m still interested,” Amy replied, sitting up in bed.  “What day would you like to schedule it?”

“Are you available tomorrow?”

“I’m available between two and six tomorrow,” Amy replied.  If it was going to be that fast turnaround she didn’t want to disrupt her sleep schedule.

“We have a time available at three,” the man replied.  “The phone interviews usually take about thirty minutes.”

“Tomorrow at three,” Amy replied to confirm.  “Who will the interview be with?”

“I’ll be calling you at three as the HR representative for this position, along with the Lead Designer the position reports to and one of the designers on the team the new designer will be working with.”

“I look forward to speaking with the three of you tomorrow,” Amy said.

“Excellent, I’ll speak with you then.  Have a pleasant day.”

“You do the same,” Amy replied.

Amy’s door opened, Jason peeking his head in.  “Did I hear the word interview?”

“Yeah,” Amy said.  “Phone interview tomorrow.”

“Nice,” Jason said, smiling.  “Get some good sleep,” he added, “I’ll see you for dinner and I can grill you about the job it’s for.”

Amy just laughed.  He never grilled her despite how often he said that.  “Have a good day at work.”

“Later,” Jason said, closing her door before heading down the stairs.

Well, maybe things were about to turn around.  This was the first interview she’d gotten since she started applying for design jobs seven months ago when she graduated.

December Goals

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NaNoWriMo has officially come to a close.  I now have to remember what normal life is supposed to look like.  (I use the term normal very loosely here.)

Step One:

Continue writing every day.  I only missed one day in October, and I didn’t miss any days in November, so I’m going to write every day of December too and I’m joining an accountability buddies group for writing every day of 2021 in addition to signing up for GYWO again.  I’m looking forward to prioritizing my writing again in a more intentional way.

Step Two:

Get back into my normal routine.  Work during work hours on weekdays, goof off in the evenings, and change up the routine a bit on weekends.  Sunday write-ins will continue to be a thing in my life even if they have been virtual since March.  I’ll add some additional writing time Sunday nights with a writing Twitch stream my friend does.  I might try to set up a regular night for gaming with friends in whatever form that takes.

Step Three:

Goals.

I’d like to try to get enough of the story I’m working on strung together into something with a plot to move forward with the idea as a whole.  There are romance plots, intrigue plots, social tension plots, and maybe an overarching revolution of class structure in society plot, but I need to make sure enough scenes pull on the threads of a given plot to make it work developing.  That’s the part I want to spend time on in December that’s not just about drafting.  I need to do some reorganization and flagging of sections by character and timeline details.  The thing stretches across at least four years now and that’s a bit unwieldy.

I’d also like to work on a few other projects.  I have two sewing projects I’d like to at least start.  One is a pattern I cut out last December that I’d like to finish before the end of the year just so it doesn’t go into a second year.  I also have a project for my mother that’s years late that I should be working on.  Not necessarily in time for Christmas but I need to start working on the silver cloth covers for her various silver things.

I have the family’s collection of slides (the photo kind) and a scanner capable of very nice scans from slides, so I’m working on that and want to at least get the chunk with my sister’s first Christmas done before Christmas.  It’s been fun seeing all the pictures so far, so I’d like to continue chipping away at this project until it’s done (maybe by next Christmas).

What are your December goals?  Any writing, crafting, or productivity you plan to work on this month?

NaNoWriMo 2020 Planning Journey: Sneak Peeks Part II

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I wanted to share a few more of the scenes I’m writing in preparation for NaNoWriMo.  Again, these are fairly rough (just drafted, a very quick copy edit, and with placeholders and inconsistencies intact) but I hope that won’t detract from them too much.  I’ve really enjoyed writing about all my characters for the last several weeks and I hope you enjoy meeting them and getting a sneak peek at the novel I’m writing for November 2020.

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Meet Prince Dominique

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[Dominique is 15 in this scene.  It’s summer, several months before he goes to the Royal Academy.]

Dominique was bored.  He was always bored.  He was so far down the line that no one really cared what he did as long as he looked good, behaved well, and showed up.

He couldn’t even remember what today’s event was supposed to be.

His brothers walked into the room first.  They generally proceeded in age order behind their father and sister.  Dominique had been given the option to stay behind since he was still only fourteen, but he’d have been even more bored there alone.  At least with Father’s events there was important discussion going on so people left him alone.

When they walked into the hall it was more sparsely populated that Dominique was expecting.  Only about a dozen others standing around the long table.  It wasn’t until he saw the Vizier that Dominique remembered what event this was.  His father was being social for once.  He’d invited the Vizier and his top four clerks to bring their families for dinner at the palace.

“Archibald, it’s good to see you tonight,” Dominique’s father greeted the Vizier.

“It is always a pleasure, your majesty,” the Vizier replied formally.

“Come now,” the king said with a laugh, “no need to be so formal tonight.  “It is Josselin for tonight.”

The Vizier just smiled and nodded.  He was far too smart a man to allow himself to use such informality with the king, even when invited.  He was only a commoner after all, even if his family had been serving as clerks and Viziers for hundreds of years.

Dominique followed his brothers down along the table to take their seats.  He was at the end, as per usual.  But that meant he would be sitting next to someone other than his brother, so there was a chance of a conversation, even if they were usually boring at these events.

The Vizier and his wife were seated beside the king, across from his sister and eldest brother, and the four clerks and their wives sat on that side, he assumed in rank order, which put Dominique across from the second clerk.

Dominique glanced sideways when someone pulled out the chair two down from his.  It was the Vizier’s eldest, Benjamin, who was pulling out a chair for his sister, Catherine.  After seeing his sister seated, Benjamin took the seat beside Dominique.  He was a little more than two years older than Dominique, and very rarely had much to say on the few occasions they’d met.

He’d known he was going to be bored.

As soon as everyone was seated the servants began bringing out the first course.  Dinner conversation was almost always boring.  Today was no exception.  Dominique tried not to sigh and ate his food quietly.  There was no reason to be talkative if no one addressed him.

There were seven courses, which was a little excruciating, and by the end all Dominique wanted to do was get up and stretch after sitting for so long.  He knew better though.

As the food was finished and the servants began to clear away dishes real conversations began.  The clerk across from Dominique actually got into a fairly complicated discussion about fiscal policy with Benjamin.  Dominique only understood about half of it, so once others began to get up from the table, he quietly excused himself and walked away toward the far end of the room.  He stepped over to the window that looked out over the garden.

“Were you as tired of sitting as I?”

Dominique only just kept himself from jumping at her soft words.  He turned his head slightly to find Catherine already standing at the window.  She was standing at the far corner, partially in shadow.

“I am glad for the chance to stretch my legs,” Dominique replied.  Never complain, that was one of the rules of etiquette his mother had drilled into them all.

Catherine laughed softly.  “It is always a pleasure to get to see your gardens,” she said, her attention still on the window.

“They are lovely,” he replied.

“Do you ever go exploring in them?” Catherine asked.

“We don’t often have the opportunity.”  Which was a shame.  They were lovely, and he’d always like wandering the gardens at the summer palace.  He had more freedom there, and his father tolerated him talking with the garners and occasionally designing a new planting.

“Do you think they’d let us tonight?” she asked.  “Maybe if your escorting a guest no one will mind you taking time in the garden.”

Dominique actually turned to look at Catherine.  She was nearly a year older than him.  Surely she knew how inappropriate her suggestion was.  She was an unattached female, and a commoner at that, it would be scandalous.

“What’s that look for?” she asked, smiling again.  “I’m sure someone would insist on accompanying us, or sending a servant along or something.”

“You’re very forward,” Dominique said.  She was.  She was asking a prince to take a walk in the garden, and she wasn’t even a noble.

“I just know that this evening is much more about casual conversation of official things than it is anything else.  It’s also a reward that I’m sure everyone appreciates, but for us children it’s just another boring dinner.  Why can’t we go explore the gardens?”

Dominique met sparkling hazel eyes and found himself nodding.  He turned slightly and offered her his arm, as was appropriate when escorting a woman, even if they were still both under age.

Catherine beamed at him and placed her hand gently on his arm, allowing him to walk her back into the room.

“Try Mistress [clerk 4],” Catherine whispered.  “I know she loves gardens.”

Dominique duly walked over to where the indicated clerk’s wife was standing near her husband.  She looked horribly awkward.

The woman dipped a curtsey when she saw them approaching.

“I was just offering to show my companion the gardens,” Dominique said.  “She suggested you might enjoy the chance to see them as well.”  Even though it was all Catherine’s idea, he had to take credit for it as a proper gentleman.

“I would love to see the royal gardens,” Mistress [clerk 4] said in a soft voice.  “I thank Miss Verity for thinking of me.”

“Not at all,” Catherine replied, smiling at the woman.

“Please, lead on,” Miss [clerk 4] said motioning them toward the door.

Dominique escorted Catherine with Mistress [clerk4] following behind.  When the servant opened the door, Dominique informed the man of his plan and continued down the hall.

They didn’t talk as they paced down long corridors to the formal parlor that let out into the gardens.  If he were alone, he’d have used a back staircase and a servant exit, much to the family’s dismay, but he knew better than to take a short cut with guests.

“These are truly beautiful,” Mistress [clerk 4] said as they walked down the steps into the rose garden.

“The family takes pride in its gardens,” Dominique replied.  He more than most.  They had skilled gardeners and highly educated herbalists.  He’d learned a great deal from them over the years despite his mother’s disapproval of his interest in plants and being out of doors when he was younger.

“I’ve never seen roses so large,” Catherine said softly.

“They’re a special variety,” Dominique replied.

“Oh, in what way?” Catherine asked, with far more interest than anyone in his family ever had.

So Dominique told her.

Catherine asked questions, and so did Mistress [clerk 4] and somehow Dominique found himself giving them a complete tour and talking almost the entire time.  It wasn’t until a servant came up to let them know that Master [clerk 4] was intending to depart soon, that Dominique realized how late it had become.  It was almost sunset.

Dominique escorted his two companions back to the hall where the meal had been served, seeing Catherine into the care of her brother almost as soon as they walked into the door.  He moved over to stand with his brothers, hoping he hadn’t overstepped by taking the two women away for so long.

When the last of the guests had departed Dominique sighed softly.  That was the least boring social dinner he’d ever been to.

“You did well tonight,” Josephine said softly as she stopped beside him.

He looked up, not having expected a comment, let alone praise.

“It’s important to entertain one’s guests,” Josephine said, smiling down at him.  “The two ladies obviously enjoyed their time with you.  Where on earth did you take them?”

“They wanted to see the gardens,” Dominique replied.

“Ah, that makes sense,” she said.  “It explains why you looked so much happier too.”  She patted him on the shoulder, laughing softly as she moved away.

She didn’t see his interest in plants as unseemly like their mother had.

Dominique sighed again as he followed his brothers out of the room and back toward their own suites.  It would be another boring evening studying subjects he wasn’t as interested in.  It had been nice to not be bored for once.

#

Meet Catherine

#

[Catherine is 12 at this point.]

Catherine enjoyed the chance to go to a party with her brother.  No one seemed to like letting her go by herself, so she only got to accept invitations that included Benjamin.  Today’s was being hosted by the family on the estate just north of theirs.  They were a noble family, but didn’t have much standing or much wealth.  She heard father say that they were jealous of the Verity family’s success and a little resentful because they were only commoners, but for some reason she and Benjamin were always invited to the parties they had.

Benjamin helped her into the carriage in her pretty dress.  It was the simplest of her party dresses.  She knew better than to show off by wearing something that would be fancier than her hosts could afford.  She’d seen the daughter of the family in a very similar style dress at the last party, so this might even be seen as a complement or copying her style.  Catherine hoped so.  Olivia was nice.  Catherine wished they could be friends, but whenever she tried to talk to Olivia their brothers seemed to get in the way.  Olivia’s first usually.  He was always wanting to talk to her.

When they arrived at the house, the family was there to welcome them, and Catherine made sure to smile when Olivia greeted her and be properly polite to everyone before Benjamin escorted her into the parlor to mingle with the other guests.

Thankfully they already knew everyone here, so they didn’t have to do any of the awkward introductions.  Catherine hated introductions.  Especially with nobles.  They were always polite to start with, but by the time Catherine and her brother had finished saying their names they would often turn subtly insulting.  The Verity family was invited to a lot of functions hosted by the nobility, but they were also often looked down upon because they weren’t nobility themselves.

They talked briefly with a few of the other young people and answered all the inquiries from the adults about their parents’ health and the family and all that.  Catherine used the answers mother taught her.  She’d tried being honest once and mother had been furious, so she wasn’t going to do that again.

Catherine tried hard not to show her relief and excitement when everyone had arrived and they were led from the parlor out into the yard where tables had been set up with delicious treats and awnings had been strung between trees to create a cool and shady spot for the adults to sit and talk over their food.

Benjamin let Catherine out of his sight for a little while which was a bit of a relief.  Catherine made a modest plate of small bites, again like mother had taught her, and milled about slowly, trying to see where Olivia had gone.  When she saw the other girl surrounded by the other noble girls at the party, Catherine decided today wasn’t the day to try to become friends.  She didn’t want to look pushy and rude, and at least one of the noble girls was from a family that very much disliked Catherine’s and none of the family members where shy about it.

She walked past where all the adults were sitting at little tables under the awning looking for her brother when Olivia’s brother found her.

She didn’t dislike Pascal, but she didn’t particularly like him either.

“You’re looking scrumptious today,” Pascal greeted her.

“Thank you,” Catherine said, holding her plate in one hand so she could lift one side of her skirt as she dipped a curtsy.  She was to always be polite and respectful of the nobility.  It was the proper way for the family to behave.

“Why don’t I show you around,” Pascal said, brushing the back of his fingertips down her arm.

“I do enjoy your family’s lovely gardens,” Catherine replied.  She didn’t need to be shown around.  She’d seen the place often enough since her first invitation when she was eight.  It was rude to say that though, so complementing something she already knew was a good strategy.

“Then I will have to take you to see them,” Pascal said, actually taking Catherine’s hand to place it on his arm so he could escort her.

That was very forward, but Catherine didn’t want to be rude, so she went along, still holding her plate with one bite-sized morsel left on it.

Pascal walked them sedately across the lawn to the entrance to the garden path that wound through a variety of decorative plants from small delicate flowers to large hedges.

The sound of the music and talking of the party faded as he led her down one of the paths lined with hedges.  It wasn’t as pretty as some of the others this time of year.  In the fall when it was just warm enough to have outdoor parties they would be covered in brightly colored berries, and Catherine found them quite pleasing then, but now they were just a large wall of green.

“You are enjoying the party?” Pascal asked.

“It’s been delightful so far,” Catherine replied.  Even if she was slightly bored and no one was paying her much attention, she must never say that.  Her mother would be furious.

“Why don’t we sit for a moment and you can finish your morsel,” Pascal said, guiding her toward a bench between two hedges.

Catherine let him lead her over and she sat carefully when he released her hand.  She had been saving this bite for last because it was a tiny berry tart and those were her favorite.  She glanced sideways at Pascal as he sat beside her.  His sleeve brushed her arm and she could feel the heat of his leg through her skirts.

Not wanting to comment on his closeness, Catherine ate her tiny tart, setting the plate on the bench beside her temporarily.  She didn’t want to leave it, because that would be unkind to the servants who would have to hunt for it later, but it was nice not to be holding it for a moment.

The tart was just as delicious as she’d hoped.  The berries were bright and tart and the cream was smooth and rich and the crust was buttery and gave substance to the bite.

“Perhaps I can have a morsel now,” Pascal said softly.

“We’d have to go back,” Catherine replied.  “But they are quite good.”

Pascal just laughed, reaching over to brush the back of his hand down her arm again.

Catherine faced forward, not turning to look at him.  She wasn’t used to being touched by other people.  Her parents, while loving and supporting, weren’t terribly demonstrative, and her brother always seemed to be trying to play the perfect model of their father, so he didn’t hug her like he used to when they were children.  Only Emma touched her much.

She did keep an eye on Pascal in her peripheral vision, so she saw him lean in closer for a moment.

Catherine remained very still.  People didn’t get close.  She had no idea what to do when she felt her hair move as Pascal leaned very close to her.  His face was practically in her hair and she just couldn’t seem to move.

“I was wondering where you’d wondered off to,” Benjamin said as he walked up.

Pascal moved away very quickly, sliding further down on the bench too.

“I wasn’t hiding,” Catherine protested.  Benjamin was always accusing her of hiding these days.

“Just enjoying the gardens?” Benjamin asked.

“You know I like flowers.”

“Then you should see the other path,” Benjamin said, his smile sharper than usual as he glanced at Pascal.  “There are more flowers there this time of year.”

“I’d love to,” Catherine said, smiling at her brother.

“Will you escort us?” Benjamin asked, staring hard at Pascal.

“Don’t let me impede your enjoyment,” Pascal said, getting to his feet and walking off.

Benjamin watched him go.

Catherine picked up her plate from the bench beside her and got to her feet.

“You need to be more careful,” Benjamin said as he held his arm out to her.

Catherine took his arm, her hand resting lightly just above his elbow.  “About what?”  She’d been very polite and she wasn’t leaving the dish for the servants to miss.

“About being alone with a man,” Benjamin said.

“Pascal isn’t a man yet,” Catherine replied.  He was only just fifteen.

“He’s not sixteen, but you shouldn’t be alone with a boy over twelve either,” Benjamin said, leading her down the path toward the flowers.  “It’s not safe.”

“What do you mean?” Catherine asked.  “We’re at an estate.  How is that not safe?”

Benjamin sighed.  “How about this,” he said.  “Promise me you won’t be alone with any males for the duration of the party and Emma and I will explain it all when we’re home.”

“Why would Emma need to be there?” Catherine asked, frowning.

“Because she’ll be able to explain it in a way you’ll understand without anyone being embarrassed,” Benjamin replied.

“Alright, I promise,” Catherine said.  She knew her brother hated being embarrassed and wouldn’t dream of embarrassing her if he didn’t have to.

Benjamin patted her hand on his arm and they had a nice little walk before returning to the other guests.  Catherine was able to get one last tiny berry tart before they left too.

NaNoWriMo 2020 Planning Journey: Sneak Peeks

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As I mentioned in my last planning journey post, I’m writing out scenes that happen before the novel as a way to get to know my characters better before November and starting the actual novel.  Today I wanted to share some sneak peeks and a few of the scenes I’ve written so you can see exactly what I mean.  These are fairly rough (just drafted, a very quick copy edit, and with placeholders and inconsistencies intact) but I hope you enjoy them anyway.

#

Meet Emma

#

 [Note: nine years old, arriving at Verity household]

Emma waited until the coach had come to a complete stop before jumping down from the seat on the back.  She stepped around the side and waited for her cousin, who had been driving it, to tell her what to do.  She wasn’t entirely sure how she was supposed to know what to do now that she was here at the Verity’s ancestral home.

“Alright?” her cousin asked softly as he stepped down from the driver’s seat.

Emma nodded.  Being on the seat at the back meant she could move around a lot more than if she’d had to ride inside with their passengers.

“Just stay there and look dutiful for now,” he whispered to her before opening the coach door.

Emma shifted slightly so she was standing with her back to the coach wheel and faced the mansion.  That at least gave her something to look at as she stood quietly, hands folded against her belly like her mother taught her.

The mansion was huge.  Mother had told her that the family didn’t all live here anymore, and that they didn’t even use the entire mansion, but it was still intimidatingly huge.  It was four stories tall, taller than any building she’d ever seen.  Even the clock tower in town was only three stories tall.  The mansion was made of some kind of smooth white stone that practically glowed in the late evening light.  There were huge windows on every floor with real glass in them, not the thick bubbly kind like they had in the town hall back home, but the smooth clear kind.

She was going to be some kind of maid now, and she really hoped it wasn’t the cleaning kind.  Mother had taught her everything she might need to know.  How to clean, cook basic things, follow recipes she didn’t know, properly serve at table, dress and undress a noble lady in all the fancy clothes that were impossible to get into by yourself, style and care for hair, and assist a woman with basically any every day need.

Mother had also taught her how to be properly deferential to her employers and anyone of rank.  Emma worried about that part the most.  She was used to interacting with her mother and her younger siblings and the other families in their little town.  She’d never even seen a noble before.  Not that the Verity family were actual nobles, but she was supposed to treat them as if they were because they were her employers.

Emma continued studying the mansion as her cousin helped the two passengers from the coach and assured them their luggage would be delivered to their rooms presently.  She never turned her head as she watched the two young men walk away from the coach and up the three steps to the grand door of the mansion, which opened for them.

Once they had disappeared inside, two other men walked out, dressed in matching outfits.  Brown slacks with sharp creases, white shirts, and sharp brown vests that matched their slacks.

“Well met,” the taller of the two said, offering his hand to her cousin.  “I hope the drive wasn’t too awful.”

“The weather held the whole way, so it was fairly pleasant,” her cousin replied, laughing as he clasped hands with the man.  “This is my little cousin, Emma,” he continued, turning and beckoning her forward.

“Please to meet you,” Emma said, dipping a curtsy when she stopped beside her brother.

The shorter man laughed.  “They said you’d have good manners,” he said with a smile.  “No need to be so formal with us,” he added, smiling down at her.  “I’m Neal and this is Owen,” he continued.  “We work here, just like you, so you only have to be formal with us when we’re in front of a Verity or a guest.”

“Thank you for letting me know,” Emma replied.

“You’ll get a uniform,” Owen said, “which will be the same as all the other women employed in the house proper, and we’re wearing the uniform for men in the house proper, so you’ll be able to easily tell who the other servants are.”

Emma nodded.  That was useful information.

“Let’s get the luggage in first, then we’ll take you in to see Hollis, who can tell you all about your new job.”

“Should I help?” Emma asked.

“You can get little things,” her cousin answered.  “There are a few boxes in the coach under the seat.  If you can gather those, we’ll get the trunks.”

Emma nodded and turned back to the coach to gather things.  She would be polite and helpful.  Mother had stressed that, even when interacting with her fellow servants.

It didn’t take them long to carry everything inside, and other servants came to take everything away to the right rooms.  When they were done, Emma stood beside the empty coach unsure what to do next.  Her cousin went down on one knee so he was the same height as her and gave her a hug.

“You’ll do fine here,” he told her.  He’d been working as one of the family’s coachmen since he was twelve.  Emma was only nine.  “Just remember what your mother taught you and everything will be fine.”

Emma nodded and hugged him tight before he could stand up again.

He laughed and hugged her back before getting to his feet and reaching up onto the top of the coach.  He lifted down her little bag of belongings and handed it to her.

“I’ll see you when I come through,” he told her, patting her on the head before getting back into the driver’s seat and clicking to the horses.  He needed to see them safely to the stables and get a fresh pair for his next journey.

“This way then,” Neal said to Emma.

Emma followed him back into the house and then through a side door she hadn’t even noticed before—it was very well concealed—that lead into a narrow hallway and then into a large pantry room.  At least she assumed it was a pantry based on the lack of cooking facilities and the preponderance of vegetables and other food stuffs.

There were three women at work in the room, but only one, the oldest based on her gray hair, turned when they entered.

“Ah, this must be young Emma,” the woman said, smiling over at them.

“It is indeed,” Neal replied.

Emma dipped a curtsy even though they’d told her she didn’t need to.  If this was Hollis, then she was the head maid, which meant she was in charge of Emma and all the other maids in the house.

“She taught you well, she did,” Hollis said.  “Remember your manners in front of the family and guests, but we don’t stand on ceremony and such when we’re back in the working parts of the house.”

“Yes, mistress,” Emma replied.

“And you can just call me Hollis,” she added.  “In public you generally shouldn’t actually respond to me with more than a nod and curtsy.  We’re generally to be seen as little as possible and not heard if it can be helped.”

Emma nodded.

“Let me show you where you can put away your things and then introduce you to your new charge,” Hollis said, waving Emma forward as she turned toward the other door on the far side of the room.

This lead to the kitchen, which was bustling, but also incredibly clean.  It helped that they had the fancy steam powered cooking machines her mother had described, rather than a fire.  It meant no soot and ash to worry about.

Hollis lead her through the kitchen and out the other side into what appeared to be a dining room.  From there, they went into a wide and airy hallway and through another cleverly hidden door into another narrow hallway lit by some kind of indirect glow.  Emma wasn’t sure if it was sunlight coming from hidden windows, or if there were some sort of fancy advanced lighting somewhere.  Mother had known about the cooking machines, but didn’t know much about the other technologies the nobles and the richest commoners had access to now.

At the end of the long narrow hallway, Hollis took a right and walked all the way down to a narrow set of stairs that took them up to the second floor, where they went right again before exiting through a door Emma was worried she wouldn’t even be able to identify on her own.  They walked across another large airy hallway and into a suite of rooms.

“This is Catherine’s suite,” Hollis told Emma.  “She’s just turned nine years old, so a little bit younger than you are.”

Emma’s birthday was seven months past.  It was only the day after that they’d gotten the notice about when she would start work at the Verity household.

“You’ll be her personal maid,” Hollis explained.  “You’ll stay in this room,” she continued, opening another carefully concealed door that led into a tiny chamber with just enough room for a bed, a chest of three drawers with a pitcher and wash basin on top, and a candle in a holder.  “You’ll spend most of your time attending Catherine, but may occasionally be asked to help with other tasks if she’s away or while she’s in her lessons.”

“So I’ll assist her with anything she needs then?” Emma asked.  She knew what was expected of a lady’s made to an actual lady, but what did a little girl need?

“Yes,” Hollis replied.  “You’ll assist with bathing and dressing and the usual things, but you’ll also bring her meals if she takes them in her room, attend her if she is ever ill, and generally keep watch on her health and wellbeing.  You won’t be primarily responsible for the cleaning of her suite, which happens twice a week during her lessons, but you will make up the bed in the mornings and change linens as needed between cleanings, and deal with any messes that need immediate attention.”

Emma nodded.  That all made sense.

“You will also attend her whenever she asks,” Hollis added.  “Catherine has always been a fairly solitary child, so I don’t know how much she’ll ask of you, but if she wishes to go out into the gardens or take walks, she may ask you to accompany her.”

Emma nodded again.  So she was possibly a bit of a companion as well as a maid.  That made slightly more sense given how young she was.  Her mother hadn’t been given a place until she was twelve, and had only left it when her back was injured and she could no longer do the work.  Thankfully her father was able to support them both until her mother was well enough to take in sewing work.  Emma had helped with that for almost as long as she could remember, but they’d always known the Verity family would offer Emma a place.

“If you ever have any questions, you can come see me about them.  Catherine should be back from her lessons momentarily.  I’ll return during dinner to show you where everything is that you’ll need in her suite, tomorrow during her morning lessons I’ll show you where everything else is.”

Emma nodded again.  She hoped Catherine was a nice girl.  Her mother had warned her that not all nobles and rich commoners were kind to their servants.  Emma hoped perhaps a nine-year-old like herself wouldn’t have learned to be cruel yet.

Hollis led Emma back out of her little room and Emma closed the door behind them.  She glanced around the sitting room, which was actually quite large.  It had a couch, a chaise, and two chairs grouped around a fireplace with a low table between them.  There was also a writing desk in one corner of the room with a few books stacked on it and several quills in the stand with the ink.

There was only one door leading further into the suite, so Emma assumed that would be the dressing room with Catherine’s bedchamber being beyond that.

“Do you have any questions before Catherine arrives?” Hollis asked.

“What is the proper address for her?” Emma asked.  Catherine wasn’t a noble, so she wasn’t Lady Catherine, but she was Emma’s employer’s child and Emma’s charge.

“I recommend starting with Miss Catherine,” Hollis replied.  “She will let you know if she prefers something else when you are in private, which you can use whenever it’s just the two of you and other servants to hear.  In front of the master and mistress of the house, you should always address her as Miss Catherine.  Master Verity and Mistress Verity will be your normal address for them, and any other family members in the house should be miss or mister and their first name.  At present there are [a dozen?] members of the family staying here.”

Emma nodded.  That was a lot of names to learn.  “If I don’t recall someone’s name, would a simple miss or mister be appropriate?” she asked.

“That should suffice,” Hollis replied.  “You shouldn’t be seeing them much outside Catherine’s company, and she’ll likely supply names for you during conversation.  She’s incredibly polite and tends to make fairly formal greetings even among her own family.”

Emma nodded.  That would be helpful.  She’d learn all the names soon enough, but having help at the start would be good.

The door opened then, and Emma quickly resumed her proper posture, hands folded across her belly and looked over at the door to see who walked in.

The girl was almost a hand shorter than Emma with a delicate build, a tumble of brown curls loosely tied at her neck, and hazel eyes that sparkled as she quickly surveyed the room.  She smiled when she saw Emma and Hollis standing off to one side.

“You must be Emma,” she said, walking over to them.

“It’s nice to meet you, Miss Catherine,” Emma said, dipping a curtsey.

“It’s nice to meet you, too,” Catherine said, actually curtseying back to Emma.  “You can just call me Catherine.”

“Of course,” Emma replied.

“I’ll leave Emma to help you get ready for supper,” Hollis said.

[Notes to self: If I ever use this scene formally, go back and fix things so that the first thing Emma does is get her uniform and a few spares, and then be taken to C’s rooms.  She’d have needed a bit of cleaning up from the dirt of the road since she traveled outside on the back of the coach.  Also dinner is noon meal and supper is evening meal.]

“How can I assist you?” Emma asked after the door closed behind Hollis.

“I’m supposed to wear the nicer dresses for dinner, and mother likes my hair up,” Catherine said.  “For day wear I have simpler dresses and I can get away with wearing my hair like this as long as I don’t have something scheduled that involves mother.”

Emma followed Catherine across the sitting room and into the room beyond, which was a quite elaborate dressing room.  In one corner, perfectly placed to have the best light, there was a vanity with a stool in front of it and a large and elaborately framed mirror on a swivel mounted to the vanity.  The opposite corner was sectioned off with a folding screen and beside that was a long rack full of dresses and other clothing hanging neatly.  A few items where shrouded in white cloth, so Emma assumed those were the most costly and elaborate dresses.

“Do you have a preference of dress this evening?” Emma asked, glancing at the options.  There were a few dozen similar to the one Catherine was currently wearing in a variety of pastel shades, which Emma assumed were her day dresses.  The next set seemed to be in slightly darker colors and richer fabrics.  They also came in a wider variety of styles.

“Nothing too elaborate for supper at home,” Catherine said.  “When we have guests someone usually sets out the dress mother wants me to wear, and she supervises the packing when I travel.”

Emma nodded and went to the rack to quickly assess the dresses available.  She found one in a medium blue that was fairly simple except for the more elaborate bustle and the decorative trim on the jacket.  She stretched up to remove it from the rack and hang it on the hook on the outside of the folding screen.

“Is this acceptable?” Emma asked.

“Yes,” Catherine said, “that’s exactly right for supper.”

Emma smiled and dipped a curtsy, happy that she’d selected something appropriate based on Catherine’s instructions.

“Do you have a preferred routine before supper?” Emma asked.

“Unless I’ve been outside, I usually just need my hair done and to change,” Catherine replied.  “If I’ve been outside, I might need to a bit of a wash depending.”

“Would you prefer I do your hair before or after taking off your day dress?” Emma asked.

“After would be lovely,” Catherine said, smiling at Emma.  “It’s nice to get out of things for a little.”

Emma nodded and smiled back.  Catherine was very well spoken and sounded so much like an adult.  Emma hadn’t done much playing in the past several months, but she didn’t remember the other children being so formal when she’d had a chance to play with them back in town.

Catherine stepped over to the screen, standing next to a panel that Emma noticed had an empty hanger on it for the dress.

Emma followed and began to unbutton the back of Catherine’s dress.  The buttons were small and covered with the same cloth as the dress was made out of so they blended in with the rest of the dress.  There sure were a lot of them though.  It was a good thing Emma had nimble little fingers.  Once all the buttons were undone, Emma gently eased the dress off Catherine’s shoulders and bent down so it would pool around Catherine’s feet.

Catherine stepped out over the skirt and moved toward the screen, slipping out of her shoes as Emma stood and hung up the dress.

Emma left the day dress hanging on the screen for the time being.  She’d need to ask Hollis what the procedures were for caring for Catherine’s clothing.  They likely wouldn’t need to be laundered every time Catherine wore them.  When she turned back, Catherine had already seated herself on the stool by the vanity.  Emma noticed that her feet didn’t touch the ground.  Catherine was still rather small for nine years old.

“Do you prefer simple styles or elaborate ones?” Emma asked as she stepped up behind Catherine and carefully untied the ribbon holding her curls back from her face.

“I prefer simple styles like this one,” Catherine said, “but mother prefers more elaborate styles.  For supper at home, I can get away with something simple, but up and contained.  For guests or when we travel, you’ll have to learn the elaborate ones.”

“I know a wide variety of styles,” Emma replied, pulling the box of hair pins closer to the edge of the vanity so she could reach them easily.  “But I am always eager to learn more,” she added, realizing she might have sounded rude.”

“I don’t even know how to braid,” Catherine said.

“I could teach you,” Emma offered as she began to pin Catherine’s curls into place.  She would do a simple pile of curls at the back of Catherine’s head tonight, something up and contained, but that would show off the volume of beautiful hair Catherine had.

“Really?” Catherine asked, starting to turn, but stopping herself short.

“Of course,” Emma replied.  There was no particular need for Catherine to know how to braid, but Emma’s mother had told her that if she could do little things to please the person she served, it would benefit her later, and this was a very small thing.

Catherine’s smile was huge as she looked at Emma through the mirror.  “No one else has ever offered to teach me anything.”

“I’m sure it simply didn’t occur to them that you would wish to know,” Emma replied.  Catherine’s hair was incredibly soft and a joy to work with.  It took the pins easily and actually stayed in place.  Curls were often easier to deal with that straight hair, because they had texture to them.

“Maybe,” Catherine replied.

Emma quickly finished pinning up Catherine’s curls and picked up the hand mirror so she could show Catherine in the mirror.

“Oh, I like this one,” Catherine, said, smiling.  “It looks fancy, but doesn’t take long to do.”

“Your hair is a delight to work with,” Emma replied. 

Catherine just smiled and nodded, so Emma put the hand mirror back on the vanity and pushed the hair pin box back to where it had been.

“When do you need to be ready for supper?” Emma asked as she took a step back from Catherine.

“Not for half an hour,” Catherine replied.

“Would you prefer to dress now, or closer to supper time?” Emma asked.  Catherine had mentioned liking to be out of the layers earlier.

“This is fine for now,” Catherine said, sliding off the stool and moving toward the door leading further into her suite.  “Let me show you my room and tell you about things,” she said, waving Emma after her.

Emma followed when Catherine opened the door to the other room, which was Catherine’s bed chamber as expected, but it was also a bit more than that, she realized.  There were bookcases between the windows and two large upholstered chairs in one corner near the window that looked out on the south side of the house.

“These are my books,” Catherine said, turning to smile at Emma.  “I’m allowed to loan them out if I want, so you’re allowed to read them as long as they stay in the suite, which includes your room.”

“Oh,” Emma said softly.  She could sort of read.

“Do you like to read?” Catherine asked, hopping up into one of the chairs, which looked incredibly plush and comfortable.

“I don’t know,” Emma replied.

“Oh, can you read?” Catherine asked.  “I didn’t even think to ask, I’m sorry.”

“I can a little,” Emma replied, taking a few steps into the room.  “I don’t have much formal schooling.  Mother taught me enough to read a shopping list or sound out the words on directions left for me, but we didn’t practice it much.”

“Oh, well, you’ll have to practice while I do the work my tutors give me,” Catherine said.  “I love having someone to talk to about what I read, so I’d love it if you’d practice so you could read stories with me.”

“If it doesn’t interfere with my duties, I’m sure I can do that,” Emma replied.

“Oh, it shouldn’t,” Catherine said, smiling happily.  “Hollis said you’ll have very little responsibility aside from me, and I don’t take much work except before dinner.  Besides, you could think of it as part of your work if you needed to.  It’s something you’ll do so you can be a better companion for me.  Mother and Father said that’s the primary reason they wanted you specifically, because you’re a distant cousin and my age and we can be good companions.”

“I’d like that,” Emma replied.  Hollis had mentioned that Catherine was a solitary child.  Maybe that wasn’t entirely by choice.  It sounded a lot like Catherine wanted a friend, and Emma was more than eager to be a friend to Catherine.

#

Meet Nadine

#

[Note: Nadine is 13 at this point.]

Nadine stood as still as she possibly could while her mother’s maids dressed her and did her hair.

Her own maids had been deemed too young and inexperienced for the task today.  Her mother hadn’t explained why yet.  Nadine very rarely knew why things were happening.  Nadine knew that if she was being fussed over this much, then whoever they were seeing today was important and Nadine needed to be on her best possible behavior.

“This will have to do if we don’t want to be late,” Nadine’s mother said after the maids had spent hours tweaking every possible aspect of Nadine’s appearance.

When the maids stepped away, Nadine very slowly stepped forward toward her mother, being careful not to disarrange anything the maids had spent time on.

“Come,” her mother said, turning and walking out of the room.

Nadine held in the sigh and followed at a properly sedate pace.  If she moved too fast she was sure her hair would come undone and her dress would fall apart.  She felt ridiculous in the overly fancy thing.

When she followed her mother into the formal dining room to find her father conversing with the king and the Royal Vizier, Nadine began to understand why her mother had made such a fuss.  A royal visit was indeed worth fussing over.  She wasn’t sure why she was being included in one, but that was beside the point.

Nadine followed her mother and played the perfect miniature lady as she was introduced to the king and his party.  No one was named for her, because she was expected to know everyone in the royal family on site and any of the important person surrounding them.  She knew the vizier was Archibald Verity, a commoner from a family with a long history of filling the role, and that it was the king’s second son and third child, Corentin, who stood quietly beside his father.  The royal consort wasn’t with them today, and neither was the heiress, Princess Josephine.  This was expected as the royal consort had been quite ill for the past few months.

It was a relief when supper was announced and they could all take their seats.  It turned out to just be the six of them dining, so Nadine ended up on her father’s left, next to Prince Corentin, who sat on his own father’s right.  He was very polite and even pulled out Nadine’s chair for her.

Nadine thanked him in an appropriately mild tone and volume, as her mother had always instructed her.

The meal was filled with talk of the kingdom and matters of state.  Her father was an active member of the court so he, the king, and the vizier did all the talking.  Nadine listened politely.  She had listened to her father talk enough that she knew what was happening at court and could follow the conversation well enough.

It wasn’t until the dessert course was served that the conversation seemed to die away.

Nadine could feel her mother’s eyes on her.  She wasn’t doing what her mother wanted, but she’d been given no directions or instructions, so what was she missing?

Nadine glanced at her father and then her mother.  Her mother was indeed staring hard at her, but Nadine could do nothing but return her gaze with a polite expression.  If her mother wanted something, she needed to tell Nadine.

All through dessert, her mother stewed and Nadine remained quietly polite as she enjoyed the fresh fruit and cream.  It wasn’t her fault her mother never told her anything.

After supper, as was the family’s custom when guests had joined them, her father led them out through the large glass paneled doors on one side of the dining hall and onto the gracefully appointed patio that lead out into the family’s famous rose gardens.

Prince Corentin approached Nadine, bowing gracefully.

Nadine curtsied back, unsure if that was the proper response.

“It would be a pleasure to escort two such lovely ladies through the garden,” Prince Corentin said.

“It would be my pleasure as well,” Nadine replied, curtseying again.

When the prince offered her his arm, Nadine glanced sideways at her mother, and seeing a real smile on her face for once, Nadine gently placed her hand on the prince’s forearm.

He walked sedately, and even engaged them in a polite conversation about the garden.  Nadine was able to reply back and even managed to occasionally ask a question or two to keep the conversation moving.  She wasn’t the best at this, and she had very little chance to practice.  Her elder brothers were always the ones going with her parents to functions.  She was usually left at home.

By the time they’d made a complete circuit of the garden and returned to the patio, it was time for the prince to leave with the king and the vizier.

“It was lovely spending time with you this afternoon,” Prince Corentin said, gently taking her hand from his arm and bowing over it, his lips barely touching the back of her hand.

“It was a truly wonderful afternoon,” Nadine replied, barely managing to keep her tone even.  She’d never had anyone kiss her hand like that, and he was a prince.

He smiled at her before turning to follow his father and the vizier back into the house.

Her father went with the, but her mother stopped her from following.

Nadine sat down on the bench beside the door and waited while her mother paced up and down the patio.  It had been quite a while since she’d seen her mother so agitated.

“Well?” Her mother asked as soon as Nadine’s father reappeared in the open patio doorway.

“We’ll be meeting tomorrow to finalize the details,” her father replied.  “It’s all settled except the signatures.  They’re already aware of the dowry and he’s amenable to my desire for the wedding to happen after she turns eighteen.”

Wedding?  Nadine frowned.

“Splendid,” Nadine’s mother said, looking positively and radiantly happy.  She barely even glanced at Nadine before sweeping back into the house and calling for her chamber maid.

“What was agreed upon?” Nadine asked softly.  She didn’t usually question her parents, but she felt this had something to do with her.  She didn’t have any sisters, so a dowry probably meant her.

“Tomorrow I will meet with the king to finalize an agreement for you to be wed to Prince Corentin in the year following your eighteenth birthday,” her father replied.

“Oh, I see,” Nadine replied.  Wed?  To a prince?  She was going to be betrothed to a prince?

“He seemed rather impressed with your gentility this afternoon,” her father said.

“I’m glad,” Nadine replied softly.  Her mother was happy.  That’s what mattered.  When Mother was happy, Nadine was left to herself more and her every action wasn’t picked to pieces for flaws.  This was a very advantageous match after all.  Her father was heavily involved in the court, but their family didn’t have the long standing prestige and pedigree that normally lead to a royal betrothal.

She didn’t know what to think.  Her conversation with Prince Corentin could have happened with any noble anywhere.  There was nothing personal about it.  She knew nothing about him personally and tomorrow her father would sign that she was to marry him?  Oh dear.

Camp NaNoWriMo July 2020 Week Three

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It’s been an interesting several months for a variety of reasons.  I kept my Camp NaNoWriMo July 2020 goal fairly low to allow for that.  I’ve been able to maintain a word count a little above my part for most of the month.  I’ve had a couple 3k days, which spiked me up but I’ve ended up plateauing a bit right after each of those, with some days with less or even no writing happening.  I’m back to fairly close to par again.

I’ve been playing with a brand new idea for July and completely pantsing it to get back to my comfort zone for a while.  I haven’t given up on the plotting experiment, I’m just taking a break.  The idea I’ve been working on grew out of a series of image prompt responses that will be posting in September, October, and November.  So you everyone can look forward to a little sneak peek of how my pantser projects usually start.

It’s this strange combination of modern fantasy and semi-apocalypse science fiction.  There are Fae and magic crystal fueled magitech but there are also cell phones and laptops and normal people.  It’s set in the UK, with the original image prompt posts taking place in Wales and Scotland respectively.  Eventually the whole thing lands in London and in theory the motley cast of characters will pull together to solve the problem and pull the British Isles back out of the stasis the Fae put them in to stop the actual apocalypse from happening.

We’ll see how this goes.  For perspective, that’s the level of planning I usually do before I start writing in earnest.  It may start with a scene idea or a character idea and a little writing (like I did on those image prompts) and then it will grow into a little paragraph of plot summary while more writing happens and things sort of spiral out or (or into) control from there.

So that’s what my July project has been, and I’ve written most days so far, and I’m feeling reasonably good about the project as a whole.  We’ll see if I still feel good about it a week from now when camp is over.  If so, I’ll probably keep working on it.  If not, it will join the large list of files (and notebooks and printouts and loose pages…) containing abandoned ideas that I mayor my not every return to.  That’s something I’ve found most writers have.  But that’s how you get better at all this, but practicing your craft over and over and over, even if you don’t finish every single piece you start.

If you’re doing the Camp NaNo thing with me, I hope your project is going at least as well as mine and continues to come along as we near the end of the month.