location, location, lo…

It’s a frequent question in writer circles: can I set my story in a place I’ve never been? How much research do I really need to put into my setting? Can I name real places in my book?

There are about as many answers as there are writers, but here’s my two cents.

In Not Your Mary Sue, the first half of the book takes place “on an island in Lake Superior” and the second in an unidentified town in Illinois, so you can probably guess some of my answers from that. There are plenty of islands in Lake Superior, so just because you’ve never seen an island like the one I described, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. (I’ve also had to explain to multiple people that yes, the water goes all the way to the horizon – largest surface area of any freshwater lake in the world, after all – because Superior is hard to imagine if you’ve never been here.)

Jay’s unnamed private island was my solution to the challenge of finding a location in the 21st century where my main character could be held captive and not be able to call for help. In Misery, Stephen King traps Paul Sheldon by a combination of factors including a dead landline (King didn’t have to deal with cell phones in 1987) and a pair of broken legs keeping him from escaping the isolated house in which he found himself. NYMS was written in 2017 and published in 2022, so I had to figure out the cell phone problem.

Cell phone coverage has increased in the UP since I first moved here, but it can still be slow or completely absent. Before we moved into our house we had to check and see if the internet even reached it, so not all of these technological advances are a given. When you drive across the UP, there are places where you phone goes wild because it suddenly has signal again and pings everything at once. And there aren’t cell towers in the middle of the lake. Add in the fact that Marcy can’t swim …

So it looks like I lean toward making it all up.

Especially with that unidentified Illinois city in the second half, right? Except, for the story, that location didn’t matter as much. Marcy wouldn’t have gravitated toward Chicago, because she didn’t need to be near another Great Lake, and it had to be still somewhere in the Midwest for plot travel time reasons, but otherwise … it wasn’t as restricted. There was nothing particularly special that meant I wanted, or needed, to tie it down to a single location. Let me put things where I want them, because there it’s the relationships and interactions that matter.

On the island, knowing about the location mattered.

Remember these?

I went to various beaches and took these photos because of how much Superior played into the story. I knew about the isolation and the cell phone signal issues and water as far as you can see. If I’d never been to the UP or lived in these rural areas, it wouldn’t have occurred to me as a solution to my isolation issue. But I do live here, and I know what it’s like to live here, and isn’t Superior gorgeous after a storm?

Blood Sisters all but swings to the other extreme.

It’s probably the more expected version of “Write what you know.” The book opens in Cyberia Cafe, in Houghton, Michigan – I could point you to the exact table where Skye waits with her theory that her twin sister isn’t dead, but a murderer in hiding. Characters meet at the KBC (Keweenaw Brewing Company, for the uninitiated) and get burritos from Rodeo and eat at The Library (which is near the one with the books) and get fishbowls at the Ambassador and celebrate at McLain State Park with cakes from Roy’s Bakery and and and …

You could go to all these specific locations because they exist. (Well, at least for now – the parking deck won’t be around much longer, and 5th and Elm moved across the canal to Hancock, but the book’s set in 2019.) I know how long it takes to travel various places, how to navigate the Yooper Loop, and how you can expect traffic to stop when the bridge lifts for the Ranger to come back through. I was at Michigan Tech for graduate work from 2007-2015, and I’m still close enough to easily visit, so I know the area. I don’t have to depend on Google street view.

And, as a reader, I’ve been burned before.

There’s a certain disappointment when you read a book that specifically names the location as, say, the city you grew up in … and then completely botches the layout. I once read a book where the chapter title listed my hometown, city and state, and then said the character was in the parking lot outside of two stores … that have never been next to each other. (It went downhill from there.)

Now I understand that the author wasn’t from Michigan. In this particular case, the author wasn’t American. It doesn’t seem likely to me that the author had ever been to my hometown, or at least hadn’t gone looking for those business to get the lay of the land. (It’s not just that they’ve never been next to each other – a character got into the surrounding area and it wasn’t realistic, either. If you’ve never been to my hometown or haven’t paid attention to those businesses, you wouldn’t know, either.

But I knew, and it bothered me.

Which probably explains my own personal response:

Keep the location vague so I can make it up entirely, or make it something I know quite well.

That’s my two cents. How about you? Have you set a book in a place you’ve never been? How did you handle the research?

Not Your Mary Sue: the original ending

So there are totally spoilers for Not Your Mary Sue in this post. If you haven’t read it and want to experience it all without knowing what’s coming, this is your cue to stop reading.



This post isn’t exactly one of those killed darlings, because this is the first time I’ve actually written it. I didn’t have to delete it from my first draft because, once I got to the end of what ended up being Part One, I didn’t want to write it anymore. It just didn’t fit.

But, once upon a time, leading up to about mid-November of 2017, this was how Marcy’s story was going to end. We see the others come to the island and eventually make their way into the bedroom, finding Marcy curled up in the corner of the bedroom, and she starts crying. There’s a break, and then this brief epilogue from some months later:

Marcy steps out into the sunlight and sighs, arming sweat off her forehead. It’s not entirely clear where she is – she’s just outside, and sweaty. She moves out of the way of the door, but you don’t know how big the door is. She just steps sideways enough to lean against the outside of the building but, before she does, she pulls something out of her back pocket: the first sign that she’s wearing jeans.

She unfolds the paper and it becomes clear that it’s getting thin along the creases. We can’t read all the words, anyway, but they’re written in a familiar, spiky-yet-cramped hand. And what we can read is the last sentence: Remember, Marcy: when you save a life, you’re responsible for it.

“Marce?” someone calls from inside the building, and he comes out – not through a person-sized door, but through an open garage door. He’s a stranger, and he’s wearing a leather apron. “You all right?”

She folds the letter from Jay quickly but carefully and slips it into her back pocket. She’s wearing an apron, too, and her hair’s pulled back into a tight bun. “Yeah, just … needed some air.”

He smiles and somehow it becomes clear that she’s his student. Maybe he says something about how he can’t have his best student collapsing from heat exhaustion, or maybe it’s less obvious. When he reaches out toward her, she pushes away from the wall and lets him lead her back into the building where the sword forge, and her blade in progress, are waiting.

Yeah I always imagine my scenes as movie shots, I guess. It’s a lot of telling and a complete lack of interiority because I never actually turned it from the idea into a scene for the book. I wrote the first draft in third person but, aside from one scene – the very second in the book – from Jay’s point of view, I stuck close to Marcy the whole time. When I rewrote it for the second draft, about the only thing I changed was the point of view from third to first, and the tense from past to present. Nearly everything else from the first part of the final book is what I wrote in November 2017. How amazing is that?

The thing was, though, once I got to the end of part one – once Marcy put her head down on her knees and cried because they’d found her – I didn’t want to let her go. Sending her into the forge was no longer the proper slightly ominous ending for her as a character. She’d spent the entire story so far reacting instead of acting, and I wanted to give her some agency.

Reality check, though: originally Part Two started with the words Edison Crane had a girlfriend. The original Part Two was told largely from his point of view, because I hadn’t really figured her out yet. Marcy on the island, yes, that had been swirling around in my head for months. Marcy off the island? Big shrug.

I had to figure out what all was going to happen to Marcy before I could figure out how she was going to handle it. And, as a nod to my original ending, in that first draft Edison was a master bladesmith. (Remember Jay only reached journeyman.) His house had a forge in the backyard, and Marcy asked him if he could teach her. Except, once she learned the techniques, she used the skills to make some elaborate sculptures, like a metal nod to Chihuly’s sea life tower or an interpretation of a whale fall, which ended up being the centerpiece of a show she eventually put on (with all proceeds to go to charity, of course).

But, once I’d rewritten the first half again, years after the original draft, I knew I couldn’t let Marcy go like that for the middle. Part Three’s back to her, fine, but even though sudden changes often happen in thrillers at a new part, it didn’t make sense to start with Edison. Mostly because her life After Jay didn’t start with Edison.

I had to follow Marcy, in her fog, to Iowa before I could follow her to Illinois. Make those transitions with her. See her resisting Edison at a few opportunities before allowing herself to be drawn in because of Stephen King, and then because he reacted to her distress. A lot of those scenes were there in my first draft – and a lot of them got cut in the second and restored in the third, but now from Marcy’s point of view – but the changes seemed far more significant.

If “Edison Crane had a girlfriend,” you don’t get to see so much inside Marcy’s head.

And really, you didn’t. That first draft de-centers her from her own story until Jay’s escape. At the time I was just trying any angle to get the events on the page and figure out where the heck things were going, since now I was pantsing instead of following a mental outline. I had no idea what was happening next, or even who the heck Edison Crane was. I can’t even remember how I came up with the name. The goal was to just keep writing, and to know that I could always come back, and edit, and make it look like I’d known what I was doing all along.

Do you think Marcy’s still the sort of person who’d reclaim the skills Jay had and use them for creation instead of destruction? Or does it make a lot more sense that the original ending didn’t happen?

Have you ever made a change like this partway through a first draft of your own?

Marcy, aka “Not Your Mary Sue” herself

We talked about Jay last week, so now it’s Marcy’s turn. But before we get to the portrait I commissioned from Shegry, we have to do a little bit of creative writing class.

Jay’s a static character: he doesn’t change throughout the story. Internally, externally … Jay’s convinced he knows who he is, that he’s his best self, and he’s not going to change that for anyone. Or even be changed by anyone. So it was easy to describe Jay for Shegry to draw, because I didn’t have to ask myself “Which Jay?” Jay is Jay.

Marcy, on the other hand, is a dynamic character. She goes through changes and growth, both inwardly and outwardly. So Marcy was my second commission, because I had to ask myself: “Marcy from when?”

This is Marcy shortly after the start of Part II, so if you haven’t read that far yet, yes, you might have questions.

Also, mild spoilers if you haven’t gotten that far yet.

Marcy by Shegry

Let’s start with the parts again.

the mountains

Even though it was a few months between Jay and Marcy, Shegry pulled up Jay again and did a lot of work making the two pieces a set. In this case it’s opposites: Jay has Lake Superior, but Marcy has a much more grounded, earthy design. Marcy is definitely not Lake Superior. She might not be as grounded as she really wants to be, but that bedrock has plenty of meaning for her.

An old grad school friend read Not Your Mary Sue in one day and then messaged me

“Glacier, not an asteroid” f—ing brilliant – loved it 💜

… but that’s further into Part II than just the beginning. If you’ve read the book, you know what “Glacier, not asteroid” means, and why the bedrock matters. If not … you’ll see. (And it’s probably no surprise that my favorite character’s the one who says it.)

the blue symbol

Marcy’s very blue at this point, sort of a struggle between the idea of calm blue and sad blue, and Shegry chose to use a stylized version of the symbol awen, a Celtic symbol of hope, for the next section in Marcy’s portrait. At this point Marcy’s gotten off the island, so she’s physically survived the Fresh Coast Killer, but … survival is more than breathing.

The whole color scheme contrasts with Jay’s. He’s only got blue in one section, the waves at the very top, and the rest of him is very earthy with reds and browns. Seriously, those blankets look super snuggly. Marcy’s blue everywhere Jay isn’t, just a little extra touch that sets the portraits off against each other.

the flowers

Marcy’s snowdrops are absolutely laden with imagery: modesty, hope, innocence, purity, and rebirth. Like yes, hello, that’s my Marcy. (But not in a creepy Jay voice.) Even then she’s struggling with all of those elements. How much is actually her, the real Marcy, and how much is what others have shaped her to be? (And is it authentic to accept the shaping of others, or do you always have to rebel and twist away from it?)

Marcy’s younger than her age in some ways since she’s always been under the protective wings of her parents, their beliefs, and their lifestyle. She hasn’t really had the chance to figure out who she really is yet, that tension between who she wants to be and who she’s actually capable of becoming. Part II is where she finally gets to start figuring that out.

Marcy herself

So part of that – a part that looks off if you’re still in Part I – is how she has oil slick ombre hair. It’s a big change from her conservative background. (And yes, in my first draft, she totally cut her hair short and then dyed it pink, but … fine, that was a bit too Mary Sue.) She keeps it long but dyes it as a physical, visible reminder not only that the island in fact happened, but that she’s come out the other side.

I spent my junior year of college in Germany at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (the longest name of any university in Germany, in case anyone should ever ask) and coming home after 11 months away was … weird. Almost like nothing had happened. Part of that was probably the jetlag but it seemed surreal that I’d actually gone away and experienced all of that. I printed off a bunch of photos and made an album; Marcy doesn’t have photos, so she changes her physical appearance.

In a way that’s her own choice, mind. She’s got her feet hidden in the sheet in the portrait. I told Shegry she had to at least have her right ankle hidden, because this Marcy, mid-book Marcy, isn’t confident enough to show (or ignore) her scar. That plays into her pose, too: she’s hunched and protective, not (yet?) ready to be open and inviting, carefully covered.

Even though she’s still looking straight out of the image. Maybe she’s not “Lounge around barely covered with my favorite knife” confident, but this Marcy wasn’t going to be looking down or away. She’s not ready to face you full on just yet, but she’ll hold your gaze.

Working with Shegry was tons of fun for a couple reasons. First, it made me think about Jay and Marcy in a different way: how do I sum up their personalities and get everything short and to the point, cutting to the heart of the characters while still leaving room for artistic impression? Picking out reference photos was also fun. I had face models in mind, especially for Jay, but I got to send one for “this expression” and one for “with this hair.” The same with Marcy: I did one for her face, one for her hair, and one for the general pose. All of that narrowing down to the most important aspects and, for Marcy, to a specific moment helped make it seem new and interesting again.

And second, it’s collaboration. Shegry took all my words and references and came back with a sketch and an explanation for the design choices. I had a chance to correct things, but it’s also super cool to see someone else’s interpretation of my idea like this. Writing isn’t actually sitting alone in an unheated garret and only descending with a perfectly-formed draft, but there are times it feels pretty darn close.

What other ways do you like to think about your characters? Do you cast them in your head, or draw your own, or use picrews, or …?

Jay Michal Robinson, the Fresh Coast Killer

So far I’ve been trying to limit myself to teasers based on the back-of-the-book summary, but Not Your Mary Sue has been out for over a week now (ahhhhh!) so I think I can stretch a little further. Everything from today’s post has to do with Part I of the book, so if you really don’t want anything spoiled, bookmark this and wait to read it until you get to Part II.

We open on a private island with exactly two occupants: Marcy, our POV character, and Jay, who’s more of a mystery. Marcy knows a little bit about him:

I’ve been trying to figure out what I know about this guy, and all I’ve come up with is that he’s a high school choir director who spends his summers here, tending the cabin and the people who rent it.

… but, when you wake up after a drugged sleep with a chain locked around your ankle, that’s really not enough.

Let’s get to now Jay a bit better care of this portrait I commissioned from Shegry. Click on that link if you, too, would like to commission something. (Because seriously, how cool is this?)

Jay Michael Robinson by Shegry

I provided references for things like Jay himself and the very specific dagger in his hand, and Shegry took what I wrote about Jay and used it for the imagery.

the waves

The waves are Lake Superior. We first meet Jay on the island, and there’s a lot of similarity between the water and Jay himself – apparent calm, coldness, unknown depths. Marcy’s on an island, which at least means she’s currently safe from drowning, but it’s clear right off that Jay himself isn’t actually safe. He might say he wants to protect her, but … well. Jay’s idea of keeping someone “safe” doesn’t entirely match up with what the rest of us might thing.

Lake Superior is absolutely huge. I mean, all of the Great Lakes are, but there’s a little something extra to Superior. It’s dangerous, with at least 350 shipwrecks (one of which has been immortalized, of course, by Gordon Lightfoot) and no, you can’t see across it. It takes the Ranger hours to get to Isle Royale – which is bigger than Jay’s island, and much further out, but come on. If you’re out in Lake Superior, you’re really out there.

Being out on Superior means being isolated, out of communication with other people through everyday means, and you need specialized skills to survive. So … Jay’s Lake Superior.

the music

During the school year, Jay’s Mr. Robinson, high school choir director. (He’s only the Fresh Coast Killer during the summer. There’s no mixing business and pleasure.) But … why a choir director?

I’ve written a bit about “casting” Jay in my head, relying on the Tumblr dichotomy of Tom Hiddleston for UNICEF vs. Avengers-era Loki killing 80 people in two days. Jay’s the reverse: his good-guy persona is the act, and the murderer is his real self, so I wanted to feed into that generic idea of what makes a man attractive. Looks, yes, but isn’t there a reason guys bring their guitars to college and play them out on the quad?

Jay himself was homeschooled before going to college, so his only public high school experience is as a teacher. I didn’t want him to be an English teacher, because then why would he need or want Marcy to write his biography? Choir’s an elective where students self-select participation, and Jay’s at a high school that, like mine, puts on a musical every year. So he’s heavily involved in those, and I couldn’t really pass up the chance to have him involved with Sweeney Todd.

There’s also a large element of performance to choir, much less musical theater, and a large element of performance in Jay’s life.

the morning glories and the dagger

Floriography is the secret language of flowers. (Fun fact: I’ve got a novel I wrote in high school where the characters use Victorian flower language like code, and I covered the paper folder with handwritten explanations of all the meanings.) Shegry picked morning glories because of their associations with mortality. (Flowers have all kinds of associations depending on type and color and era, so you can really get lost in there.)

But that dagger …

It’s probably the thing I’ve most wanted to talk about that isn’t entirely a spoiler but didn’t make it into any of the summaries of the book.

When Marcy takes herself on a tour of the island, she discovers that there’s a workshop attached to Jay’s living quarters, and she sees a sword forge inside. (My mother wants to know how Marcy even recognized it. Mythbusters fans have seen them in multiple situations, although usually having to do with curving gun barrels or cooking shrimp instead of forging swords.) It turns out that Jay isn’t just a choir director and the Fresh Coast Killer – he’s also a journeyman bladesmith.

Jay has made multiple examples of his favorite dagger, the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife: one for each of his victims. Then, after each murder, he can modify or recycle the weapon so it can’t be matched to the wounds. I didn’t just get my information from Forged in Fire. My husband’s an amateur bladesmith. I asked him to pick Jay’s favorite weapon, and he chose the Fairbairn-Sykes dagger.

This was fairly early on in my plotting, because Jay’s favorite weapon has a major influence on his serial killing. It’s a dagger – sharp on both edges – and a certain length, originally designed for a certain purpose. That means Jay likes to kill in a specific way. (And then head back to the forge, likely chuckling to himself, because he’s so carefully meshed his hobbies.)

Oh, and the plaid blanket? It’s because Jay’s a Yooper, and plaid isn’t just for Plaidurday. A Canadian tuxedo might be denim on denim, but when Yoopers put on their best it’s the jeans and plaid shirt without the holes.

Shegry drew Marcy for me, too. We’ll check her out next week.

Have you ever commissioned artwork of your original characters? How did that turn out?

much more Marcy

First, it’s only two weeks until Not Your Mary Sue comes out, and I might be vibrating like a frog that swallowed a hummingbird. I started the countdown on my phone with over 300 days to go, and now it’s only 14. Ahhhh!

Okay. Deep breaths.

It’s been a while since we checked in with Marcy, so let’s get caught up.

How often do normal people think of Bundy, anyway?

Jay tells Marcy that he wants to be the next Bundy. Think of Bundy and then, in the next breath, mention Jay Michael Robinson. So on the one hand he’s got a clearly defined goal, but on the other … Marcy’s not quite sure he understands what he’s asking.

Background: the Enchanted Rose Hood by Amy Noelle Walker (Facebook link). I used KnitPicks paragon in pimento. Fun fact: when I posed for FO photos, I used a book that I’d just gotten in the mail that day. It was The Phantom Prince. Which is a book about Ted Bundy.

If I don’t ask, I never have to know.

Jay likes monologuing. He’d prefer to be monologuing while Marcy’s taking notes, but he’ll settle for monologuing while Marcy’s in the room. So she’s already getting all this information that she never once asked for, and does it haunt her? Oh yes. So if there’s something she’s curious about, she very carefully thinks twice before deciding whether or not she really, really wants to know.

Background: the Lady Russell Shawl by Joy Gerhardt (personal website), originally published in Jane Austen Knits fall 2012 and collected in The Best of Jane Austen Knits. I used two precious skeins of Candy Skein yarn that I got while traveling. Note the ruffle on the shawl – this is one of the reasons that my Marcy Shawl also has ruffles.

Is this another Norman Bates, 21st century style?

Marion Crane ended up at the Bates Motel (and even if you haven’t seen Psycho, you probably know how that all worked out for her). Marcy’s at this luxury cabin on a private island, but she doesn’t have the luxury of thinking for one moment that the caretaker is Norman – er, I mean normal. From their first meeting, she knows something’s up about Jay … and yeah, she has to wonder if some dramatic violins are in her future.

Background: Stay Out of the Forest by Natasha Stills (personal website). I used my favorite Madelinetosh Twist Light base in no farewell, dead calm, black sea, and fate. The colors even seem to tell a story about a sailor who ran off to sea … and never returned. And yes, the shawl name comes from My Favorite Murder. Sometimes I pick patterns for their names, the same way I pick yarn colors.

My curiosity is dangerous.

So you might know that curiosity killed the cat and satisfaction brought it back, but what’s Marcy got to be curious about these days? A serial killer. It’s not just the knowledge and dreams that could threaten her. The man has killed over a dozen women – it’s not like her death would be something new to him.

Background: Coastal Hoodie by Tori Gurbisz (personal website). I used Sueno Worsted in shifting sands, slated, silver sage, and grasshopper. It’s a super fun pattern with a folded band that hides all the ends from the color changes.

Worst case scenario, they think I’m the real killer.

Marcy’s on this island with Jay because he hasn’t been caught yet. He’s pretty sure they’ll narrow things down soon an identify him as the Fresh Coast Killer. However, he hasn’t actually come out and told Marcy that he’s confessing to anyone but her. If she actually makes it off the island, she might be the only one with all the details of the murder, which might lead others to conclude …

Background: Very V Neck Raglan by Jessie Maed Designs (personal website). I used the (sadly now discontinued) Mrs Crosby hat box in “squid ink.” My username everywhere else is krakengoddess, so I have an affinity for all things related to tentacles. (Remember what I said about choosing yarn colors just because of the name?)

He locks the door behind me. Twice.

Not Your Mary Sue opens with Marcy picking a lock. Clearly she knows how. (I do not – I consult my husband on such things. He’s even done some practical experiments to see if various items could actually be used on common door locks. Isn’t he awesome?) But when Jay locks Marcy in her room, it’s not just the door knob – he’s got a padlock on the outside of the door. She can’t pick what she can’t reach.

Background: Wings of Meditation by Wollmuschi (personal website). I used Blue Moon Fiber Arts (you know how much I love their yarn) silky victoria in tempest. I’m not really a fan of bobbles, even using the crochet hook method, but as soon as I saw this pattern I fell in love and knit it in just a few weeks.

God, there’s so much I really don’t want to think about.

Marcy’s stuck on an island for who knows how long with nobody but Jay. And it’s an island in Lake Superior, so there’s no internet and no cell service. All of this really means she’s stuck in her own head, but it’s not just Jay she doesn’t want to think about. This was supposed to be a summer of rest and relaxation because of things that happened before she had breakfast with the Fresh Coast Killer.

Background: Liljana by Lisa Hannes (Lovecrafts link). I used Wonderland Yarns Cheshire Cat in treacle and too much pepper. I love Lisa’s patterns because they’re so frequently written with percentages in case your yarn is a different weight or amount than her sample. In this one, for example, you work one way until half your yarn is used up, however much that is, and then switch to the other way for the second half. Her shawls are wonderful for stash diving because you can make them work with what you already have.

He’s this odd mix of forethought and poor planning.

Jay immediately confesses that he’s a serial killer, except Marcy’s still alive. He apparently intends to keep her alive for his own devices, except … he’s clearly never tried to do this before. If Jay wanted to commit a murder, he’d have it down pat from all of his experience. But trying to keep her alive? To Marcy his attempts feel slipshod and poorly thought out, and that doesn’t really inspire confidence.

Background: Green T by Takako Takiguchi (Etsy store), using Handmaiden Fine Yarn casbah in crema (which, I know, isn’t green). I picked this sweater as the background because it’s actually very well thought-out: the cables start under the arms and meet exactly in the middle at the hem.

Oh, this could be bad.

If you’ve read the opening pages, you know how early on Marcy thinks this. Let’s take a look:

What does he know? It seems like he doesn’t know what I think he should know, if I’m waking up in chains, but then … what other reason could he possibly have for this? I’ve said nothing that could betray the secret – I haven’t had time to say anything – but if he doesn’t know, and that’s not the reason …

Marcy knows why she’s on that island, but it seems like Jay doesn’t – and now it’s her own knowledge that could be dangerous.

Background: Dreaming in a Field of Wildflowers by Lisa Hannes (Lovecrafts link), once again in Madelinetosh Twist Light. I used liquid gold, deep, great gray owl, and onyx because … well. See if you can figure it out.

I’m almost to the point where I can stop teasing and start talking about the book, which is surreal. The characters have been in my head for years now and it’s almost time for other people to meet them.

I really hope you like them.

14 days and counting.

catching up with Jay

Late last summer, I sat down with my manuscript and started pulling quotes. That first batch ended up being mostly quotes said by my serial killer character, because … well, for one thing, he talks a lot. And he’s also rather quotable. Master of the sound bite, that’s Jay Michael Robinson.

I was kind of in a rush because, if you’ve ever visited the UP, you know we can get snow at any time. Not Your Mary Sue takes place in the summer, though, and I wanted to catch things before snow and ice moved in. So basically I’ve had these photographs for months, over half a year, and it blows my mind that I only have five more Jay quotes to post before the book is actually out.

Five weeks from today. Holy cow. Five weeks from today, people will be reading my book and putting these quotes in context.

“We’ve all got something dark inside.”

Part of what Jay does when he’s talking is try to convince Marcy – and the eventual people he imagines will read the book she writes about him – is attempt to normalize himself. Sure, fine, he’s a serial killer, but he’s not all that different from the rest of us. He’s acted on his darker impulses, but we all have them. Right?

Have you watched Conversations With a Killer (either the Ted Bundy season or the new John Wayne Gacy season) or read something like The Gates of Janus (written by Moors Murderer Ian Brady) or “I”: The Creation of a Serial Killer by Jack Olsen and Keith Hunter Jesperson? These are the serial killers who have been identified, sentenced, and have discovered they have an audience. They don’t have to hide who they are anymore, and maybe they get to perform a bit.

That’s where Jay is when he meets Marcy: ready to spill everything, because he’s about to be caught. She’s just the, uh … lucky person who gets to hear all of it first.

“You are my guest.”

Jay is polite, for certain values of “polite.” Yes, fine, he’s murdered over a dozen women, but he can still make sure to act as the perfect host for Marcy during their summer together. She’s not like those other girls, and he’s not going to treat her that way.

But it might also be creepier, because he’s clearly capable of thinking about her comfort … at least when it’s going to serve his needs. If she’s going to write his life story (and make it a bestseller), then he needs to make sure she’s fed and comfortable and able to both listen and take notes. So even his apparent kindness has that ulterior motive.

“Maybe killing is the only thing I’ve ever been good at.”

First, I’d like you to imagine me on a public beach with this sign in my hand. It’s in Eagle River, right next to The Fitz, which is an absolutely amazing restaurant you should visit if you’re ever in the area, but I timed my arrival not to be at lunch or dinner. For some reason. There were still a few people out, but I don’t know how closely they paid attention to me.

Jay has some self-esteem issues. He’s telling Marcy his life story, and he can’t exactly keep all of this hidden. If he’s asking Marcy – and his eventual readers – to relate to him, then he figures he’s got to really open up and tell them everything.

Whether or not he’s “good at” killing is something I’ll leave up to you.

“Trust me. It will be better for you.”

This is Agate Beach, and I had it to myself that day because it was just after a huge thunderstorm. Both Superior and the sky were absolutely gorgeous, and even though my hands froze in the wind, I didn’t drop any of my letters in the sand while changing between quotes, so that’s a win. The difference between the days really shows the difference in Superior’s moods, too.

Jay tells Marcy to trust him early on, but not before he’s admitted to being a serial killer. She knows that the man telling her this – and offering her some sort of drug – has already killed almost twenty women, and she’s really only got his word that she’s not going to be the next one. She’s his guest, yes, but …

Well. How much should anyone trust a man on short notice even if he hasn’t confessed to serial murder?

I am really looking forward to being able to talk about Jay (and Marcy) without being quite so cagy. There’s so much I’m looking forward to sharing – and I only have to wait five more weeks!

Here are those preorder links in case you need them: Amazon – Kobo – Google Play

And if you make it up to the UP, make sure to check out The Fitz. It’s a small restaurant, so make those reservations early.

It’s my birthday!

Preorder Not Your Mary Sue (Amazon – Kobo – Google Play) and in 6 weeks we can get drinks and discuss:

– my serial killer’s (other) hobby

– cell phone dead zones in the 21st century

– using knitting supplies for self-defense

– musicals in general, but especially Sweeney Todd

I’m especially eager to talk about Jay’s hobby, because so far it’s been kept under wraps – the only people who know about it are the ones who’ve read an advance copy. He’s a high school choir director, which might explain the Sweeney Todd reference, but as for what else he does when it’s not a school day …

I also can’t believe it’s less than six weeks until this book is published! I’ve known these characters for years and it’s almost overwhelming to think that other people will soon meet them and form their own opinions and argue about whether or not they like the ending. (My husband doesn’t, so if you don’t, then you’ve got someone good on your side.)

At some point I’ll also be posting what the original ending was going to be, back when I was plotting for NaNoWriMo 2017. It’s an ending that never got written because I discovered I couldn’t just leave Marcy there, at the end of Part I, with only a little epilogue. There’s a lot more to her story, but I’m still pretty fond of the original idea, so that’ll become a future post (once people have had time to make it through Part I).

Plus there are all these other characters you don’t even know you get to meet yet – Marcy’s world is in fact bigger than just her and Jay, even if it takes a while for us (and Marcy, really) to see it.

And, as another birthday present: tell me your favorite book! What one should I absolutely read and why? I’m always looking to expand my list and today is, of course, the day for me to treat myself to some new goodies.

time to talk Marcy again – two months to go!

Not Your Mary Sue comes out June 7 – I can’t believe it’s only two months away! Two months and you can read about Marcy and Jay (and the characters you don’t even know exist yet) and we can finally talk about alllll the things I’ve been keeping to myself.

One thing that’s been obvious from the start: Marcy’s a knitter. Hence the Marcy Shawl pattern that I designed for her and wrote up for all of you. And that’s also why all of the backgrounds for her quotes are knit patterns. Let’s catch up on the ones I’ve posted over the past month.

So you probably know that there are, in fact, people willing to sit down and chat with serial killers, whether that’s from the Netflix series or the book Mindhunter. FBI Special Agents John Douglas and Robert Ressler decided that someone needed to actually talk to violent offenders so they could try to figure out how to identify people sooner and stop them before they actually committed violent crimes. They basically set up times to go in, meet with the men they’d chosen, and just … get them talking.

Some of them, like Ed Kemper, had a lot to say.

The thing is, those agents, and the ones who followed, all wanted to talk to violent offenders. They chose to be in those rooms (and sometimes had moments when they actually had to confront the fact that they were in fact violent offenders and this wasn’t just a chat with a friend). Marcy’s stuck on that island with Jay, the confessed Fresh Coast Killer, and he wants to talk … but she never agreed to listen.

Even though he keeps insisting that he chose her, that he somehow auditioned her and specifically picked her for this … she really doesn’t think she’s the right person.

Pattern: Campside Poncho by Alicia Plummer (Rav link)
Yarn: Gingerbread Rainbow DK from Dye Mad Yarns

Jay Michael Robinson wants to be the next Bundy. Okay, fine, maybe his victim count isn’t quite high enough, but he means as far as fame goes. He wants Marcy to write his biography in a way that’ll sell. Jay wants his name at the top of the charts. Whenever someone thinks of Bundy, they should think of him.

Later, when she’s alone in her room, Marcy wonders how often normal people think of Bundy. Which is a pretty good question. Clearly Jay thinks of Bundy quite frequently, and true crime fans are probably sick of his name, but what about your average Joe? Exactly how much is Jay asking from her? (And how much does he think he’s asking from her?)

Fun knitting fact: I wore my Enchanted Rose Hood for Halloween one year when I dressed up like Belle, and for a small photoshoot I had a book as a prop. That book was The Phantom Prince. It’s about Bundy.

Pattern: Enchanted Rose Hood by Amy Noelle Walker (Rav link)
Yarn: Knit Picks Paragon in pimento

If a magician tells you how a trick is done, you can never go back to seeing it as magic. You know the secret. You can’t Eternal Sunshine it out of your head to experience it again for the first time, like a kid who’s willing to be convinced there’s more to the world than just science and facts. Once you’ve learned something, it’s there. You can’t forget it.

Jay likes monologuing, partly because he wants to talk and partly because Marcy doesn’t exactly want to ask him clarification questions. Not trained to interview a serial killer, remember? Didn’t sign up for all this? So she’s got to talk that line between keeping him happy enough to let her live and keeping herself from learning too much and being tortured by the knowledge for the rest of her life.

Bad dreams are the least of Marcy’s worries.

Fun knitting fact: The Lady Russell Shawl was one of the first times I’ve knit a ruffle. It’s one of the reasons Marcy’s Shawl has ruffles on it.

Pattern: The Lady Russell Shawl by Joy Gerhardt (personal website)
Yarn: Candy Skein Yummy Fingering Superwash Sock in sage

When Psycho first came out in theaters, Hitchcock did something very strange for 1960: he had signs placed in the lobby saying audience members weren’t allowed to come in late. Movies were more casual – I can’t remember ever wanting to show up late for any during my childhood, even with the buffer of all the ads and previews – and people would come in halfway through a showing, watch the end, linger, and watch the start of the next showing.

You can probably guess why that wouldn’t actually work for Psycho.

Norman Bates runs a motel in California and Jay rents out a luxury cabin on an island off the coast of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but you get the similarities. Each is a man left mostly to himself, and just about the one thing Jay doesn’t want to talk about is his mother. Even if you’ve never seen Psycho, I bet you know what happens to Marion Crane.

Marcy does, too.

Fun knitting fact: the shawl was designed and named for advice given in My Favorite Murder. SSDGM.

Pattern: Stay Out of the Forest by Natasha Sills (personal website)
Yarn: Madelinetosh twist light in no farewell, dead calm, Black Sea, and fate

So the countdown is on! You have until June 7, 2022 to be cool and preorder Not Your Mary Sue (Amazon – Kobo – Google Play) before it becomes a boring old regular order.

Seriously, preorders help authors a lot, so if you’re thinking about getting a copy … click now! Then we can all (finally!) discuss all the cool things I’ve been keeping to myself.

The Marcy Shawl – a knitting pattern

If you’ve been following my Instagram posts, then you know I’ve been working on writing something a bit different for me: a knitting pattern, known as The Marcy Shawl. And I’ve said I’m posting it on my blog for free. Which I totally am. It’s here. Download at will. But I’ve got a favor to ask.

If you download the shawl, please preorder Not Your Mary Sue on Kindle, Google Play, or Kobo. (Hard copy links coming soon.) That’s one book and one knitting pattern for $9.99 – or, if you like: five years of my life for $9.99. Less than $2/year.

The Marcy Shawl – DK weight version

Here’s the thing: yes, this pattern is totally part of my marketing for the book. Absolutely. I’d love to do something like “Show me you preordered the book and I’ll send you the free pattern!” but I’m kind of hoping I’d be swamped and not be able to keep up with sending out the pattern at top speed, so … honor system, everyone. I’m trusting you. Pattern immediately. Novel June 7. Low, low price of $9.99.

If you buy my book, then maybe I can keep writing books and make this “main character shawl” thing a series instead of a one-off. If the book doesn’t sell well enough for me to get an offer for a second, then … one and done. I really want to keep writing, and I’ve been putting out content on my blog for over a year now basically hoping that, if you like what I do, you’ll buy the book that goes along with the posts you like. So this is just me saying it outright.

If that’s enough and you want to go straight to the pattern, scroll down to the torn paper image. The download link is below it. If you want to know a bit more about Marcy – why a shawl? Why knitting? – read on.

The Marcy Shawl – sock weight version

Marcy is the heroine of Not Your Mary Sue. It’s her story. And we see here in the opening pages that she’s got a set of interchangeable knitting needles with her, since she’s a knitter and she’s going to be on this island for the whole summer. A woman needs her hobbies. But take a look at that link if you can’t picture what I mean when I say she uses the cord key to pick a lock – it’s one of those four little twists of wire. That’s what she pulls out of her suitcase to get herself out of the most immediate problem. (It’s probably not going to be all that helpful with everything else, but you never know. Knitters, like all makers, are resourceful.)

Like me, Marcy knits when she’s stressed. (Write what you know, hey?) And, um … yeah, I’m pretty mean to her. So she’s frequently stressed.

I learned how to knit when I was 8 years old. Nana – my dad’s mom – was the one equipping the family with knit dishcloths, and I asked if she could teach me. At the time I produced half of one (pretty awful) headband, but I’ve improved a bit since then. I’ve been knitting longer than I’ve been writing, and I made leaps and bounds during grad school simply because the stress meant I was knitting more. Every night. (Which is the way to improve on something, by the way – keep doing it. Breaks are fine, but if you quit, you’re not going to get better. And you have to make the pretty awful headband before you make anything good.)

Knitting’s a background thing for Marcy in the book, but it got me thinking about the sort of thing Marcy would knit for herself. Something that she, in her old life, would both be comfortable wearing and be allowed to wear.

Her father’s a televangelist, so she’s often on display with him and has to dress to his standards. In this case that means she’s frequently in a dress with a cardigan for modesty’s sake, a very specific idea of femininity. I wanted to design her a shawl that could go over her dresses, and I had a few steps here:

The shape – I love the shape of the traditional sontag shawl, which I can’t help but think of as a heartwarmer shawl because of the OG American Girl Addy doll and her nightwear. Apparently that was retired in 2010, but I liked the idea of a shawl that could stay on Marcy’s shoulders, cross over the front, and tie in the back to warm her. (You might know this kind of shawl from Outlander, proving it’s a useful shape no matter what era you end up in.)

The Marcy Shawl – basic schematic

The stitch pattern – I didn’t want something that was plain stockinette. Marcy’s quiet (her dad very much subscribes to the Little House on the Prairie idea of children being seen and not heard, which he extends to adult daughters, as well) and very much a background figure in her father’s life, but that doesn’t mean she’s plain. On the other hand, she’s not overly fussy or troublesome – she goes out of her way to be helpful – so I picked the ray of honey pattern from my copy of 750 Knitting Stitches. It’s an all-over cable pattern, but each cable is only 1×1, so it’s an easy one to do without a cable needle.

The ruffle – this isn’t just about the extra touch of a traditional feminine element, but about the weight the ruffle adds to the shawl. I really like the feel of wearing my Cambridge Shawl by Carol Sunday and how the ruffle at both the neck edge and along the bottom makes it feel more secure. It’s not a shawl that’s going to blow away.

The construction – Marcy’s the sort of person who would save all her scraps and use up as much yarn as possible. (Was it Pa or Ma Ingalls who emphasized “Waste not, want not”?) By starting at one tip of the shawl and working increases for half of your yarn before working the decreases, you can maximize what you have. The ruffles are made with short rows, which means no saving any yarn back and trying to calculate how much to leave for it and then how much to bind off along it. You cast on 22 stitches and bind off 22 stitches, and I had less than 4g left for each of my shawls.

I chose neutral colors for my two samples, since Marcy’s dresses are usually of the flower-print variety.

The DK Marcy Shawl

My first one, the larger DK shawl, was knit in two skeins of Blue Moon Fiber Arts silky Victoria – one of my favorite bases, and each skein is a whopping 695 yards (!!!). It definitely makes my winder work for it. I used the color “spores” and did the slightly risky thing of not actually alternating skeins. I just started with the heavier skein and switched at the middle of the back.

For the sock weight version, I used two skeins of Handmaiden Fine Yarns Casbah sock in the color “bone.” Casbah skeins come in at 355 yards, so they’re a bit under what sock skeins usually run and, as you can see, two skeins still makes a nice size of a shawl. That middle photo has the sock version on top of the DK version, for comparison’s sake. The difference isn’t as much in the depth of the back as it is in the length of the wings (and measurements of my sample shawls are provided in the pattern).

My photos are all taken in winter (or maybe at the very start of spring if we’re being generous), but since Marcy’s spending her summer on an island in Lake Superior, she’ll appreciate all the extra warmth she can get.

Errata and most recent file date below.

And, of course, since we’re at the download link, here are the purchase links again so you don’t have to scroll back up:

Thank you for helping me keep writing and keep blending my love of words and my love of knitting.

Errata – updated April 2

The original upload got mixed up and had the pattern out of order. It should be:

  • provisional cast-on
  • set-up rows
  • body increase row

The new upload has these steps in the proper order.

Introducing Jay Michael Robinson, the Fresh Coast Killer

You’ve already been introduced to Marcy, the main character of my upcoming novel Not Your Mary Sue (first Marcy postsecond Marcy post) but she’s not the only character in the book. For the first half, there’s exactly one other.

If you’ve checked out my reading of the book’s opening, you know a little bit about Jay already. Marcy’s spending her summer on a private island, in a luxury cabin, and he’s the caretaker. If something goes wrong with the amenities, or if she runs out of apple cinnamon cheerios, he’s the one she tells.

He’s the only one she can tell. The island happens to be in Lake Superior, out of sight of the mainland Upper Peninsula, and they’re very seriously isolated. No Wi-Fi. No cell phone signal. Just Marcy on her own personal retreat, and Jay, who’s supposed to be taking care of her.

Unfortunately, he tells her very early on that he’s got something else in mind. He happens to be the notorious Fresh Coast Killer, and he knows the police are catching up to him. Jay wants to tell Marcy his life story so that she can then write it down, publish it, and make sure he gets to fulfill his dreams.

“I want to be the next Bundy.”

This, by the way, is Jay’s dream: he wants to be the next Bundy. That would be Theodore Robert Bundy, American serial killer, most recently seen on the documentary Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and played by Zac Efron in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. The title is from the judge’s closing statement after Bundy’s conviction, and no, I can never remember it, either. (The Deliberate Stranger, starring Mark Harmon, is much easier.)

But what does it mean to be “the next Bundy?”


Jay’s already a serial killer. What he wants is the fame. The book, like The Stranger Beside Me. (Or, yes, The Deliberate Stranger.) He wants to be a household name.

“Chance of a lifetime, you know. That’s what I’m offering you.”

The thing is, The Stranger Beside Me made Ann Rule‘s career. It was her first book, and the first thing she wrote under her real name instead of her penname. It’s also the reason she testified before Congress about serial killers and gave lessons at the FBI. So really, if Marcy accepts Jay’s offer, it would be the chance of a lifetime. Imagine writing a book about “The Serial Killer Who Kidnapped Me During My Summer Vacation.”

“Everyone fights the truth.”

Okay but maybe being stuck on an island with a self-confessed serial killer, without any way of contacting anyone else – and, say, passing along that confession – isn’t really the best scenario. He’s already killed nearly 20 women and Marcy is, after all, a woman, and incredibly vulnerable.

And then she’s stuck here with someone who looks steadily at her and says things like “Everyone fights the truth” when he’s trying to convince her that first, she really wants to listen to him, and second, she really wants to write it all up.

Take a look at that picture specifically, by the way – “Everyone fights the truth” was taken at Eagle River, Michigan, right next to the Fitz. If you’re ever up that way, make a reservation – the food is amazing. But I specifically took my letterboard there because of the rocks and the fact that, yes, Superior stretches to the sky. When I picture the beach of Jay’s island, this is what’s in my head, so now you can see it, too.

“I only want to come across as intriguing. You actually think I am.”

I should probably also point out that Bundy took some psychology classes. And he wasn’t the only serial killer to play with minds – Ed Kemper was trusted to give other prisoners various tests and therefore learned all the answers. So, being stuck alone with Marcy on this island for weeks on end, with his ultimate goal of educating her enough to be his biographer, Jay’s going to use every trick in his toolbox. He’s going to work on her and convince her that this is not only in her best interest, but that she honestly wants to do this.

To sit around and take notes as she listens to him talk about his life and crimes, that is.

In detail.

I can’t wait until June when you can properly meet Jay, although you should probably be careful. As Marcy can tell you, being stuck on his island can give you nightmares.