Category Archives: Uncategorized

We Are All Other

Originally published in Novelists Ink, October 2021

How authors can dive into cultural research 

By Elizabeth MS Flynn 

Authors are eternally curious, and they are fortunate in that they can not only assuage their curiosity by doing research for their latest work in progress, but also learn a lot of interesting (not necessarily related) facts as well. They can discover fun facts like when buttons came into use (earliest noted 5,000 years ago!), but they also can find out about other cultures and what makes them unique, and how that can be used for unique characters and stories. 

But where do authors start? When researching other cultures—any culture at all, whether it’s one we’re familiar with or one with which we have no familiarity at all—we are faced with how to track down the information we need, ascertain accuracy, and enrich our work. Start at the basics: 

General research 

Wikipedia is one place to start, but can’t be the only place. Believe it or not, another place would be children’s books and textbooks, because those authors have to boil down and explain complex concepts to a younger audience. If you’re trying to figure out how to tackle a subject and you’re not sure where to begin, tracking down a children’s book on the topic or a related one may be a good place to begin. 

I asked Lerner Books, the publisher of children’s books and middle-grade books, what they would recommend for a start on difficult, complex subjects, and they responded with a few possibilities: For Black history, Ruth and the Green Book and Unspeakable. For Asian American/ Pacific Islander history, they recommended Kiyo Sato and Sachiko. For LGBTQ history, Lerner recommended No Way, They Were Gay? Covering all of those plus Latinx and Indigenous, the publisher recommended Into the Streets, and, finally, for all of those and more, Dictionary for a Better World

Interviews and biographies 

Track down a member of the culture you’re interested in (if you’re doing research for a look at daily life circa 35 BCE, however, you may have to stick to the history books and biographies), but keep in mind that the responses you get may be specific and unique to that subject. Always keep in mind the background of the person. If possible, track down more than one interview subject. 

If you can’t, you may want to get the information by diving into a related point of interest, something you can find information about, and expand from there to find what you need. If you want an idea of some of the issues that were notable during the middle to late 20th century, for example, you could examine a biography of a notable person during that time. And keep in mind if you want to interview as a journalist, decide whether you want to get to the heart of the story or more about the people. 

Social and religious attitudes 

Anthropologists will tell you that you must separate your own beliefs and attitudes from that of your research subject if you want to understand the mindset of another. You may be a Christian, but to truly understand, say, Hinduism, you’ll have to set aside your skepticism about the existence of multiple gods. Simply put, your beliefs are not necessarily those of another culture. Margaret Mead made her name as a young anthropologist in Samoa, but her work was eventually considered to be flawed because she made many of her conclusions based on her assumptions going into the study instead of describing the culture with an unbiased eye. 

Authenticity readers (also known as sensitivity readers) 

These readers are specialists in a given topic, and as author services provider Reedsy explains, they read manuscripts specifically to look for “cultural inaccuracies, representation issues, bias, stereotypes, or problematic language.” One example might be focusing on the differences between China, Korea, and Japan. The latter two cultures have their origins from the former, but they are very different, and the languages are not intelligible to each other—in speech. The Korean and Japanese written languages have their origins in the Chinese language, and to some extent the Korean, Japanese, and Chinese people may be able to discern what is being written in the other language, but only to some degree. 

Spoken language, though, requires an article on its own, as does being able to discern between the facial characteristics of the three cultures. (Hint: If the Asian cultures can’t do it consistently, neither can anyone else.) All three of those cultures are different yet similar, not unlike how there are differences between Scotland, Ireland, and England, all of which have similarities but are different and also come from a long shared history. Differences can be hard to discern: if you’re not from European ancestry, the differences between the Nordic people and the Mediterranean people may be negligible. If you’re from European ancestry, you see the difference keenly. 

Then there’s viewpoint, which can be classified under social and religious attitudes. Consider the differences in how cultures think. To get an idea, you may do well to find books on sociology and anthropology. In his Geography of Thought, Richard Nisbett avers that there are differences between Eastern and Western thinking; Western culture emphasizes individualism versus Eastern culture, which emphasizes common values within the society. Western goals of the individual aren’t the same as the Eastern goals of the individual, which are counted into the goals of the society as a whole. But there are similarities, too. Both have the concept of family embarrassment—“saving face” is a common admonishment in Eastern societies (as in, don’t bring shame to your social group), and is echoed in Western societies when you hear your parents saying, “Don’t embarrass me.” (On the other hand, according to Nisbett, to compliment someone in public can give face. And public praise in both Western and Eastern societies is a good thing.) 

As blog notes, it may take time to adapt to a culture different from your own, but your reward will be a deeper understanding of the culture and topic: “Embrace those things that are uncomfortable, those things that don’t make sense, those things that are frustrating. Those are the things that will teach you the most.” 

There are mystifying elements in any society, ones that don’t make sense to anyone not in the know. But there are elements common to every culture. Every culture, every society, every person needs food, shelter, community. But they may approach those things very differently. Knowing those things will flesh out your characters into real people, not stereotypes. 

I have a checklist on my website that allows you to consider what makes your characters fully thought-out human beings. Taking a look at the elements allows you to decide whether your characters are real, memorable people. 

So in this way we are all other. We have so many things in common; whether it’s saving face or your parents saying, “Don’t embarrass me,” there’s the element of “We do that too!” no matter where you go. All it takes is a little research. 

Elizabeth MS Flynn is a professional editor and has been for more than forty years, working with topics as diverse as academia, technology, finance, genre fiction, and comic books. Her work for this article comes from her studies in anthropology, with a linguistics and folklore concentration. 

References and Resources 

  • “Navigating cultural differences in Asia.” 
  • Bieschke, Marke. Into the Streets: A Young Person’s Visual History of Protest in the United States. Zest Books, 2020. 
  • Bunting, Joe. “How to conduct an interview like a journalist.” 
  • Dictionary for a Better World. Carolrhoda Books, 2020. 
  • Enjeti, Anjali. “Craft Capsule: Why You Need an Authenticity Editor,” 
  • Flynn, Elizabeth MS. “A Look from the Other POV” checklist, http:// 
  • Goldsmith, Connie, with Kiyo Sato. Kiyo Sato: From a WWII Japanese Internment Camp to a Life of Service. Twenty-First Century Books, 2021.
  • Kuang, R.F. “Racial Rubber Stamp,” SFWA blog, 2018 
  • Mead, Margaret. Coming of Age in Samoa. Harper Perennial, 1971. 
  • Nisbett, Richard. The Geography of Thought. Free Press, 2004. 
  • Oluo, Ijeoma. So You Want to Talk About Race. Seal Press, 2018. 
  • “What’s the difference between the facial features of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people?” 
  • “How to tell the difference between Asian languages.”
  • Reedsy. “Sensitivity Readers: Who Are They and Should Authors Use Them?” 
  • Social Psychological and Personality Science. 
  • Stelson, Caren. Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story. Carolrhoda Books, 2016. 
  • Sting. “The Russians.” The Dream of the Blue Turtles, 1985. 
  • Strauss, Gwen, Calvin Alexander Ramsey, and Floyd Cooper. Ruth and the Green Book. Carolrhoda Books, 2010. 
  • Tett, Gillian. Anthro-Vision. Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, 2021. 
  • West, Eliana.
  • Wind, Lee. No Way, They Were Gay? Hidden Lives and Secret Loves. Carolrhoda Books, 2021. 

Story Behind the Story: The Way Home by Eliana West

A letter from the past will change their future… For this story, Eliana West was inspired by a conversation about family history with her sister, and the way these things happen sometimes, the story she wanted to write bloomed right then and there! The result is a delightful novel, providing a happily ever after for two characters whose heritages are echoed in America’s history.

Eliana West says interracial romance isn’t just for Black readers.

What’s the theme behind your story? 

The theme for all of the books in my Heart of Colton series is forgiveness. These are stories about forgiveness, redemption and of course love.

What’s the logline?

A letter from the past will change their future.

What were you thinking about or what was happening when the idea occurred to you?

I was talking with my sister about our family history and the story came to me almost fully formed. I also wanted to figure out a way to tell a story about the complex relationships between the descendants of enslaved people and the descendants of those who enslaved them. 

How did the original idea change as you went along?

My hero’s backstory changed quite a bit and new characters that evolved as the story went along, secondary characters that really became crucial to the story. Otherwise, the bones of the story have always stayed the same. 

How did you conceive of your characters for this story and how did they change?

Taylor Colton is kind of a combination of the Property Brothers and Ben Napier from Hometown on HGTV. For all of his success, he’s pretty insecure. When I had the idea for Taylor, I pictured him as a hero who struggles, not wanting to be the hero at first. For Josephine Martin, I wanted a heroine who worked in tech and a character with a strong will and a big heart. Ada Mae is based on my great aunt, and I drew a lot of inspiration from her personality and life. 

Are you pleased with the results, or do you wish you had done anything differently in the story? Why or why not?

The first draft of this story was just terrible and I had a point where I didn’t think I could salvage it. I took my time and did a major rewrite and now I’m so pleased with the result. I’m not sure at this point that I would do anything different.

Who would play your leads in the movie if (when!) you make a deal?

Oh boy, that’s a good question. Maybe Chris Evans for Taylor Colton, and Jaylen Barron for Josephine Martin.

What else do you want readers to know?

What I’d like readers to know is that interracial romance isn’t just for Black readers. Interracial romance is for any reader; diverse romance is just that diverse. If you haven’t read an interracial romance, give one a try. 

My books may be a challenging story for some people. I write stories that confront some uncomfortable aspects of race and history. But at the end of the day, these are romances, love always wins.  


Eliana West writes contemporary interracial romance. Her first book, The Way Forward, establishing the Heart of Colton series, was published by Tule Publishing in 2020. When not writing, Eliana can be found exploring the many wineries in Oregon and Washington with her husband, traveling around in Bianca, their vintage Volkswagen Westfalia. She is the founder of Writers for Diversity (, a community for writers of all genres, creating diverse characters and worlds. Check out

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Story Behind the Story: 1000 Kisses by Jody Wallace

Jody Wallace specializes in quixotic stories, mean kitties (but not really), and surprises around the corner. In 1000 Kisses, the second in her Fae Realm series, the unexpected is key in exploring a familiar trope of meeting your One True Love: You may have a destined mate, but what if you don’t like each other?

What’s the theme behind your story?

1000 Kisses is the second book in my Fae Realm series that has been on pause since I completed 1000 Kisses. In writing it, I was toying around with the popular trope in paranormal romance of “fated mates”—as in, what if you and your fated mate don’t like each other? What if your fated mate tells you no? What if there’s no biological drive toward a fated mate, but more of a philosophical one, and the mates in question can accept or deny it if they wish? I hadn’t seen that particular situation in paranormal or fantasy romance before, so that was all my brain needed to scooch off down the rabbit trail.

What’s the logline?

Magic might go by the book, but love doesn’t play by the rules.

How did the original idea change as you went along?

Well, the cat who plays matchmaker, kind of, took over and decided to be a major part of the story. Like cats do. And then the gnomes wanted a piece of the action, because they’re greedy little jerks, so the book did not end up where I thought it would. I am sure the cats guided me in the correct direction, though! 

How did you conceive of your characters for this story and how did they change?

The characters were introduced in Book 1, Survival of the Fairest. SPOILER ALERT: In Book 1, our hero of Book 2 thought his “fated mate” was the heroine of Book 1, so he was the driving force behind chasing her down when she went AWOL in the human world. Turns out the fiery, spontaneous Talista from Survival of the Fairest was NOT his fated mate—it was her quiet, calm twin sister Anisette. The book then explored how quiet and calm and thoughtful can be just as strong and brave, if not stronger, than more obvious trappings of courage, as the hero himself, Embor, is kind of a stiff, uptight, quiet guy.

Are you pleased with the results, or do you wish you had done anything differently in the story? Why or why not?

I’d have added more cats in Book 1 and sold more copies of Book 2 so it would be worth my while to finish Book 3! Does that count as doing things differently??

What else do you want readers to know?

To buy Book 2 and encourage me to finish Book 3? So far it is AMAAAAAAZING and also chock full of gnomes, cussing, kissing, cats, fighting, unexpected turnabouts, mystery, and adventure. The heroine is the sister of the hero from Book 2 and the hero is someone we haven’t met in the previous books. 


Jody Wallace’s 30-plus titles include SF/F romance, paranormal romance, and contemporary romance. Her fiction features diverse protagonists, action, adventure, and humor. Her readers frequently comment on her great characters, suspenseful stories, and intriguing and creative world building. When describing her methods, Jody says: “There are two sides to every story. I aim to tell the third. And I add cats regardless.” 

Outside of her fiction career, Jody has employed her master’s degree in creative writing to work as a college English instructor, technical documents editor, market analyst, web designer, and all-around pain in the butt. You can learn more about her at

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The Story Behind the Story: Kolea by Russell Cahill

Russell Cahill’s stories about his Hawaiian ancestors always fascinated me, because they all had a touch of history, a touch of mystery, and a touch of the fantastic. Kolea’s story has a familiar grounding: a child of royal blood with a destiny to fulfill…but his destiny is not one that the reader may expect. (I have to state at this point that I was the copy editor for this story, so I got to be an early observer about Kolea’s journey!) 

Kolea: A child, born of royal blood, is spirited away and raised in isolation. Pursued by an older brother, he escapes and travels to new worlds but cannot escape his fate.

It’s hard for me to believe in magic. I am a product of two cultures. Mom was descended from people of Europe who came to North America in the 1600s. Dad was a Native Hawaiian. One set of grandparents were pragmatic Yankees. The other grandparents were closely related to the land, the sea, and the plants and animals of Hawai’i. They were comfortable with the unseen and were quite superstitious. I ended up with a degree in science and an itch under the skin regarding the supernatural. Writing Kolea allowed me to scratch that itch.

If you want to get close to the ancient culture of Polynesia, there is no better place than Haleakala National Park on the island of Maui. Stories of shapechangers, ghosts, and spooky happenings are everywhere. I was fortunate to be assigned as superintendent of the park in 1970. I rode horseback or walked through that crater at least once a month for the four years of my tenure. 

There is good reason to believe the ancient ones believed the place to be a sacred location. There is a lava tube purported to be the repository of the umbilical cords cut from infants. I have seen the skeletal remains of ancient people hidden well back in the lava caves high on the mountain. And the workers I supervised refused to spend the night in areas of the back country that had disturbing Hawaiian spiritual significance. 

On one of my treks, I was climbing the steep trail at Halemau’u when I spotted a pueo, a Hawaiian owl, hunting on the steep slopes. It flew back and forth and didn’t seem to notice me as I stood quite still. The bird flew directly over me, perhaps five feet over me, and when it was just above me it recognized me and did a little hitch, continuing its flight. The magical part was that we stared into each other’s eyes for what seemed a long moment and I saw its eyes flecked with gold particles. I instantly felt calm, as if I had had a discussion with the owl. That evening I decided that although my father’s family aumakua (an animal god who is your relative and protector) was a shark, the owl had assigned itself to me. I went home that evening and began jotting notes about the pueo. 

A few years later I was living in a wall tent in rural Alaska. My little family and I were building a cabin in the forest at Gustavus. My wife and I had a disagreement about where the cabin should be sited. She liked one location and I, another. In the middle of one night, I got up to relieve myself and walked to the site I had chosen. As I prepared, a short-eared owl, the same species as the pueo, took off from a tall spruce tree and, with a lot of noise, swooped down from its perch and flew right above me, screaming its call. 

I took the nighttime event as a sign. The following day, we staked out the new cabin on the site my wife favored.

I began writing. Each evening after working on the construction of the cabin and having dinner, I sat by an oil lamp with a notebook and pencil and told the story of a boy, adopted by a mystical hula dancer and her blind warrior companion. Stories told about the battles between Maui and Hawai’i warriors were fresh in my mind from readings, and discussions with Hawaiian people in Hana, Kipahulu, and Kaupo. 

The idea of a canoe voyage to North America evolved from readings about the probability of prehistoric contact between Polynesians and the indigenous people of the Americas. The characters were formed from first-hand observations of people, and from the classic warring families found in all literature. I translated my own adventures in Alaska and the west coast of North America into plot points. After my sojourn in the Alaska Bush, I put the penciled draft in a file and set it aside as new work opportunities came up. 

The draft sat untouched for more than forty years. One day, one of my grandchildren was in need, and I gave her some money. She asked, “What can I do for you, Grandpa?” She was a good typist. I retrieved the notebook draft and said, “Put this in a Word file for me.” A couple of weeks later, the first draft came up on my computer screen and I went to work on a new draft. I pulled in research material on Hawaiian voyaging canoes and other materials and completed a first draft.

With no experience in publishing, I was flummoxed. But one sunny day, my wife and I were having lunch at our favorite little seafood place in Aberdeen, Washington, and I saw a note pinned on the wall for the South Bay Writers Group annual meeting to be held the following weekend at the Tokeland Hotel. A publisher would be there to hear pitches from authors. I drove south to Tokeland and reserved the last room available in Washington’s oldest hotel. “Do you mind the haunted room?” I was asked. “Of course not. I’m a writer,” I said.

On the following weekend, a representative of Booktrope, a cooperative publishing venture in Seattle at the time, listened to my pitch and agreed to publish Kolea. Along the way, I learned about editors, proofreaders, cover designers and marketing people. After the book was published, Booktrope folded. I was rescued by Gwen Gades, the publisher of Dragon Moon Books in Red Deer, Alberta. Gwen had designed the cover for Kolea. She agreed to continue to publish Kolea. And that, good reader, is the story behind the story.

Russell Cahill is a San Francisco–born child of a mixed-race family. His father was a Hawaiian seaman, his mother a descendant of Pilgrims. A former national park ranger in Yosemite, Alaska, Washington DC, and Hawai’i, Russell now writes from his home in a forest north of Olympia, Washington. His fascination with the native cultures of North America and Polynesia inspired him to write Kolea, a story of early Hawai’i and a voyage to North America.

Story Behind the Story: Death by Intermission by Alexis Morgan

Alexis Morgan’s series about Snowberry Creek, and her amateur sleuth, Abby McCree, reminds us that there’s always murder in the most unlikely places. This Story Behind The Story is about the latest in Morgan’s Abby McCree Murder Mysteries and how characters can shape and grow. 

Cover of Death by Intermission by Alexis Morgan

What’s the theme behind your story?

The theme behind DEATH BY INTERMISSION is the importance of supporting the people you care about, both in good times and bad. 

What’s the logline?

DEATH BY INTERMISSION—It’s a blockbuster whodunit…

What were you thinking about or what was happening when the idea occurred to you?

I was trying to think of a very different location for a murder to take place when I came up with the image of someone sitting in a lawn chair just inside the tree line at a city park looking as if he’d dozed off. From there I needed a reason for both him and Abby McCree, my amateur sleuth, to be there in the first place. Since Abby is always getting “volunteered” to serve on committees in the town of Snowberry Creek, this was the perfect time for her to be in charge of the town’s movie-in-the-park night. 

How did the original idea change as you went along?

I like Abby to have a good reason for getting involved in solving a murder. Originally, it was going to be because she was in charge of the night’s festivities and that alone was enough to draw her into the investigation. However, as I started writing, I realized that wasn’t enough of a personal connection. To add additional depth, I had one of the chief suspects be dating Abby’s mother. In turn, he was trying to protect another possible suspect by withholding key information, which complicated the situation for everyone. That one change gave the story more depth and tension, especially regarding the relationship between Abby and her mother. 

How did you conceive of your characters for this story and how did they change?

This is the first time the reader meets Abby’s mother even though it’s the fourth book in the series. I’ve always pictured Abby and her mother being very close. But as the story unfolds, they have to confront their changing relationship. Abby’s life had changed dramatically since moving to Snowberry Creek, and she’s never realized that her mother isn’t happy about some of the choices Abby has made. Things get a bit rocky for them, but their relationship becomes much stronger in the process.  

Are you pleased with the results, or do you wish you had done anything differently in the story? Why or why not?

Overall, I’m pleased with how the story turned out. Abby and her friends have come a long way from where the readers first met them in DEATH BY COMMITTEE, Book One of the Abby McCree Murder Mysteries. Abby’s circle of friends has expanded, drawing in more people from both her past and her new home in Snowberry Creek. At times I wish I had created more in-depth backstories for the major characters before I started writing the first book. That would make their reactions to different situations more predictable. However, as a writer, I really prefer getting to know the characters over the course of the series just like the readers do.   

Who would play your leads in the movie if (when!) you make a deal?

I really love the idea “casting” my characters with real-life actors! I can just picture Abby, my plucky amateur sleuth, being played by Anna Kendrick. Tripp Blackston, Abby’s tenant and almost-boyfriend, is a former Special Forces soldier and would be played by Jai Courtney. Henry Cavill would make a perfect Gage Logan, Abby’s friend and the local chief of police. 

What else do you want readers to know?

I would like the readers to know that Zeke, Abby’s ninety-five pound mastiff mix roommate, is based on two of the dogs in my own life. My granddogs, Walter and Remus, are both bulldogs, so I have firsthand experience in dealing with the issues Zeke has with drooling and shedding. They are also both extremely fond of dog cookies.  I keep several flavors on hand for whenever they come to visit. 


USA Today best-selling author Alexis Morgan lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband. She is the author of over forty novels, novellas, and short stories that span a variety of genres. DEATH BY INTERMISSION is the fourth book in her first cozy mystery series, The Abby McCree Mysteries

Buy link

Here’s a link to the book’s page on my website.  It includes several buy links, the back blurb, and the first chapter of the book.

Story Behind the Story: My Sweet Enemy by Jenny Hartwell

Jenny Hartwell’s tale about pivoting to publish should be a familiar one to anyone who’s aspired to publish, whether it’s a novel, a short story, or even a blog post. And about chocolate. How could anyone complain about a love story involving chocolate?!

At a writing conference I attended a few years back, the entire panel of agents and editors announced to the crowded room full of eager authors that historical romance was a tough sell these days. 

Huh. Too bad I was pitching my historical romance to them the next day. 

After going nowhere slowly with my story of carriages, ballgowns, and duels at dawn, I returned home fighting despondency. What to write next? I took a long walk, thinking about the power of pivoting. Romcoms were just taking off. Could I pivot from writing about English ladies in the early 1800s to penning pithy tales of modern love? Could I make pop culture references? Could I be funny

The answer, surprisingly, was yes. 

Before I discovered this, though, I had to search the depths of my soul. What do I love? Truly, madly, deeply? Love enough to spend countless hours researching and writing and editing the topic? The answer came readily enough: chocolate. I loooooove chocolate. However, the sweet treat itself was not a plot. But what about everyone’s favorite chocolate story from childhood, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? What if I slammed it together with the breakout enemies-to-lovers romcom, The Hating Game by Sally Thorne? I returned from my walk invigorated, pivoting, and ready to leap into something new. 

It turned out, I adored writing contemporary romance. I love pop culture, and now I had an academic purpose for my subscription to People magazine. Including references to Taylor Swift, Star Wars, Axe body spray, the Hemsworth brothers, and Lord Voldemort was fun. And more important, it was funny. 

I had to modernize the story of the impoverished Charlie Bucket, turning my main character into Charlotte Beecher, a twenty-something chocolatier who’s out of work and getting desperate as her bills and student loans pile up. Thankfully, she wins a social media contest for one of five internships at a gourmet chocolate company, my spin on Dahl’s five golden tickets. The interns compete in a series of challenges with the winner earning a high-level job at the chocolate company. One of the other interns, Mister Tall, Dark, and Haughty, is all spreadsheets and number crunching, and when he and sunshiny Charlotte go toe to toe, sparks fly! 

Once I’d worked out my plot, I had some serious research to conduct. And by research, I mean eating chocolate. Studying chocolate. Making chocolate. Let me tell you, it was a tough gig. Luckily, I live in the same city as two gourmet chocolate companies, so I set up tours, tastings, and a truffle-making class. It was extraordinarily delicious and educational. I even met the eponymous owner of one of the factories, and I gushed to her—perhaps a bit too gushingly, now that I look back with the distance of time—about how I was writing a novel based on a factory just like hers with a female owner just like her. I asked her for a selfie. I rambled. I preached on the transcendent joy of her salted caramels. And…I’m lucky there were no restraining orders issued. 

Writing the book was both easy and hard. The dialogue flowed. I could have my characters swear. I didn’t have to research how long a carriage journey from London to Bath on dirt roads would take. But…I was also living in my house while it underwent a six-month renovation. Jackhammers and writing are not boon companions. I loved this story, though, so I figured out how to write despite the construction. I wrote in my car. I wrote on friends’ back porches while they were at work. I hummed along to the member of the construction crew who was fond of belting out Cher tunes while I typed away. And at last, my enemies-to-lovers chocolate factory romcom was done. 

There is quite a bit that happened in between typing The end and the publication of my debut, but that’s a story for a different day. My Sweet Enemy was released by Entangled Publishing on February 8. Being published and seeing my book out in the world, the result of my career-changing pivot, fills me with more transcendent joy than eating a salted caramel.

And that’s really saying something.  

Jenny Hartwell has a confession–she loves People magazine as much as Pride and Prejudice. Her fun, pop culture–adoring side shines in her contemporary rom-com novels set in a gourmet chocolate factory while Jenny’s Regency romances feature strong damsels and swoony lords. Her writing has won or finaled in numerous contests including the Golden Heart, The Emily, Four Seasons, Fool for Love, and The Catherine. Jenny lives with her family in the verdant Pacific Northwest. She loves movies, travel, and staying up late with a good book. And, of course, chocolate. Jenny is represented by Lesley Sabga of The Seymour Agency. 

Blurb for My Sweet Enemy

Sunny chocolatier Charlotte Beecher is unemployed, in student debt, and on the verge of hawking her beloved copper pots just to make ends meet. So when a gourmet chocolate factory chooses her as one of five candidates to help re-launch the company in their Charlie and the Chocolate Factory–inspired competition, Charlotte begins to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Fellow contestant Luke Wells complicates her plans to win by a landslide with his flow charts and marketing projections. Mr. Tall, Dark, and Haughty is all about the bottom line and is as bitter as she is sweet. And when he snubs Charlotte in the first challenge, misunderstanding or not, she transforms from cream puff to jawbreaker. Bring. It. On.

But when these two rivals find themselves distracted by delicious attraction, will they let their passion get in the way of winning the competition?

Buy links: 


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Story Behind the Story: Aedyn Brooks and Dead Reckoning, Grave Intentions Series, Book 1

When I first wanted to introduce the Story Behind the Story post series, I was aware that sometimes the story itself springs forth in its entirety from a dream, a conversation, or even an image. And sometimes it comes from life, truly a “write what you know” situation. In Aedyn Brooks’s case, the story had its origins from a terrifying home life and learning how to cope with it. (I have to state at this point that I was the copy editor for this story, so I got to be an early observer of this fight of good against evil!)

Cover of Dead Reckoning by Aedyn Brooks

What’s the theme behind your story?

We’re often told “write what you know” when you first start writing. There are many good reasons for this philosophy, but mostly because it’s easier to write about things you’re familiar with than those things you don’t know and require research. 

I grew up in a very abusive home that not only spanned generations but held the belief that elders would always have the right to abuse younger generations. Most of my abusers are long dead. I never had a chance to have a critical conversation with them and ask them why me? Why did they feel they had the right to abuse me, and keep abusing me for most of my life? Out of the blue, about ten years ago, one of my abusers called me to tell me he was working through the 12-step substance abuse program and one of those steps is making amends with your past. He apologized and asked for my forgiveness. A lifetime of healing held in two little words: I’m sorry. He went on to explain how he’d been abused by other family members. Not that it excused his behavior, but sadly, it normalized it. He thought that was what was expected of him. Each generation continued this cycle—and my family wasn’t alone in this mentality or behavior. I found numerous news articles to validate that this is a silent, systemic issue throughout America, and possibly the world. I can’t say it loud enough that victims need to speak up and speak out—even through the threats. Abusers threaten, punish, and hurt their victims. It’s how they control them. It certainly was how I was controlled.

I can speak easily of the abuse I went through only because of the professional help I received. I’ll never be one hundred percent healed because we can’t change the past. What we can do is get to a place where the past doesn’t cripple daily function, dictate our future, and doesn’t limit our success.

What’s the logline?

Even the dead deserve justice.

What were you thinking about or what was happening when the idea occurred to you?

Other than abuse, I wanted to explore the issue of abandonment and how that can manifest in us as adults. My father was my only caregiver, having been abandoned by my mother when I was two weeks old. Unfortunately, he died in a logging accident when I was three. Children learn trust between the ages of three and four. My life was in incredible turmoil at that age and I still struggle with trust today, partly because abused children learn never to rely on others, and partly because where trust should have been developed in my brain, never happened. My older brother and I were passed around from relative to relative on my father’s side—each fighting for custody. For various reasons they were denied, but ultimately, my mother won custody. Why she fought for custody of us was never explained. Almost daily she mentioned how much she hated children, and we wore the brunt of her displeasure and anger. 

In Dead Reckoning, part of Sojourner “Joni” Smith’s backstory is that she suffers a severe injury and has amnesia. She wonders if her family misses her and is left feeling abandoned when no one steps forward to claim her as a missing person. Though it doesn’t stop her from forming strong relationships that become like family because unlike me, she also doesn’t have the baggage in her past to taint her future. There are days I wished that for myself. 

How did the original idea change as you went along?

When I write my rough drafts I throw in all the nitty-gritty evil details. In Dead Reckoning, I wrote Elsabeth’s rape scene by her family members, and a whole scene of how she died. I was able to put words to my own pain and that was cathartic for me to write. However, no one wants to read that in a romance. Also, it wasn’t needed to discuss the essence of what she’d suffered. I also didn’t want to trigger readers, given that one in four women have been raped in America. No one needs that when they’re reading for enjoyment. 

How did you conceive of your characters for this story and how did they change?

My character development is a whole process in itself. I knew that I wanted to write Joni but finding her a comparable hero took a bit of work. I use astrology and tarot to give depth to my characters and then study negative and positive traits from there. I also study professions and see how that can taint and develop someone into who they are. I also love developing complex belief systems, family dynamics, etc. I do a ton of upfront work on my hero, heroines, and villains. Most of it’s never put on the page, but I feel I know my characters well by the time I write their story.

Are you pleased with the results, or do you wish you had done anything differently in the story? Why or why not?

I cut the crap—or hope I did. LOL! One of the questions in my beta-reader list is there a scene that wasn’t needed? None of my previewers mentioned removing any scene or chapter. I worked five years at chiseling and molding this book into a capturing what was in my head and yet a page-turner for my reader. I really like to keep the reader experience in mind when I write. 

Who would play your leads in the movie if (when!) you make a deal?

If Theo James and Alexis Bledel played Zeke and Joni I’d be over the moon! Can we sign that contract today? I can picture SyFy Channel wanting to make my books into a mini-series. A girl’s gotta dream, right?

What else do you want readers to know?

One thing I probably could communicate better is that Dead Reckoning is a complete story in itself and it’s the first book in the Grave Intentions series. The second book, Ready or Not, brings in a resurrection angel to work with the new foundation that Joni and Zeke create at the end of book one. The third book, Devil’s Due, incorporates another key player needed for the foundation to gather key psychics and gifted beings to combat evil in the world. The fourth book, Sweet Revenge, was a purely indulgent book for me to write,, and I can hardly wait to share it with my readers. It’s a cross between the reality TV shows Amazing Race and Chopped. My fictional organization is Paranormal Intelligence Foundation. (Yes, I own the URL.) This foundation will go on to help people in future books in work.

Aedyn Brooks is an award-winning author who feeds her spreadsheet-addicted psyche by day (aka data-driven ninja), and crafts wicked paranormal romances at night.

After living most of her life in haunted houses, Aedyn decided to share her terrifying, and sometimes funny, experiences with ghosts by crafting Haunted Romances in her debut, Dead Reckoning, Grave Intentions series, which launched in November 2020. One thing Aedyn learned from an early age is that the dead can be your greatest ally, especially in your darkest hours. 

She lives in the Pacific Northwest suburbia with a postage-stamp sized yard, with one of her three grown children. She enjoys spending time with family and babysitting her new granddaughter. Being a grandmother is the bestest ever!

You can also follow Aedyn on FaceBook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest (another slight addiction) @aedynbrooks, or sign up for her newsletter at

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Story Behind the Story: Vengeance by Anna Alexander

Sometimes the side characters in a story just demand to be the star of their own show. For Anna Alexander, it was the Daniels brothers, a pair of telepathic twins who couldn’t be more different…and more similar. Here’s the story behind them and the woman who requested her own spotlight. (I have to state at this point that I was the copy editor for this story, so I’m sort of fond of them, too!) 

Vengeance by Anna Alexander

When you’re writing a series, there are characters who appear in books that you know will take the lead in another story. Sometimes it’s planned. They are there specifically to establish their place in the world and whet the reader’s appetite for their own story. The Daniels brothers were just such characters. What’s better than a hunky telepath? Two, or course! They were two sides of the same coin. Well dressed. Intelligent. One serious, the other more carefree. Or so it appeared on the surface. They enthralled me the moment they appeared in Genesis.

Then there are characters like Jameson Alinari. She was a side character, a needed plot device for Instinct. A friend and mentor for my heroine Alicia to run to in her time of need. Jameson ran a women’s shelter, and from the moment she opened the door, her appearance was a brilliant supernova on the page. It was obvious to me that there was more to her than a civil servant who helped women in need. And in my brain it was a natural progression that she would be a vigilante crimefighter. Go after the men that put the women in her care in their dire situation. Kick some ass and take names.

In Instinct, Jameson’s nighttime activities are only alluded to. But her story hovered in my conscious mind for years as I wrote other books. I hadn’t immediately paired her with the Daniels brothers. I hadn’t paired her with anyone for a long time. Then I had a vision of the opening chapter: Ethan and Ronan out in the city one night and hearing a cry of agony in their mind. They followed the sound to find a woman dressed in black and wielding a whip, torturing a man. She was my very own version of DC’s Catwoman. And again, not all was as it seemed—and from that vision the trio was formed. However, I struggled with elements of their story. You see, Vengeance included many things people told me I couldn’t write.

Vigilante crimefighters are too extreme, they told me. They’re not heroic but criminals. Stories that include women who have been victimized are in no way romantic (which, duh, they’re not supposed to be). And added to that, my hero was not one man but twins! You can’t have brothers as the hero, I was told. Especially if it’s not an erotic romance. Then it was, “You have twins? Why isn’t it an erotic romance?” 

Right. Let’s address having the twins be in a triad relationship. Since the Evolutioneers’ powers are a heightened version of their natural abilities, telepathic twins was the way to go. With their telepathy and empathy, it was almost as if they were one person. Having them be with two different women, feeling and hearing everything the other was doing, didn’t feel right. Just thinking about all those tangled emotions makes my head hurt.

Oh yes, there were many delicate lines to weave with those three. And while Jameson and the Daniels brothers’ destinies percolated in my head, I was working on the Sprawling A series and the first two books in the Evolutioneers series. In fact, Vengeance was to be the fourth, not the third, book in the series. Then 2019 happened.

The #MeToo movement and Harvey Weinstein were big stories, and I was angry. I was angry at entitled white men and a system that gave them a free pass to be assholes. Suddenly, the extreme injustices I was plotting were all too real and front-page news. My rage needed an outlet, and Jameson and her story became more important than ever to tell. 

Let me tell you. It was difficult working the romance into the story when all I really wanted was to punish men. Oh, my imagination went into the gruesome range so many times. I found myself going back and forth worrying if I was going too far or not far enough. It was a fine line between making the situations real and not exploitative. That’s when the brothers did their part and pulled me back from the dark. 

Ronan was just so laid back. Ready with a joke or a funny quip. And Ethan…well…Ethan was so intense! When he’d turn all his attention on Jameson. Woo! The man smolders. Which was another balancing act. Not just in this book but every romance novel when you have a heroine who is determined not to fall for a man’s charm, where is the line between cute guy interested in a girl and creepy stalker dude. When is he being swoonworthy and when is he being a prick? Seriously! It’s not that easy.  

For all the struggles I had writing the book, there was also immense joy. I loved writing the Crimson Angels. Those girls made me laugh many times. I’ve even been toying with the idea of turning them into a graphic novel. And I loved bringing other characters from the Evolutioneer books into the mix—Alicia, Ripley, Sheriff Lancaster. I love thinking of new animals for Ripley to shift into. And that last scene with Jameson and Lancaster on the roof of the hotel was one I knew was going to happen, but I didn’t know how. It was cathartic pouring that rage onto the page. 

Huh. Kinds sounds as if the entire book was all rage and anger, but it wasn’t really. There were moments of strength. When men allowed women to be feel everything and just held them. Ride-and-die friendships, and girl power. There was taking charge of your destiny. The warm fuzzies of possibilities and new beginning. And love. Lots of love.

During this time of strife and uncertainty. When absolutes you believed true were nothing but false promises, and when it seems as if the world is burning every-single-day, we have our stories. Stories to fall into as we read and stories to fall into as we write. They encourage us, save us, so many times. Books will always be there in our times of need.

Aren’t we lucky.

Bio: Award winning author Anna Alexander is the author of the Heroes of Saturn and the Sprawling A Ranch series. With Hugh Jackman’s abs and Christopher Reeve’s blue eyes as inspiration, she loves spinning tales of superheroes finding love. Anna also loves to give back and has served on the board for the Greater Seattle Romance Writers of America as chapter president, and is the co-founder of the Seattle UnCon and Passport to Romance Readers Event. Sign up to receive news about Anna’s latest releases at


Story Behind the Story: Life Is Too Short by Irene Vartanoff

Three women after surviving cancer. Will they have the courage to use their second chance?

Life Is Too Short by Irene Vartanoff. The cover looks so peaceful, doesn’t it?

Here’s Irene Vartanoff, whose life experiences figured into the shaping of her women’s fiction novel, Life Is Too Short, but she found that her characters surprised her as she wrote them. Here’s her Story Behind The Story. 

The theme of my women’s fiction novel, Life Is Too Short, is that it’s never too late to make changes in your life that will bring you happiness, peace, or contentment. Sadly, this story was sparked by my late sister’s third and fatal bout of cancer. I got the idea when she and two of her oldest female friends were going through cancer treatment, and my sister recounted to me that one day all three of them had attended a funeral together and compared their situations. And laughed about them. As we all know, you have to laugh or you will cry, and these three brave ladies laughed that day. To honor their spirit, I began to write a hopeful story based on their situation.

My story was not about having cancer. It was not about my sister, either, but about how a person can feel about their life and then what a person might do about their life after getting a reprieve from cancer. At first I simply set my characters in motion. 

I don’t generally have a plot outline in mind as I begin a story. What I might have is a vague sense of where my characters might end up. For Life Is Too Short, my initial thought was that my sister had absolutely loved going to see the total eclipse in 2017. She’d traveled with very good friends down south to do that, and she’d told me quite a bit about the science of the eclipse. I had taken notes. After her death I found some of the NASA handouts she had accumulated before her trip, too. 

Other than placing the action of my story in 2017 and having it culminate in a trip to see the eclipse, I had no particular ideas other than to follow my sister’s friendship story in broad outline by making all my characters her age in 2017, having grown up and gone to school together in the same neighborhood, and having remained friends all their lives. 

So far, I had no drama and no personalities. I had three women who had survived cancer, I had my opening scene of them leaving a cemetery together, and I had the eclipse. The very next thing I began to do was to differentiate their voices and their physical selves. Eileen became the sarcastic one, Kathy became the goody-goody one, and Charlotte became the one holding onto a terrible grief. As I fleshed out their stories, I started with what I knew about growing up in that place and in that time—the 1950s and 1960s in the suburban Washington, DC, area—and what that generation typically had gone through to find love and careers, have babies and still do meaningful work, please parents, live within the moral strictures of their upbringing, experience social and political upheaval, and more. 

What I totally did not expect was that Steve, a friend of their same age, would show up as a male mirror of their lives. He would not be a romantic interest as such but would have his own stories of love and loss from the pivotal years of the late 1960s and early 1970s—when the Vietnam War loomed large in any young man’s mind because of the draft, and sexual behavior suddenly became very free. 

Another utter surprise was the intensely hostile relationship one of my characters had with her aged mother. My own mother was so wonderful and kind to every one of her children and to our friends that I had no way to imagine a mean, rotten mom who tormented her child by endlessly comparing her to her sibling. Yet Eileen’s sarcasm had to spring from somewhere. I found a nonfiction book about miserable elderly people that gave advice on how their grown children could work to attain peace with such parents despite all their complaints and demands. 

Once I had my toxic mother-daughter relationship, I had a story engine that helped me push and prod at least one of my characters into making life changes. Then I had to create something that would have the same effect for the other two women. I created a dilemma and a May-December romance between my grieving woman, Charlotte, and a very much younger man. I created an opportunity for my third woman, Kathy, to come to a turning point about her marriage to an unfaithful husband. And I threw in some drama because of Steve having sired children during the hippie era. As I followed the progress of each of their stories, I knew I was stating many truths about the circumstances of growing up in that place and time and in that particular social milieu. It felt good to write them down, to say, “This was how it was, but not any longer.” 

The title of my book has a double meaning. People who have faced cancer have faced their mortality and they know that life is too short. In addition, fighting one’s whole life with a mean parent, or staying in an empty marriage, or even living wrapped up in grief, calls for the other meaning of the phrase. Life is too short to waste on those things, and that is what my characters learn. They each take steps to live better in whatever time they have remaining to them. So, despite the scary initial topic, Life Is Too Short is a story about hope and the varied paths people can take to be happy.

Award-winning author Irene Vartanoff fell in love with romances and comic books as a teenager. After working for Marvel Comics and DC Comics and Harlequin, Bantam, and Berkley, among other publishers, she now writes novels. Irene’s books so far range from women’s fiction to contemporary western romance to chicklit superhero adventure. A lifelong East Coast resident, Irene lives in a forest of tall oaks in the wilds of West Virginia. 

Life Is Too Short is available at AmazonAppleBarnes & NobleGoogle PlayKobo, and many other stores and libraries. 

Story Behind the Story: Wild About Rand by Joleen James

Here’s Joleen James, whose A Wilding Point Romance series covers the lives and loves of people in a small town in the Puget Sound region. Her Story Behind The Story has a basis in her own emotional journey. (I was the copy editor for this story, so I had a first look!)

Wild About Rand by Joleen James!

What’s the theme behind the story?

Love heals all? I know this sounds so basic, but when you put two wounded people together, and their love helps them move forward again, toward happiness—Love Heals All—works.

What’s the log line?

Secret Summer Romance.

What were you thinking about or what was happening when the idea occurred to you? 

I had the idea for the Wilding Point Romance series a while before I wrote WILD ABOUT RAND. My idea for the series centered on the area I grew up in, a town on Puget Sound in Washington State. In the book, I call the town Wilding Point. The core of the story centers around the three Wilding siblings, with each sibling featured in their own book. Their internal conflicts stem from the relationship they have with their toxic father, a hard, unloving man. The father’s illness and subsequent death brings these three estranged siblings home to Wilding Point over the course of the three books (the series has since evolved into five books). Of course, each sibling will find love, and have a happy ending.

How did the original idea change as you went along? 

At that time, prior to when I starting writing WILD ABOUT RAND, my mother got very sick and passed away. As her main caregiver and advocate, I went through her end-of-life journey with her. Helping someone die is a life-changing experience—at least it was for me. I felt honored to be with her at the end, and treasure those memories now. Those memories became a driving force in WILD ABOUT RAND. 

I always planned for the father in WILD ABOUT RAND to become sick and pass away. However, my own life shaped this story. In the book, the father’s illness and death mirrored what I went through with my mom. I poured my heart out and walked through my grief while writing the book. Writing the end of life for Lucas Wilding through the lens of my own grief was definitely not planned! However, WILD ABOUT RAND is not a book about death. In fact, it’s about living! The story centers on the secret, summer romance between Kristine Wilding and Rand Bell, two people who are both moving on from different, emotional pasts. Their relationship is about bringing romance and joy back into their lives!

How did you conceive of your characters for this story and how did they change?

I knew I wanted three Wilding siblings: Kristine, a struggling single mom, who is in the first book; Lucky, her brother, a man with a dark past who feels unworthy of love; and a secret sibling, Cam, a local boy, who suddenly finds himself part of the twisted Wilding family. I’m not sure how the stories changed. I always start my books by writing the back-cover copy (a super-short synopsis). I’m always surprised by how I stick to my original story. The synopsis usually follows the book pretty closely when I’m finished.

Are you pleased with the results, or would you have done anything differently in the story? Why or why not?

I love this series and all the characters that populate Wilding Point. I am pleased with WILD ABOUT RAND. I think most of us have suffered loss, and I hope we’ve managed to move forward and find happiness. This is a story of hope we can all identify with.

Who would play the leads in the movie if (when) you make the deal?

I think the couple on the cover of WILD ABOUT RAND would be great!

What else do you want readers to know?

I want readers to know that this series is an ongoing labor of love. I feel more connected to this series than any other I have written before. Some of my strong connection has to do with the location, some to the personal tragedy I suffered, which made its way into WILD ABOUT RAND. If you like secret, summer romance (WILD ABOUT RAND), a wounded bad boy (WILD ABOUT LUCKY), secret babies and first lovers reunited (WILD ABOUT CAM), a little mystery mixed in with your romance (ONE WILD CHRISTMAS), this series is for you! Wait, I forgot about book 5…ONE WILD KISS—a story of forbidden love, coming soon! 


Joleen James is the author of The Wilding Point Romance series, The Hometown Alaska Men series, and several stand-alone contemporary romances, including the award-winning UNDER A HARVEST MOON. Currently, she’s working on ONE WILD KISS, book 5 in the Wilding Point Romance series. LOVE UNEXPECTED is her first romance short story set in Wilding Point and the story is included in the SUMMER VIBES ROMANCE ANTHOLOGY. Visit Joleen at, or look for her on Facebook and Twitter.

Buy link:  Wild About Rand (A Wilding Point Romance Book 1) – Kindle edition by James, Joleen. Contemporary Romance Kindle eBooks @