February of a beautiful year

It continues to be one of the loveliest winters I’ve seen since I’ve lived here, snow bowing down the trees in lacy graceful waves, occasionally refreshed by a new snowfall. I took a couple of pictures when I walked up to get the mail in late January after one such light snowfall, enough to freshen up the world with a new layer of white.

A little earlier in the month, I also took a few pictures of the “blue hour,” the long midwinter dusk.

And we had a cute tiny visitor:

…. attempting to gnaw its way into the outside compost bin. (It’s a vole.) The bin moved to the garage and the vole lost its free lunch.

Books continue on! In January, I got the rough draft done of Shamus & Shifter (it’s going to need a hard rewrite, though) and wrote half a paranormal romance novel for the PNR pen name.

Slowly, the light returns.

Guest story by Elva Birch

You can also view this guest story as an email here. It went out on my mailing list this morning.

Elva is a longtime friend and fellow writer who also lives in my hometown of Fairbanks, Alaska; we often get together for write-ins or lunch. Since the next Keeley book is still a couple of months out, here’s a little something to get your urban fantasy dragon fix! The first book of Elva’s unique and original series is currently free, and I thought my readers might be interested in it. 

The Royal Dragons of Alaska is a paranormal fantasy series set in a fascinating alternate Alaska ruled by a dragon shifting monarchy with magic, adventure, and romance. Something to Do is a short prequel story for The Dragon Prince of Alaska, which is free until Tuesday!

Something To Do

Outside the palace, the autumn hills framed distant blue mountains that were just starting to show a rosy twilight alpine glow. It was September, nearly equinox, and the endless summer daylight was giving way to the inevitability of night and the coming winter in Alaska.

The windows to the informal dining hall were open. The breeze coming in was cool and comfortable, and it smelled of fresh air and dry moss. All of Toren’s brothers except for Kenth were gathered at one end of the table, along with Captain Luke of the Royal Guard.

“Toren could do that,” Tray suggested.

Toren looked up in alarm. He’d been liking posts at his fanpage on Facebook and hadn’t been paying any attention since the family meeting started, so he had no idea what he was being volunteered for. Since Tray was trying to get out of it, it probably wasn’t a fun job.

He racked his brain for an excuse to avoid the task, but since he wasn’t sure what it was, it was challenging to come up with something that would disqualify him.

“I’ve already got…ah…something to do?”

Not that he actually did. He might see if he could talk one of his brothers into playing some hockey, or watch some television. Maybe he should go into town and pretend he was blending in when he really wasn’t. Pretty girls would recognize him, and that was always flattering. He could even go flying.

“You weren’t listening at all, were you.” Fask, sitting at the head of the table where their father ought to be, didn’t make it a question.

Toren gave a shrug and a crooked smile. “Weren’t you? One of us ought to be paying attention to these things.”

Their oldest brother was definitely the responsible one. With their father in what the media was calling a medical coma, Fask was the one keeping Alaska running. He was the one doing bureaucratic stuff, managing the cities and villages, talking to the press, being diplomatic with the royalty of the other Small Kingdoms countries.

Fask gave a long-suffering sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose. “The wards were activated. There’s a squatter on royal lands a few hours past Angel Hot Springs. Someone needs to go scare them off.”

Normally, the Royal Guard took care of interlopers. But the road past Angel Hot Springs was the middle of absolute nowhere. It would take hours to drive there, and hours back, occupying an entire day for at least two guards, just as they were getting the capital city ready for an equinox celebration.

It was a much simpler task for a dragon who could fly there.

Most of Alaska did not realize that The Dragon King was more than a fanciful affectation for their beloved monarch; the media had seized on it as fun and slightly frivolous, but dragons, and magic altogether, were dismissed as fiction, and officially treated with disbelief.

But there was truth to the title.

Literal truth.

The sleeping king and all six of his sons were shifters, sharing their souls and their shapes with dragons.

Magic was real and most magic of all was the Compact. What was officially a trade document binding the Small Kingdoms was actually a magic spell, meticulously exact in every detail, not only establishing the terms of their agreement, but enforcing it.

It was seven hundred pages of tiny script, every line carefully crafted to protect each of the kingdoms, dictating their military and humanitarian responsibilities to one another. It also outlined their order of inheritance, selecting for each destined heir a fated mate, called as needed. They would know each other when the time was right and the need was great.

Personally, Toren drew the line at mates. He knew that the magic of the Compact was real, and the dragon that shared his head and could shift his skin was certainly undeniable. But mates? Specifically mates selected by magic to fulfill a grand destiny?

It was more likely that the Compact was stuck with an heir—it was almost always the eldest child—and randomly found someone they wouldn’t dislike as a partner. No one had been called on anything remotely resembling a quest in several lifetimes now.

Toren opened his mouth to fabricate a reason that would keep him from having to do the unwelcome task of scaring off the squatter. As the youngest of the six brothers, he could often get out of his duties simply by feigning incompetence.

We have to do this.

Toren shut his mouth and blinked in surprise.

Usually, his dragon simmered in the background of Toren’s head. He sometimes spoke up to keep Toren from the worst kind of trouble, or offered wry observations about the frailties of humans, but otherwise, he didn’t bother much with casual conversation.

He certainly had never offered an opinion about chores before.

Why? Toren wanted to know.

We have to, his dragon insisted unhelpfully.

Fask had taken his silence for agreement. “Try not to show them your dragon,” he said, tapping his notes into a tidy pile. “If you can just show up and order them off, that would be the best way.”

“I know that,” Toren said, stung by the reminder. Did Fask think he was completely incompetent? He might be the youngest brother, but he was still a prince of Alaska, and he was capable of ordering around some long-haired lost hippy hermit without resorting to his dragon’s might.

“Wear a uniform,” Fask said mildly. “You’re representing Alaska.”

Was he afraid that Toren would show up in pajamas or something? Why would a squatter even care?

Their meeting was apparently over, the brothers and Captain Luke shoving their seats back and standing up.

This job wouldn’t be so awful, Toren thought, standing up and pocketing his phone. It was autumn, the trees were all in their showiest colors, and there was good weather for flying. No one would notice or care if he took a few extra hours, maybe even stopped at the hot springs for a soak. He could put it off until afternoon and—

Go, now!

Toren couldn’t remember the last time his dragon had been this focused on something.

Don’t get your scales in a twist, he protested. We can go now if it means that much to you.

Appeased, his dragon subsided and Toren bumped shoulders with his milling brothers and bemusedly went to put on a uniform.

Well, this would be something to do.

Elva Birch writes cross-your-legs funny and feel-good fantasy and paranormal romance that is diverse and full of rich world-building and adventure. She is the author of The Royal Dragons of Alaska, A Day Care for Shifters, Shifting Sands Resort (as Zoe Chant), Suddenly Shifters, and Lawn Ornament Shifters. Take a fun quiz at her site to find a book to start with, or get Better Half, a free novella, for joining her mailing list!

2023 is upon us

Happy New Year! There was a free Christmas story on the mailing list in December, which you can read here.

Settling into January, working on Keeley #6, Shamus & Shifter – currently at 43K of about 55K. It’s up for preorder at the end of March. I’m planning to have the book finished, edited, and out to beta by the end of the month.

Male grosbeak on the lilac bush.

A flock of grosbeaks has been hanging around lately. They’re really the only bright-colored birds we have here in the winter – males are red, females yellow. It’s nice to look out and see those little splashes of color. I have a chickadee feeder, but the larger birds can’t get into it (essentially as a squirrel-defense measure). I’m thinking about getting a larger tray-style one to encourage the grosbeaks to keep coming back.

Moon from the upstairs window.

Our days are incredibly short here – daylight by 10 or 11, dark by 3 or 4 – but with the solstice behind us, they’re getting longer. Spring still feels very far away. This is the time of year when I daydream about gardens and traveling to warm, sunny places.

December 2022

December is upon us and the shortest days of the year are here. Three weeks until we turn the corner at the solstice.

I took some pictures of the first day of the year’s last month on my walk today.

Sunshine on the hill beyond the neighbor’s machine shop. We are in the shadow of the opposite hill and don’t get sunshine at this time of year.
Snow-covered trees along our driveway.

It’s really been a hell of a year. I’ve had a lot of health issues in the back half of the year, of the “multiple ER visits” variety, leading up to abdominal surgery (a hysterectomy) in mid-November that will, I hope, fix the problem and also a number of other problems that have been dogging me at a lower level for years, dragging down my energy and causing me to lose multiple days a month to illness. I’m about two weeks out from surgery now, recovering at a reasonable pace and keeping myself fit with light walking. Like today’s walk up to the highway and back.

It snowed last night, so everything is fresh and white.

Driveway trees.

I do, in general, genuinely enjoy December despite the cold and the short days. I love the Christmas season, I love lights and gifts and Advent calendars (am I even slightly religious? no. Do I have one this year? OBVIOUSLY) and all the books/movies/TV episodes that are seasonal this month only.

The tree was up early in November due to post-surgery restrictions on lifting things. I regret nothing.
This year I got emotionally invested in W.E. Johns’s Biggles books – yes, the boys’ own adventure books from the 1930s-50s – and so there are tiny airplanes on my tree.

So yeah – a lot of this is just finding the pleasures where I can, but there are a lot of them. Not the least being my wonderful husband, who is rarely mentioned here, but has been doing a lot of heavy lifting (sometimes literally!) through all of this. It has very much been A Year, but we’ll be starting the new one in a month, and I’m looking forward to getting back to the books.

Mooses in the mist

I drove up the Elliot Highway this evening at sunset to Whitefish Campground (about mile 6 or 7) just to get out for a while. As I started back, I saw this small lake or slough with mist rising off it, so thick and white that it looked like it was smoking. Very beautiful and weird!

I parked on the shoulder of the highway and walked down to the shoreline to take some pictures, and was cheerfully doing this when I looked up and situational awareness kicked in and I realized there was a moose watching me from really not all that far away.

Quietly I walked backwards up to the car and continued to watch her for a while, and eventually spotted what I guess was her calf deeper in the swamp. No pictures of that one; it was too mist-cloaked to see very well, but I could definitely tell that it was another moose, especially when she turned and sloshed toward it, making those little grunting noises they sometimes do.

It was completely magical, one of those joyous moments that reminds me why I love living here.

Guest post: Maria Schneider

Remember when I used to have guests posts, back in the day? I have one this week! Maria Schneider of Bear Mountain Books has been wonderfully supportive of the Keeley series, and I thought her magical, genre-crossing books might be interesting to some of you, so I asked her to give me something special. Over to you, Maria!

It’s gardening season again! I go out every morning to water and plant. Had just started the sprinkler, when I realized a bird had become tangled in the support strings hanging off the tomato cages used to prop up large tomato vines.

Upon closer inspection the fluttering, frantic “bird” was actually a baby dragon. “Not again,” I muttered. Dragons were so temperamental. Birds couldn’t singe me while I freed them either.

“Okay, you. Hold still.” I shut the water off, leaving the poor baby dripping. His dark blue head feathers hadn’t yet hardened into spines. Most of his iridescent scales were a mix of brown, light yellow and white. Later in life he’d probably turn more beige and sage to match the desert terrain.

I retrieved clippers from my garden cart, an old rag that used to be a kitchen towel and approached slowly. The dragon’s eyes were huge, wide orbs staring piteously up at me.

“You’re gonna hafta hold still,” I ordered. “I’ll cut you free.” Scissors would be a better tool, but I hated to leave him there, dripping, sad, and at his young age, vulnerable.

“Do not flame me,” I instructed, cutting at string behind him. This particular piece of twine wasn’t holding him at all, but he needed to adjust to my intent. Snip, Snip. The string frayed instead of cutting clean, but I kept at it. The dragon’s snout was wide open in distress.

“Gimme a couple of minutes and you’ll be free.” I ran the old towel down his back, squeegeeing his scales and accidentally smashing down a few feathers. He looked worse for it, but he barely dripped anymore. I finally freed one clawed foot. Predictably, he tried to fly, but his wing still had a cotton string running under and around. I latched onto it and half pulled, half cut the threads. He shredded the rest of the string and left a pretty good sized trench in the back of my hand from a toothy, smokey strike.

“Dammit!” I snatched my hand back. “Ease up, little one!” More cutting and suddenly he squawked, much like a bird, and bounced off the wire gate. He was still pathetically wet and in such a hurry, he splatted rather ungracefully onto the ground face-first.

A large shadow covered the sun, putting me and the little dragon in a gloomy, dark shade. The baby bobbed onto clawed feet, trilled an excited call and stared over my shoulder.

I swallowed hard, still leaning over the little guy. The clippers were a visible, threatening, but inadequate weapon.

With my heart making more noise than the baby dragon, I dared turn my head and only my head. Like a giant scaled bear sitting on her haunches, there was mom dragon. Her gray snout wound between two juniper trees, easily capable of taking a chunk out of my butt, which was inconveniently still high in the air. I knew the rules. Humans who saw what they weren’t supposed to see had to die, lest the magical others be discovered. “Never saw a thing,” I said. “Wouldn’t dream of telling a soul.”

Her diamond eyes seemed small compared to those of the baby dragon, but that was because her head was longer than my leg. She didn’t blink, letting slit, golden eyes convey a very nasty threat. She didn’t let loose with flame, even though a mysterious forest fire that cindered me, my house and my garden would likely be blamed on an errant lightning strike. Her gaze did search the sky hopefully, but the desert of New Mexico is often devoid of clouds.

“Not a soul,” I repeated, while baby dragon fluttered, fluffed and hopped over to his mother.

A tail many times larger than the largest of rattlesnakes snaked out from behind a pinon pine, gathering junior dragon inside protective scales and muscles. His protesting squawk was a direct result of her hurry and displeasure.

I straightened. No sense dying in a bad position.

She regarded me with solemn focus before one giant, black talon stepped back. Scales rippled with desert colors, reflecting gray-brown tree limbs mixed with mottled green and blue sage speckled with chamisa yellow.

“Nary a word,” a dry, hot wind boomed.

My hair blew straight back, and the ends split from the sudden heat. “Not a word,” I agreed with a very emphatic nod.

Of course I was lying. In the dark of the night, behind closed doors, I write about dragons all the time. Dragons of Wendal is the first book of one such series. Sure, it’s billed as fiction. No need to have mom dragon come back looking for me!

You can find Dragons of Wendal on Amazon and also available as an ebook on Google Play.

Maria E. Schneider writes cozy mysteries (Executive Lunch – Sedona
O’Hala series), romantic fantasy (Dragons of Wendal series), thriller
urban fantasy (Under Witch Moon – Moon Shadow series) and the odd book that fits nowhere. Her books are sold across retailers. You can find her at her blog: www.BearMountainBooks.com.

July in Alaska

It’s high summer! The garden is growing …

This is actually from about a week ago. The peas are halfway up their trellises (white frames) by now!

Corn, squash, and tomatoes all cheerfully growing in the greenhouse. We’ve eaten our first tomatoes and squash already!

It’s been extremely hazy lately with wildfire smoke, but I’m still trying to get out and enjoy the flowers. June and July are peak wildflower season – the wild roses of June are over, but the fireweed of July is just kicking off.

Behind the greenhouse, with smoke haze in the background.

More flowers around the yard …

The irises are still my favorites.
Sitka rose still going strong, eighteen years after we moved in!
The house is a bit of a construction zone this summer, with an insulation project in progress.

I haven’t obtained pictures of any of them, but we’ve had beavers, moose, and a variety of birds around to enjoy. I think a pair of robins are nesting near here – we haven’t seen any babies or the nest, but they’ve been around a lot, and we found a broken robin eggshell on the road. A hawk is most likely nesting nearby as well; we’ve seen it in the yard several times. There is a beaver dam within walking distance that we enjoy visiting to watch it grow.

It’s not all idyllic wilderness fun, as the gravel pit on the property between us and the highway is now actively being worked again, so there’s a lot of noise and dust, and the new work has wiped out most of the trees that had grown up over the old gravel bed. (It was being actively worked when we moved here in 2004, then went dormant around 2006 or so, so we’ve had a lot of time to get used to just being able to walk around out there.) But we knew it would happen sooner or later, and the new owners – actually neighbors of ours – have been great to deal with and very considerate about keeping the noise and dust down as much as possible. And they’ve also fixed the road, which is not state-maintained and had been falling into disrepair.

Plus we get to look at cool stuff like this gravel sorting machine.

We also did some exploring back in June of old mining roads around our area. Here’s a no outlet sign on a road we just drove through from the other end …

No outlet is a state of mind!

We also got some nice views from the top of the hills, on a rare not-very-smoky day.

Ghost & Gambler (Keeley & Associates #5) release day!

Out now on Amazon in ebook, paperback, and hardcover!

Get it on Amazon!

Forget knowing when to hold ’em.
Knowing when to run is still pretty important, though.

When you’ve got a deck of cards that tilts luck in your favor, you literally can’t lose.

But that doesn’t mean you can win.

James has been hired to find out who’s killing players in the gambling event of the season, a poker tournament that will determine who controls the city’s magical underworld for the next year, in a glamorous underground casino with a rising body count.

Good thing he’s got luck on his side.

But it’s going to take a lot more than that when the killer sets their sights on James and his friends …

 

This book stands on its own as an urban fantasy murder mystery, but it also continues a subplot thread from the previous book, involving the magic cards that James acquired from his former mentor’s personal effects. The rest of the series is also on Amazon in ebook and print.

State of the Studio: April

Winter: still wintening for all it’s worth. It’s actually snowing today. I was just out putting more seed in the chickadee feeder. Gray jay (a.k.a. camprobber) on the suet block this morning. One of my plans for this summer, now that we no longer have an outside cat and I’m getting into feeding the birds as a hobby, is to redo my backyard for more pretty little bird nooks and feeders and flowers. That’s probably going to be my main garden push this summer … at least if summer ever gets here, which seems unlikely at the rate we’re going. We still have three feet of snow.

Moose: still moosing.

Cow and calf on the hillside behind the house.

They spent a few days hanging around in the general yard/driveway area, including bedding down for a while next to the plow truck.

She’s as tall as the truck! Hi, lady.
Guess this is an okay place to nap after all.

Yesterday they browsed slowly down the creek and we spent some time watching the lady moose try to break off a willow that was at least 15 feet tall to eat the pussy willows at its top. Eventually they drifted on and seem to be gone today.

I worked on Keeley #5 edits all this past week and will be finishing revisions this upcoming week (I hope). Kismet, the webcomic, remains on hold for now, as there have been various additional delays with family emergencies and travel and such, but I’m posting some extras to the Patreon to help make up for it, and plan to get back to regular updates in May – after I get back from the first traveling-for-fun vacation I will have taken since 2019. (Planes! Hotels! What even!)

Looking forward to spring, and all the good things that go with it …

Writing progress with snow and moose

Also posted at the Facebook group, I made myself this cute progress chart to keep track of where I am in all my various projects for current pen names.

I’m cycling back and forth between my different pen names for the first half of 2022. Right now I’m working on Metal Gladiator while noodling over some of the finer plot points in Keeley #5, and then I’ll switch back to that in February and aim for getting it off to my betas.

I looked out the window just now and the snow was coming down in astonishing thick flakes. It really shows up against the wall of the shop.

We’ve also had some moose hanging around the last few days. You can see SEVEN at once in this astonishing video taken by my husband as he was trying to get to work a couple of days ago!

The one that’s been mainly hanging around the yard lately is a yearling calf. It was out there again today.

I like seeing them around … from a distance!