Lantern’s Dance: The Beginning
Because what I do for a living often seems like magic—I come up with an idea and *POOF* you have the book in your hand—I thought I might do a series of (spoiler-free!) blog posts about the actual process. Though rest assured—it’s still pretty magical.
As with many of my books, The Lantern’s Dance began with words on a contract—a two-book contract, fairly standard for me, signed in the spring of 2021, that said:
Last September, 2022, I published (and was busy promoting) “Work #1: UNTITLED COLD CASE,” aka the first in a new series with Raquel Laing. But after Back to the Garden, my publisher and I had agreed, I would return to Russell & Holmes for #18.
When you’re a new author, your publisher wants more than a number after the series name, but after 30 years, there’s a certain amount of trust, both in my abilities and in the interests of readers. For this one, as usual for a series novel, my editor left it up to me to conjure up an idea that a book could be built around.
Perhaps because I’d enjoyed doing so in Back to the Garden (and in others, such as Murder of Mary Russell) I decided it would have two separate timelines. And because certain questions about one of my main characters had been niggling at me for a long time—been niggling at every reader of Arthur Conan Doyle, for that matter—I decided I’d like to explore the past of one Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
As it happened, life gave me plenty of time to mull things over, since I broke my wrist in early November and typing was difficult.
But that was okay (well, it was okay for the book) because I could do loads of the kind of hopping-around research this sort of story entails, from Paris to India to Cairo, from cryptograms to whale-oil lamps to zoetropes. And then there were the Vernet family….
Without giving away precisely how all those ideas came together in my fevered brain (for that, you’d need the actual book, unavailable until February) I can say that I envisioned an intriguing old journal that incorporated a series of linked images. And, as part of the way to build that theme, Russell finds, as the description now up on my web page says:
…a tarnished silver lamp with a rotating shade and dozens of strips of paper. On each strip is a sequence of fifteen progressing figures, which dance into motion when the shade is spun: an antique, charming, yet highly sophisticated form of zoetrope.
Deeper down in the same crate is what Russell suspects to be an old journal, although it is written in a nearly impenetrable code language. Intrigued…she sets about deciphering the intricate cryptograph. There appear to be fifteen entries. Each, she slowly discovers, is built around an image.
Here’s the period when that vague idea is taking shape:
December 4: I have barely 3000 words of the story written, mostly in the journal’s entries. I won’t be able to type easily, two-handed, for another two or three weeks.
December 7: I have a conversation with my editor about the book. She likes what I tell her, and asks for “progress materials”—it’s in the contract.
December 12: I send her a page and a half of plot description and the first four journal entries. That works for her (and, also nice, triggers their sending me a check) and I hunker down to work.
December 14: 4,014 words
January 1: 7,532 words
February 1: 34,400 words
March 1: 47,821 words
On April 1, I send her my first draft: 58,947 words, some 220 pages of typescript. Ridiculously small for a novel, even by my first-draft standards. But she and I know that I tend to write short for the first draft, and we have faith this malnourished creature will flesh itself out.
Next time: naming the baby.