My Granny

My Granny

Grannie, on the left. I think there’s a photo of me at the same age, with the same haircut and the same expression.

My grandmother, Evelyn Alexandra Winer (nee Gilmour) was born in the middle of The Depression into a household which would, eventually, contain nine children and two cousins. She was just five when her mother passed away in childbirth, along with the baby, leaving the leaving the older kids to raise their younger siblings. The children minded the house, worked the garden, and helped their father on the family farm, bringing in the hay and loading up trucks of turnips to make ends meet.

Sandy, ready to play ball.

Granny grew up very social and active. She loved baseball, and she was a fielder and short-stop for the local all-ladies team during the war. Her nickname was Sandy then, and her catcher Doris eventually became her sister-in-law by what I’m given to understand was some good old fashioned lady-plotting.

Rumor, or family fantasy, has it in our family that Granny and Aunt Doris might have been part of the inspiration for a certain pair of characters in the film A League of Their Own, as their skills led to a Calling-Up – for a time they both played in the U.S., Hamilton, and Toronto.

When she could no longer play, Granny still went down to the Badenoch and Morriston diamonds on weeknights to watch cousins, neighbours, grandchildren, and friend’s kids run the bases. A few years ago, my cousin’s team and my brother’s team were facing off and a bunch of us went down to enjoy the game. One of my cousins made a double-sided sign cheering them both on, which she would flip depending on who was up to bat. And Granny spent the whole time keeping score and telling everyone how the players would be doing so much better if they could just “Get behind the ball!” (This was a life-long refrain; I remember hearing it at my T-ball games and my brother’s little league tournaments.)

I’m given to understand that prior to the outbreak of WWII, Granny had a crush on a young man – a farmer’s son and her brother’s friend – named Roy Winer.

Poppa, being all swoon-worthy.

When Canada joined the fight, Poppa lied about his age to enlist and worked his way up to Flight Sergeant/Air Gunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was very tight-lipped about his time overseas, so we didn’t know much of what he did, except for amusing anecdotes about antics he got up to on the base during training. One involved someone grabbing him by the ankles so he wouldn’t fall out of the plane while he hung out of an opened bomb hatch so he could take a nice photo of the base from the air.

Yes, I made Robin a sergeant in The Skylark’s Saga on purpose.

Poppa avoided the Nazi guns and made it home safely, only to find himself in Granny’s crosshairs. I’m not entirely sure how the courting went, but I can imagine there was a lot of Granny saying “Oh for god’s sake, Roy, just pick me up at seven.”

Granny had little patience for dithering, flimflam, hesitation, lack of decisiveness, sniffling children (which resulted in Vick’s Vaporub on a Q-Tip shoved up your nose; lots of fun when you’re a kid like me with hay-fever triggered by coming to visit the farm), and your long hair getting in your face at the dinner table (punished with a tight French braid; there’s a reason I prefer my hair short).

On the day Granny and Poppa were headed to the courthouse to sign their wedding paperwork, they took a car that only sat two. But of course, when they arrived, they learned that Granny was – at the time – too young to sign the certificate on her on own behalf. Her father had to give his permission in writing.

As the car only sat two, Poppa left Granny sitting on the courthouse steps for hours as he went back to the Gilmour farm to fetch his would-be father-in-law to complete the licence.

Vehicular abandonment was to be a theme. Not long after their wedding, on an extremely icy New Years Eve, a quite-pregnant-with-her-first-daughter Granny and Poppa stopped their car in the dip between two hills because someone else’s car had been abandoned on the side of the road. The car belonged to a friend, and it had quit in the cold. They found their friend halfway up the hill and the friend walking home with his own battery under his arm to plug it back in and try again in the morning.

Poppa took the battery out of his own car to boost his friends, and then set his own back on his runnerboard instead of putting back under the hood like he should have. Trying to crest the slippery hill from a dread stop, they nearly lost the battery into a snowbank.

Happy New Year indeed.

Granny and Poppa loved one another fiercely, loyally, and steadfastly. I will be lucky beyond measure to find someone who loves me the way that Poppa loved my Granny, and to love the way my Granny loved him. I am unaccountably saddened that I have yet to have love, or been loved, the way my Granny and Poppa did one another. And that I wasn’t able to introduce her to someone like that to Granny before she passed, so she knew that I had someone in my life. I know that what Granny and Poppa had was something very, very special.

Poppa and Grannie

Poppa wanted to name his first son after the first Winer ancestor in the area – a man who had been emigrating with his family via covered wagon from the States to New Berlin (now Kitchener). The wagon kept breaking and he swore that the next time it happened, he was going to build the new house right there, dammit. It broke again just south of Guelph, Ontario, in a little hamlet that would eventually become Morriston. The cabin he built for his family can be seen to your left when you drive north up highway 6 from Hamilton,  (or on the right if you drive south down Hwy 6 from Guelph ) along with several other buildings which the family built and moved into the longer they stayed at the farm. The property is still in the family, and that wagon has since been repaired for use by descendants.

Roy Winer never got his boy, though. (Don’t worry, my mom gave that name to my brother). What he did get was five amazing, incredible, hardworking, honest, and loving girls – along with his wife, Poppa called them his Five Of A Kind and Ace. Granny and Poppa were killer card players and unbeatable Euchre partners. I recall many post-family-meal nights where the kids played with toys on the ground, and the adults got out the packs of cards and started ribbing each other. Eventually the kids on the ground grew up and joined in the card playing, and though I don’t have a head for it, several of my cousins became just as sharp at Euchre as Granny.

Five of a Kind and their Ace at Grannie’s 90th Birthday

Through their daughters, Granny and Poppa got thirteen kind, clever, and generous grandchildren. Poppa used to say that it doesn’t matter if you’re a ditch digger in life, so long as you’re the best ditch digger you can be. They instilled in us a sense of hard work, an appreciation for community and creativity, and a close love of family. At the annual family Christmas, we were encouraged to sing, dance, play saxophone, recite a poem, tell a joke, and on several memorable occasions, embarrass the heck out of our aunt’s boyfriends with silly skits.

And though Poppa never had the chance to meet them before he passed, he and Granny were graced with three curious great-grandsons who overflow with joy and love. And whom Granny doted on.

The day my grandparents met my Dad, he’d been invited up to the farm for, if I’m remembering correctly, a meal and what was likely a test when it came to dragging him out to the barn for chores. City-boy that he was, my Dad arrived on a motorcycle with a freshly-permed 1970s white-boy ‘fro courtesy of his older sister. I understand that Granny and Poppa talked it over and decided to be open-minded about him, despite the wretched hair.

My father went on to have a great relationship with my grandparents, and loved them both very much. Even if Poppa threatened Dad with the snips used to castrate the bulls if he got my mom pregnant a fourth time.

My grandparents made a wonderful life in a very difficult profession. Farming was never a sure bet, and it was back-breaking labour. Though, luckily enough, with their siblings farming close by and eventually, enough boyfriends, husbands, and partners who came along, there were always many hands to make the work light. (My hay-fever and I stayed inside during harvest-time and made sandwiches and coffee for the hard workers when needed).

But when times were good, they were generous in their financial support, and implemented a clever system whereby loans could be requested by their daughters by putting a slip of paper in a teapot on a shelf. They could also be repaid the same way, discreet and private, so the embarrassing money question could be handled gently and respectfully. To this day, when I need to borrow a sum from my parents, we call it a “Teapot Loan”.

Granny and Poppa had a sugarbush out the back of the farm, and if you’ve ever visited one, you probably know how much hauling and work goes into making maple syrup, especially if the bush is still using the bucket-and-tap system. I can think of at least two or three March Breaks spent not in Florida or at a ski resort like my classmates, but in the back bush hauling tin buckets to the big blue rain barrel that was being carted around before it was eventually dumped into the simmering pan in the sugar shack.

But oh man, that maple syrup? It was so worth it.

Nothing I’ve had since we finished the last recycled Cheez-Whiz jar of the homemade stuff has ever tasted as good.

I expect no Maple Syrup will ever taste that good again.

Andrew Gilmor and his children at the youngest’s wedding. Grannie is third from the right.

The Gilmour clan, Granny and her siblings, were part of a larger family of Ords. Like many quintessential rural Ontario farming communities, neighbours are close, families don’t move far away, children take over their parent’s farms, and everyone is tight. This past summer, our family celebrated the 68th annual Ord Reunion, where the descendants of my Granny’s own Grandpa gather to spend an afternoon together reminiscing, welcoming the new babies or spouses and toasting the dearly departed, studying the family tree or the albums on albums of family photos, newspaper clippings, and announcements. We share a massive potluck, play games, run races, and battle it out for the highly prized annual Shoe Kick trophy.

Listening to an original song written for the Ord Reunion.

Kicking butt in the obstacle course.

Granny served as both secretary and treasurer of the picnic for forty years, and relinquished the duties this past summer. She always took up the collection, booked the one-room school house for the day, and took the meeting minutes. I can clearly envision that red plastic binder filled with pages and pages of lined school paper filled with her sloped, clear handwriting.

After Poppa passed, Granny wore his wedding ring on a necklace pretty much every day for nearly sixteen years. When she missed Poppa particularly, she would put on a zip-up Polar Fleece jacket that had been his, and wear it around the house (maybe that’s why she kept the place so damnably cold all the time). When she was moved to the hospice, my mom made sure to bring the jacket and drape it across the back of one of the chairs in her room. When she passed, the staff at the hospice dressed her in her own housecoat and laid the jacket across her chest, so Poppa was giving her a hug.

For all that she was stern sometimes (I remember tales of my aunts and mother fleeing to Aunt Doris’ house down the country block when Granny was in a temper. I did the same myself the day I was flighty and burned a pie, and thus was rightfully scolded), my Granny was so kind, and so loving, and so generous with her time and attention.

She was motherly in small, quiet ways that were no less fierce for their understatedness.

Granny drove all over to attend province-wide volleyball championships, dance recitals, plays, graduation ceremonies, dedications, grand openings, book launches, and celebrations. On one memorable occasion, she travelled for a full day to take in my brother’s graduation and was utterly enraptured and fascinated by the keynote speaker – a Colonel Chris Hadfield.

I’m told she hung on his every word.

Grannie and I at the Book Launch Party for “Triptych” in 2011.

Granny was also very thoughtful with her time and home. Food and cooking were important to her, and were the medium through which she showed a lot of love.

Granny hated to throw away leftover food, and genuinely enjoyed Liver and Onions. She made the best pies on the planet, and the best pancakes, too.

We sometimes called her The Sergeant Major, because she could certainly marshal a meal together. Christmas lunch on Boxing Day was a feat of organization – long tables downstairs for dozens of people, bowls of buns, and corn, and beans being marched from the upstairs kitchen by dutiful grandkids, a massive turkey big enough to stick your head into being carved on the kitchen counter, jug upon jug of tomato juice, apple juice, orange juice, and of course, wine. So much gravy that we poured it from carafes and pottery milk-bag holders.

When I graduated from my Master’s program, Granny cracked a bottle of bubbly that had been in her cold pantry since it’d been given to her and Poppa for one of their milestone anniversaries. In that same pantry you’d find a literal bucket of flour, waiting to be turned into tasty treats, and shelves of homemade pickles (dill, sweet, and icicle), chili sauce with peaches, and the coveted strawberry jam.

“Is it Granny’s jam?” is the first thing that is asked by any family member if offered jam in an aunt’s or cousin’s house, implying that if the jam is store-bought, the answer to the offer may be a polite No, thank you.

Her tipple of choice was a rum and Pepsi, served in a tall glass with two ice cubes. How do you measure the rum for the drink? You pour until the ice floats. This is known among my friends as a “Granny pour” of booze. Making drinks for one another, we ask: “Do you want just a shot in your cocktail – or do you want a Granny pour?” Of course, she’d add the remaining can of Pepsi slowly over the course of the evening, so the drink got weaker as the night went on.

One for me, one for Granny.

You could always find a battered mint-green tin of cookies in her freezer or in the cupboard under the microwave, which she pretended not to notice that she had to refill whenever a grandchild had come to call. No holiday meal was complete without her pies, and when one of my cousins was diagnosed as Celiac, lemon-meringue pies without the crust, made in parfait glasses, could also be found on the dessert table.

Various cousins have lived with Granny over the years while attending school, or needing to save on rent while searching for work, or looking to buy a home. Granny had a habit of cooking an entire package of bacon at a time, instead of just what she wanted to eat, so when these tired grandkids came home from school or work, they would find that the Bacon Fairy had visited and left a container in the fridge.

She made this salad dressing with vinegar, milk, and sugar that I hated as a kid and love now, especially when drizzled over the fresh lettuce pulled from her garden. Right up to this past summer Granny’s victory garden thrived – she always ended up with more potatoes, carrots, onions, cucumbers, lettuce, strawberries and rhubarb than she could eat herself, and you would be sent home with absolute bags of dirty veggies pulled from the ground that very morning.

Several years ago, Granny was cleaning out her closets and she had an absolute glory of a black dress coat that was as 1980s as it could possibly be. Hobble-skirt hem, big naval buttons, poofy sleeves, black velvet collar. Poppa had bought it for her to wear to church, worried that the community would think ill of him if his wife kept showing up in an old worn coat.  like he couldn’t afford to keep her in style. Granny told me she’d never worn the fancy coat, not once, because she was a farmer’s wife, and she was proud to be a farmer’s wife, so she was perfectly happy to look like one, too.

She and one of my aunts came over one afternoon to drop it off for me to have, as my love of cosplay and costuming was well known by then. They offered to take me out for lunch, but I decided to make a meal myself instead. I had the very great pleasure of introducing my Granny to Butter Chicken Curry and Roasted Cauliflower for the first time. And I wear that coat any time I have somewhere fancy to go – the theatre, the opera, and most recently, to my friend’s glam wedding.

Granny’s cookbook.

My aunt got all of our favourite Granny recipes made into a book a few Christmases ago, so I think I will be doing a lot of canning and baking in the next few months. And drinking rum and Pepsis.

Granny’s love didn’t end at blood relations.

She babysat, watched over, mentored, helped, or partially-raised pretty much half of the community. Including three young Japanese boys whose parents had moved to Puslinch, Canada in the 80’s. While Poppa and their father were in the barn, comparing Japanese and Canadian farming techniques, Granny helped the boys with their English home work.  I remember being absolutely thrilled to have my name written in Japanese on the inside flap of a backpack when I was younger.

Most of the family moved back to Japan eventually, and when I applied to the Japanese Exchange Teachers Programme out of my undergrad, I requested to be placed in a school on the same island that my Japanese uncles lived on, and was.

At my local train station.

With Yukio and Hasako, former neighbours.

I’ve never seen Granny prouder than when she was reunited with that family in Japan – she came to visit me with my parents while I was living there, and the family was moved to repay my Granny for the kindness and generosity she had shown them in Canada.  We were toured around, and feasted, and treated like royalty.

That was also the day my then-78-year-old Granny beat me up the steps to the caldera of a live volcano. And this was before the knee injury, because the bike I crashed in the accident was the one Granny bought me before she returned to Canada.

It was extremely moving to watch my Granny take in Hiroshima. Of course, her husband had been an aviator, and the bombing had happened in her lifetime. She remembered it, all of it, everything from the news, but she had never seen anything about it from the Japanese point of view.

Hiroshima A-bomb Dome Park, for those who have never been, is a brutally blunt experience. The building the bomb exploded directly above was the only one to survive for miles around – everything else was leveled. And they’ve left it leveled. There is a peacefulness to the place, a quiet promise made through clenched teeth to never let this happen again, and the monuments are inspiring. But there’s also a begging quality to it – please, please, please, this place says. Granny walked through all of it, stopped and read every plaque, with her hands folded behind her back and her mouth in a firm line.

She was taking it all in, thoughtful, respectful, and very, very moved. She was quite quiet for the rest of the day, and when we asked her what she thought of it, she had a few poignant words about what a tragedy it was, and how terrible it must have been.

Dad pointed out to me privately, later, that it was likely she was thinking a lot of those pilots who dropped the bombs, and how she and Poppa would have felt if he’d been part of the crew who’d been asked to do it.

The one thing Granny vowed when my parents invited her to visit Japan with them was that she refused to eat raw fish. She would not try it, and that was final. So I took them out to my favourite yakitori izakaya when they arrived, which was extremely traditional. Everything was written in kanji, and no one spoke English. The izakaya only served traditional Japanese booze too – sake, ume-shu, chu-hai, and Japanese beer. She was flabbergasted to learn that, after a bit of back and forth, the place didn’t even stock rum.

Luckily she’d picked some up at duty-free on the way into the country, like I’d advised my mom to do, because I hadn’t figured out where to buy any myself.

But I did want to share the fun of a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant with my family at least once while they were there, so I had arranged for us to go to one for lunch after we toured the school I worked at. I figured Granny would order some noodles and salad. Much to all of our surprise, when I brought them into the restaurant and showed them how to take a plate, make yourself some hot tea, and where to stack the empties, Granny dove right in and popped some sashimi into her mouth with her fingers.

We were so proud of her for trying the cuisine, and for eating so much of it! It was a wonderful meal with lots of laughter. Of course, later we learned that Granny remembered nothing about that lunch. She’d taken some Benadryl to combat an allergy attack brought on by the fresh paint at the school, and it made her so foggy that she hadn’t even realized she was eating raw fish.


Granny was also so very engaged in her community. She was part of the Ladies Auxiliary at church, was an usher and offering-counter, taught Sunday school, raised money for charity, baked for the Christmas Bazaar and Children’s Christmas Concert, and was a part of the Fireside Group, which had it’s 50th anniversary just last week.

This was a gathering of church members who would get together and share stories, read poems they’d written or articles from the paper they’d found interesting, and discuss the news of the day. I sang for the group once, when I was a teenager, and was so nervous I totally forgot the words to the song before I went up, and had to hide in the choir room writing them out on a paper to jog my memory before I could perform.

Granny had a whole talk prepared for the occasion of the Fireside’s anniversary, and was absolutely determined to attend despite her declining health. When her daughter came to take her to the event, Granny admitted that she couldn’t make it and sent along her speech (carefully re-constructed by said daughter from little hints scattered on tiny pieces of paper in an envelope) for someone else to read.

Granny helped to serve the food at funerals held at the church. It was always the usual spread of tiny cubes of cheese, carrot and celery sticks, cookies and coffee, and quartered sandwiches on white bread – salmon or tuna salad, roast beef and mustard, ham and cheese. When the grieving family had left the church, Granny and the other volunteers would pack up the leftovers and parcel them out to take home. Granny’s daughters jokingly called this ‘Dead Food’ when it showed up at the house to be eaten by the family. In my thirty-seven years I’ve attended a few of these church-catered funerals, and been sent home with my own packages of Dead Food, too.

One of my first thoughts after my aunt called with the devastating news that Granny had passed, was that someone else’s hands were going to arrange the sandwiches on those same church-owned platters for her funeral. That someone else was going to have to lay out the cookies. That someone else was going to have to wrestle with that massive old coffee percolator that is half the size of me. That someone else is going to wash those teacups. That someone else was going to have to take home the leftover Dead Food when my family and I have left to try to find some way to spend the rest of our lives without her.

While organizing the funeral, one of my aunts texted her sisters with the message “The Dead Food has been arranged.” And it struck me again that someone else is going to be in that kitchen. Not her. Not us.

I think, to me, that is one of the most difficult things to handle – that it won’t be Ev Winer in that kitchen on that day, like she always was. That she won’t be there, comforting the family of the recently deceased with nibbles, and shoulder-pats, and tiny quartered sandwiches.

That is what breaks my heart the most.

That I’ll be eating Dead Food she didn’t make.

My father called me last week, and told me it was time to come home. The last time I had seen Granny, she was tired but attentive at the family Thanksgiving. Our family comes together five or so times a year to celebrate the big holidays together, and we average around 30 to 40 people, so we can get pretty noisy.

But gosh is that house ever full of love when we all congregate.

Granny sat at the table and plowed her way through a plate with a sample of everyone’s dishes, and had a lovely little conversation with everyone who took turns sitting next to her.

The Skylark’s Sacrifice, book two of the Skylark Duology, had just come out a few weeks prior. I gave Granny a copy of all my books for her Brag Shelf as they were released, but this one was special. Book #1 was dedicated to my Poppa. Book #2 was dedicated to her.

For Granny-
Whose love and patience were always larger than I sometimes thought I deserved,
but who always made sure we all had more than enough.

Granny had mentioned before that she’d read some of my books, but that they weren’t quite to her taste. She preferred John Grisham, and Michael Chricton. On one memorable occasion, she showed me a Richard Castle novel she was really enjoying and didn’t quite understand when I tried to explain to her that the handsome man on the back of the book wasn’t the author, he was an actor named Nathan Fillion who played a mystery writer named Richard Castle on TV.

That Thanksgiving, I gave her a copy of The Skylark’s Sacrifice, and pointed out the dedication. She said she was looking forward to it, but I expected that she wouldn’t actually read it. One of my cousins had the brilliant idea to get Granny to record us all special messages to put into a Build-A-Bear last Christmas, and my message is:

Jessica, I love you. I’ll finish those books eventually. Merry Christmas.

I called Granny most Sunday afternoons for about nine months, just to fill her in on my life and to hear all about hers and the silly things a bunch of old-timers like she and her siblings got up to.

And she never told me she’d read the books. She never commented on them. I never knew.

Last week, I arrived at the hospital straight from the bus station, and took her hand. She said, “I think it’s time for you to go.” My brother had been there for about twenty minutes at this point, and I guess she was talking to him. Surprised, I replied:

“Okay, if that’s what you want.”

She opened her eyes and said, “Oh, it’s you, Jessica. You can stay.”

My brother, Dad, and I settled in.

She bobbed between sleep and wakefulness, in pain and exhausted, but she eventually turned to me and said, “Did you find a roommate?” (During my last call I had confessed to her that I’d lost my dayjob and I was worried that if I couldn’t find a high-paying enough one to replace it, I’d have to get a roommate again and sacrifice my office/spare room.)

“I’m still looking for a dayjob,” I replied. “When I have one, I’ll know whether I’ll need a roommate or not.”

Dad made a joke about how Granny should come live with me in my spare room. “Sure,” I said. “That’s a great idea.”

“Are you going to Milton now?” she asked.

“I’ve just come from Milton; Dad picked me up at the bus station.”

“Oh,” she said.

She drifted off a bit, and when she had come round again I said, “So hey, I don’t think I got to tell you on our last call, but I won a pretty big literary award for one of my books.” (Or, at least, you know, I tried to say all that around the burning lump in my throat and my crackling voice.) She didn’t respond to that. I said, “Did you read the book I gave you at Thanksgiving?”

“Yes,” she said, and it sounded a bit like there should be an of course, you silly girl at the end of that.

I didn’t really believe her though, not sure she actually understood the question. But later, one of my aunts told me that Granny had powered through every single one of my novels in the last few weeks, including the Skylark books.

I expect she’ll be recounting all the stories to Poppa eventually. She’s a good storyteller, and always was. She gave great speeches. I come by my abilities honestly.

At the hospice, they had this art piece on the wall made of woven strips of fabric. You could write a message on a tag and tie it to this quilt. I wrote:

Thank you for passing all the best of you onto me.
I am so lucky to have been loved by you.
I love you overwhelmingly.

Our last photo together.

Keeping warm at Thanksgiving.

After dinner chats at Thanksgiving.

My Granny went exactly as she had always said she wanted to – between one breath and the next. In the 1970s, when her father could no longer care for himself, he moved in with Granny, Poppa, and the five girls. One night at dinner, he exhaled, leaned against the person sitting next to him, closed his eyes, and was gone. Granny had always said she wanted to go like that.

When Granny and Poppa retried from farming, they severed some of the property to keep for themselves, sat down with some of their daughters and a piece of paper and a pencil, and drew up a house. It had to have a basement big enough to seat everyone at one long table for Christmas, and lots of bedrooms to tuck sleepy grandchildren into. Poppa only got a few years in that beautiful home, spending evenings watching the pond from the chair at the big front window.

Mother’s Day was spent at Granny’s in the annual garden clean up – re-edging the flower gardens, putting up the flag, splitting and moving around the hostas, mulching the flower beds, repainting the porch columns and restaining the deck, putting up the canvas canopy, trimming the trees, and pulling up all the Hens and Chicks that had reproduced like mad and were taking over the garden. But we were rewarded with Chinese food, and beer, and a sunny afternoon spent together while the Sergeant Major walked around the property, inspecting, directing, and bestowing a kind word on every hard worker.

Granny lived in the house she built with Poppa for sixteen years after his passing, and had decided that she would not leave. And while cleaning help had to come in every once and a while, and ramps needed to be built, and sons-in-law and grandkids had to be employed to roto-till the garden and pick the weeds, and neighbours employed to blow out the driveway, Granny also spent her last days in that house, too.

She eventually agreed to go into hospital, assuming she’d get better enough to return home and pass in her own bed. Regrettably, from hospital she went to hospice, and we had only two days to make our goodbyes.

Granny waited until all three of her remaining siblings had come to visit, and while her baby sister was in the room, took one breath, let it out, and never took another.

Granny had these white and blue Corelle coffee cups and I remember them from all the way back at the old farmhouse. I wasn’t much of a coffee or tea drinker then, but I can vividly recall Poppa sitting in his chair with one of those cups. The chair was back from the table, against the wall and under the telephone shelf, and his strong hands wrapped around one of these mugs. He’d have just come in from morning chores and smelled of barn, and his fingernails were dirty as he warmed his fingers around the mug.

The coffee mug.

Granny kept those mugs, and Mom brought two of them to the hospice so she and Poppa could have coffee together again when everything was done.

My hope is that on this sunny morning, they are having coffee together. And that my Granny is saying, “Well now, hello, love. Here’s a cup. Let me fill you in on what you’ve missed.”

Granny, 1928-2019

Obituary for Evelyn Alexandra Winer

JM FreyMy Granny
Read more

BOOK TRAILER – “The Skylark’s Saga”

BOOK TRAILER – “The Skylark’s Saga”

Robin Arianhod grew up in the shadow of a decade-long war. When she’s shot down behind enemy lines, her arch-nemesis The Coyote promises that he’ll help her escape on one condition:
she takes him with her.

Find out more about the books |  Animation: Elizabeth Hirst | Music: “Skylark’s Song” by Victor Sierra

“The Skylark’s Song” and “The Skylark’s Sacrifice” are published by REUTS Publications. Covers designed by Ashley Ruggirello. Novels by J.M. Frey.

JM FreyBOOK TRAILER – “The Skylark’s Saga”
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“The Skylark’s Sacrifice” – Bonus Epilogue

“The Skylark’s Sacrifice” – Bonus Epilogue

by J.M. Frey

This short is very spoilery.
Only read this if you have already finished both books in The Skylark’s Saga duology.

Robin coughed and shoved her work goggles up onto her forehead, only faintly amused by the curl of dark smoke that puffed by her face. The edges of the black cloud swirled into nothingness, stirred by a second violent exhale.

“Gee, thanks, WINGS,” she sighed once she had her breath back. She smeared the back of her thick work glove along her cheek. It came away black with soot and mechanical grease, burnished with oily rainbows under her amber work lamp. 

Her skin was hot, but it didn’t feel like she’d been burnt. The faint acrid scent of singed hair lingered in the air, and she wondered how much eyebrow she had left. If that wasn’t where the smell was coming from, then she must have shortened the wisps of hair that always clung to her ears when she tried to put her hair back in a messy bun.

Gently, soothingly, she patted the casing of the rocket pack splayed open on the workbench like a flayed bird. 

“Look, I don’t like taking you to pieces like this any more than you like being taken to pieces,” Robin crooned. “But you are full up with rust and other, uh, stuff, and . . . just . . . I want you to be healthy, you understand? So no more spitting up on me.”

The casing made the soft pinging sound she liked so much as it cooled down.

  “Please?” she added, for good measure, because WINGS was the type of machine that sometimes needed a bit of sweet-talking, as well. She brushed her fingers gently across the lines of script stamped into the casing’s side—Frankinese, Saskwyan, and Klonnish—digging her fingernail into one of the grooves. Velph would have teased her for talking to the pack, for calling it a “her,” and for asking nicely. It would have been annoying, and haughty, and a little bit snide. And she would have given anything for him to be needling her right now.

“Keep nattering to that thing, and it might just talk back,” said a voice from the doorway. Robin’s heart leapt into her throat, and she whirled around, hope building against grief and— 

The entire frame was blocked by Taddeus Thorne. 

Not Velph.

Never again Velph.

Robin swallowed what was left of her heart and offered Thorne a shaky smile, blinking hard, forcing herself to see the person in front of her, and not the one she’d been hoping for. Not the one she would never see again.

Thorne had voted himself Robin’s bodyguard, and had made her security measures his personal mission ever since . . . well, just since. He followed in her footsteps exactly like a big, mountain-sized shadow. And now he was throwing said mountain-sized shadow from the hallway onto Robin’s worktop.

“Wouldn’t mind if she did speak to me,” Robin admitted, pulling the gas lamp closer to the worktable to dispel the shadows. She leaned over WINGS to peer at the fuel hose. It was still intact, so the small backfire hadn’t happened inside the casing—ah, the output ports, then. Robin grabbed the lamp’s flexible neck and yanked it after her as she crouched at the end of the bench, staring up into WINGS’s belly. “At least then she could tell me what was wrong. She’s rattling something awful when I climb to cruising altitude, and that pretty song she makes when the blades are deployed is a bit strained. I’m afraid that . . . some, uh . . . you know . . . when I . . . I think some, uh . . . got into the casing, and it’s all gummed up with . . .” blood, she wanted to say, but couldn’t. Brains. Flesh. “You don’t normally bother coming inside, though. Were you worried about the backfire? Or did you—?”

Robin turned to Thorne, and the rest of her words jammed up behind her teeth. Thorne’s expression was completely poleaxed. His pale eyes rounded comically at the sight of her face, and he doubled over, wheezing with surprised mirth. He laughed like a mountain, too—rumbling, and gravelly, and shaking all over like an earthquake in the foothills.

Robin stared at the thatch of his dark, ashy hair and pursed her lips. “Har, har. I suppose I’m all-over soot?”

“Rosa will be unhappy,” Thorne chortled. “You have walked out halfway through dressing again.” 

“No, I didn’t. I—” Robin looked down at her attire to prove him wrong—and couldn’t.

Her heavy oilcloth work apron had taken the brunt of the messy blast, but he was right: she was wearing her good silk stockings and bloomers, her white silk chemise, and her corset—the blue one covered in feathered embroidery that Rosa insisted she wear when she was to be squeezed into one of those Klonn dresses built to emphasize the curves Robin didn’t have.

“You did.”

“Apparently. But I had a thought, you know? The intake manifold could be tweaked to—oh, and of course, there’s the rattling, which I think can be solved by scouring the—” Robin said. She turned back to WINGS, pushing her goggles back down over her eyes, and then paused, oilcloth gloves hovering over the pack’s innards. Another thought had occurred to her, like a god had reached into her head and flicked a propeller into motion, and she clicked her teeth closed on the rest of what she’d been about to say. Instead, she added: “You didn’t come in here because of the backfire.”

“No, Your Majesty.”

“I’ve forgotten something again.”


“Something important?” Robin asked, dread knotting underneath her sternum. She pushed her gloves down her wrists and yanked them off her fingers.

“Something important.”

“Hells.” Robin stripped off her work apron and goggles, and laid them over WINGS’s exposed innards like one would tuck a child into bed. “What?”

“The new Saskwyan ambassador arrived today. You have a carriage ride through the gardens to attend,” a second, feminine and unmistakably annoyed voice sounded from behind Thorne. He gave Robin an exaggerated wink, and then stepped aside and abandoned Robin to her fate. 

Maederia Rosa stood seething in the doorway, hands on her ample hips, lipstick an angry red slash across her face. “Your Majesty,” she added, which was really—when coming from Rosa—just another way of saying, “You idiot.”

“Oh, buggering Omens,” Robin said. “I’m sorry.”

“You are always sorry,” Rosa rejoined. She held out her hand, finger flickering at Robin in her patented “Come along, now, dear” move. “And yet you continue to wander off to your workshop mid-task. Robin, I swear, as your Mistress of the Glass, I will chain you to your throne if you do not begin to take this seriously. It has been months now—”

“I do take it seriously,” Robin said, crossing the room and squeezing between Rosa’s ample frame and the doorjamb. The hallway beyond was rife with stabbing yellow sunlight, and Robin winced as her eyes adjusted from the dimmer glow of her private workshop’s concentrated lamplight. “And you would never chain me.”

“Try my patience, and you will soon see, Your Majesty,” Rosa said. “I will walk you around the palace with a golden chain attached to your wrist, like a pet bird.” Rosa reached into one of the seemingly endless array of pockets she secreted into her bustles and pulled out a comb. “Now, march.”

“That would be undignified,” Robin said, walking down the hallway, as ordered, all the same. If there was one thing that Rosa had discovered—to Rosa’s distinct advantage and Robin’s disadvantage—it was that Robin had been a soldier in the Air Patrol long enough that an order barked in just the right tone would always make her body leap into motion before logical thought caught up.

Rosa reached out as Robin passed her and, with great practice, pulled on the leather thong tying back Robin’s hair. The bun tumbled out. Rosa matched her pace to Robin’s, and set about trying to tame the tangle of white locks into a smoothly hanging sheet, feet moving in perfect tandem to Robin’s own.

Thorne followed after them like a rowboat caught in the jetty of a first-rate ship of the line, as helpless to resist Rosa’s nagging as Robin was, bemusement in the lines of his eyes.

This is undignified, Your Majesty,” Rosa corrected. “I am sure that no other Queen of Klonn has ever had to be chased all over the palace to properly complete her toilette. Uhg! Soot! Black soot in your white hair.”

Rosa attacked the locks beside Robin’s ears with plenty of vigor, and a handkerchief that had materialized from her bodice.

Hair smoothed, Rosa moved around to Robin’s front, walking backward in her voluminous skirts and simultaneously, it seemed, putting away the comb to retrieve a damp, rose-scented cloth from her bustle (Where was she hiding that, that it didnt leave a wet stain on the brocade?). She used it to wipe clean Robin’s face and neck, and then swapped it out for the contents of another pocket, pulling forth a fabric roll filled with what sparing cosmetics Robin would suffer. The brushes had already been dabbed in the various powders and creams and primed for immediate use, so all Rosa had to do was slip them out of their slots and attack Robin’s face.

“Hey! You’re getting really good at that,” Robin said, eyes on Rosa’s hem as she moved smoothly down the hall, hands flying across Robin’s cheeks. “You used to trip all the time.”

“I have had a lot of practice of late, Your Majesty,” Rosa said with a smirk. The former zentapi madam always wore her hair pinned back in a pile of red-tinted corkscrew curls coiled at the nape of her neck. One of them had come loose and was dangling right along her nose. She kept trying to blow it aside, but it stubbornly refused to yield. Robin laughed, and pushed it back behind Rosa’s ear for her. “Thank you. And do not smile. You will ruin the lipstick line.”

Robin bit the insides of her cheeks and kept her mouth still as Rosa painted on the glossy, golden color that she claimed complemented Robin’s bronze skin. Then, finished and apparently satisfied—for now—Rosa secreted away the cosmetics and held out Robin’s court goggles. 

Right, about to be seen by the rest of the hullabaloo, then, Robin thought. She paused to don them, and they resumed walking.

At the first turn in the hall, they were ambushed by a pack of companions-in-waiting, armed with underpinnings and a dress. 

“Traitors!” Robin teased as a pair of sharp fingers dove in to finish the half-completed task of lacing up the wretched corset. She thought they belonged to Drienna, but there were so many companions-in-waiting, and they seemed to be kept in such constant rotation, that she couldn’t be sure. 

“Squeeze me all you like, girls,” Robin wheezed, “you’ll never force me to have a waist.”

“Careful. She may take that as a personal challenge, Your Majesty,” Grier replied with a cheeky wink. They were standing to the side, Robin’s belt in hand, waiting for their turn. Grier was one of the few people who had known Robin as the Skylark back in the zentapi, before she had become the Vigilante Queen. They were also one of the few who was comfortable enough to make sport with her like this.

“Just you wait,” Rosa assured Robin as she helped Drienna sweep a sea of gold brocade over Robin’s head. “One day, we will feed you up enough that you will lose all that desperate, wartime skinniness, and all that muscle in your stomach will turn soft and sweetly rolled.”

“And then, without the upper-body strength to pilot WINGS, I’ll fall right out of the sky,” Robin countered, just as gently.

As Rosa had made her opinion on the queen’s flittering about amid the clouds on a solo, weaponized rocket pack perfectly clear on a number of earlier occasions (that opinion being an emphatic, “stop it,” to which Robin had answered, “no”), neither said anything more on the subject.

The whole cadre of companions surged back into motion, a tightly run ship at full mast, and sailed toward the reception hall. With each footstep, the pile of glimmering fabric swirling around Robin’s shoulders and tripping up her feet somehow transformed into fluttering, elbow-length slit sleeves, an uncannily folded poof of a bustle, and a fitted bodice that showed off her narrow torso to great advantage, despite Rosa’s attempts to fatten her up.

The toilette convoy finished just as they reached the great white doors that separated them from the gardens. Coming into harbor now, Robin the flight mechanic had somehow been transformed into Robin the royal, resplendent in a suffocating corset and delicate, dainty shoes that pinched ever so slightly at the toes.

Robin missed her Skylark goggles, which were softer and didn’t tug at her hair if it was up in an elaborate style. She missed her leather trousers and her solid, practical boots. She missed being able to roll out of bed and be ready for the day in mere minutes, instead of having to sit in front of a vanity for hours as Rosa primped and polished and positioned. She missed being treated like a soldier, instead of like a woman. 

But she wasn’t a soldier anymore. She was a queen, however reluctant. She had responsibilities, and expectations, and as much as it galled, Robin understood why this farce of fashion was necessary. To be taken seriously, she had to look serious. And there was nothing more serious than intimidating luxury.

That didn’t stop her from paring back the spending in the palace, however, rerouting it toward better causes—charities, assistance programs, infrastructure repair, hospitals, relief aid. Over the past months, it had become something of a fashion among the court to dress in something simpler, to re-wear or re-make a gown rather than buy a new one, to boast of how many ways one had helped the needy that week. It was shallow, and effacing, nothing more than courtiers copying the trend that Robin had set, but she didn’t care. 

It was working, it was helping, and that’s all that mattered.

The retinue paused at the door, and though Robin would have preferred to open them herself, she waited for the footman to swing it wide. Expectations. Bah.

Sunlight stabbed into the hall, blinding her for just a brief moment, despite the goggles. And then she was swept down the stairs toward the middle carriage in a line of three. Thorne murmured in her ear as she went, reminding her that the first carriage would hold her honor guard; the second, the ambassador and herself, with Thorne riding in the rear guard position behind the open-air cab; and the third would hold Rosa, and the ambassador’s bodyguard.  

Robin lingered at the bottom of the steps. The Saskwyan ambassador had his back to them, speaking in hushed tones with another Benne noble—likely his bodyguard—whom Robin couldn’t see clearly. Nerves wriggled in her stomach and she resisted the urge to fiddle with tassels at the end of her fluttered sleeves. She was absolutely dreading this. 

She’d spent her whole life being talked down to by the nobles of Benne, and now that she had finally managed to gain control of the yoke—inasmuch as a queen ever really had control—she was faced with someone who would, the moment they realized she was Sealie, do everything they could to take it away from her.

This is one Sealie who will not do as shes told. Not anymore, Robin reminded herself, gathering up her courage. The fact of her heritage had to come out, eventually. If not now, if not the moment the ambassador heard her speak, then likely when she pushed back on the allocation of the Wild Woods, or when the apiary expert she had invited to take employment at the Domed Palace arrived, or—gods of luck be on her side—when she managed to convince her parents to be among the first Saskwyan Sealies to move to Klonn with the promise of wagons and hives of their very own. One way or another, it would it would be discovered that the Vigilante Queen was Sealie; that she was Robin Arianhod, former pilot of the Saskwyan Air Patrol, thought to have been shot down over a year ago by the now deceased Coyote. And the instant he heard of it, King Auden would assume that he’d had suddenly had the good fortune, by the blessing of his All Mother, to become ruler of both nations; that Robin was a puppet who’d put herself onto the Klonnish throne for him.

I am Klonn, Robin reminded herself. I am of these people and for these people, as much as I am Sealie. As much as Velph was Sealie. And I will do right by his home, the people, and the duty he entrusted to me. She pressed her lips together hard in an effort to disguise their trembling. But by all the gods of all my ancestors, how I wish he was here to do this beside me.

The Saskwyan ambassador wore the flame-colored, formal uniform of a highly decorated Benne officer, rather than the bottle-green and fawn-brown she had worn during her time in the Air Patrol, and she wondered if he had ever actually served in combat. She’d requested that Auden send a veteran as liaison to help them parlay a treaty. But she realized now that she had no way to verify if her request had even been considered, let alone honored. Even if it had, this man could have been veteran of riding a desk, instead of a glider or a warhorse, and it would still technically count.

“Your Majesty?” Rosa prompted gently when Robin had hesitated too long on the final step.

“Right. Yes. Of course,” Robin said, sucking in as deep a breath as the corset would allow, throwing back her shoulders, and marching toward the waiting Benne.

Behind her, Rosa muttered something about needing another comportment lesson, but she followed dutifully nevertheless. One of the footmen blasted a soft note on a silly little copper trumpet, catching the attention of the mingling crowd of coachmen, gardeners, guards, and grooms.

The ambassador waved off the other Benne noble at its sound, sending them toward the third carriage. He then took a moment to adjust the lay of his clothes, seeming to self-consciously check himself over before he turned to face her, which was far more respectful that Robin had expected. He cared to make a good first impression, and she appreciated that. Closer up, she could see that his hair shone blond under his brimless cap, and his shoulders were broad, his figure trim—a former pilot, she decided, pleasantly surprised. Probably the son of a wealthy noble who’d never danced with the enemy—

The ambassador turned, cornflower-blue eyes shaded against the sun by his hand. 

His only hand.

“Omens!” Robin breathed. She came to a halt so abrupt that Thorne bumped into her shoulder. “Oh, by all the gods of luck and all the omens of delight, they sent Wade.”

“Who?” Rosa asked, leaning in close to whisper, flicking open a fan to hide their words from prying lip readers who might be hiding in the verge. “Wait, Wade Perwink, as in your—?”

“My pilot!” Robin said, and threw herself across the courtyard, rucking up her skirts to run straight at him.

“Your Majesty!” Thorne called as she barreled into Wade, but it was too late.

The ambassador was stunned, too afraid to do anything more than grab the Klonnish queen by the shoulder to keep her from ricocheting off his broad chest.

“I, uh, beg your pardon, Your Majesty. I don’t—”

“Wade!” Robin whispered, hissing up at him, filled with fizzing delight. A friend. The King of Saskwya had sent to bargain on his behalf one of Robin’s only Saskwyan allies, and he never even knew it. Oh, the fool isnt going to get anything now. “It’s me!”

Wade’s jaw dropped open, and his eyes popped wide. “Robin!” he gasped, though he had enough sense to keep his voice down. “What—how . . . ?”

Robin stepped back and grinned, grasping his hand between hers. Her own pilot’s scars were hidden by her gloves, but she could still feel his through them. “I told you once, in the air—make me king and I will find a way to end the war, didn’t I?”

Wade, stunned and pleased, just threw back his head and laughed.

Around them, Robin’s companions scuffled and whispered behind their sleeves, confused and gossiping. The grooms were too well-trained to react, while the guards were subtly wary, glancing to one another for reassurance or their cue. Rosa, exasperated, snapped her fan shut and stepped up so she could shield this private moment from view with her body, and Thorne moved in so close—in case he was needed—that Robin felt him tred on her train. There was a confused noise from the third carriage, the sound of someone slamming shut a door, and then the crunch of boots on the gravel path as Wade’s bodyguard decided it was time to actually do their job.

“Captain Perwink!” they shouted, and this voice grated up Robin’s spine. “Are you okay? What is the queen—?”

Fury, clean and clear, flooded Robin’s head, filling it with the angry buzz of bees. She jerked back, head whipping around, vision dark and red at the edges at the sound of that hated, hated voice. 

“Your Maj—”

“Move!” Robin shoved her friend to the side. It was rough, and she would have to apologize later, but right now, Rosa was between her and justice. Thorne caught Rosa around the waist, and they both stumbled back a step.

“Traitor!” Robin snarled, one hand balled in her skirts so she could stalk toward the approaching Benne noble, other hand pointed, accusatory, right between their eyes. 

Utterly taken aback by this wrathful accusation, Captain Catherine Renge stumbled to a stop, skidding in the gravel. Her face immediately drained of all color.

“Murderer!” Robin screeched, the dark ball of hate that had calcified in her gut when she realized she was trapped in Klonn forever cracking open and flooding her insides, crawling out of her mouth—vile, and hot, and wonderful in this exact moment.

“What?” Renge said, falling back a step, looking startled and confused, empty hands up in a plea of understanding. Around them, the queen’s honor guard, in their ice-blue uniforms trimmed in queen’s copper, closed ranks. “Me?”

“You!” Robin confirmed, and shoved her so hard Renge toppled over, still too surprised to understand exactly why the Queen of Klonn was attacking her. “Guards, hold her!”

Renge tried to scramble away, but two of the guards grabbed her arms and hauled her back to her feet. Robin was viciously pleased to see that her palms were flecked with blood from where she’d scraped them on the gravel, her hair coming loose from its perfect bun.

“What have I done?” she squealed in horror. “Your Majesty, I’ve just arrived. I don’t—Ambassador!” She turned to Wade for help, but he remained where he was, face pointedly turned away. 

This was between Robin and Renge. He wasn’t going to intervene. Whether  because Robin was queen, or because he already knew what Renge had done, Robin wasn’t sure. She had no doubt, though, that when they’d heard report of Robin’s glider going down, the heartless cow would not have been able to resist her brag.

Robin took another step forward, getting right in Renge’s face. Rosa wound her arm around Robin’s, trying to hold her back in as dignified a manner as possible. 

“Your Majesty, peace,” Rosa urged.

“Stay out of this,” Robin snapped.

“Think of the implications—”

“This woman is Captain Catherine Renge,” Robin said. 

The name shattered against the air like crystal thrown against marble. Robin’s throat burned to have uttered it. Tears, scalding and thick, choked her voice, gathered at the bottom of her court glasses, made her chin tremble.

Rosa gasped, her grip going lax in shock. Wade’s eyes bounced between Renge and Robin, pity for one and spite for the other clear in his gaze. Thorne rolled onto the balls of his feet, preparing for whatever order Robin might decide to give next. And Renge, the wretched bitch, sneered at this foriegn queen and her quivering hatred the same way she had once sneered at Robin as she dumped out a pot of perfectly good honey in sheer spite.

“Who?” Grier whispered, when it seemed that the horrified silence would drag on forever.

Robin swallowed hard, lifted her chin, and reminded herself that she was a queen now. She took no orders, and she was not one to be sneered at. “Catherine Renge sabotaged the glider of Robin Arianhod and Alistair Brigid, the last two Saskwyans to ever be shot down by the Coyote.”

Grier gasped, and Rosa let go of Robin’s arm and took a theatrical step out of the way.

“Your Majesty, please—” Renge babbled, face draining again of all color as guilt and realization set in. “You can’t know that!”

“But I do,” Wade growled.

“That was—I told you that in confidence!”

“In pride, you mean,” Wade corrected her coldly. “You were drunk, and you were pleased. You were celebrating.”


“That’s Captain Perwink to you!” Wade snapped. “I never wanted you in this entourage, and now I have the perfect reason to send you back.”

“You can’t!” Renge wailed. “I’ll be shamed! I can’t show my face—”

“Not until after it’s healed, at least,” Wade agreed.

“Wha-what?” Renge said, words tumbling to a halt.

But it was Robin who answered. She released her skirts. She balled her fists. She pulled back an elbow. 

And then, with a snarled, “This is for Al,” the Vigilante Queen punched the Saskwyan ambassador’s former bodyguard straight in the mouth.


Find out more about The Skylark’s Saga.


JM Frey“The Skylark’s Sacrifice” – Bonus Epilogue
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Holy, smokes, guys! This is absolutely WONDERFUL news to wake up to on my Birthday!

I am absolutely floored and extremely thrilled to announce that my historical queer time-travel romance “A Woman of the Sea” has won a 2019 Watty Award for Historical Fiction!

A big, big thank you to Wattpad, all the judges and everyone who worked so hard on the awards, and to my fellow winners – congrats! Thank you for letting me share my stories with you all, and thank you for believing in the importance and power of fiction

. You can read the story here and view all the winners here or shelve the book on GoodReads here.

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WORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Plan a Series

WORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Plan a Series

I know I’ve discussed this little a bit in other articles before, but I wanted to talk specifically about the process of plotting a multi-book narrative. And how to make the ending satisfying because, from an emotional standpoint, this is the moment both you and your audience has been waiting for – the time when all the hints, all the adventures, all the hard work and suffering your characters (and you!) have gone through pays off.

First, let’s talk about the logistics of a series from a career point of view.

When do I start planning the series?

This is a complicated question because, depending on where you are in your career and in the book-writing process, the answer will be different.

If you’re an already-published or already-represented author, then you’re likely already quite familiar with the process of pitching a book to your publisher/agent. Pitching a series is not much different, except that you’d need to write a synopsis for all the books you plan to write in the series, and create a pitch document for the series as a whole, as well as for each individual book.

If you are querying agents or publishers for the first time though, it’s a different process. The first thing I would recommend you do is not write the series.

This seems counter-intuitive, if you plan to pitch the book you’re querying as the first in a series. But trust me. There are reasons:

  • What if the agent/editor/publisher comes up with something better? In discussing a novel with you, inevitably – if you are talking about doing a series – someone is going to say “So what’s happening in book two? What if you do XYZ?” and it’s very possible that this new idea might be a stronger choice or provide a more interesting outcome. In that case, you’ve wasted what is probably years on writing something that you may end up scraping.
  • You’re writing into a void, and without guidance. Your writing will improve as you work with your editor/agent on your first novel. Everyone would rather you wrote book two after having done all that work with your editor/agent, because it will inevitably be a stronger, better-written manuscript. It’s much better, and so much easier, to write a strong first draft than have to go back and rewrite a weak one. Or a whole series of already-written books.
  • Things can change in edits – a small change in book one can have a ripple effect in all the rest of the books, which can open you up to the risk of terrible continuity errors in later books, or even whole swathes of plot points or character moments that will need rewriting.
  • What if they don’t want the series, and only want the first book? It happens. (It also happens the other way around, too – the Accidental Turn Series was never meant to be a series, and I had never planned to write more than The Untold Tale.) They may ask you to put a less open ending on the book and just wrap it up, so there’s no further story to tell.  In that case, you’ll have wasted your time on the other books in the series, which can’t be published because your publisher likely has right of first refusal on works set in that IP, and has refused them. 
  • Your publisher may want to wait to see how book one does before investing more time and money in further books with you. And they may only want one or two more – even if you planned, say, five. You may need to restructure your story ideas to fit a smaller, or larger, number of books. It’s much easier to do that if the books don’t exist, because you don’t have the pressure of trying to make what already exists either squash or stretch.

So how do you get across to a publisher/agent that you’re querying that this is meant to be the first book of a series? These are the nine most important words for pitching a series: “This is a stand-alone novel with series potential.”

So what does that mean? It means that 1) you have to write a book that is fully contained, with a satisfying ending in and of itself, 2) that has enough plot seeds sown and open points where future plots could anchor that it could be the first of a series, 3) but not so many that if those seeds never get to grow or those open points remain gaping, it feels like a cheap and unsatisfactory ending. Think of it as a made-for-tv-movie that is also a back-door-pilot. If the MFTVM does very well, the producers may spin it out into a TV series. If it doesn’t, it remains just a movie. So it has to be both satisfying and stand-alone, but also useful as a kicking-off point to a longer and more involved narrative.

What’s different about writing a series?

The first, and most obvious difference between writing the books in a series and any other stand-alone  book, is that you have to draw the story out, and then finish what you start. Everything you set up, hint at, or have happen in previous books has to work toward the final climax scene in the final story, while also still providing satisfying novels individually.

It’s a lot to remember, and a lot to make pay off. (This is why I have a whiteboard wall and a pin-board in my office, so I can keep notes to myself about things I seeded when I started book one). 

And on top of that, you need to avoid Mushy Middle Syndrome – that is, writing books that happen between the first and last novels in the series that are clearly just made up of filler.  Each individual book in the series needs to be a whole story itself as well as part of the structure holding up the bridge of the overall narrative, and just as strong (ideally stronger) than the first book in the series.

 But how can you not only do this, but do it well?

As a Pantser at heart it pains me to say it, but the best way to make sure your foundation is solidly laid (and that you won’t have to go back and rewrite huge swaths of earlier books), you’ll need to Plan. At least a little.

As a trained playwright and screenwriter, I personally choose to write my books according to the three-act structure. 

Writing a book with the three-act structure generally looks like this:

When writing a series, each book will be structured to have three Acts.

BUT, when you are writing a series, (let’s say a trilogy for simplicity’s sake), each book itself becomes an Act in the narrative of the whole story.

So when you’re planning each book, not only do you have to write a whole, complete, compelling novel in and of itself (with no saggy middle book!), you also have to ensure that the tale you’re telling in each individual novel serves the overall narrative as well. Which means the final book in the series will be especially fussy to plan, because it must function both as a stand-alone novel, but also behave like the third act of the series and wrap everything up satisfactorily, and in a way that is not rushed.

To complicate things, you need to figure out what kind of story you’re telling, and what the structure tropes are for that particular narrative style. Going with my above example, The Accidental Turn Series is about a quintessential Tolkien-esque fantasy hero who never knew he was the main character all along, so had been acting like a sidekick. As such, each book follows the Hero’s Journey narrative map, while the characters deliberately attempt to escape from the Hero’s Journey cycle:

So each individual book looks like this:

But when you blow it out into the full series, the Hero’s Journey for each book looks more or less like this:

As you can see, some of the narrative beats overlap, because if there was a clear division between books, it would mean the first book has no real ending, the second book is filled with adventures that don’t culminate in any kind of climax, and the third book would be mostly denouement and return. So you do need to balance where the Revelations happen, how often, and how they drive the plot of not only that particular novel forward, but that of the whole series.

Now, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, or the only way you can divide up a series.  For The Skylark’s Saga, as a two-book series, I organized it like this:

Which meant a lot of conversations with my editor, a lot of scribbling on that white board, and what turned out to be a whole heck of a lot of rewrites, as the original ending wasn’t strong enough to finish off a duology and we had to reformat the final act of book two a few times.

No matter how you plan to plot your series, knowing which story structure you plan to use is vital, so you can mirror that structure into the layout of the series as a whole. Beyond the Three Act structure, This article offers a few more options for how to layout the narrative foundations of your novel.

For my next novel, The Maddening Science, (which is going to be a stand alone), I’m venturing away from both the Hero’s Journey and the Three Act Structure. I’m not sure exactly which model I’ll be using, but Steve Seager lists some other fascinating possible story structures that I want to explore in more depth before I swing into this novel for NaNoWriMo

I’m also really into the way Alan Moore structured the overall graphic novel Watchmen. I’m enamored with the idea of seemingly disparate stories coming together to create a solid understanding of the world and a shocking realization as the climax is playing out. All the different tales come together in the end to form one picture – like different coloured threads knotting together to form a friendship bracelet – and that is what I’d like to explore in terms of storytelling next.

Shall we call this the Woven Structure? Maybe let’s see if I can make it work before we name it.

The point is, no matter which structure you use, having a solid understanding of how it works, and which beats you’re going to put in which books, is an extremely important part of planning a book series. Mapping the structure of the novel onto the series as a whole is a simple (if brain-knotting) way to ensure that the series conclusion is not only satisfying, but gripping.

Okay – so we’ve talked the plotting.

But what about the emotional payoff?

So here’s the meat of series. You have to satisfy all the promises you made in the prose of the previous novels.

I’m not saying this means you must create Happily Ever Afters for all the heroes and Come Uppances for all the baddies. Nothing so trite. I am saying that you have set up expectations in the prose that things that are brought up, actions that occur and events that happen, will be resolved.

For example, Lucas couldn’t just tell the viewers that Darth Vader is Luke’s father and then not address it in the later movies, and not resolve Luke and Vader’s relationship in the final climactic battle. It’s a revelation that promised satisfaction to that emotional arc, even if viewers had to wait for the next movie for that satisfaction.

There’s also this article on how to use the Chekhov’s Gun approach to plant promises in your text, and explains the concept in further detail. But it boils down to this – make sure you’re closing all the doors, tying up all the loose threads, and addressing all the questions. 

Again, this doesn’t mean you need a seven-chapter denouement or an explanation of what happened to each character as the adventure ends. It just means that the ending you choose to give the novel has to end the series well, and leave readers content with the information that you chose to impart, and a feeling of being happy with knowing all they know.

As a big fan of fanfiction, I’m also okay with writers not closing every plot off. It is nice to have space to think about what might happen next, especially with side characters whose endings might not have been explained in greater detail or happened off screen.

To make sure I don’t miss anything like this, every time I make a Big Promise in my novels, I write it down on my whiteboard. Example: “Kin and Bevel have to talk about Bev’s desire to be a father / possibly agree to have a kid?” This was brought up in book two of The Accidental Turn series, as well as in the novellas Arrivals and Ghosts, in the short story Health, and the final novel. This promise was satisfied in the novella Magic, and finally tied up in the short story Pride (all of which can be found in The Accidental Collection).

These don’t have to be detailed notes – just a scrawl on the wall is usually enough to remind me when the time comes. And who doesn’t like checking things off a list when you’ve accomplished it?

There are lots of ways to make sure your final book packs an emotional punch. I asked fellow writers on Twitter to chime in, and these are the tips they offered:


Still have questions? Read more WORDS FOR WRITERS here or ASK ME HERE

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Plan a Series
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