Beta Readers Assemble: Pulling together the ultimate review team

I’m trying something new with Lucky Ellis and sending out the first half of the draft to my beta reading team before I even get my head wrapped around the second half. There are a couple reasons for this: One is that I’m hoping that once the first half is finalized — which I won’t feel it is until my trusted cabal gives input — it’ll provide an unalterable basis for the second half.

The other reason is I just need a bit of a spiritual uplift to get my energy up for writing Part Two. Hey, we’re all human. We all need our ego boost sometimes.

I don’t usually post “how to” articles on here, but this morning I found myself thinking about my beta reader team for this project and how it’s different from the project before it, which was different from the project before that, etc. So here are my tips for finding your A-team for beta reading:

1. Think about the project, not the people.

It’s really easy to fall into the trap of “she’s my best friend” or “he read the last one” or “my boss found out I write and really wants to read it now” when drafting your team. Don’t. (Unless your job might be in jeopardy if you leave your boss out, in which case maybe start looking for a different gig?)

Let the nature of the project be your guide. Did it require a lot of world-building and lore creation? Find your Game of Thrones fans and Dungeons & Dragons DMs. Is it a romance? Call on your friend who eats Harlequin paperbacks for breakfast. Did you risk getting put on a watchlist for all the dark, murdery Google searches you did? If you have any friends in the medical industry, consider asking them to take a look.

In practice, here’s what that looks like: My first book, Omaha, included a lot of neuroscientific and anatomical details, so my friend Noah, who had just concluded his neurology rotation at med school, was the first one I called upon to read it. He gave me some pointers but seemed rather disturbed at how spot-on I was in creating my speculative brain-chip-driven dystopia.

Noah didn’t read Nobody’s Hero, though. For that one, I called on Cody, who once led the Loyola University Comic Book Club and has an encyclopedic knowledge of heroes and villains across big-name and indie series. He was able to give me some pointers on how to structure Nightfire’s team and create a stronger “big bad” for the ending.

But there are a few constant draftees in my beta reading team, which brings me to no. 2:

2. Find your expert readers, and make sure they don’t all look like you.

Almost all my close friends are readers, but there are some that are simply voracious: They read entire books in a weekend and know all the Book World Drama that goes on. These are my Expert Readers and have an automatic place on the board.

The team is also as diverse as possible. I make a conscious effort to ensure my books have characters of various races, sexualities, genders, cultures, ages, etc., which means that I’m not always writing from my own personal experience: As a single, childless white woman of considerable privilege, I’m only have one kind of perspective. That’s why my beta teams are filled with people unlike me — women of color, non-straight friends, parents, older, younger.

Note, however, that having a diverse beta reading team is not a substitute for hiring a professional sensitivity reader. You should still pay someone with that expertise to read your work before publishing.

3. Convey the importance of the job but don’t take it personally when half your team fails on their mission.

They say when throwing a party to only expect half the guest list. The same goes for beta reading. I usually get 2/3 of my readers to give me feedback, and only 1/3 of them do it in the timeframe I ask. Why? Well, we’re all busy adults with lives and day jobs and better things to do than read my newest book. So give your beta team a flexible deadline and lots of gratitude up-front so they know you understand what an undertaking this is — and to drive home to them, too, how much their feedback means to you.

Because the truth is, without beta readers, a lot of our work wouldn’t make it off our laptops and Google drives and into the hands of agents, editors and publishers. So choose wisely!

Another dead darling from Lucky Ellis

Clearly editing is under way on Lucky Ellis, which means the literary bodies are being buried and this blog is the unmarked grave.

Here’s a tight two paragraphs that serve as better background on one Mr. Wade Higgs. I cut them because the book is, for the most part, third person non-omniscient. Spoiler alert: Wade Higgs is not the kind-hearted but gruff outlaw he appears to be in the first chapters of the story.

So here it is:

The fact was that Wade Higgs was tired of bedding only women who did all the work. Sure, there was a pleasure to be had having a beautiful — or at least palatable — lady ride his dick while his only role was to enjoy the view and sensation, but it was becoming too predictable, and if there was one kiss-of-death sign for a gunslinger train robber, it was predictability.

No, what Wade Higgs had come to realize was that he missed having some active responsibility in all the screwing he was doing. He brought this up to Mimi once, hoping she would understand and point him to the best girl in the house for such a task, but the woman she recommended thought he wanted resistance. That wasn’t the case at all — he merely wanted a consenting, desiring novice. So when he saw Lucinda Ellis, a woman he already felt a greater fondness for than any woman in his history, dressed in a chemise and corset, he had put the two together. And, as luck and Lucky would have it, she was consenting and delivered in the exact way he craved.

I killed another darling this week

Before I end up on any watchlists, remember that “kill your darlings” is a term used by writers to discuss cutting out a part of a project that they love. No actual murders were committed.

In fact, I don’t even know if I could call what I did this week to a part of Lucky Ellis (continued working title) as “killing.” Rather, I think I “human-centipeded” a darling, in that I took a large piece that I loved when I wrote it over National Novel Writing Month — you know, the slow-paced writing time where we’re all of sound mind and judgment — and edited it beyond recognition, sandwiching it with two other darlings from other parts of the book until it became an atrocity of genius.

*For the record I have never seen Human Centipede.

Anyway, I learned from another writer to always save renditions, so I’m preserving the original darling here on the blog in case I ever want to return to it. Any beta readers who see it won’t recognize it in the book, and the rest of you can just silently pass judgment on whether it deserved to be called a darling at all:

The aforementioned “darling:”

Lucky didn’t wear a corset as a matter of practicality: It was hard to tend to the barn or put up reserves for winter while being cinched inside a casket of whalebone and cloth. As a farmer’s daughter already promised to the undertaker’s son, even on special occasions she had little need to spruce up in the way the high-fashion magazines recommended. Just as it had no brothel, her town had no ladies’ shops, apart from the small corner of the haberdashery that Mrs. Yarbourg used to sell her millinery creations. The only Crocus Falls woman to own a corset — Darcy Templeton — had worn it exactly once, felt a fool, and was never seen in it again.  

So it was quite the surprise when Corinne was able to pull all the oxygen out of Lucky’s lungs with just a tug on two delicate ribbons.

“Breathe out and suck in,” she directed.

“Is this some sort of sick initiation?” Lucky wheezed, the corset tightening another quarter inch.

“You need to look right,” Corinne groaned, pulling the ribbons again, almost maliciously. 

“Maybe Wade yelled your name when he was fucking Corinne,” Marigold said with a giggle. Lucky wasn’t sure what had just made her stomach plummet: The way Marigold had caressed her cheek, albeit jokingly? The thought of Wade not just having sex with this woman, but thinking of Lucky while doing it? Or maybe Corinne had pulled the corset so tightly that it had finally squeezed her organs out of her body and onto the floor.

Corinne tied the corset’s strings at the bottom. Lucky inhaled cautiously and was surprised to find that it wasn’t impossible to breathe. Corinne victoriously patted her on the left buttock and sat down, a sheen of sweat covering her face.

Lucky looked in the mirror above the vanity and didn’t recognize the woman staring back. After months of living with and acting like men, she had resigned herself to looking like them as well, even when wearing women’s clothing. But the woman standing in the mirror before her had long, dark hair plaited attractively over a shoulder. Her face was clean and highlighted with rouge, the eyes defined with a line of kohl along each lid. The figure she had grown accustomed to binding and hiding beneath linen and wool work clothes was now accentuated into an hourglass by a cream-colored corset and gossamer chemise that puffed out at the top and bottom. 

Marigold’s arms encircled her waist from behind, her chin landing on her shoulder.

“The marshal’s not the only one you need to look out for down there. If she sees you, Miss Mimi will want you to stay here with us,” she said, giving Lucky a peck on the cheek.

Excerpt: How Ester Met Lucky

In another life, Ester Roth would have been plowing the fields alongside her husband, waiting for the sun to go down and give them a little relief in the hot basin that was The Devil’s Cup. As it was, she was slipping out of the stopped locomotive, her white coat catching the cool breeze like the tail of a ghost.

Penelope was waiting on a horse just below the berm, holding the reins of Ester’s own palomino. Jessamine had already made it and mounted behind Penelope, her arm looped tightly around the woman’s waist. Jessamine had complained bitterly about having to double-up on a single horse until she learned Penelope would be her partner — and Ester suspected it wasn’t just because Penelope was the strongest rider in the group.

Ester insisted on being the last person off any train they robbed. It was her calling card, in a way: The dark-skinned woman in a white coat disappearing like a ghost with an entire first class car’s worth of jewels, cash and bullets. Her pockets jingled a little with the final pieces she had taken — today, three gold teeth punched out of the mouth of a man. The last word they had been used to say was the nastiest word anyone could call Ester, and she intended to take them as her price. All she could hope for was that the blood remaining in the crevices of the molars wouldn’t soak through the pocket lining and white linen of her coat.

“Hot day for robbing,” she muttered to herself as she began a quick descent down the hill, swiftly missing a protruding rock and instead leaping onto the back of her horse.

They rode like hell until the smoke from the train’s engine was thinner than a hair in the distance. When they arrived at the camp at the edge of the forest, she and the others presented their take proudly as Rhiannon brought each of them cups of water that had half-emptied as she hobbled with them from the cool sterilization pot. Her ankle was better, she promised, but Ester wasn’t ready to risk it. She had seen too many people literally jump back on their feet after an injury and end up twice as hurt as before.

“Did we miss anything?” Ester asked, stretching one leg out in front of her as she yanked the boot off the other.

“Willie says she heard something in the brush, but it was probably just a rabbit,” Rhiannon said. “By the time I was listening, I didn’t hear anything.”

“The minute we say ‘it was probably just a rabbit,’ it’s going to be a ranger instead,” Ester said, watching a rock fall from her boot before slipping it back on. “I’ll walk the perimeter after lunch. Don’t want anyone catching Singing Bird on her way.”

Though if Ester was being honest, Singing Bird was the more capable at self-defense than Ester, Rhiannon and Willie combined. She knew the land and had traveled much of it, as her tribe had to constantly move to avoid the eastern settlers who were gobbling up the land 160 acres at a time. Ester shuddered to think of how many times Singing Bird might have had to fight a rancher or cavalryman off.

Once she had emptied her other boot of the pebbles and dirt making her feet itch, she took a last swig of water, grabbed her rifle and knife, and disappeared into the woods surrounding the camp. This time of summer, the leaves were deceptively green: Lush in look, but crunchy underfoot, making it nearly impossible to slip through the underbrush undetected.

Of course, that made it hard for anyone else to be quiet, either, which worked in Ester’s favor. Once she had gone deep enough into the woods, she stopped beneath a thick-trunked tree and focused her ears for anything that wasn’t the rustling leaves or her own breath.

She heard it pretty quickly, a distant thrashing of something that didn’t seem to care how much noise it made. That meant it couldn’t be Singing Bird or any of her family; they slipped in and out of the trees like a whisper. And if it was a tracker being sent after them, it was someone who had little finesse and would likely be easy to subdue.

The rustling continued, but it didn’t get closer. Ester tiptoed around the tree to see if she could spot anything. Soon she was walking deeper into the forest, the sound getting louder.

She found it fairly quickly. A wild boar was making its way down a ravine. Ester crouched behind a bush, aiming her rifle: The meat would keep her merry madwomen fed for days.

Ester pulled the trigger. The sound spooked the boar, and it lost its footing, sliding down the remainder of the ravine wall. She swore silently, but then was spooked herself when she heard another gunshot. There was no way an echo would take that long to come back.

And there was no way an echo would also include a scream like the one that followed.

Ester rolled out from behind the bush and crawled closer to the ravine’s edge. Across the way, almost parallel with her across the chasm, was a group of men, one holding a smoking gun. They were so busy looking down into the gorge that they didn’t notice her, and once they were seemingly satisfied with the site at the bottom of it, they turned and disappeared back into the brush.

There didn’t seem to be anything at the bottom of the ravine except the boar, which had picked itself up and was now snorting and beating the ground with one of its hooves. Ester imagined there was a coyote or something down there until she saw movement. It was a person, gender indeterminable but panic palpable.

Checking to be sure the men at the top of the ravine had truly gone, Ester hiked up the tail of her white coat under her armpits and slid on her bottom down the smoothest path along the ravine’s wall. She was close enough now to see it was a woman, dark brown hair falling out of its twig-adorned braid, who was scrambling to get away from the boar. The revolver in her hand shot once, twice, and then clicked — the smallest yet scariest sound to anyone in these parts.

Ester took aim with her rifle and pulled the trigger. The bullet hit the boar right in the eye, and the beast’s legs crumpled under it.

The woman fell back in relief, succumbing to the euphoria of survival for a split second before getting her guard up again. Ester took advantage of this brief moment of weakness to walk up and look down at the woman she had just saved. She was white under all the mud streaking her face, and strapped around her chest was a ratty carpetbag, clearly empty apart from some tattered lining.

Feeling confident that the woman was out of bullets, Ester stepped around her to examine the boar. Its bloody eye socket resembled an exploded ripe plum, but the rest of it was in tact and begging to be hoisted on a spit and roasted. Ester’s stomach rumbled in anticipation.

When she heard the woman stir again, she looked over and smiled.

“That’s dinner for the week,” she announced. “Lucky I got here in time, huh?”

Excerpt: The devil would have to wait

Lucinda tried to pay the encroaching flames no mind. Wade had pulled his oil lamp trick again, tipping it back and forth with his boot to get the guard to admit there was dynamite rigged under the safe, and had instead set the floor afire. Now the puddle of flames was growing into a conflagration that threatened the entire train car, and every Higgs Boy was operating like the fire line Lucinda had seen put out the neighbor’s barn when she was a child — except instead of passing buckets of water toward the fire, they were passing cash and gold bars down the line and away from it. 

And the money just kept coming. Soon Elton and Job’s sacks were filled, and Job had yanked the bag he wore over his head off so he could use it to continue. The guard was unconscious in the corner, courtesy of a hard knock to the head from the butt of Squirrel’s gun, and the passengers were too concerned with escaping the burning train that they didn’t bother the robbers in the slightest — not even to try to retrieve the jewelry or pocket money that the Higgs Boys had already relieved from them.

“Must be bonus season,” Squirrel cackled as he passed a stack of what looked like bearer bonds to Trent.

The fire started popping and cracking its way up the train car wall. Lucinda wiped a sheet of sweat from her brow. Wade stood straight, backing away to survey the open safe. From this angle, Lucinda couldn’t see inside of it — but she could see the clocks working in Wade’s head as he balanced the wealth still available for the taking with the danger that the blaze was now posing to himself and his crew.

The sole glass lamp in the car fell off the wall and shattered on the floor, as if goading him to make the decision. 

“Everyone out,” Wade called. Squirrel, who was just on the other side of Lucinda, carried the message the rest of the way down the train car, and they started disembarking.

“You too, Luce,” Wade said, grabbing her wrist as he passed her. The carpetbag on her arm jangled with the valuables she had taken from the first class passengers.

“I’ve got room in the bag,” she said, yanking away from him and turning back to the safe. From her estimate, there were two more money bags inside, plus a couple gold bars and — much to her surprise and gratitude — a small crate labeled “Smith and Wesson.” They were low on bullets these days. 

“Lucinda!” Wade yelled as she crouched in front of the safe and scooped money, gold and bullets into the carpetbag.

“Get the guard out,” she yelled back. “I’ll be right behind you.” 

Wade’s frustration was palpable as he stepped around her and lifted the guard to his feet, looping one of his arms around the man’s waist. As soon as he had a good grip on the guard, Lucinda slid the last bar of gold into her bag and stood up. Wade slammed the safe shut so he could move around its heavy door. The guard’s legs dragged across the floor as he sputtered against the smoke and blood filling his nose.

The flames were almost to the ceiling now, and Lucinda’s eyes were drawn upward to a shelf above the safe, where something glittered. A heavy gilded paperweight sparkled in the firelight, and she reached up to grab it, her eyes beginning to water from the smoke.

“Lucinda!” Wade yelled from the door, and she turned back to him with the paperweight now in her bag. Trent was visible just outside, sitting on his horse and holding the reins of the two others. Lucinda watched as Wade pushed the half-conscious guard out the door so that he landed with a thud on the ground below: injured, but ultimately alive. Another witness to contribute a verse to the ballad of Wade Higgs and his Boys.

She moved toward the door, satisfied with her collection, but something stopped her. It wasn’t fear or greed — it was her petticoat, stuck in the sealed safe door.

“Wade!” Lucinda cried out as she tried to free it. 

The bag slipped on Lucinda’s arm, and a dozen bullets came rolling out of it directly toward the flames, cooking off and exploding in the conflagration. One grazed Wade’s arm, tearing the fabric but not drawing blood. 

Flames licked at her feet as she tried to pull her skirts up high enough to keep them away from the fire’s hunger. Wade ran back into the car, coughing and holding his arm up like a shield against the heat. He ducked down to where her skirt was caught in the safe and joined her in pulling it, but to no avail. 

“I’ll be right back,” he said, crawling across the floor to avoid the smoke collecting up toward the ceiling. Lucinda ducked down, too, continuing to yank at her skirts and pray the flames wouldn’t get much closer. Her skin was already starting to feel tight and raw, like she had been in the sun for far too long.

When Wade didn’t come back, Lucinda realized with panic that he had taken the carpetbag with him. 

So this was going to be how Lucinda Ellis of Crocus Falls died: on her third train robbery, with her skirt stuck in a safe and the money, jewels, gold and bullets she had collected now split among five men who had left her to be burned alive. At least she could get used to the flames of hell now, as she waited for the devil to take her. 

The paperweight shelf, now engulfed, fell onto the top of the safe. Burning wood flew everywhere, and Lucinda twisted around to avoid injury to her eyes. Part of it had landed on the sleeve of her dress, where it smoldered a hole in the cotton and left a shiny patch of red skin beneath.

The devil would have to wait, she decided, as she knocked the last of the burning wood onto her trapped petticoat. The fabric started to smoke, then light. But she had misjudged the flame: It wasn’t traveling across the petticoat to free her — instead, it was crawling up it, closer to her skin.

The skin above her bare knee blistered shiny and red as the fire got closer. Lucinda willed her mind to ignore the searing pain and kept pulling, but every yank of the skirt burned her hands or pulled the flames closer to her hip. Her eyes watered, either from the smoke or the pain, probably both, but they were still able to see it: A glint of silver amidst the golden glow.

“Move,” Wade yelled, raising the knife and bringing it down on the fabric just above where the flames had reached. It yielded, and Wade snatched Lucinda’s arm as he pulled her down the train car and out the door just before the roof caved in, sending a plume of smoke closer to the heavens than any of the fleeing forest birds dared fly.

Vignette: The Tinkerer

The bell above the entrance tinkled its chime — two back-and-forths of the tiny bauble, then the clink of the whole ornament against the glass as the door shut. Malfi looked down the row and saw a middle-aged woman in a periwinkle knit sweater set standing at the entrance, clutching a jewelry case that was too big for a bracelet but too small for a necklace.

“Back here,” Malfi called, hardly looking up from the porcelain duck she was fixing. She had to hold the beak to its head for no less than 30 seconds for the glue to dry, and she had just rounded on the fourteenth.

The woman looked down the aisle with trepidation, as if unsure she had arrived in the right place despite the bold gold lettering on the door announcing it as Icarus Antiquities and Repairs. Deciding she was better off by the door, she decided to stay put and shout her wishes across the cluttered shop floor.

“I need something prepared,” she announced.

“Back here,” Malfi repeated.

“I was told the owner can help.”

“That’s me, but I you have to come to the back of the shop,” Malfi said. Twenty-two seconds.

The linoleum tiles overlaying dull wood flooring groaned as the customer began her journey toward the back of the shop, dodging the chandeliers and braziers hanging from the ceiling like a jungle explorer ducking vines. Malfi’s 30 seconds were up long before the woman reached the back desk.

“I have an old pocket watch that needs fixing,” the woman said, not even acknowledging the broken ducktail that Malfi was now trying to match with the back of its glossy cream body. “I was told the owner could help.”

Malfi put the ducktail back onto the purple cushion where the other broken pieces sat.

“Let’s take a look,” she said, deftly sliding a drawer under the counter open so she could retrieve her jeweler’s glass.

The woman clutched the box to her chest as if Malfi had insulted the watch she had not yet seen.

“I was told the owner could help,” she said.

Malfi flashed her a disingenuously wide smile, as she all too familiar with this comment. At 28 years old, with jet black hair, a gold bar threaded through her left eyebrow, and a miniature version of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holfernes tattooed on her right forearm, she wasn’t the person most people expected as the proprietor of a high-end antique resale and repair shop. The truth was that even she didn’t believe it some days, but leave it to that reclusive Uncle Pius to bequeath the shop to her — provided she allow keep the staff on in his absence.

“Ma’am, I am the owner of this shop,” she said. “If you’re looking for Pius Brown, he died a year ago. I’m his great-niece, and I would love to help you with your pocket watch. But first you need to take it out of the box.”

You’re the Tinkerer?”

Malfi was surprised to hear someone mention the Tinkerer by name.

“I’m not, but may I ask how you know them? A friend, perhaps?”

“My neighbor said they fixed their mantel clock,” the woman said. “I was hoping they could help me with my great-grandfather’s pocket watch. He found it in the war, see, and I want to give it to my son for his high school graduation gift.”

Malfi nodded and pushed the duck aside. She held out her hand for the box. Before the woman could hand it to her, however, the trap door behind the counter swung up and open with a bang that knocked the newly glued duck’s beak right off its face.

“Damn,” Malfi swore as she caught the porcelain piece just as it was about to hit the ground.

“I heard my name,” said the person now emerging from the cellar under the shop. “Did someone ask for the Tinkerer?”

“This lady’s got a pocket watch that needs repairing,” Malfi said. “Says you fixed her neighbor’s mantel clock.”

The Tinkerer emerged all the way out from their subterranean workshop, and Malfi got to enjoy yet again the expression on the face of any customer who had never yet met the shop’s star repair expert. Six-foot-seven with a feathery shock of white-blond hair, the Tinkerer was almost 80 years old but had failed to shrink in their old age. In fact, they seemed to have failed to age at all. The only sign of dilapidation on him was the inch-thick lenses they wore in his glasses, though Malfi had been told that they had always needed that strong a prescription. The Tinkerer’s daily uniform consisted of black pants faded to gray, a thick canvas-like button down that was yellowing around the cuffs and armpits, and a worn leather apron that caught all manner of soot, glue, metal shavings, threads, cotton fillings, straw, staples and more.

“Let’s have a look,” they said. A warm smile to the woman, and whether she wanted to or not, she was handing the pocket watch box over to them.

The Tinkerer opened the box and drew the watch out by its chain. It swung like the paper lanterns hanging above the counter, catching their light.

“Good casing. A few scratches but nothing that can’t be buffed out.” The Tinkerer opened the watch and examined its face. “Ah, but it has most definitely stopped ticking. We can get that fixed pretty easily — a lot of times these old watches just need a little cleaning and TLC. That means ‘tender loving care,'” they said, peering over their lenses at the woman, who stood transfixed. Her gaze was locked on the Tinkerer’s hair, which had a holographic effect that reminded Malfi of a plastic unicorn’s mane.

When the Tinkerer’s eyes fell back to the watch, they spotted something that even its owner hadn’t noticed. Malfi handed her jeweler’s glass to the Tinkerer, who then replaced their glasses with it.

“There seems to be some odd staining here, right above the 6 numeral,” the Tinkerer said, leaning even closer to it so that the jeweler’s glass in their eye almost collided with the watch face.

Malfi and the customer only saw the brow and cheek squeezing to hold the jeweler’s glass in place as the Tinkerer examined the watch. They didn’t see the horrors that were passing through the lens into the Tinkerer’s mind. Palm trees on fire. An ashen thatched roof blowing in the wind caused by a bomb blast close enough to raise the temperature in the tiny village. A skeletal child running through dirt streets crying for her mother, clutching the gold chain in her hand as the watch dragged across the pavement. A dying man pulling himself along the ground behind the watch, reaching for it in his last living breath, and disappearing as his fingers brushed the metal.

With a gasp, the Tinkerer pulled away and dropped the watch on the table. They ripped the jeweler’s glass from their eye and put the watch back in the box. The customer, unsurprisingly, looked concerned.

“I’ll need at least six weeks,” the Tinkerer said, trying to compose themself as they slipped the box into their oversized apron pocket.

“That’s not acceptable,” the woman said, the concern wearing down to annoyance. “My son’s graduation is in two weeks and I want to give it to him at his party that night.”

“Get him a keg and a laptop,” the Tinkerer said, their whimsical charm gone. “They’re better presence for an 18-year-old. Especially considering that if you give him this watch, he’ll be dead before he can get to college.”

Excerpt: Life as Wade Higgs’ Woman

Summer turned to fall, turned to winter, turned to spring again as Lucky fell into routine: Rob a train, return to camp for a celebratory fuck with Wade while Trent counted the loot, then wait for the two oldest Higgs Boys to take at least half the takings back to their ranch and return with cakes, jerky and other provisions packed by their mother. During that timeframe they robbed 18 trains, one roughly every two weeks, and averaged a haul of $3,000 in cash, bonds and jewelry every time. 

Once the money started to pile up, they began to stay in hotels during the quiet times between their robberies. Wade baulked at the notion at first, claiming that mattresses and running water would make them grow soft, but Lucky’s proposal that she’d have to dress the part of a lady if they stayed in town won him over. Almost 20 train robberies since her first one in men’s britches, and she still saw him shake his head in disagreement whenever she freely kicked a leg over a horse or hid her face and hair under the large bolero she had stolen from the man on that third robbery. As soon as they got into town, Lucky would be back to her petticoats and side-saddle demeanor, and Wade would look at her again with warm regard. 

The first few hotels they stayed at weren’t much more than austere boarding houses, with rooms each containing a narrow bed with a creaky mattress, a side table with a tin cup for gathering water at the pump outside, and maybe a stool or chair in the corner. Places like these were typically run by strict matrons who arched an eyebrow at Lucky until Wade asked if he and his wife could share a room, at which point the arch would either disappear into their hairline or soften in understanding. It didn’t matter if the landlady was suspicious or sentimental: the mattresses weren’t any softer. 

But there were also towns — typically close to the major train lines — where some wealthy East Coast hospitality man had built a hotel in the likeness to the ones he ran in New York or Chicago. These establishments dripped in red velvet and gold fringe, and hardly a footstep echoed in the plushly carpeted halls. The rooms that Lucky and Wade stayed in were closer to what she expected as Miss Mimi’s, with their large feather beds, upholstered furniture and soft gas lamps that reflected in gilded framed mirrors. And soon these were the only hotels that Wade wanted to stay in, so comfortable was he in this life away from the woods, where he could surprise his woman with dresses made of crimson satin embroidered in black roses or green velvet trimmed in cream lace.

Soon they were signing hotel registry books as “Mr. and Mrs.” and dining in not just saloons but fine restaurants using some of their steal. Nights like these, she’d be Lucinda, swathed in whatever gift Wade had left for her on the bed. As heads turned to look at her when she walked into restaurants or shops, she worried that eventually someone would notice not just the finely dressed woman who had entered the room, but also the strikingly familiar face of the man next to her. If they could just flip the switch in their mind’s eye to look at him in black pencil strokes instead of flesh and blood, they would realize they had seen him papered up on the sheriff’s office wall.

As it was, Wade didn’t much seem to care once Lucky was wrapped in the finery he had provided. A proud smile would stretch across his face as he led her into dining rooms on one arm and used the other to hand the maître-d a few folded bills to guarantee a private table toward the back, where a sheriff or marshal would be less likely to interrupt their meal. Nights like these, Lucky missed the rest of the men — while Wade took her to sip wine from crystal glasses, Trent, Job, Elton and Squirrel would jovially shuffle to the nearest saloon or spend the night at the local cat house. The allure of being Wade’s woman wore away with each night she drank sherry with a roast chicken dinner instead of a shot of whiskey chased with tavern stew. She missed Squirrel and Job’s animated storytelling or Elton’s louder-than-life laugh that rattled the glasses stacked behind the bar. Most of all, she missed being just another Higgs Boy, and she wondered if they missed her, too.

There was something else gnawing at her. Despite all of Wade’s posturing around having her as a partner both in crime and in love, Lucky was anxious. Almost a year had passed since she accepted his proposition, and yet he still didn’t trust her enough to take her along to stash some of their treasure at his family’s ranch. She hesitated bringing it up do him — she didn’t want to sound like a silly girl fussing over not meeting her beau’s family. After all, she had hosted Jeremiah Bose, Jr., at her father’s table many nights without feeling any particular way about him.

Some nights when Wade was asleep, she would think of Jeremiah: Where he was, and if he had found someone new yet. She had no doubt that had she stayed in Crocus Falls, she would be in a bed similar to this one, sticky from the undertaker’s son and left to find pleasure at her own fingertips. In Jeremiah’s bed, her mind would likely have wandered to a life like the one she was living now, convinced that it would be a better life. As it was, she now lied in Wade’s bed, wondering if it really was the escape she had been seeking.

Found Fiction: Faulty microchips and fraying leashes

On my walks I pass Hub personnel in gray and operatives in white. It’s not just the jumpsuit colors that differentiate these two groups, however. It’s the way they walk. Nurses, operators and armed orderlies either zip past like there’s a constant emergency to tend to, or saunter as if to flaunt their freedom to be apathetic. Operatives only have one setting that I’ve seen yet: Robotic, purposeful strides taken at the whim of some gray-clad operator sitting at a computer terminal.

But the one thing both have in common is that they put me on edge to the point of avoiding them at all costs. No one has asked me what I’m doing or why I’m in a certain hallway, but I know they’re staring. Waiting for me to go rogue, because that’s what MacArthur has warned them about: The rogue Operative code named Omaha with a faulty microchip in her head, insatiable curiosity and a fraying leash.

This excerpt was found in planning notes dated 2014 for my book Omaha.

Excerpt: Now entering Polk Canyon

For the second time in her life, Lucky Ellis found herself being cinched into one of Penelope’s corsets. The bone and lace contraption had been lying at the bottom of the former prostitute’s knapsack, and at least one of the ribs had snapped over time.

“I don’t know why I bothered keeping it,” Penelope said. “Not much use for feeling pretty out here.”

As they were buttoning the back of Lucky’s dress, Rhiannon came riding back to camp. She caught sight of Lucky, gave her an approving nod, and turned to Ester to tell her what she had found. After traveling five miles along the singular road that made up Polk Canyon, she finally found the one person who was willing to help: A man named Mark Roberson who seemed scared to even talk about the Higgs Boys until she assured him she was no friend of theirs.

Lucky recognized the name for a story Trent had told her long ago at the saloon in Clarkstown. Mark was the older boy who had made fun of Wade — in some ways, it was because of him that the Higgs Boys even took to robbing the rails, which meant he had ultimately influenced Lucky’s own destiny. She wasn’t sure if she should thank him for it or shoot him in the gut.

“It’s about seven miles out,” Rhiannon said. “A tiny ranch house with a half-painted picket fence along the front of its property. I rode past it real quick to get a look, and sure enough it’s there. Old tree, half dead, in the front yard, and a large barn out back. Not sure they raise animals anymore, but I spotted a woman in the kitchen window, so there’s certainly someone home.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t get shot,” Lucky said. 

“Guess that goodbye hug from you did me some good,” Rhiannon winked. “You’re looking real pretty, Miss Ellis. Penelope sure knows how to make a silk purse from– well, maybe not a sow’s ear, but definitely a leather-and-linen rough rider.” 

“Let’s hope I can still ride a horse in this,” Lucky said, hitching up her skirt and climbing on the horse behind Rhiannon. It felt odd to be wearing trousers underneath a dress, but it gave her more flexibility in transportation.

She and Rhiannon rode out with Ester and Penelope flanking them. Esperanza stayed behind to watch the camp and wait for Singing Bird to come by for her cut of the week’s take. 

As they approached the stretch of land called Polk Canyon, Lucky started to understand how a man’s original habitat can affect his behavior as an adult. The land was parched, the houses dilapidated. Even if this community had been thriving in his childhood, it hadn’t been one of grand ranch homes with lush gardens and pastures. It looked like the residents had landed in this spot of desert dirt and tried their best to make a living off of it, rather than move forward looking for better opportunities. The houses were sunbaked, many with roofs that had caved in and fences that lay flat on the ground. The barns out back all appeared abandoned, with whisps of hay tangling themselves into giant tumbleweeds that skated on the wind.

They passed one house that was still in operation: Laundry was hanging on a line, though the shirts and sheets were gray with age and tattered on the ends.

“That’s where Mark Roberson lives,” Rhiannon said, nodding to it.

If Mark had really been as wealthy as the Higgs Boys supposed he was, that fortune was long gone. Also in the yard was a single mule, braying for a supper that likely wouldn’t come, from the look of its ribs rippling its taught skin. Lucky thought she saw Mark in the window, glaring out at them.

“What if he warned her?” Lucky asked. 

“I thought you said Mrs. Higgs didn’t like men coming on her property.”

“But she knew Mark,” Lucky said. “He grew up down the street.”

“If he warned her, I guess we’ll soon find out,” Rhiannon shrugged, clucking her tongue at the horse to make it move quicker. 

They passed three more ranches, all boarded up or burned out. No wonder this was the place Wade had chosen to hide his riches: No one was here, and no one had any reason to show up. 

The Higgs ranch was no better off than any of the other houses in Polk Canyon. The fence was painted white on the right side of the house, but whoever had been charged with the task had stopped when they got to the front gate, as the rest of the picketing was a charred black wood. Past the gate was a yard of dirt and scruff. A lizard darted out from beneath a rock and under another. The tree in front of the house had likely died years ago but was too stubborn to fall. Two vultures perched in its skeletal branches, harbingers of misfortune on a house that was already as low as it could sink.

“Keep riding,” Lucky said quietly. “We’ll double back on foot.”

They hitched the horses to a fallen tree just down the road, and Lucky began to walk toward the house. The wind blew furiously down the street at her, pushing her back in a hot gale that reminded her of a screaming man. When she got to the house, she stopped at the front gate and looked down the path at the tiny house.

“Anyone home?” she yelled, hoping the wind would carry her voice to the window. “Hello?”

A tattered flannel curtain wavered, though whether it was the breeze or someone inside, Lucky couldn’t tell.

“I’m looking for Mrs. Mary Higgs,” she called. “Is she here?”

Nothing. She wondered if Mary Higgs had even heard her from this distance. If she hadn’t, it wouldn’t hurt to come closer. If she had, Lucky would just have to make a run for it.

The gate in front of her wasn’t locked, but it still felt like trespassing as she pushed it open. It pulled on its hinges, making the whole fence lean. Lucky wondered if anyone even used this gate, or if Wade and Trent just rode their horses over the low fence when they came home. As she stepped foot into the yard, she remembered the old house just outside of town where the entire family had died of scarlet fever when she was less than a year old. No one had moved into the house since then, so it became the stuff of legends: A playground of dares and self-made terrors for the children in town who would goad each other into taking one, two, three steps into the front yard to see how far you could get before the ghosts took you or your own nerves sent you sprinting back out to the safety of the street.

Here, Lucky took one, two, three steps into the Higgs’ front yard to see how far she could get before Mary Higgs shot her. No such gunfire came; pretty soon she was at the steps of the front porch, staring at a door that had recently been painted, though whether it was by Wade or Trent on a recent visit or Mary Higgs herself, she couldn’t tell.

The porch looked precarious at best, with wooden planks cracked or missing. Lucky decided to call from the bottom of it.

“Mrs. Higgs?” she yelled, but before she could get the next few words out, the door creaked open. 

Trent, Wade and Job’s mother was a tall, lanky woman: It was no wonder where her eldest son got his height. Her long red hair was mixed with so much white that it appeared pink in the daylight, left to fly free around her shoulders. She wore a black dress that had probably been too short for her the entire time she owned it: It’s hem skimmed her ankles, letting crimson wool socks peak out above her suede workboots. Around her shoulders was a dark blue shawl, and on her finger — the one finger Lucky was focused on, as it was wrapped around the trigger of a shotgun — was the emerald ring that Lucky had taken from Tilley that first day she robbed a train.

“You don’t look like so much,” Mary Higgs said, glaring at her over the gun. “Pull up your skirt.”

“Ma’am, I–”

Mary jiggled the gun at her as a means of encouragement. Lucky lifted the dress up to show her trouser-clad legs underneath.

“Higher,” Mary said. “I want to see your holster.”

Lucky lifted the skirt all the way to her waist, exposing the Dragoon at her hip.

“Well aren’t you the fancy lady,” Mary said, lowering the gun. “Wearing a goddamn corset all the way out here just to see me. If I knew you were coming, I would have baked a cake. Better get in her ebefore the wind blows you away. I just put some coffee on.”

For the second time in her life, Lucky found herself being cinched into one of Penelope’s corsets. The bone and lace contraption had been lying at the bottom of the former prostitute’s knapsack, and at least one of the ribs had snapped over time.

“I don’t know why I bothered keeping it,” Penelope said. “Not much use for feeling pretty out here.”

As they were finishing putting Lucky together, Rhiannon came riding back to camp. She caught sight of Lucky, gave her an approving nod, and turned to Ester to tell her what she had found. After traveling five miles along the singular road that made up Polk Canyon, she finally found the one person who was willing to help: A man named Mark Roberson who seemed scared to even talk about the Higgs Boys until she assured him she was no friend of theirs.

Lucky recognized the name for a story Trent had told her long ago at the saloon in Clarkstown. Mark was the older boy who had made fun of Wade — in some ways, it was because of him that the Higgs Boys even took to the rails. In some ways, he had influenced Lucky’s own destiny. She wasn’t sure if she should thank him for it or hit him in the mouth.

“It’s about seven miles out,” Rhiannon said. “A tiny ranch house with a half-painted picket fence along the front of its property. I rode past it real quick to get a look, and sure enough it’s there. Old tree, half dead, in the front yard, and a large barn out back. Not sure they raise animals anymore, but I spotted a woman in the kitchen window, so there’s certainly someone home.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t get shot,” Lucky said.

“Guess that goodbye hug from you did me some good,” Rhiannon winked. “You’re looking real pretty, Miss Ellis. Penelope sure knows how to make a silk purse from– well, maybe not a sow’s ear, but definitely a leather-and-linen rough rider.”

“Let’s hope I can still ride a horse in this,” Lucky said, hitching up her skirt and climbing on the horse behind Rhiannon. It felt weird to be wearing her pants underneath a dress, but it gave her more flexibility in transportation.

She and Rhiannon rode out with Ester and Penelope flanking them. Esperanza stayed behind to watch the camp and wait for Singing Bird to come by for her cut of the week’s take.

As they approached the stretch of land called Polk Canyon, Lucky started to understand how a man’s original habitat can affect his behavior as an adult. The land was parched, the houses dilapidated. Even if this community had been thriving in his childhood, it hadn’t been one of grand ranch homes with lush gardens and pastures. It looked like the residents had landed in this spot of desert dirt and tried their best to make a living off of it, rather than move forward looking for better opportunities. The houses were sunbaked, many with roofs that had caved in and fences that lay flat on the ground. The barns out back all appeared abandoned, with whisps of hay collecting in giant tumbleweeds that skated on the wind.

They passed one house that was still in operation: Laundry was hanging on a line, though the shirts and sheets were gray with age and tattered on the ends.

“That’s where Mark Roberson lives,” Rhiannon said, nodding to it.

If Mark had really been as wealthy as the Higgs Boys supposed he was, that fortune was long gone. Also in the yard was a single mule, braying for a supper that likely wouldn’t come, from the look of its ribs rippling its taught skin. Lucky thought she saw Mark in the window, glaring out at them.

“What if he warned her?” Lucky asked.

“I thought you said Mrs. Higgs didn’t like men coming on her property.”

“But she knew Mark,” Lucky said. “He grew up down the street.”

“If he warned her, I guess we’ll soon find out,” Rhiannon shrugged, clucking her tongue at the horse to make it move quicker.

They passed three more ranches, all boarded up or burned out. No wonder this was the place Wade had chosen to hide his riches: No one was here, and no one had any reason to show up.

The Higgs ranch was no better off than any of the other houses in Polk Canyon. The fence was painted white on the right side of the house, but whoever had been charged with the task had stopped when they got to the front gate, as the rest of the picketing was a charred black wood. Past the gate was a yard of dirt and scruff. A lizard darted out from beneath a rock and under another. The tree in front of the house had likely died years ago but was too stubborn to fall. Two vultures perched in its skeletal branches, harbingers of misfortune on a house that was already as low as it could sink.

“Keep riding,” Lucky said quietly. “We’ll double back on foot.”

They hitched the horses to a fallen tree just down the road, and Lucky began to walk toward the house. The wind blew furiously down the street at her, pushing her back a little in a hot gale that reminded her of a screaming man. When she got to the house, she stopped at the front gate and looked down the path at the tiny house.

“Anyone home?” she yelled, hoping the wind would carry her voice to the window. “Hello?”

A tattered flannel curtain wavered, though whether it was the breeze or someone inside, Lucky couldn’t tell.

“I’m looking for Mrs. Mary Higgs,” she called. “Is she here?”

Nothing. She wondered if Mary Higgs had even heard her from this distance. If she hadn’t, it wouldn’t hurt to come closer. If she had, Lucky would just have to make a run for it.

The gate in front of her wasn’t locked, but it still felt like trespassing as she pushed it open. It pulled on its hinges, making the whole fence lean. Lucky wondered if anyone even used this gate, or if Wade and Trent just rode their horses over the low fence when they came home. As she stepped foot into the yard, she remembered the old house just outside of town where the entire family had died of scarlet fever when she was less than a year old. No one had moved into the house since then, so it became the stuff of legends: A playground of dares and self-made terrors for the children in town who would goad each other into taking one, two, three steps into the front yard to see how far you could get before the ghosts took you or your own nerves sent you sprinting back out to the safety of the street.

Here, Lucky took one, two, three steps into the Higgs’ front yard to see how far she could get before Mary Higgs shot her. No such gunfire came; pretty soon she was at the steps of the front porch, staring at a door that had recently been painted, though whether it was by Wade or Trent on a recent visit or Mary Higgs herself, she couldn’t tell.

The porch looked precarious at best, with wooden planks cracked or missing. Lucky decided to call from the bottom of it.

“Mrs. Higgs?” she yelled, but before she could get the next few words out, the door creaked open.

Trent, Wade and Job’s mother was a tall, lanky woman: It was no wonder where her eldest son got his height. Her long red hair was mixed with so much white that it appeared pink in the daylight, left to fly free around her shoulders. She wore a black dress that had probably been too short for her the entire time she owned it: It’s hem skimmed her ankles, letting crimson wool socks peak out above her sued workboots. Around her shoulders was a dark blue shawl, and on her finger — the one finger Lucky was focused on, as it was wrapped around the trigger of a shotgun — was the emerald ring that she had taken from Tilley that first day she robbed a train.

“You don’t look like so much,” Mary Higgs said, glaring at her over the gun. “Pull up your skirt.”

“Ma’am, I–”

Mary jiggled the gun at her as a means of encouragement. Lucky lifted the dress up to show her trouser-clad legs underneath.

“Higher,” Mary said. “I want to see your holster.”

Lucky lifted the skirt all the way to her waist.

“Well aren’t you the fancy lady,” Mary said, lowering the gun. “Wearing a goddamn corset all the way out here just to see me. If I knew you were coming, I would have baked a cake. Better get in here before the wind blows you away. I just put some coffee on.”

Excerpt: “What kind of afterlife is this?”

Sylvia’s knees buckled under her as the ground met the soles of her boots. Her palms scraped across the cobblestones as she caught herself from fully face-planting, and once she had regained her balance, she saw Raff hadn’t been so lucky. He lay supine about five feet from her, one arm and both legs bent askew in a nasty, broken way.

Before she could crouch down to check on him, he straightened out and lifted himself on all fours. His face was dirty, but unharmed.

“What the fuck just happened?” He asked. “There was a car coming, and you appeared out of nowhere, and then the world disappeared.”

Sy chewed the inside of her cheek, trying to find the way to begin explaining, before Raff’s attention was turned elsewhere. She followed his gaze upward and realized he was looking at the same castle that had been embroidered into the tapestry that hung above her crib as an infant and bed as a child.

She had never seen it in person, but it lived up to the legend that passed through the witches in her family. The sky surrounding it was an ethereal lavender that reminded her of summer dawns captured through an extreme Instagram filter. The castle itself was sepia-colored stone, with tall glass windows and sharp spires lining the parapets.

“Erris,” she breathed in reverence. In doing so, she snapped Raff from his speechlessness.

“What the hell is this place?” He asked, turning to her. “Where have you kidnapped me to this time?”

His last two words and the emphasis he placed on them particularly stung, even if they weren’t accurate. She hadn’t kidnapped him at all, not this time nor the time before. That was all the Tersus’ doing.

“Well,” she said, canine teeth catching on to a particularly swollen piece of inner cheek. “Remember how you almost died last spring?”

“How could I forget?”

“Well, before you almost died, I gave you some medicine—”

“Spare me the euphemisms. Just call it a ‘potion.'”

“Right. A potion. So, it was a potion that would save you from dying—”

“So you did cure me with magic,” he scoffed, throwing his hands in the air. “You promised me you didn’t. You swore that I pulled through from — what did you call it? — ‘my own human strength.'”

“You did!” Sylvia exclaimed. “You did, Raff. The potion I gave you was just a precaution in case you didn’t survive. It was a potion that would save you from dying like a human. Instead you’d die like a witch, and you’d end up here.”

She waved around, and felt the sheer absurdity of it all as her eyes caught on to the dichotomy of the place. While the castle was exactly as she had expected, nothing else in this realm was as it had been described. The bridges that were once “shrouded with dark, lush forests” instead rose from clumps of ashy, empty dead trees and stretched across dried-up riverbeds. A carrion crow landed up the road and picked at a large carcass that Sylvia hadn’t even noticed. As it pulled meat from the bones, the body shifted, and the light glinted off something narrow and metal sticking out of it.

“What, in hell?” Raff asked, his voice echoing in the quiet. “What kind of paradise is this?”

“It’s not supposed to be like this,” Sylvia said. “It’s supposed to be lush and green. A sort of Witch Paradise.” She started walking toward the crow and its meal.

“Don’t walk away,” Raff said, giving in when she didn’t slow down and hustling to catch up. “This is really a great heaven, by the way. Great place to spend the afterlife. You witches really are fu—”

“Raff, something’s wrong,” she said.

“No shit,” he said. “If I’m in the place where you decided I should go if I died, then that means I’ve died. So since you’re here, too, that means you can figure out a way to magic us back or something so you can save me again.”

Sylvia reached the crow. Try as she might, she couldn’t shoo it away — instead, it glared at her with its red eyes before dipping its beak back down to take another bite. Now that she was closer, she could see that the body on the road was indeed human. The light had reflected off of a long narrow sword that had been plunged into its chest.

“I’d say pick the pockets for identification, but it doesn’t look like this guy has pockets left,” Raff said, crouching down next to Sylvia. His cold demeanor had started to thaw.

“Raff, it’s not supposed to be like this,” she said again, turning to him. “My grandmother is supposed to be here. My great-uncle, too. But it’s all destroyed. The forests, the streams — something terrible happened here.”

“I don’t think I’ll be much help figuring out what,” Raff said gently. “But why don’t you send me back before you start searching?”

“Raff, I can’t send you back,” Sylvia said. “The only way you got here is because you died. The same goes for me — my Earth body is pancaked out on Lake Shore Drive just like yours is right now. We have to stay here and figure out what happened before whatever got this guy,” she motioned to the body before her, “gets us, too.”

“How do you die in an afterlife?” Raff said.

Almost on queue, the body before them began to stir. Its arms unfolded themselves from around its head, and its neck straightened so that the face looked straight up at them. One eye socket was empty; the other was so coated in blood that the blue of its iris almost glowed against the deep black stain. The mouth opened, and from it came a gasp that should have been a scream, but for the slashed vocal chords dangling from its opened throat.

“You don’t,” Sylvia said, putting a hand on the body’s shoulder in sympathy. “And sometimes that’s worse.”