I first heard of Edward Masterson the day of the birds, though I forgot about them through much of what happened after. Indeed, in the moment, their strange flight was only a disturbing inconvenience, as it turned my father back from his walk to the village on laundry day.
My father was a gentleman of small, regular habits. He walked to the village twice each week, to gain news of the wider world and have two pints of ale before walking back. In winter, he had Mr. Simmons, who served as our steward as well as sometime butler and valet, drive him. But in the fine weather of late spring he would set off walking, in his plain suit but with his sword polished and ready should he meet any ruffians.
The rest of our little household—myself and Mr. and Mrs. Simmons; my poor mother had passed when I was young—would plan much around this simple outing, for the house was too much work for the Simmonses alone. My father made no objection to my helping with light chores such as dusting, but he had recently been infected with the disease of matchmaking, and he feared for my prospects should I develop a working woman’s hands and complexion. His solution for our overworked staff was to simply hire more help as needed, but I often snuck into his study to review our account books and there was no surplus for such luxuries. Thus, I learned to separate want from necessity, and while other women my age were dancing at assemblies or practicing their needlework, I was scrubbing floors and learning to make pastry. I learned, and I learned as well to not reflect upon my circumstances, lest I fall into melancholy—and many days there was simply no time for such indulgence. As soon as my father left, I put aside my role as Caroline Daniels, landowner’s daughter, and became Caroline Daniels, maid, stableboy, or whatever we needed me to be. Laundry especially was a daylong affair, and more than once we had sent Mr. Simmons out to delay my father so we could get the last damp pieces inside before he returned.
My father left, drawing the door closed behind him. I waited in the hall, seeing in my mind’s eye his stout figure striding down the drive. Now he would pat his pockets, ensuring he had a shilling but little more, for he had once been robbed on his return and had a fine watch and several shillings taken off him. Now he would think about that watch, and touch his sword in reassurance. All was well and nothing was forgotten; he could enjoy his journey in peace, and we could set about our work. I counted to fifty, then with a deep breath seized the first laundry basket and began dragging it back to the yard—
—when I heard the terrible sound of the door swinging open again, and my father bellowing for Mr. Simmons. At once I dropped the basket, smiling brightly. My smile faded, however, when I saw the spatters on his hat and coat, including a red smear on his face.
“Are you all right? Did you fall?” I rushed towards him, thinking to stop any bleeding with my apron.
“Quite all right,” he said. “Only the birds are going mad.”
For a moment I stared at him, believing I misheard him, but then I saw movement in the sky past his shoulder. Birds of all sizes and shapes, flying at odd angles to each other but all heading inland. As I watched two collided, then set at each other with horrific shrieks and bared claws. Feathers drifted down as they fought.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s quite late in the year to be mating, and there are gulls up there. They usually stay close to the shore—” My father suddenly broke off, frowning at the laundry basket. “What are you doing with that laundry?”
“I was looking for a petticoat,” I said quickly. “I cannot find it anywhere.”
He gave me a suspicious look, but I was saved from further inquiry by Mr. Simmons appearing. As he fetched my father a fresh coat, I slipped past him and went out onto the drive. Dozens of birds filled the sky, and save for when their paths provoked a conflict, they were doing so in near silence, as if they needed all their strength to fly. But what were they flying towards—or were they fleeing something? I scanned the horizon: there was not so much as a cloud, not a hint of an incoming storm.
Above me two more birds crossed paths, and the larger one viciously raked the smaller. It tumbled to the ground, then carefully righted itself and began limping forward, still heading unerringly inland.
“Caroline, dear, don’t distress yourself with such sights.” My father took my arm and led me back to the house.
“But what could be causing it?” I asked, still craning my head. “Something has frightened them, something worse than a storm.”
“They were probably startled by an animal—perhaps we have a wolf again. I’ll ask in the village,” he said. “Oh, and I forgot to tell you! I will be stopping at the Fitzroys’ on my way home. I was thinking if Diana spends the season in town again, perhaps you could join her? A stay of some weeks will help you become more comfortable in society, and develop your acquaintanceships further.”
And there were so many replies I wished to make, all at once. The Fitzroys were our closest neighbors, and Diana my oldest friend. Having both lost our mothers early, and without siblings, we had been for a time closer than sisters. The memories of our girlhood, pretending to be the pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, or the tragic princess Caroline, still filled me with longing. But the Fitzroys’ finances had flourished where ours had declined, and I took no pleasure in the prospect of marriage. A season with Diana promised only embarrassing shortfalls and uncomfortable encounters.
I wanted to say all these things, and that I had seen far worse than a wounded bird in my life, for had I not seen my own mother die in childbirth? But such was not the speech of a dutiful daughter, and I quailed at the thought of disrupting our affectionate relationship. I was still struggling for words when he kissed me on my forehead and shooed me back inside, as if I was still a little girl.
1. What inspired you to write this series?
The 2016 U.S. election. It was such a horrifying, terrifying result, and it left me devastated. I started writing what I told myself was a standalone lesbian romance because I desperately needed a story where women win, where women live happily ever after. That it ended up also being a horror story, and a series to boot, is just how my brain works.
2. What, if anything, did you learn in writing the series?
Oh, there were so many lessons. These books were my first attempts to really come to grips with the novella, with its length and structure—I’d written several shorter novellas, around the 20k mark, and I had drafted novels of 90-120k words, but this ~40k length was new for me. I worked hard on representation, on balancing worldbuilding and plot, at trying to find that perfect overlap between fantasy and historical fact. As the series grew I also had to contend with a growing cast of both protagonists and antagonists, and make sure their arcs ended in a satisfying way.
3. What surprised you the most in writing the series?
That I made it to the end, lol. I’ve been writing these books off and on since 2016. It’s been a while.
4. If it’s not a spoiler, what do the titles mean?
The first one is a location, the second has a double meaning, the third is a character, and the fourth is a prophecy.
5. Were any of the characters inspired by real people?
Not that I know of, haha. I mean, all my characters incorporate facets of people I’ve encountered in one way or another. But I shy away from modeling characters on any one person. I do have a few private Pinterest boards of faces, especially historical photographs, but I think of it more like “oh, my character resembles that person.”
6. Do you consider the series to have a lesson or moral?
Not overtly. But I believe that every book, even the lightest, most humorous tale, presents a certain worldview, and values associated with that worldview. How you shape your tale, who you include in it, how the world acts upon your characters: these are all choices made by the author, choices that have both moral and political dimensions. I feel like with this series I took increasing care with my choices—thanks in no small part to excellent feedback from readers.
7. What is your favorite part of the series?
Oh, I have several! Two things I really love to write are dinner parties—especially dinner parties with, how should I say, undercurrents—and dramatic entrances. By the latter I mean those dun-dun-dun, “s–t’s about to get real” kind of entrances. I got to write a couple of each in this series, and I loved every minute of it.
8. Which character was most challenging to create? Why?
I veered out of my lane with a few characters in this series, with regards to both race and gender. I think I did okay. I tried to be careful: I brought in sensitivity readers, I did a great deal of research using both primary and secondary sources. This series isn’t historical fiction, it’s historical fantasy; still, the note I always try to hit is to make the story feel possible, even plausible—that things might have happened this way if there really were sea monsters/witches/etc. In this series, that meant grappling with life in a country that was profiting from slavery and persecuting queerness, all while trying to tell an entertaining story. Readers can tell me how I did!
9. What are your immediate future plans?
I am drafting a much larger series called Prima Materia. It’s historical fantasy again, about vampires, alchemists, and the possible return of a serpent god in Enlightenment Europe. And, in a total leap of faith for this very anxious writer, I’m actually sharing the draft as I write it on primamateria.online. Subscribers can read chapters as I finish them, see my research and process notes, and get the final books when they’re published. I’m also working on a few short stories, and I’m considering a possible hardcover omnibus of the Chase & Daniels books. It’s a lot of work, but there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.