Dreadful Penny is Here!

Dreadful Penny is out today! Click here to order your copy today from Amazon.com! Or read for free if you have Kindle Unlimited.

Dreadful Penny

Sometimes the skeletons in the closet are real.

Greenville, South Carolina, 1972.

Penelope Drake knows the ghosts and demons lurking in her hometown aren’t just figurative. After all, her father’s spirit haunts the office of the detective agency she inherited from him.

When Ephraim Brown, an old friend of her father, asks Penelope to investigate a break-in at his home, she’s hesitant. Breaking and entering is normally something she’d leave for the police, but with no other prospects in sight, she reluctantly agrees. The simple burglary, however, turns out to be just the beginning, as the brutal supernatural attack that follows makes it clear someone is using dark magic to try to destroy Ephraim Brown and his family.

It’s up to Penelope, along with her wily assistant Zed and her friend Charles—who happens to know a bit of magic himself—to bring this scheme of revenge and murder to a halt before it’s too late. Because if they don’t, Penelope gets the distinct feeling the Brown family won’t be the hidden foe’s last target.

Hollywood’s First Black Vampire Flick Tackled the Slave Trade, Racism and Black Love in 1972

It was one of the first genre movies directed by a black director and starring a mostly-black cast that became one of the highest grossing films of 1972, the same year that brought us The Godfather and Cabaret. I’m of course talking about William Crain’s Blacula.

This is relevant to both Daughters of Shadow and Blood and Dreadful Penny.

Courtesy of The Mary Sue.

On the Dangers of Writing Near-Past Historical Fiction

Cell phones ruin everything. As others have pointed out (for example, here, here, here, and here) many plots of movies or books or television shows wouldn’t work if the characters had cell phones. One way to fix that is to set your story before the advent of the smartphone, sometimes way before. Of course, writing historical fiction had its own problems. You have to do a ton of research to make sure you get everything right, and if you miss anything, you’d best believe you’re going to get called on it.

I’ve written my fair share of historical fiction. My vampire trilogy Daughters of Shadow and Blood takes place at various times over the last four hundred years. My new urban fantasy series Dreadful Penny takes place in the 1970s. What I’ve discovered is that in a lot of ways it’s easier to set fiction farther in the past than more recently.

If the story is set a hundred or two hundred years ago, we know people dressed differently and talked differently and had different customs. It’s easier to spot all the ways life was different and easier to take those differences into account. When writing near-past historical, it’s just as easy to miss tiny details that are different because the world is still mostly recognizable. Here are a few of the difficulties I encountered writing Dreadful Penny.

Penelope, my main character, is a private detective, and when she’s investigating a case, of course there needs to be a way for her to record evidence visually. Early on in my draft I had a small existential crisis because I suddenly realized she didn’t have a smartphone, and what is she going to use to to take pictures if she doesn’t have a smartphone? This is an actual question that my brain came up with. For a solid fifteen minutes I agonized over this problem, until I suddenly realized the solution:

Polaroid SX-70 by Thomas Backa
Polaroid SX-70 by Thomas Backa

Yes, they had these things called cameras. Even instant cameras, so Penelope wouldn’t have to wait two weeks for the pictures to be developed at the drug store like those barbarians of the past.

In another scene I have a character working at a desk, going through his company’s finances. He doesn’t have a computer because this was the state-of-the-art in personal computing in 1972:

Photo courtesy of World Book

So I have him working on an adding machine, which looks like this:

Adding Machine
Adding Machine by Paul Miller (CC 2.0)

Except I could think of what it was called. I had to ask someone. Otherwise it was going to be the “scrolly paper pully thingy with buttons.”

In the same scene I had him working on a spreadsheet, which (surprise!) actually used to be sheets of paper you wrote on with a pencil or pen:

A Paper (!) Spreadsheet

One of my critique partners pointed out, though, that most people are going to be confused because that word is associated so much with computers now. People aren’t going to think of paper. So just I wound up changing it from “spreadsheet” to “ledger.”

Another issue I had was with a character in college. Penelope needs to call her, but I’d forgotten to take into account that at the time, most college students didn’t have telephones in their dorm rooms. There was one communal telephone for the dorm, or maybe for the hallway, and everyone was forced to fight to the death share. Incidentally, (mild spoiler) when Penelope calls, she gets the dreaded busy signal, a sound future generations will never hear.

So, writer friends, anyone else had similar experiences writing near-past historical fiction?

Read and Excerpt from Dreadful Penny

One more week until the release of Dreadful Penny! Here’s an excerpt to tide you over. Interested? Then click here to get your copy of Dreadful Penny today!


Friday, May 19, 1972

Your secrets won’t stay secrets forever. It doesn’t matter if you’re a member of the Rotary Club, a Little League coach, an upstanding man of God—even a deacon at the First Baptist Church of Greenville, S.C. You could be there among the pews every time those church doors are open, hands clasped and head bowed.

Pray all you want, the truth will come out.

Maybe you dipped your hand in the petty cash jar at work. Maybe you didn’t give Uncle Sam his fair share of your wages. Maybe when you fell off that ladder you didn’t break your leg like you told the nice lady from the insurance company. Or maybe you’re just stepping out on your wife.

Sooner or later, someone’s going to find out.

And then you’ll have a decision to make.


Penelope slid the file across her desk toward the woman seated opposite. Mrs. Joyce Gaines, hands clasped in her lap, stared at the plain manila folder. She’d worn a simple blue dress to the meeting. Her only jewelry, besides her husband’s momma’s diamond on her left ring finger, was a string of pearls around her neck. Her makeup was tasteful, and you’d be hard pressed to find one strand of gray in her neatly permed hair. In other words, she looked exactly like you’d expect the wife of a deacon at the First Baptist Church to look.

Mrs. Gaines glanced up at Penelope, who just nodded. No words of comfort or sympathy. They never helped anyway.

The deacon’s wife moved to pick up the folder. Her hands trembled. She hesitated, fingers hovering tantalizingly close to the truth. For a moment, Penelope thought she might actually refuse to look, that she would choose to stand up and walk out of the office. But Mrs. Gaines took a deep breath and bit into the apple.

As she studied the first photograph, a tear slipped down her cheek. Yes, that was definitely her husband Ronald. No, that wasn’t their house, and no, she certainly wasn’t the woman greeting him at the door with a kiss.

By the fifth photograph, the tears had stopped. Joyce Gaines set her jaw and narrowed her eyes, then picked her handbag up from the floor and stuffed the whole folder inside. She retrieved her checkbook and furiously scrawled out a check, which she placed on the desk as she stood.

“Thank you, Miss Drake,” she said. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope we never have to speak to one another again.”

As soon as the deacon’s wife left, Penelope buried her face in her hands. She took in several deep breaths, trying to calm herself down. It didn’t work. She still wanted to throw up. She suspected giving people news that tore their lives apart was not a part of her job she’d ever get used to. She hoped she never did.

The front door bell startled her. Penelope went to answer, crossing the foyer of the old converted house. She found Zed McKay, her part-time assistant, standing on the porch.

“You’re here early,” she said as they walked back into her office.

Zed shrugged. “Couldn’t sleep.”

She shot him a sideways glance. “It’s two-thirty in the afternoon.”

He grinned. “Your point?”

“Most contributing members of society start the day a little earlier.”

“I’m sorry. You must have me mistaken for someone else.” Zed threw himself into the chair Joyce Gaines had recently vacated. “How did the meeting with the deacon’s wife go?”

Penelope perched on the edge of her desk. “As well as you’d expect.”

“Did you manage to keep your lunch down this time?”

Penelope grimaced. “Just barely. My stomach’s been in knots all day.”

“I’m glad that’s not my job. I just get to do the fun parts.”

“At least she reacted a lot better than the last one. No wailing, gnashing of teeth, or rending of garments this time. I have a feeling she’s going to come out okay. I can’t say the same for her husband.”

Zed’s smile faded. “Do you ever wonder how things get to that point?”

“What do you mean?”

“The point where you stop talking, where you stop listening, where you have to hire a private detective to follow your husband and find out what he’s up to.”

Penelope shook her head. “I stopped wondering that a long time ago.”

“Makes you wonder. What is it about humans that we have to foul up everything so badly? Why are relationships so hard?”

Penelope cocked an eyebrow. “This isn’t about Mrs. Gaines, is it? Whatever happened to that girl you were seeing? Annie was her name?”

Zed exhaled slowly. “We’re not seeing each other anymore.”

Penelope winced. “Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It didn’t work out. That’s all.”

With his easy-going nature, Robert Redford good looks, and blue eyes just a shade off from violet, Zed turned the head of every woman he passed. His relationships never lasted for very long, though. He wasn’t in the habit of offering details as to why, and Penelope didn’t push. She figured if he wanted to talk, he would.

“So, what was it you wanted to see me about?” Zed asked. “New case I’m assuming.”

Penelope studied her feet rather than meet his gaze. “Not exactly. In fact, the opposite of that. With the Gaines case wrapped up and that job up in Asheville done, I don’t have anything else.”

Zed frowned. “Nothing at all? Not even a lost dog?”

She let out a chuckle. “Believe me, I’d take that right now.”

“You haven’t had that many cases this year.”

Penelope picked up Mrs. Gaines’ check and stared at it. “I know.”

“What are you going to do?”

Zed sprawled nonchalantly across the chair. No paycheck for her meant no paycheck for him either, but he never seemed to worry about money.

A wave of annoyance overcame Penelope. “I suppose I’ll starve, Zed.”

He flinched. “That’s not what I meant.”

She sighed. “Sorry. I’m just a little anxious about things right now.”

“Well, maybe things will turn around.”

The telephone on Penelope’s desk rang. They both stared at it.

“That’s the phone,” Zed said.

Two rings.

Penelope nodded. “I know.”

Three rings.

“When was the last time it rang?”

Four rings.

“About a week ago.”

Five rings.

“One of us should probably answer.” Zed glanced in Penelope’s direction. “And since you’re the proprietress of the establishment …”

“Right.” She picked up the receiver, fully expecting to hear nothing but the dial tone, but to her surprise, the line remained connected.

“Drake Investigations,” she said as pleasantly as she could muster.

“Penelope?” said a man on the other end of the line. “Penelope Drake?”


“This is Ephraim Brown. I don’t suppose you remember me.”

An old friend of her father. When Penelope was younger, she went to pool parties and cookouts at the Browns’ house. She and their son Bertram had gone to college together. Since then, the two families had drifted apart. She hadn’t spoken to Ephraim Brown for several years. She didn’t think he even attended her father’s funeral. “Of course I remember you, Mr. Brown.”

“Penelope, we … we’ve had a situation at our house. A break-in. I’d like to employ your services. Would it be possible to meet with you, face to face?”

Penelope’s heart leapt into her throat at the prospect of a paying case, but she bit her lip, knowing she had to say what she said next. “Mr. Brown, if someone broke into your house, you’d be better off calling the police. As much as I’d love to help, they’re far better equipped to handle things like that.”

There was an audible sigh on the other end of the line. “I have my reasons. Please, if you’ll meet with me, I can explain. I’ll pay double whatever your normal retainer is.”

Penelope glanced at Zed, who wore a quizzical expression. Burglaries were definitely not her normal fare, but Ephraim Brown’s “reasons” piqued her interest, not to mention it would be nice to have money to pay for food.

“Think of it as a favor to your father’s old friend,” Ephraim Brown added.

“When would you like to meet, Mr. Brown?”

It’s just a meeting, Penelope told herself. No harm in that.

“Could you come by the house today?”

“Hold on a second while I check my calendar.” Penelope paused and counted to ten. “I believe I have some time this afternoon around four. How does that work?”

“Perfect. You remember where we live, I hope?”

She rattled off the address.

“That’s it,” Ephraim Brown said. “Thank you. I truly appreciate your help handling this.”