Book Title: In Strange Woods
Author: Claire Cray
Release Date: August 28, 2020
Cover Artist: Sneaky T
Genre/s: Contemporary M/M Romantic Mystery, M/M Gothic Romance
Trope/s: Instant attraction, Hurt comfort, Tortured protagonist, Family secret,
Long lost relative, Country boy/City boy, Rural romance, Fish out of water
Themes: Healing, Found family, Redemption, Heritage, Belonging, Homecoming
Heat Rating: 3 – 4 flames
Length: 71 370 words /204 pages
It is a standalone book.
Buy Links – Available on Kindle Unlimited
In the stormy coastal woods of the Pacific Northwest, roots run deep and passions run wild.
Reeling with grief after the mysterious massacre of his wealthy family, moody New York photographer James Worthington Crane decides to take his downward spiral somewhere far away: to the rural Oregon Coast, where he’s just inherited a random piece of property hidden somewhere in the woods upriver.
But when James pulls into the decaying seaside town of Brooks, everyone thinks he’s someone else—an elusive local outlaw named Beau. Now James must fight through his grief to unravel a tangled web of family secrets and forgotten history…with help from a soft-spoken local hunk named Hunter Quaid.
Hunter’s been on his own since he left his fundamentalist family at the age of fifteen. It’s taken years of hard work to build the steady life he has now, fixing up seaside houses while living alone in a trailer by the river. Then James blows in like a winter storm, disturbing the peace and stirring up a hunger like nothing he’s ever felt.
As Hunter helps James search for the truth, their lives intertwine in unexpected ways—and they begin to discover what it means to find out where you really belong.
Hunter pulled his truck into one of the slanted parking spaces along the Brooks sea wall and turned off the ignition, cutting off Bobbie Gentry in the middle of ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ to let the roar of the waves take over. It was windy out, and he took a second to rake his dark-blond hair into a stubby ponytail at the nape of his neck before getting out of the truck.
His work boots hit the asphalt with a heavy thud, and he strolled over to the rustic stone barricade to look out at the dark ocean. A wave immediately exploded up in front of him, white foam fanning out and dissolving like a burst of fireworks, and he filled his lungs with the sharp, salty air. It never got old, no matter how many times he came here. None of it did, though. Not the trees, the rivers, the sunsets, the storms. This rugged little chunk of the coast had been his most consistent, and sometimes his only, source of joy since the first summer his parents dropped him off at his grandma’s place upriver, where he now lived alone.
Today had been long as hell, but satisfying. He was in the middle of renovating a beautiful midcentury house on Cedar Crest, a wooded cliffside high up on the north edge of town. It was the biggest project he’d ever landed since striking out on his own as a contractor, and it was turning out to be a dream come true. The owner was some Portland banker who didn’t give a shit what he did as long as he stayed within budget, and Hunter relished the freedom to make actual design choices.
Matter of fact, life was pretty good these days, wasn’t it? Business was good, anyway, and that was a lot. Yeah. Steady work with nobody telling him what to do, a place to sleep by the river, all the ocean air he wanted every day…what more could he ask for? There was a time when he wouldn’t have dared to dream so—
A car alarm went off suddenly, jarring him from his thoughts, and he turned his head. Several seagulls were scattering noisily from the sea wall near a black hatchback several spaces away, its horn blasting and lights flashing. He couldn’t see what had set it off. A nosy gull, maybe, or the splash of a wave. At any rate, that wrapped up his relaxing after-work sit by the ocean.
But just as he was about to turn back to his truck, the driver’s side door of the hatchback clunked open and slowly creaked ajar.
Hunter watched, intrigued, as a hand slipped out through the crack, followed by an arm, and then a mop of wavy dark hair. Then, to his amazement, an entire tall, slim man slid out onto the pavement, pooling there in a tangle of long limbs and dark clothing.
The alarm was still making a ruckus. The man groaned low and rolled to his side, wrestling with himself for a moment before yanking a key fob out of his back pocket. He jabbed it toward the car several times until the alarm stopped, then fell on his back with an unintelligible mutter. Just then, a big wave spouted over the wall and showered him with seawater.
Hunter winced sympathetically. Hell of a place to be drunk off your ass. Dude definitely wasn’t from around here. He looked about Hunter’s age, stylish in a cool, classic kind of way. Black jeans, black boots, battered brown leather jacket. Nothing flashy, but obviously outside the local dress code of Carhartts, hooded sweatshirts, and rain gear. Hunter couldn’t help admiring the long lines of the stranger’s body, his carelessly tousled hair.
With a shake of his head and a soft sigh, he turned his gaze back toward the ocean again. Life was good, and all. He loved it here. So what if it wasn’t overflowing with romantic options for a quiet gay man with a taste for tall, slim guys dressed like drifters from the 1960s? No one got to have it all.
Life is good, he told himself stubbornly. Life is fine. Life’s going just great.
The sound of an approaching engine made him glance back over his shoulder, and suddenly he sprang into motion before he could think.
The drunk man was staggering onto the highway, his dark silhouette backlit by the high beams of a log truck that was roaring around the bend.
Another half-second would have been too late. The driver didn’t even seem to see them. The air from the passing truck threw him off balance as he yanked the drunken dumbass out of the road, and they both fell back on the pavement.
“You okay?” Hunter asked breathlessly.
Q & A with Claire Cray
Tell us a little about yourself and your writing goals.
I’m Claire Cray, and I want to write weird, sensual, gothic stories where psychologically complex characters make wild, passionate connections in bewitching settings. I’m officially back in gear after a few years of depression and writer’s block, so I have sooo many goals. I would so love to put out two more novels by the end of next year, and also clean up my abysmally haphazard backlist. Light a candle for me, y’all!
Congratulations on your new release. Please tell us a little bit about it. What’s your favorite aspect or part of the story? Do you have a favorite character? Who/Why?
In Strange Woods is a moody romance wrapped around a mystery with themes of healing and finding home. James is a New York photographer on a dangerous downward spiral after losing his wealthy family in a brutal murder. The story starts with his arrival on the very rural Oregon Coast, where his mom has inexplicably left him a piece of property. Almost right away he runs into Hunter, a soft-spoken working man who’s suffered his own losses in the past and steps in to show James kindness. Meanwhile James is constantly being mistaken for a local named Beau Woodstock, a surname that hints at a family connection. As James bonds with Hunter, searches for Beau, and tries to figure out what his mom has to do with this place, he uncovers secrets that draw him deeper into the woods and closer to healing.
My favorite aspect of this story is that the love story isn’t just between Hunter and James, but between them and this strange little corner of the world they’ve fallen for. They love the place and it seems to love them back, and that love suffuses the community they begin to build as they make peace with the past. There’s plenty of darkness and pain in this book, and some spooky, mysterious vibes, but in the end it’s a sweet, redemptive story. I love all of the characters equally, but I have a soft spot for Hunter! There’s something about his combination of quiet confidence and lonesome sweetness that just pulls at my heartstrings so hard. I’ve never gotten so obsessed with giving someone a HEA!
Are you a planner or a pantser? How much do you know about your story before you start writing? How often does your plan change? Why does this work best for you?
I do a ton of concept and character development in my head before I start writing anything, but I’m a pantser to a fault. I’ve had a hard time with it in recent years, though. Maybe it’s my mental health or the stress of the apocalypse, but I’ll get really indecisive and end up writing 5 books’ worth of material while repeatedly backtracking and starting over, and then I’ll get discouraged and stall out for months. So I’m trying to get a bit more efficient. With In Strange Woods, I set out to do things differently. I had the concept, setting and characters all set in my mind when I started writing. I churned out the first draft during NaNoWriMo last year, then played with it for a few months before planning out some serious structural revisions. I went through and overhauled the whole thing with a focus on timing and pinch points and all that other stuff you’re supposed to care about, then went back for a final edit to smooth and shape things out. It was a super unfamiliar and challenging process, but I was pleasantly surprised by the results, and I think I actually Did A Plot for once! So I’m going to try and repeat that process moving forward.
Do deadlines motivate you or block you? How do you deal with them?
I’m lost without deadlines! I have pretty severe ADHD, so structure is my salvation. That’s the hardest thing about being totally indie! I wish I were accountable to someone else sometimes. Things like NaNoWriMo are really good for me, so I’m always looking for more ways to create that sense of urgency for myself.
Do you schedule a certain amount of time for writing each day/week, or do you just work it in when you can? Would you like to change this, or does your current method work well for you?
I don’t schedule, but I do try to write at least a little tiny bit every day, even if it’s just a couple of sentences in a notebook before bed. I’d love to do like a minimum of 1,500 words a day, but in reality I usually write in sporadic bouts of 2,000-6,000 words when I’m feeling hot. I guess it sort of works, but I’m really trying to put a little space between my writing and my mood, where I’m not just waiting to be in the perfect zone to write.
What was the most difficult part of writing this book? Why?
It’s the first novel I’ve written in a painfully long time, and at times it was a real struggle. I had to face how rusty my writing had gotten, which was sort of devastating. But it was a redemptive experience to train myself back up and confirm that I can still write things that excite me. Beyond the personal issues, I was nervous about figuring out how to appropriately acknowledge Indigenous land issues. It’s not an unfamiliar topic for me in real life, but representing it in a romance book is different! I didn’t want to invite generalizations or treat it as a plot device. As a white writer who grew up in a tribal area that happens to be my main source of inspiration, this is an issue I’m continuously reckoning with. I’m pretty happy with where things landed here, and with the new insights I gained while talking to Indigenous friends about it.
How do you develop a story idea? Do you always use the same method? Specifically, which do you develop first in your story building, the characters or the plot?
It definitely starts with characters. I get ideas and work them over in my head over a period of months (or years). I do a lot of drafting and development in my head while lying in bed before I fall asleep. That’s when most of my best “moments” and character revelations occur to me. When it gets so big I can’t wait to make it real, I start the actual writing. As for plot, I’ll generally have the basic premise in mind, or the circumstances the characters are in, but I don’t figure out the plot until way later. I do generally know how it’s going to end, though.
What are your favorite genres when it comes to your own pleasure reading? Do you prefer to read ebooks or print?
I’ll read anything. Normally non-fiction, literary fiction, horror, old ghost story collections, and wild vintage paperbacks I scavenge at estate sales or on eBay. I’ve been reading a lot more new romance lately, since I realized I’m way behind on all the good stuff that’s out there now. I prefer to read print, but it’s usually ebooks for romance and impulse buys.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Energizes! In a weird way. If I’ve had a good run, I come back to the real world a little ditzy and dazed.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Stop wondering whether you’re good enough and start making things happen.
What is the best money you ever spent as an author?
Good noise-canceling headphones.
What did you edit out of this book?
So much. SO much. At least two sex scenes, a scene with Hunter’s family, a visit to the commune, an opening scene in New York…also, a fortune-telling robot mermaid. Listen, it almost worked, okay? Don’t count her out. You might meet her someday
How do you select the names of your characters?
Sometimes they come to me with the vibes. Sometimes I’ll rummage through my favorite historical periods, biographies, musicians, movie characters, etc. for inspiration. Sometimes I just get obsessed with a certain name and build a character around it. I was desperate to name a character Beau for the longest time and meant for that to be the MC’s name in this book, but quickly realized the MC’s name was James and Beau was someone else. Hunter was just instantly Hunter the moment I thought of him.
What were your goals for this book? Did you achieve them?
I wanted to write an actual plot, and I wanted it to be a mystery. I sort of achieved them. I’m glad readers have responded well and am floored by the fact that some people have praised the storyline, because that’s never happened to me before. That’s how plot-challenged I am! So I’d call it a success, I guess, although I worry I might have overshot it and crammed too much into the story. Live and learn.
What do you think about when you’re alone in your car?
Fiction and politics.
What were you like in high school?
I went to high school in a horrid little redneck pulp mill town of 3,000. I was the argumentative smart kid who wrote for the school paper and discovered radical politics and punk music around the same time I realized I was bi/queer. I came out pretty much immediately and basically declared war on the whole place. I started a GSA and took over a “student union,” which was basically a lunch club where a handful of weirdos could talk about art and leftism and how much our town sucked. My brilliant M.O. was to photocopy little fliers about various political and social issues and then sneak through the halls on bathroom breaks to plaster them everywhere, especially the backs of the stall doors in the restrooms. It was good rebellious fun for about 5 minutes until 9/11 happened and all the rednecks went turbo. So then I had to go turbo…it was a time.
What are the three best things about you?
I don’t mind admitting when I’m wrong, I love helping other people succeed, and I always root for the underdog.
What is your favorite ice cream flavor?
Vanilla bean or rocky road!
About the Author
Claire Cray writes gay romance featuring hot, complicated men in weird situations. Offbeat and character-driven with a gothic bent, her work has been described as deeply atmospheric and a little bit strange.
Born and raised in the rural Pacific Northwest, Claire takes inspiration from its rich, moody vibes: the ancient forests, rugged coastlines, eccentric characters, and whispers of dark mystery in even the tiniest little towns. Combine all that with steamy sensuality and psychological drama, and you’ve got a story by Claire Cray.
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