Welcome back, my fellow creatives! July is nearly at an end, and alas, that means bidding farewell to Private Eye July.
Last week, I mentioned how my husband likes to poke fun at me for not reading a certain detective.
“Let me get this straight,” he’d say. “You’ve read all the Poirot.”
Yes. At least twice.
“But you’ve never read a single Miss Marple?”
He’d furrow his brows and say, “Yet you say you enjoy Agatha Christie.”
“You’ve read And Then There Were None and some plays and stuff, not just the Poirot.”
“But not…not Miss Marple? Her other most popular character of all time?”
Simple: I already had my sweet-older-lady-detective fix.
Bo would then bring up the Magnum/JB Fletcher crossover, and then we’d argue about which detective was better (they changed who solves the case for syndication, those stinkers!), and then the conversation would spiral from there.
Good morning, my fellow creatives! Today’s selection comes in thanks to my mother, who is an avid listener of Wisconsin Public Radio and heard about a series set in one of her favorite places in all of Wisconsin: Door County.
Hello hello, my wonderful fellow creatives! We find ourselves caught in the whirlwind that often billows about in the middle of summer. After a few good swimming lessons, the kids are determined to prove themselves ready for their own Olympic-style marathons in the water. So long as they don’t participate in another round of “Toss the dead fish” as some other kids did at the beach, they’ll be fine. 🙂
While they splash and holler at one another in the lake, allow me to introduce another lovely fantasy author whose debut novel hits bookstores this month. My friends, meet Ian Green!
Niceties first! Tell us a bit about yourself, please.
Hello! I’m Ian, I’m a writer from Northern Scotland. I have a background in scientific research (working on cancer epigenetics!) and I’m currently based out of Algiers. Whenever I can I spend my time hiking in the woods or clambering around ruins. My first novel, The Gauntlet and the Fist Beneath, is out this summer. It is an epic fantasy- book one of a new trilogy!
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
My dad had an old paperback of The Lord of the Rings- all three volumes in one huge thick book, with an amazing John Howe painting of Gandalf on the front cover looking utterly mysterious and serious. I remember reading that when I was too young to understand most of it, but the cadence of the language and the weight of the words, the way Tolkien’s writing could summon images in my mind astonished me- the imagery of the shire felt true to me in a way I didn’t think fiction could be. That, and perhaps reading Goosebumps in the school library and managing to scare myself- how can a word elicit such strong emotion? I was hooked.
Hey, there are plenty of Goosebumps books that scared me as a kid by their insides–and outsides! I had to stay away from any volume with that ventriloquist doll the cover. (Shivers.) What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
I struggled with Cixin Liu for a long time- I found the start of The Three-body Problem impassably dense, and the characters didn’t resonate with me throughout. I think I was coming from a long run of character driven SFF and this was such sweeping, concept driven SF that I just couldn’t seem to find a purchase. I’m so glad I stuck with it- the second book in that series, The Dark Forest, is one of my favourite SF books.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Malagash by Joey Comeau– I’ve been a huge fan of his work for a long time, and this novel is so tender and sad and brutal and sweet. It delivers perfectly, a dark humour running throughout even as it prises open your heart. Utterly incredible. I want to give a copy to everyone I know.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
The book that made me think differently about fiction was The Bridge by Iain Banks. My mum gave me a copy when I was probably too young to understand a lot of it- but I understood the sheer audacity and fun it was having. It was having so much fun with structure and there was such a joy to it. For me fiction can serve so many purposes, from light entertainment and escapism to far heavier explorations. The Bridge to me was a book that did all of those without a thought to convention, and did it all with a smile.
Ah, that sounds like a marvelous story! Any book that not only is run to read but to experience sounds like a perfect find in my, well, my book. 🙂 Speaking of books,Congratulations on your debut fantasy novel The Gauntlet and the Fist Beneath! I love hearing about fellow fantasy writers’ worldbuilding process. Did you base Gauntlet’s world on your Scottish homeland, or was other research involved in creating the story’s setting?
Certainly, Scotland was a huge source of inspiration. When I wrote this book I knew I wanted to set myself a few challenges regarding the culture I created and the story I was telling, but with the world I wanted to take some of the rugged and harsh beauty of Scotland- to make sure that the physicality of the world had an impact on the society and the world that grew around it. So in terms of geography I took a lot of inspiration from Scotland. Historically I think the Pictish stones scattered around Scotland gave me my first ideas of how the magic of the world might work- the old ideas of celtic animism that have been so long lost were a big inspiration. I wanted to create a world where monotheism had never become a dominant force, and to take some of the ideas of animism and craft them into a new and novel magic system and world. In terms of the history and cultures represented, I tried hard to make sure I wasn’t echoing any specific histories- I drew inspiration from a lot of history and myth from around the world, and I didn’t want to create a world that was simply a fantasy version of Scotland- I wanted to create something wholly its own, with its own myth and legend and history and forces pushing and pulling at its people.
Building such a rich, complex world is no small undertaking. Do you think it wise that aspiring writers take on such a project, or is it better they try a different method to sharpen their skills?
I think it can be tempting to start hugely ambitious projects (creating an entire world! A ten book series covering the fall of an empire!) but I found more successful to work on shorter pieces while I was honing my craft and voice. This also let me try out lost of different styles and concepts to see what I wanted to do more with.
Ah yes, your short fiction. We’ll get to that in a bit. 🙂 All this world-building must surely take a lot of time in your writing process. Have you ever experienced a blockage during that research, or have ever become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of it all?
I sometimes need reminding to clarify some points of a world’s lore- when you are so deep into research and worldbuilding it can be easy to forget that someone coming to the material fresh is coming from a totally different context and set of background knowledge! Luckily this is something that can be fixed without too much stress normally.
That’s good to hear! The research involved in building a world can easily intimidate any writer, but writing outside of one’s own experience can REALLY put the pressure on a writer these days. The protagonist of your book, General Floré, is a parent determined to fight through any hell to rescue her child. This is a character many of us readers can root for! What challenges did you face as a writer in writing characters from the opposite sex, and do you have any advice for other writers who want to write outside their living experience?
I don’t think for me writing a character of one sex or another held any more challenge than any other sex. In the world of The Gauntlet and the Fist Beneath sex, gender, and sexuality are of far less consequence than they are in our own world, and so I really just focused on character and motivation. In terms of writing outside of my lived experience, in a lot of ways fantasy as a genre frees me up to not worry so much about accuracy except within the confines of what I’ve created. I’m writing from the perspective of seven foot tall lizard people who live in intricate coral reef cities, and people who live under the weight of an eternal arcane storm- nobody has lived those experiences! There are of course more normal experiences where this might come to bear, but all I can do is rely on research and imagination and beta-readers with different experiences to myself to hopefully make sure I am not straying too far from the mark.
Gauntlet is your debut novel, but as your website shows, you’ve published loads of short fiction as well. When you write short fiction, do you know it’ll be short fiction going in, or do some novel ideas transform into short stories in their creation (or vice versa)?
This is a great question- so when I’m writing short fiction I often know that is what I want to do, I will have simple concepts or plots or ideas that I want to play with. For longer work, before committing to writing a whole novel what I normally do is flesh out a few potential ideas and then try and write a short story in each- I can pretty quickly tell which idea I’m excited about and want to keep going with! I always keep those other fragments though- just because I’m not excited about it right now doesn’t mean it might not be a strong contender to flesh out either as a short story or a longer piece later on.
One of my biggest struggles with writing short fiction comes with the worldbuilding. I wanted to say sooooo much in my story “The Hungry Mother,” but there just wasn’t the space. How do you overcome the restraints on worldbuilding when writing short fiction?
I love the challenge of this- it is so difficult to present world-building that feels deep and real in that shorter setting. I try and pare it back so I’m not presenting details that are unnecessary (are all the window frames in this world black for an obscure historical reason? Does this impact the plot? If not, forget about it!). So anything that impacts the plot or the physicality of the character’s situation I try and expand on a little, but unless it is vital I don’t bother expanding on explanations- the reader’s imagination can do a lot of the heavy lifting!
What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
As I was looking for an agent and publisher for The Gauntlet and the Fist Beneath I came across plenty of agents who would charge reading fees, editors claiming they could increase your chance of publication with their proofreading, and services promising to push your book to the right people. I’m not sure I know what the most unethical practice in the publishing industry is, but in general I think there are plenty of bad actors willing to take advantage of people are trying to break into the more mainstream spaces- caution is often a good thing!
Oh, I agree with you there. I’m sure we could all share a story or two of the bad actors who beguile us as writers. That’s why so many of us just choose to “go it alone,” as it were. This means we’re handling all the steps of publishing as well as marketing, and I’ve got to admit it is HARD. Have you worked out any useful way to market your books?
This is my first novel so I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask! I’ve tried to make myself as available as possible for any opportunity- I’m not famous, I’m not particularly well-connected, and historically my social media profiles have mainly been links to music I like and pictures of mountains, food, dogs, and cats. So switching all of that to focusing more on marketing my work has been a strange idea! There are so many communities where you could potentially interact and grow your audience, but I think it is important to try and partition off specific time for this or else you could spend all of your time marketing rather than actually writing.
I also saw on your site that you co-wrote a story inspired by game play! I’ve heard so many friends tell me how Dungeons and Dragons inspires fun fantasy storytelling for them. Would you ever write another story based on gameplay as you did The Cursed Tomb?
The Cursed Tomb is a very fun wee book that is essentially a transcript of a game me and some friends were playing- certainly not something I would expect other people to buy and spend time on, we actually published it more as a memento for the four of us. I do think it is a lot of fun, and very silly- those gameplay stories benefit from the chaos of multiple creators, each of whom can bring their own ideas and background to play. I’d definitely do so again, but unless it was a lot more organised I think it would end up being another artefact for me and my friends, rather than a book I wanted to send out into the world!
Good morning, my fellow creatives! I was so excited to discover July’s reading theme:
But but but, rather than retreading all sorts of ground I’ve already trod before with my Agatha Christie posts, I decided I should focus on mysteries with a fantasy flare–mixed with a recommendation or two you amazing souls have shared with me. 🙂
A landscape of danger and mystery, perhaps. A relic with power to change the world dropped in the rain while fleeing the enemy. A duel of ambitions, weapons poised to take life and light of all.
You see a brittle world, crushed and smoldering. You know how to save it.
We don’t always begin with the conflict or the setting. Sometimes, we begin with an identity, one which turns the wheels of the plot in ways we are not yet sure, but we know the workings are hidden there, beneath the face of this person.
“It gives me great pleasure, a good name. I always in writing start with a name. Give me a name and it produces a story, not the other way about normally.”
Now I’m sure this method worked wonderfully for Mr. Tolkien, as I believe he’s gotten himself published a few times. However, we other creatives just do not always have a name to go with and find ourselves going “the other way about” quite a bit. Let’s explore a few of those situations together.
When a key scene and its conflict are etched in my mind, the character names are but one detail in a sea of details–not to be fussed about until the rest of the moment is captured. That was my approach in “The Hungry Mother” (free to read in Mobius: The Journal of Social Change!) where I could see the con artist and the mark engage in a rundown park, but not hear their names. So, my first draft had nothing but alphabet letters for character names to keep them straight. Only after that first draft was completed did I consider the backgrounds of the characters and setting to discover Puritan-style names for the homely, rural Remembrace and her daughter, Tace. But what of my network marketing hustler? Social media loves to dub such people “Karens,” so there was that name…eh, too on the nose. So I looked back into my own memories of bullies and deceives to uncover the name of a girl who was a real jerk during our school days: Nicole.
The woman turns away from the old man and locks eyes with Nicole. For a moment, Nicole is a freshman on the bus all over again, snickering at the pathetic group of Old Sancs boarding to attend school at New Sanctuary thirteen miles away, and none was more pathetic than the hunched creature in patched rags named Remembrance Priest. That was the creature Nicole pictured when she messaged that name and a hundred others about Suzy Ray! and its wonders. That was the creature Nicole pictured when agreeing to meet in this town forgotten among the fields of corn and cow shit.
“Oh, my, gosh,” Nicole says. Normally she must count to three between each word so she sounds as wondrously pleased as possible, but Remembrance’s total lack of hunchback makes the greeting almost genuine. “Look at you, Mem! Has it really been ten years?” And a part of Nicole wriggles at how ten years has affected Mem. Her skin is smoother, firmer. Her braid of thick hair looks strong enough for a rope swing. Was Mem always this tall?Did another Ray of Sunshine beat me here?
Mem waves like the homecoming queen she never was. “Hiii!” She says and embraces Nicole so tightly Nicole almost spills her drink. Mem’s lips press through Nicole’s dark curly hair and onto her Suzy Ray! sunshine studs. “Sooo good to see you, Nicole. You look sooo pretty.”
Ten years clearly hadn’t taken the sliding whine out of her voice.
When the conflict shines so clearly before us, we must capture every line, every movement, as quickly as we can before that light dims. It is all too easy to allow our exploration of names get in the way of storytelling, so using the simplest identifier possible will keep characters straight until their true identities come to you.
I’ll be the first to admit I got lost in names for myFallen Princebornnovels. Nearly all the names went through multiple changes as I researched history and better understood my velidevour world. Only Charlotte’s name remain unchanged, for it was a choice close to my maternal heart. Bo and I had been considering the name for our daughter-to-be, but in the end we gave Blondie a different name and Charlotte remained bodiless, name of strength, fluidity, tenacity, beauty and…I just had to put that identity, that soul, to use. The different versions of “Charlotte” also allowed the girl to make her name a boundary in and of itself, which helped those around her–and readers–see when she had finally accepted the friendship and trust of another.
“Come now, Charlie, don’t leave.” Liam’s fingertips graze her hand.
“Don’t call me Charlie.” That’s for family. You are not my family.
“Cate’s the luckiest princeborn ever, having a brother like you,” Charlotte lets the thought out, surprising herself a little, but sorry for the slip? Nah.
Dorjan blushes. “Well then, here.” He pulls an extremely fast hat trick of hair tug, ear flick, nose tweak. “Consider yourself an Honorary Durant.”
And now Charlotte can’t help but hug them both, these two who were willing to fight alongside her before they had known her a single day. “Call me Charlie.”
The House of Artair holds many Gaelic names. I wanted this family to be rooted to the Isles, intelligent and fierce. “Artair” is a version of Artur, which is Gaelic for “Noble Bear.” Considering the vicious head of the House, Bearnard (“strong as a bear”), transforms into a bear, this was a perfect fit. Liam’s name was a tricky one; it needed to carry the weight of his parents’ aspirations as well as the truth of his inner spirit. Plus, as a writer, I wanted the name to carry a timeless feel to it. Discovering Liam means “resolute protector” was nothing short of a miracle. Liam’s parents are determined to see him lead all velidevour into a new age of dominance; Liam desires to protect Charlotte and those who have come to support him and fight alongside him. And it’s a timeless name. 🙂
Granted, we sometimes allow ourselves a name purely because it sounds cool. Disraeli is the name of a Celestine, offspring of stars and magic. Why did I pick the name Disraeli? Because I saw it in a magazine and thought, That’s a really cool name. It was originally the name I intended for Arlen, but when I realized the need for the princeborn names to carry meaning and history, I knew I had to change that name. Still, I had to find someone to hold that name, and a creature of the stars just happened to fly by…
The world can help us discover character names, too. As I worked out the history of River Vine and the velidevour trapped there, I could see the natural setting would mean everything to them. They were souls who used animal and human bodies to hunt their prey as dictated by wicked The Lady of the Pits. Nature above ground would be their peace, their refuge. This led to me using plant names for many of them, such as Nettle, Poppy, and Campion. Does your own story-world have ties to nature, the elements, or some other unique feature in the setting?
Or perhaps the very world in which you write must change. This happened to me a ways back with Middler’s Pride. The first version of the story was a co-collaboration of sorts with fantasy author Michael Dellert, but as our goals with the character changed, he continued on his world’s story arc and I continued on with the character. This meant renaming recreating the Shield Maidens’ world and practically everyone in it, starting with the protagonist Gwen.
Now here I had to keep in mind that I was not just renaming a protagonist, but a character within a group of protagonists. This meant I did not want the characters’ names to sound alike, have the same cadence, start with the same letter, etc. Now that may sound silly–why should those impact the name if the name MEANS something amazing?–but this is an important strategy for the readers’ sake. How on earth will readers keep a group of protagonists straight if their names blend together or are easily mistaken?
So I first had to look at my own Shield Maidens whose names did not need to change: Wynne, Tegan, and Ellylw. I had chosen all these Welsh names loving how the names bounced so dramatically between simple and complex. Each starts with a unique sound and phonetically differs enough that one shouldn’t confuse them when reading aloud. But they were also all rather short, so Gwen’s new name could not be that simple. Oh, it could have the potential for a nickname–Ellylw becomes “Elle” pretty quickly–but it still needed to be longer than a couple syllables. So, I focused my search on longer Welsh names, and came across Meredydd, “Protector of the sea.” Considering Middler’s Pride is the tale of Meredydd and the other Shield Maidens rescuing the River Goddess from a cursed beast, this name felt right.
Mer watched the sunlight caress the blade. She heard footsteps, and knew the others had pulled in around her to form a half-circle. Hauling lumber would surely take them until dawn, but by dawn she’ll have this worthless batch of—
“Wynne, stand here. Tegan, right? How’s your balance?”
“Hey, what?” That circus freak, walking about like she was next in command. The bloody nerve. “You heard the captain. The best way to get that dagger down will be a ramp, and that’s going to take lumber. All we need is an axe and—”
“No we don’t.”
And I’M the upstart? “Captain Vala said—“
“She said to get the dagger.” The circus freak pressed down on each of Wynne’s shoulders. The pretty face winced, but didn’t complain. “We don’t need lumber. Just a couple good backs. Wynne, I think you can do it.”
She shriveled at the compliment. “I-I’m afraid I’m not as strong as you. I don’t want anyone getting hurt.”
“All the more reason to train up,” Meredydd tugged her arm towards the gate. Ye gods, it was soft as dough. This girl wasn’t lying. “You can’t be a Shield Maiden without power in your limbs.”
“And she’ll get there.” The circus freak grabbed Wynne’s other arm. “But not because you make her do something stupid.”
If Mer could just get Wynne behind her and away from this twit—“Would the king bestow a weapon upon an idiot?”
The circus freak’s scar across her gross face went all squiggly. “Sure, if he’s desperate.”
Wynne yowled. Tegan’s fists tightened around her hips and she screamed:
“STOP YOU’RE RIPPING WYNNE’S ARMS OFF!”
Three loud THUDS and the girls fell in a heap against the gate. Tegan coughed, shook, and ended up plopping down herself. “Look, this”—she waved at the three of them—“is stupid. Mer, you want to follow orders the idiot way? Fine. I’ll go with you. Wynne, you want to work with…”
“Sounds like a pig call.” Mer ignored Tegan’s glare. It seemed to keep her magick at bay, for one thing. And for another, the circus freak’s name did sound like a stupid pig call.
Wynne fixed her hair. Gods help her when a twig undoes her braids. “I think it’s pretty.”
The circus freak rolled her eyes as she finished catching her breath. “Just call me Elle, it’s easier.”
We are blessed to live in a world of countless tongues and histories. A single name can be the seed to a hundred variations, each unique with potential for an identity across the oceans. Whether you begin with that seed or uncover it as you dig through a story-world’s soil, be mindful of that name’s beginnings, the culture in which it is rooted. Nurture that name with the respect it deserves, and you will find a character as strong and perfect as the imaginary world you cultivate.
A collection of book reviews by Patricia Skalka — A Chicago native, life-long reader and author of "Death Stalks Door County," "Death at Gills Rock," "Death in Cold Water," and "Death on a Ferry," the first four volumes in the Dave Cubiak Door County mystery series.