It’s been a joy to read indie authors on my podcast Story Cuppings these past few weeks. The tasting began with Jason Savin, who reached out to me about his book Beyond the Elven Gate: A trilogy of works. Not only was it a joy to read his book, but it was a treat to interview Jason as well! My friends, it is an honor to introduce you to Jason Savin!
Thank you so much for taking time to chat here, Jason! Let’s start with your journey through literature. What is your favorite childhood book?
I only began reading Wind in the Willows and Peter Pan about 20 years ago, when I was in my early 30s, and really loved them. But from my own childhood I loved The Folk of the Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. Those exciting tales of Moonface and his friends really transformed my dull childhood into a world where excitement could be found.
Ah, I didn’t read those classics as a child, either. Oddly enough I didn’t read as much fantasy in my child as I do now; back then it was all Nancy Drew, lol. I don’t recall any deep emotional connection to the characters–I just enjoyed a fun mystery! Did you ever feel yourself overwhelmed with emotion while reading?
It may have been To Kill a Mockingbird. The court scene was so unjust, knowing that an innocent man was going to jail for such a vicious crime that he clearly hadn’t committed. It is still a very powerful book today.
Indeed, Jason, it really is! I’m sure many other readers would agree with you, too. Is there a story you love that you feel is under-appreciated today?
Many years ago, I bought a book called Period Piece written by Gwen Raverat, who was a grand-daughter of Charles Darwin. It’s not really a novel, as it’s autobiographical, but it takes the reader to a different world of long ago. It’s filled with little artistic sketches drawn by Gwen herself and it is so beautifully written. I own almost a thousand books and this is one of my favourites.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
I regularly get this, when I’m reading a passage and my mind begins to wander. I then have to re-read sometimes a few times before I can get through the ‘block’ to find out what is actually happening in the story.
I’ve had that same experience! It usually happens when I have to read something about teaching philosophies….or when I’m reading final exams, but that should be a given. 🙂 What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I really don’t remember the first time, but I am acutely aware of many incidents when people have tried to vocally put me down. It’s probably because I’m quite quiet so I can sometimes appear to be an easy victim. And I have verbally ripped those people apart. Not noisily, just in a more intellectual way than they are prepared for, and anything that they say back to me, I can turn those words on their head and use it like a weapon against them. I sometimes find it a little annoying how much enjoyment I get when this happens. But I really can’t stand bullies.
You and me both, my friend. You and me both. I think that’s why I love words so much: Words Have Power. They have the power to amuse, to intrigue, to seduce, to inform, to enrage, to inspire, to…well, to do anything. I know my own spirit is always lifted whenever I have the chance to write. Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Mostly energize. Hours can pass very quickly when I’m writing. And when I’m finished, it is usually only because of some pressing chore that needs doing, and I feel a little peeved that I can’t continue with my creativity.
I feel that way every time I have to focus on school work than writing!Such time is so very precious; in fact, I’d have to say that one of the toughest pieces of my writing life is finding time to write. What would you say is the most difficult part of your own artistic process?
That’s an easy question. The most difficult part is trying to find the time to write, too. It is hard to empty your mind to fully concentrate on writing knowing that you’ve got housework to do, or a needy dog that needs some love and attention.
Let’s ignore that housework just a bit longer and discuss your book. Beyond the Elven Gate: A Trilogy of Works includes a history of the Elven race that you researched from “historical records.” I love the variety of sources you used to create this history–from burial records to newspapers and everything in between. What first spurred you to start this project, and how do you shift yourself from the researching process to the writing process? I know my research can overwhelm my own creativity, to be sure!
Thank you for that. That particular piece called A Treatise on the Evolution of the Fairy began when I was writing another book, called Kings of Munster. (I’m still writing this other book and have been working on it for over 10 years now). But this history of the Elven race was basically a lot of information that I had found whilst researching my other book. I was fascinated by what I was reading and thought that many other people might also be interested, so I tried to write the information in date order to see what this evolution of the fairy race would look like. I was quite astounded by my findings.
It was quite easy to shift from researching to writing, as I was keep trying to write whilst I was researching. Until finally I was doing mostly writing, and only researching the odd fact or detail. But I had to consciously stop researching really, as it is a subject that I could easily have spent years working on and would never get my Kings of Munster finished.
One tale in Beyond the Elven Gate is about a mother’s search for her adopted son at the time when the Fairy-Mounds are open. What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
I began writing this tale, as normal, until I realised that I was writing from a Mother’s perspective. I tried to change it, but quickly realised that this was the voice that the story needed. Obviously writing characters from the opposite sex in some ways will always be impossible, because most people only live their life as one sex, but as I trained as an actor and have inhabited many different characters over the years, who are all very different to myself, some of them even being women, I find that I can somehow morph into different people when I’m writing. Whether or not I’m any good at it I really don’t know; I’ll leave that to the reader to decide.
Let’s wrap up looking at another talein Beyond the Elven Gate. “Good People” takes readers on a journey with an elderly gentleman as he deals with challenges put to him by the Good People. Such a variety of characters and character types in a single volume is so delightful for the reader! Do you feel yourself drawn to write a certain aged character? What process do you have to help you enter that older–or younger–mindset in order to make the language and mannerisms remain true?
When I was writing this character of Wilfred, I partly based him upon my own Grandad, who I was very close to. Due to this closeness, I was naturally drawn to writing this elderly character this way, probably in a bid to bring him back alive, in the only way that I can. To enter into the mindset of these different characters I tend to use an acting technique called ‘the Magic If’. Which is basically if I was that character how would I feel, how would I think, how would I react. This helps me to try to become that person whom I’m writing about.
Thank you so much, Jean, for asking me such thought provoking questions. It has been a joy to answer them.
And many thanks to you, Jason, for taking time to chat with us! I’ll be watching for Kings of Munster to appear at my virtual bookshop. If you, my friends, haven’t had a chance to hear a sample of Beyond the Elven Gate, you can listen to my podcast episode on Story Cuppings.
October is coming! We simply must get a bit spooky. I’m keen to share the roads diverging on that “Blue House Doll” snippet I shared with you in my last post. Perhaps we’ll uncover some music to inspire a fright, or perhaps visit a beloved tale from my childhood. Or shall we wander Wisconsin to find a haunted home both beautiful and lonely? Let us see. x
Huzzah, fall is here at last! My favorite season of sunlight caught in autumn leaves and chilled breezes. Granted, summer had its highlights. My family met with fellow indie author Anne Clare’s family in July for a day, and it was…oh, just a day to fill the heart. Our kids played together, Bo got to catch up with his longtime friend, Anne’s husband, and I got to sit and talk with Anne about life, storytelling, reading–the lot.
Bo and I also took our three Bs northward to Eagle River for a few days of mini-golf, fishing, and swimming. No Paul Bunyan days, sadly, but it’s probably for the best that I didn’t bring Biff and Bash near any chainsaws.
Actually, that trip northward is why I changed my topic for today’s post. I originally intended to discuss everyday absurdities and how they can play nicely into humor writing (don’t worry, we will get to that before 2021 is over), but visiting a Wisconsin “monster” got me thinking about the oddities created where we are and how they can inspire our storytelling.
I wasn’t able to touch much on the history of this local monster in previous posts, so allow me to share a few highlights from The LaCrosse Tribune. The beast was first mentioned in the news back in 1893 by a lumberjack named Gene Shepard. Reports transitioned from killing hodags to capturing a live one that was then exhibited at a county fair in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Was the beast real? Well, its hide was made of actual animal hides, so there’s that. It also moved about in its cage (thanks to the puppetry work done by Shepard’s friends), causing many to cry out in fear as they were shuffled quickly through the small, dim tent “for their safety.” Shepard did confess to his prank…well, after East Coast newspapers picked up on his story and hailed it as a scientific discovery. Shepard’s life took a downturn, and Rhinelander did not mourn his death in 1923. After about a decade, though, the town started to take a liking once more to the Hodag, using it as a mascot for schools, businesses, and the town itself. You can get a really nice detailed history from this Wausau Daily Herald article if you’re interested.
Why oh why would Shepard make up something like this Hodag, and how on earth could the story have been considered legit? First, there are Native American legends to give a bit of history to this “discovery.” The Anishinaabe spoke of an “underwater panther” called the Mishibizhiw, whose depictions in art strike a number of similarities to the Hodag. Lumberjacks could have easily seen such art and spread the tale through the woods of Canada and down into the Midwest. The Wausau Daily Herald article then notes that the lumber industry was stagnating at that point in Wisconsin, and in the North Woods, the lumber industry was EVERYTHING. Plus, it’s important to add that towns in the northern half of Wisconsin are often very small, and very widespread among the forests there. Wisconsin’s got a lot of farmland, sure, but that mainly lies in the southern half of the state. North, only small farms took hold in the wilderness. In fact, driving by such farms in my youth inspired one of the settings in my Fallen Princebornseries. They are isolated and alone in the unknown, and when one’s walled in among endless tall pines, maples, oaks, and birches, the calls of cougars, bears, wolves, and eagles can sound like just about anything.
Imagination is a powerful thing. All it takes is a single sight, a single sound, a single story to manifest into that which cannot be forgotten. Even if the legend transforms year to year, its root remains the same.
Or in another case, its face.
A lone doll in an attic window may not sound like much of a story, but in a small, isolated town in Minnesota, that doll has been the source of many stories ghostly and tragic. The Janesville Doll, as it is known, sat in this window for decades. It watched my parents travel to Minnesota for college. It watched me travel to Minnesota for graduate school.
Oh yes. I saw this doll, and I saw it often. It was impossible not to when driving at night through Janesville and the only light upon the street came from that attic window. The doll transformed into a dark specter at night, its features lost until dawn. Some say it walked the attic. Some say it cried out in the night. Some say it was a memorial created by parents who regretted isolating their daughter from the town only to discover her hanged in her room. Some say the doll was an old man’s revenge against the community after its children mocked his disabled grandson and drove the child to hang himself. Some say it was just a curious discovery by a local antique collector who wanted to display something in the attic window and left it there. Some say the truth is locked away in the town’s time capsule, only to be revealed in a hundred years.
No matter what some say, the legend left its porcelain handprint upon the Midwestern imagination. Years later I still think upon that doll, and I think on what could be–not likely, and yet–true.
BLUE HOUSE DARE
You stand outside Blue House with a candy bar in one hand and a pocket knife in the other. I’m behind the light pole, where the attic window’s light cannot reach. I try to tell you how important it is that The Doll shouldn’t see you first, how the attic light itself is how The Doll touches the world beyond Blue House, but you don’t care. You’re new here. You have something to prove here. I do not.
Cam and his gang go quiet from their hiding place under the Sunderson Porch. Everyone knows the Sundersons have the only house older than Blue House because of the fire back in 1903, so anyone brave enough to watch a Blue House Dare always hides somewhere on or near the Sunderson Porch. That a bunch of football players can squeeze themselves under there is beyond me. All I know is I will not fit with them and that you should have said No.
You think we’re stupid for being afraid. I saw it in your face when our bus stopped for the stop sign outside Blue House this morning and everyone—everyone—went quiet except for you. Sure, you thought it was something you said at first, but then you noticed us all looking away from Blue House.
Don’t look, I whispered. Never look at Blue House from a bus. It looks for eyes.
So of course you looked with your bright green eyes.
Why? You didn’t even whisper. It’s just a shitty house. Is that…fuck, there’s a doll in the window. Shit, that’s creepy.
Only after the bus turned onto School Street away from Blue House did anyone else say anything, let alone breathe.
The hell is wrong with you? You asked, even laughed. One of Cam’s gang was sitting in front of us—the shock of white hair above the right ear marks all of them. His glare shut your laugh up quick enough.
Stories move quickly through a small school in a small town. Maybe if you had moved in during summer, I could have prepared you better. But your family didn’t arrive until yesterday, and they sent you out this morning assuming small town equals safe town.
Comments or feedback on the tale so far? It’s a strange yet delightful pleasure, writing these Outer Limits style stories. 🙂 Perhaps a look into your own local lore will uncover peculiar tales that are bound to spark something new in your storytelling, something strange, something that could not be told anywhere else but where you are.
Time to start digging.
I’m really excited to share the rest of this story with you next month, as well as a little conundrum I have with worldbuilding here. Another author interview is on its way, too! Plus, Blondie promises to share some of her latest story with us, and yes, I AM going to talk about humor for realsies. After watching my children interact with a Hodag, how can I not?
Happy Wednesday, one and all! This August I wanted to take a moment to share books recommended to me by you, my wonderful fellow creatives.
The genre tastes here will vary widely, so bring your sparkling water to cleanse the palate between sips. Let’s begin with…
What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Should I be reading these books after long days of grading? Let’s find out!
If there are any stories you would like to recommend for sipping on this podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’d also welcome reading any indie authors’ own stories. Let’s all enjoy different genres and styles of storytelling throughout the year, shall we? xxxxxx
Good morning, my fellow creatives! We’ve come, at last, to the midwest summer’s sunset.
Such are the days when decisions must be made. Quests must be completed. Evil must be thwarted before twilight takes us and all is lost.
Such are the days when a hero shows his mettle. Such are the days never to be forgotten, for they live on in the tales we pass from one generation to the next.
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of super-natural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces
Seriously, why makes such heroes appeal to so many across so many cultures and time periods? Sure, Bilbo Baggins appeals because he’s nice and stuff, but what about this guy?
Clint Eastwood’s character inHigh Plains Drifter is not what one would call “likeable.” In fact, if there were ever an example of the anti-hero, it’d be this Man With No Name. He comes out of nowhere to an isolated seaside mining town and literally turns it red as Hell. As Eastwood himself explains:
“It’s just an allegory…a speculation on what happens when they go ahead and kill the sheriff and somebody comes back and calls the town’s conscience to bear. There’s always retribution for your deeds.”
James Neibaur, The Clint Eastwood westerns.
Well, that doesn’t sound like something Bilbo would do. That fellow was ready to halt his own adventure because he forgot a handkerchief, for goodness’ sake. But there is good reason to bring Bilbo and our Man With No Name together. See, when one studies storytelling, one sees certain archetypes transcend cultural and racial barriers. One such archetype is the outsider who brings change to the story’s world and its characters. This outsider does not follow that story-world’s code for justice, but their own, and in following their own code brings about the salvation—or damnation—of the story-world they encounter.
Now Bilbo fits this to a degree. I wanted to use this character as an introduction of sorts to this Hero talk because he does follow his own code no matter what others say or do, and he is, above all else, an Outsider to the ways of Dwarves, Burglary, Dragons, and War. While Bilbo’s skills change on this quest, he also brings about a change within Thorin, albeit late.
In High Plains Drifter, The Man With No Name does not change, not one bit. His very presence brings out the worst in the town: greed, lust, gluttony, jealousy. But above all else, the town is afraid, very afraid. Those they hired to kill the sheriff–and then immediately set up for arrest and imprisonment–have escaped their prison and are on their way for revenge. The townspeople hate Eastwood’s Outsider, the one who can kill with such ease, but they fear their past more. They realize too late The Man With No Name’s skills in manipulation are just as great as his skills with weapons, and by movie’s end the town burns bloody red in punishment for past sins.
Such is the way of the Punisher….or, the way of the Male Messiah.
As the Punisher, he’ll curse the man who has “fallen” to teach him a lesson. He wants to break the man’s ego. He’ll kill the man’s spirit to transform him into his image. He may try to justify himself to others, but they’ll never fully understand his power or the burden he carries.…the Male Messiah may not know of his connection to the Divine, but he may just be driven to accomplish something important. In this respect, he isn’t working on a spiritual goal. It seems his whole life is for one sole purpose and that purpose affects the lives of thousands of people… His character may not change, but others will change because of him.
Victoria Lynn Schmidt, 45 Master Characters
I’ve shared this book–and this quote!–when I was releasing my second novel, Fallen Princeborn: Chosen. Understanding the roots of such an archetype helps we writers better understand how a character who is not of our story’s setting, one who is driven by a cause–not a selfish cause per say, but a cause that in the character’s eyes will lead to salvation for those who matter. “Those who matter” will vary on the character: the Male Messiah feels all matter, while the Punisher will decide who matters.
In modern cinema, John Wick is a good example of a Punisher audiences root for. He left the assassin’s life to marry his love. He no longer has any part in the criminal underworld, and has found contentment in nature with his wife. His love eventually dies of illness, but left him a puppy to care for. A Russian mobster’s spoiled son steals Wick’s car and kills the puppy.
Unleash the vengeance.
Italy’s Djangoseries is another fine example of this Outsider-Turned-Hero. Here’s a drifter with guns moving along the wild lands of the United States-Mexican border. His rules are his own–he means to kill the man who killed his lover. That a town is currently under the thumb of this man and would thrive if saved from this man is just a coincidence, really.
Django’s got his own rules, and even if his own hands are crushed, he WILL find a way to lay his enemies to waste. Cause above all.
Revenge for love stolen before its time is something we as readers and audiences can understand, even root for. John Wick doesn’t go off killing the doctors who couldn’t cure his wife, but he does destroy those who kill the innocent puppy his wife had gifted him in her will. In Thailand’s Tom yum goong (known in the United States as The Protector), Kham doesn’t go after an Australian gang just because the gang and its drugs are evil. His family has been protectors of the royal war elephant line for centuries, and Kham is content to continue this special life. When a Vietnamese gang leader kidnaps two of those elephants and takes them to Sydney, Kham hunts them down and lays waste to them, one gang member at a time, until the elephants are back in his care. Cause above all.
Australia’s Mad Max series–Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior, in particular–has Max seeking fuel, as all are seeking fuel in that desolate, dystopian place. When he hears there’s a refinery nearby with tons of the stuff, Max is ready to go grab some for himself no matter who else lives there. That the refinery is under siege by the Marauders makes no difference at first–the Marauders aren’t after Max, so Max doesn’t care. Max is just the Outsider in the situation, looking for his moment to benefit. That moment just so happens to line up with helping those in the refinery escape the Marauders’ siege.
Because this is another thing about that Outsider-Turned-Hero: the Outsider often has no stakes in whatever conflict is already in play in the story’s setting. He simply exists, and in this moment, his existence seems to be merely passing through. South Africa’s District 9, Japan’s Yojimbo, and Italy’s A Fistful of Dollars (which is just Yojimbo again, really, so one should look to For a Few Dollars More here). In District 9, Wikus is just a government worker doing his job: informing the alien race stuck on earth that their provided homes and lands are going to shrink even more. He is an Outsider to the alien culture but is dragged into the alien/human government conflict when he accidentally exposes himself to some of the fuel an alien father and son have been collecting. His body starts to change. He does not want to change. He only helps the aliens if it will mean he gets to be human again and return to his child. In the end, Wikus still changes into an alien, but he chooses to help the alien and his son escape because in Wikus’ eyes, the family code is more important than whatever humans deem right or wrong.
Yojimbo tells the story of a wandering rōnin–masterless samurai–who comes across a town suffering under the power struggle of two warring bosses. The rōnin plays both bosses against one another to ruin them and save the town. This definitely makes the protagonist look like the Male Messiah, but is he doing it because it is “right,” or because it’s just what he wants to do because he lives by his own code? I mean, Fistful of Dollars sees The Man With No Name play the bosses against one another as he gets paid by each. The Man makes some serious money…and happens to bring some peace to the town. The Man wasn’t there to be a Messiah. He was there with his own livelihood, his own cause, above all else, and that cause led to being both a Punisher and Messiah in this particular setting’s conflict.
And perhaps that is another reason so many of us across different times and cultures connect with that Outsider: he is not restrained by whatever individual societies dictate. He believes in his own code above all else; sometimes that code benefits others, sometimes not, but that code rarely tolerates others vying for power. The Outsider has nothing to lose in joining the fray, and sometimes nothing to gain, either, yet the Outsider joins in. Whether he is a warrior with the skills to take the evil down–
–or a quiet countryman who prefers the peace of his pipe in the garden, The Outsider steps in front of the oppressed, the innocent, us, and decides, Enough of this.
And that, my friends, is a hero we love to share from one generation to the next.
I’m really excited to share my interview with Midwestern author Patricia Skalka! I recently reviewed the opening chapter of her book Death Stalks Door County on my podcast for Private Eye July. Check out this book and other awesome stories on Story Cuppings, a podcast where I take a sip from various tales to see if they fit the tastes of we picky readers and working writers. x
We also need to take a moment to ponder the place of everyday absurdity in our writing, as well as twins. Yes, twins. I was going to include this Native American legend I found about an Outsider here, but its connection with twins–and my own connection with twins–makes the subject too intriguing not to make its own post.
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!
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.