In short, Tchaikovsky is an amazing creative soul that we should all get to know a bit better. 🙂 How would you describe what you do, Sir?
So basically I mostly write books about spiders. Also dogs, AI, shapechangers, insect-people and anything else that lets me get out of a human skull. There’s not much more to me than that, in all honesty.
Considering the depth and breadth of your work, your imagination must have been nurtured with rich inspiration from little on. Are there any folks or favorite authors from your childhood that helped spark your passion for storytelling?
Absolutely – my great storytelling guru from teenage onwards was Diane Wynne Jones.
Oh yes, she vastly expanded my frame of reference as to what you can do with a story, how you can play with reader expectations, that sort of thing. The Homeward Bounders and Power of Three, especially. Jones pulls a number of switches on the reader in Power of Three, with regard to precisely what the setting is, who are the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people, all that, which really opened my eyes. Before that, as well as cutting my teeth on Dr Who novelisations, I loved Tove Jansson, because she built such a wonderful world with her stories.
My home state of Wisconsin is a curious patchwork of farms and wild places. I love exploring this landscape in my mind, creating stories to give shapes to the shadows hiding just out of sight. Would you say the landscape around you inspires your writing, or has been utilized in some way to help build a story’s setting? That swamp you describe at the beginning of Guns of the Dawnfeels like this horrible place I knew near my summer camp…
So… actually no. I don’t tend to relate much to places I’ve been, per se. No more than places I’ve read about or seen pictures of. It all just feeds into the general melting pot in my head that I draw new creations from. I’ve never been in a swamp like that, but I seem to be able to imagine these places and put them on a page well enough to make them real to my readers.
All the more impressive, then, Sir, that you can stimulate the reader’s imagine to build such a real place known only in your own mind!
Now, let’s stick with Guns of the Dawn just a touch longer because it has an amaaaazing opener:
I killed my first man today…
The air was hot,muggy with moisture, filled with flies. Emily had not known hot before she came to these swamps. Hot had once been pleasant summer days with the corn ripening gold in the fields. Hot had been the good sun and the rich earth, and the labourers scaring crows or bringing a harvest in; a picnic on the Wolds, with a blue, blue sky cloudless above. Hot was a fierce fire burning in the study when the world outside was chill. There must be another word for this all-encompassing heat.
I’ve already told my husband I’m treating myself to this book after I complete my pedagogical training this summer.
So after a first line that provides the point of view, time, and controversial action, you launch us into a paragraph filled with extremely vivid sensory details further enriched by memories of the past. Thanks to these memories, readers get the impression of a narrator who cares more about the quiet life in the farm land–a stark contrast to one who’s said she’s killed a man. You strike a delicate balance of grounding readers in the present moment of the story while also flashing back into the narrator’s past and how the world once was. Can you describe your process of finding this balance?
This is going to sound very zen, which frankly I am not in any way, but there is a big subconscious element to that level of my writing. I was never formally taught about writing technique, I just read a whole hell of a lot, and then I wrote a whole hell of a lot, and my writing got better with each book I tried. Although there is a definite conscious input, and as I’ve got better I’ve become more aware of things I can do deliberately to create an effect, a great deal of it just comes out of the way the words spill onto the page in their raw form.
Well paint me green with storytellin’ envy, Sir, because your opening lines are as consistently effective as those created by Diana Wynne Jones. A wee survey of your stories uncovers hooks both big and small.
There were no windows in the Brin 2 facility—rotation meant that ‘outside’ was always ‘down’, underfoot, out of mind. The wall screens told a pleasant fiction, a composite view of the world below that ignored their constant spin, showing the planet as hanging stationary-still off in space: the green marble to match the blue marble of home, twenty light years away. Earth had been green, in her day, though her colours had faded since. Perhaps never as green as this beautifully crafted world though, where even the oceans glittered emerald with the phytoplankton maintaining the oxygen balance within its atmosphere. How delicate and many-sided was the task of building a living monument that would remain stable for geological ages to come.
From this paragraph we learn the story’s location, the time frame, and the narrator’s love of this created home. We are also left asking: “What happened to earth?” And we are driven to read on.
It went wrong for me when they made Sethr an outcast.
From this sentence we learn the story’s point of view, that there is some powerful “they” capable of ruining someone’s life, and because one person’s ruined, so is our narrator. We are also left asking: “Who is this mighty ‘they’? Why should Sethr’s fate mess up life for the narrator?” And we are driven to read on.
Writing compelling openers is surely one of the most important challenges any writer faces. Do you have any advice for writers who struggle crafting their hook?
I am going to raise a hand and say that good lord I’ve had books where the opener has been a problem, and it is super important. Often it’s a matter of where in the story you start – easy to start things too soon and have too much lead-in. And there’s a huge pressure to start with everything on fire, meaning that certain types of storytelling are virtually extinct in the genre right about now. Sometimes I’d like to feel people would just amble with me a bit at the start…
I love the idea of ambling…and with over thirty titles to your name, there’s lots of ambling to do! Some of your titles are stand-alones, like The Expert System’s Brother; some are in trilogies, such as Echoes of the Fall; and then you have your TEN-book series Shadows of the Apt. I tip my hat to you for building worlds unique and complete time, and time, and time again, just like Jones. What thrills you about building a new world? How do you avoid the temptation of re-using elements? No writer wants readers to get déjà vu and think they’re just reading the same story over again.
Building worlds *is* the thing that thrills me, and I have a whole host of ideas yet to come. So far repeating worlds hasn’t been the issue (outside of sequels obviously). I’m more worried about repeating themes, because obviously there are certain things you come back to, each writer to their own, and there’s a real danger that you end up telling the same snippets of story over and over if you don’t remember to give them a different spin.
Another common problem for many writers–as well as movie-makers, I’d say–is crafting an action sequence that moves quickly and fiercely without confusing readers as to what’s going on. I know this was one of the toughest elements to hammer out in my own novel, which contains battles involving several key players duking it out all over the place. Your novels contain intense action on both an epic scale as well as an intimate one. How do you keep the language quick-footed without losing readers along the way?
Action sequences are very much an art of their own. Having a good grasp of the shape of the sequence is important I think – I plan a great deal anyway, and action sequences get thought through in the same way. A chase or a fight has a mini-narrative of its own, including opportunities to bring out character, to foreshadow, and to have their own emotional beats. A particularly big action scene can almost be a book in miniature.
Another resource that’s always helped me write action scenes as well as stay focused on the feeling of any given moment is music. For every author that tells me he/she loves having music to help set the mood for writing a scene, I hear from another author that he/she needs silence in order to write. Which camp do you call home and why?
I tend to listen to music when I write and have a series of playlists for different moods, to help me focus and blot out distraction. I generally listen to instrumental music from film soundtracks, computer games, and music written specifically for trailers (a good source of consistently hammery action music), Some composers you might not know who have some interesting stuff include Kyle Gabler, Lorne Balfe, and Bear McCreary.
(Gasps) GODZILLA?! Hell to the yes! Sign me up for some new composers to study later this year!
One reason I depend so heavily on music is because it helped me write when my children were small and at home all day. Now that my kids are old enough to attend school, I can usually find an hour of peace to write. Still, it’s extremely tough some days to balance parenthood and writer…hood. Authorhood. You get me.Do you have any tips for balancing writing and parenting?
Honestly my son’s 11 now so he’s more self-sufficient. I write in the mornings and very late evenings, though, which is a convenient way of working around family commitments.
Lastly, let’s talk about the ever dreaded Kryptonite. Writing Kryptonite, to be precise. There’s always something that can sap all creative power away in a heartbeat. For me, it’s a phone call from my sons’ school principal. It takes a good long while of watching my sons lose themselves in their own adventures with droids, transformers, and wild animals before my own creativity sparks back to life. What would you call your Writing Kryptonite, and how do you overcome it?
Arguments with my son will do it, but as a sort of contributor to a general cycle of depressive ups and downs that are quite capable of just doing their own thing with me, without any actual outside stimulus. Writing is a big drive for me, though. If I’m not writing, it has a serious negative effect on my mental state all its own. So although a downswing can make it hard to get going, once I’m actually writing I can generally retreat into it from my problems.
My deepest thanks again to Adrian Tchaikovsky for taking the time to talk to us today! You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and his website, too.
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
We’re going to meander through some gorgeous western scores in anticipation of my upcoming Night’s Tooth.
Mississippi River Valley, 1870s. The white man wields rails and guns to bring law to the land. But there are more than wild animals hiding in the territories, and it will take more than guns to bring them down.
Sumac the bounty hunter needs no guns to hunt any bandit with a price on his head, even one as legendary and mysterious as Night’s Tooth. But Sumac didn’t count on other bounty hunters coming along as competition, nor did he expect hunters sharing his own magical gifts.
It’s one man against a gang and a mystery, all to protect a train that must cross the territories at all costs…
Inspired by classics like For a Few Dollars More and fantasy cult favorites like Highlander, “Night’s Tooth” is a western with a fantasy edge set in the Fallen Princeborn universe.
We’ll also do some adventuring about Wisconsin and do a wee worldbuilding study of a recent western fantasy,Charlaine Harris’ An Easy Death.More author interviews are on the way, too. I hope you’ll join me!
I wish I could tell you just when it started, this love for the western. It should have been decades ago, when my brothers and I watched our old recorded VHS on the making of Star Wars yet again while Mom just wanted to sit and watch John Wayne in a classic like Stagecoach or The Searchers. But I had no patience for the kind of western where women clutch their aprons while Native Americans gallop by with villainous intentions and only John Wayne with his swaggering cadence can talk a coward into being a brave man just long enough to shoot the savage and save this little refuge of civilization.
Oh no. Iiiii had to sit and watch a rogue with a laser gun help out wizened old man and a snot-nosed kid who thinks he’s smart in the saddle hold out from attacks by corrupt powers….heeey…sounds, um…
Sounds kinda like a western. (More on that later.)
But aren’t westerns just glorified propaganda for western civilization uprooting native cultures? Don’t all their shoot-outs result in a lot of powder in the air, women swooning, and men clutching their chests going, “Aaaurgh!”?
What is it about this period spanning thirty years (or sixty, depending on whom you ask) that draws us back again and again?
I can’t speak for others, but dammit, I’ll speak for me.
A Hero uncivilized and unrestrained.
A couple weeks ago I wrote about the antihero, and how this individual for good or ill lives by his own code to meet his own ends. In the western this character certainly exists, but there are plenty of heroes, too, who are out to right a wrong and carry out some justice…only, their means ain’t exactly pretty (see High Plains Drifter for the ugliest justice there is). Plus, these folks are by no means super-heroes or ramped up by crazy technology (unless, of course, you’re in Wild Wild West).
The hero–or antihero–of the western is often one of minimal means caught up in a conflict where the other side has more bullets, more men, more high ground. Jack Shaefer, a writer of westerns, elaborates on this point:
The western story, in its most usual forms, represents the American version of the ever appealing oldest of man’s legends about himself, that of the sun-god hero, the all-conquering valiant who strides through dangers undaunted, righting wrongs, defeating villains, rescuing the fair and the weak and the helpless — and the western story does this in terms of the common man, in simple symbols close to natural experience . . . depicting ordinary everyday men, not armored knights or plumed fancy-sword gentlemen, the products of aristocratic systems, but ordinary men who might be you and me or our next-door neighbors gone a-pioneering, doing with shovel or axe or gun in hand their feats of courage and hardihood.
This is why I love Clint Eastwood in so many of his westerns. He’s shot, beaten, left to die in the desert, and God knows what else. We see him lose as much blood as he draws. He, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Jeff Bridges, and loads others show their struggle for a better self in a world that rewards the greedy and vicious. The price to be paid when doing the right thing can be pretty damn high, and the heroes are willing to sacrifice it all, including their own goodness, to pay it.
Which brings me to my next point. (And to one of the happiness quotes I was challenged by the lovely Lady Shey to hunt down and share.)
Action! Bang bang, punch kick kapow, boom blam CRASH!
In case you didn’t know from other posts, I’m something of an action junkie. (The fact that 1987’s Predator is another one of my all-time favorite movies should tell you a lot about me.) Westerns promise action. There may be tons of gun fights, or only a few. There may be a total blood bath such as in Django Unchained, or a drawn….out….showdown…years…in…the making….
That’s part of the western’s beauty. The climax can be a chess game of men, where pawns are removed one by one until all that remains are the kings of the board…and, perhaps, a rook. We have to watch their necks sweat, fingers twitch, eyes narrow, and wait, wait, wait for the moment where Hell will break loose–
Or, bullets fly and characters die in epic battle fashion, such as in The Magnificent Seven; we’re not sure who will survive the climactic battle, and because we know these heroes experience the broken bone and spirit of mortality, we cannot be certain any of them will make it at all.
(Unless, of course, you’re the townspeople of Blazing Saddles’ Rock Ridge, who all wind up breaking onto the set of another film and then the studio’s commissary for a huge food fight.)
Speaking of settings…
A landscape beautiful, terrifying, and untameable.
Western civilization may have crossed into the territories, but it is by no means in control of the land.
Communities are rarely large, and their ties with “proper” society–towns and cities east of the Mississippi–are tenuous at best. The first transcontinental railroad wasn’t completed until 1869, the first transcontinental telegraph only a few years before that. If someone travels west, they travel a lonely road, or a railroad often unguarded. They enter territories that never belonged to them, and yet are determined to keep them.
I figured this riverside town would be the perfect place to set my western fantasy novella Night’s Tooth. Wisconsin earned its statehood in the 1840s, sure, but it’s not like all of it was paved with pristine society by the end of the Civil War, right?
Well…the first settlers established the community of La Crosse in the 1840s a few years before that statehood, so yeah, Wisconsin still had a bit of wildness to it as far as governance goes, but by the end of the Civil War the log cabins had been replaced by a full-on city with one of the country’s first swing bridges for the Southern Minnesota Railroad.
No longer did rail cars have to be ferried across the great river to journey west. The White Man had brought his roads and buildings and built them all square and orderly to the Mississippi River Valley. Man had conquered Nature.
As far as Wisconsin was concerned, the Wild of its West was lost.
I can’t write a story where the West ISN’T Wild!!!
The idea of La Crosse being so damned orderly and efficient at growing really galled me. It galled me so much I figured my main character, a bounty hunter named Sumac, would be galled too, and call it a damn shame.
Then it hit me.
Use the city’s history in the story. Show how this final bastion of “civilization” before the territories had its own moments of dark dealings. Perhaps, if I am very careful, sew some patches of magic goings-on onto time’s quilt of history, and in their threads tell a new tale of hunters who hide among us…
Mississippi River Valley, 1870s. The white man wields rails and guns to bring law to the land. But there are more than wild animals hiding in the territories, and it will take more than guns to bring them down.
Sumac the bounty hunter needs no guns to hunt any bandit with a price on his head, even one as legendary and mysterious as Night’s Tooth. But Sumac didn’t count on other bounty hunters coming along as competition, nor did he expect hunters sharing his own magical gifts.
It’s one man against a gang and a mystery, all to protect a train that must cross the territories at all costs…
Inspired by classics like For a Few Dollars More and fantasy cult favorites like Highlander, “Night’s Tooth” is a western with a fantasy edge set in the Fallen Princeborn universe.
Intrigued? I sure hope so! 🙂 I’ll be posting an excerpt from the story in this month’s Exclusive Free Fiction from the Wilds. Once I’m done mucking through the formatting business, I’ll publish Night’s Tooth as an e-book and set its price for 99 cents. If all goes well with children and teaching, Night’s Tooth will be available near the end of this month.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your favorite westerns in the comments below! You may also enjoy watching Cinefix’s very interesting breakdown of favorite westerns from across the decades, including the changes of tone and theme created by different directors in countries. (If you’re wondering when Star Wars was supposed to come up again in this post, watch the video.)
~Stay Tuned Next Week~
I’m super-stoked about next week’s interview! He’s a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award as well as a fellow fan of Diana Wynne Jones. After that we’ll study a new and unique Wild West set in an alternate America, then take a tour through some amazing composers for westerns before finally (fingers crossed and turning thrice widdershins) launching Night’s Tooth into the publishing wild!
Happy Thursday, everyone! I’m please to introduce you to J.D. Stanley. He’s an award-winning fantasy writer of novel and script as well as a Bardic Druid of the OBOD. It’s an honor to share his thoughts with you today on this, the writing life.
First, let’s talk a little about your background. I see you’ve done some work on radio and studio engineering. That’s so neat! It reminds me of Celine Kiernan, who spent years as an animator for Don Bluth before beginning her own writing career. How would you say your time with language-aloud influences your language-written?
It really was a neat experience. What a blast for a day job! Studio engineering and writing were the reasons I went into radio broadcasting in 1986. For a creative, nerdy introvert, all the behind-the-scenes stuff was super appealing. Audio engineering is a singular, unique avenue of creation – all you have are the sounds to build a world. I still love it. Without solid writing, though, no matter how good the production, it won’t sound realistic. Writing for that still makes me hyper-critical of my dialogue and narration today.
When I studied Radio in college, there was
a great deal of focus on learning to write words meant to be spoken – so
commercial copy, radio plays and show scripts. And the flip-side, how to speak
that writing, too. The point was, to craft something that didn’t sound scripted
even when it was. I was lucky enough to get picked up by a program director who
heard some of my freelance work and jobbed-out halfway through. Getting thrown into
the deep end like that really hammered it home. Knowing listeners would hear my
writing live shortly after I put the words down or a sponsor would pay more
than tens of thousands of dollars as soon as I produced or voiced a spot was…
terrifying. Nothing like having your feet to the fire to hone skills. Those lessons
will never leave me and my continued voiceover work as well as coaching written
and spoken communication keeps it fresh in my head.
I would say, all that time with language-aloud
makes me remember to read my writing outloud to check with my ears for
believability. The human ear is extremely sensitive to the naturalness of
speech, the nuance of humans speaking, and it strikes you when it’s fake. In my
opinion, it’s the best gauge a writer can use to check not only the flow, but
human believability of what’s written. I think it can help us make better
connections with our readers. If we can reach them as another human, be
accepted as a companion on a journey with them, we can connect. And when we can
connect, then what we write can mean something to them. But if we sound like
their Lit teacher? Dude, that’s just not gonna happen.
I once attempted a bit of screenplay writing some time ago, and…okay, not going to lie. I stunk at it. What challenges do you feel are unique to screenwriting as opposed to novel writing? What advantages? Do you have a preference between the two?
I really don’t have a burning desire to write screenplays daily and do prefer novel writing. I actually prefer fixing other people’s work, being a script doctor, over writing them if I’m being totally honest. I enjoy helping other people’s words work better. A script doctor gets no credit and most people don’t even know that’s a job.
There’s a specific pattern to the storytelling
in screenplays aspiring screenwriters need to learn. If you want to be a rebel
and not do it that way, that’s cool. But understand, that may be the reason
you’re not selling anything. It may be an interesting concept, for instance, so
someone takes a peak. And then they’re judged on a single page where there’s
supposed to be a predictable beat and it’s missing, so their work gets
round-filed. Or they don’t know the first thing about proper format and think
their story is so extraordinary everyone will look past that and give them gobs
of money anyway. Or they can’t write a logline to save their life, so no one ever
goes past the logline to read the script. Or they’re actually bad writers operating
under the delusion it doesn’t take good writing skills to write a screenplay.
I’d tell anyone thinking that screenwriting
is a cool career choice… First? Understand the chances of selling one are slim
to none. Once you get over that, you can move on. Practice the shit out of your
writing and, especially, educate yourself from film industry professionals. Study
books like Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat, read their blogs and absorb a
crap-tonne of successfully produced screenplays – there’s a million available
online – so you can see what it takes. And forget all those no-name Internet
screenwriting contests held by genre enthusiasts who aren’t writers and don’t
know what goes into a decent script. Sure, you’ll get something to put in your
credits. But winning a contest not hosted by industry professionals isn’t
validation of your talent as a screenwriter. If you thought it was? That’s
probably why you aren’t selling any scripts after the contest is over. Pick
contests held by actual screenwriters, directors and producers. They know what
they’re looking at. And a lot of them include feedback in reply for free even
if you don’t place. They’ll be harsh, you’ll hate everything they tell you and will
probably make you cry, BUT they’ll tell you exactly what to do to your script
to turn it into a saleable product. Use them as your university.
You’ve quite a rich variety of favorite authors shared on your website. Do you think you can pinpoint which author and story first sparked the passion for storytelling inside you, and why you think it was that story more than any other?
No, I can’t say there was any single author or story that sparked it for me. I could read and write before I started kindergarten, so was a bit ahead in that area and when I started writing my stories down consistently from when I was about nine, I hadn’t read any of those authors yet. My first love was sci-fi and that’s where I started writing, so maybe Gene Roddenberry was probably my earliest influence? I grew up on Star Trek in the ’60s, though didn’t know him as a writer at the time.
When I was about twelve, I’d read
everything I was allowed by that point and got special permission from the
local library to have an adult library card, so I could read more books. Real
books. Normally, you had to be eighteen to have one of those puppies. Then I
read everything in the adult fiction section. And all the poetry books. And
then went through all the reference books. You want to know the depths of my
nerdiness? I do, in fact, still relish the secret thrill of reading
encyclopaedias and the dictionary for fun. Not even kidding. Back then, I read
so fast, I started at one end of the adult section and used to take out thirty
books at a time. Just clear them off the shelf all in a row, any genre, any
author, and bring them home. I read one a day, sometimes two, and read every book
from one end of the library to the other. Hence the massive list of authors.
Sad as it is, I couldn’t even tell you who the rest of those fiction authors were, but I remember the stories. When I was thirteen, I read the John Jakes saga The Kent Family Chronicles and I think I can say around there was when I realised I had an affinity for historical stories. And then after ingesting more books, I fine-tuned that down to historical fantasy for what I most often prefer to write. Reading for pleasure, though? Just about every genre as long as the story is good. I wish there were more gunslinger books. What an under-represented genre.
Out of that ocean of stories, three will resonate with me until I’m dead – Robin Hood, The ThreeMusketeers and Don Quixote. And overarching all of them is The Crystal Caveby Mary Stewart and all Arthurian legend. I’m a total junky. And, of course, Lord of the Rings. Definitely a common theme. I’d like to think that says something about my character, but probably more what I would hope to aspire to and will never achieve. I think I was born in the wrong century. New things, like technology and science, fascinate the hell out of me and I continue to love sci-fi. But old things and old centuries make me feel at home.
If I understand your writing process correctly, I get the impression you’re something of a “pantser”—one who doesn’t plan out a story, but runs with the story as it comes. How on earth do you balance the madcap writing this method requires while also having kids? I got three, and there’s no way in Hades I can focus on my own story when they’re crashing Transformers and Enterprises into the land of Care-A-Lot.
Well, nowadays, my four kids aren’t little, so I’m at a different stage. Though every stage comes with its own unique challenges. I also no longer drive due to my cataract, so have built-in writing time while commuting everywhere which I use to my advantage.
The ability of life to persistently work to steal our focus never ends, though. I just got the kids all self-sufficient and almost out of the house (two down, two to go!), but now have different roadblocks. My dad has declining dementia from a brain injury sustained from a fall, so now? Two of the kids still need me for some things, and alternating between being with my dad at long term care after work until about midnight, and travelling an hour-and-a-half across the city to look after my mom and helping maintain their house. I’m basically writing long-hand wherever I can get it in and it’s weeks before I get to sit down to transcribe it. Or I’m doing everything on my phone and tablet on the go. It’s not the way I prefer to work and it’s slow, but it still lets me get it in there. Because I have to do it or my brain will explode!
When the kids were small, though? Honestly,
if I was a different person and they were different kids, it probably wouldn’t
have worked. I’m a super analytical control freak with troop movement-level organisation
skills, so there’s that. Okay, and a life-long insomniac, so have more awake
hours at my disposal than normal people. My most productive writing time is midnight onward, so it actually worked in my favour when
they were little. I used to go to bed at 7:30
or 8:00pm when they did and woke up at 12:30 or 1:00am to write.
I also got the laundry and cleaning done then to leave me free time to focus on
the kids in the day – every time I got up to make a coffee, I did one task. Once
a month I planned all the meals and snacks on a chart that I made shopping
lists from so I wouldn’t waste time or money. Sundays I cooked five full
dinners and parcelled them up in the fridge with labels on them to save time in
the week. I wrote a lot long-hand sitting on benches waiting for them to finish
swimming lessons or martial arts or whatever else I had them signed up for. Somewhere
in there, I cranked out five full first draft novels. I didn’t go on trips. I
didn’t go out. My entire life was kids and writing or consignment art. And I
was totally okay with that. Someone else? Maybe wouldn’t be.
I have very clear priorities. I’m also very
clear on what I’m willing to sacrifice. My mother wasn’t ever a well person, so
I learned early how to squeeze in things I really wanted to do between looking
after her, raising my two sisters and working part-time to help my dad. I
already had the experience when I found myself in the position of being the only
parent of my own four kids.
Okay, so the “pantster” thing… I can say,
with all honesty, I’ve never “pantsted” anything in my life. Being this
consistently, incredibly busy, most times? There’s no opportunity to write plans
down. But let’s be honest, a lot of the kid stuff wasn’t rocket science and it
left my brain free. So I trained myself to do it in my head. All of it. All the
figuring out, all the plotting. By the time I had a block of time to sit down
in front of a keyboard or with a pen and paper, I could just write my ass off.
All my “outlines” start the same way – with a super-descriptive hinging scene,
usually the story conflict or premise, with an important exposition of the main
character. It’s my brain shorthand for the whole story, a memory trick. Then I
start telling myself the story – the who, what, where, when, why – and it
morphs into the opening lines and I just keep going. The story is already done
in my head and I’m basically transcribing by that point. I do it that way now,
because that’s how it needed to happen then or it wasn’t getting done. And it
not getting done is unacceptable to me. Since I still don’t have a lot of time,
I’m still outlining in my head. At least when I have stolen moments, I can write
like a demon and not have to waste time plotting.
Wisconsin’s landscape has a been a HUGE source of inspiration for my fantasy fiction. Your first novel, Blood Runner, is set in Canada—just like you! Do you find yourself utilizing special places from your life for settings in your stories, or is the landscape itself a muse?
I’d say it’s more the landscape that’s the muse. There’s a few countries I have a huge affinity for, for no particular reason, though more in the historical sense – ancient Ireland, Britain, Rome, Egypt, Sumer, Japan. I’ve studied a lot about them over time, so have a lot of fodder in my head for inspiration. I can’t go to those places, because the ancient versions I want to visit no longer exist. So instead, I use them to write from. Being immersed in one of those places is like taking a visit back in time to me. It’s cool, like owning your own time machine, y’know?
In the grand scheme of things, Canada isn’t that old and doesn’t fit in with the
affinity I have for some of those other ancient places. But the forests here are
old and I do love that. The trees and rocks have been around a very long while.
There’s forest here with trees hundreds of years old and the Canadian
Shield is right underneath us and that’s been there since the last
ice age. How cool is that? I’ve spent a lot of time in the forests, so love to
write about them. Thinking about them is uplifting to me. I’m big on nature overall
and love to write longhand outdoors when that’s possible. I find that very
inspirational, sitting outside under a tree scratching words out.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Well, I’m a research junkie, so I’m doing research all the time, often not even toward a purpose, but because I love it. I have so much useless information in my head. So, the length of time I study is moot. With that much constant input, my subconscious has a tendency to make connections between seemingly unrelated things while I’m busy with life. When one of those connected circumstances bubbles up, that’s when I sometimes do extra research to fill in the holes. I can’t write about anything until I can speak about it with authority and I need to have it all in my head before I start. It’s what we do as writers, isn’t it? Become forty-eight hour experts on anything from rocket science to earth worms. When I know enough, then I write. To get to that point could be a few weeks, but could also be years. Since I don’t work on only one story at once, it’s always in rotation.
I do a lot of book studying, but depending
on what I need, also do practical study. Fight scenes or any hand combat, for
instance, I do, in fact, act out to make sure they’re plausible. I’m lucky, because
my eldest son does stunt work and is a multi-disciplined martial artist,
swordsman, archer and edge weapon aficionado. He helps me physically block out
my fight scenes for authenticity. I’ve done an extreme conditions survival
course where they drop you in the forest in the middle of winter and you need
to build a shelter, fire, find food and the like. I love camping and living off
the land and know how to fish and clean animals and find edible forage. I had
an organic garden when the kids were growing up, but it wasn’t only that – it
was major practical study. I read up on everything about crop rotation, pioneer
techniques for vegetable gardening, organic pest control and composting,
practiced it everyday, became a Master Composter, and tracked the results and
weather patterns complete with sketches in a large binder over all the years I
had it and still have that research data for reference. I also study, make and
use herbal remedies myself, so that’s ongoing, and have a great interest in
living off the grid, so currently practicing those behaviours as I work in that
direction. Over time, anything I needed to know about, I taught myself and
picked up that skill from jewellery-making to calligraphy to hand quilting to
home renovation to ceramics to building a hydro generator in a stream.
When the zombie apocalypse happens and it’s
end of times? You can come with. I plan on building a town. Only people I like
get to live there. 😉
I also find it interesting that you created a fresh take on vampires. How much research did you do on vampires before choosing the path you took for Blood Runner?
I’ve been a big Anne Rice fan for a long time and loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but actual vampire research for that story? Zero. Is that bad? I had actually been stuffing my head full of Ancient history and mythology from Egypt and Babylon for another story. And me being me, kept going backward in time, because for whatever reason, it became important I got to the root mythology and first organisation of city-states and society. That history fascinated the holy crap out of me and still does. When I studied the bits of translated mythology available at the time (there’s more now), I couldn’t stop. For whatever reason, I couldn’t leave it alone.
There’s a myth about a man who cannot eat or drink. And in their mythology, a dead body can be reanimated by the Water of Life – blood. To me, that sounded like some kind of proto-vampire. I stitched elements of a few myths together to create the premise. Gave him a nemesis, a real historical figure in the invading Akkadian king Naram-Sin who was painted in myth as pure evil and cursed by the head of the pantheon. The Great God Enlil’s disdain for humanity was so well-documented as was a whole soap opera of inter-family pantheon conflict, the story told itself. It turned into a tale of mistaken vampire identity.
I still have so much story left that never
made it into Blood Runner, a whole universe. I think once I’m done getting it
out, it’ll lose its association with vampires and people will see what it
really is. Vampires are cool and I love them, but that’s not the story focus,
so I really didn’t need the depth of research in that area I might have
otherwise. It was only a device.
Your latest book, The Seer, is about a Druid named Bronan, and I see you yourself are a Bardic Druid. I would love to hear how your spiritual nature influences your writing; or, would you consider your storytelling to be its own “faith,” as it were? I can’t help but ask because I myself am a Christian, but I rarely include elements related to faith in my fiction. Severed Selves, you could say.
I don’t think I can separate those things, because it’s both – inspiration as well as the storytelling being its own brand of sacredness, since words come from the soul. I’m lucky, from the fantasy writer side of things, because Druids and magic are popular story topics with readers. I know a lot about modern Druids and history and mythology, so can speak with some authority in that space. Besides, people love that stuff. And why not? I’m just like everyone else – the ancient Druids are just as mysterious and fascinating to me, because there’s really so little known about them. And magic is, well, magical!
I write foremost to amuse myself and being
immersed in those magical worlds is escapism. Right up there with dreaming of
flying and imagining we’re superheroes when we’re kids, right? I mean, it’s a
sad fact that the more life imposes arbitrary boundaries and traps us in expectations
and responsibilities, we lose those dreams. It’s limiting. I think we need to escape
into times of unfettered brainspace to balance off all the other crap. Druidry
is the continuous responsibility to keep balance on a cosmic level and this is
exactly the same thing to me. When we can immerse ourselves in a world where
those boundaries aren’t grinding us down, even for only the length of time it
takes to finish reading a story, we can regain some inner balance and
perspective. As a reader, I love that. And as an author? I consider it a public
Words are my medium as a Bardic Druid, my
divination, and how I connect with universal consciousness. I walk the path of
knowledge, so seek out universal truths, those things that are real and true for
everyone. That’s where we all connect, so goes hand-in-hand with taking a
reader on a journey. A lot of my writing to amuse myself is speculative, where
I’m figuring these things out and pushing down my own thought barriers. As a
Druid, I embrace the responsibility to maintain balance, speak the truth and especially
to oppose injustice and be an agent of fairness for everyone around me. I’ve
been told that makes me some kind of throwback, dying on a hill of my own moral
code, and they may be right. But to me, treating people right and standing up
against wrong is simply the right thing to do and not because of a prize at the
end. I know all this stuff influences my writing and you can see it leaking out.
In the sense of all that, being a writer is more than a job to me. It’s rolled
into my spiritual path and there’s no way to tell where one ends and one
I think the biggest influence on my writing
is probably hyper-awareness about what I’m capturing in words. To me, words are
so much more than only letters arranged on a page. The writing should be real
and true, should be honest, and should allow us, as human beings, to meet there
on common ground. We can laugh together, get riled-up together, cry together, I
can lift people up and that’s all about keeping balance. Speaking about
injustice within the confines of a fictional story is giving voice to it, but
in a way less uncomfortable to explore. I can write about universal truth. Or
that, in fact, we’re all the reluctant hero, working through our own
myriad life crap and evolving as we go while learning to step up about bad
things even when we don’t want to. It’s easy to relate to, because we’re all on
that same journey. In that way, we can connect with people we’ll never know on
a very deep, emotional level. That’s so powerful, y’know?
Magic is simply intention charged with our own energy and that’s carried into writing for a writer. From our perspective, there’s an element of sacredness to it, because we do, in fact, tear those words out of our soul to get them on the page. Whether we know it consciously or not, that ability through writing is the greatest magic there is. If you want to get super existential about it… From that perspective?
Lastly, do you have any tips or encouragement for your fellow writers?
Wait, yes. If you’re not already lost down
that road, take an ice cream scoop and dig out that part of your brain telling
you it’s a good idea and go get a real job. You’ll thank me later.
Seriously, though, remember you’re playing
a long game. If you’re doing it to become rich next week and can’t understand
why you’re not famous after your first six months? Take your ball and go home.
While that would be lovely, that’s not the reality for most writers. You really
do have to do it, because you get something out of it, out of the creation. You
have to do it, because it makes you sacrifice for it and you don’t care about
that. You have to do it, because you can’t think about not doing it or
you’ll go insane or die. If that’s not where you live? Adjust your sails and
get that ship on course. And newsflash, you have to actually love writing or
you won’t stick with it through the length of time it takes. I’ve seen some
“writers” who apparently woke up one day and thought they’d become famous and
make millions of dollars at writing after having never written a day in their
life previous to that. They thought it looked like an easy gig. *Cue massive
I’ve been a working writer, writing every
day, mostly for others and getting paid for it, for over thirty-five years. Did
it make me famous? Nope. It kept the lights on and bought groceries and clothes
for the kids. And yet? It’s fantastic to me, because I made money doing the
thing I love the most. How many people can say that? With the kids now grown, recently
I shifted to focus on only my writing and that new reality takes time to build.
No matter how much previous experience I have, it doesn’t matter. I’m fully
prepared for the length of time that comes with creating a new reality. You’re
no different coming in thirty-five-odd years behind me. Creating any new
reality takes time and that’s where you have to live in your head every day. My
goal now is the same as when I started back in college – do the thing I love every
day and aspire to make that my entire supporting income. If you don’t, you’re
going to have a lot of heartache and frustration. I think that’s a solid,
realistic and attainable goal adjustment for new writers to make.
Ask yourself if you want to be famous or successful – they’re two very different things. Thinking about becoming famous is setting yourself up for disappointment. Think about becoming successful instead. Don’t waste energy on whether anyone else is getting famous or rich before you and put all your focus and energy into honing your craft. Other writers aren’t your competition, dude, they’re your compatriots. Stop worrying about their pay check and worry about your own. Good writing means you can get paid, so never think you’re a good enough writer. That self-doubt can be your continued catalyst – it makes you extra careful about what you’re putting down there on the page and prevents you wasting time churning out garbage no one’s ever going to give you money for. I live in a constant state of terror myself. LOL If you keep your head down that way, you’ll end up becoming a polished, hard-working, consistent producer which is exactly where you want to be even if that magical fame unicorn never makes a stop at your house. Plain and simple, success takes hard work and hard work produces better writing.
It does indeed, JD. Thanks so much for chatting with me!
Welcome to July, friends around the world, and Happy 4th to my fellow Americans!
Yowza, July already! June whipped by thanks to summer school for the kiddos. Biff and Bash have been doing a class to help them get ready for 1st grade, which means time with the three R’s and some extra socialization. It also means me going through all their kindergarten work to pack up the most memorable bits, including their writing. After going through their pieces, I couldn’t help but ask Biff and Bash about their favorite work.
For a girl reticent about meeting new people and trying new things, it was a bit of a challenge getting Blondie to participate in summer school. With the bribe of a computer gaming class, I was able to sign her up for photography and geocaching. Lo and behold, she’s found those courses way cooler than playing ol’ computer games!
For some, summertime means going on adventures in far off places. But my experience with Blondie in the Horicon Marsh was a beautiful reminder that one doesn’t have to travel far to escape to other worlds.
So often we think we have to travel miles and miles to escape the humdrum.
We presume the truly fantastic is beyond the horizon, just out of reach.
But if we take a moment to step outside, we might just discover adventure awaits us in the here and now, be it in the nearby marshlands…
…or with the imaginations frolicking in our own backyard.
What are your imaginations up to this summer? Any recommendations of fun daytime-adventures with kids? Let’s chat!
What follows is a continuation of my previous two installments of free fiction–a dialogue between me and Wynne, a character from my Shield Maidens of Idana fantasy series.Today we learn more about The Man of the Golden Hound Crest and his dangerous power over Wynne’s household.
What would you consider to be your worst defeat?
An easy choice. You may disagree with me later on, but I promise you, here lies the root of all present sorrows.
But I cannot speak of it in the open….surely not in my home. It is midday, is it not? Then the water mill is no option. Wild Buddug meets her sweetheart there for the next few hours, and one accidental intrusion is quite enough for me, thank you.
Caddock’s warehouse will be filled with loud talk and eyes far keener for lifeless goods to protect—or steal, depending on how you see it. Let us leave the market and follow this alley, here, the one where someone carried their slaughtered pig too close to the wall. The blood has gone dark, but is still there, you see it? A curious stripe against the daub. Normally animals do not walk this way, as it is too narrow for even three people to walk together, and the roofs nearly touch over head—it feels close, does it not? Like a chest left open by chance, and by equal chance will be slammed shut upon you. It is a dare to walk this way, and a relief when the walk is done. But this alley takes us from Market Street straight to Stock Street, where Lord Murchad built his warehouses. This is not a place to come friendless, I promise you, and while it is indeed highly questionable for a young woman to be roving about where thieves and murderers and the occasional honest man make their living, I have earned my immunity through Caddock’s friendship. No one here, of good or evil, crosses Caddock.
Through the front door, are you mad? That, that wretched man, his, his eyes follow us even now. No no, come around, where the cart horses graze. The parked carts make this pasture an ever-changing labyrinth, and there, see it? Galene flows nearby to keep us company. Let us use this covered cart with mud still wet upon its wheels. Yes, I know, it is the smallest of group, but it is also the least likely to be called upon in the near future.
Now, you spoke of defeats. Mine comes from no battle. The battle never had a chance to begin.
It took place not long after the Man of the Golden Hound Crest had found Morthwyl and me among the orpines. I did not dare walk north for the next few days, not even with the Galene strong and silent by my side. I feared beheadings, I feared death on the cusp of tasting life upon the lips of my Morthwyl.
Thank the gods for Market Day! I sat without complaint among my sisters in the garden, eyes fixed upon the road beyond the fence. My notes were soft and rarely in harmony, but I received no chastisement, as all my present kin were just as keen to watch the arrivals. Two large barges had arrived, and Father paraded proudly with their owners past our home and on toward the market. Furs and velvet, perfumes and fruits—bah! Mud clings to silk as well as homespun, I voiced with low, harsh notes upon my flute. When the last of Cairbail’s barge-oxen carried what appeared to be a dead stone monster with a horn upon his snout, I saw them: Morthwyl walking obediently behind his father and elder brother. Their smithy cart was compact and efficient, requiring but a few loads of firewood throughout the market hours to fuel the forge. That would be Morthwyl’s duty: he would move down Farmer’s Alley to the town’s edge where farmers often left cords of wood for convenience. They knew him, liked him for his father’s skill, would offer him a chance to sit, eat a bit of sops, and I would be there waiting…My flute sung as the skylark from me, eager to hear Morthwyl’s whistle in return.
But then bells jangled out of my sight, their harmonies discordant.
I caught back my breath and fixed my eyes upon Almedha as though awaiting some cue to play anew. Oh, Morthwyl, did he follow you all the way here? Has he spoken to you? Oh to hear your thoughts and know your safety! But I dared not look. I listened instead, and knew by the rhythms of their footfalls that they moved without haste. Nor did their cart house whinny in complaint. If she, an old thing, was at ease, then it was quite likely The Man of the Golden Hound Crest merely walked behind, please Galene he only walks behind…
The Man called his beast to hold before our gate.
The stallion loosed dark clouds from his nostrils. I thought of forge smoke, full of embers that burn the unthoughtful, how the sunlight upon the golden hound would surely burn the eyes of my sisters and turn them blind to all but wealth.
Cordelia audibly gasped and broke her flower wreath. Morwenna dropped her lyre and whimpered as she threw herself to the ground and fumbled herself into a new, ladylike position on the grass.
The Man dismounted, not once minding mud upon his black polished leather or his scarlet cloak. Sunlight fell upon his ringed hands as he gathered up the reins…
And my sisters’ Contest of Sly Accidents began.
First Isolda. She filled the air with a scream and cried, “My finger, surely the needle has pierced my bone!”
Next came Morwenna, who stumbled up from the grass and fell again. “Oh sisters, my ankle, surely it is broken!”
The Man led his beast to our fence and tied the reins to a post.
“Sisters, my week’s work will surely be ruined by the blood. Please, help me!”
“But my ankle!”
Cordelia clung to her broken flowers as her eyes searched for the pruning knife to slice a bit of flesh . Scoff all you want, but I would put it past no sister to cut off a hand for the sake of a wealthy suitor’s attention.
“I am sure to faint upon this sight of such bloodshed. Will someone not catch me lest I fall?”
“If only some kind-hearted soul could carry me to my room!”
“What in Hifrea is all this?” Mother burst forth through the door. I found myself watching the cake crumbs leap from one neckfold to another and down to her chest. “You know how noise up…sets….me.” Mother lost all control of her jaw, letting it hang complete open as The Man stood at our gate’s door, one fist upon his hip while the other swept the air before him.
“Madame, is this the most excellent house of Master Adwr, Trader Extraordinaire?”
How his golden chest did glitter, and his hair did shine! Almedha moved towards the gate as if in a dream. Isolda’s finger bled freely upon her skirt, and Morwenna’s ankle miraculously healed as she stood to move but a step closer to him.
“Y-yes, why, yes, yes it is, Good, Gentle, Sweet Sire,” Mother hopped down and to the side in such a bow no body her age could possibly fulfill without the utmost willpower.
I see your face. What was I doing in that moment?
The same as this moment: sitting.
Hush, someone’s coming…
Who’s out there, Caddock?
Thank the gods, His eyes haven’t come round yet…no, not Caddock, or his men. I tell you, I do not fear the men who work here. No, it is…there is always one of his…no. I cannot call them men. I’ll call them followers. There’s always one of them skulking about Cairbail. They never fraternize in the market, or drink by the docks with the other free men. They only move, listen, observe, and vanish. Life dims in their presence and closes in upon itself as a flower in night’s chill.
Did I close up when The Man of the Golden Hound Crest came through our gate? No. I changed nothing with his arrival. I did not stand, or even cease to play. What did I matter? I was not of marital age, and clearly, all my sisters were more than willing to meet whatever he envisioned as an ideal wife.
How foolish I was.
“Madame, I must confess to you that I committed a great sin against your husband.” His face contorted into such pain and sorrow that my mother looked ready to hold him to her bosom and weep upon his hair.
“Oh Sire, surely no such sin exists, but merely a misunderstanding to be easily expunged.” She curtsied, arms open for her own unique business. “I am Mistress Ffanci, wife to Master Adwr, and can speak with confidence on his behalf that the only sin in business is the unpaid service. And surely, Sire, you are one who would never commit such a sin.”
His face altered again, this time to ecstasy. I did not like how his face changed so quickly, like an actor with a table of masks at his side. “Ah, Madame, you flatter me. I am but a simple businessman, no different than your husband, and nowhere near as blessed as he with beauties to call my own.” His eyes shone with as much gold as the rest of him, and when they fell upon Almedha, I heard Morwenna moan in envy.
“A man of, business?” Mother blinked away her tears of elation. I could see her mouth turn about the word “business” as one tests a bit of fruit to see if it is spoiled. Would Mother’s talent for scrutiny save us? Surely she could see that no mere trader amasses such wealth, let alone parades it without reason. “Wynne, cease that infernal noise at once in the presence of such company.”
I did so with eyes down. “Yes, Mother,” I spoke hoarsely, and coughed. No one wants to admire a sick girl.
“Ah.” His boots approached the hem of my skirt. His gaze burned as summer’s sun upon my hair. “A lovely name for a lovely face.”
Isolda gasped. Cordelia whined, “But what about—”
“Sssss!” Mother’s dress blew closer, and I could see her hands shaking as they lay folded against her girdle. “You, you know my daughter? Then I must apologize for Wynne’s rudeness, as she said nothing of—”
“Dear Madame, lay no blame upon the child.” He bowed low enough to grace Mother’s hand. I liked not ring that sparkled on his ear. “My guards found her in the forest, and surely frightened the memory from her head. They are forever armed with the most terrible looks upon their faces.” He politely put his lips to her hand, then turned to me with a smile.
He said nothing of Morthwyl.
His words were enough for Mother. She laughed with total ease, and said, “May I present the older daughters of Master Adwr to you?” My sisters formed a curved line next to me and curtsied in due course with their names and smiles. But the look of him, the way he never spoke of the boy I was with, never uttered Morthwyl’s name, of which I had no doubt he knew…I felt as though he already had a trap set for him, for us, and with one false step we would all be ensnared.
“Surely, Sire, we can speak more of business, sins, and beauty this evening with Master Adwr. Would you care to dine with us?”
He joyfully accepted, and departed with just as much ceremony and wistful gazes as his arrival.
Almedha promptly clocked my ear. “You might have said!”
“I didn’t!” I spat back. “I’m not old enough, and please, please think: is it not strange he never shared his name?”
“You wanted him all for yourself!” Isolda hissed.
“Because you,” Cordelia said with a swift kick to my leg, “were supposed to tell us.”
“He never spoke it!”
None of them believed me.
Please tell me you ran off for, like, the next several days. This guy just screams “bad news.”
No, he never screamed “bad news.” If he had, even Mother might have noticed and reconsidered a more intimate acquaintance. I doubt my sisters would have minded, though…
No no, I meant…oh, forget it. I’m assuming he didn’t forget the dinner date.
If only he had!
Never has my house been in such an uproar. No other suitor existed accept Sire. That is how my sisters referred to him in their rush from room to room, harassing Heledd and Ysball as they purred, whined, hissed.
“That’s my girdle, Morwenna!”
“But who will braid my hair? Mother, my hair will be dreadful for Sire and he’ll never look upon me again and I’ll simply die!”
“Isolda, please, pleeease take it in another inch, I can hold my breath!”
“Where is my brooch? This old thing must be yours, Wynne.”
“Now girls, as an army prepares together to conquer a new land, so must we all work together,” Mother called from the living room, finger ever ready to pinpoint a command. “Isolda, surely you have some ribbon we can work round Almedha to tighten the dress without alteration. Cordelia, go to Heledd, your hair must, be, perfect. Morwenna, give Cordelia back her girdle and polish both lyres. Cordelia, make a crown for Morwenna’s hair, then yours. Wynne…” Mother’s finger froze right between my eyes. I watched her nose pinch, her lips twist.
“Help in the kitchen?”
Mother snorted. “You would like that, wouldn’t you? To live in the dirt and dust as a servant. Off to your room! Morwenna, give her your second-best dress.”
I heard her still as I changed: “Master Adwr, at last! You simply must hurry, we are all on the cusp of disaster!”
“Oh my, don’t tell me Morwenna’s lyre strings have broken at last? That would certainly be a disaster.”
“Don’t you dare joke, Master Adwr! A trader bearing the crest of a golden hound, yes a golden hound, such detail, such perfection in the stitches, a businessman of such wealth that any king would envy him has come to this very house, and complimented your daughters, and will return to dine in our house tonight! And all this would be for naught had he not sinned against you in some fashion. How could you not tell me such a merchant was in your acquaintance?”
“Madame Ffanci, I am most certain I know not of such a man.”
“Then what can he possibly mean that he has sinned against you, a fellow businessman?”
“My dear lady, I have not the faintest idea upon the matter. Perhaps it is he who altered the prices with The Yoruach as his wealth seems capable of dictating the ebb and flow of currency across several countries.”
“Oh but it is, Master Adwr. And that he should know Wynne, of all our daughters, and she says nothing of him! I swear, my husband, that the child surely is a changeling. She could not possibly be of my womb.”
Morwenna harrumphed in agreement as she polished her lyre with smooth, precise strokes. “None of us would have kept such a secret.”
“You’re…” I squeezed myself into the pale blue, pretending it the river Galene, but failing. The Galene would never choke the life from me like this tortuous device. “…welcome to him.” Delicate stitches depicting baby’s breath wrapped around the collar and cuffs. I could only hope they would be white still at dinner’s end.
Morwenna narrowed her eyes skeptically to me as she tossed her oldest girdle across the room. “I know what you’re doing, Mistress Hard-to-Get.”
“Morwenna, I’m twelve. He can’t marry me. I don’t want to marry him. Insult me all you wish at dinner. Mock me, make light of my inadequacies.” I felt the girdle press hard against my hips. Did my sisters ever eat? “I had no desire for his acquaintance before and still don’t.”
“Likely story.” Morwenna’s glare would not waiver, not even as I left the room.
Oh, how I yearned to sit at river’s shore and lay all these troubles among Galene’s stones! She’d whisk them away on her current to join with the toxins that wretched tannery dumped. But no, all I could do was sit in the garden, mindlessly fingering a hollow song upon my flute.
Chirps and squeals and bickering continued to fall from every window of the house. In time Father stepped out, his eyes squinted in concentration as he blinked once, twice, upon my countenance. “Wynne, your mother has told me quite a story. Is it true, what the other females in this house say about this phantom Sire?”
I lay my flute upon my lap. “It is.” I wanted to speak more, but feared what words would carry into the house.
Father sat beside me. “You think nothing of his wealth and manners?”
“I think them dramatic. As an actor for the theater.”
“Ah,” Father stroked his naked chin. “You think him a charlatan.”
“No. I…” How could I explain my fear without sharing the woods, sharing Morthwyl? More than anything, Morthwyl needed to be safe, and I could not trust my parents, who speak their thoughts with no consideration or restraint. “I do not doubt his wealth. But I do doubt his nature.”
“Were I only to know of your Mother’s words, I would be in complete agreement with you,” he said with a tired smile.
Oh, heart, still, be at peace! Do not quake the baby’s breath upon my chest. “You know more?”
Father nodded as he prepared his pipe. “A servant boy bearing a golden hound upon his chest approached me in the market today. He thanked me on behalf of his master for your mother’s gracious invitation and insisted to supply the meal since, as he said, his master’s home was not yet ready to entertain guests.”
“What a curious insistence,” I said, pondering how on earth the servant could know Father, let alone the sense of transporting a nobelman’s meal through the forest to our house. “And rude. If our means are too meager for his taste, he need not have accepted Mother’s offer.”
“I, too, have wondered this.” Father patted my hand and almost smiled, but a shriek from Almedha over a broken ribbon and a cry from Mother of “Master Adwr, make sense of this chaos if you please!” interrupted him. “I am quite certain, Wynne, that your sisters and mother are the silliest women in all of Idana.”
We shared a smile before he left. If that was what this Sire wanted, a silly woman who happily swooned at the sight of coin, then he was welcome to any sister. I would not swoon. I would not be silly. In fact, I would be so disastrously dull that all would think me doomed to live my years as an old maid.
I’d like to think this all went to plan, and that you succeeded, buuuuut then we wouldn’t be here talking.
Indeed, we would not.
Oh it began not unlike I imagined: refreshments in the garden while Mother called upon us to perform both individually and as a group. He bowed and applauded, provided every imaginable courtesy in his manner, and yet one thing remained absent: his name.
His servants also attended all in the garden and in the kitchen. Heledd and Ysball were more or less shooed out of the house to make room for his five servants, boys all Almedha’s height, all of wooden pallor and demeanor. They never smiled, they never joked. They merely blinked their green eyes and answered yes or no. Were they all of a family? Their features never changed from lad to lad, as though all came from the same womb at once. So very strange! My curiosity welled beyond control, and I felt compelled to create a test for them. After one song, I turned to the servant nearest me and asked him what he thought of our harmonies. He twitched his mouth, coughed, and said “Yes.”
“Yes, they are in need of improvement, or yes, they meet your ear pleasingly?”
“Wynne, do not tire the servants with your pointless talk,” Mother spoke through grated teeth. “I do apologize, Sire. Our youngest is not nearly so polished as the others, whom you can see are all well and healthy, with proper hips and quiet manners.”
“They are each as delicate and rich as a king’s rose,” he spoke with a swooped into a stand. “I see by my servant that dinner awaits us. Shall we?”
Such bows and curtsies and pleas for the other to go first—it is a miracle any of us entered the house before midnight!
His servants dizzied me with their slow, eternal loops around the table, the meat of freshly slaughtered pigs and chickens upon their platters, forks for all to use at their leisure. Olives, dates, strange fruits, cakes filled with honey, berries, mincemeat. I ate little, though my stomach grumbled for more.
“And that tapestry there?” Mother spoke and chewed all at once, firing bits of sinew in every direction. “Isolda’s at the age of ten. Ten, I tell you! Such a gift, we knew it the moment she touched a needle. But no one can fill a house with music as our sweet Almedha, and such a head for figures! Young Garnoc, who just took up his uncle’s shipping company, has been wooing Almedha for months, I think so his cloth-eared fool of a manager doesn’t burn through all his funds!”
“I’m quite proficient with numbers, as well,” Cordelia bowed her head, nearly knocking the cake platter from the lad’s hands. “I’ve studied with Father for many years, and I’m quite good with recording all the goods of a household.”
“But I’ve the best hips for bearing children,” Morwenna nearly stood up next to me, but Father coughed her back down. Gods know how far Morwenna would have gone then and there to prove this trait. “Mother says so, and our mother does know best.”
The Man leaned back in his chair, sipping little, eating less. “Every beauty here, absolutely ripe with talent. Madame, you are most blessed indeed! And yet, I have heard little said of your youngest.” He pointed his cup at me.
The silence was not only pregnant—I am certain it gave birth.
Mother chewed with a look I could only describe as consternation. “Well she’s not afraid of getting dirty—”
“There there, my dear, you’ve said quite enough about tapestries and hips to fill all our daughters’ minds for several lifetimes.” Father cleaned his fingers upon the table cloth and studied his wine. “Wynne is not like her sisters, nor is she of age.”
The Man watched Father’s face. “Do you mean to say your daughter is without talent?”
Father watched back. “Hardly. But since she fell into the Galene eleven years ago, she has had more sense than any other female of this house. If I’d known a few minutes of Galene’s waters in the lungs improved the mind, I would have thrown in the lot.” He passed about his cup as if to toast. He received gasps in return, including from me.
“Master Adwr, mind your tongue!” Mother laughed with daggers in her eyes. “My husband, he has such a humor.”
I dug through as much memory as I could, but I could not, with all my strength, find a moment of water filling my lungs. “You never told me I fell into the river.”
Father did not look at me or any of us. Something had dawned in his mind and caused him to smile. “But you were there. At last, I—” he set down his wine and looked upon The Man with new eyes. “I do know you, my humblest apologies. But it has been those eleven years, has it not, since I last saw you?”
By the Galene, never did I think I would see his perfect face crack! It lasted but a moment, but that moment portrayed fear, even some anger. The Man, whoever he was, knew vulnerability. Oh he covered all well with a smile and a laugh, but I have never forgotten that one moment where all looked ready to crumble. “And that is my sin, Master Adwr. To have lost contact with you since taking over my father’s business. I owed you a proper meeting when he died on a trip to the coast, but alas, my mourning threw all proprieties asunder.”
“Ah, that is all long, long ago. Surely you’re your father’s son. I cannot think of a clearer mirror than your face.”
He bowed in gratitude. Cordelia tackled the opportunity to speak. “But why was he present for Wynne’s drowning, Father?”
“She didn’t drown, Cordelia, lest we’ve been raising a ghost these eleven years. No, in that time you all often accompanied me along the Galene whenever I journeyed to the King’s Stronghold. Wynne was never one to enjoy the silks and spices, and often tired Heledd out as she explored the river, even talking to it. And one day, the day I was doing business with Master Prydwen, this Sire’s father,” he pauses to toast The Man, “we all heard Heledd scream for help. We run over, and what do we see? Little Wynne climbing up onto the opposite shore.” Father chuckled as my sisters oohed and tisked at my daring infantile impertinence—clearly, I was doomed from little on. Mother chewed through another cake with impatience. “Strangest thing. And you’d think that sort of experience would keep a child away from water. Just the opposite with little Wynne.”
“Perfect for a charwoman,” Isolda said with a glare before poking her tongue with an empty fork.
I was beginning to regret my request to Morwenna for a banquet of insults. I wanted only to sit by the Galene and think, and speak, and understand. “I see no need to pretend I’m better than I am.”
“No, you choose to pretend you’re worse, and I frankly find that just as distasteful.” Mother licked her fingers and patted his shoulder. “She’s far too much growing up to do, but no doubt she’d be a fine assistant to any one of her sisters in the house of Prydwen.”
The Man held his cup out, and a lad who carried meat a moment ago now held the pitcher of wine. “Your daughters inspire tears, Madame. Not only are they beautiful, but they are talented and humble as well. I must confess that I, too, yearn to have such a family about my table, to come home to music and beauty every evening as you do, Master Adwr.”
Father waved the wine lad aside. “You feel yourself ready for children, Son of Prydwen?”
The Man twitched, just as he had when I was fool enough to mention I had sisters. “Just, Prydwen.” His face fled into a smile. “I carry my father’s name. For the business, you understand.”
Father squinted a moment, then shrugged. “Of course. So, you think yourself ready for family?”
The easy manner returned. “Yes, I do. My manor is so very lonely with only servants and guards to talk to. But with the right companionship,” he raised his glass to Almedha, to Isolda, “life could be very,” to Cordelia, “very,” to Morwenna, “exciting.” To me.
I knew, in that moment, he had plans for us. And I wanted to be as far from those plans as possible.
I welcome any and all thoughts on Wynne, her family, Prydwen–any thoughts at all, really. Reader input rocks!
Despite all the amassed resources and ideas all around, there seems to be an insurmountable physical obstacle. For Plankton, it’s his size. For me, it’s being a mom during the summer months in the United States, when kids are home nearly all day. Oh, I plan on getting them to read and write as much as possible (Bash is reading to me from the Owl Diaries as I type this very post). But there’s no denying the time crunch to cram whatever writing AND school work I can into the few morning hours they spend at the school. (More on their accomplishments in a future post, including a sample of Blondie’s photography!)
So this month’s world-building post is going to cheat, just a smidge. I’d like to compare how a classic novel and a more recent film each utilized words and/or visuals they felt the audience would understand to help engage them in the story’s world. One accomplishes this brilliantly.
The other, not so much. (To me, anyway. I get this is all subjective. Moving on!)
Let’s start with the beloved first paragraph of The Hobbit, including one of the best first lines in literature.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
Consider that phrase “hole in the ground.” Lots of us know holes: rabbit holes, construction holes, water holes, badger holes, snake holes, buried treasure holes, etc etc etc.
But a “hobbit”? What the heck’s a hobbit? Considering what we know about holes, we imagine it to be some sort of digging creature, maybe a mole or some such beast. Certainly not one to wear clothes and enjoy afternoon tea.
(Unless, of course, you’re Mole from Wind in the Willows.)
The rest of the paragraph continues to lead readers away from their presumptions about holes and establishes that a hobbit hole is nothing like they we know as far as holes go. Once given the line “it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort,” readers immediately begin associating other things they know, this time the focus on familiar comfortable things, and building them into the hole.
Tolkien, of course, helps readers accomplish this with the second paragraph. No flying into adventure or action here; readers take their time entering the hobbit-hole and peering about.
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats–the hobbit was fond of visitors….No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage…
Readers, especially young readers, understand what halls are. They understand what kitchens are, bathrooms, all the rest. By providing the hobbit with rooms and possessions readers know from their own lives, readers can quickly and easily build the The Hobbit‘s setting in their own imaginations.
Another tactic Tolkien often utilizes in telling The Hobbit is directly addressing the readers.
This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins has an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained–well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.
Readers have not even met this Baggins yet, but once again they can put their own knowledge to use: the humdrum uncle, for instance, that always plays life safe, or the old man down the street that goes through the same routine every gosh darn day.
In other words: boring. Kids know what boring looks like, and they’ll paint this Baggins fellow up with all the shades of boring they know. Tolkien starts readers on common ground so that when he’s ready to share the details of what they don’t know–like what a hobbit looks like–the readers can more easily integrate these details into their personal visualizations of the story.
Yet using common ground to engage the audience at story’s beginning can go wrong. Very wrong.
Enter 2018’s Robin Hood.
It’s an adventurous tale of heroes and villains, justice and evil. We all know the plot’s rhythm, the characters’ harmonies.
This film begins with a CGI book titled Robin Hood. The book opens to a stark black and white illustration of a town (and their artsy credits) an unseen narrator tells us: “So, I would tell you what year it was, but I can’t actually remember. I could bore you with the history, but you wouldn’t listen. What I can tell you is this is the story of a thief. But it doesn’t begin with the thief you know.”
So like The Hobbit, Robin Hood starts with a direct address to the audience. Unlike Tolkien’s narrator, who walks hand in hand with readers into the story, helping them find their footing in its fantasy world, the film’s narrator treats its audience with a bit of condescension–I’d explain things, but it’s not like you’d really listen, right? You think you know this story? Well you don’t! Ha!
The opening scene shows a lady in a buxom dress, sheer veil, and dolled-up face sneaking into a barn to steal a horse from the “toff” (ugh, the American accent takes all the fun out of that word) who lives there. The “toff” who catches her is–ta da! Rob. He gives her the horse for her name. Ta da! Marian.
In comes the narrator again, showing Marian and Robin being all cute and playful. “Seasons passed. They were young, in love, and that was all that mattered. Until the cold hand of fate reached out for them.”
The audience watches hands sign some curious paper, hands coming out some super-smooth grey leather sleeves.
The narrator continues to speak while a messenger takes all these ominous letters from Grey Sleeves and enters the town. Grey Sleeves stands up and whirls his giant Matrix-ish long coat around as he walks towards a balcony. The messenger continues into town; the town reminds me of something from a Renaissance Faire, a mix of periods for color, stone, and wood.
“He stole from the rich and gave to the poor. He became a bedtime story. But listen. Forget history. Forget what you’ve seen before. Forget what you think you know. This is no bedtime story.”
At long last, we are shown a huge metropolis that we can only presume is Nottingham, which is later called “the Bank of the Church, the beating heart of the Crusades“.
Not that viewers ever feel this depth of city, as they only experience one, maybe two streets the entire film.
All the curious papers are draft notices for the Crusades. So the audience is shuttled ahead four years to a stealthy unit of soldiers all dressed in sand-colored armor. It’s all sniper fire with arrows, complete with several repeating crossbows that act more like machine guns–yes, sound effects included.
The filmmakers have told viewers to “forget all you know,” removing the medieval style of warfare they’ve seen before so it can be replaced with scenes strongly eliciting scenes of modern-day conflict in the Middle East.
When Rob returns to Nottingham and finds Tuck, who’s ecstatic he’s alive even though viewers have never seen these two together before and therefore have no clue how deep or strong this friendship is, they learn ANOTHER two years have passed. Tuck dumps a bunch of exposition about the war tax and how the Sheriff has forced many townspeople to work in the mines.
You know, the mines that look like something out of Bladerunner, what with the towering exhausts of flames built into the endless frame of the mountain.
And at this point, I just had to give up trying to figure out this world.
The opening narration told me to forget what I knew. Yet the opening scenes of the film insisted on showing me characters in modernized dress and modern cosmetics. For all the exposition about war tax driving people into poverty, they show plenty of clean streets. Sure, the people are all sooty from the mines. Mining for what? How do John and Rob jury rig so many ropes and pulleys into a frickin’ firing range in the old manor? Where the heck does food come from around here? How is a Sheriff living in a frickin’ palace that makes the castle in Prince of Thieves look like a rat hole?
If Robin Hood really wanted its audience to “forget all they knew,” then MAKE THEM FORGET. You want all the modern flair in an olden time? Go all out in a sub-genre like steam punk. How awesome would it be to see Robin with an array of amazing crossbows, Little John with a clockwork arm, or the Sheriff’s stronghold as some air-fortress circling Nottingham?
But the filmmakers didn’t want viewers to forget, not really. They wanted people engaged in the story, but today’s audiences don’t understand the medieval period, right? So throw some modern music in, make even the poor commoners capable of dolling themselves up in velvet and smooth fitted leather. Sure, the coins can be old, and people can ride horses. The font on their draft notices can be printed in medieval font so they look old (seriously, those things look like they’re printed from a computer). But nothing in this world feels old. I kept waiting for the Sheriff to check his phone for a text from the Cardinal. Jeez, DC’s Green Arrow is more medieval than this Robin Hood.
Don’t even get me started on how Muslim John can move around Nottingham with ease even after the Sheriff’s fear-mongering speech. He is the ONLY man of color in the city, and nooooobody ever pays him any mind.
Of course writers shouldn’t just go and do what’s already been done. How boring that would be! But there’s a difference between building world-bridges and burning them. Tolkien took elements of modern life that the audience would know and used them to help readers connect to The Hobbit‘s world of fantasy. The crew behind Robin Hood wanted everything to look cool, but that’s all it could do–“look” cool. There’s no age to the sets, no life beyond what the camera shows us. Audiences are left wondering how these peasants can dress so elegantly, why the Crusades look more like the Iraq war, why NO CIVILIANS seem to actually LIVE anywhere (again, just…Loxley’s manor and the Middle Eastern town, apparently, are tooooooooooooooooootally uninhabited). They told us to forget what we know, yet took exactly what we know from the here and now and did their damndest to stuff the Robin Hood story into it.
Gah, now I’m just rambling.
I love the story of The Hobbit. I love the story of Robin Hood. As a reader, I’m always ready to run headlong into these fantastic adventures because I want that escape from the humdrum everyday of the here and now. I don’t want to see the here and now used as some sort of tape to patch the fantasy together. No audience wants to see the tape hanging over the edges, blurring what’s underneath.
Only the beautiful fantasy world built with love, with time, and with care.
Thanks for following me through this meandering post! Next month’s posts shall be a bit more whimsical, as I’ve got interviews, marshes, creativity, and point of view ponderings to share.
Oh! And hopefully I’ll have everything set with the free fiction of the month and a newsletter, too. Have anything you’d like to share and/or plug? Let me know!
What follows is a continuation of last month’s installment of free fiction–a dialogue between me and Wynne, a character from my Shield Maidens of Idana fantasy series.Today we learn of her town, her love for music, and a unique friendship that brings light in an otherwise dark life.
Good thing you didn’t vomit on that snob of a rich trader.
Really? I rather wish I had.
I am not strong, you know. Not like Morthwyl and his family, who haul as many plants, logs, and rocks as any oxen.
I am not creative, like the artisans who take bits of hide, metal, and clay and transform them into tools or art.
I am not intelligent, like the farmers who read the whims of soil and air with ease.
What I am, truly, is afraid. I see my family, and I dread that in but a few years time all love of Galene and Morthwyl will be slashed and burned to make room for wealth, comfort, status.
I am afraid of losing my Morthwyl.
I am afraid of losing my freedom.
What meager virtue in my possession can possibly protect us?
Hey, don’t focus on your fears. Focus on the better things. Here, is there something you enjoy doing? Apart from visiting Galene and Morthwyl, I mean.
This will sound foolish, I’m sure, but I rather enjoy music. Not the music of my sisters, which is always some tragic, romantic ballad. No, I mean the music of the land, and of Galene. Even the silence of the world moves in a harmony, when one sits. Here, let us rest beneath the cottonwood.
You may cease your curious glances to my back. No, it is no staff, but a flute. I am not supposed to travel about with it, but I like to show my gratitude to kind passers-by with a brief song.
I remember the moment: my fourth birthday. Almedha had just come of marrying age, and my sisters were already learning music, art, and domestic pleasures. Now it was my turn to become yet another cog amidst the turning wheels of Mother’s industry.
“Now, dear,” Mother licked her thumb and ticked the air. “You’ve one, two sisters on the lyre, so I’m sorry, Wynne, but it simply is not to be for you. And truly, if not for Morwenna’s obsession with Almedha, I’d not have her on the strings, either. Don’t gawp, Morwenna, that’s a commoner’s face, and we are not common.”
Cordelia arranged an armful of spring blossoms in a pitcher yet again. It seemed the Irises were giving her more trouble than one thought possible of flowers. “What of the garden, Mother? I would love a pair of hands willing to cut and prune for me.”
Even then, I noticed it: she wanted “a pair of hands,” not “another pair of hands.” Cordelia’s hands entered the home every evening without a single smudge of dirt. If only our gardener did not worship her so!
“Don’t be silly, Cordelia,” Mother’s eyes bulged a bit more than usual at any idea which began outside her own mind. She shook her hand at the maid for wine as though a fly circled her wimple. “Wynne hasn’t the sense for sharp objects, and she comes home soiled enough as it is.”
Cordelia’s head drooped like the beleaguered irises. “Yes of course, Mother.”
“Can you imagine the laundress? She’d have fits until Hifrea’s Coming if Wynne were in the mud every day!”
“How silly of me, Mother.”
“Now that’s the first word of sense from you all day.”
I took care to sit my straightest with hands primly folded, even as my feet dangled…and I thought what a peculiar sensation it is, to be without ground under one’s feet. Would one’s whole body feel this way were it to dangle? Oh dear, that would mean a noose, wouldn’t it? What a strange feeling for one’s body to know just before death…
“Wynne are you listening?“
“Yes, Mother.” It rarely felt safe to speak truth in my house.
“Oh, whatever shall I do?” Mother’s head often rolled about when she began another fretting spell, as I called them. All was lost, and we daughters were hopeless…until things fell in line with her plans, and then suddenly all turns promising again. It felt as though we were a ship on the ocean, and there was no telling when another storm would hit us. Surely nothing else could compare, what with the slaving crew, the bossing captain, the waves crashing about, and lots of lightning, and wind, and—
Yes, my young self decided. Even the smells of the tannery fit the stories of life a’sea that Caddock told after lessons along Galen’s shore. “I’m listening, Mother.”
“Listening! You! Hmph! Isolde, bring me that blanket you finished trimming, my frail constitution simply cannot withstand this offense. You missed a corner, dear. No, no matter.” Isolda moved always with her head down so that firelight would better capture the tears eternally jeweled at the corners of her eyes. “You are a young woman of style and grace, Wynne. It’s time you showed it.”
“I’m four years old today.” Our housekeeper Heledd and the maid Ysball had said happy birthday to me, so surely other grown-ups thought this worth noting.
Mother nodded. “Exactly. You’re not a child.”
Father looked up from his desk of records for the first time since dinner. “Perhaps the art of a needle is just the thing to keep her attention, my dear.”
“No, no, her fingers are too fat and her lap too thin. And what’s more she’ll never hem straight with such posture.”
Almedha paused in the cleaning of her lyre. “May I make a suggestion, Mother?” Her voice was the softest, and therefore the sweetest. She always sang in the garden during the larger market days and festivals, and if she could sing louder than a cricket, Mother was sure she’d win the first heart of the merchant who heard her.
Mother waved her handkerchief at Almedha, a signal to go on.
“I was thinking of the minstrels who came for Beltane Fair. They had a fiddle, a cwidder, a recorder, and a flute. Perhaps—”
“Aha! Just my thinking, Almedha. Oh Master Adwr, have we not a most excellent firstborn?”
“Indeed we do, Madame Ffanci.” Our parents shared a doting look upon Almedha, who positively glowed.
“If only her chest would come along properly. She hasn’t the look of one who can mother…” Mother had a knack for dowsing kind thoughts. “Ah, but there are wet nurses, I suppose.”
My sisters immediately took to studying their own fronts while my eyes watched my feet dangle and pondered the words “wet nurse”: what a silly idea! Why should someone soak themselves before healing the sick? Wouldn’t the water ruin poultices, or make a mess of the bandages? Not to mention the nurse would catch cold in any wind, and shivering makes dressing a wound nigh impossible—
“Mo-ther, Mo-ther, Wynne can’t bother to be bo-thered!” Morwenna chanted as she plucked two of her lyre strings.
“Morwenna, by the gods, stop that noise! Oh, oh, oh!” Mother’s eyes closed, and the expected streams of tears quickly took course down her pinched cheek bones. A pool soon formed in the folds of her wimple. “We’ll be penniless paupers all thanks to our common, ungrateful children, Master Adwr!”
Father rolled his eyes until they settled on me. “Nonsense. No girl in Idana can possibly match the beauty of our daughters, Madame Ffanci. Wynne is old enough to learn a skill to keep her out of the dirt.” The final word filled his mouth with distaste, as though the sight of my spattered dress and boots were enough to make him ill. “I believe Garnoc has acquired some fresh rosewood. I’ll commission a flute to be made for Wynne in honor of her birthday.”
The wailing “Oh!” tumbled back down Mother’s throat and bubbled up anew as an “Oh!” of ecstasy. “Oh Master Adwr, how intelligently thought! A flute will call attention to Cordelia’s voice, and will harmonize both Almedha and Morwenna’s lyres beautifully. Perfection, my husband, perfection!”
“But who is to teach Wynne?” Cordelia gently spread the iris petals about the table with one hand while holding the pitcher of broken flower stems in the other. “Mistress Carryl only knows the lyre.”
“I’m sure Heledd will know someone,” said Father.
“Hopefully not too low,” added Mother. “I won’t have any tinkers speaking with my children.”
So that is how this flute came to be in my possession.
Am I upset with the choice made for me? Hardly. There is no defeating my mother in battle, especially when I learn my teacher is to be Caddock, who traveled with minstrels before settling in our town, Cairbail. It was a sure scandal that I had to take lessons at a warehouse rather than in our house, but I promised never to sully my tongue or ears with common food or language.
A promise I spoke within the house. And you may recall what I said about words I speak in my house.
Here, let’s take a break from the questions. Take us through Cairbail.
Then let me bid you follow, if you please, through the northern farmlands. The reeds are soft with summer, and Galene sings when the sun shines upon her. Listen with me. Does not the water over stones make you think of seasoned lyre strings? I like to sit here, where the tannery does not hurt the water so. The goddess has been kind so far, but I have no doubt a day will come when she finds herself too sickened by Cairbail’s industry, and we will all wake to find our river gone. Never underestimate a goddess—or any girl, I think—of strong mind.
Here the sun dances like my feet. When the sun warms skin, when the bees feast among the blossoms, when the fish leap from water for dragonflies, I forget the grime and odors of town, and turn to kinder, gentler things. When I think on the beautiful, my heart aches to follow the Galene further north where another heart touches mine as the orpines meet with love’s promise.
But alas, my dance must end, for today my father is due to arrive with a caravan, and my mother has stressed all daughters be present for his arrival. Will you walk with me through town? Let us cross these last fertile, rolling slopes, and bid farewell to spring and all its sweetness. Look to the Galene: her happy waters grow stronger crops here. Take care with your feet lest you trample seedlings or droppings. I care not to task Cairbail’s farmers. Visiting caravans are rarely kind to them, and never face punishment for gleaning.
Step this way, please, to the oxen-path. Oh, Galene, you flow as falling stars before Cairbail, yet we send you off soiled and used. Abused, I should say, but a merchant’s daughter is not allowed such thoughts. Trade is life, and industry is trade. At least the tannery is there, a short ways south of town, so the water is not so terrible until Cairbail’s end. Our mill to the north carries waters to the fields, see it? We already passed it some paces ago. Rather hidden by the trees, it is, but if you ignore the farmer yelling at the mule, you can just hear the clack-clack of the buckets tipping.
Cairbail is neither tulmain nor city. There is a street of homes, true, and it connects to the warehouse street, which turns there, sharply, for the ancestral shrine, annoying river and land caravans alike. We must have good pasture for livestock, a stretch of sand for small boats and long docks for bigger barges. Our high street is dedicated to eateries and artisans. We are a perpetual hayloft for travelers, with our own wares barely noticed. Perhaps that is best. Those attracted to our town are not the sort I care to think about.
Mind our rock fences–they are rather low, I’m afraid, just enough to scrape one’s ankle terribly if not careful. Turn here. Market Street may look wide enough for a joust, but that is only because the selling carts have left for the day. They sit in the middle, and the shops remove their shelf-shutters, and this place soon overflows with traveling caravans, farmer’s wares, the tannery’s wares, and tinkers. Even artisans from villages nearby will come once a month before midday to set up near the edge of market for the sake of shadow from the sun.
See how the tracks stay clear of this shop? I am sure you can smell why now. The tanner Congol comes here with his treated hides, as some merchants care more for the materials than finished goods. A whisp of a man, that Congol, from living so much among the dead and putrid substances. Would you believe he has tried courting Isolda not once but thrice? Father would have enjoyed such a commercial alliance, and Mother was willing to push my sister to accept the smells as necessity of industry and status, but then he had to ride to town with his perfect features and glittering rings…
But let me show you further. I must ask of you to not look upon the mule bleating at us. It is an angry, sickly thing, and also the favorite pet of the leather-tooler Aedh. For a man who takes pleasure in snapping necks of rabbits and deer, he can’t bear to see a single child make fun of his four-legged companion. He holds the breadth and strength of an ox, having broken many doorways in anger and drink. I am quite certain if not for his craft Lord Murdach would have found reason to be rid of him long ago.
Ah, the charcoaler’s here, and there the road up to Lord Murdach’s manor. His officers live here, without the shelf-shutters, as they are still open. This is the only corner of Market Street where my sisters will walk alone, as officers of a Lord have been deemed better company. It also helps that chamberlain’s wife Carryl knows the lyre well, and instructs as Mother pays fit.
At last, the kinder side of Market Street. Do you not smell it? Fertile earth, freshly cut greens, squeezed fruits, drying herbs. The farmers live on this side, ready to sell their latest gatherings from plots and fields alike, but only Adyna’s family takes time to clean her door, baskets, and shelf-shutters daily. Where Market Street turns to Traders Street you’ll see a house of a most curious paring: our sage, and our physician. I must confess, I do not trust a sage who foresees the Galenegaining strength from the tannery. He will sit and smoke his pipe idly as citizens come to his wife for aid, and declares he knows precisely what ails them before they speak. Indeed, there was a time last year when he was even correct in his deductions. Truly theirs is a match made by the gods, for he is often sick, so she is bid to tend him, and she is oft in predicted danger when gathering herbs, so he is bid to save her before danger can fully manifest itself. He arrives so early, in fact, that not one of his visions of terror has been ever witnessed by another. But many see the potential of truth in his words, including Mother. Whenever he sees Mother instructing us in posture, he is certain that whatever tea she drank in the last five days will result in a mild illness ranging from headache to runs and another symptom beginning with the letter Tinne…unless, of course, she would be so kind as to accompany him back to his wife’s surgery for examination.
Ah, here we are. Yes, the house with the wooden fence at waist height. Can’t afford to block the view of potential suitors. Just as an artisan proudly displays his wares, my mother makes an exhibition of her children for potential wooing. We’re quite the collection, my sisters and I.
Yes, well, let’s not go back in there just yet. Is there any other sanctuary in Cairbail besides the Galene?
Hmm.Yes, I will concede to one, one I learned at that tender age of 4 with the promise of music lessons, you may recall.
Heledd showed me the swiftest, simplest route from our home to the warehouses. How large they all seemed then! Full of flying feathers, foul jokes, fouler smells. Sacks of drink, of bean, all spilling about helter skelter while men shrieked for other men to be careful, curse you, that’s money you’re losing! The scales tended by guards and men with brows forever set heavily over their faces.
“Never you mind them, little love. Keep to your business, and they keep to theirs.” Heledd carried her buxom figure like a weapon, and it disarmed many. She was but a few years older than Mother, but she moved with as much ease as Almedha, and drew just as many looks.
“What about the slavers?” I could see one in that moment with a beard deep in drink and lips full of talk with a few others. His other hand dangled a collar too big for any dog.
Heledd saw him, too. “Pfft. No one crosses Caddock.” We stopped before the largest, noisiest, oldest warehouse on the street. It needed no windows with the number of loose boards hanging about, the door had surely been kicked in several times. Even its air was different, sweet, but pungent. Why oh why would Lord Murdach put the most valuable spices in this, surely the poorest of warehouses? Even I knew the guard upon the front door looked a waste of a man, and I was but a four-year-old child! “You there,” Heledd bowed forward and knocked upon the man’s head. A fly fuzzed out of his hair, and he grunted angrily until he looked full upon my companion. “Fetch Caddock, if you please. Tell him it’s Heledd.”
He rolled himself up and through the door with a gurgly “Yes’m.” A moment later the door opened, and there stood a tall man of dark hair and eyes. He wore no braids, and kept his beard short—he seemed strangely tidy for a resident of this street, even wiping his hands of dust before greeting Heledd. “Good afternoon, Mistress. I must confess, I thought your message to me a jest. Surely no daughter of that mule-head Adwr—”
“Ahem.” And she nudged me away from her skirt. I gripped my flute like some sort of, oh, almost like a staff, except I knew nothing of weaponry. All that I knew was that it was big, and heavy, and if I swung it with enough force, I would make him hop and holler like a fool.
Caddock narrowed his eyes for a moment in study of me—or perhaps my flute, for it did hide half my face while I shut up the other—before requesting we follow him in.
What a place! I had never seen such the likes of it before. Any journey with Father was to meet caravans on the road, or perhaps at Quinntoryn, the King’s Stronghold. Mother had not wished her daughters sullied by the looks of laborers in the warehouses and along the docks. Perhaps it best, as I was too young to appreciate the dangers a nefarious will can inflict upon others. But my first steps in that warehouse made me feel as though life in a home was a waste. The roof, as tall as clouds! Boxes and chests and sacks filled with things that moved, things that sparkled, things that emanated smells of life, love, hunger, disgust. All the world had been transported here, kept here. And Caddock moved about the sacks with ease, throwing nuts and fruit into one crate where what looked like a hairy child snatched up the food with glee. He plucked an apple for himself from a barrel and bade us follow him around a tower of crates to a small room with a fire, table, and chairs. Two men had their feet upon the table, laughing over something about a pumping fist. One thumb from Caddock, and they left without a word. He sat, then Heledd, but I knew not how to sit without dragging the flute upon the floor, so I remained standing.
A knife appeared, small and slender, in Caddock’s hand. Its point moved swiftly through the apple and cut a thick slice for Heledd. “What’s all this really about?”
Heledd often chewed and spoke at once, like time could never be wasted on one meager task at a time. “She’s a far different sort, make no mistake. Prefers the Galene to her manor house any day, don’t you, little love?”
I nodded and wiped the juice sprayed upon my cheek.
“A river child?” Caddock slowly worked his knife through the fruit’s flesh. “The river’s shore is no source of comfort for town-folk of your stature.”
“That’s not true,” I said with a mighty thud of the flute’s end upon the floor. “Galene’s shown me all sorts of lovely places. You’ve only to listen to her properly, is all.”
The adults shared a look above my head, something warm and pleasing, I could see, as Caddock’s face lost all the study and came over with a smile—a real smile I’d seen other mothers and fathers have for their children. “She speaks to you often, the river goddess?”
Now I narrowed my eyes at him. “It’s not all in my head, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Far from it. Your sisters mock you for this?”
“And her parents.” Heledd rested her hand on my shoulder. “It’s all I can do not to whisk her away from that horrible house.”
Caddock nodded slowly as he popped another slice off and held it to me on knifepoint. “Trade?”
I sat at last, happily munching, as Caddock held the flute to his eyes. “Garnoc knows his craft. A pity Lord Murdach does not commission him to make a few more. The hills of Gleanuaine would welcome such flutes for their shepherds. May I?” Imagine, a man like that asking a little thing like me for permission! Yet he refrained from playing a single note until I bid him play. His fingers explored the flute’s holes, finding their proper homes, and then his eyes closed. His whole face seemed to close as the flute touched his lips, and all expression passed through his breath and into the melody of cottonwood trees and sparrows, of fawns tickling the Galene’s hands as they drink their fill. I laughed and clapped and told him what I saw as he played.
Another look was shared over my head. I feared a joke coming on, but instead Heledd hugged me. “A river child, indeed! So, what say you, Little Brother?”
Little brother! “Have you sisters, too, Heledd?”
“NO, thank the gods, no, child. Caddock and I alone were more trouble than our home could handle, weren’t we?” He laughed and set the flute upon the table, not really looking at me, or his sister, or anyone, it seemed. “And speaking of,” Heledd stood and straightened her shawl, “I best go back to prepare dinner. Have her back by then, or we’ll both of us get another round of poison from Madame Ffanci’s tongue.”
Caddock nodded without looking. I heard Heledd snap “Mind your eyes!” at someone before the door closed. That someone turned the corner: the slaver man.
“Any trouble, Caddock?” He looked at me, his fingers toying with that dreaded collar.
For a heart of courage in that moment! But I am little more than a coward, and remained still, frozen.
Caddock stabbed his apple knife into the table and looked at him. The table apparently received such treatment often. “None. Quite the opposite, actually. This lass is my student, and therefore, under my protection. Is that clear?” A slow, heavy nod came from the slaver, and he shuffled off. “You can breathe now, he’s gone.”
I didn’t know I’d even stopped. “When we’re done, will you please take me home, Sir?”
“And deal with the likes of your parents? Not for three dozen of my sister’s raspberry tarts. No, girl, you’ll walk to and from alone, and you’ll be fine. He’ll tell the others. No one crosses Caddock, and that,” he leaned forward with the flute for me, “includes my friends, and now my pupil. Gods, this is a first.” A smile played upon the corner of his mouth. “You can call me Caddock, if I may call you…”
“Wynne. It’s nice to know the goddess still speaks.” I knew my eyes grew very wide, and I leaned in, too, like we were sharing the most prized of secrets. “We used to talk often, Galene and I. But I stopped listening when arms and coin promised a more adventurous life. I do not regret the adventures, but I do regret losing her ear.” He wrapped my tiny hands around the flute. “And you’ll lose it, too, if you listen to your family. So let’s practice hard, you and I. With a few breaks for air, of course. Out back. By the river.”
And that is how I came to the sanctuary that was Caddock’s warehouse, and how I could move about Hafren’s seediest corners without fear. For a time he was my source of human friendship, but his tales of adventure, of discovered treasures and conquered beasts, made me yearn for adventures of my own, with a friend my own age…
Ever feel like you need to be forgiven for something?
I want to tell you how much I love my family, of the bundle of sticks tied together is never broken by whatever storm or creature befalls upon it. Yet I cannot speak this lie of my own accord, for truly, I do not love them.
This sin is my own, and I must carry it with me always.
Your parents don’t exactly seem to inspire much love, so you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself.
No, ’tis true. And I would not wish to be like Adyna, an old maid of forty years who never set foot off her father’s farm. Her name is the joke of many rhymes I hear the farmers’ children chant as they pick weeds and rocks. A child should grow to separate from her parents, just as the maple’s seeds break free and spin themselves high into the wind to land either near or far to grow. I want to grow far. I need to grow far.
But my sisters…how I wish I could carry them on the wind with me!
But you’re not friends. Why should you care?
Because I think that if not for Mother, their souls would have a chance to grow. They stare into the looking glass, insult each other for the merest blemish, stuff their bodices for deceitful chests, all for the sake of Mother’s approval. To them, beauty is everything. No music, no flower, no tapestry compares to the beauty of their forms. If they are not beautiful, then they may as well be dead.
How can one believe such words and yet manage to really live?
Mother said those words once. Oh yes. Not with Father around, for I think that such an extreme declaration would have stirred even him from his inventory for a mild chastisement. Father travels south once a year on the Galene to the ocean’s shore for dealings with the Sea Barons of the Dracicocht Isles. This time of year is always difficult with Mother, for she thrives upon the echo Father gives to her sentiments. Oh, Heledd, does her best, but her common sense flusters Mother more than anything.
The day those words were uttered was…oh, I must have been six years. My flute play was adequate, but not yet proficient, especially as the instrument was still rather big for my small body. Mother wailed in the first week of my tutelage to not “slay doves in the house,” so thanks to music, I had an easy time escaping her sharp tongue for the Galene. Bless her! No one is so patient with a struggling musician as the river goddess. That she did not send a fish to knock my flute in the river gave me hope that I was marked for improvement.
If only my sisters had come with me, I thought as I trumped in through the kitchens. I felt much better in the kitchen with the maids. They always spoke in whispers, like bees buzzing in the meadow, and gave me such sweet smiles. Any child would think herself blessed to have such women for a mother. They smiled upon me that afternoon, and gave me a bit of bread and honey to nibble on when—
“Isolda, this hill is much too steep! Rip this all out and do it again.”
I still remember the look they shared: Wrinkles filled with flour, juice, and grease, their faces were a bit like those painted for plays on festival days. One was stiff and straight like a narrator; the other all grimace. That was Heledd whenever Mother spoke out of sight.
I continued eating. By then, I thought Mother’s criticisms came and went like a certain other bodily function: foul when it comes out, quickly dispersed, and not spoken of in any company.
“Morwenna, what has happened to your face? Dear, if you pull your braids back too tight you’ll look as though a caravan ox has stepped upon it. You’re ridiculously too stretched and pinched for anyone of good class to take notice of you. Go upstairs and do it again, and if you fail again I’ll have Heledd do it properly, and then she’ll rip it out and you will follow her example.”
Heledd tapped my shoulder and waved her finger in front of her lips. I nodded and huddled by the table, eager to stay there for the next several weeks.
“And Cordelia, what on earth are you doing wearing that flower ring in the house? You’ll bring in the bees!”
“Almedha, daughter, help me with your sisters!”
“And where in Hifrea is Heledd? I need my tea, she knows how I can’t live without my afternoon tea lest the headaches come on, not to mention the shakes and the sweating and the—”
“I’ll see to it, Mother.” And there was Almedha, her own braids perfect, bodice unstuffed as her own chest was progressing to Mother’s approval, wrapped with cords for measuring a new dress. “Ah, Wynne, there you are. I didn’t know you were home.”
“She just got in, Mistress Almedha,” Ysball said before any interrogation could start.
Almedha was sixteen then, already full with ideas of running a rich merchant’s household any day now. “You are a lady of the family, Wynne. You should be entering through the front of the house, not the back like a servant.”
I stuffed the last bit of bread in my mouth. “Ah wash pachktizin.” I must confess, this was not very good manners, and not in any way excusable, but by Galene, I was hungry, and, and—I wanted to finish my food, for goodness’ sake!
“Well now that you’re here, I’m sure Mother would want to see you.” And my sister approached to take my arm.
“No she wouldn’t.”
“Wynne! What a thing to say, honestly.” And up I was taken, honey fingers and all, to the parlor where Mother sat surveying Isolda’s stiches and Cordelia’s flower sachets. “Wynne’s just returned from practicing her flute, Mother.”
Mother’s eyes darted round the room to me as a frog who’s found a fly. “Practicing, my foot! She’s gotten into the larder again, eating us out of house and home. No one wants a fat wife, Wynne, remember that.”
No one dared look at Mother’s pear-shaped body squeezed into the chair.
“I just gave the girl a bite as she wasn’t here for lunch, Madame,” Heledd said as she set Mother’s tea firmly—very firmly—upon the table. “Your tea.”
Mother rolled her eyes and drank. “Well you certainly reek of the river. There again?”
I nodded. How did I reek? I was north by the mill, where all the dead animal urine and bile of the tannery didn’t go.
Almedha nudged me. “Speak when spoken to, Wynne.”
“Well? Prove it, then.”
“Oh, child, have a sense. Play me something!”
Mother gargled and croaked, “But of course now, when else?”
“But…” And I held up my fingers, sticking together from the honey bread.
“Do as Mother says!” Almedha hissed. I heard a door open above us—Morwenna must have stepped out. Cordelia paused with her roses, Isolda with her thread.
Couldn’t they see past Mother’s commands? I even held my hands up to Almedha so she could see the honey. “But I’m—”
“Confounded, stupid girl.” Mother banged her tea cup and pried herself free of the chair. “All of you, confounded and stupid. You’re all lucky you’ve got some beauty, otherwise you’d be better off dead.”
“Madame!” Heledd stood in the doorway as Ysball brought the tea in for the rest of us.
Once, just this once, has Heledd openly defied my mother. My sisters stood agape, horrified that one of lower class would be so imprudent. I’m sure Mother thought so, too, but perhaps, and I do hope this to be the case, even Mother realized she had gone too far. Nothing was said by anyone, even Mother, for the rest of the day. The natural order of life within our fence had been utterly upheaved, so much so that Isolda left her sewing in a pile on the floor, Almedha’s lyre went unpolished, Cordelia’s bouquet received no water, and Morwenna’s braids laid against her face half-finished.
I rushed back to the Galene to wash and tell her all that had passed. The current wrapped round my hands and seemed to squeeze an assurance to me: life would get better. Somehow, life would get better. I had only to listen to her, follow her lead northward, beyond Cairbail…
If you didn’t catch the Pride and Prejudice vibes before, I bet you do now! Mrs. Bennet was a HUGE inspiration for Madame Ffanci. I welcome any and all thoughts on Wynne, her family, the setting of Cairbail–any thoughts, at all, really. Reader input rocks!
A few years back, I was challenged to take on a Young Adult series featuring teenage girls endeavoring to become Shield Maidens in the fantasy land of Idana. It took about a year to complete the first installment,Middler’s Pride. Oh yeah, pride’s a big deal in that story: self-centered Meredydd has to learn stop seeing herself as a legend and work with others as a team in order to defeat a nasty dark sorcerer. (Friendship is magic, you know.) When Middler’s Pride became a serialized novel on Channillo. I began work on the next volume, Beauty’s Price.As I once blogged:
Wynne has motives wholly unlike Mer’s for joining the Shield Maidens. She is a sweet soul, a lover of nature with a desire to live life without the rules a class society dictates.
While Meredydd came from a mix of the flawed and firey heroines in Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy novels, Wynne came from a newer love in my library: Jane Austen.
Yes, yes, I know Austen’s a classic, but I hadn’t read her until the last few years. Yes, I’m a horrible person. 🙂
The Bennets of Pride and Prejudice were a wonderful source of inspiration for Wynne’s family. They are…well. I think I’ll let Wynne describe them herself. There’s a lot to be learned of a character when one asks her to dig deep into her own home and heart. For this month’s free fiction, I’d love to share this excerpt of a long’n’lovely dialogue Narrator Me had with Wynne. She introduces us to her four sisters, the love of her life, and the rich, handsome gentleman whose arrival heralds unnerving changes to Wynne’s world.
NARRATOR ME: How would you describe yourself?
WYNNE: I would rather not, but as you are insistent, I will say I am the youngest of five sisters. My father is a merchant who deals with the caravans and artisans who live near us. My mother is also of a business, but that business is to marry my sisters and I to eligible, rich suitors.
We are all of us trained to be pleasing to the eyes and ears. Neither my mother nor my father saw need to train us in ways to be pleasing to the heart.
Your parents sound like long-term planners. Well, it can’t be easy raising five daughters, especially if they’re all like you.
Like me? My apologies, but that is a viewpoint in need of swift correction. Let us leave the kitchens and walk around the house—I avoid using the proper rooms as much as possible. Now, look over the fence as we move past the house for Traders Street. You can see my family there, in the courtyard inside the fence. My mother often instructs that it is good business to be on display, so there my sisters sit, poised for admiration. Some hours they sit so still I wonder if I live inside a tapestry woven by the gods.
Every one of them aspires to be the idyllic wife: clean, soft, and beautiful. Almedha strums a lyre. Cordelia weaves flower chains because their colors shine against her chestnut hair. Isolda prefers her needle, giving a fairy’s kiss to kerchiefs and cloaks. Morwenna strums another lyre, for she copies Almedha in all manners.
Among these four you will not find a single thought that did not first come from Mother. She dictates who sits where, for the sunlight best compliments Cordelia, while cloudy days give Isolda’s eyes a unique glow.
I must tell you, for I must tell someone lest my mouth be overwhelmed with vitriol. I find this all to be the purest of poppycock.
So, not exactly friends with your sisters.
Myself? I must say no. I am as civil as I must be, but I find the constant speak of suitors and wealth more than tiresome. What good is wealth to a man who squanders it, or even worse, hordes it from all but himself? Such men are not fit to be husbands or fathers, yet my sisters always watch the travelers for lords, chiefs, and merchants. If one has fur about his collar, he is worth a careful gaze. If one has a gold chain around his neck, he is worth a smile. If one travels with more than three servants, he is worth The Shy Drop Introduction. If one has a herald, a private cart, and a squadron of guards, he is worth The Sly Accident Introduction.
Oh, Mother has created several strategies to initiate interaction with a potential husband, and we each of us have been tested and tested late into the night to ensure their success when the time is right.
Do you have any friends around here?
Only the River Galene.
To be seen with others in town is to bring scandal and shame upon my family. I have not yet discerned how such scandal would come about, as many of the farmers and artisans have always been kind in their greetings to me in the market. They always offer compliments to my family, inquire of their health. Yet when I linger to watch the leather’s tooling, or the forge’s fire-storm, I am deeply chastised and kept in the fence for days afterward. How are such friendships scandalous? “Their hands are coarse and they live in dirt,” Mother says. “They know nothing of the finer things in life, as well they shouldn’t. But no daughter of mine’s going to know anything else, I’ll make certain of that, won’t I, Master Adwr?”
“Yes, Mistress Ffanci,” says Father, who thusly returns to his sums and calendars.
So here I must be, the fifth maiden of the set, situated upon the left with Cordelia to mirror Morwenna and Isolda, for it is Almedha’s turn in the center today. The flowers in Cordelia’s hair still sparkle with morning dew. Almedha takes lead with a new ballad filled with sweet romance. Morwenna quickly finds the harmony, but knows she is not allowed to sing louder than the eldest. Isolda hums and sews in rhythm. I hold the flute to my lips and fill it with sound, but not life. There is no life in such art.
The way you’re glaring at that fence, I’m betting you’ve found life somewhere. You did something incredible, and you found it.
What I may consider incredible could differ vastly from your consideration. You may think of heroic deeds, marches into battle and overtaking beastly fire. Sometimes the incredible comes in the little things, if you quiet yourself long enough to notice.
Consider a time many summers ago, when one is but a child, with few duties or directions. Many my age in town were considered beneath rank by my family, so I was forbidden to play with them in their fields or yards. Imagine whole days watching children immersed in adventures and warfare, and I could not take a single step among them! Such agony is what sent me north alongside the river Galene. She was my friend for many, many seasons, sharing her harmony with my songs and her whispers with those from my own heart. She encouraged me to walk beyond the town’s borders without escort or knowledge of the land, to walk northward through a dark wood where rocks the size of men peer from shadowed glens, to a new town I have never seen. I felt so very brave that day, so brave that without any word of introduction or family name, I walked up to the first child I saw and said, “What do you know about adventures?” And I did not blush despite my haggard appearance, though much of my body was dirtied with mud, petals, and sweat.
He seemed only to notice my eyes, this reed of a boy, for he never looked away when he said, “Loads.”
“Right,” I said, and I had no clue what else to say, except “Wh-what about adventures by the river Galene? Do you have them there?” My tongue loosened with the river’s name.
“Sometimes,” he said.
“Do you ever speak more than one word?” How impudent of me! Yet I found myself wanting an answer, for gods knew when my father would gallop in, hoist me up, and put me back inside the house among small chairs and stiff manners.
The boy’s smile reminded me of the Galene in winter’s thaw. “Depends.”
“Well then,” I crossed my arms as Father often did when he was declaring the finality of his offer, “let’s go.”
That may not seem very incredible to you, embarking on a game with another child. But to me, that day marked the first day I knew life instead of merely living.
Compared to sitting inside a fence on display all day, that is incredible. Would you consider this moment the turning point of your life, or is that something else?
Did I not already share this with you?
Well, I may not have shared all.
Harvest time always promises many caravans both on river and road. At this time, I was too young to be put before the eye of suitors, so my absence was never noted. I trust you to assume I took full advantage of this throughout the year, but especially every harvest.
Galene wears many crowns, if you have a care to look. In spring, she carries stars upon her head, and in summer, ribbons of light. In winter the ice thins and folds into jewelry so delicate I never dare breathe upon it.
But in fall, she moves as fire. I dipped my hands often into that crimson glow. The current felt as fingers around mine, even changing course to pull me northward.
I moved through the dark forest with people-stones. That sounds silly, I grant you, but I remember that particular day the stones looked, yes, like people: heads, necks, shoulders. Whenever sunlight cast its shadows, I felt sure I saw the markings of faces upon them.
No, I did not tarry to investigate. That was one adventure I could not bear to do alone.
No. I must not dwell on what has happened. What is done is done.
Do you wish to see the rocks? I cannot promise they will be there.
You smile at me as if I jest. No, Idana has no giants, not that I have seen. But I have never seen the ocean, either, yet I have no doubt about its presence. Nor do I doubt mountains touch the sky to the north. So it is with giants, thundering their way through lands past the river Galene. Oh, what a world there must be beyond this place! But dark and nasty things have found my country of Idana to their liking, so here they come to make tanneries filled with carcasses and animal piss, and…
You can see it, and smell it still. Look behind us now. Just past the town, to the south, there. Where Galene struggles for breath as they spill all manners of disgusting filth into her for the sake of industry.
My father is proud of that tannery. Mother, too. I am told I will grow accustomed to the smell in time. I often reply that the day I grow accustomed to the smell of piss and death is the day my soul dies.
I am told husbands aren’t looking for souls. And that is that.
Look no more to that wretched tannery. S-stay close to me, and to the river, please. Especially if we are to meet another.
Your boy, the friend? Nudge nudge?
Why do you wink at me so? Cease such actions, and pay heed to Galene, if you please.
And besides, he only comes south with his village’s weekly market cart.
You know, I get a feeling you don’t want to talk about the real turning point very much.
Oh, but I do, I do. There are simply so many turns to this point, you see. The day wound about me so tightly my soul nearly burst free of my chest, and I thought I had fallen into underworld of Hifrea.
I spoke already of the people-stones, that I did not want to look at them alone, did I not? I came to the village, and to Morthwyl–yes, the boy, the friend. My friend, my boy.
Galene had carved a small bay for herself not far from Morthwyl’s family home, where sparks shot into the air and the clangs of his father’s hammer sang while the morning clung to night’s chill. Six years, Morthwyl’s home welcomed me with this song. I grew to love the smell of woodsmoke and iron: simple industry that thrives as it both gives and takes goodness of the earth. These scents hid themselves in Morthwyl’s clothing and hair when he came down to meet me by the bay. Neither of us ever spoke in sight of the house.
In the woods along the Galene, however, Morthwyl’s lips spoke much without speaking: Never had I known someone to smile so. Some smiles promised mischief, some hope. Some a joke, with laughter eager to break through all. Some sadness. In his home, I saw no smiles, but heard many words. None ever seemed to quite translate into a pure, clear truth.
But this is not about Morthwyl’s family, not this day.
Morthwyl’s braids looked fresh, but one lock had broken free, curling round his right eye. His eyes were deep and clear, like the river.
A short walk from the shore was a patch of herbs and flowers different members of the village used. It seemed folks took turns to care for the patch as well as harvest it. Morthwyl knelt in the damp earth and cupped the bud of a tall flower. He looked up at me with such earnestness that I joined him there upon the ground. My instinct was to reach out, to hold, to care for he who had made this world sweet in spite of industry’s poison flooding the land. His cupped hands were spotted by freckles and burn marks from the forge. I studied that which he cupped in his hands. “A thistle, is it not?”
The earnestness spread to his chest, which began to flutter as though he were running. “Orpine.”
“Oh…” Mother spoke of orpines often, often promising we would plant them in our garden to divine who my sisters would marry. The three times she actually did instruct Father to purchase orpine for planting, however, one set grew straight as corn, one grew sick, and one simply died. Not one flower grew to touch another, and therefore promise marriage. Now I sat with one orpine resting upon my arm. Morthwyl released his, and it leaned forward to grace the petals’ tips in the most chaste of kisses.
Then Morthwyl’s hands blossomed with a new gift: two orpines forged of iron. They were but the length of our thumbs, woven round one another, leaves embracing, heads touching intimately.
Oh how my own heart wrapped round us in that moment! I could not breathe or speak. My soul swam through his eyes, feeling them purify me of past sorrow and bitterness. All that remained was joy so very sweet that I brought my lips to his own so that he may taste what happiness felt to me. His fingertips trembled along my cheek as his lips stayed with mine. In my heart, that moment has never ended.
But somewhere out of sight a branch snapped, pulling me away in fear. Had my father followed me at last? A horse trotted in haste, but not towards us. When a command thundered through the wood, it sounded like some lord demanding his servant. Father had no such depth or power in his commands, so I at last allowed myself to exhale and look again upon my Morthwyl.
A small smile appeared, relieved, and he placed the orpines in my hands. His own long fingers pressed a place in the stems, and I heard a small ting. The orpines came apart. One for each of us.
“Perfect,” I said. For in that moment, it was.
Oh, Wynne. No wonder it’s a turning moment.
I am not finished.
The horse whinnied such that I feared it right behind me. Morthwyl rolled into the garden and kept to his knees, hand round a weed. I uprooted the orpines and held them as children, already doomed to die in my arms. My heart cried out, but I gritted my teeth against the sorrows. No one else would know their love. Better to keep them together in their final moments than transplanted to somewhere far and alien, alone.
The horse jingled into view at full gallop. The rider pulled hard upon the belled reins, halting at garden’s edge. Beast and master shone with golden hounds embroidered upon crimson cloak and covers. Rings of red and orange gems glittered round every gloved finger. Such wealth displayed with such ease and without a single guard felt wrong, very wrong. I took one step back, eager to run, but such impudence would make me memorable, and I did not want whomever hid beneath that hood to remember me. So I curtsied, and kept my eyes to the orpines.
Morthwyl, too, bowed his head. He spoke with the quiet clarity that I knew only to come when he defended me from the insults of other lads. “My lord, the High King’s Road is far from this place. If you wish I will lead you to it.”
“That will not be necessary, boy.” The rubied hand pulled the hood aside, revealing a face that looked far too young for its voice. His beard was barely grown, and his hair, as golden as his hounds, remained tied back into a single short tail. “Merely exploring the extant of my land. But it appears I have trespassed upon your borders, this village of…”
“Little Innean, my lord.”
“Yes of course.” I could feel his gaze upon us, unrelenting as the sun in the heat of summer. If not for the horse’s content chewing, I would have screamed but to break the silence. “Pray forgive me, but I feel as if I should know you both.” He clicked his tongue, and the horse closed the distance between us. I could see every thread of his hounds, down to the points of their teeth. He had approached me, so there was no choice: I had to look up at his clean, polished face. “Perhaps my business has brought me to this town in the past. My memories are not always my own.” His smile revealed teeth white enough to be pearls.
No lord looked so perfect, not in body or status. He needed to get away, back to his land and away from this village, away from my Morthwyl. “Assuredly not, my lord,” I said. “This is but a small town of farmers and of no consequence to any of your stature.”
The rider smiled warmly as he took in my countenance, orpines and all. “A merchant such as myself trades with all walks, my lady. You, more than the boy, are far more familiar. I am now certain I have met you before.”
No, you are wrong! I wanted cry out, to leap into the Gasirad and beg sanctuary, but my mind, curse it, thought otherwise. “Perhaps you think of my sisters? They meet many who do business with my father, Master Adwr.” Surely he was thinking of them. Let him deal with their Sly Accidents before his horse, forcing him to carry them in all weak and wounded and be compelled to attend them. Let them coo and paw upon his chiseled jaw and ringed fingers. He can have their choice of them, for all I cared.
“Sisters?” He swallowed the word down. My own stomach burned. “How many?” The question came hard and fast. No smile, however warm and easy covered the odd strike that came with such a question.
And what was I to think in such a question? Yes, odd, but there surely could be no harm in it. “I am one of five sisters, my lord.”
Thank the gods for that “Sir.” I allowed myself to turn to the voice and see five large men, all clothed in crimson and golden hounds. Their hair was silver, and their features hard and angled round dull, red eyes. Yet in such mass and strength, their skin looked grey as corpses.
The one who spoke stepped forward and bowed at the waist. “Master, all corners of the border are now marked. Will trespassers be killed, or simply beheaded?”
The rider nodded along. “Yes, we’ll—what?” He cared not what Morthwyl’s reaction to such a question was, which I did see: as stalwart as oak. He would give these strangers nothing. It strengthened me to do the same. “Commander, such jests are wholly inappropriate among such intelligence…and beauty.” His rubied hand let go the reins, and opened its palm to me.
I wanted to cower. I wanted to run. I wanted to do anything, anything but place my hand in his.
But to not would mark me for punishment under his hands. And Morthwyl would not stand for such a thing without a fight, and then they would kill him. If they want to behead mere trespassers, what evils would they unleash for assault?
So I gave him my soiled hand, with my iron orpine hidden safely beneath the stalks of dying ones. His fingers closed fast and tight, and when the thumb stroked away a clump of dirt, I thought certain I would faint, or vomit, or by Galene, both. He brought his face close enough that I felt the chill of his breath, but he did not touch me with his lips. “A young beauty such as yours is to be cared for, my dear, not soiled by labor.” I curtsied to acknowledge, but said nothing. “I must speak to your father on it.”
Oh! “That is not necessary, my lord, it—”
“Tut tut, I insist. Now Commander, let us see if you’ve marked my lands clearly enough for the innocents.” He bowed as he drew his hood forward. “Until we meet again, my lady.” He rode past the five guards. Their eyes stared at us blankly for a moment, and then they turned to march silently into the trees.
Any thoughts, comments? Please share them with my thanks!
A free-spirited college student becomes a career-obsessed adult.
A writer becomes a…writer? Yes, still a writer. But a stronger writer.
I’m looking at you, Holly Black.
This woman’s got phenomenal talent. Black’s written books that lure you to dive head-first into her world. She’s got a strong following of readers, and one look at books like The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King show why. The relationships are complex, the conflicts compelling. We want to see what these characters do next, especially Jude, the teen protagonist.
Now I’ve talked a bit about Jude before, both in my post on tragic backstories as well as dissecting one of the briefest chapters ever written. Today I want to return to Jude because of another Holly Black title, the first Holly Black title:Tithe.
Sixteen-year-old Kaye is a modern nomad. Fierce and independent, she travels from city to city with her mother’s rock band until an ominous attack forces Kaye back to her childhood home. There, amid the industrial, blue-collar New Jersey backdrop, Kaye soon finds herself an unwilling pawn in an ancient power struggle between two rival faerie kingdoms – a struggle that could very well mean her death.
So over the course of sixteen years, Black wrote two different series about two teen heroines dealing with faeries. Fairies. Fae. However you spell it.
I–and many other readers, I imagine–connected with Jude because of her hopes and dreams. Jude is a girl struggling for identity inside her mostly Fae family as well as the Fae society. She witnessed her human parents’ murder by a Fae general, was then ripped away from the human realm along with her twin sister and half-Fae sister to be raised by that same general, and now attends school with other Fae gentry. She is living, breathing evidence of her mother’s desertion, yet this general fathers Jude like one of his own. In turn, Jude yearns to train and serve the Fae royalty as a knight despite being mortal. She loves her little brother, the Fae “son” of the general and his new wife. This is a girl fighting to make a place for herself in a world not created for her. She’s so desperate to make her mark in the Fae courts that she’s willing to kill in order to achieve her dream.
And then, there’s Kaye from Tithe.
Lots of people like this book, so I assume they must like Kaye as well.
But for me…look, this isn’t a roast of of Tithe. There’s plenty of strong elements here, and when one considers this is Black’s debut novel, those elements should be all the more commended. She blends Faerie and human realms seamlessly. The Fae are quite unique between Seelie and Unseelie. The black knight Roiben provides a wealth of inner conflict: magic compels him to do despicable things under the command of the Unseelie Queen, including killing a friend of Kaye’s. When we read from his point of view, we learn just how much he hates himself because he so often he has no control over his actions. A reader’s sympathy for him grows with every chapter.
And then, there’s Kaye.
Kaye took another drag on her cigarette and dropped it into her mother’s beer bottle. She figured that would be a good test for how drunk Ellen was–see if she would swallow a butt whole.
This is the first paragraph of the Prologue. This is our first impression of Kaye.
Already I’m wincing, but maybe that’s my prudish Midwestern nature. Plenty of kids have shitty parents, drinking parents. Plenty of teenagers pick up smoking. Turns out Kaye’s mother sings in a lousy club band and is dating one of its members, the “asshole Lloyd.” During the wrap up after a gig, Lloyd for no understandable reason tries to stab Kaye’s mom but Kaye stops him. (It is later learned he’d been entranced, for the record.)
We’re only a couple pages in, and Kaye’s witnessed an attempted murder. Normally this sort of thing, especially when family’s involved, would leave some sort of mark on a person, be it physically, emotionally, mentally, or all three. This is something that spawns nightmares, phobias, fixations on danger and/or thrills.
Yet Kaye and her mother Ellen only talk about moving in with Grandma. No confusion or anger over what Lloyd did. No fear over how they’re going to live next. No anxiety over whether or not Grandma will accept them after a six-year absence. Just…
“Honey,” Ellen said finally, “we’re going to have to go to Grandma’s.”
“Did you call her?” Kaye asked. …
“It’ll be a little while. You can visit that friend of yours.”
“Janet,” Kaye said. She hoped that was who Ellen meant. She hoped her mother wasn’t teasing her about that faerie bullshit again. If she had to hear another story about Kaye and her cute imaginary friends…
As you may have surmised, this is when Kaye started to lose me.
Yet I kept reading. Openings are tough. Kaye’s got to get back to her childhood home somehow, soooo okay, this works. Now Kaye’s on the New Jersey shore, walking and talking with her friend Janet on their way to hanging out with boys.
“Kaye, when we get there, you have to be cool. Don’t seem so weird. Guys don’t like weird….don’t you want a boyfriend?”
I had to stop there.
What did Kaye want?
From my impression of Kaye’s memories of her mother falling asleep in toilets and attaching herself to loser after loser, Kaye clearly doesn’t dig the life of a traveling musician. Yet her grandmother’s demands that she attend school are met with the same lack of enthusiasm.
In fact, Kaye doesn’t talk about anything with enthusiasm except Roiben, a lone faerie she helps on the roadside.
“Look, I’m only going to be in town for a couple of months, at most. The only thing that matters is that he is cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die beautiful.” Kaye waggled her eyebrows suggestively.
Perhaps Kaye is a girl who’s never allowed herself to dream. We can be like that too, I suppose–too fearful of failure, too weary of life’s obstacles to dare hope for anything beyond what’s in front of us.
So when Kaye is told she herself is a faerie who’s been glamoured to look human since birth, she…well, what do you think?
She was shaking her head, but even as she did it, she knew it was true. It felt true, unbalancing and rebalancing her world so neatly that she wondered how she didn’t think of it before now. After all, why would only she be visited by faeries? Why would only she have magic she couldn’t control?
Such a revelation alters everything: her human family’s not really hers. She’s not human at all. Any hope, any dream she had for her future must now be sacrificed–
She didn’t have any aspirations. This revelation, this life-altering revelation….just what exactly does it change inside Kaye?
I’m going to stop dissecting Tithe here. I’ll still recommend it for the world and for the conflicted Fae knight Roiben, but I cannot recommend Tithe for its heroine. For all her dislike against her grandmother’s “normal” lifestyle and her mother’s alcohol addled life on the road, has she honestly not once hidden a special passion for something to keep herself sane? One would think it’d be her “cute imaginary friends,” but Kaye’s first reference to her Fae visitors from childhood was “faerie bullshit.” So as of the beginning of this novel, faeries were no longer special. She keeps no journal, no art, no collection of little things she’d never dare show her mom. Even Janet, the one friend she’s been emailing from libraries, is completely blown off once Roiben comes onto the scene.
Readers care about characters who care. The character may be a jerk in many ways, but even jerks can have a soft spot. Jude committed murder in The Cruel Prince, yet I still found myself rooting for her. Why? Because she was fighting for her kid brother’s safety. Because she wanted the enemies of the old Faerie king to pay for their treachery. She gets her heart broken by one Fae boy while finding her fate entwined with another. Jude IS passion–hardly the “he’s so dreamy” passion, but the “I want my family to survive a coup” passion. The “I want to LIVE” passion.
That’s passion any reader can feel beating in his/her own heart.
Kaye never seems to feel that. She simply floats along whether she’s human or faerie, accepting whatever situation she’s placed in, fearful only of losing Roiben.
How often are we telling our teenagers not to wrap their entire lives around one other human being? To have their own hopes and dreams, because someone who truly loves them will love those dreams and help find a way to achieve them?
Love can be a powerful force in a fantasy, to be sure.
But so is hope.
So are dreams.
Which fictional hero or heroine inspires you to dream? Let me know in the comments below!
Thanks, too, for your encouragement during my saga over the full-time slot at the university. I didn’t get it, but I’m hopeful for the next time. 🙂
And if you’re a fan of dreamers (and stories of dreams gone fantastically awry) I hope you’ll check out my novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. It’s free on Kindle Unlimited, and my short story collection Tales of the River Vine are all free to download from Amazon, too.
I’m running around the house doing anything but prepare: laundry, readying kids for school, dishes–
Bo: “Know what you need?”
A sedative. A one-way ticket to Oslo. A chorus of Muppets performing a musical review of Animal Crackers.
“No. You need to go downstairs, breathe in those cinnamon pinecones on your desk, and pull out my copy of Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul.”
But I can’t listen to it. It’s not Hot Clarified Butter Soul. Get it? Eeeeh? Get it? Whole30 humor!
Oh I’m going to fail on so many levels…
Well…I spoke like a juiced driver on the Daytona track, but I didn’t flub my points or the snippets I read from Stolen and “The Stray.” Thank the Lord I could use my old–slogan?–“Writer of Fantasy and Adventure in Her Own Backyard” to be the theme of my talk. I delved into Wisconsin’s landscape and how it inspired my fiction from little on, and that any writer can create worlds unique to their stories with a little help from the everyday environment around them.
Building the extraordinary out of the ordinary, as it were.
Afterwards, I had many colleagues tell me they felt really excited to explore the favorite places from their own childhoods as I had with mine, and to take a crack at some fantasy fiction of their own.
Gotta admit: I felt proud of that. Relieved, but proud. x
This moment with Blondie still pulls all those emotions of motherhood to the fore: guilt for writing instead of playing with her, pain for making her feel like work mattered more. Determination to make right, only to have my plans be too “scary” for her. Dammit, I’m going to cry again!
But the one good thing about tears while reading: it gets the listeners all teared up too. So never mind my editing snafus in the piece–I got the whole room cryin’.
Gotta admit, I’m proud of that. Of Blondie, of this day, of all of it, now. For once, I’m going to allow myself to be proud of myself.
Now I just need to survive that interview with the faculty panel tomorrow…
Oh! Before I forget: tomorrow is the LAST day my novel’s on sale for 99 cents. If you know anyone who loves fantasy, be sure to drop this title their way before March runs my sale out of town!