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!
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!
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!
To celebrate March Magics–and because I’ve final projects to grade and two novels to crack down upon–I’m sharing a previously unposted essay I wrote a couple years back when I was compiling all my Diana Wynne Jones posts into the collection Lessons Learned. Enjoy!
In “The Heroic Ideal: A Personal Odyssey,”Diana Wynne Jones discusses the place of the mythic hero in contemporary story-telling, especially her own. This particular essay in Reflections on the Magic of Writing struck me on epiphanical proportions. (Yes, new word. Doesn’t the fantasy genre allow for some language leniency?) In all the writing classes I had taken over the years, no one had ever broken down the echoes and inspirations between the modern and ultra-classic like that before. Jones details connections between her work and Chaucer, Spenser, and Homer, to name a few. Sure, that may sound like she’s tooting her own horn, but I don’t think so. Fire and Hemlock, one of her most critically revered novels, is so subtle with the fantastic you can literally blink and miss it. For instance, the first chapter is all about the protagonist Polly trying to remember something. Sounds dull, doesn’t it? Yet as we go further into the story, we learn Polly is fighting through the memories be-spelled upon her by the villain. The first chapter shares Polly’s initial success in remembering the true past.
Tempting as it is to go in depth on Fire and Hemlock yet again, “The Heroic Ideal” contains Jones’ discussion of mythology’s inspiration F&H with far more depth and humor. Besides, she wrote two other novels that serve as marvelous examples. The first, Eight Days of Luke, is a touch more obvious than Fire and Hemlock if one knows a bit about Norse mythology. I’ll admit that I didn’t, at least not until the movie Thor came out and my father was as giddy as an eight-year-old. (It is a decent movie, for the record–and directed by Kenneth Branagh of all people!)
Granted, Marvel’s interpretation of Norse mythology is, um, loose, but you get some basics in there: the home of the gods, Thor and his dad being at odds, Loki the mischief maker, etc. Diana Wynne Jones has her own fun with these myths, and from her fun Eight Days of Luke is born.
David is stuck at home on school
holiday with his horrible relations. After being reminded how he’s a wretched,
ungrateful little orphan they don’t deserve to put up with, David skulks out
into the garden and starts pacing back and forth, muttering what he feels are
some really good curses—only, he doesn’t really know what he’s saying. The
garden wall cracks and out come some nasty snakes and a boy just David’s size.
His name is Luke.
By this point I’m sure you know who the title character Luke is—that’s right, Loki. David has somehow freed Luke from his prison (only Diana Wynne Jones would put a Norse god’s prison beneath a marrow garden in Ashbury) and Luke’s relations are coming down to get him: Mr. Chew (war god Tiu), the Frys (fertility gods Freyja and Freyr), and Mr. Wedding (Odin, chief of the gods). Thor comes along eventually when we learn why Luke’s in so much trouble, and what David can do to help him. (Thor’s rather the giveaway, so no fancy modern alias for him.)
One of the cool things about a quest story is that they are indeed timeless. David must outwit gods and mortals alike for the sake of his friend, just like any great hero of the distant past. Sure, folks like Perseus and Beowulf may not have had pinball or cricket, but they always had someone or something worth fighting for.
Jones’ The Game puts a girl at odds with horrible relations, too, only this novella is a bit more…hmm…nonlinear, would be the best way to say it. Hayley is sent to live with a bunch of aunts and cousins she’s never met before, and she quickly learns why her grandmother never liked them. She also learns just how much her grandfather bears on his shoulders—literally. Among many worldly matters, Haley’s grandfather takes great care of the mythosphere, a place where Hayley’s cousins secretly play The Game. Once Hayley begins playing The Game with them, reality and the mythosphere are both irrevocably changed. She discovers her grandfather’s true identity: Atlas the titan. The uncle who controls them all is none other than Jupiter. And she must…well. Needless to say, I learned some more mythology thanks to this book.
Bringing past gods into the present isn’t a unique idea; Rick Riordan’s made a mint off of his various “modern kids vs. ancient gods” series, Percy Jackson and the Olympiansbeing the first and, I believe, the most popular. (It’s the one I read, anyway.) And I give Riordan and Jones both credit for inspiring curiosity in young readers for the olden tales of heroes and gods, of the odysseys through time and beyond.
I know we all like to make that Ecclesiastic complaint that there is nothing new under the sun. Well, it’s one thing to copy, or plagiarize, but it’s another to truly reimagine. Jones proves time and again that one can look to the classics for inspiration. Even the most worn of roads will take you somewhere, if you let it.
Thanks so much for reading! If you have other grand (or not-so-grand) examples of reimaginings you’d like to discuss, please share them in the comments below.
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 going to pause before I even begin in order to say how amazingly patient you all have been for enduring this 30-day blog-o-thon. I’ve been doing my damndest to catch up on reading your sites, but I have a feeling it’s going to take a month of NOT writing just to see all that you lovely folks have done during this cold, snowy month.
During one pre-dawn hour set aside for morning coffee and blog reading, I came across an old book review by the amazing Chris Lovegrove. His closing nails the very topic I wish to discuss today:
I felt a little cheated by the end. The lack of resolution for one character felt manipulative. Increasingly, fantasies these days are clearly labelled Book One of a spellbinding new series or The first volume of such-and-such saga; it wasn’t till near the end that I realised that this wasn’t a standalone novel but that I would have to invest time and maybe more money in the sequel.
Indeed, what has happened to the standalone story? We are an audience of franchises and serieseseses to the point where filmmakers will divvy up a book and spread its material so thinly that a single story is transformed into a film trilogy. (cough cough HOBBIT cough cough)
When I study Diana Wynne Jones’ library (as every good and proper fantasy fan should do), I see 25 stand-alone stories. 2 duologies, 1 trilogy, 1 quartet (quartology?), and the octology of Chrestomanci. (I’m just making up number words at this point.) We won’t even get into the short fiction stuff here, or plays, or whatever else. Strictly novels. (If I missed any, let me know!)
If you go through all these novels, not one ends with a cliffhanger. Correct me if I’m wrong, but DWJ was one to practice what she preached:
My feeling is that the best stories leave the reader trying to imagine what happened after the story stopped.
As far as DWJ was concerned, the story she needed to tell began and ended in one volume. Even the DWJ stories considered sequels or parts of a series are only considered such because they’re in the same universe, NOT because they’re picking up where the previous plot left off. Look at the Howl trilogy: Howl and Sophie go from primary characters in the first book to making cameo appearances in the second. In the third book they appear halfway through the novel with some importance, but still, they are not the primary protagonists. One of the primary characters of Deep Secret returns in The Merlin Conspiracy, but again, he is not the main character. DWJ utilized the same universe for multiple stories, not necessarily the same characters. Heck, Chrestomanci’s rarely a main character in his own series! (But I already wrote about that.)
I started paging through other Young Adult Fantasy stories read from my bookshelf or local library to see which stories end on a cliffhanger, and which are capable of standing alone.
Celine Kiernan’s The Poison Throne:She was travelling at a good pace, though, and it was not long before she disappeared up the winding path, to be swallowed into the treacherous depths of the bandit-laden forest and the company of wolves.
Cliffhanger. The protagonist’s clearly beginning another journey. Not only is the primary antagonist of the story is still in power, but we learn our protagonist is entering yet another enemy’s territory.
Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games: Out of the corner of my eye, I see Peeta extend his hand. I look at him, unsure. “One more time? For the audience?” he says. His voice isn’t angry. It’s hollow, which is worse. Already the boy with the bread is slipping away from me.
I take his hand, holding on tightly, preparing for the cameras, and dreading the moment when I will finally have to let go.
Both. This one’s a bit grey to me. On the one hand, the protagonist has survived the Hunger Games. The primary conflict of the story has come to a close. However, we read here that the protagonist’s personal journey is not over, so there is, in a sense, a cliffhanger, just not like the life-or-death situation the protagonist’s been in for much of the book.
Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight:I touched his face. “Look,” I said. “I love you more than everything else in the world combined. Isn’t that enough?”
“Yes, it is enough,” he answered, smiling. “Enough for forever.”
And he leaned down to press his cold lips once more to my throat.
Standalone. You read right. Yes, I’ve read the whole series, so yes, I know there are more books after this. But I’ll give Meyers credit for giving this novel an ending that feels like an ending. As far as everyone knows, the last of the bad vampires has left the region and the girl’s got the guy. All’s right with the world.
JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone(hush, I’m an American, THAT’S the title here): Harry hung back for a last word with Ron and Hermione.
“See you over summer, then.”
“Hope you have–er–a good holiday,” said Hermione, looking uncertainly after Uncle Vernon, shocked that anyone could be so unpleasant.
“Oh, I will,” said Harry, and they were surprised at the grin that was spreading over his face. “They don’t know we’re not allowed to use magic at home. I’m going to have a lot of fun with Dudley this summer…”
Standalone. When you consider the primary conflict (protecting the Sorcerer’s Stone from Voldemort) that conflict officially ends in this book. Yes, Voldemort gets away, but his plot’s been thwarted. Even the other school-friendly subplots of making friends, succeeding in a wizarding school with a muggle’s childhood, and so on are wrapped up. The Voldemort conflict does not start creating cliffhangers until the third book, Prisoner of Azkaban.
Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel:Magnus reached behind himself and locked the parlor door. “Very well,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me what the problem is?”
Cliffhanger. Any time a story ends with a question, it’s an automatic cliffhanger–especially when that question pertains to a protagonist’s “problem.”
Peadar Ó Guilín’s The Call:Early in the new year, she tells her parents that she has to leave again.
“The Nation must survive,” she says. “I can help with that.”
She sits alone on the bus, her suitcase propped up on the seat beside her so she can pretend it’s Megan sitting there instead. And off she goes through the snowy roads, Agnes and Ferg waving her away, hugging each other, their pride so fierce it burns.
Standalone. The protagonist has survived her three minutes. The fight goes on, and so will she, determined to leave her parents and teach other children how to survive the dark land of the Sidhe. By this story’s rules, she cannot be summoned back into the Sidhe realm for another hunt, so again, by this story’s rules, our protagonist is officially free. Of course, Peadar totally subverts these expectations in The Invasion, but I appreciate how he made this novel self-contained. Had this remained a standalone, it’d still be awesome.
Off the top of my head…
Other good examples of what I feel could be considered standalone novels whether or not they’re in a series: Court of Thorns and Roses, Uprooted, Neverwhere, Chronicles of Narnia
Know any others? Let me know!
Other good examples of what I feel are cliffhanger novels:Cruel Prince, Mortal Instruments, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen
Ibid on the knowing and the letting of me knowing
Hey, what’s my own book doing there?
Yes, I must plead guilty. I was in a similar situation as JRR Tolkien; as you know, LOTR is one HUGE tome broken into three books for readability’s sake. The same thing happened with Stolen–my publisher kindly pointed out that people aren’t necessarily going to be drawn to a debut novel 650 pages long. Two novels, though, would split that length into readable installments. The result?
Her head nestles against Liam’s knee. The Voice in her heart sighs, too exhausted to notice a pounding, a drumming rising from deep, deep in the Pits.
So what makes a cliffhanger tolerable and not infuriating?
Somewhere along the way, SOMEthing must be resolved.
A series is bound to have many plot threads, and that’s fine. But if a few hundred pages cannot tie off a single thread, readers are going to get pissed.
Rightfully so, too. In a way it comes back to those expectations and payoffs: the patience of a reader lasts for only so long. The more you build, and build, and build, yet never follow through, the more readers will feel lost, disengaged, or both. Why spend time in a world that’s constantly tangled with characters never decently understood?
So sure, maybe the antagonist is still free at the end of Book 1. Maybe the hero’s journey has only just begun. Was a battle fought and one? Was an internal conflict resolved? Did a relationship come to fruition or destruction? So long as SOMEthing has been brought to a close, a cliffhanger ending will still bring some satisfaction to the reader.
Resolve nothing in that first book, and readers will resolve not to invest time in the second.
Tie a thread or two, and hold your world–your series–together.
I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to be drinking this much orange juice, but if I can’t over drink the coffee and I’ve already burned my tongue on tea, then I’m having OJ, dammit.
This post is the equivalent of me scribbling a note in the lecture hall in the midst of a talk on world-building. Yup–the literary conference of my university is in full-swing. I’m trying to hit as many talks as possible before I have to get the kids, because taking kids into a lecture hall–even a virtual lecture hall–is a pain in the patoot. So far it’s been a nice day, and reminding me that I better practice what the heck I’m saying for an hour, and then making sure I’ve picked the right nonfiction piece to read later in the afternoon.
Noooo pressure, Jean, no pressure.
A little wish of good luck would be deeply appreciated!
In the meantime, I’m digging this post from 2018 out of my pocket because the Oscars had Queen perform, and I do so love that band. Click here and enjoy!
The kind that makes you go, “NOOOOOOOOOO!” because a beloved and/or cool character is about to die.
Every time. Seriously, every time I see Predator, I say, “Nooo, Billy!” at the screen. As a member of the audience, I’m invested in seeing the characters’ survival against the Predator. I want to see the characters’ skill sets aid them in overcoming the conflicts and obstacles that await them before the journey’s end.
This can be said as a reader of any high-stakes story, really. Look at a few big SFF series for examples. We want Captain Kirk and his crew to survive. We want Harry Potter and all his friends to survive. We want the Fellowship of the Ring to survive. We want Katniss Everdeen and her loved ones to survive. We want Luke Skywalker and his friends to survive.
We know these people are fictional, but there are facets of these characters that connect within us. This makes us care about them, so of course we go “NOOOOO!” when Dumbledore is struck down by Snape, when Prim and dozens of others are bombed by a device made by the Katniss’ oldest friend, Gabe.
…and then there are the deaths that just don’t feel necessary.
Now I just want to pause here that I’m talking about this as both a reader and a writer. I get that pain and consequence have to occur in a high-stakes story. You can’t threaten death without delivering at least a little bit of death or you risk hollowing out the stakes.
What bothers me as a reader and worries me as a writer are those unnecessary character deaths. You know you’ve encountered stories with this problem. That’s why I showed the aforementioned Predator clip of Billy. Billy, the biggest and buffest bad-ass of Dutch’s team, stops on the tree-bridge to face the Predator. Why?
On screen, we’re not given a reason apart from MANLINESS. Just look at him, stripping down and cutting his own chest. It’s the ultimate bad-ass standoff!
Only in the story, it’s not the ultimate bad-ass standoff. That’s for Dutch (also stripped down) and the Predator.
So why did Billy have to die?
As a “reader,” I could shrug to “noble sacrifice,” except no other death has bought the survivors time or advantage. Billy would know that. I could also shrug to “acceptance,” since earlier in the film Billy says, “We’re all going to die.”
But as a writer, I think I really know why.
It’s because you can’t have an ultimate bad-ass standoff between TWO good guys and a bad guy. Plus, in terms of physique, Billy and Dutch are an equal match. Heck, I think Billy could have beaten Dutch in arm wrestling.
So Billy had to die.
It feels like when there has to be a bit of death in the story, writers sometimes choose the character most similar to the protagonist. Take Finnick Odair from the Hunger Games trilogy: he’s strong, knowledgeable, another survivor of the Hunger Games (also: pretty). We meet him in Catching Fire, grow connected to his personality and backstory, root for him when he gets married….aaaaand watch him die on the assault on the Capital. Now it can be argued his arc’s complete, so the audience knows who he is. SOMEone’s got to die in a war; his death will have the strongest emotional impact while primary heroine Katniss can continue on.
Fine. Fair enough. At least Finnick got to die on page/screen, UNLIKE BILLY.
Notice how after all his bad-ass preparation, we never get to see Billy fight the Predator. We just hear his anguished scream, and know he’s dead. Such off-screen deaths drive me nuts. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is guilty of this, too, both in book and on film, when it comes to characters like Professor Lupin and the Auror Tonks. They die during the battle at Hogwarts while Harry’s elsewhere, so we never see their final moments. They’re just dead.
Wow, I went off longer on this than planned. Dammit, Billy, you got me all wound up!
I get that I have to accept beloved characters dying. I just want those deaths to MATTER. You bet your ass I cry when Beth dies in Little Women. I bawl when Clint Eastwood’s character Walt is shot in Gran Torino. I refused to believe Hercule Poirot was really dead in Curtain until I went online for evidence to prove otherwise…and couldn’t find it. Even Dobby, that goofy little house-elf Dobby, had me sobbing both while reading and watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I hated that these characters had to die.
But their deaths help spur the protagonists–and the narrative–forward. Without their deaths, there is less at stake; therefore, there is less concern for the characters.
Now I have waaaaaay more to say about character death, but Bo’s up and given me the giggles by saying, “Billy will always be in the chopper of your heart.” Yes, yes he will!
So let’s pause to talk. Is there a story with a character death that really frustrates you? Should I kill more characters in my own books?
Lastly, be sure to stay tuned to my monthly newsletter. Big changes are coming, and I don’t want you to miss out!
Born in Dublin, Ireland, 1967, Celine has spent the majority of her working life in the film business, and her career as a classical feature character animator spanned over seventeen years, before she became a full-time writer. I am honored to spend this week and next sharing her thoughts on world-building, research, character, audience, and hooks.
First, let’s talk about the imagination behind the worlds. I see on your biography you spent years in film and animation. What drew you to visual storytelling as a profession before written storytelling? How does your work as an animator influence the way you write today?
From the moment I could hold a pencil I was always either drawing or writing. In terms of satisfaction, I don’t think there’s a dividing line between the two disciplines for me. But at different stages in my life one has dominated the other by the simple fact of making me a living. At the age of nineteen I left college for an apprenticeship with the brilliant Sullivan Bluth Studios, and as a consequence of that went on to a 25 year career as a classical character animator (Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven,Anastasia, etc.). Animation is a great love of mine ( I animated the book trailer for Raggedy Witches and it was tremendous fun)–
–but it’s not really ‘story telling’ for me. It’s more akin to acting or dancing, where you’re using your skill to enhance or express someone else’s story. To me writing is my true story-telling outlet. You’re god of your own universe in writing. You get to explore the themes you want to explore, with the characters you most want to be with, in a world entirely of your own invention. Its purity has no equal. (I am a compete sucker for graphic novels, though. The combination of pure story telling and visual representation there is intoxicating. One day someone will offer to pay me to sit down and draw up one of my own scripts, at which stage I may just implode with happiness. Until then I get great joy in drawing bookplates and small illustrations for readers who contact me about my stories.)
I love utilizing the world around me as a foundation for world-building, which means Wisconsin’s landscape is a heavy influence in my work. Into the Greyand Resonanceare both set in different historical periods of Ireland: the former in the 1970s, and the latter in the 1890s. What logic led you to choose these particular periods for these stories? Are there any pieces of the Ireland around you that helped inspire the settings?
Both Into the Grey and Resonance are set in very specific time periods due to the long and involved back stories which feed into the protagonists’ experiences. Although they are both readable simply as supernatural adventures (Into the Grey is a haunted house tale of ghostly possession; Resonance a story of inter-dimensional aliens and ‘vampiric’ immortal humans) there are deep historical roots to both that not only feed the story, but also the themes that I was exploring as a writer. For instance, Into the Grey explores the divided nature of Ireland’s history and the way our view of our selves and our lives is warped by the stories history tells about us. Resonance explores the value human beings place on themselves and on others, what does it mean to be alive, to be ‘worthy’ in other peoples eyes, etc. These underlying themes are the reason I write in the first place – I write in order to explore the world around me. But I love the stories to be readable as adventures too, to be scary and fun and exciting (in as far as you can ever anticipate what others will find scary and fun and exciting. I’ve found it’s best to just please myself in that respect and hope at least some others will enjoy them too.).
The mansion in Resonance was deeply influenced by the exterior of Belvedere House in Co Meath and the fabulous interior of Bantry House in Cork, in which my son shot the linked video. (Bantry House is not at all spooky, but this video was shot as a specific tribute to Italian horror movies, so it gives the place the exact frantic, off kilter vibe that the I wanted for the later scenes of the book. It even has a dollhouse – though, admittedly, this one lacking a blood soaked four-poster bed!)
Question about your Moorehawke Trilogy: research. Clearly you did your share of research on medieval life to transport readers into the castle’s kitchens and secret passages. Ugh, that research! I know some writers love the research—friend and author Shehanne Moore does a ton of research for her historical romances, whereas I only research when I have absolutely no other choice. Now granted, that’s partly because I just want to write and work out the nitpicky things later, but the other part is that I get so overwhelmed in the data I can’t decide what details are necessary for the narrative’s clarity and what’s minutiae. Can you share some tips on how to research productively and selecting the best details to ground your readers in the setting?
I usually have a book in my head for a long time before I start writing it. For example, when my first agent took me on I was just finishing up writing The Poison Throne, the first of the Moorehawke trilogy. I still had to clean up draft one of Crowded Shadowsand still had to write all of Rebel Prince. There was years of work ahead of me on Moorehawke (taking into account editing etc.) but I arrived at the agent’s with a biography of Harry Houdini in my hand, my reading material at the time. I’d already consumed many books on the history of the American slave trade and was nibbling away at websites and articles about the history of Jewish persecution in Europe. I knew that all of these things would feed into the characters and setting of Resonance, which was the book I planned to write after Moorehawke.
If memory serves me, it would be at least two years before I started draft one of Resonance, but at that stage I would have had over three years of historical research floating around in my head. I do this with all my books, this years of reading before writing. It means that when I start to write, my story and characters are already pretty firmly grounded in a time, place and setting. They live for me already. So, in a way, it feels like I’m writing about contemporaries. I’m used to the world they live in, and the relevant details settle naturally into the narrative. As I write then, it will be small things that need clarifying – was that type of knife available then? Did they eat that kind of bread? Would they have had access to carriages, to time pieces etc. etc. – and those things only crop up in the narrative if they’re important to the scene. You can quickly check them and move on with the story.
I do the same with all my novels (at the moment – while writing the Wild Magic trilogy – I’m consuming biographies from the 1700s, trying to understand the lifestyle and mindset of the people I hope to populate a future novel with.).
Don’t forget too that editing is a writer’s best friend. You should feel free to put as much useless trash into the first draft as possible. If it makes you happy or interests you, put it onto the page. You can always cut it later (as I’ve got more experience, I’ve learned to cut more and more. I’m far more spare a writer now than I was at the beginning.)
Another element in The Moorehawke Trilogy I LOVE is your world-building. You base the world in an alternative medieval Europe, where cats can talk to people and ghosts are common to see, but religions such as Christianity and Islam have a strong presence. You also explained much of the inner workings of castle life without making readers feel like they had wallowed into info dumps. Exposition can be such a dangerous line to walk in epic fantasy—how on earth did you craft those paragraphs to help readers learn your world without slowing down the narrative?
Thank you, that’s so nice of you to say. I do feel that one person’s excruciatingly slow narrative is another person’s meaty delight, so I think the best approach is to write as you like to read and try and be honest to that. However, it’s a good idea to ask yourself in edits whether the information is truly important to the story itself – whether it furthers the readers understanding of the characters, or the plot; or whether it nudges them deeper into the mood or atmosphere of the scene. If it does any of those things, then it’s working for you and you might consider keeping it. Get honest beta readers too – people who will tell you where and when the story has begun to slow or drag for them. Try and get a few of them. If they all tell you that a specific portion of the narrative is a slog for them, then you need to consider cutting a little deeper or refocusing. Make sure the narrative is telling the reader something new or important, and that they feel rewarded by the read.
Stay tuned next week for more from Celine Kiernan! Now pardon me while I, an 80s child raised on Bluth films, fan-girl squeal for the next several hours. To meet a storyteller of powerful fiction who also helped create the visual stories from my own childhood is soooooo awesome! EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!
+ Writer and fellow Wisconsinite Jon also wrote both an interviewand book review, and on top of shepherding a church, too! You’re too kind.
These are talented writers with stories of their own to tell, so I hope you check them out. Please be sure to share your own thoughts on Stolen or my FREE collection Tales of the River Vineon Goodreads or Amazon–I’d love to hear what you think. 🙂