Greetings, one and all! While I run around a massive education conference for my university, please enjoy this lovely chat I had with Indie Fantasy Author Marsha A. Moore.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
As a child, instead of having a bedtime story read to me, my father prompted me to create oral stories with him. Together over a few years, we conjured a series of fantasy tales called The Land of Wickee Wackee. Our characters and sub-plots interwove. Nothing was more exciting than creating new stories in that make-believe world! Bedtime was amazing!
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
Natasha Mostert’s Season of the Witch changed how I view my role as an author of fantasy fiction. In her book, magic causes mental effects for both the giver and receiver. I find the complexity of that sort of magical system riveting, something I strive for in my own work.
It’s so cool to find a story that pushes us to think beyond how we’ve previously built our worlds. That kind of care surely takes time. Unfortunately, we don’t always see this kind of care in books currently published by indie writers, do we?
have a growing dislike for the indie practice of pushing books out so fast that
quality is sacrificed. The trend worsens each year. Books are produced that
lack originality and depth, and writers burn out and then teach their
methodology for “success” only because they were unable to maintain the arduous
pace long term. Art requires reflection.
Indeed! It took me eight years of writing, revision, reflection, and more writing to make my own first novel worthy of publication. What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Picking up writing a particular story after I’ve left it for a while and it’s gone cold, absent from my daily thoughts. That is a beast I definitely dread tackling.
I’d love to hear more about your series, The Coon Hollow Coven Tales. What inspired you to bring witches and magic to the Midwestern setting?
My series, Coon Hollow Coven Tales, is set in my version of a real place near where I lived in southern Indiana as a child. With its rolling forested ravines and artist residences tucked away in sleepy, rustic log and limestone cabins, the place captured my imagination and never let go.
place is Nashville, Indiana, which lies south of Bloomington. In fact, all of
Brown County and its rolling hills inspires this series.
unusual tiny town in the county, Story, Indiana, is now privately owned and run
as a small bed and breakfast resort. It’s a living fairy tale! And some of the
buildings are haunted! The Blue Lady lives in the rooms above the
inn/restaurant/old general store. If you get a chance to visit, you must!
In Witch’s Mystic Woods, I adapted that little village, renamed it “Fable” and gave it to my Summer Fae King and his faeries to run. In the book, I needed a location to throw a Winter Solstice party. Who else would be better party hosts than fae? So the inn of Fable opened its doors to the witches of Coon Hollow Coven for a memorable night.
The books in my Coon Hollow Coven Tales series are rich with a warm Hoosier down-home feel as well as mysterious magic that lurks in the ravines of those deep woods.
Did Coon Hollow Coven Tales require lots of research? I can’t help but imagine so, considering the subject matter.
Writing Coon Hollow Coven Tales has given me a terrific reason to spend inordinate amounts of time researching all kinds of witchcraft, from group to solitary practices, green witchcraft, wiccan work compared to paganism, Cherokee shamanism (for Witch’s Windsong), and even necromancy (the raising of the dead, for Witch’s Cursed Cabin).
But the most interesting witchcraft I learned about was that of a Hedge Witch, an old, old practice. It relies upon communication with the world of faeries going through the “hedge” or “veil” into their realm. These Hedge Witches are the true-life, Appalachian granny witches, also knowns as “root doctors” or “wildwood mystics.” Their skills riveted me and became the background for my book Blood Ice & Oak Moon. During the past year, I’ve begun a new series, a YA alternate reality/historic fantasy. The series is set in the year 2,355 in what was once the United States, well past an apocalypse that occurred at the end of the Civil War. I’ve done considerate research about the Civil War and how different areas of the country were affected. One of my best references for small things, which books or YouTube cannot convey, has been one of my former high school students who has been an avid 18th and 19th century reenactor for decades. I treasure her advice!
As a writer, what would you choose as your spirit animal?
In preparing to write Witch’s Windsong, the most recent in my Coon Hollow Coven Tales, I studied with a local shaman. My main character, Keir, is a shaman, and I wanted to portray his work accurately. The local shaman taught me how to journey into the different realms and helped me locate and meet my spirit animal, the Coyote, who often teaches me valuable lessons.
The Coyote helps in with my general outlook, including my
writing, always poking at me to take time to “play” with my creative process.
When I listen, the process becomes hugely more rewarding, as much or more than
achieving the final outcome.
Helloooooo, my lovely folks! While I vanquish the mountain of term papers and attempt to discover new territory in Camp NaNoWriMo,I want to treat you all to a month of interviews with amazing indie authors. As April is also Poetry Month, it is only fitting to begin with the one, the only, Master Mike Steeden. x
First, Mike, why not tell us a little about yourself?
As to imparting ‘a little about myself’ it is probably for the best that such information remains left untold. Were I to continue there is a very real risk of your readers becoming consumed with the urgent desire to open a vein and end it all out of sheer tedium.All I will say is that aside from being a time-traveller…and frankly that’s not all it’s made out to be…and having shared a few beers with both Joan of Arc, a lovely gal, although lacking that certain panache on the coiffure front, and the much maligned yet a decent sort when you get to know him, Vlad the Impaler, there is little of interest to divulge.
What first inspired you to create with words?
I know many ‘words’ yet cannot spell for toffee, hence the day I discovered that Word had a ‘spellcheck’ I was inspired to have a stab at writing. To my addled mind, although irrelevant in the global plan of things, that event became my metamorphosis moment. Notwithstanding the spelling issues, possibly I should also extend my thanks to the inventers of the keyboard for I am incapable of reading my own handwriting.
You create a lush mix of poetry, prose poetry, flash fiction, and novel fiction. When does that form take shape? That is, does a story always begin a story, or does the scene you begin later transform into a poem? Your piece “The Shop that Sells Kisses” feels like it could have been a bit of flash fiction, but the rhythm of language clearly demands its rightful place among your poetry. 🙂
When fate affords me a decent ‘first line’ or a ‘title’ I’m straight on the case. Hardly ever do I know in which direction or sub-genre the words might take me. I simply leave it up to them. Some words beg to rhyme others seem to not care less what happens next. I tend to work to my disorganized version of organized and without a blind clue as to the content of what I’ve written until it feels like the finished article. Only then do I read it back. At that stage some finished pieces face the firing squad, others live to see another day. ‘Words’ are anarchistic creatures…free roaming is their way of life. Were it the case they ended up confined within the cages of Manuscript Zoo they would commit hara-kiri. In life I cannot, as the old London saying goes, ‘Organize a piss up at a brewery’ and likewise when writing I’ve never been capable of successfully structuring a coherent plan. Quite the opposite as I live in constant fear of preordained rules. Free-thinking never submits to precedent’s ineptitude.
Something I’ve always wanted to ask a poet pertains to line breaks. “The Longest Night” has both fluid lines, long and winding, as well as stark lines of extreme brevity. How do you decide where lines should be broken?
As I alluded to previously, the words make decisions for me. I have no say in the matter. It is akin to being in a maze wearing just a blindfold and socks. I’ve never claimed to be a poet. ‘Almost poetry’ is the name I coined for my genre. The words decide the line breaks amongst themselves. Rarely do they argue with one another. A democracy of syllables? Possibly. Some words are shy and want to hold hands together, others prefer the hustle and bustle of the cityscape on a summers night. Given that rules bore me rigid I am grateful to the wantonly pliable words for making life easy. In terms of ‘The Longest Night’, albeit written in what feels like a lifetime lost I do remember being sat outside a café watching the day go by when a group of now aging Gurkha ex-soldiers strolled by. For whatever reason the chalk on the blackboard inside my head came out with the obscure first line, ‘Forgotten tribes and luminaries outwear handicaps’. It hit me smack in the face Tysonesque punch style. I suspect that the pattern the words took was due to the quantum leaps of shifting back and forth across two time zones. Sorrowfully, the event I wrote of was concerning the stupidity of WW1. The word collective demanded the whole picture be seen even if the subject matter was in cameo; a convoluted fiction of respect.
What, according to you, is the hardest thing about writing?
By far and away the hardest thing is when, over an evening’s glass or two of something French and red I’ve welcomed in the multi-coloured immigrant words and ensured the poor things are safe and sound in the sanctuary of my laptop only to find come the morn they have mutated into a gang of shaven headed, tattooed archetypical plain white indigenous thugs. Sadly, I have to evict the unwanted and await for new arrivals.
Do you pen down revelations and ideas as you get them, right then and there?
Yes. Words are delicate things. Give them a home at the drop of a hat in the knowledge that should they not be cared for they will die young.
You’ve clearly tapped an endless vein of inspiration from WWII and the Cold War, as poems like the “The Sunshine Girl” and “She is the Ghost of Generations” show. What is it about these particular years that hold your imaginative curiosity above all others?
Twixt the end of one evil, namely WW1 and the commencement of
another…morally far, far worse than its predecessor…a new dawn would trade
peace’s bright sun-shiny new dawn for darkest storms clouds that would
hurriedly mature into the tempest that was the unremitting thunder and
lightning of WW2. Within the traditional
European battlefield a Lilliputian era of unrefined, unadulterated passion for
passion’s sake. A ‘passion’ initially
for simply ‘living life to the full’; a thing lost in the death and destruction
of what had gone before. Then, in passion’s adolescence; new artforms; adapted
old artforms; polar opposite political doctrines; deliciously sullied ‘encounters’
of any and every shape and form; writers taking bold risks like never before.
Nothing was taboo. At its centre was Paris, ‘The City of Love’, although Weimar
Berlin ran it a close second. How could
I not be drawn into such an array of talent revealed; sometimes wasted in this
Bohemian, Parisian wonderland? Oh, to be
a fly on the wall. I have said before,
even in the knowledge that by 1939 the world would once again be in conflict, I
would give my right arm to, as the poet Max Jacob said when taking up residence
in Montparnasse district of the city, “I have come to sin disgracefully.”
One must not overlook that during those years at various times
within this small quarter was home to Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Man Ray,
Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Dali, Henry Miller, Ezra Pound, Lee Miller and a whole
host of others from abroad. In the case of the many young, talented American’s
arriving, they came because they believed their ‘native land was a cultural
sink.’ Perhaps all ‘native’ lands had earned such a dull tag when compared to
Paris back then? Whatever, Ms Lee that is the reasoning behind my constant
My risqué ‘romance come espionage’ book, ‘Notoriously Naked Flames’ is themed around the events of that short-lived libertine era. Writing that book was pure joy. I think I fell in love with the albino Goddess who was my lead character and a diamond gal, to boot.
Another element of poetry that fascinates me is word choice. When you write poems like “The Passing of a Myth,” do you first concentrate on creating the visuals within the poem, or are you first dedicated to building the music of the line? Both are gorgeous in this poem, but I can’t fathom trying to work on both at once, so I’m assuming there’s a process. 🙂
There’s no process, I promise.
In truth I’d forgotten I ever wrote that one. Having just read it once again I recall that at the time a dark depression had consumed me. I’m particularly good at those. In their own clinging way they have a creative spark unique to their species. The addictive perk depression offers is that it spawns words of own volition. They may have come alive in my head yet I never feel ‘ownership’ of them. What and how I write is, as ever, at their discretion. If there is a benefit in chance visits from my old nemesis, Monsieur Chien Noir, then it is that, by way of compensation for outstaying his welcome, I often find he settles his account by way a currency born of milk and honey words that flow like there’s no tomorrow.
What advice would you like to pass on to young writers of today that is unconventional but true?
Well, this is my personal take on the subject. I’m sure many will justifiably
see it differently. I would firstly advise that nothing is sacred. You can get
away with murder when your only weapon is the written word. Never pull a punch.
It took me an age to realize that words beg to be out of their comfort zone. Let
them run feral. Also, never run ahead of yourself and believe you’re a poet or
a novelist. You’re not. I’m not. Most aren’t. To me only the greats who have
earned their stripes in that regard can lay claim to those tags. Mostly they
never find that out, as accolades tend to chase only the great and grateful dead.
Importantly, grab hold of self-doubt and make her your new best friend. She’ll never let you down. While a smidgen of self-believe is a harmless thing, never believe you’re capable of walking on the inky waters of Lake Egocentric for you will lose all respect from your peer group as well as potential readers.
If you’re writing about a city/country/culture you haven’t physically visited, how much research do you conduct before you start writing?
Albeit a contradiction given what I’ve said vis a vis ‘words’, yes I
do research. I find it chivvies the lazy words amongst the contingent along. In
many ways it’s the most enjoyable aspect. I learn shed loads of things I never
knew previously. Even with my ‘Jonny Catapult the Plumber the Artist’s All
Trust’ lunatic skits…as per my new book, ‘Fanny,
I Think of You Often’…I had to research pretty much all angles of
plumbing believe it or not…not that I shall actually or actively ‘plumb’ now
or at any time in the future unless there is a revolver fixed firmly at my
temple. Plainly, it is essential to share my research with the tribe curious ‘words’
thus giving them an idea as to where I live in hope they will travel.
‘Notoriously Naked Flames’ demanded a whole mass of painstaking research. I had to discover exactly how life was and how it looked during those years building up to WW2 in countries and cities across Europe, from Amsterdam, Mother Russia…including the Ukraine, Istanbul and Berlin, none of which I was that familiar with, although when it came to Paris and the coastal areas of Belgium I was very much on home territory. History, architecture, politics and the ways of life of both the good and the bad became key to creating a canvas upon which words could paint their picture.
Thank you so, so much for taking time to chat, Master Steeden! Let’s wrap-up with a rundown of your latest works available now on Amazon.
I’ve have already made mention of the new book, full title, ‘Fanny, I Think of You Often & Other Tales of Abject Lunacy’. It is the first of two books both of which are a deranged collection of skits, such as ‘Audrey Hepburn’s Bout of Gout’; ‘Marilyn Monroe’s Distressing Flatulence’; ‘The fate of the old grannie from Lowestoft who once upon a time inadvertently stepped upon Elvis’s blue suede shoes’ and much, much more. The sister to this tome, ‘The Elastic Snapped,’ is also available.
Another addition to the shelves at Amazon/Kindle is co-authored with Shirley Blamey. It’s name is ‘Whatever Happened To Eve?’ Eighteen months previous I commenced collecting ever willing words for this story. A third of the book complete, the new words arriving were a motley crew who failed abysmally to direct my tale toward a conclusion.
Then a stroke of good fortune. It was in September last year, having
suffered an irksome eye injury some months previous that had slowed my progress
when coaxing words, that Shirl and I took a short break in France and it was
there a story imagined over cold bière blonde in a clandestine darkest corner
of a once voguish bar in ‘Paris par la mer’ took on a new shape. Twixt the pair
of us, in concert we found ourselves acting and reacting to the seductive pulse
of mutual, sometimes deliciously wicked thoughts. No ‘what if’s’, ‘but’s’ or ‘maybe’s’ when a
dark fantasy drops out the night sky for it must, for rationalities’ sake, be
put to the written word before it is lost forever to the merciless ether. An
excited cluster of unshackled ‘words’ agreed. We were on a roll.
I have to say, come breakfast, I questioned Shirl on a number of potentially
controversial topics and storylines we had come up with that night in France.
“Can we really get away with that? Seriously?” I asked. “Molly Parkin got away
with it time and time again. Why not?,” her pokerfaced riposte. Soon after wily
‘words’ found they had two craniums to take up residence in. I tend to think
mine was just their holiday home.
130,000 or so words later we have a book we shall shortly make known
to others. Having said that…and you
are the first to know, the lovely Ms. Lee…
‘Whatever Happened To Eve?’ is, in truth, already available in both
paperback and Kindle at Amazon sites far and wide.
Lastly Ms Lee, my
thanks for the invitation, your time and patience.
Gentlemen Prefer a Pulse: Poetry with a Hint of Lunacy: Gentlemen Prefer a Pulse is Mike Steeden’s first published collection of poetry and features over a hundred poems that are sometimes humourous, serious, satirical, surreal, thought provoking and brilliant! Mike says his inspiration is drawn from his self proclaimed love of the fairer sex, his passion for ‘people watching’ (a trait born of his time as a private investigator), social justice and compassion.
Notoriously Naked Flames: Part espionage thriller, part romance, part fantasy, part adventure, ‘Notoriously Naked Flames’ is Mike Steeden’s first novel. Spanning the lead up to World War II, the war itself, and into the early 1950s, the unnamed heroine of the piece, a bewitching albino of Bohemian bent, masquerades in all manner of risqué guises dishing out her own version of clandestine justice to those evil souls spawned of conflict’s disregard for compassion, law, and order.
Fanny, I Think of You Often… Nothing is sacred. If permitted, the mind wanders free in the knowledge that anything and everything is possible. Season such a mind with a pinch of satire plus a hint of Pythonesque surrealism and the dish of ‘fusion lunacy’ is ready to be served. Within the pages of this deranged collection of skits you will discover how Audrey Hepburn dealt with a bout of gout; similarly what became of Marilyn Monroe’s false teeth; the fate of the old grannie from Lowestoft who once upon a time inadvertently stepped upon Elvis’s blue suede shoes and much, much more.
The Elastic Snapped: WARNING: This book may contain traces of nuts (not of the edible kind) and may also cause drowsiness amongst those unfamiliar with the English language. Bibliophobia sufferers may experience severe panic attacks. Additionally, it is strongly recommended that you do not drive whilst reading.INGREDIENTS: Lunacy, stupidity, silliness, idiocy, absurdity, aberration, eccentricity and fragments of appallingly bad taste.
Whatever Happened to Eve? No writer can help what he or she writes. Whether they be scandalous or sweet, dull or bright, words arrive as and when the fancy takes and evolve into whatever fable suits. With that in mind this collective of untamed words, of their own volition, chose not to be pitched at the easily offended or fainthearted, instead they opted for a captivating darkness.
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. 🙂
Shehanne Moore is a Scottish born author who writes gritty, witty, more risky than risqué, historical romance, set wherever takes her fancy–stories that detail the best and worst of human behaviour, as opposed to pouts and flounces. To celebrate the new release of two titles under her London Jewel Thieves series, I asked Shey to stop by and talk about how she creates such uniquely engaging characters and thrusts them into situations that promise spectacular fireworks.
Let’s first begin with what you write—smart, sexy, historical fiction. You delve into various time periods with your books, such as the 9th century in The Viking and the Courtesan and the 19th century in Splendor. What process do you go through when choosing the right century for a story’s setting? That is, if Splendor took place in another century, would it still be the Splendor we know?
Probably not. The stories are influenced by the time, the characters too, although they don’t always abide by the constraints of them. Mind you Splendor would be a shopaholic , running up debts galore in any time because some things are timeless. She’d be having to manage everything too. So I guess a bit of both would be true. I generally stick to the Georgian/Regency period—it’s a sort of genre in own right. BUT I do like to dabble and I do spend time thinking of how I will set a book physically within that period, in terms of imagery etc.. There’s also things that happen when I write.
I mean there was never meant to be a Viking in The Viking and The Courtesan. That was a straight Regency. But then halfway through chapter two, the little voice whispered, ‘You know that Viking story idea you have, the one you’ve never really got the idea for the heroine ‘s goal in? How about you just use it here?’ Much as I want to ignore that little voice, I can’t.
Such a question should mean I ask you about research, too. I know you’re very passionate about your research to keep the period lifestyle true to history. What’s your process in making the research phase as productive as possible?
You know people think I do a lot of research. I don’t . Too much can kill a story and read like a Wikipedia cut and pastes. At the end of the day I don’t want to know every detail of the time a story is set. I can read a history book for that. I want to read of the things that are universal. The things that stand the test of time. But I have always loved history, especially social history, ever since I can remember. I guess that’s what I have at my fingertips when I write. And of course, I will check a historical timeline detail where it is pertinent to a character, or setting, if I want a certain backdrop.
One thing I love about all your books is that these characters are layered with feeling. They desire, they hate, they aspire, they love, they fear. Your books are so, so much more than the “meet-cute” kinds of romances out there populated by characters with little more than a single quirk each. These characters can get downright wicked, like Devorlane Hawley in Loving Lady Lazuli. How do you bring together both light and dark natures into your characters to keep your stories compelling and un-put-downable?
Now Jean, it’s all right, I won’t set the dudes on you and the check is in the mail. You are way too kind. I just love characters. I want to write about the human condition and let’s face it sometimes it’s downright ugly. Okay, Devorlane Hawley, for example, page one, is not a man you would want to meet. He’s plainly gone to hell in a hand cart, is behaving outrageously and now he’s come into the dukedom because his older, perfect brother is dead, he’s for turfing out his sisters, his late mother’s ward, installing some floozie he’s scoured London to find and setting up a pleasure palace in the ancestral home. By page two/three he’s noticing that his home is nothing like he remembered, it’s a mess, his oldest sister is a drunk and that’s needling at what humanity he has, because it’s plain these years have been hard and the family have regrets. The fact is he’s the family black sheep, the man who made the kind of messes we can all make when we’re young. And that law-abiding, God fearing family let him go down for a crime he never committed, largely for the sake of peace. By the end of chapter one he’s spotted the woman who did commit that crime and his goal instantly changes. Now he’s becoming the architect of his own doom in many ways.
No-one’s all bad—I think it’s important to remember that when you write. But we are all flawed in some way, a bundle of contradictions, the sum and substance of our life experiences. That’s what I’m trying to blend. Ultimately underneath everything Devorlane Hawley isn’t a bad man. In some ways he’s man interrupted by his earlier experiences– and what has shaped his life since has been hardship and brutality. So the race is on then to see if he can become the man he could be, or are the flaws going to get in the way. I spend a lot of time peering through my fingers going… I wouldn’t have done that, to my characters when I write. AND I let them drive everything. I seriously never have any idea where a story is going next.
Yet another thing I dig (someday I’ll learn to write questions better), particularly where the London Jewel Thieves are concerned, is that the series doesn’t just revolve around one heroine; rather, each book focuses on a different character of a group. I love how these different perspectives give us a richer look into their world, as well as fresh looks at characters we’ve met in the other books. Which heroine came to you first? Did she bring all the other thieves with her, or did they start telling you their own stories later on?
Good question. Actually the heroine of a short story I have yet to turn into a full length, came first. The idea was there of the jewel thief gang and being forced into stealing because for one reason or another they’ve fallen into the clutches of the man who runs this gang. BUT Cassidy Armstrong aka Sapphire from Loving Lady Lazuli came first in terms of the writing. Originally it was a standalone but as I wrote it, and I was working the background, I thought of that short story and the whole thing just fell into place. The idea of giving the women the name of a jewel, of the Starkadder Sisterhood, and of setting the books after the gang has broken up. So it’s about them having to find their feet by whatever means and keeping one step ahead when there’s prices on their heads.
Lastly, congratulations on beginning your own small press! I’m so excited to see what Black Wolf Books will bring to readers—your own books, and the books of other authors. You’ve been writing for publishers for a number of years, but now you are both publisher and writer. How would you say your earlier experience prepared you for this change? What’s been the biggest “culture shock,” as it were, with donning the publisher robe?
Thank you so much Jean and ALSO for having me here today AND congrats on your own forthcoming release. Sure to be a rip along read. I have wanted to set up Black Wolf Books for about four years now but life got in the way. But I’m there now. I think the writing industry is in a constant state of flux. When I first subbed back in 2012, you still went the traddy route. Yes there were self published books but not so many, nor the same amount of tools to do it. I mean Amazon makes it so damned easy actually now. I have a lot of experience in the writing business that goes way back before 2012 and I’ve been able to use most of it now.
I think the biggest shock…well learning curve was formatting for ebooks and for paperback. Amazon does make it easy I just got in a flap till I mastered it. I initially paid a formatter for the print version for Splendor. I was too scared to do it, in case I messed it up. But when it came back like a dog’s dinner, I stood at the foot of the mountain and told myself to get up there. That it wasn’t anything like the time I took over the editing and design of a magazine and didn’t know how to draw a text box…
Are you looking for submissions right now? If so, what kind and do you have any guidelines to share?
Well we are not officially open in that I didn’t want swamped. I wanted to feel my way, get out my books, and the Mr’s book, before dealing with what could be an avalanche. And often I think publishers can take on way too many authors without concentrating on the ones they have. But we already have a signing of a YA author who has a trilogy. So I say to folks, contact me through my blog contact right now. And really so long as it’s good, I’m not laying down all kinds of conditions.
One of the reasons I wanted to do this is that I’ve seen a lot of authors get raw deals, not been able to get a book out cos it’s not fitting the mould, despite having books out. My aim in setting up BWB is to help authors. Believe me, I know how brutal this biz can be.
Lastly lastly I’m hoping you’ll allow the little Hamstah Dudes, that precocious batch of knowledgeable cuties who share amazing author interviews & writing advice on your site, to come on over for a moment and have the last word, as they’ve been very good and patient all through our chat.
Many thanks to Shey for sharing her experience and stories with us! And don’t worry, Hamstah Dudes–Blondie’s working on a Halloween picture just for you. Hopefully I can stop by Shey’s site to share it! 🙂
Shehanne still lives in Scotland with her husband Mr Shey. She has two daughters. When not writing intriguing, and of course, sizzling, historical romance, where goals and desires of sassy, unconventional heroines and ruthless men, mean worlds do collide, she fantasizes about cleaning the house, plays the odd musical instrument and loves what in any other country, would not be defined, as hill-walking.
Before kids, Laurel Wanrow studied and worked as a naturalist—someone who leads wildflower walks and answers calls about the snake that wandered into your garage. During a stint of homeschooling, she turned her writing skills to fiction to share her love of the land, magical characters and fantastical settings. Today Laurel answers some questions about digging into history to inspire her steampunk novels and the importance of attending conferences to reach readers.
The steampunk genre has always fascinated me. What first inspired you to write in this genre?
I have always read fantasy and loved living history. As a teenager, I volunteered for the Appalachian craft center my dad ran at Catoctin Mountain National Park in Maryland. Over the years, I apprenticed to the craftsmen, then after college I worked in historic interpretation for several parks. It wasn’t a far reach to write in a historic time period. I began The Luminated Threadsas a strictly fantasy world patterned off of the Victorian period because I’d read several steampunks and really liked the aesthetic. My critique partner said it seemed so like Victorian England that it was annoying that it wasn’t. So I switched it to the Peak District of Derbyshire.
I confess that I’m one of those who will only research when absolutely necessary. It just feels like such a time drain when one’s writing with kids running around. Yet for stories like yours, I imagine research is an extremely important phase of your world-building. Can you share your research process with us, and any tips you have for writers who aren’t accustomed to researching historical periods?
When I say ‘I switched it,’ the process really wasn’t that easy. Having worked as a historic interpreter, I wanted my world to be fairly accurate—fairly because I did take fantasy liberties. Those times were hard, especially for women, but in a fantasy world I could change things like equality and dress. And add magic to equalize the power among genders.
But the research: I questioned and checked everything, including changing the date of The Luminated Threads story—1868—to after steam-powered tractors were invented. Selecting Derby as a location wasn’t random either. It’s the site of the first water-powered silk mill in Britain and many cotton mills followed throughout Derbyshire, making it a center of Industrial Revolution. The borough was also the headquarters of the Midland Railway—and what steampunk doesn’t have steam trains?
I literally looked up everything. To reference it again, I create folders for background research, and save my referenced docs, with the URLs and often the important passages copied and highlighted. Here’s a screenshot of part of my research files, which reminds me how much I have invested in this series, and that I should really work on the second story arc!
I talked to people who write historic in other time periods, who are reenactors and others who are costume designers. I posted on loops and forums. I read blogs. I read books and took notes. My favorite is What Jane Austen Ateand Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool. It gives general life details, but not every specific a writer needs. But the things I still had to learn are endless: I looked up vegetables planted in England in Victorian times, but referred to a rug as pumpkin-colored for a few drafts until I realized pumpkins didn’t grow in England. Cookies aren’t referred to as cookies in Britain, but I wanted readers to know my heroine wasn’t eating a biscuit-biscuit, so I gave them the name “sweet biscuit” and described them as discs. I gave 1800s “Mason” jar images as a reference to my cover designer, then had a fortuitous moment of doubt and learned Mason jars are American, the British used “Kilmer” jars. But I couldn’t find an 1800s image to verify if the logo was embossed on them. Instead, my cover designer embossed my jars with a “Wellspring Collective 1868” logo on The Twisting, making it my favorite of the three.
You asked about historical research, so I focused on it here, but all of the natural history for the series is researched and as correct as I can make it, too: agricultural crops and local plants I based my shapeshifters on native wildlife, a local mineral called Blue John is a fantasy element. Though my hidden valley doesn’t exist in the Peaks District, other valleys like it have been formed through similar natural phenomena.
One problem I have in writing dialogue for historical characters is their vernacular: what word’s okay for what period, how do they swear, etc. How did you tackle writing accurate dialogue for your time period?
Again, I looked up most of the words I use. For example, a character says, “No kidding?” Not in 1868. The colloquial interjection no kidding! “that’s the truth” is from 1914. But to “kid” someone, as to tease playfully, is from 1839.
I know my dialogue isn’t completely accurate, but I tried. You can read historic novels, but other authors make mistakes, too, so honestly, you must double check. Read novels written during the actual time period. I watched You-Tube videos and PBS shows. I asked a British-born friend to beta read and, among many others, he suggested the endearment “Duck” that Mrs. Betsy uses.
Swear words are particularly tricky for historic and YA novels. Some of my information came secondhand from a forum thread on Absolute Write. Many words were reviewed, but most revealing, to me, was that the expletive ‘bloody’ was a highly offensive curse for Victorians. The writer recommended: Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr, published by Oxford University Press.
I see you attend conventions and signings. Those in-person events terrify me! Any advice to help a new author like myself get properly prepared for such events?
Attend a few as an attendee and, if you can, with other writer friends. Then you can review what you’ve experienced and learned together. Talk to the authors with tables or on panels to learn about their experience at that con and what other cons or fairs they have attended. Don’t be afraid to ask how it’s going or what they wish they had done differently. Take photos of their table set-ups, ask the sources of materials like display items, banners, table drapes, printed materials. Be sure to look up the event websites. The ‘guest writer/author’ fees, volunteer hour commitments and what equipment (canopy, table, chairs) vary widely. And the application dates are often a year to 6 months ahead of the event! With this information, you can prepare your table or presentations in advance.
When you are ready to attend, it’s fun to go with an author friend or two, having your own tables or sharing one. Coordinate to cover each other for panel talks or breaks, or bring a family member or friend as a helper. Keep in mind the distance to some events adds to your time and cost (hotel stays!); try a few local fairs first to test the waters. I have found that ‘book’ festivals have more book buyers than fantasy cons where costumes and gaming compete with books.
If you have a character in your novel that inspires you to dress in costume, do it. I attract a lot of attention when I wear my steampunk costume.
Also, watch for sales with printing suppliers to stock up on business cards, postcards, banners, etc. That 40-50% off really helps. Black Friday is coming and that’s a big sale time. Go on the sites early to sift through what you want and even set up your designs.
Any other closing words of encouragement to help your fellow writers through the rough days?
Join a writing chapter so you can develop friendships with those going through the same work, frustrations and joys. Writing is a lonely endeavor and it helps to be able to reach out. I’ve found that having an accountability partner helps—one in similar circumstances to yourself (i.e. writes full time, works fulltime/writes on weekends, writing around toddler schedule) is best.
Thank you so much for your time!
About the Author
Laurel is the author of The Luminated Threads series, a Victorian historical fantasy mixing witches, shapeshifters and a sweet romance in a secret corner of England, and The Windborne, a lighthearted YA fantasy series that begins with The Witch of the Meadows.
When not living in her fantasy worlds, Laurel camps, hunts fossils, and argues with her husband and two new adult kids over whose turn it is to clean house. Though they live on the East Coast, a cherished family cabin in the Colorado Rockies holds Laurel’s heart.
Christopher Lee is the indie author of Nemeton,Bard Song, Westward, and Pantheon. He is an avid history buff, mythologist, bardic poet, and keeper of the old ways. Here he takes a moment to share a few favorite photos of his Colorado landscape as well as his thoughts on the challenges of point of view and world-building.
Let’s begin with a little about you. What was the first story you encountered that made you want to be a writer?
Ok, that is an easy one. Star Wars was the reason I became enchanted with the prospect of storytelling. When I first watched the fantasy and adventure of Han, Luke, and Leia, I was entranced. The vastness of their world, the complexity of the universe was gripping. As I grew into my teen years I became intoxicated by the idea that I would create worlds like that one day. After years of creating a fan-fic world within the Star Wars Universe, my lifelong friend and I decided to divorce our concept from the Star Wars Universe and make it wholly our own. Since that time, I have crafted many worlds from the realm of my own dreams, and don’t believe I will be stopping anytime soon.
You clearly enjoy creating worlds complete with vast, populated lands. What kind of creative process did you follow to develop the world of your first novel, Nemeton?
Nemeton is part of a grand epic that encompasses the whole of human history. When I first got into it I had a fraction of an idea, and zero clue about how to build a world as complex as was necessary. When it comes to worldbuilding there are literally thousands of angles to consider. I was overwhelmed at first, but I kept beating my head against the wall, and slowly it came into sharper focus. Overtime I developed an outline structure that I use in all of my worlds that dials in the world. This is my favorite process in creating because it allows me to see a completely new complex world. Nemeton relied heavily on readily available human myth. It was an attempt to blend the many voices of this world’s culture into a cohesive structure that was both believable and enjoyable. There were many hours in libraries, on Wikipedia, and scouring the internet for ancient documents that gave me a clear picture of what it might have been like to live around 3,000 BCE.
I’ve always felt writing characters of the opposite gender to be a tough gig. Any tips on how to swing this as you do for Sam of Nemeton?
Oh dear, this is something that I struggled with mightily. I wanted Samsara to be infinitely more complex than myself and slowly came to the realization that it was going to take more than I had in my toolkit. Writing the opposite gender is full of pitfalls which can either make or break your story. As a male, it was a struggle to craft a flawed, yet empowered eighteen-year-old girl that didn’t reek of male influence. I worked with a model I have seen in my own life as Sam is loosely based on my wife. I find that this process is helpful, especially when writing characters of the opposite gender, though it is also helpful in crafting characters of your own gender. Trust your heart, it knows how people interact, but you have to make sure to be honest in your assessments and resist the urges that don’t fit with the characters personality. Another thing to do is do personality tests as if you were the character. I find that to be thoroughly enlightening.
Your other fantasy series in the works are both episodic in nature. You explain this move to episodic writing and publication on your own website, but can you share your favorite reason to write serialized fiction?
Serial fiction is fun because the pressure comes off drafting a manuscript as a whole. It is then applied to crafting self-contained episodes that carry their own arch, on a much shorter timeline. The primary reason I like this method, currently, is that it allows me to track how the audience is enjoying the story in advance. With a full novel you often have no clue how an audience would respond, save with the help of a few beta readers. When you release content in quick bursts, you can hone the book for an audience long before you publish the entire Omnibus, and therein you find a proof of a concept, which is a huge hurdle for all writers. Imagine if your audience was your agent. They are the gatekeeper of the indie author. If one of my serials fails to draw interest, I can shift gears quickly and not lose the investment of my time. I can take what characters the audience likes and continue on their journeys, or scrap the idea all together, thus not wasting inordinate time and energy on an idea that doesn’t draw interest. But probably the best reason lies is audience engagement. Episodic releases allow me time to engage the audience and talk about what they dig. This is one way you can build a truly loyal audience, by simply responding to their feedback and giving them what they want more of.
Pantheon, your current project on Patreon, brings multiple mythologies together in a battle for supremacy. This reminds me of the Street Fighter arcade games of childhood. ☺ What inspired you to drop these characters into your arena?
Well a few years ago, when I was still drafting Nemeton, I fell in love with this concept of the pantheons doing battle. Who would win? It’s kind of like Avengers: Infinity War. What if we brought everyone into the same space (No pun intended, as it is a space fantasy). I sat on the idea and toyed with it until it finally fully formed in my mind. I’ve always been obsessed with mythology, reading it is what prompted me to write Nemeton. Thing is Nemeton is primarily Celtic in nature and didn’t deal with the gods and goddesses of the other western pantheons, so I wanted to draft something that gave a stage to the forgotten heroes of humanity’s past. Pantheon is that homage to the legacy of mankind, a revamped, relived story where the prominent and some not so prominent myths of mankind are reborn for future generations.
I can only imagine how hard it can be to decide which characters to use from these mythologies, and which to cut. Can you describe this process a little?
A lot of reading, researching and world-building. I basically compiled lists of the all the characters and figured out which major story-lines would work in concert with the others. The characters that play large roles in those story lines became my main POV characters. At first I wasn’t sure how I was going to tie them all together, but remarkably they all seemed to fall into place, as though the story itself was commanding itself to be written. Each Pantheon has their own story arch that will occur in Season One, mimicking major events in that cultures myth. I simply had to pick the characters that jived with that story-line and just follow the blueprint that the ancients left us, and whallla–Pantheon! I only pray that I have given it its proper due.
Unlike Pantheon and Nemeton, your other serialized fiction series Westward takes place in 1860s America. Does it feel restrictive, working with a geography and history already established in readers’ minds? Why or why not?
Well not really, in fact it liberating. I don’t have to come up with the major conflicts or story ques. I can follow what happened in history and work off that, with subplots that are character driven. Imagine taking a historical event and adding a character that didn’t exist, then weaving that character and its fictional story into the one we know. It’s challenging in its own right, but it is also very freeing because it allows you to present a fantastical element to almost any element of human history. I liken it to reading conspiracy theories because Westward/The Occultare Series relies on an underground/unseen organization that combats magical/supernatural occurrences in the human world. All you have to do is imagine that there is one operating today. Because there is…or is there?
Unlike Nemeton, you also write Westward with a first person point of view. What do you love about this intimate perspective, and what do you find challenging about it?
This was a HUGE jump. After half a million words spent writing Nemeton in the Third Person Omniscient viewpoint, first person was like trying on someone else’s skin. I thought it would be more difficult than it was, but once I sat down and just started to click the keys it flowed out of me. I’ve enjoyed it thus far because I can go deeper with the character than I can in 3rd, but it does limit a great deal of what I can do. I bend the rules a bit because my characters all have a little of me in them, aka a hyperactive mind, which may not be to the liking of all readers, but hey man–this is fantasy. Suspend your beliefs when you walk through that door.
Any last words of encouragement for your fellow story-tellers?
JUST KEEP AT IT! Everyday you should be writing, or editing, or at the very very least reading. Reading is the key to learning storytelling. There is no magic bullet, no blueprint. True storytelling comes from years of absorbing great stories. Read nonfiction books about writing, about life, religion, politics, history, enrich your mind with a wellspring of knowledge you can draw inspiration from. I know I couldn’t have crafted the religious systems of Nemeton without my previous interest in druidic religion. The key is to constantly look for areas to improve, steep yourself in the craft and you will grow. Probably the most important rule is this: You don’t have to please everyone, because frankly you can’t. There are going to be people who say you suck, there are going to be readers and fellow writers who tell you you aren’t good enough. POPPYCOCK! Straight up, not all readers will like your work. Your job is to find the ones that do and continue to better your craft to eventually envelope the readers who don’t. Rule number two, take what other writers say with a grain of salt. The Indie Author’s world is saturated with advice about how to MAKE IT. It’s bloomin’ bologna. You will find limited success this way, but you risk ending up a carbon copy of all the other authors out there right now. This flies in the face of art in general. Chasing fads, writing only in one POV to please the audience, or sticking a hard line on generalized writing rules are the plagues of the writing world today. Do not stymie the thing that makes your voice different. Learn the rules, perfect your craft, and then allow your voice to shine by breaking the rules as only you can. Only you can tell your story, not your readers, not your fellow writers, YOU. You have to believe in you because no one else is going to, save a few extraordinary folks. So get to it!
Ever since the loss of our babysitter to the warmer climes of Arizona, Bo and I have lost all chances of a “night out.” (For the record, we did try three other babysitters, but those, um, didn’t exactly work out.) We have managed a few outings in the daylight hours, however, thanks to relatives willing to watch Blondie and the twins. That’s how we got to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and tour the Pabst Mansion.
Why the Pabst Mansion? Bo and I aren’t beer connoisseurs. I can’t fathom whatever’s brewed under the current Pabst label is anything like the Pabst beer brewed in the 1800s.
Well, back when I was tooling around with Fallen Princeborn: Stolen (the one with Dorjan), I struggled with details for the primary setting of the story. I found my inspiration in a photography collection of the Pabst Mansion: rich, yet not obscenely so. Large, but not unwieldy. Down to earth and still elegant.
Now that Bo has become a stronger ally in my writing life,I asked if he wanted to go with me to the Pabst sometime. I wanted to see the history with my own eyes, breathe its air and touch its remnants. Bo thought for a moment, then got on the phone with his grandmother to watch the kids. He had originally proposed an afternoon at the art museum (Yes, Milwaukee has one), so this seemed an acceptable alternative.
We arrived on yet another cloudy day. Winter left behind its zombie ice-crusts along the roadside: too damn tough to melt. Despite standing on a major thoroughfare, Bo needed me to guide him to the mansion. Marquette Universitydominates this stretch of Wisconsin Avenue, making it easy to look at an old building and think it the school’s.
We step into what looks like a chapel to await the tour.
I look upon the walls and windows…and get depressed.
What has happened to this place? Why’s it being held together by packing tape and pint glasses?
Worst of all, I have to pee. I hate having to pee while stuck in sweater tights.
So of course I had to ask the only male staff person about a bathroom. “Yes, if you’ll follow me.” He walked towards a door…into the mansion.
Weeeeee, I was getting in early!
Were one to be shrunk and escorted inside the Fairy Queen’s pixie dust tree, then one would know what it felt like to leave the decaying chapel and enter the mansion. It’s not that everything was all glittery or jewel-encrusted or such. It was the color: the warmth in the woodwork, the landscapes painted above the doors, the touch of gold and iron in all the right places. I cupped my phone in my hand, eager to snap some early photos before the tour–
–only my escort stuck with me all the way to the mansion’s bathroom and back.
The tour began with an older women who sounded like she’d smoked through her formative years but had quit a while ago. She explained that we were actually in the beer pavilion Captain Pabst had commissioned for the World’s Fair in 1893. It was rebuilt as a sort of sun-room for the mansion. Then, when the Archdiocese of Milwaukee took up residence in the Mansion in the early 1900s, it was converted into a chapel. Once the Catholic Church sold the Pabst property in the 1970s, much of the mansion had, like this chapel, fallen into disrepair. All restorations are funded through donations–and tours–and they try to work room by room. So far, they had the first two floors done. We would see them, and the work being done on the third floor.
I was practically hopping at Bo’s side. I couldn’t stop grinning. I had nearly emptied my phone of all precious moments of children doing childreny things to get as many shots as possible–
“No pictures, please.”
So, um…I don’t have pictures from inside the mansion proper.
But I do have some photos scrounged up from the Internet!
Stairwell between first & second floors
Oddly enough, the Pabst’s website used to have a sampling of the photos taken for their book. Why they took them down I don’t know; they provided some closeups of the amazing woodwork as well as a few rooms.
Captain Pabst’s Study
Mrs. Pabst’s Parlor
Entering the third floor was like stepping into a whole new building. The Catholics had plastered this sad, generic whitewash over the walls and altered much of the plumbing in order to “modernize” the house. Granted, many of these changes are merely cosmetic, but it was clear by seeing rooms in the midst or restoration just how long it would take before the mansion was completely restored. I found a great article on OnMilwaukee.comwhich shared some photos of restoration in process. You can see in that bottom right photo where they’re repainting the original patterns; the bottom left shows stencilwork that had been covered up by the “modern” paint.
The tour covered only the residential portions of the mansion, but I hope to return for one of their special nights of touring the basement and attic, too. Just look at that shot: there’s a story hidden in those depths, I’m sure of it.
One of main reasons I started this website was to share the imagery of my state and how it inspires me as a writer. I know some of you do this, too–Shehanne Moore has some stunning captures of her beloved Scotland,for example. Why? Because where we come from as writers is also where our characters will come from. Does that mean all my characters will be from Wisconsin? Probably not. But they’re all going to come from some place inside me: from my fears and loathings, loves and joys. They may never smell the air around the Circus World Museum, but they will all be a part of me, just as Wisconsin is a part of me.
The Pabst Mansion, this often-overlooked piece of homeland, inspired the setting for the first story I took seriously as a writer. And to share it with my husband, who still doesn’t like reading my fiction but loves my passion for writing because he loves me, made it all the more beautiful.
My husband Bo is not one to read fiction. He prefers reading nonfiction about the fiction-makers: biographies on actors, the making of films, the rise and fall of movie studios, and the like. Sometimes, Bo shares something with me that I MUST pass on.
We all scratch our heads over certain stories’ successes. How one novel reaches best-seller status despite its writing or cliche character/plot/etc. How one screenplay reaches the screen and another does not. Peter Bart’s Fade Out chronicles how this happened in MGM and, as a result, knocked the studio off the pedestal to the ground.
This excerpt is just one of the many bizarre instances Bart shares in his book. After reading it, I hope you’ll ask yourself: Do I really know my story’s setting? Do I really know my characters? Because if you can’t answer that with confidence, someone is going to call you out on it. Hard.
First, here is the premise of Road Show (spoiler alert: this movie never made it to production) as told by Peter Blart:
The central character was a rock-solid American cattle rancher named Spangler (Jack Nicholson) who finds himself besieged by voracious creditors. When thieving truckers try to charge an outrageous price to transport his 250 head of cattle to Kansas City, Spangler opts for the ultimate act of defiance. He will drive his herd to market the old-fashioned way–a classic cattle drive past the turnpikes and the billboards and the Holiday Inns and the Big Macs. Assisting him will be his wife, Opal, and his friend Leo (Tim Hutton), a schoolteacher who is desperate to learn what the “real world” is like. Along the way, there is danger and adversity, but Spangler prevails–he gets his cattle to Kansas City. (Bart, 1990, 72-72)
Now that you know the story involved with the incident, let’s learn about the incident, shall we? The other players involved are Richard Brooks, slated to direct, and Denne Petitclerc, writer and “battle-hardened veteran of the movie wars” (Bart, 1990, 80).
Having read the Getchell draft of Road Show, Petitclerc said he was troubled by the curious absence of conflict. Once Spangler decides to defy the venal truckers and launch his cattle drive, the story seems to dissipate rather than build, Petitclerc reported. A tentative romantic triangle between Spangler, Leo, and Opal never develops into anything.
Indeed, nothing seems to develop!
When Petitclerc posed his analysis of the script to Brooks, he listened carefully and said he agreed. After tossing ideas back and forth for several hours, a working plan was agreed to. Petitclerc would start his rewrite, consistent with their discussions. Brooks, meanwhile, would go to Kansas to scout the actual locations and hopefully come up with some fresh solutions to the story problems.
“I’m not good at dealing with things in the abstract,” Brooks said. “I have to get a sense of real people and places.” And, having said that, he got an even better idea: He would also invite his two leads, [Jack] Nicholson and [Tim] Hutton, to join him on his jaunt through Kansas. Having waited so long for the picture to start, they might be energized by the trip and get into their characters.
The actors readily agreed, and they all took off. Once during this trek, Brooks phoned to say it was going well. The only setback thus far, he said, was that Jack Nicholson almost got arrested for mooning other motorists on the turnpike.
Upon returning from the trip, however, Brooks quickly fell into a dark mood. “He’s worried,” Donna Dubrow reported. “He won’t tell me what’s wrong, but he looks miserable, and he’s popping glycerine or some kind of a pill for angina pains. He’s worried, and therefore I’m worried.”
A week later, Petitclerc turned in a stack of revised pages, but Brooks would not return his phone calls to disclose his reaction to them. An aide reported seeing clumps of pages atop Brook’s desk with epithets like “garbage” and “trash” scrawled in the margins.
Brooks himself burst into my office one day to explain, in his usual disconnected way, what was bothering him. “It’s the goddamn story,” he said, pacing the room, “the whole premise. It starts from there.”
“What starts from there?”
“If a rancher like Spangler felt he was being fleeced by truckers, he’d go out and rent his own goddam trucks, that’s what he’d do. I realized that driving around Kansas, talking to people. And he sure as hell wouldn’t start a goddam cattle drive, because he couldn’t get the goddam cattle across the goddam turnpikes, and even if he could, the goddam bridges wouldn’t hold up under a thundering herd.”
Brooks stopped in his tracks. “You know what I think?”
“No one involved in this movie ever went to Kansas, that’s what I think. There are a hundred things in this script that wouldn’t be there if anyone had visited Kansas. Well, let me tell you something. I’ve visited Kansas!”
Having said that, Brooks exited my office. (Bart, 1990, 80-81)
Believe it or not, it took MORE hi-jinks to ensue before they finally shut this project down.
Anyway, I hope this bit of history gives you pause. It’s so easy to set our stories anywhere, real or imagined, but unless we can fully explain how our world works, or how our characters work, we are setting our stories up to fail. Know your place. Know your people. Or you will find yourself knocked off the pedestal and face-down in the dirt.