Huzzah, fall is here at last! My favorite season of sunlight caught in autumn leaves and chilled breezes. Granted, summer had its highlights. My family met with fellow indie author Anne Clare’s family in July for a day, and it was…oh, just a day to fill the heart. Our kids played together, Bo got to catch up with his longtime friend, Anne’s husband, and I got to sit and talk with Anne about life, storytelling, reading–the lot.
Bo and I also took our three Bs northward to Eagle River for a few days of mini-golf, fishing, and swimming. No Paul Bunyan days, sadly, but it’s probably for the best that I didn’t bring Biff and Bash near any chainsaws.
Actually, that trip northward is why I changed my topic for today’s post. I originally intended to discuss everyday absurdities and how they can play nicely into humor writing (don’t worry, we will get to that before 2021 is over), but visiting a Wisconsin “monster” got me thinking about the oddities created where we are and how they can inspire our storytelling.
I wasn’t able to touch much on the history of this local monster in previous posts, so allow me to share a few highlights from The LaCrosse Tribune. The beast was first mentioned in the news back in 1893 by a lumberjack named Gene Shepard. Reports transitioned from killing hodags to capturing a live one that was then exhibited at a county fair in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Was the beast real? Well, its hide was made of actual animal hides, so there’s that. It also moved about in its cage (thanks to the puppetry work done by Shepard’s friends), causing many to cry out in fear as they were shuffled quickly through the small, dim tent “for their safety.” Shepard did confess to his prank…well, after East Coast newspapers picked up on his story and hailed it as a scientific discovery. Shepard’s life took a downturn, and Rhinelander did not mourn his death in 1923. After about a decade, though, the town started to take a liking once more to the Hodag, using it as a mascot for schools, businesses, and the town itself. You can get a really nice detailed history from this Wausau Daily Herald article if you’re interested.
Why oh why would Shepard make up something like this Hodag, and how on earth could the story have been considered legit? First, there are Native American legends to give a bit of history to this “discovery.” The Anishinaabe spoke of an “underwater panther” called the Mishibizhiw, whose depictions in art strike a number of similarities to the Hodag. Lumberjacks could have easily seen such art and spread the tale through the woods of Canada and down into the Midwest. The Wausau Daily Herald article then notes that the lumber industry was stagnating at that point in Wisconsin, and in the North Woods, the lumber industry was EVERYTHING. Plus, it’s important to add that towns in the northern half of Wisconsin are often very small, and very widespread among the forests there. Wisconsin’s got a lot of farmland, sure, but that mainly lies in the southern half of the state. North, only small farms took hold in the wilderness. In fact, driving by such farms in my youth inspired one of the settings in my Fallen Princebornseries. They are isolated and alone in the unknown, and when one’s walled in among endless tall pines, maples, oaks, and birches, the calls of cougars, bears, wolves, and eagles can sound like just about anything.
Imagination is a powerful thing. All it takes is a single sight, a single sound, a single story to manifest into that which cannot be forgotten. Even if the legend transforms year to year, its root remains the same.
Or in another case, its face.
A lone doll in an attic window may not sound like much of a story, but in a small, isolated town in Minnesota, that doll has been the source of many stories ghostly and tragic. The Janesville Doll, as it is known, sat in this window for decades. It watched my parents travel to Minnesota for college. It watched me travel to Minnesota for graduate school.
Oh yes. I saw this doll, and I saw it often. It was impossible not to when driving at night through Janesville and the only light upon the street came from that attic window. The doll transformed into a dark specter at night, its features lost until dawn. Some say it walked the attic. Some say it cried out in the night. Some say it was a memorial created by parents who regretted isolating their daughter from the town only to discover her hanged in her room. Some say the doll was an old man’s revenge against the community after its children mocked his disabled grandson and drove the child to hang himself. Some say it was just a curious discovery by a local antique collector who wanted to display something in the attic window and left it there. Some say the truth is locked away in the town’s time capsule, only to be revealed in a hundred years.
No matter what some say, the legend left its porcelain handprint upon the Midwestern imagination. Years later I still think upon that doll, and I think on what could be–not likely, and yet–true.
BLUE HOUSE DARE
You stand outside Blue House with a candy bar in one hand and a pocket knife in the other. I’m behind the light pole, where the attic window’s light cannot reach. I try to tell you how important it is that The Doll shouldn’t see you first, how the attic light itself is how The Doll touches the world beyond Blue House, but you don’t care. You’re new here. You have something to prove here. I do not.
Cam and his gang go quiet from their hiding place under the Sunderson Porch. Everyone knows the Sundersons have the only house older than Blue House because of the fire back in 1903, so anyone brave enough to watch a Blue House Dare always hides somewhere on or near the Sunderson Porch. That a bunch of football players can squeeze themselves under there is beyond me. All I know is I will not fit with them and that you should have said No.
You think we’re stupid for being afraid. I saw it in your face when our bus stopped for the stop sign outside Blue House this morning and everyone—everyone—went quiet except for you. Sure, you thought it was something you said at first, but then you noticed us all looking away from Blue House.
Don’t look, I whispered. Never look at Blue House from a bus. It looks for eyes.
So of course you looked with your bright green eyes.
Why? You didn’t even whisper. It’s just a shitty house. Is that…fuck, there’s a doll in the window. Shit, that’s creepy.
Only after the bus turned onto School Street away from Blue House did anyone else say anything, let alone breathe.
The hell is wrong with you? You asked, even laughed. One of Cam’s gang was sitting in front of us—the shock of white hair above the right ear marks all of them. His glare shut your laugh up quick enough.
Stories move quickly through a small school in a small town. Maybe if you had moved in during summer, I could have prepared you better. But your family didn’t arrive until yesterday, and they sent you out this morning assuming small town equals safe town.
Comments or feedback on the tale so far? It’s a strange yet delightful pleasure, writing these Outer Limits style stories. 🙂 Perhaps a look into your own local lore will uncover peculiar tales that are bound to spark something new in your storytelling, something strange, something that could not be told anywhere else but where you are.
Time to start digging.
I’m really excited to share the rest of this story with you next month, as well as a little conundrum I have with worldbuilding here. Another author interview is on its way, too! Plus, Blondie promises to share some of her latest story with us, and yes, I AM going to talk about humor for realsies. After watching my children interact with a Hodag, how can I not?
A stormy August has descended upon us here in Wisconsin, my friends. Not only has rain come at last to our parched farmlands, but so has the lightning, thunder, and even tornados. We’ve had to huddle in our basement a few times in the last week around the transistor radio to hear of funnel clouds taking shape, of lightning striking power poles blocks away, of tornados destroying homes miles away. But we are all safe and well, and no deaths as of yet been reported. A prayer of thanks for that!
While storms will always trigger memories of flooding in our home, I know storms can also be an amazing inspiration for storytelling. There is something about that dark and stormy night that puts us all in the mood for a good ol’ whodunit…
I was born and raised in a blue-collar Chicago neighborhood, so I’m a city girl from way back, but I have a strong connection to rural Wisconsin thanks to my mother. Her parents, my grandparents, were Polish immigrants whose pursuit of the American dream led them to a small dairy farm in the north central part of the state, near the paper-mill town of Mosinee. I spent many summers on that hard-scrabble farm: milking cows, driving the tractor, baling hay, and staring at a night sky filled with stars. On one memorable night I even saw the aurora borealis flicker and dance above the horizon. To me, Wisconsin was always a magical place. I didn’t discover Door County until I was a young adult, but the majesty and sheer beauty of the area reinforced the notion.
Oh, yes, there is something magical in this land of forests and fireflies, I agree! Let’s get back to that in a moment. First, let’s explore the magic of the stories you enjoyed as a child.
When I was growing up books were a luxury we couldn’t afford. But I was a reader, and the books I enjoyed came from the library. Every Tuesday the bookmobile parked outside the neighborhood A&P grocery store and opened for business. Every week I walked in the front door –a seven-year-old proud to have her very own library card — and then marched out the back door with five books, the most you were allowed to check out. For the longest time, I was fixated by the biographies of famous women – women like Clara Barton, Betsy Ross, Molly Pitcher, and Florence Nightingale. Then one day, my Aunt Jean loaned me her childhood copy of The Secret Garden.
My love of fiction began with that classic children’s story. The Secret Garden took me to a different time and place in a way that the biographies did not. Maybe it was the language or the fact that the story was about characters closer to my age, but I fell in love with the book. Just as Mary and Colin discovered the door to the hidden garden, I discovered a door to a limitless universe of literature, one that demonstrated the power of imagination.
Ah, so you were a frequent visitor of the library as a kid as well. I distinctly remember getting a small illustrated version of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and that cinched it for me as far as the genre went. After going through all the Nancy Drew stories the library had on hand, I devoured Colin Dexter’s Morse stories, P.D. James’ Dalgleish stories, and of course, Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Did you experience a similar journey through the mystery genre?
Growing up I loved the Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes, and Miss Marple stories. Here were people following clues and solving puzzles, figuring things out. Then I read Dorothy L. Sayers, and my sense of what a mystery could be shifted to something more. Her books about Peter Whimsey and Harriet Vane did so much more than simply solve the crime. They revealed the pain and struggle of the human heart. They were windows to the soul.
I’ve had the same experience reading other mysteries, books such as The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre, Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, and The Secret History, by Donna Tartt. In each instance, the mystery was essential to the story, but in each instance the story encompassed more. These are tales of human strength and weakness, stories of internal conflict and struggle.
Thank you for these recommendations! I’ve not read Tartt or Smith, but I’ve enjoyed a number of Le Carrénovels in the last few years. Now, what of your own fascinating mystery series? Just as Sherlock tells Watson in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”–
“It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”
–you create suspenseful tales of murder not in the urban land of Chicago, but the quiet, rural peninsula of Door County. What inspired that choice?
I always wanted to write a mystery, but I had no idea of where, who, or what it would entail. One day, I was sitting on a Door County beach looking out at Lake Michigan. It was a perfect day – blue sky, blue water, warm sun. The kind you could sell for a million dollars if only you could bottle it up. That night I sat in the same spot. Heavy cloud cover obscured the moon and stars; it was inky dark – and eerie. I kept looking over my shoulder and thinking: anything can happen here. The contrast between day and night prompted thoughts of light and dark, good and evil. And the idea was born: I’d write a mystery about a picture perfect location (Door County) where sinister forces were at work beneath the surface.
What were the sinister forces; who was responsible for them; what happened as a result; who suffered and why; who stood to benefit? I wanted to write a story in which the contemporary crimes were linked to past events. People in Door County tend to know each other’s histories. My protagonist had to be a stranger –enter Dave Cubiak. A former cop from Chicago who could track a killer, a man with his own burdens, a man who didn’t know anyone and would have to ferret out the clues and follow their trail until he stood before the culprit and asked Why?
Death Stalks Door County was meant to be a stand alone. One and done. When I began my career as a mystery writer, I couldn’t imagine writing a series. But as I was going through the long initial process of writing and revising and hoping to find a publisher, different story ideas kept popping up and slowly the notion of writing a series loomed not as an impossibility but as a logical next step. By the time I had signed a contract for the first book, I was half way through the initial draft of the second book.
Along with Cubiak, I, too have been on a journey. Writing his story, his books, has taught me two lessons that I believe every writer must learn and embrace: one, believe in your story and two, believe in your ability to tell it even as you continue to hone your craft.
Dave Cubiak is indeed on a journey! Meeting him in the opening pages of your first book gave me such a powerful picture of a man trying to hide from his grief as much as move on from it.
Do you find it difficult to write a protagonist of a different gender? What tips do you have for other writers who struggle to write outside of their gender?
I don’t find it more difficult to write a male protagonist than a female protagonist. Either way, I need to know them fully – who they are, where they come from, their struggles, dreams, disappointments, weaknesses, strengths, values, foibles, fears, how they walk and talk and think. Dave Cubiak evolved with the idea for Death Stalks Door County. He was an integral part of the story before I wrote a single word. In many ways, the book – and then eventually the series – is his story.
My books are more than mysteries; taken as a whole they trace Cubiak’s journey from the pivotal moment that changed his life to all that came after. One male reader said he felt they were stories of hope for anyone struggling with loss. Another man said he liked Cubiak because “he’s real.”
The challenge, then, is not to write either a male or female protagonist, but to write one that is real, one that belongs in the story.
The keys to writing outside your gender are empathy and observation. Try to understand that character; walk in their shoes; feel for them. Watch how they act; listen to how they talk. Invite them into your imagination and live with them for a while. Put them in different situations (finding an injured kitten; stumbling on a wallet stuffed with cash; getting a letter from an old lover seeking forgiveness for the unforgiveable) and see how they react. If you can do all that, you can write the character.
You mentioned earlier that Death Stalks Door Countywas meant to be a standalone, but your imagination created more conundrums for Cubiak and inspired you to write a series instead. A happy change in plans, I’d say! Yet I should think such a change in plans requires a change to one’s writing process. How would you say your writing process changed after publishing Death Stalks Door County?
I’d been a staff writer for the Readers’ Digest and a professional nonfiction writer for nearly twenty years when I decided to write my first mystery. Death Stalks Door County was years in the making. I’d read plenty of mysteries and literary novels, but I’d always written nonfiction articles. Even a seven-thousand-word piece pales by comparison to a book of seventy-thousand plus words. With the first book I had a lot to learn. I wrote and edited; I revised and submitted. I got rejected. Repeat. And then again. At one point, I printed the manuscript and let it sit on a shelf for two years. One day I picked it up, fully intending to toss it in the trash. But as I flipped through, I realized that (1) it was decently written; (2) I really liked my characters; and, (3) I was the only person in the world who knew the story and if I didn’t tell it, then it would never be told. Sitting on the floor of my office, I decided that I would give it one more try. One more read through; one more edit; one more round of queries. And that’s when the magic happened. The email read: “Please send full manuscript.” Music to any writer’s ears.
I wrote Death Stalks Door County as a pantser. I had an idea and started writing a book. As I struggled with the process, I slowly evolved into a plotter. I began to think in terms of chapters, then scenes. Bit by bit, I broke the story down into pieces. The smaller the pieces and the more of them that I had, the better handle I had on the story and the more confident I became.
Last month I finished book seven and what changed from writing the first book to the way I wrote the rest of the series was my approach. Starting with Death at Gills Rock, the second volume, I realized that I needed to know the details of the story before I could write it, so I began to plot every step of the action. In essence, I created a road map that carried me from beginning to end.
There are writers who shudder at the thought of plotting the story first, and it’s not a technique that will work for everyone. But many will benefit from it. There are very clear advantages: Plotting ultimately eliminates writer’s block – with a well plotted story, you never sit in front of a blank screen or empty page and wonder now what because you know what comes next. Instead of writer’s block, however, you will have thinker’s block. Working out the kinks and inconsistencies and struggling to make sense of the story line takes work. It’s not easy but ultimately it means that you don’t toss out ten or twenty thousand words because you changed your mind midway through chapter three.
I was once asked if detailed plotting doesn’t take the fun out of writing. Not for me, it doesn’t. In fact, it makes me more comfortable and confident and eager to write.
A seventh book in the works? Huzzah and congrats! I know just what you mean about pantsing. I enjoyed this style of writing quite a bit during the years I participated in National Novel Writing Month, but you’re absolutely right that when it comes to crafting a strong story–especially a mystery!–one needs to know where the clues are hidden, which characters are where and when, how the reveals happen, and so on. Having the plot planned takes a lot of the panic out of writing, to be sure.
You have been such a joy to converse with here, Patricia–thank you so much for sharing your time and talent with us! May we please close with any other tips you have for aspiring writers? There are so, so many traps writers can fall into, and any trap sprung often wounds, even scars, a writer’s imagination and motivation.
Based on what I have learned from presenting and attending various workshops and listening to aspiring writers discuss their work, I’d say there are three common traps.
Not being clear on the kind of book you’re writing – this is most likely to be a problem for first-time writers. To paraphrase Socrates, “To know thy book is the beginning of intelligent writing.” Different types of books have different rules. Something as simple as word count varies from one kind of book to another. Taking the time to figure out what you want your book to be – memoir or historical fiction, cozy mystery or thriller – helps the writer focus and start and stay on the right track.
Misinterpreting the advice to “show don’t tell.” We’ll all heard this dozens of times. Unfortunately, many new writers interpret the advice to mean that you show everything, but that is not what is meant. As a writer, you show the important parts and tell everything that happens in between. As I see it, we have a responsibility to hand the reader a finished story on a silver platter, not to present the verbal equivalent of an unedited video of everything that happens in a character’s life and expect the reader to ferret out the story.
Trying to please everyone. After Death Stalks Door County, my first mystery, was published I was invited to a book club whose members included both men and women. Listening to the book club members discuss my work was an enlightening experience. One woman said she really like X about the book; her husband said X was what he liked least. Then a man said he wished I had included more Y, and the woman across the table said, oh, no there was quite enough of Y for her. As the back and forth continued, I asked myself: which of these people should I be trying to please? It didn’t take long to realize the futility of trying to write to accommodate the preferences of a specific individual or type of reader. My takeaway from the experience: Write the book you want to read. Write to please yourself.
And so we shall, Patricia. So we shall. x
My fellow creatives, you are welcome to visit Patricia Skalka’s author site as well as book reviewsite for more information on what she writes and reads.
Blondie and I are keen to share our own writing updates! It’s also high time, methinks, for a bit of creative nonfiction crafting when it comes to those everyday absurdities. x
Good morning, my fellow creatives! We’ve come, at last, to the midwest summer’s sunset.
Such are the days when decisions must be made. Quests must be completed. Evil must be thwarted before twilight takes us and all is lost.
Such are the days when a hero shows his mettle. Such are the days never to be forgotten, for they live on in the tales we pass from one generation to the next.
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of super-natural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces
Seriously, why makes such heroes appeal to so many across so many cultures and time periods? Sure, Bilbo Baggins appeals because he’s nice and stuff, but what about this guy?
Clint Eastwood’s character inHigh Plains Drifter is not what one would call “likeable.” In fact, if there were ever an example of the anti-hero, it’d be this Man With No Name. He comes out of nowhere to an isolated seaside mining town and literally turns it red as Hell. As Eastwood himself explains:
“It’s just an allegory…a speculation on what happens when they go ahead and kill the sheriff and somebody comes back and calls the town’s conscience to bear. There’s always retribution for your deeds.”
James Neibaur, The Clint Eastwood westerns.
Well, that doesn’t sound like something Bilbo would do. That fellow was ready to halt his own adventure because he forgot a handkerchief, for goodness’ sake. But there is good reason to bring Bilbo and our Man With No Name together. See, when one studies storytelling, one sees certain archetypes transcend cultural and racial barriers. One such archetype is the outsider who brings change to the story’s world and its characters. This outsider does not follow that story-world’s code for justice, but their own, and in following their own code brings about the salvation—or damnation—of the story-world they encounter.
Now Bilbo fits this to a degree. I wanted to use this character as an introduction of sorts to this Hero talk because he does follow his own code no matter what others say or do, and he is, above all else, an Outsider to the ways of Dwarves, Burglary, Dragons, and War. While Bilbo’s skills change on this quest, he also brings about a change within Thorin, albeit late.
In High Plains Drifter, The Man With No Name does not change, not one bit. His very presence brings out the worst in the town: greed, lust, gluttony, jealousy. But above all else, the town is afraid, very afraid. Those they hired to kill the sheriff–and then immediately set up for arrest and imprisonment–have escaped their prison and are on their way for revenge. The townspeople hate Eastwood’s Outsider, the one who can kill with such ease, but they fear their past more. They realize too late The Man With No Name’s skills in manipulation are just as great as his skills with weapons, and by movie’s end the town burns bloody red in punishment for past sins.
Such is the way of the Punisher….or, the way of the Male Messiah.
As the Punisher, he’ll curse the man who has “fallen” to teach him a lesson. He wants to break the man’s ego. He’ll kill the man’s spirit to transform him into his image. He may try to justify himself to others, but they’ll never fully understand his power or the burden he carries.…the Male Messiah may not know of his connection to the Divine, but he may just be driven to accomplish something important. In this respect, he isn’t working on a spiritual goal. It seems his whole life is for one sole purpose and that purpose affects the lives of thousands of people… His character may not change, but others will change because of him.
Victoria Lynn Schmidt, 45 Master Characters
I’ve shared this book–and this quote!–when I was releasing my second novel, Fallen Princeborn: Chosen. Understanding the roots of such an archetype helps we writers better understand how a character who is not of our story’s setting, one who is driven by a cause–not a selfish cause per say, but a cause that in the character’s eyes will lead to salvation for those who matter. “Those who matter” will vary on the character: the Male Messiah feels all matter, while the Punisher will decide who matters.
In modern cinema, John Wick is a good example of a Punisher audiences root for. He left the assassin’s life to marry his love. He no longer has any part in the criminal underworld, and has found contentment in nature with his wife. His love eventually dies of illness, but left him a puppy to care for. A Russian mobster’s spoiled son steals Wick’s car and kills the puppy.
Unleash the vengeance.
Italy’s Djangoseries is another fine example of this Outsider-Turned-Hero. Here’s a drifter with guns moving along the wild lands of the United States-Mexican border. His rules are his own–he means to kill the man who killed his lover. That a town is currently under the thumb of this man and would thrive if saved from this man is just a coincidence, really.
Django’s got his own rules, and even if his own hands are crushed, he WILL find a way to lay his enemies to waste. Cause above all.
Revenge for love stolen before its time is something we as readers and audiences can understand, even root for. John Wick doesn’t go off killing the doctors who couldn’t cure his wife, but he does destroy those who kill the innocent puppy his wife had gifted him in her will. In Thailand’s Tom yum goong (known in the United States as The Protector), Kham doesn’t go after an Australian gang just because the gang and its drugs are evil. His family has been protectors of the royal war elephant line for centuries, and Kham is content to continue this special life. When a Vietnamese gang leader kidnaps two of those elephants and takes them to Sydney, Kham hunts them down and lays waste to them, one gang member at a time, until the elephants are back in his care. Cause above all.
Australia’s Mad Max series–Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior, in particular–has Max seeking fuel, as all are seeking fuel in that desolate, dystopian place. When he hears there’s a refinery nearby with tons of the stuff, Max is ready to go grab some for himself no matter who else lives there. That the refinery is under siege by the Marauders makes no difference at first–the Marauders aren’t after Max, so Max doesn’t care. Max is just the Outsider in the situation, looking for his moment to benefit. That moment just so happens to line up with helping those in the refinery escape the Marauders’ siege.
Because this is another thing about that Outsider-Turned-Hero: the Outsider often has no stakes in whatever conflict is already in play in the story’s setting. He simply exists, and in this moment, his existence seems to be merely passing through. South Africa’s District 9, Japan’s Yojimbo, and Italy’s A Fistful of Dollars (which is just Yojimbo again, really, so one should look to For a Few Dollars More here). In District 9, Wikus is just a government worker doing his job: informing the alien race stuck on earth that their provided homes and lands are going to shrink even more. He is an Outsider to the alien culture but is dragged into the alien/human government conflict when he accidentally exposes himself to some of the fuel an alien father and son have been collecting. His body starts to change. He does not want to change. He only helps the aliens if it will mean he gets to be human again and return to his child. In the end, Wikus still changes into an alien, but he chooses to help the alien and his son escape because in Wikus’ eyes, the family code is more important than whatever humans deem right or wrong.
Yojimbo tells the story of a wandering rōnin–masterless samurai–who comes across a town suffering under the power struggle of two warring bosses. The rōnin plays both bosses against one another to ruin them and save the town. This definitely makes the protagonist look like the Male Messiah, but is he doing it because it is “right,” or because it’s just what he wants to do because he lives by his own code? I mean, Fistful of Dollars sees The Man With No Name play the bosses against one another as he gets paid by each. The Man makes some serious money…and happens to bring some peace to the town. The Man wasn’t there to be a Messiah. He was there with his own livelihood, his own cause, above all else, and that cause led to being both a Punisher and Messiah in this particular setting’s conflict.
And perhaps that is another reason so many of us across different times and cultures connect with that Outsider: he is not restrained by whatever individual societies dictate. He believes in his own code above all else; sometimes that code benefits others, sometimes not, but that code rarely tolerates others vying for power. The Outsider has nothing to lose in joining the fray, and sometimes nothing to gain, either, yet the Outsider joins in. Whether he is a warrior with the skills to take the evil down–
–or a quiet countryman who prefers the peace of his pipe in the garden, The Outsider steps in front of the oppressed, the innocent, us, and decides, Enough of this.
And that, my friends, is a hero we love to share from one generation to the next.
I’m really excited to share my interview with Midwestern author Patricia Skalka! I recently reviewed the opening chapter of her book Death Stalks Door County on my podcast for Private Eye July. Check out this book and other awesome stories on Story Cuppings, a podcast where I take a sip from various tales to see if they fit the tastes of we picky readers and working writers. x
We also need to take a moment to ponder the place of everyday absurdity in our writing, as well as twins. Yes, twins. I was going to include this Native American legend I found about an Outsider here, but its connection with twins–and my own connection with twins–makes the subject too intriguing not to make its own post.
Hello hello, my wonderful fellow creatives! We find ourselves caught in the whirlwind that often billows about in the middle of summer. After a few good swimming lessons, the kids are determined to prove themselves ready for their own Olympic-style marathons in the water. So long as they don’t participate in another round of “Toss the dead fish” as some other kids did at the beach, they’ll be fine. 🙂
While they splash and holler at one another in the lake, allow me to introduce another lovely fantasy author whose debut novel hits bookstores this month. My friends, meet Ian Green!
Niceties first! Tell us a bit about yourself, please.
Hello! I’m Ian, I’m a writer from Northern Scotland. I have a background in scientific research (working on cancer epigenetics!) and I’m currently based out of Algiers. Whenever I can I spend my time hiking in the woods or clambering around ruins. My first novel, The Gauntlet and the Fist Beneath, is out this summer. It is an epic fantasy- book one of a new trilogy!
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
My dad had an old paperback of The Lord of the Rings- all three volumes in one huge thick book, with an amazing John Howe painting of Gandalf on the front cover looking utterly mysterious and serious. I remember reading that when I was too young to understand most of it, but the cadence of the language and the weight of the words, the way Tolkien’s writing could summon images in my mind astonished me- the imagery of the shire felt true to me in a way I didn’t think fiction could be. That, and perhaps reading Goosebumps in the school library and managing to scare myself- how can a word elicit such strong emotion? I was hooked.
Hey, there are plenty of Goosebumps books that scared me as a kid by their insides–and outsides! I had to stay away from any volume with that ventriloquist doll the cover. (Shivers.) What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
I struggled with Cixin Liu for a long time- I found the start of The Three-body Problem impassably dense, and the characters didn’t resonate with me throughout. I think I was coming from a long run of character driven SFF and this was such sweeping, concept driven SF that I just couldn’t seem to find a purchase. I’m so glad I stuck with it- the second book in that series, The Dark Forest, is one of my favourite SF books.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Malagash by Joey Comeau– I’ve been a huge fan of his work for a long time, and this novel is so tender and sad and brutal and sweet. It delivers perfectly, a dark humour running throughout even as it prises open your heart. Utterly incredible. I want to give a copy to everyone I know.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
The book that made me think differently about fiction was The Bridge by Iain Banks. My mum gave me a copy when I was probably too young to understand a lot of it- but I understood the sheer audacity and fun it was having. It was having so much fun with structure and there was such a joy to it. For me fiction can serve so many purposes, from light entertainment and escapism to far heavier explorations. The Bridge to me was a book that did all of those without a thought to convention, and did it all with a smile.
Ah, that sounds like a marvelous story! Any book that not only is run to read but to experience sounds like a perfect find in my, well, my book. 🙂 Speaking of books,Congratulations on your debut fantasy novel The Gauntlet and the Fist Beneath! I love hearing about fellow fantasy writers’ worldbuilding process. Did you base Gauntlet’s world on your Scottish homeland, or was other research involved in creating the story’s setting?
Certainly, Scotland was a huge source of inspiration. When I wrote this book I knew I wanted to set myself a few challenges regarding the culture I created and the story I was telling, but with the world I wanted to take some of the rugged and harsh beauty of Scotland- to make sure that the physicality of the world had an impact on the society and the world that grew around it. So in terms of geography I took a lot of inspiration from Scotland. Historically I think the Pictish stones scattered around Scotland gave me my first ideas of how the magic of the world might work- the old ideas of celtic animism that have been so long lost were a big inspiration. I wanted to create a world where monotheism had never become a dominant force, and to take some of the ideas of animism and craft them into a new and novel magic system and world. In terms of the history and cultures represented, I tried hard to make sure I wasn’t echoing any specific histories- I drew inspiration from a lot of history and myth from around the world, and I didn’t want to create a world that was simply a fantasy version of Scotland- I wanted to create something wholly its own, with its own myth and legend and history and forces pushing and pulling at its people.
Building such a rich, complex world is no small undertaking. Do you think it wise that aspiring writers take on such a project, or is it better they try a different method to sharpen their skills?
I think it can be tempting to start hugely ambitious projects (creating an entire world! A ten book series covering the fall of an empire!) but I found more successful to work on shorter pieces while I was honing my craft and voice. This also let me try out lost of different styles and concepts to see what I wanted to do more with.
Ah yes, your short fiction. We’ll get to that in a bit. 🙂 All this world-building must surely take a lot of time in your writing process. Have you ever experienced a blockage during that research, or have ever become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of it all?
I sometimes need reminding to clarify some points of a world’s lore- when you are so deep into research and worldbuilding it can be easy to forget that someone coming to the material fresh is coming from a totally different context and set of background knowledge! Luckily this is something that can be fixed without too much stress normally.
That’s good to hear! The research involved in building a world can easily intimidate any writer, but writing outside of one’s own experience can REALLY put the pressure on a writer these days. The protagonist of your book, General Floré, is a parent determined to fight through any hell to rescue her child. This is a character many of us readers can root for! What challenges did you face as a writer in writing characters from the opposite sex, and do you have any advice for other writers who want to write outside their living experience?
I don’t think for me writing a character of one sex or another held any more challenge than any other sex. In the world of The Gauntlet and the Fist Beneath sex, gender, and sexuality are of far less consequence than they are in our own world, and so I really just focused on character and motivation. In terms of writing outside of my lived experience, in a lot of ways fantasy as a genre frees me up to not worry so much about accuracy except within the confines of what I’ve created. I’m writing from the perspective of seven foot tall lizard people who live in intricate coral reef cities, and people who live under the weight of an eternal arcane storm- nobody has lived those experiences! There are of course more normal experiences where this might come to bear, but all I can do is rely on research and imagination and beta-readers with different experiences to myself to hopefully make sure I am not straying too far from the mark.
Gauntlet is your debut novel, but as your website shows, you’ve published loads of short fiction as well. When you write short fiction, do you know it’ll be short fiction going in, or do some novel ideas transform into short stories in their creation (or vice versa)?
This is a great question- so when I’m writing short fiction I often know that is what I want to do, I will have simple concepts or plots or ideas that I want to play with. For longer work, before committing to writing a whole novel what I normally do is flesh out a few potential ideas and then try and write a short story in each- I can pretty quickly tell which idea I’m excited about and want to keep going with! I always keep those other fragments though- just because I’m not excited about it right now doesn’t mean it might not be a strong contender to flesh out either as a short story or a longer piece later on.
One of my biggest struggles with writing short fiction comes with the worldbuilding. I wanted to say sooooo much in my story “The Hungry Mother,” but there just wasn’t the space. How do you overcome the restraints on worldbuilding when writing short fiction?
I love the challenge of this- it is so difficult to present world-building that feels deep and real in that shorter setting. I try and pare it back so I’m not presenting details that are unnecessary (are all the window frames in this world black for an obscure historical reason? Does this impact the plot? If not, forget about it!). So anything that impacts the plot or the physicality of the character’s situation I try and expand on a little, but unless it is vital I don’t bother expanding on explanations- the reader’s imagination can do a lot of the heavy lifting!
What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
As I was looking for an agent and publisher for The Gauntlet and the Fist Beneath I came across plenty of agents who would charge reading fees, editors claiming they could increase your chance of publication with their proofreading, and services promising to push your book to the right people. I’m not sure I know what the most unethical practice in the publishing industry is, but in general I think there are plenty of bad actors willing to take advantage of people are trying to break into the more mainstream spaces- caution is often a good thing!
Oh, I agree with you there. I’m sure we could all share a story or two of the bad actors who beguile us as writers. That’s why so many of us just choose to “go it alone,” as it were. This means we’re handling all the steps of publishing as well as marketing, and I’ve got to admit it is HARD. Have you worked out any useful way to market your books?
This is my first novel so I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask! I’ve tried to make myself as available as possible for any opportunity- I’m not famous, I’m not particularly well-connected, and historically my social media profiles have mainly been links to music I like and pictures of mountains, food, dogs, and cats. So switching all of that to focusing more on marketing my work has been a strange idea! There are so many communities where you could potentially interact and grow your audience, but I think it is important to try and partition off specific time for this or else you could spend all of your time marketing rather than actually writing.
I also saw on your site that you co-wrote a story inspired by game play! I’ve heard so many friends tell me how Dungeons and Dragons inspires fun fantasy storytelling for them. Would you ever write another story based on gameplay as you did The Cursed Tomb?
The Cursed Tomb is a very fun wee book that is essentially a transcript of a game me and some friends were playing- certainly not something I would expect other people to buy and spend time on, we actually published it more as a memento for the four of us. I do think it is a lot of fun, and very silly- those gameplay stories benefit from the chaos of multiple creators, each of whom can bring their own ideas and background to play. I’d definitely do so again, but unless it was a lot more organised I think it would end up being another artefact for me and my friends, rather than a book I wanted to send out into the world!
A landscape of danger and mystery, perhaps. A relic with power to change the world dropped in the rain while fleeing the enemy. A duel of ambitions, weapons poised to take life and light of all.
You see a brittle world, crushed and smoldering. You know how to save it.
We don’t always begin with the conflict or the setting. Sometimes, we begin with an identity, one which turns the wheels of the plot in ways we are not yet sure, but we know the workings are hidden there, beneath the face of this person.
“It gives me great pleasure, a good name. I always in writing start with a name. Give me a name and it produces a story, not the other way about normally.”
Now I’m sure this method worked wonderfully for Mr. Tolkien, as I believe he’s gotten himself published a few times. However, we other creatives just do not always have a name to go with and find ourselves going “the other way about” quite a bit. Let’s explore a few of those situations together.
When a key scene and its conflict are etched in my mind, the character names are but one detail in a sea of details–not to be fussed about until the rest of the moment is captured. That was my approach in “The Hungry Mother” (free to read in Mobius: The Journal of Social Change!) where I could see the con artist and the mark engage in a rundown park, but not hear their names. So, my first draft had nothing but alphabet letters for character names to keep them straight. Only after that first draft was completed did I consider the backgrounds of the characters and setting to discover Puritan-style names for the homely, rural Remembrace and her daughter, Tace. But what of my network marketing hustler? Social media loves to dub such people “Karens,” so there was that name…eh, too on the nose. So I looked back into my own memories of bullies and deceives to uncover the name of a girl who was a real jerk during our school days: Nicole.
The woman turns away from the old man and locks eyes with Nicole. For a moment, Nicole is a freshman on the bus all over again, snickering at the pathetic group of Old Sancs boarding to attend school at New Sanctuary thirteen miles away, and none was more pathetic than the hunched creature in patched rags named Remembrance Priest. That was the creature Nicole pictured when she messaged that name and a hundred others about Suzy Ray! and its wonders. That was the creature Nicole pictured when agreeing to meet in this town forgotten among the fields of corn and cow shit.
“Oh, my, gosh,” Nicole says. Normally she must count to three between each word so she sounds as wondrously pleased as possible, but Remembrance’s total lack of hunchback makes the greeting almost genuine. “Look at you, Mem! Has it really been ten years?” And a part of Nicole wriggles at how ten years has affected Mem. Her skin is smoother, firmer. Her braid of thick hair looks strong enough for a rope swing. Was Mem always this tall?Did another Ray of Sunshine beat me here?
Mem waves like the homecoming queen she never was. “Hiii!” She says and embraces Nicole so tightly Nicole almost spills her drink. Mem’s lips press through Nicole’s dark curly hair and onto her Suzy Ray! sunshine studs. “Sooo good to see you, Nicole. You look sooo pretty.”
Ten years clearly hadn’t taken the sliding whine out of her voice.
When the conflict shines so clearly before us, we must capture every line, every movement, as quickly as we can before that light dims. It is all too easy to allow our exploration of names get in the way of storytelling, so using the simplest identifier possible will keep characters straight until their true identities come to you.
I’ll be the first to admit I got lost in names for myFallen Princebornnovels. Nearly all the names went through multiple changes as I researched history and better understood my velidevour world. Only Charlotte’s name remain unchanged, for it was a choice close to my maternal heart. Bo and I had been considering the name for our daughter-to-be, but in the end we gave Blondie a different name and Charlotte remained bodiless, name of strength, fluidity, tenacity, beauty and…I just had to put that identity, that soul, to use. The different versions of “Charlotte” also allowed the girl to make her name a boundary in and of itself, which helped those around her–and readers–see when she had finally accepted the friendship and trust of another.
“Come now, Charlie, don’t leave.” Liam’s fingertips graze her hand.
“Don’t call me Charlie.” That’s for family. You are not my family.
“Cate’s the luckiest princeborn ever, having a brother like you,” Charlotte lets the thought out, surprising herself a little, but sorry for the slip? Nah.
Dorjan blushes. “Well then, here.” He pulls an extremely fast hat trick of hair tug, ear flick, nose tweak. “Consider yourself an Honorary Durant.”
And now Charlotte can’t help but hug them both, these two who were willing to fight alongside her before they had known her a single day. “Call me Charlie.”
The House of Artair holds many Gaelic names. I wanted this family to be rooted to the Isles, intelligent and fierce. “Artair” is a version of Artur, which is Gaelic for “Noble Bear.” Considering the vicious head of the House, Bearnard (“strong as a bear”), transforms into a bear, this was a perfect fit. Liam’s name was a tricky one; it needed to carry the weight of his parents’ aspirations as well as the truth of his inner spirit. Plus, as a writer, I wanted the name to carry a timeless feel to it. Discovering Liam means “resolute protector” was nothing short of a miracle. Liam’s parents are determined to see him lead all velidevour into a new age of dominance; Liam desires to protect Charlotte and those who have come to support him and fight alongside him. And it’s a timeless name. 🙂
Granted, we sometimes allow ourselves a name purely because it sounds cool. Disraeli is the name of a Celestine, offspring of stars and magic. Why did I pick the name Disraeli? Because I saw it in a magazine and thought, That’s a really cool name. It was originally the name I intended for Arlen, but when I realized the need for the princeborn names to carry meaning and history, I knew I had to change that name. Still, I had to find someone to hold that name, and a creature of the stars just happened to fly by…
The world can help us discover character names, too. As I worked out the history of River Vine and the velidevour trapped there, I could see the natural setting would mean everything to them. They were souls who used animal and human bodies to hunt their prey as dictated by wicked The Lady of the Pits. Nature above ground would be their peace, their refuge. This led to me using plant names for many of them, such as Nettle, Poppy, and Campion. Does your own story-world have ties to nature, the elements, or some other unique feature in the setting?
Or perhaps the very world in which you write must change. This happened to me a ways back with Middler’s Pride. The first version of the story was a co-collaboration of sorts with fantasy author Michael Dellert, but as our goals with the character changed, he continued on his world’s story arc and I continued on with the character. This meant renaming recreating the Shield Maidens’ world and practically everyone in it, starting with the protagonist Gwen.
Now here I had to keep in mind that I was not just renaming a protagonist, but a character within a group of protagonists. This meant I did not want the characters’ names to sound alike, have the same cadence, start with the same letter, etc. Now that may sound silly–why should those impact the name if the name MEANS something amazing?–but this is an important strategy for the readers’ sake. How on earth will readers keep a group of protagonists straight if their names blend together or are easily mistaken?
So I first had to look at my own Shield Maidens whose names did not need to change: Wynne, Tegan, and Ellylw. I had chosen all these Welsh names loving how the names bounced so dramatically between simple and complex. Each starts with a unique sound and phonetically differs enough that one shouldn’t confuse them when reading aloud. But they were also all rather short, so Gwen’s new name could not be that simple. Oh, it could have the potential for a nickname–Ellylw becomes “Elle” pretty quickly–but it still needed to be longer than a couple syllables. So, I focused my search on longer Welsh names, and came across Meredydd, “Protector of the sea.” Considering Middler’s Pride is the tale of Meredydd and the other Shield Maidens rescuing the River Goddess from a cursed beast, this name felt right.
Mer watched the sunlight caress the blade. She heard footsteps, and knew the others had pulled in around her to form a half-circle. Hauling lumber would surely take them until dawn, but by dawn she’ll have this worthless batch of—
“Wynne, stand here. Tegan, right? How’s your balance?”
“Hey, what?” That circus freak, walking about like she was next in command. The bloody nerve. “You heard the captain. The best way to get that dagger down will be a ramp, and that’s going to take lumber. All we need is an axe and—”
“No we don’t.”
And I’M the upstart? “Captain Vala said—“
“She said to get the dagger.” The circus freak pressed down on each of Wynne’s shoulders. The pretty face winced, but didn’t complain. “We don’t need lumber. Just a couple good backs. Wynne, I think you can do it.”
She shriveled at the compliment. “I-I’m afraid I’m not as strong as you. I don’t want anyone getting hurt.”
“All the more reason to train up,” Meredydd tugged her arm towards the gate. Ye gods, it was soft as dough. This girl wasn’t lying. “You can’t be a Shield Maiden without power in your limbs.”
“And she’ll get there.” The circus freak grabbed Wynne’s other arm. “But not because you make her do something stupid.”
If Mer could just get Wynne behind her and away from this twit—“Would the king bestow a weapon upon an idiot?”
The circus freak’s scar across her gross face went all squiggly. “Sure, if he’s desperate.”
Wynne yowled. Tegan’s fists tightened around her hips and she screamed:
“STOP YOU’RE RIPPING WYNNE’S ARMS OFF!”
Three loud THUDS and the girls fell in a heap against the gate. Tegan coughed, shook, and ended up plopping down herself. “Look, this”—she waved at the three of them—“is stupid. Mer, you want to follow orders the idiot way? Fine. I’ll go with you. Wynne, you want to work with…”
“Sounds like a pig call.” Mer ignored Tegan’s glare. It seemed to keep her magick at bay, for one thing. And for another, the circus freak’s name did sound like a stupid pig call.
Wynne fixed her hair. Gods help her when a twig undoes her braids. “I think it’s pretty.”
The circus freak rolled her eyes as she finished catching her breath. “Just call me Elle, it’s easier.”
We are blessed to live in a world of countless tongues and histories. A single name can be the seed to a hundred variations, each unique with potential for an identity across the oceans. Whether you begin with that seed or uncover it as you dig through a story-world’s soil, be mindful of that name’s beginnings, the culture in which it is rooted. Nurture that name with the respect it deserves, and you will find a character as strong and perfect as the imaginary world you cultivate.
Welcome back, my fellow creatives! Where on earth did June go? I’ve not the slightest, but my own three B’s have really taken to their summer reading programs, already earning some tickets to the local museum and state fair. Speaking of my B’s–Biff and Bash, in particular–this particular selection for the podcast is not just to help wrap up Pride Month, but to focus on a unique pair of protagonists: twin brothers.
I hope you enjoy this sip from Infinity Son with me! If there are any stories you would like to recommend for sipping on this podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’d also welcome reading any indie authors’ own stories.
A lovely day to you all, my fellow creatives! I’m really excited to have caught SFF author Adrian Tchaikovsky for another chat as he and readers celebrate the release of his latest, Shards of Earth. If you’d like to read our first interview, please click here.
Welcome back to Jean Lee’s World, Sir! Thank you so much for stopping by to share your work, your thoughts, your bugs, and all the jazz. In our last chat together, we discovered a mutual admiration for the Queen of the Fantastic, Diana Wynne Jones. One of these days I would love to visit England and see where she spent time as a child and student. Have you ever gone on a literary pilgrimage? If so, where? If not, where do you hope to go and why?
This isn’t anything I’ve done, to be honest. (Shakespeare, maybe, but that’s more just standard tourist stuff. And when I went to Oxford a friend took me to Tolkien’s old drinking den, but that was also just ‘a thing you do’). I have an odd relationship with places. People always seem to expect writers to be vastly plugged in to landscapes and the place they grew up and exotic locales they’ve visited. I’m someone who exists very much inside his own head. I draw from a melange of images that filter into my head but my connections to place are generally internal and imaginary. Which on the one hand is probably entirely unhealthy, but on the other hand is probably why I’ve been able to soldier on with things despite adverse external conditions.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
You mention Diane Wynne Jones and there’s a lot of that in her work, with the way she can use carefully chosen language to manage a reader’s expectations and perspective. Another enormously formative book I read was Pratchett’s Strata – one of his very early pre-Discworld (or proto-Discworld in a way) books. It remains the book with the biggest twist I’ve ever read. It turns the whole universe on its head, basically. But what it also does is suddenly make sense of a whole series of weird little inconsistencies that almost look like errors the editor missed when you first (as a 12 year old) romp through it. Except it’s all intentional and it’s all part of a carefully constructed trap.
Here in the States, summer break means long, agenda-less days for kids. Thankfully, all three of my children are avid readers, which promises a smidge of peace in the house. So now comes that precarious balance of celebrating my children’s reading while also challenging them with trying new authors/stories. I recently dared to let my eldest, Blondie, read my WIP Middler’s Pride, and I cannot tell you the wave of relief I felt when she said she liked it. What sort of stories does your son enjoy and recommend? Has he read any of your own stories yet?
So my son doesn’t read much. It doesn’t come naturally or easily to him, which obviously cuts a bit. I do read to him, though, and there’s a small list of books he’s completely fallen in love with. He loves Wynne Jones’ Homeward Bounders, Sophia MacDougall’s Mars Evacuees and its sequel, Space Hostages. He really liked Frances Hardinge’s Fly-By-Night and John Robertson’s Little Town of Marrowville. And I have read him a few of mine, and he really took to The Expert System’s Brother, which was nice.
Looking at your site, I see you recently compiled a list of your short story publications. YOWZA, you published a lot of short pieces in the midst of crafting novels. I confess that I get a bit muddled over submitting short pieces. Some recommend scouting journals first to see what their contests call for and write for the contests, but then others say to write first and then see what journals take the sort of things you wrote. Which process did you use—or did you use a different process altogether?
I wrote some stories on spec and then was able to find a home for them later, but there’s a network of small press contacts that’s fairly easy to get on the radar of, and there are always anthologies being put together with various themes and criteria, so I just wrote and submitted for whatever turned up and for which the ideas came. Writing to a prompt like that is a great exercise for the imagination.
So the art I share on Twitter is very much not connected to any of my books, It’s a relaxation thing, because there’s definitely a part of my mind that needs to do something that’s not writing, but still ends up with a finished product that I can feel proud of (I also paint Warhammer figures!). However, as these things go, I now have quite a collection of art and that professional part of my mind is telling me that I should be doing something with it, so… perhaps the connection will go the other way.
I’d like to touch back on your skill in crafting fantastically beautiful and complex fictionalseries. Instead of looking at the worldbuilding as we did before, let’s consider your prewriting process for the plot. See, I’m something of a pantser. I love getting into a world with the characters and just seeing where they take me and work out the plot accordingly. In creating series the likes of Shadows of the Apt, however, I can’t imagine “pantsing” to be a productive method in building a solid plot arc for a series. In our last chat you mentioned learning how to write from reading a lot, so would you say your planning process for your own novels was inspired by something you read, or perhaps from the trial and error of early writing? Or perhaps even both?
Well Shadows of the Aptwas unusual in that the world was already thoroughly explored in a role-playing game I ran years earlier at university. In general, though, I’m a heavy planner but I start with the world. Worlds are what interest me, as reader and writer, and I feel they’re what the SFF genres can do in a way no others can. I’m always interested in bringing a new world to readers, and the plots and characters arise organically out of the details of the world that I’ve already set out.
Speaking of craftingnew worlds,do you use any special author-friendly software to keep your writing organized? A friend of mine highly recommends Scrivener and Wonderdraft, but I’m a curmudgeon when it comes to learning new software.
I basically just use Word to write notes and lists and things like that, and sometimes I use pencil sketches or a drawing tablet to create visual records of what things look like. I know a lot of authors who do use dedicated writing software, and it’s like everything else, if it helps you, then it’s good.
The protagonists you write are not limited to one gender. Considering the care writers must take in writing outside of their physical experience, what tips could you share for those writers who want to write a for gender, race, or creed that is not their own?
I mean, the protagonists I write aren’t limited to one species! I’ve always pushed myself beyond the natural knee-jerk of characters who are basically of my own demographic, because it’s a very easy trap to fall into. I believe in positively expanding character diversity, especially in a fantasy world where the only limits are those you’ve set for yourself. There’s no reason to have everything follow some stale old stock pattern where it’s always men (white, straight, etc) who Do The Things, and everyone else is a supporting character. And the payoff is, books with a variety of characters are basically more interesting, imho.
Congratulations on your latest publication, Shards of Earth! Its premise promises grand adventure, to be sure, but I cannot help but contemplate your word choice in the title: “Shards of Earth”. I immediately think of something small, broken, but also sharp and able to pierce something strong. (I also think of Dark Crystal, but that’s not really relevant here.) Come to think, loads of your titles have a certain flare with word choice that hooks readers. A few examples:
Cage of Souls
Salute the Dark
“Souls” are so ethereal, substance-less, yet we can cage them? Spiders are of the dark, skittering and silent, but they hold light? The word choices are just too enticing to not contemplate them. I don’t know if this is peculiar or not, but usually, my titles are in my head before I’ve even written a word. The title appears with a visual of a scene, and I have to grab it and copy it before it flies off on me into the unmapped region of the story’s fog. Do your titles arrive early in your process, or do they come later, perhaps with feedback, as you edit?
So the shameful truth here is that the majority of my working titles don’t survive contact with the editor. Either they get trimmed or changed a little, or changed completely. Doors of Eden was originally “The Brain Garden”! I’ve come to accept that what sounds good to me during the writing process doesn’t always hit the ears of others very sweetly. 🙂 We often have a huge faff and rush over the actual title post-submission, after my original gets voted down.
Speaking of those moments of inspiration, I’m also intrigued by Shards of Earth’s conflict with these architect aliens vs. man pushing its own evolution forward. Your antagonists are as intriguing as your protagonists in every novel, so I cannot help but wonder which came first in Shards of Earth (and/or in any other novel of your choosing): the villains, or the heroes?
So in Shards, the Architects came first. I remember talking the series concept over with my agent long ago, where we hammered out various elements (including stuff that will only be made explicit in book 3!) of the setting. The idea of the enormous world-reshaping monsters is definitely the heart of the series.
You can’t go wrong with world-reshaping monsters!
Let’s wrap up with another creature question.As a writer, what would youchoose as your spirit animal?
Well I write a lot of animals so I’ve got a fair few to choose from. I tend to write about the animals that really appeal to me, too, so they’re right there on the page. So maybe octopus, or praying mantis, or salticid spider… Or perhaps some unholy combination of all three.
Thank you so much for sharing your time in the midst of a crazy release schedule! I hope you and your son continue to discover new stories to enjoy together, and that the worlds of your imagination never lose their wonder.
My podcast series continues with a detour to Juneteenth before returning to fantasy in celebration of Pride Month. We’ll also consider the timeless, transcending character that is the Outsider-turned-Hero. Character names, everyday absurdities, and more author interviews are on their way!
I hope you enjoy this sip from Beyond the Black Door with me! If there are any stories you would like to recommend for sipping on this podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’d also welcome reading any indie authors’ own stories.
A collection of book reviews by Patricia Skalka — A Chicago native, life-long reader and author of "Death Stalks Door County," "Death at Gills Rock," "Death in Cold Water," and "Death on a Ferry," the first four volumes in the Dave Cubiak Door County mystery series.