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.
Thank heaven for this month of fantastic interviews! I’m still trudging my way through grading finals, pricing all the little Bs’ toddler clothing to sell, preparing for two rounds of family visits for Easter…oh and maybe writing in there somewhere. Whew!
So let’s continue on with our amazing Indie April and chat with sci-fi wonder, J.I. Rogers.
First, let’s get the niceties…well not out of the way, as it were, but if you’d like to introduce yourself—who you are and what you write, etc etc etc.
Hi. I’m J. I. Rogers, and I write a fusion of dystopian science fiction and space opera. My bio aptly states that when I’m not acting as a conduit for the voices in my head, I’m a poster child for Gen X and the Queen of most boondoggles that lead to eye-strain and tinnitus. Simply put, I’m a green-eyed, ginger-haired, caffeine addict who currently spends most days (and nights) creating bits to go into ‘The Korpes File Series,’ art, or convincing to my family and friends that I’m not dead.
What would you say was the first book (or author) you read that inspired you to become a writer?
The graphic novel series “Love & Rockets” by Los Bros Hernandez is what truly set me on this path. I’ve been an artist for far longer than I’ve been an author, and Jaime’s work, in particular, sparked the Muse to create my own world. It’s taken close to thirty years to get the ball rolling. In the meantime I’d have to say that every book I’ve ever read has pushed me toward committing text to screen; even the ones I didn’t like. Authors such as Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Barbara Hambly, George Orwell, R. A. MacAvoy, Anne McCaffery, G. R. R. Martin, J. R. R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett have also added their influence. I wrote a few short, fantasy stories based in Mercedes Lackey’s world in the 90s, but my APA, “Northwest Passages,” was sidelined by other projects.
Now according to your “About” page on your site https://jirogers-author.com/, you started working on the sci-fi series The Korpes File back in 2012. This series is set on a different planet, Tamyrh. I’ve never imagined creating an entire PLANET, let alone its various histories and cultures! Can you describe your world-building process for us?
I have a bit of experience in building worlds stemming from my time playing fantasy and sci-fi based role-playing games… Yes, I was one of those dice-rolling, graph-paper toting geeks that played in and ran campaigns through the 80s and 90s. My process could be best described as ‘organized chaos.’
Character Development: Usually, I’ll start with the character, loosely identify their physical and personality characteristics, and then I’ll interview them to learn more. After a couple of paragraphs, I have more of an idea of who they are and how they fit in the world. I’ve found that the characters themselves reveal a fragment of ‘foundation’ information or a core element fairly early on. Things like ‘bullied,’ ‘has integrity,’ and ‘chronic tease’ are just a few of the things that have emerged. From there, I let them flesh themselves out as I write. I’m still learning things about Nash and the other inhabitants of my world. I have found a few photographs that are close to how I visualize the different racial groups of Tamyrh, but none that define the characters. I’m planning to release a sketchbook in 2020 with my vision of what everyone looks like.
World Development: I’m continually finding visual inspirations in our world that I can shape to place in mine, as my Pinterest account can attest. Other aspects, the alien ones, have lurked in my subconscious for decades.
The protagonist in The Korpes File, Nash Korpes, sounds like a fascinating character, burdened with history he didn’t ask for and facing an entire society down in his own “private war,” as you put it. Would you say Nash first appeared to you as a complete person or did you piece his character together over time?
Nash’s ‘Sarcastic voice’ revealed itself first, the rest followed. To be completely honest I’m still learning things about him, and I’m almost done the draft of book three.
You have a little disclaimer on your Korpes series’ web page that the stories contain some serious themes, such as genocide and racism. Were these themes you felt compelled to address via your story, or did your characters seem to guide you into these topics and address them their own way?
All the themes addressed were things that happened organically. There are six distinct humanoid groups on Tamyrh, and one uniquely alien. I had a vague idea of the physical and racial characteristics involved, and as I created the environments (cities, countries, and cultures), they suggested other, human-relatable traits and issues. An excellent example of this subconscious creation would be I knew the Korlo were xenophobes. It wasn’t until I discovered they had never fought a major war on their own soil, they had a small population, and their culture was highly class oriented that I understood why they responded negatively to the Diasporan (refugee) influx. Another example: I didn’t know one of the main characters was gay until he started hitting on another character in a bar scene. Some of the storyline has been on the loom for over thirty years, and the Muse is good at picking up stray threads.
As a fellow series writer, I have to admit that fatigue does occasionally set in—my brain keeps thinking on other projects, and if I don’t let my fingers at least get a few things down my creativity goes haywire. The timeline for your series looks pretty extensive, so I can’t help but ask how you stay dedicated to a single series for so long without going nuts.
HA! I am nuts, just ask anyone who knows me. It helps that as I’m writing, I’ll write scenes or chapters in the future or past (other books). I have at least four or five projects going at once, so if I tire of one, I can keep momentum and interest going by working on another… or stepping out of the office and down to the studio and doing some art. There are also movie nights. When my hubby and I merged households, our book and movie collections threatened to form a singularity. To appease the various gods of chaos, we watch a movie every couple of days.
On the flip side of building an entire world, you also do the “Six-Word Story Challenge,” telling scenes not only with six words but with a unique image in the background. Now I know you’ve been doing this for at least a year, even creating these six-word stories with alphabetized theme words. I believe you’ve had an exhibit for these pieces of storytelling art, correct? How on Tamyrh did you get into this unique vein, and how would you say it powers your creativity?
“Six-Word Story Challenges” are great little warm-up exercises. Sometimes they’ll lead to a much longer scene, and other times, they’re the perfect summation (I’ve even hidden a few in the books). The art exhibition was more of a happy coincidence. A friend and I were going to do a joint exhibit and then she had to withdraw due to poor health. The show was scaled back (I had to omit pieces that were designed for a larger space) and come up with something that could fill the void. I opted to have my show become interactive by encouraging people to look at the art (paintings, sculpture, and prints), then write a six-word story about their experience. I had about forty responses, half of which were genuine attempts. The other half were by someone who liked noodles.
I think it’s safe to say all writers have their own writing Kryptonite. Mine’s that dreaded phone call from the school principal—kills my creativity in a heartbeat. What’s your writing Kryptonite?
I lived in East Africa when
I was growing up. A Cheetah has to eat its kill soon after it’s brought down;
they don’t eat carrion unless the situation is dire. In the past, tour buses would
come in close so the tourii could get better shots, the noise would scare the
kitty off, and the poor thing would have to go and find another gazelle to run
down. This was a problem because of the enormous amount of energy they expend
in the chase. After being run off a third time, some were too weak to make
another try and actually died.
Laws were passed to prevent the tour companies from harassing the wildlife.
When my hubby closes the door to his office, he’s busy. When I close the door
to my office, it means I’m writing. If I’m pulled out of my groove to do
something that didn’t really need me to do it I’ll get peevish and make snarly
noises. If it happens three times in a row, I’ll try to eat the tourist.
You are an AMAZING supporter of fellow indie authors in the blogging community as well as on social media. What advice would you give newbie writers as they work on building their own author platforms?
Why thank you! 😀 My advice is to share posts, create engaging content, leave reviews, be positive without looking for immediate evidence of karmic return. In other words, treat people the way you’d like to be treated. Ultimately, it might even lead to Jean Lee inviting you to appear as an interviewee on her awesome blog.
Aaaaw, shucks. 🙂
What would you say are common traps for aspiring writers, and how would you suggest avoiding them?
1. Don’t edit as you write, only edit after you have the first draft done. 2. Schedule your time on social media like it’s a job. Have a reason to be there and a time when you log off. 3. Take breaks, stretch, and remember to go outside and play with your friends. 4. Drink more water. 5. Remember to sleep.
Do I do all of these things? No, but I’m aspiring.
What would you consider to be the most problematic practice in the publishing industry, and how would you try to change it?
I’ve never been a fan of politics, and it seems to be a constant in any field, creative or not. I would love to win something like a Hugo or a Nebula Award at some point before I die, but the former has become highly political from all accounts, and I’m not traditionally published in the case of the latter. I’m not holding out much hope. How would I change that? It’s out of my power. However, if you can’t bring about big changes, change something in your own neighborhood, right? There are a lot of indie publishers who embody positive energy and support their fellow authors; actions like theirs make everyone stronger. Model the behavior you wish to see, be the person you want to encounter and boost the worthy folks you meet. Pay it forward.
Oh! Tell us about your current project(s), please!
I’m currently working on books three through six of “The Korpes File Series,” painting the cowling on my Vino scooter before I put it back on the road, finishing up some WAY overdue art commissions, and creating a character sketchbook for my patrons (that’s due out in 2020).
Stay tuned for yet another lovely indie author interview next week–in fact, I’ve actually gotten requested by more authors to interview them, soooooo this interview-a-thon may very well spill into May. We shall see!
In the meantime, here are links to my novel and FREE short stories, juuuuuuust in case you haven’t checked them out yet, wink wink nudge nudge say no more. 😉
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.
I connected with P.J. Lazos online as a fellow indie writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her discussions on environmental issues, writing, human virtue, and family are so compelling that I just had to introduce her to all of you.
First, let’s talk about you. Your biography reflects many passions: a passion for truth as a journalist, a passion to fight for what can’t as an environmental lawyer, and a passion for words as a writer. Which of these passions shown itself in you first, and how did it influence your other passions?
I think my strong sense of justice started in childhood. My mother had a baby who died at three months old. I was three years old at the time and remember thinking how unfair it was for our family, but especially for my mother who was devastated by the loss. I think I tried so hard to make it right for her, but of course, what could I do. Maybe the words grew out of that experience — definitely the emotion. I remember journaling when I was a kid although then it was called “keeping a diary” an no where near as in vogue as it is now so clearly the name change helped. As for my bit with the environment, well, my mom used to wrap me in a blanket and tuck me under the big oak tree in the backyard and I would lie there and have a conversation with the tree, or at least that’s what it looked like in the video, so I think that started then, too.
Your Six Sisters series delves into the nuances of family life and all its beautiful imperfections. Now I’m not going to strictly ask if this is autobiographical, but were any characters inspired by family or friends in your life? What drew you to share their stories?
That’s funny. My brother-in-law from my first marriage — I still maintain a solid relationship with my ex-husband and former in-laws — asked me the same question about List of 55. The answer is complicated. No, in that the over-the-top behaviors of the characters in that story were definitely not us, but yes in that the underlying emotion behind a break-up was definitely there. You don’t have to have a specific experience to write about it convincingly as long as you can access the emotion behind it. For example, I remarried and my now husband’s first wife died when their two kids were very young. Hearing that story from his POV allowed me to access his unbearable loss and I created a character — David Hartos in Oil and Water — loosely based on my husband who was also a commercial diver. He provided me with insight into how a heart completely busted open by grief struggled to raise two kids as well as how the world of commercial diving worked. I think that as writers, a piece of you lands in every story you ever write, but some are just more autobiographical than others. The part of List of 55 where the central character has a miscarriage — that precise situation did not happen to me, but I did have a miscarriage in a bathroom stall at 30th St. Station in Philadelphia and I think it may have been the saddest, most horrific moment of my life. I tried to write about it before, but it never came out with the gravity I wanted to convey so I put all that angst into Belinda’s character and that’s what I got. Sometimes it’s easier to process your own pain through a made up character. Isn’t that a staple of psychological counseling for kids, and aren’t we all just kids walking around in adult bodies, still harboring all the crap and still relishing all the joys we experienced in childhood?
Now, your most recent novel, Oil and Water,is an environmental thriller. Considering your legal expertise, I imagine you didn’t have to do a ton of research for this novel…or is that being presumptuous?
Yeah, I wish it worked that way for me, but it doesn’t. I started with doing some initial research about converting trash into oil and about the Marsh Arabs and the wetlands in the Fertile Crescent (which you would remember from studying Egypt or Mesopotamia), but a lot of the rest, like you, I googled as I went. I have enough information in my head to get me started, but my memory isn’t always a straight arrow so I need to fact check. My favorite kind of fiction is where you learn something so I wanted to be sure I was passing on real time information.
As the premise of Oil and Water brings readers to difficult questions about our dependence on fossil fuels, your website Green Life Blue Wateralso informs readers of some amazing environmental initiatives that are doing their communities some good. Are there any current programs you’d like to highlight right now?
Rain gardens and aquaponics! I’m a member of the Junior League of Lancaster, a group that’s been operating in Lancaster since 1923. This is my 8th year in the League and I love being part of a volunteer women’s organization. We are doing some really cutting edge stuff like building rain gardens which are basically bowl-like depressions planted with hydrophytic plants that hold stormwater and rain water in high flow times as a way to divert it out of combined sewer system.
This year we’re adding aquaponics to the mix which is basically a fish tank with food growing on top — veggies, herbs, whatever you want (well, maybe not pumpkins). The fish poop fertilizes the plants so it’s a self-contained system. We’re doing a pilot project at an elementary school here in Lancaster, installing four tanks in four second grade classrooms and putting together some curriculum to go with it. We want to make a “pizza garden” with basil, oregano, cherries tomatoes, and a few other things so when the kids harvest the food in the tank we can throw them a pizza party. So lots happening: how ecosystems interact, close up look tan water and nutrients, nutrition, and more, I’m sure. Hands on learning is really the best way to get those kind of lessons across. I just learned that the Aztecs were the first to do aquaponics. The called it Chinampas. So you see, I’m learning something, too.
You are also a member of the Insecure Writers’ Support Group, correct? Can you tell us a little about this program and how writers can join?
I actually don’t do that anymore. It was quite fun, but a friend of mine asked me what I had to be insecure about since she loved my writing. That started me thinking about The Law of Attraction and how what you think about all day long is what manifests in your life so I stopped participating in IWSG and started participating in WATWB, We Are the World Blogfest, which had just started. WATWB happens on the last Friday of every month and it showcases positive news stories as a way to counteract all the negativity in the world, an “accentuate the positive” approach to news and life. I also found this group to be more “my people”, writers all, but focused on social justice, environmental issues, a better life for all people. Plus you get a real lift from reading the stories people post.
Lastly, what advice would you like to share with those who are unsure how to explore their family or other passions with writing?
Journaling is always a great way to get started. I always kept a kind-of notebook, but when my daughter was born, a friend gave me a beautiful black sketch book with lovely, creamy paper. I had four months off from work, plus another four on a very part-time basis, I wrote a journal in earnest, a love letter to my kid that I intend to give her one of these days when she’s ready to read it. Her dad and I split before she was born and I wanted to get everything I was feeling down on paper. We joke now that she came out screaming because I was so angry when I was pregnant. Unless I’m reading her wrong, today, like me, she laughs readily and sees both the irony and the gifts in most situations. I don’t write in a journal as much as I used to, but I have a blog and much of what I would write in the journal goes in the blog. One thing I would suggest and that I myself need to get back to is morning pages, something Julia Cameron suggested in “the Artist’s way.” A brain dump every morning to get the gook out and start fresh — something that both reaps and sows benefits. Your mind is clearer, and you’re not as much of a jerk to the the person behind the counter who gets your order wrong or the one who cuts you off in traffic. It helps you to be more chill, in addition to generating ideas, and we all could use more of that.
My deepest thanks to P.J. for taking time to time to talk to us! You can find her Amazon page here and her Twitter page here.
Would you like to be interviewed on Jean Lee’s World, or plug your creative work in my newsletter? Contact meand let me know!
Oh, and I just gotta say how cool it is that four of my Tales of the River Vine are STILL in the Top 10 Free YA Fantasy Monster Fiction.
That’s two months now, and going strong! Thank you thank you THANK YOU! I do hope you’ll leave a review letting me know which characters you dig–and which you want to see more of! I’m brainstorming up some more Tales while working on the novels, and would love a little reader input. xxxxxx
Reverend Wesley Allen is a delightful friend and fellow indie writer with a new book,In the Land of the Penny Gnomes.Today we discuss our mutual love of writing fantasy, balancing family and the writing life, and more.
I love this line from your “about” page on your site, Painfully Hopeful: “I hope that I can be a decent pastor, geek, father, and husband. It’s just sometimes I’m painfully aware that I’m not quite all that I want to be.” Let’s address your family first. You have a wife, two teenagers, and a baby. Just…I cannot fathom having a baby at this point, let alone with teenagers in the house. Do you manage to squeak a little writing time in every day, or just on Sunday afternoons, or when? Does your family root you on in the writing process, or do you keep your stories to yourself?
I am also unable to fathom having an infant in the house. Still, he’s pretty cool and I’ve raised kids through adolescence so poopy diapers and crying isn’t as daunting as it used to be. When Bump doesn’t want to sleep at night, though, I get a bit cranky.
I do write a bit most days, but I’ve managed to write only one short fiction piece for my blog since Bump’s been born. I need to get into a mindset to write, and it’s been hard to find the space to get there. My imagination is still going strong, though, and I’ve got stories running around in my head. I also have to write a sermon every week, so there’s that.
And Sunday afternoons are not good writing days. My introverted brain is basically a bowl of oatmeal by Sunday afternoon. It’s all I can do to scream at the Eagles when they’re playing. (1)
My family really isn’t involved in my projects. My wife isn’t a fantasy fan, my daughter likes to pretend she doesn’t care (2), and my older son just kinda grunts at me when I mention I wrote something. Bump drools on my keyboard. I’m sure if I pushed things a bit more they’d show more interest, but I don’t feel compelled to do so. When I was growing up my family referred to my daydreaming state as “Wes World.” I could dive so deep into my imagination people could be screaming at me and I would barely notice — it was my place to be one my own with my thoughts. As my writing basically emerges from that space it continues to be a solitary endeavor.
As a child of a preacher m’self, I know how one’s life merges to be one with the church sometimes. Personally, I like when storytelling allows me to separate from that environment, but there are ways when faith weaves itself into the fantasy world-building whether intended or not. Do you consider your faith to be a major or minor influence in your writing? How so?
I’m not sure I’d categorized it as “major or minor,” as that would imply faith was merely a component of who I am. Faith is the core of my being, it’s who I am.
But, because I’m quite comfortable with faith being who I am I do not set out to write “Christian stories.” In fact, using the word “Christian” as an adjective to describe a particular set of pop-culture media makes me want to throw up. I guess I’m with Tolkien — too much of what I see in “Christian” pop-culture is reduced to a blunt allegory which has deluded itself into believing it’s subtle. It’s icky.
At the same time, because faith is what I am, of course there are aspects of my faith which can’t help but be seen in my writing. But I try to evoke them as applicable expressions. The idea that good exists, that there is always a larger narrative, and that a people’s story matters all spring into my work though my faith. But I hope they resonate with any reader, and not just “religious” ones.
Having said all that, I am working on a devotional which works around short fiction pieces, but even then the pieces are there to provoke thought and not just telling people what to believe.
About the Pictures
On top of all this, you still find time to get out with your camera! Do you find the images you capture to inspire your storytelling, or do you enjoy time with your camera as a break form words?
Since I love to take Bump for walks, I’ve been able to keep up my photography hobby throughout his early months. I don’t know if photography is a break from words so much as it is permission to pay attention. I live in my head, photography gives me a window to see the world. At the same time, I hate photographing people. I love landscape, as they don’t look at you funny.
And, yes, photography has inspired me to write. When I share photos on my blog they are accompanied by a short meditation, which helps me process what I’m seeing. And the third world I’ve created, The Kingdom of Parallel, was inspired by a photo I took at Sunset. The story has evolved away from the inspiration that photo provided, but the world wouldn’t exist without it.
You’re also keen on using technological resources. I’m hoping to finally start using a program or two m’self, such as Scrivener. As a writer with multiple devices and obligations, which program do you find most useful for building and writing a fantasy world and why?
As you mentioned, Scrivener is huge. I’d be lost without that program, and version 3 on the Mac is superb. All my writing is done inside Scrivener.
For world-building Aeon Timeline is an application which helps me give context to my writing. I love visuals, and the character creation tools inside Aeon Timeline help me visualize how old the characters are at the time of the story. I have to imagine ahead of time, which takes out a lot of the guess work.
And then, interestingly enough, I love minecraft as a world builder. In fact, the first novel I completed, Welcome To The Valleys, was started because I wanted to write the story for the world I’d both explored and created. As I explored villages, terrain, and roadways I could visualize the world as a living space, which made it fun to write.
About the Book
Now let’s talk about your book, In the Land of the Penny Gnomes. Not only do you have an omniscient narrator to tell the story, but the Narrator himself is a character that interacts with the young hero, Will. Can you explain the process that brought you to this writing choice? What have been the challenges of such a choice? The payoffs?
The Narrator is a combination of techniques both Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde use in their work. Pratchett is famous for his footnotes, in which the Narrator issues an aside to the audience. So my use of footnotes is an homage to him. At the same time, Jasper Fforde uses footnotes so characters can communicate with one another (3). These two techniques became the genesis of the Narrator, a literal bridge between the reader and the characters in the story.
The main challenge was to not have the Narrator appear to fix everything on every other page. I’m not sure he’s Omniscient in the usual sense, because he’s on the journey with Will. He knows things, but there’s still things for him to discover, which is unusual for the Narrator. The biggest payoff is what Pratchett discovered, breaking the fourth wall to have the Narrator speak with the reader is a great way to add some weight to the connection.
One of my favorite elements in your book are the unique traits that go into the characters, like Professor Nobody, the gnome fixed upon the creation of the perfect snack chip. What on earth (or elsewhere, of course) did you find the inspiration to gather up such traits, let alone names?
Professor Nobody was named because I loved the gag his name creates. The Narrator can say things like “Nobody smiled,” and every time he did it would make me laugh. Nobody is my favorite character to write, there’s a lot of depth in that mad scientist.
Bug was named just because I wanted a name to match his personality. His last name is really bad Koine Greek, and means, “Not of me.” So Bug’s name, though Bug is actually a nickname, basically means, “Don’t bother me.” He’s unhelpful, grumpy, and points out the foibles of his own people group — which is something we are not supposed to do. Bug’s my hero.
Other names just… came to be. Though Grimby’s name is easy to confuse with “grimey,” which I enjoy.
The snack chip thing. I have no idea. I think Nobody pointed it out to me, if I’m honest, because it makes zero sense. I remember I liked the slogan “Snack Like Nobody’s Business,” which is a great pun on a number of levels, and ran with it.
While I have no idea how I came up with the whole snack chip think, their presence became a sign that he wasn’t giving up on The Realm. Nobody needed something to work toward, and what more ecould a deranged professor of Applied Imagination want than great snack chips?
Now I know you’ve got big plans for Realmian, what with saving imagination–and snack chip creation, and coffee, and Will–from pesky camouflaged lawyers in The Realm. Is there a sequel in the works with Bug, Professor Nobody, and the rest of the Penny Gnomes?
Yes, and I have you to thank for it, as you were the one who told me to keep exploring this world. In the second book the story will center around two the supporting characters I really enjoyed from the first book. It’ll follow Grimby the Dwarf and Fineflen the Darned Elf as they investigate a conspiracy to corrupt the Penny supply. The other characters will shift to supporting roles, with the exception of Sills.
Right now I’m mapping out the story in Aeon Timeline ahead of time, which will allow me to keep two separate story arcs in sync. This is fun, because it’ll be the first time I’ve tried to do this!
This is going to take a while. In the last six months I’ve managed to map out exactly two chapters!
If anyone wants to follow updates on The Realmian Adventures I encourage folks to follow @PennyGnomes on twitter. This is where I’ll be sharing updates, and where the characters sometimes decide they want to hijack the feed to add their own commentary.
1. And that’s if they’re winning. If they’re losing I get downright grumpy.
2. Which she sometimes forgets. She once told me she thinks Penny Gnomes should be a movie, but then remembered herself and shrugged with feigned nonchalance.
3. It’s complicated.
I love giving books for Christmas: they engage and inspire over and over again. My kids are getting books, my husband’s getting books–words for everyone!
Feel free to give my book to people, too, nudge nudge. 😉
Know what? Authors would love to receive YOUR words for Christmas, too. Book reviews help writers reach new readers on Amazon and Goodreads. So spread some cheer this season by sharing your love of your favorite stories online. We authors will love every word you say!
Celine Kiernan’s critically acclaimed work combines fantasy elements with the exploration of political, humanitarian and philosophical themes. She is best known for The Moorehawke Trilogy, a dark, complex trilogy of fantasy YA books set in an alternative renaissance Europe. In this second part of our interview, I ask Kiernan about writing characters and storytelling for a Middle Grade audience in her latest book, Begone the Raggedy Witches.
You created some amazing characters when you wrote The Moorehawke Trilogy. The trio of friends in the first book, The Poison Throne, are delightfully unique, genuine, and engaging. So much can happen in five years, especially when one changes from a child to a teen. What do you feel was the most challenging aspect of writing teenaged characters for The Poison Throne as opposed to writing them younger, or as fully-grown adults?
I didn’t find it a challenge. To be honest, I just write my characters as they are in my head. I make no conscious decisions re market or target audiences or anything. A book occurs to me and I write that book.
Razi, Christopher, and Wynter of The Poison Throne
I think young characters can be tempting to write about, because it’s a time of life when you’re not too much tied down to the minutia of daily life (paying bills, feeding babies, getting to work on time) and so your mind can be better focused on big issues – and freer to physically engage with changing injustices. Everything is so new too – first love, first sex, first meaningful encounters with death, injustice, triumph, philosophy etc. In Resonance, however, the young characters are very much the working poor and so their minds are on how to get and keep work, how to pay the bills, how to survive in an unsympathetic society, while also battling the uncaring supernatural forces which want to use them up and discard them. In Moorehawke and also in Begone the Raggedy Witches, there are many older and middle-aged side characters which bring balance to the younger, innocent and more idealistic main characters.
Now the heroes of Into the Greycaught my attention for a different reason. Here, the protagonists are twin brothers. Being a mother of twin boys m’self, I find this particular bond both fascinating and exasperating. As a writer, what led you to select this specific kind of protagonist duo to head the story as opposed to, say, twin sisters?
Funnily enough there are a lot of twins in my books. Ashkr and Embla, the twin brother and sister, in Moorehawke; Dom and Pat, the twins in Into the Grey. Though it’s never made much of in the book I also always think of Aunty and the Queen in Begone the Raggedy Witches as being twins. I also have twins in two of my unpublished novels (brothers in one, sisters in the other) It had never occurred to me before to explore why, but I do think it’s probably because of my fascination with the different paths people take in life. What could be more interesting than two identical people, starting from an identical base-line, growing into individuals?
The twins in Into the Grey had to be boys as it was specifically a boy’s experience of war which I needed to explore in that narrative.
Now this year you published Begone the Raggedy Witches, the first book of a new trilogy. Unlike your previous works, this trilogy is geared for Middle-Grade readers. What are the benefits—and challenges—of writing this story for a slightly younger audience?
None really, to be honest. I just approached it as I always do. There was no historical research to these books, though, I guess that’s one difference. I was writing purely to explore personal and sociological themes within a pure fantasy set up. But the books didn’t feel easier to write than the more historically based ones. In fact, they’ve taken me longer than most of my other books to complete. (Mind you, this is happening more and more – I think it’s because I’m better aware of the craft now. My first draft takes longer to produce, but nowadays they’re more complete and better polished than previously.)
Okay, I just have to end on the first line of Begone the Raggedy Witches, because it is KILLER:
“The moon was strange the night the witches came and Aunty died.”
Ye gods, we’ve got time, intrigue, magic, and doom all packed into one sentence! How on earth did you create this first sentence, and do you have any tips for other writers in creating that killer hook of an opening line?
The first chapter is nearly always the last thing I write. That’s not to say I have written a first chapter ( I write liner narrative, so I work from the start to the finish of every book) It’s just to say that I always go back to the first chapter and refocus it so that it better leads into the narrative. By the time you get to the end of your novel you’re always so much better tuned in to what the themes are, what the characters’ motivations and personalities are etc. etc., the first chapter should evoke or foreshadow these things, I think. Make a promise to the reader as to what journey this novel will bring them on. Often you can’t do that properly until you’ve taken the journey yourself. Funnily enough though, the first lines of most of my books have stayed the same through all the drafts. I can’t explain why. I think it might be because they’ve always been the point from which I enthusiastically dived into the process of starting a new novel. That excitement and enthusiasm doesn’t always last for the whole long, siege-like process, but its almost always there for the first line.
“The moon was strange the night the witches came and Aunty died.”
“We were watching telly, the night Nana burnt the house down.’
‘The sentry would not let them pass.’
‘For a moment, the Angel looked directly at him, and Cornelius’s heart leapt with joy and dread.’
All these lines were bringing me somewhere. All of them were promising me something – I had no choice but to follow them onwards.
My deepest thanks to Celine Kiernan for sharing her stories and experience in the writing craft. It’s an honor to speak with one whose creativity has influenced my own imagination for decades. Please check out her books & her site at https://celinekiernan.wordpress.com/. Be sure to share a review when you read her, too!
Thank you, dear readers, for buying Fallen Princeborn: Stolen!
It’s still hard to believe my debut novel is out in the world. This story was born the same year as my daughter. Like Blondie, Stolen has gone through many growing pains before setting out to forge its way through the world (or elementary school–that’s epic enough for Blondie). Every time I see a purchase or read a review, my soul goes runnin’ through the clouds. To those who’ve read Tales of the River Vineor Stolen, please share your thoughts with me on Amazon or Goodreads. Your reflections mean all the world to new writers like me!
Shouting for Shout-Outs Again!
Now that we’re halfway through November, I’d like to start gathering up kudos and plugs from fellow creators to share on my newsletteron the 1st of the month. If you’ve a book, an album, a site, or all of the above you’d like to share with new readers, please email meand I’ll hook you up. 😉
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?
Illustration of Chris and Wynter from Poison Throne
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?
Book plate for Into the Grey
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?
Tattoo design for a Moorehawke reader
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. 🙂
We’ve got a lot to cover, folks–studying Ray Bradbury, chatting with amazing indie writer Shehanne Moore, exploring a special facet of character development, and sharing The Who’sinfluence on my writing.
But before we go into ANY of that, let’s kick off this month of “ohmygoshiamactuallypublishinganovelthsimonth” panic–I mean, excitement–with some music I’ve known since college, music of vital importance to my telling of Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. Music of origins mythical and mysterious…until SoundCloud yelled at me for uploading it and pointed out the proper composer.
We begin with a simple CD created to accompany my college’s production of Medea. I didn’t make the cast that term (not that I’m still bitter about that. I’m not. Seriously. WHY DIDN’T I MAKE THAT SHOW?!), but my roommate, herself a theater major, was the stage manager and therefore in charge of all things technical, which must have been a challenge when the director decided to get all “experimental” with stage direction, set, and soundtrack.
Because this play was to be experienced like a film, apparently.
Thankfully, my roommate knew when to pull back the soundtrack so the audience could hear the cast. Yes, I put aside my inner grumblings and attended the show. I had a lot of friends up there and behind the scenes, and I wanted to cheer them on in what had to be the toughest show performed that year.
When I think back to that performance now…I don’t really remember seeing the show. I remember hearing it–my friends’ cries when the children are killed, the Greek chorus chanting, the raging howl of anger and revenge…and this music. This, this choir of Latin caution, eternally building with strings and low rumblings of percussion. The sudden sweep into thunderous drums and the harmonies of battle until the last scream pierces the air–
And all is silenced.
Fast forward to New Mom Me writing whenever baby Blondie sleeps. It’s National Novel Writing Month of 2010, and I’m writing what will be the first draft of Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. It’s the moment when Charlotte first meets the book’s villain and realizes the lethal situation she and her captured sister are in. They are surrounded. They are underground.
There is no way out.
There is no hope.
I used the music of Medea to imagine the scope of impossible escape, the cold darkness that buried Charlotte and her sister underground. You can hear it, too, in the first four minutes of this track.
But as the baddies learn, you can bloody Charlotte, but you can never break her.
I’d repeat the change in music at the 4:17 marker to watch Charlotte rise up & fight back. The music careens up out of despair and dives, talons at the ready, to draw blood and breath from every evil. Over and over I listened to this music to catch the fire, the blood, the defiance, the sacrifice.
Eight years later, despite all the changes Stolen has experienced, that scene–and its music–remain the same.
Now that I know Scottish composer Craig Armstrong wrote this score, I’m excited to wander his music and pocket a few seeds to plant for stories years in the making. What music of your youth still nurtures the storyteller within? Perhaps it’s time to put on your headphones, close your eyes, and fly into the harmony of story.
~And now, a brief excerpt from Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, coming this Halloween~
Rot, age, old bones, twice-burned ashes—they choke the air like gasoline.
What Charlotte feels is cold. Lots of cold.
All she can trust is what she sees, and what she sees right now is white, brittle wood beneath her, the lavender light pulsing more intensely now from her feet and spreading out and down the tunnel.
Occasional claw marks.
One bloody handprint that begins on one root and is dragged across seven more before vanishing. It’s not a big handprint. There are little traces of purple in
it too, almost like purple glitter. Glitter. Didn’t Anna have purple glitter? NO. Get your freakin’ act together, Charlie, and focus. Dad, I wish you were here. “Charlie?” The voice is rich, deep, and kind.
Charlotte’s free hand wavers when a new breeze of gunpowder and chili wisps by. “D-dad?” The power of this place can’t summon the dead. Dad’s buried in holy ground far from here.
“He can also take you to your sister, if that is what you wish.”
The pulse light beats faster from Charlotte, racing to catch up with her heartbeat, so damned fast, she prays Campion cannot hear it from his perch among the last of the tunnel roots. His eyes are swirling, almost glowing, as the rest of him turns still, like the living tree-bones behind him.
“After all, this place is where dreams come true.”
~HEY! I’M SHOUTING FOR SHOUT OUTS!~
Shy about promotion? Me, too. So let’s try and share our stuff together, hmm? I just started up the monthly newsletter From the Wilds of Jean Lee’s World.It’s a separate set of updates from that of WordPress. In the newsletter, I share not only updates on my own fiction, but I’ll share updates on your wild creative endeavors, too! Just email me at email@example.com to snag a slot in a future edition.
I have always believed that for the hero to be successful, the villain has to be their equal.
Nothing wrecks a good story like a lame villain.
Be it Mustache Twirlers, Righteous Avengers, or World Conquerors, such villains have nothing to them apart from their evilness. And no matter how grandiose that evilness is, evil without any depth is boring.
A villain’s got to have more than just evil intent to be worthy of page space. A villain needs interests, feelings, and hopes all their own.
I always try to write the villains as the heroes of their own stories.
He was a small, rather dapper-looking man, dressed in a neat charcoal-gray three-piece suit that looked vaguely old-fashioned but that she could tell had been tailor-made for him. His iron gray hair was pulled back from an angular face into a tight pontytail, while a neat triangular bear, mostly black but flecked with gray, concealed his mouth and chin. (5)
Right here, in our first sight of Dr. John Dee, we get a sense of Dee’s style. He’s one for theatrical elegance, right down to the very scent of his aura when ignited:
Dee closed his eyes and breathed deeply. “I rather like the smell of brimstone. It is so…” He paused. “So dramatic.” (20)
Chapter 6 builds on this physical image of Dee, with limousines, leather coats, and the latest technology. The man’s even got a favorite ringtone: the theme from The X-Files (which, oddly enough, was MY favorite show back in the day. *Gasp* a sign of my inner villainy!). While a little detail like a favorite ringtone may not sound worth writing, such a little detail gives us a sense of a man amused by what humanity considers paranormal, one who might watch such a show just to see what humans get right. Heck, maybe Dee has a crush on Gillian Anderson.
My point is, a villain sharing his personal tastes in some fashion, any fashion, helps readers see a complete person on the page.
We also see that Dee’s not so disconnected from the world as to think he can do what he wants without affecting the environment. For example, when his undead army fails to capture Flamel and Co. but succeeds to destroy a chunk of a town, there’s a newspaper account of him holding his movie company accountable for the damage and promising to make reparations. Dee’s physical wealth gives him the ability to cover up his magical actions, including the kidnapping of Nicholas’ wife Perenelle. He’s bought Alcatraz as a prison for her…with a sphinx for a guard. Where else could one hide a sphinx near San Francisco?
An icy shiver ran down Perenelle’s spine as she realized just how clever Dee was. She was a defenseless and powerless prisoner on Alcatraz, and she knew that no one had ever escaped The Rock alive. (315)
Dee is, indeed, a wickedly clever individual. He understands alchemy, necromancy, sorcery, and more. He can call up the consciousness of a dead member of the Elder Race, one of the most powerful beings on the planet Earth, and command it to speak truth.
Even though he has not been able to study the powerful book known as the Codex because Flamel guards it, he remembers several elements of its contents, including a prophecy involving twins heralding a powerful change for all races, magical and non-magical, that walk the earth.
So when twins Sophie and Josh are separated in Chapter 37, Dee uses his wit to corner Josh’s fragile mental state. He knows just the lines to say to make Josh feel like Dee is full of truth, and Flamel is the proper liar. Lines like:
“Are you a victim too?”
“It seems we are all victims of Nicholas Flamel.”
“Do you know how long I’ve been chasing Nicholas Flamel, or Nick Fleming, or any of the hundreds of other aliases he’s used?…Flamel never tells anyone everything,” he said. “I used to say that half of everything he said was a lie, and the other half wasn’t entirely truthful, either.” (338-40)
Terms like “victim” and “lie” are just enough to keep Josh second-guessing if Dee is being truly helpful or truly villanous. This buys Dee enough time to cast a spell on Josh to numb his senses so he can go hunting for the others.
But no scene quite shows the inner motivations of Dee like the end of Chapter 32, after the Dark Elders leave Dee to chase Flamel and Co. southward.
Dee shoved his hands in the pockets of his ruined leather coat and set off down the narrow path. He hated it when they did that, dismissed him as if he were nothing more than a child.
But things would change.
The Elders like to think that Dee was their puppet, their tool. He had seen how Bastet had abandoned Senuhet, who had been with her for at least a century, without a second glance. He knew they would do exactly the same to him, given the chance.
But Dr. John Dee had plans to ensure that they never got that chance. (298)
Dee has been granted immortality by the Dark Elders in return for his service. He’s led their armies, he’s spent years wandering Otherworlds and Shadowrealms, he’s fought monsters that would frighten the blackest of natures. If you had ten years to wander around in an Otherworld of ice, that’d leave you time to think.
Dee absolutely believes he is doing the right thing; he has to believe that Flamel and Perenelle are in the wrong. –Michael Scott
Michael Scott takes care to give us consistent glimpses into Dee’s feelings via changes in point of view. Not only do we see the progress of the story from Flamel’s narrow escapes and feats of magic, but we also see the story from Dee’s prepared traps, skillful attacks, angry defeats.
By focusing solely on the twins’ POV, we would only get a tiny glimpse of what was happening. Similarly, with Flamel, we get just another tiny slice. By giving us Dee, and the other POV and perspectives, we get a bigger, broader and wider story. Also, it teases the reader slightly (and this is something which is explored in more detail as the series progressed): are the Flamels being honest? We, the reader, know they are lying to the twins, so suddenly, everything we know about them is thrown into doubt. Maybe, just maybe Dee is telling the truth. –Michael Scott
Dee is just as passionate about achieving his plan as he is cunning in his means to fulfill it. This man even carries one of the greatest swords of humanity’s heroes: Excalibur.
Dr. John Dee lifted the short-bladed sword in his hand. Dirty blue light coiled down its length, and for an instant the ancient stone blade hummed as an invisible breeze moved across the edge. The twisting snakes carved into its hilt came to twisting, hissing life. (267)
Surely a hero wields a heroic sword, doesn’t he? Yet Dee uses it to kill an Elder and destroy an entire Shadowrealm. That doesn’t sound heroic.
But we readers started this series with Flamel. We’ve connected the term “hero” to Flamel, not to Dee–which is ironic, considering the author Scott’s own words:
…for the longest time, [Dee] WAS the hero of the series. It was called the Secrets of Doctor Dee, with Machiavelli, who appears in book two, as the villain of the piece. However, Dee never felt “right” for the role. Because my rule for the series was that every character had to come from history and every creature from myth, I wanted to stick as closely to the “real” Dee as possible. And while the real Dee was many things, he was not a hero. –Michael Scott
Like the “common” villain, Dee has his moments of confidence, and rightfully earned, too: when he first takes the Codex, when he kidnaps Perenelle, when he kills an Elder. His skills and knowledge shine in these moments.
But unlike the “common” villain, Dee does not assume his plans are fool-proof. He often has to create new attacks on the fly. He’s often afraid to deal with the Dark Elders, but he has no choice and seeks their aid.
“Fixing a smile on his lips, he rose stiffly to his feet and turned to face one of the few of the Dark Elders who genuinely terrified him.” (92)
Now normally I’d say fear makes a villain whiny, or at the very least obnoxious. But with Dee, this simply shows he’s capable of more than confident arrogance. Just as a hero fears failure, so does this villain. Both hero and villain are desperate to succeed, but unsure they can. This dual uncertainty, emphasized with the multiple points of view, drives readers to turn one page after another, eager to see who gets the power tipped into his favor in the next chapter, and the next chapter, and the next.
He was a real man, extraordinary in so many ways, but incredibly flawed.
May your own villain be as Dr. John Dee:
A devil in need of sympathy.
Many thanks to Michael Scott for taking the time to talk to me! Over the past few decades he’s written one hundred novels in a variety of genres, including Fantasy and Science Fiction. He also writes for both adults and young adults. A student of story himself, Scott’s studied Celtic Folklore so deeply he’s become a renowned authority on the subject. Learn more about him and his work at http://www.dillonscott.com/.
Readers expect a world created from our words, a place of wonder and depth. If they get bored–and as a reader, I know I’ve gotten bored–they will tune the story out. They will shelve it among the “did not finish” works in Goodreads, and they will bid our titles adieu. There are, after all, a gazillion other writers out there.
So how do we keep readers in the story? How do we get them to whisper, “just one more page” for the seventeenth time?
After reading Michael Scott’s The Alchemyst, I can safely point out two elements that kept me reading: the cliffhangers between each chapter, and the book’s antagonist. In this post, we’ll focus on the first.
Let’s consider Chapter 1. We’ll have to start with the first line in order to fully appreciate the chapter’s end. (I’ve already covered story starts in other posts about Holly Blackand Diana Wynne Jones, if you care to look.)
“Ok–answer me this: why would anyone want to wear an overcoat in San Francisco in the middle of summer?”
Nothing outrageous. Just a little oddity that might call attention to a casual passer-by, as it calls the attention of teen Sophie. She sees a few coated individuals and “small, rather dapper-looking man” enter the bookstore across the street where her twin brother Josh works. They’re kind of weird, but that should be it, right?
Scott then takes us to Josh’s perspective. When foul odors suddenly permeate the bookstore’s basement, he decides to go up for some air.
He popped his head out of the cellar door and looked around.
And in that instant, Josh Newman realized that the world would never be the same again.
End of chapter.
In the first couple pages, Scott establishes something is off in the Normal Life of our protagonists, but we don’t know how off. At chapter’s end Scott makes it clear that it isn’t the teens’ summer that changes, or even their Normal Life. It’s the world.
And, it’s only page 8.
We need to read how this simple meeting, this little one-off from Normal, could mean something cataclysmic.
Over the next few chapters, the teens are on the run with Alchemyst Nicholas Flamel, keeper of an ancient book called the Codex. The Codex holds the secret to immortality as well as the forgotten histories and magics of Earth itself. The Dark Elders, once gods but now forgotten, want that book more than anything, and they’ve sent Dr. John Dee, an old apprentice of Flamel’s, to retrieve it. Immortal through his service to the Dark Elders, Dee will spill any blood and unleash any power necessary–and we see in The Alchemyst that Dee has a massive magical arsenal at his disposal.
Come Chapter 6, we are following Dr. John Dee’s point of view. Dee has stolen most of the Codex and abducted Nicholas’ wife Perenelle, but Josh managed to rip the last few pages back before Nicholas helps the twins escape. Furious, Dee contacts his masters for a little help.
Then he snapped the phone shut and looked over at Perenelle Flamel. “It would have been so much easier if they had just given me the Codex. Now the Morrigan is coming. And you know what that means.”
End of chapter.
Perenelle Flamel may know what “that means,” but we have to study the context a little to catch on. “The Morrigan”–a definite article means this not just a beast or creature, but a specific being, an individual entity unique and separate from others met so far. “So much easier if they had given me”–if surrendering to a killer is the “easier” option, then we know whatever’s coming is more violent and nasty than Dee’s been. Dee feels confident in telling Nicholas Flamel’s wife about “the Morrigan” because he expects this Morrigan to get results. Since we’ve seen some of Flamel’s magic, this must mean the Morrigan is a very powerful individual capable of killing Flamel.
Well. We’ve got to see that.
Closing the chapter on a sinister, ominous image can also hook readers for the next chapter. Chapter 8 has Flamel and the twins trapped in ally Scatty’s residence. We end as Dee begins his assault with creatures under his control.
Below them, three huge Golems, trailing flaking dried mud, were pushing their way through the wide-open alley door. And behind them, in a long sinuous line, came the rats.
End of chapter.
I LOVE the use of the word “sinuous.” Read out loud it sounds like a snake’s slithered into the room. Visually, readers picture rats doing something they know to be unnatural. Since when do rats move in a single-filed line? Plus there is a common loathing of rats: bringer of disease and destruction, full of little pointy teeth and hands. When you see one, you know there’s a few dozen more not far behind. Maybe some people think of Ratatouille, but being an 80s child, I think of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Scott also has some fun playing with the reader’s expectations. Chapter 10’s climax is a lovely example of this.
Sophie pulled her cell out of her pocket and flipped it open. “Aren’t you going to work some magic?” she asked hopefully.
“No, I’m going to make a call. Let’s hope we don’t get an answering service.”
End of chapter.
By this point, the twins are accustomed to seeing Dee utilize his powers to combat the villain. The fact he uses a phone for such a mundane action makes Reader Me want to know: Who on earth could this guy be calling to combat a monstrous cloud of crows bent on tearing them apart? The only way I can learn the answer is by reading on.
Being a pushy, curious sort, I asked Michael Scott how he worked out building strong chapter endings with multiple points of view. His answer reflects an important writing strategy: planning.
I started with a single sheet of paper and wrote out my idea for the entire series. I could see that there were six very neat breaks in the narrative.
I then wrote out the idea for each book on six sheets of paper. Then I went in and plotted them sometimes in fairly fine detail. That allowed me to pace out the chapters.
I always tried to end a chapter with a hook which would leave you dangling so that you had to read the next chapter (which was often not a continuation of the story), to get back to the main story. So your plotting is chapters 1,3,5 are all one story, and 2,4,6 are a separate, but linked story.
I love my narratives to adventure into the unexpected, but even I like to keep a map on hand in case I get lost. Readers will only appreciate tension and high stakes if the story stays focused on those things. If writers dish out too much tension at once, any slowing of the plot jars the pacing beyond repair. Like the 90s blockbuster Speed, you have to keep the story moving fast, or risk blowing up your reader’s engagement. If you attempt a slow burn and fail (and I just read a novel guilty of this, so stay tuned in August), you’ve lost readers before you could even get to the story’s objective.
So you need action, but not too much at once. You need climaxes in that action, but not so much to make later climaxes feel, well, anti-climactic. No wonder, then, that Scott not only took time to outline The Alchemyst, but the ENTIRE six-book series of The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel. How else can he tell the story from both the heroes and villains’ perspectives without missing a beat?
And I’m not going to lie–Dr. John Dee is my favorite part of this book. Next week, we’ll explore with Michael Scott what makes this villain–and therefore the well-written villains–worth reading.
Many thanks to Michael Scott for taking the time to talk to me! Over the past few decades he’s written one hundred novels in a variety of genres, including Fantasy and Science Fiction. He also writes for both adults and young adults. A student of story himself, Scott’s studied Celtic Folklore so deeply he’s become a renowned authority on the subject. Learn more about him and his work at http://www.dillonscott.com/.