As a fan of her SF and her alternate-history-shapeshifter-fantasy, I was very interested to learn that Jacey Bedford’s new novel is a standalone epic fantasy. So I invited her to share a few thoughts on her approach to writing this sort of story for modern readers.
Writing Epic Fantasy for a Modern Audience by Jacey Bedford
You are what you eat, or should that be, you write what you read?
The Amber Crown is set in a historical fantasy version of the Baltic countries, in the imaginary kingdom of Zavonia.I have robbed history for the details.
I got into fantasy a little late in life, not reading the Narnia books until I was at least nine years old. Of course I’d been primed for fantasy from an early age with traditional fairy tales, the watered down Disneyfied versions, not the gory Grimm versions with the cutting off of heels – they came later. I somehow missed Tolkien in my teen years, being more into science fiction and then in my early twenties I discovered Andre Norton, especially her Witch World books. That was it, I fell in love.
This was before the advent of easy internet access, Google, Amazon and Abe Books, so when I first travelled to Canada in 1995 I thought I’d landed in heaven when a friend introduced me to (what was then) Bakka – Toronto’s specialist SF/.F book store (now Bakka-Phoenix). I bought so many books, many of them Andre Nortons, (then unavailable in the UK) that I shipped half of them home, and bought a new suitcase for the other half which then cost me $100 in excess baggage. It was worth every cent.
I loved Andre Norton’s Witch World with a deep passion, though not blindly. They were generally much shorter than a lot of SF/F today. Her dialogue was always a little stilted as though she was trying to mimic older patterns of speech, and there was romance, but no sex. It didn’t matter, I loved them unconditionally, but when I started writing my own stories, I didn’t necessarily want to emulate them.
For starters my books are relatively hefty. The Amber Crown is 469 pages, that’s 160,000 words. Luckily my editor said she doesn’t mind a lot of words, as long as they are good words.
Dialogue is so important. It not only moves the plot forward but it says a lot about character and emotion. I try to avoid the kind of dialogue that screams, ‘Prithee, sirrah, I am writing a story set in ye past.’ (OK, I’ve never quite come across that kind of dialogue but you know what I mean.) At the same time I try to avoid more modern slang words. When Valdas curses he often uses, “God’s ballocks!” – religious curses being more likely than sexual ones.
I avoid longwinded descriptions. I haven’t a clue what colour Valdas’s eyes are, but I do know that he shaved off his drooping moustache so it wouldn’t identify him as a renegade army officer. I do know that Lind has golden curls when he lets his hair grow out, and that he was pretty as a boy apprentice, which is what earned him the trouble which has clouded his life ever since. I needed these bits of description to advance the plot.
Pacing is so important for a modern audience; less infodumping and more dripfeeding of background information as the story progresses. My books are long, so I try to make every word count.
With The Amber Crown I wanted to write something that was, if not pacier, at least racier. I’ve never shied away from writing sex in my books (to the consternation of my son, though not my daughter). Can you imagine if Tolkien had written sex scenes in Lord of the Rings? No? Me neither. And any sex in Witch World books happened tastefully off the page, though it must have happened or how else did Simon and Jaelithe produce triplets?
I decided not to be coy about it. The Amber Crown has got plenty of sex in it, though it’s there to drive the plot, not to titillate. My three main viewpoint characters have vastly different attitudes towards sex. Valdas loves and respects women, every part of them, fat, thin, young, old, pretty or plain. He likes what’s between their ears as well as what’s between their legs, and he’ll take no for an answer. When the book opens, he’s captain of the King’s High Guard, responsible for the king’s safety which means he spends a lot of his time at court and in the palace, but he’s sensible enough not to form liaisons with court ladies, or even palace servants. He takes his pleasure in the whorehouses of the Low Town, often with his favourite, Aniela. Occasionally whores are smuggled into the palace by the turning of a blind eye by one brother officer for another. This becomes a plot point later in the book, as does Valdas’s relationship with Aniela. But I’m getting ahead of myself, Valdas’s life changes in an instant when his king is assassinated. I’m not giving away spoilers, it happens on the first page.
Mirza is the shulam (witch-healer) of the Bakaishans, a Landstrider band of travellers. She’s loved and feared in equal measure for her ability to walk the spirit world, and her scolding tongue. She has a port wine stain on her face and neck which the band thinks is a witchmark, and the men firmly believe that if they bed her their kok and stones will shrivel and fall off. Unsurprisingly she’s a virgin, and so approaches sex as a voyage of discovery. Other issues arise further into the book and, again sex drives one aspect of the plot, but if I told you, I’d have to shoot you.
Lind is the clever assassin who worms his way into the palace kitchens as the fishmonger’s delivery man. He was a fascinating character to write. He has more hangups than a closet full of coats. Due to an appalling history of childhood abuse, he can’t bear being touched and the last thing he wants is sex. He rents a room in a whorehouse because it’s a place he feels safe. He reasons that the whores only want sex if he pays them, and since he’s not going to do that, they’ll leave him alone, which is largely true.
I try to write honestly about sex. It’s part of life and it’s part of the plot – but only part. So, what else to expect in The Amber Crown? Political machinations, strong female characters who play an active part in the story, dark magic, natural magic, a cranky horse called Donkey, a missing queen, bandits, betrayals, diverse characters (white, black, brown, straight, gay, asexual), an epic sword fight, and an unexpected villain. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
The Amber Crown is out today, Tuesday 11th January 2022, published by DAW
Do check your own preferred retailers as well
Since I’m currently writing contemporary fantasy, I’m very interested to see what other authors are doing with the genre’s themes and ideas. When I see a new novel with great cover quotes from writers whose work I enjoy, I definitely want to know more. So I’m delighted to host this post by David, and I’ll be reading the book with added insights.
My New Supernatural Thriller
David B. Coe
DeDe Mercer is a Radiant who can control other people’s thoughts, make them do what she wants. For years she’s controlled her power, keeping her secret, never using it on anyone—until the day she had no choice.
Now the government is after her, after her brother, too, because he’ll come into his power before long. The Department of Energy, the Defense Intelligence Agency, Homeland Security — they all want her, and they’re willing to do anything, hurt anyone, kill if necessary, to make her their weapon.
But DeDe has had enough. They think she’s a weapon? Fine. They’re about to find out how right they are.
That’s the jacket copy for my new supernatural thriller, Radiants, which comes out from Belle Books this coming Friday, October 15. I like the blurb — wrote it myself — and I LOVE the book. Wrote that myself, too . . .
I also recognize, though, that someone familiar with urban fantasy and speculative fiction thrillers might read this brief description with a jaded eye, thinking “mind control powers, government bad guys pursuing our hero: nothing new to see here.”
It won’t surprise you to learn that I would argue with that assessment. Radiants, and its sequel, Invasives, which will be out early next year, might be my favorites among all the books I’ve written. And they have far more to them than a jacket blurb can capture.
DeDe’s ability, as well as the various talents wielded by the community of Radiants, are powered by planetary energy systems — the dynamics that keep the earth and moon in orbit, and that maintain the earth’s rotation. Those who seek to turn DeDe’s ability to their purposes also hope to create an army of Radiants, all of them drawing on those systems. DeDe’s father, who died under odd circumstances when she was young, feared overuse of Radiant power would alter earth’s orbit and rotation, placing in peril all life on the planet.
DeDe’s decision to use her power, which sets in motion all the action in the novel, comes after a grave injustice perpetrated against her closest friend (and crush), Kyle, who is genderqueer.
And as the agents of the various agencies close in on DeDe and her brother, Miles, who will soon come into his power, they manage to kidnap DeDe’s mother, splitting their family, and driving DeDe and Miles to fight back.
An allegory for global warming. A story of gender identity and bigotry. A narrative that includes government agents resorting to the separation of families.
This novel is entertaining — filled with action, suspense, emotion — but it also touches on issues that are central to who we are as a society, a nation, and a world community.
Ultimately, however, like all good novels, Radiants is about the people who populate its pages. DeDe is strong, stubborn, whip-smart, passionate and compassionate. She starts out afraid, but proves to herself, and those around her, that she is more than the sum of her fears. She relies on her wits and her courage, and she is driven always by love — love for Kyle, love for her brother and mom, love for people who help her along the way as she seeks to thread a path to a new life, shaped inevitably by her developing supernatural abilities, but also as close as possible to the life she has known.
Again and again as I wrote her story, I was inspired by my own daughters, who are also strong and stubborn, intelligent and courageous, passionate and caring. They don’t have mind powers (at least not that I know, although they do always seem to get their way . . .) and they are both now past their teen years. But there is a lot of them in DeDe. They animate her, bringing her to life, making her leap off the page and, I hope, into your heart. There is also a lot of their dynamic with each other in DeDe’s relationship with Miles.
And I believe this is why the novel works as it does. I have found again and again throughout my career that my best stories tend to be about family — people protecting their loved ones, people in extraordinary circumstances seeking to create something akin to the families they have known. I believe — no, I am certain — that I do this because my family has been so important to my life, to my success as a writer, to my happiness.
So in the end DeDe’s story is about much more than mind control and mean government agents. It is about a planet in peril. It is about queer teens fighting for their right to live and love as they choose. It is about one amazing young woman’s determination to protect the people she loves most.
I hope you enjoy it.
Many thanks to Juliet for hosting me!
David B. Coe is the award-winning author of more than two dozen novels and as many short stories. He has written epic fantasy — including the Crawford Award-winning LonTobyn Chronicle — urban fantasy, and media tie-ins, and is now expanding into supernatural thrillers with Radiants and its sequels. In addition, he has co-edited several anthologies for the Zombies Need Brains imprint.
As D.B. Jackson, he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. He has also written the Islevale Cycle, a time travel epic fantasy series that includes Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, and Time’s Assassin
David has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford University. His books have been translated into a dozen languages. He and his family live on the Cumberland Plateau. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.
I first met Juliet as one of my tutors at a writing retreat at Moniack Mhor back in December 2016. Oh, what a glorious luxury it now seems to travel all day by train to a remote location and spend a week in face-to-face workshops with a whole group of other writers! I really hope that can become a reality again sometime soon.
Anyway, on this occasion, Juliet ran a series of excellent workshops throughout the week, in tandem with the other tutor, Pippa Goldschmidt. The theme of the week was Science Fiction and Fantasy writing, which was exactly in my wheelhouse. I remember the workshops being very inspiring and the atmosphere at the writing centre very convivial.
The most important lesson I took away from that retreat was the value of external feedback on my writing. Both tutors gave detailed comments on a piece submitted by each writer, and we also had the opportunity to share our work amongst the group to get further opinions. I’ve always struggled with identifying how to improve my writing on my own, so it was great to be able to gather fresh perspectives and utilise them to make the story I had chosen immeasurably better.
Writing can be an isolating activity and getting together with other writers to share and collaborate is always a joy.
I was at an interesting stage in my writing journey at that point. I had completed a draft of my first novel at a similar retreat the year before and was starting to focus more on writing original short stories and trying to get them published.
Reading my newly expanded and polished short story out to the group on the last night of the retreat was a daunting experience, but it was a very supportive group and the enthusiastic response I received really boosted my confidence in my writing.
I also applied the lesson about getting feedback to my novel and sent it out to a group of beta readers, as well as a professional editor, over the course of several rounds of revisions.
The confidence I gained through attending the Moniack Mhor retreat bore fruit over the next few years, as I submitted more and more short stories to various publications and started to see my writing getting accepted for publication. I’ve now had nearly 40 short stories and articles published on fiction sites and in print magazines and anthologies
And, in February 2021, my ultimate dream came true when I finally held a copy of my first novel in my hands.
The military science-fiction short story I refined at Moniack Mhor is still one of my favourites. Even though it’s been rejected by more than twenty different editors, I still have faith in it and I still keep submitting it, because I have also learned that perseverance is the key with writing. I’ve had stories accepted on the first submission and the fifteenth, and I know the perfect home for that little story is out there somewhere. I just need to keep looking until I find it.
They say three things make a post, so here goes.
Firstly, I’m involved in another Kickstarter, though in a different role this time. Prospective Press is an inclusive, pro-diversity, feminist-friendly, queer-welcoming, and #ownvoices-embracing publishing house. Jason Graves is the series editor of their Off the Beaten Path paranormal anthologies, Tales from the Old Black Ambulance, and the Concrete Dreams series of urban fantasies. Jason has invited me to write a foreword to the next Concrete Dreams anthology – Fiendish and the Divine. These stories will explore the intersections of what we think we know and what is undiscovered, the prejudices of the past and the startling newness of fresh perspectives. In these pages, you will meet gods, real and imagined; dragons of air and earth; beings alien to our world, with indecipherable intent; and monsters, some human, some not…
Secondly, I’ve mentioned a few times this year that I’ve written a novella for a shared world project. Now all can be revealed! So far Adrian Tchaikovsky and Justina Robson have each written a novel for Rebellion Publishing, set in a fantasy realm that’s recently seen a dark lord overthrown. The series title is After The War, and the novels so far are Redemption’s Blade, and After the Fire. Now there are The Tales of Catt and Fisher, a collection of four novellas by me, Adrian, Freda Warrington and K T Davies, to be published on 3rd December 2020. These two characters from the novels are scholars, shopkeepers, collectors, obtainers of rare antiquities … who can’t resist a lead, even when it takes them into terrible danger. There’s always an opportunity to be found amid the confusion, in the wake of the terrible Kinslayer War. There’s always a deal to be done, a tomb to open, a precious thing to… obtain.
This project was a lot of fun to write for, and I really enjoyed getting back to some epic fantasy. There was plenty of leeway for inventing new aspects and elements to expand on the existing scenario created by Adrian and Justina. Reading the books have already written in this world, I found a handful of lines here and there which added up to something very interesting indeed, when I summoned up my inner GM…
Third and last, but by no means least, I’ve written a guest blog post for my good friend and fine writer, Sarah Ash. I’ve been thinking a lot about mythology lately, and our relationships with folklore, old and new. We had a particularly interesting discussion about these things online at this year’s Octocon, so I welcomed the opportunity to explore this in an article.
So that’s all the latest from me. Have a good weekend!
I’m reviewing Starborn, first volume of The Worldmaker Trilogy, for my next Albedo One column, and with the final book out in December, this seems an ideal time for a guest post from Lucy.
Upon discovering Tolkien at 14 years old, I knew I would lose my heart to fantasy. Some months and several authors later, I realised I wanted to write for a living. I’d been at drama school for six years, but decided to drop it all in favour of locking myself away with a notebook, computer and a handful of ideas, which I hoped to fashion into a story. The authors I read as a teen are considered giants of the genre: Brooks, Goodkind, Pratchett, Jordan, Eddings, Garner – to name just a few. They were also overwhelmingly male. I didn’t know it then, but this fact and the implications it carried, would have a profound effect on my own writing.
Constructing an epic fantasy can seem a herculean task. The temptation when starting out is to create a ‘world bible’ – an encyclopaedia of a world’s society, religion, customs and culture. While this works for some authors, I’ve taken a more organic approach, letting the characters discover the world as they go. It means I’m not tempted to cram in a lot of omniscient information my characters couldn’t possibly know and it prevents the worldbuilding getting in the way of the story. I also like to consider each chapter a mini story in itself, which I can then link together once I have the whole thing down. Otherwise the sheer number of words left to write feels insurmountable.
I suppose some might call The Worldmaker Trilogy heroic rather than epic; at 130,000 words a book, it’s hardly the largest fantasy ever written. But it owes a debt to one of the most famous epics, The Wheel of Time, which I discovered at the impressionable age of 17. I loved the sweeping sense of history in Jordan’s series, the personal stories played out against a backdrop of turmoil. It’s this fight against unknowable hostile forces – a reflection of our own grappling with the things beyond our control – that I found so compelling. It’s what fantasy does best.
However, there’s no getting away from the fact that the predominantly male-authored epics I so enjoyed as a teenager are problematic. As a genre built on archetypes, fantasy is particularly vulnerable to becoming stuck in a loop of restrictive thinking. Archetypes aren’t negative in and of themselves – they’re universal patterns of behaviour. But they do provide a framework on which to hang stereotypes, and it’s stereotypes that have the potential to damage. Fantasy is inherently nostalgic, often bent on recreating a lost world somehow better than the one we have now. This can lead to a sort of homogenised pseudo-past, in which we romanticise aspects of society that a. weren’t great and b. weren’t true. The European Medievalist world popularised by Tolkien is especially guilty of this and is so over-used that it now comes with its own predetermined settings, the most worrying of which are racial stereotypes, a lack of female agency and misrepresentation of the LGBTQ communities.
Growing up under the auspices of traditional western fantasy, it took me a full draft to realise I’d inherited some of these problematic stereotypes and copied others, notably the heroic male’s journey. The genre is saturated with the whole boy becomes a man narrative, which relegates women to the side-lines. I had made a subconscious decision to follow suit and the first incarnation of Starborn featured a male protagonist. Realising I could write an epic fantasy with a woman at its heart was part revelation, part no brainer. I’ve spoken a little about the process of switching Kyndra’s gender here.
Although it’s a decision I’m glad I made, that doesn’t mean to say I threw out every trope. After all, my trilogy is in large part an ode to old favourites like Dragonlance and The Belgariad. But they and their contemporaries are very much products of their time, a time we no longer live in. Speculative fiction should be a progressive genre and even backward-looking fantasy must adapt and change to survive. So I’ve kept recognisable tropes, choosing to reinvent instead of abandon. My chosen one is no shining knight, or noble-hearted farm boy, but a flawed young woman who steers her own destiny, sometimes poorly. The autocratic empire brings technological benefits at the price of cultural oppression. One man’s heroism is another man’s tyranny. Overall, I’m trying to show that there are two sides to every story and that evil lies in actions, not ideology.
Dyed-in-the-wool tropes also extend to gender. I’ve kept the love triangle, but reversed the usual roles, putting a man between two women. An older man manipulates a younger man instead of the traditional younger woman. Because my world is not patriarchal, women aren’t excluded from male-associated professions like smithing, engineering, the military and the merchant elite. There is so much more to explore when it comes to gender, sexual identity and societal roles; I’ve barely scratched the surface, acknowledging my own biases and inherited opinion in the process. Now, more so than ever before, we need to be aware of these concerns, to equip ourselves to better address them in our writing, so that they may be discussed openly without fear of censure or harassment.
I’ve grown up on a diet of blokes-in-cloaks fantasy – a feature publishing defends with remarkable tenacity given how much of it is out there and how tiring it is to pick up yet another testosterone-fuelled epic. But fantasy is still growing in popularity and the grimdark arena of Game of Thrones is no longer its sole setting. From scarred dystopian landscapes to the intrigues of faerie courts, young adult fantasy can offer a pacier, character-driven alternative. However, the twin rise of grimdark and YA has left an odd and unexpected gap in the market, making it tricky to find adult fantasy of the kind that helped birth the genre, fantasy in the vein of Le Guin, of Canavan, of McKillip and Hobb: fantasy that serves as a graduation of sorts from YA into adult, where the camera zooms out and world events play a more central role. ‘New adult’ is a term that never really took off, but I see it as an essential bridge between these two extremes. Focusing on character and storytelling, but without the brutal nihilism that distinguishes grimdark, this is where I’d like to think my trilogy sits.
Meeting Jeanette at Nerd East in Durham, I found her great company and really interesting to talk to. Accordingly, I kept an eye out for her debut novel, now released. In Under the Pendulum Sun, Catherine Helstone’s brother, Laon, has disappeared in Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae. Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey, but once there, she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister house of Gethsemane. At last there comes news: her beloved brother is riding to be reunited with her soon – but the Queen of the Fae and her insane court are hard on his heels.
One thing that particularly interested me about this premise was this depiction of Faerie alongside Victorian England, since that was the very era when fairies were denatured from Shakespeare’s eerie menace to sickly-sweet little things dressed as flowers. So, I asked, what prompted her to write a book set in that period?
What Drew Jeannette to the Victorian Era
Under the Pendulum Sun began very Victorian. I had picked up a Victorian missionary manual from the university library and as we started reading it in my living room. Having no television, our evening entertainment occasionally involved reading things aloud to each other and discussing the texts afterwards. It was from those discussions that I had thoughts of “what if they met beings actually as alien and as strange as they describe in these books?”
I had then toyed with basing it in other eras of missionary work. It was at the ruins of St Paul in Macau that I thought of the conviction of their early missionaries and martyrs. They set sail without sparing a single moment and it was only after they arrived that they wrote to the pope to ask for “permission”. I also read about the lonely Bishop of Beijing and Kublai Khan’s request of a hundred priests to come to teach Christianity to his empire. In the end, only two friars braved the journey and even then, they did not finish it. I was also very familiar with the rapid conversion urged on by apocalyptic fears around the year 1000 in Northern Europe. There are undoubtedly stories there still, waiting to be told.
But none of it felt quite right, for all that I was more familiar with the historical eras. I wrote a great many false starts and I kept coming back to the passages that first inspired the project. I wanted to use them and recontextualise their words and with that I was locked in. There is also something very pleasing about it being Victorians meeting horrid fae since it is also the same era that is largely responsible for popularising very twee and tiny fairies.
I chose the year 1847 because it was the year Jane Eyre was published  and I was drawing so very much from the life and work of the Brontës. For all that Jane did not go with St John Rivers to India, Charlotte Brontë clearly greatly admired the work of a missionary. She wrote a poem titled The Missionary, which was one of the axed chapter epigraphs:
“Though such blood-drops should fall from me
As fell in old Gethsemane,
Welcome the anguish, so it gave
More strength to work≠more skill to save.”
Thinking back, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were some of first “adult” novels I read. I still remember carrying around Jane Eyre with an absolutely massive dictionary, looking up all the words I didn’t know in it. And there were very many. My little notebook of vocabulary was absolutely full by the end.
That memory is what gave birth to the dedication of Under the Pendulum Sun. I grew up reading the Brontës and they remain to me, and are still to many, part of that esteemed Western Canon. I see literature as a culture conversing with itself, rewriting and revisiting stories of the past. I’ve loved Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Jasper Fforde’s Eyre Affair, to name but a few of the Brontës’ literary descendants. I wanted Under the Pendulum Sun to be, on some level, part of that pantheon. It is me placing my own apocrypha among the stories of my childhood, a metaphor that is itself a theme within the text itself.
My approach to writing the half-real owes also quite a lot to Jorge Luis Borges, whose literary forgeries made a deep mark on my teenage mind. I adored his reviews of nonexistent books, translations of fictional texts and mostly true biographies of real historical people. He would use facts and details of our world that are just absurd enough to be false (or at least seem false) as a bridge into the fantastical. Having myself a magpie mind that loves historical trivia, they all became natural hooks to pull me into the story.
Which all makes my approach a little different from steampunk, a genre that has now come to be synonymous with Victorian fantasy. Under the Pendulum Sun has been tagged as such in its brief life and I have no real objection to such labelling, people use these words to help them navigate the wilds of fiction. Being of a rather academic background, I do see the driving impulse of steampunk being that so-called Victorian optimism at the future of technology. It is where steam power provides the sense wonder instead of magic. All of which is rather absent from Under the Pendulum Sun.
I am, of course, not without precedents. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a beautiful novel with strange fae written in a distinctly Victorian voice. Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to The Crown also gloriously deals with faeries and themes of colonialism, but in dramatically different fashion to myself. Mary Robinette Kowel’s Shades of Milk and Honey rather famously uses only words Jane Austen herself used to tell a restrained tale of domestic Regency magic. Marie Brennan’s Natural History of Dragons is set in secondary world but has both a very Victorian voice and a genteel lady explorer. All of which I sincerely and absolutely recommend.
 I always loved this story as it seems to highlight how the Great Khan simply thought on a whole different scale to the leaders in Europe.
 It became a sort of memory aid for me. I’d forget when my book was set and would look up when Jane Eyre was published. For a historian, I am really appallingly bad at dates.
 I never did read another book that way, looking up words as I go. I was taught the magical trick of just ignoring it and letting myself be pulled in by the story.
Jeannette Ng is originally from Hong Kong but now lives in Durham, UK. Her MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies fed into an interest in medieval and missionary theology, which in turn spawned her love for writing gothic fantasy with a theological twist. She runs live roleplay games and is active within the costuming community, running a popular blog.
I’ve always loved reading fantasy books, and a huge part of the attraction has always been the settings for these stories. The rolling hills and woodlands of Narnia. The peaks and valleys in Cinda Williams Chima’s Seven Realms series. The rugged, empty beauty of the plains and mountains in Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy. All of these and many more come to mind, sometimes brought to life on a movie screen, other times allowed to bloom unhindered within my imagination.
A story’s setting determines a lot about the direction the tale will take. Choosing to toss your characters into a scorching desert – or a howling hurricane at sea – means opting for a specific approach to the narrative. Climate and season are an intrinsic part of this choice.
When I first heard about the Journeys anthology from Woodbridge Press, I immediately knew I wanted to write something set in winter. I’d recently seen The Revenant and, all things bear-related aside, I was fascinated by the way the movie uses the snow and cold as a protagonist in the story. It had been a while since I’d read or watched a tale where the setting is such a huge part of things: almost a sentient character in its own right, and not merely a backdrop to the events taking place.
I moved to suburban Connecticut three years ago, after spending almost my entire life in the sub-tropical, big city sprawl of São Paulo, Brazil. In São Paulo, seasonal planning means figuring out new routes to escape the traffic snarls during the summer rainstorms that periodically flood parts of the city and make everyone’s life a very damp nightmare. Suddenly, here I was in New England, stocking up on ice melt and bottled water, and reading endless articles on correct winter prep in the face of incoming snowstorms. Different is an understatement.
(Today, as I huddle over my laptop writing this, we’ve already had eight inches of fresh snow since last night and more is falling relentlessly. And ‘thunder snow’? Is a thing, apparently.)
I wanted my story for Journeys to reflect some of the challenges that living through a cold winter presents. Not the temporary snow-sun-sparkles joy of a ski trip or mountain holiday, where you can quickly shake off the shivers in front of a log fire with a mug of something warm, and then fly home when you’ve had enough. But the bone-deep chill of day after day of cold weather, and the ‘absolutely done with it’ feeling you get when March rolls around, and there’s still an entire iceberg of snow plow leftovers sitting in your driveway, big enough to sink a cruise ship or two.
Winter, with a capital W, in all its blazing, white, complicated, wet, nasty glory.
So now I had my setting. I had the feel I wanted to capture – trudging through snow, cold hands, cold face, and warm breath that quickly turns to ice when it condenses against your scarf. All I needed was a cast of slightly shady characters (because let’s face it, you’re not going to be out travelling in the middle of winter unless you’re deeply motivated!), and a somewhat stabby little plot to move them forward. Everything in position? Ready, set, frostbite.
Juliana Spink Mills is the author of the short story Fool’s Quest in the Journeys anthology, as well as the YA urban fantasy novel Heart Blade, Book 1 of the Blade Hunt Chronicles (Woodbridge Press, February 2017).
“I blog about a variety of incredibly random and not very serious things at www.jspinkmills.com, and you can find me on Twitter as @JSpinkMills.”
One of the many interesting things about writing for an anthology is encountering new-to-me authors’ work, and thanks to the wonders of the Internet, getting to know those authors themselves. Here are some interesting thoughts and observations from Dan Jones on his own path to having a story in the new Journeys anthology.
Dan Jones on his “Journeys” story – and the importance of the one before that…
When Woodbridge Press announced their open call for their forthcoming fantasy anthology Journeys, back in Spring 2016, I was immediately hooked. A stellar line-up had already been secured, including such illuminaries of the genre as Julia Knight, Adrian Tchaikovsky, John Gwynne and Gail Z. Martin – not to mention our esteemed editor Teresa Edgerton – and so I decided I would apply.
My successful submission to Journeys capped off an interesting learning experience: I had just come off the back of a rejection from Woodbridge for their previous call for submissions for the excellent Explorations: First Contact, for which I’d submitted a short story that was ultimately rejected for being not mainstream enough for the collection.
It’s highly tempting for us writers to sometimes get lost in our art, to spend so long considering the deep thematic resonance, the recurring motifs, the profound messages that occasionally we forget such fundamentals as a compelling plot and interesting characters; I am definitely guilty of sometimes getting a bit overexcited about form and structure, and it came back to bite me with that particular rejection.
For the next call, I cast aside my pretences, and for Journeys I decided to write a simple, rollicking adventure story, and it got accepted. It’s a worthwhile thing to remember: know your audience, write for your audience, and keep it simple.
Well, at least start simple, and then add the flourishes when you have the basics in place. My Journeys story, A Warm Heart, started with a very simple premise; a world-weary assassin-in-training, Tarqvist, is unwillingly joined by an unexpected companion on his first assignment, a wise-cracking, annoying and arrogant young girl he calls Nobody. From this simple set-up almost anything is possible, and it was liberating to consider all the fun things, like theme and structure, once the initial foundations were sound.
Conversely, if I think back to the story that was rejected for Explorations, I was more interested in establishing the structure first – a non-linear sequence of dream-like scenarios – and only applied plot and character afterwards, and it must have showed. It’s a well-known trope among writers that there really are only a small and finite number of plots (Christopher Booker famously posited that there are in fact only seven), so it stands to reason that establishing your plot (and the characters who will travel along that plotline) should be the first thing to get right before one starts dabbling in the trickier arts of form, structure and theme.
I’m super grateful for that rejection, as it taught me a valuable lesson and helped shape the story that now sits inside this superb collection of stories and authors, which I’m proud and exhilarated to be a part of. What’s more, it’s one of a handful of books I’ll be having published this year, including my debut novel, Man O’War, to be published by Snowbooks in October, so it’s a grand start to the year for me personally.
It’s fitting that the theme for the collection is Journeys, as I feel as though I’ve been on my own mini-quest in getting here, just as have all the other authors, I’m sure. We’re all journeymen in this business, you know.
Dan Jones is a science fiction and fantasy writer, but when not writing he works for the UK Space Agency on a space robotics technology programme, which comes in rather handy for coming up with new story ideas. His debut novel, Man O’War, will be published in October 2017 by Snowbooks.
When she graciously invited me to visit on her blog, Juliet expressed some frustration over the problem of words—specifically, genuine, specific and appropriate words that we’re just not allowed to use, or must work in very carefully. She invited me to comment on the problem of words. Not long ago, working my way through my editor’s notes on Elisha Mancer, this month’s release in The Dark Apostle series, I encountered first hand the difficulty of words. Words are, in a novel, the primary tool for delivering the story. In a historical novel, they take on a special significance because selecting an appropriate word for the historical context can really make the sentence spark and the work feel right. And selecting the wrong word will annoy readers in tune with the history.
Which brings me to the problem of plagues. The Biblical plagues of Egypt, for instance. In modern parlance, “plague” retains a similar sense: a plague is, as the OED puts it, “an affliction, calamity, evil, scourge” (a plague of locusts, a plague of survey callers, etc.) But many readers of medievally set historical fiction immediately leap to a single meaning of the word, which came into use around 1382 to refer to a pestilence affecting man and beast. And “the plague” wasn’t conceived as a specific entity until the 1540’s. But basically, I can’t use the word in its historically accurate sense.
My difficulty with language then versus now doesn’t end with the plague. There is also the problem of things being lost in translation. Saints, that is. While we now use the word “translate” to refer exclusively to taking words or ideas from one language into another (sometimes metaphorically), the origin of the term is actually the transfer of a religious figure from one location to another, as a bishop who moves to a different see, or, more frequently, a saint or saint’s remains taken to a different church. It is this idea of holiness being moved or removed which brought the word to its present meaning, because the most work common work translated was the Bible itself.
“Broadcast” is another interesting example. Nowadays, we are used to “broadcast” news, a television or radio phenomenon by which information is shared. It’s actually a farming term, referring to the sowing of seeds by hand over a large area–the literal casting of the seed in a wide dispersal. But most readers, finding the word in a medieval historical context would leap to entirely the wrong impression, thinking I am using an anachronism. And so, rather than submit to a plague of criticism, I had to use something less historically appropriate, but more suitable to a contemporary audience.
This problem of words first arose in Elisha Barber, volume one of the series, when I referred to someone as a “blackguard,” a useage which can’t be traced to before the 16th century (my editor has an OED also, which is both blessing and curse). I ended up changing the insult to “chattering churl,” which not only employs a 14th century jibe, but adds to it the tendency to use alliterative insults from the same time period. Stretching for the historically appropriate choice actually resulted in an even more historical put-down.
As you can see, there are multiple layers to this dilemma. Is the word historically accurate? Will my readers understand it? Does it have contemporary implications that were not present in the period, but will complicate or undermine my intended meaning?
My series is based around medieval medicine, and surgery in particular, requiring some amount of period jargon appropriate to the profession. In this case, I rely strongly on context to invest the reader in the words. Sometimes, I can use the reaction of another character—their horror or confusion providing an innocent to whom the word can be explained. Sometimes, the meaning becomes clear as the action proceeds, and sometimes, the specific meaning is less important than that the new word becomes part of the framework of history on which the tale is woven.
In book 3, Elisha Rex, one of my characters undergoes trepanation, an infamous medieval operation to ease a compressed skull fracture. Success rates were actually quite good, but most people rightly view with dread the idea that someone will cut a hole in their head. When that someone is a 14th century surgeon without recourse to anasthesia or antiseptic, the horror increases. The patient in the book is asked if he understands what will happen during the operation, and he replies, “Shave the scalp, make a cruciform incision, perforate, reginate, elevate.” My editor didn’t know what “reginate” means—I expect most readers don’t either–but the fact that it follows cutting open someone’s scalp, then the word “perforate” makes that unknown word all the more sinister.
In this case, I didn’t explain all of the unfamiliar terms surrounding the operation. Part of our fear of doctors stems from the fact that we don’t always understand what they say, yet we also know we need to trust them. We submit ourselves in part because of their professional demeanor, and jargon in this case is both symbolic of the doctor’s training, and of our own helplessness beneath the blade. Those mixed emotions of trust and dread link the reader’s experience with that of the character and, I hope, create a compelling scene—because of the right word, in the right place and time.
Want to know more? For sample chapters, historical research and some nifty extras, like a scroll-over image describing the medical tools on the cover of Elisha Barber, visit www.TheDarkApostle.com
With a week away now in sight at the end of the month, I’m stockpiling holiday reading. One book I’m very much looking forward to is Gaie Sebold’s ‘Shanghai Sparrow’. I really enjoyed her Babylon Steel books – an entertaining and intelligently different take on epic fantasy. So it’s going to be fascinating to see what she does with the themes and ideas of Steampunk and I’ve invited her to share some thoughts on the book here. Over to Gaie.
When I started writing Shanghai Sparrow, the first book in the Gears of Empire series, I knew I wanted to write about the grimy, smelly, exploitative underside of the Victorian period. This may have been at least partly in response to a certain writer’s remark about Steampunk being ‘fascism for nice people,’ which, as a longstanding Leftie, I regarded as…well, more of a challenge than anything.
So my heroine, while originally from the most respectable of backgrounds, ends up surviving on the streets of London under the kind of circumstances that inspired Thomas Barnardo to set up his children’s homes. Evvie, however, did not meet Thomas Barnardo. She met Ma Pether, a woman who runs a group of female pickpockets, fraudsters and breakers-and-enterers.
I wasn’t expecting Ma. She created herself on the page, striding in, pipe asmoke, fidgeting dangerously with explosive mechanisms and creating bizarre aphorisms. She turned out to be a lot of fun to write. Almost too much fun – it was difficult to stop her taking over every chapter in which she appeared.
The same could be said to apply to the villainous Bartholomew Simms – though unlike Ma, he can’t really be said to have any redeeming features. At all. A thoroughly nasty, dangerous, sly, violent and brutal man – but with a certain style and turn of phrase that makes me look forward to writing him.
And then there’s Evvie herself – who occasionally aims for respectability but just isn’t terribly good at it. She’s too good at being bad, too good at fraud, deception, and thievery.
But she is the heroine. She has moral boundaries and dilemmas, she has struggles with her conscience. Just not always, perhaps, the same ones that most of us might have when faced with whether or not to nick something or rip someone off.
Yet she’s most fun to write, in some ways, when she’s just enjoying being good at what she does best – being a trickster and a thief.
And therein lies the question. Why are villains such fun to write? What is the appeal of going outside the moral boundaries within which I live quite happily most of the time in the real world?
I’m talking about my own personal moral boundaries, of course, which while they are going to overlap with many people’s are not always going to be identical. But I don’t steal, or commit fraud, or act violently to others. I don’t, as a general rule, want to. I fear the consequences, yes, but also, I don’t want to be a con-artist, a fraudster, a murderer. In real terms these are people who damage lives or end them, and I don’t want to do that.
And yet, on the page … it’s so damn much fun writing people who don’t have those boundaries. People who say those things, and do those things, and (sometimes) get away with it. But the point isn’t necessarily whether they get away with it in the long run – the fun part is that they get to say it and do it right now, right there, before our very eyes!
Some of it, certainly, is a form of wish fulfilment. I’d sometimes like to treat the law like the ass it occasionally, indisputably is. I’d often like to be able to turn the tables on our Lords and Masters, who rip off whole societies, whole countries, by outdoing them at their own game of fraud, deception and theft, but with a fraction of the resources and ten times the wits.
I might not want to murder, but I would like to be that bold, that scary, that tough. Especially when the vicious and violent of the world are making me feel threatened, I’d like, for once, to be the one who has conversations fall silent and glasses slip from trembling fingers when I enter the room, to be able to quell would-be opponents with a glance, to have my reputation go before me as someone not to be messed with.
I’d like the power that comes with going outside the legal and moral boundaries. But since I’m not going to do that, I have to find another way. And until the world becomes a place where (all questions of hard work and persistence aside), being nice and obedient and lawful is the best way for a woman to get respect, I guess I’ll keep on living vicariously through my villains, and enjoying every moment of it.
Gaie Sebold was born some time ago, and is gradually acquiring a fine antique patina. She has written several novels, a number of short stories, and has been known to perform poetry. Her debut novel introduced brothel-owning ex-avatar of sex and war, Babylon Steel (Solaris, 2012); the sequel, Dangerous Gifts, came out in 2013. Shanghai Sparrow, a steampunk fantasy, came out in 2014 and the sequel, Sparrow Falling, in 2016. Her jobs have ranged from till-extension to bottle-washer and theatre-tour-manager to charity administrator. She lives with writer David Gullen and a paranoid cat in leafy suburbia, runs writing workshops, grows vegetables, and cooks a pretty good borscht.
Her website is www.gaiesebold.com and you can find her on twitter @GaieSebold.