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