While I’ve been visiting my parents, I’ve been making the occasional pie. The first night, I made a key lime pie and my youngest niece, who had never experienced one, fell in love with it. Not surprising. So, I made one the next week. It is one of the easiest pies to make, and people rave over it.
And then I spotted key limes at the grocery store.
I’d been using Key Lime juice and wondered how much of a difference using fresh limes would make. I knew it would be different, but would it be the sort of difference that only a foodie notices, or would it be apparent to everyone. So last night my dad and I juiced a pound of key limes. By hand.
At this point, I figured, if I were going to go to all that trouble, I should really make the pie from scratch and skip the sweetened condensed milk. I hit google to find out how people made key lime pie before sweetened condensed milk and… discovered that they didn’t. To my surprise, it’s been around since the 1850s. According to David L. Sloan, leading expert on key lime pies, “This pie was invented to use condensed milk. William Curry made his fortune in hardware. He provisioned ships. He brought the first condensed milk to the Keys not long after Gail Borden invented it in 1856.”
Huh. So! Without regret, I cracked open my sweetened condensed milk and got to work.
The first thing you notice about fresh key lime juice is that it has a floral character that the bottled stuff doesn’t have. Does that show up in the pie? Yes, it does. It is has fuller, more floral taste and even my dad noticed the difference. Next up? Lemon ice box pie, and I’ll be squeezing the lemons.
2 (14-ounce) cans sweetened condensed milk
1 cup key lime or regular lime juice
2 whole large eggs
In a bowl, whisk the condensed milk, lime juice, and eggs. Pour into graham cracker pie shell. Bake at 325 degrees for 15 minutes. Chill for two or more hours.
Stephanie A. Cain is joining us today with her novel Stormseer. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The kingdoms of Tamnen and Strid have been at war for decades. Princess Azmei of Tamnen left her family for a treaty marriage to end that war–but an assassin’s blade destroyed her plans. Protected by her presumed death, Azmei hunts the person trying to destroy her family.
Commander Hawk of the Tamnese army was captured by the Strid after being left for dead on the battlefield. After years as a prisoner of war, he is finally ransomed–only to find he has no place left in the world. His parents are dead and his command has long since been given to another. At loose ends, he agrees to an undertaking for the crown–seek out the truth about Princess Azmei’s killer.
Yarro Perslyn has been captive to the Voices in his head for most of his short life. The only family who ever cared for him was his sister Orya, and she disappeared. Now the mysterious Voices in his head are saying something new. They are real, and they want Yarro to free them.
Princess, prisoner, and prophet collide in the embattled region between the two kingdoms. But will they be in time to prevent more death, or will the rising storm break them all?
What’s Stephanie’s favorite bit?
STEPHANIE A. CAIN
I actually can’t tell you my favorite favorite bit about Stormseer, because it would be a major spoiler–the truth of who/what the Voices actually are. So today I’m going to talk about my second favorite bit, instead. It’s closely tied to my favorite favorite bit, so don’t worry, I’m not cheating you!
My second favorite bit about Stormseer is the character of Yarro Perslyn. While Stormseer continues the story begun in Stormshadow about Princess Azmei of Tamnen, the character who undergoes the most transformation is Yarro. And it’s his fault I wrote this novel in the first place.
Yarro is mentioned a couple of times in Stormshadow by his sister, and from the first time I wrote his name, I knew I was going to need a whole book about him. He’s a young man trapped inside his own head, prisoner to mysterious Voices who provide commentary on the world they see through his eyes. The Voices have their own personalities, and Yarro is pretty sure they’re real, even though he knows “normal people” don’t hear Voices in their heads or lose hours to watching visions.
Yar’s family doesn’t understand him, but that’s not entirely bad. His grandfather is the Patriarch of a family of assassins, and if he knew about the Voices, he would make Yar use them to hurt people. One of Yar’s brothers, in a rare moment of honesty, admits that in a different family, Yar would have been given help dealing with the Voices.
The Voices like to have a part in Yar’s conversations, and I had a lot of fun writing their commentary. Sometimes they distract him, but sometimes they help him out with valuable advice. Here’s a conversation early in the book where they speak their opinions of the Patriarch:
“What are you thinking inside that locked up head of yours, I wonder,” his grandfather said. “I think your brothers underestimate you. Your sister never did.” Suddenly the old man’s face was very close to his, iron fingers seizing his chin in a vise-like grip. “What do you know of Orya’s plans, Yarro? Tell me! I am your Patriarch!” A fleck of spit hit Yarro’s lips.
EAT HIM. BLIND HIM. LICK HIS EYEBALLS. Yar shuddered. He didn’t really like that one. That Voice was always hungry, and if Rith brought out that Voice’s temper, Yar’s grandfather brought out its cruelty.
“Tell me!” His grandfather shook him so hard Yar’s neck ached. “What did she tell you before she left?”
LIE TO HIM, whispered another Voice. It was sly, more subtle than the first. THE PATRIARCH WILL USE YOU IF HE KNOWS THE TRUTH. Yar blinked up at his grandfather. His lips were mushed together by the old man’s grip, but he still said, “Goodbye.”
Evidently his grandfather understood, for he shoved Yar away, letting go of his chin and making Yar stumble backwards.
BE INNOCENT. BE FOOLISH, said the second Voice, and Yar let himself fall down.
Underestimate me, he thought at his grandfather. An image of a dove fighting a serpent flashed before his eyes. His jaw went slack as he stared, rapt, at it. That was what he wished to be. A dove.
“Fool. Worthless fool.” The old man’s voice dripped contempt. Yar didn’t care. He stared at the dove as it flapped its wings. Its beak was closed on the serpent’s head. Yar wondered if it would win. How could it? Doves were peaceful birds. But if they were attacked, they would fight back. Anything would fight back when it was attacked.
Yar knows he isn’t like other people, but then again, his destiny isn’t much like other people’s, either. The Voices are much, much more than Yar’s imaginary companions. And I can’t wait for readers to find out, along with Yar, who and what they actually are.
Stephanie A. Cain writes epic & urban fantasy. She is the author of Stormsinger, Stormshadow, Stormseer, and Sow the Wind. She grew up in Indiana, where much of her (so far unpublished) urban fantasy is set.
She works at a small museum in Crawfordsville, Indiana, doing historical research, giving tours of a Victorian man-cave, and serving as a one-woman IT department. A proud crazy cat lady, she is happily owned by Eowyn, Strider, and Eustace Clarence Scrubb.
In her free time, she enjoys hiking (except for the inevitable spider encounters), bird-watching, reading, and playing World of Warcraft and Skyrim. She enjoys organizing things and visits office supply stores for fun. She owns way more D20s, movie scores, and fountain pens than she can actually afford.
Hey Los Angeles! Here is a really rare opportunity to see me performing live puppetry. There’s a ton of brilliant puppeteers in LA and some of us are getting together for a Puppet Slam.
Ninja Puppet Productions presents the LA Puppet Slam Shenaniganza! What is a Puppet Slam you ask? Good freakin’ question! A puppet slam is a thousand year old tradition of puppeteers from all disciplines getting together and making puppets do dirty thing.It’s puppet sketch comedy at it’s finest. The show features professional puppeteers whose talent has been showcased on the stage and screen for all ages, but on this night, it’s adults only.Ticket prices are $8. Online ticketing purchase available so
Zachary Jernigan is joining us today with his novel Shower of Stones. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The follow-up to Zachary Jernigan’s critically-acclaimed literary debut No Return.
At the moment of his greatest victory, before a crowd of thousands, the warrior Vedas Tezul renounced his faith, calling for revolt against the god Adrash, imploring mankind to unite in this struggle.
Good intentions count for nothing. In the three months since his sacrilegious pronouncement, the world has not changed for the better. In fact, it is now on the verge of dying. The Needle hangs broken in orbit above Jeroun, each of its massive iron spheres poised to fall and blanket the planet’s surface in dust. Long-held truces between Adrashi and Anadrashi break apart as panic spreads.
With no allegiance to either side, the disgraced soldier Churls walks into the divided city of Danoor with a simple plan: murder the monster named Fesuy Amendja, and retrieve from captivity the only two individuals that still matter to her—Vedas Tezul, and the constructed man Berun. The simple plan goes awry, as simple plans do, and in the process Churls and her companions are introduced to one of the world’s deepest secrets: A madman, insisting he is the link to an ancient world, offering the most tempting lie of all… Hope.
Concluding the visceral, inventive narrative begun in No Return, Shower of Stones pits men against gods and swords against civilization-destroying magic in the fascinatingly harsh world of Jeroun.
What’s Zachary’s favorite bit?
The funny thing, though? I don’t even like fight scenes all that much. I’m usually bored, hoping that the narrative quickly moves back to the relationships. I feel like most action scenes overstay their welcome. While everyone else is riveted to their seats during a shootout, or gripping their Kindles during a sword fight, I’m usually yawning. It’s not that the scenes are badly done, by any means; I’m just not the audience for them. I don’t even get much out of UFC fights.
So, why the hell would my favorite parts of Shower of Stones be the violent bits? Well, it’s got something to do with the fact that, being that I don’t really like such content, I nonetheless managed to write scenes of violence that excite me. After getting my contributor copies of the book a few days ago, I did as any jubilant writer would do and went back to reread some of what was now in print. I was overjoyed to find that the violent parts still made me grin. They still painted images on my mind’s eye, just like I was remembering a film.
(In case you think this sounds awfully braggy, note that I very rarely like what I’m writing. To me, it’s all just one big pile of clumsiness. Any occasion to say, “Hey, this ain’t so bad!” is an occasion for joy.)
But, thinking about this, I wonder — what did I do right this time round? I mean, I liked the fighting scenes in No Return, particularly the ones where I got to showcase some really crazy magical abilities or skull-cracking punches (or, even better, a combination of the two), but somehow they were overshadowed by other factors. I think, in Shower of Stones, I managed to be more efficient with my descriptions, increasing the tempo substantially:
They tried to pull free, but quickly realize their struggles were useless. The bowmen dropped their bows and reached for their swords. The remaining mage stopped his efforts entirely and raised his chin in defiance. Evurt crossed the remaining distance to them, swatted two of the warriors’ blades away, and took the third. Decapitating all three with such skill that each toppled gracefully sideways, he caused the mage to be drenched in blood.
He reached out and slowly, inexorably, pried the staff from the mage’s hands. He broke the weapon over his knee, causing a brief flare of sparks to erupt from its lit end. He thrust the jagged ends of the mage’s own staff into the meat below the man’s clavicles, carrying him to the ground to the sound of both ankles snapping, impaling his shuddering body upon the sun-baked dirt. The mage screamed until his voice ran out, and then screamed some more. Evurt cocked his head almost curiously, and then tore the man’s lower jaw off, silencing the cries to a bubbling exhalation.
It may not be to everyone’s taste, how it’s written — and Lord knows it’s ridiculously violent, even cartoonish — but I love how Zack-from-over-a-year-ago didn’t linger on any one description. If I can be charitable to myself (never an easy task), I’d say that the above at once sensationalizes violence and refuses to romanticize it. I do hate it when violence is cozy, too easy for both the characters and the reader. More than anything, I hate it when violence is reduced to coolness: Oh, wow, that was neat!
Even when an opponent is dispatched with ease, as Evurt does above, violence should have an element of horror to it. No one could do as Evurt does, but what if they could? What if the mind behind the actions viewed it with complete dispassion?
I’m glad that — for me, at least — I was occasionally able to convey violence without any sentimentality. Not only because the subject of violence deserves to be treated respectfully, with more thought than “it’d be cool to rip a guy’s jaw off, bro!” but also because violence is one of the last things to be sentimental about. We live in a society that has, to some extent, bleached the horror right out of horrific acts, and I don’t want to be a part of it.
Of course, this is my interpretation. The whole point of My Favorite Bit is for the author to look at what they love in what they did. Perhaps I am being too charitable to myself. What seems to hold some depth for me may just appear shallow to someone else.
And that, in and of itself, is cool. I hope readers pick up Shower of Stones and have myriad reactions. More than anything, though, I hope they find at least one thing to love — even if it’s not the thing I love all that much.
Zachary Jernigan’s debut novel, No Return, is a science-fantasy story filled with sex, violence, religion, and muscular people in weird skintight costumes living on a world where god exists and is very upset. A hardcover edition came out from Night Shade Books in 2013, followed by a paperback edition the following year. The AV Club listed No Return as one of the best books of the year. The sequel and conclusion to No Return, Shower of Stones, is out now in hardcover from Night Shade Books. Publishers Weekly praised the new novel, saying, “Jernigan employs hard-hitting and unflinching prose that’s as concise as it is brutal.” The author’s first proper short story collection — title TBA — is forthcoming in the early spring of 2016 from Ragnarok Publications.
I have this memory, which is probably a series of memories, from when I was little. Mom and Dad had gotten a baby sitter and were going out. Mom was wearing a dress that I loved, that was pale, pale blue with little white embroidered stars scattered across it. She had a fluffy white petticoat and shiny white shoes. She and Dad were going square-dancing.
It’s mumble-something years later and they are still adorably in love.
Dad just walked through the room with a box of white Godiva chocolate (Mom’s favorite) for her. They can’t go out for the anniversary this year, but I hope that next year, they’ll be dancing again.
I have a short SF story up at Lightspeed Magazine. Here’s a teaser of “The Consciousness Problem.”
The afternoon sun angled across the scarred wood counter despite the bamboo shade Elise had lowered. She grimaced and picked up the steel chef’s knife, trying to keep the reflection in the blade angled away so it wouldn’t trigger a hallucination.
In one of the Better Homes and Gardens her mother had sent her from the States, Elise had seen an advertisement for carbon fiber knives. They were a beautiful matte black, without reflections. She had been trying to remember to ask Myung about ordering a set for the last week, but he was never home while she was thinking about it.
There was a time before the subway accident, when she was still smart.
J. Dalton Jennings is joining us today with his novel Solomon’s Arrow. Here’s the publisher’s description:
It’s the mid-twenty-first century. The oceans are rising, the world’s population is growing, terrorist organizations are running rampant, and it has become readily apparent that humanity’s destructive nature is at the heart of the matter.
When all faith in humanity seems lost, a startling proposal is announced: Solomon Chavez, the mysterious son of the world’s first trillionaire, announces that he, backed by a consortium of governments and wealthy donors, will build an interstellar starship—one that will convey a select group of six thousand individuals, all under the age of fifty, with no living relatives, to a recently discovered planet in the Epsilon Eridani star system. His goal is lofty: to build a colony that will ensure the survival of the human race. However, Solomon Chavez has a secret that he doesn’t dare share with the rest of the world.
With the launch date rapidly approaching, great odds must be overcome so that the starship Solomon’s Arrow can fulfill what the human race has dreamed of for millennia: reaching for the stars. The goal is noble, but looming on the horizon are threats nobody could have imagined—ones that may spell the end of all human life and end the universe as we know it.
Filled with action, suspense, and characters that will live on in the imagination, Solomon’s Arrow will leave readers breathless, while at the same time questioning what humanity’s true goals should be: reaching for the stars, or exploring the limits of the human mind?
What’s J. Dalton’s favorite bit?
J. DALTON JENNINGS
Like any writer worth his salt, virtually every part of my novel, Solomon’s Arrow, can be called My Favorite Bit. The trick, however, is to write about one of my favorite bits in such a way as to prevent the story arc from being spoiled for those who have yet to read the book, while casting light on that same bit for those who have.
With that in mind, the bit I’ll be blogging about takes place three nights before the much-heralded launch of humanity’s first interstellar starship, Solomon’s Arrow. A going away party—hosted by the mysterious Solomon Chavez—is being held for a number of VIPs, who are among the colonists leaving Earth in a matter of days. Bram Waters, one of the novel’s chief protagonists, is scheduled to arrive the following morning; however, after receiving a message informing him that his request to meet Solomon Chavez has been refused, he reschedules his overseas flight to arrive early, just in time for the party. The kicker is, upon his arrival at the party he’s unable to provide an invitation and is refused entrance. But then, to his great relief, along comes Floyd Sullivant, head of security for Solomon’s Arrow. The two were teammates on a joint mission with Canadian Special Forces to capture the person responsible for a terrorist plot. Seeing Bram’s predicament, Floyd invites him to the party—as his plus one. Some humorous banter ensues as they enter the ballroom.
In the background, a band is playing a song made famous in the Big Band era. The song is “Sing, Sing, Sing,” by Benny Goodman, and is one of Solomon Chavez’s favorites; the song also provides a clue to the mystery that surrounds him.
While listening to the music and sipping drinks at the bar, Floyd spots Solomon Chavez conversing with a group of people on the far side of the ballroom and asks Bram if he would like to be introduced to the enigmatic industrialist. Bram readily agrees. Strangely enough, the introduction is laced with tension; and for some unknown reason, Solomon refuses to shake Bram’s hand. He can sense the man is loath to be around him, which Bram finds both confusing and offensive. Being psychic, he senses there is much more to Solomon Chavez than meets the eye; and yet, despite his curiosity, he holds back from exploring the matter deeper. Bram has a code of ethics, which the reader learns about earlier in the book that prevents him from doing so. He explains this to Solomon and the man reluctantly provides a quick handshake.
Another individual in the group—who, coincidentally, was also a member of the mission with Bram and Floyd—is Gloria Muldoon. She breaks the tension by asking Bram to escort her to the bar. Bram is more than willing to oblige her request, seeing as Gloria is an intelligent, resourceful, beautiful woman—albeit one with a famously cold demeanor. However, she’s drawn to Bram and soon opens up to him, which gives the reader a glimpse into her tragic past. Bram is also no stranger to tragedy. This shared bond, along with their mutual attraction, sets in motion a relationship that proves instrumental to the rest of the story.
Is this bit the most exciting or important one in Solomon’s Arrow? No, but it is one of my favorite bits; it contains humor and tension and provides an important turn in the lives of two of the novel’s key characters. After all, isn’t that what a favorite bit should entail?
J. Dalton Jennings is a retired graphic artist who served for six years as an avionics technician in the Arkansas Air National Guard.Solomon’s Arrow is Jennings’s first published novel, and he currently resides in North Little Rock, Arkansas.
E. L. Chen is joining us today with her novel The Good Brother. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Tori Wong is starting over. She’s given herself a new name, dropped out of school to work at a bookstore, and fled her parents’ strict home to do all the things she’s never done before. Like go out on weeknights, flirt with her cute co-worker Egan, and live out of the shadow of her overachieving brother, to whom her parents always compare her. Even though he’s dead. But she soon finds that reinventing herself isn’t as easy as it seems. Especially during Yu Lan, the Festival of Hungry Ghosts, when traditional Chinese believe that neglected spirits roam the earth. Not one but three forgotten ghosts come back to haunt Tori: her vengeful brother Seymour, and ambitious Vicky and meek little Mui-Mui, herself at age seventeen and eleven. Despite her attempts to appease them, none of them approve of Tori’s new life. They sabotage her job and her budding relationship with Egan. Literally haunted by the past, Tori spirals into despair, but learns the truth about Seymour’s death, and in doing so learns to accept herself.
What’s E. L.’s favorite bit?
E. L. CHEN
My hands-down favorite bit of The Good Brother is a scene. A quiet scene, not a big show-stopper. There are no explosions or histrionics or emotional highs or lows, and none of the ghosts that haunt Tori are involved. It’s simply an exchange of dialogue between Tori and her closeted cousin Wilson.
Wilson gives her a ride to a family dinner, and they both dance around the fact that they had each seen each other with a “friend” a few days ago: Wilson with his boyfriend, and Tori with her crush Egan. Tori fears that Wilson will mention Egan to her parents, whose scrutiny she wishes to avoid.
“Hi,” I said. “Nice car.”
I climbed in. A saccharine female voice warbled over the car speakers in Cantonese. It sounded like a cover of an old Madonna song.
Neither of us said anything until Wilson had navigated the downtown streets and turned onto the ramp to the highway. “Oh, the other day,” he said as the car accelerated onto the open road “. . . that guy you saw me with, that was my housemate, Dominic.”
“I didn’t know you had a housemate,” I said.
“He just moved in a few months ago.”
“He’s a friend. He needed a place to live, and I have an extra bedroom, so I figured this was a good way to pay off my mortgage quickly.”
“That’s a good idea,” I said, and I knew that he knew I didn’t believe him. “What does he do?”
Wilson stared straight ahead at the road. The traffic heading north on the Don Valley Parkway was surprisingly good for a late Sunday afternoon. Good traffic on the DVP, however, merely meant that it was moving. “He’s an actor.”
“Oh,” I said, and I realized just how bad the situation was. Coming out was one thing. Dating an actor was another. Traditionally in Chinese society, entertainers were considered little better than prostitutes. Scholars were on the top of the hierarchy; merchants, actors and prostitutes at the very bottom. “I won’t say anything. Um, I don’t just mean about Dominic’s career.”
“Thanks,” Wilson said. “So who was your friend?”
“Oh, that was Egan,” I said, trying to sound casual. “I work with him. We were actually with another co-worker but he had to leave.”
“I think he has a girlfriend,” I lied. The leather upholstery squeaked as I squirmed in the passenger seat. “Egan, I mean. Not our other friend.”
“Uh huh,” Wilson said. We sat in silence for another few minutes. The song ended, and a duet started up. It was just as saccharine. I could never tell Cantonese pop songs apart. They all sounded bland and maudlin.
That’s it. Nothing happens. And yet one of my beta readers called out this scene as a favorite too, so I knew I was doing something right. Tori and Wilson say a lot to each other without actually being open. Neither can admit out loud–or perhaps even to themselves–what they feel for the important people in their lives.
I’d heard on a writing podcast (Writing Excuses, actually, co-hosted by Mary Robinette Kowal) that YA novels tend to be more explicit in their narrative when describing their characters’ thoughts and feelings. This I had in the back of my mind when I was giving The Good Brother a near-final pass. But a brief discussion with a YA writer friend–as well as examining my favorite books in the genre–confirmed my suspicion that this isn’t always necessary. The story should be told the way it needs to be told. The reader can be trusted to read between the lines, and infer the characters’ feelings from their dialogue and actions.
Trying to write quiet, telling a lot without explicitly telling too much. This is my favorite bit of The Good Brother, and something I definitely want to get better at.
E. L. Chen’s short fiction has been published in anthologies such as Masked Mosaic, The Dragon and the Stars and Tesseracts Fifteen, and in magazines such as Strange Horizons and On Spec. She lives in Toronto with a very nice husband, their young son, and a requisite cat. The Good Brother is her first novel. Anything else she doesn’t mind you knowing can be found at elchen.ca.
Loren Rhoads is joining us today with her novel The Dangerous Type. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Set in the wake of a galaxy-wide war and the destruction of a human empire, The Dangerous Type follows the awakening of one of the galaxy’s most dangerous assassins and her quest for vengeance. Entombed for twenty years, Raena has been found and released.
Thallian has been on the lam for the last fifteen years. He’s a wanted war criminal whose entire family has been hunted down and murdered for their role in the galaxy-wide genocide of the Templars. His name is the first on Raena’s list, as he’s the one that enslaved her, made her his assassin, and ultimate put her in a tomb. But Thallian is willing to risk everything–including his army of cloned sons–to capture her. Now it’s a race to see who kills whom first.
Alternatively, Gavin has spent the last twenty years trying to forget about Raena, whom he once saved and then lost to Thallian. Raena’s adopted sister, Ariel, has been running from the truth — about Raena, about herself and Gavin — and doesn’t know if she’ll be able to face either of them.
The Dangerous Type is a mix of military science fiction and an adventurous space opera that grabs you from the first pages and doesn’t let go. Along with a supporting cast of smugglers, black market doctors, and other ne’er-do-wells sprawled across a galaxy brimming with alien life, The Dangerous Type is a fantastic beginning to Loren Rhoads’s epic trilogy.
What’s Loren’s favorite bit?
One of the things that fascinates me the most is persona. I’m interested not only in the persons we present to the world as ourselves, but also in the identities our friends ascribe to us – and the gaps where those two don’t mesh.
Some of this dates back to high school, when I (like everyone else) tried to figure out who I was. My friends seemed to assign roles to me. I was a vixen. I was in danger of becoming a drug addict. Needless to say, I suppose, but I didn’t see myself reflected in either of those images. It was just that my adventures didn’t always lie along the same avenues as theirs did. It puzzled and amused me that the people who should have known me best sometimes didn’t seem to know me at all. In that not-knowing, they invented someone else for me to be, someone I could choose to inhabit or to confound, as I liked.
The first book of my new trilogy looks at persona through the lens of point of view. From the outside, The Dangerous Type looks like a space opera. Inside, it’s a study of the personas that lovers and ex-lovers create for the main character.
Even though Raena is the central character of the book, her point of view doesn’t appear until two-thirds of the way through the text. Before that, the story unfolds through the eyes of people who knew her twenty years previous, before she was secretly imprisoned and seemed to vanish from the galaxy. Some of these characters knew Raena well and some only briefly, but all of them overestimate her competence and strength, either by leaping to conclusions about her or by living vicariously through her or by simply wishing she was someone other than who she is.
Gavin Sloane tried to rescue Raena twice in the past – once for money and once for pride – but he’s never stopped looking for her. Chief among the points of view, Gavin’s built a persona for Raena that she can’t possibly live up to, predicated on the less than twenty-four hours they spent together two decades earlier. He’s researched her history and knows as much about the facts of her life as anyone, but without actually having had the time to know her, he’s created and interacted with her mostly in his mind.
Ariel Shaad calls herself Raena’s sister – and she contrived a legal adoption into the Shaad family for Raena after she’d disappeared– but in reality, Raena was purchased by Ariel’s dad to be a bodyguard. The girls had real, deep affection for each other, but their relationship was never as equal as Ariel would like to remember, even if Ariel’s protectiveness for Raena is reciprocated.
Former Imperial diplomat Jonan Thallian took Raena as a teenager and molded her into an assassin to serve his agendas. Jonan lives in a universe of his own imagination, where other people rarely become more than ghosts. Raena was the only person to become real to him, albeit only after she ran away from him. He believes she is his perfect creation, to be broken and controlled once he recaptures her.
Of course, Raena isn’t – and couldn’t be – any of those things. She’s not a long-lost girlfriend or a rich girl’s sister or a killer goddess. She’s just a woman with a very specific skill set in a deceptively girlish body, struggling to acclimate to an unfamiliar galaxy where everything she believed in, everything she thought was true, has been dismantled. She’s trying to negotiate everyone’s expectations of her while keeping herself alive.
The book was inspired not just by my experiences in high school, but by continuing to interact with those same friends today. I’m blessed to still consider myself friends with the people I knew back then. We’ve been close, grown apart, gotten back together. We know each other’s stories so well that we assume we know each other well. Still, the older I get, the more I realize that we (in the general sense) never really know anyone else. I’m not even convinced we ever really know ourselves. Instead, we create our friends out of what they say, what they do, how they make us feel. We interact with them as if these imaginary people we’ve created are the people themselves – until stress or an unguarded word or even watching them interact with someone else makes us reassess.
I find this whole process of reassessment, the continual updating of the personas, riveting. In the novel, all the characters who are holding up masks of their own try to hold up masks for Raena as well. Rather than being revealed, she ends up being hidden behind mask after mask after mask, until she finally finds someone who will listen when she begins to speak for herself.
Of course, this is all background. The plot is something else altogether. That’s where the space opera comes in…
S. K. Dunstall is joining us today with their novel Linesman. Here’s the publisher’s description:
First in a brand new thought-provoking science fiction series.
The lines. No ship can traverse the void without them. Only linesmen can work with them. But only Ean Lambert hears their song. And everyone thinks he’s crazy…
Most slum kids never go far, certainly not becoming a level-ten linesman like Ean. Even if he’s part of a small, and unethical, cartel, and the other linesmen disdain his self-taught methods, he’s certified and working.
Then a mysterious alien ship is discovered at the edges of the galaxy. Each of the major galactic powers is desperate to be the first to uncover the ship’s secrets, but all they’ve learned is that it has the familiar lines of energy—and a defense system that, once triggered, annihilates everything in a 200 kilometer radius.
The vessel threatens any linesman who dares to approach it, except Ean. His unique talents may be the key to understanding this alarming new force—and reconfiguring the relationship between humans and the ships that serve them, forever.
What’s S. K.’s favorite bit?
S. K. DUNSTALL
Two people writing a book together doesn’t equate to one person writing the same story twice as fast. In fact, most people who co-write will tell you that it’s just as fast to write the story alone. We would, anyway.
They wouldn’t write the same story either. It’s the continual going over and over the story in the edits that blends our voices together. Even at the end of a novel, when we know the characters well, and we know what’s going to happen, if we both sat down and wrote a final chapter those two chapters would be very different. Different tone, different voice.
Likewise, while we have a rough description of what each character looks like, we certainly don’t envision them the same way. Sometimes we don’t even pronounce the names the same way. (Kaelea: Sherylyn says ‘Kah-lee-ah’, Karen says ‘Kay-lee’.)
So obviously, we have different favorite bits for our story too.
In Linesman, ships travel faster-than-light using lines of energy. Humans don’t know much about these lines. It’s alien technology they discovered and cloned five hundred years ago. There are ten lines altogether, and each line has a different purpose. Line six, for example, powers the engines. Line nine takes them into the void—the alternate dimension equivalent to hyperspace—while line ten moves them through space to a new place in the galaxy.
The lines are repaired by specialists with the ability to ‘feel’ the lines and ‘push’ the energy back into place. Linesmen are found early and train for years.
Except our protagonist, Ean. (Which we do both pronounce the same way; it’s a variant of Ian, and pronounced like Ian—that is, Ee-yann). Because he came from the slums, he was never tested for line ability as a child and as a result is mostly self-taught. (But he is certified, and he is working.) He hears the lines as song.
Sherylyn’s favorite bit comes toward the end of the story.
It’s the first time Ean has ever been on a space station. He’s been on planets and on ships, but never on a station before.
Behind it he could hear the lines of the station, magnified somehow by the presence of the linesmen, crying out to be heard with no-one listening. The higher lines hadn’t been used since their initial use to transport the station and were atrophying in place.
That’s all we can tell you without spoilers, but it’s the emotional impact of all these lonely lines that she likes.
Karen’s favorite bit, or bits, are the one-liners they always tell writers to throw away. Common writing advice is to ‘kill your darlings’, which means delete the prose you are overly attached to. The idea being that if you love it too much it’s only in the story because you love it, not because it should be there.
“Abram likes you,” Michelle said, eventually.
And everyone sang to the lines, too.
Because no-one but Ean sang to the lines, so effectively Ean believes Michelle is lying to him.
Or another one:
Ean stayed with the uniforms, Rebekah stayed with the civilians. He did wander over to talk to her once, but she moved away before he got there. Which could have been accidental because he was sure she hadn’t been watching him, but the timing was about as coincidental as the earthquake on Shaolin.
Because everyone knew the earthquake on Shaolin had been caused by humans, and it had been deliberately timed to destroy the last remaining line factory in neutral territory, just after a new line factory had opened in enemy territory.
Of course there’s overlap in what we like. More, there aren’t many bits we don’t like. If either of us don’t like a section we rewrite it until we have something that makes us both happy.
So, while Marie Brennan and I were on tour, we were talking about GIANT CLAW that she uses as part of the show and tell. I made an off-hand comment about it being a potential murder weapon and this somehow lead to me saying that I’d love to see a Lady Trent mashup with Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Marie may have made a squeak and flailed her hands — maybe.
All errors are gleefully mine and this is DEFINITELY not canonical since Miss Fisher is in Australia not the fictional continent of Lutjarro. Also, I may have made up a couple of dragons. As you do. (If you’d prefer, it’s also on An Archive of Our Own.)
I present to you…
A Study in Serpents
Being a brief memoir of Lady Trent
You have, it seems, read the newspaper accounts of my most recent visit to Lutjarro and have interpreted them in the most flamboyant of fashions. Allow me, please, the opportunity to present a slightly more prosaic account of the proceedings. I say “slightly” because we are, of course, discussing a murder.
I was on tour of the continent to fund a research excursion into the interior to consider the interaction of the honeyseekers and their larger cousins. While the benefits that the honeyseekers derived from the Kajura were clear enough, I was less certain what the benefit was in the other direction.
But- that is not what you have inquired about. The murder.
I was seated in the parlour of our rented home in Winti when the butler who came with the house appeared at the door. “The honorable Miss Phryne Fisher and Detective Inspector Robinson, request a moment of your time, my lady.”
I raised my eyebrows at that, because I am not often called upon by a detective. “Send them in, please.”
In my youth, I had needed to buck social convention in order to wear men’s trousers in the field, where it was emminately practical. To have done so in polite society would have been intolerable and caused me to be more of an outcast than I frequently was. Yet, when Miss Fisher appeared in my door, she wore a pair of long white silk trousers that emphasized her easy gait. The white would have been impractical in the field, but it marked the first time I had seen trousers that were clearly cut for a woman’s figure. She wore a simple white blouse, also silk, topped with a long flowing open jacket. Her hair – oh, how often I had fought with my own long hair while out in the wilds – she wore it in a simple bob that ended at her chin and made the entirety look elegant.
Understand that I have never been much interested in fashion, but the fact that she thought nothing of wearing trousers on a social call served to remind me of how much customs had changed since my youth.
The detective who accompanied Miss Fisher was a slender man, who seemed to take every detail of my parlour with a glance. He held an irregularly shaped parcel, but the canvas wrapping it obscured any hint of the contents. Somewhat surprisingly, he held back while Miss Fisher approached me.
“I’m dreadfully sorry to intrude like this, but we are in need of some particular expertise.” She turned, silk flowing around her and gestured to the Detective Inspector. “Would you mind terribly looking at a specimen, Lady Trent?”
I raised my eyebrows and peered over the rim of my glasses. I find that since I have become “respectable” through the virtue of a title, that society ladies often come to me with “specimens” that they are certain belong to a dragon, not withstanding the fact that dragonbone decays without substantial chemical effort. Still, I had not taken her for one of that sort. “This is where I would, under normal circumstances quote my consultation fee. But these are not, I suspect, normal circumstances.”
Detective Inspector Robinson cleared his throat. “No madam. We are investigating a murder.”
I studied the bundle in his hands. “Best show me what you’ve brought then.”
As I pushed the papers on my desk aside, Detective Inspector Robinson came forward still holding the bundle with care. Miss Fisher hovered at his side, seeming at once intensely serious and rather like she was having fun. The detective Inspector laid the bundle on my desk and carefully pulled the oilcloth back from it. The whole while, Miss Fisher watched me, not him.
The cloth fell away to reveal an absurdly outsized claw. Please understand that many adult dragons have claws that are longer than a man’s hand, but this… This was easily as long as my forearm. What’s more, I was not even looking at the whole claw because the back of it had been jaggedly cracked off.
And the tip was coated in dried blood.
I settled my glasses a little further down my nose and leaned forward. It appeared to be a fossil, not the claw of a living beast. This was at once both a relief and a shame. A relief because any dragon that had such substantial claws would be so enormous that it would have been unable to support its own weight, without upsetting all of my understanding as a naturalist. A shame, because if this WERE a fossil, there would be no record of the rest of the creature as dragon bones decay so rapidly.
“I assume you are wondering if this is real or a fake?” I turned the cloth to slide the claw closer to me. It had curious striations on the underside as though it were built for tearing.
“Yes, exactly so.” Miss Fisher said.
D.I. Robinson added, “And also if it is from a living creature.”
“The latter answer is easy enough to give. No.”
“I told you, Jack.” She settled on the edge of my desk as though posing for a portrait. “Anything this large would have eaten half the cattle in the Kalapurlangka region”
“True enough.” I reached for the claw and stopped myself. He had said there was a murder investigation underway and it was covered in blood. “Is this the murder weapon?”
“It is. I am afraid the poor fellow was stabbed through the heart with it.”
“I see.” I picked up the claw carefully, suddenly aware that I might know the dragon naturalist whose blood this was. There are not so many of us in the world and I had corresponded with most of them. The weight of it could have come from stone or carefully cast plaster. Those striations really were curious. I turned it to look at the broken section and the answer was clear – unless the artist was a genius. “This is a genuine fossil, you can see the sediment lines here where the break exposes the interior.”
D. I. Robinson shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Would you say it is a recent break, or would it have been dug out of the ground that way?”
“Unless the fossilist was completely inept, this happened after it was extracted.”
“And do you know whose collection it came from?”
“It must be a recent find, or something of this size would have been all anyone talked about.” The color of the fossil reminded me of something. I continued to turn the giant claw over in my hands, trying to drag the memory out of my increasingly aged brain. I’m ashamed to admit, now, that the blood bothered me largely because it obscured details. Still, it looked as though the fossil were mottled rather than a uniform grey, which meant that I could at least give them a region. “I think it’s from the Inner Lurpangka region. The sediment striations often have this mottling. If you give me a few minutes, I should be able to tell you who was conducting research there.”
“Thank you, that already helps us narrow things down quite a bit.” D. I. Robinson fiddled with the edge of the cloth.
Reluctantly, I set the fossil down and slid back in my chair. “I take it that you have reason to believe that it did not belong to the murder victim?”
Miss Fisher and D.I. Robinson exchanged a glance. He rolled his eyes and gave a small nod. She turned back to me, leaning forward over the desk. “The victim was not a naturalist… He ran an opium den.”
I sighed and pulled my glasses off my nose, using the pretext of wiping them to keep my gaze down. “In that case, I am afraid I can tell you exactly who this belongs to, though I am very sorry of it.” As I’ve said, there are not so many dragon naturalists in the world, and even fewer in Lutjarro and of those, an even smaller number specialized in fossils, and among those, only one had an opium habit. I wrote his name down on a piece of paper and gave it to the detective. (I am not sharing that with you, because he was acquitted, but his lover… That is sadly another story.)
D.I. Robinson grimaced and folded the paper to place it in his pocket. “Thank you, Lady Trent, you have been very helpful.”
Running a finger along the fossil, Miss Fisher frowned at it. “And what do you make of the fossil itself?” She turned her head and her eyes widened with a delighted smile. “It is not every day that one gets to consult one of the foremost dragon naturalists in the world.”
“Flattery is not necessary, my dear. I am too old to be swayed by it.”
“And I have found that flattery is always best when it is true.” She cocked her head, long jade earrings dangling provocatively against the pale skin of her neck. “You did not earn your accolades for some other accomplishments, did you?”
I have found that peering over the rim of my glasses, while it does not allow me to see any better, does have a decided effect on the viewer. It is a small compensation for being required to wear them. In any case, I did so now. “Dragons and their cousins have been my only interest. And if you are familiar with me, at all, then you know precisely what event caused my notariety. Now as to the fossil… I suspect that the claw is outsized for the creature, but without any other evidence, I can tell you nothing about the dragon it belonged to. Although…”
“What?” She leaned forward, and the delighted curiousity was more to my taste than her honeyed words.
“The serrations on the bottom of the claw remind me a little of the Greater Lutjarran Sandwyrm, though that is much smaller. I would want to see the base of it. If you find it.”
D.I. Robinson wrapped the fossil up in the cloth again. “We’re hoping that the suspect retained the rest of the claw. If we find it, you have my promise to show it to you.”
Miss Fisher wrinkled her nose at him and hopped off my desk. “Yes Jack, but you are only promising that because you’ll need Lady Trent to verify it’s authenticity. While I will promise because I know she wants to see it.”
“The detective inspector’s reasonings do not concern me, so long as I get to see it.” I pushed against the arm of my chair and took up my cane. “You are correct in that regard.”
Miss Fisher paused before turning, with her silk trousers swinging about her ankles. “Please do let me know if you need anything while in Lutjarro.”
“Actually…” And you may laugh if you wish, but I have spent too much of my life being on the fringes of polite society to much care if I shock anyone. “Would you mind telling me who your tailor is? I very much admire your trousers.”
Some of you have noticed that I’m cancelling a lot of appearances this summer. I was not initially going to talk about why, except to the people that my absence directly affects, but after a lot of conversation with my parents, we have decided to be open about it.
My mom has Parkinson’s. On Monday, she’s going in to have the first procedure involved in receiving a Deep Brain Stimulation Implant. This is a great thing. This is an amazing thing. I know people who have had this surgery done to help mitigate their symptoms and it’s life-changing.
So I’m canceling things because I’m going to be helping my folks with stuff surrounding the procedures.
Now, here’s the reason we decided to talk about it, and this is a useful life lesson for you writers out there. At a certain point, you may discover that you are living a life more publically than you had planned. My first inclination, as I’ve said, was to not talk about the surgery, because it’s Mom’s life and she’s a very private person.
The problem with being a public figure is that people think they know me and so will try to fill in the gaps from limited information. I tried telling people that I wasn’t attending WorldCon and people immediately assumed that it was a political thing around the Sad Puppies issue.
I tried just, “It’s a medical thing,” and people immediately assumed that death was on the line.
So… so that is the other reason we decided to talk about it. And by “we” I do mean my parents, my husband, my brother and me. There are a lot of useful things to know, beyond just the fact that I won’t be at a number of conventions this year. The prime one of which is that when you start living your life in the public view, people will make assumptions.
Now, I have a favor to ask. Would you pretend that this is not happening. Don’t ask me for updates. Don’t send encouraging messages. Because while I have solid reasons for letting you know, it is still a private family matter.
And thank you. I know you understand, and I really appreciate it.
So Mary Robinette Kowal and I were on tour back in May, which gave us abundant time to chat about various things. At one event, an audience member asked several questions that began with the disclaimer of “this probably isn’t a thing you’ve bothered to think about, but” — which had the effect of proving that no, really, Mary has thought about pretty much everything in the world of her Glamourist Histories. As we were changing back into civilian clothing at the end of the event, I said to her, “I’m willing to bet you’ve thought about the uses of glamour for porn.”
To which she laughed and told me about a glamural Vincent created in his student days.
And then Marie said she was tempted to write it and I squeed all over her and said, “YES!” and then she did.
I’ve been having a great time at the Henson workshop (yes, I will tell you about it at some point) but one of the things I’ve really loved is the way it makes me think about writing from a different angle. There are aspects of story-telling that seem to be consistent, even when we transition from one medium to another. In this case, we’ve been working on short form improv, which has so much in common with short stories that I kept having “D’oh!” moments when I get my notes, because I talk about the same things when I teach fiction.
So — Here’s an improv exercise that I’ve tweaked to work for short fiction.
In both improv and fiction, there’s often some rambling that happens at the top of a scene as the writer/actor tries to orient themselves. It’s why, frequently, the good stuff in short fiction, from newer writers, frequently comes way, way late in the story because they are taking a ton of time to set the scene. The instinct to set the scene is good, because the audience can’t relate to something they can’t visualize. But…you can set a scene really quickly with just a couple of lines.
1. I want you to establish these things in the first three lines. Who, What, Where.
Who: This isn’t just a name, but a relationship and their emotional state. No one exists in a vaccuum.
Where: Not just “In a castle!” but where specifically in the castle. Ground us with the things that are within arms reach.
What: An activity with a goal. Sharpening a sword is an activity. But we don’t do activities without purpose. Sharpening a sword to slay a dragon is more specific and goal oriented.
2. Now: Use the Random Plot Generator to generate these things: Main Character (Who), Setting (Where), Situation (What)
3. Write three sentences, trying to use really grounded POV to relate those three things.
Where: A very hot place
Who: A butcher
What: Buying bagels
If Ezra hadn’t needed bagels for brunch, he wouldn’t have set foot in that oven of a place. He wiped the sweat off on his apron, and shifted from foot to foot on the linoleum floor as he waited in line. By God, give him the cool of his meat locker any day.
4. Now change the “Where” and rewrite the same opening. The idea is to pay attention to what differs with the change in location.
Where: A yacht
Who: A butcher
What: Buying bagels
The breeze from the bay snuck down the stairs into the cramped galley. Ezra kept an eye out the tiny window across the marina. The bagel truck should be pulling in anytime now and he needed bagels for the boss’s lunch.
5. Now change the “Who” and rewrite the same opening. The idea is to pay attention to what details in your description change with a different POV character.
Where: A yacht
Who: An ambitious 21 year-old woman
What: Buying bagels
Tilting her tablet’s screen so it wasn’t getting so much glare from the sun, Serena called up GrubHub and placed an order for bagels to be delivered to the marina. Setting the tablet back down on the deck of her yacht, she picked up her mimosa. As ways to start her 21st birthday, this didn’t suck.
6. Now change the “What” and rewrite the same opening. A different “what” changes her motivations, and hence her interaction with the “where.”
Where: A yacht
Who: An ambitious 21 year-old woman
What: A 30-year old murder case is resurrected
Serena walked up the gangplank to the yacht, praying that her glasses made her look older than twenty-one. The yacht had changed hands three times in the thirty years since Jonas Barlow had been murdered on it, but she was betting that it still held the secret to his death. Now she just had to sweet talk her way into the engine room.
7. Start again with a new “where” and repeat until you get tired. This is a good exercise to do with pen and paper if you find yourself waiting somewhere. You can use this WritingPrompts generator on your phone to get you started.
(If you want to share your work, feel free to post a link or your practice rounds in the comments below. I’d ask that folks don’t offer criticism unless invited specifically by the writer.)
Forthcoming – April 28, 2015 The final book of the acclaimed Glamourist Histories is the magical adventure that might result if Jane Austen walked on the grimmer side of the Regency Jane and Vincent have finally gotten some much-needed rest after their adventures in Italy when Vincent receives word that his estranged father has passed away on […]