I wonder how effective this would be against social media?
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.
Read the full story: The Consciousness Problem – Lightspeed Magazine
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…
Loren Rhoads is the author of The Dangerous Type, Kill By Numbers, and No More Heroes, the components of the In the Wake of the Templars trilogy. Night Shade will publish all three books in 2015.
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.
That’s part of the fun of co-writing.
S. K. Dunstall is the pen name for Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall, sisters and co-authors who live in Melbourne, Australia. Linesman is their first novel.
I seem to have written fanfic combining Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries
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.
Regardless of what ACTUALLY happened, I agreed that I would write this, if she would write the Jane & Vincent at the Hellfire Club fic.
And so here we are.
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.
No. No, that was part of why I was bound and determined TO go but not why I wasn’t attending. (By the way, have you voted?)
So, then I tried, “I’m not attending for personal reasons.”
And the response then was, “Is everything okay between you and Rob? I know you’ve been traveling a lot.”
::Headdesk:: Ugh. I miss him, but this is hardly the longest we’ve spent apart – see six months in Iceland when I worked on Lazytown.
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.
This makes me giggle with so much delight.
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.
Read all about it and get the link to the story, WHICH IS FANTASTIC, over on her website. Swan Tower – I have done a Very Silly Thing
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.)
Camille Griep is joining us today with her novel Letters to Zell. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Everything is going according to story for CeCi (Cinderella), Bianca (Snow White), and Rory (Sleeping Beauty)—until the day that Zell (Rapunzel) decides to leave Grimmland and pursue her life. Now, Zell’s best friends are left to wonder whether their own passions are worth risking their predetermined “happily ever afters,” regardless of the consequences. CeCi wonders whether she should become a professional chef, sharp-tongued and quick-witted Bianca wants to escape an engagement to her platonic friend, and Rory will do anything to make her boorish husband love her. But as Bianca’s wedding approaches, can they escape their fates—and is there enough wine in all of the Realm to help them?
In this hilarious modern interpretation of the fairy-tale stories we all know and love, Letters to Zell explores what happens when women abandon the stories they didn’t write for themselves and go completely off script to follow their dreams.
What’s Camille’s favorite bit?
A reader might stumble upon Letters to Zell and wonder to herself, Is the entire novel in letters? Who is this Zell whose mail we’re snooping through? Why would anyone want to start a unicorn preserve? The answers (yes, Rapunzel(l), and I’m not altogether sure) will be revealed once the reader has finished the book. But because the epistolary structure of this novel is uncommon these days, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain why the letters themselves are my favorite bit.
This book, my first novel, is a declaration of love to friendship as well as a paean to correspondence between friends. Though it is a somewhat polarizing choice in terms of structure – requiring much of a reader’s concentration – I realized, after several false starts, the only way I could correctly tell the stories of these three women was to put the reader at the receiving end of a fairy tale mailbox.
See, once upon a time, in a land called Montana, a nine or ten year old Camille Griep had a favorite friend named Lizzy who moved to Pennsylvania. Back then, Lizzy might as well have moved to the moon. But soon Camille learned to console herself with the letters sent back and forth for a few years, sharing their lives and thoughts and, of course, woes – parental, scholastic, boy-related. Their interests and personalities eventually diverged, ceding to the more immediate demands of adolescence. But the power of letters was seared into her heart, all those many years ago.
But that’s quite enough of the third person. After I moved to California for college, letters shored up the homesickness that gripped me for the first several months. I wasn’t sure I’d survive being so far away from my family and friends. Receiving mail made such a lasting impression that, to this day, I still dream about getting my mail at the campus post office (aptly named Story House).
I spent college summers in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness at a camp 30 miles from the nearest tiny town post office. The mail truck came three times a week and we sat up for mail call as if instead our names were being called for The Price Is Right. I’d secret my letters to the quietest place I could find and read them with the roar of the Boulder River in the background.
Throughout the years, letters allowed me to deepen friendships, gossip, laugh, cry, engage, sympathize, empathize, and even fall in love. Within letters we wrote as our best selves, responsible for putting a picture of our day, our week, our countenance on the page. Responsible for illustrating life and emotions with canvases made of words.
The core of Letters to Zell is three women navigating the expectations of adulthood. I wanted to turn these expectations upside down. Instead of my friends wanting the fairy tale, what if the fairy tales were in want of our reality? Instead of re-telling familiar stories, I wanted to write the as yet blank futures of CeCi (Cinderella), Bianca (Snow White), Rory (Sleeping Beauty), and Rapunzel (Zell, asking what does Happily Ever After look like?
The title came about as a joke — the result of several workshops whereupon I was asked if the book was really going to be all letters. Even though the title never dissuaded the question, the name stuck, and grew on everyone involved. It not only describes the format, but the recipient, too. To eliminate the sometimes-exclusionary nature of letters, the readers are allowed, if they wish, to become part Zell themselves.
Initially, I tried to include letters back from Rapunzel. But I found the replies cluttered the story I was trying to tell. And it interrupted a true examination of the kinds of assumptions we make about each other in the real world in the absence of information – the assumption everyone else is happy, and has life all figured out.
Rory, the shameless romantic of the book, tries to explain Zell’s silence with romantic optimism while Bianca, our potty-mouthed loose cannon gives marriage advice while making a mockery of her own impending nuptials. To get inside of the heads of these women, while still carrying a plot, the only choice seemed to be letters.
One of the things I tried to avoid was allowing the characters to sound similar. While I love epistolary tales, I wanted to make each woman unique, at least at the outset. To make each voice easier to read individually, I made very conscious choices with tense. While CeCi is first person past tense, Bianca is first person, present tense, almost exclusively active, while Rory’s voice is very passive. Their voices change, over time, as the characters are shaped by their experiences in the world and, more importantly, each other.
The reason individual voices became so important was due to a tidbit I learned while researching the original Grimm material. While I considered myself a fairy tale fan, I hadn’t realized that the Grimm brothers’ method of gathering material consisted of gathering oral traditions door to door from the women within.
In a small way, the format of Letters to Zell allows these characters to not only re-assert themselves as the authors of their own narratives, but to actively write that narrative in their letters to each other. No longer subject to the pen and ink of humans or the spite of fairy godmothers, the women strike out on their own unique paths. There is no happy ending, there are only journeys toward happiness. And a mail pigeon or two.
Camille Griep lives and writes just north of Seattle, Washington. She is the managing editor of Easy Street and a senior editor at The Lascaux Review. Letters to Zell, is her first novel.
Carrie Patel is joining us today with her novel Cities and Thrones. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In the fantastical, gaslit underground city of Recoletta, oligarchs from foreign states and revolutionaries from the farming communes vie for power in the wake of the city’s coup. The dark, forbidden knowledge of how the city came to be founded has been released into the world for all to read, and now someone must pay.
Inspector Liesl Malone is on her toes, trying to keep the peace, and Arnault’s spy ring is more active than ever. Has the city’s increased access to knowledge put the citizens in even more danger? Allegiances change, long-held beliefs are adjusted, and things are about to get messy!
What’s Carrie’s favorite bit?
Revolution transforms the city of Recoletta. The new leaders dethrone the old oligarchs, open up the secret archives, and establish a new government based on change and transparency.
Months later, Recoletta is in shambles, the farming communes have revolted, and neighboring cities scheme against the crippled behemoth.
Inspector Liesl Malone, now chief of police, must protect her city from black market barons, violent insurgents, and the excesses of her new government. Meanwhile, Jane Lin has fled to the city of Madina, where she learns of a plot to crush Recoletta. Jane must decide whether—and how—to save her old city from her new home.
One thing I loved about writing The Buried Life was telling a story from the perspectives of two very different characters who are shaped by the events of the novel in very different ways. Inspector Malone is dogged, aggressive, and proactive to a fault, whereas Jane the laundress is cautious, observant, and mostly trying to keep her footing around dangerous and powerful people.
My favorite bit of Cities and Thrones was reversing their roles.
The Buried Life ends (spoilers) with Jane on the run and Malone in a position of leadership in the newly-reconstituted Recoletta. Isolated and (mostly) friendless, Jane must find a way to outmaneuver the city she’s left behind and the gauntlet of mysterious powers ahead of her. And through her vulnerability, Jane begins to recognize that she has a unique strength, too:
Jane remembered a story she’d been told weeks ago, at a party to which she never should have been invited by people who were, likely as not, dead by now. It had concerned Roman Arnault and his uncanny ability to survive by remaining relevant.
She was lucky to have made it this far on the goodwill of the farmers. But she needed something more. And on the other side of Salazar’s threat, she perceived an opportunity – the ability to survive and, perhaps, thrive by remaining relevant.
If only she had something he needed.
And that was when she noticed it. She’d seen it many times, but she didn’t recognize it at first because she’d only witnessed it obliquely, in interactions happening around but beyond her.
It was hunger. In the way Salazar pinched the handle of his mug, in the way his lips were slightly parted. He wanted, very badly, to know what had happened in Recoletta.
And then something else occurred to her for the first time.
She could use that hunger.
She comes to understand the power of narrative and the authority that comes from holding the answers that other people want. And so, without fully understanding the consequences, she begins to shape the story that the rest of the region will hear about Recoletta.
He wanted reasons. Something to give meaning to an as-yet unfathomable series of changes.
Realizing that her fate might hinge on those very reasons, she gave him the ones she suspected he wanted to hear.
“Recoletta’s weakening. Rotting from the inside. It was run by a few corrupt inbreds who have no particular skills to lay claim to except an incredible capacity for deceit and self-delusion.” Something hot and turbulent sang in her blood. Even if she hadn’t spared the matter much thought before, she knew everything she was saying was true. Whether she felt this good because her words seemed to have the desired effect or because she could finally speak them, she couldn’t quite say.
He was leaning in, so she continued.
“Sato recognized that, which is why he stepped in. But what he doesn’t recognize is that he’s little better. Others are catching on fast, though. You’ve seen the numbers coming out of Recoletta. It’s only a matter of time before his new city collapses on itself.”
While Jane learns to thrive in her new surroundings, Malone finds herself alienated and disoriented by the city changing around her. Her situation is further complicated by her new position of power, which she never wanted and which still leaves her with a bad taste in her mouth:
She still didn’t understand the politics of this new Recoletta. It didn’t take more than common sense to know that things were bad and getting steadily worse, but she couldn’t follow the minutiae of gestures, expressions, and inflections in the Cabinet meetings with Sato well enough to know whose fault it was from week to week (even if it was hers) or how promises and bargains were made over a raising of eyebrows and quirking of lips.
Recoletta had become an amorphous place of ragged flesh congealed around broken bones, and in the darkness of her apartment, she imagined she heard it contorting around her. The thought filled her with a kind of dread she was unable to admit even to herself. She closed her eyes each night, wondering what kind of city she’d wake up in.
Yet dashing and skulking through tunnels, she could feel the city under her feet, hear and smell the evidence of thousands of people still making their way in it. It reminded her that it was a real place of stone and metal and not merely an idea shaped by the debates between Sato and his cronies.
Her cronies now.
Carrie Patel is an author, narrative designer, and expatriate Texan. When she isn’t scribbling her own fiction, she works as a narrative designer for Obsidian Entertainment, where she wrote for Pillars of Eternity. Her work has also appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Cities and Thrones is her second novel and is the sequel to The Buried Life.
A.F.E. Smith is joining us today with her novel Darkhaven. Here’s the publisher’s description.
Ayla Nightshade never wanted to rule Darkhaven. But her half-brother Myrren – true heir to the throne – hasn’t inherited their family gift, forcing her to take his place.
When this gift leads to Ayla being accused of killing her father, Myrren is the only one to believe her innocent. Does something more sinister than the power to shapeshift lie at the heart of the Nightshade family line?
Now on the run, Ayla must fight to clear her name if she is ever to wear the crown she never wanted and be allowed to return to the home she has always loved.
What’s A.F.E.’s favorite bit?
My favourite bit of Darkhaven has to be the city it’s set in.
Arkannen is probably the most orderly city you’ll come across. Not the inhabitants; they’re as complicated and messy as anyone else. But the city itself has an abundance of structure. It’s a walled city, or maybe a multi-walled city, since it consists of seven concentric rings that are each accessible by a single gate. In the very centre – the seventh ring – is Darkhaven itself, the tower where the country’s ruling shapeshifter family (the Nightshades) live; and each of the other rings has its own precise function, whether that’s trade or worship or weapons training.
At this point, it may be worth mentioning that the British town I live in, Milton Keynes, is famous for its roundabouts. And I mean famous. Mention Milton Keynes to anyone in the UK and nine times out of ten, the response will be Oh, you mean the one with all the roundabouts. Which is relevant only because when I told a writing friend where I live, she instantly said That explains Darkhaven’s map. Which hadn’t actually occurred to me, but … yeah. It’s entirely possible that living in a town full of roundabouts led me to create a perfectly round city.
Anyway, like Milton Keynes, Arkannen was created pretty much whole. It’s not one of these places that started as a hamlet, or a cluster of hamlets, and then grew organically until one day it turned around and realised it was London. No, according to in-world history, Arkannen was designed according to certain principles, then built according to design. After all, you wouldn’t get a perfectly round city (or a city made of roundabouts) without some serious design work taking place.
Of course, that all happened centuries ago. So although Arkannen started out as a fortified city that would be easy to defend during medieval-style warfare – complete with arrow slits, lookout posts and gates that are easy to barricade – things have changed a little since. Industrial revolution has hit, bringing all the upheaval that entails. The lower rings of the city, in particular, have become a place full of steam trams and factories, airships and machines; but still, alongside and beneath them, there are narrow cobbled streets and oxen pulling carts. Thus the old and the new coexist in sometimes uneasy harmony.
Higher up in the city, the impact of mechanization hasn’t been so great. I must admit I’m very fond of the fourth ring, the residential ring, which is – as it always has been – divided into sixteen Quarters, each of which traditionally houses a different segment of the population. Each Quarter is named after, and decorated with, a semi-precious stone in a different colour. And to help people find their way around, the streets are paved with stripes that consist of tessellating arrow-shaped tiles in those same colours – similar to what I imagine it would be like if you painted the map of the London Underground onto the streets of London. Simply follow the stripe in the colour you want and it will take you to the right Quarter.
Though it may look the same as ever, there are some steam-powered vehicles and household appliances in the fourth ring. But beyond that, the industrial revolution stops. Apart from the new gas lamps, the training grounds of the fifth ring and the temples of the sixth are much the same as they ever were. And Darkhaven itself – right at the centre – doesn’t appear to have changed since it was built. It looks like what it is: a show of power and a warning to the world.
Yet there is actually more to the city than what I’ve described so far, because Arkannen was built according to alchemical principles. It was designed to focus power into the tower at its heart in order to maintain the abilities of the Nightshade shapeshifters who live there. So the seven gates are positioned at different points around the compass, and together they create a shape that holds the seven alchemical elements in balance. None of the city’s inhabitants are aware of this, except perhaps a few of the alchemists currently working at the university, but there is a well-known legend that the fate of the Nightshades is intimately bound up with the fate of Darkhaven. If one falls, so too does the other.
This fact isn’t touched on to any great extent in Darkhaven, but it’s there in the background. And who knows … it may become relevant in later books.
A.F.E. Smith is an editor of academic texts by day and a fantasy writer by night. So far, she hasn’t mixed up the two. She lives with her husband and their two young children in a house that someone built to be as creaky as possible – getting to bed without waking the baby is like crossing a nightingale floor. Though she doesn’t have much spare time, she makes space for reading, mainly by not getting enough sleep (she’s powered by chocolate). Her physical bookshelves were stacked two deep long ago, so now she’s busy filling up her e-reader.
What A.F.E. stands for is a closely guarded secret, but you might get it out of her if you offer her enough snacks.
Alyc Helms is joining us today with her novel The Dragons of Heaven. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Street magician Missy Masters inherited more than the usual genetic cocktail from her estranged grandfather. She also got his preternatural control of shadow and his legacy as the vigilante hero, Mr Mystic. Problem is, being a pulp hero takes more than a good fedora and a knack for witty banter, and Missy lacks the one thing Mr Mystic had: experience. Determined to live up to her birthright, Missy journeys to China to seek the aid of Lung Huang, the ancient master who once guided her grandfather.
Lung Huang isn’t quite as ancient as Missy expected, and a romantic interlude embroils her in the politics of Lung Huang and his siblings, the nine dragon-guardians of creation. When Lung Di-Lung Huang’s brother and mortal enemy-raises a magical barrier that cuts off China from the rest of the world, it falls to the new Mr. Mystic to prove herself by taking down the barrier.
As Missy prepares to confront Lung Di, she faces a tough decision: remain loyal to Lung Huang and see China destroyed, or side with the bad guy and save the world.
What’s Alyc’s favorite bit?
I‘m a folklore nut. Growing up, I amassed a decent collection of Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books of Many Colors. I snatched up every Terri Windling/Ellen Datlow collection I could lay my mitts on. I knew the ‘original version’ of Sleeping Beauty (well, the Basile version) before it was cool. I started studying folklore because I was a sucker for synchronic myths—the way similar-seeming plots and tropes would show up in the stories of otherwise distinct cultures. Your basic Claude Levi-Strauss, Joseph Campbell-style folklore-geek crack about ‘mythemes’ and ‘hero’s journeys.’ I was all about the Ur-narrative. The Uber-myth.
I think the first thing they do when you go into Folklore as a disciplinary study is beat that wide-eyed adoration of universal narratives out of you. They let you know that universal themes and plots are lovely, and it’s so nice that Campbell brought you this far, but the study of Folklore is the study of the particular, of variation. It’s a focus on the different meanings that a particular group of people ascribe to a seemingly universal story. It’s a study of the coded associations that cultural groups embed into common symbols. The first rule of Folklore club is, if someone asks you if you’ve heard a particular story before, you say no because you want to hear their version of that story. The hero’s journey is not the same thing to all peoples. It only looks that way if you erase the nuance.
The Lang books were pretty good prep for going beyond Western European folklore (he includes a not- insignificant selection of tales from other parts of the world/cultures), but I really started digging in to non-European myths, legends, and lores in my undergrad days.
That’s where I discovered the Cannibal Inn trope.
The cannibal inn is one of my favorite tropes in Chinese folklore, possibly because when I first encountered it, I was studying travel narratives and the satisfaction that people take in hearing and telling stories of travel disasters (like the Mary-Go-Round trials and associated drinking game of our lovely hostess!) In a cannibal inn story, a traveler stops at an inn for a night, but wakes up to discover that the kind innkeepers and friendly locals are all cannibals, and the traveler is in danger of being the next meal. The details of each execution reveal a lot about cultural norms: expectations around hospitality, the tensions that can creep into host/guest relationships, what happens when propriety comes into conflict with taboo. Great, rich stuff that can’t be conveyed by a summary.
So, of course, when writing The Dragons of Heaven, I had to include a cannibal inn scenario!
But that threatened to run afoul of another thing I love: characters who are narratively savvy, who know stories and use stories to make sense of the world around them. A character with knowledge of the cannibal inn trope who finds herself in a cannibal inn situation is going to have some awareness of how to deal with the situation.
A bunch of clueless Western tourists… are not.
So, early on in Missy’s adventures (before she gets too narratively savvy), I tell my own version of a cannibal inn story. It’s a tourism-gone-wrong narrative, a take-home-to-your-friends-(if-you-survive) cautionary travel tale. It is not simply a Hansel and Gretel variant (despite the claims of the German tourist in the group). It’s my chance to explore and foreshadow in microcosm Missy’s own, particular hero’s journey as well as the larger themes of the book: issues of cultural intrusion and appropriation, xenophobia/xenophilia, and collaborative heroics.
I wrote the entire thing in a single sitting, cackling to myself as I did so. It’s my favorite non-spoilery chapter to perform at readings when I can wrangle 6-8 people to play the different characters (pro-tip: former Angry Robot editor Lee Harris plays a fantastic vixen!) I take glee when readers tell me that a particular bit (you’ll know it when you get to it) made them queasy. It’s the darling I wasn’t willing to kill even when I wondered whether it had a place in the larger narrative flow of the book. I made it work because I wasn’t willing to let it go.
It resonates because of the trope, but it works because of the particulars. That’s good folklore.
Enter the Goodreads giveaway by July 1 for a chance to win a copy.
Alyc Helms fled her doctoral program in anthropology and folklore when she realized she preferred fiction to academic writing. She dabbles in corsetry and costuming, dances Scottish highland and Irish ceili at Renaissance and Dickens fairs, gets her dander up about social justice issues, and games in all forms of media. She sometimes refers to her work as “critical theory fanfic,” which is a fancy way to say that she is obsessed with liminality, gender identity, and foxes. She’s a freelance RPG writer, a graduate of Clarion West 2012, and her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Her first novel, The Dragons of Heaven, will be published by Angry Robot Books in June 2015. She can be found on Twitter @alychelms or at www.alychelms.com.