Sharon Shinn is joining us today to talk about her novel, Whispering Wood. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The long-awaited new book in the Elemental Blessings series!
Valentina Serlast has reluctantly traveled to the royal city to witness her brother Darien be crowned the king of Welce. A hunti woman with an affinity for the forest, Val is much more comfortable living in isolation on her country estates, almost forgotten by everyone. When Darien convinces her to extend her stay, she is drawn into an unfamiliar whirl of activity, meeting with ambassadors from other countries, becoming friends with the unpredictable Princess Corene, and trying to learn the secrets of a glamorous foreign visitor named Melissande.
But nothing makes Val more breathless than the reappearance of Sebastian Ardelay, a red-headed rogue who has been her best friend since childhood. She quickly learns that Sebastian has been risking his life in a dangerous venture that could get him banned from the kingdom-or even lead Welce to the brink of war.
What’s Sharon’s favorite bit?
In Whispering Wood, Val is a strong-minded young woman who identifies with the elemental trait of wood. She believes that there are rules in the world, that everyone should follow them, and that people who don’t obey them are being deliberately contrary. (It doesn’t occur to her that other people don’t realize these rules actually exist, because some of them are completely arbitrary.)
Her lifelong best friend, Sebastian, identifies more with the element of fire. He’s a charming, impulsive rogue who’s living a reckless and ever more lawless life. Anyone who’s read any of my books immediately knows he’s the love interest, though at the outset it seems like there could hardly be two people who are more incompatible.
When the story opens, Val and Sebastian haven’t seen each other for several months. In Chapter Five, they have a brief, unsatisfying reunion, and they spend half the time arguing. One of my beta readers wrote a note at the bottom of the page: “Not a very romantic meeting.”
But then you turn the page.
Chapter Six contains the first of five flashbacks that trace how Val and Sebastian met and what experiences have made them staunchly loyal to each other. In this scene, Val is eight. The daughter of a prominent politician, she already knows how to be gracious to strangers and how to make a guest feel welcome. Sebastian is a wary seven-year-old with a dead mother and an unreliable father. He’s been taken in and treated kindly by Val’s aunt, but he’s clearly still hurting. He misses his mother; he misses her hugs. Val says, “I’ll hug you if you want.” He does want. From that moment on, they have an unbreakable bond.
The other flashbacks occur when Val is fourteen, nineteen, twenty-one, and twenty-five, and each one shows another pivotal moment in her relationship with Sebastian. In fact, there might be more past-day than present-day interactions between them over the course of the book.
You could argue that these flashback chapters are unnecessary. While both Val and Sebastian play critical roles in the denouement of the book, and they have to care about each other to make that ending work, the romance per se is not essential to the story. The main plot unfolds independently of their relationship. Those chapters are there simply because I love them.
I love the way each episode illuminates something about Val’s personality, or Sebastian’s, or how their lives are intertwined. I love how some scenes are just casual conversations on ordinary afternoons, but they inform what Val and Sebastian believe about each other from that day forward. I love how the final flashback directly refers to the first one in a way that cuts to the heart. Necessary to the action? Maybe not. Essential to the story? I think so.
When I read from Whispering Wood at the 2023 World Fantasy Con, I talked about the fact that the flashbacks could be subtracted from the book without destroying the basic plotline. One of the audience members spoke up to remind me that I had said something similar about an incident in Troubled Waters, which is the first book in the Elemental Blessings series. (Whispering Wood is the fifth.)
In Troubled Waters, the heroine, Zoe, has a chance to choose natal blessings for newborn twins. The girls’ father is frazzled, incoherent, anxious, and elated, and Zoe finds herself practically euphoric by the end of the ritual. The scene itself was a delight to write, but it has absolutely no bearing on the larger story. “I’m glad you left it in,” said the woman in the audience. “It’s my favorite part.”
Years ago, I read a book that I can no longer remember the name of, in which an author talks about how economical writers must be with words. If you’re writing a novel, she says, every page has to matter. If it’s a short story, every paragraph. A poem, every word. Canadian novelist Crawford Kilian has declared that “Every sentence, every phrase, every word has to fight for its life.”
I’m a little more profligate than that. While my prose has gotten more spare over the past twenty years, my storytelling has stayed expansive. Maybe that’s because I write fantasy novels where the world-building details are as important as the plot. Maybe that’s because I like to both read and write character-driven stories where the twists and turns of the relationships can be more heart-stopping than the action.
In the song “Against the Wind,” Bob Seger muses about the challenges of “deadlines and commitments—what to leave in, what to leave out.” I think about that line often when I’m in the editing phase of any new novel. Does this conversation belong? Does this detail matter? If I cut it, will the reader even know it’s missing?
I tend to opt for a richer story over a faster pace. And those sidelong, incidental, secondary scenes tend to be some of my favorites—in every book I’ve written.
Sharon Shinn has published 31 novels, three short fiction collections, and one graphic novel since she joined the science fiction and fantasy world in 1995. She has written about angels, shape-shifters, elemental powers, magical portals, and echoes. She has won the William C. Crawford Award for Outstanding New Fantasy Writer, a Reviewer’s Choice Award from the Romantic Times, and the 2010 RT Book Reviews Career Achievement Award in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category.