Archive for February, 2019


Stories of Russian Winters

In the midst of all the research reading I’ve been doing, I have managed to read a few novels for fun. I read the trilogy by Katherine Arden that began with The Bear and the Nightingale. I’d read that a few years ago when it came out, then somehow missed the second book. The third book came out recently, so I reread the first to refresh myself before reading the whole series.

These are fantasy novels set in medieval Russia, built around some traditional Russian fairy tales and incorporated into bits of actual history. I’ve read some of the tales used in the story, but I’m not familiar enough with them to be able to say how much of these books are a fairy tale retelling and how much they’re something entirely new. At any rate, the result is a fleshed-out world and characters. The look at medieval Russia, which is apparently fairly factual, is almost like seeing something out of another world. It’s a very different place with an unusual (to modern eyes) culture, and their coping mechanisms for winter are interesting. It’s hard for me, a southerner, to imagine a winter so harsh that insulating your home with snow and ice keeps it warmer and the family would sleep on top of the stove. Then imagine traveling in these conditions, and putting coals from the fire in a trench, then building a pallet of branches on top of that to sleep on.

The story follows a girl/young woman growing up in a small village north of Moscow, the daughter of a nobleman. There are stories/rumors about her mother and grandmother and the fact that they might not have been entirely human. Our heroine, Vasya, seems to take after them. She sees all the little spirits who occupy the land and their homes — the ones who care for the oven, for the home, for the stable, the trees, the waterways. But there are darker spirits out there, as well, and they’ve noticed her. Whether she can protect her people from them depends on whether she’ll be allowed to by her stepmother, who’s fallen under the spell of a vain and paranoid priest.

Whether you want to read these in the winter and enjoy the atmosphere as you huddle under a blanket with a warm beverage or in the summer so that the trip to an icy land helps take you away from the heat is up to your own inclinations. I found them the perfect reading for a cold winter day. I put some Rachmaninov on the stereo, made some tea, and settled down for some vicarious traveling.

The pacing of these books is rather leisurely, especially the first one. There’s a lot of time spent establishing the world and the characters and hinting at the looming threat before the action kicks into high gear. I enjoyed playing in that world before the action started, but if you like a fast pace and non-stop action, these might not be to your taste. If you like wallowing in an interesting setting, they may be more to your taste. The later books in the series do kick up the intensity and the stakes. These are definitely recommended to those who want something different from most of what’s been published as mainstream fantasy, or if you liked Spinning Silver and the Russian setting of that.

The Movie in My Head

I was talking yesterday with someone about what goes through my head when I’m working on a book, and I guess it can seem kind of odd to someone who doesn’t live that way.

Strangely, I have both a movie playing in my head and narrative, at the same time, so it’s like a movie that contains voiceover narration that covers everything. I both see the action and hear the words describing the action, though sometimes it varies. Earlier in the process, there may be bits that I see, and then I find the words to describe them. Or I may have just the narration, like in cases where the narrator is talking about thoughts and feelings, and later figure out where these things fit in the action, and then the movie scenes will build.

I never really see a complete “movie” straight through. I see scenes, and not always entirely in order. They may repeat in different ways until I feel like I’m getting them right. I’ve seen some of the opening scenes for the story I’m developing now in multiple ways, sometimes adding stuff and sometimes subtracting stuff as I figure out how they should really go. At times, the “movie” remains the same but the narration changes. That’s when I’m figuring out the exact words.

Not all the scenes in the “movie” make it into the book. Some are backstory that doesn’t need to go in the book but that I need to know. Some are figuring out the characters — again, stuff I need to know but that may not belong in the book. Some are just figuring out the world. Right now, there’s a scene I really like because it says so much about the world and the characters, and it’s just really lovely imagery, but I suspect it won’t go in the book because it’s really just “ordinary world” stuff and doesn’t push the plot forward. It only delays getting to the main action, so it may have to remain a memory for the character that doesn’t play out “on stage,” so to speak.

The other thing that tends to happen to me is that I find myself seeing the world through my main character’s eyes. One of the traits of this heroine is that she’s really good with animals, at a supernatural level. They instinctively like and trust her, and she’s good about sensing what’s going on with them, but she’s not conscious of this as a special gift. It’s just the way she is. Well, yesterday I went to lunch with someone, and while I was waiting for her, I was admiring the aquarium in the restaurant lobby. It was a floor-to-ceiling pillar, and the fish were huge, most of them about the size of my hand. They all rushed over to where I was standing, reminding me of the way dogs act when you visit their home, clustering around you and seeking attention. Some even turned so that their eyes were facing me directly, making eye contact with me. I found myself thinking about how all animals seem to be drawn to me — and then I remembered that was the character, not me. I suspect the fish thought they were about to get fed, so there was no mystical bond happening.

Right now, I have at least bits of “movie” for the first third of the book, and a few random scenes from later in the story. I need to start developing the secondary characters, but otherwise, I think I’m about ready to start writing. It’s a good sign that I find myself thinking so much about these people and their world, but it does make “adulting” hard when I just want to play in my story world. Yesterday was busy, with a business lunch, some errands, and then a meeting in the evening. Today I don’t have to go anywhere, so I can wallow in my imaginary world.

Books, movies

Jane Austen Sick Days

I suppose I should be making some kind of Oscars commentary this morning, but I didn’t watch the ceremony, and I hadn’t seen any of the nominated movies. I think I saw three movies last year. Instead, I was watching the miniseries of War and Peace from a few years ago, mostly to laugh at the costumes (it’s set in the early 1800s in Russia, but a lot of the women’s dresses were more 1930s movie star or 1990s bridesmaid).

I guess I fell into that because I was out of Jane Austen stuff to watch. When you’re sick, as I’ve been for the past few days, Jane Austen is the perfect source for things to read or watch. You don’t have to worry about characters dying, unless it’s a troublesome elderly relative dying offscreen to leave someone a fortune. You don’t have to worry about someone suffering more than a broken heart or the cold they get from getting caught in the rain. If someone we like gets jilted, we can rest assured that the jilter will be smacked upside the head with karma. The people we like and want to end up together will come out well and end up together, while the people we don’t like will get what’s coming to them.

And all of this will happen in lovely dresses on nice, sunny days (unless the weather is needed for a plot point, like that rain to make someone sick). They may talk about needing money, but no one starves, and there are plenty of rich friends and relatives around to help ease the way.

I’m reading a biography of Jane Austen right now, and it seems like a lot of that was wish fulfillment on her part because life was hard and bad things did happen. In her books, she was smoothing over the rough edges, even as she was unleashing the snark and using her pen to create karma that the real world didn’t provide.

Now that I’ve made it through all that Amazon Prime has to offer, I need to get the hoopla app on my Roku up and running because I get that service through my library, and they seem to have the latest Northanger Abbey, which might be even more fun now, since Cathy is played by a young Felicity Jones, and after seeing her in Rogue One, that means I’ll be wanting Cathy to blow stuff up. But that may have to wait until the next time I’m sick. I’m on the mend now and less in need of comfort viewing.

By the way, War and Peace isn’t good comfort viewing if you’re actually paying attention and not just snarking at the clothes or admiring the men’s uniforms. Way too much emotional turmoil, though there is some satisfying karma.


More Fun with Research

I’m still in heavy-duty research mode, having picked up even more books at the library yesterday, and it really isn’t just creative procrastination because I keep finding little details that spin my story off into a different direction or that give me ideas. Or that validate my ideas in an almost creepy way.

I’d decided that I was going to very loosely base my villain on a certain historical figure, but blended with some other stuff so that it’s not just this historical figure. I’d figured out a lot of stuff about his character, adding on to what I knew about the figure. Then I started researching this figure. I didn’t know a lot about him, just the general big-picture stuff. And it turns out that some of the stuff I made up to add to this real person in order to create a fictional character was actually true of this real person. My made-up character loosely based on a historical figure turns out to have been a reasonably accurate depiction of the historical figure.

Which means I may need to make up some more stuff so it won’t look like this person is just a fantasy version of the historical figure, but that means I need to do a little more research to make sure that I’m not accidentally just adding more real-life details about the historical figure. I don’t think some of these things I’ve found are really common knowledge, and my target readership probably isn’t going to go, “Hey, that’s that guy from history!” but editors might.

Meanwhile, since I’m looking at multiple books on the same topic, it’s been interesting to see how widely differing views tend to be. In one reference book, this person was supposedly his mother’s favorite child and he turned out the way he did in part because his mother doted on him so much. In the next book I read about these same people, supposedly he turned out the way he did because his mother was so harsh and strict with him and she never really showed him any interest or affection. The first book is more recent and was based on correspondence among these people that was previously hidden in archives, so it might be more accurate, since it uses the actual words of these people and the people around them rather than speculation based on observations recorded in publicly available documents. That’s why you look at multiple sources for your research. Of course, it doesn’t matter as much if you’re just using the history as inspiration for totally fictional characters in a made-up world that has magic in it.

But it also can show the difference between public and private personas and perceptions, and that’s something that can fuel a plot. It seems that people at the time saw this person as having cruel, unfeeling parents that he was rebelling against, and they had no idea that his mother was actually quite sympathetic and intervened to try to keep his father from being harsh with him. He seems to have been playing the public for sympathy to try to pressure his family and others into giving him more money.

It’s fun feeling pieces of story click into place as I research.

publishing business

Authors Behaving Badly

The writing world has been buzzing in the past few days about yet another plagiarism case. This one opened up a whole seamy underbelly of publishing and what people are doing to get ahead.

Alert readers notified authors that they’d spotted bits of their books in a “new” book they were reading, and it turned out that the book in question was a mosaic of pieces from other books (and an article or two) pasted together, with the character names and a few words changed and a little bit of transition to more or less smooth over the gaps between the stolen bits. The “author” in question claimed to be shocked at these allegations and blamed it on a ghostwriter she’d hired to write the book.

But then that opened a can of worms in revealing that this “author” wasn’t actually writing her books. She was more of a publisher, a content mill, hiring people to churn out books for her to publish. One of her ghostwriters has said that the “author” was actually the one who handed over a manuscript and asked the writer to smooth it out for her, essentially doing a heavy edit, and what was handed over turned out to have been a bunch of chunks taken from other books.

A lot of this comes down to attempts to game the Amazon algorithm, especially for Kindle Unlimited, where authors are paid by the number of pages read. To stay near the top so that your books are more visible, you have to keep a steady flow of new content going, and to do that, some authors are resorting to tricks of various degrees of shadiness. There’s ghostwriting—cheaply hiring freelancers to churn out books for you to publish. There’s book stuffing, in which a “book” is actually a collection of previously released other books, with one new book at the end, so the author gets credit for thousands of pages read when the reader skips to the last book (Amazon tried to crack down on this by changing the rules about what counts as a “book”). There are schemes for click farms, in which people are hired just to click through books so the authors get credit for pages read and so that the books move up in the rankings, so they’re more visible and are more likely to be read. Some of the scammers post fake reviews for competitors’ books, then allege to Amazon that the competitor paid for the reviews, so those books get taken down.

The result is that Amazon is now so full of shady stuff that it’s hard for real books to get noticed. I know my sales have slumped a lot, and that’s one reason I’m trying to find a publisher. I’m afraid the whole independent publishing thing is going to collapse under its own weight. Kindle Unlimited has really just encouraged some of the more toxic behavior. These schemes wouldn’t be so lucrative without that, if each book had to be purchased and had to stand on its own merits. The problem is that Amazon doesn’t care because they’re not losing money. They make the same whether it’s a stuffed plagiarized book or a well-written original book, and the scammer may be even more likely to buy ads from them.

All this to say that legitimate authors need readers’ support more than ever. It’s harder for our books to be discovered amid all the noise, so reviews and word of mouth are essential.


Researching Fiction

Some of the ideas and insights I got during yesterday’s round of research reading reminded me of one of the few points I was allowed to make in last weekend’s Panel From Hell. If you want to create a vivid world that doesn’t perpetuate tropes and stereotypes, you can’t use other fiction as your reference or source material. You need to do actual non-fiction research.

You can see what happens when people use fiction as a source in a lot of the fantasy from the 1970s and early 80s that’s essentially just a take on The Lord of the Rings, or the 1970s and 1980s space opera that’s heavily inspired by Star Trek or Star Wars.

But since magical lands with wizards and elves and great space empires don’t really exist, how else are you supposed to research them?

Everything we humans write is based on human experience, one way or another, so you find analogues in our world that you want to base your fantasy worlds and cultures on. That’s what Tolkien did in the first place. You’re more likely to get something interesting and original by going to the sources he read than you are by going to what he wrote. Read about the history of the era you’re basing your world on, read about the culture. Read world history to see how various things came together to make certain conditions happen. If you’re writing about a space empire, look at how some of the empires on earth have worked.

That doesn’t mean that you have to (or even should) write The British Empire — In Space! But studying the British Empire would probably give you a lot of ideas for what might happen in an empire with far-flung territories and no real-time communication, and the result would be more unique and interesting than yet another thinly veiled retelling of Star Wars.

When it comes to fantasy worlds, you’re better off using your research to generate ideas rather than trying to be meticulous about re-creating our cultures in that world. You probably shouldn’t have an obvious Magical Asia, Magical Europe, and Magical Africa, but studying the ways cultures intersected and interacted might give you ideas for creating your own cultures.

The one area where fiction might serve as a reference is if you read novels written in the time and place you’re basing your story on. That can give you a sense of how they used language and what was going on with the culture in that time. If you’re writing a world based on Regency England (or an alternate history in that time), you really should read the works of Jane Austen. But you can’t just read those works, or else you’ll end up with yet another take on Jane Austen rather than something original. Period novels are part of your research, not all of it.

I do try to read whatever’s been written in the general area of my story idea, but not to get ideas. I want to know what’s been done so that I don’t inadvertently copy it. I can choose to go my own way once I know what others have done. It’s also good market research to know what’s been done and how well it worked.


Research Serendipity

I keep thinking that I’m getting to the end of my research process, but then I keep finding new stuff. I was reading a book that I thought I probably didn’t need but that I thought might be interesting and I discovered something that helps me set up the main part of the story. Then I was reading another book that I suspected would probably be overkill, since it was about what would happen if the characters didn’t take the action they take — and it ended up having a key bit of information I hadn’t been able to find elsewhere. So maybe I need to keep digging.

I think a secondary benefit to the research phase is the additional time spent thinking before I start writing. That gives me a chance to mentally flesh out the characters and their world before I start committing to actual words. I’m seeing lots of the “movie” of the story in my head, and it’s gradually filling in details. As much as I have figured out, I’m realizing how much I don’t know. Like, I don’t have a lot about my villain and I don’t have a secondary cast. I know a lot about what one part of my world looks like, but the part where the bulk of the story takes place is a bit of a blank.

So there’s work to be done. Unfortunately, some of the information I need is kind of scarce. I’m having trouble tracking down exactly what I’m looking for. I guess I’ll just have to hope for more research serendipity. Maybe I’ll stumble on exactly what I need while I’m looking up something that initially seems to be extraneous.

Awkward Convention Moments

My weekend was something of a mixed bag. It was good to catch up with some friends at the convention, and I actually learned something and got a lot out of some of the panels I went to. But I also had some rather negative panel experiences.

One wasn’t too bad, just a That Guy panelist who thinks that because he’s self published a book, he’s an authority on everything, but I was the moderator, and he wasn’t too difficult to hold back. I’ve seen far worse, and I think he was more on the enthusiasm end of things than the arrogance end of things.

But then there was the Panel From Hell. I was generally planning to hold back on that one because while I have thoughts on the topic, I’m less of an authority than most of the other people on the panel, and I was going to defer to them. But then there was a panelist who wasn’t going to defer to anyone. If she had a thought, she expressed it, even if someone was already talking about something. If she figured out where someone was going with a thought, she’d jump in to complete their thought, and then talk some more. I tend to just shut down in those circumstances. You can’t win when you can’t get a word in edgewise, and you only end up looking like a jerk if you try to shout over them. The other panelists could barely get their say, and I didn’t want to take time away from them, so I just sat there and let it wash over me. Then the moderator specifically asked me for input, I started to say something, and the rest of the panel picked it up and ran with it, so I sat there some more. Near the end, the moderator came to me again, mentioned that I hadn’t had the chance to say much, and asked me for any thoughts. I started to say something, and that panelist jumped in on me again, talking over me and picking up my thought to go on and say her piece on it. That was when I lost it. I raised my voice over hers and said, “May I please be allowed to complete my thought?” It got quiet, and I was finally allowed a complete sentence. It was very awkward and uncomfortable.

I don’t think there was malice involved. It was just a degree of self-absorption that spiraled out of control. She did later apologize, which was even more awkward because I think she expected me to say it was okay, but it wasn’t, and I didn’t entirely buy her excuses (if you know you have that tendency, then you either come up with coping mechanisms to curb yourself, or you decide that paneling isn’t for you because it’s probably doing her more harm than good).

Needless to say, I came home utterly exhausted. But now my next convention is the Nebula Awards weekend conference, and that’s more of a professional conference than a convention. And then I don’t have another fan convention until September.

But I did get a good idea for something new I want to try, so stay tuned for news.

Now to get myself back in gear and back to work. Mondays after conventions are always tough because I feel like I didn’t get a weekend, but I really need to treat today like a work day.


I’ll be at ConDFW in Fort Worth this Saturday, if anyone in the north Texas area is interested in stopping by. I’ve struggled with this convention in the past because it falls at a time of year when I really don’t feel too social. It’s hibernation season, and being around large groups of people is jarring. Plus, it seems like either the weather is awful (there was the year we had record snowfall the day before) or the weather is nice but spring allergy season has hit (like this year — I’ll have to carry a box of tissues with me). Last year, I said I’d skip it this year, but now this year is going to be the last year, so I figured I’d go one more time. I’m only doing Saturday since the crowd is so light on Friday that it’s not worth the drive, and I have obligations on Sunday.

But I will be reading a bit from the upcoming Enchanted, Inc. book.

I am leaning away from conventions for the time being, in part because I need to be focusing on writing right now and in part because I need to figure out a new way to make them work for me. I’m at the awkward in-between stage in which the people who are at the conventions I can easily get to already know who I am, so I don’t get much of a boost out of being there, but I’m not well enough known to get invited as a guest of honor to conventions farther away, and I’m not sure that attending a convention that I have to pay travel expenses for would pay off if I’m just there as a panelist. So maybe I need to get a little more famous some other way or have a few more books before I dive in again. At the very least, I need to let people miss me, though I guess there’s also the risk of them forgetting about me.

It is a little depressing when people who haven’t been around as long as I have and who have fewer books than I have are getting invited as special guests and workshop instructors. I’ve been a guest of honor at one convention, but there are also conventions where I can’t even seem to get accepted as a panelist. So, back into my cave to plot my triumphant return.

I’d thought I’d done most of the research I needed to build this world, but I picked up a book at the library yesterday on a whim, supposedly to research an aspect of this world, though it wasn’t something that I thought needed to be developed any further because it’s a minor part of the story — and then that book gave me the solution I needed to a plot problem I’d been wrestling with. So maybe I need a bit more research.

Happy Valentine’s Meh

Happy Valentine’s Day, to those who celebrate. I don’t, really. It’s not a militant Single’s Awareness thing. It’s more of a cynical apathy. If you need a multimillion dollar marketing campaign to tell you that you should be romantic on a particular day that may or may not actually be meaningful to you or your relationship, then you’ve got bigger problems than a box of chocolates is likely to be able to fix. I’m actually rather happy being single and suffer no pangs of envy when I see happy couples. I don’t really want a relationship and wouldn’t want to trade places with them.

What I celebrate is Discount Chocolate Day on Feb. 15. I may see if I can also score some cheap flowers so I can have fresh flowers in the house.

I do find it ironic that my books are seen as very romantic and fantasy publishers keep rejecting my books and suggesting that they might be better suited to romance when I’m not really a very romantic person. But I think it’s the hint of romance, the very slow burn, that makes the people who like them like them. There’s not much actual romance, more the hope of future romance. And that’s why the fantasy publishers are showing their lack of market knowledge because that’s definitely not something that flies in the romance genre. I guess you could say I write romance for people who don’t actually want full-blown Romance.

I’m the weirdo who considers The Terminator one of the most romantic movies ever made. I thought Aliens was also pretty romantic (and I have had my view validated by Michael Biehn, who said he played it as though Hicks was falling in love with Ripley).

When I have my rare moments of wanting romantic warm fuzzies, I tend to turn to Stardust, either the book or the movie (though the adventure and transformation are what I love about that story).

I think in general I like my romances to involve a lot of development of the non-romantic relationship, with just a dash of a hint of something more.

I’m afraid this is going to be a very non-romantic Valentine’s Day for me, since I’ll be watching documentaries instead of a romantic comedy. I’m researching a book.

I did get some valentines this year from my kindergarteners. Hand-drawn kid valentines are the best.