June 26, 2021 • No Comments
Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world. ― Voltaire
Fire is light and movement and passion. It comforts and terrifies, gives life and destroys it. To embody this element, my heroine of the fire fae had to be a creature of contrasts, so it seemed natural that she’d be a dancer. Few things demand such primal abandon and rigorous discipline at once.
Where do characters come from? It’s one thing to imagine the type of character we want—a fire fae, a spunky barista, a master thief. However, creating a protagonist who can lead a complex story goes beyond a simple archetype. We need broad strokes, but we also need emotions, contradictions, history, and a deep well of desires that are completely unique to that individual. Real people are messy and complicated. Characterization should capture some of that, even if the heroine is a paranormal being.
My characters come to me in many different ways, but in this case Leena and Smolder arrived through three inspirations. The first came from Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet, The Rite of Spring. At the time of its premier, both the music and choreography shocked audiences—a lusty depiction of ritual sacrifice was just too distant from the floaty tutus usually seen on the Paris stage. But if anything could summon flame from the core of the universe, it was this creation, and I loved its strangeness and power at first sight. Stravinsky also wrote The Firebird, so my subconscious clearly owes him a debt for my book about a dancer and a phoenix.
So, I had my concept of what a fire fae should be—the flavor or keynote of her nature. But Leena is a person and not a ballet, so I used a writing meditation to find the core of her psychology. It’s perfect as a second step, when an author knows the basic facts about a character and it’s time to find out more:
Imagine yourself in a character’s room. What is there? What does it tell you about the character?
Leena’s room in the poorer district of Eldaban has little in it, but I found a woolen shawl woven in a pattern that is typical of her mountain tribe. What does it say about her? A shawl is used to keep warm, but it’s also good for carrying possessions, gathering apples, making a baby sling, or as a shroud. The wool would come from the family’s sheep. The women of the tribe would spin and weave it. A mother might make a shawl as a gift for her daughter as a sign that she was ready to forge her own future. That told me a lot about Leena’s people—humble, independent, and steeped in the love of their home and family.
I did a similar exercise around Leena’s chatelaine, which she carries with her in Smolder. (For those who don’t know, chatelaines were a short of tool-holder that clipped to a belt. Here is a beautiful example of one from the nineteenth century.) At first, I didn’t know how Leena would use the chatelaine in the story, but she insisted on having it. It turned out to be essential to the plot, so sometimes the character knows best!
So now that I knew who Leena was, I had to know how she finds the courage to walk into extreme danger. My third inspiration was Fionn, her brother. She held his hand when they fled the destruction of their homeland. She raised him from the time they were orphaned children, but now he’s a grown man with ambitions of his own. When he makes a terrible choice, what’s a big sister to do? Try to save him, of course, even if it’s a task far beyond anything she’s braved before. This was the motivation that launched my story’s plot.
So, to return to the initial question of where do characters come from–mostly they walk into my head fully formed, but once in a while I get to know them in a more organized way. These three steps describe how I discovered enough about Leena to begin writing her adventure. I found the inspiration, developed her backstory, and gave her strong motivation. They helped me find her spark at the start.
As befits a fire fae, she needed no help from me to set the rest of the story ablaze.
June 20, 2021 • 2 Comments
Never work with animals or children. – W.C. Fields
Pets steal the show, whether at a family picnic, in a meme, or as part of your story. Thousands of cat videos prove the magnetic attraction of furry characters, the more ridiculous the better. As a case in point, readers of Smolder, third in the Crown of Fae series, talked as much about Kifi the talking temple cat as the hero, heroine, and villains combined. Small, sassy, and very much the star of her own story, she got to be outrageous in ways that human characters could never pull off.
Writing such characters well isn’t always easy. Stage management is a constant problem. If your book is a romance, Fido has to be parked before the humans can have alone time. If it’s an action-packed thriller, one is in a constant state of saving the cat. As a rule, I carefully control the amount of time the little scene-stealers are on the page. Otherwise, as the storyline becomes a logistics nightmare, dog-napping starts to look like a practical plot twist. Plus, while any side character can hog the limelight, animals are the worst. Don’t give them all the best lines.
So why include an animal as a side character in your book? The cute factor wears off eventually, but pets can be effective character extensions of their humans. What does it say about the lumberjack when it turns out he picks a goggle-eyed pug over a pit bull for his rescue project? Have you noticed how many B-movie villains own smug felines? The Game of Thrones series (especially the books) used a litter of wolf puppies as shorthand for the lives and fates of the Stark children. Through their presence, animals can contrast or comment on the rest of a narrative and its characters.
Or, they can level up and play a role in the action. Murder-solving pets are a staple of the mystery genre. A favorite of mine is Monty the golden retriever and his handler, Sarah Patrick, in Iris Johansen’s mysteries. Monty is a cadaver dog, which gives him an important role in the stories. He knows his role and understands when he’s done his job—or when he’s failed—in a very realistic way. An animal’s vulnerability naturally heightens the emotion of a situation, whether that’s for laughter or nail-biting drama.
Integrating an animal character into the plot can mean giving them a story goal and character arc. In Smolder, Kifi joins the quest so she can meet her queen, a decision that turns out to have important consequences for the human characters. Kifi is also a feline, with all the sassy good and bad that entails. There is a temptation to make pets too adorable, and a dash of naughtiness avoids sentimentality.
The gold standard, in my opinion, remains the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. He writes about talking animals, but they are memorable creations with personality, flaws and a purpose. The author treats them as fully formed characters and so makes them integral to the story. No one who has met Reepicheep or Mr. Tumnus will soon forget them.
Even if that’s going deeper into fantasy than is appropriate for your story, it’s worth considering what’s on your fictional pet’s mind. The trick is to make those fuzzy characters work hard for their time on stage and deliver good story value. When W.C. Fields warned that animals can easily steal the show, he understood their power to entertain.
August 20, 2020 • No Comments
Would you like me to tell your fortune? For a silver coin, I will consult my tarot cards. Ah, yes, I foresee you’re about to encounter a large to-be-read pile…
I imagined a unique set of tarot cards while planning the Hellion House series. The images in the deck came to me very strongly while I was first making notes about the books. Scorpion Dawn, Leopard Ascending, Chariot Moon—these are all airships, but those vessels got their names from the cards. Fortune’s Eve recounts the first time that tarot comes into play. For those who like to follow story breadcrumbs, pay attention to that scene.
Of course, it had to be a deck I’d never seen before, which meant recording the entire thing as it appeared in the story a bit at a time. Here’s what I know so far…
The deck has five suites (sky, fire, earth, water, spirit) of thirteen cards each. Each suite relates to an aspect of being. For instance, earth rules the material plane.
Most of the images on the cards are single animals, plants, or other straightforward objects.
To cast a reading, lay out the cards in a triangle. They naturally fall into the rising, descending, or hidden positions on the three sides. Therefore, the leopard in an ascending position means that its influence is on the rise and all that fiery animal passion is going a-prowling. The closer it is to the apex of the triangle, the more pronounced its energy will be. If the leopard is on the other side of the triangle, it would indicate the hunt was waning or going awry. If the card was at the bottom of the triangle, it would mean kitty’s energy was turned inward, either asleep or rebuilding for a future time. A fulsome reading would involve a dozen or so cards.
Scorpion Dawn refers to the first awakening of the protective scorpion. The legend has it that when the mighty hunter Orion slaughtered far too many animals, the goddess sent the lowly scorpion to protect her creatures. Too small to be noticed, the scorpion nonetheless poisoned Orion with a sting to the heel. Never underestimate the little guy—or girl—especially if she gets this card.
The main function of the cards in the story is as a means of exploring the characters and their drives. Like all such elements in fiction, it’s a seasoning and not a main dish. Too much and it gets awkward, but it’s a useful way to highlight a moment here and there.
Custom illustration by Leah Friesen
June 14, 2020 • No Comments
Happy book birthday to Flicker, a prequel novella in the Crown of Fae series.
Wait? Why release a prequel halfway through the series? Well, I wanted to tell a story about Fliss, Ronan’s charming little sister and how she met Laren, the dashing water fae. She’s been a supporting character until now deserved a tale of her own. And, that largely happened.
What I wasn’t expecting was that these were TEENAGERS. Whether I liked it or not, my characters were crazy, wrong-headed, adorable, and insane—rather like most of us are at that age. As a result, this book has action galore, school problems, scary teachers, and a dash of sweet romance. This makes it more YA than the rest of the series, but (I think) in a fun way.
What was intended as a short story became a novella. In amongst all that youthful drama, I was able to set up some characters and circumstances that shape the next few books. Keep an eye on that enchanted bird. There might even be a clue to an Easter egg buried in one of the books already out.
For those who’ve read the books so far, the timeline between Flicker and Shimmer is as follows (no real spoilers here):
- In the prequel, Fliss is thirteen.
- The Shades arrived a hundred years before.
- The battle of Ildaran Falls, after which many of the fae fled Faery, was twenty years before.
- After the events of Flicker, Laren joins the older dragons in some of their exploits, becoming friends with Ronan. Ronan and Fliss, however, don’t see much of each other until Shimmer, where she is a fully adult fae.
- Ronan’s journey begins in Faery, but when Shimmer begins, he’s been in the human realms for some time. Since time runs differently in the human and fae worlds—and wherever else he might have been—It’s difficult to measure exactly how many years pass between the two stories, but to Ronan’s perception it is centuries.
And handsome Telkoram? Why yes, we will see him again.
For more about Flicker and to read an excerpt, click here.
Or simply buy it here.
March 9, 2020 • No Comments
Consider setting versus worldbuilding. According to Novelist and screen writer Chuck Wendig, when we say worldbuilding “We’re talking about the revelation of your story world and its details through the story itself. It’s easy to think this means “setting,” but that’s way too simple — world building covers everything and anything inside that world. Money, clothing, territorial boundaries, tribal customs, building materials, imports and exports, transportation, sex, food, the various types of monkeys people possess, whether the world does or does not contain Satanic “twerking” rites.”
That means there is work to do on your story. The basic place to start is forming a clear picture of your setting. Chances are, it is a real place or it is similar to a real place that can be investigated.
If you’re writing about a real time and place, research the history of your setting up to the time period you’re working with. Your characters will know the history–at least the recent history–of their world, so you need to as well.
- One question you might ask is who founded your location? Why?
- Does that matter to your story (for instance, what would the old prime-time soap opera Dallas be without the oil industry)?
- Think about taking your story and putting it someplace really different. How much of it would work? What would you have to change? What does that say about your choice of time and place?
Writers with a contemporary setting need to do as much or even more research. People live in the city you’re writing about, and they’re not a homogeneous group.
- Different parts of an existing town have different characteristics.
- Different groups of people have different hangouts, different language, different food, dress, etc.
PRO TIP: Climate is important and often a defining characteristic of a region. However, don’t assume. Most of the world thinks of Canada as snow country. Victoria, where I live, has palm trees and rarely more than a few days of snow a year.
You might want to make a story bible, which is a collection of facts, documents, ideas, and everything else about your story world. This is a lifesaver if you’re doing a series.
Here are some tools:
An article on How to use Scrivener for Worldbuilding
An amazing customizable template from Sarah Perlmutter
The type of information you collect and how you collect it will depend entirely on your story and working methods. The only important thing is that you keep the relevant information in a way you can access quickly. Start collecting information before it becomes unwieldy. The time when I normally decide I want a story bible is long past the time when it would be convenient to start one.
Other, more entertaining ways to deal with research:
- Youtube videos about places
- Blogs about visiting places
- Pinterest for pictures of places
Of course, the very best option is to visit a location. Taste the food. Smell the air. Feel the dryness or humidity, and whether the atmosphere is high and clear or soft and sea level. Look at the flowers. Fall in the mud (speaking personally). Find out what is the same and different from the place you live.
March 6, 2020 • 2 Comments
Here is the map (beautifully done by Zenta Brice) for the Crown of Fae series:
March 2, 2020 • No Comments
Why care about a story’s setting?
A lot of people think of setting description as the specific surroundings where the action occurs. “There was a red camel in the corner.” “The curtains were blue lace with tiny hearts woven into the fabric.”
This is true. Most of us learn to write this stuff when we’re in grade school. We learn to use our specific and colorful words and our imaginations and once we’ve mastered that, every writing book ever tells us these passages of prose are wrong and bad. This is also true.
Setting is way more than a blob of description.
It’s also the “big picture” where the story was set: the Wild West, the Weird West, Las Vegas in the 1930s, the Antebellum South. With that comes history, culture, and the way that society works. This is why, in my opinion, some theatre directors take a huge risk when they move Shakespeare or other stories from one time period to another. If a story is integrated into its setting, it relies on the dynamics of that world. It needs the power structure, the cultural norms, and the societal context of that world to inform it.
One reason West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet) worked as a story was because Arthur Laurents transplanted a story about an Italian gang culture in the renaissance (seriously, what were the big families in the Quattrocento but gangs?) to a modern American gang culture. There are enough common elements in terms of social mores, power structure, and all the things that make action and consequence function that the rewritten story still makes sense. In this way, it’s the setting and all that goes with it that provides an important mechanism for story tension.
Think on a small, specific level (the curtains) and a global one (the Renaissance)
Setting can indicate past, present, or future on both a literal level (story time line) and an emotional one. The book Snow Falling on Cedars (David Guterson) very successfully uses contrasting settings to keep the past and present storylines separate and he makes the tension dance between them. It’s a courtroom drama about the fallout from a Japanese-American internment camp. The way he uses setting to convey mood is brilliant.
Setting is the difference between a script and a movie. It’s all the information—the colour, the history, and the context—that exists around your dialogue and your plot. It’s your costume and stage sets. It often overlaps with character and motivation. It reveals theme, point of view, culture, power dynamics, and emotion.
Setting grounds the story in a time and place and can convey mind set, culture, mood, and personality. Whether your protagonist hangs out in a historic English pub or a moonshine still in the Kentucky woods says a lot about him. For this reason it can be used for situational irony. Most common are fish out of water stories like the shows Hart of Dixie or Northern Exposure. It is a useful shorthand for establishing character.
Setting is context. Consider that readers may not understand the setting of your story, even if they know the city. Think of the difference between The Gangs of New York and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. With a global market for readers, you especially have to explain it to them because other people from other backgrounds or cultures may have no understanding of your story world, even if it is set in modern times.
December 31, 2019 • 2 Comments
Some authors are posting dazzling lists of publications, and I heartily salute their accomplishments. I thought I would have a bumper crop of books, too, when this year started. Somehow, though, things changed along the way and the year didn’t end the way I thought. 2019 was a dumpster fire for a lot of people and, while I count myself lucky, I didn’t entirely escape the smoke. 2020 will be better.
What did I actually get in front of readers this year?
- In January, did a re-release of an older book that rounded out my 2018 goals.
- Released two books in box sets, hit the USA Today bestseller list for both, and then put them in the vault for later.
- Published an essay in an academic work.
- Wrote a short story that’s now a lead magnet.
- Got my extended print distribution onto Ingram Spark.
- By the end of this week, I’ll have finished a draft of a new, full length, first-in series.
I also investigated a lot of marketing courses, played with various ad platforms, and listened to many podcasts. That’s all hard to quantify as achievement, but it will serve me well in future.
Where did that get me?
I think it’s safe to say all authors want enthusiastic fans and financial freedom. It’s not an impossible dream, but it’s not an easy road. It requires groundwork such as intelligent branding, scheduling, and development of infrastructure like engaged newsletter lists, reader funnels, and social media. There are a thousand choices to consider, and dozens of platforms to learn. It’s all behind-the-scenes stuff readers don’t consciously notice and most authors despise unless they have an aptitude for business. However, it’s like gas for a car. It stinks, but you don’t go anywhere without it.
2019 was my trip to the gas station. I’m not done putting everything together, but I’m well on the way. Part of the process has been discovering what mix of marketing makes sense to me, given my time, money, and introvert tendencies. I’ll probably blog more. I’ll review craft resources. I’m also very interested in sharing some of the ingredients that go into world building, especially with the fantasy stuff. I think it’s going to be fun.
And 2020? I haven’t scheduled it all yet, but I’ll have a nice list of the year’s releases by next New Year’s Eve. I’ve put in the work to be ready.
October 10, 2019 • No Comments
Unfortunately, the income of most authors is not enough to sustain a mouse, much less a modern household in a large urban city. Without a doubt, this is the most common reason for the rise of the weekend warrior writer, who toils for pay five days a week and pounds on the keyboard during weekend hours. The disadvantages of this state are obvious—who doesn’t want to be a full-time writer rather than drudging for someone else? Plus, if one is serious about a writing career, the time commitment is equivalent to a second full-time job.
But there are also advantages to a double life.
- Some of us actually like our day jobs (or at least the benefits package)
- Part-time writers might have fewer titles under their belt, but they may have gained other useful busness skills.
- It’s far easier to let the imagination frolic when there’s less pressure to succeed.
- If writing to a niche market is your thing, financial security allows you the luxury of taking a creative risk. So, go ahead and write that book of your heart about vampire sheep conquering distant galaxies!
Whatever the trade-offs, we do what’s necessary to get words on the page. So here are some survival tips for writing around the edges of your day:
Organization is obviously important for any home business, whatever its nature. For us, this means breaking down writing, marketing, and production tasks into manageable bites and fitting them into our schedules. There are people who can squeeze in writing time in uncanny circumstances, but others get more mileage by blocking off set times for creation. The important point is to manage time in an intentional way. If I go with the flow my day is soon circling the drain.
I’ve experimented with an endless series of calendars and apps like Things 3 to corral my to-dos. I need something that offers repeating reminders (daily, weekly, or monthly) and groups tasks by project and type (writing, personal, household, etc.). The combo of ideal tools will vary with every person, but the basic goal is to avoid reinventing the to-list every morning. Ideally, your app fairies have that figured out before you roll out of bed. The less time spent puzzling over the day’s tasks, the more time can be devoted to actually crossing items off the list.
Know your peak productivity times. Some people can knock off a thousand words before breakfast. Others (like me) are night owls. Put your creative time where (and when) it counts. I might be able to schedule Tweets in the morning, but don’t ask me to make complete sentences, recognize faces, or handle anything sharp. Once, I actually put cat kibble in the coffee maker.
Be professional. Show up fully wherever you are. In other words, leave writing at home and work at work. Keep your deadlines and commitments, whatever hat you’re wearing. Bottom line: avoid emailing your manuscript to your boss by mistake.
Respect your muse. Writing can a hard business, with a ton of expectation placed on our creative selves. In particular, there is a lot of pressure to produce material quickly, which is especially hard when writing time is hard to get.
Deep breath! It is possible to get faster with practice. Solid plotting skills and a regular writing routine naturally increase the pace of book production. Drafting by dictation speeds things up for me, but it took months to produce something beyond stream of consciousness babble. Sadly, there is no magic software that makes you write a bestselling novel in two weeks. Believe me, I’ve tried them all!
Most of all, be patient with yourself. Weekend writers aren’t on a learning curve, we’re on a mandala, looping in and out and around everything else to pursue our path. We’re proof positive that there are plenty of ways to find success, even if it’s by the scenic route.
October 9, 2019 • No Comments
The Hellion House series (the first installment, Scorpion Dawn was introduced in the Rogue Skies box set) involves a great many floating objects. The plot centers around the Fletcher family, who own one of the largest and wealthiest airship fleets in the city. Besides being nifty, the airships serve an important purpose in their adventure.
Don’t leave home without one
Haunted by hungry creatures, the wilderness is extremely dangerous. Humanity has been driven into walled enclaves. No one dares to travel outside the city on horseback, much less on foot. The only options are by water—which is extremely risky—or by airship.
How does humanity retake the countryside from lethal foe? The only way to find allies and solutions is to look outside the city, and the only way reach new friends is through the clouds.
There’s money in the sky
The patriarch of the family, Norton Fletcher, wields considerable social influence. Fletcher Industries has made the family rich and respected even though the founder is a commoner who came from nothing. But every success comes at a cost. Who will pay it?