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Fantastic History #31: A Time Traveler’s Guide to Train Travel by Wendy Nikel

From the first wooden-railed, horse-drawn tramroads built in England in 1594 to the futuristic bullet trains that speed past at over 160 miles per hour, train travel has played an important role in transportation throughout modern history.

While writing THE CASSANDRA COMPLEX, the third novella in my Place in Time series, I positioned my main character, Cass, on a train headed west, and I knew I’d have to do quite a bit of research into the train travel of the early 20th century in order to get those scenes right.

Fortunately, I live in a place where history was built on trains.

In 1869, the Central Pacific Railroad from the west and the Union Pacific Railroad from the east met up at Promontory Summit, Utah, which today is a National Historic Park near where I live. The same year, a train station was built in Ogden, Utah, which is now the Utah State Railroad Museum. These two sites served well as starting points for my research into the history of train travel.

The Golden Spike National Historic Park, where the two pieces of the transcontinental railroad met, gives visitors a glimpse into the building of these railroad lines. In an era before the invention of heavy machinery that could lay hundreds of rails a day, each tie and rail had to be placed by hand and each spike manually hammered into place. During the construction of this railroad, a new record was set: 10 miles of track laid in one day. The vast, desolate landscape near Promontory really emphasizes what a huge effort it was to lay track after track across all the empty and undeveloped places of the late 19th century West.

Although my characters would be traveling to California by a different route nearly fifty years later, they’d still be passing through a lot of undeveloped wilderness on rails built, piece-by-piece, by human hands.

At the Utah State Railroad Museum, I was able to see up-close some of the train engines like those steam and diesel ones which would have pulled the California Limited, which was featured in my story. In 1914, this luxury train ran between Chicago and California, crossing Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona on the way to Los Angeles before traveling northward to San Francisco. It had luxury accommodations, including deluxe sleeping cars, drawing rooms, a smoking room, and a dining car run by the Fred Harvey Company, who had been serving train passengers in their roadhouses since 1876.

In addition to checking out these historical sites and museums, I was also fortunate enough to find a copy of the California Limited’s 1913-1914 brochure in the public domain, digitized by Google. Through this, I was able to not only see the setup and descriptions of the train cars but also the schedule of its route.

With specific details like this, along with what I’d observed myself at the museums and historical sites, I felt like I was traveling back to that time and place – a time when trains were not only the fastest, but also the most fashionable mode of transportation.

Fantastic History #30: When Fantasy Fiction is Run Over by Reality by Samir Machado de Machado

It is my belief that when the reality in which we live is becoming exponentially surreal, realistic literature reaches its limits. When that occurs, it is up to the literature of imagination to give us the metaphors and parallels that will enable us to interpret and understand what the f— is happening in the world today. I cannot fail to notice that since the last presidential election in my country, books like George Orwell’s 1984 or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale have reappeared on the bestseller list.

And when I say my country, I’m not talking about the US.

In 2013, I published my first novel, Quatro Soldados (“Four Soldiers”), a historical adventure that bordered the fantasy frontier, inspired by Umberto Eco’s Baudolino. The story was set in the 18th century, a period that fascinates me for its parallels with today’s world. The news reaching Europe about the Guaranitic War tell about the clash between two superpowers against native peoples, led by religious leaders seen as fanatical — in this case, the Jesuit missionaries — whom the Illuminist world accused of wanting to create a Jesuit State in South America. But the real battle, of course, was for America’s valuable natural resources — in this case gold and silver. Any resemblance to the current world is mere historical looping.

So my idea was this: the Portuguese colonial mentality was so behind its time that while Europe lived the Enlightenment, Colonial Brazil was still in the Middle Ages. During the 18th century, book production was banned in Brazil, and its importation was highly regulated. Fantasy had already disappeared from Europe, but here persisted tales of fantastic creatures, such as the headless-mule, the anhangüera (a phantasmagorical white deer who stalks forest hunters), or de boitatá (a gigantic, phosphorescent snake which is attracted by the brightness of the eyes). During the Enlightenment, they would be seen from the viewpoint of cryptozoology.

Quatro Soldado’s reception was positive, and a month after its launch, I began to work on a reverse idea: a more realistic swashbuckler adventure, where a Brazilian soldier was sent to Europe to investigate, precisely, a scheme to smuggle books to Colonial Brazil. Going from semi-medieval Brazilian reality straight to British liberalism, he dazzles with modernity: in England, he discovers that the streets have sidewalks, and that shops have their names written on the plates (not just the drawing of a fish for the fishmonger, or bread for the bakery) – he was thus in a land of readers.

I decided that my concept would be a cross between James Bond and Barry Lyndon, but with one small difference: Érico Borges, my protagonist, would be gay. As I say, if adventure stories are about ordinary characters drawn from their everyday lives and placed in extraordinary situations, nothing seems more common than a gay character as the protagonist – I am one myself, every day of my life. Eric would be the hero who would unravel a conspiracy, defeat the villain and save the day, but romance the buff baker instead of the lady, who in turn would have to take care of herself. It would also be an opportunity to explore a setting that fascinated me, the vibrant London gay community of 1761, with its “molly houses” and elegant macaronnis – the predecessors of dandies.
But a good plot of adventure and spies needs a good villain, preferably, one that has an absurd and megalomaniac plan, which will only be revealed to the hero when he is captured in a deadly trap. As my hero is gay, it seemed natural to me that the villain would be homophobic, with a name that, at the moment the Brazilian reader read it, would identify the character as the antagonist. Thus was born the Count of Bolsonaro.

To put this into context, the book was written between 2013 and 2015. At that time, the real-world politician who shares his name with my antagonist was only a mediocre ex-military figure, notorious for his bigoted statements, and for having chosen gays, black activists and feminists as targets for his hate speech. In an interview with comedian Stephen Fry, and another with actress Ellen Page, he made it very clear that he was proud to be a bigot. So it seemed like a natural choice for the villain in my story: an evil count who seeks to destroy Brazil by sending it the pornography that will “corrupt its morals and attract divine wrath”.
Little did I know what was to come…

The philosophers of the Enlightenment wanted to move society away from religious obscurantism and into the Age of Reason. For this the Encyclopaedia promised to gather all the knowledge of the world into a single series of books. But the French Revolution turned to The Terror, literature sought Romanticism, and politics found nationalism. Likewise, the Internet has promised to democratize knowledge, but it has become prey to false news propagated by demagogues who, faced with their own lies, offer their Alternative Truths and accuse reality of being fake news. Despite historical comparisons with other former military men brought to leadership based on hate speech, Bolsonaro never had the gift of oratory, which is why he has fled all public debates, and has been a cause for ridicule for his apparent inability to read a teleprompter. Of course, he made the dubious decision to release a pornographic video on the presidency’s official twitter account, but hey, I wrote something like that three years earlier.

My book was called Homens Elegantes (“Elegant Men”) and was released in 2016, the year I felt that something was changing for the worse. Trump’s election strengthened the so-called “alternative right,” the neologism with which neo-Nazism uses to normalize itself, and which gave the signal for hate speech to become state policy. This can be felt in Brazil, where the far-right, which has the unsustainable American consumer culture as its ideal, embraces the national flag with the same fury with which it attacks the popular culture of the same country that this flag should represent. I asked myself: What kind of society do these people want to create? Then came the idea of what would be my next book, a mixture of 80’s adventure, techno-thriller and what I call a self-contained dystopia. Thus was born Tupinilândia (“Tupiniland”).

However, the problem of writing dystopias nowadays is that if you take too long to write them, when you finish your book they have already come true.

The American writer Benjamin Moser once said that in its anxieties for the future, the essential difference between the US and Brazil is that in the US, there is a fear of the arrival of an inevitable fall, the fear of the decay of an empire. In Brazil, which had already been called “the country of the future”, the anxiety is precisely due to the arrival of this future, always so close but never to come. The idea of Tupinilândia was to deal with this anxiety, with our eternal emulation of a US-based consumer society, but bound to the limitations imposed by our inability to deal with our own history.

If in the US the 1980’s were marked by economic boom, in Brazil it was the opposite. The ironically literary year of 1984 in Brazil was the last year of a US-sponsored military dictatorship, marked by torture and disappearances, which lasted for twenty years, ruined the economy and imposed a socially conservative agenda that, to this day, seems to hold back our social discussions with a delay of twenty years. Thus, Tupinilândia is a gigantic amusement park, built secretly during the 80’s inside the Amazon rain forest. Inspired by the way Disneyland synthesizes American culture, Tupinilândia would valorize the Brazilian national culture. With the political opening, its inauguration would be the symbol of a new era, marked by democratic elections.
However, on the day of its inauguration, one of the far-right military groups, historically opposed to political openness to such an extent that they accused their own generals of being “communist infiltrators,” attempts to hold the park’s guests and staff hostage.

I’m not being subtle here: as the epigraph taken from Crichton’s Jurassic Park indicates, military hard-liners take the place of dinosaurs here. At least, this allowed me to use my best references to the movies by Spielberg and Lucas, and the action films of the 80’s, like Die Hard. However, the first part of the story ends unfinished, and with a jump in time of 30 years, arrives at the fateful year of 2016, when the ruins of the park are explored by a group of academics. There they discover an isolated community that, living in the ruins of the park’s shopping mall, is still trapped by the binary mentality of the 1980’s. They do not know that the Cold War – and the dictatorship in Brazil – is over, and they think the invaders are Communists in disguise. From there, I allow myself to play with what I have always wanted: a lost city story, with all its clichés, from execution rituals to popular revolts. And of course, monsters of the past who were supposed to have been extinct.

Little did I know that… two years later, we would all live in Tupinilândia after an election won by anti-communist paranoia and delusional fake news – one of them, for example, claimed that “the left wants to distribute penis-shaped bottles to babies” – being considered as true. Now we have a Trump of the Tropics. So it goes, as Vonnegut would say.

So, I am relieved that my next book will have no political parallel, nor will it attempt to make any predictions of the future. Pirates à Vista! (“Pirates Ahoy!”) will be a young adult historical adventure, about the French pirate Jean DuClerc’s invasion of Brazil in 1710. But even so, a certain change of perspective ends up being necessary. For if stories of pirates are, in essence, stories of men searching for treasure, when it is seen from a Brazilian perspective, it is from us that the treasure will always be stolen. It is recorded in the history books that when 800 pirates marched to assault Rio de Janeiro, an incompetent governor sent the army to the wrong side. The city ended up defended, and in turn the pirates were defeated, by the adolescents who studied in the Jesuit college. Incompetent politicians, rampant thugs and hope falling into the hands of the younger generation.
Any resemblance to reality will be mere coincidence.

***

Samir Machado de Machado was born in Brazil, in 1981. He is a writer, translator and graphic designer, author of the historical novels Quatro Soldados (2013) and Homens Elegantes (2016), whose film rights were bought by RT Features, and the action-adventure Tupinilândia (2018). He is currently a Master’s Degree student in Creative Writing at PUCRS.

April and May, 2019

This month has been really about research. I’ve been reading up on Martinique and Dante’s Inferno. I’ve also been doing a lot of noodling around of plot. All this is to say I think I’m making progress if not in actual words.

So, really, what I have to tell you about this month is this review of The Pawn of Isis in Little Village. Beth Hudson was kind enough to write this review. I am really appreciative especially of the following quote: “Humans are shown as complicated and fallible, capable of doing terrible things, but also capable of heroic actions.” Nice.

Wiscon is coming May 24-27.

My schedule?

Reading: Four Codexians in Search of a Theme with Aimee Ogden, Bennett North, and Cislyn Smith from 10-11:15 am at Michelangelo’s Coffee Shop on Saturday, May 25th

Panel: I will be moderating the Found Family panel from 2:30-3:45 pm Saturday, May 25th in the Assembly Room

Signing: As so many writers will be, I’ll be signing books at the Signout Monday, May 27th from 11:30 am -12:45 pm in the Capitol/Wisconsin Rooms

I’ll be running around doing all sorts of other things as well. If you’re there, come and say hello.

Fantastic History #29: Dasa Mahavidya–The Ten Great Wisdoms by Rati Mehrotra

I’m often asked about the inspiration behind my books Markswoman and Mahimata. The answer varies, because there are so many things that come to mind: the science fantasies I read as a teen; Star Trek, which aired weekly on our lone television channel and which the entire family watched, along with assorted friends and neighbors; the comics I borrowed from the local bookstore (they had a lending scheme, much more affordable than buying books.)

But the bedrock of my world building for the Asiana duology was Hindu mythology. I grew up listening to stories from the epics and the Puranas. And the stories that most fascinated me were those of the Mother Goddess in all her terrible, beautiful forms, ranging from the fearsome warrior Kali to the lovely Tripura Sundari. So today, I want to tell you about the Dasa Mahavidya, or the Ten Great Wisdoms: ten forms of Adishakti, as manifested by Sati, the wife of God Shiva.

The story goes that Shiva wanted to prevent Sati from attending a ritual sacrifice conducted by her father Daksha, the world-king and son of God Brahma. Daksha had invited all the gods and goddesses except them; in fact, his whole purpose was to insult Shiva, because he hated Shiva, and Sati had married him against his wishes. Shiva knew that nothing good would come of Sati going to her father’s palace. In fact, being Trikaldarshi (knowing all three aspects of time), Shiva knew exactly what would happen, but it appears that knowing fate does not allow even Gods to change what lies ahead.

When Shiva forbade Sati from going, she became enraged. She manifested ten forms of the Mother Goddess, one for each cardinal direction (N, S, W, E, NE, SE, SW, NW, skyward and downward). They surrounded Shiva, preventing him from escaping. These ten forms are known as the Dasa Mahavidya. Eventually, Shiva had to agree to let Sati go to her father’s ritual – with rather terrible consequences, I might add. Daksha insulted Sati and she immolated herself, bringing the wrath of Shiva down on Daksha and his army. In his grief and rage, Shiva invoked his Veerbhadra avatar who decapitated Daksha. But that’s a story for another day.

Each Mahavidya has her own unique name, appearance, mantras, and powers. Here are the first five of them.

Kali, The Supreme Reality

Painting by Raja Ravi Varma – Public Domain

Kali is the first among the Mahavidyas, because she comes before time, and before light itself. Black-skinned and four-armed, she wears a garland of fifty-two skulls, representing the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, and also the mortality of her human children. In one of her hands she holds the sword of enlightenment, and from another hand dangles a severed human head, representing the ego.

My favorite story of Goddess Kali is how she destroyed the demon Raktabija. He had a boon that every drop of his blood that fell to the ground would duplicate his entire form. Kali lopped off his head and stretched her long tongue to drink all his blood before it could fall. After vanquishing the demons, Kali began a wild victory dance. The gods begged Shiva to stop her before she destroyed the world. Shiva lay down on her path, and she stepped on him by mistake. When she noticed her husband below her feet, she calmed down. That is why she is often depicted like this, with her foot on Shiva.

Tara, The Compassionate

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Similar in appearance to Kali, Tara is the maternal, peaceful aspect of the Goddess, who helps her devotees cross the turbulent seas of deceit to the shore of enlightenment. She is sometimes depicted as breastfeeding Shiva, and the reason for that is a very interesting episode from the Puranas called Samudra Manthan, or the churning of the ocean. The gods formed an alliance with the asuras (demons, for lack of a better word, but they are practically cousins to the gods and there is often little to choose between the two) to churn the ocean for the nectar of immortality which they would then share amongst themselves (the gods were lying – they had no intention of sharing). The churning released a number of things from the ocean, including a terrible poison that could destroy all three worlds. Shiva drank the poison to save all of creation, but fell unconscious from its effects. Goddess Tara appeared, put him in her lap, and suckled him. The healing power of her milk brought him back to life.

Tripura Sundari, The Beautiful

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The third Mahavidya is named Tripura Sundari. Tri means three, pura can refer to city or citadel or world, and Sundari means beautiful. So her name literally means she who is beautiful in all three worlds: the material, the astral, and the causal. A less literal, but more meaningful interpretation is that she represents the beauty of pure perception, the supreme consciousness above everything else. She is most often represented as seated on Shiva who is lying on a throne. The legs of the throne are formed by the gods Brahma, Vishnu and various forms of Shiva. This shows her supremacy to all the other gods. Her origin story is fairly complicated; suffice it to say that it involves the killing of a powerful demon, the meddling of various gods, the death of Kamadeva, the god of love, by an angered Shiva, and his subsequent reincarnation.

Bhuvaneshvari, The World Mother

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Bhuvana means universe and isvari means sovereign. The fourth Mahividya is the ruler of the entire cosmos. The universe begins and ends in her. Just as Kali represents Time, so Bhuvaneshvari represents Space. These two Mahavidya thus represent the two main aspects of the Mother Goddess: the infinite, and the eternal. Bhuvaneshvari also represents maya, or illusion, which veils ultimate reality. My favorite story about her goes like this: once, the Gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva were arguing over who among them was most important and powerful in the universe. The Goddess Bhuvaneshvari intervened and enlightened them that she was the creator of the universe, and also of themselves. Then she gave them her shakti, or energy, in the form of the Goddesses Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati to help them create, preserve and manage the world – until its ultimate destruction, when the cycle will start anew.

Bhairavi The Fierce

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Bhairavi is the fierce manifestation of the Goddess, quite close to Kali herself. She hates and punishes evil-doers. Her consort is Bhairava, the equally fierce manifestation of God Shiva.

One of Bhairavi’s forms is Chandi, a ferocious goddess who helps Kali destroy the demon Raktabija, he of the boon regarding spilled blood. Chandi is also famous for destroying the demons Chanda and Munda. She is fearless, and inspires fearlessness in her devotees as well.

She is often depicted seated on her loyal donkey, her mouth stained with demon blood, another hand holding a blood-stained sword. But she is not only a warrior goddess. Bhairavi is also the Goddess of Speech, with the potential to destroy all opposition to spiritual growth. She is thus the remover of all obstacles, physical and mental, on the path of spiritual evolution.

The remaining Mahavidya are Chhinnamasta, who decapitated herself to feed her disciples, Dhumavati the widow, who swallowed her own husband Shiva, Bagalamukhi, who has great supernatural power over her enemies, Matangi, Goddess of all outcastes, who represents the divine self which is left over when all else perishes, and lastly the graceful Kamala, none other than Laxmi herself, Goddess of wealth, and wife of Vishnu.

The names and forms of the Goddess are many, yet the ultimate truth is one, which is a basic tenet of many traditions of Hinduism. I didn’t see it that way when I was a child, of course. Then, stories were just stories. But the most powerful stories are those that stay with us, that we think more about as we get older, that have layers we can peel one by one, discovering something new each time. This is how Indian mythology feels like to me – a vast, rich treasure house of stories with multiple versions that never fail to delight, entertain, and illuminate.

***

Rati Mehrotra lives in Toronto, Canada. Her first book Markswoman was published in January, 2018 and the sequel Mahimata in March, 2019. She also enjoys reading and writing short stories.

Fantastic History #28: Because I Live in a Small Town by Catherine Schaff-Stump

A project I began about 10 years ago, currently on the back burner is the story of three teenage trolls who live in Decorah, Iowa, the premiere vanguard of Norwegian immigrants in the state. As a small town Iowan myself, I can extrapolate what life might be like living in Decorah, but for the details I needed, I needed field work. One thing I admire about really good urban fantasy is the setting becomes a character in the story, and in this novel I am striving for this. Decorah is a unique place where I could interpret traditional Norwegian folklore in a new setting. In order to make sure the story had the feel I wanted, I needed to know more about this place. Happily, I only live a couple of hours from Decorah, and I could get a feel for the town by visiting often.

Here are some things I did which helped me get a sense of the setting.

1. Websites: The websites I visited seem pretty pedestrian on the surface, but I learned about interestingly mundane details such as what schools were in the area, neighborhoods, town policies, and attractions. Municipal websites will highlight historical sites and attractions, like the Vesterheim museum, or Norwegian Ship, Decorah’s version of UPS. While not a substitute for visiting the town, nevertheless the local color and details can be found, which help add a sense of character to the town.

2. Visit the town: Proximity helps here. For the novel, I did also visit Norway to get a sense of where the trolls came from, and I had to make that trip count, because it was likely to be one trip. Going to Decorah, however, was something I could do periodically when I needed more details. I visited the Vesterheim, parks and landmarks I wanted to use in the novel, local places I wanted to have my characters frequent, and sites for places I would make up. I also know a writer in Decorah. He and his wife went to college there, and have lived there for many years, so they could give me insider knowledge. I have visited Decorah maybe around 10 times, and I’m due to go back before I finish this project.

3. Stay for longer than a visit: Another way to get a sense of the local is to live there. I stayed at a B&B so I could be in the town at night. I went to the small theater, toured the college, just ran around, ate at the co-op, lots of things you can do if you don’t have a visiting agenda. With the exception of lodging, I’ve gone to Decorah to stay for a few overnight trips with no agenda to get the experience of living in the town.

4. Attend the town festival: One of the most awesome things about Decorah’s Norwegian heritage is that each year they have a great festival. Lots of people come from far and wide to see the town and tour historical sites. Norwegians visit as a way to come to a friendly spot in the US. My favorite part of the festival is the chance to try Norwegian food, available on every street corner and in church basements, or to watch traditional dances mixed with a very Iowa small town parade. This is the unique blend of old world and new world at its best.

While I am far from an expert regarding Decorah, I feel like I know it well enough now to characterize it. By the time I get back to this project, though, my information may be a little out of date. I can set the novel in the time I visited, or I can update myself. Either way, I’ve got to get back there and eat some more rommegrot.

April, 2016

How could I have guessed that putting out three books in rapid sequence would have left me drained creatively?

Honestly, I think I could have guessed, having completed large, long term projects before. This, ladies and gentlemen, is perhaps the biggest reason I could never be a personal author mill. With my day job, I can usually put out a book a year. Last year, I drafted two, but it was a good year. This is a gentle reminder to write on your own terms, and to not hold yourself to someone else’s standards. If I wrote all day, it could be different. I don’t, and I like my job. So there you go.

Lest you think that is a prelude for a conversation about not completing work, you will be disappointed. I have begun The Wisdom of Thoth. I have joined a horror writing group and I’m sending them drips and drops. There are words happening, albeit at my pace.

What interesting things have I been doing with my time? Well…I guess traveling, going to author shows, hanging out with friends and getting more and more fit. I enjoyed the Northern Iowa Book Bash in Clear Lake immensely. I had heard good things, but this was an exceptional show with an eager clientele. If I am invited back, I will return.

I think I will show you a picture of the most interesting thing going on at my house right now, with the caveat that the only way in which I am involved with this will be the wearing of it. This recreation is the work entirely of my very talented spouse, who clearly has not squandered his winter.

Onto May, then. School will be over mid-month, and Wiscon is on the horizon. I have a lot of gaming to plot and plan as well. See you then.

Fantastic History #27: Cultural Sensitivity Beyond the Novel Itself–The Devil is in the Details by K. Bird Lincoln

A plethora of good definitions for cultural appropriation, primers for those wanting an understandable framework, a time when a big author pulled a project due to sensitivity issues, and lists of ways to avoid cultural appropriation in the context of fantasy and science fiction can be found with a quick Google.

Let me be transparent about my bias before we get started. I’m a white, middle-class woman from the USA who has spent significant time on the West Coast and in Japan.

I’m also a writer who often uses Japanese and Chinese myths and culture in her historical and urban fantasy. I like to think I mostly portray myths and legends with complex characters who do not perpetuate stereotypes and present East Asian cultural motifs within an atmosphere of respect.

It’s an ongoing struggle not to fall into the trap of willy-nilly plucking katana, ninja, or hari-kari from Japanese culture as if it were a buffet and it didn’t matter what I shoved into my story. Not that I’m at risk for white savior faux pas like shoehorning Tom Cruise into a samurai movie, but all those cute kitsune in manga and anime sometimes tempt me towards the dark side of stereotypes.

Fantasy writers have a license to be imaginative and creative, but need to temper creativity with sensitivity when writing the fantastic based on real life cultures that are not our own voice. Whether that borrowing be obvious roots to Edo period Japan in Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor or the fantastical parade of Chinese mythical creatures in M.H. Boroson’s Girl with the Ghost Eyes, or the subtle changes in WWII history resulting in Japanese supremacy in Beth Cato’s Breath of Earth—the trick is to twist it far enough for the fantastic without losing nuance.

Writing whole books provides a large canvas on which to present nuanced and sensitive portrayals. Recently a couple of potential issues related to other author activities—especially indie published authors—have come to my attention.

I am in an author Facebook group where a long discussion about a cover for a historical fantasy set in Hong Kong revolved around the model’s face: too white. There is a lack of good stock photography of a variety of types of East Asian and mixed East Asian ancestry to use on book covers. My cover for Dream Eater, where the heroine is bicultural Japanese-Caucasian, had this problem. Use a Caucasian model and risk white-washing her? Use a full on East Asian looking model that doesn’t signal to the reader the complicated truth of the cultural area my heroine occupies? This gets harder when going for historical models. No wonder so many fantasy authors spring for original artwork, like JC Kang’s Master of Deception or Nicolette Andrews’ Dragon Saga. Where are the resources?

The second issue is author names. I’ll admit, I approach books like Jade City by Fonda Lee differently than I approach Daughter of the Sword by Steve Bein. Both books base themselves in thoroughly researched East Asian history. But what if, as a yet unpublished author I came across recently, someone decides to use a pseudonym that confuses the reader’s ability to judge whether this is an #ownvoice or not? The author in question used a pseudonym with a Japanese-sounding first name and an English-sounding last name. His argument was that not only was this first name a nickname he’d used for most of his adult life because he lived in Japan, but that he felt strongly it shouldn’t matter if readers picked up his book without knowing first what background he came from. Those arguments unsettled my stomach—not because I think only Asians can write Asian fantasy, but because as a rabid reader myself, I want authors to be up front about the lens through which they view the world. I have the right to consume stories based on true knowledge of the author’s background. Taking the stance that it’s okay to present yourself as possibly Asian when you’re not seems oddly stubborn. Authors and readers should be able to trust each other.
Finally, we come to yet another touchy issue: reviews. Last year I read and reviewed 115 books. Whether authors should review other authors is a whole basket of thorny issues for another time. Let’s say, though, that you’re reading along in a historical fantasy and suddenly you come across descriptions of the alpha hero where his skin color is compared to a food item. There is an acknowledged understanding out there that not only is this cliché, but can also be fetishizing. But it’s historical! And it’s fantasy! As a reviewer, do you call out the author on her World War II Hong Kong heroine gazing at her own almond eyes in the mirror if that was an oft-used phrase from that time period? What if it’s in an alternate fantasy world? How do you balance warning other readers about problematic themes without crossing the line into politically correct police territory?

Outside the actual book itself, writing the other can bring up a lot of other issues. Staying sensitive to other points of view and presenting your own self in as transparent a way possible might keep authors from massive blunders—but it still doesn’t fix the dearth of good stock photo models!

Someone could make good money from that niche.

***

The stunning conclusion to K. Bird Lincoln’s Urban Fantasy Portland Hafu trilogy drops March 19th! Check out the first in her series, Dream Eater or pre-order the conclusion, Last Dream of Her Mortal Soul. K. Bird Lincoln is an ESL professional and writer living on the windswept Minnesota Prairie with family and a huge addiction to frou-frou coffee. Also dark chocolate– without which, the world is a howling void. Originally from Cleveland, she has spent more years living on the edges of the Pacific Ocean than in the Midwest. Her medieval Japanese fantasy series, Tiger Lily, is available from Amazon. She also writes tasty speculative fiction reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Check her out on Facebook, join her newsletter for chocolate and free stories, or stalk her online.

Fantastic History #26: Grounding–Finding the Floor of Your Historical Details by Jeff Reynolds

It took me twenty years, but I finally got a short story published. As I’ve told anyone who would listen to me (and plenty who’d rather I’d stop going on about it), I consider my first professional payment to be the ground floor of my ambitions. Now if someone would please direct me to the elevator that leads to the floor labeled “Fiction Writing Career,” that would be very helpful. We can skip the floors for sporting goods and lingerie.

In terms of novels, I came to the conclusion that high fantasy wasn’t what I wanted to write, at least not yet. Nor low fantasy. Anything where I had to plan the intricacies of a secondary world, from races with detailed histories, to continents and complex ecosystems, didn’t appeal to me. There are plenty of great writers doing that, and doing it brilliantly. But I’d read a ton of science fiction alternate history, and I started wondering if there was a place for historical fantasy. That, along with a role-playing game group I participated in with a distinct 1930’s noir flair, led to my first novel. Shadow of a Doubt is set in a Baltimore of 1938, featuring trolls who work as mechanics, witches as detectives, and elves with fascist views.

Writing historical fantasy is both easier and harder. It’s easier because “It’s Earth! Mostly! Well, kind of?“ It appealed to me to root fantasy in our existing world. The world is the world, and aspects of our real world can exist in historical fantasy (I’d suggest should, but that’s a personal decision best left to each author and their readers). All we’re doing is rearranging some things, modifying or creating a bit of history, populating it with strange beings, adding a dash of magic, maybe a sprinkle of eerie, a pinch of strange.

But, for me, good historical fiction of any sort doesn’t work unless its grounded in truth, historic details sprinkled through the work in unassuming and unexpected ways. Properly leavened, the work will rise like a loaf of bread and become far better tasting than the sum of its parts. And who doesn’t like a fresh-baked loaf of warm bread? Delicious!

History is the easiest type of grounding to work with. There are numerous works of historical non-fiction. Countless websites give broad views of wide time periods, or deep dives into narrow topics. With so much information readily available, it becomes easy to twist. The Battle of the Somme becomes a civil war between trolls and humans. There is no Nazi party, but Canada was settled by isolationist elves whose ideology mirrors the German Reich of the 1930’s. The west of America—much of the plains and all the Rockies—was never colonized and remains in the hands of indigenous people.

Grounding historical fantasy has to go deeper than using history to flavor your recipe, though. I spent a great deal of time researching Baltimore of the 1930’s. One of the resources I found most useful were photo archives. Granted, if your novel is set more than 150 years ago, photos are going to be non-existent, although paintings and tapestries might provide a useful alternative. But for anything post-industrial period, particularly where a modern city is involved, you should be able to find plenty of reference material.

I started with Getty Photos. Getty contains over two thousand images of Baltimore alone. But sites like Getty focus on modern stock photos that can be used copyright free or via paid licenses, and that wasn’t my goal. Pinterest had far more of what I needed: lots of images of Baltimore from the 1930’s. I used those to paint a picture of a time and place. What did people wear? What did transportation look like? Were the streets squalid or clean? Did a certain building existing in the time period in question?

I learned that, indeed, a building I wanted to include as a critical location in my story did exist, well before 1938. An important sign on top of it with a glowing red eye didn’t exist until 2008 or 2009, though (oops). However, I opted to include it in the story anyway. While any Baltimore resident or historian might note the discrepancy, it’s important to remember we’re not writing a true history. We are modifying history to suit our fantasy setting. So, the Natty Boh beer sign (a picture of which accompanies this article) is a critical item in my narrative (and really, who doesn’t love a great big beautiful beer sign hovering over your city). It brings a touch of “I know this place” to the novel, and for any Baltimore native or visitor, it creates a thrill of memory that roots them firmly in location.

Streets were another touch I thought about long and hard. For example, there wouldn’t be a Martin Luther King boulevard in 1938. Learning the former layout and names of streets that the protagonist would encounter turned out to be one of the hardest parts of my research. Google searches proved fruitless in finding maps from the 1930’s, though I did find one from the late 19th century. But Baltimore grew enormously between 1890 and 1938, so it was interesting but not useful.

I finally found what I needed on a website called Digital Maryland. The site is a collaboration with the Enoch Pratt library system in Baltimore to digitize historic content. Not every state or city will have such resources, but visiting local libraries and/or state archives when possible will provide you the same types of data. A 1930 Cram map of Baltimore provided a close-enough proxy for what I needed. Now I knew that parts of MLK Boulevard follow a line along what was Freemont Street, before curving north and cutting through what would have been blocks of buildings that were replaced in the sixties and seventies by government housing projects.

What radio stations existed in 1938? What were the cars like? Did some people still use horses and carts? Does your history include airplanes, airships, other details? What hair styles were popular? Every detail you include—but only where its relevant, where it slips in unobtrusively—contributes to a picture that you and the reader build together. Every detail you change and adapt modifies that picture. It ties the reader to a sense of “I know this place,” while creating a disconnect with their “known” reality. And that is exactly what we as historical fantasists strive for. The real connects to the fantastic, deepening a reader’s immersion.
And while I’m speaking of building a picture, did you examine architecture? New buildings in 1938 were influenced by the art deco movement, incorporating the neoclassical Greek and Roman influences of previous years while adding touches of chrome and steel streamlining and decorative trim. Having my protagonist enter a building gives myself the opportunity to comment on the physical details of the entry and further sets time and place.

Grounding your story in historical detail doesn’t have to be done with a heavy hand. It’s the little touches you include that create the bigger picture. Something as simple as the style of comb a young woman uses to brush her hair gives important details to your audience without resorting to long swaths of information dumps. I love spotting tiny details, like the style of phone resting on the desk in the lobby of a building a protagonist entered. Or the man who stands next in the elevator in his green suit, a stiff, black cap on his head, waiting for you to tell him which floor.

I just hope he hands me a warm loaf of bread and lets me off where they sell those fiction writing careers.

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Natty Boh sign on old Baltimore Brewery by Elliott Plack is used by permission under CC BY 2.0.

^^^

Born and raised in central Maine, Jeff Reynolds currently resides in Maryland, where he and his incredible, supportive, and uber-geek-tastic wife, Jennifer, have a lovely view of the mountains. He enjoys reading and hiking, a good cold beer every now and again, and anything to do with anyplace that’s warm (and absolutely hates the cold). His lifelong dream is to quit work and write full time, if he can ever get his kids to move out and start being adults.

Jeff works for Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, home of New Horizons and other amazing space probes. His story, The “Fairy Folk”, appeared in Andromeda Spaceways magazine (issue #73, December, 2018).

March, 2019

What I have learned in January and February part 2

1. You can never proofread too much, even when you have an editor. Always look over every copy of your book.
2. ALWAYS get a proof of your book and read that.
3. Send your editors and publicists flowers. For realz. Or food, or coffee, or whatever they might like. Those people are doing a lot of work on your behalf.

I have learned a lot about the process of putting out a book, and I have learned that there are many ways I can save myself a lot of grief in the future. Like, I should really read my book out loud, always. I should really print out my book and read it, always. Do as much editing as I can.

And…I have also learned that human error will happen. I have been as careful with my three new books as I know how to be, and so now I need to forgive myself for any problems we find in the ARC drafts. I will work harder to make the ARC drafts easier on readers in the future.

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All that said, THANK GOD that phase of this year is OVER. While I will be doing lots of author support in the upcoming months, my main goal is to WRITE ALL THE THINGS. This is my current slate for the year:

1. The Wisdom of Thoth (Klaereon Scroll #3)
2. As yet untitled Carlo Borgia novella which explains what he’s up to during The Wisdom of Thoth
3. The first two installments of my serial The Poet and the Navigator
4. The rewrite of Abigail Rath Versus Mad Science

Yeah, that’s a lot, especially for someone with a full time job. The two serial installments are meant to go out this year, but the rest? Well, it is my plan to publish The Wisdom of Thoth next year, as well as Abby Rath 1 and 2. The Borgia novella is flexible, as it occurs independently of the Klaereon Scroll, so it could go out this year or next.

There are many things for me to look forward to writing at the moment, so I will just get on with it. 😀

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Last things to note:

On March 19th, I officially release The Pawn of Isis. On March 9th and March 30th, I will be involved in two online parties which feature writers from the Fantastic History part of this blog, talking about their new books. Information on the home page.

April 6th will find me in Clear Lake, Iowa at the Northern Iowa Book Bash, so feel free to stop by if you are in the area. I will remind you of this one.

I hope the weather begins to improve. It’s been a long, cold winter in Iowa. We are ready for a change.

Fantastic History #25: Digging Deeper by Stephanie Burgis

One of my biggest pleasures in any fantasy series – whether I’m reading or writing it! – is getting to explore more and more of the fantasy setting as the series moves on – which also means peeling away layer after layer from its surface appearance to figure out more of what’s really happening underneath.

For instance, in the first Harry Potter book, Harry’s dazzled by the beautiful, inexplicable magic of the feasts at the Hogwarts banquets, which seem to come out of thin air. In the second book, he discovers that those feasts are actually being prepared by house elves who aren’t even being paid for their work. As the books go on, he starts to realize that the smug attitudes of most wizards towards those unpaid and disdained house elves are actually indicative of a LOT of serious problems hidden beneath the sparkling surface of that fabulous wizarding world.

But digging deeper doesn’t always expose darkness. Sometimes, it just gives even more interesting layers of complexity. In Effie Calvin’s The Queen of Ieflaria, the two heroines (princesses who’ve been betrothed for political necessity but – of course! – fall in love over arguments and baby dragons and more) argue over how religious they should each really be, and how much the gods’ desires should matter to them. The second (standalone) book in that series, Daughter of the Sun, leaps to an all-new pair heroines in a different part of the same world – but this time, one of the heroines is a literal (chaos) goddess, so we get to see that world and its religions from her very different point of view.

In my own novella Snowspelled, Volume I of The Harwood Spellbook, Cassandra Harwood rails against the social rules of her alternate-history 19th-century Angland, which is ruled by a Boudiccate of hard-headed, practical women while leaving all of the emotional, irrational magic to the gentlemen. Cassandra herself has fought hard to become the first recognized woman magician in Angland – the one and only exception to those rules – but for the sake of all the other frustrated magical girls in her nation, she finally decides to found Angland’s first-ever college of magic for women as a triumphant conclusion to that first story.

But that isn’t the end of her story. In Thornbound, Volume II (published February 25th!), Cassandra has finally opened Thornfell College of Magic – but she’s facing massive opposition from multiple sources, all of whom are determined to shut her school down. To her, it’s a simple issue of justice that magically-talented women be allowed to study magic – but to many successful women politicians, as well as to many successful male magicians, her new school presents a dangerous challenge that could topple all of their gender-based hierarchies and take away all of their own gender’s comfort and security.

Although I am personally on Cassandra’s side in this debate (for many of the same reasons as her politician sister-in-law, who wants justice for all, not comfort and security for some), it was really fun as a writer to get to explore all of the bigger implications of change in this second volume of The Harwood Spellbook – including the real fears and understandable dangers as well as the chances for improvement and real progress for everyone, no matter what their gender might be.

Similarly, it was so much fun to explore a different geographical part of Cassandra’s world. In Snowspelled, she was snowbound in a house party up north (in the equivalent of Yorkshire), where Angland shares an uneasy peace with an elven kingdom. Cassandra herself comes from the south of Angland, though, and Thornfell, on her family estate, backs onto a gorgeous, mysterious bluebell wood very much like the ones I’ve explored with my own kids on the borders of England and Wales. There are no elves in the south of Angland, but there are many varieties of fey, and their own relations with Angland and its citizens are complex and individual and full of their own tensions and possibilities.

As both a reader and a writer, I love getting to explore new angles on familiar, beloved worlds in every new book in a series. I hope you guys will enjoy exploring more of Angland in Thornbound! (And if you haven’t read Snowspelled yet, the ebook edition is on sale until the end of February for just 99c/99p – so you can scoop up some frothy feminist romantic fantasy set in Angland right now and see if you do want any more. (ed note: which you do.))

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Stephanie Burgis grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, but now lives in Wales with her husband and two sons, surrounded by mountains, castles and coffee shops. She writes wildly romantic adult historical fantasies, including Snowspelled, Spellswept, Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets, as well as fun MG fantasy adventures, including The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, The Girl with the Dragon Heart, and the Kat, Incorrigible trilogy. She has also published nearly forty short stories for adults and teens in various magazines and anthologies. You can find out more and read excerpts from her books at her website.

Snowspelled is on sale for 99c/99p until the end of February at Amazon, B&N, Kobo and Smashwords.

Thornbound comes out on February 25th and is available at Amazon, B&N, Kobo, iBooks and Smashwords.