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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.

***
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.

***

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. 😀

***

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.))

***

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.

Fantastic History #24: Galactic Conquistadors by Abby Goldsmith

In today’s world, few uncontacted tribes continue to survive in remote rainforests. To their members, the developed world is an ominous mystery. Likewise, even in the Information Age, many people across the world speculate on what mysterious wisdom or ancient rituals those reclusive tribes might be hiding.

Multiply those questions by a factor of millions, and you can begin to imagine the scale of the collision between Old World and New. The Age of Discovery was a period of invasive exploration unlike any other in human history, in terms of magnitude. It was a time when entire civilizations were labeled as savage and alien. While Leonardo Da Vinci painted for royal patrons, and while Protestants challenged the Pope in Rome, across an ocean, illiterate sailors and mercenaries battled illiterate farmers and shepherds by the millions. The Spaniards and the Portuguese, versus the Aztecs and the Incas. They were arguably the most populous and powerful civilizations on Earth at the time. Each considered the other to be horrifically alien.

I write science fiction fantasy.Some might call it galactic empire fiction, one of the branches of space opera. My series has nothing to do with our real world, or with real world history … but it is about alien conquerors bent on enslavement on a massive scale. The Torth wield weapons superior to anything which humans or other alien civilizations can fend off. They outclass everyone with their instantaneous communication; their ability to cooperate and think collectively. And although the Torth resemble humans, and share a
common ancestry with humans, their fundamental values are vastly alien to any culture which has ever existed on Earth. They seem mysterious. And they are terrifyingly good at conquest.

The parallels are undeniable. When I read about conquistadors and the uncontacted lands they explored, as well as the mysteries they presented—I see shades of what I’m writing about. A frenzy of reckless enslavement. Translators forced to tread carefully. Shameful, or shameless, curiosity about outlandish prisoners of war. Dangerous quests spurred by half-baked myths and legends. God-emperors who demand sacrificial victims. Pirate strongholds in hidden caves. Swift changes in technology that necessitate new, never-before-seen battle tactics. Insane risks undertaken for the sake of glory. Kindness as a rare commodity.

From the perspective of history, recorded by the conquerors, the Age of Discovery is rife with descriptions of indigenous people as being primitive, savage, or barbarous. Some of this can be attributed to customs which many Europeans found shocking, such as human sacrifice and skull reshaping. But it is also, in part, because the conquistadors operated under a strict theocracy, promulgated by the Spanish Inquisition. Anyone who refused to convert to Catholicism was, by definition, unworthy of owning property or anything else.

More to the point, the conquistadors needed a legal excuse in order to pillage. The faraway Pope and monarchs would not condone invading and destroying faithful Christians. So when a conquistador invaded an indigenous village, his men did not translate the call to convert. They simply read it in Spanish, as their legal duty warranted. Then they would proceed to conquer the unrepentant pagans, gaining new land, treasures, and slaves. When the conquistador—often of peasant origins—sent a percentage of this newfound wealth across the ocean as a gift to the Crown, he gained a noble title, plus the right to own an estate; riches he could never obtain in Spain.

In other words, the conquistadors had strong incentives to enslave and exploit natives, rather than to trade peacefully. To learn anything nuanced about their enemies, such as indigenous languages, would only take time away from their goals. Many conquistadors were illiterate and uninterested in anthropology. They also needed to retain the loyalty of their soldiers, who were burdened by cumbersome armor, harquebuses, and warhorses. If they dared show any interest in pagan cultures, that would gain them the wrong sort of attention. The conquistadors were legally obligated to bring along Catholic priests, who had to be outwardly sympathetic to the Spanish Inquisition. Sometimes a conquistador would find it necessary to question a hostage, but in almost all instances, he relied on an indigenous translator who had been enslaved long enough to learn Spanish.

Like the 16th century conquistadors, the alien Torth of my series are under intense pressure to disassociate from their targets of conquest. The Torth don’t speak out loud, since their minds are permanently networked together in a souped-up internet. They don’t speak to slaves or “savages.” They never communicate with slaves, except to give commands. And as far as they’re concerned, humans are their primitive cousins, like chimpanzees.

On the other side of the clash…the Torth seem frighteningly mysterious to people who cannot plug into the galaxy-spanning mental
network. Slaves cannot easily hide secrets from their telepathic masters, which makes escape nearly impossible. The Torth are capable
of anticipating, and punishing, physical attacks, and they send slaves to die in battle for them. On the rare occasion when a slave succeeds in killing a Torth, the dying Torth will broadcast what happened to the whole Torth network, replaying a visualization of who attacked them, and ensuring that the rebel will be hunted and killed. And the Torth have soaked up knowledge from everyone they’ve ever conquered, which ensures that their technology is always cutting edge.

Technology, of course, was one of the key factors that allowed a few hundred Spaniards to conquer the Aztec Empire and the Inca Empire, both of which had armies numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Smallpox and other plagues could be considered a form of unintentional biowarfare, exported from a population with built-up immunities to a population without those immunities. And there was gunpowder. Horses. Armor. Sailing ships. Written language, conveyed on paper.

The most successful rebellions against the Spaniards, such as the rebel kingdom led by Manco Inca, involved treachery and intellectual theft. Manco Inca was a god-emperor, raised among Spaniards, educated in fencing and other Spanish pursuits, and pampered as a teenage puppet ruler. When he escaped and set up an indigenous kingdom-in-exile, his retreat included Spanish roof tiles. His army learned about gunpowder from Spanish prisoners who were pumped for information, and his kingdom remained free and independent for more than thirty years, even after his death.

My series is about rebellion against the galaxy-spanning Torth Empire, and one of the main drivers of this rebellion is a figure like Manco Inca. Thomas is the unwanted hybrid child of a human slave and a failed conqueror. Since he is neither fully human nor fully Torth, everyone underestimates him, uncaring that he straddles both sides of the galactic conflict. Not only can Thomas decipher Torth glyphs and operate Torth data tablets, but he spent time as a pampered Torth, absorbing their life experiences. So he knows why Torth don’t laugh or cry. He understands that the average Torth suffers immense pressure to please their peers, to avoid rousing a deadly mob. Armed with intimate knowledge of Torth values and intelligence, Thomas commits himself to aiding his enslaved friends in overthrowing their ever-greedy conquerors.

On Earth, the Age of Discovery was characterized by fatal misunderstandings and miscommunications. Indigenous populations in
the Americas did not understand Europeans. They had no frame of reference for contracts and land deeds, for instance. Gold, to the
Incas and to the Aztecs, was for ornaments. Gold lost its significance when boiled down to seemingly useless little bricks. It
looked like pure madness, to work miners to death in order to gain gold ore or gold dust. And gunpowder? Horses? These were instruments out of legends. Even before the conquistadors showed up in large numbers, plagues of smallpox and influenza decimated teeming cities, like portents of an apocalypse. The gods must be angry. And so the indigenous populations focused on appeasing their gods with human sacrifice victims, and with new chiefs, chosen out of brutal combat—unaware that these measures further weakened them for their enemy invaders.

Likewise, Europeans were horrified by deformed skulls; heads flattened or elongated by binding methods in infancy. Rituals involving mass human sacrifice shocked even the callous conquistadors. If any Spaniards harbored secret thoughts of befriending the natives, they backed off at rumors of jungle priests who ripped still-beating hearts from the chests of virgin warriors. Anyhow, nuanced intercultural congress took a very low priority, by necessity, next to plunder. Tithes needed to be sent to the Church and the Crown.

I’m fascinated by the depths of misunderstanding between each of these proud civilizations. Despite the shared commonality of being human, their value systems were pitted against each other in direct conflict. Science fiction allows me to kick it up a few notches. In my series, the slaves are familiar to us as being human, no matter what sapient alien species they happen to be. The slaves and conquered peoples are a mix of humans, ummins, nussians, govki, and more, but they are all capable of telling jokes, and mourning deceased loved ones. They have children and parents. They can make art and music, and they can tell stories.

In contrast, the Torth make no art. They steal it. Torth have no families. They mass-reproduce using biotechnology. The Torth have
outlawed sex as something disgusting and bestial. Torth never laugh or cry, since they consider intense emotions to be savage; something only fit for primitives such as humans. They wear brainwave-altering headbands in order to suppress their emotions. As far as they’re concerned, logic is vital, but love is a bestial weakness. Any Torth who makes the most persuasive rational arguments will rise in status and gain influence over other Torth.

So the humanoid Torth act alien, just as the Spaniards seemed to the Aztecs, and vice versa. The Torth resemble humans, but they’re more alien than the ummins, who look like mummified birds, or the nussians, who are as heavy as tanks, with tough hides like rhinoceroses.

An odd Torth here or there might show kindness. A few Torth harbor secret sympathies for their disposable slaves. But if their sympathy grows too strong—especially if they dare help slaves—then there are countless ambitious Torth who will report their misconduct to the rest of the Torth Majority. Their peers will shoot them dead with blaster gloves, in order to claim the glory of destroying a nuisance or a criminal.

The only way to rise in the Torth society is to curry favor with the luxury-loving, gluttonous, socially-savvy celebrities at the top. Defy them, or displease them, and you are courting death. And unlike the 16th century conquistadors, Torth cannot accidentally get lost, or shipwrecked, stranded among enemies. The Torth are always tracked by their mental network. The only way for a Torth to “go native” is to voluntarily sever their mental connection to the galactic network; an illegal act from which there is no return. Needless to say, renegade Torth are exceedingly rare. They generally only survive for a few days. A renegade Torth will be hunted by their nearly omniscient brethren—and if caught, they face death by torture.

The conquistadors had it only slightly easier. If they integrated with a native society well enough to gain tattoos or ear piercings,
they could expect mistrust and suspicion from Spanish priests. Few European women dared to live in the machismo frontier towns of the New World, but if a conquistador married a non-royal indigenous woman and had children with her, his family would be rejected by his peers, unable to inherit wealth or property.

Nevertheless, the conquistadors had such a spirit of adventure, a few rarities did join the indigenous Americans. A shipwrecked conquistador named Gonzalo Guerrero, for instance, became a Mayan warlord and raised Mayan children, leading attacks against his Spanish brethren. And some of the indigenous population, by dint of royal blood and political maneuvering, avoided enslavement—such as Doña Isabel Moctezuma, the Aztec princess who secured a European dukedom for her descendants.

That sort of audacity informs my larger-than-life characters.Throughout my series, the character of Thomas is, by turns, a helpless human, an authoritative Torth, a much-feared renegade hunted by the most powerful people in the galaxy, a prisoner of pirates, a top
advisor to the rebel warlord, and ultimately, the instrument of change, as he empowers former slaves to enslave their former Torth
masters. Thomas becomes the most widely feared and despised person in the known universe, as well as a symbol of hope.

Like the most memorable characters of the Age of Discovery, Thomas is surrounded by a colorful cast from every quadrant of the Torth-ruled galaxy. Ariock, the rebel warlord of mixed heritage, could be Moctezuma II or Atahualpa, if either of those god-emperors had gained enough foreign intelligence to drive the conquistadors back across the Atlantic Ocean. Kessa, the pragmatic runaway slave, has elements of the pragmatic Malintzin; the translator who gained power as Hernán Cortés grew reliant upon her. There are shades of the backstabbing Pizarro brothers, and entitled Almagristas, amongst the upper echelons of Torth society, where ambition and winning popular support are all that matter. And the Upward Governess, a canny Torth tactician with illegal secrets, has elements of Antonio Pigafetta, the chronicler who recorded insights into Magellan’s violent encounters with indigenous islanders.

I began writing my series before I’d read much about the Age of Discovery. However, I find myself drawn to that period of history
more than any other, because it includes multiple well-chronicled accounts of alien encounters—or foreign encounters which seemed very alien at the time. It’s about the exploration of new cultures, values, ideas, and lands; exploration on a scale which is no longer possible in the contemporary era. It’s a shame that so few films and TV series are willing to tackle the brutal warfare and clashing values of this period, outside of light-hearted romps such as Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” and DreamWorks’s “The Road to El Dorado”.

My taste in non-fiction runs towards dynamic narratives with fiction-style flair, rather than textbook chronologies. Some of the
books I’ve most enjoyed about this era include Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, by Laurence Bergreen, Columbus: The Four Voyages, by Laurence Bergreen, The Last Days of the Incas, by Kim MacQuarrie, River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon, by Buddy Levy, and Night of Sorrows, a fictionalized account of the conquest of the Aztec Empire, by Frances Sherwood. I’ll welcome more non-fiction book recommendations.

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Abby Goldsmith’s short fiction and articles are published in Escape Pod, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Fantasy Magazine, and several anthologies. A former animator and game content writer, Abby is credited on more than a dozen Nintendo games for Nickelodeon and Disney. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she works full-time as video editor, and co-hosts the Stories for Nerds podcast. You can subscribe
to her newsletter here.

Abby’s novels, serialized online at Wattpad

On social media:
The Torth
Abbyland

February, 2019

I’d like to say I’d been burning rubber on my new Klaereon Scroll book, The Wisdom of Thoth. I’d like to say that.

Instead, what I will tell you is that self-publishing is not for people afraid of work. Most of my time the last two months has been spent promoting and editing. Those of you who have agents and editors, take a moment to send them a bouquet of flowers, or a movie pass, or something.

Let’s be honest. It’s work. I don’t dislike it, although I’d rather be writing. Writing is the piece of this journey that gives me the most joy, that takes me away, and really makes me happy. That said, there’s something cool about holding your destiny in your own hands, about making a beautiful book with someone who cares about your book. I have a good editor, cover designer, and graphic designer. I am learning, and feeling good about my new career.

In short, I’m doing okay, and there is light at the end of the tunnel. I have to finish editing The Pawn of Isis one more time. I’ve sketched my con year and my author events. The canvas is painted, and what remains is the showing up. I’ll probably have to plan one more giveaway, but that’s not happening until Pawn is done and released closer to March 19th.

What do I have coming up in February and March? Since the winter here in Iowa is literally keeping us inside one day a week right now (our college has never cancelled this much school), it’s good I have no plans to get out there and promote, because I suspect most of what I wanted to do would have been cancelled.

March, then, is the first event, and it is a Facebook party with some of the authors who have contributed to Fantastic History: J. Kathleen Cheney, Carol Anne Douglas, Pat Esden, Kate Heartfield, Christopher Kastensmidt, Kirsten Lincoln, Dan Stout, and Dawn Vogel. The first one is March 9th, and the second one is March 30th, which is really, technically, better announced in the next newsletter. I will remind you.

And if you didn’t notice we have a give away for the new version of The Vessel of Ra, get thee to the home page and enter if you need one! Than lasts until midnight on February 14th, or until the two books are gone.

I will be at a convention the last weekend of this month, doing nothing with books. I know, I know. Gamicon Nickel has asked me to judge their costume contest. What? I could never have imagined a life when I had to convince people I was a cosplay queen, but back in the day…Anyway, if you like games, and you’re in Cedar Rapids, come check them out. Wear a costume too, if you like. I won’t judge. Wait. I will judge. Exactly.

Next month, I hope to be deep in the (ecstatic!) throes of what life is handing Marcellus and Gregorius Klaereon, and Flavia Borgia. I wish you all awesome writing and good cheer.

Fantastic History #23: The Future was India–The First Women Doctors in the British Empire

I base a lot of my characters in books on gaming characters. I belong to a crack squad of people who have been role playing with me for nigh unto 25 years, and the characters they run are very interesting. However, sometimes I cannot adapt the characters wholesale, as gaming is an imperfect medium, partly improve, partly hubris. Believe me, no one wants to read about your cool game, no matter how cool it is to you. Further, sometimes characters must be juiced up in order for them to have the drama necessary to participate as a character in a story.

Recently, I wanted to shift one such character, an Indian magician, into a firmer historical background. The character as conceived has some ability in medicine, so I decided to look into the background of Indian women in the 19th century. What I discovered is one of those happy accidents that suddenly made this character not only viable, but cutting edge.

Interesting and unknown to me previously, I discovered that the first women to graduate from medical school in the British empire were two Bengali women: Kadambini Ganguly and Chandramuku Basu. Both women graduated in 1883 from medical school in Calcutta, India.
Ganguly was the daughter of a Brahmo reformer. She studied in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and London before starting her own private practice. The mother of eight children, Ganguly was the ultimate example of a woman balancing professional and personal life. Basu ultimately earned an MA and became the first female administrator of a school in India. While Basu retired early due to ill health, Ganguly remained a stalwart figure for women’s rights in India.

Certainly, with these examples, my fictional character could find a toe hold in medicine at the time, following in Ganguly and Basu’s footsteps. And so Adah Kapoor, a new name for an old character, was well on her way to becoming a practicing doctor, as well as someone who followed in her family’s footsteps as a magician.

And the rest remains to be written. History, however, can be a wonderful, rich gift to the writer.

For more information on Ganguly, check out The Better India.

***

Cath Schaff-Stump writes speculative fiction for children and adults, everything from humor to horror. She is the author of the Klaereon Scroll series, the most recent of which is The Pawn of Isis, coming in March, 2019. Cath lives and works in Iowa with her husband. During the day, she teaches English to non-native speakers at a local community college. Other recent fiction has been published by Paper Golem Press, Daydreams Dandelion Press, and in The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. Cath is a co-host on the writing and geek-life fan podcast Unreliable Narrators. You can find her online at Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon, @cathschaffstump, cathschaffstump.com, and unreliablenarrators.net

Post 20: Going Indie

I am now an indie writer. Let’s break that down.

It seems to be conventional wisdom in writing these days that becoming a hybrid writer is a good idea. (TM). I was going to give that a go, and to start, I had planned to publish a book of short stories, which I did yesterday, by the way. I published The Devil’s Wingman and Other Stories as an ebook, with a print book to soon follow. You might remember from the last time I wrote an authorly post (not the one about my new studio, but post 18) I had lost my agent and Curiosity Quills had turned down my Klaereon sequel (coming out on March 19th, you betcha!). I planned to leave The Vessel of Ra with CQ and let it ride out its contract, and I also planned to pitch Abigail Rath Versus Mad Science to likely agents.

Think again. 😀

CQ recently radically changed its business model, and I decided to take them up on the option of getting my rights back for Vessel. And I’ve been having this unsettling question about time as it keeps on slipping (slipping, slipping) into the future. The Vessel of Ra took two years from acceptance to reach publication. Finding an agent to represent me came about because of that book deal, but it took me pretty much from 2009 until 2015 to find an agent. Mind, I do think I could find an agent again, but my mind has been moving in some strange directions during the past year.

First of all, what I want to write are the stories I want to tell. I want to write 7 Klaereon Scroll books, and I want to write about 7 Abby Rath books. I also have novellas and a serial to tell in the magical family universe, and I expect some other tangents I could explore. In the case of The Klaereon Scroll series, the publisher told me they didn’t want any more. In the case of Abby, my agent didn’t want to support it. And no harm, no foul to them. But I wanted to do these things.

Here’s the conundrum. What is more important to me? Is it to have an agent and a publisher? There are advantages to that, including wide distribution and a different kind of work. I have found out, however, what is important to me is to TELL the stories I want to tell, rather than to SELL the stories someone else thinks they can sell.

I used to be afraid of all the work self-publishing entailed, but I am enjoying editing, working with formatters and cover artists, and learning the ins and outs of each piece as I go. It is a lot of work, but it is also rewarding. For me to get my story out there, and have other people read it; for me to forego the winnowing and unlikelihood that I will be traditionally published, and sell well enough for my publisher to keep me, and for me to write and share the stories I want to, all of these are the reasons I have embraced self-publishing.

This is not to say I will never return to traditional publishing. But right now I want to be in a place where I can write what I want, that is flexible around my job. I am luckier than many, as I have some income I can devote here as I start up. And I am also lucky to be writing in a time where independent publishing does not have the stigma it once did. So, these posts will take a turn toward what it takes to self-publish a book, as well as many of the other overlapping aspects of being an author.

Take care, and happy writing to you. I’ll be over here, telling the stories I want to tell.

January, 2019

Well, this one’s later, and it’s because I was waiting to be able to tell you about my new books. Let’s hit the ground running.

As of yesterday, I entered the exciting world of the self-published author. This was a choice made after about a year of thinking about what I wanted from my writing career, and finding self-publishing was closer to my goals and desires. There will be (coincidentally right after I finish writing this update) a post about all of this reasoning, so if you find yourself ever contemplating walking the indie road, you can see how I got here. It was my plan to remain a hybrid writer, but then the small press I had published with radically altered its business plan, and I decided to go all in.

But you want to know about Brazil. 😀 Brazil was an amazing adventure. I could regale you with stories of all my classroom antics, but those looked remarkably like my actual day-to-day work. I met some awesome professors and attended more Brazilian barbecues than I would have guessed. Lavras was a great town, safe, rural, where I could drink student-grown coffee from the college where I taught, and could see Christmas lights in 90-degree weather.

The author side of the trip was also wonderful. Christopher Kastensmidt set me up to speak at the Instituto Estadual do Livro in Porto Alegre. A sudden summer storm meant we gave our talk about publishing in the US by candlelight–very atmospheric. I met some wonderful editors and authors, and was very impressed by the Port Alegre arts scene. Now, having returned to the States with a taste for Guarana Antartica and pao de queijo, I search for alternative ways to get my fix.

After Brazil, Bryon and I had a wonderful holiday and a relaxing break at home. This was my longest break in thirteen years, one of the benefits of returning to classroom teaching and giving up the administrative piece of my job. I wish I could say I wrote and wrote. I can say I edited and edited! I have 3 books being released in three months, with covers and formatting to arrange, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the disadvantages of going indie. I really am enjoying it, but yes, it does take time.

So, okay, you can read all about the indie choice, but what’s important for this update is that I have put out a book of short stories. The Devil’s Wingman and Other Stories is only available in ebook form, because the print form is currently getting a final edit, but that will be available soon. Every story in this book has been requested by someone who has heard me read it, so I wanted to put them all in one place for those folks. You might enjoy some of the stories too, if shorts are your thing.

Well, I gotta catch up with my January stuff, and then move onto some book support for The Pawn of Isis, which is coming your way on March 19th. More on it and the re-release of The Vessel of Ra forthcoming. Until next month, best of luck to you with your writing goals, and stay warm. Unless you are in Brazil, in which case, stay cool.

Fantastic History #22: Revisiting Shakespeare by Carol Anne Douglas

Writing historical fantasy is fun! I have felt compelled to put established character into my own stories ever since I was a child. I made up new adventures for Robin Hood, Lancelot, and Jo March, as well as for the characters in my favorite television shows.

So it isn’t strange that as an adult I wrote two novels in which Lancelot is a woman in disguise (Lancelot: Her Story and Lancelot and Guinevere) and that when those were done, I found myself writing young adult fantasy novels about Merlin and Shakespeare, starting with my recently published Merlin’s Shakespeare.

I have loved Shakespeare’s plays for many years, so it was natural for me to also read books about his life and literary criticism of his work. When I started doing that, I didn’t realize that I was doing research for fantasy novels.

My primary research for Merlin’s Shakespeare is reading and watching Shakespeare’s plays. He created—or borrowed—so many fascinating characters that I can’t resist using them. I also read the plays of Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson and learned about their lives because I knew I would want to use them as characters.

My choice of a villain was easy. How could I find a more interesting villain than Richard III? I love how he tells the audience what he’s doing. “I am determined to prove a villain.” That’s my kind of villain.

The daughter of one of my friends has been an excellent actor since she played Puck at age nine and learned all the lines in the play. She is the model for my protagonist, a high school girl who loves to act. Getting to know my friends’ daughters turned out to be a kind of research for me, though of course I did it because I love them.

I knew who would send my protagonist back in time: Merlin, of course. Having spent years researching and writing about the Arthurian legends, I knew he would be immortal and still active in magical doings.

Once I decided that I would send a teenage girl to Shakespeare’s London and the worlds of Shakespeare’s characters, I had to decide who would guide her in those worlds. Again, the choice was easy. I needed someone who would interest a high school girl and who would say outrageous things, so I quickly decided on Mercutio. But though he would introduce her to other characters, he wouldn’t give her the advice she needed. Who would do that? Macbeth’s witches, of course. They would give her clues in obscure language. Unlike Macbeth, she wouldn’t leap to conclusions but would try to find out what the witches really meant.

I did some research to learn about Shakespeare’s London. My favorite Shakespeare scholar is James Shapiro, who has written many excellent books like Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, which shows that the contention that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays didn’t emerge until the nineteenth century, and Shakespeare and the Jews. For information on Shakespeare’s life, I drew partly on Shapiro’s books A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. Of course, I also tried to learn more about London in Shakespeare’s time by reading books like Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England, which provides a great deal of period detail about what people ate, what they wore, how much things cost, and what shops stood on various streets in London.

I try to avoid anachronisms. I deliberately kept a few in my Lancelot books, primarily having the Virgin Mary be important to Lancelot, although devotion to Mary was generally later than the period in which my books are set. I try not to have hilarious anachronisms, like one prominent contemporary Arthurian novelist’s description of King Arthur and his men eating corn on the cob at the Round Table. (No, it wasn’t supposed to be a spoof.)

Writing Merlin’s Shakespeare and the upcoming sequel, The Mercutio Problem, has been the most fun project I have ever undertaken. What could be more fun than time traveling and having the opportunity to meet Shakespeare’s characters, not to mention Shakespeare himself? Putting lines in Shakespeare’s mouth requires a great deal of chutzpah. Writing historical fantasy allows me to live a magical life.

***

Carol Anne Douglas was supposed to have been born in a magical world but somehow ended up in the United States. She is unable to converse with birds and animals, but she spends a great deal of time watching them. Her role model is Nick Bottom, the weaver, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because she wants to play all the roles, but only a writer can do that.

In addition to writing Lancelot: Her Story and Lancelot and Guinevere and her young adult fantasies, Carol Anne writes plays, one of which has suspiciously Shakespearean content. Several of her short plays have been read at the Kennedy Center’s annual Labor Day program showcasing local authors’ work. She is also working on a contemporary novel, tentatively titled Shakespeare, Yellowstone, Refugees. In real life, she has spent a great deal of time in feminist organizations.

All of her books are available on Amazon in print and eBook versions.

Lancelot: Her Story

Lancelot and Guinevere

Merlin’s Shakespeare (also available in eBook form from Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Apple’s IBook Store)

Fantastic History #21: The Accretion Theory of Story-Telling by Tiffany Trent

First, big thanks to Catherine for inviting me here. Because I’m a process geek, I thought talking a little about my story development process might be fun.

Stories for me come together in very odd ways; they’re pastiches of anything from weird science news to little snippets of conversation I’ve heard. (Beware! she says. I am a magpie!) I call this the “accretion theory” of storytelling, but I suppose I could as well call it distillation or alchemy. Whatever it may be, I love taking seemingly disparate or unrelated ideas and mashing them together to make something—a mixed-media collage of story elements.

All of my stories seem to start with a simple base and then get all kinds of flotsam and jetsam pasted on to them. In fact, this year’s anthology project, THE UNDERWATER BALLROOM SOCIETY, co-edited with Stephanie Burgis was very much like this. At the core, was an underwater ballroom (that actually existed!). We asked our authors to riff on that idea. I think I was perhaps the only one who used the actual historical ballroom, but that’s absolutely the idea. We wanted people to add their own spin to it, so we had a ballroom used as a smuggler hideaway, a ballroom under the inland sea of Mars, a ballroom on the verge of collapse, a ballroom that was the scene of a magical heist, a Faery rock-n-roll fete, etc. And in my own story, the signs of accretion were very much present because I used my keen interest in mudlarking, historical research about Chinese and Indian lascars in 1800s London and the quarters that sprang up to serve them, and the underwater ballroom itself to add another story to THE UNNATURALISTS series. Thankfully, our readers were willing to go along for the ride, and we got some truly lovely reviews in response.

Another example: A novella I have on submission is an accumulation of my feelings about adoption (I’m the mother of two adopted children), space exploration, symbiosis, anglerfish mating rituals, sacred cycles (like the Aztec flowery wars), and virulence, to name but a few. The last bit in particular has long fascinated me. In my day job as a science writer, I often come across interesting scientific facts or principles. One recent idea is that many bacteria that become virulent require the activation of only one gene to become virulent/disease-causing. I wanted to think about this in terms of an entire race of beings who when quiescent interact with their environment in one way and when virulent act in another.

I have absolutely no idea if anyone will buy this novella, of course, but I loved setting myself the challenge of writing something so dense and difficult. Whether I succeeded remains to be seen.

As to how I manage to find and remember all these tidbits, I used to try to keep them all in my head. But the combination of motherhood and middle age has left me with precious little storage capacity. I now have a notebook where I just jot down whatever little story seed interests me, sure I’ll use it later. There really isn’t much pattern to what seizes me, except wonder or a sense of the sublime or macabre. But I reread them all periodically to see if any of them are speaking louder than the others and try to figure out how I might string some of them together.

I think a lot of why I do this is that these story seeds are bits of code that I string together to decrypt a bigger story. I often don’t even know why or how they go together (and truthfully sometimes they just don’t!), but I’ll try to find the story in them with everything I’ve got. Stephen King mentioned in On Writing that the bones of stories are already there; we writers just have to find them. Like him, I believe the story is already present. We just have to fit the bones together to make it whole.

***

Tiffany Trent is the author of eight novels of young adult science fiction and fantasy, including the HALLOWMERE series (Wizards of the Coast) and THE UNNATURALISTS duology (Simon & Schuster/Saga). Her first novel, HALLOWMERE: IN THE SERPENT’S COILS, was named a New York Public Library Book of the Teen Age. THE UNNATURALISTS was a 2012 Green Earth Book Award Honor winner. She has published numerous short stories and is the co-editor with Stephanie Burgis of the anthology THE UNDERWATER BALLROOM SOCIETY. She teaches in the Southern New Hampshire University online MFA in Creative Writing and is a science writer for a research institute at Virginia Tech.