Fantastic History #14: Masterpiece Theater by Catherine Schaff-Stump

About a month or so ago, I was hanging out with the other Unreliable Narrators, and we were interviewing Gail Carriger. Gail Carriger is the author of a great many books that take place in a peculiar place readers like to call her Parasol-verse, and at some point in the interview, Gail mentioned she liked her books to seem historical in the sense of Masterpiece Theater—not exactly authentic, but somewhat historical.

And I thought, yes, this is what I do. I try to create the mood of a historical novel. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I do a lot of research. I have a book that is a canal-by-canal photo album of Venice, which talks about when each building went up. I read general histories, look at old maps, try to dig into what kind of police force was in Gibraltar in the 19th century. I do the research things.

I also realize I am a 21st-century American woman, and there are many things I will get wrong. I will make many stylized choices a reader might not appreciate as accurate. I simply can’t make one hundred percent historically accurate choices because I am a creature of my time, AND I am writing fiction. Woah is me, but my first hope is to be entertaining, and I cannot escape who I am, where I am, or what my culture tells me to think.

In this regard, I think, Gail Carriger has it right.

Now, lest I am wrong, and I think I am, given the crazy popularity of, say Downton Abby, you might not be familiar with IPT’s Masterpiece Theater, which showcases a great many historical dramas, largely British, based on great(ish) works of British literature, or scripts meant to emulate the great works of British literature. Masterpiece is not the only avenue for these shows, as my third copy of A&E’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice attests to, but it is a handy shorthand for a certain kind of costume drama that recreates, within certain cultural standards, literary drama. I am a fan, and I should point out why I prefer writing with a certain entertainment flair, rather than historical accuracy.

I write fantasy: Not only am I writing historical stories, but I am writing fantasy stories. Even in the realms of alternate history or secret history, there is some amount of fudging the facts, or making assumptions. With fantasy, I am directly inserting the impossible (Egyptian gods banished for their presumption; trolls that traveled to the U.S. with immigrants; post Napoleonic French sorcerers.) into existing history. Accuracy is impossible when parts of your world are made up, although you can try to make your impossible seem plausible within the constraints of history.

Historical recreation sometimes makes for stiff drama: Not always. History can be pretty amazing. But sometimes what actually happened isn’t the most dramatic, as Hollywood reminds us with all of its movies based on true events, sometimes loosely. Adding pizzazz, angst, and drama serve the purpose of a story or novel, to entertain and involve us, the readers and viewers, in the human struggle of a story.

The look is the thing: One need only take a look at Gene Kelly’s version of The Three Musketeers and compare it to the 1993 The Three Musketeers to see what I’m talking about. Yes, we interpret history once again through the lens of our time. Lady deWinter’s crazy 1948 hair with jaunty hat, versus Lady deWinter’s low key long hair, unornamented in 1993, show what’s stylish in each time frame, not in the time Alexandre Dumas is setting the story. Sometimes we are closer to accurate, and sometimes we are way off base, but we do try to get a look we like that evokes the time of our historical drama.

I have to take my modern audience into account: This last one? Well, would you really want to read a story where people acted with past biases and prejudices rather than focused on entertainment? Some of the tensions and predilections of the past make for interesting drama, like The Crown’s revelation that Edward, Elizabeth’s uncle who gave up the throne for Wallace Simpson, thought Hitler was kind of all right. But others make modern viewers cry foul. In Downton Abby, how would we have felt if Sibyl and Thomas didn’t get to make their “unsuitable” match? Modern viewers were rooting for them! So yes, we tinker as dramatists to good effect.

Right now I am about to embark upon the third Klaereon Scroll book, and it will involve two characters from other countries: India and Martinique. I will be doing research into those countries, but I will borrow what works and modify what doesn’t in the tradition of all good historical novelists. So the overall effect might not be scholarly, but if you would pick it up after seeing it on public television, and if the costumes are good, well, my work is done.


Cath Schaff-Stump writes speculative fiction for children and adults, everything from humor to horror. Her YA Gothic fantasy The Vessel of Ra is available from Curiosity Quills. Catherine 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. Catherine is a co-host on the writing and geek-life fan podcast Unreliable Narrators. You can find her online at Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon, @cathschaffstump,, and

September, 2018

October is tomorrow. For the spookiest of months, I’ve taken some new author pics that fit the mood and the horror novella. I’m still plugging away on Abby Rath Versus Mad Science. I’ve been getting ready for the Paradise Icon writing workshop. And there was a pretty lengthy cold, and a bit of excitement with my mother-in-law (Good news! She’s still with us, but there was a roller coaster week in there.) In short, life can sometimes interfere with the best plans writers have.


So…the reading at M&M was a success. It turned out I was their first reading EVAIR, and I really appreciated the opportunity to be so. We had a good time at the North Liberty Author Fair too, seeing some friends.

October is a busy month here, with a lot of travel and events. We’ll write as much as we can. But next weekend is Icon 43 in Cedar Rapids. And there are a lot of events:

Oct 4: Signing at Cedar Rapids Barnes and Noble at 6:30-8
Oct 5: Paradise Icon Author Critiques
Oct 6: Author Meet and Greet at 10-12
Oct 6: Abandoned Places Reading at 7-8
Oct 6: Paradise Icon Reading at 8-9

If you’re attending Icon, maybe we’ll see you there.


From October 17-21, I’ll be in Vancouver attending the Surrey International Writer’s Conference. It’ll be a great weekend of writing instruction, and a chance to pitch a bit. I’ve never been to Vancouver, so I’m looking forward to it.

As an added bonus, although it has nothing to do with writing, Bryon will have his Halloween extravaganza at the end of the month, so I will share some pics of that. Keep writing, my friends, and so will I.

Guest Post: Travis Heerman

Please welcome Travis Heerman. Travis is the fine writer who shares credit with me in Alembical 4. His novella, Where the Devil Resides is a dark examination of a character’s descent into the lawless Everglades of Florida, and what he finds there. I’m going to let Travis tell you all about it.


The Devil Resides in a Ground Full of Teeth

I’m delighted for my novella “Where the Devil Resides” to share Alembical 4 with a story like “The Ground is Full of Teeth.” As I was reading Catherine Schaff-Stump’s dark, disturbing piece, I couldn’t help but recognize a fellow writer who also grew up in a very small town. Her keen eye for the details of small-town life spring out of every page.

Astute readers will recognize also the thematic resonances between the two stories. You can thank a couple of awesome editors for that, Lawrence M. Schoen and Arthur Dorrance.

So when Catherine suggested we trade blog posts talking about the geneses of our respective stories, I got to thinking about where I initially thought the story was going, and where it ended up.

It all began with a phrase in my head that sounded cool: Black Rose in the Garden of Eden. This became the title of the story, until the editors talked me into changing it as the story neared readiness for publication.

I started off writing what I thought was a short story. I was aiming for a kind of neo-pulp hero for the modern age, the kind of character who was larger than life, who could carry over into multiple stories, walking in the shoes of old, pulp icons like Conan, Doc Savage, the Shadow, and Jirel of Joiry, but with more modern sensibilities. What emerged was Black Rose, so I definitely got what I was after. But then I had to create a world that was worthy of her, and what came together was a steampunk-noir, alternate history where the American Civil War never really ended—in many ways, just like today.

Just a couple of scenes into the writing, I had to accept the fact that it was going to be too long for a short story. Maybe I could get it in ten or twelve thousand words. When I passed the 15k mark, I thought maybe I could do it in 20k. But then I hit 30k, and I was almost done. The story’s thematic foundations had become much richer and more complex than I was expecting, and there was nothing else to do but finish it.

Writing this story was as immensely disturbing as it was immeasurably satisfying. Some Very, Very Bad People do some Very, Very Bad Things—and then they get what’s coming to them. Rereading the story now, I still feel the drive for justice that was almost palpable during the first drafting. The trouble with comeuppance, however, is that the evil leaves its mark anyway. It is not a comfortable thing to sit back in one’s writing chair and gaze into The Abyss, because, as we all know, it gazes back into you.

The initial idea for the plot came from reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Of course, I had to follow that with a viewing of the film Apocalypse Now, a modern retelling of the same tale, where the river is the Mekong, not the Congo, but both are metaphors for rivers into Man’s darkest heart. And I use “Man” here specifically to mean the male of the species, because there are certain kinds of atrocities unique to men. In “Where the Devil Resides,” the part of the metaphoric river is played by the Everglades. Just how far could men fall on the scale of depravity if they have no fear of law or reprisal?

Like Catherine’s story, “Devil” is about abuse, and the ripple effects it has on the world even after the abuse is ended. It is also about the lengths that men will go to control women, and the stunting effects of certain narrow-minded, lazy ways of thinking. This is the story in which my neo-pulp heroine, the Black Rose, is enfolded, like a corpse-dark flower waiting to open and lash out with her whip.

Since the story’s acceptance, I’ve had some time to do more with it. I developed the novella into a screenplay of the same name. The screenplay won the Best Horror/Fantasy Screenplay at the 2018 Famous Monsters Silver Scream Fest, and, as I write this, is a finalist in the Feature Screenplay category at the Shriekfest Horror Film Festival. I’ll be traveling to Los Angeles for the festival October 4-7, 2018, hoping to meet some filmmakers, and if luck is with me, bring home the win.

I hope you’ll procure yourself a copy of Alembical 4. If you like to squirm a little as you read, you won’t be disappointed.

August, 2018

I’ve already posted a couple of times this month, once about my recent change in status from agented author with a publisher to unagented author with no publisher, and another much more upbeat article about the remodeling of my new studio. Which, by the way, now has a Baba Yaga-like desk lamp made of three skulls because we picked up some meatloaf for my mother-in-law from Cracker Barrel, and they had this creepy exclusive. Go, Cracker Barrel. And yes, go out and get one for yourself, Russian folklore fans!


But what you really want to know is how is the writing going, right? I am plugging along on the first installment of my serial, which has yet to pick up its final name, but has a Paradise Icon title of The Poet and the Navigator. Paradise Icon, the annual workshop a bunch of my writing buddies sojourn to every year is in October, and the story needed to be submitted in early September. I’d like to get some other eyes on it to see just how self-indulgent it is. We’ll see.

I’ve outlined the mad science plots in my office on the murder board. In the upper left hand corner is a card which says, “The first rule of mad science is we don’t talk about mad science.” I will work on it diligently in September and see if I can’t get this draft out into the world for some beta-eyes.

I haven’t given up on Abby as a commercial pursuit quite yet. A couple of agents have a full. And no, I don’t expect anything. I’ve been here before. But we cast our net wide. Serial, self-pub, agent stuff. Just keep writing.


You’ll notice the What’s New page at the front of the blog has now been taken over by Alembical 4, also known as the “Woah. Lawrence and Buck sure did find a couple of creeptastic novellas” issue. Travis Heerman‘s Where the Devil Resides is bleak and dark and I would recommend the book just for his novella if I had to. The Ground is Full of Teeth also has some twisty stuff in it. You can ask for it by name at local bookshops and order it on line too.


September actually has a couple of events I hadn’t planned on in it.

First of all, I will be having a reading of The Ground is Full of Teeth at M and M Books in Cedar Rapids. If you need any of my books, I want to encourage you to check with them first. They treat local authors exceptionally well. I’ll be reading on September 18th from 5 pm – 7 pm, so please come by if you can.

And then, for my North Liberty peeps, the North Liberty Community Library will be having an Author Fair on September 23rd from 1 pm to 4 pm. I’ll have copies of all the books on sale: The Vessel of Ra, the Abandoned Places Anthology, and Alembical 4, plus a whole lot of swag.

Hope to catch you at either of these events.

So, next month, I hope to tell you that I’ve finished Mad Science. Which means I gotta get busy. These darned books do not write themselves. Asking the philosophical question what is with that? For a friend.

Living Authorly Post 19: My New Studio

Hey all. Different people like to write in different spaces. Some like to write in coffee shops. Some, at home. I wanted to have a dedicated space to write in at home that signaled to me I was getting down to work, so I took the room where I had stored my books and converted it into a classy space to write, read and relax.

In case it doesn’t show, I’ve been reading a lot about tiny houses and she-sheds. Anyway, it did take us a little elbow work. My husband Bryon was instrumental in helping me make this space a reality. He went out to a department store going out of business and found the main bookcase, and we added some bookshelves to it. The other two skinny shelves from the side are cube style book cases stacked.I sorted and paired my books down to the essential research and books that made me. Unread books are now stored until I have a chance to get to them in baskets and in those hassocks by the chairs. We had bought the Italianate desk some years ago, and I think it looks great. The chairs we also reallocated from other areas in the house.

All the art work? Most of it are drawings of characters I’ve written about given to me by other people, with a couple of wonderful pieces that represent other things. And the lights in the windows are VERY soothing and comfortable. And I bought some artifacts from other areas of the house which speak to my creativity and are treasures.

You’ll notice the corkboard? I’ll be able to do some plot structuring now, and that’s what I’m going to do tonight as soon as I’ve put this article to bed.

This feels again like commitment to my art and creativity. I like it, and I felt the need to show it off.

And now, more pictures!

Living Authorly Post 18: Ups and Downs

Hey. It’s been a while since I have done one of these posts, largely because I’ve been working really hard on books and promotions and that sort of thing. I’ve started putting out a monthly newsletter, and doing a post a month. AND I’ve started a page called Fantastic History where lots of writers of, well, fantasy that is historical, have been kind enough to write really awesome articles.


At this time last year, I was feeling really good about my writing career. The Vessel of Ra was about to come out, and my agent and I were talking about our next project. We’d settled on my middle grade series. This year the story is entirely different. My book did not sell enough copies for my publisher to buy a sequel, and my agent and I parted ways amicably because she didn’t connect with the middle grade book. Mind, I’d highly recommend her as an agent, and I’ve an open invite to submit again in the future if I haven’t partnered with someone else. But you don’t want an agent who doesn’t have enthusiasm about your stuff. Nope, you don’t.

The reason I mention all this isn’t to bemoan my fate. No, the reason I mention it is because authors need to know this sort of thing happens. Being an author is not linear. As a less experienced writer, I had imagined my writing career to be more akin to my teaching career, and once you achieved a next step, you’d keep going up. Writing has a lot of slippage. It’s hard to reconcile yourself to that, and it’s one of the reasons I am glad I am an intrinsic writer, mostly in it for the art and the projects I love. It’s also one of the reasons I’m grateful for my work in teaching, as it supplies a very different type of career movement

Let me be clear. I’m still writing. I am still working on finding a new agent for the middle grade project. I plan to self-publish the Klaereon books, which I love, and write other books which may be more commercially viable. I am not finished because my writing circumstances have changed. I am still writing, and as my very wise ex-agent, now friend told me, as long as you write, you are a writer. No one can take that away from you.

I will admit there was a moment last month when I realized I might be the only person in the world who ever wanted my books. It felt bleak. But, then, I realized that even if that is true, which I think it is really not (hey, at least my husband wants to read my books! And I know many of you do too, so it was an illusion), the act of writing, even if it were for only myself, is enough. This is a hard place to get to. I won’t stay here psychologically. I’ll have to make the journey back here periodically.

None of this means I stop trying. It means I have to change my definition of what success looks like as a writer. And what that means right now is I keep writing, keep sending, and keep doing my thing.


This month, my novella The Ground is Full of Teeth comes out from Paper Golem Press in their Alembical 4 volume. This is a departure from The Vessel of Ra. Written in 2016, it is autobiographical, a Southern Iowa Gothic werewolf novella. Yes, I will let you decide which parts are biographical. It’s very arty, and well, it’s a horror novel for adults. I would like to encourage you to get on Amazon and order it.

Right now I’m finishing Abigail Rath Versus Mad Science because it’s close to done, and Abigail Rath Versus Blood-Sucking Fiends has fulls out with a couple of agents. I already mentioned my self-pubbing of the Klaereon books. My goal is to write what I want, same as always, and try to publish it as I can. I know many authors go hybrid, and I suspect as publishing continues to evolve, all these skills are good to have.


With all this in mind, I know I need to write more. I made some choices last April to free up time to write and now that I’m starting with agents and publisher again, as well as adding self-pub to the mix, well…I thought I needed more time to write books with my agent and publisher, but now I need to write for my art and my sake. So I am a classroom teacher again, having shed the administrative piece of my job, and I have turned our catch all room into a lovely writer’s studio, which I will post pictures of. I’ll be spending a lot of time here. Yes, I’m writing here now. There will be pictures soon.


I hope this post helps you, especially if you find yourself in a place like I find myself. It’s not you, and it’s not them. It’s about money and opinion, and sheer dumb luck. But for the author, at least this author, it’s always got to be about telling the story I want to tell, living in my imagination, and finding that sweet spot. And then putting it out there somehow and moving on. Remember, your writing has value, and the only way you’re no longer an author is if you stop. Don’t stop.

July 2018 Update

Hello everyone. July breezed by dizzily as this author moved from event to operation to event. Let’s dive in.

The first weekend in July saw some good friends, my husband and I attending CONvergence in Minneapolis. There I was on a couple of panels, and did a reading and a signing. It was really awesome to see old friends and make new ones.

I came home for a quick and minor surgery and took off the very next day to Washington. Bryon and I were off to see Hatsune Miku on her world tour, for both enjoyment and future novel research. She and her fellow vocaloids rocked the house. We also saw some monuments and memorials, because when you’re in Washington DC, it’s what you do.

And my final exploit for the month was to participate in the Imagine Other World with Authors event, where I met a lot of great indie writers. It’s really interesting to compare the world of conventions with the world of indie author shows. I feel like I’m getting a real education in the opportunities available to hybrid authors


Naturally, I’ve been writing. I’m still plugging away on Abigail Rath Versus Mad Science, trying to finish it off. I’ve also started on some other large projects, but haven’t done enough on them to really call them anything yet.

Big announcement: in August, my novella The Ground is Full of Teeth comes out in Alembical 4 from Paper Golem Press. This novella, written in 2016, is a Southern Iowa Gothic were-novella, partly autobiographical. I will let you figure out which parts are real and are not.


Upcoming in August? It’s looking pretty quiet over here. I’ve started being a professor again, and I’m buckling down to that and finishing my current WiP and getting rolling on some new stuff. Wish me luck.

June 2018 Update

Hey guys! June was pretty good. I had a lovely month of vacation, which started promptly at the beginning of the month, and I buckled down to some serious book writing. I am happy to report that The Pawn of Isis is now in the hands of Curiosity Quills, awaiting its final fate. Hopefully I will have news on that front soon.

This month was great for local book appearances. M&M Book Stores in Cedar Rapids has begun sponsoring local authors, so Beth Hudson and I hung out there on June 9th. A whole bunch of authors from the Shohola Press Abandoned Places Anthology–Chris Bauer, Doug Engstrom, Ransom Noble, Shannon Ryan and myself–spent June 30th at Beaverdale Books, where we read from the anthology, met a lot of people, and had a generally great time. On the whole, a pretty good month.


In case you hadn’t noticed in the navigation line, I’ve started a new part of this blog called Fantastic History, where awesome guests come in to write articles about writing history and fantasy at the same time. If you are a fan of this genre, as I am, you may well recognize some of the names. Definitely read some of their work.

I should also mention the podcast I’m part of–The Unreliable Narrators–just posted its 150th show. Congrats and a shout out to my friends Chris Cornell, Chia Evers, and George Galuschak. We are a great team. Also a shout out to all our wonderful guests for 150 shows.


What’s coming up in July? A lot of stuff. First of all, I will be at Convergence from July 5th until July 8th. If you’re in Minneapolis that weekend, I will be there too! Then, after I take a quick duck into the hospital for some outpatient surgery, Bryon and I are off to Washington D.C. to take in the Hatsune Miku North American Expo. Not only is it fun, but it is also research for a future writing project. Finally, I’ll be back in Marion, Ia for the I.O.W.A. (Imagine Other Worlds with Authors) event. Looks like a busy, traveling July.

Writing-wise, I still plan to have my first draft of Abigail Rath Versus Mad Science ready to go for beta readers before I head back to Kirkwood in August. I’ve also started playing with ideas for a serial entitled Samuel and Amanda for the moment, and have begun laying the groundwork for The Wisdom of Thoth, (Klaereon Scroll Series #3). AND I plan to put out a self-published collection of shorts. Those of you who have been keen for some of the stories I’ve been reading in public over the years should have some soon.


Have a great July, and I’ll see you again in August.

Fantastic History #7: The Creative Spark in Ancient Worlds by Rachel Marks

Every story has been written. Every tale has been told. As you look at history you begin to see how true this idea is. At this point, as artists, we’re all basically re-creators. There is nothing new under the sun. What one man leaves behind another picks up and reshapes, and this is especially true in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. From Harry Potter, to Star Wars, to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, most well-know speculative creations have been inspired by, or seem to echo ancient mythology, a historic culture or a historical event. According to George R.R. Martian, Game of Thrones was inspired by his fascination with the War of the Roses. Tolkien was inspired by his love of ancient language and Norse and Celtic mythology. And the much maligned/loved Twilight could easily be seen as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast.

After I finished work on my debut series (The Dark Cycle), I found myself in a slump with a very real case of writer’s block. I had several projects in the baby stages but nothing that had enough meat on its bones to allow for me to really dive in as my next big challenge. I went back and forth between projects for several months and just couldn’t make any of them work. I decided to take a break in writing and focus on research. Just research. Because that’s my sandbox. I would soak in information based on ancient culture, historic wars, colonization and change, and I would go into my sponge time with no preconceived notions. I’d just take it all in and see what my subconscious did.

I’ve always been fascinated by ancient Irish-Celtic mythology/culture, and Norse as well (having a grandma who sprouted from each of them), with a solid knowledge base on both of them, and so I naturally gravitated towards those. I knew that I wanted to write something with an ancient feeling, but told in a modern setting. I planned on laying out a few paths I could possibly walk down as I started taking notes.

Within the first two weeks of soaking, I had a new main character waving at me, a mythology structure rising to the surface, and a very real mood I wanted to create; all the bones I needed to build the new world of Fire and Bone. A world woven through with ancient Irish Folklore, wrapped in the mood of a dark European faerie tale, with a twist of sassy modern wit.

I was surprised how quickly my writer’s block was broken by simple historical research, my mind opening to new ideas from old stories and ancient imaginings. And while I may not have had all the details laid out perfectly, I had a baseline to jump off of. I was finally weaving a story again. A new story sparked because I couldn’t get the vision of what I’d read out of my head; I felt the plight of the old gods clashing with the new as the East met the West through Rome, I saw the image of a god transforming into a raven, I marveled at stories of children abandoned in the woods by parents who feared the illusive fae. Because they had faith that not setting out fresh cream for the pixies brought fate’s mischief, that a sickly child was a changeling. Superstition was the order of the day. And the gods walked among us.

The inevitable story questions rose: what would that look like in modern day? And how would the ancient gods of Erin, of Albion and Prydain play with us now, if they could? The answers to this author’s inspiration came from the past.

Maybe yours will as well.


Rachel A. Marks is an author and artist, a cancer survivor and the mom of four awesome humans. She’s the author of the bestselling Urban Fantasy series, The Dark Cycle. And her new book Fire and Bone was one of’s most anticipated books of 2018. You can read more about her on her website: