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.

Fantastic History #16: Creating Geomancy from the Ground Up–Beth Cato’s Blood of Earth Trilogy by Beth Cato

My Blood of Earth trilogy started with a single vague idea: the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, steampunk style. The only other certainty in my head was that it needed to also involve magic, but I needed to make the magic distinct from the healing powers in my novel The Clockwork Dagger, which was just starting to get offers from publishers at the time. My new project was intended to keep me occupied and somewhat more sane during the forthcoming months of existence under an agent-imposed gag order during contract negotiations. I couldn’t talk about The Clockwork Dagger in public until everything was official, but I could discuss my new book in the works. That project was soon titled Breath of Earth.

As I sat down to develop the concept, my first priority was figuring out how magic fit into this alternate history. Once I knew that, I needed to determine how that impacted my heroine. I began to ask an endless sequence of “What if” questions. What if she caused the earthquake somehow? What if something else did? What if the earthquake itself embodied magic?

I suddenly knew the kind of magic I was working with: geomancy. Not only was it a starkly different magic than in The Clockwork Dagger, but it was also a type that I hadn’t seen used much in fantasy fiction.

With geomancy in mind, I then had to look at the world I was building. If this was known magic–not a secret history kind of situation–how had it changed the world? Slowly, gradually, the pieces came together in my notes. Geomancy had a long history. The Romans used it–and even created airships! That painted a ridiculously cool picture in my mind. But with the fall of Rome, the technology was lost. But why? How?

I considered how materials might be necessary to practice geomancy, and that the loss of that resource could have contributed to the Dark Ages. I thought of the Final Fantasy role-playing game series, where I first fell in love with airships as a kid, and how crystals have important roles in various games.

I pieced elements together to form my own magic system within the context of my alt history. Geomancers were sensitive to earthquakes and other outflows of earth energy. They stored that energy as a fever. In an especially bad earthquake, the flow could kill them almost instantly. However, they could save themselves by breaking contact with the ground, or by having special crystals on hand, which I dubbed kermanite. Rome exhausted their original kermanite mines and soon thereafter collapsed as a civilization. In the 19th century, rapid technological developments occurred in America after kermanite was discovered in the California desert. Kermanite charged with earth energy can be used as a battery for everyday objects as well as new advances like airships, autocars, or tanks. That integrated the steampunk genre into the plot, right along with the magic.

That plot included a version of history where the American Civil War ended early due to an alliance between the Union and Japan. By 1906, that cooperation had been formalized as the Unified Pacific, a global superpower currently trying to complete its dominance of mainland China. This had major ripple effects on San Francisco with its high population of Chinese refugees.

Oh yes, and then there was my heroine, Ingrid Carmichael. Not only was she a woman of great geomantic skill–something thought to only be the domain of men–she was also a woman of color. Her understanding of geomancy has evolved with each book. In Breath of Earth, she endures the San Francisco Earthquake–which happens for more complicated reasons than mere plate tectonic action. The second book, Call of Fire, takes her to another geologically volatile region, the Pacific Northwest.

Of course, as a writer, I have to escalate the stakes, which is why the finale in the series, Roar of Sky, ventures to the Big Island of Hawaii to the Kilauea volcano. That book was just released on October 23rd.

Countless “What if?” questions guided me from my initial concept and through about 300,000 words of text. The complex alt history felt as if it broke my brain more than once, but the end result is a complete trilogy that melds geomancy and history in some fun, fantastical new ways.

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Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and three feline overlords.

She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and THE CLOCKWORK CROWN (an RT Reviewers’ Choice Finalist) from Harper Voyager. Her novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE was a 2016 Nebula nominee. Her new alt-history steampunk series began with BREATH OF EARTH and continues with CALL OF FIRE and ROAR OF SKY (out October 23rd, 2018).

Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.

Flailing About

I’m full of odds and ends on this Thursday morning.

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Haircut tonight. After years of not really caring about my hair, Bryon has discovered he likes the colored dye thing. He’s put in requests for white and blue on some occasion. So tonight, Margot and I will have the Ramona Flowers discussion, and we’ll see what she thinks of sinking heavily into Cindy Laupnerville.

Yesterday, I hit 55.7K and finished through chapter 18 of the Troll story. I’m just about 60 pages from the end. After the 4th rewrite, it’ll be good to go. I’ll go through and do some editing, sharpening, and cutting. But I’m jazzed, because not only only is there light at the end of the tunnel, but there is also a hole big enough that I can crawl through.

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My friend Catrina Horsfield and I are taking a summer trip in June to Finland and Norway for research for each of our novels (my sequel to troll, her wizards). I love planning itineraries, so expect much Norway blabbing in the future.

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Viable Paradise friend Brent Bowen posts this inspiring piece for writers. It’s a well-written thing worth the read.

Another post coming up. I have discovered I don’t want to bury these things in that post.

Cath