1920s, characters, families, research, world-building

Welcome to Stanbury

Hello! Welcome to Stanbury, ancestral home of the Whitney family. Come right in! Let’s use the side entrance; it seems more friendly, doesn’t it?

Maia used to swing on the gate when she was a child. It drove her mother mad, of course, but she loved the freedom of swinging combined with the ability to see the world passing by on the road. Even if “the world” were usually only a few stray escaped sheep.

Mind your step here. You wouldn’t want to trip on these stairs. Ouch!

Shall we pop into the kitchen a moment? Mrs Humphrey won’t mind. If we’re lucky, she’ll even give us a cup of tea (and possibly a slice of fresh-baked bread).

The sitting room gets marvelous light, wouldn’t you agree?

Mrs Whitney says it’s terribly draughty, though.

Yes, the bathroom is rather small. But so elegantly decorated! Ellie insisted on that.

The Whitneys are so very proud of this room, an addition the current Mr Whitney had built after he was married (but before the War, naturally. One doesn’t indulge in unnecessary expenditures in this day and age. Have you heard that they had to sell the London house? Terrible shame, but one can one do? Mr Whitney was only thankful to be able to hold onto Stanbury).

And here we are back onto the grounds! Sorry we couldn’t take more of a detailed tour, but really, it is terribly gauche to peek into people’s lives too much, don’t you agree? Besides, you wouldn’t have wanted to see Ellie or Merry’s bedrooms, believe me. They are a terrible mess, especially since Merry keeps chasing away all the maids with her Socialistic notions.

I hope you enjoyed the tour! Stanbury might not be the grandest showplace of the county, but the local folk are proud of it all the same. After all, as Maia says, it has character, and that’s even better than impressiveness.

All pictures are, in reality, of the Old Vicarage in Croxton Kerrial, Leicestershire. I love real estate websites for finding house inspirations.

1920s, editing, fantasy, influences, world-building

Magical World-building, Louise Style

I distinctly remember the first time I discovered the world of Cecy and Kate.

I was in the Scranton library, one of my first visits there after we moved from our apartment to the duplex and our former library was too much of a drive for every week (it was here, by the way, a great little jewel of a library that I truly loved). I was exploring the YA section, and wanted to see how many of the Enchanted Forest books by Patricia C Wrede they had. Instead, they had this collaborative effort by Wrede and someone I’d never heard of before, that read, upon skimming it over, like a blend of Jane Austen and … well, Patricia C Wrede.

image courtesy of Goodreads

I have always been skeptical of collaborative books, but this looked way too intriguing to pass up. I borrowed it, and promptly fell in love. Not only with Kate, Cecy, Thomas, and James, but with the idea of insinuating magic into the real world, into real history.

When the first glimmers of plot for Magic Most Deadly were swirling about my brain, my first thought was to make the world very similar to the Kate & Cecy world – where magic was an open, accepted part of everyday life, only in the 1920s instead of 1820s.

In the end, I just couldn’t make that work, though, and had to rely on magic existing, but being hidden. Which had its own set of challenges, but fit the story and characters’ needs much better.

It made the world-building and research process so much fun. How does one fit the War in with the concept of magic? Would magicians have been involved? (Hey, my brain said, there’s a good backstory plot point.) How does magic work? How do they keep it secret? How do they keep track of all the magicians? Is it a world-wide thing, or does each nation have its own set of laws regarding magic, or what? (Ooh, said brain. FUTURE plot points.)

What I did not do is what almost every writer of fantasy insists you must: I did not write out a detailed, complete outline of how magic worked, a complete alternate history, maps, et cetera.

Part of that was because I was coming off an exhaustively researched, meticulously detailed, carefully plotted project that had sucked the life and joy right out of writing for me. Magic Most Deadly was never intended to be publishable. It was just a fun project to help me recover my zest for story. So more meticulous detailing and back-plotting was the exact opposite of what I needed then.

The other part is that it’s really hard for me to think of all the necessary details to build up an alternate history completely, right out of hand. Rather, I do much better with a vague, broad outline, filling in the details as I go. I also happen to have a rather good memory for what I’ve already said and detailed, so it is very rare that I end up tripping myself later on with details or writing myself into a corner (with magic or history details, that is. Len’s eyes went from brown to blue probably half a dozen times in the course of the story in the first two drafts, and I still have to think twice if you ask me what color they are. And don’t even bother asking which leg Dan lost in the War. Are Maia’s friends the police officers Ray Maddox and Alan Andrews, or Ray Andrews and Alan Maddox? I’d have to check the book to tell you for certain. But  the magic details, those all stayed perfectly plainly, and very neatly labeled and organized in my head.)

Magic! Yes. Part of nature! Yes. Can only work with natural items! Well, that certainly makes sense, and provides a good limitation. Wait, then can magicians be mechanics? Don’t know, don’t need to know now, file that question away for later when it’s relevant.

Can people do magic on other people? Sure, but with limits. What limits? Hmm, I probably do need to work this one out. … Able to, but banned because it’s wicked. (Which ended up being the main plot point for my short story If This Be Magic.)

But wait! Banned by who? OK, need some sort of magical government. Hmm … we’ll call it a council, work out more details as needed.

(Later on, it turned out I did need those more details, and then I sat down and wrestled into submission the idea of Master Magicians, Journeymen, Apprentices, and Ordinary Magicians. That each nation had its own system of governance seemed obvious, so I didn’t bother messing with any other countries’ methods – I still don’t know how they all work, though I will have to figure out some for the sequel, featuring as it does magicians from the US and Russia.)

I don’t necessarily recommend this method for everyone. It can get sloppy, and if your memory doesn’t have the knack of holding onto the important details, it can get you in trouble. But it worked for me, for this book, and it saved me at a time when I have squeezed all inspiration out of my writing process by trying to be too businesslike about it. As I was working on the very final draft, I finally narrowed down various other details: where in England the story took place, what Stanbury and Little Oaks looked like, that sort of thing.

Sheepy Lodge, the inspiration for Little Oaks. Isn’t it gorgeous?

By then, the polishing stage, I needed all those little bits and pieces. Back at the beginning, the first few drafts?

They would have gotten in the way and bogged me down.

So this is what worked for me, for this book. It’s unconventional, sure, but it was also a whole lot of fun.

(I just realized, when I close my eyes and picture Dan, he is definitely missing his right leg. So there you go.)

1920s, Books, characters, favorites, fiction, heroes, heroines, influences, publishing, research, world-building, writing

Truth

I recently read Emma Thompson’s charge against the current generation of film stars, how they don’t seem to believe enough in their work to promote it, and that if one loves what one does enough, one should be willing to shout it from the rooftops.

It hit home. Because I have been doing a terrible job of promoting Magic Most Deadly. Granted, it’s not because I don’t believe in it, but it’s fear of being found annoying or arrogant or pompous. Or who knows? Maybe it is a lack of self-confidence – not it the book, but in me. I’m not going to try to psycho-analyze myself too deeply here. I just know that, to do justice to my book, I need to be bold about it.

So, truth:

Magic Most Deadly is the best damn thing I’ve ever written. It’s not highbrow literature. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea. But it is a fun story, with characters who became very real and individual people to me throughout the writing, and with a twisty and entertaining plot. It’s my tribute to Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and Lloyd Alexander and Brian Jacques and all those writers I’ve mentioned in every one of my “Influences” posts.

I loved writing it. I even enjoyed editing and polishing it. I researched the heck out of that thing, and even enjoyed that part. I grew as a writer (and a person, really) throughout its creation process.

It’s a great little book. And I hope everyone who likes mystery and fantasy and humor and English country houses and strong-minded heroines and a hero who respects that and a fussy, stubborn mentor in the background will pick up a copy and give it a read.

Not because I want to be rich and famous and everybody loves meeeeee and thinks I’m wonderful! But because I really, I honestly do, think you’ll enjoy it.

Magic Most Deadly. Get your tickets today.

(Did I do okay, Ms Thompson?)

1920s, characters, fantasy, goals, heroes, heroines, publishing, world-building, writing

Character Sketches

By which title I mean, real sketches of my characters. Not written sketches of their personalities, etc.  Art. Done by me. Not an artist.

I was trying to put together a concept sketch for a potential cover designer last week, and got enormously fed up at my inability to draw anything better than stick figures. I used to take art lessons, said I, and the pencil drawing I did of a horse has hung in my parents’ house for years and nobody ever guessed it was drawn by a kid, and the bird in pastels I did for Grandma is now hanging in my kitchen, and looks lovely, so why do my fingers no longer obey my brain when it comes to drawing?

Enough is enough, said I. If I’m going to be teaching art to my children, I better start believing and practicing some of the precepts.

A few hours later, I had come up with two reasonable sketches – one of Maia, and one of Len.

They aren’t perfect. If I were to draw them again, and again, and again, I know I could get them better.

But you know what? I like them just the way they are. And I think they convey a lot of strength and personality that wouldn’t necessarily show in a more polished and perfected piece.

So here, without further ado, is the first public appearance of Miss Maia Whitney and Mr Lennox Davies, co-protagonists of Magic Most Deadly:

Maia Whitney
Maia Whitney
Lennox Davies
Lennox Davies

After finishing Len’s portrait, I was bitten by the art bug, and now every time I sit down for a few moments you can find me picking up a pencil and paper and working away on noses, eyes, and ears. I drew a couple fairies for my daughters to play with, and even got bold and attempted a unicorn (er … definitely need work in the direction. Proportions were WAY off).

After telling myself for years that “I wish I could draw, but I’m just not an artist,” it’s fun to prove myself wrong. Anyone can become an artist, especially if you’re willing to accept that your first attempts will not be great.

Who knows, maybe by the time I’m ready to publish the next Maia and Len book, I’ll have even better portraits of them ready to go!

And speaking of publishing, and speaking of art …

I found a cover designer! Amanda of Fly Casual, and she did the most amazing job, I am so blown away. I can’t wait to share the cover with all of you. So that’s what I’m going to do. NEXT WEEK. Monday the 16th.

If anyone wants to help me share the cover, let me know in the comments and I will email you the details. In the meantime, go check out Fly Casual! Amanda is a wonderful graphic designer, and a joy to work with.

Books, fantasy, heroes, influences, world-building

Influences: Terry Brooks

I’ve always liked the name Will. William seems stodgy to me, and Bill boring (or, as one William I know once put it, “a bill is a duck’s mouth, NOT a person’s name”), but I do like Will.

I put the responsibility for that squarely on the shoulders of two authors: Susan Cooper, for her fantastic Will Stanton; and Terry Brooks, for Wil Ohmsford of The Elfstones of Shannara.

I still vividly remember finding this book for the first time. It was at our old library, the one we’d been going to since before I was born. I had looked through the entire children’s section and realized that I had read, if not all the books, almost all of them, and certainly all the ones that interested me (the Goosebumps books were completely safe from ever being borrowed by me). So, for the first time ever, I crossed the middle of the library into the adult section. I have no idea how old I was.

The above cover was the first thing I saw in the adult section. The very word “elfstones” caught my interest, followed very quickly by the Robin Hood-esque characters pictured. I added it to my pile, brought it home, started reading, and was instantly immersed.

The second Brooks book I read was The Druid of Shannara, which confused me horribly until I realized we were talking two separate Ohmsford generations, here. I didn’t care so much about Walker, but I loved all the tidbits about Wren, and, not having Wikipedia at my fingertips back in those days, went back to the library and found all the Shannara books they had and began skimming them, trying to find the one that would tell me more about Wren. I finally found The Elf Queen of Shannara, and as you might have guessed, loved every word. I think I named a character “Wren” in every story I wrote for ages after that. She was awesome.

Over time, I’ve read all of the Shannara books except the short stories and graphic novels (and finally got them all in the right order), and most of the Landover series, too. I also read Sometimes the Magic Works, which is still probably my favorite book on writing, from a writer, ever (I also really love Madeleine L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet, but that’s more of a book on life, from a writer, than just a book on writing).
As I’ve grown and broadened my fantasy horizons, I can see a lot more of the flaws in Brooks’ writing than before. He certainly has no shame in utilizing tropes, or in using the same ideas and themes over and over (and over and over). His best books are, I think, his Word & Void books, which are gritty and dark, magic mixing with modern reality in a completely believable (and terrifying) way. The fantasy ones get repetitive after a bit, and I think the ones set in the more “modern” fantasy times (The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara books, and the High Druid books) are his weakest. My personal favorite is still Elfstones, both because it is the first I ever read, and for its characters – Wil, Amberle, Eretria, and Prince Ander.
Brooks is one of those rare writers who combines brilliant world-building with unique and dimensional characters (for the most part. Like I said, the later books get repetitive). And while someone today might dismiss him as following too many tropes, you have to remember that he is directly responsible for some of those things becoming tropes – other writers have copied off of him, turning his originality into tropes.
Sacrifice on a personal level for a greater, impersonal good is a continuing theme woven throughout his works. So is familial love, stronger than any spell. So is the seductive lies of evil contrasted with the harsh reality of good. So is the idea of one person, no matter how seemingly insignificant, refusing to give in to hatred and darkness, and turning the tide of the battle.
Cliches? Maybe. Truths that are important for people to be reminded of, even in fantasy version? Absolutely.
Not all evils can be fought with a sword (or elfstones). But evil can and must be fought every day, in all its various forms, by those who love peace, love goodness, love love itself. And I for one always appreciate the reminder of that I always get in Brooks’ works, and try to incorporate some of those truths in all my own works, whether it be the obvious point of the story or simply the truth hidden behind my writing.
Heroes don’t always look heroic, but the world needs them just the same.
Books, characters, critiquing, fiction, world-building

Brother Cadfael, or, What Makes a Good Series

I think I first discovered Brother Cadfael through PBS, the series they did based on the books by Ellis Peters. It only took me a few episodes, though, before I was determined to find the books and read through them. That was years and years ago, and I have yet to read the entire series. That is not, however, due to a lack of interest; rather, I am reading them and collecting them as slowly as possible so as to prolong my enjoyment in them as long as possible.

So what is it about this mystery series, featuring a medieval monk with an adventurous past and an insatiable curiosity, that intrigues me so?

Aside from the brilliantly-drawn Cadfael himself, there are a few other reasons:

Good recurring characters: Not just Cadfael, but all the other recurring characters in the series are three-dimensional. They pursue their own lives, their own interests, have things happen to them, and interact with Our Hero very naturally.

Good side characters: These aren’t so much recurring characters as a nice bit of continuity – the goldsmith, for one, who features in one story, and then a few stories later we hear of him again in passing. Same with the corvisor’s son, and many others. Since these mysteries are all set in medieval times, when travel was difficult and most people lived and died in the same place their entire lives, this makes everything more believable, and contributes to the sense of feeling at home in Shrewsbury each time you read.

Good fleshing out of all characters: And to finish off the character studies – even the one-shot characters, the ones who only feature in one mystery and then vanish forever, are well-developed. Very few of them are flat or cardboard – in fact, that is one of my complaints about the PBS series, because they tend to reduce many of the one-shot characters to wooden caricatures instead of the real people Peters made them to be.

On to more specifics …

Good job moving from Abbott Heribert (lazy and easygoing) and Prior Robert (hard and uncompromising) to Father Radalfus: The first couple of books had the Father Abbott as a simple-hearted, simple-minded soul, easy for Cadfael to manipulate so he could do whatever he wanted in solving mysteries. In contrast, the Prior was cold, proud, and had a strong dislike for Cadfael, and went out of his way to make things difficult for the monk. Pretty stereotyped, wouldn’t you agree? But then Peters had Heribert demoted and brought in a new Abbott – Radalfus, who is clever, wise, just, uncompromising, understanding, and savvy. At times he is more than willing to give Cadfael freedom, but other times he imposes strict restrictions on him, and there’s nothing Cadfael can do about it. Prior Robert is reduced to a minor nuisance, and the entire situation is saved from mundane to clever.

Good with changing Cadfael’s helpers frequently – both introducing new sidekicks and keeping true to established canon: Cadfael tends to get novices as his helpers, and as they grow and pursue their studies, they move on, and he is supplied with a new assistant. This helps to keep things fresh and change things up without having to kill anyone off, and also makes sense given the Benedictine order. Another area where the PBS series slipped up – their Brother Oswin had the LONGEST novitiate known to man!

It’s not a perfect series – I get frustrated when book after book features a “villain” who is not truly guilty of desiring evil, but was just misguided. That works for one or two, but after a while it gets old. This was especially true in the book where a boy murdered an injured, helpless old man, but it was excused by Cadfael as “he was mad with love and grief.” Um, sorry, don’t buy that as a reason to let him escape to Wales. Don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer in mercy triumphing over justice, but there are limits.

There are other flaws as well, but overall, it is a thoroughly enchanting series.

And I haven’t even mentioned the best part yet! Hugh Beringar is EXCELLENT. No mere Watson to Cadfael’s Holmes (although Martin Freeman would make an awesome Hugh, but then, what role wouldn’t he be awesome in?), Hugh is clever and dangerous in his own right. He and Cadfael aren’t always on the same side – Cadfael serves the church, while Hugh serves the king and law of England – but they respect each other and work well together. And Hugh is a brilliant swordsman, too, which automatically gives him an extra 50 Points of Awesomeness.

Are you familiar with Brother Cadfael? What are some series that set up good examples of ways to keep the writing fresh and exciting for readers no matter how many books are in the series? Do you agree that, in murder mysteries of any sort, every now and then the villain HAS to be villainous?

characters, fantasy, humor, world-building, writing

Dream-Maker

After the fun of my sci-fi mash-up dream, and urged on by rockinlibrarian (also aided and abetted by rthstewart, who nearly made me snort tea all over my computer with her take on the animosity between Lando Calrissian and Mal Reynolds (I am so going to think “Not right, man wearin’ a cape” the next time I watch Empire Strike Back, rth!)), I decided I had to start writing it down as a story. Not one for publication, or even for putting up on ff.net due to my blatant self-insert (but she’s not a Mary-Sue! She is not perfect and nobody is in love with her except her off-screen husband, but she and Mal do have great fun with harmless flirting by passing insults at each other), but just a way to get some of this marvelous creativity my subconscious was providing me with down on paper.

I’m about ten thousand words in, and it’s getting crazier and more peppered with cameos from other sci fi/fantasy stories with each paragraph. Mara Jade has insisted on popping in (for more than just a brief cameo, thankyouverymuch, what do you take her for?), and it’s becoming very clear to me that the Doctor would never consent to being left out of a madcap adventure like this, so it is clearly my duty to get caught up on that show, since I still haven’t made it all the way through the Ninth Doctor (though even the few episodes that I have seen have left me with a tendency to say “Fantastic!” just like Christopher Eccleston).

But aside from the sheer fun of this, and the marvelous outlet it has become for releasing any stress in my life, the other nice thing about this story (simply titled “fun” in my computer documents) is that is stirring up my creativity for my other writings, as well. Did you know I hadn’t written one word of fiction since before Christmas, up until I started this nonsense project? Not. One. Word. (Speaking of things that ain’t right.)

And then yesterday, I actually opened up my current MG WIP and skimmed it over, thinking how ready I am to get back to writing more about Cadi &co. And then I started thinking about Maia and Len (my older YA 1920s adventure-fantasy) and realized the first draft had finally settled enough that I was ready to tackle putting it into decent shape for the second draft.

Today I have to take care of some basic household chores (Carl’s been helping out a lot – blessed man keeps washing dishes for me, which is marvelous, darling, thank you – but breadmaking and laundry are still two tasks that will always be delegated to me), but I’m hoping to spend some time this afternoon or evening in “real” writing, writing I might actually be able to show to the world someday.

And I will not be abandoning my “fun” story, either – I have a sneaking suspicion that this is one tale that will stretch out for many years, to be added to whenever it strikes my fancy or I am getting bored, and never quite coming to an end.

What do you do to get your creative juices flowing again? What are some science fiction or fantasy characters you would add to a crazy story like mine?