The world I built

 

Fact, historical fiction, & fantasy, oh my!

It might be because I grew up in a land where history is still lurking behind a sheer veil, always present and within the reach of not so much individual as a tribal memory, that I look on it a way not easy for a Western mindset to understand.

To me and so many people of my blood and ancestry, history isn’t just a dead account of ancient battles and who whacked whom when. It’s WHY the whacking took place. It’s WHO did the whacking and WHO got whacked. In my head, history isn’t a dead letter, it lives. I can close my eyes and BE those people who once walked the ground on which I took my own first toddler steps. My umbilical is tied back to something greater and vaster than just a single gentle mother

I am a child of my people and of my past, part of something much bigger than myself, a mosaic in which I am just a single tessera but which, seen as a whole, makes for a huge complex picture of a world.

I can close my eyes and BE those people who once walked the ground on which I took my own first toddler steps. My umbilical is tied back to something greater and vaster than just a single gentle mother.

Hold that thought for a moment, and let me step back a little here.

The Secrets Of Jin Shei By HoshiakaWhen I wrote the novel, “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, it was not my own historical background that I referenced, but that particular time frame and setting, a land inspired by Imperial China which I called Syai and it became the foundation of an entire alternate world.

I wrote it as historical fantasy – as a sweep of history which takes place in an imaginary country – and I succeeded so well that I have been rapped on the knuckles for being “wrong” about some historical detail despite there being no historical detail to be wrong about. What this said to me is that I got the SENSE of history right, a sense of this being “real” in some aspect of it, that people feel that it has been rendered with enough verisimilitude for them to be able to believe that it (or something very like it) must have REALLY happened.

I fast-forwarded my story 400 years and wrote “Embers of Heaven”, which is set in the same land as “The Secrets of Jin-shei” but after four centuries have wrought their changes on the people and the social fabric of that country. A lot can change in four hundred years, and much – too much! – did change, here; This second book was still inspired by China but this was the China of the Cultural Revolution, much harsher, much more visceral than the first novel set in Syai – and yet, and yet, “Embers” has some of the most lyrical passages I have ever written, some of the most tender scenes of love and caring and passion that I have ever conceived. Set against the harshness of the milieu, these scenes shine.

But more than that – I extended the geography of this world. There are other countries in this world I am creating, just as there are countries which are not China in this our own familiar world. I introduced Ellas, which to anyone reading the scenes set in it can simply be nothing other than what maps in OUR world is Greece.

And having established the fact that my imagined world is is a complete world, I then wrote a third book set there. “Empress” is a historical fantasy just as lush and lyrical as the previous two, but this time set in the glory days of the empire of Byzantium, a story based on the immortal tale of the relationship between Emperor Justinian and the Hippodrome-bred actress and courtesan who became the Empress Theodora. If you pay attention you will notice a tiny detail in “Empress” – there is a caravan which is preparing to set off for exotic lands far away to pursue trade in silks and spices… a land called… Syai.

I am drawing a map here.

Six hundred and fifty years after the events of “Empress”, the empire which I called Visant still exists – it is old now, and rotting from the inside, and ripe for all kinds of disasters and outside influences… and I come full circle here.

Go back to that first paragraph. Read it again. Read it carefully. Because here is what I am writing about now: a historical fantasy about 14th century Balkans, my own history, my own past, rich rich rich with story. The novel is already well wrapped in the layers of history and of drama, but here’s the thing.

When I wrote the Jin-shei novels, editors and booksellers sometimes INSISTED that these things were pure historical fiction, which they weren’t, and marketing them as such tended to doom them because the history buffs got annoyed when I committed “faux pas” atrocities against known and accepted historical fact. And the fantasy buffs who would have loved those liberties, never found them because they didn’t look for this book where it was shelved, with “real” historical fiction.

When I first offered “Empress” for publication, I was given to understand that it would be considered much more acceptable if I went back and reversed my careful filing off of the serial numbers and retold the story as a straight historical fiction, without inventing an empire called Visant or an Emperor and Empress called Maxentius and Callidora, or a religion which I coldly and deliberately created so as to be parallel but NOT identical to Christianity.

I declined. This wasn’t THAT world, our world, the real world. This was a parallel world of my own creation where I had the freedom to follow what history I needed to but then to people it with characters and incidents and events and faith and social constructs that I required to tell the story that I wanted to tell.

Writer Bernard Cornwell was asked in a recent interview whether he saw the boundary between historical fiction and historical fantasy as being a blurred line or clear and distinct, and he said that he believed it to be totally distinct, that writers of fantasy have “a freedom which an historical novelist doesn’t enjoy… A fantasy writer might well ground his or her work in a real historical background, but they have no duty to that history. The historical novelist does!”

Cornwell is right.

It isn’t that I don’t feel as though I have a “duty” to history. I do. But I also feel the necessity to be able to break from the “real” history if I need to make a change to suit my story – in “Empress” I took two real historical incidents and I reversed the order in which they occurred because that was the way MY story fell out better, and it worked just fine; I also melded a little bit of two historical characters of the era, the scholarly bookish Justinian and the great general Belisarius, in order to create the character of Maxentius who would be a little of both and his own man who just happens to be in the shoes that a “real” historical character might have occupied in the annals of our own accepted historical record.

Now I have been urged to write my current novel – the 14th-century Balkans one – as a “straight” historical, because honestly, I couldn’t invent some of the stuff that was going on back then and there seems to be plenty of material in the raw history for me to play with – but it’s already bigger than me, and this story is part of the larger body of alt-history which I am building for that other world in which I write, and this is a part of the history of THAT world as much as my own forebears were part of the literal historical 14th century Balkan backdrop.

I NEED to mythologize and to render larger-than-life. I need the freedom of that empty canvas, not one already painted with a backdrop to which I absolutely have to hew. I need the space for my mind’s wings to spread out, for my imagination to soar, for my vision to see things that may or may not have been “Real”.

You might say that it would be all too easy to do something like that in a 14th century setting because primary sources are few and often iffy. That is true; researching details behind this story turned up stuff in the crevices of the stuff I already did know, osmotically, as part of my upbringing, stuff that astonished me and is almost too hard to believe. Bur a lot of such stuff is directly contradicted by other period accounts. I can literally pick the history I WANT to be true and I wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s still constraining. I don’t know these characters, these real characters, well enough to write their true motivations, and I balk at the idea of trying.

Make them semi-mythological, however, and I can get inside their minds and their hearts and their souls, I can imagine what they thought and they believed, and I can make something true spring up to hold and support them. That is my gift, the creation of worlds; if I use a historical base, a sourdough starter if you will, to bake the bread of my tale that is something that I use as a foundation – and what I create from that starter, from that foundation, is something that I have made from raw material mixed with pure imagination. It is what I love about creating stories like these.

There are many ways that history is taught “wrong” in our schools. Our children are never made to feel as though history is a part of them, only that it is a boring record of What Went Before and has nothing to do with their here and now. Who cares who was king when and which battle was fought where or who won, not when those facts are something that you have to learn by rote and regurgitate on command as a litany of “facts” as dull and dry and dusty as ashes. Our students are never shown that history as the fire that preceded those ashes, are never made to feel as though they themselves belonged in it.

The way *I* was raised – it is easy to reach out and lift the veil and look upon the years and the centuries that had gone before as being just someone else’s present, things that are happening to people JUST LIKE US but simply of another place or time. History can be a huge unifier for the human race because we are all living it, different parts of it that make the whole. Instead, it’s been as divisive as anything can be. History is iconically written by the “winners” of those battles which the children are forced to learn and remember; the “losers” of those battles find their voices stilled, silenced, erased.

There are many stones in the landscape of history which would reveal incredible narratives if they were permitted to be turned, and what lies underneath them to be examined.

This is the basic constraint of what we consider to be historical “fact”, and therefore also of what is strictly considered to be historical “fiction”, a novelized account of something that really happened and is on record as having happened. Because historical fiction that is true to historical fact is inevitably only true to that accepted account, the “winners” account. Deviate one iota from what is “known” to be true, and you’re already writing fantasy, because there is no way any more to document that other narrative that you want to tell. The loser’s side. Because of the silence in which it is wrapped.

But all the stories need to be told. And that’s why I choose to wrap my truths into the silver tissue paper of lies which is called “fantasy” by some. Because my stories aren’t a regurgitation of history-as-was. They are a retelling of an emotional and empathetic and wide-eyed greater truth – the things that didn’t “really” happen out there, but “really, REALLY” happened in here, inside the human heart and mind and vision. The stories that will resonate because on a fundamental level they are truer than the truth. That is the gift of fantasy. That is the world in which I choose to walk.

Watch for the latest installment of the history of my world – coming soon.

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Books to change who you are

In Today’s Blog

  1. A Reading Plan
  2. A year of reading an author named Alma

At medium.com, Jon Westenberg offers a one-year reading plan to “transform who you are, what you do & how you do it.” 

It’s an intriguing idea and well worth checking out (link below) and it inspired me to offer my own reading plan.

Month 1: Transcending loss

Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay: I don’t know how this man knows what it means to *lose a country* but he does, he viscerally does, and this book rips my heart out every time I re-read it and I re-read it regularly.

There are many ways to fight against this loss and the entire book is a kind of poetry of courage and endurance and never giving up. And then there is Dianora – the tragic, transcendent Dianora who is one of the most memorable characters ever to grace any novel.

Month 2: Laughter

Three Men in A Boat by Jerome K Jerom: I challenge anyone to read this book without laughing out loud at least once – and for me, at least, it cemented the reasons why I don’t EVER want to go camping (and yes I am laughing again just thinking about it)

Month 3: Rising to your gifts

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

One of those books which came out of nowhere and totally captivated me – a lost tribe of super-runners, and the most engrossing race you’ve never heard about.

Month 4: A bit of history

Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric: For people like me who have roots in in the real-world history in which this novel takes place, it is riveting and heartbreaking. Even if it’s not your personal history, this novel by a Nobel Literature Prize winning author can leave you gasping. It is a tragedy. It is a determination to endure. It is a living thing with a beating heart.

Month 5: Through a glass darkly

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman: It is a gift to be able to take something utterly UTTERLY familiar and recast it in a shape that makes it utterly UTTERLY strange. You go along on that journey believing every step of the way, or at the very least wanting to. I think this is the first Gaiman book I ever read, and I have read most everything the man has ever written purely on the strength of it.

Month 6: Art

The Golden Key by Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, Kate Elliot: Because I am a fantasy writer, why not pick a fantasy book with art as the central theme? This particular book is a rich reinvention of what it means to give yourself to your art, BODY and soul. And how immensely magical art can be. It’s the kind of thing that can be iffy – a book with three authors, but this WORKS. And you’ll never look at a painting the same way again.

Month 7: Poetry month

Here I am not going to say “go read THIS ONE or THAT ONE.” Start with the ones you might have heard of, the “classics”, like, oh, I don’t know, Sonnets from the Portuguese or something (Elizabeth Barrett Browning). Then go learn a bit about the poet and see if you can fit the poetry to the person. You can find stuff by Emily Bronte which is every bit as wild as her novel; you can go more modern and search recent journals publishing people you may never have heard of. Get adventurous. And if at the end of the month you still don’t like poetry, you’ll really know why.

Month 8: Visual art in story

There’s a new graphic novel of Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Speak”. Or you could give manga a try. Go outside your comfort zone. Stories are sometimes told with the help of pictures.

Month 9 : Writers from another continent.

Make a point of reading at least one book by a writer who lives on a different continent from you, perhaps even one which you might never have visited. Go and find out about writers from Africa, from Asia (India, China, Japan…), from South America, from Europe from North America (if you aren’t based there!), Specifically try some which come in translation, from a language you do not speak. Learn to think the thoughts of someone who comes from a different world than you. Broaden your horizons, literally and metaphorically.

Month 10: Visit the past

Read a novel or two from a different century. The Twentieth, particularly the early Twentieth, perhaps; or (if you can handle it) even delve into the Nineteenth, or even before. People were very different back then. But if you know where we came from, perhaps it might become easier to start understanding where we might be going.

Month 11: Jump to the future – or the weird.

Pick up books by Charles Stross, China Mieville, Samuel Delany, Ursula Le Guin.

Month 12: Plan a year of books for a youth

What would you recommend to a young person who is only just beginning their literary journey? Which books were important to YOU, growing up? Why? You might have to re-read them and make sure they hold up? Which books weren’t around when you were young, but you WISH they had been – books which you read as a grown-up but which you know would have changed your life if you had found them younger? Put a list together and then maybe give it as a Christmas present to a reader in your life. Maybe even with a package of the recommended books.

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A year of reading an author named Alma

Just in case you might want a monthly reading list on those topics drawn from my own work, on similar topics:

Month 1 : Transcending loss – Letters from the Fire – an epistolary novel told in emails, about war and love and courage and loss of country. It’s fiction, but this one is deeply rooted in a very recent historical past.

Month 2: Laughter – Spellspam, the second book in the Worldweavers series. If you like puns, you will quite enjoy the spellspams that lead off each chapter This one also leaves you with quite a bit to think about, though, when you’re done laughing.

Month 3: Rising to your gifts – the entire Worldweavers series, really. “Gift fo the Unmage”, “Spellspam”, “Cybermage” and “Dawn of magic” All about the Girl Who Couldn’t, the one of whom much was expected but who apparently failed to rise to those expectations…. right untilthe moment she did, and transcended them all.

Month 4: A bit of history – Empress, a story which is based in the immortal love story of Emperor Justninan of Byzantium and a girl from the Hippodrome named Theodora who became an Empress. This one’s alt-history, or historical fantasy – but it skates quite close to the real tale. Pick it up, read it, and you might be moved to find out about the Real Thing, afterwards…

Month 5: Through a glass darkly – The Were Chronicles (“Random”, “Wolf”, “Shifter”) This is a world that could so easily be our own, with just one major change. There are Were-creatures. And instead of the usual suspects (any people with a darker skin, Jews, lower social castes or classes,) it is the Were kind who are the lowest on the social totem pole. These are books that look at what that means, what it feels like, and how to rise above it…

Month 6: Art – Um. I have to give you a rest this month. i don’t do visual But if you want another medium.. I have a couple of books out as audiobooks (currently “Embers of Heaven” and “Gift fo the Unmage”, with “Empress” coming soon…)

Month 7: Poetry month – I DO have a book a poetry out, which my was instrumental in getting published when I was 18 years old. There aren’t many copies about. But I give you leave to read other poets, instead. Or email me and ask me for a poem. I’ll send you one.

Month 8: Visual art in story – I have a story that won a competition run by the BBC, no less. About a painting. It’s called “The Painting”. You can find it in Weight of Worlds, a collection of my short stories (only in ebook…)

Month 9 : Writers from another continent. Well, I’ve lived on a lot of continents, so wherever you are right now you can make a case of picking ANY of my books and you’d be safe. But I suggest “Midnight at Spanish Gardens” because it is about a real place which I left behind on another continent, a long time ago. And it might bring up some memories of your own.

Month 10: Visit the Past – Try my Jin-shei books – “The Secrets of Jin-shei” and “Embers of Heaven”. They are alt.history/historical fantasy but they are rooted in Imperial China and the Cultural Revolution, respectively. I did a ton of research for these books. They may be fantasy but they are truly “historical” in their own way.

Month 11: Jump to the future, or the weird. Try “AbduciCon”, especially if you are a Science Fiction fan who has ever been to a convention – you will have fun both hunting familiar SF tropes, and recognizing characters who will seem familiar.

Month 12: Visit “my books” at www.AlmaAlexander.org and plan a year of MY books for somebody…? (If you want to plot, you can always let me know and we can get them signed.)

LINKS
Jon Westenberg at medium.com HERE

5 significant books in an author’s life HERE

All my books HERE

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The writer and sex

 

The writer and sex

In her book, Love and Trouble, Claire Dederer explains how a book review brought her
“an unforeseen gift, or burden: Suddenly everyone wanted to tell me about his or her sex life. I mean everyone. I heard secrets, nonstop, for months.”

What kind of secrets? Well…

Secret 3: A note from a college friend, via Facebook: “Loved the piece. Struck a chord. These days it seems like I want to Do It all the time and [husband’s name redacted] never wants to. I don’t know what to do. Am seriously thinking about having an affair but HOW???? How do you even do that?”

Fascinating excerpt HERE

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The Power of Cautionary Questions:

At BrainPickings, Maria Popova introduces Neil Gaiman’s thoughts on Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ Why We Read, and How Speculative Storytelling Enlarges Our Humanity

“The abiding splendor and significance of the ideas and ideals at the heart of Bradbury’s classic is what Gaiman explores in a beautiful piece titled ‘Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, and What Science Fiction Is and Doe.’ It wasoriginally written as an introduction to a sixtieth-anniversary edition of the book and is now included in his altogether magnificent The View from the Cheap Seats:”

Book city illustration

Book city

One great quote:
“There are three phrases that make possible the world of writing about the world of not-yet (you can call it science fiction or speculative fiction; you can call it anything you wish) and they are simple phrases:

What if … ?
If only …
If this goes on …”

And one more:
“People think, wrongly, that speculative fiction is about predicting the future, but it isn’t — or if it is, it tends to do a rotten job of it. Futures are huge things that come with many elements and a billion variables, and the human race has a habit of listening to predictions for what the future will bring and then doing something quite different.

“What speculative fiction is really good at is not the future, but the present. Taking an aspect of it that troubles or is dangerous, and extending and extrapolating that aspect into something that allows the people of that time to see what they are doing from a different angle and from a different place.”

Read the whole fascinating story at BrainPickings HERE

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10 Easy Ways to Raise a Reader

1) Have books in the house
2) Have many different books in the house
3) Let your reader read what they want (they will find their own level)
4) Be available and willing to discuss things that have been read; answer questions willingly and honestly
5) Be a reader yourself and share your knowledge and your favorites
6) Make language something to play with and enjoy rather than a burden to be ‘learned’
7) Don’t be a reading snob – “high literature” is not the only kind of book there is – if your kid wants to read Asimov don’t insist on Nobel Prize winners, or suggest that nineteenth-century novels have to be read in order for the fun stuff to be accessed
8) Get the kid a library card and encourage the hell out of its full use
9) Make reading something to be proud of, not something to hide from your peers because they will think you are “weird”
10) Love books. Period. It’s’ catching.

Common Sense Media has some more ideas HERE

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I was quite happy to learn that Laurel Book Store, an indie bookstore in California, has a good listing of my books. I wish my local bookstore would do is well.

The stories motto is:  A little bit of everything and the ability to get the rest.

Check my books out HERE

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In the Age of Conventions, YA Fans Rule

 

Publishers Weekly tells us that “Readers are turning out in droves for the chance to meet favorite authors while collecting tchotchkes, autographs, or memorable selfies with artful backdrops.”

And adds:
“Increasingly, marketing YA books means meeting fans where they’re at—online—and in municipal buildings across America: New York, Seattle, or San Diego, Calif., for Comic Con; Charleston, S.C., for YallFest; or at Santa Monica High School in California for YallWest.”

Read the whole story at Publishers Weekly HERE

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Do You Know What These British Words Mean?

Take the Quiz HERE

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Why do protagonists do stupid things?

Because they’re in love.

Because in their best judgment making a certain choice seems to be the right thing to do and they only find out otherwise much later that they didn’t know some critcal things.

Because their moral compass tells them to flout authority because they don’t agree with that authority, even though consequences might be dire for themselves.

Because they care. Because they DON’T care anymore, because something has hurt them so badly that they’re beyond caring.

Because they’re flawed.

Now, how do you make your readers root for them anyhow?

Read my essay at Book View Cafe HERE

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Exactly what are writing prompts?

— and why am I offering you one?

There is a new feature on my Patreon page which I call Living Literary.

Living Literary consists of writing prompts — suggestions that present an idea or describe a situation in a graph or two and then urges you to begin writing with that as a starting point,

Illustration of author in shadowIf you are a writer, you have probably used one or two in the past. Whether you have writers block, or are just trying to keep your hand in with a little warmup writing, prompts are a godsend. But writing prompts are not just for the committed writer. They can be fun for anybody.

The prompts that I offer come in two parts. The first part is the prompt itself, and that is for everybody. Just go to my Patreon site to try it out.

Take my latest, for example:
Do you have special things in your life that reminds you of people who are gone?

I know you do and I can almost hear the story bursting to get out from here.

The second part contains an essay that I wrote from that prompt, and that can only be read by my patrons. (You can become a patron for as little as a $2a  month pledge.)

I hope that some of you will share your thoughts about my essay, or share the pieces you yourself write from the prompts in the comments section.

You can see the prompts at my Patreon page HERE

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Literary Box

Do you have a reader in your life who hasn’t discovered me yet? Let’s talk.

We can set up a quarterly Book Box gift, where they get surprised by something to read every quarter – a Spring Book, a Summer Book, a Fall Book, and a Winter Book.

Drop me a note HERE

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Why do characters love?

Love is one of the guiding principles of the human condition. Things have been done in the name of love – both great things and evil things – that defy explanation, or rationalization. Love is what love is, and when it comes down like a ton of bricks there is nothing you can do except be buried in it.

Come on, admit it – what is the first thing that comes into your head when the issue of “romantic love” is invoked? The deathless (if you can call it that) Romeo and Juliet, isn’t it? But yet, remember the envoi from that play –

For never was there a tale of more woe
Than that of Juliet, and her Romeo.

It isn’t a love story, except in the shallowest of ways. It’s a story of two unformed teenagers and their infatuation and obsession with one another. This is something that ends badly for literally everybody, starting with the two young lovers themselves – and yet this is the ultimate romantic thing, something that is as firmly attached to the idea of romance as are red roses and chocolates and Valentine’s day (yes, I know. They’re just as shallowly symbolic…)

But there are many kinds of love out there….

Read the rest at Book View Cafe HERE

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Remembering Nüshu

In the 19th-Century, there was a Chinese script, Nüshu, that only women could write.

When I first read of this, my imagination ran wild and I wrote a book at white heat, 200,000 words in less than four months. The book was ‘The Secrets of Jin-shei‘ and has been my most successful novel. It sold all over the world in 13 languages and more than a decade later, it still draws attention.

Authors are sometimes warned against writing about a culture not their own. I wasn’t overly concerned because the novel is a fantasy. But it was set in a country not unlike Imperial China and when a woman of Chinese heritage approached me at a reading I braced myself for a possible attack that I had dared write such a novel. But all she said was that she had loved the book, but then added ruefully “part of me wishes you were Chinese.”

Read more about Nüshu at Atlas Obscura HERE
See ‘The Secrets of Jin-shei’ at Amazon HERE

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Quote of the DayALMA Rewriting History poster~~~~~

HELP ME BUILD NEW WORLDS: As publishing changes, most authors need new sources of income. If you would like to help me continue writing about wizards and Weres, Jin-shei sisters, and girls who rise from the gutter to Empress, consider pitching in with a small monthly pledge. For the cost of a latte or two you too can become a patron of the arts. Details HERE

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Why are villains so much fun?

Protagonists are all very well. You pick a central character, you get into their head, you understand his or her point of view. That protagonist is by very definition the Knight of Virtue. There are protagonists with shades of gray, of course, and they are complex and lovely. But mostly, mostly, they ride on the side of light.

And then there are the people who will rise to stand in that protagonist’s way. The Bad Guys. The Black Hats. The forces of evil. And your reader remembers them. Often better than your protagonist.

Who did you remember?

When you walked out of Star Wars, whom did you carry out with you? Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader? Yes, you might have recognized a few quoted lines from the protagonist, years down the line. But as soon as someone started doing that breathing you did more than that. You were back there, in Vader’s shadow, touched by the billowing black cloak. If you hadn’t been… well, he might have found your lack of faith disturbing.

What of other famous villains? What of Saruman? What of Voldemort? What of deliberately half-shadowed characters who took on the mantle of protagonist even while potentially being a creature of the darker realms of morality and ethics – characters like Elric of Melnibone?

Humans may admire virtue, but they do not necessarily like it all that much. Characters whose every facet is bright, shiny and pure tend to annoy after a while. Everyone needs their flaws because without them they cease to be something that any reader will be able to identify with at all.

Writing a villain frees you from certain constraints.

You can have these people do whatever it takes, whatever is necessary, and they don’t have to answer to anyone except themselves. And they come in different shapes and sizes and darknesses.

A few of my own examples… In the Changer of Days books, there are two characters who might qualify for this particular badge.

One of them is Sif, the older and illegitimate half-brother of the true queen. He rose to power in the midst of a war, when his army decided that they needed a leader who was a grown man instead of the nine-year-old girl waiting in the royal throne room, far away from the battles. Sif had been disqualified from taking the crown, by virtue of his bastard birth, but also by virtue of the fact that his mother had not been wedded because she lacked a valued attribute – that of Sight (to learn more about that you really WILL have to read the books…) But Sight, or the lack of it, has always been a chip on Sif’s shoulder, and it drives him to do ugly and evil things in its name. And it is those things that have forged his reputation – that of being ruthless, pitiless, and able to kill without hesitation or regret.

It is that reputation which sends my second villain, Ansen, the traitor, straight to him. Ansen, the foster-brother of the young hidden queen, races to Sif’s side with news of the girl so he can destroy her in order to assure his grip on his throne. Ansen is certain of his welcome as the bearer of such news – the betrayal is nothing, in the face of the reward he thinks he can reap – that such tidings will gain him.

But he has the misfortune of arriving at the wrong place and the wrong time, and Sif is closed to him. Sif barely acknowledges his existence before he snuffs him out carelessly. There is a scene where Ansen, about to die on Sif’s orders, is still hoping that his hero will save him will intercede for him. But when Sif, casting a desultory eye on the execution that he had ordered, is asked who the hapless person about to die had been.

“Nobody,” Sif replies, turning away. “He was nobody.”

Already forgotten. Insignificant.

And yet he was a terrific villain, and he was remembered by others. Readers who had forgotten the names of many other characters remembered Ansen’s. Because his actions had stabbed deep into their own sense of justice and fairness and the meaning of glory. Everyone hated him, with the fire of a thousand suns. That was partly because I sketched him with such passion, with such gusto. I was unconstrained by what he SHOULD do, who he OUGHT to have been, and so neither was he – and, freed, he did unconscionable things and became instantly memorable because of them.

In a different book. I painted a different villain. His name was Lihui and he was a courtier at the Imperial court in The Secrets of Jin-shei. The man never raised his voice, was always unfailingly courteous and polite, would reach out to help a crippled girl stand when he came upon her fallen… and yet this is the character of whom one of the book’s readers would write, “…and I just wanted to put both Lihui’s eyes out with my thumbs.”

That’s when I knew that my job there was done. I had effectively gone behind the screen and showed the real soul of a dark and twisted character – and after that no amount of window dressing and surface politeness and general outward good behavior would have been enough. The reader had seen, and could never unsee. It was fascinating to write a character like that, free to follow every shady impulse, and to make the reader go with him, recoiling and swearing and disgusted but nevertheless unable to look away.

In my recent series, The Were Chronicles, there is a man called Barbican Bain. Another of the quiet, almost oily, ones. But because he held so fast to his convictions – his terrifying and terrible and wrong convictions – he was a train wreck you couldn’t forget. His presence was very Vader-like – you could almost hear his breathing in the background when you stopped to listen, wherever you were in that book. He was omnipresent, a shadow in everyone’s life, the cause of great sorrow that was and great troubles to come. He was an incredible character to write.

That’s why you’ll find that so many villains in literature are utterly memorable. Because you cannot believe that you are there with them – the only real way to disavow them completely and declare that no, you are SO NOT on their side is to stop reading the story they are in, and you can’t, because they’ve got you held fast and you can’t help but look at the things they’re showing you.

A good writer will use a good villain to shine a black light into the darkest recesses of the human spirit and human condition. It’s in that darkness when the writer and the reader reach out and find each other’s hand, and hold fast – because the only other person there in the shadows is someone whose breathing you will hear loud in the silence that surrounds you, and whose presence is going to haunt the dreams of anyone whose path that specter has crossed.

And that is why writing those villains is so absolutely rewarding, in the end.

With every word, with every brush stroke, the writer is painting the story that is being told into the reader’s memory. It is the shadows we remember best.

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HELP ME BUILD NEW WORLDS: As publishing changes, most authors need new sources of income. If you would like to help me continue writing about wizards and Weres, Jin-shei sisters, and girls who rise from the gutter to Empress, consider pitching in with a small monthly pledge. For the cost of a latte or two you too can become a patron of the arts. Details HERE
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A tale of two bookstores

 

Michael's bookstore frontWhen we first came into the little town of Bellingham in northwest Washington, more than a dozen years ago now, many things delighted us — the trees, the glimpses of mountains, and the shining Sound. But more directly, more pertinently, we found ourselves in a street which had two facing bookstores on it – Michael’s Books, and Henderson’s.

Michael’s was a more chaotic store, a warren of interleading rooms which felt almost Escheresque and interdimensional, dim corners, narrow aisles, and more books than your heart could believe possible, on pretty much every subject under the sun. There was a whole room devoted to SF/Fantasy, which was pretty amazing; some of the books on those shelves were pretty amazing as and of themselves.

The books spilled out of the store, and there was always a cardboard box or three filled with sometimes rather ratty esoterica which may not have been in good enough shape to sell in the store, labelled “FREE!”.

It was run by a genial owner who used to send us birthday cards with book specials on them.

It’s gone. I only just found out but apparently it’s been gone for a while now and I feel as though I have just discovered that a kind friend with whom I’d inadvertently lost touch had suddenly died, and I had no idea that they were even ailing.

Damn, but I’m going to miss that place. I’m going to miss those cavernous spaces teeming with books ranging from natty plastic-covered cared for hardcovers and first editions in closed cabinets, to broken-spined dog-eared and obviously treasured paperbacks of Golden Age science fiction novels complete with cheesy covers featuring tinny spaceships belching flames in the background while the foreground was peopled by bare-chested barbarians or weird angular robots carting about scantily dressed galactic pin-up girls, who sometimes came in Mere Human editions and sometimes turned up with skin which glowed blue or green, headdresses with horns or jewels hanging on the smooth glamorous brows. always wearing as little as could be decently got away with, and baring shapely ankles, and calves, and thighs, oh my.

I’m going to miss just knowing it was there, knowing that those babes and those heroes and those robots and the dragons and the poetry and the cookbooks and the history of papier mache and instruction books on origami and atlases with maps of countries which no longer exist and Doctor Who novelizations and stories of the Alaskan gold rush and Time Life photography books of historical events long in the past and biographies of bespectacled worthies whom you’d never heard of but who must have been important…

What happened to all those books? A part of me weeps, and doesn’t want to know any more…

Hendersons photoThe second store, Henderson’s, is still there, across the street. It’s another weird space, with its relatively narrow road frontage which hides a store that stretches back a full city block. It’s no less wonderful and cavernous and book-stuffed than Michael’s was, but there is a different feeling somehow. This place FEELS more businesslike and more organized. And oh my GOD is it a treasure trove. I found many many great research books there for when I was writing specific novels, and honestly, this is a resource beyond price, and if THIS one ever goes away it will leave a gaping wound. But I was in there today and I took some photos of the canyon walls, books labelled “Literature” and “YA fiction, vampire” and “Central Asia history” and “Local Interest” and the back room devoted to mysteries and science fiction and the how-to section and the sections on theater and the fall of empires and photography and computers and Greek philosophers and the geography of India and French cooking.

I’ve often bought research books here for novels that aren’t even coherent ideas yet – but something triggered a “oh, THAT’s interesting, maybe someday it will be useful” impulse. We’ve walked out of that store before with double armfuls of books, having laid down fifty or a hundred dollars – and this is a SECOND HAND store, remember, with prices mostly to match.

Long live the wonderful treasure troves that are second hand bookstores. Long live the second, third, fifth, ninth, twentieth lives that these books live in these spaces, and the minds and hearts to whom they speak, the hands that reach for them, the glory of their existence. There are modern stores with contemporary and new-published books which are a wonderful thing to visit and to behold, to be sure – but these, these old stores, they are the Temple of the Word and you go in there to worship, and to browse, and to never ever know what might be waiting and what you might find there.

Good bye, Michael’s – you were treasured. Good night, Hendersons – and hopefully I will see you again soon.

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HELP ME BUILD NEW WORLDS: As publishing changes, most authors need new sources of income. If you would like to help me continue writing about wizards and Weres, Jin-shei sisters, and girls who rise from the gutter to Empress, consider pitching in with a small monthly pledge. For the cost of a latte or two you too can become a patron of the arts. Details HERE

~~~~~
About me      My books      Email me

If you found this blog post interesting, amusing or helpful, then please use the icons below to share it with other writers, readers or the guy next to you on the subway.