Letters tell the story

The epistolary novel in the digital age

The story-in-correspondence found in epistolary novels is by no means a new thing. It’s been going on for centuries.

Letter writing to people who mattered but who were not close enough to speak to every day was once an art form, both in content and in execution. Some people sat at a kitchen table writing letters with a pencil. Others sat at a writing desk with inlaid leather surfaces touched with gilt, dipping quill pens into silver inkpots, writing in elegant cursive about the important things that mattered to the heart and the soul, as well as about what one had for dinner and whom one invited to share it.

Then came email….

But I digress. Stick a pin in that for the moment.

Stories told in the form an exchange of letters had a strange quality of intimacy, as though the reader had somehow gained access into the innermost citadel of the keep of someone’s life, suddenly privy to their hidden thoughts and feelings, because you HAVE to have access to those, if you’re writing a letter, if you’re writing from the heart. Letters were a glimpse inside a soul.

That is why those books caught on – because the letters are an invitation to become a part of the letter-writer’s world, and then share the sensation of being stamped and mailed, sometimes sent across the globe, the glory of that journey being a part of the glory of the communication. The waiting for a reply was part of it, too. It was a slower, more delicate time, a golden gleam, a communication in nuance where people took the time.

Then came email.,..

But stick a pin in that again.

I still remember special onion-skin notepads which one used to write “airmail” letters, because the thin paper meant cheaper postage. I recognized the red-and-blue-edged “airmail” envelopes – and those were special, they meant letters from far away. Probably not one kid today would know what one of those envelopes on your hallway table meant, the excitement of an OVERSEAS letter from someone so very far away.

But letter writing withered when the concept of distance disappeared with the Internet.

These days you write an email from one coast of America and it is instantly received on the other — or in Europe, or Japan, or anywhere someone is with a laptop and a hotstpot connection to the Internet. Time and space disappear in the blink of an eye. Instead of waiting weeks or months for a reply, in gleeful anticipation or grim foreboding both made bigger and more intense by WAITING, you get impatient when you don’t get a response IMMEDIATELY. What could anyone else possibly be doing that they cannot answer your email the moment it pops into their inbox? I mean, how RUDE.

And yet there is a nuance that can linger in emails too. I treasure a four-word email from my then hospitalized husband:”Need socks. Love you.”

Letters from the Fire coverEpistolary novels have always existed – but these days the communication can be electronic, too. I co-wrote an epistolary novel with the man I later married, with the two of us “writing” to each other, in email, in character, to create a story of two people who moved from enmity to friendship to love at digital speed when the Internet connected them as their nations went to war.

That’s how ‘Letters from the Fire‘, was born, an epistolary novel in which a lifetime of living is encapsulated in an exchange of emails which covers a period of time measured in days, not years.

In the era of email, we’re still writing letters, still reaching for each other’s souls. These days, it’s just faster, that’s all.

If you think that it’s also shallower, more perfunctory, more ‘surface glitz’ than anything that went before – well – there is something to be said for the handwritten letter inscribed by a fountain pen in an elegant hand. But story and emotion can transcend that.

Write a letter.

Read a book of letters that others wrote.

It is part of what it means to be human.

My epistolary novel, ‘Letters from the Fire’, can be bought HERE

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epistolary novels illusttrationThe Guardian takes a look at 10 other modern epistolary novels. See them all HERE

 

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Quote of the Day

Writing fiction is like remembering what never happened” ~ Novelist/Poet Siri Hustvedt

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Just what is YA?

Children’s Book Week – June 12-16

When books were just books

When I was growing up, there was no such thing as “young adult” as a marketing niche.

In my house, there were just books. Never was I told that any of those books were not for me. I was reading fully “grown-up” literature when I was 7. I read my mother’s Pearl Buck collection before I was 10 and I didn’t have any difficulty with any of it.

Children who are encouraged to read and permitted to read will find their own level. They might well enjoy today’s “age-appropriate” middle grade or YA offerings, But then, if the books are good enough, so will many people who have long since left their teens behind. A good story can be read by anybody who loves to read, from age 12 to 92, without any artificial age boundaries in there.

And I’m using 12 as a beginning with a distinct sense that it is fungible. There are precocious readers who can read this stuff much younger, as I did, The relationship between a book and its reader is always very individual and specific and quite often unpredictable.

Age distinctions are a recent development, and since their arrival we have had kidlit fragment into picture books for VERY young readers, chapter books, middle grade, YA, New Adult.

People are constantly asking where are the lines? And that is a good question because it simply isn’t true that a young protagonist is all that it takes for a book to be YA. You could look at “Lolita” through that lens and because it has a young girl center stage – she’s even the title – you might throw a wholly undeserved YA label on it.

For a long time Harry Potter was pretty much THE YA genre. Everyone knew about Harry. And a generation grew up having picked up the first book when they were Harry’s age and then aged concurrently with it, adding their years just as Harry did his.

But the Harry Potter books and movies are very much a ladder and the first one feels almost simplistic. The subsequent books are much darker, much more complicated while still rated YA. Young readers are expected to cope with a very broad range of material, and this is often underestimated when it comes to “children’s literature”. Children can understand so very much – especially if you root it in familiar tropes.

My first YA series

Worldweavers coversThe first series I wrote for a YA audience was Worldweavers (“Gift of the Unmage”, “Spellspam”, “Cybermage”, “Dawn of Magic”) It was born out of a YA panel at the 2002 Fantasy Worldcon, where Jane Yolen, the grande dame of children’s lit, said at one point that she didn’t like the way the Potter books treated their girls. I lost the rest of the panel completely because that was all it took for Thea Winthrop to step out of the shadows and introduce herself to me.

Her story had all the tropes. Thea went to a school known as the Last Ditch School for the Incurably Incompetent, a place for the weird and geekish in her magical world. Thea was a Double Seventh, the seventh child of two seventh children, and her magical gifts were expected to be profound. Instead, she grew up as the Girl Who Couldn’t Do Magic.

It wasn’t that she was bad at magic in her magical world – she could not do it at all. To her, it was like she was standing behind a glass wall, unable to reach or touch or practice it. The reason behind that initial paralysis drove the whole series.

I peopled my book with three different kinds of creatures.

There are humans, much like us who can’t do magic. And there are those who can. And some of the magic users were rather famous in our own world, like Nikola Tesla, known widely as the Wizard of the West during his life and, when he appears in my books, the only quad-Elemental mage in human history.

The second group group of creatures are those I wholly invented, like my Alphiri. They look like Tolkien’s elves but have the grasping souls of Star Trek’s Ferengi and a built-in conviction that everything is for sale.

The third group of creatures are drawn from the American mythos – creatures like Grandmother Spider, and Tawaha the Sun God, and Coyote the Trickster.

I wove a story around them all – a story which revolved around one thing: about Thea’s coming of age, and into her own.

In fact, she becomes powerful indeed – becomes something quite unique (no spoilers; you’ll have to read the books to find out what.) But this doesn’t happen overnight, or easily. There are things she has to be willing to sacrifice on her road to the apex of her existence. She has to be willing to offer things she cherishes deeply, in order to save a friend. And then in order to save her world, she has to make tough choices that will haunt her for the rest of her life. By the end of these books, my little girl is a little girl no longer. She is a grown, fully developed human being.

That is not to say she has become perfect – but that is not the point of a YA book. It is not to tell a young reader that one has to be flawless in order to survive. It is to assure them that flaws are inevitable, even necessary, but that it is possible to transcend them, or incorporate them into one’s being, and grow through that process.

Thea Winthrop is an amazing character who was a gift to work with. She is fourteen when we first meet her, and she is the perfect insecure teenager, one who disappoints her parents and knows it and is made miserable by it. She doesn’t quite know how to make it right. This is familiar territory to many young readers, who don’t live in a world of magic but who have, in their time, known that look of disappointment on their elders’ faces and have quailed at it. They will be standing right there next to Thea when she has her experiences. They understand – and they will be waiting for her to deal with that burden, to see how she does it, to see if they can learn something about how to deal with their own.

I wrote a book and series about choices and about growing up DIFFERENT and how to handle it all, even when you have to do it with fear, or with reluctance, or with only just enough grace to scrape by. And also with joy – the joy of discovery of one’s real identity, one’s real potential. The joy of friendship. The joy of learning, and of growing wise. And also the bitterness of betrayal, and the agony of failure, and what sometimes feels the almost unbearable burden of survival against the odds. It’s about proving something, both to oneself and to others.

In some ways, that journey is the best of “children’s literature” – the coming of age stories – and there are many out there, from Susan Cooper, to Madeleine L’Engle, to C S Lewis, to J K Rowling and the Potterverse. And I’m not talking about just fantasy. There are plenty of authors over there in the REAL “real” world who tell stories that could well have happened in our own real lives. But is something like “Stand by Me” or “The Outsiders” truly limited to a YA audience? Can the people who might already have passed the finish line of the “coming of age” race and are acknowledged as fully adult not be allowed to look back and remember the road they travelled to get there, in the worlds of “children’s literature”?

It’s all about the story

The best of children’s literature is basically a good story which can be enjoyed by a reader of any age. In the end, what it boils down to is whether your young reader can stand beside a character in a story, stand beside them and support them, at the same time stand beside them and learn from them what is possible, what is permitted and what is unthinkable – and why.

“Children’s literature” is formative, introducing the young to the realms of Story where they will either flourish and thrive or where they will founder – and foundering is easy enough, if the readers in question are bullied or forced into books. A fostered love of reading is essential when it comes to staying in love with the written word.

In my books, that translates into a certain complexity of story. Thea’s tale is layered and complicated, just like any “real” growing up would have been. I paint relationships there – very different ones – relationships where she is very much the acolyte, relationships where she is the adversary, and relationships where she is loved and cherished.

They are all necessary for the story to get woven together. They form as complex a backdrop as any “real” life might, and the reason they are necessary and the reason they work are the same – they sparkle with recognition, with tiny glittering pieces which a reader might pause and take a closer look at and find something very familiar in them, perhaps a reflection of themselves.

When we are adults, we assume that we understand the world we live in and are able to deal with what it throws at us because we are familiar with the context of it all. In “Children’s literature” the protagonist is just starting to come to terms with a world – that is often baffling and sometimes frightening.

That is what makes the Worldweavers books the “youngest” books I have ever written, not because of a simplistic measure like the age of their protagonist but because this isn’t about a journey finished and now remembered, being, instead, about the journey AS IT HAPPENS, counting the steps it takes to cross a room, a river, or a world. The young readers of such books are sharing that journey themselves, in real time, and that is why a good “kid” book is going to appeal to them – they will recognize themselves in the protagonist and that protagonist’s position in the story they’re reading.

In the space of a few short days devoted to a Children’s Literature Week, it is impossible to cover all the books that matter in this context – but what is important is simply this: that there are certain books which are The Beginning, the origin station for a lifelong journey into the world of the word. And that is to be celebrated.

My second YA series is The Were Chronicles – but that’s for another time.

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Quote of the Day

“The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you have been.” ~ Novelist Madeleine L’Engle

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How do you build a world?

Part 1: The Five W’s and a H

Before reporting became a dying craft, every newbie was taught that a news story had to answer five fundamental questions:

Who, What, Where, When, Why

… and sometimes, How.

In any piece of fiction, these questions are just as fundamental.

I’m going to talk about The Questions, here, while referencing a particular set of books, my own, The Were Chronicles – “Random”, “Wolf”, and “Shifter”.

Question 1: WHO?

When a squib arrived in my inbox announcing a forthcoming anthology of short stories about Weres, – accompanied by an admonishment of “and let’s see something different than the usual tired old tropes!” – I sat down to write a story that immediately popped into my head.

It was a story about a kind of Were-being that was very definitely not a “tired old trope” – it was something that I’d never seen described before, a wholly crazy out-of-left-field idea…

…the Random Were.

A Random Were was a shape-changer who would change into the last warm-blooded creature they saw just before the moment of their Turn – and if it was their FIRST Turn then that would remain their primary form, the form that they will always turn to if they do not see any other critters cross their path in the crucial moments.

The idea had some wonderful comedic possibilities – and in fact the short story I began for that anthology was very light and humorous. It began by positing an unfortunate farmyard incident which left my protagonist’s mother stuck for the eternity of her existence on this world… as a Were-chicken. And trust me, this still gets a laugh if I read that section of the story in a public reading. A Were chicken is FUNNY.

Except that this story quickly ceased to be mindlessly amusing. The Random Were could not exist without rules, and the more I thought about the rules the more a cohesive Were society began to shape itself – a society consisting of various clans who shift true to their form (the Corvids, the Felids, the folk who turn into dogs or bears or sheep or llamas…), the wild-card Randoms (who were the lowest on the totem pole, for obvious reasons) and another new thing, the New Moon Were, the kindred who shifted at the New Moon and not the Full Moon and who generally found themselves living as bats for the three days and nights of their Turn.

They rose in front of me, these people, these races, this society, and they became as solid and real for me as any (now all too ordinary) human being I happened to cross paths with in the street.

I abandoned the short story. It became clear that “Random” wanted to be a book, a huge book, in concept if not words. It meant creating a whole new world and building it up from its foundations… peopled by characters who quickly became some of the best fictional people I had ever had the privilege to work with.

But quite aside from tackling the big questions this book was also an intensely focused one, dealing with things on a much smaller scale than societal pressures – dealing with family secrets, and very very personal issues. The big picture was the Weres and their society – but within it, etched with a diamond-tipped pen, a sharp storyline emerged, and at the center of it was a girl called Jazz.

Jazz was the youngest in an immigrant family of Randoms who came to a new place looking for safety from persecution in the land in which they had been born. The safety proved to be somewhat illusory, because it was, first of all, bought at the very high price of personal freedom. The Were kindred was just as feared and hated here as they had ever been before except in the new world this was carefully hidden behind “rules” and “laws”.

Laws, of course, have always existed to be broken – and there is a level of both subtle and quite open torment – bullying, discrimination – leveled at the Were from their human peers. Jazz’s older sister Celia, who is central to this story, bore the brunt of this torment, to the point that it led to the fracture at the heart of this family – the silences and the secrets surrounding Celia’s death from an overdose of a Were-specific drug.

“Random” is an exploration of an individual trying to find her place in her world (particularly when her own Random nature leads to a transformation which will leave her in a very uncomfortable position) as well as an exploration of what it means to belong to a family, a clan, a race, a species.

It is, on the surface, a story about Were-kind. It is on a deeper level a story about what it means to be human.

“Random” wanted to be a full length book – but it was obvious very quickly that the story I had begun telling would not fit into a single book. I had a series on my hands.

What The Were Chronicles became is not so much a trilogy as a triptych, with a story arc being approached in three different books by three different POV characters – and in “Wolf”, book 2 of the series, the POV character is Jazz’s brother Mal. Mal is battling his own demons – he is at 17 the oldest unturned Were of his generation, which is destroying him, especially since his younger sister Turns before he does; and also, perhaps far more powerfully, he sees himself as guilty for his sister Celia’s death (because it was he who procured the tablets which she took, which then killed her).

The frustration and the guilt make Mal a dark character, perhaps even an unlikeable one – but it is his strength, his convictions, his ability to grasp a nettle when required and endure the stings which are necessary in order to achieve a particular goal, his growth as a character, his willingness to learn and change and shoulder both love and responsibility when they are both laid upon him, it is all these things that make him unique, and wonderful, and real.

He begins his book, “Wolf” as a whiny and petulant boy. He ends it as a man. This is a coming of age story, and it charts a path which may be thorny but which is always true.

Mal’s friend is the titular character of Book 3, “Shifter”.

Chalky is a young man who has lived by his wits and fended for himself since a very young age. He has acquired self-reliance, and power, and knowledge, and a mastery of his not inconsiderable gifts. He is a talented computer hacker, and he is also, as the book’s title implies, a wild card in the Were universe. 

He can change, as his kind can, into something other than human but for him this is not constrained by the phase of the moon or restricted to three days (neither more nor less). He can Turn into whatever he wants or needs to Turn into, whenever he wants, for however long he wants.

So my characters Jazz in “Random”, Mal in “Wolf”, “Chalky in “Shifter”, and Celia, the eldest sister, who spans all three books – these are the faces of the answer to my “WHO” question.

These are the characters who bear the weight of my story on their shoulders, which sometimes look entirely too fragile to hold up the load. But they are strong, my people. And they have a story to tell of their kind, of their families, of themselves.

Aspiring writers often ask how characters are created – and I have to disappoint them with an answer that, for me, characters aren’t created, they are born. My characters tend to step out of the back of my mind, fully formed, demanding that I sit down and take dictation.

They are real to the point that they will come and sit on my bed at night, kicking the side of the mattress with their heels, and tell me I am “doing it wrong” if they feel that I am. And they are usually right, damn them. To me, the person telling the story is a real companion, someone I know well, someone with whom I can squabble and tussle but whose opinions about their own story I deeply respect and whose suggestions (if I may call them that) I take very seriously indeed.

When it comes to “WHO”, it is very important to me that I know and understand the dramatis personae of my stories. Because without a strong “WHO” everything else can disintegrate fast. Do I begin with character, then? I could answer yes but again every story is different.

Sometimes it’s a situation that the characters are in. Sometimes it’s no more than the whistle of a distant train. Stories go where they will. But in the end, they are anchored by character – by the “WHO” in the equation. Because without a strong answer to that question you have invisible people who never come to life at all, and a story with characters who do not live – for you, the creator, as well as for those who will be reading about their lives when your story is done – is a story which will crumble to ashes at a touch.

Find out more about the Were Chronicles HERE

Do you want to write?

Writing tips

I began storytelling when I was a toddler. I wrote my first poem when I was five, my first ‘novel’ as an adolescent, and my first decent novel (unpublished and unpublishable, but it has good bones) when I was in my mid-teens.

In short, I have been writing all my life. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are a few things I have learned about writing along the way.

1. It’s never as bad as you think. It’s also never as good as you think. Basically most of the time you can do better, and many times you’ve done MUCH worse. Trust yourself.

2. Don’t write “for the market”.. Don’t write the popular thing in the fond hopes that you can hitch your wagon to it. By the time your stuff comes out the popular thing will be so yesterday. Write what you want to write, need to write, and let the trends set themselves.

3. Don’t compare your life and career to writers more successful than you are, however you define success. A handful of them will ALWAYS be more successful than you but it is not worth your time and energy to waste an ounce of either worrying about it.

4. Don’t think you’ve ever invented anything new. Every storytelling technique was already ancient before you were born. If you have invented a slight twist on one, that is a huge accomplishment in itself.

5. Find your tribe. Have SOMEONE out there who understands. In the dark hours – and those will come – it helps to know you aren’t alone out there with your tiny guttering candle.

6. Practice faith. Even when all the gods and muses are obstinately silent in the face of all entreaty. Perhaps especially then.

7. Know when to let go. Nothing is EVER finished – but you have to know when to stop tweaking. It will never be perfect. Live with it. Get your story as good as you can and then let it step out into the world to seek its fortune. Hope it sends you a postcard to show you how it’s doing.

8. Read other writers. Remember, they are reading YOU.

9. There are times when it is good to walk in the rain. Yes, you might get damp – but there’s a sense of being one with the world in the heart of it, and then there is always the comfort and security of the hot cup of tea when you come back in with new insights.

10. You are unique. Words are common, and easy to find. You can pick them up like pebbles on a beach. But finding the RIGHT words – and putting them in the right order – that’s unique to you. Even given the exact same words, nobody else is ever going to use them the same way as you do. You are unique, and only you can be you, and only you can tell a story in exactly the way you do. Never let that simple truth get away from you.

Now, go write.

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15 Reasons Why The English Language Makes Absolutely No Sense

For example:
4. Because whoever wrote this poem is a genius:
English is hard poem posterSee the other examples HERE

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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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About me      My books      Email me

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