Why epigraphs?

“Dune” did it to incredible effect. Asimov’s Foundation series did it beautifully. There are other books where this was used to enhance and deepen the worldbuilding.

I am talking about epigraphs, quotes that open chapters or sections of novels, quotes which often come from Science Fiction or Fantasy worlds that do not exist outside the book being read.

The Ages of Mankind

When I wrote “The Secrets of Jin-shei“, I used epigraphs to define the Ages of Mankind, as seen through the eyes of the culture and beliefs of my imagined country of Syai – Liu, Lan, Xat, Qai, Ryu, Pau, and Atu.In that order, they cover emergence (birth and babyhood), growing (childhood), coming of age (becoming adult), reproducing and replacing one’s self (the age of childbearing), the secondary stage of reproducing and replacing one’s self, and growing old (sliding into senescence), the sunset and twilight of one’s life (death), and that existence that bridges the end of the last life and the beginning of a brand new one, a sort of hovering in the waiting room of the gods (the closing of the circle).Jin-shei Ages of Mankind Liu poster

What emerged as the quotes for each section were these delicate ‘Chinese’ poems, fragile and ethereal, almost written by brushwork rather than typed on hard keys on a computer keyboard. They were astonishing to me, who created them, but they had a sturdy reality – despite their tender fragility – which served to anchor my new-made world firmly to a reality which would not otherwise have been possible. There is a power here which is difficult to define, but which is palpable. This would not have been the book it is without the epigraphs which serve as the scaffold on which the entire structure was built.

I did a similar thing with the follow-up to that book, “Embers of Heaven”, where the epigraphs came from various works of reference and literature and liturgy. Imaginary, all. But, again, the quotes serve to anchor the novel into its world, a world where these books existed, where they would have been recognizable and familiar to someone of that world, of that culture. They anchored my own mind in that world, in the way it was thinking and feeling, in the unquestionable reality of its existence.

This is powerful stuff. Even now, rereading the material, years after it was written, I find myself transported straight back into the world of Jin-shei by these quotes.Jin-shei Ages of Mankind Lan poster

The right epigraphs, even if they have been as wholly invented by an author as the novel which they anchor, serve to link the words of fiction to a world which is only a sideways step from our own, as real as that which we see when we look out of our own windows. They serve as windows, also, and they allow the reader of a book to glance directly into the mind of its writer, and understand more completely the fictional realm into which the writer has led them. The epigraphs are the keys to a massive door which open into a place which we may not have ever seen before… but which, because of those imagined yet easily recognized quoted words, we *know*.

I’ve built a series of posters based on those Ages Of mankind, the first two enclosed here. I’ll post the others at another time.

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 do characters lie?

Fictional liars

The Unreliable Narrator is a character who tells the reader a story which cannot be entirely trusted, or taken at face value. The narrator might be deliberately deceptive, or they may be telling a perfectly reasonable story according to THEIR worldview, their reality, which may not be the reader’s. Perhaps they are working from a misconception because they are not privy to all the relevant information.

Basically, the unreliable narrator storytellers cannot be entirely trusted to tell YOUR truth.

Here’s a piece of homework – think of a story with an unreliable narrator. I’ll start you off. “Clockwork Orange”. “Life of Pi”. “Rebecca”. “Gone Girl”. Justine Larbalestier’s “Liar”. Quite possibly Alice, of Wonderland fame (I mean, she dreamed it ALL…) That’s a start. Cast your mind over books you have read. Add them to the list.

If you are creating your own unreliable narrator, there can be pure exhilaration in doing it, doing it well, and knowing that at some point the reader will gasp sharply when they realize that the things they have been led to believe are real and true… may not be. It is a very delicate web to weave, but when done properly it is an amazing dance between the writer and the reader, and these are books that are remembered for a long time after they are done.

There are a number of ways of doing this. The hardest one is the clue layering all the way in, right from the start, nudging the reader along inch by inch until you pull the curtain on the reveal. The dangers there are obvious. It is possible to give too many clues, leaving the character way too open to being unmasked too early in the game.

It is possible not to give enough clues so that the reveal comes out of left field and the reader feels ambushed by something that was never properly foreshadowed.

The writer can be subtle about this, giving out information through the reactions of other characters (indicating that something about the narrator’s thoughts or actions is considered ‘off’ in his context and circumstances), or simply by placing the narrator within a setting where it is clear that the perceptions being conveyed to the readers are filtered through a lens of a very different set of convictions or a worldview and the things the narrator perceives as being good or right… may not be entirely correctly perceived.

In this sense, the character does not exactly LIE to the reader, he or she simply presents their own version of the truth. This can be tougher than it looks, particularly when the author is not the narrator and does not necessarily share any views that the reader might find abhorrent. It is important not to confuse the voice of the narrator with that of the author. A good author can project an entirely different person with a remarkable degree of verisimilitude.

Facts are empirically provable, but truth is not so easily pinned down. Truth is perceived rather than proved. One person’s truth may not be another’s – a deeply religious person’s truth is that God is responsible for absolutely everything and is all-powerful, while an atheist prefers to trust this world rather than the next. You define yourself as a good person by doing what you perceive are good deeds. That is a fact. But whether you do those good deeds because you are hoping for a reward in Heaven, or because they are in themselves reward enough in this world and you have no expectations of ever seeing another, that is your truth, and your own truth governs how your perceive your life, your world, your experiences, and how you convey your ideas to someone else.

Person A might well consider Person B an unreliable narrator simply because the two of them do not necessarily inhabit the same truth sphere, even though they are both physically very present in the same world. Both persons are telling the truth – their OWN truth – and both persons might be perceived as bending that truth, or actively lying about important things, by the other. They are being perceived as unreliable narrators. And in some ways it is the reader who governs the unreliability of the narrator – simply by providing their own set of lenses through which they might view a particular story. Readers will always find in any story worth its salt far more than the author ever thought they put in there.

All fiction is by definition a lie. None of it “really happened”. But you as the reader get to decide which of the characters within any given story you actually trust to provide you with the inner scaffolding of meta-truth with exists within the narrative you are reading.

And if you’re the writer, you have to decide what aspect of your story is the ‘true’ one, the right one, and which you will present to your readers as subtly skewed… and then you have to trust those readers to perceive it. You get to shine the light of your choice on your story – and you hope that, in the minds of your readers, you get to cast the shadows you wanted.

Within your story, however, on a more granular level, you will sometimes make the choice of having a character tell a blatant untruth at some point.

Why do people lie?

There are people who are incapable of stopping – whose entire lives are built of lie upon lie, one making the next one necessary, and they are just placed one on another and mortared in place until there’s a wall of lies it is impossible to work your way free of even if you tried. There are people who might do this because they want to trap others behind that wall, and there are people who build it to protect some inner core of themselves. Either way, it’s an inevitability, in the end – it’s like pushing a snowball down a hill and watching it get bigger and bigger and bigger and obliterating everything in its path in the end – but that final result is not entirely your fault. All you did was push the snowball off the hill. Everything else it did by inertia, by itself. Unless the character in question is a certifiable sociopath, though, this is a tough row to hoe. Keeping a wall of lies straight is not the easiest thing to do. While some of them are solid they are also very vulnerable to the presence of the smallest inadvertent truth.

There are people who will lie out of compassion – the “it will be all right” lie, to someone who is mortally wounded or who is dying of an incurable disease, the “it’s better this way” lie when some unspeakable tragedy occurs and you’re trying to make it lighter by implying that a greater tragedy would have happened had events fallen out otherwise. That sort of thing.

There are people who lie in the heat of the moment and then have to live by that lie. There are people who will lie to protect themselves. There are people who will lie to protect others to the point of damning themselves.

There are people who will lie for personal gain, who will sell second-hand lemon cars or bad mortgages or shady investments to gullible or vulnerable people. There are people who will not so much lie as simply not speak of something to a third party (who may or may not have a right to know).

There are people who will lie because they don’t like their truth and they simply speak of it in terms that they can live with even if those terms are not real or true. Self deceiving is all too easy because you are lying to yourself and you have no outside way to verify that information..

There are people who will lie for gain, or for pity, or for love, or for incandescent hate, or for indifference. There are people who will lie for the joy of hearing themselves do it.

The first lie told begins a story. The rest of the story… is a search for truth. Not, necessarily, the facts. Just the truth.


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Building Castles poster

‘Children of a Different Sky’: Stories of war and exile
A crowd-funded anthology from great authors. Any money collected beyond the costs of publication will be donated to help the dispossessed human tides of our era. Give what you can at the crowd-funding website HERE

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 love story retold

Most Western readers have a peculiar blind spot in the historical tapestry of European history.

The Empire of Byzantium.

There’s the Glory Of Rome, and then there’s the Middle Ages. Byzantium is a missing link, something that existed over there beyond Greece, almost Asian, almost Middle Eastern, something that fascinated but did not find deep roots in the Western European psyche.

But in Eastern Europe we all know about Byzantium. It was much closer to home, looming much larger on the horizon. When I was growing up, stories of Byzantium were simply part of my education, part of my cultural milieu.

One story in particular.

As the saying goes, well behaved women never make history, or as one of my great-aunts was wont to say, the pursuit of purity and virtue never helped a woman rise in her world. A good woman cooked meals, cleaned house and raised children. Those who did not do these things were by definition not good women. And not-good women…got up to all sorts of things that were then whispered about behind closed doors.

In the story of the Byzantium Empire, one of these women stands like a colossus: Theodora of the Hippodrome, daughter of a bear-keeper, arena dancer, a woman they have called a whore, someone who clawed her way from the gutter into the circles of the aristocracy. Beyond that – into the purple, crowned with an imperial diadem, ruling an empire at the height of its powers at the side of the besotted Emperor Justinian.
Justinian And Theodora mosaicThe magnificent mosaic of Justinian and Theodora in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

It is one of the greatest love stories in world history.

By most contemporary accounts, Theodora had more than enough heart and spirit and courage to have achieved all this. But because she did so, and did so while female, the rumors started swirling and history has never stayed neutral or even silent on this.

Procopius, a Byzantine historian, depicted Theodora as a wanton temptress who used her body and her sexuality to get what she wanted out of the powerful men in her world. Procopius had his biases and much of what he wrote was exaggerated or even invented. But he helped paint Theodora as what she ended up being in the pages of history books. Sultry, sexual, full of subtle poisonous malice, selfish, given to indulging her own pet people, ideas, or obsessions.

She may have been some of these things. But she was also something that was looked on askance in her world – a strong-minded woman who knew what she wanted and did what she could, what she was permitted by her gender and her society to do, in order to get it. It is quite probable that she was no saint. But she was equally probably not the wicked witch of the east, the image in which she was cast.

I grew up with Theodora and her story dangling before me like some rich Byzantine jewel. When I was younger I had no real means of judging; I read books, both fiction and non-fiction, about the time that she lived in and that was all I had to go on. She was mad bad and impossible but she was fascinating.

And in the end I suppose it was inevitable that she should take root in my storytelling mind and demand that her story – the story of the woman, not the icon, not the two-dimensional harridan, not the evil power who seduced a weak-minded scholar (which some would have Justinian be in some versions of the tale) into breaking all the rules, marrying her, raising her into the aristocratic circles of her time and making them accept her, and finally crowning her as his empress.

So I wrote a historical fantasy, Empress, which was based on her story – and in doing so I have written another book in MY world, the world in which the Syai of “Secrets of Jin Shei” and “Embers of Heaven” also exist in the same way as Greece and China co-exist in our reality.

The Secrets of Jin-shei coverEmbers of Heaven coverEmpress cover

I am writing books which are the building blocks of a much larger world, a world which exists INSIDE MY OWN STORY MILIEU as a huge and ongoing backdrop and in which my individual stories are set, in their own place and time, like jewels, like tiny detailed works of art set into a huge larger-than-life map of a world big enough to contains them all.

“Empress” is the first new fat historical fantasy I have produced since “Embers of Heaven” was published some years ago. It is the story of a not-quite Byzantium and a woman who is not-quite Theodora. But I drew inspiration from both, and created my own version for my own world. This is the kind of story that I so love writing – the sort of tale that unfolds like a rich tapestry, and the closer you look the more glorious detail comes out, until you’re lost in it and can’t quite tell where it ends and that (by comparison) sad pale thing we call reality begins.

You can find a fuller version of this essay at the Book View Café HERE

You can buy Empress HERE

Quote of the DayQuote: Saying It Wrong posterJust as I did.

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‘Do you even science, bro?’

At Jstor Daily, Chi Luu examines how nouns suddenly become verbs, and talks about popular internet memes like “Let me librarian that for you” and “Do you even science, bro?” in which “librarian” and “science” are nouns weirdly disguised as verbs.

“So is this a playful new linguistic construction,” he asks, “or is it time to roll our eyes at the internet, again?”

Read his whole delightful essay HERE

Two more of my newest novels are now also out as  ebooks

The print version of my newest book, ‘Empress‘, has been available for a short bit, and now the ebook version is out;  as is the ebook version of ‘Shifter‘..

Empress cover‘If you like Guy Gavriel Kay, you will love ‘Empress’. — Kari Sperring, author of ‘Living with Ghosts’ and ‘The Grass King’s Concubine’.

‘Empress’ is a historical fantasy inspired by the saga of real-world Byzantine Emperor Justinian and the courtesan Theodora, one of the greatest love stories in world history.

In my world, my protagonist is Simonis, a woman who lived many lives before rising to the top – a helpless child in circus performances, an accomplished courtesan and spy, a heretic who sheltered men thought to be damned for what they believed. Emperor Maxentius is the man who loves her enough to drape the Imperial purple over her shoulders even though his entire culture recoils.

When he marries Simonis and gives her a new name, Callidora, he makes her a partner in the ruling of the empire. When the Empire faces a rebellion that appears unstoppable, Maxentius and his generals are prepared to flee the raging mobs. But Callidora announces that the men can do what they want, but she will not run.

If I must die, purple makes a good shroud.”

The men are shamed into standing their ground and the Empire survives.

Buy Empress HERE

And now ‘Shifter‘, third book in The Were Chronicles, is finally out as an ebook.

Buy Shifter HERE

At Mental Floss, Jennifer M Wood examines

The $80 million typo – For want of a hyphen…

Mariner One photoMariner 1 on takeoff

NASA’S one little mistake

The damage: $80 million

Hyphens don’t usually score high on the list of most important punctuation. But a single dash led to absolute failure for NASA in 1962 in the case of Mariner 1, America’s first interplanetary probe. The mission was simple: get up close and personal with close neighbor Venus. But a single missing hyphen in the coding used to set trajectory and speed caused the craft to explode just minutes after takeoff. 2001: A Space Odyssey novelist Arthur C. Clarke called it “the most expensive hyphen in history.”

See all the other typos HERE

At The Dodo, Stephen Messenger tells us how

Kids bring shy shelter dogs out of their shells by reading to themKids read to Dogs photoHumane Society of Missouri

An innovative new idea, called the Shelter Buddies Reading Program, is already making a huge difference for animals at the Humane Society of Missouri. The idea is simple: train kids to read to dogs as a way of readying them for forever homes, all while instilling a greater sense of empathy in the youngsters, too.

Read the whole story HERE

At BuzzFeed, Selina Churchill reports on

Sex, misery, and cliffhangers — Writing Fanfiction

For example:

Smut is popular: The fastest way to get your story read by thousands is to write for a big fandom like Supernatural or Buffy, and slap an “Adult” rating on it…show it all in eye-melting detail.

The ubiquity of smut in fanfic is a surprise to nobody. TV writing features hot people in the most intense situations they can invent. Who can be shocked that viewers develop fantasies about The Doctor or Scully or Loki? Come on. You give the world sexy werewolves, and the world will sit at its keyboard typing “Drip the wax on me, Edward.”

Read the whole story HERE


SheKnows Website offers free Ruth Bader Ginsburg Coloring Book

Men Give Up on Books Sooner Than Women: Study

Harper Lee’s estate will no longer allow publication of the inexpensive paperback edition that was popular with schools.

Cheap paperbacks of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ no longer available

Quote of the DayAstrology posterCan’t argue with that.

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Words in the Woods

The Rainforest Writers Retreat 2016 is over

My hubby went along this year to see this wondrous place to which I vanish sometimes in the Olympic Peninsula rainforest. The cabin we were in was snug and cozy, with a temperamental gas fireplace heater which switched itself on and off with a loud put-upon WHOOMPF.

The cabin was directly across from the Salmon House Restaurant where we had one scrumptious  meal which included their trademark tempura-battered mushrooms.Lake in the rainforest photo The lake was disconcertingly high with the shoreline trees knee deep in water. The lake grew like a semi-sentient monster, and every time we looked out it was visibly higher, hungrier, reaching. The crescent of shingle beach on the far side which I walked the year before, from which I took some great photos of the Golden Hour on the lake, was quite vanished, under water whose depth I really didn’t want to consider testing even in my knee-high gumboots.

And the reason it was so high and getting higher? Well, it rained. A lot. It rained SOLIDLY from sun-up to sundown most of the time we were there.Rainforest photoDespite that, we did get to visit the world record spruce tree together, and it was as amazing as it always is. I love big old trees and this one I have developed a special affection for. I have to go visit it at least twice during a weekend like this, and lay a hand on its ancient skin, and wish it well.

I gave a talk on World-building to pretty much a full house. Other highlights included the group dinner (at which I got to speak French), the soup-and-grilled-cheese-sandwich lunch provided by Deborah and Chuck (some amazing soups this year. The Moroccan Vegetarian offering was stupendous.), and the Saturday party which produced a bottle of absolutely amazing Sabra chocolate liqueur. In between there were the chats with people, the “what are you working on” connections made in the writing parlor. All that.
But the reason all of us were there were the words in the woods.

Some of us edited, some plotted or planned, and others just wrote furiously.Writers writingI had brought along a vexing timeline that needed nailing down before the next book could begin, and I did that on Thursday, breaking the back of a job over which I had been procrastinating for months at home. I even launched into the writing on that day, which meant the first words of a new novel were written right there next to the window in the lounge of the Salmon House, staring out at the changing sky and the wash of sunlight over damp moss and glittering water.

On Friday I did nothing except sit there and wrestle with words in the woods – and I wrote more on the book, wholly unrelated scenes which will need to be slotted in properly and a very rough draft of it all with entire screeds of what I knew very well were immense infodumps which would need expanding and smoothing down later.
But the words were now there, they had been nailed down, and at least I had the material in black and white with which I could WORK to make it a coherent tale. Between these long snatches of narrative I tweaked my timelines with crabby tiny writing on my large sheets of color-coded background sheets. Someone asked me later having observed me doing this how on earth I could READ anything I wrote in that tiny scribbled hand in the boxes of those tables. The answer of course was simply that sometimes I would have to do it by extrapolation, figuring out what I must have meant to write by reading the context around it.

The word count on the whiteboard grew. Before Friday was over several people had broken five figures and by the time the final word count was read out after a rain-wracked group photo on Sunday morning we had produced 300K words plus change. I myself came in fifth at 20,000 plus by the end of the weekend. It was a good weekend, and much was done, and my story is coming clear in my head.

Following the closing ceremonies on Sunday, we hit the road home, in a cloudburst which continued from Olympia to well past Tacoma while I sat bolt upright with both hands gripping the steering wheel. A dozen rainbows made their appearance to the sides of the road as we drove, glimpsed through the rain as it let up every now and then.

Now it is just a memory of words, the rising lake, and the woods. And the photographs which documented the passing of another Rainforest Writers Retreat.

From here… there’s a new book waiting.

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Books change lives posterYou go first.

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There can be only one

On life, and writing – another in a continuous series of portraits of the writer as a young woman.   (Originally appeared at The Book View Cafe – http://bookviewcafe.com)


A single mind, a single pair of hands

3 Muskatereers illustrationAll for one and one for all! (The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas)

I am an only child, except for my sister who isn’t my sister.

When I was very young my immediate playmate and companion was my nine-month-younger cousin, the daughter of my mother’s sister, whose relationship to me in my own cradle tongue was “sister-from-aunt” and whom therefore I have always and confusingly referred to as simply my sister.

She and I had a wonderful time when we were little. We did make-believe like it was nobody’s business. With the assistance of a brace of wooden cooking spoons which doubled as swords, and my mother’s blue satin dressing gown which served as anything from a royal cloak to the robes of Cardinal Richelieu, we parceled out the necessary parts and pretty much comprehensively rewrote The Three Musketeers according to which characters could be interacting at any one time. She was D’Artagnan. She was always the action hero and that was fine with me. That meant I got the INTERESTING parts. I got to be Richelieu.

We also played games that we made up ourselves. But outside of this rich little world of shared sisterly imagination, she was the gregarious sort who had hordes of friends with whom she hung out at all other times… and I was more of a solitary. I had my sister, I had my books, I had the dolls whose lives I embroidered with such enthralled storytelling glee when I played with them. I was on my own, and that was okay.

I was beginning to discover that storytellers often are.

When I was a little older, and I’d moved away from all of that, into a new world, a new continent. I persisted in the solitary state. I had a friend here and there as I began to drift through school after different school, never really staying in one place for long enough to fall into a group, a gaggle, a clique. Always on the edges looking and observing, always on my own. Always in my stories, inside my head.

At some point – when I was maybe thirteen, fourteen – I had a book whose exact title I don’t now recall but which was something along the lines of “Games you can play on your own”. I don’t know what it says about me that I even knew such a book existed, never mind that that I owned a copy. At this point I have mercifully forgotten most everything it contained – but I do retain, verbatim, one particular game instruction. It involved something they called “keeping your mind fixed”. What you had to do is choose a thought or an idea or an object and keep your mind fixed on it for a certain designated stretch of time.

The verbatim thing I remember is this: “This isn’t as easy as it sounds because the moment you think ‘My mind is fixed’ it is not because if that were the case you would not be able to think about your mind being fixed. Cheating is easy but pointless.” So was the game, really, but apparently this was the sort of thing, the sort of game, you could play with nobody other than yourself – it was a retreat into the mind, into inner worlds. But I was already all too good at that. I transcended the games-for-one book pretty quickly. I don’t know what became of it.

At this point it serves as a signpost, I suppose, I was on my own, and it was okay. I was the one sitting in the library at recess, with my nose in a book. I was the one who was never picked for a sports team but whose schoolwork was always in demand from those popular people who WERE so picked and had far too much of a good time in their social circles to bother about turning in their math homework on time. I was the dreamer, the learner, the prism through which the world refracted and was re-shaped; I looked and observed and kept meticulous notes.

I may not have had dozens of friends or gone to hundreds of parties, but I saw more sunsets, walked in the comforting shade of more trees on more summer days, listened to more birds and learned their language, read more fairy tales and used them to understand the real world, told first myself and then others more stories. I was on my own and that was okay.

I am an introvert, and although I can come out of my shell and be as gregarious as the next person, it is usually for a short period of time and then I have to crawl back into a quiet place and plug myself back into my solitude to recharge. There are very few people in this world in whose company I am completely content for longer than a limited period of time before I need to escape again. There are really times that I can’t handle anything bigger than my cat.

On the face of it, I am one of the lonelier creatures on this planet – but it isn’t really that. I DO have friends, and there are definitely times when some of them live too frustratingly far away from me to actually practice that friendship – but we’re always a couple of typed lines away in email or social media, so it’s mostly OK. Those who are like me are a lot like me — we all walk our own paths and are content if they occasionally cross but for the most part quite at peace with otherwise walking alone.

We’re on our own, we storytellers, in the end, and that’s OK.

There are certainly those who write and create who are far more extroverted than that – and that works for them, so that’s OK too. But for the most part those of us who live with a part of ourselves in a world that is often so completely unlike our own that it gives us vertigo when we look from one to the other. We are used to the fact that at SOME point during the process of creation we will need to be alone with what we are shaping.

Because for the process of that shaping… there can be only one.

It’s in a single mind, a single pair of hands.

I guess the solitudes of my childhood and my young days have served me well, in that, at least. I know how to be alone, and how to deal with the intrusion of the clamor of voices which don’t exist outside my own mind into the more solid reality which I share with others of my kind. Occasionally I get a distant look and begin to listen to songs which nobody else around me can hear. I’m on my own, then. When I dream, when I write. At least until it’s done, and it’s ready to be shared with others.

I’m on my own. And it’s okay.

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A character tells me off

It started last night.

He turned up in my dream, Chalky, the protagonist of my current WIP. He’s nineteen years old, pushing twenty. He’s a kid who has had a helluva twisted childhood (of course he did, he’s one of my characters) and he’s never really been a ‘kid’, he’s cocky, and he’s vulnerable, and he’s a wretched little know-it-all, and there he was, sitting on the side of my bed, kicking his heels on the bed frame.

“You’re doing it wrong,” he said.

“Oh, what now?”

“That scene, The new material. You’re *rushing* it. I have to know certain things but you haven’t given me time to learn them.”

“Am not rushing it. I need to…”

He interrupts me. “It’s nothing but a synopsis,”

Dammit, he’s right. I’m unpacking the the scene in my head. There are four pages worth of material behind a single paragraph there. I growl.

“What if you…”

“Shut UP,” I snap. “Did I ask you for advice?”

He shrugs, “Just thought I’d point it out. And another thing.”


“You need to figure it out.”

“Figure WHAT out?”

“What I want. What my motivation is.”

“Now you go all Galaxy Quest on me?”

“But I”m not a rock,” he points out helpfully.

I growl again. I seem to be doing a lot of growling. But I”m still kind of asleep. At this point stuff happens (cat sticks nose in my ear) and I come wide awake, and he’s gone, of course, with just that smarmy voice left: ‘You’re doing it wrong.’

That voice stays in my head like a gnat. I barely choke down breakfast. Then I take a cup of coffee down to the computer thinking that maybe it might help me clarify things.

He’s RIGHT the little sod. It IS a synopsis. I had to have him visit me in my dream to tell me I’m screwing up the book??? That’s just *rude*.

Whatever. I go back to the beginning of the problem.

Then I discover that isn’t the beginning of the problem, and go further back. Then something else falls down in a heap and mocks me. I take a large swallow of coffee, crack my knuckles over the keyboard, and hit “delete”. This scene needs to die.

I start again from the beginning. A different beginning.

This time there’s… something. There’s a note of truth in it (yes this is a story about Were-creatures. Yes, every word of it is ‘true’. Why do you ask?) I keep typing, scowling at the scene. The dialogue comes down the riverbed of story like somebody just blew up a dam upstream. Yeah, Chalky, I saw the fuse string dangling from your pocket.

But this water is clean. it is clear. it is deep.

I keep scowling. If there’s something I always resent it’s when my characters refuse to cooperate with me until I finally agree to cooperating with them, and withhold their participation in my story until this is accomplished.

I mean, I can write scenes for them. I can write dialogue for them. They’ll say it because I said they must say it. But they will say it without inflection, without passion, without any kind of feeling, and they’ll sound like robots until such time as I grit my teeth and let them say what they want how they want. And then all of a sudden they’re frigging Shakespeare and everything they say sings. I hate it when my characters are better writers than I am.

I really hate it.

Particularly when they haunt my sleep to tell me so.

I lift my hands from the keyboard. The coffee’s long gone and the light is different outside. It’s a beautiful scene.

He’s sitting there on the edge of my desk, kicking his heels against the side and smirking.

“Didn’t I tell you so?” he says.

“I want to SLEEP tonight,” I snarl.

He grins. “You did well. I might let you.”

The Were Chronicles


The Were Chronicles

by Alma Alexander



Alma Alexander
My books

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Story Friday: What The Bee Knows

Our world is always full of unexpected lacunae, gaps and hollows that we don’t know are there until we step into one. We twist our ankle, and sit down and examine ourselves for injury… and instead find a gift.

One such gift was a book I received this Christmas, “What The Bee Knows: Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story” by P L Travers. Yes, THAT P L Travers. Mary Poppins’s literary mother.

It was only relatively recently, with the release of the movie which purported to deal with the relationship between Travers and Disney, which apparently (I never did get to see it) portrayed that relationship as frankly iffy and Travers herself as a bit of a pompous and cold selfish so-and-so who was all but willing to scuttle that great and glorious movie of my own childhood because of her own disapproval of Disney’s vision of it, that I really knew that there was anything here that came before the Poppins movie.

I knew nothing of P L Travers herself before I tripped over this recent movie interpretation of her, but somehow… somehow… I don’t know. I took a step back and thought, ‘Really? That was the way it was?’ And it was about this time that it came to my attention that there was a book out there called “What the Bee Knows”, and the things that it contained. And I desired it. And heaven and earth were moved so that it might be obtained for me.

And oh, the treasure I received….

What The Bee Knows, P. L. Travers

This is the new essay that just appeared at StorytellersUnplugged – you can read the rest of it here.

It talks about wisdom. And Story, with a capital S. And all sorts of other good stuff.

Oh, and she talks about a theme that I myself have written on — in essays.and in an anthology I created and edited: The story, as river.

River: An Anthology (ed. Alma Alexander)

Have a Storied Friday. Enjoy.

A Question of Character

What comes first, the plot, the idea behind the plot, the problem, the setting, the character?? Which is the most important, the most essential, tool?

For me, it starts with CHARACTER. When asked how I ‘create’ my own characters, my answer has always been that I don’t; I meet them fully formed, complete with the problems they carry. They step out of the woodwork and essentially grab my hand, shake it firmly, tell me their name and rank, and then march me smartly to the first writing platform available and demand I take dictation.

This is partly why I never have real problems with a character’s individual voice, or at the very least, the only times I do so occur when I try to make the character do or say something that that particular character does not want to do or say, or in other words try to make the character act against itself.

So long as I listen, and obey the instructions I am given, my characters tend to assume a certain three-dimensional reality, at least to me, and I very much hope to my readers. Wearing my reader hat, I have met other characters like these, characters who were so vivid and so alive that it remains impossible for me to think that they have never existed.

As it happens, I have a couple of perfect characters in hand – NOT mine – to begin to explain this phenomenon. I’ve been re-watching Babylon 5 in its entirety and no matter what ELSE the show was about, in the broader sense of the story arc, it crystallises as the story of two exceptional characters and their relationship.

G’Kar and Londo Mollari.

mollari-and-gkarBoth of them began almost two-dimensional cartoons — Mollari as the effete buffoon courtier, G’kar as the blinkered and violent thug whose first instinct was to whack something. There was an early scene between the two of them, in the cartoon days, bickering while they are waiting for an elevator, and getting so carried away at trading insults that the elevator arrives and leaves before they quite realize it and then they look at each other and blurt, in comically identical outrage, “LOOK what you made me do!”

But they didn’t stay caricatures.

Their choices began to take them in unexpected directions. Londo, who is essentially all heart, someone passionate about things and letting all those passions hang out, ANSWERS the question that the Shadows put to him, the inspired “What do you want” question which goes on to define so many of the B5 characters.

Londo’s passionate response is that he wants to see his people, the proud Centauri, up “where they belong”, as the Lords of the Galaxy. And he is given that, in spades. But he gradually comes to know the cost of the thing he was given.

I will never forget the appalled dawning understanding of it written on his face as he stands at the window of a Centauri warship watching the destruction of the Narn homeworld – something he never wanted, that he himself would never have condoned, but that he is nonetheless in a very real sense utterly and personally responsible for. He then finds himself forced to defend all of it when his people are brought up to face the consequences of it all. He cannot step up to accept his own guilt because doing so would admit guilt by the Centauri and he will not do that to his race.

We see him developing, in the aftermath, and grappling with the consequences of the choices that he has made – right until the final choice that he makes, at the end, when he willingly surrenders his body and his soul – his self – to a Drakh Keeper parasite in order to keep his world and its people ‘safe.’

In one of his last moments of freedom, he tells G’kar that once he had all the choices in the world and no power and now, now that he is about to become Emperor, he has all the power he could ever want and no choices at all.

Mollari is the martyr. In a powerful moment when the parasite takes control of
him we see none of it except his hand, lax by his side, suddenly clenching into a fist – and we know that the Mollari we have known is now gone and in his place is a puppet who will dance to a tune others command. It is a decision he made in order to preserve what is left of that thing he so passionately believes in, the Centauri place in the universe, their pride, and in this instance their very continued existence.

He does what he must, and in this moment he earns our most profound pity as well as our deepest respect. It’s a long way from the original caricature.

G’Kar’s journey is an even greater one. If Mollari is all heart, G’Kar is the soul, the spirit. His passions are no less deep, and certainly no less volatile, than Mollari’s – but they are the crucible in which his ultimate nobility is forged, in fire and in pain.

It seems, with G’Kar, that the more he loses, the more he gains in return, the more he grows, the more he becomes a towering figure who is a true leader, and perhaps even a true saint. He is occasionally portrayed as brash, sometimes even buffoonish, but underneath it all is a kind of iron nobility and the closer we come to the core of him the more we learn of what he truly is.

In a moment at which I always weep, just before Mollari is about to go off and surrender himself to his fate, he goes to say farewell to his old enemy and his old friend, G’Kar. And as he is about to leave, G’Kar calls him by name and as Mollari pauses by the door, G’Kar says to him that too much has passed between their races – “My people,” he says, ” can never forgive your people. But I…can forgive you.”

And Mollari’s face changes, just for a moment, as the two old foes clasp hands and exchange a last long look – because here, maybe, lies a glimmer of that salvation that Mollari has sought for so long and has almost – almost – given up on finding.

When I heard that the actor who had portrayed G’Kar in the series had died, I wept – I felt as though I had lost a brother. But it was not the actor whom I was mourning, may those he loved and left behind forgive me for that – it was G’Kar. The indomitable. The irascible. The funny, the tragic, the wounded, the triumphant, the glorious, the inspired. The character who never really existed, who could not exist, and yet who was as real to me as though I had grown up in his physical shadow. There was a video made in his memory, and I watch it and weep, even today.

Such can be the impact of character on someone who is immersed in that character’s story.

I remember my own characters who came to me and let me tell their stories:

 Anghara Kir Hama, heroine of my “Changer of days” fantasies, who was such a pivotal character for me that I have borne some form of her name as my online identity for as long as I’ve had a presence on the Internet.

The girls who strolled onto the stage as the eight main protagonists of “Secrets of Jin Shei” – the poet, the healer, the gypsy, the warrior, the alchemist, the sage, the rebel leader, and the Empress who dreamed of immortality and nearly destroyed them all.

Or the one who followed them, the many-times-granddaugther of my little poet from the first book, and the other characters who shared her story in “Embers of Heaven”.

My girl-mage, Thea, from the Worldweavers trilogy, and the people who helped shape her world.

The five people who make their choices on the eve of the projected end of the world in “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”.

I didn’t create any of those people. They had stories they wanted told. They came, they introduced themselves to me, and they began to talk. It was all I could do to keep writing fast enough to keep up, sometimes.

For me, that is what it comes down to. It’s a question of character, in a HUGE and important way, and it’s the character who drives the story arc forward. The arc that Londo Mollari took to its extreme – the arc of going from the beginning, where you have all the choices in the world, to the end, where all the choices you have made have herded you into a place where there is only one way forward, only one thing left to do, and there are no choices left other than that one. For better or for worse.

A story is simply and solely an account of the winnowing of those choices – and the writer can only hope that the character who is making them will be strong enough to pull in the reader right along, strong enough to trigger strong emotions, because those emotions will serve to make that reader remember that character – remember some of that character’s lines of dialogue, even, verbatim sometimes – long after they have closed the book of that character’s story.

Because they live on, in our memories. All the characters who once walked down the roads in that strange country in our mind’s eye, and let us follow them on their journeys. It is the privilege of the writer to create characters like that, the ones who live long after a particular snatch of their story which the reader might be privileged to directly know is done and dusted. It is the privilege of the reader to find such characters, and to treasure them, to keep them alive, to keep them immortal, to shield them from the fading and the oblivion which comes with the passing of the years.

I hope that some of my own characters will live on, in YOU, the readers. It is only then that my work here will be done.

(See my books here)

Back Door into Magic

I’m not sure if this was something that is hard-wired in us or if it is something that we have acquired along the evolutionary path but we seem to have a need to CLASSIFY something when we meet it. Including books.

 If you walk into any given bookstore you will find things shelved and classified according to rigorous  criteria. Cookbooks, hither, not to be confused with memoirs, there, or history, over there. There is entire section called FICTION which now has to be chopped and sorted into its own little sub-boxes. Mysteries. Romance. Science fiction and Fantasy.

 And then you hit the sub-boxes– what KIND of fantasy? Is it historical fantasy (with hints about a real historical era)? Is it urban fantasy (gritty city streets with a chick with a kickass butt on the cover)? Is it high fantasy (a dragon on the cover)?

 My novels have had their share of labels. “Secrets of Jin Shei” – by virtue of being carried by eight female protagonists – has been called feminist fantasy. “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”, has been called religious fantasy, although I myself would struggle to find anything overtly religious in it.

 There’s a new kid on the block, now. An article on io9.com calls it “backdoor fantasy”. Here’s what they mean by that: “What characterizes a backdoor fantasy is that it uses all the tricks and tropes of a fantasy story without ever actually showing us anything that can’t be explained by science.”

 This sounds rather like what I so often write.

 The io9 article uses “Among Others”, Jo Walton’s Nebula- and World Fantasy Award-winning novel, as a possible flagship for the new moniker. “…(it) is a perfect example. In it, we encounter familiar fantasy ideas: there is more to the world than meets the eye; evil is a part of nature; we can control reality with our minds. And yet Walton’s protagonist could easily be spinning a fantasy story in her head to escape the horrors of her home life. The fantasy in Among Others may, in other words, be a fantasy.”

If you haven’t read that book, go read it. I’ll wait. Seriously. But here’s the thing about that book, for me. Walton’s heroine… was kind of… ME. Okay, I didn’t have a vanished twin, or a witchy mother, or an estranged dad who sent me off to a posh boarding school… but the boarding school, and the escape into books, that was my own life, and at much the same age as the heroine of this book.

I daresay that this particular back door is hardly likely to be there for other readers who haven’t shared my own particular life and times and experiences. The point, however, is that the magic in these cases might just lie in that kernel of pure recognition – something that leaps from the page at you and catches you by the throat and screams, YOU KNOW ME! YOU LIVED ME!

 I touched that, for at least some of the readers of “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”. I know I did  because readers and reviewers have spoken of a feeling that they got from the book, a feeling of being able to identify with the place in which the novel is set, with the circumstances in which it takes place, with the relationships of once-friends who were being picked up after years of hiatus. Phrases like “it feels like you had just sat down for a cup of coffee with some old friends”, “it seemed as if I had been to this particular café before”, “I kind of knew the people in this book, because they were me, they were my friends” – these things recur, in reviews, in feedback from readers.

The only magic in this book is the faintest sprinkling of fairy dust – there is a character who is a being manifestly supernatural in form, a creature who refers to himself as “the Messenger” although never specifying from whom, someone that the readers have identified as variously an angel or a sprite of some sort – someone through whom the power to make a choice is transferred to a human soul. And it is in that choice that the magic lies.

 I write about people. I write about what makes people change. And what makes people change are answers to two polar-opposite questions: What makes you happy; What do you fear. The first will make you run towards something; the second, away. But both will MOVE you, and once you are in motion you cannot help but encounter choices.

 The io9 people go on to say, “This strand in fantasy writing is exploding right now. The more we suck information out of light waves and glowing boxes, the more we are slain by invisible assassins called viruses, the more obvious it becomes that we are living in what feels like a fantasy. Just because your world has been transfigured by science doesn’t mean your imagination will stop seeing terrible sorcery in it.”

 I say, amen. There is just so much magic in our world, the “real” world, which we are so often too busy to stop and appreciate. Let me give you some examples from a real life. Mine.

The first one concerns a skating pond in the woods behind one of the world’s great hotels in Banff. This is one of those unreal hotels build in the shape and form of a castle, situated amongst tall firs, and I was there one cold, cold winter. You could rent a pair of skates and then go down a winding stair into the woods to a frozen pond, I got skates, went down the stair – and somehow, in the midst of a busy and bustling holiday season, I found myself alone on the pond, which was gloriously and completely empty of any other soul except me.

 There were Christmas fairy lights in the trees surrounding the pond, and they twinkled on the snow around me. The trees stood like silent white sentinels in the dark, and in the night sky above the stars were bright and sharp like shards. I put my skates on, and stepped on the pond and started skating, alone in the night, the swish of skate blades on ice, multicoloured shadows falling about my feet. And I felt like weeping with a holy joy because I felt as though I could pass right through this unreal scene and step – or skate – into a whole other world which trembled just there, just in the corner of my eye, just out of reach.

 This moment had  magic in it. True magic. Real magic. MY magic.

 And yet in the hotel just up the slope, beyond the trees, women in off-the-shoulder gowns sat sipping chocolate martinis at polished wooden counters in bars, or couples laughed at one another over dinner tables set with white linen and heavy silverware, or danced to music with a disco beat – a different world.


My encounter with dolphins

The second example is a long way from that night, a bright day in the Florida Keys. I’m kneeling on a low wooden platform next to a pool with two dolphins, a mother and son I had just spent a half hour swimming with. I was holding out kippers the trainers had given me. The son was still very much a “child” in every sense – exuberant and playful, pushy and completely and passionately free with his emotions. Instead of coming for his treat, this baby dolphin came swimming full-tilt at the jetty, leaped out of the water completely, and tucked himself under my arm. Our eyes met, and I swear he smiled. And then, with one flip of that powerful tail, he had reversed himself and had slid back into the water.

 A dolphin HUGGED me. A little piece of magic, right there. Right in my arms.

 The third one. A letter arrives at my house one day. From NASA. FROM *NASA*.

 They are producing a commemorative poster for the Mercury 13, the women who trained in the early astronaut program in NASA back when women basically had no chance of ever getting into space. They had stepped up anyway, because they refused to relinquish the dream of the stars or the idea that those stars belonged to them just as much as to men. NASA wants to know whether I would grant them permission to use an excerpt from one of my poems on that poster.

 I cried. I was so humbled, so proud, so full of feelings I cannot begin to describe to you.

 Like the Mercury 13 themselves, I would never myself float out there amongst the stars – but my words are there now, for keeps, on a poster which commemorates women reaching for that impossible dream. That is a piece of magic that I treasure, a very real piece of magic, something that I am reminded of every time I walk past the wall in my house on which a framed copy of that poster hangs.

I will find some little piece of magic to build into my next story, too, and the next, and the one after that. If that is what they want to call it, a back-door fantasy, I’ll take it. But I’ll keep on opening those back doors. There is too much joy and beauty and sadness and glory and pure  humanity behind them to leave them closed, and people need to be reminded – always, and constantly – that the magic is there for the taking, just by reaching out and touching it.

 Open the back door. Step into magic. It is waiting.