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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Love the Madness

7 Essential Books Starring Dysfunctional Families

Dysfunctional families are no laughing matter”, Off the Shelf reports, “more so when you’re a part of one. Who can stand your mother’s fiery tongue or your brother’s penchant for the absurd? Does Uncle Al always have to preach life lessons around the dinner table? Can’t we just eat for once?”

The Family Fang

The Family Fang

Kevin Wilson’s take on the art of surviving a masterpiece of dysfunction.

Meet The Family Fang, an unforgettable collection of demanding, brilliant, and absolutely endearing oddballs whose lives are risky and mischievous performance art.

 

 

See the others

 

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Excerpt from Mike Reeves-McMillan’s thoughtful review of Random, the first book in The Were Chronicles

“Depth and resonance and significance”

“There’s a group of YA authors – I’m thinking of Robin McKinley, Juliet Marillier, Justine Larbelestier, and a few others – who write the kind of books that snooty adults who look down on YA in Internet articles have clearly never read…

“This kind of YA has depth and resonance and significance. It shines a light on the path for young people (young women, in particular) who are looking for courage and a place in the world…

Random, The Were Chronicles“…this book is itself an example of what I mean. The experience of being an immigrant, the experience of being different, the experience of being treated unfairly by self-righteous authority and being powerless to do anything about it, are all here, beautifully depicted, unflinchingly described, shown with all their terrible consequences.

“…The book closes with a stunning revelation that left me unable to say anything but “Wow. Wow.”

 

 

Read the whole review
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Free copies of Random

I am extending my offer of free copies (the ebook version) of Random to an additional 10 people who pledge to leave a review — on Amazon, Goodreads, their own blog, what have you.

Send an email HERE with the subject line “Free Random Offer”

Include:
(1) a valid email address to send the ebook to
(2) a single sentence in the body of the email acknowledging that a review will follow.

Random isn’t just a story about shape-shifters, it’s a story about humanity. It’s about what it means to be a member of a family, a culture, a race.” ~ Angela’s Library review

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All too often, boys shy away from novels which have strong girls as protagonists or major characters; all too often, men refuse to read women authors for fear of … what…? Frankly I don’t know, but I’ve seen it.

Jennifer Schaffer of BuzzFeed offers some suggestions for the next time someone tells you they only like books by dudes.

If You Like This Book By A Man, You’ll Love This Book By A Woman

For example:
The LoverVladimir Nabokov, Lolita → Marguerite Duras, The Lover

If you were enthralled by Humbert Humbert’s twisted tale in Lolita, try Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. Both novels feature a love story between an older man and a young girl, but Duras tells us the tale from the eyes of the girl — all grown up.

Quotable line: “Suddenly, all at once, she knows, knows that he doesn’t understand her, that he never will, that he lacks the power to understand such perverseness. And that he can never move fast enough to catch her.”

See the others

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Hate peopleIra Madison III of BuzzFeed offers some advice and tells you whom you should give them to after you read them.

e.g.
The Talented Mr. RipleyThe Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith

“The fact that I killed this man. It’s not going to change my life.”

Tom Ripley grew up as an orphan and, bitter with his lack of a place in high society, kills a rich guy and steals his life. But the murders don’t stop there, because two can only keep a secret if one of them is dead.

For: People who hate rich white boys in boat shoes.

 

See the others

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Top 10 imaginary friends in fiction

All characters in fiction are imaginary friends, AF Harrold writes in The Guardian. “We spend time with them, listen to them, laugh with them, sometimes fall in love with them. No one else knows them like we do. It can be embarrassing to talk to them when other people are in the room. But they’re not what this list is about.This list is about imaginary friends characters in books have had, so the imaginary friends of my imaginary friends, you might say.”

And the best example is, of course:
Hobbes and Calvin(sodahead.com)

Hobbes, from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes

To me, the most important imaginary friend, the most moving, the most delightful, the most grrr-ry, the most graceful, the wisest, most forebearing, most put upon, the funniest and handsomest (certainly the best drawn) is Hobbes. He’s a tiger and he’s perfect.

See the others

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THIS ‘n THAT

Says it all
Schools without libraries are a disgrace” ~ Russell Brand:

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Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the winner of a Canadian literary prize, has donated the $25,000 award to a grassroots coalition against the Tar Sands pipeline, sparking a wave of contributions.

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Quote of the Day

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” – George Orwell

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Alma Alexander     My books     Email me

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But what is it?

I am primarily a fantasy writer. That is how I view myself and my novels. But literary critics often have trouble labeling me, putting my books into neat little boxes.

Midnight at Spanish GardensPerhaps that shows most vividly in one of my recent novels, ‘Midnight at Spanish Gardens,’ a book that explores how our lives are changed by the paths we take, the choices we make.

Reviews were good, e.g. “the language is poetic and beautiful…characters are utterly compelling … on one occasion, I stood in a doorway,  flipping page after page, unable to take the steps that would lead to the end of my reading.” (Alana Abbott)

But Spanish Gardens uses a bit of fantasy to explore those choices, and booksellers and some reviewers don’t know how to classify it, what box to put it in.

I explored this problem a few years ago in an article that I wrote for The Interstitial Arts Foundation.

Interstitial art is made in the interstices between genres and categories, the foundation’s website explains. It crosses borders, is not constrained by category labels. “Just as how in nature the greatest areas of biodiversity occur in the margins of land between ecosystems, it is our belief that some of the most vital, innovative, and challenging art being created today can be found in the margins between categories, genres, and disciplines.”

Here is my 2009 article, a blast from the past as it were:

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It was a long time ago. A century ago. A millennium ago.

Well, all right, it was in 1999.

A man I met on a Usenet newsgroup concerned with writing – who became a friend, and subsequently my husband – and I collaborated on what must have one of the first few novels which could be described as “email epistolary”.

We each took on a character’s mantle, and we exchanged emails as these characters, within a given historical and political context – in this instance, the 78-day bombardment of Serbia by the United States and its often reluctant allies, in what became known as the Kosovo crisis.

Letters from the FireThe novel, ‘Letters from the Fire’, was written very fast, in pain and with passion, and got picked up for publication by Harper Collins in New Zealand, where I was living at the time. From conception to being on bookstore shelves, the book took just under six months – which has to be some sort of record in the publishing industry at the time.

The topic was hot, to be sure, and the themes were those of contemporary history – but it was a fictional account of those real events, a novel, and it was with a considerable amount of astonishment that I came upon a callow young assistant in one of the premier flagship bookstore on the main drag in Auckland, shelving the books… in the non-fiction section.

That’s a novel,” I told him. “It belongs in fiction.”

He looked at me with a gormless expression, and said, “Are you sure?”

Reasonably,” I said. “I wrote it.”

That’s bookend one. For bookend two, fast forward to 2004, with the release of my novel, ‘The Secrets of Jin-Shei.’ [Now published in 13 languages)

The Secrets of Jin-sheiThis was something which, as I wrote it, I conceived as alternate-history, or historical fantasy. The publishers had other ideas, and marketed it as mainstream, with most bookstores shelving it in the general fiction section.

Which had two complementary repercussions.

The first was that fantasy readers who might have loved this book simply never got to hear about it, because it wasn’t shelved in the section where they went to seek reading material.

The second was that mainstream readers, on the other hand, were uniformly thrown by what is essentially a very minor serving of magic in the book.

There appeared to be little I could do, despite repeated attempts, to convince people that the book was NOT in fact about China, about any China that actually existed, that there were certain aspects of the Imperial China which I used in the novel but that the land in which my own story took place was called Syai and did not, in fact, exist outside my own imagination. (And I STILL get questions like, “But what particular period of Imperial China were you writing about?”)

Part of the problem with the latter bookend is simply the fantasy cooties thing, something that apparently requires a warding off of the first order should its evil eye fall on your work – but as I keep telling everyone, ALL FICTION IS FANTASY. By definition.

And if the currently accepted definition of fantasy spills over into the mainstream shelves, or the mainstream books suddenly start having a dash of the fantastic – this should not be something that alienates readers from a book, bur rather it should be seen as an expanding of one’s horizons, an interstitial quest, a hunting for treasure in places you never thought to look in before.

Remember those optimistic, hardy, pretty urban weeds that spring with hope eternal from cracks in the pavement and put forth extravagant blooms as they dodge passing feet for a chance at a summer in the sun? That’s what we all are. Something beautiful in unexpected places, where you might least expect to see it. In the interstitial corners.

And perhaps it isn’t surprising that someone like Leonard Cohen put it best when he sang about there being a crack in everything. That, he said, was how the light gets in.

Read more about The Interstitial Arts Foundation HERE

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Quote of the day

ALL fiction is fantasy.” ~ Alma Alexander

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Alma Alexander       My books       Email me

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Why fiction?

The Forgotten Perks of Reading Fiction
reading perksThe Digital Age has heightened the habit of skimming everything we read, Soli Salgado writes at Utne. But, he suggests, we lose something invaluable when we do.

Books, especially fiction, “introduce you to places, characters and events that would take years, maybe lifetimes, to experience in reality. Within a few books, you’ve become a citizen of the world, exposed to countless alternative realities.”

He cites a study that showed that the brains of readers reacted the same way to events in a novel as if it were truly occurring in their own lives. “You’re not just digesting text, but actually living the story.”

And besides, “reading a captivating book for as little as six minutes can reduce stress by 60 percent.”

Read the article

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What is it about bookshops

UK historical crime novelist Sara Sheridan shares her favorite things about bookshop:

I was introduced to the library when I was six or seven and that was a shock. I  thought my love of reading was unusual…and I blithely assumed that there were, I don’t know, perhaps a hundred books in the world…Walking into the library I felt quite overwhelmed at first. I’d read every book we had at home – but this was going to  take longer.

…my top ten favourite things in bookshops:

1 a comfortable chair to curl up in
2 somewhere to wander – shelves that go round corners or up stairs
3 …..

Read the article

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Modern Beauty in the Natural World
Keeping-the-WildIn response to those who claim that wild nature is no more, and that human-caused extinction is nothing to be concerned about, Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of the Earth (Island Press, 2014), edited by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist and Tom Butler, presents essays from scientists, writers and activists who have a powerful point to deliver about the importance of nature.

Read the article

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No coffee?!? I’ll never write again!

Eight foods you’re about to lose due to climate change

Coffee2

As worsening drought and extreme weather devastate crops, you may begin seeing global warming when you open your fridge.

 

Missing could be…

 

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10 Words Every Book-Lover Should Know

The word for a book-lover is a ‘bibliophile’, first used in 1824. Alternatively, there is the more ancient word, ‘bookworm’ , which dates back to 1580.

But what words should every good bibliophile and bookworm know? ‘Interest Literature’ offers some of their favorites.

Including: BIBLIOBIBULI, H. L. Mencken’s word for people who read too much. (Is there such a thing as reading too much?!)

Read the article

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THIS ‘n THATearth 'n moonThe Earth And The Moon, In A Single Frame

Read the article

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Self-Penned Obituary:Walter George Bruhl Jr. …is a dead person; he is no more; he is bereft of life; he is deceased; he has rung down the curtain and gone to join the choir invisible; he has expired and gone to meet his maker…His spirit was released from his worn-out shell of a body and is now exploring the universe...”

Read the rest

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Quote of the Day
QUOTE F. Scott Fitzgerald~~~~~
Alma Alexander
My books

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Science in fiction?

It might have been thought that my entire advanced formal education, my university career, had been wasted because I hold an MSc in Molecular Biology but worked in an actual research lab for only a handful of years before segueing sideways into scientific writing/editing and then into fiction. Well, it took a while but it’s finally happened – my life has caught up with itself.
At long last that science that’s been buried in my past has risen to the surface and is now playing a vital part in my latest series of novels.I undertake the ambitious task (with in-built poetic license…) to posit a genetic and physiological background for Were creatures, folk who exist both in human and animal forms. How they live, what makes them undergo the change, what the effects are on them. All that.
It’s been… quite a trip, so far.
But it seems that real science in fictional worlds is becoming quite a thing – because other writers are doing it, too.
Take Laline Paull who explains in io9 just how scientific facts sent her novel The Bees into an unexpected direction.
Read the article
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Last chance to win a signed copy of Random, the first book in The Were Chronicles.
Enter giveaway here
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Wildlife numbers plunge by 50% since 1970
Habitat destruction and hunting causing huge decline in wildlife population on land, in rivers and in the oceans, a new ‘Living Planet’ analysis from WWF and the Zoological Society of London reveals.
Common dolphin (Dephinus delphis)The short-beaked common dolphin in Ionian Sea, Greece. This dolphin has been in decline in the Mediterranean Sea since the 1960s. Between 1996 and 2007 numbers declined in the Ionian sea from 150 to 15 individuals. Overfishing in the area is thought to have reduced the amount of available prey. Photo: Chris & Monique Fallows /NPL/WWF
ElephantsRapid deforestation in west and central Africa by loggers has left forest elephants with just 6% of their historic range, with 60% population decline from 2002-11, primarily due to rampant poaching for ivory. Photo: Carlos Drews/WWF-Canon
 
Read the article
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Appreciating what’s still here.
Finalists Of The 2014 Wildlife Photographer Of The Year Competition of London’s Natural History Museum and BBC has just recently announced its 50 finalists, chosen from over 41,000 entries. Here are some of the most breathtaking images taken over the last year.
‘Facebook Update’ by Marsel van Oosten
Checking Facebook‘Heavy Rain‘ by Pierluigi Rizzato
'Heavy Rain'See all the finalists
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Writing life stages
As Wolf Lahti pointed out, Moliere said that there are three stages of writing: “Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for the love of it, then you do it for a few friends, and finally, you do it for the money.
My list is a bit different. At Storytellers Unplugged, I offer: The Five Stages of the Writing Life — and those stages are much like the stages of grief.
e.g. #3. Bargaining….and that’s when you start to bargain with the Universe. “If I write THIS kind of thing instead of THAT one, will you let me through?”… “If I write faster/slower/longer/shorter will you let me through?”… “If I do THIS instead of THAT maybe my life will change and it’s my name that everyone will know, it’s my stories that will get referenced in all the articles on the Internet rather than J K Rowling, or Neil Gaiman or Haruki Murakami or…?”
Read the article
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Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Series, In One Handy Chart
Terry PratchettFiguring out just where to start Terry Pratchett’s sprawling, character-dense Discworld series can be a little daunting, Ria Misra writes at io9. So she offers a chart that lets you figure out just how to follow your favorite storylines and characters as they move from book to book.
Read the article~~~~~
THIS ‘n THAT
Emily Dickinson tightsPrinted Tights feature the poem Hope by Emily Dickinson.

Read the article

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This month’s podcast’s focus is on YA fantasy. We talk about how it’s defined, explore good examples, explore a wide range of issues around YA fantasy. Our guests include Alma Alexander, and Randee Dawn.”

Listen to the podcast

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Brazilian Bookstore designed for readers
Bookstore for readersA store for readers where one can take a book and read a chapter even before purchasing it, where one can simply rest and people watch, a place filled with  inviting and pleasant spaces that end up promoting a type of socialization among people, these are the bookstores of the XXI century. © Fernando Guerra I FG+SG

Read the article

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Quote of the Day

“Ideas are simply starting points…What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.” ~ Picasso

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Alma Alexander
My books

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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)