How to build a world

alternative worlds illastration

In the beginning, the author created…

When I first began writing historical fantasy, I was inspired by times and places rooted in our own familiar world – but leavened with a dash of the unreal. A world that might have been.

I wrote about locations which might have been identifiable, with greater or lesser ease, as something that had existed in our own history and geography, as we know them – except that I gave such places different names of my own devising, and if I used things that were supposed to have happened in the “true” history of our world I sometimes fudged the precise timing, or the order of events, so that I could create a more consistent story rooted in my own world.

I wrote the book that became “The Secrets of Jin-shei” at white heat, 200,000 words in less than three months. It was set in a China that never was, a mythical land inspired by Imperial China which I named “Syai”.

I’ve been explaining ever since that no, I did NOT set out to write a historical novel, that Syai was a place INSPIRED by China, not China itself.

After I had written “the end” at the conclusion of Jin-shei, the history of Syai and the mythical world in which it existed didn’t stop there. It continued, and it blossomed naturally into the events I wrote about in “Embers of Heaven”, a follow-up and not a sequel to the original Jin-shei book.

It was becoming clear that this was a developing and ongoing story in a developing and ongoing world which had the same kind of timeline as our own did.

While Jin-shei took place in Syai, my world inspired by Imperial China, I moved the the country’s history forward four hundred years for Embers in a time very similar to China’s Cultural Revolution.

A great deal of research was done for both historical periods in our own – our “Real” – world, and my alternate history is built on very solid foundations. In Embers this was particularly important as I was dealing with issues and events which were much more historically recent, and within reach of, if not a living memory for most people, then certainly the memory of a descendant of somebody who had lived through that time. It would have been disrespectful to this kind of recent history and its survivors not to ensure that all necessary research and education had been undertaken, and properly applied to my alternate world that is so very like the China that never was.

This was a real world, to me. It just wasn’t OUR world. It was an alternate universe, with its own rules and laws and history, existing beside and in spite of our own.

Alternate History for a World That Might Have Been

Map where three books were set in Alma's worldMy recent novel “Empress” was set in my alt-historical fantasy of ancient Byzantium, a bit further back in time and in a different part of the same alternate world. Things became looser in terms of what I could do with the material I was working with, in order to make my story flow more smoothly,

I reversed the order in which two documented historical events took place in “real” time and place – but that decision made absolute sense in the context of the world I was creating in my story, a world which was deeply rooted in and inspired by a certain era in the Byzantine empire but which was also a story seen through my own reinvented prism.

I made the studied decision, for example, not to use any known form of a religious faith in this context. That meant working out a complex hierarchy of Heaven and its denizens for the Syai books, with an intricately detailed Great Temple in which these were worshipped (in a manner which was – again – inspired by some real things but which was also organically reinvented for the time and place I was creating.

In “Empress”, I created a system of belief that was similar to, but deliberately not directly using the religions we know as Judaism or Christianity. That meant, once again, reexamining what we think we know as “historical” events or decisions in the light of these newly re-imagined systems of belief.

Just when I became aware that I was literally writing the stories which would build that alternative history into a complete and cohesive whole, setting books in times and places which would somehow fit on the same alternative geo-historical timeline, I’m not entirely sure – but by the time I came to write “Empress”, it was already gelling into that idea. A world explorer in “Empress” talked quite naturally about taking the trade road to a place called Syai. My world was already real enough for that.

More such books are coming. All of them will become integrated into a lush alternative world with its own past, its own current events, its own future. I am literally rewriting the (fantastical) history of our world, novel by novel, building it brick by brick, character by character, word by word.

The Alma Alexander Historical Fantasy Bundle

The first three strands of this net are the three currently published historical fantasies – “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, “Embers of Heaven”, and “Empress” – and I am now offering them a Book Bundle.

The bundle is currently only in ebook format. In the meantime, print copies of each book are available now on Amazon and elsewhere and I will offer them as a bundled package later.

Purchasing a three-eBook bundle of these historical fantasies as a package also subscribes you to a quarterly newsletter, and it puts your name on a list of people who will be notified first when the next historical fantasy volume appears. One is currently in progress, and at least one other planned – dealing with medieval Balkans, and the shifting empires and loyalties which roiled in that era, with protagonists which are crying out to have their stories told.

Buy eBook Bundle 1 for $10 via PayPal HERE

Badass Women

History, historical fiction, historical fantasy   When worlds collideAt Bustle, Hannah Jewell offers us

14 Badass Historical Women To Name Your Daughters After

Take Nancy Wake, for example:

Nancy Wake photocommons.wikimedia.org(1945).jpg / Creative Commons

Wake was a spy, a journalist, and a hero of the French Resistance during World War II. Would you like your baby to be exceedingly glamorous? Then name her Nancy.

Born in New Zealand, Nancy ended up settling in Paris, where she worked as a journalist and passed her time in the enjoyment of “a good drink” and handsome French men. When WW2 broke out, she joined the Resistance and saved the lives of hundreds of Allied soldiers and downed airmen by escorting them through occupied France to safety in Spain”, and later joined the British Special Operations Executive as a spy.

One time, Nancy got her parachute stuck in a tree. A nearby Frenchman said he wished all trees could bear such “beautiful fruit”, to which Nancy responded, “Don’t give me that French shit.”

Just think, these could be your baby girl’s first words, Hannah Jewell suggests.

Read about all these amazing women HERE

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When worlds collide – History, historical fiction and historical fantasy

A couple of years ago, I blogged about ‘The Secrets of Jin-shei,’ a novel I wrote as a historical fantasy. Its roots lie in Imperial China and the secret language of women that then existed, but it is NOT China – I called my world Syai — and it is NOT a straight historical novel. It was never intended to be.

But HarperCollins put on a cover for the American edition which was far more mainstream than fantasy. Despite the earnest protestations in the Author Note in the novel, there were  bookstores that placed the book in the history section – and, inevitably, those readers and reviewers who expected real history were in for a disappointment. A few readers and reviewers have faulted my ‘historical research’, even demanding to know precisely WHICH Chinese Imperial dynasty my book is supposed to reference, as  though the world of my imagination is really the historical China of our world.

It isn’t. It never was. China was an inspiration for the fictional fantastical land of Syai, not its direct historical antecedent.

That all came to mind because of an essay by Disha Jani in The Toast

Who Tells Your Story? Historical Fiction as Resistance

Jani is talking about real historical fiction, set in a real world, not my China-that-never-was. But I found her article fascinating because I too have loved historical fiction.

“What drew me to reading about the past in the first place” Jani writes, “…is fiction in the literal sense. Specifically, children’s historical fiction presented as the diaries of girls my age, living through various periods in Canadian and world history.

“The librarian at my elementary school pointed me towards the one about Marie Antoinette one day, and I was instantly consumed. The Dear Canada and Royal Diaries books meant that I could hunker down with a friend who was escaping to a New York tenement from Russian pogroms, or being shipped to Quebec as a fille du roi, or studying with the imperial Chinese because her tribe needed to establish diplomatic relations.

“Today, I continue to love anything about a badass genius woman in an old-timey world.”

Hmmm. Maybe she should read my “Empress” when it comes out. Except that once again… the ‘historical’ in that book is very much tempered with the ‘fantasy’.

Fair warning. I love history and the depths of its roots but I prefer not to be constrained by the exact “and this is what happened” boxes when I am writing a story – which is why the historical fantasy field is something I am so delighted with. I’ll meet you all in the not-quite-REAL lands of my imagination…

Read the whole Disha Jani article HERE

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A ‘Happy Gent’ At 100

Herman Wouk has written an autobiography entitled ‘Sailor and Fiddler, The Reflections of a 100-year-old Author’. The sailor represents his life as a writer, the fiddler his spiritual side.

Herman WoukStephanie Diani/Simon & Schuster

Wouk quickly became a best selling author with such novels as Marjorie Morningstar and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Caine Mutiny, which was made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart as the unforgettable Captain Queeg.

Growing up in the Bronx, Wouk wanted to be a writer, but Judaism was always important to him as well. He loved Mark Twain and Alexandre Dumas, and he also fondly remembers listening to his father read the stories of Sholem Aleichem on Friday nights.

Read the whole story HERE

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THIS & THAT    

At Bustle, Sadie L. Trombetta selected

10 Jane Austen Tattoos For The Classic Lit Lover In You

including this one from ‘Pride and Prejudice’
Austen TatSee the other nine HERE

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A bookseller recently emailed me that she had sold out of my books at Rustycon, adding that she had hand delivered a copy of ‘Random’ to a customer in Keizer, Oregon on the way home.

The customer was the member of a book club which was about to discuss the novel and she wanted to get it in time to read it before the meeting.

“Since she’s apparently a night owl,” A. Carpenter (AmyCat.BookUniverse) wrote, “she was fine with me delivering it on my way home. Thus, I ended up delivering a copy of your book in Keizer at 2 am!”

Over and beyond the call of duty.

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Write what you know means ‘before you write about something, know it.’ As a living human being, you must constantly learn new things anyway, or you are obsolete and will be replaced with a newer model. Make one of the new things you learn what you want to write about.” ~ Jerry Kindall

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At Buzzfeed, Alex Alvarez has discovered

31 Funny Tweets That Are Way, Way Too Real For Writers

e.g.
When fantasy writing is contagious:
Writers TweetsSee all the tweets HERE

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Quote of the Day

The difference between an optimist and a pessimist? An optimist laughs to forget, but a pessimist forgets to laugh.” ~ Tom Boddet

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Alma Alexander       My books       Email me
 
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Stories are alive

What is it that makes certain stories last?

That’s a question that Neil Gaiman explores in a lecture two and a half years in the making, part of the Long Now Foundation’s nourishing and necessary seminars on long-term thinking, an article in Brain Pickings tells us.
Neil GaimanGaiman suggests that stories are a life-form obeying the same rules of genesis, reproduction, and propagation that organic matter does. “Stories are alive – they can, and do, outlive even the world’s oldest living trees by millennia,” he says.

Read the article and listen to Gaiman HERE

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My first major success was ‘The Secrets of Jin-Shei‘, a novel of sisterhood set in a mythological land called Syai that resembles an Imperial China that never was. It is out in 13 languages so far.

The Secrets of Jin-sheiThe first Harper Collins hardcover edition of Jin-shei had a gorgeous cover. While the paperback is still available, the hardcover edition is out of print now and I have seen it being sold as a collector’s item. I have a few copies of my own stashed away that I am hoarding.

Published more than a decade ago, it is a story that fits Gaiman’s definition. It is a living thing. I still hear from or about women and girls who have pledged Jin-shei to each other like the characters in my story. Some time back, a teenager in Brazil posted a video about it on her blog. I don’t speak Portuguese, but she did seem to be enthusiastic about it.

At off the Shelf, Hilary Krutt takes a look at several other similar books:

 

11 Novels that Explore the Beautiful and Complex Bonds of Sisterhood

“The concept of sisterhood has always possessed an almost mystical allure for me,” Krutt says. “Growing up with no sisters of my own, my brother served as a proxy, begrudgingly allowing me to dress him up in old tutus and playing along with my extensive collection of Barbie dolls. He eventually grew out of it, but I always cherished the time when he allowed me to project my girlish whims on him. Whether you’re from a clan of sisters or sisterless like me, here are eleven books about the joys and challenges of sisterhood.”

e.g.

The Weird Sisters

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown:

Bianca, Cordelia, and Rosalind are the book-loving and wonderfully quirky spawn of Shakespeare scholar Dr. James Andreas. When the three sisters return to their childhood home to lick their wounds and bury their secrets, they are horrified to find the others there.

But the Andreas sisters soon discover that everything they’ve been running from might offer more than they ever expected.

 

Read the whole story HERE

 

 

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Another story that interested me because of the personal connection to one of my own books is a Flavorwire story on Internet novels. :

I didn’t write an Internet novel in the sense of the article below, but the man-who-was-to- become-my-husband and I wrote an epistolary novel together about NATO’s war on Yugoslavia in the form of an exchange of emails over the Internet between a pro-war American man, and a Serb woman living under the bombs. After the original bitter exchanges, the couple, despite themselves, fell in love.

Published by New Zealand HarperCollins, it was called ‘Letters from the Fire‘ and sold extremely well in New Zealand where I was living at the time. Now self published on the Internet… Well… No comment.

The books mentioned by Flavowire have made a lot more of a stir.

The Evolution of the Internet Novel, 1984 to Present: A Timeline

neuromancer

 

The article begins with, not surprisingly, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, published in 1984.

It may be argued that earlier novels, genre or otherwise, anticipated the Internet before William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), but can any of them lay claim to the invention of the word “cyberspace,” or the cyberpunk genre, or the credible hacking novel?’

 

 

Read the whole story HERE

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ParbunkellsThe Word the Internet Didn’t Know

Ever heard of the word in the photo above? Maddie Stone asks at Gizmodo. Probably not, because, until this month, that word didn’t exist on the Internet.

That’s right: A 17th century English word that means “coming together through the binding of two ropes,” according to a 1627 publication housed at the New York Public Library’s Rare Book Division, was, until this month, dead to the digital world—and to almost every living person.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the internet knows everything, but it doesn’t.

Read the whole story HERE

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THIS ‘n THAT

New favorite review of ‘Wolf‘, second book in my The Were Chronicles. At Goodreads, a reader called Melani exclaims with glee,

They saved the day with SCIENCE!”

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The man who saved 2,000,000 babies

…and 14 other saviors of mankind

Read the whole Kindness Blog story HERE

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Scientists discover what’s killing the bees and it’s worse than you thought

Read the whole story of the bee apocalypse HERE

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Quote of the day

Stories should change you – good stories should change you.” ~ Neil Gaiman

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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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The art of time travel

I time travel quite a bit.

No, seriously, I do. It’s cheap and you can do it whenever you want, really. So long as you have photographs….

My father, the great photographer and organizer, died last year. While he was still with us I did a time capsule for him…here he was seventeen. Here he was in his twenties, and then in his late twenties and a soldier in uniform … one when he met my mother and then in his early thirties holding toddler me in his arms, and then in his forties still young and full of gung-ho optimism about the world flying out into adventure under the flag of the United Nations into Africa with wife and daughter in tow – and him in his fifties, and then his sixties, and then the later ones, in his seventies, thin and spare and white-haired…

…This is a time machine for the soul. And it looks back, only back

Read the article

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Five hundred new fairytales
King Golden HairSpinning a yarn … King Golden Hair – Illustration: Barbara Stefan

A whole new world of magic animals, brave young princes and evil witches has come to light with the discovery of 500 new fairytales, which were locked away in an archive in Regensburg, Germany for over 150 years, Victoria Sussens-Messerer reports in The Guardian.

The tales are part of a collection of myths, legends and fairytales, gathered by the local historian Franz Xaver von Schönwerth (1810–1886) in the Bavarian region of Oberpfalz at about the same time as the Grimm brothers were collecting the fairytales that have since charmed adults and children around the world.

Read the Article

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Curch BookstoreImages courtesy of Joop van Putten and Hans Westerink

Medieval cathedral converted into a book shop

Completed in 2013, the 15th-century cathedral has been converted into a modern book store and can be found in Zwolle, The Netherlands. It spans over three floors and includes a shop in the former church building.

The architect radically changed the interior design of the 547-year-old Gothic building, but had to ensure they left the original features, such as the pipe organ, stained glass windows and decor intact.
Church BookstoreRead the Article

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The Secrets of Jin-shei, my novel about a world based on an Imperial China that never was, has been out in 13 languages for a few years now, but is still getting new reviews.

Just yesterday, a woman in Colombia posted a review on Amazon saying: “The book is beautiful, touching, sad, sweet and magical.”

I love it when a reader discovers a book of mine like this… and makes it young again.

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28 Brilliant Works Of Literary Graffiti

Daniel Dalton of BuzzFeed collects examples of graffiti from Animal Farm to Slaughterhouse-Five.
Alice In WonderlandAlice’s Adventures In Wonderland – Lewis Carroll. London, UK.

Samuel BeckettSamuel Beckett – Camden, London.

Read the Article

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Secrets of the Creative Brain

A leading neuroscientist who has spent decades studying creativity, shares her research on where genius comes from, whether it is dependent on high IQ—and why it is so often accompanied by mental illness.

Nancy AndreasNancy Andreasen

Doing good science is simply the most pleasurable thing anyone can do, one scientist told me,” Nancy Andreasen says in an article in the Atlantic. “It is like having good sex. It excites you all over and makes you feel as if you are all-powerful and complete.”

Among those who ended up losing their battles with mental illness through suicide are Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, John Berryman, Hart Crane, Mark Rothko, Diane Arbus, Anne Sexton, and Arshile Gorky.

Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them creative geniuses. Some people see things others cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill.

Read the Article

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Quote of the Day
Parker quote~~~~~
Alma Alexander
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