Monday, July 30, 2012

Writing the Other with Fear and Trembling, Try and Caring

Please welcome our second July guest, Ken Scholes! A prolific author of both short fiction and novels, Ken is currently hard at work writing Requiem, the fourth book in his fantastic Psalms of Isaak series. For a full biography, visit or check him out on facebook.

I was very flattered when Kim asked me to write a guest post here but if I’m completely honest, I was more than a little nervous…and I still am.  Because in talking about possible topics, one that she suggested – the one I’ve ultimately chosen to tackle – centered around how I write such great, strong female characters.

The truth is, I’m not convinced that I do.  I’ve had some feedback that says I am getting a lot of it right but I’ve also had feedback that suggests I’m getting it wrong.  And I suspect that as with many things in life-- maybe even most things--  it’s not an “either/or” equation, but a “both/and.”  I’m getting it both wrong and right at the same time.

Add to that truth that this is a topic that quickly reduces down to online “fail” wars that I’ve seen brutalize well-intentioned friends who are trying to navigate this important aspect of writing.  As writers we’re frequently told to “write what we know” and this is largely sound advice…except that we really can’t just stay in that end of the pool if we want to write engaging fiction.  I surely tried to.

So today’s post is going to be light on advice when it comes to the nuts and bolts…and heavier on issues of intent and awareness in my own personal journey into the territory of this topic.

But first, a bit about me because I think our own context is important when it comes to writing characters – and their own contexts -- that are different from us.  I am a forty-four year old American male.  My heritage is Scotch, Irish, English and Dutch.  I am tall and plus-sized.  I largely grew up in a rural environment – a small logging town at the foot of Mount Rainier.  I think there were maybe four people of color, total, in my entire middle and high school experience.  I was unaware of anyone in my school who was gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer.  The only religious practices largely observed in my community were varieties of Christianity with a lot of Mormon, Catholic and Evangelical representation (a lot by Pacific Northwest standards).  I was only aware of one agnostic in my youth.  I grew up poor in a family riddled with abuse and neglect between a Borderline mother and an alcoholic stepfather.  There is so much more that I could include here, but the point I’m trying to make is that with a context like that the cards were largely stacked against me becoming who I am today.  And within that context, there was inherent privilege by nature of where I was born and the people who I was born to, biases instilled into me, lenses colored by upbringing, culture and experience that I wouldn’t even begin to plumb the depths of until later in my life.

It took a long time for me to recognize just how much things like privilege and bias impacted me.  And even longer when it came to understanding that as a writer, I had the opportunity not just to entertain but also to gently influence my culture in the direction of evolving.  Until I reached that place, I played it as safe as I could.  In all of the short stories I wrote between 1997 and 2006, I attempted to write one African American protagonist and three female protagonists.  I say attempted because I honestly think that for me, given my background, I can’t afford to believe I’m getting it right.  Instead, I wrote mostly white male characters working through their redemption from apocalypse, fundamentalism, catastrophe and small-mindedness.  I wrote what I knew.

And then the dare showed up.  Jay Lake and my wife Jen dared me to write my first novel – an expansion of two short stories I’d set in what I was calling my Androfrancine Cycle.  And so I set out to do so.  And halfway into the book, my wife gently pointed out to me that the only female character with any kind of intent or agency was Jin Li Tam.  I had slipped into writing what I knew again – reproducing the same issues that existed in much of the fiction I cut my teeth on as a kid.  So with her loving encouragement – not her criticism -- I added a few more female characters to the book.  Thirteen months after the dare, Lamentation was picked up by Tor – along with the four unwritten volumes in the Psalms of Isaak, and by then, I was halfway into drafting Canticle and adding more diversity here and there with a great deal of fear and trembling.  Then, in Antiphon, I realized instinctively that one of my favorite supporting characters from Canticle was gay and in a relationship with another supporting character.  It spontaneously flowed out of me in a scene where, after being separated for a long while and in great danger, they rush into each other’s arms to kiss.  Those characters will continue to grow as I finish the series (just like the author will continue to grow).  And I intend to flesh that out further in other stories coming down the road with these two, including telling the story of how they met and fell in love in the Churning Waste.  Who knows what I’ll tackle in my next projects….

I know this is a lot of context.  But I think when it comes to writing the other, we have to understand our own context…and be honest about it and the limitations it can present.  My context reminds me to pay attention.  I was raised with some pretty backward and terrible beliefs about a lot of others in our world.  I can’t afford to not keep that in mind as I try to write the other.  It is also good, at least for me, to keep in mind that this is a journey as I learn to turn over the rocks within myself to put light on the creepy, crawly things I find hidden there.  Ideally, it’s an upward spiral as my mind opens up to see as far beyond my prejudices and privileges as they can see.

For me, it is also important to use as much empathy as possible in considering the other that I write.  To really try considering life in their shoes.  It’s hard to achieve anything close to empathy without actually investing myself into the other I want to write.  So I think a lot and I ask a lot of questions.  I actively work at meeting and befriending a wide, diverse group of friends and acquaintances.  Writing the other is a lot more likely to come off poorly if the writer doesn’t actually know any others.   

When it comes to feedback, I try not to assume and I try to stay open-minded when someone points out to me the places where I am or am not getting it right.  I look (and listen) for good examples and I pay attention to the bad examples, too. 

At the end of the day, I hope it is the fear and trembling, try and caring that will redeem my effort.  Because I think all of these ingredients are what will keep me honest.  I hope they will.  A certain amount of fear and trembling – feeling the weight of why it is so important to aim higher.  And a lot of caring enough to try – really try – to get it as close to real as possible so that my readers are invited to meet others familiar and unfamiliar to their own journeys.

I’ve said for a long time that fiction provides us a sandbox in which we can play with ideas that folks might not be comfortable exploring any other way.  And though the first and foremost goal Is to tell stories that sweep our readers up and carry them away, we are also influencing our culture, easing it in a forward direction and putting light on our backwardness as a species in the way that we portray the people in our fiction and in the way that we portray their struggles. 

We have to try.  We have to care.  And at least in my case, I have to write my others with a bit fear and trembling with my fingers crossed that I’ll get it more right than wrong as I do so.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Writing a Four-Legged Heroine

Photo by
It is our pleasure this week to welcome Dorothy Hearst, author of Promise of the Wolves and Secrets of the Wolves. 

I met Dorothy for the first time last fall, at the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego, where I had the good fortune of receiving a copy of Secrets of the Wolves in my bag of free books.  This is a wonderful and engaging tale where the protagonist is not only a female, she is a wolf.  The story is set in the period of prehistory where the ancestors of present-day dogs began their journey toward domestication, and is told entirely from the wolf's point of view, with extraordinarily accurate attention given to wolf behavior and social structure. 

Before the wolves barged in the door, demanding that their story be told, Dorothy was a senior editor at Jossey-Bass, where she published books for nonprofit, public and social change leaders.  The third book in her wolf trilogy is currently under construction.  (And I can't wait to read it!)

I always knew that when I started writing, I would write strong female protagonists.  Like many girls growing up in the seventies and early eighties, I hungered for female characters who were not sidekicks, damsels in distress or love interests, and I cherished the amazing female protagonists available to me. I swore that if I ever wrote novels, I would write wonderful women and girls.

When it turned out that my first novels insisted on being about wolves, that didn’t change. Promise of the Wolves and Secrets of the Wolves are about the domestication of the wolf from the wolf’s point of view.  Since so much of the repression of women and girls seems to me to be about the taming of that which is feared,  I was excited to explore the concept of taming from the perspective of a female wolf—a symbol of the wilderness we both hunger for and fear.

Kaala is a young shewolf living 14,000 years ago in the Wide Valley, where wolves are forbidden to have any contact with humans.  When she saves the life of a human child she becomes an inadvertent rebel and begins her journey to become a leader of wolfkind.  Kaala’s voice was sure and unapologetically strong right from the beginning.  She had no intention of being anyone’s sidekick, and so right from the start I had my strong female protagonist. Her male companions—one wolf and one raven—made her more powerful to me rather than less.

I did not, however, want a superhero, a character with unusual strength or special skills that would make her less vulnerable than others. I wanted a different kind female power, that of a leader in the making. Kaala is an ordinary wolf thrust into extraordinary situations.

I also wanted Kaala to have to work for her power not because she was female, but because earning power and influence is part of the leader’s journey. This is where writing form a wolf’s point of view was a huge advantage; I wasn’t limited by human assumptions of femaleness and power.

Kaala’s wolfliness allowed me to write a heroine who didn’t have to challenge feminine norms in her world because wolves do not have human ideas of male and female power.  I could write a heroine who didn’t have to overcome her femaleness in order to have authority, because she and those around her assumed that she has just as much right to power as any other wolf.  I didn’t realize this when I first started writing the trilogy because for years people thought that all wolf packs were led by alpha males. Now it’s known that this is not always true. There are female pack leaders and, in fact, pack leadership is fluid with different wolves taking leadership at different tasks. The single alpha male wolf is a human construct based on the assumption that leadership must look male. Kaala does not have to overcome being female.

Kaala’s human counterpart, TaLi, has no such advantage.  She’s the child Kaala rescues from a rushing river, and she is meant to be the next shaman of her village, which for years has accepted a balance between male and female power.  By the time Kaala meets TaLi, however, this is changing. Both female  power and the power of the natural world are being seen as threats.  As the humans try to tame the natural world—including wolves and the shamans who run with them—they also are trying to tame their females.  The contrast between the world of wolf power and the world of human power was one of the things that intrigued me. It’s a centerpiece of the third book of the trilogy, which I’m revising now.

Kaala is my first heroine. She won’t be my last and I’m looking forward to using what I’ve learned from her as I move forward in my writing and my life, and I hope that readers enjoy meeting her and sharing her journey to power and leadership.

Synopsis:  Secrets of the Wolves

The rules of the Wide Valley wolves were clear:  Never consort with humans; never kill a human unprovoked; never allow a mixed-blood wolf to live.

When she was little more than a pup, Kaala, born of mixed blood and allowed to live against the will of many in her pack, found herself irresistably drawn to the the forbidden humans.  She shattered the rules of the valley and exposed the lies hidden beneath.  Now the responsibility for the consqeuences rests with her. In the second installment of The Wolf Chronicles, Kaala -- with the help of her young packmates, the humans they have befriended, and an extremely opinionated raven -- must find a way for the wolves and humans of the Wide Valley to live in harmony.  If they succeed, Kaala will finally prove herself worthy of her pack.  If they fail, every wolf and human in the valley will die.

Then Kaala learns that the implications of her actions extend far beyond the Wide Valley.  Humans, and their relationship to the wildness of the world around them, are changing, and the choices Kaala makes may affect not only her pack, but the survival of all wolf-kind.

Monday, July 16, 2012


Snow White and Rose Red
One of my favorite Grimm’s Fairy Tales growing up was ‘Snow White and Rose Red’.  This tale is not to be confused with the much more popular ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’.  The Snow White of ‘Snow White and Rose Red’ is a different character, with a distinct background, personality and story. 

Snow White and Rose Red are sisters who live with their widowed mother deep in the woods. Together they befriend a bear in winter time and rescue an ungrateful dwarf from a variety of unpleasant fates.  Little do they know the bear is actually a prince under a curse cast by the dwarf.  Each time they rescue the dwarf, they inadvertently take away some of his magic. This eventually results in the bear being able free himself from the curse by killing the dwarf.  The prince takes Rose Red as his bride, and as luck would have it, successfully matches up his brother with Snow White. Both sisters not only live happily ever after, they live happily ever after together.

The Ingalls sisters:  Caroline, Mary and Laura
Sisterhood is a repeated theme in many tales, and it has always appealed to me. Growing up, I was an avid follower of the Ingall's sisters in Laura Ingalls-Wilder’s classic Little House series. 

When as an adult, I read The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, what impressed me most was not so much the retelling of Anne Boleyn’s story (after all, by then I knew how it all began and how it all would end), but the exceptional skill with which Gregory captured the essence of sisterhood:  the love, the admiration, the jealousy and rivalry, the bond of blood and affection capable of withstanding almost anything, even the fatal political and sexual intrigues of the court of King Henry VIII. 

I wasn't very happy with the film interpretation of Gregory's
novel, but Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansen made
for a nice-looking pair of sisters.

More recently in the Hunger Games, the power of sisterhood has resurged with Katniss Everdeen taking the place of her sister Primrose, and becoming a hero – oops!  I mean, a heroine -- before even stepping foot inside the Games. 

I have been blessed with having a sister; so every time I read a story about sisters, I’m reminded of that relationship, and all that my sister has meant to me and given me over the years. Love, encouragement, faith in my ability to achieve my dreams, an example to aspire to, someone to care about, support and depend upon.  Big sisters are especially wonderful because they so often serve the role of pathfinders. They are the ones who forge ahead into life’s unknown territories, and come back to share their wisdom with younger siblings. 

Katniss and Primrose from The Hunger Games have recently
been added to the list of famous sisters

In Eolyn’s world, sisterhood also has a special meaning.  Eolyn herself has no biological sisters, but in the tradition of the Magas, all followers of the very first maga, Aithne, are sisters in magic.  For the Magas, sisterhood transcends boundaries of time, place and bloodlines.  One can even speak of ‘sisters’ who lived centuries ago. The Magas believe that all practitioners who have passed into the Afterlife continue to watch over their sisters in the world of the living.  So while Eolyn is on her own for much of her journey, she is never truly alone with her magic. 

These are some of my thoughts on sisterhood; it’s importance in our stories as well as in our lives.  Now it’s your turn.  What does “sisterhood” mean to you?  Who are your favorite sisters in fiction and history, and why?  How have your sisters, in blood and in spirit, made your life easier, more interesting, more fulfilling? 

Posted by Karin Rita Gastreich

The Munro sisters, Cora and Alice, from the film
The Last of the Mohicans.  Like many sisters that live on in our
imaginations, their fates will not be happy ones.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Role of the Hausfrau

What a maligned role it has been--the hausfrau, the housewife, the keeper of the home always ready with a gentle hand, a warm bowl of something hearty, wisdom. She's quick with a broom and to stitch up a wound. She's most often a supporting character, by her very nature, because it's what she does--she supports. She succors. She cooks and cleans and wipes noses. She is the Eternal Mother, and everyone hates her.

No, I'm not a fan of Freud.

Hate is a strong word; let's call it dramatic emphasis. She's been picked apart so often for being what she is, called a trope and worse. I've read criticisms of David Edding's Polgara, for actually seeming to like her role as caretaker of everyone she comes across, because she, being one of the most powerful people in that particular world, should be more. And though I do understand that this became a trope because it was most often the only role given any woman in a fantasy novel, (and in life!) I can't help feeling she's being overlooked, or worse, looked down upon, as somehow not interesting enough, strong enough, valuable enough for our fiction abundant with warrior women.

This is one of those subjects I, as a woman, a mother, and yes, a housewife, have struggled with through my life. I wiped the noses and cooked the food and kept the house while my husband brought home the paycheck that supported the household. Because he is him, I get to be me, and vice versa. It's traditional, for want of a better word, but it has worked for twenty four years.The key here is that it was a choice, not a societal mandate; and therein lies the difference.

I have spent way too much time defending the role I chose. There's no money, no prestige, very little outside validation of any kind. I've always been offended by the term working mother. I hated being asked, once my kids were all in school full time, if I was going back to work. The implication is there, no matter how innocently said; and this, I think, is part of what led to the hausfrau being one of those characters we just don't write.

But she's making a comeback, in a positive way. Can you guess who I'm going to cite?

Molly Weasley (Harry Potter Series.) She is a magically powerful woman. She can conjure up dinner, but she cooks it herself, for her family, with love. Her house is often a bit cluttered, but it's always clean. She tends her children, her husband and her home with the same ferocity with which she ultimately battles Death Eaters. Molly Weasley is the embodiment of mother, hausfrau, tender of the hearth and home--and she rocks.

Hausfrau is never going to get a starring role. Her very nature makes her a supporting character, not a starring one; but she doesn't have to be a trope either. We need more of her. We need to love her again, because Wendy Darling isn't acquiescing to societies expectations unless we impose that on her; and neither is Molly Weasley. It's just who they are. Without them, Peter and the lost boys, Harry, Ron, Hermione and all the rest would not have lasted long enough to see the end of their stories.

Got a hausfrau for me? Let the list begin!

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Value of Freedom

"Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” –Benjamin Franklin

Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson working on the Declaration (Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1900) 
The anniversary of our nation’s declaration of independence is upon us once more. There will be barbecues, fireworks and celebrations. There will also be quiet moments of prayer and warm thoughts for those soldiers home and abroad, those who’ve touched our lives, and those lost in support of the value we Americans hold most dear: our freedom.

But what does it mean to be free? This is a question considered deeply by the writers of the Declaration of Independence, and one we ponder as a society on almost a daily basis. When does my right to free speech impinge upon the rights of others? Why is freedom to assemble an important right? More often than guns and bombs, the true questions of freedom are decided every day in a thousand small ways and venues, from quiet, civil conversations to demonstrations to court judgments. And in fiction, these themes are explored and discussed, turned over and examined, in our ongoing attempt to understand what the concept of freedom truly means.

This question has become a standard of modern Young Adult fantasy, best exemplified in the skyrocketing popularity of Young Adult fiction. The debate between freedom and security—how much is too much safety? What freedoms are we willing to sacrifice in order to remain secure?—is a running theme in these novels. Suzanne Collins writes in The Hunger Games, “District 12. Where you can starve to death in safety,” a comment that epitomizes this new, ongoing debate. The world in Allie Condie’s Matched trilogy is one of health, safety, and moderation. Regulated food portions are delivered, pre-cooked and pre-portioned for each person, directly to the home at meal time. Exercise is regulated to ensure the optimum health of the citizens. People are matched to their jobs and to their potential mates. And the freedoms of choice and variety have completely been eliminated. Cory Doctorow’s seminal YA novel Little Brother riffs off of Orwell’s 1984 and questions the value of security and the meaning of freedom in a post-911 world. Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy, Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, James Dashner’s Maze Runner… and the list goes on.

When I discuss this trend in my university courses, I don’t ask the students why they think this upswing in depictions of strict government control and the desire for freedom is taking place. This is, after all, an theme as old as civilization itself. I ask my students, “why now?” And more importantly, “why is this an American Young Adult trend?”

One need only look at the news media for a simple answer. The debate over X-ray body scanners in airports. The 99% vs. the 1%. The Patriot Act. The long-standing argument between Democrats and Republicans about too much vs. not enough government control and intervention. There is a push and pull between government control and personal independence in our society that is as old as America itself, yet made more prominent by the tragedies and subsequent responses to 9/11. And at our core, we fear that our young people, those who have the power and responsibility to change our future, are just not paying attention.

Here’s the truth of it: they aren’t. And their parents aren’t, either.

With so much media handwavery—the Real Housewives, Jersey Shore, Cake Boss, Dawg the Bounty Hunter, the move from hard news to “reporters” exchanging sexual banter and wearing low-cut tops, the penultimate desire to just sit and be entertained—the debates about body scanners and elections and personal rights and freedoms seem so… unglamorous. It’s not fun to be informed, to debate, or even to think.

But here’s the thing: these YA dystopian novels, packaged as entertaining stories with strong, interesting characters, are dealing with powerful issues that challenge us all to do just that. They ask us to question whether we truly want to live in a world where we are completely safe, yet we cannot choose our own meals, when to exercise, whom to marry, or even when we die. They ask if we are willing to trade our freedom of speech and assembly for a “safe” world. They hold up a mirror to our decadence and our blindness about the realities of suffering. They ask if we are willing, as Little Brother asks, to allow the government to track everything we do online, where and how we travel, what we buy—all in the name of security. And, as all of these novels ask in the end, where is that line between freedom and security? How much government control is too much? Where does it all end?

On this Independence Day, it’s important not just to celebrate our freedom, but to continue questioning and debating, and above all, to keep fighting with our words, thoughts and ideas that war our forefathers started. As readers, writers, and thinkers, it is our patriotic duty.