Monday, June 25, 2012

On Writing Heroines

I am pleased to welcome our June guest blogger, Sharon Shinn! Sharon has published 22 novels, one collection, and assorted pieces of short fiction since her first book came out in 1995. Among her books are the Twelve Houses series, Archangel and its sequels, and her latest, the contemporary fantasy The Shape of Desire. She has won various awards, including the 2010 Romantic Times Book Reviews Career Achievement Award in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category. Still Life with Shape-Shifter, a sequel to The Shape of Desire, will be published in October 2012.

Someone once described my books as having gripping plots, believable world-building, hot men, and strong women. Not surprisingly, I loved this description! I work at all aspects of my writing, but the bit about writing strong women? That’s instinctive. Maybe because I’ve been surrounded by strong women all my life. Or maybe because I write the kinds of characters I like to encounter in other pieces of fiction.

I do think my approach to writing women has evolved since I first started publishing. In my second book, Archangel, I wanted to create a grand adventure with really big stakes—the fate of my imaginary world. And I wanted the heart of the book to be a love story between two characters who misunderstood each other at every turn. But I didn’t want the romance to be an adjunct; I didn’t want the hero to save the world while the heroine stood on the sidelines wringing her hands or cheering him on. I wanted the story to be impossible to tell unless both Gabriel and Rachel were on stage, playing their ordained parts.

I followed the same pattern with the other books in the Samaria series. The believer Alleluia can’t save her country without the assistance of the scientist Caleb. Jared’s voice and Tamar’s voice must be raised in harmony to stay the thunderbolts; only Susannah’s communion with the god allows Gaaron to chase invaders from Samaria. And so on. I write love stories because I like them, but I make them integral to each novel because otherwise they’re boring—and by “they,” I mean both the books and the love stories.

I took a slightly different tack with the Twelve Houses books, which I started writing about ten years later. These are all basically sword-and-sorcery adventure books, with lots of brawls, battles, and betrayals. At some point, almost everyone ends up in need of rescue—and my characters take turns saving each other. Senneth breaks Tayse free of the convent; he keeps her safe from Halchon. Ellynor heals Justin after he receives mortal wounds; he saves her from certain death. Even one of the novellas I set in this world requires the two main characters to take turns rescuing the other from peril.

I don’t want my women characters to be the same as men, but I want them to be equals. Senneth is nowhere near as good a fighter as Tayse is, but her magic can burn down a city. Ellynor is softer, more feminine than many of my heroines, but she has a deep connection with her goddess and a powerful well of magic that are every bit as valuable as Justin’s prowess with a sword. When my characters aren’t saving each others’ lives, they’re working together as allies.

Kirra Danalustrous was one of my favorite characters to write, because she’s the whole package. She’s a lady of privilege who knows how to exploit her beauty and her position in life, but as a shape-shifter, she’s absolutely in control of her destiny. She refuses to learn how to wield a weapon, but if there’s a fight, she can take any animal shape and destroy her attacker. No one can hold her against her will—not her father, not the men who love her. Everything she does she does by choice, even when her choices are bad. And that’s the fun of writing Kirra. What kind of boundaries do you put on a woman who can’t be constrained? And what kinds of lessons does she learn when no one can force her to learn them?

As I said at the beginning, I work hard to create intriguing worlds and exciting plots. But when I read, I read for character. I think it’s pretty clear that I write for character, too. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

On how reality can be the spice of fantasy

Inspired by Kim’s Summer Reading post a couple weeks back, I’ve decided to make use of my spot this month by sharing some of the non-fantasy titles that have most inspired me. 

Yeah, yeah.  I know.  This is a blog devoted to fantasy, so why bother mentioning those other books? 

Truth is, while my focus as an author has been fantasy, I’m a strong advocate of reading across a wide variety of genres.  In fact, I really hadn’t read much fantasy at all until I started writing it. My lack of familiarity with the genre was a source of insecurity for a long time, but I’ve come to realize that broad reading habits can be a strength, not a weakness, in one’s journey as an author.  Cross-fertilization, as any biologist will tell you, keeps the meme pool alive and happy.

This is not by any means a comprehensive list of titles that have influenced me.  In putting it together, I decided to leave out historical fiction entirely (the post was just getting too long!), but historical fiction has had a huge influence on my work, so to leave it out is a serious omission.  (As recompense, I promise to spend some time on historical fiction titles on my blog for Eolyn.)  There are other titles missing, too.  Still, this short list will give you an idea of the books that have stuck with me over the years, and that in one way or another, have come to influence my approach to storytelling.

Blood, Bread and Roses. Judy Grahn’s unique retelling of human history takes menstruation from its marginalized place in today’s society and puts this expression of women’s power right at the heart of cultural evolution. Her arguments may, on occasion, seem a little far-fetched, but she opens up a new and very thought-provoking perspective on women in history.

Adam, Eve and the Serpent. Elaine Pagels has published a large body of critical work on the early Christian Church.  In this volume, she shows how Augustine’s interpretation of sex and the “fall of man” was adopted as doctrine, not so much out of conviction and faith, but in an effort to justify the emerging power structure of an increasingly lucrative and patriarchal church. 

To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking. What I remember most about this book is Harold Kushner’s interpretation of Genesis.  Kushner shows, point-for-point, why the traditional Augustinian view of Adam, Even and the Serpent makes no sense.  He then offers his own interpretation, beautifully coherent with Eve front and center as a heroine of human history.  This was one of the seeds that gave rise to the myth The Origin of Magic as told in Eolyn.

Warfare in the Ancient World by Brian Todd Carey.  Everyone who writes epic fantasy knows that sooner or later, no matter how hard you and your characters try to avoid it, you will have a battle on your hands.  Carey’s classic volume describing 26 key military confrontations of ancient times was the first book I ever picked up on the topic of warfare, and it was a good choice.  Accessible and interesting, even for a reticent beginner like me.

The Country Beneath My Skin. I have sung Gioconda Belli’s praises many times and in many places.  This memoir of her involvement with the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua is a must read.  She is a true modern heroine, a poet and a warrior, and many aspects of her journey inspired the crafting of Eolyn.  

Medicine Cards.  More than an alternative tarot deck, Jamie Sams and David Carson’s collection of animal images and totems was one of my first introductions to the world of animals from the perspective of Native American mythology.  Many of the animals that appear in Eolyn are tied to the symbolism described in this and similar texts.

The Song of the Dodo, by David Quammen.  In many ways, Eolyn is a story about cultural extinction; the loss – or near loss – of an indigenous tradition of magic.  I’ve learned about the dynamics of extinction, particularly biological extinction, from many sources, but Quammen’s is one of the best.  Superbly written, easily accessible to the non-biologist, it will transform the way you see the world and our role in it.

That’s my partial list of non-fantasy favorites.  Now it’s your turn.  What are some of your favorite non-fantasy titles, and why?

posted by Karin Rita Gastreich

Monday, June 11, 2012

What? Is it my turn?

Oh, yes, gentle readers, it is my turn to post on Heroines of Fantasy, and I--engrossed in editing two novels due out from Hadley Rille Books in October, as well as the launching frenzy of my novel, A Time Never Lived--am unprepared. You see, I currently find myself with three full-time jobs. Yes. Three. Writer. Editor. Mother. Writer is being sorely neglected the last few weeks, stepping back so that Editor and Mother can get what must be done, done. She's a bit pouty, but she'll survive. This isn't the first time she's had to get in the back seat.

And that brings me to my subject today, one I am pulling out of my ass as I sit here at my keyboard, frazzled and frenzied and wondering what the hell am I going to write about: Time.

More precisely, making it. Taking it. Appreciating it.

We get so caught up in what must be done that sometimes we forget about those things we want to do. Kim Vandervort's post last week about summer reading is a good example of what I want to get done, and that I'm neglecting.

Skychair time.
Reading time.
Writing time.

They are easily forgone because of the must-do-things life is currently bogging me down with; and because I am so bogged down, those wants get shoved further and further into the back seat. I've given myself up to those musts. As the saying goes, All work and no play makes Jane a dull girl.

You do it. We all do. I bet you're doing it today. Responsibility should not be shirked, but neither should we sacrifice ourselves completely. So this is my battle cry to you all: Do something for yourself today.

Take half an hour to read a few chapters in that book that's been sitting on your bedside table for weeks. Go for a walk--not for exercise!--but to simply enjoy the sunshine, or the rain. Write. Open up that file or notebook and let the words building up behind all the must-dos out! Play with your dog, your cat, your kids, your significant other, yourself! Have a glass of wine, a cup of tea, a piece of chocolate.

Don't just take the time, appreciate it.

The moment I finish this post, I'm going out to the skychair without my laptop, even though I have an edit to finish. I'm going out with the book I've been trying to read, because I'm really enjoying it, and I deserve thirty minutes before running off on the next errand to enjoy it.
So what I want to know from you, right here-right now, is...
What are you going to do for yourself TODAY!
If you leave it in comments, you must do it; you will do it! There's magic in that. I promise.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Summer Reading!

This will come as no surprise to anyone that I loved to read as a kid, and the best time to read was summer vacation. I played outside with friends plenty, but some of my favorite moments were spent lying on the couch, stretched out on my bed, or on a lounge chair outside, taking a break with my favorite characters. I spent many a lazy summer with Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary. The summer before my seventh grade year I read 1001 Arabian Nights. The next summer I spent with Douglas Adams and Joyce Ballou Gregorian’s excellent fantasy trilogy, now long out of print. In high school I discovered romance novels, David Eddings, Stephen King, and so many more. The joy was in the discovery of new authors, new stories, new worlds.

Summer has come around again, and now that I’m done teaching for the semester, I can’t wait to get reading! This year my list is full of books that have been collecting beside my bed for months. Here’s a list of the top five I’m most eager to open and explore:

1. Insurgent by Veronica Roth. The second novel in a dystopian trilogy, Roth’s future Chicago is divided into sectors defined by values. It seemed like an odd premise when I first picked up Divergent last year, but the first novel in this series was well written and thoroughly engaging. It rivals Hunger Games, and it some ways, is even better.

2. Beyond the Gate by Terri-Lynne DeFino. I’m bragging here, but I get to beta read Terri’s forthcoming novel this summer. Woot! If you haven’t read Finder and A Time Never Lived, you are missing out on some phenomenal summer reads, with unique, non-European inspired worlds and well-drawn characters you will fall in love with.

3. The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin. I’ve been looking forward to reading this, the third book in Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, since I picked it up at World Fantasy last November. Her unique fantasies and worlds are inspiring, her characters rich and engaging, the writing beautiful.

4. Starters by Lissa Price. I received a chapter sample of this book at World Fantasy. My fifteen-year-old picked it up and bought the book as soon as it came out. Another dystopian, this novel posits a future in which the elderly can “rent” the bodies of young men and women in order to experience youth again. The premise is fresh and different, and my daughter recommended it, so I think I have to read it!

5. Timeless by Gail Carriger. This is the final book in Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, which is a steampunk/ paranormal/ comedy of manners/ mystery set in 19th century London. Vampires, werewolves and soulless, those who can negate paranormal powers with a touch, abound in London’s high (and low) society. Alexia Tarabotti, wife of a werewolf and friends of vampires, is an Austen-esque heroine with a cool head in a crisis and plenty of wit.

If none of these appeal, I’d also highly recommend the fantasies of some of our summer guests, who are also on the list of my favorite authors:

June 25th: The Psalms of Isaak series by Ken Scholes is high on my list of all-time favorite fantasy series. Start with Lamentation, read Canticle and Antiphon, then wait on pins and needles for Requiem with the rest of us.

July 23rd: Dorothy Hearst’s Wolf Chronicles are a fantastic summer read for paranormal fans and animal lovers alike. Who doesn’t love wolves?

July 30th: Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series is a fantastic blend of fantasy and romance, with strong female characters and phenomenal worldbuilding.

August 13th: Jim C. Hines, our final summer guest, re-envisioned storybook princesses as kick-ass heroines long before Once Upon a Time and Snow White and the Huntsman. His damaged but awesome Sleeping Beauty is probably my favorite.

Now a question for all of you, gentle readers: what are you reading this summer? Sound off!

by Kim Vandervort