Monday, July 29, 2013

Took a walk up to the top of a rock...

Today marks the 100th blog post on Heroines of Fantasy. From all of us to all of you, thanks!

Hello all,

I've been enjoying a slower pace this summer working on revisions to book three of my Pevana cycle: Path of the Poet-king. When Kim asked me if I wanted the fifth Monday in July, I replied absolutely. Then I went for a week's vacation with my wife's extended family and had a blast. I also took a spill off a jet ski and now sport a very sore left wrist, so typing is a bit difficult.

I do have a topic of sorts, but if I ramble I'm going to blame it on the pain pills.

We have discussed in the past about where some of us find our inspiration. My editor writes in her loft and reads in her sky chair. I spend minutes to hours sipping coffee and enjoying a fifty mile view of the ridges to the south of my hill top home. Others have chimed in with their stories.

My question today is how much of what we watch, see, the places we go, people we know--how much of all that makes its way into our stories? I think this is particularly interesting given that many of us place our characters in made up worlds that often have only a superficial tie to our real world experiences.

Peter Jackson uses the vistas of New Zealand to give us Middle Earth, and even if you detest the films, the visuals remain. Karin Gastreich has written about the influence of the Costa Rican terrain on her novel Eolyn. The hills and mountains of my own home state of Washington figure hugely in the geography of my novels, and it is the dusty, rocky versions of the eastern part of the state not the tree woven, wet, cloudy heights on the west side of the Cascades.

What are some of the actual sources of some of the places you write?

As I mentioned above, I just got back from a week on a lake in the northest part of my state. I've been taking my family there for the last 10 years. Great fun. Always. But these last three years I have used my time there a little differently. I would carve out some of the quiet hours before the crowd woke up to write. I would take the computer and the guitar out on to the porch and either strum or write, most often a little of both, enjoying the quiet and the amazing view.

This last week I realized I have a thing for Lake Roosevelt rock formations. The "lake" is actually the waters of the Columbia river backed up by the Grand Coulee Dam. The dam flooded the river gorge for a hundred twenty-five miles all the way up to Canada. It is one of the great recreation areas in the northwest. But for me, the most impressive thing about the place are the cliffs and terraces that line the lake. Great basaltic columns plunge into the waters. Before the dam they were hundreds of feet high. Even now, they provide opportunities for the brave or foolhardy to cop a thrill with leaps of up to sixty feet into the water.

I've mostly outgrown the desire for jumping. My last thirty foot jump left a reminder in my back, but as I treaded water afterwards, marveling that I did not hurt worse, I realized the rock I spent the last decade leaping from possessed amazing colors, cracks and striations. I spent the next hour cheering on my younger relatives and scrutinizing the topography of the surrounding area. Reds, ochers, sandstone grey and tan, pine needle green, blue sky (absolutely no clouds. Hey, it's EASTERN Washington), and a major portion of my limited knowledge of the region's color palette revealed itself to me.

I realized all of it has shown up repeatedly in every page I have ever written about Pevana. Her red tiled roofs, the color of the stones used in Renia's temples, the shape and color of Devyn Ambrose's saved altar bowl, even the beams cadged together by the Maze poor for their homes--all of it exists as part of a hillside on the opposite side of the nearly mile wide section of the lake where my relatives own a house. Words come every time I go there, but what I find most reassuring is that many more come afterwards. Always. I think I live in one of the great physically inspiring places on the planet.

What about you?

This year, in addition to the insight mentioned above, other words came. My daughter brought her New York boyfriend with her. One of the enduring images for me of that last jump day was looking up from the boat as he climbed to the top of the rock and sat there taking in the immensity of what he had come 3000 miles to see. I think we passed all of his tests, and he passed all of ours. What you see below came from that image and some chords he strummed on my guitar later.

Took a walk up to the top of a rock
To have a word with God and stop my clock
That ticking told me I had to run
Or lose the race before I’d well begun.
But in the silence of the sky above
I read signs that all spoke of love
And in the mysteries of trees
Growing in cracks in front of me
I found clues to unlock the truth
And in the end, I found you.

Spent an hour with a lizard on my rock
As he explored something special in my sock;       
Both of us just happy to be there
And in the moment both without a care,
Except to figure out what makes us whole
‘Cos in the world ignorance takes its toll
But in the mysteries of those trees
Growing from cracks in front of me
I found clues to unlock the truth
And in the end, I found you.

Slow down
Breath Deep
Just like Frost
You have promises
You must keep.
Open your eyes
See it all
Just like heaven
Hints of perfection
Before the fall.

Took a walk up to the top of a rock
Ran through some riddles I had to unlock
Whispers of wisdom I’d missed as a child
On the low side of young and still wild
With potential my only saving grace
To keep from totally losing face
With the mysteries of those trees
Standing tall in front of me
That helped me find my truth
‘Cos in the end, I found you.

Slow down
Breath deep
Love is the promise
I intend to keep.

So glad I took a walk to the top of my rock…
Mark Nelson

Monday, July 22, 2013

Rosamund Hodge: My Favorite Female Character

For our Heroines of Fantasy post number 99(!) please welcome Rosamund Hodge. You may not have heard of her yet, but you will soon!

Rosamund Hodge grew up as a homeschooler in Los Angeles, where she spent her time reading everything she could lay hands on, but especially fantasy and mythology. She got a BA in English from the University of Dallas and an MSt in Medieval English from Oxford, and she now lives in Seattle with seven toy cats and a plush Cthulhu. 

Her debut novel, Cruel Beauty, will be published by Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins in January 2014. For more information, visit her website

The title of this post is a lie. I do not have a favorite female character, because that's like comparing apples, oranges, quadrilaterals, kittens, the Milky Way, and bicycles.

But I do have a standard answer to the question "Who is your favorite female character?" It's Yue from the TV show Avatar: the Last Airbender, and let me tell you why.

I've always loved reading stories about other worlds, whether they're the imaginary worlds of science fiction and fantasy, or whether they're the stranger-than-fiction worlds of the past. And I've always loved reading stories about women, especially women who have adventures. But I've read a lot of stories that combine those two things in this way:

SOCIETY: I am Ancient Greece, or Medieval Europe, or Fantasyland. The point is, women are dumb and should stay in the kitchen.

HAPLESS FEMALE: I am the heroine's best friend--or sister, or mother, or personal enemy. The point is, I accept my culture's sexist beliefs and so I have the inner life of a potted plant. Learn from my example, girls!

HEROINE: I am the main character and therefore I don't understand why women can't do all the things that men can do. I am going to rebel and change the world! Learn from my example, girls!

Look, I think it's great that people write stories that examine sexism. I think it's great that people write heroines who not only question sexism but fight it and triumph. But I also think those stories can create a subtext that only women who agree with our modern views are worth talking about. And that is a really huge problem.

Last year I read The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, which is a retelling of the Mahabharata (one of the great epics of ancient India) from the viewpoint of Draupadi, the princess who becomes the cause of a cataclysmic war. It's an excellent book that I would highly recommend. But it really bothered me that in the early chapters about Draupadi's childhood, there's a big deal made of how she chafes at the restrictions her society places on women--and then that thread is dropped as soon as the action starts. It feels like it's in there just to signal that we're supposed to like her, that Draupadi is a strong female character who deserves to be the heroine because, in the really important ways, she's just like us.

But I don't read fantasy and science fiction and historical novels to hear about people who are just like me. I read them to hear about worlds and people who are deeply, fascinatingly different. And women deserve to have their stories told no matter how different they are.

Because women are people. Even women who belong to a scary, alien, sexist culture and completely accept its ideals are people. And people's stories are always worth telling.

And also? Women who don't question their societies--at least not in the way that we would question them--can still do really amazing things. Just look at history! 

Which brings me back to Yue. (Spoilers for Season 1 of Avatar follow.) She's a princess of the Northern
Water Tribe, a culture that is fairly sexist--though both men and women are able to waterbend (i.e. use elemental magic), women can only use their powers for healing, while men are trained to fight. Yue is further restricted by her status: for the good of the tribe, she has an arranged marriage to a boy she doesn't like.

Then the main characters turn up. One of them--Sokka--falls in love with Yue and wants her to run off with him. And if Yue were the heroine of a hundred other modern American fantasy novels, she would. She would have an epiphany that her people's customs were unfair, she would reclaim control of her life, and she would run away with Sokka and maybe learn to sword-fight as well.

But Yue doesn't do the modern American thing. She doesn't listen to the cute boy. She sticks by her culture and her beliefs. Even though she loves Sokka, she thinks it's her duty to keep her engagement, so she refuses him. And when the Moon Spirit is killed, and she realizes that she can sacrifice herself to become a new Moon Spirit--due to being touched by the spirit's power in childhood, which again is something she did not choose--she does it. She lays down her life because nothing will stop her from carrying out her duty. Not even the boy she loves begging her to stop.

The narrative makes it clear that Yue is not just a helpless victim of patriarchy or fate. She doesn't have many choices, but she owns those choices. And she saves the world in doing so.

Even though she isn't like us.

That's why she's my favorite female character.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Using Modern Medical Knowledge in Fantasy Fiction

As we come up on our 100th Heroines of Fantasy Post (July 29th!), I was a bit lost for a subject this week. We've covered...everything! Or so it seemed when I was searching for something new to post about.

Then life smacked me in the head.

My youngest son has had his share of trauma in his life. An injury sustained at the age of 15 left him permanently handicapped. A couple of weeks ago, he reinjured the same leg. Trying to keep up my work schedule along with my usual household tasks and being his nurse/physical assistant these last couple of weeks reminded me of an everyday fact of my writing life that had gotten lost in the familiar.

I gave one of the characters in my current WIP (The Shadows One Walks) my son's devastating injury, and I am able to do that successfully because I am intimately familiar with every aspect of what happened medically at the moment of trauma, and in the weeks/months/years that followed. Because I am aware, I can recreate it believably for my readers without giving all those details that would not have been available in the time period my novel is set.

Modern technology gives us all sorts of fabulous knowledge that allows characters to survive injuries. It's fairly easy to figure out how to kill someone--but how NOT to kill them?? I'm not into torture in my novels, but many of those reading this have watched the third season of Game of Thrones. Ah, poor Theon...or shall I say...never mind. No spoilers! Whoever he is, that torture was time-period appropriate (flaying is an ancient "art,") while utilizing modern medical knowledge to give Theon reactions, both physical and mental, to create the best sort of squick.

How about addiction? PTSD? Anxiety Disorder? Phobias? Downs Syndrome? Dwarfism? These things have always existed, and have been written into stories, but with the knowledge of modern medical science, we know that the deaf/mute aren't idiots. Someone born with Downs Syndrome isn't a Mongoloid. A dwarf isn't a dwarf isn't a dwarf, but can be one of a number of forms of dwarfism, each with its own set of characteristics. Because medical science has given us insight to these things, we can research the difference between disproportionate and proportionate dwarfism and create characters with more realism and depth rather than a stereotype.

Medical science, sometimes primitive, sometimes amazingly sophisticated, has been around a long, long time. For the common folk, each innovation was akin to magic. Even today, medical science knows something works, but perhaps not why. We, however, are less likely to write it off to magic and be content.

This barely scratches the surface of this subject. I'd love to hear what you have to say. Have you used medical science in your writing to get something really right? Have you read it completely wrong? Is it better to skim the surface? Or go into that depth that might, one day, be proven wrong?

~Terri-Lynne DeFino

Monday, July 8, 2013

Five Reasons Why I Love (the New) Battlestar Galactica

Okay, so it's not so 'new' anymore, but as part of my summer fun, I've been watching season one of Battlestar Galactica again and remembering all the reasons why I thoroughly enjoy this series.  The full list is quite lengthy, so I've picked out the top five for this blog post -- all of which teach us something about great story telling in general.  Here they are, in reverse order:

5. Total Destruction

For all our whining and groaning about the old tropes in SFF, the truth is none of us ever tire of seeing the entire village burned to the ground. Especially at the outset of the story.

Galactica takes this old trope and makes it bigger than ever: not only is the village burned down, twelve planets are nuked. An entire species is driven to near extinction, its population going from billions to less than 50,000 in the space of a few hours. The enemy is so formidable it appears impossible that anyone will survive.  The ragged remnants of a sophisticated civilization have no choice but to run, surrendering their fates to the vast desert of space in hopes of finding a legendary livable planet that no one is even sure exists.

4. Those Sexy, Soulful Cylons

I get such a kick out of the fact that all the sexiest characters of the 2005 series are Cylons.  Definitely gives a new twist to the old artificial-intelligence-takes-over-the-universe idea. And what's more, they are highly spiritual sexy robots.  This is presumably not the way they were designed. But after the humans created and then banished the Cylons, the robots continued to evolve. 

Here we see a resurrection of the age-old questions first immortalized in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. What are the consequence of creating intelligent life? Can something we regard as merely a thinking machine have a soul?  And most disturbing of all, what would happen if beings of our creation turned on us and tried to destroy us (because we, after all, tried to destroy them first)? 

3. The Schizo Paranoid Scientist

I think James Callis's portrayal of Gaius Baltar is, in a word, brilliant.  Pulling again on the old tropes, Galactica gives a new and charismatic look to the classic mad scientist.  Gaius is a bit of a Judas as well, having unwittingly betrayed the colonies by providing defense information to his lover, who turned out to be one of those sexy soulful cylons.  (Indeed, the sexiest and most soulful of all.)  He lives out season one in absolute terror that his treason will be discovered, and tries to dedicate his superior intelligence to helping the remnants of human civilization survive, though he is constantly waylaid by tantalizing hallucinations of his Cylon lover, who somehow continues to manipulate him even though she's not really there.

2. Tension Between Military and Civilian Forms of Governance  

All my favorite stories have this thread, in one form or another.  Galactica sets it up beautifully through the characters of Commander Adama and President Roslin. 

On the day of the attack, Adama is preparing for his own retirement and putting his old ship to rest.  Roslin, a low-level member of the presidential cabinet, oversees the Ministry of Education and is 42nd in line for succession.  When the Cylons attack, Adama's ship is the only battlestar to escape, and all other 41 members of the cabinet who would have assumed the presidency before Roslin perish.  Adama and Roslin are forced to work together in order to lead their people to safety. Each comes to the table with different, often conflicting perspectives not only on governance, but on the basic plan for survival.

I particularly love the grace and mastery with which Roslin, portrayed by Mary McDonnell, assumes her new role as leader of a people in exile.  She is an amazing  female character: complex, able, and intelligent, one of many in the series, which brings me to the last (or first) thing on my list:

1. Kara Thrace (call sign: Starbuck)

When Starbuck was recast as a woman for the new series, there was some backlash from fans of the original.  I didn't see any of that, and quite honestly, I don't care.  Kara Thrace rocks, and while I too had a crush on Dirk Benedict back when I was 12 years old, I'm a woman now and I was totally ready for this cocky cigar-smoking fighter pilot to be one of the gals. 

Despite the rocky start with Galactica purists, Thrace, played by Katee Sackhoff, quickly established her place as one of the best woman warriors yet to appear on the SFF scene.  Gritty, complex, sexy, intelligent, hotheaded, and with a gift for defying authority, she takes control of the screen every time she appears. 

Looking back, they probably should have recast Apollo as a woman, too. (I mean, let's face it: Apollo the man just couldn't keep up with her!)  But oh well.  Maybe we'll see a woman Apollo, along with other interesting changes, when they film the 2035 edition of Battlestar Galactica. 

That's my list.  Now I'd like to hear from you.  Whether you saw this particular series or not, tell me about your favorite old tropes, and classic characters, remade in new and exciting ways.  In books, series, or movies -- everything is fair game. 
 posted by Karin Rita Gastreich

Monday, July 1, 2013

To Brush or not to Brush?

The first time I ever saw Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers in theaters, I was immediately dumbstruck by Karl Urban’s fantastic-looking… teeth. Here, in this gritty, manly, I’m-all-dirty-because-our-king-sucks-and-we-kill-orcs-for-a-living world, Eomer, nephew of King Theoden, flashes some phenomenal choppers. Impressive by any standards, those even, pearly whites peeking from beneath his ferocious snarl immediately stand out—not simply because they are quite beautiful as far as dental specimens go, but also because they seem so incredibly out of place. With that much grime on his face and dirt in his hair, shouldn’t his teeth be kind of nasty?

I suppose it’s because I’m a modern girl who dearly loves her running water, toothbrushes and toilets, but I’ve always spent more than an average amount of time thinking about how basic hygienic needs are met in fantasy settings. How do the characters brush their teeth? What happens when someone gets a toothache or an opponent sends a molar flying? Naturally, some things don’t need to be mentioned. Most readers don’t need to know every time a character ducks into the woods for a poo. We can all assume, as the famous book title suggests, that Everybody Poops. But sometimes, knowing the hows and whys of hygiene can not only be of interest, but important to the story.

While reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy through for the first time, I actually noted how many official baths Aragorn took (three). In fact, in Fellowship of the Ring, it’s even noted that Frodo doesn’t even recognize him at first because he’s all cleaned up. Imagine how dirty the future King of Gondor must have been to be virtually unrecognizable to his traveling companion after scraping off layers of grime! In Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarrion saga, the main character is a female soldier in a co-ed army, a situation that
provokes a variety of intriguing questions about privacy, sex, and birth control. Moon also includes a lot of interesting—and important—detail about army life, including the need to dig privies when the army first sets up camp. All of these seemingly insignificant details enhance the world and the story, enriching the experience for the reader.

Considering a world’s hygiene can also lead to larger, more important worldbuilding issues, such as improper sanitation and its link to illness and disease. When does a rotting tooth lead to fever? What can we infer about the diet or habits of a people based on the condition of their teeth? Where the privies end up may have a direct impact on where the rich and the poor dwell in the city and increase the likelihood of the downwind folk succumbing to disease. The transition between dirty and clean can also serve as a metaphor of transformation. That first bath of Aragorn’s is a revelation, and represents more than just a good scrubbing: it is the first time Frodo—and the readers—see him not as who he is, but as who he may become. Such moments are often not just important, but essential to the story.

On the other hand, NOT paying attention to these little details can often poke holes in a writer’s worldbuilding. I would love to think that Peter Jackson, whose attention to detail is stellar throughout the trilogy, deliberately decided not to make Karl Urban’s teeth suitably yucky for the movie. Perhaps they are our first indication that, like Aragorn, Eomer is more than he first appears. Or perhaps it’s just a cinematic crime to make such beautiful teeth look bad. Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that they stand out a little too much, and for a brief time, throw the viewer out of the story. If I’m spending my time wondering how, how often and with what he brushes, then I’m not worrying about how Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are going to extricate themselves from their current predicament.

So here’s today’s question: how much do you want to know about characters’ hygiene? How much do you need to know? At what point does it either enhance or detract from the story?

~Kim Vandervort