Character Study: Catherine Barahal (Spiritwalker Monday 8)

Over on her blog, N.K. Jemisin did a series of character studies for some of the characters in her Inheritance Trilogy. Here’s one, for Itempas.

I decided to borrow the “character study” idea for today’s post so  I could combine it with a question I was recently asked: What was your thought process for the creation of Cat? (LS)

Warning: There will be spoilers later in this post for Cold Magic and Cold Fire, but the first part is fairly general.


First, I wanted Cat to be physically confident, someone who knows when to run and when to stand her ground, and who isn’t afraid of a physical challenge. At the same time I wanted her to NOT be a person whose feelings are bottled up; Cat is very free with her feelings, she laughs and cries easily and does not judge herself for having strong feelings.

That is the initial contrast I was going for: She is both physically confident *and* emotionally confident in the sense that she doesn’t try to hide, disguise, or be embarrassed by her emotions nor does she see being emotional as something inherently weak. She wears her heart on her sleeve and she is not afraid of a challenge.

I did not want her to be a girl who needs to be rescued; I wanted her to be a young woman able to rescue herself (and others). I did not want her anger to be debilitating or shameful; I wanted her anger (when it manifests) to be clean and pure. I did not want her to be coy or retiring; I wanted her to be forthright, curious, and fully engaged in exploring all the aspects of herself that commonly unfold as people come into adulthood, like her sexual feelings, her growing understanding of how politics and the world works and her place within the world, and her concern for and loyalty toward others. I wanted her to judge injustice harshly but to feel compassion even for people who may have hurt her. I wanted her to display a sense of the absurd and to have the capacity to see joy in the world.

Most of all I wanted her to speak for herself because I wanted readers to read about a character who believes in her own voice, as I hope we all can learn to believe in our own voices.

That last turned out to be easy because the book is written in her first person narration. All I had to do was move my own “voice” aside and let the book emerge in her voice. One of the most interesting things about writing in Cat’s voice is that she’s funny. My usual serious-business epic fantasy writing voice is not funny so it has been an illuminating experience writing books that people tell me make them laugh out loud at moments.


Spoilers for Cold Magic and Cold Fire follow. Continue reading

On the efficacy of cold magic (Spiritwalker Monday 11)

On the efficacy of cold magic, with an aside to cold mages and their antipathy to technology.

By Habibah ibnah Alhamrai, natural philosopher and lecturer at the University of Expedition

 It is well known that the great mage Houses are anathema to the technologies developed and developing in the Amerikes, especially those so abundantly useful in Expedition and other areas where the technologies have been employed. One might assume that the cause of this antipathy might be that much of these technologies are the handiwork of the Trolls, and that the mage have, in general, an inborn hatred or even natural dislike for their species. One would be totally mistaken.

The mages do not care about the Trolls except that they create and perpetrate many new technologies that the mages find repulsive, or rather that they find unuseable and from which they are repulsed. Part of this is undoubtedly physical, but some may be psychological in the sheer inescapability of their being cold mages. A common example of this physical repulsion can be seen in nearly any locale where gas light has been installed and is currently enhancing the environs of most normal citizens. We know that gas light is produced in lamps designed specifically to allow small amounts of gas to expand inside the globe and ignite and burn, thereby providing light and a bit of heat. The heat in this case is useless as the globes are high above the street, but the light, because of that height, shines down upon the ground and illuminates the surrounding area.

But watch a carriage carrying a cold mage through the streets and it is easy to see the problem. As the carriage approaches the light, the light dims. When the carriage is beneath the lamp, the light is nearly invisible. And when the carriage passes, only then does the light begin to brighten and eventually burn to its natural state.

It is widely known that cold mage houses are heated by an indirect method originally invented and employed by the Romans. It might be thought that they use this old style through some propensity toward ancient knowledge. That thought would be wrong. While it is unclear if the cold mages themselves would actually suffer much from the coldness, their spouses and children are not possessed of their abilities and certainly will. Therefore, cold mage manors must be heated in some way. This indirect method, though in some ways less efficient than direct heating by stove or fireplace, is nonetheless the only method available in an abode where cold mages reside. These Roman heat pipes are just that, pipes beneath the floors of the rooms that carry hot water or air. The heat source must be located somewhere away from the main house so that the cold magic cannot reach it, as not only will a cold mage put out a fire in near proximity, but it will also be impossible to relight the fire until the cold mage has departed. Generally, the mage houses place the fire building up hill from the house at a spring location so that water can be heated and then flow naturally down to the manor house itself. As far as can be understood, cold mages have had difficulty with fire for their entire existence, but, since little is known about the early days of the cold mages, little can be said as to how they adapted to their difficulties and adopted the Roman methods.

On the essence of cold magic, its spontaneous generation and use.

Cold magic is not an old ability. It did not exist during the height of the Roman hegemony. During that time, while various magics undoubtedly existed, cold magic did not. It is only due to the Salt Plague that cold magic could come into existence. One need not repeat here the history of the salt plague or the ghouls that emerged and destroyed entire civilizations. Nor the subsequent migrations and resettlements. The history may be read in any one of many treatises, but a simple explanation may be found in the workman-like discourse found in “Concerning the Mande Peoples of Western Africa Who Were Forced by Necessity to Abandon Their Homeland and Settle in Europe Just South of the Ice Shelf,” by Catharine Hassi Barahal of the famous Hassi Barahal Kena’ani lineage.

Let it be said that one fortuitous result of the plague, or rather the migration caused by the plague, is that the Mande from Africa met the Celtic druids of the north. Obviously, not all Mande were equal in either wealth or magic. The wealthy of the Mande married into the princely Celtic houses of the north, while those possessing magic found the Celtic druids to be of a kind, joined together with their societies and their houses. The combination led to the emergence of strong mages who had the ability to wield the power of the ice. This merging of two disparate elements formed the mage Houses.

However, not all or every merging of Mande with Celt produced or to this day produce cold mages and not all cold mages are equal. Because cold magic does not show up at birth, and because all joining does not produce a cold mage, the current mages have taken to occasionally plowing somewhat far from home and only reaping the outcome if it seems favorable. At this point, the lineages of the Celtic druids and the Mande run throughout many of the villages and towns within their realms so where a cold mage will appear is unknown. The biology of this phenomenon is undoubtedly fascinating but is not yet understood.

It is widely known that scholars believe that magic could be explicated on scientific principle if only those who handle magic were not so secretive.  It is my thesis that much of cold magic can be explicated using only the principles of natural history and the sciences without the aid of the mages. In fact, help from the mages would probably serve only to further confuse.

For example, it is widely held by the mages and others that the source of cold magic is in the spirit world. That the source of the vast energies available to the mages is somewhere hidden in that world. The path to that energy may be in the spirit world, but the source of the power is the ice that covers the entire northern portion of our planet and on whose edge we settle. It is doubtful that if the Celtic druids had been the ones forced from their homes to settle in the Mande area of Africa that cold mages would today exist. Perhaps in that environ, the essence and control of fire magic might have become dominant. However, the vagaries of the gods forced the Mande to the north to sit on the edge of the source of their great power.

“The history of the world begins in ice, and it will end in ice.”

The Celtic bards and Mande djeliw of the north say this, but they do not know how correct they are. The Romans may have believed the world began in fire, but now, ice rules, as do the cold mages. The power of cold is extraordinary. Anyone in the proximity of a cold mage releasing his power will attest to this. Area wide storms of wind, ice and snow rain down upon those in the path of a cold mage’s ire. Liquid freezes and solid objects become so cold they brittlize and shatter. Through the spirit world and into the ice the mages reach, releasing the power. The ice is the ultimate source.

This is why one of the few things that a powerful cold mage fears is the Wild Hunt. The Wild Hunt will identify mages who overstep their bonds, who use their power too much, too often or too impulsively, and sweep down and remove that mage from the mix. We can not know the machination of those in the Wild Hunt nor the rest of their ilk, but they monitor and punish not just simple mortals, but the cold mages, for those of the Wild Hunt own the ice.

While I can not explain to you how the mages channel their power from the ice, nor whether that power is limited or limitless, I can explain their use of that power and why they themselves have a repulsion to fire and technology. We all know how fire can change metals in the forge or pottery in the kiln, but cold can do the same if wielded by a skilled mage. Take glass for example. For most of us, a broken pane of glass can only be repaired by remelting and pouring a new pane, but a cold mage can take those shards and knit them into a whole. How can this be done with cold rather than heat? We know that glass is amorphous, if the two edges are held together, the mage can make the components at the edges move and intertwine thereby fusing them together with intense cold. In this case, there are no crystals to reunite or layers to re-adhere. Just as the masses of ice on the glaciers move, melt and reform under the great mass of the ice, so a mage’s touch can cold press the glass into reforming.

One does not often see a mage re-forming glass, but one does see the effects of a mage’s presence on fire and technology. The principles of fire are well understood, but a short explanation is appropriate here. In general, heat, from a fire, friction of rubbing, concentrated sunlight or striking of flint on steel warms the material to be burned, and when the temperature rises sufficiently for the substance to become gaseous, the material ignites. The material remains lit and burns because the fire of burning itself provides more gaseous fuel for the fire. An easy example to see is a candle.  An ember transferred from the fireplace ignites the wick which burns rapidly until it approaches the wax. The wax melts, moves up the wick, evaporates and ignites and the process continues until there is no wax left.

When mages enter areas where there is fire of any kind, the intense cold presence around them sucks all the warmth from the area. The flame can no longer consume the material, be it wood, candle wax or gas, because the heat is drawn into the mage and the fire dies. Fires cannot be lit in the presence of a mage because the cold aura prevents any of the materials from igniting. Even if a spark from flint can be created, the materials will not burn.
The effect of this sucking of energy on a fireplace fire or candle are transient and while the mages dislike them, they are merely annoying. The presence of large furnaces, like the ones created in Expedition to run the boilers that power the factories, contain much more energy, and while the mages have a similar effect on a factory as they do on a candle, the great heat absorbed by the mages is no longer simply annoying, but can begin to eat into their very essence. This, I believe, is why the mage Houses are so opposed to the new technologies. They fear first, that the presence of so much technology producing so much heat will interfere with their magic, but they fear foremost that the technology will become all pervasive and interfere with their well being, melting them and eroding them from inside.



@ A’ndrea Messer 2010

Science writer A’ndrea Messer wrote this piece “in the style of” an early 19th century paper or lecture. The character Habibah ibnah Alhamrai appears in Cold Fire.

A’ndrea and her colleagues at the Research Communications unit of The Pennsylvania State University have a blog: Research Matters.

From: The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal (Spiritwalker Monday 12)


Cat Barahal, in the fencing salon (preliminary sketch by Julie Dillon)

I’m collaborating with fabulous (& now Hugo-nominated!) artist Julie Dillon on a chapbook (she’s illustrating, I’m writing) titled “The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal.” It will be published by Crab Tank.

If all goes well the chapbook should be available by the June 25, 2013 release of Cold Steel.

More details and information (including bonus art) forthcoming.

Please feel free to signal boost this, as I’m practically beside myself with excitement about Julie’s gorgeous art.

Also, if you think it is something you would buy either as a print or digital copy, please let me know in the comments.

The Creole of Expedition: Part Two: Creating the Creole (Spiritwalker Monday 13)

As I worked on Cold Fire, I asked myself this question: Do I use a creole to represent the local language of Expedition or do I write people’s speech to be indistinguishable from Cat’s own?

There’s a lot more about how and why I asked and answered the question in Part One, which you can find here.

Ultimately I decided to use a creole to represent the speech of Expedition. At this point I had to ask myself a second question: Given that I am not a native speaker of nor intimately familiar with any of the actual Caribbean creoles spoken today or in historical times, how do I write a creole that will seem authentic within the text without being a clumsy imitation or offensive parody of actual creoles?

Let me first give a couple of quick definitions.

Oxford Dictionaries defines a pidgin as “a grammatically simplified form of a language, used for communication between people not sharing a common language. Pidgins have a limited vocabulary, some elements of which are taken from local languages, and are not native languages, but arise out of language contact between speakers of other languages.”

A creole, on the other hand, is “a mother tongue formed from the contact of two languages through an earlier pidgin stage.” (I would add “two or more” because that was certainly the case in Hawaii. Lest you wonder, Hawaiian Pidgin is a creole.)

A dominant culture: Taino.

My friend and fellow writer Katharine Kerr has done a great deal of research in linguistics (her Deverry epic fantasy series is a superb example of what you can do with language in a fantasy sequence that spans hundreds of years), so I asked for her advice. We both knew I could not possibly replicate any of the existing or historical Caribbean creoles and, in any case, given that the Spiritwalker Trilogy posits an extremely alternate history, the actual historical creoles would not fit regardless.

She suggested that I devise a creole unique to Expedition

Kerr wrote, “The dominant language in any creole is that of the dominant culture. What is your dominant culture?”

The city of Expedition was founded by a Malian fleet supplemented by Phoenician navigators and sailors. The fleet’s chief language would be a variant of modern day Bambara with some Punic loan words. But any trans-Atlantic trade and intercourse with Europa would be heavily influenced by the presence of Latin as the lingua franca (trade language) of continental Europa. However, because Expedition is a small territory on the island of Kiskeya (Hispaniola), the regional dominant culture in which it exists would that of the Taino because the Antilles (Caribbean) in this alternate universe is ruled by the Taino.

Therefore the first thing I decided was that a number of Taino words and phrases would be present as part of the every day language. These would be reinforced (insofar as I could) with elements of Taino culture that would have become part of the society of Expedition in that way cultures adapt, adopt, and blend to become something unique to a specific place. I could only pick a couple of things to give Taino names lest the plethora of new words become overwhelming for the reader, so besides words we already use in English that are of Taino derivation such as hurricane, hammock, and papaya, I highlighted Taino elements which would matter to the plot.

Taino words that are part of Expedition’s creole include:
maku (foreigner)
opia (spirit of an ancestor)
areito (dance, song, or festival)
batey (ceremonial plaza often associated with a local version of the ball game that was known throughout the Caribbean and Central American region). As an historical note I should mention that in the Dominican Republic the word batey came to mean the company towns associated with sugar cane fields and processing.
cemi (a sacred object)
behique/behica (shaman)(also used as meaning a fire mage)
cacique/cacica (chief; ruler; king/ female king of the same)
cobo (queen conch)
Some fish: pargo, cachicata, cajaya, anolis, carite, guinchos, barracudas
Bahama is a Taino place name. So possibly (likely) is Cuba (a shortened form of an older name), Habana, Boriken (Puerto Rico), and Kiskeya itself (the island we know as Hispaniola divided now into Haiti (from the Taino Ayiti) and the Dominican Republic).

The creole continuum.

However, the creole could not just be a peppering of words foreign to the English I was writing in. The creole as Cat heard it would have not just differences in vocabulary but differences in grammar, in word choice, and in the rhythms of its speech.

Fortunately through the miracle of the internet I had previously made the acquaintance of Dr. Fragano Ledgister, a professor at Clark Atlanta University and himself Anglo-Jamaican. In a similar way to Dr. Kustis Nishimura allowing me to pick his brains about the physics of cold magic and fire magic, Dr. Ledgister was exceedingly generous in answering my questions, offering insight both into language and into the Caribbean as he knows it, and it is really through his offices that I was able to develop the creole as it appears on the page.

As well, many details of the Caribbean are present because of things he shared with me, and while that is a subject for another post I will briefly mention that he introduced me to the many varieties of fruit commonly enjoyed on the islands that are not as well known elsewhere and which play such an important role in Andevai’s courtship of Cat.

Dr. Ledgister discussed the work of Mervyn Alleyne.

Alleyne’s classification of Jamaican English is that it operates at three levels: the hierolect, Standard Jamaican English, that differs from the international (British or American) standard primarily in terms of minor differences of vocabulary and usage. The mesolect, or generally understood creole, spoken by most people and heavily influenced by the standard language. The basilect, “di real raw-chaw Patwa” as my friend Hugh Martin put it, spoken by rural people and the less educated. Each level of language is going to be used in different social contexts.

Therefore there are three versions of the creole, an acrolect (the term that has replaced Alleyne’s hierolect), a mesolect, and a basilect.

Abby, on Salt Island, is a country gal. She speaks the basilect. She (and her brother, met on the airship) are the only people Cat encounters who speak the basilect. It is characterized by having a simpler grammar and more archaic elements. Besides including all the features of the mesolect, it drops linking verbs (except ‘shall’) and drops the “th” sound to “dat” and “di” and so on. Also, basilect speakers do not use past tense, only present tense (more on verb use below).

Almost all the people of Expedition speak the mesolect, the most common form that Cat hears. I’ll elaborate on its development below.

The acrolect is spoken by the most high status families in the old city of Expedition; technically, the Taino nobles speak the acrolect since they speak what might be termed “formal Latin”–that is, Taino who are not Expeditioners never speak in the creole. For instance, at the dinner party at townhouse in Expedition where General Camjiata is staying, the son of a Keita merchant house speaks mostly with “correct english” but ‘yee’ and ‘shall’ are still present in his speech.

People of Taino ancestry who are Expeditioners speak the creole the same as any other Expeditioners.

“Maku” (foreigners) are usually distinguished by not speaking the creole, although I  allowed a few usages to creep into the speech of foreign-born residents of Expedition, most commonly the use of “gal” for “girl” or “woman,” the use of “yee” for “you,” and the generic use of “shall” as an all purpose verb (more on those below).

The building blocks.

I wanted to write a simplified creole that would not be too difficult for readers to parse or too distracting.

Dr. Ledgister pointed out that

A creole has a streamlined grammar because it starts out as a pidgin or lingua franca before becoming a birth tongue. (Pidgins combining a language of rule and vocabulary and grammar elements from several subordinate languages encourages simplicity.) It’s also liable to contain archaisms because it will retain terms from when it was first formed (Jamaican speech still has words last used in standard English in the 17th century, like peradventure).

With his help I focused on four elements (besides the presence of Taino words) to highlight which would thus distinguish the Expedition creole (in its mesolect form) from the language Cat speaks:
1. verbs and verb tenses
2. pronouns
3. word choice (substitute words and archaisms)
4. speech rhythms


Simplifying grammar meant simplifying verb tenses. I need to emphasize that a simplified grammar used in a creole does not mean that the speakers of creole are ignorant, stupid, ill-educated, or demeaned; it is an element of the creole.

Dr. Ledgister: “One example of this is that verbs don’t decline. You have Abby say [in an early draft] “I does not like it that this man Drake, this maku, decides so quickly to make yee his sweet” where a Jamaican would say “Me doh like it dat dis man Drake decide so fas/ to make you his gyal” and a Trinidadian would say “Ah don’ like it dat dis man Drake decide so quick dat you his sweet girl.” My point here is that the verbs don’t decline.

In the final published draft, Abby says, “I don’ like dat dis man Drake decide so quick to make yee he sweet gal.”

I came up with a simplified set of rules for myself to follow as I wrote:

1. Present tense should use the infinitive in all cases (without the “to” unless the “to” is called for). So: “we have” “he have” “you have”
2. While technically it should be “we be” and “you be,” I use “is” (because it is easier for speakers of standard English to read).
“I am” becomes “I’s.” “You are” becomes “you’s.”
We and they “is” depends but is often “We’s” or “they’s.”
“It is” and “It was” are contracted into “’tis” and “’twas”
3. Simple past works pretty much as in English.

I could have done more with the verbs but I figured that was enough.


Originally I had this challenging and exciting idea that the basilect (as spoken by Abby) would use Bambara pronouns to reflect the Malian ancestry of the majority of the early settlers in Expedition. But when I tried to write it, it just became impenetrable.

Instead I adapted the Bambara ‘you’–rendered as “i” (ee) in English transcription–by turning “you” into “yee.” Yee is used throughout all forms of the creole, my one hat tip to Bambara pronouns. I left all other subject pronouns the same as they are in American English.

Object pronouns I left generally the same, although on a case by case basis and depending on the rhythm of the sentence, the object pronoun could be replaced with the subject pronoun.

The possessive is generally replaced by the subject pronoun — “his book” becomes “he book” except in the case of “I” in which the object pronoun “me book” is used.

Word Choice (replacement words & archaisms):

Replacements words (words commonly used differently than we might use them):

GAL: “girl” (as in old enough to have sex) or “young woman” is always replaced by “gal” which becomes the local equivalent of an all-purpose term for girls/women in the general ages of 15 – late 20s.

Older people will usually refer to young adult males (ages circa 15 – 25, depending on the age of the older person) as “lad.”  Young men refer to other young men as “men” and to young women their own age as “gals.”  Young women, the same.

SHALL: this is an all purpose verb used where appropriate and often in place of verbs like “would” “ought” and so on.
DON’ : replaces “don’t” or “do not”
In general I tried to avoid “do” (and Abby, using the basilect, never uses “do”) but sometimes I left it in because it got too convoluted or hard to understand or choppy to take it out.
Instead of THINK people generally use RECKON


People use some older locutions and/or regional words like “peradventure” and “arseness.”

In case you are wondering where “arseness” comes from, here a quote from our correspondence: “I just grabbed my copy of (Richard) Allsopp and was struck as I opened it by the Trinidadian term “arseness” for “stupidity” (or as most West Indians would say “stupidness”),  that’s worth using!” And indeed it was!


When I had all these things in place, the rhythm took care of itself.

The grammatical patterns, the pronouns, and the adapted words themselves began to structure how people spoke. Once that happened, the rhythm of their speech took on a distinctive flavor and inflection. By the time I had finished writing Cold Fire, the people of Expedition had a way of speaking that sounded “natural” to my ear and that, more importantly, did not have the same rhythm as the speech used by Cat and other Europans.


There is a lot more detail I could go into but this post is already quite long. One of the best parts about corresponding with Fragano Ledgister was getting to read his anecdotes. [If you ever get a chance, ask him about meeting C. L. R. James.]

Not everyone will agree that the creole in Cold Fire works, nor need they do so. But for my part, considering it as an experiment and as a challenge for me as a writer, I felt good about the final result. Whatever else and no matter how it holds up, I am glad to have pushed myself past what I was comfortable attempting to write. In certain ways, making the effort was its own reward.

Repeat, Recapitulate, Revision: What Patterns Can Be Seen In A Writer’s Work? (Spiritwalker Monday 14)

Often an author is the wrong person to ask when a reader has a question about that author’s work. This is one reason I find conversations between readers so illuminating, as people throw ideas and interpretations back and forth about what they saw or did not see in a particular piece of fiction (or other art).

It is a truism that every reaction to a piece of art will be unique to the individual. One of the things I most love about the reading experience both as a reader–and as a writer listening to what readers have to say–is this diversity of reaction.

Reader A may pick up on a clever allusion that I intended while Reader B may draw a comparison or see thematic content that never once occurred to me as I was writing. Likewise if I am discussing with another reader a book that I as a reader loved or hated, we may both have loved–or hated–it but for different reasons or for similar reasons or we may disagree entirely and stand on opposite shores of love and hate.

For me that makes the act of reading not only a creative act but also (and perhaps more importantly) an act of creating a relationship with a book, for good, for bad, for indifference, for ambivalence, for whatever complex feelings the book may engender in you.

I can’t recall who said it but somewhere somewhen a writer opined (and I paraphrase) that “each writer has only one story that they tell over and over again, and if they are lucky, it is a big story” (that is, one with lots of room for internal variation rather than one that is all too clearly repetitive).

Now I don’t buy that statement but I do think each writer (and any artist) brings to the creative table a unique set of variables, their personality, their life experience, their knowledge, their cultural background, their individual way of looking at the world, their interests, their passions, their intensity, their rawness or their smoothness, their flaws and strengths, and so on.

If a reader reads along the career of a writer then certain patterns, certain ways of approaching the creative vision, certain familiar themes or narrative quirks or a particular way of using voice may emerge as characteristic of that writer’s work. Certain subjects or questions or concerns or fixations or narrative structures or prose styles may come up in more than one project. Or maybe it’s just that there is always a Manic Pixie Dream Girl Variant in one writer’s work and a sarcastic cynical misanthrope in another.

So here is a great question asked of me by a reader on Facebook:

MK asked:

ok. so I have a question I’ve always wanted to ask you. I’m just not sure if I can ask it properly… well, anyway here it comes: how come you’ve written so many, so different books starring the same guy?? because for me Bakhtiian, Bulkezu and Anji are like different studies of the same person. so, am I right or is it only my imagination??


Perhaps I am the wrong person to answer the question. As mentioned above, the author isn’t always the right person to talk about their own work.

My answer would be No, but also Yes.

Yes, all three of the characters mentioned are leaders from steppe nomad nations with expansionist tendencies. [My children have in the past teased me about having to put steppe nomads in all my projects.]

No, I don’t see the three characters as the same person at all. I see them as individuals who have distinct personalities and distinct plot arcs. If any one of them were (as it were) put into the place of one of the others in the other book(s), the plot would fall out very differently because that individual would deal in an entirely unique way with the circumstances and parameters they are presented with. They each have different goals and different ways of reaching those goals and of interacting with other people as allies or obstacles.

Also, as it happens, because I used 9th and 10th century European history as the inspiration for Crown of Stars, Bulkezu and his plot arc are adaptations of actual invasions into Eastern Europe by steppe nations whose names are not commonly known to us now because they did not linger in the more commonly-known historical imagination the way the Huns and Mongols have done.


Yes, the three characters do have similarities. I would even go so far as to say that in some ways Bulkezu and Anji were a way for me to comment on and think about the Jaran books and the way I characterized and portrayed Bakhtiian as the hero.

People sometimes say that science fiction and fantasy is a genre in conversation with itself. I think there is truth to that, and I know that I certainly examine, investigate, interrogate, celebrate, and confront elements of the genre through my own writing.

In addition, however, I am always in conversation with myself about my earlier work.

My views are not static.

There are plot elements or characters or details I wrote twenty years ago that I would not write now (and a few that I wish I had written differently). As I have more time in the world I may begin to look at an idea from a different angle than I did before simply because my perspective has shifted or because I now see a broader vista or around corners that used to block my vision. Perhaps I reach a point where I believe I have the chops to write something in a more challenging way that I wasn’t able to pull off before.

My development as a writer happens in my fiction over time and through projects. It reflects my development as a human being. I hope I have learned, and that any experience and sensitivity and compassion and knowledge I have gained can more fully inform what I write as I continue to write.

As readers and writers, what do you see when you consider patterns and repetition in any given writer’s work? In your own?

As readers are you aware of small and large, subtle or obvious, ways in which writers have created a body of work that has something in common with itself as a whole piece–that is, not just as discrete works but as a larger tapestry of a creative vision? How do you reflect on your own changing creative vision?

The Information Business: Openings (Spiritwalker Monday 15)

One of the difficult elements (are there any easy ones?)  in openings is how to sow information into the seedbed of the story in the right amounts and with the correct distribution so that

1)  the reader will not get bogged down in a rain of information such that they put the book down


2) the reader has enough information to orient them-self in the story


3) the information sown over the early pages can sprout in a timely manner later down the road so as to enhance the narrative experience.

The flip side of information distribution in openings (and throughout a narrative) is that with too little information the reader becomes lost, or the story starts shallow and keeps wading.  Furthermore, without proper distribution of the correct (most significant) information, the writer may have to explain the impact of certain big plot points or dramatic emotional moments when they happen rather than having the impact hit the reader because of what the reader already knows which the writer has cleverly seeded into the story.

One of the surest ways to bog me down, as a reader, is to pause the narrative flow to back-fill information the author is sure I need in order to understand the context or empathize with the main character(s).  Because I often don’t NEED to know that information yet (or in some cases ever, especially not as an infodump), and I really don’t WANT that information interrupting the flow of the story.

How much and what kind of information the reader needs will vary depending on the narrative.

In genre it may also depend on whether this particular book is one of a sequence or series in which the reader may need, or be expected to have absorbed, context from an earlier book or books.

I’m going to stick with what I know, which is genre.  So these are not hard and fast rules (I’m not one for hard and fast rules anyway), and they are particular to the genre I am most familiar with. But as a general template in terms of how I try to write and how I read, they’ll do.

When deciding how much and what information to seed into your opening, take into account:

what does the reader NEED to know vs. what you think the reader needs to know

what does the reader WANT to know vs what you want the reader to know

Often what the writer thinks the reader needs and/or wants to know is in fact more than the reader needs and/or wants to know at that stage in the game.  Sometimes it is less.

I personally have a lot of trouble with stories in which I’m given too little information to place myself in a landscape, by which I mean a physical and a cultural and a historical landscape. However that statement definitely reflects my own personal tastes and will not be the same for all readers, because I guarantee that one complaint I hear about my own novels is that there is too much information ladled down the reader’s throat too early.  So be aware that, as a writer, I am constantly struggling with this myself.

For it is remarkable, really, how little we need to know as long as we have exactly the right information to hook us into the story one way or another.

If we feel grounded, and are interested in finding out more, curiosity and engagement are part of what pull us on through the story.

The reader usually (not always) needs to know

1) who is the character(s) I’m following

2) why, in the most immediate sense, I am rooting for or against that character (an emotional hook);  rooting for or against does not have to mean “liking” or “sympathy” although that may be the specific effect you are going for

3) where am I?
3a) secondarily to “where am I” – why does it matter that I am HERE rather than in some other place.

I don’t mean that last sentence literally but figuratively, perhaps even culturally.  While there are circumstances in which a character must literally reflect on why it matters to him/her personally that s/he is splayed on the altar about to be sacrificed to the demonic hordes, more often this is an embedded quality inherent to the story.

Why HERE matters in the immediacy of the plot is not because you are explaining it to the reader but because it is accustoming the reader to a landscape which should matter in the larger scheme of things as the story continues.  Because it should matter where you are and why you are there as opposed to someplace else.  If your story could start some other place, then why isn’t it?  Using an unthought-through default will flatten your affect and present both a weaker opening and a weaker story overall.

This ties into the idea that what the reader must know intersects most commonly with points later in the story where the plot must turn, change direction or focus, or alter speed.

An opening generally includes focus on the part of the reader, and an element of turning inward and altering speed to match with the pace of the developing narrative.  That’s why the balance between information, action, and character needs to be so precise.

There are a number of ways to approach the deploying of information

1) set a simple scene, that is, a basic picture in the mind
    Joan stood on a hill overlooking the ocean.

2) reminders of backstory
In the context of a standalone or first novel, I call this backstory.  In the context of a subsequent volume of a series or sequence, I call this backfill. (These are just my personal terms; you don’t have to agree with or use them.)
These can be accomplished

within character interaction:
“Hey, Joan, how’s it going?  You get all that werewolf splatter from last night cleaned off your windshield?”

as reactions:
Joan looked up from trying to wrestle her key into the car door to see a big black dog running across the parking lot toward her.  With a shriek, she bolted over the asphalt, dodging the last few parked cars, and ran back into the store.
(This is backstory because her actions tell us of what happened just before the dog appeared.)

as reflection:
Never again would she look at dogs in the same way.

preferably not as infodump:
Joan stood on a hill overlooking the ocean.  Last night had been the worst one in her life.  She was a clerk at an office store, and when she had left the store at closing she had walked out to her car still irritated with her boss, Joe, who despite being a good looking single guy was so cheap that he hadn’t yet replaced the lights in the burned out fixtures in the parking lot.  Her key had gotten stuck in the lock again when she had heard a low whine and the clicking footsteps of an animal running toward her across the asphalt.

3) set up
Joan stumbled over the crowbar Jake had carelessly left on the grass in the front yard.  Damn it!  She checked her watch. Late already! She tossed the crowbar in the back seat of the car and then drove to work.

For some stories it works to use as many elements as possible.  The more you can combine character, plot, backgrounding, conflict, and impetus, the more punch you will get from the information you do disclose.  In such cases the key is to streamline and highlight the information  in a way that does not confuse or overload.

Other stories take a much simpler approach, relying on some element of familiarity–a familiar setting or motivation or setup–to engage the reader’s understanding of where and what and then letting the hook be the twist or spark that leaps out as unfamiliar or captivating. That is, you build on an existing model that you, the writer, think the reader will be familiar with, say “the new kid’s first day at school” or “arriving at the gates at sundown just as the guards are locking up for the night.”

As always, with information, you the writer have to decide how much to reveal, how much to hint at, and how much to save for later.  Balance is everything.

What Is Your Consensual Sex & Love Doing In My Epic Fantasy? (Spiritwalker Monday 16)

This post by Foz Meadows on Grittiness and Grimdark covers a lot of ground in discussing the current fashion for grimdark and why it is important to analyze some unexamined assumptions underlying an insistence that it is realistic.

She writes:

when you contend that realistic worldbuilding requires the inclusion of certain specific inequalities in order to count as realistic, you’re simultaneously asserting that such inequalities are inherent to reality

Cheryl Morgan follows up on this in a response post:

the fairly common view that because a book portrays the world the way it is, then it is portraying the world the only way it can be . . .
The problem is that if you try to challenge [this view] then your ideas are dismissed as escapist fantasy. It is a seductive argument. But it is wrong, and we know it is wrong.

Both of those posts are well worth reading and I don’t want to go over ground they have already covered (that discussion is already going on in those posts). In fact, the Spiritwalker Trilogy was in part written to address this very question of things always having to be “that way” when “that way” relies on and perpetuates within the story the racism, sexism, and other historically attested and currently experienced inequalities.

However, I want to follow up on the (seemingly endless) discussion of the depiction and frequency of rape and sexual violence (most commonly against women) in gritty realistic grimdark fantasy.

As it happens I have written about issues of sexual violence in fiction and film/media:

I’ve written about why I write about rape, and I’ve written about the disturbing prevalence of depictions of women in fear and pain in US media and literature.

That brings me to a point Anne Lyle raises in the comments to Meadows’ post:

Anne Lyle remarks that “it really irks me that consensual sex is often seen as “icky” in fantasy when rape gets a free pass.”

To which Meadows replies, “It’s like there’s this unwritten rule that rape can be described because the details are plot relevant, but sex can’t be because it isn’t, and every time, I can’t help thinking: where does this idea come from that the details of sex don’t matter?”

The details and presence of consensual sex and love, even in epic fantasy, can not only be plot relevant but crucial to the development of characters or to the outcome of a story. Writers make choices about how they construct and elaborate on their plots and what they leave out. Any time a writer weaves a plot element into the story that writer is making a decision about what is decorative and what is foundational. If consensual sex and love are developed and presented as part of actual lived experience that matters to the characters, as experience that changes and defines characters, then it will matter to the plot.

For the purposes of this post, my definition of consensual is twofold:

1) Between two (or more) consenting adults. Consent and intent are the crucial elements here; different cultures and eras will have different ages at which any given individual is considered to become an adult.

2) who are on the important levels equal in their ability to consent. For example both free (as in not indentured or enslaved unless they are BOTH so burdened). Paid sex workers and camp followers are another category in which it is easy to stereotypically write them as “in love” when in fact there are a lot of questions about equality of consent in such situations.

Feel free to argue with or augment this definition.

So here is my question:

What role does consensual sex and love play in epic fantasy?

In some cases I am sure there is “too much” for some people’s taste (and it is important to acknowledge that people’s tastes vary and that is how it should be). More often in my own reading I see less examination of the place of these central human emotions and desires. Consensual sex can be love or it can be sex. It can be romantic but it can be other things too. Love can be portrayed as intense hot romantic attraction or as a steady affection that may not be sexual at all.

Many societies both today and in the past have had arrangements by which marriages between families are arranged or brokered for a multitude of reasons (as would, for instance, be the case in most marriages made within the upper classes across medieval Europe for reasons of alliance, wealth, security, and inheritance). There is evidence that some of these marriages resulted in affectionate stable unions, and why not? Human beings on the whole seek connection; affection and trust are forms of creating connection.

It is also reasonable to assume that sexy hot love as a form of lustful attraction happens between people in all human populations, whether forbidden or allowed. Likewise in some societies this species of attraction is viewed as disruptive of the social order (for good reason!).

Out of the past we find time and again people who genuinely loved their partners or a lover (forbidden or otherwise). On Letters of Note you can read this heartbreaking letter from a widow to her dead husband, written in 16th century Korea, or this equally heartbreaking letter from a 17th century Japanese noblewoman before she commits suicide upon the death of her beloved husband. I don’t mean to highlight only tragic examples; love poetry and songs in one form or another are a staple in most societies. For just one example check out this review of Classical Poems by Arab Women (Abdullah al-Udhari).

To my mind, we lessen the story we are telling about human experience if we do not include and see as worthy all of human experience, especially including positive depictions of sex and love. What kind of world do we vision if we only tell the ugly stories about such intimate matters?

So I’ll ask again: How does epic fantasy–and heroic fantasy, and however you wish to define or parse the categories–do in conveying the realities of consensual sex and love?

Do me a favor: If you’re going to mention examples please don’t only mention examples from novels written by male writers (particularly white straight male writers of UK/US extraction). All too often these sorts of discussions devolve into talking about the same people over and over again. Nothing against male writers. Some of my best friends are male writers. Give the awesome dudes their props. But I would really like to see a more diverse set of examples woven into any discussion that may ensue.

Questions Fill In For Answers (Spiritwalker Monday 17) Mostly News

I am hopelessly behind on writing up the Creole Part II post (for those awaiting it), much less other Spiritwalker related posts I have titled or partially sketched out like the one discussing how The Taming of the Shrew influenced the series, or the one about Place Names in Europa and how most of them aren’t made up, or the one about the greetings in Cold Magic (& how they’re not my invention), or the one discussing some of the choices I made in Cold Fire regarding Cat’s behavior as a post titled “Cat Alone.” Also additional posts I have partially written on subjects such as world building and writing and so on.

The main reason I haven’t gotten any of these posts finished is that I’ve been working to complete a first draft of a YA (Young Adult) fantasy which I’m writing for my own reasons, to see how it goes and if I can manage it. Which I have now done: A first draft of  of volume one comes in at 125,000 words (that’s like a novella when you average 175,000 – 200,000 words per volume!) and I am revising it to send to my agent. Then we shall see. It is set in a secondary world and is not really based on anything else but as a pitch line I’m calling it Little Women meets Count of Monte Cristo in a world inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt.


Other news:

I have a story in a forthcoming anthology of epic fantasy themed short stories, Fearsome Journeys (edited by Jonathan Strahan) to be published May 2013.

Here’s the table of contents:

  • “The Effigy Engine: A Tale of the Red Hats” by Scott Lynch
  • “Amethyst, Shadow, and Light” by Saladin Ahmed
  • “Camp Follower” by Trudi Canavan
  • “The Dragonslayer of Merebarton” by K.J. Parker
  • “Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine” by Kate Elliott
  • “Spirits of Salt: A Tale of the Coral Sword” by Jeffrey Ford
  • “Forever People” by Robert V.S. Redick
  • “Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl” by Ellen Klages
  • “Shaggy Dog Bridge: A Black Company Story” by Glen Cook
  • “The Ghost Makers” by Elizabeth Bear
  • “One Last, Great Adventure” by Ellen Kushner & Ysabeau Wilce
  • “The High King Dreaming” by Daniel Abraham


In the UK, as I have already mentioned, all seven of the Crown of Stars volumes are now available as e-books. The first three are available as e-book editions in the USA (no timetable for volumes 4 – 7 that I have been told). I’m not sure about Australia/NZ (if you have been able to purchase an ebook of one of the Crown of Stars volumes in Australia or NZ, please let me know).


I hope to be able to have some good news to report soon regarding e-book versions of the Novels of the Jaran as well as the Highroad Trilogy and The Labyrinth Gate.


Cold Steel is still scheduled for June 25, 2013 . . . . slowly getting closer.


Since I have not managed much value-added in my post, if you have a question to ask me about any of my books, about writing or any related subject, or about something else, feel free to do so here. And I will answer.

The Shame of Self Aggrandizement (Spiritwalker Monday 18)

In a post dated January 2012 that consisted of an update and several links to reviews of Cold Magic and Cold Fire (here on WordPress and mirrored on Live Journal):
I wrote:

There’s a part of me that feels it is wrong for me to link to positive mentions of my work like the ones above, as if I am thereby somehow self aggrandizing or bragging or trying to act like I’m better than others or something. This is some of the baggage I carry from growing up as a girl in the 60s and 70s. I’m not quite sure from whence it stems, and I can certainly only speak to my own experience. Partly, it seemed to me that girls were meant to do well but never excel more than boys and certainly if they did excel weren’t ever to say anything of it because it was unseemly and boastful and something one ought to be ashamed of. In fact, there is a little piece of my psyche that feels ashamed (yes: ashamed!) when I read a [really positive and praising] review.


In the comments on Live Journal, lostrack621 wrote this in reply:

You nailed it right on the head; but I would go as far as to say that it’s not just related to the time you were growing up. I feel the same way, too, and I’m an ’80s child. I’m a member of the Association for Women in Science and there was an article recently about how one of the big issues and problems with women in science today (and arguably other fields) is that we are taught that bragging and taking ownership and simply being darn proud of our work is somehow “bad” and frowned upon. Part of it probably comes from the ’50s and ’60s, but the big issue is WHY is this belief persisting and what can be done to stop it. Every month there’s a new blurb about how to become more productive, well-known, etc etc because for some reason, we women are STILL behind the men. I mean, JEEZE LOUISE, we do these amazing things and there is no reason to feel bad about tooting our horns about it but for some crazy reason we do. So, I don’t know how we – collectively as amazing women – can break down these barriers other than doing what we’re best at and keep doing what we know is working for us. :: shrug :: I’ve come to the point where I just keep my head down and slog through (speaking of, I should get back to my work….)


First of all, I don’t want to suggest that ONLY women get this message because I know of men who get it, or who feel it, also.

“Simply being proud of our own work:” Amazing how contentious that can be. How difficult to own, as if it is shameful to say “I love this project” or “I really nailed this.” That can expand to discussing one’s own work in appropriate contexts, as if one ought to just produce the work and then never mention it again because that would be immodest or self aggrandizing. [I am not talking about situations where people push their project, work, or title into every conversation, but note that I feel obliged to make that caveat, as if I am sure that even by discussing this someone out there will be thinking that I am saying too much or that they once sat on a panel with a person whose every answer/statement was a reference to his/her own book, as if that is equivalent, related, the inevitable end of any mention substantive or brief of one’s own work.]

What is this? How many of you feel it? Where does the pressure come from?

I have felt undercut at odd times from unexpected places, and I often wonder if “we” even know we are doing it, if we judge praise or discussion of praise more harshly and if there is a gender–or race or ethnicity–component in how we do so. Is there praise that is never questioned and success that is deemed always “appropriate?” While other success is always suspect?

How about your own personal experience? Do you, like lostrack621, feel that “taking ownership” is frowned on in your field, for you? For others?