Jennifer Brozek | All posts tagged 'Tell me'

Tell Me - Kat Richardson

Kat Richardson is a friend of mine and I could not wait to pre-order her new fiction collection. Today, she tells me why no writing ever goes to waste.

 

I’d been thinking about putting out a collection of short stories for a couple of years, and all my previously-published pieces had reverted to me, so late in 2020 I got in touch with  John Hartness, who owns and operates Falstaff Books, about the idea, and he said “Yeah! Throw it at me!” Et voilà!

Well, not quite. See, I shut down the Greywalker series in 2014 partially because I was tired (which turned out to be cancer) and the characters were at a good place to pause. And the sales numbers were falling, so it seemed the timing was right to do something else. So, after the cancer thing, I sent out a big, fat SF novel that got published and won an award, and then sold so badly that the potential series was dropped by the publisher. Note: Don’t change pseudonyms when the old one still works. Whoops...

So, back to the drawing board, which produced another novel—historical dark fantasy crime (there’s a strange beast...)—that is doing the rounds. But I kept coming back to the idea of a collection of shorts, partially because I had two I really liked that had never been published, and several good ones that had come out in small, obscure volumes that are now out of print. I figured there wouldn’t be a better time, so I put all of the shorts into a file and sent a note to John, who graciously agreed to look over all fifteen. He chose ten—including the two that had never been published before (“Shatter,” and “Single-Edged”) and one that had only been on my website (“Reindeer Games”). Interestingly, one of the stories he didn’t take was in an out-of-print anthology that got re-released on audio in October, so that was a really smart call on John’s part, since that would been a problem contract-wise. (I think John is secretly clairvoyant. He’s also incredibly funny and a good writer, but that’s off-topic.)

Through the Grey is a pretty eclectic collection—science fiction, high fantasy, crime, fairy tales, urban fantasy, dark comedy, maybe a touch of magical realism, some comic satire, three stories from the Greywalker universe, and my usual mashup of mystery-plus-spec fic. I want it to do well, of course, not just because it’s my stuff, but also because John’s been a joy to work with, took a chance on this collection, and I want that to pay off for him, too. And, you know, after a while, I forgot that I’d written some of these, and it’s been fun to go through my old work and discover it’s still pretty good stuff. I hope other people think so too.

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Kat Richardson is currently wandering loose through the mountains of Western Washington in a trailer with two dogs and a husband. It's even her own husband. Along the way she has been an actor, singer, costumer, Renaissance Faire performer, dancer, writing instructor, seller of beanie babies, and a freelance editor. She is the author of nine bestselling novels in the Greywalker series, one award-winning SF novel, and a few unspeakable things that live in an electronic trunk. Trust me, it's better that way....

Tell Me - Cat Rambo

Cat Rambo tells me all about how even old writers can learn new writing tricks. In this case, it was about writing fast. No. Faster than that. And now double it. There you go, you get the idea…

 

One of the things I learned from this book is that writing fast, and doing so in a (mostly) chronological fashion worked beautifully for me, and paid off so much when it came time to edit. But man, it was hard work.

I wrote You Sexy Thing over the course of a month, in which every weekday I got up at 5:30 AM, went to the gym and worked out while thinking about what I was going to write, and then came home and wrote furiously in half hour sprints that were a mix of rapid typing and sometimes dictation when the words were coming too quickly for my fingers to put them down. And—this is a key point—I did not allow myself the Internet in any form till I was done. No checking email, no looking at social media, nothing in virtual space until the words were done, which was usually sometime between noon and one.

I averaged 5-6 thousand words each day, and every day I amazed myself by being able to hit my target. I did give myself the weekends off from writing, since I teach most Saturdays and Sundays, and the respite was welcome. I made myself go out to enjoy the world.

It was exhausting. I snagged more than one 15 minute nap midway through mornings when my energy flagged. It wasn’t a pace that would be sustainable for me on a daily basis, but I used a similar process to write the second book, and I know I’ll do it again with the third. I have an inchoate idea, a vision of a blue and steel installation hanging in space, and once I am done jotting down notes and embark on my journey, I’ll find out what the crew is doing there.

Something about that pace helped me hold the book in my head much better than happens when I’m writing slower, picking various scenes to focus on according to my interest rather than where they fall in the text. That’s what I’ve done with the Tabat books and they are a much harder edit, pulling out repetitions and echoes, removing places where I’ve contradicted myself.

It is perhaps that immersion in the book that happens with this process that has enabled something to happen with these characters than has with other, past ones. These characters live in my head and express their opinions much more readily—and frequently—than any other cast I’ve dealt with, and I love them for it. I know these characters, but they also have plenty to tell me in forthcoming books, and that is truly exciting.

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Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Their 250+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. In 2020 they won the Nebula Award for fantasy novelette Carpe Glitter. They are a former two-term President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Their most recent works are space opera You Sexy Thing (Tor Macmillan, November, 2021), as well as an anthology, The Reinvented Heart (Arc Manor, February, 2022),  co-edited with Jennifer Brozek.

Tell Me - Kris Katzen

Today Kris Katzen talks about what it is like to discover you share a Table of Contents with one of your favorite authors.

Dreams, Fantasies, then Beyond...

To quote my bio, I wrote my first ‘novel’ (seven handwritten pages!!) at age seven. As a kid, the only thing I did more voraciously than write, was read. Ok, maybe they tied. Either way, I lost myself in books. Drove my mom nuts. She’d be standing literally right beside me and I would not hear her calling my name until the third time. Drove. Her. Nuts.

So I read. Tons. And among my most favorite authors, Andre Norton loomed large. I favored science fiction and fantasy even then and loved her wonderful novels.

The older I got (and the more I learned about the publishing business) my idea of making a living as a writer…shifted. But that didn’t bother me. I write for the love of it and always will. Sales count as an added bonus. If whimsical thoughts of the New York Times Bestseller list moved from dream to fantasy, that never dulled my love of writing.

Another added bonus: all the wonderful writers I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of meeting. They fall on every part of the spectrum, running the gamut in what they write, why they write, where they are in their careers, and what they aim to accomplish. Some are even on that New York Times Bestseller list. Many are acquaintances; some are close friends. I’ve learned a great deal from all of them.

Also the older I got, the more I realized Andre Norton’s standing in the history of science fiction. It made perfect sense to me that I wasn’t alone in absolutely adoring her stories. As time passed, I found many, many new authors I enjoyed, but I always retained a special fondness for and admiration of Norton.

Which brings us to present day. Most of the time, I write my own novels and short stories. Some end up in anthologies, which is always fun. I’ve even collaborated on a few novels, which completely changes the process of writing. I enjoy the change of pace. Basically, though, I write in my own worlds. That works just fine, seeing as I make most hermits and recluses look like extroverted party-animal social butterflies.

I’ve had the good fortune to band together with a bunch of incredible authors in the form of a StoryBundle. I jumped at the chance because I’m a huge fan of the other writers. Even better, one of the volumes included is a cat anthology. My own beloved swarm of felines approves!

So I knew the StoryBundle included the anthology. After a day or two, I got around to checking out the table of contents.

One of the names leapt out at me!

ANDRE NORTON!

Wait, what??

Andre Norton!

A novel of mine is in a collection that includes Andre Norton.

When I say “Dreams, Fantasies, then Beyond”, I truly mean beyond. I never imagined this, never even conceived of it, that my writing would ever in any universe in any timeframe have any association—however ephemeral—with that of Andre Norton.

The seven-year-old ‘novelist’ in me is gleefully, joyfully dancing among the stars.

The present-day author is too.

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Kris Katzen wrote her first novel—all of seven! pages!—at age seven and hasn’t stopped since. Now with more than twenty novels and eighty short stories published, she writes mostly science fiction and fantasy. Occasional forays into other genres include action, romance, historical, and even a hockey novel. Her most recent novel Escapes is book one in the Interstellar Exiles series. Other series include Tales of Mimion and Sorcery & Steel. Visit www.BluetrixBooks.com/bibliography for a complete list of titles including those under all her pen names.

Tell Me - Loren Rhoads

Loren Rhoads tells me where her morbid sensibilities come from and they led to her memoir.

Putting together a memoir is a very strange thing. There are so many stories from you that have to pick though and choose which to tell. A book by its nature seems to indicate some kind of thread to tie them all together—but you have to decide which thread you’re going to follow. My thread is summed up pretty well in the title: This Morbid Life.

It took me a long time to own up to being morbid. I discovered horror movies on TV as a kid and spent my Saturday afternoons watching the old black & white Universal monsters. Eventually my mom, who’d been a ninth-grade English teacher, pointed out that a lot of the monsters I loved had started out as characters in books. That led me to Dracula, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and Frankenstein.

That led me to writing. I wrote short stories for years to escape from the farm where I lived, the small town where I grew up, the dying city where I went to college. Nothing about my life seemed interesting enough to write about until I moved to San Francisco in the late eighties.

Before I really got settled, I met the owners of RE/Search Books just before they released Modern Primitives. It’s hard to recapture that time now. Before Modern Primitives was published, very few people had tattoos. Most tattoos weren’t artistic. Body jewelry was limited to the S/M underground. RE/Search didn’t create the movement, but they documented it at exactly the right moment. And I was there, standing on the fringes, watching.

The first essay I ever wrote about my life was about accompanying my friend Christine to get her labial piercing. Christine had been my roommate when we attended the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop. She introduced herself by asking me to shave her head and touch up her mohawk. She was brave and fierce and I was honored when she asked me to come to her piercing. The experience was so amazing that I had to record it.

Once the essay was written, I sent it to a zine I loved called File 13. The best part of File 13 was the editor’s introductory essays, which were smart and honest. He inspired me to risk sharing my life with the world. To my amazement, he accepted the essay. He even featured it on the cover of the next issue.

I wrote for other zines after that: Cyber-Psychos AOD and Tail Spins, Gothik Voluptuary, Chaotic Order, and Zine World. Each one had its own focus, but they all allowed me to record and examine my life from facing my best friend’s HIV diagnosis to the days I spent exploring a cadaver lab to dealing with my dad’s catastrophic heart attack to my thrill at donating blood.

I started my own zine in 1996. The only name I ever considered for it was Morbid Curiosity. It collected first-person confessional essays from contributors around the world. It also gave me a platform where I could follow the inspiration of File 13’s introductions and talk about my own life.

My memoir This Morbid Life collects all those essays and more. It opens with a piece I wrote for Gothic.Net about taking prom pictures in two cemeteries in Flint, Michigan. It explores what it was like to publish Morbid Curiosity. It goes on to celebrate following my curiosity wherever it led.

In the end, being morbid is the thread that stitches my life together. It’s the element that brings joy to the darkness. It makes every sunny day that much sweeter. Every day above ground is a gift, which is exactly what This Morbid Life is about.

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Loren Rhoads is the author of a space opera trilogy, a duology about a succubus who falls in love with an angel, and a collection of short stories called Unsafe Words. You can find out more about her work at https://lorenrhoads.com/

Tell Me - Elizabeth Guizzetti

Elizabeth Guizzetti has been a friend and peer for years. Today, she tells me about her love of language, how it shifts over the decades, and how she keeps slang of the past alive in her vampire books today.

Thank you for having me today, Jennifer. I’m so excited to talk about one of my favorite types of research.

As an author, I love all historical research, but one of my passions is idiomatic phrasing and slang. As everyone is aware, slang changes generationally and within generations. Sometimes a word slides through several groups and is dropped within a year. Idioms tend to last longer but still follow fads and expose a period's morality and generational fears. For an author, idioms can make handy shortcuts to depict the inner thoughts and even a character's personality.

One of the biggest pitfalls that an author can run into while using idioms and slang is the human habbit of classifying speech by decade or era. An author must still be careful to research when a word is actually coined if your novel has a definite place and time.

My latest novel, Accident Among Vampires or What Would Dracula Do? is set in 1951-52. I did quite a bit of research on Seattle and Issaquah during these years, but I also researched the post war era as a whole and previous generations as the book is about vampires. I chose phrases that they would say (or write in their journals as this is an Epistolary novel) which defines their true characters.

For example: for the character of Agata, I ensured her idioms are primarily religious in nature and very old-fashioned because she is deeply religious and was born in 1478 and Reborn in 1509 in Moldavia (Currently Romania).  An idiom she uses often is she "knows her offspring/husband/whoever like the Lord’s Prayer.”

Derrik, a vampire born in 1824/Reborn 1851, uses religious phrasing too. They are more active, violent, and stereotypically curses of the Victorian Era. The idioms tend to appear when he is stressed or angry as literal curse words such as "Go to Blazes" and "Damn your eyes." He does not use the mild versions of these words, however, he does use “Blazes” as a filler word.

He also has a few secular phrases which he directs towards Norma, specifically, meaning nonsense. “Moonshine over water” and “All my eye.”

Now  the protagonist of the novel, Norma, is a 1950's teenager who is culturally Christian but does not have deep religious beliefs.

To show the innocent part of her personality: she uses childish versions of known idioms such as "Mind your beeswax," which became popular in the 1930s but were still used in the ’50s. She speaks politely to adults. As period-appropriate, she calls adults: "Sir" or "Ma'am" and after she is a vampire, "Honored Individual."

But her slang has Beat Generation roots. The Beat Generation began as a literary group that included: Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs II, Allen Ginsberg John Clellon Holmes. "Beat Generation" was coined in 1948, but the movement started earlier.

This means by 1951, Norma would have thought the Beats were cool. She would have likely appropriated from movies and detective stories based out of New York, such as Broadway is my Beat (aired 1949 – 54) or Inner Sanctum (1941 – 52). (The LGBTQ relationships were often coded while drug use and Jazz were obvious threats.)

Some examples of Norma’s slang includes referring to the police as “The fuzz.”

She refers to adults who annoy her as “duds” or “squares.” She also calls certain vampires “pretend squares” since outwardly, they appear to conform to societal rules, but their personal lives do not conform.

As an aside, this also means she would never use a word like “Beatnik” because the word did not exist until 1958, but even if it did, it started as a derogatory word.)

My goal is to always give readers an idea of who the character really is and the life which they have lived. Some people might say a bookish, radio, and movie-loving teen girl from a 1950s farming town would be shocked by activities between consensual adults in a vampire coven. No, the shocking thing was vampires existed. And suddenly she was a full-blown telepath and ached for blood.

Here is one of her reactions which she writes in her diary:

“I tried to question Bill about the vampires of the Paper Flower Consortium and other covens. He would barely speak of them, except Derrik. Yet, sometimes I had visions of Bill with them. Sometimes I think I dreamed them.

Many vampires, Bill included, exist openly in ways that would have been hidden or simply not allowed if they were humans in Issaquah. I am not sure if that’s why vampires love the city or if we can exist in ways we wish because we’re vampires. At any rate, Mom would tell me to be polite, mind my beeswax, and don’t show my onions.

(I bet Derrik wants me to do the same.) ...”

 If you want to use idioms in your work, some of my favorite online sources:

Of course, sometimes you just can't find the perfect turn of phrase you want, so I also occasionally make my own versions of expressions such as "hide your onions" or "don’t show your onions," which is something Norma's mother and her vampire father, Bill, say, based off the 1920s idiom, "You know one’s onions," which just means someone is knowledgeable about something.

 

ACCIDENT AMONG VAMPIRES (Or What Would Dracula Do?)

Issaquah, Washington, USA, 1951

My name is Norma Mae Rollins. I’m fourteen and an illegal vampire. I miss my mom, but new ghoulish appetites force me to remain with my creator. Bill didn’t mean to transform me. At least, that’s what he claims. His frightening temper, relentless lies, and morbid scientific experiments makes it hard to know what to believe.

However, someone snitched about Bill’s experiments to a nearby Coven. Now both of our corpses will burn. Bill won’t run. He is curious what happens to a vampire after final death. I don’t want to die again. It hurt so much the first time. Bill thinks his vampire boyfriend might shelter me. I must brave an eternal existence with elder vampires and other monsters who don’t think I ought to exist. Oh and figure out who I am allowed to eat.

A vampire’s reality is nothing like the movies.

Available on Kindle and Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/Accident-Among-Vampires-would-Dracula-ebook/dp/B08ZFQRYQS/

Signed Paperbacks can be found on my website: https://www.elizabethguizzetti.com/product-page/accident-among-vampires-paperback

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Elizabeth Guizzetti is an author, podcaster, illustrator, and a collector of dragons — the ceramic kind. She loves writing about vampires. Elizabeth lives in Seattle with her husband and dog, Walnut. Visit her at Instagram or Twitter at @E_Guizzetti, FB Author Page:  /Elizabeth.Guizzetti.Author or https://www.elizabethguizzetti.com

 

Tell Me - Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a friend of mine, a good editor, a better author, and an all-around spooky kind of gal. I love working with her. Today, she tells me why it took her 30 years to put together her first short story collection.


My first professional short fiction sale happened in 1994, when I sold a story called “Sane Reaction” to editors Stephen Jones and David Sutton for a British anthology called Dark Voices 6. Since then, I’ve sold more than 150 short stories, to magazines, anthologies, and online venues. My short work has won awards and a lot of nice reviews, it’s been frequently reprinted, and I’ve reached the point where I get a lot of invitations into new projects.

So why did I wait almost thirty years to put out my first real collection?

Well, first of all, there have been other collections. My first was a themed collection called Monsters of L.A., which put twenty classic monsters in the middle of the SoCal metrosprawl; but that collection included only original stories, and was not a “greatest hits” sort of book (it was also nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Collection).

I was honored when Cemetery Dance included me in their “Select” series, which were small books that collected just a few stories from each author; mine included four reprints.

In 2017, JournalStone put out a collection of my Halloween-themed stories (as a Halloween expert, I’ve written a considerable amount of both fiction and non-fiction about the holiday), The Samhanach and Other Halloween Experts. That one was a substantial collection of reprints that also included novellas.

But never a more general collection, until now. Why did I wait so long, especially when so many authors put out collections as soon as they have enough stories to create something that’s acceptably book-length?

There are a couple of reasons. First off, I think too many authors rush into collections too soon; I see new authors self-publishing collections all the time, and I wonder how they’ll get people to buy a book full of short stories by an author they may not know yet (collections and anthologies are both notoriously tough sells).

Second: as a kid growing up, I loved mass market paperback collections. When I had a few weeks’ worth of allowance saved up, my mom would drive me to the local used bookstore, I’d peruse the science fiction and horror sections, and come home with stacks of paperback collections by authors like Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, H. P. Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard. I probably learned the art of short story writing from absorbing those collections, so of course I always dreamed of having one of my own. Unfortunately, the mass market paperback story collection is largely a thing of the past now, kept only for the major bestselling authors and not the midlist masters and mistresses.

I still wanted a traditionally published book, although I’ve self-published some mini-collections, mainly as giveaways to my newsletter subscribers. I talked to a few publishers over the years, some expressed interest, but nothing ever came of it.

Cue Kate Jonez. Kate is the owner of a wonderful small press called Omnium Gatherum. A few years ago, while we were working together on assembling StokerCon™ 2017, Kate mentioned to me that she’d love to publish my collection.

And that’s how I landed here, with my first major retrospective collection, Night Terrors & Other Tales, being published by Omnium Gatherum. The collection includes twenty reprint stories, chosen by me, and one new piece written for the collection (“Night Terrors”). Kate did a wonderful job with the book, hiring my friend Greg Chapman to create the creepy cover art, and I couldn’t be prouder to have this big slice of me finally coming out into the world.

To quote the Grateful Dead…what a long strange trip it’s been.

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Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening.” She is a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award, the author of four novels and over 150 short stories, and a world-class Halloween expert. Her recent releases include Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction from Groundbreaking Female Writers 1852-1923 (co-edited with Leslie S. Klinger) and Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances; her latest short stories appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2020, Speculative Los Angeles, and Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other Spectacles. Forthcoming in 2021 is the collection Night Terrors & Other Tales. Lisa lives in Los Angeles and online at www.lisamorton.com .

Tell Me - Marsheila Rockwell

Marsheila Rockwell and I share a TOC for the forthcoming Turning the Tied anthology that will benefit the World Literacy Foundation. Today, she tells me her thoughts on how Ozma connects her the Ojibwe.

 

The story I have in IAMTW’s upcoming Turning the Tied anthology is called “A Prisoner Freed in Oz” and features Ozma of Oz. For those not familiar with her story (as detailed in L. Frank Baum’s The Marvelous Land of Oz), Ozma was born a girl, but as a baby was magically transformed into a boy named Tip, and lived as a boy until her teens, when she was finally transformed back into her true self. Modern readers will no doubt see a parallel to the transgender experience, although the book was first published in 1904, before that word was coined and well before it was an acceptable experience to write about in a children’s book.

Many people mistakenly believe that gender variance is a new idea, perhaps born out of the Sexual Revolutions of the 1920s or 1960s. But the character of Ozma hints that gender variance has existed for much longer than that, though perhaps not as openly expressed as it is today.

I am a reconnecting Chippewa (Ojibwe)/Métis (I’m not changing the subject, I promise). Broadly, ‘reconnecting’ in this context refers to an Indigenous person who was denied access to their tribe’s culture and heritage while growing up and is trying to rectify that situation as an adult, without the benefit of parents or grandparents to bridge the gap. Part of that effort (at least for me) includes trying to educate myself about and become active in Indigenous causes. It was during that process that I learned that many Indigenous tribes/nations recognized and accepted the concept of gender variance long before colonizers ever set foot on Turtle Island.

Specific beliefs and terminology varied from tribe to tribe—for instance, the Navajo called such people nadleeh and the Lakota used the term winkte. Gender variants included feminine woman, masculine woman, feminine man, masculine man, and sometimes both, or neither. Roles for such individuals varied depending on their tribe/nation, as well. Being Chippewa, I’ll focus on those beliefs.

According to Anton Treuer (Ojibwe), professor of Ojibwe linguistics at Bemidji State University, “the Ojibwe accepted variation. Men who chose to function as women were called ikwekanaazo, meaning ‘one who endeavors to be like a woman.’ Women who functioned as men were called ininiikaazo, meaning, ‘one who endeavors to be like a man.’” He goes on to say that the part played by these individuals, “was considered to be sacred, often because they assumed their roles based on spiritual dreams or visions.”

Today, ‘Two-Spirit’ is used as an umbrella term to try to capture the Indigenous gender variant experience. The word was coined in 1990 to replace the anthropological term berdache, which had traditionally been used to identify gender-variant Indigenous individuals. The etymology of that word, however, stems from the French bardache, which can be taken to mean “male prostitute,” and is patently offensive. While no experience is universal to all Indigenous people, and one word cannot possibly be used to frame an experience which differs across 574 federally recognized tribes, ‘Two-Spirit’ has, as its Wikipedia article notes, “generally received more acceptance and use than the term it replaced.”

So, long story short (ha!): Gender variance has been part of humanity for probably as long as there have been humans. Sadly, Ozma and the Ojibwe notwithstanding, acceptance of gender variance has been around for a much shorter time. But I look forward to the day when acceptance of all our differences will be the norm. Maybe my story will help with that. I hope so.

#TurningTheTied

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Marsheila (Marcy) Rockwell is the author of twelve SF/F/H books, dozens of poems and short stories, several articles on writing and the writing process, and a handful of comic book scripts. She is also a disabled pediatric cancer and mental health awareness advocate and a reconnecting Chippewa/Métis. She lives in the Valley of the Sun with her husband, three of their five children, two rescue kitties (one from hell), and far too many books.

Tell Me - Natania Barron

Natania Barron tells me just how accurate Monty Python and the Holy Grail is and how it relates to her latest book, Queen of None. It surprised me.

Queen of None

The first time I became aware of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it was because my parents were trying to explain it to me. They were both giggling so hard just trying to get the words out. I might have been thirteen or so, and I was pretty well convinced they’d lost their marbles. They kept talking about bloodthirsty rabbits. Which, quite frankly, didn’t seem very funny to me at all.

I didn’t quite grasp the humor until I finally saw the whole film later in high school. Then it became very much a thing. My nerd friends and I, as the eldest of the millennials, found the entire script of Monty Python and the Holy Grail on a BB somewhere, printed it out, and carried it around to every class. We began spouting quotes, particularly, “Very small rocks,” “I feel happy!” and “Help, help, I’m being repressed!” much to the sincere annoyance of just about everyone else.

It wasn’t until college, however, when I was deep into my own study of the Middle Ages, that I learned just how good this movie really was. And not just because of the humor. It turns out that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is weirdly, bizarrely, wonderfully… historically accurate in a number of ways.

Okay, but how?

Terry Jones is how. The late writer, actor, and comedian was also a seasoned medievalist. You might be familiar with his Medieval Lives series, from the BBC, but he was known as quite the scholar even outside of the glamor of film. His enthusiasm, humor, and joy had everything to do with what made Holy Grail so good.

And those rabbits? Totally historically accurate. There’s a really good overview about evil rabbits here from Jon Kaneko-James that will do it more justice than I can, but let’s just say that murderous, blood-thirsty rabbits are a very prolific theme in the Middle Ages. I studied illuminated manuscripts at length during my college days, and I found numerous examples. Now, with digital age in full swing, you can peruse thousands of manuscripts and do your own Where’s Waldo: Evil Rabbit Edition.

So, don’t even get me started on butt trumpets. Yes, butt trumpets. And snail men. And furious archer monkeys. Not to mention cats getting into everything some of the most beautiful, strange, and creative chimera monsters you’ll ever see (my favorites are from the Luttrell Psalter—which doesn’t just include monsters, but also depictions of daily life in beautiful, humorous detail). We may think that Terry Gilliam just sort of procured the images from his very original brain, but so much of the animation in the film is also directly adapted from illuminated manuscripts.

Perhaps that’s what’s always brought me back to the Medieval Period again and again. I never believed in a “Dark” age, really. Yes, of course, there were all kinds of very nasty things that happened in the period, from oppression to plague, from Church domination to war, from class exploitation to famine. It wasn’t an easy time to be a human being. But, regardless of the trials and tribulations, what illuminated manuscripts show us is a glimpse into the medieval mind, a mind capable of critique, humor, nuance, and vivid, technicolor imagination. Maybe we aren’t so different. Perhaps what makes existence tolerable now is what made it tolerable then.

It’s also the same reason that I haven’t given up on my studies. You’ll not just find my studies in medieval literature and history influence my work, but also my Twitter account. I’m a big fan of delving deep to find strange marginalia to share with my audience. Sometimes, they’re a little traumatized. Other times, they’re just thoroughly amused. We have a great deal more in common with people in the Middle Ages than we don’t, and it’s important that we learn from them.

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Natania Barron has been traveling to other worlds from a very young age, and will be forever indebted to Lucy Pevensie and Meg Murry for inspiring her to go on her own adventures. She currently resides in North Carolina with her family, and is, at heart, a hobbit–albeit it one with a Tookish streak a mile wide. Be sure to check out Queen of None.

Tell Me - Loren Rhoads

Loren Rhoads is a friend of mine and she’s in one of my critique groups. I love her research stories. If you haven’t read any of her stuff—fiction or non-fiction alike, you have a treat waiting for you. Today, she’s got one hell of a research story to tell you.

One of the stories in Unsafe Words, my new collection, features Alondra DeCourval, a witch who travels the world to protect people from supernatural monsters and vice versa. I’ve written a series of stories about her over the years.

While I haven’t yet finished a novel about Alondra, I know a lot about her life. Many of the stories I’ve written take place in the year after her teacher suffers a catastrophic heart attack. Alondra panics, unable to face living in the world without Victor’s protection. She goes to more and more extreme lengths to save his life. Although “Valentine” — the story in Unsafe Words — was written early in the cycle, it actually takes place toward the end of Victor’s life.

Of all the Alondra stories, “Valentine” had the most hands-on research. I was lucky enough to have a friend whose brother taught at a small university in Northern California. When I wished someone would teach a human anatomy class for writers, Tom invited me to visit his gross anatomy lab. For two days, he gave me private lessons, using his teaching cadavers.

It had been eighteen years since I dissected a fetal pig in ninth-grade Biology. Just stepping into a science classroom after so many years was strange. The room full of rows of black countertops, tall stools pulled alongside, felt like a dream from childhood.          

The bodies weren’t kept in refrigeration units. Instead, they waited in the front of the classroom, lying in a long stainless steel bin with a hinged two-piece top. One of the memories still clear from ninth-grade dissection was the headache-inducing smell of formaldehyde. Thank goodness preservative technology improved.

When Tom folded open the stainless steel lid, a length of muslin floated atop the brownish red liquid inside. I recoiled but couldn’t look away. Too thin for blood, the liquid reminded me of beef broth. Pools of oil slicked its surface.

Tom moved to the far end of the tank. “See that handle there? You can help me by turning it.”

There should have been scary music as we cranked the cadavers out of the fluid. The bodies rose slowly until the muslin took on their outlines. Two corpses lay head to feet. Through their shrouds, I saw bared teeth and the flensed musculature of jaw.

If Tom had made them twitch, I would have leapt out of my own skin.

He pulled on some heavy turquoise rubber gloves, then folded back the muslin so it shrouded both faces and one entire body. The other woman lay naked and revealed. Her skin had been stripped away. The muscle fibers of her chest were very directional and clear, the raw color of a New York strip steak. Some of the muscles on her arms had been removed to display the bones and tendons beneath. Her fingertips still had skin and nails. Her flesh was the color of dried blood.          

Over the next two days, Tom patiently led me through a semester’s worth of anatomy. Toward the end, he lectured me about cardiac structures. Without warning, he reached out to put a human heart in my hand.

The heart was smaller than I expected, about the size of my fist. I turned it over in my gloves, peering into every opening. I felt like Hamlet with Yorick’s skull. I knew instantly that I was gazing at my own death. My father will die of heart disease, like his father before him. I don’t see how I can escape destiny.

That moment — holding a stranger’s heart in my hand — led directly to writing “Valentine.”

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Loren Rhoads is the author of a space opera trilogy, a duology about a succubus who falls in love with an angel, and a collection of short stories called Unsafe Words. You can find out more about her work at https://lorenrhoads.com/

Tell Me - Adam Gaffen

I met Adam Gaffen while participating in the DragonCon mentoring sessions. He’s got a process to learning all about his novel’s characters and how that informed his decisions on the novel’s universe.

 

Today, I’d like to tell you about how I came to meet Cass and Ken, and how the process of getting to know them led me to creating an entire universe for them.

It all started with a name – Aiyana Cassidy. I knew, immediately, that nobody called her Aiyana, that her friends, her family, they all called her Cass. Once I knew that, I started to get a picture in my mind: red hair, glasses, very serious. A woman who could have traded on her looks, but instead relied on her brains. Proved herself over and over, and is now professionally respected. She does something that requires lots of both practical and theoretical knowledge, how about quantum mechanics tied to optical engineering? Then what? Well, who does she hang out with? Kendra, of course. Kendra Foster-Briggs, a friend from her childhood. Friend? No, more than a friend. Wife? Not yet. Fiancée? Yes.

So Kendra’s her fiancée, and…what? Who’s Kendra? Well, she’s blonde and beautiful and a former movie star. She and Cass grew up together in, in, in the Northern Imperium. What’s a Northern Imperium? It’s one of the countries that has replaced the current United States. How did that happen? Gee, I don’t know, and I don’t think they know either. Kendra was too busy chasing boys in school, and Cass was more interested in science than history. And then, and then, what? Cass went to MIT, of course, while Kendra went to get into the movies. No, not movies, sensies. She was the ‘bad girl’ of the two, and ‘sensies’ seems more interactive than ‘movies’. Now it’s years later, and they reunite because Kendra’s retired and Cass is working in Los Alamos. They fall in love, no, they fall back in love, and move in together.

Gee, what a cozy, domestic scene. But it’s not going anywhere yet; it’s static. Gotta move things along, right? What if they didn’t just fall in love with each other, but another person? Who’s that? Derek seems like a good name. Strong, reliable. Rich? Why not? Doesn’t have to work, so he does light sculpture, and that’s how Cass met him and started seeing him casually. Then seriously. Then introduced him to Kendra and was terrified, but they all hit it off, and finally Cass decides to propose to them both. That leads to a wedding. But, let’s see, what would you not expect from a 22nd Century wedding? How about the minister trying to assassinate Cass?

That would be unexpected.

So Cass and Ken and Derek are going to get married, and the minister pulls out a gun, no, a flechette gun, gotta remember it’s 2113, and then they Run Like Hell – hey! That’s a good title for a book! And we’re a going concern!

Now for more complications, and explanations. Figure out what Cass actually does for work. Kendra can’t just be an ex-actress, right? Has to be more to her. Maybe it was a cover? What if she’s semi-retired, but not as much from sensies as her other profession? And now the banter comes out, the snappy wit, the ease and familiarity between Cass and Ken. Kendra’s a fan of late 20th Century/early 21st Century pop culture, did you know that? No, I didn’t, but it makes sense, given some of the things she says.

Now that I knew more or less who they were, I could start putting together some more ideas, more explanations. Cass specializes in optical engineering and quantum mechanics, what if she put the two together and solved the problem of teleportation? That would make some people in the transportation industry very unhappy, wouldn’t it? Definitely! And if Kendra worked for an outfit that did protection for geniuses like Cass, that not only gives a plausible reason for her to go back to them but also tension between Cass and Ken – was it all just a job? And the outfit would also explain Kendra’s ability to deal with hiding in plain sight, and how to cover their tracks, and all sorts of issues.

And their stories just kept coming! So far I’ve written a quarter-million words in their universe, and they’re nowhere near done!

Thanks for dropping by! Now, if you’ll excuse me, Kendra’s tapping on my shoulder.

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Adam Gaffen hates writing about himself and does so as little as possible. He's spent most of his life dreaming about other times and places, but when he's on this planet he's with his wife, Michaela, and being plagued by their cats and dogs. He's a trained chef who won't work in restaurants, is seeking a degree in Philosophy (Politics, Morality and Law) at Arizona State University, and is busy writing the third volume of The Cassidy Chronicles. He currently lives in Maine but will be relocating to southern Colorado soon, where he's heard the snow actually melts on occasion.