The Lovely Dark

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It has been ages since I’ve posted anything, and I am sorry for that.  Chronic, debilitating illness has pared down my writing time to a very small window of my day, and I have wanted to use what little energy I have (that isn’t being spent on being a mom and taking care of myself) working on my stories, and a few health blogs for others who may be going through a similar mess…  But I have been wanting to put into words some thoughts that have been sprouting in the cellar for some time now.  Thoughts about the shades of earth and skin and the shadows our own realities cast over the realm of fantasy.

This comes about because of a review I received for my second book in the Fae of Fire and Stone series, Char.  It was a review from someone who was not a fan of my story or my style of writing, but that isn’t what bothers me.  Though it smarts, I always appreciate honesty and I love a review that shows that a person truly read and involved themselves in my story enough to dislike it so strongly!  Actually what bothers me about this particular review is the way in which the reviewer interpreted my descriptions of my main character’s dark complexion.  Among other things, the reviewer was upset that I had compared her skin to the color of dirt.  It still makes me cringe to hear it stated that way, for I had never intended anything so derogatory.

If you have read my stories, you will know how deeply tied my Fae characters are to nature; their very magic is derived from the powers of animals, plants and other elements of the natural world.  Soil, the earth itself, the very source of the plants and trees that are as vital to my fantasy world as it is to the world we live in, is no exception.  When I first envisioned my main character, Luna, I gave her skin the shades of the blackest, richest earth, inherited from her father, a man who was a certain type of Fae that had deep connections with fire and the earth’s violent, volcanic flames.  Luna was always meant to stand out in comparison to the other characters, who are of various shades, but none nearly as dark as she.  Few of the type of Fae from which Luna descended were well known or well represented in the population at that time.  This was, in my mind, a large part of what made her physically stunning, and even a part of what attracted her two love interests.

I think it should be stated as well that my editors and I considered the implications of skin color and the interpretations of various comments by different characters.  At times I portrayed Luna’s irritation over naïve and surprised comments made about her dark complexion, simply because, like many people, she would get tired of standing out due to her physical appearance, and would rather be known for her spirit, mind and abilities.  Still, her physical features are unique, and can’t be helped but to be noticed by those she encounters who rarely see skin as dark as hers.  There are not, however, the same negative connotations in this fantasy world that have for centuries plagued dark skin and various ethnic traits in our reality.  That’s because though she is physically modeled after the darkest of Africans, I was not writing a story of this world, of earth.  Luna is not African or African American– there is no Africa or America in my series, because it is not based on actual earth, but on an earth-like fantasy world.  Racism absolutely exists in my Fae of Fire and Stone series, however it is not a racism based on skin color or ethnicity; the racism in my series is one which pits humans against Fae (human-like beings with shape-shifting, earthy magic).  And among these two races, humans and Fae, can be found skin colors of every shade.

All that being said, I am particularly proud to have a main character of dark skin in my fantasy series.  There aren’t nearly enough African or African American characters in science fiction and fantasy novels, and that pains me.  Although Luna is neither African nor any other ethnicity as we define them, it is my hope that Luna’s presence in the realm of fantasy offers one more smart, powerful, dark skinned female protagonist to a genre that has traditionally been far too colorless for far too long.  Fantasy and sci-fi aside, I have been seeing more characters of color in children’s literature, graphic novels, and of course super hero movies like Black Panther, and my personal thoughts are that it’s about damn time!

I think back to the days when I was a girl and early teenager, eager to spend what little money I had on any paperback fantasy or sci-fi novel I could get my hands on.  I remember that I instantly and irrevocably became every main character I read, and I have often wondered to myself– would I have done so as easily if all the main characters had worn a different shade of skin– if my own appearance never made an appearance in the books I read?  How must it feel to be African American or Mexican or bi-racial, in love with fantasy or sci fi, and finding that your favorite worlds are awash in white, hardly any characters of your own coloring making an appearance, even fewer in the lead roles?  So I was thrilled to have envisioned a character of color as my leading protagonist (even if her ethnicity doesn’t truly match up to a race in our world), and my amazing editor, Sarena Ulibarri, also believed this was a wonderful opportunity to offer a touch more diversity in a genre that is desperate for it.  She tried very hard to find the perfect cover art based on my request to have an African American model represent Luna, however, it seemed impossible to find one that didn’t appear too modern.  My series is more of a medieval fantasy, and when describing my characters, I always envision them in medieval costume, yet my editor could find nothing that mixed both African skin tones and medieval, or at least non-modern dress and makeup.  That makes quite a sad statement in my mind.  I do love what she pieced together though– the silhouette of a woman standing in a candle’s flame.

Luna is not the only dark skinned character in my Fae of Fire and Stone series; there is Chumana and her son Lucanus, two of the Seven vital to my retelling of Snow White in the first book, Opal.  And Anna, Chumana’s granddaughter, who appears in Char, is a personal favorite of my characters– a librarian with more books than loved ones in her life.  But for those secondary characters, it wasn’t so much a purposeful decision to make them dark as just something that came up organically in my writing.  Luna, however, was my purposeful offering of a beautiful, dark skinned female protagonist to a world of literature that is literally starved of such.  And I relished in the ideals of her appearance.  I gave her the loveliness of skin the color of rich earth, hair the shade of night and wild texture of beard lichen, and a smile as stunning as a sudden shaft of moonlight; this was a part of who she was, Luna, woman of the night, of the moon.  And never had it crossed my mind that anyone reading the descriptions of her would think I’d meant that she was viewed as unlovely, or as little liked as dirt.  She was my muse for the story, my good and righteous witch, my strong, brilliant goddess who was meant to challenge the stereotypes of the monochromatic, long overdone, male-centric fantasy.  I hope you will see that when you pick up my work, and be swept away by Luna’s lovely darkness, just as every character in my story who encounters her truly is.

And so that you can read it for yourself, here is the description called into question, found in the beginning of Char.  Luna is still a child in this scene, and she is being considered by a small group of the most powerful Fae for entrance into their circle.  At the moment of the description, she is being observed by a character named Ruli, a dryad whose spirit is bound to the forest and the powers of the earth.  Ruli is hoping that Luna will grow to have similar earthly powers, as she intends to be Luna’s mentor, and so she views her with a pleased appraisal of her barefooted, natural appearance:

“As though in response to some unheard cheer, the girl (Luna) thrust off her brilliant cloak and rose, her naked feet indistinguishable in color from the caked-on mud that crumbled and fell from them.  Ruli smiled at this, thinking she knew the child for a marl.  Marls were common among Fae, their powers revolving around the rich earth and all her buried and rooted bounty…”

If mud, dirt, soil… whatever name you want to give it, means to you only something filthy and undesired, I hope this description, and moreover my portrayal of the strange and stunning powers of nature in my series, helps to change your mind.  Had I, myself, been born with such a lovely, dark complexion, the color of the earth’s deepest heart, I’d be all the more thrilled to read of Luna and her mud-covered feet.  As it stands, I can only watch behind Ruli’s knowing smile, and hope that others see Luna for what she was always meant to be; a woman of great power and beauty.

Char Front Cover 3.16.16

 

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Snow White, Maiden in the Moon

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While finishing up the final book in my series, I began to revisit my original inspiration for Opal; the fairy tale Snow White.  My ceaseless curiosity began with the mention of three birds that came to mourn over Snow White in her crystal casket: an owl, a raven (or crow), and a dove.  That was my first hint that this tale is very, very old, and steeped in symbolism the world has long forgotten.  I still can’t answer my original question– what are those birds a symbol of, and why are they important to the tale?  I’ve found a few possibilities in myth, including the story of Noah and the flood with his release of a raven and dove, and the Gilgamesh epic, with the release of a dove, followed by a swallow, then a raven.  I couldn’t help but relate this grouping of three birds to the three drops of blood spilled by Snow White’s mother, and the three colors that define Snow White both physically and symbolically; “…white as snow, red as blood, and black as ebony wood.”  On an interesting note, many swallows are ruddy or reddish in color, or have some reddish coloring somewhere on them, including the Red-rumped swallow and the Barn swallow, both of which occur in Iraq, the present-day location of the Sumerian lands of the Gilgamesh epic.  And of course we have the dove, which we most often imagine as white (or an owl, also often white, especially in association with the moon), and the black raven or crow.

Another area of the tale I came to question was the villainous step-mother.  I wondered what was going on with this inundation of evil mother-figures (anti-mothers, really) in so many fairy tales, and I decided to undo that part of the myth in my own story.  In the version The Young Slave, however, it is not a mother, nor step-mother, but an aunt by marriage that becomes jealous of the girl and ends up abusing her and making her into a slave.  Still, it’s yet another account of a woman’s jealousy.  Yet there are many other versions, or other tales with strikingly similar Snow White elements that have no wicked-woman figure at all, like that of The Glass Coffin, in which both parents are deceased, leaving the brother to care for his sister, and the only villain is a wizard who cannot stand Snow White’s rebuffal of his advances.  This tale, I believe, has many ties to the story of Brynhild and Sigurd, in which it is Brynhild’s father, or the superior male figure she serves as shield maiden, the god Odin, who chastises and then punishes her by way of a curse.  She spends quite a few moons (or centuries) ringed by a wall of fire and sleeping the mythic sleep of death, placing her firmly in the realm of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.  And beyond the ill-tempered father figure is the betrayal (purposeful or otherwise) by Brynhild’s lover/ intended husband.  He both saves her and disowners her, and even in some myths, fights and defeats her, then wrestles her into submission so that she may essentially be raped by King Gunther and taken as his bride.  What a lovely Prince Charming!  This, of course, mirrors the tale of Sun, Moon and Talia, the sleeping princess who wakes to find herself the mother of twins, born to a king who is already married.  The protective flames come in at the end of the tale, when the jealous queen tries to have Talia burned, but is thrown into the fire herself (and so it often goes with the wicked witch).

Nor is this a rare occurrence, the rape of a radiant, often semi-divine ancestor of Snow White.  There is the story of Prince Danila Govorila, in which a brother is put under a spell (by another jealous witch) that causes him to wish to marry his own sister (and this, of course, relates to a whole slew of Donkey-skin type fairy tales with incestuous fathers or brothers).  Moving further back in time, we find one of Snow White’s oldest beginnings in the form of Chione, a Greek name for “snow.”  Now there are various Chiones, or perhaps, various tales of one Chione.  The most famous is the one in which both the gods Apollo and Mercury decide to rape her in her sleep on the same day.  Then, too, there is the story of Diana (Athena) being offended because either Chione herself (sometimes named Andromeda) or her mother, brags that her beauty surpasses that of Athena’s, which leads to mass destruction (don’t offend the gods!) and a required sacrifice of the girl to a monster of the sea, or to Poseidon.  This then relates to the well-known myth of Eros and Psyche.  If you recall, Psyche’s beauty also ends up offending the goddess Venus, for which Psyche is tied up as a sacrifice to a dragon-like monster.  And if you don’t know how it ends, it is a beautiful, richly allegorical tale I encourage you to read.

Some pedigrees reveal that Boreas, the north wind, is Chione’s father–but in older tales, he was her “consort.”  I put consort in quotes because of the myth that sticks out in my mind of Boreas abducting Chione, taking her into the mountains and raping her, with the mountains themselves being named “Boreas’s bed.”  In the myth where Chione is the daughter of the ocean and the Nile river, you have a goddess who is raped by a peasant, and later taken to heaven by Hermes and transformed into a snow cloud.  And this story immediately set me in mind of the story of Inanna, who woke on a mountain to find She’d been raped by a peasant, and unleashed her wrath until the offender was found.  In case you think I’ve gone a bit too far in comparing the ancient goddess Inanna to Snow White, consider the fact that seven non-human creatures called the Annunaki serve as Inanna’s rescuers from the underworld (see Fairytale in the Ancient World by Graham Anderson).  Dwarfs, in fact, are not at all essential to the tale, where instead there might be seven brothers, seven robbers, seven giants, seven animals, seven gods… you get the idea.  So why not seven Annunaki?  Of course, just as often the seven helpers are omitted altogether, or greatly reduced in number, but also consider that Andromeda (mentioned above) went on to have seven sons, and is deified in a constellation, while Athena, Selene and Inanna are all essentially moon goddesses, described as white and beautiful beyond compare, Queen’s of Heaven with seven stars, or seven planetary bodies, following their path through the night sky.  Might they be dwarf stars?  I kid, but not entirely…

I’ve passed over countless tales that can be easily related to Snow White and its Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, East of the Sun, West of the Moon counterparts, but I’ll only mention one more, one which I found reference to in Lady of the Beasts by Buffie Johnson (one of my favorite go-to books for ancient animal symbolism).  “Parts of the legend of the Golden Fleece… were taken from the much older myth of Athamas, king of Boeotia.  His children by Nephale (‘Cloud’) escape being sacrificed by Ino, their stepmother, and ride off on a magical golden ram that plunges into the sea.”  She goes on to recount how one of the twins, the girl Helle, falls off and drowns in the sea (later to become a protectress of seafareres, just as Inanna was) while her twin brother goes on to sacrifice the ram and present its fleece to King Aeetes.  The king, knowing that the fleece is a magical protector of his own life, hangs it on a tree guarded by a dragon.  And now we’ve come back to Brynhild in her wall of flames, guarded by a dragon (or a dragon herself), awaiting rescue (or more likely theft and domination) by a king-seeker or a king-pleaser.  Inanna can be portrayed as a lamb, or ram, or as a tree protecting/feeding two rams or sheep, while Damuzi, the shepherd, is her consort.  And every depiction of this Inanna-tree in art puts me in mind of the Cinderella mother who has died and come back as a tree to aid her persecuted daughter.

The moon, beautiful mother of heaven; Selene with her seven companions, who travels beneath the horizon to the land of the dead, ever to rise again; whose twin is the sun/ her brother Apollo; whose colors vary from white to red to black (in the new moon); whose shape itself deifies the stages of motherhood, from crescent to full to death and loss, like the three ladies called the Fates, often portrayed in gowns of white, red and black.  Is the moon itself the face of Snow White, white as snow, red as blood, black as ebony–black as the night sky in which she dwells?  I have come to believe so, especially as I gaze upon the Tibetan Thangka on my wall, portraying the White Tara with her crimson smile, star-white flesh and ebony hair, a moon-like halo of a brilliant light behind her head.  Later I will tell you the tale of Tara’s Chinese counterpart, Kuan Yin, yet another Snow White, who, like the roots of Cinderella’s tree, dates far back into Chinese history.

moon face

 

The Beasts We Bring To War

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This morning I was watching Mongol, the 2007 epic of the life, and battles, of Genghis Khan.  As usual, during the third or fourth battle scene, I found myself cringing more over the fate of the horses than soldier after soldier being slain in frantic repetition.  I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.  There’s a certain monotony that disturbingly numbs the mind to the plight of so many nameless souls, and no variety in gruesome detail (thankfully pared down in this particular movie) is enough to really shock anymore, mainly because it’s been so overdone in film.  I find myself totally disengaged, and often fast forwarding to the end of many battles– it’s been done and done and done, a thousand plunges of sword and spear and arrow into every square inch of human flesh.  Is there any battle that’s truly unique?  As a writer, I sometimes wonder if the only inspiration in a movie war scene is the engaging sonata played as a soundtrack.  Without the music, I’m not sure I could make it through any of them.

Once again, in bored apathy over the waste of human life, I found myself instead pondering the fate of horse, camel, elephant; those creatures who have no inclination to wage war in the first place, yet are forced to play a role, facing mutilation and death as surely as any of the men they carry upon their backs.  It confounds me to think that many of them were bred solely for this purpose, and so loyal to their masters that they would charge straight into chaos when commanded, even when the carnage and turmoil around them must have overwhelmed their senses.  And I cringe, most of all, to think that these large quadrupeds don’t often die as easily or as quickly as we do.  They trip and fall, bones snapped by their own weight.  They rear in terror, unable to free themselves of the corpse that drags behind them or tangles beneath their feet.  They limp and toss their heads and charge in maddened furry, gashes through thick muscle disabling them so that they bleed and suffer long before any vital organ begins to fail.

As I shifted uncomfortably during another battle scene, my newly adopted dog, dosing on the couch beside me, woke and stirred, giving me a few licks before repositioning herself and settling back by my side.  It takes so little to earn a socialized animal’s affection and devotion, and it takes so very much to break their trusting spirits.  My sweet girl was found tangled in barbed wire, gnawing on her tale, which had been broken and begun to die.  She had not been spayed and had no identification or collar– no evidence at all that she was owned.  The shelter took care of her immediate medical needs before we adopted her, and our vet confirmed that she must have had a litter of puppies before she was found (who knows where they are).  We adopted her on June 10th, and in less than a month she has gone from literally quaking in fright and constantly hiding behind my husband’s armchair, to a tap-dancing, singing bundle of wiggling joy and a loving, lazy lap dog.  I call her my little magnet because I can’t move a foot without her getting up, moving alongside me, and plopping down at my feet again.  That she can trust, and so willingly love, after all she has been through, only confirms what I have often thought to be true–some animals are more than human.

Maybe that’s why there’s a blurred line between what is animal and what is human in my Fae of Fire and Stone series.  I’m working on the final book, Bloodstone, in which there will likely be an epic battle (hence why I wanted to watch an epic, to get me in the mood to write such a scene).  But you won’t find the details skimming over the beasts that bear the warring parties, for in my series, the warring parties are both beast and human.  Horses who bear men are men themselves, and bird, and antelope, and bee…  Every Fae being, animal or human in shape, has a sentient mind, and every mind a beast within.  Considering the vast history of warfare, I can’t help but wonder how many billions of people have had little or no choice in their involvement.  I don’t have to wonder about the animals; it’s pretty certain that none were involved by their own volition.  And that, to me, is the most devastating aspect of war; the exploitation of innocent life.  I suppose I have strived in this series to give voice back to animals– to offer them a taste of the same free will humans enjoy.  Even if it’s only in the pages of fantasy.

Pearl Picture

My writing buddy, Pearl

YA Twitter Chat

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Today World Weaver Press hosted a live Twitter chat about young adult fantasy.  I joined the two fabulous YA authors Michelle Lowery Combs, author of Heir to the Lamp and Solomon’s Bell, and A. E. Decker, author of The Meddlers of Moonshine and The Falling of the Moon, to talk about the challenges and rewards of writing YA fantasy.

For those who weren’t able to make it, I’ve posted below my answers to the questions World Weaver Press editor Sarena Ulibarri asked (and a few that didn’t make it in to the Twitter chat).  And here are my questions for you:  If you pick up a book that intrigues you, and then you spot a YA label on it, does that impact your decision to read it? And… what do you what to see more of in YA?

I would love to hear from you!  Feel free to post your comments, or even Tweet about them.  To find the Twitter chat from today, simply enter SFFLunch into the search box on Twitter.  Happy reading!

In a few sentences, please briefly describe your books for our #SFFlunch guests.  OPAL and CHAR are my first two books in the trilogy Fae of Fire and Stone and I am currently finishing up the 3rd book, BLOODSTONE.  My books each chronicle a young woman’s coming of age in a world where humans live alongside the shape-shifting, powerful Fae. The protagonists of OPAL and CHAR are Fae women who struggle with the impact of their powers and their human and Fae relationships.  The protagonist of BLOODSTONE is a human woman, a farmer’s daughter, but with some surprising gifts of her own to offer.

What’s the most rewarding thing for you about writing for a younger audience?  Knowing how emotionally charged most YA readers are.  They are almost never ambivalent—they will either love or hate my book, and I welcome that!  Also knowing that I could potentially be the first writer to introduce them to a novel way of looking at things.  I can imagine an African American young woman picking up CHAR because she finally found a YA fantasy with a dark protagonist.  Not one about African American issues (because she’s already read all those) but just a fantasy with a kick ass black heroine!  I love creating the unexpected. I hope my stories are loved, but if not, that’s ok. What I’m not ok with is not making an impact. YA readers expect emotional impact, and that’s a thrill to deliver.

What specific challenges did you encounter in writing your YA books?  Accepting that my books were YA in the first place.  A dad once asked me if OPAL was appropriate for his teen daughter. I told him the bits that might be offensive, but he waved them off.  She can handle that, he said.  That says a lot about YA—readers can and should be challenged by difficult, terrible circumstances and/ or decisions in a book. The best YA does this well.

What’s your favorite part of the book to write? What’s the hardest?  My favorite part are the early scenes that start to come together.  I don’t write chronologically so when two flashes of inspiration knit themselves together, I really feel the birth of a story.  The hardest is almost always the ending.  It’s like boxing up a friendship and packing it away—it’s hard to let go.

If you could spend a day with one of your characters, who would it be and what would you do?  I would choose Vidar, the unwilling Prince of Fae. He’s a contemplative scribe, cruising through ancient libraries for rare magic and old tales.  Vidar inherits a dark past and has his own wrongs to right.  He’s an unstable guy, but has some awesome powers over water he’s newly discovered.  I’d be a mouse in his pocket in a medieval library, then shape-shift with him in the oceans of the third book to speak with a whale.  And I’d witness his transformation from arrogant, angry youth to sober manhood. I guess I’m doing that already, in the writing of BLOODSTONE.

There seems to be a pretty big range in YA fiction regarding what’s appropriate for romance and sexual content. How do you approach these themes in your own YA?  I do what feels right for the story.  But I’m not a romance writer. I don’t delve into erotica. That’s just not what I write.  Many love scenes in my books came about unexpectedly, sometimes between characters I never wanted to fall in love.  Relationships deserve a climax of sorts. We need to treat sex as a part of human nature, not something sinful or disquieting.  We also need to keep in mind the book’s style, not just the age of the audience. If it’s not a romance, an erotic scene may be inappropriate.

YA definitely doesn’t shy away from tough topics: violence, tyranny, societal or environmental collapse, etc. What tough topics have you dealt with in your YA, or what do you want to tackle in upcoming projects?  Throughout my series there is a theme of intolerance and persecution. The Fae are feared. Their lives and heritage are threatened.  Especially in CHAR, we see the threat of genocide, and the emotional scarring of a people undergoing persecution and mutilation.  The persecution of Fae in my books is also symbolic of human fear and destructive control over wild, untamed nature.  OPAL touches on a relationship with an abusive father, deals with grief and coming of age without a mother and an estranged father.  Opal deals with loneliness in growing up, whether your parents are estranged, deceased, or even a loving presence in your life.  In CHAR, Luna learns that power and rage are deadly weapons; she learns temperament in a most excruciating way.  Luna’s story climaxes with the devastation caused by her decisions. Her punishment is harsh.  Also in CHAR, Vidar is a youth with a family history littered with betrayal and murder; he’s embittered by his mother’s abandonment.  I will go on to face all the ugly issues that rear up naturally in my stories. They need to be addressed; our readers expect it.

Surveys report that many readers of YA books are in fact over the age of 30. What do you think is the appeal of YA books for adults?  Adults have grown out of the loss of inhibition. They know the disappointments that come with responsibility and routine.  Yet adults well remember a time when the magic of life was still roaring through their veins, and they miss that.  Who doesn’t wonder what other stories their lives could have become?  Who doesn’t occasionally get disgusted with their ever-after?  It’s easier, and maybe smarter, to relive the perils of youth through reading, rather than to actually rewrite your own life.  Some go through a mid-life crisis, others read YA.

Michelle, your series is solidly YA, but Ann and Kristina, your books could be considered “crossover.” How much is “YA” a label you identify with, and how much is a label that has been placed on your work?  I have written purposeful YA, and I have written fantasy that I thought was for adults.  My short story If It Rains in Sucker Literary was meant for a YA audience. It’s got a much edgier voice.  OPAL and CHAR were books without an intended YA genre, and I was even surprised by the label at first.  But it definitely fits.  It is such an important and impacting genre that I am thrilled when any of my stories fits into the realm of YA.

Where is your favorite place to write?  Under my sunlamp, in a quiet house, with absolutely no agenda. The setting doesn’t matter as much as the silence. Being a mom of two busy boys, I’ll take all the uninterrupted quiet I can get.

opal-cover-newChar Front Cover 3.16.16

A Character By Any Other Name

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Have you ever wondered how an author chooses the right name for their characters?  Is it just a matter of what sounds good?  Or does meaning play a part, or some deep, personal life experience?  Do authors name characters after friends and loved ones (not me)?  And how important, really, is a name?

I am currently working on my third book in a trilogy and have several short stories published, and therefore have named countless characters, and I still wonder how all this works!  In fact, I have been contemplating this since some of my earliest days of writing.  One of the first books I bought with my own money was a baby name book (along with a myriad of five dollar fantasy and scifi novels at our small town Hallmark Gift Store.  I know.  I’m getting old.)  I still have that dog-eared, highlighted, much loved baby name book on my shelf today–and I still use it.  There is something fascinating in flipping through a hefty volume of personal names, from their various and often mixed cultural heritages to their meanings from simple place names to more mysterious or even unknown meanings.  And it always gets me thinking–how does one smash an entire soul into a single sound?  And yet, if we didn’t, where would we be?  Who would we be?

I have been toying with the concept of “being named” ever since I had to decide upon that first character name for the novel I set out to write as a twelve year old.  It was an epic historical fiction involving a family of orphaned children, hand written in a horrendous mess of pages stuffed into a fuchsia three-ring binder.   I cringe when I think back upon how I named my first characters.  One was Elton, after my favorite singer at the time, Elton John.  Another was Star, because I thought it was pretty.  Very little thought went into the ethnic heritage or historic setting of my story, as probably should have.  And my main character had a name all her own.  She was a twelve year old girl (of course) that had outlived the accidental death of both her parents and was left fighting for the survival of her younger siblings against the ravages of slow starvation, a deadly winter and a threating pack of wolves in the woods beyond their dilapidated farm house.  Her name?  Tranquility; Quill for short.  I don’t know if my twelve year old mind necessarily understood the irony in that–I think I just wanted something unique.  But looking back now, I feel as though I’ve been re-introduced to my own childhood psychology!

I have yet to outgrow my odd fascination with names.  In fact, I might even be a bit crazy over them.  There have even been times when I’ve decided there isn’t a name out there that can fit one or more of my characters, and I simply refuse to slap a “My Name Is:” sticker on their shirt.  It’s like when you find yourself grappling for a word that just doesn’t exist in our very finite language–nothing expresses the depth of your meaning, and what comes close sounds too trite or cliché.  So sometimes, I just refuse to play by the rules.  Here’s a snippet from my short story Pandora, published in Far Off Places online magazine.  It’s a story in which both my main characters remain nameless throughout:

The daughter strains through shadow, ignoring the hair that has been nudged out of her pony tail by the press of the mattress, a soft ceiling to keep her secure. She unpockets her portable sun, squeezes out a little light. The mother speaks in a tense, black scrawl, a scar across the belly of time. “Memories,” the Adidas box is labeled, renamed like an orphan.

And there’s that whole orphan theme again, but let’s not delve too deep in my strange psyche.  In my 2012 novella OPAL, my main character isn’t given a name until the end of the book.  By no means am I recommending such strange conventions to other writers–I still feel somewhat amazed that my publishers didn’t reject these stories outright just for the sake of awkwardness alone!  I did have one editor tell me I really ought to name the main character in a short story I submitted–and I did, but it was tough to do.  I felt I just couldn’t condense her soul into a mere handful of letters!

Perhaps my love/hate relationship with names stemmed from the fact that I never felt a strong connection with my own name.  It’s not so much that I dislike it, it’s just a bit of a mouthful (especially now that I’m married to a Wojtaszek!) and it always irked me that people could never seem to get my first name right.  I was constantly being called Kristy, Kristen, Kris, Krissy, Krista– every feminine K or C name out there but my own.  I always wondered why it was so hard for people to pronounce my name– if you can say Kristine, is adding an “uh” sound at the end really that difficult?  Finally, I learned to introduce myself as “Kristina, but you can just call me Tina.”  To this day, most of my family and close friends call me Tina– I figured no one could botch such a short, simple name as that, and no one ever has.  But I secretly love when someone calls me by my rightful name–and actually says it right!

When it came to naming my own children, I chose simple, easy to say names for that very reason (and because they have a crazy enough last name to contend with).  In fact, they are very old fashioned names too.  If I had had a daughter, she’d have been named Anne.  Simple, endearing, and though it can be misspelled, no one would ever mispronounce it!

I’ve come to the conclusion that names are to people (and characters) what words are to language: a necessary convention, but for the most part, meaningless.  As my nine year old will tell you, say a word enough times and it starts to sound really weird–the same goes for names, and they are odd, if you think about it.  A mash-up of lost meanings, all but abandoned cultures, societal trends and language-dependent pronunciations.  And the spellings of some of these names today?  We won’t go there…  Suffice it to say, it’s the person behind the name who gives it meaning and life.  And that goes for characters, too.  So if you’re struggling to name that wonderfully unique character, or straining over that horribly unique and unpronounceable name some deranged author has given your favorite character, remember; a soul by any other name would be as sweet.

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John Knocking

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Today on World Weaver Press you can read one of my short stories for free.  Yep, the whole story is there, no clicking or signing up for anything required.  It is one of fifteen stories in the ebook Speculative Story Bites edited by Sarena Ulibarri.  My story, John Knocking, is a sort of horrific Doctor Dolittle.  I still do a double take when I see my name associated with horror, but yes, I’ve stuck a toe in that.  I also have a ghost story in Specter Spectacular: 13 Ghostly Tales if you’re looking for more Halloween reads.

So I guess I do have a bit of a dark side, at least around this time of year.  Enjoy!

coffins

 

 

Autism in Fantasy

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Last week, I found myself journeying through two very different realms: one real, the other more real than I ever expected it to be.  The first journey was a vacation to the Pacific Northwest, where my husband, sons and I witnessed some amazing sites, from the stark and stunning landscape of Mount St. Helens to a boat ride off the coast of British Columbia where enormous, black orca fins sliced through the water and humpback tails waved at us from afar.

As if that wasn’t enough of a fantasy, I did a bit of reading on the trip as well, and the fantasy novel I dove into shocked me with a dose of reality I hadn’t expected.  The book was The Reindeer People by Megan Lindholm (who also writes under the name Robin Hobb).  I picked up a copy because I was doing a bit of research on the arctic tundra and I wanted to read a fantasy in that setting.  When I saw that the book was compared to Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel, another heartbreaking favorite of mine, there was no question I had to read this.  The Reindeer People did not disappoint (I am now waiting less than patiently for book two to arrive in the mail).  But what kept me most absorbed had nothing to do with the arctic setting, or even the elements of fantasy, well written as they were.  It was a single character, a boy named Kerlew, who reminded me, most painfully, of my own son.

It is one of life’s great ironies when a complete stranger puts your own hopes and hurts into the words you’ve been searching for all along.  30,000 feet up on the plane ride back home, and I was floored as I read.  I have written in past blogs about my son; a smart, compassionate little boy with Asperger’s, and of some of the challenges we have faced together.  While diagnoses of Autism spectrum disorders are becoming more commonly talked about today, the actual help and support for families facing resulting challenges are a bit lagging.  And often, as a parent, I tire of the research, the talks, the fight for more support, for help at home and school.  What I crave are the laughter and tears, the empathy, the stark honesty of another parent who is on the same journey of attempting to mold an iron-willed, awfully intelligent child into the social norms of society.  But suddenly I’d found her, a mother just like me.  She may have been a character in a fantasy novel, in a prehistoric setting dowsed with magic, no less, yet, like me, her biggest challenges were with the sundry, patience-testing tasks of raising a son who is other.

I cannot say that the character Kerlew is an actual depiction of a child with Autism.  None of the author interviews I was able to pull up talk about this, though it seems other book reviewers out there have made the connection as well.  Regardless, it is the most accurate depiction of the challenges of raising a child with Asperger’s I have yet read, aside from A Thorn In My Pocket, written by Temple Grandin’s mother (which I highly recommend).  In awe, I found myself dog-earing pages where the mother and son interactions seemed to come straight from my own life, and put into words examples of my son’s unique way of thinking; Megan Lindholm has so simply and eloquently voiced my own, very personal struggles with my son.  Here’s one such conversation between Kerlew and his mother:

“Why didn’t you come and tell me there was someone to see me, when Rolke first got here?”
Kerlew’s forehead wrinkled with concentration.  “I did.  But you gave me the meat and told me to go outside, so I did.”
“Must one thing chase another out of your head?  Next time, give the message first.  Anytime you have a message for me, give the message first.  From now on.”
“I didn’t know,” he complained as he went back to his meat.  “You never told me that before.  It wasn’t my fault.”

I cannot tell you how many times something that I thought would be common sense was an absolutely foreign idea to my son.  And he, when someone is upset by his inappropriate response, replies in almost the exact same way as Kerlew.  “How was I supposed to know?  You never told me that!”  And though it is tempting, it isn’t right to say, “I shouldn’t have to tell you,” because the fact is, we do.  Children with Asperger’s often need to be told exactly how to handle a certain social interaction, at least until they learn to mimic appropriate behavior.

As an example of this, when my son was in preschool, I puzzled over his aversion to talking on the phone.  One day, when I put him on the phone with his grandma, who he’d been missing, he got extremely upset, held the phone back to me and said, “Tell me what to say!”  I realized then that it wasn’t the phone itself or the other person on the line that made him uncomfortable–he was simply terrified of saying “the wrong thing.”  If the other person didn’t dictate the entire conversation, or if they required from him more than a yes or no answer, he was at a loss.  It’s not that he didn’t have things to tell her; he would beg for me to call grandma so he could tell her about his day, but if I didn’t feed him a sentence or two to encourage him, he would be overwhelmed by the choices of words, by what to say first, by the idea that there must be some right or wrong way to converse, and would simply shut down.  Once, he even said to me, “Tell me the rules,” as if laws had been written somewhere about how to speak on the phone.  Kerlew, on the other hand, seems often to have no qualms about what he says, and says the most inappropriate things at just the wrong time, much to his mother’s despair.  And I can relate to that as well.

Here’s another passage that so mirrors my own understanding of my son:

“It is hard to explain to someone who doesn’t know him.  The thoughts of this moment drive from his mind the instructions of a moment ago.  It is not as if he were stupid.  He is always thinking, but of something else.  He had his own ideas of what is important and what is not.  Two days ago I saw a bruise on his arm, and asked him about it.  Three days ago, Joboam grabbed him there.  Why didn’t he tell me?  Because he forgot, because that was the day he found the patch of frozen berries and dug them up and ate them, and I asked him what the red on his mouth was, so he told me about the berries instead.  And, to him, that makes sense!”

Not only is Kerlew misunderstood (and often abused) by almost everyone in the book due to his differences, but he is also, in many ways, the most intelligent character in the story.  It is he who solves the mystery of a crime that does not even involve him, while no one else but the reader has managed to piece it together by the end of the book.  He also surprises both the reader and his mother now and then with sudden insight beyond his years, and oh, how my son has made my jaw drop, noticing and understanding things I would never have thought he could at so young an age.  Kerlew also takes things at face value, regardless of context, and the other children tease him relentlessly for it.  My son has the same face-value logic, often giving the correct, technical answer, and missing the idea of what’s being asked altogether.  Just the other day, he was doing homework involving cities and states, and my husband asked him if he knew the capital of Ohio.  “Duh,” he said, “O!”  (Well, when you spell the word out, yes, that first O is the capital.)  Meanwhile, he had no idea what was so funny.

What you might not appreciate about Kerlew’s character when you read the book is a desperate need to show others his talents and superiority.  The common reader will find him arrogant and egotistic.  But I happen to know from experience with my own child that this is actually a sign of deep self-consciousness, being aware of his own social failings.  My own son often seeks to make up for his social lagging by proving himself logically or physically superior to his peers.  Like the rest of us, he is desperate to be liked, he just goes about it the wrong way sometimes.

There are stark differences, of course, between my son and Kerlew– Kerlew is quite distant and often fearful of his mother, and he does not like to be touched by her.  Though many children with Asperger’s or autism do not like to be touched, my son is not this way.  He might not be able to stand the sound of an eraser rubbed on paper, and might be overly disgusted by the sight of bare feet, but my little guy is a cuddler and a hugger, especially with me.  Still, the similarities were far more numerous than the differences, and reading about Kerlew was just uncanny.  Which is why I want to reintroduce this out of print book to readers, especially since there is such a strong outcry today for more diverse characters in speculative fiction, including characters on the autism spectrum.   The novel itself excels on so many levels, and if you’re a fantasy reader, you should read it simply for that.  But for those raising a child on the spectrum, The Reindeer People provides something a little closer to home.  Something a little too real in the realm of fantasy.

As we flew back home from our trip, I had to hold back tears as I read.  I glanced at my son where he sat by the plane window, arms out in front of his face as his fingers stroked his thumbs in the repetitive motion he does when excited (the technical term of which is self-stimulatory behavior, or self-stimming).  When he does this, my husband says he looks as though he’s casting a spell, and he really does.  I knew that any one of the strangers on that airplane could look at him at that moment and see his otherness, see nothing but his otherness, and I honestly and absolutely did not care.  I was glad that I had made the decision long ago not to criticize him or try to stop him from self-stimming.  It only comforts him and hurts no one.  He’ll be teased for it one day, of that I’m sure, and he will find other, less visible ways to move his hands and feet, but until then, let him be.  With all the other struggles I face in preparing him for a less than fantastical world, let this one thing be his own.  I smiled through my tears as I watched him, for once finding a way past the constant guilt that dogs me, as he conjured invisible enchantments over a world far below us.

I am so proud of him; proud of his bravery and ever-positive attitude as he overcomes challenges most children will never know.  I am proud of his authenticity, his uniqueness.  He truly is magical to me.

Megan Lindholm, I don’t know if you had any intention of portraying a child with autism in your novel, but kudos to you regardless.  You’ve written something very insightful that echoes across time and realms, calling us all to be a bit more kind, a bit more considerate, and a bit more open minded to those who display some otherness, and to those who love them.  For that, I thank you.

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My son in the plane’s cockpit, giving a thumbs up when the pilot asked if he was ready to fly us home.

 

 

 

 

Sitting Still

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Today was a great lesson in patience for my young son, as I introduced him to a mysterious denizen of this wild world; a bird that vastly outshines even the most wondrous of fantasy characters of my own books.

If we hadn’t been on a narrow country road with steep ditches on either side, I’d have pulled a U-ie.  Because as we passed, I saw a regal little bird I haven’t seen in years, sitting proudly on a cement barrier over a culvert.  Its dark, fanned out crown set above a white throat, and that over-long pointed beak like a thick pair of needlenose pliers was too distinctive to misinterpret.

“I just saw a kingfisher!” I shouted.  My two boys, in the backseat, just looked at each other.  “A what?”  I so wanted to pull a U-ie.  But we really didn’t have time to risk getting stuck in a ditch, as I had to get my older son to his last day of horse camp on time.  But as we left camp, I drove slowly down that country road with my younger son in tow until I spotted the cement barrier and found a semi-flat area to pull off in.  My six year old still didn’t understand what all the fuss was about, and wondered why we were crouched at the corner of a slime-covered creek and a barbed wire fence, haloed by sweat bees, being as quiet and still as we could.  “Mom, can we go now,” he asked several times.  “I don’t think that bird is coming back.”

But if there was good fishing there, then the bird would certainly be back.  Maybe this was a regular morning pit stop for him or her.  Better yet, maybe it had a home in the very bank we crouched upon.  How I would have loved to have gotten a snapshot of one of those regal, squat little birds with a silver arc of writhing breakfast in his long beak.  But the virtues of a six year old, especially one surrounded by whining insects, don’t include extraordinary patience.  More to distract him than because I thought it would actually lure the bird back, I asked if he’d like to hear what a belted kingfisher sounds like, and pulled up a recording on my phone.  I turned the speaker up as loud as it would go and played that strange rattle call over and over.

And suddenly, the real thing called back!

My son, the words, “Can we go now…” still on his lips, was stunned silent as he broke into a big grin.  We both looked out in the direction of several bobbing silhouettes of downy woodpeckers and other small birds in the distant tree tops.  One of those black blobs was our guy– he’d heard us, and called back!  Or maybe it was our gal–did you know that belted kingfishers are one of the few bird species in which females are more decorated than males, wearing a fashionable chestnut belt that the males lack?

Either way, what a beautiful diversion from our busy morning.  What a great use of an otherwise distracting powerhouse of technology (these phones today!).  What a very vocal reminder that we aren’t the only citizens of this world that stay in touch with one another, and have important things to say.  In fact, some research indicates that kingfishers identify themselves by their unique calls.  Our guy or gal, in calling back, was also in a way giving us his or her name!

But what I find especially fascinating about kingfishers is that they seem to be at home in any element.  They literally inhabit all three realms; earth, water and air.  Two of their toes are actually fused to make them stronger at digging, since their homes are excavated from earthen banks along the water.  And of course, they dive through air and plummet beneath water on a regular basis to feed.  A kingfisher would indeed be a tricky animal to make a character in my fantasy series, Fae of Fire and Stone, since all of my Fae characters take on animal (or plant) forms based on the element they most identify with (earth, water, air or fire).  A kingfisher shape-shifter would be all-powerful indeed!

But those little details about the bird that don’t fit neatly into human-identified categories intrigue me most, and I am so very glad my son and I sat still for a moment in this bird’s realm.  Why shouldn’t the female of this species be prettier than her mate, even if (as scientists seem to have concluded) they haven’t reversed their gender roles?  Why shouldn’t a bird leave the sky and rest in the dark, safe harbor of the earth to raise her young?

And why shouldn’t we sacrifice a moment of our morning, listening for the sound of her name?

writing bird

 

Speculative Story Bites

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On August 9th, World Weaver Press will release a new e-book called Speculative Bites, which you can preview now on Amazon.  You can also add it to your Goodreads to-read shelf in the meantime.  Here’s the book description for your appetizer:

Fifteen bite-sized stories, offering a sampler platter of fantasy, science fiction, and paranormal horror. Within these pages, you’ll find flower fairies, alien brothels, were-bears, and sentient houses. Step inside a museum where all the displays are haunted, follow a siren into the underworld as she searches for Persephone, and discover the doors that lie, literally, behind the heart.

That last bit about the doors?  That would be my story, John Knocking, and actually, it’s not for those with a weak stomach.  Think Doctor Dolittle meets Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, and you’ve got the taste of it.  Oh, and toss in a love story, because we all need a bit of dessert.

Stay tuned for more and happy reading!

Speculative Story Bites ebook cover

 

 

 

CHAR Release Day

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Thanks to all the hard working editors and staff at World Weaver Press, today my fantasy novel, CHAR, has entered the world of published books!  In short, Char is the story of a Fae woman, and her dangerous desperation to save her shape-shifting race.  In honor of my book’s birthday, I thought I’d share a little sneak peek.  You can read a longer excerpt from Char on World Weaver Press.  Happy Reading!

Sneak peek:
Surbas watched from the rafters as the child approached the hearth, his talons piercing the aged wood. The girl was robed in scarlet for the convenience of her caretakers, and appeared from his vantage as a small garnet set within the silver ring of thrones. There were seven of them–there had always been seven, and if the child was who they thought, the Circle would be complete at long last. But was she?  He dove through her memories, plucking them up like frightened mice on the bare rock of her youth. They were dominated by a man, as dark as she and just as mute. He, too, had fire in his eyes, but his image was fleeting.

CHAR is a stand alone novel, second in the Fae of Fire and Stone Series, and sequel to OPAL.

Fire is never tame—least of all the flames of our own kindling.

Raised in isolation by the secretive Circle of Seven, Luna is one of the few powerful beings left in a world dominated by man.  Versed in ancient fairy tales and the language of plants, Luna struggles to control her powers over fire.  When her mentor dies in Luna’s arms, she is forced into a centuries-long struggle against the gravest enemy of all Fae-kind—the very enemy that left her orphaned.  In order to save her people, Luna must rewrite their history by entering a door in the mountain and passing back through time.  But when the lives of those she loves come under threat, her rage destroys a forest, and everything in it.  Now called The Char Witch, she is cursed to live alone, her name and the name of her people forgotten.

Until she hears a knock upon her long-sealed door. 

Interwoven with elements of Hansel and Gretel and The Seven Ravens, Char is the stand alone sequel to Opal, and second in the Fae of Fire and Stone trilogy.

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