Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Big Idea: Douglas Hulick

Some say that dictionaries are descriptive, some say they are prescriptive – but how many say that they are inspirational? Douglas Hulick is one of the (I assume) relatively few in that last category, and he’s here to explain how a chance encounter with one eventually led to his debut fantasy novel Among Thieves. The power of a big book of words and phrases! You must respect it.

DOUGLAS HULICK:

Twenty years, and (if you’ll pardon the cliché) I still remember it as if it were yesterday. I was on the way to the check-out of my alma mater’s student union bookstore, a pile of SF and Fantasy novels in my hand, when a single word caught my eye: “Underworld.”

It was on the spine of a thick, hardcover book on the remainder table. I stopped. Underworld? I looked again. Arching above that word were four more: “A Dictionary Of The.”

Well, that sounded, if not promising, then at least interesting. I began flipping through it. To my delight, I discovered it was a book detailing the secret slang and patois of the criminal class throughout history; in short, a dictionary of thieves’ cant. “Someone actually wrote something like this?” I remember thinking. Cool!

I was mesmerized. Some words, like grifter (a short-change swindler) and shiv (n.: knife; v.: to stab), I knew from popular culture and old gangster movies; but other terms, such as tail-drawer (a sword stealer) and Barnard’s Law (a four man short-con involving cards), were new to me. And the book didn’t just define the words; it gave descriptions of the cons and crimes, often in the words of the criminals themselves (even as far back as the 1500s).

The book cost all of eight bucks. It’s possibly the best eight dollars I’ve ever spent.

Not that I knew it at the time, of course. At that point, I figured I’d found a fun book to flip through now and then; something to kill a few minutes when I wasn’t otherwise occupied reading a novel or short story collection or (rarely for me) a text book.

Over time, I seemed to stumble across more books on historical crime and canting. Pamphlets on Elizabethan cony-catching (confidence games and how to supposedly avoid them); books describing the careers of various Thief Takers in London (men paid to find and return stolen goods, who were often criminals themselves); plays fancifully detailing the lives of criminals during the English Restoration; and a primer on the art of the con in early 20th century America. All found their way into my hands.

As I devoured these accounts, I noticed a couple of things: first, there was an informal hierarchy among criminals, and not just in the modern “Godfather” sense. Even in the Renaissance, the type of crime you did determined your place in the pecking order of the criminal underworld. Secondly, some criminals were specific not only about the kinds of crimes they committed, but also about what they called the people who performed them. So, a thief wasn’t just a thief: he was a prigger of prancers (horse thief) or a high pad (highwayman), or a draw latch (burglar). Likewise, a confidence man might be a ring faller or an Abraham man or any other number of monikers, depending on the kind of con they pulled. That isn’t to say one person couldn’t do more than one law (branch of roguery) — it wasn’t as if they were worrying about bad job performance reviews — but some criminals became known for a specific kind of crime, and that label stuck with them.

And the third thing that became clear to me? With all this fodder, I had to write a fantasy novel about criminals, of course.

One thing I knew from the start was that I needed the main character to both be an insider and an outsider to the criminal world at the same time. As an insider, he’d have the knowledge and lingo and finer details of the underworld at his finger tips, ready to share with the reader; and as an outsider, he could act as a guide for the reader, explaining people and practices–and occasionally judging them–without having to step out of character. But how to do that? How do you write a criminal who isn’t a criminal?

My first thought was an outcast, but that didn’t seem right. Too easy. Then I hit on the idea of the 1940s noir private eye: someone wise to the street, but also above it; a character able to comment on and move through that world at the same time. I didn’t want to do a mash-up, but the traditional narrative style of the P.I. genre — close first person — had a lot to recommend it, especially for a less than pristine protagonist. Besides, I like writing in first person.

Okay, I had a voice, but I still needed someone who would make it his business to kick around the underworld, looking for trouble. I considered a couple different criminals before finally settling on a Nose (yes, it’s actual cant, although I tweaked the meaning): someone who spied on other criminals and reported back to his boss, helping keep the organization, if not honest, then at least less crooked. An internal affairs agent for the medieval mob: a man of the underworld who would also be distrusted by its members and kept at a distance. Yes, I could see fun things there.

And so Drothe, my protagonist, was born. Oh, there were other pieces of inspiration, of course; no book is made up of just one idea. My degrees in medieval history certainly had an impact on the world building, just as my time spent practicing Renaissance rapier combat influenced how I handled the combat scenes. But the darker, meatier stuff in Among Thieves — the mystery, the criminal hierarchies, the looming gang war, not to mention the double-dealing and street fights and thieves’ cant — all found their initial spark in a dictionary I was lucky enough to catch out of the corner of my eye over twenty years ago.

Yeah, definitely the best eight dollars I ever spent.

 

* = The book is properly titled, A Dictionary of the Underworld, by Eric Partridge (Herfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1989)

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Among Thieves: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s LiveJournal. Follow him on Twitter.

 

826

That was the number I had in mind for yesterday’s contest, and this was the fellow who picked it first. Congratulations, Mike, and thanks everybody for playing. I will probably give away at least a couple more ARCs of Fuzzy Nation before the release date, so be ready. Because it could happen at any time.

Did You Know March 30 Is International Give Away an ARC of Fuzzy Nation on Whatever Day?

It totally is! I have a proclamation from the United Nations and everything! Actually, it’s not from the UN, it’s from my cat. And he didn’t so much proclaim it so much as stare at me unblinkingly with his implacable predator eyes. But that’s not important now. What is important is that I’m giving away an ARC of Fuzzy Nation here on Whatever. Today. March 30. 2011. I will even sign and personalize it for you, you lucky, lucky dog, you.

How can you win it? Easy:

1. I have thought of a number between 1 and 1,000 and told it to my wife WHO DOES NOT LIE for third party verification of that number.

2. In the comment thread, guess which number I thought of.

3. If you guessed right, you win!

4. You can only guess one number, and you can only guess once.

5. If two people post the same correct number, the first person who posted it wins (if two people post the same wrong number, then, well. You’re both wrong).

6. If no one picks the number, the closest number to the number I picked will win. In the event that there are two people picking numbers equidistant from the winning number (i.e., one higher, one lower), the winner will be the lower number. Because I said so, that’s why.

7. Contest open until 11:59:59pm Eastern, March 30, 2011.

8. I’ll announce the winner sometime tomorrow.

So: Pick a number.

Science Fiction Film, Briefly

This week at FilmCritic.com, I decided to let other people do my work for me leverage the synergistic possibilities of social media by having people ask me science fiction and fantasy film-related questions on Twitter, to which I would respond, at Twitter lengths, in the column. How did it work out? The answers, in 140 characters or less, await you here. Unsurprisingly, we cover a lot of ground, briefly. It was fun to do, I’ll say that much. Feel free to leave your comments there — you can go a little long, if you like.

It’s Like Waking Up in 1993 All Over Again

Seriously, man. It’s like the kids in this band were fed nothing but a diet of Siamese Dream and Wish since they were, like, five. The rest of the album is pretty much more of the same. Which is not a bad thing, since I like Siamese Dream and Wish.

I’m just glad to have lived long enough for the Kids These Days™ to start bands that were inspired by all the bands I liked when I was their age. Go, Kids These Days™! Go!

Also: some of you get inspired by Jesus and Mary Chain next, okay? Thanks, man.

I See No Possible Way How This Incredible Cover Letter Could Ever Fail

As a preface: I did not write this. I might have exploded had I tried.

—-

[Author and address redacted]

Dear [Agent / Editor]

Prepare to be blown away.  In your hands you hold the first four pages of my debut epic, VIOLET THUNDER.  You have the truly unique opportunity to be one of the first to read a work that will undoubtedly revolutionize the publishing world.  Borrowing tropes from the epic fantasy, supernatural detective, and harlequin romance genres, I have crafted the first wholly original masterpiece in probably at least a century.

I know quality writing, and know a lot of other people who know quality writing.  A sample chapter presented to my mother’s book club was described as, and I quote, “like nothing they had ever read before”.  My high school English teacher told me that I should submit it right away, even though I only shared the first half of the first draft.

Now, I understand that conventionally you are expecting to see the first five pages.  I haven’t done that.  Instead I am sending the first FOUR, so convinced am I that what you hold in your (no doubt trembling) hands is 20% better than anything you have ever read.  Ever.  Now, I am intimately familiar with everything you publish, but to avoid embarrassing any of your other authors I will not name names.  Suffice it to say that when you finish VIOLET THUNDER it is very likely that you will forget them, and will likely shit joy and barf rainbows.

My story follows the adventurous life of Sir Reginald Garret Von White Castle, a 900 year old katana wielding swordfighter from Prussia who, despite his great age and staggering accomplishments chooses to associate with and speak exactly like a modern day high school kid.  From the opening line “I always knew that, in teh end, I would be fucked by unicorns and glitter” to the mind blowing dénouement, Reginald leads you through a clandestine world of classic and completely new supernatural creatures who have all chosen to masquerade as high schoolers in a typical Midwest town with no defining features or characteristics.  This is so a reader could easily imagine him- or herself there (VIOLET THUNDER will appeal to both genders, and anyone who is or ever has gone through a trying transition to adulthood).

VIOLET THUNDER begins when Reggie’s best friend Bob is kidnapped from the high school shower after third period gym.  Bob is a figmentationist, a person who can make anything happen that he imagines, except that it is never useful or impactful, and generally only functions when it is convenient for me, the author, to have it do so.  Obviously Reggie isn’t going to stand for this, so he sets upon a journey of discovery, where he confronts glowing magic vampires, a succubae sponsored lesbian biker gang, mean cheerleaders, the sexually repressed high school councilor who is also a troll, and many other things so shocking that you need to read them in context to avoid some sort of brain hemorrhage.  In all instances Reggie starts with banter, but ends with a drawn katana and a decapitated foe.  He is also a police detective.

Through twists and turns literally nobody has seen coming, Reggie ends up in a final confrontation atop an incongruous Midwest skyscraper facing down his ex-girlfriend who now rides a magic unicorn who poops glitter and controls zombies.  I will not spoil the end for you, but suffice it to say that when they do it, it is totally hot.  You will be amazed when you finally discover the totally hidden meaning of Reggie’s VIOLET THUNDER.

Please respond promptly, as I have simultaneously sent this to literally everyone in the publishing industry that I could find on the internet.  If you do not happen to be the first person to snap up the rights to VIOLET THUNDER and all future sequels, I apologize.  Judging by what I think authors make, this series should totally be worth at least a million dollars.

Thank you.

[Author’s Name Redacted]

—-

You may say, there is no way such a thing could possibly be real. But ask any agent or editor if they’ve ever received a cover letter like this. The answer may surprise/shock/depress you.

Also, in case you weren’t clear on this: Dear writers, never do anything in this cover letter ever.

EVER.

Thank you.

The Big Idea: Derryl Murphy

They say travel broadens the mind, but for Derryl Murphy, it did more than that: It helped to write his newest novel, Napier’s Bones, and did so not just on a practical level (that is, of allowing him to research information) but also on an inspirational level as well. It’s an argument that being there matters, and here Murphy is to make it.

DERRYL MURPHY:

Sometimes the seed that becomes the Big Idea can launch an author into an almost manic, obsessive chase for information to feed the story, and sometimes that information can fall into the author’s lap in copious amounts. After my friend Wayne Malkin showed me a picture of Napier’s bones and said the magic words to launch my search, both of the above happened to me, with each new serendipitous bit of trivia leading me deeper into the rabbit hole and worried that I would eventually succumb to such a surfeit of detail that the novel would never be finished.

But let me back up. Napier’s bones, also known as Napier’s rods, were developed by John Napier, a Scottish laird and mathematician, who died in 1617. The bones were a simple tool for multiplication and division and more, and were only one of Napier’s many accomplishments in math as well as other fields. And when Wayne asked me the question (which will probably seem obvious, but which I won’t reveal here), it got me to thinking, and very quickly I had the main conceit firmly locked in place.

In our own world, what if some people have the ability to see numbers, and to control them, to control the very mathematical foundation of our world, as if those numbers were magic?

Some of you are probably feeling your eyes glaze over now, thinking about dry textbooks and painful high school math. But I promise it isn’t like that. My characters do talk about numbers and formulae and a few mathematical concepts, but I saw no sense in laying them out for the reader as if Napier’s Bones were some urban fantasy version of hard SF. Instead, the numerical ecology, as it’s called, needed to be natural for Dom and his companions. These are not necessarily people with advanced degrees in math, but rather people who grew up surrounded by numbers they could interact with and who taught themselves how to use them to their benefit. Think of that movie you probably watched when you were in elementary school, Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land (and yes, I reference that film in the book), and Donald seeing numbers everywhere he turned.

With this as the groundwork, I began to research. History, sports, literature, science, quantum physics, ancient languages, and above all, I did a deep search for all sorts of mad coincidences that I could weave into the fabric of the book. And then,a few years ago, the Canada Council for the Arts (our version of the NEA) generously gave me money to finish the novel. And so off I flew to Scotland and London on a research trip, where I visited the National Library of Scotland and Napier University in Edinburgh as well as Imperial College and Lambeth Palace Library in London, and got to lay my (cotton-gloved) hands on handwritten letters from Napier himself, as well as books that were published when he (and therefore Shakespeare, to give you a different point of reference) was still alive.

Being able to sit and look that these primary sources first hand was an incredible rush, and I can understand why some people succumb to the desire to possess such rare items; who but me is ever going to care about reading such a document, and therefore who but me can be trusted to take care of it? (And no, don’t worry, I didn’t abscond with any priceless documents. Security was too tight.) Seeing these letters and books also led me not only into Napier’s mind, but to more questions and yet more coincidences, one of which ended up adding another historical character to the book, which required yet more research.

And, of course, I traveled, searching out locations for the book in London and Scotland. Going back to Donald Duck for a moment, Carl Barks, the great creator of Uncle Scrooge and the greatest artist and writer of the Donald and Scrooge comics, often took his characters on trips all over the world, and his source of information, visual and otherwise, was usually National Geographic. I’m sure I could have gotten away with the same; I’ve managed to write fairly convincingly about Madagascar, for instance, without having been there. But there is obviously something to be said for standing in a place and discovering it in a multitude of dimensions, to say nothing of the happy accidents that can worm their way into your brain. A wrong turn I took on one hike to see a potential location ended up playing a fairly significant role late in the book, all because I discovered something that I suspect most visitors don’t even know is there. A chance glimpse of something in the harbor while having breakfast in Ullapool resulted in a moment of action and danger. A flaky new age tour of Rosslyn Chapel and its surroundings resulted in a numerical device that uses Pictish rings in a diner, and a question on the internet about flagging patterns in trees led me to the Ballachuan Hazelwood, a forest that will forever remain as one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been and where a key moment in the book takes place.

Probably the biggest thing the trip did for me, though, was create a character. My wife and I were driving through Oban, dealing with the slow crawl of summer traffic, when a vision occurred to me of my heroes stuck in that same traffic and wondering about this individual. At first I couldn’t place exactly who this was, but with a little time and editing my thoughts turned to the numerical ecology, to the numbers Dom and others of his ilk are able to control, and to evolution.

Evolution of numbers. And even evolution of the people who can control those numbers. Almost, you could say, another Big Idea.

—-

Napier’s Bones: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

iPad Glitchery

I was alerted by a reader that for some reason the site wasn’t coming through on iPads. I told her to check her iPad browser cache, but then I checked my own iPad and had the same problem. I think I’ve identified the culprit — WordPress has incorporated a flashy new widget that displays site on the iPad in an app-like design (whatever that means), and my version of it was turned on but not formatted, so iPad readers apparently got a blank screen. I turned it off and then the site loaded onto my iPad just fine.

So if you’ve been having trouble accessing the site via your iPad in the last few days, go ahead and try again. It should work now.

My Coke Zero Methadone

People have been asking me how I’m dealing with my Lent-esque commitment to keep from drinking Coke Zero through Easter. The answer is that it’s been going pretty well. The commitment was to stop drinking Coke Zero, but I took it as an opportunity to also scale back the amount of caffeine I was drinking. This had the effect of me not being able just to switch over to, say, Mountain Dew or Doctor Pepper. I could have and been in the letter of the law of the agreement with my daughter, but it would have felt like violating the spirit of the agreement.

So Coke Zero intake is zero (heh), and the caffeine intake is way down. Not absent completely — I had vending machine flavored coffee today (white chocolate caramel English toffee) which I suspect had just a touch – but nowhere near as much as I have habitually had in my system day in and day out.

I had also planned to scale back the amount of soda I drank in general, but that was meeting with somewhat more qualified success. It turns out that staying hydrated is a fine way to avoid feeling hungry, and without soda I was doing a not particularly great job at remaining hydrated; we have well water here and even the best filters don’t quite get the well out of the water. As a result I started jamming food into my face. After gaining about three pounds in a week, I decided the goal of totally avoiding soda could wait for another time.

So the above are my compromise: zero-calorie, zero-caffeine fruit-flavored sparkling water, which is to say, soda, only not marketed as such to allow people like me to feel slightly more virtuous about drinking them. These are a Wal-Mart store brand equivalent of Clearly Canadian, which I remember fondly from the late 80s-early 90s, and for the purposes of keeping me drinking something rather than eating my way through the pantry, they do the trick. Don’t worry, I won’t drink all of these today. There’s a dozen one-liter bottles here (each a different flavor — welcome to my OCD!) and that should get me through the week. And yes, we’re recycling the bottles.

So that’s the Coke Zero Pseudo-Lent Experiment update for this week. Only four more weeks to go. Whee!

Diana Wynne Jones

News is coming across the Twitter that writer Diana Wynne Jones passed away in the night; I imagine it will be confirmed by official sources soon enough. I have no connection to Jones other than as a reader, but I think that’s enough to celebrate her life and mourn her passing. My favorite book of hers was one called Dogsbody, in which the personage of the star Sirius, accused of murder, is sent to Earth, where he has to live in the body of a dog, and in that form discover the truth about his situation.

It’s a genuinely wonderful book, with strong characters, a good plot, and a fine melding of both science fictional and fantasy elements. It was one of the first science fiction books I read as a child, along with the Heinlein juveniles and L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series, and I have to say I am indebted to Jones (and to L’Engle) for being in the right place in the right time for me as a young science fiction reader, since the excellence of their books, and their importance to me in my understanding of science fiction, meant I was able to skirt around the chauvinistic shibboleth that science fiction was by and for boys only. It was nice to have been inoculated against that at an early, and influential, age. I still own the book; it’s in my daughter’s library now.

Others who knew her and her works better than I will have more and better things to say about her and her writing. What I can say is that from an early age I was grateful to have read her, for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which was that she was a very good writer who gave me a work I treasure.

Thank you, Diana Wynne Jones, for your books. You are remembered, and fondly.

Just Arrived 3/25/11

Look! Books! Here’s some of what’s been sent to me recently:

* The Physics of the Future, by Michio Kaku (Doubleday): The subtitle to this pop science book proclaims “How science will shape human destiny and our daily lives by 2100.” Finally! Someone will tell me when I get my flying car! No, really, there’s a flying car on the cover. There had to be. It’s like, a law. Out now.

* Crucified Dreams: Tales of Urban Horror, edited by Joe R. Lansdale (Tachyon): Urban horror anthology featuring stories by Harlan Ellison, Jonathan Letham, Ellen Klages, Charlie Huston and some dude named Stephen King. I think he’ll be big. Out now.

* The Demon Left Behind, by Marie Jakober (Edge): Demons studying humans have to let a mortal into their ranks when one of their own goes missing. Interesting idea, I think. Book is out in May.

* Minding Frankie, by Maeve Binchy (Knopf): A ne’er-do-well tries to walk the straight and narrow when he discovers that he’s about to be a father, and the mom-to-be is, alas, terminally ill. Yes, I get sent Maeve Binchy books. I like it when that happens. So there. Out now.

* A Kingdom Besieged, by Raymond E. Feist (Harper Voyager): Hey, Riftwar fans, you have a new Riftwar — the Chaoswar! — and this book is the first in the series detailing it, throwing the wizard Pug right back into the middle of all sorts of magic mess. Dig it, friends. Out on April 12.

* Betrayer, by C.J. Cherryh (DAW): The latest book in the Foreigner series (this is number 12, I believe) has our human heroes in the middle of a alien siege — and possibly being used as pawns in a power struggle. Out in April.

* The Dragon’s Path, by Daniel Abraham (Orbit): Abraham starts a new epic fantasy series with this book, in which several characters from all walks of life get swept up into a war that promises to shatter the world. The book got a starred review in Publishers Weekly and is out on April 7.

* Soft Apocalypse, by Will McIntosh (Night Shade Books): McIntosh won a Hugo last year for short fiction and branches into novel territory with this tale of survival when the world… just sort of runs down. Yeah, you’re thinking about gas prices now, aren’t you? This one’s out next week.

* Okay For Now, by Gary D. Schmidt (Clarion Books): Schmidt follows up his Newberry Honor book The Wednesday Wars with the continuing adventures of Doug Sweiteck, growing up in 1968 and the days of Vietnam and the Apollo missions. Out April 5.

* Touch of a Thief, by Mia Marlowe (Brava): This story about a talented jewel thief becomes complicated by the fact that her bare skin touching the jewels sends terrifying visions into her brain — and by the fact that she’s been caught by a man who a very special mission for her. Personally, when I touch jewels, they speak to me, mostly the words “you can’t afford me.” sigh. This book is out April 26.

I Like Amanda Hocking

She just seems so darn sensible, that’s why. For example, when she talks about why, even after she made a name for herself self-publishing electronically, she took a $2 million advance from St. Martin’s Press for an upcoming book series, over on her blog. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but what it boils down to is that she wants to make it easier to for readers to find her work and for her to focus on what she really likes doing, which is writing (as opposed to everything else).

And of course that’s very sensible. It also touches on much of what I addressed, rather more satirically, a year ago in “Why In Fact Publishing Will Not Go Away Anytime Soon,” — that publishers exists in no small part because they do the rest of the stuff involved in getting one’s work to readers, letting writers write. Which is something I’m for, personally. I mean, I think about all the stuff I want to write but may never get to, just because life is too damn short; if I have to throw in managing every step of the book production process, that’ll just mean even less stuff I get to write. Like Ms. Hocking, I like some of the stuff — I’m pretty engaged in marketing and PR — but other things that are necessary? Meh. I’m happy to let someone else do them.

There is one plaintive note Ms. Hocking put into the entry, in talking to her readers (and other interested folks) about her deal:

…it is crazy that we live in a time that I have to justify taking a seven-figure a publishing deal with St. Martin’s. Ten years ago, nobody would question this. Now everybody is.

I don’t question it; it makes sense to me. Ms. Hocking wants to focus on writing. Hopefully, this deal will let her do that. Good for her, and good luck to her on that.

The Big Idea: Jesse Bullington

In some ways, writing a novel is as much about giving your characters space to introduce themselves — especially to you, their author — as it is giving them a plot so they will have something to do. In The Enterprise of Death, author Jesse Bullington had a particular character which he had been trying to bring into the light for some time. It turns out that what he needed was time — and a time — in which to do it.

JESSE BULLINGTON:

Although my book The Enterprise of Death deals with issues of race, the outsider/insider, gender, sexuality, abuse and, well, Big Ideas, it didn’t spring from anything as easily defined and instantly recognizable as the altering of a historical event or a unique plot hook. Rather, I had an idea of this character lurking somewhere in the back of my head for the better part of a decade, and writing this novel was all about coaxing her from the shadows out to where I could see her properly and tell her story.

Obviously characters don’t start off independent of their creators; writers create characters, and for me, at least, the process of writing involves a lot of frustration and false starts and lip gnawing rather than some divine channeling of the ancient muse wherein I take up the gilded laptop and simply let the Art flow through me. Writing is hard. Yet for all that I’ve found that characters really do write themselves, once you get a feeling for who they are and what they want—if you’re doing it right, at any rate.

So over time I developed a character I wanted to explore. Fine and good, but what’s the Big Idea?

What I’m shambling toward is that sometimes it takes a great deal of preliminary thinking and scribbling and character developing before you even know what your story will be, and what sort of Big Ideas will be found therein. For me, the Big Idea is rarely the plot itself, and that’s certainly true here—the plot involves an apprentice trying to thwart her corrupt master, making friends and enemies along the way. I try to do interesting things with that barebones synopsis, but even still the Big Idea isn’t the plot—it’s what happens beside it, beneath it, on top of it. What it took me a lot of hours to figure out, even as the central character grew and changed from how I’d originally conceived her, was what exactly the hell I was doing beyond exploring this particular character.

When I hit on it, it was painfully obvious. My Big Idea was to use my central character, an African lesbian slave-cum-necromancer, to enter into early Renaissance Europe as the quintessential Other and see if the Western world of half a millennia ago was really so different from our own. I’m definitely not saying that my character was my Big Idea (a gay black protagonist? Hold onto your butts!) because characters, if you’re writing them well, shouldn’t just be an embodiment of an idea, even a big one—they should be people, with strengths and weaknesses and everything else that goes with being an intelligent being.

Even talking about her in this fashion makes me vaguely uncomfortable, because like the rest of us she’s more than her sexuality or her sex or her ethnicity; she’s herself, period. Yet all of that is a part of us, even if it doesn’t define us, and that’s where the Big Idea came in—how would who she was, and where and when she was, impact the rough plot I had in mind? More importantly, how would the world and its denizens impact her?

It’s easy to dismiss pre-modern Europe as backwards. To the minds of some contemporary readers, if the early years of the Renaissance weren’t the Dark Ages, then they were at least a twilight epoch—a gloaming before someone flipped the cultural light switch of the Enlightenment. You know, the Enlightenment? That era of unapologetic and violent sexism, racism, classism, religious intolerance, war, and political turmoil that we’re taught in school was the single, shining moment when humanity raised itself up from its barbaric roots and became the sort of poorly defined amalgamation of ideas you’d invite to your parents’ house for dinner?

Anyway, let’s move past how silly it is to think of history as neatly compartmentalized periods stacked on top of another instead of a continuous societal evolution (acknowledging as we do that the aforementioned problematic elements of the Enlightenment are also found in the Renaissance, the Medieval period, and, unfortunately, the modern age). Examining the specific era and place of early 16th century Western Europe using an outsider protagonist struck me as interesting because it would allow me to explore a host of different themes and preconceptions instead of focusing on a single Big Idea.

The novel opens with the handover of Granada from Moorish control to Ferdinand and Isabel of Spain, when centuries of comparative religious and racial tolerance and coexistence came to an end, and when witch fever truly began to catch on in Europe—contrary to popular opinion, it was the Renaissance and not the Medieval period that brought us the large scale persecution of accused witches. The victims of the Inquisition and other witch hunts were countless women, ethnic minorities, religious groups, GLBT individuals, and other “undesirables,” and even in my version of history where witchcraft is real these acts of terror, torture, and murder are indefensible. For all the differences of details, the issue of women and other marginalized peoples being discriminated against, targeted for violence, and becoming victims of contemporary witch hunts is just as topical now as it was during the Renaissance, and so having a character who embodies several of these targeted elements while still having her own unique agency struck me as an interesting way of engaging with the issues.

Yet the above may give an inaccurately bleak view of the time—there is a tendency to think of all of pre-modern Europe as being wholly intolerant to non-white, non-male, non-heteronormative individuals, which isn’t quite true. The Religious Right in America, for example, is fond of alleging that modern society’s supposed acceptance of homosexuality is a recent development that signals the decline of morality, but this is simply wrong, and displays a lack of familiarity with the historical record. The Medieval church (as in, the seed that all western Christian denominations grew out of) performed civil union ceremonies for same sex couples that were virtually identical to the marriage ceremonies for straight couples. Granted, local authorities of some regions treated homosexuality as a crime, sometimes even one punishable by death, but other regions were decidedly comfortable with two men becoming “brothered” and sharing property, inheritance, and a bed.

People have always been gay, and just as there have always been people who do find the sexuality of others dangerous or alarming, there have also been countless people who were accepting of homosexuality. Same for racial differences, religious differences, gender differences, and everything else—a simple truth of history is that there have always assholes, yes, and a great many of them, but there have also always been open-minded individuals who look past perceived differences to find a common ground.

This novel is about both kinds of people, and about the Other who goes amongst them. It’s also about necromancy and war and love and sex and art and adventure and monstrous horrors and abuse and the undead and alchemy and Ray Harryhausen-style animated skeletons and growing up. I wish we lived in a time where it wasn’t a Big Idea that someone different from the majority deserved respect and the right to be left alone, but as much as the book deals with differences between the modern world and the early 16th century, when you look at the history, it’s the similarities that really catch you off guard.

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The Enterprise of Death: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog.

 

 

Fuzzy Nation Audio, Book Tour Venue Change in Dayton, and Other Stuff

An all-night drive, two hours of sleep and a morning spent arguing with my computer about connecting to the Internet has not inspired me to new heights of creative genius, so instead I’m going to catch you all up on some stuff relating to me.

1. First, a number of you have asked if there is going to be an audiobook release of Fuzzy Nation, and if so, who the narrator might be. The answer is a) Yes, there definitely will be an audiobook, and b) it will be narrated by none other than Wil Wheaton. This pleases me, not only for the obvious reasons that he is my pal and did such a fantastic job narrating Agent to the Stars and The Android’s Dream, but for an entirely different reason that I will not go into but which I think will be a real kick for you when you read or listen to the novel. There, I think that’s sufficiently mysterious enough for you. Let’s just say I strongly believe Wil was the right narrator for this particular job.

2. Speaking of Wil narrating the audio versions of my work, Agent has landed on Audible.com’s list of “Sleeper Hits: 20 New Surprise Listener Favorites.” Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s that much of a surprise, personally. See above re: Wil and the fantastic job, etc.

3. Those of you who were planning to attend my Fuzzy Nation Book Tour appearance in Dayton should know that the venue of the appearance has been changed; it will now be at the Books & Co. store in The Greene, in Beavercreek, not at the Books & Co. store on Stroop road as previously reported. I’ll be updating the tours information and will probably mention it a couple of more times between now and then, but, you know, please make a note of it anyway. I’d hate for you to go to the wrong bookstore and be all sad. Because then I would be all sad too. So much sadness, so easily avoided.

4. Finally, look for the surprise appearance of a Whatever regular in this start-up company pitch (which despite its proposed domain extension, is safe for work).

5. Oh, one more audio-related thing: A review of the audio of The God Engines, over at SFFAudio.com.

6. Wait! Forgot! The Subterranean Press special edition of Zoe’s Tale is now at the printers! Yay! And if you follow that link, you’ll find more information about other upcoming SubPress projects of mine.

There. I’ve brained enough for the day.