Category Archives: Big Idea

The Big Idea: Lillian Stewart Carl

In today’s Big Idea, author Lillian Stewart Carl has a bone to pick with Sherlock Holmes — a bone that informs The Avalon Chanter, the latest novel in her paranormal mystery series. Take that, Sherlock!

LILLIAN STEWART CARL:

In “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” Sherlock Holmes proclaims, “This Agency stands flat-footed upon the ground and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghost need apply.”

My imagination being what it is, I envision ghosts lined up at a paranormal job fair, muttering about discrimination, perhaps even filing suits against Holmes’s agency with the Equal Employment Commission.

But, I hear Holmes say, ghosts aren’t real.

Really? Ask people who’ve seen one. Or who think they’ve seen one. As my character Jean Fairbairn would say—and does, multiple times—seeing might be believing, but believing is seeing.

No, my Big Idea is not the nature of reality (I’m not that ambitious) but our perception of reality—especially historical reality, where fact slips as easily into legend and myth as ghost stories slips into tourist brochures. It doesn’t matter whether ghosts (or the Loch Ness monster, or the deeds of a historical character) are factual or not, if people believe they are. Because beliefs make people act.

Jean Fairbairn and Alasdair Cameron are the protagonists of seven mystery novels. She’s a former history professor now writing for a Scottish history-and-travel magazine who inadvertently becomes an amateur sleuth. He begins the series as a professional sleuth, a Scottish police detective.

In the first book, The Secret Portrait, Jean sees a ghost and realizes Alasdair, of all people, can see it, too.

Jean looked around, not knowing whether to hug him or hit him. “No snappy comebacks? No skepticism? Or have you known all this time you’re allergic to ghosts, too?”

“Well then,” he said, with a crimp of his mouth that was almost a rueful smile, “I suppose I was wrong about all the ghosts being tired. Not for those with eyes to see and hearts to know.”

The like us hung unspoken in the air.

No surprise that Jean’s stock-in-trade is history and legends, the facts behind them and the way they can be distorted by true believers. Or, as she says, “Where the legend hits the road and blows a tire.” Having a skeptical significant other dovetails neatly with her work, even as it leads to heated discussions and more than a little eye-rolling.

Okay—I hear you backing away slowly and muttering about high school history class, where a football coach between practices droned the textbook out loud. Boring! Irrelevant! Eyeroll.

So how can I hit the road with my Big Idea and not blow a tire on potholes filled with boring?

Because history isn’t boring. It’s gossip shared over time’s back fence: Sex! Scandal! Thud, blunder, and bad choices!

Every day we citizens of the twenty-first century apply these clues from the past, be they fact or be they fantasy, to solve the mystery of just how the heck we ended up here and not down some other rabbit hole of memory and desire.

The muse of history is named Clio. I don’t know whether she’s a proper Athenian miss or a wild-eyed maenad—I only deal with her indirectly. My personal muse is a punk bagpiper wearing an earring, a kilt, and combat boots. When he’s good, he’s very good. And when he’s uncooperative to the point of hostile, I lure him out by offering him the history of Great Britain in general and Scotland in particular.

It’s great sweeping drama and odd little incidents. It’s bravado and lament. It’s my own ancestry, a paradoxical and pixilated blend of Celt, Norseman, and Anglo-Saxon. My maiden name, Stewart, is a rich source of historical material.

For example, I may well be descended from Robert the Bruce, whose grandson was the first Stewart king of Scotland. Do I fume at the Bruce’s depiction in Braveheart? Does my keyboard have an indentation from my forehead?

But then Braveheart, having about five seconds of historical verisimilitude, is an example of the smackdown between fact and fallacy that Jean and I love to write about. Relatively benign conflicts, not the full-bore international disaster of, say, the Nazis’ Aryan Myth.

Historical wishful thinkers make great characters. So do ghosts, who are manifestations of the past lingering into the present, of unresolved mysteries and uneasy memory. And who often depart this Earth thanks to murder.

If that coach had been sharing juicy details about a murder, you’d have stayed awake during class, right?

The victims in my mysteries die because of legends not only about the lost gold of Bonnie Prince Charlie, but about Charles Edward Stewart himself, goat or hero, depending. They die because of the possibility of the Loch Ness monster and the certainty of black magician Aleister Crowley, whose home above Loch Ness still creeps out the local people.

My victims die because of the mytho-babble behind The Da Vinci Code and others of its dent-in-the-keyboard ilk. They die because of legends of witchcraft in the American colonies, because of a decaying estate on the Isle of Skye named for the wee folk, the fairies, and because Edinburgh’s claustrophobic catacombs make good business.

In The Avalon Chanter, I take my odd couple from their usual haunts in Scotland to small Farnaby island just across the border in England. Here my historical maguffins are King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. Is Farnaby the Isle of Avalon? Archaeologist Maggie Lauder has personal reasons for trying to prove it is. But (of course) neither the body she finds in a medieval tomb nor the history of her own family are what she believes them to be.

Because history, both in the national and in the personal sense, doesn’t trace a direct line from past to present. It’s interlaced like the patterns decorating the Lindisfarne Gospels, as generations of men and women weave desire with destiny.

And if the thing going bump in the night is doing so only in your imagination, that doesn’t make it any less real—never mind Sherlock Holmes and his flat feet.

—-

The Avalon Chanter: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Like her on Facebook.

 

The Big Idea: Scott Sigler

With a title like Pandemic, you know that things are not going to look good for humanity in this book. But author Scott Sigler isn’t wreaking havoc on the world without a plan — oh, no. He’s got a plan, friends. One that he’s been working on for years.

SCOTT SIGLER:

When I was a little kid, my dad took me to see the ’76 version of King Kong. Ever since that afternoon (once I stopped screaming in fear, of course — I was seven; giant gorillas were terrifying), I’ve been hopelessly addicted to horror movies.

According to the movies I love so much, there are a seemingly infinite number of species that want to kill or enslave humans. As in, all of us. Exterminate, exterminate, indeed. This species-wide genocide comes in several flavors, including the invasion, the plague and the horde. Often movies act like Ben & Jerry on bad acid, combining flavors in various, lethal combinations. An invasion/plague? Andromeda Strain. A plague/horde? The Walking Dead. There’s no end to the fun this Easy Bake Oven provides.

When any of these flavors are present, the demise of peoples tends to come in three stages: the Patient Zero Phase, the National Response Phase, and the Global “Oh, Shit” Phase (a.k.a. “the apocalypse”). Yes, I just made these phases up, but clearly they are 100% accurate and scientifically sound. No peer review necessary.

In any given book or movie, we often get to see one of these phases, sometimes two, but rarely all three. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a Patient Zero film, meaning you see the attack from the earliest stages and go through the process of discovery along with the characters — we don’t really see a national response or know if one happens. In a movie like Outbreak, we see that defining factor of the National Response Phase: a Room Full of Important People watching red circles expand across a map of America, showing the spread of the disease. And there are several examples of the Global “Oh, Shit” Phase, where everything goes to hell in a hand basket, a la Night of the Comet, Lifeforce and many more.

My Big Idea? Write a trilogy that shows all three phases, so you are there at the very beginning, you witness the inevitable spread, and you bleed along with the characters for the final swan song.

I began this quest in 2008 with my novel Infected, which had its very own Big Idea. When a movie’s showing us the Patient Zero Phase, we often see a body count of the faceless masses lost in the “first wave.” Infected does something different: it tells the story of just one of those victims, Perry Dawsey, letting you experience his horror and confusion as an intelligent pathogen colonizes his body and his mind. He doesn’t know what’s happening because no one knows: the world has never seen anything like this. And those books and movies where the small team of victims barely stops the disease from escaping? Infected isn’t one of those — by the time Perry’s story closes, the vector has gone wild.

In the second book, Contagious, the camera rolls back and we see how this pathogen impacts all of America. We see the President try to process an impossible situation, the CDC working to contain the vector, and — yes — we see the Room Full of Important People watching red circles spread across a map of the US. Contagious ends with a bang, and all involved think the disease is gone for good. But as happens in a cataclysmic trilogy, not so much.

For the final novel, Pandemic, we’re in full-on Oh Shit Phase. We watch the human race fighting a losing battle for survival. This disease doesn’t just kill, it turns people into killers, creating a slowly shifting balance that steadily teeters towards the point of no return. Characters from both books return and strive to contain a disease that constantly changes, that thinks, that strategizes, always looking for the way to wipe humanity out forever.

Infected was the first novel I wrote. I finished the first draft some twenty years ago. The concept was simple: I would teach myself how to finish a novel by writing a very straightforward story — one man, alone in his apartment, facing the nightmare of his body turning against him. That first draft was very small town, very much indebted to early Stephen King. It only had a handful of characters and was filled with contrivances that kept away the outside involvement of real-world things like cops and doctors.

That small-town feel is where I’m most at home as a writer. Probably because I grew up in a small town, and that limited cast of characters in an isolated setting feels natural. The endless re-writes of Infected, however, forced the story out of Perry’s apartment and into a Tom Clancy arena where I had no experience and a comfort level of zero. I had to start thinking about how the police, the CDC, the FBI, and the government at large would respond. What I’d intended to be a very simple, laser-focused Patient Zero story set entirely in one poor bastard’s apartment — almost a ‘bottle episode’ of a novel — eventually forced me not only to expand my real-world knowledge, but to learn how to incorporate those real-world structures into a compelling narrative. It was challenging, but it was only the beginning.

When Contagious required the move to the National Phase, I faced new questions. Who actually responds to a new plague that turns people into psychotic murderers? How does something like that go up the chain of command? What governmental agencies have jurisdiction, and how do they react? When the shit truly hits the fan and an administration is looking at catastrophic loss of American life, what laws will our leaders break to stop an outbreak before it expands beyond any hope of control?

Pandemic compounded those complications even further. I had to factor in international relations, global transportation’s effects on vector spread, foreign deployment of US forces (along with when they would strike, with what and how hard), and the most disturbing thing of all: the real effects of a nuclear detonation on a modern city.

Now that the series is done, I don’t think I’ll swim in the global pool again. For future projects, all those pages that had to be used explaining real-world laws and organizations can — at least in part — be used for character and relationship. Hopefully, the small town boy can go back to the small town.

If, that is, there are any towns left after Pandemic.

—-

Pandemic: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Kathe Koja

Authors have all sorts of ways into their books and stories. For Kathe Koja, the way into her latest novel, The Mercury Waltz, the sequel to Under the Poppy, was through dance. Appropriately enough!

KATHE KOJA:

To dance well requires two things: skill, the ability to feel and match the tempo, swell, or skitter of the music; and rhythm, the capacity to just let go and trust that music to lead you away. When we consider the waltz, the first seems to make perfect sense for a dance of such structure and formality. (Although the Times of London once “remarked with pain” on that “indecent foreign dance called the Waltz … the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure on the bodies …” Yowza! Twerk that, Vienna!) But the second, the letting-go – how so?

As on the dance floor, so at the desk . . . Under the Poppy, that tale of wild Victorian love, betrayal, and reunion, came to me as a passionate surprise.  After eight YA novels, the grown-ups were definitely back onstage, tossing dark confetti and parading their dangerous puppets all around. As that novel came to its close, I felt a large and definite pang—goodbye, grimy, lovely, intricate world.

But such a fully theatrical story seemed to beckon for a matching adaptation. So, in company with some very talented actors and collaborators, I wrote and directed a series of immersive (were they ever) performances. Here’s a look at the shows leading up to the grand performance in a Victorian mansion. Writing the scripts and assembling the creative ensemble was a new way of viewing that world of the brothel, its characters and desperations and desires.

But the music was still playing.

The Mercury Waltz is a manner of accidental sequel, nothing I intended to write, nothing I even knew was available to write, until the Poppy came to what I thought was its end. Then that big pile of unused notes, those phrases and sketches, that research, reached a sudden accretion, as if a door had been opened, a turning made to show an entire, and entirely vivid, new bend in the road for those gentlemen of the road, stalwart Rupert and winking Istvan: and the new young gentlemen whose paths cross theirs, the stubborn, poetic, provincial writer Frédéric-Seraphim Blum and the slippery street sharpster Haden St.-Mary, alongside a fierce and mystical young lady called Tilde, whose blue eyes I saw with an immediacy just as vivid and intense.  And their histories, their fears and longings, their hopes, all converged in an aged city on the fatal cusp of change, a place as jittery as badly-tuned clockwork, as bright and false as paste jewels in a mercantile window, a city where a theatre called for Mercury, that god of commerce and tricksters, opens its doors to show the populace some jolly, strange, and truthful puppet plays.

Which is where the dance comes in, and the letting-go.

If, from the beginning, I had suspected that this story was so large, much larger than I guessed in its conception, and so emotionally complicated, that it needed more than one book to tell it, would I have been bold enough to begin? Or would I have backed away in doubt: A sequel? What if I forget plot points, or mix up chronology, what if I don’t have the stamina? What if … If I had considered only the demands on my skills—the long patience required to keep walking, tussling, finding the way, the painstaking attention to be sure no threads were dropped or characters confused (and yes, I used a lot of sticky notes)—the whole project could have been stillborn.

But when the brothel closed, the Mercury Theatre opened, its music gone tinkling and mechanical and fey; and I trusted that music, and I let go. And waltzed.

And now the book is done, and the dance is ready for you to join, as the story of these men, these heroes, continues. And not only in the linear sense of travels accomplished, friends met and dangers faced: for as much as it’s a story of this new city and those new battles and loves, The Mercury Waltz is at its heart the continuing exploration of the shared life of Istvan and Rupert, the pains they carry, and the losses, and the wishes, the boyish glee and professional pride, the whole world their stage and themselves their sweetest audience. They learn what they learn, or cannot learn, from those pains and that sweetness, they keep playing the puppets as the music plays on.

—-

The Mercury Waltz: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Roadswell Editions

View the book trailer. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Rachel Cantor

Love! Time travel! Pizza! All things most of us, at least theoretically, enjoy. But how to tie them all together — with some deeper meaning to boot? Rachel Cantor’s makes the attempt in her new novel A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World. Here and now, she explains how she made those first critical connections.

RACHEL CANTOR:

Leonard is a complaints guy for a national Pythagorean pizza chain. In his world, Whigs, Heraclitans, and other ideologues seek converts through proprietary fast-food chains; Catharites and armed followers of the thirteenth-century scientist and friar Roger Bacon engage in bitter battle to claim the untranslatable Voynich manuscript; and all are vaguely under threat by a neo-Maoist movement that’s trying to radicalize the middle classes.

Into this world arrives Isaac the Blind, a thirteenth-century rabbi who can read people’s souls; he needs Leonard’s help. Leonard’s journey takes him from his White Room, where he relieves Clients-in-Pain with Neetsa Pizza coupons, to the fortress of the Latter-Day Baconians, to thirteenth-century Rome. Along the way, he must save the world with the help of Marco Polo, a rare-book librarian, his cartoon-drawing nephew Felix, and a quivering aleph.

A novel about a million things, seemingly. Yet it arose from one big idea. A big idea that itself arose from an unlikely source.

I attended a silent meditation retreat some fifteen years ago. For about ten days, we sat, we walked, we sat, we walked; we did not speak. The leaders, however, spoke: usually about meditation, but one evening they speculated—for reasons I can no longer remember—about the great flowering of mystical experience in the thirteenth century. The Kabbalah was born around that time, with the help of Isaac the Blind; the Zohar was written around 1280, which is also when the great Abraham Abulafia, said to have magical powers, was developing his eccentric meditative practices, variants of which we were attempting on this retreat. Rumi and other great Sufis were writing mystical poetry, while mystics such as St. Theresa and Meister Eckhart were changing Christianity forever.

What most struck my teachers, who were mostly rabbis, was how this mystical profusion could occur at a time when practitioners from various traditions could not, presumably, communicate with each other.

Or could they? Was there something—some force, some energetic—that connected these mystics around Europe and beyond, supporting their practice and increasing its creativity?

I like to think I always listened to my teachers, but I may have been especially attentive on the night of this talk. I had just published a story about the medieval trader Isaac the Jew (no relation to Isaac the Blind), who’d transported an elephant from the emperor Harun ar-Rashid in Baghdad to Charlemagne’s court in Aachen. I was then in the process of writing a novel about Dante’s Vita Nuova, a thirteenth-century work that ends with what can only be called a mystical vision. When my teachers talked about the Middle Ages, I listened especially hard!

For years, I thought about what they’d said. My first notes on the subject were written maybe a year later; they refer, already, to a hotline, to Marco Polo, to Abulafia …

Someone gets a phone call from someone in history, a hotline to history. Folks start communicating with each other through this mediator—s/he becomes an increasingly put-upon message center, which explains the wide, wonderful explosion of creative mysticism around the world during that century. But the secret for communicating with this guy is lost, or perhaps, tired of the interruptions to his life, the demands put on him, he disconnects the phone. What kind of phone would they use? Their mystical experiences clue them in to the existence of this wavelength, only the very accomplished can use it—Abulafia, Dante, Rumi, Marco Polo in his Genoan jail cell using methods he learned from traveling Tibetan monks …

Unlike many ideas, this one stuck. When I finished my Dante novel (Door Number Two, forthcoming from Melville House in 2015), a “realistic” work that concerns themes close to my bones (love, the purpose of art, family relationships), I was ready for something different. Something completely different. I wanted a change, I wanted to write something fun!

I remembered this big idea. I remembered the hotline, the put-upon mediator, Marco Polo in his Genoan jail cell.

Big ideas accrete other ideas—in this case, Pythagorean number theory, a fascination with ghostwriters (Marco Polo had one, Moses de Leon and other mystics claimed their books had been written by others centuries before), the bizarre features of the unreadable Voynich Manuscript (which I learned about in my alumni magazine!), a concern about how ideology can be used by politicians to distract people from serious political or economic concerns, a love for the topography of ancient Rome. All these came into play with A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, as this new book came to be called.

I soon realized, however, as writers are wont to do, that it wasn’t enough to sit Leonard in a room fielding phone calls from mystics! Things had to happen. There had to be incident, conflicts, adventure.

I did some research. In 1280, Abulafia was in Rome, intending to convert the pope by sharing all sorts of signs and wonders with him—it was only the Pope’s death a few days before his visit that saved Abulafia’s life.

Wait, a Jewish mystic thought he could convert the pope? By sharing mystical secrets? I grew up in Rome! I wanted to write about Rome, I loved writing about Rome!

How to get Leonard away from his pizza-complaints hotline? How to make of him not just a put-upon mediator, but a hero, however unlikely?

In this way, the big idea evolved: by the time the book was finished, the mystics I wrote about were not necessarily communicating with each other. They were aware of each other, sure, they could and did travel across time and space to meet with each other, but this was no longer the point. The point was that they had access to mystical knowledge and a desire to share it, even though sharing it would endanger the world! By Part Two, Leonard had left his phone behind for good: he was out in the world. By the end of Part Three he had saved the world not once but three times, and this involved time travel, it involved peril and chases and the development of courage; it involved living by his wits; it involved falling in love. The big idea had become story!

—-

A Highly Unlikely Scenario: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the book page, which features an audio excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Brad Meltzer

Brad Meltzer is known as a bestselling writer of thrillers and the host of his own television show on History Channel. But today sees the release of two decidedly different books from him: I am Amelia Earhart and I am Abraham Lincoln, both illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos, and both aimed at a rather younger audience than Meltzer has aimed for before. There’s a reason why he wrote the books — and a reason, as you will soon discover, why he rewrote them as well.

BRAD MELTZER:

Call this essay “How To Be Outdone By Your Artist on Your New Children’s Book.”

I met him on the Internet. I did. On Twitter.

I don’t remember what he first wrote to me about. Probably something about history: He watched my TV show, the self-importantly and yet perfectly titled Brad Meltzer’s Decoded. So I’ll wager he wrote to me about the Freemasons. Or the Illuminati. Or maybe Abraham Lincoln, if irony had a say.

Either way, I recognized his name and knew his art. Chris Eliopoulos. He’s a cartoonist. A great one. And little did I know, he’d soon change my life.

You see, I was in the midst of a crisis. A parental crisis. I was shopping for clothes with my daughter, and all I could find were T-shirts with images of princesses and more princesses. The only real difference between them was what hair color each princess had. And I started thinking to myself: I know so many better heroes than that.

So what does a loving father do at that point? He turns to a stranger on the internet, of course. I asked Chris to draw a cartoon version of Amelia Earhart. Below the picture, I wrote: I AM AMELIA EARHART. On the back of the shirt, I wrote: I KNOW NO BOUNDS.

That’s how it began. But soon, what started with a T-shirt had turned into an actual book. A children’s book, of all things. I always dreamed of doing a children’s book. And now, instead of just giving my daughter a T-shirt, I’d be able to give her perhaps the best thing of all: Amelia Earhart’s actual story.

From there, I wrote a biographical account of Amelia Earhart’s life, which Chris turned into pages and pages of art. A few weeks later, we handed in the proposal. My agent looked at what Chris drew. Then looked at what I wrote. And then she told me, “You need to make your words match his art.”

I blinked a few times, making sure I heard her right. But in that moment, I knew she was exactly right. Chris’s drawings were playful, fun, and passionate. They evoked my favorites - Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes - cartoons that were alive and full of heart. Indeed, as I flipped through his drawings, I realized that was his superpower. This stranger from the internet, Chris Eliopoulos, did heart like no one else. And best of all, the more I looked at it, the more I felt like a kid again.

Right there, I tore up my entire draft and started from scratch. His breathtaking art forced me to be a better writer.

The result became more than a single book. It became our new line of children’s books, starting today with the publication of I Am Amelia Earhart and I Am Abraham Lincoln. The series was born because of our belief that the current definition of “hero” is broken. Today, so many in our culture celebrate reality TV stars and loud-mouthed sports figures.

I tell my kids all the time: That’s fame. Fame is different than being a hero. I wanted my kids to see real heroes…and real people who are no different than themselves. For that reason, each book tells the story of the hero when THEY were a kid. We see them as children. So it’s not just Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln being famous – but them being just like us.

As for Chris, he of course became part of our family. And I’m part of his. We all went to DisneyWorld. I kid you not. Last week, we went there together. Both our families.

You should’ve seen the way my daughter was giving the stink eye to the princesses.

—-

I am Amelia Earhart: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
I am Abraham Lincoln: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit Brad Meltzer’s site. Follow him on Twitter. Visit Chris Eliopoulos‘ site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: PJ Schnyder

On a day to day basis, you might not think about the advantages and disadvantages of shapeshifting, but then, you probably aren’t author PJ Schnyder, for whom the details of such a process are a key aspect of her novel Fighting Kat. She’s here to explain why it matters.

PJ SCHNYDER:

It can take as little as 8 pounds of force to crush the human skull.

Human mandibles exert 120 to 150 pounds of force per square inch (PSI). And according to NASA and MythBusters, average static push strength of a medium-sized male is around 200 pounds of force (close to 1000 Newtons). So a human isn’t going to be crushing another human’s skull any time soon, either by biting or with bare hands.

What about predatory cats? A lion’s bite force is approximately 650 PSI. A tiger’s? Approximately 1050 PSI. A jaguar’s? Approximately 1,350-2,000 PSI.

That’ll do it.

Given the choice, it might seem a better idea to enter a death match as a predatory cat armed with superior bite strength and a full set of slashing claws. But…humans have thumbs. Weighing the pros and cons might take a few seconds.

In Fighting Kat, Kaitlyn Darah is presented with this choice. The ability to shapeshift from human to panther might as well be a super power, really. And considering the advantages, the choice would seem clear—cat-form it is. Right?

But at what cost?

As a shapeshifter, Kaitlyn is on the run from the Terran government. There are standing orders to bring in any and every shape shifter for study. If she wants to remain a free cat, and not a lab rat, she needs to keep her ability a secret.

But she and her lover, Lt. Christopher Rygard of the Terran military, need to form a team and go deep undercover. They’ll be posing as gladiators in a black market fighting arena in order to find captured soldiers and rescue them, if possible.

In order to survive, Kaitlyn must make the choice. If she fights as a human, she and Rygard could die. If she leverages her shape shifting abilities, she might lose her freedom even after they break free of the arenas.

Rygard has to make hard choices too. Follow orders, or stand with the woman he loves.

I created a cast of dynamic characters to support my hero and heroine. Some of them are proven friends and allies. Others aren’t so clear in their roles. There’s a mentor and an anti-mentor—like an anti-hero, only not—and there are people my heroes should be able to trust but can’t.

I wanted to tell a story of strong people in a universe where their choices matter. Where black versus white isn’t absolute and right versus wrong isn’t simple, yet each decision closes the door to a possible future. Where every decision triggers a series of further choices in a cascade of consequences that will lead both Kaitlyn and Rygard to places they’d never have anticipated.

Fighting Kat is a science fiction romance novel encompassing all of these things.

As a reader, I grew up on science fiction and fantasy and I read nonfiction just as avidly. And when I began to seriously delve into the craft of writing, I took a critical look at the structure of my stories. I came to a surprising realization: I write romance.

My stories focus on the development of the relationship between my characters. The romance drives the plot and the decisions my hero and heroine make every step of the way. Kaitlyn and Rygard grow individually and together based on the decisions they make in Fighting Kat.

Plenty of science fiction books contain romantic elements, but there the romance is woven in to spice up the story and not intended to function as the central plot line. You could remove the romantic elements and the plot would still stand on its own.

In my books, the romance is the plot line. If you took it out, it would just be a random series of events and with no driving force behind the actions the characters carry out.

Additionally, I prefer a happy ending. Perhaps not as far as a Happily Ever After, but by the end of the book I want my characters to be “Happy For Now” in a plausible and satisfying way.

These characteristics in my writing make my stories romance. If you’d asked me a decade ago, I wouldn’t have anticipated writing romance in my future. But now? I embraced the decision to write romance and have no regrets. Romance allows me to write science fiction, paranormal, steampunk and more. It’s given me freedom for my creativity and an audience of voracious, open-minded readers willing to try a new type of story.

It led to me creating the universe of the Triton Experiment and to writing Fighting Kat. It’s a science fiction romance and I am in love with it. I hope readers will enjoy it too.

__ _

Fighting Kat: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Google Playstore

Read an excerpt. Visit PJ Schnyder’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

(Say hello on Facebook, Pinterest, or YouTube too.)

The Big Idea: Gard Skinner

covergameslaves

One of my favorite video games of all time was Unreal Tournament 2004, in part because the game had a bunch of “bots” — artificial intelligence players — who were good enough to make the game really enjoyable. Why is this comment relevant in relation to Game Slaves, the novel by Gard Skinner? Just you wait.

GARD SKINNER:

The best thing about science fiction is that it’s a brutally honest way to examine what it means to be human, but do it through the eyes of revolting, evil non-humans. We get to see what makes Earthlings tick from the perspective of robots, monsters, alien conquerors, dark lords, magic high school students or busty Amazon royalty from lush beach planets.

borderlands1Game Slaves – as a Big Idea – seemed obvious. I was playing (I believe it was Jak 2 or 3) and I couldn’t beat the last boss. To get to him, right after the save point, I had to shoot a few of his minions. I’d killed them dozens of times, then I’d lose again.

While I was thinking how I was tired of shooting those idiots, I realized that they were thinking how tired they were of getting sniped by a bigger idiot who couldn’t defeat their boss. Maybe hoping they could bring bigger guns or hide in different places the next time I respawned.

The quality of the AI used to be a huge element in video game reviews. It was always mentioned. The original NPC, such as ghosts in Pac-Man, were mostly just proximity detectors who followed or shot you if you got close. In 90s, the enemy kept getting smarter, and designers were trying to find ways to make their game interesting on a second playthrough.

The core challenge is making game experience variable. Once any narrative becomes predictable, it becomes easy, and the player puts it down. AI has stagnated, and this led to the popularity of online shooters, because at least when you play another human or squad of humans, you never know what they might do.

borderlands2

What I got to do in the book – and this advance is, realistically, thirty years in the future for game AI – was to assemble a group of programmed, self-aware, elite game combatants with almost zero life experience.

I got to make them live and love and solve puzzles at a video game pace.

And, I got to make them want things.

They get to be the ones who examine what it really means to be human. From our frailties to our strengths, our motivations to our passions, NPC “extras” became the lens.

And not only do the characters make their decisions through the limited experience they have, but also through the experience they lack: What if you never learned to lie? Or to cheat? What if you had not been exposed to greed?

It was a great journey, and they surprised me along the way.

What’s been fascinating so far is the feedback on those characters – whether they are deep or shallow. I suspect that’s an indicator of each reader’s familiarity with modern games. Did they recognize the influence of Master Chief? Fenix? John Marston? Brick?

If readers do, that’s cool – if not, that’s cool too. Game Slaves is a world built on top of dozens of great game worlds. It doesn’t matter how you got there.

Gamers, like readers, have spent a lot of time running around in certain environments. We know Pandora and Sera, but couldn’t tell you which Sea that Old Man was fishing. We understand that rocket launchers take a long time to reload, and what ragdoll physics can add to laying traps with remote detonators.

borderlands3Pew Research reports that 97% of teens play games. That’s a sit-up-and-take-notice number. Games are now where they’re learning about characters, world building, pacing, conflict and all the rest of the nuance that our generation learned from movies, comic books, and groundbreaking novels. I had a blast mimicking that pace, the puzzle solving, and those decision points.

I think it’s a good idea to learn how the next generation now experiences science fiction. Many games tell as great a story as any other media. And, they’re so much fun. The worlds are captivating. I just wish they were that way the second time through.

(The game character screenshots are from Gearbox Software’s BORDERLANDS)

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Game Slaves: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Books A Million | iBookstore  | Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Lissa Price

The Big Idea is back on for 2014, and to get things started, author Lissa Price is here to talk about how reader feedback matters. This is especially important when you’re looking at trepidation at that second book you have to write — in this case, Price’s new book, Enders.

LISSA PRICE:

The inspiration for my first book began, of all places, at Costco and was a Big Idea story in 2012. To refresh your memory, Starters is a science fiction thriller set in a future LA where desperate teens rent out their bodies to seniors so they can be young again temporarily. Though I wrote it for the young adult audience, about half of my readers are adults.

We sold Starters and Enders as a two-book series to Random House based on a completed manuscript for the first book. All I submitted for book two was an admittedly vague, short paragraph, which is not uncommon. The dirty little secret that no one told me is that daily promo and publicity is pretty much mandatory for a YA author – Twitter, Tumblr, blogging. And then touring, conference panels, school visits, library events, contests and making swag all fill precious hours. It’s easy to get swept up in promo as you see it directly impact your following and also raise your sales numbers.

And, I actually like doing most of this. Interacting with young fans is one of the most rewarding parts of this job. While I was writing this post, I got Tweets from all over the world. A fan in the Philippines pleaded with me to tour, a reader in the US was excited over seeing the mall posters of my books, and several Brazilian fans promised to die if they couldn’t have Enders now. And then there was this one:

Agatha Reis ‏‪@AgathaReiis_13m Keep calm and wait for Enders.‪@Lissa_Price, my queen.

Who wouldn’t get high over being called “my queen?”

But there’s little danger of getting an inflated ego. Because at the same time you’re doing all this promotion, often late into the night due to world time zones, you’re also expected to write that second book.

Oh yes, the second book.

I had serious Sequel Pressure. Would book two live up to what the readers responded to in book one? They now knew the high concept established in book one, so the sparkle of that had faded. The big twist, the one that made readers gasp, could I repeat that in some new form or would it seem forced? In other words, had I painted myself into a big, fat corner?

Before this, all I had to worry about was whether an agent would like my manuscript. Since I signed my contract, I had been hearing stories from fellow debuts of publishers rejecting second books. Meanwhile, Borders had closed, creating a new, narrower landscape. Was this time for a meltdown? I thought about my protagonist Callie, wishing I had her courage, when I remembered, oh, yeah, I invented her.  I had a Big Idea as I finished Starters for a huge twist for Enders. A major reversal. It would have to be revealed near the end of the book.  But could I pull it off? It shouldn’t be anticipated or come off as a cheap trick. Maybe I should see what my editor thinks. Maybe I should volunteer to submit an outline. If she doesn’t choke at the surprise reveal, then maybe I could make it work. I submitted it and held my creative breath. My editor had two small notes, but – surprisingly — was on board with this plan.

So when I sat down to write it, I looked to the characters. Callie had a history now and readers around the globe knew it. I had to be true to her or be called on it in the languages of thirty different countries. As I heard more from these fans, something I hadn’t anticipated happened. I began to understand how an author’s work is no longer theirs – that it takes on a life of its own, the way your dog or baby is recognized and called by name by people who don’t even know you.

From an email from a German reader:

You can feel with Callie, it is like this would just happen to you. I can imagine the dirty, dark city and the huge Body Bank, Blake’s Ranch….

And once I understood that the story is bigger than me, that it belonged to the readers who have embraced it, pulling it into their imaginations, even picturing themselves as Callie as she hears voices in her head, I got a renewed inspiration for how I would write this second book. It was no longer about me and my ego – I needed to get out of the way of the story.  If I rode that train, I could let myself enter the world that already existed.

My mantra became: follow the process. Stay true to Callie and Michael and that new character, Hyden. Set aside reader expectations and my own. Remember the theme: no one is who they appear to be. Put one foot in front of the other, one page, one scene, one chapter, one finished novel.

Enders published in Europe first. Some American fans did not take the news of the US delay well.

Facebook J.W.

Seriuously 1/7/14???!!!! That makes just about two years since the first one was released!!!! No one is even going to remember Starters by the time Enders comes out!!! I’m officially done with this author and this series if you keep pushing back the release date. You are ruining your chances of having the series be a sucess by stalling the release date. I was JUST starting to accept that it wouldn’t come out till June or July but January of next year???!!!! N.O.!!!!

But to my relief, the European readers and the bloggers were on board. Book two flipped the reader’s perception of what they believed to be true in the first book, and yet they didn’t hate me.

Some Tweets:

Whats Hatnin’ ‏‪@szunditomi 18h 

‪@Lissa_Price Not in english. In Hungarian. I’ve just finished the book and I absolutely loved the whole story !! ‪#Enders

Cassie Holmes ‏‪@kueckibooks  30 Dec ‪#starters and ‪#enders are such amazing books, one of the best bookseries I’ve ever read! Great Job ‪@Lissa_Price! Hope to read more from you!

Katie Johnson ‏‪@LittleParawhore 8h @VickyJackson ‪@Lissa_Price This is the sequel to the book ‘Starters’ it’s a dystopian thriller! Vicky it’s A.M.A.Z.I.N.G!!!

And many want me to continue the two-book series:

Jayne (Book Blogger) ‏‪@Read_Draw_Dream 2 Jan @Lissa_Price If you write a third book I will buy you a PUPPY. I need a third book:)

A third book? I might be doing this all over again.

Almost two years after Starters came out, Enders publishes today, in the U.S.

—-

Enders: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. See the trailer. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Shannon Page

Oh, look at that, we have just enough time to get one more Big Idea in under the wire for 2013. The honor for the year’s final Big Idea goes to Shannon Page, with Eel River, which combines 70s communes with horror — one of which, at least, was experienced by the author directly…

SHANNON PAGE:

“You should write a book about that!”

Who hasn’t heard such words, upon telling someone about their childhood on a commune, with goats and naked hippies and a pot garden and no electricity or indoor plumbing and…

Oh, is that just me?

I did indeed have an interesting childhood on “the Land,” and I am a writer, so of course I found the idea tempting. But there are plenty of really good hippie-kid memoirs out there, not to mention some really amazing fiction, such as Drop City by T.C. Boyle. And anyway, I’m a genre writer. I love a creepy story, something with a strong dose of unreality in it. Bizarre as the hippie lifestyle was (and don’t think we didn’t know it at the time), it still actually happened. So I really wasn’t sure how to write my own “true” story.

After a few false starts, I put the idea away and wrote other novels and short fiction filled with witches and fairies and demons and monsters. You know, good stuff.

Then one year I wanted to do NaNoWriMo—the National Novel Writing Month. My writer friends had all these great ideas for their own NaNoWriMo projects, but I was still dithering. Then, in one of those blinding moments of insight, I thought, What about “the Land” story…but with a monster?

And I was off and running. In NaNoWriMo, the goal is to write 50,000 words in a month—a little too short for a novel, but it would make a good start, if it was working; and I’d have only wasted a month, if it wasn’t.

The words poured out. With the barest of outlines, the whole story came alive for me, like no other fiction I’ve ever written. Having the world-building already so well taken care of, I was free to concentrate on the characters and the story. I reached 80,000 words and “the end” before the month was over, and the novel has needed very little editing since then.

Yes, I grabbed the setting and all the colorful details I could from my own life—but it is not, after all, the literal story of my childhood. It is, however, a true story. A story doesn’t have to be “true to life” to tell the truth about life. Genre fiction—fantastical fiction—can be an easier way of exploring and understanding real life than “mundane” fiction with its “factual” details in all their obscuring complexity. Eel River is about danger and fear and betrayal; about a little girl learning to confront uncertainty, and that grownups don’t always have all the answers. It’s about the failure of great ideas when confronted with on-the-ground realities and real people. It’s about the real issues of my childhood, even though these parents are not my parents, that brother is not my brother, and, of course, the actual Land did not contain a monster.

Well, not that monster, anyway.

—-

Eel River: Amazon|Morrigan Books|Smashwords

Visit the book’s page. Read the author’s LiveJournal.

The Big Idea: Jason Fry

Intergenerational family dynamics — in spaaaaace! This might sound like an odd combination at first blush, but with any idea, it’s the execution of the concept that matters. Author Jason Fry is here to tell you how he made it work in his new middle grade novel The Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra.

JASON FRY:

The Jupiter Pirates, my middle-grade space-fantasy series, didn’t start with a big idea at all, but a little one. While walking through Hudson River Park with my wife Emily, I mused that it might be fun to write a kids’ book about space pirates. We chatted about that and the ideas started clack-clack-clacking into place, in a faintly miraculous way that almost never happens to me or any other writer.

“Space pirates” became “a family of space pirates.” Then “a family of space pirates” became “there’s a family starship – the mother’s the captain, the father’s the first mate, and the children are midshipmen.” And then the last domino: “As a ship’s crew, the children have to cooperate. But they’re also competitors. The rank of captain is handed down from one generation to the next, and only one of the children will be the next captain.”

Emily and I looked at each other. That did sound like fun. In fact, it sounded like a lot of fun.

Starting with that little idea, I layered in ingredients inspired by stories I loved. Star Wars went into the mix, of course – I was eight years old when the original hit theaters and have written some two dozen Star Wars books, so it was guaranteed to be in there somewhere. There was a helping of Treasure Island and all its descendents, a pinch of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, and even a dash of “The Sopranos.”

But the big idea came later, while I was writing what would become The Hunt for the Hydra. My first glimpse of it came as I figured out the backstory. When my protagonist Tycho Hashoone was a baby, there was a big battle in which warships from Earth ambushed and destroyed many of the Jupiter pirates. After that the Jovian Union outlawed piracy, but gave some of the surviving pirates letters of marque as lawful privateers. The family patriarch, Huff Hashoone, was so badly injured that half his body was replaced with cybernetic parts and he had to step aside as captain. His daughter Diocletia was raised a pirate but became the captain of a privateer. And her children – Carlo, Yana and Tycho – would grow up thinking of piracy as a thing of the past.

And that’s where my mind started to go beyond carbines and tattoos and unironic uses of “Arrrr!” (Though all those things have been great fun.) The kids are privateers, learning space law and standards of conduct. Their grandfather is an unreconstructed pirate, given to grousing that the end of piracy was the ruin of the family tradition. Their mother and father are caught in the middle, ex-pirates trying to teach their children to stay on the right side of the law.

That made for a basic, fundamental family conflict beyond the competition to be the next captain. And that, in turn, showed me the path I wanted for my protagonist.

Tycho is 12 years old in Hunt for the Hydra, insecure about his skills and doubtful that he can eclipse his twin sister or his older brother in the struggle to become captain. Hunt for the Hydra starts as a mystery (with a side of courtroom drama) and ends with a hammer-and-tongs fight between warships and their crews. By the time it’s over, Tycho’s learned he has capabilities he hasn’t guessed at, and that some of his skills are more important to commanding a starship crew than he thinks.

I think that makes for a satisfying story — but there’s also a shadow of what’s to come for Tycho. He’s trying to measure up to his famous grandfather and his formidable parents, but he’s not growing up the way they did. As he gets older, Tycho will start to question the value of the Hashoone family tradition. He’ll discover family mysteries and become obsessed with solving them, even though he might be better off leaving them alone. He and his siblings will wind up valuing very different things. And he’ll ask himself hard questions about what he thinks is right and what he really wants.

That’s the big idea that came into focus: What happens to the hero’s journey if the hero changes his mind? I think answering that question will lead to a more believable path than those taken by some heroes, one with unexpected roadblocks and detours and a chance of getting thoroughly lost. That’s something I think kids will understand – you’re a different person at 18 than you are at 12. Now, it’s my job to make sure future books in the series fulfill the promise of that idea, while making sure Hunt for the Hydra feels like a first step and not a feint in a different direction.

The Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

Visit the official site, or download an excerpt. Jason’s site is here. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Timothy S. Johnston

Author Timothy S. Johnston has a thing for the “imposter” theme in science fiction, and yes, that pun was most definitely intended. Here he is to tell you why the theme intrigues him so, and how he uses it in his novel The Furnace.

TIMOTHY S. JOHNSTON:

In 1938 the Imposter theme made its first appearance in Science Fiction.  The work was Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr.  Other authors advanced the premise over the next several decades, increasing its popularity immeasurably.  Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951) and Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955), along with Campbell’s novella, are the most well-known literary iterations of the theme.  Since then it has appeared on both the silver and the small screen, in shows such as Star Trek (both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine), The X-Files, and the short-lived Invasion just to name a few.   There have been three movie versions of Campbell’s novella, one of Heinlein’s novel, and a whopping four big screen versions of Finney’s, the most recent being The Invasion starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

I sometimes reflect on this theme, wondering why I was so driven to tell a story that embraced the idea that there could be intruders close to us masquerading as people we knew.  I’ve read Finney’s book multiple times.  I’ve watched every movie mentioned above.  The 1978 take on Finney’s novel, starring Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy, is one of my favorites.  Even poorly made versions of the premise keep me riveted and wanting more.

But why is the theme so popular with fans of Science Fiction?

After the first film based on Finney’s story appeared in 1956, the most common reason postulated was that it was due to a fear of communism.  It was the time of the Red Scare, after all, an intense panic over the growing power of the Soviet Union, the Cold War with the recent flare up in Korea, a looming World War III, and the period of McCarthyism from 1950 to 1956 and the associated investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in which thousands lost their jobs due to a real or perceived stigma associated with communism, and hundreds imprisoned as a result.  It was a witch hunt.  The film appeared at the culmination of this period in US post-World War II history and it resonated with people.  The notion that your friend, your neighbor, or your spouse could be one of Them terrified Americans.

But was Finney’s book really about communism?

When asked about the connection, Jack Finney apparently denied it.  There’s no question that this is why the movie and book intrigued people so back in the 50’s, but the premise has continued for many decades since, long after communism has dropped from most people’s radars.

My own foray into the theme is The Furnace, a murder mystery in space.  A homicide hnvestigator is sent to a claustrophobic and remote station to solve a crime, and while there, stumbles onto something beyond his experience.  I had entered the Imposter theme, without aliens I might add, and every day at my computer a chill traced along my spine.  But I also felt Finney and Heinlein and Campbell over my shoulder while writing it.  I played the movie The Thing (1982) countless times while working.  I could hear whispers in the dark warning me that my family had been substituted, that my friends, although present physically, were now something else.  Them.  Not my friends.  Not there to support and love me, but there to trick and deceive.  To punish.

They drove me to write it.

But what had compelled me to dip my toes in this proverbial well that had been tapped hundreds of times before?  And why do so many writers, filmmakers and producers choose to dabble in it?

I realize now why it echoes so strongly within us.  And it’s simple.  It’s about self-esteem.  It’s about not knowing if those people who claim to love us really do.  It’s about wondering what our friends are saying about us behind our backs, or about what our lovers are doing when we’re not around.

It’s an irrational fear, really, a worry that exists in the back of everyone’s mind, much like that fallacy of communists hiding around every corner back in the 1950’s, but it’s one that triggers something within us that has existed ever since grade school.  It’s become something primal.  We’ve all experienced it.  Encounters with the schoolyard bully.  Betrayals by supposed friends.  Lovers who crush us unexpectedly.  Things we hope will never again happen.

The Imposter theme is very important to me.  I’ve even played the video game version of The Thing and loved every second of it.  The paranoia and fear that our co-workers and friends are actually enemies in hiding scares the hell out of me.  And it’s one whose foundation was laid while we were barely out of diapers.  And for that reason, it brings us back to those days that we had been hoping were well behind us, but never will be.

I’ve got my tattered copy of Finney’s novel sitting before me now.  I can’t wait to pick it up again and read about Dr. Miles Bennell and the mystery he stumbles upon after a routine medical appointment with a patient.

In the room next to my office, my wife is speaking on the phone with her mother.

I think.

The Furnace: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Google Play

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

The Big Idea: Mary Anne Mohanraj

The novel The Stars Change takes place in a far-flung future, on a world that is not Earth. But for her story, author Mary Anne Mohanraj reach into our planet’s recent history — and her own.

MARY ANNE MOHANRAJ:

I live in a bifurcated timeline.  Perhaps all immigrants do, but rarely are the differences so dramatic.  In this timeline, the bright one, I have a job, a house, a partner and two healthy kids.  In the darker timeline, I could easily be dead.

My family left Sri Lanka when I was two years old.  They didn’t plan to stay in America; they came here to work, maybe for a few years.  Like many immigrants, they thought they’d save up some money and then go home, but as their kids grew up, went to school, as they settled into their American lives, it became harder and harder to imagine going back.

Still, in 1983, when I was twelve, my parents planned to send me back for a summer, to live with my grandparents, to reconnect.  They were still thinking we might all move back to Sri Lanka.  But then, a few days before my flight, my dad received a telegram.  Don’t send her.  There’s trouble coming.  He cancelled my flight.

It’s called Black July in Sri Lanka.  Riots erupted in Colombo, the capital city, killing thousands of Tamils, the ethnic minority group, the group to which I belong.  Brutal chaos ensued – friends of mine who were there tell horrifying stories.  They saw tires put around men’s necks, saw them lit on fire.  They saw women and children dragged from their homes, pulled from cars to be raped and killed in the street.

I saw none of this, but the stories haunt my fiction.  Whether I’m writing mainstream lit or fantasy or science fiction, I keep coming back to the war in Sri Lanka.  I keep thinking about the life I would have had, if my parents had made different choices.  If we had stayed there, and been killed in the riots.  If I had gotten on that plane.  If we had fled, as so many of my aunts and uncles did, and ended up as refugees in Canada or elsewhere.

When I started writing a science fiction novel, after twenty years of publishing erotica and mainstream lit., I planned to write something light, something fun.  I was going to write about South Asians!  In space!  With lots of sex!  Oh, I’d start with a war, because every story needs some conflict – the first interstellar war, in fact.  People would hear the news, and would take to their beds – a reasonable response to the end of the world.  I was aiming for smutty, funny, maybe even charming.

But as I wrote the book, the tone shifted.  This was, after all, the darker timeline.  The darkest.  I needed a reason for the war, and it turned out that it was the pure humans against everyone else – specifically, both the aliens and the humods, those genetically engineered to be different from human.

Yes, it’s a race metaphor.  Of course it is.  Writers write what troubles them, what disturbs them, and on a fundamental level, I cannot quite believe that there’s a place in the world where complete strangers are willing to kill me because of my perceived race.  Tamils and Sinhalese speak different languages, are typically of different religions (Hindu/Catholic vs. Buddhist).  But I grew up in America, and I can’t tell by looking at a Sri Lankan which ethnic group they belong to.  Can Palestinians tell Israelis by sight?  Do Hutu know Tutsi at a glance?  And even if they can – by the color of their skin, the shape of a face – why is that worth killing for?

When you read the newspapers from lands torn by ethnic conflict, you’ll see rhetoric about purity.  Racial purity, ethnic purity, language and religion and culture.  When a group feels itself under attack, divisions tend to harden, and people tell themselves stories that justify their hatred.  In America today, it’s clear that many conservative white people now feel themselves, their way of life, to be under attack.  Political positions grow rigid, and people harken back to a ‘lost’ way of life, an idyllic time when things were better.  In Sri Lanka, many nationalist Sinhalese still talk about the Tamil ‘invaders’ who took over their island, even though both groups came to Sri Lanka more than two thousand years ago.

The title for The Stars Change comes from a university motto:  Sidere mens eadem mutato:  The stars change, but the mind remains the same.  I think the university meant it to be hopeful, but there’s a darker reading – that even when we go to the stars, we carry our minds, our prejudices and fears and hatreds, with us.

The Stars Change is set at a university, on a planet settled by South Asians.  As with many major university towns, there’s a diverse population, and sometimes, with those differences, conflicts emerge.  There are outside forces, agitating for war (because with war comes profit, among other things).  There are buried resentments that erupt into violence.  There is pain, and fear, and death.  I totally failed to write the light, smutty book that I’d originally aimed for.

But despite the darkness of this timeline, there is brightness too.  There is hope.  In the end, this is a book about frightened, divided individuals, human, humod, and alien.  People who have good reason to fear and even hate each other, yet manage to put aside their differences and come together as a community.  When a missile threatens to obliterate the Warren, the alien ghetto, there are some who would stay safe in their beds and let it burn.  But there are others – there will always be others – who run towards the flames, trying their damnedest to help.

In Sri Lanka, during the riots, there were so many Sinhalese who sheltered their Tamil neighbors from the brutal thugs.  At the risk of their own lives, they stood up to those with hatred burning in their hearts.  In the end, theirs is the story I wanted to tell.  Even in the darkest timelines, I believe a light can burn.

—-

The Stars Change: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

Visit the book page, which includes an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Nicola Griffith

What do we think of when we think of history? For author Nicola Griffith, it’s a pertinent question, particularly for her latest novel Hild, which features a protagonist of no little historical import — but also no great historical record…

NICOLA GRIFFITH:

Just before I started work on Hild, I wrote “You’ve been warned,” a blog post in which I vowed that with my next novel I would run my software on your hardware. “I will control what you think and feel, put you right there, right then…give you a life you’ve never had, change the one you live. For a while, when you’re lost in my book, you will be somewhere, somewhen, someone else.”

It was my dagger in the table, a public challenge—to myself. You see, I’d been aiming for Hild for a long time, and I was terrified.

*

In my early twenties I was living in Hull, the rather grim city in north east England where my novel Slow River is set. One weekend I managed to get away for a few days and head north up the coast, to Whitby.

I’d read Dracula, which is set partly in Whitby, so I was expecting the 199 steps up the cliff. I was expecting the great ruined abbey against the skyline. But I didn’t expect what happened next.

When I stepped over the threshold of that ruin it felt as though history fisted up through the turf, and through me. It turned me inside out like a sock. It was like sticking your head in what looks like a perfectly ordinary wardrobe only to find yourself in Narnia. My world changed.

History, I realized, was real. Built by real people with their own dreams, disappointments, and dailyness. I could see it. I could feel it. (I probably stood there with my mouth hanging open.)

After that epiphany I went back every year, sometimes twice year. I walked the coastline. I roamed the moors. I spent hours at the abbey, sitting on the tumbled stones, reading the tourist brochures, imagining how it might have been. Even after I moved to the US I came back as often as I could. Bit by bit I learnt that the abbey was founded by a woman called Hild in the mid-seventh century. That 1350 years ago, in 664 CE, she hosted and facilitated a meeting, the Synod of Whitby, which was a major turning point in English history. She’s now revered as St. Hilda of Whitby.

But when I went looking I couldn’t find any solid information. No scholarly monograph. No saintly Life Of. Not even a novel. The only reason we know Hild existed is a mention in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He tell us Hild’s mother dreamt of her in the womb–she would be the light of the world. Her father was murdered in exile. She was baptised at age 13 and when she was 33 and visiting her older sister in East Anglia, she was recruited to the church. She went on to found Whitby Abbey and hosted the Synod in which so-called Celtic Christianity was ousted in favour of the Roman kind. Oh, and she trained five bishops, was a counsellor to kings, and was instrumental in the creation of the first piece of English literature, Cædmon’s Hymn.

We don’t know what she looked like, whether she married or had children, or even where she was born. But she must have been extraordinary. Think about it. This was the time that used to be called the Dark Ages. In a heroic, occcasionally brutal and certainly illiterate culture (cue music for Xena: Warrior Princess), Hild begins life as the second daughter of a widow, homeless and hunted, yet ends as a powerful advisor to more than one king, leader of a famous centre of learning, and midwife to English literature.

So how did she do that? We don’t know. I wrote this book to find out. I decided to use the same world-building I’d used in science fiction to figure out how. I’d build the seventh century and grow Hild inside.

So I researched. I read everything I could lay my hands on about the late sixth and early seventh century: ethnography, archaeology, poetry, numismatics, jewellery, textile production, languages, food, weapons, trade patterns, even the weather. I read scholarly monographs, narrative histories, blog posts, and strange screeds. Late in the process I stumbled over a new factoid: by one estimate, Anglo-Saxon women spent 65% of their time in the production of textiles. Sixty-five percent. That’s a greater proportion of her day than sleeping, child care, and food preparation combined. Textile production was life-or-death technology for the whole community. I kept returning to it; it fascinated me.

But I didn’t want to write that kind of book. I didn’t want to write about the restrictions of gender. Domesticity makes me claustrophobic. Hearth and home are all very well, but I love an epic canvas: gold and glory, politics and plotting, people wacking each other’s heads off with swords. To avoid feeling trapped I was tempted to make Hild so singular that the restrictions didn’t apply to her. At one point I even had her learn and use a sword, although in reality any woman of that era who picked one up would most likely have been killed out of hand and tossed face-down in a ditch.

I couldn’t make it work. Remember that realisation at Whitby Abbey? History is made by real people; the rules always apply. I despaired.

But there was my dagger, quivering in the table.

In the end I did what any good Anglo-Saxon would: I got drunk, laughed in the face of fear, and charged…

…And discovered what poets have known for millennia, that constraint is freeing. I had nothing to lose, so I committed. And the words came. It felt like magic. It was Hild’s voice…

—-

Hild: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Sean Williams

I’m a fan of Sean Williams, and his new novel Twinmaker (known as Jump in Australia, and the first in a series) is a whole bunch of science fictional fun. But I gotta tell you, I’m hesitant about stepping into a matter transmitter. Maybe in this Big Idea he can convince you otherwise.

SEAN WILLIAMS:

Forty-nine years ago, a marvellous device that allowed characters to move from place to place without physically traversing the distance between first appeared in a famous sci-fi TV serial. I’m not talking about the transporters of Star Trek, although “Beam me up, Scotty” is what everyone remembers. Doctor Who got there first, with the travel dials of “The Keys of Marinus”–and in fact Flash Gordon beat them both, way back in 1955.

Matter transmitters have a longer history than most people realize. They’re also a lot more interesting. Although they seem on the surface to be entirely about conveniently moving people around, except for when they break down, there’s a lot more to them than that.

“The Fly” vividly captured the dangers of disintegration-reintegration for a mainstream audience not long after Flash Gordon, but the trope had been mucking around with people’s bodies for almost eighty years before that. The first sfnal use of a matter transmitter in print was in 1877, in a short story by Edward Page Mitchell called “The Man Without a Body”. The trope immediately took off, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle employing it not just once, but twice, and a plethora of writers exploring the consequences of this new technology to highly imaginative effect.

It became immediately apparent that people could be mutated in a variety of strange ways–made hairless and boneless, in two early examples. War and commerce could similarly be transformed, for the act of scanning something leads to the possibility of copying anything ad infinitum, including soldiers. On an even grander scale, our understanding of space and time is unavoidably altered by removing the space between here and there, as are social mores dependent on maintaining that space. No aspect of society would go untouched.

When it comes to transformation, then, the matter transmitter is the ultimate science fiction trope–far more useful, once could argue, than the time machine, which was also first written about by Edward Page Mitchell, ten years before H. G. Wells.

I say all this as someone who has been obsessed with the trope from a very early age. On seeing the Doctor’s companion Sarah Jane Smith transmat from one part of a space station to another (in “The Ark in Space”) and arrive wearing different clothes, the device has been a source of endless fascination. My first, unpublished short story employed the trope to haunt the inventor with a plethora of his own ghosts. My second novel, The Resurrected Man, wondered what happens when a serial killer takes copies of his victims, leaving the originals alive. The number of short stories I’ve had sold exploring the transformative power of the trope is in the double figures. (The latest, “Death & the Hobbyist”, is freely available at Lightspeed as of November 5.) I’ve just finished a PhD on the subject, hence my willingness to bang on about it for hours, if encouraged even mildly.

And then there’s my new novel, Twinmaker, which takes its title from a line written by Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett. (In their 1982 book The Mind’s I, they refer to a matter transmitter as a “murdering twinmaker” simply for working in the manner it’s supposed to.) Twinmaker is a science fiction novel set in a world where the matter transmitter, which I call d-mat, is the dominant means of transport. It’s also brought the world back from environmental catastrophe by sucking out all the excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and created a post-scarcity society thanks to “fabbers”, which can build anything except people . . . because that would be creepy, right?

It sure would be, but there are degrees of creepiness explored in the book. I’m struck by the number of people who swear black and blue that they would never use d-mat for fear of arriving as something other than themselves. These are the same people who willingly strap their loved ones into metal contraptions containing huge amounts of liquid explosive and hurtle around crowded cities full of other such contraptions in the happy expectation that they will survive the experience. People are wonderfully expedient when it comes to things like this. As long as d-mat was mostly safe and people arrived feeling the same as they were, I reckon just about everyone would get over their qualms. Particularly anyone who has to travel for a living.

But not everyone. (I call the people who opt out of using d-mat, and therefore out of this future society, “Abstainers”.) You’d still need assurances, and laws to back up those assurances, and people being people, there’ll always be someone to ruin the party for everyone else.

If someone said that you could game the system and become taller, faster, stronger, smarter, whatever–you’d be tempted, surely? Particularly if you’re a teenager. They all want to be taller, faster, stronger, smarter, whatever. Again, maybe not all. But that’s the premise of Twinmaker in a nutshell. It’s an urban myth writ large. Meme spreads, promising Improvement. Almost certainly fake, but there’s no harm in trying, just in case. Or is there?

It may sound like I’m looking backwards for inspiration, but I sincerely believe that the opposite is the case. With my work in this area, and Twinmaker in particular, I’m attempting to couch thought-provoking philosophical questions in compelling narratives that introduce the trope of the matter transmitter to a younger audience, many of whom know it best from computer games rather than the shows I grew up with. I’m also hoping to revive interest in older readers and writers too, for in our post-cyberpunk world of telepresence robots and drones the trope has never been more relevant. Maybe that’s why it featured in an unusually long aside in an episode of this year’s most anticipated season of television, Breaking Bad.

Will we ever have a working matter transmitter? I don’t know. You can see technologies converging via 3-D printers and quantum teleportation, but the engineering hurdles are immense. Even at the speed we can send data these days, it would take many hundreds of thousands of times longer than the current age of the universe to send a single human brain anywhere. But science fiction isn’t about describing the possible. It’s about imagining the plausible.

Imagining a working matter transmitter is easy. What we do with it . . . that’s a whole other story.

—-

Twinmaker: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Visit the book page to read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor

What is best in life? To have a successful book and to have the publishers and fans clamoring for a sequel. But what’s best in life comes with its own set of (admittedly high-end) problems. This Ryk E. Spoor discovered in the creation of Spheres of Influence, the follow-up to his science fiction hit, Grand Central Arena. How did he solve his problem? Let’s find out.

RYK E. SPOOR:

Back in 2007, I had completed my draft of Threshold, the sequel to Boundary, and had – at the time – no contracts other than that for Portal, and that I couldn’t work on until Eric Flint did his work on Threshold, and submitted the final draft. With encouragement from Eric, I began to work up a new proposal for Baen (as they hadn’t shown interest in other work I had ready at the time).

That proposal became Grand Central Arena, my salute to the Golden Age and all my science-fiction inspirations with a special focus on the work of E. E. “Doc” Smith, as most clearly shown by the inclusion of a character named (for very good in-universe reasons) Marc C. DuQuesne.

The development of The Arena, and the reason behind that development – the attempt to re-create the Golden Age “sensawunda” as I had experienced it – I detailed in a prior Big Idea post when Grand Central Arena was released. But at the time Grand Central Arena (henceforth just GCA) was released, I had no idea if it would sell or not. Much of the “fan appeal” could be pretty obscure. I thought the surface story and adventures were good enough, but I couldn’t know if anyone else would think so.

As it turned out, GCA did quite well, and so Baen was happy to accept a proposal to write a sequel.

And for the very first time in my life, as I started working on a book, I felt a touch of fear.

It was really quite alien, and for a while I couldn’t figure out why. I’d said before – and I still believed – that I could write in the Arenaverse for twenty years and not get bored, that there was limitless possibility in The Arena. I had a decent, though far from clear at that time, idea of what I wanted to do both in short and long-term – certainly no vaguer an idea than I’d had when I first started writing GCA. I knew I was, if anything, a better writer than I’d been two, three years ago.

So why in the world was I suddenly half-frozen trying to write it, to even write an outline?

I sat down and started re-reading GCA again, enjoying the flow of the novel but really trying to figure out which loose ends I needed to address first, where the plot needed to go, and so on. And as I began to focus on the real question, what I as a reader would want from the sequel, my tension and fear came screaming into focus:

I didn’t know if I could measure up to myself.

Does that sound silly, or maybe even arrogant? I don’t know. But what I was afraid of was not being able to keep the sense of wonder. The first book in any series has a huge advantage there. For all the infodumping and talk-talk-talk that I had to do in GCA, it was the book where we first saw the Arena, the infinite skies filled with storms and possibility, first met clever, scheming Orphan and wise, considered Nyanthus, dueled the Molothos for the sake of our Sphere and faced the Shadeweavers and their impossible powers. GCA had the whole new universe to hit you with, and that was its purpose – to make the reader sit back, periodically, to go “wow!”.

Now that I’d done the Big Reveal, now that Marc C. DuQuesne of Hyperion had unleashed his true self, now that Arian Austin had faced and defeated Amas-Garao with a brilliant last-ditch throw of the dice… how in the world was I going to … not even equal that, but just follow up on it with something that wouldn’t leave the reader – a reader perhaps like I had been, a couple decades ago – feeling vaguely, or perhaps not so vaguely, let down?

I had experienced it before with many books, and movies, whose sequels were pale imitations of the original. Even series that held up reasonably well – the Chronicles of Amber, for instance, or Weber’s Honor Harrington – didn’t quite have the same oomph in the second and subsequent volumes as that first introduction, and I really didn’t (and don’t) feel that I’m at the level of those or other major talents in SF.

That was what was scaring me. It was a novel sensation, because in general, I’m not writing for an audience. I’m writing for me, to read stories I know no one else will, or can, write. In a sense, of course, I still was writing for me… but the part of me that was the reader was warning me that there was this big ol’ pitfall right in front of me.

I didn’t have that problem with Threshold; while that was somewhat similar in that I had invented the universe only a few years prior, I had Eric Flint as a backstop, someone who’d be able to tell me what I might do wrong, how to fix it, and it was a much more limited, defined universe. Hard SF is a pain in the ass to write in some ways, but the fact that the universe draws many of the lines for you is comforting at the same time.

I haven’t experienced it starting the sequel for Phoenix Rising either – but that’s because I’ve spent thirty-five years building the universe, and more than twenty thinking about Phoenix’ basic story. I can actually play with that one, and I am, without worrying; I know the beginning, middle, and end, and no uncertainty about how the world works, or whether I’m forgetting a key detail.

But with Spheres of Influence I had no one backing me up, and instead of three and a half decades of worldbuilding I had three or four partial years. There were a lot of ways to screw up, and no one to keep me from doing so except maybe my beta-readers.

I was tense for another, related reason, I realized. There were a lot of things I wanted to do with this series – a lot! – but there were certain specific things that had to be dealt with before I could get to a lot of them. Would I have to write a boring intermediary book in order to set things up – and kill the point of setting them up?

I finally forced myself to move forward, and to do that I made myself list out the purposes of the book – from the point of view of how it would serve the characters. Simon Sandrisson had to deal with becoming a more active force, and with what had happened to him during the ritual that sealed away Ariane’s newfound powers. DuQuesne had to face his Hyperion past. And Ariane had to really come to grips with being the “Leader of the Faction of Humanity” – even though a lot of people would not at first believe that she had that position, and afterward not feel she was suited for it.

I needed something more, though. I needed something exciting, and not just grim or scary. I needed something cool, and fun, and with more potential for later books. I needed to put Ariane in a position that forced her to, put bluntly, grow up – because Humanity, in 2375, is en masse almost childish.

I didn’t know – exactly – how I would do that, although an idea started to niggle at the back of my brain, touching on some other unanswered questions. But suddenly I did know what I needed for the first problem.

I needed Son Wu Kung, the Monkey King of Hyperion. I needed the laughing trickster, the eternal hero, the Great Sage Equal of Heaven. He was part of DuQuesne’s backstory, mentioned in passing as one of the things that most hurt DuQuesne to lose, one of his great regrets, and one of those that had been safegarded back in GCA during a cryptic meeting by DuQuesne with a “Doctor Davison”.

I needed to tie up some of DuQuesne’s other loose ends, too – his mysterious “K”, the woman it was implied he had loved before he met Ariane, and the other mysterious force, the one DuQuesne was clearly afraid of. I’d known who “K” was all along, although how I wanted to present her wasn’t clear, but the mysterious enemy I only had a vague idea of at first.

And then in a single flash of inspiration I did know who and what she was, why she was designed, for what purpose, how she became one of the worst imaginable enemies, all of it… and I stopped dead. I wasn’t sure I dared do what I knew I ought to do. I didn’t know if I had the skill, or maybe just the king-sized cojones, to try what I’d thought of.

When I described the idea, though, my wife Kathleen immediately said “Yes. Yes, do that. Do exactly that.”

So did my beta group.

So I did; if you read Spheres of Influence, you’ll understand exactly what I was so hesitant about. Yet it fit. It fit the glorious yet utterly self-involved, blinkered, hideous brilliance of Hyperion perfectly, and answered all the questions about who DuQuesne’s enemy was and why, at the same time, he did not, and couldn’t, kill her (for it did have to be a her).

Understanding DuQuesne’s “arc”, so to speak, in the book gave me a foundation. I felt the tension recede – a bit – and that was enough. I was able to see Simon and Ariane’s directions as well, and recognize the part that Son Wu Kung would play in this, and later, adventures. I could sit down, and write.

And I did.

Spheres of Influence is, I think, a better written novel than Grand Central Arena. It may not be – quite – as shiny as GCA, since GCA got to keep a lot of the shiny for itself. But I think – and hope – it is shiny enough, and that it offers more for a reader – more knowledge of the people of the Arena, of the ways the Arena works, and even more about the dark triumph of Hyperion and the world of our solar system in 2375, as well as the adventure of watching Captain Ariane Austin come fully into her own as the Leader of Humanity.

I still have some of that tension, but now it is – mostly – worry about whether the book will do well enough to let me tell the rest of their story, for there are still so many questions to confront – so many answers to discover. Answers that I know, right up to the ultimate ending of the series.

But now… I’m not afraid that I will fail if I get the chance to write those books.

At least, not much.

Thanks for reading, and please come with me and enter the Arena… again.

—-

Spheres of Influence: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Beth Bernobich

Having characters with complicated pasts is, well, complicated, and writing about them in a successful manner can be even more so. In Allegiance, the newest from Beth Bernobich, the past weighs heavily on every character, and offered a unique set of challenges for the author as well. 

BETH BERNOBICH:

Endings, the poet Tanja Duhr once wrote, were deceptive things. No story truly came to a final stop, no poem described the last of the last—they could not, not until the world and the gods and time had ceased to exist. An ending was a literary device. In truth, the end of one story, or one life, carried the seeds for the next.

This is how Allegiance, the third book in my River of Souls trilogy, starts off. But after I wrote that paragraph, I had second thoughts. It was slow, it was old-fashioned, it was… To be honest, my doubts were me being uncertain about the real theme and backbone of my book. So I set this version aside and tried out at least five other openings.

(Unlike the letter Miles Vorkosigan writes in A Civil Campaign, none of my drafts were in rhyme. Nor were they all that abject, either.)

None of the openings were bad. All of them are present in the final version of the book, though in later chapters. But in the end, I went back to the first version because it really did sum up for me what this book and this trilogy are about: second chances. And for me, for these books, second chances meant multiple lives.

You see, in the world of my River of Souls trilogy, reincarnation is a reality. You live, you die, and your soul is reborn.  There’s nothing certain about this new self, by the way. Sex, gender, nationality—all of these can change from life to life. You might have been the queen of Morennioù, then a prince of Károví, then a mercenary and thief. Your enemy can become your ally, possibly your lover.

At the same time, rebirth doesn’t mean you start off as a blank, with no connection to your past. You remember those previous lives through vivid dreams, which can be brief and chaotic fragments—a few words from an important conversation, a confrontation, the image of someone turning away—or they might be long coherent narratives from your past. As you approach death, these dreams become more frequent and more insistent, a reminder of any unfinished business that has pursued you from life to life. And yeah, there is always unfinished business.

When I first started writing this trilogy, I had limited the idea of multiple lives to only two characters. My goal was to show two people entangled by fate throughout history, and how their conflict affected both their kingdoms and their family.

The result was…not a success.

The biggest problem was that these two people weren’t the main characters. (And even the person I thought was the main character, wasn’t. But that’s another issue.) When my attempts to fix the problem didn’t pan out, I started to wonder, why should the main characters clean up someone else’s mess? Why shouldn’t they have their own messes to clean up?

Which meant everyone could have multiple lives, multiple messes, and multiple chances to clean things up. (Or not.)

Eventually I sorted out who the main characters really were. In the process, one of the original pair vanished from the main story. His daughter inherited his backstory, which then overturned my previous preconceptions about the rules for reincarnation.

Anyone could be anyone. Man or woman, ruler or servant, scholar or merchant or poet. Or one young woman determined to create her own life, on her own terms.

Which brings me back to Allegiance and its opening. In this trilogy, Ilse Zhalina, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, flees from a proposed marriage with an abusive man. She ends up in the household of Raul Kosenmark, a former councilor in the Royal Court, where she discovers this is not her first encounter with this man, or with magic, or with international politics.

And here, in Allegiance, she sets off on a journey that is an echo of a journey she undertook years and lives ago.

Second chances, indeed.

—-

Allegiance: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Max Gladstone

Sometimes reality reads like fiction. And then that reality can inspire fiction. Just ask Max Gladstone about this, and how recent yet almost unbelievable events gave him the the impetus for at least two books, including his newest, Two Serpents Rise.

MAX GLADSTONE:

Do you remember the day the gods died?

You must.  I mean, five years or so back this grand cataclysm tore through an immaterial plane of existence adjacent to our own.  Every few days, it seemed, another ostensibly immortal being that took sustenance from the faith and work of its followers and priests died.  Those that survived starved themselves lean.  Afterward, as the world sunk into recession, the surviving immortals withdrew to Olympus, hoarding the remnants of their power and licking their wounds.  To this day we fault them for their retreat from Earth.

Oh, and let’s not forget the part where a bunch of hardworking folks who communicate in arcane jargon derived from ancient languages spent thousands of billable hours raising fallen deities from the dead.

At least that’s how the 2008 recession and its aftermath looked to yours truly, a half-crazed fantasy novelist recently back in the US from a few years teaching in the Chinese countryside.  That bit of extra distance meant that on returning I read America like a genre book—trying to make sense of the world from clues I was given as I went along.

And the world’s pretty strange, when you think about it for a second.  What’s the Kool-Aid Man but a totemic representation of a vast, inscrutable, and horrifying reality?  What is an org chart but a mandala made with PowerPoint?  Mickey Mouse’s many tentacles spread from Hong Kong to Provo, Utah, and His castles rise over foreign lands.  Don’t even get me started on Collateralized Debt Offerings and Special Purpose Entities.

I couldn’t think of another book dealing with the weird magic of the modern economy, so I decided to write one.  Well.  More than one.  I like telling complete stories in independent books—but as I fleshed out the idea I realized that what I really needed was a mosaic, a number of books showing different angles on a complex reality.

The fact that this approach let me live out my huge writer-crush on Terry Pratchett was a pleasant coincidence.

The first book in the Craft Sequence, Three Parts Dead, came out last year—the story of a junior associate at an international necromancy firm who’s trying to resurrect a dead god.  The main character in that book, Tara, is a fledgling necromancer, which gives her status and power in the world of the books, so long as she’s willing to bill crazy hours and steer clear of certain moral judgments about her less savory clients.

I wanted to change things up a bit with my next book, Two Serpents Rise. I decided for starters to show the world through the eyes of a character with less power.  Caleb is a risk manager for a water utility run by an undead god-killing wizard.  Caleb has skills of his own, and he’s good at his job, but he can’t raise zombies, throw fireballs, or peel off peoples’ faces when needs must.  He’s stuck with his wits, his fists, and some limited ability to manipulate the magic around him.  Where the world looks more like a fantasy setting for Tara, for Caleb it’s a horror setting—he’s a small guy trying to chart his course through a world full of forces that could crush him if they noticed him.

Unfortunately, some of those forces have him in their sights.

I also wanted to show a city living with its past.  In Three Parts Dead, the main characters wanted to raise a dead god before His death affected his city. Stopping crisis was the point.  Two Serpents Rise takes place in a city where the gods have been dead for a while—kicked out, in fact. And their world went on.  The sacred ball game became a spectator sport.  Real estate speculators converted temples to art galleries and office space.  The physical world became an object of exploitation and manipulation, rather than the subject of a relationship with the divine.  Most people like it that way.

Most.

But even though the gods of Caleb’s city died a long time ago, their followers remain, and the dead have a nasty habit of sneaking up on you.

So that’s the Big Idea—an interpretation more than a ‘what if,’ an attempt to make sense of confusion by recasting it, and to do so in a way that let me play with zombies, lich kings, feathered serpents, and deep magic from before the dawn of time.  Because it’s good to have a point, and it’s good to have fun, but it’s better to have fun and a point at once.

—-

Two Serpents Rise: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Richard Kadrey

Short intro: Richard Kadrey is one of my favorite contemporary dark fantasy authors. Dead Set, his newest book, is excellent. It’s also a little bit different than some of his other work, for a couple of reasons. Those reasons? Kadrey explains below.

RICHARD KADREY:

Dead Set is a new kind of book for me. I’ve never written a young adult novel before and before a friend pointed me to authors like Holly Black, my memory of what passed for young adult when I was a kid was something kind of soft and not very sophisticated. Then I read some of the good modern stuff—like Black’s Tithe and some of Neil Gaiman’s work–and it was a reading kick to the head. As I waded into the dark magic, tough situations, and screwed up families I thought that I could have a good time exploring this new territory, so I took the plunge.

There’s another reason I wanted to try Dead Set, too. I write a lot about guys. Guys with power and attitude. My Sandman Slim series is about a magician with vast physical and magical power: James Stark has escaped Hell, come back from the dead (more than once), kicks angels’ asses, and pals around with God and Lucifer. Basically, he’s a guy with a lot going for him. A young adult book seemed like that perfect place to look at a character with little to no power. Up popped Zoe, a sixteen-year-old girl with a recently dead father, little money, and a mother who, like Zoe, is finding her way back from tragedy. Sixteen seemed like the perfect age for my protagonist. A fascinating, frustrating time where you have so many adult responsibilities, but so little adult power.

Dead Set was also a place to explore new mythologies. Over six books, Sandman Slim has developed enough backstory and mythological complexities that I had to create a spreadsheet to keep track of who I’d killed and who was merely maimed. I needed breakdowns of the magical beings in James Stark’s world. Who his friends and enemies are. Where has he been and what did he find there? Keeping these things straight is sometimes fun, but Sandman Slim’s world, however complicated, is just one world. I wanted to write about other places. Writing Zoe’s story let me do that.

Zoe’s story starts simply. In the year since her father’s death, her life has fallen apart. The insurance money didn’t come through, so she and her mother lost their nice home in the suburbs and had to move into a crappy apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Zoe has left all her friends behind and has to attend a new school where she doesn’t know anyone and doesn’t fit in. Worst of all, her dreams have become haunted.

Before the move, Zoe’s dreams were the one place she felt happy and safe, playing like kids behind her family’s old house with Valentine, her “dream brother.” There, she could forget about her screwed up life for a while. Lately though, the black dogs have appeared, following her through empty streets of her dreams.

While cutting school one day, Zoe wanders into a used record store. Music and old punk bands had always been a big part of her family’s life and when she sees the shop, she can’t help but go in. Inside, she discovers a secret room in the back, one most people can’t find. There, the records are unlabeled and when Zoe holds one up to the light it seems to have a beating heart in the center, with veins and arteries branching away. Emmett, the store owner, explains to her that these records don’t hold music, but human souls—her father’s soul among them. Zoe can have the record and take her father home, if she’ll pay the price. Ultimately, the price forces her to visit a dark city where the dead are trapped forever, unable to go forward or back. She wants to save her father, but quickly realizes she also has to save herself. My editor and I have described the book as a punk Wizard of Oz with dead people instead of munchkins.

As some of you might have guessed, I’m not young and I’m not a woman, so… how did I write the book from a young woman’s point of view? I started my writing career as a journalist, which means I know how to research. I approached writing Zoe the way I would any subject I wanted to know more about: I read up on the subject and most importantly, I went to the experts. Women. I’m lucky that I’m surrounded by smart women. My wife is my first reader. My editor, agent, and publicist are all women. I went to friend’s daughters and to young women I’d gone to for book advice while writing Sandman Slim (I don’t keep up with anime the way I used to. It’s nice to know people who do!).

That’s the basic story behind Dead Set. I wanted to try something different and I wanted to get my work in front of new eyes. I wanted to explore new worlds and I wanted to write something that both young adult and older readers could enjoy. And I wanted to find out if Zoe took the shadow man’s offer and what she did with it.

Everyone is sixteen once, both strong and weak, adult and child, focused and confused. I remember all those things. Some parts of Zoe weren’t hard to write at all. The lost family that’s trying to find its way back to shore. The scars that everyone gets in life: the ones you get from exploring the edges of what you know, plus the deeper ones you pick up in the places you know you shouldn’t go but can’t resist. I wanted to look at all those things again and I wanted to do it with someone as smart and resourceful as Zoe.

The land of the dead is a hard place to get to and even harder to come back from. Zoe is frequently in over her head, but we’re all over our heads more times than we’d like to admit. It’s what you do there and how you fight your way back that defines you as a person. And ultimately, that’s Zoe’s story.

—-

Dead Set: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Wesley Chu

The good news: That novel, the one you’ve been working on for years, has sold! The ambiguous news: Now they want you to write a sequel! Quick! Uh, yay? What happens when they story you’ve painstakingly handcrafted over time suddenly has to sprout a whole new storyline? What then? It’s something Wesley Chu had to consider with his latest novel, The Deaths of Tao. Here’s how he dealt with it.

WESLEY CHU:

I’m not what you’d call a long term planner. As in if I know I’m going to a buffet for dinner, is it a smart thing to eat a burrito at 3PM? (Hint: I never say no to burritos)

This was especially true when I signed the deal for my debut novel, The Lives of Tao, with the ill-tempered automatons at Angry Robot Books. Before the John Hancock even dried, I was confronted with having to write a sequel in less than a year. Now, at the time, I didn’t think very far past the epilogue of the first book. I always thought of it like The Truman Show where Jim Carrey just takes a bow and exits stage right in an invisible door, and then the credits roll. The director calls everyone together for the martini shot, and then the grip crew starts dismantling the set.

So, what is the Big Idea for the sequel The Deaths of Tao then?

Well, what happens after an epilogue?

See, sequels are tricky things. People who enjoy The Lives of Tao like it for specific reasons. Maybe they think it’s funny, maybe they like the action, or maybe they enjoy Roen the lovable loser’s late coming-of-age story. So the question is, should I keep the fun train rolling and write a similar novel, or should I venture out into the unknown and move in a completely different direction?

A significant portion of the first book was focused on Roen’s training and his transformation from an out-of-shape loser to a svelte agent drafted to fight the evil Genjix in the Quasing War. By the end of the book, he had grown to become a competent and confident field agent.

So for The Deaths of Tao, should I train him some more, like level him up to a Bond-class badass agent and follow a similar path that Lives took to give readers who enjoyed the first book more of what they liked? Or do I turn up the heat, have all hell break loose, and see what Roen’s melting point is after I’ve broken all his favorite toys?

Then it occurred to me: I learned two very important lessons from playing World of Warcraft.

  1. Leading a guild is one of the best teachers for project management training. Nothing prepares a person for leadership like corralling a bunch of immature gamers hot for epic loots.
  2. Playing Warcraft requires a player to hit max level first, and then the player goes raiding.

So what do I do with Roen? I had leveled him up to max in The Lives of Tao. In The Deaths of Tao, I take him raiding.

There’s my Big Idea.

It’s been a few years since the events of first book and everything has changed, mostly for the worse. Roen is no longer the bumbling loveable fool still trying to figure out how to throw a punch and tail a suspect without being caught. He’s now leveled up into a badass with a chip on his shoulder fighting in the thick of the Quasing war.

He’s got his work cut out for him, though. The Prophus have been getting whooped on every front and are in danger of losing the battle for influence of the US government. Coupled with the Genjix controlling the Chinese government, the Prophus are nearing complete capitulation. To make matters worse, the Genjix have a new secret plan that just might kill every living being on this planet.

They’re okay with that.

There’s also a new baddie in town by the name of Enzo. A product of their eugenics Hatchery program, he’s young, brash, and brilliant, and he’ll make sure you know it as he kicks your ass.

Roen will have some help. Jill, his love interest in Lives, has her own Quasing now and is fighting the Genjix on the political front, trying to stave off their takeover of the US government. Not all is peachy with their relationship, though. War is terrible and tends to mess up a couple’s relationship. The two will need to figure out how to work things out and raise a child, all while fighting for the very survival of humanity.

At the end of the day, this is what Roen Tan signed up for in The Lives of Tao. He’s leveled up; now it’s time he goes raiding.

—-

The Deaths of Tao: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: T.L. Morganfield

From Aztec mythology to Clarion West to NaNoWriMo to The Bone Flower Throne, the first of a series of fantasy books. How did T.L. Morganfield get from one to the other to the next? She’s here to guide you through the process.

T. L. MORGANFIELD:

I’m an Aztec geek; whether it’s history or mythology, I devour it all. It’s a love affair that began in college and has taken over my fiction writing life. It gives me immense joy to immerse myself into that world, digging up the forgotten treasures and intrigues, and finding voices and figures my high school history and English classes never bothered to mention.

Like Quetzalpetlatl, the most famous woman no one knows anything about: the woman the gods used to ruin Mesoamerica’s greatest hero.

If first learned of her at Clarion West in 2002, while researching for my week three story. I stumbled upon a university website dedicated to academic information about the god Quetzalcoatl, and there I read my first telling of the life of the legendary Toltec priest-king Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl: after growing up in exile, Topiltzin avenges his father’s murder at the hands of his uncle and establishes the kingdom of Tollan, where he defies the gods and outlaws human sacrifice. To discredit him, the dark sorcerer god Tezcatlipoca gets him so drunk he sleeps with his own sister, and Topiltzin leaves Tollan in disgrace.

I immediately knew this was a story I wanted to explore, but it felt too complex to tackle at the time. As the years passed, I learned that was just one version of Topiltzin’s life–in fact most tribes in Mesoamerica had their own version, each as different as the next–but that particular telling always lingered at the back of my mind. Topiltzin’s sister in particular intrigued me: she had a name–Quetzalpetlatl–but she only appeared in that version of the legend, and disappointingly, she had no history beyond that one mention of Tezcatlipoca using her against Topiltzin. Who was she, and what had her life been like before that fateful end? Why did Tezcatlipoca choose her, and what became of her after all that? None of that was answered.

Those questions led to a four-year journey through many failed drafts and false starts that eventually became The Bone Flower Throne (and the two books to follow). It started as a novelette, and though I received the best personal rejections from both pro and semi-pro editors I’ve ever gotten, it just wasn’t right for anyone. One editor suggested the story was better suited to novel length, so I spent two NaNoWriMos expanding it out into a first draft.

Yet even then, I continued running into the same issues as the original legend: Topiltzin is a bigger-than-life figure, revered as much as the god he’s named after, and Quetzalpetlatl had no motivations that didn’t forward his agendas. Two years and 200k words later, the story was still his, and she was just as manipulated as ever. I had to start all over, and rethink everything.

One of the troubles with Aztec mythology is that it’s a jumble of indigenous thought and Christian gloss, thanks to the Spanish priests who first recorded them in writing; they often added their own spin to the tales, to demonize the native culture and justify the atrocities committed during the Conquest. Taking that into consideration, I zeroed in on what seemed the most “Christianized” aspect of the original narrative: that committing incest with Quetzalpetlatl was the source of Topiltzin’s downfall. It’s a bit of a curiosity, for Aztec royal genealogy shows marriage between close blood relatives being fairly common, at least among the nobility: Cuitlahuac, the second to last emperor, married his niece after her father Motecuhzoma the Younger died at the hands of his own citizens, and after Cuitlahuac perished of small pox, his predecessor Cuauhtemoc married that same girl, his nine-year old first cousin. And none of that was considered peculiar to those involved.

But I couldn’t just cut the incest all together; without it, Quetzalpetlatl doesn’t even appear in the original myth–it’s the only reason she exists. So I needed to turn that aspect on its head.

Initially I was very hesitant to explore a consensual incestuous relationship between Topiltzin and Quetzalpetlatl, for it would surely drive away some readers–and it made me uncomfortable the first time the thought occurred to me. But once I let go of those reservations, the bits and pieces that hadn’t worked before started clicking into place. And when I asked myself about the underlying “why”, all sorts of doors opened, allowing me to fold and transform the mythology in new and unexpected ways. Quetzalpetlatl could now be an active combatant in the conflict between Topiltzin and Tezcatlipoca, rather than just a tool the bad guy uses against the good guy, and I could open the ending up to a whole different set of conflicts that didn’t rely on her being a victim. Instead she would define her own role in Topiltzin’s legacy, and her story would reach far beyond the end of the original legend.

Was it a good choice? When reviewers admit they wanted Quetzalpetlatl and Topiltzin to end up together in spite of their own strongly negative feelings about such relationships, I have to think it pays to put aside our own cultural expectations and explore new routes with an open mind, even when they might make us uncomfortable.

——

The Bone Flower Throne: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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