The Big Idea: Nancy Kress

The Cover to If Tomorrow Comes by Nancy Kress

Everyone wants to do the right thing — but sometimes knowing what is “right” is not so simple, especially when there there are rules and regulations to consider. Or so Nancy Kress discovered, as she did her research for her new novel, If Tomorrow Comes.


Much fiction, in both SF and mainstream, is built around a character whose deeply-held values clash with each other. Paul Atreides in Frank Herbert’s classic, Dune, wants both to avoid immediate violence and to keep humanity from extinguishing itself millennia later; he cannot do both. Binti, in Nnedi Okonafor’s eponymous novel, both wants to remain a member of her native, stay-at-home culture and leave it for the wider world of an interstellar university. The protagonist of  Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” must choose between conceiving a child that she knows will die young and avoiding the pain which that inevitable death will bring. For such emotional choices, there are no formal guidelines, no given laws.

For military choices, however, there are. The rules for disobeying a direct order from a commanding officer are set out in both the Military Code of Justice and the Manual for Courts Martial: It is a crime to willfully disobey a superior officer. It is a crime to attack a superior officer. Making a mutiny is a crime punishable by death, even in peacetime.

A viewpoint character in my novel If Tomorrow Comes faces this clash of values: a deeply held loyalty to the U.S. Army versus obedience to the orders of a superior officer that he cannot, in good conscience, follow, even though those orders are lawful. Corporal Leo Brodie, a sniper assigned in unusual circumstances to a small U.S. Ranger unit on the planet World, has to make some tough decisions. Lives, both Terran and alien, are at stake. Leo doesn’t want to go rogue. He doesn’t want leadership. He certainly doesn’t want to lead any sort of mutiny. And his commanding officer once saved Leo’s life.

Leo Brodie is not the only viewpoint character in If Tomorrow Comes, the sequel to last year’s Tomorrow’s Kin, and his is not the only problem faced by the small band of Terrans who have traveled from Earth to World. Geneticist Marianne Jenner faces an entire continent menaced by a deadly epidemic. Physician Salah Bourgiba struggles with his role in this mission, so much of which went wrong from the beginning. But, I admit, Leo Brodie became my favorite character, and the clash of values that he faces ended up driving the book.

Military disobedience certainly isn’t a new phenomenon, and it hasn’t always had the clear outcomes that the Code of Justice seems to imply. Just a few examples: in WWI Lt. Frank Luke, Jr, an ace airman with the U.S. Army Air Corps, was grounded by his commanding officer and told he would be considered AWOL if he disobeyed. Luke flew anyway, shot down both enemy aircraft and observation balloons, and was eventually forced down and killed by the enemy. Posthumously he was awarded the Medal of Honor. In the Korean War, Lt. David Teich was ordered to leave behind a Ranger company under heavy fire. Instead, Teich led four tanks to the Rangers’ position and rescued sixty-five stranded Rangers—so many that they covered the tanks’ turrets. In Afghanistan, Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer disobeyed orders to rescue stranded Afghan soldiers and retrieve the bodies of four American troops.  He, too, received the Medal of Honor.

There are no medals to be awarded on the pacifist planet World, and no one to award them. In addition, each case cited above concerned defying orders to not do something. Leo Brodie not only did that but also formulated a separate, secret military line of action. His clash of values leads him, again and again, farther than he ever anticipated from the military oath he swore on Terra.

As I wrote If Tomorrow Comes, I felt the fear of all writers venturing into unfamiliar territory: Am I going to make a fool of myself? I have never served in the military. No one in my family has served since WWII with the sole exception of my niece, who is a Navy JAG and would probably court-martial Leo Brodie. So I did much research. I read memoirs by Rangers who served in Iraq. I did on-line research for updates. I read the Ranger Handbook: Ranger Training Brigade, United States Army Infantry School (and I can now construct a field antenna, should the need ever arise). I read parts of the Manual for Courts Martial. And then, just to make sure I did not make a fool of myself, I hired an ex-Ranger to read and correct the manuscript. He was incredibly helpful.

Fiction can also, of course, be built around clashing values that exist not within a character’s mind but between different groups. This is why wars are fought. Why alliances honored—or disregarded. Why crimes are committed and investigated (“I value your property, life, body—and so do you”). If Tomorrow Comes includes inter-group clashes, too. Some want to help World, some to destroy it. Some want to preserve a traditional culture, some to change it. Some want to distribute vaccine fairly, some to hoard it. But it is Leo’s struggle that drives the book, and his choices that made me want to write it.

David Teich, who retired as an Army Major, once said, “I’ve got a moral obligation as an officer to do things that are right.” However, it is not always easy to know what those things are. Such decisions may become relevant in our own near future, as a military faces growing international threats in an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world.


If Tomorrow Comes: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powells

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Facebook.

The Big Idea: Jane Yolen

The cover to A Bear Sat on my Porch Today

Today’s Big Idea post is not about a specific book — although Jane Yolen has two, yes, two, books coming out today — but to celebrate a milestone that Yolen has achieved, right now, as we speak. When having two books out in a single day is only the second most impressive thing about an author’s day, you know it’s a pretty special day indeed.


My two mottos are BIC and YIC:

Butt in chair. (Or for the finer minds—backside, behind, bottom).

Yes I Can. The answer I give if someone asks if I have time or inclination to write something for their blog, journal, magazine, anthology, publishing house. I can always say no after careful consideration. But an immediate no shuts the door for good.

Both BIC and YIC are variants of my late husband’s motto: Carpe Diem. Seize the day.

However, the word I hate most when a reviewer or introducer are talking about me is prolific. It carries on its old farmer’s back a whiff of a sniff. As if someone is looking own his or her rarified patrician nose and saying, “Well, of course she writes a lot. . .” That’s their dog whistle for inconsequential, not literary kind of stuff, things like kiddy books and verse, scifi and fantasy. Or as my father said when I was years past my fiftieth plus book, “When are you going to grow up and write something real?”

By that he meant adult literary novels or mammoth nonfiction books or Hollywood biographies—the sort of stuff his friends wrote. (Name drop time: Cornelius Ryan, Will Oursler, Ernest Hemingway.)

But I write what I love to read. I write the books  I wish I had had as a child, or want to read as an adult. And yes, I do write a lot.

My 365th book is coming out, and my 366th. . .on the same day (today!). One is a picture book called  A Bear Sat on My Porch Today, which is in bouncy rhyme and celebrates a bear that actually sat on my porch in semi-rural Western Massachusetts. But, along the way it becomes a book that also celebrates inclusion and odd friendships, and toleration. The other book is a devastating Holocaust novel hanging from the armature of the Hansel and Gretel folk tale. And yes you may ask if there is a witch who gets shoved in the oven. And I will remind you: “It’s Hansel and Gretel.” To say more would be a spoiler.

Which one is the actual 365th?  All I will reveal is that:

  1. I do not know
  2. I do not care.
  3. It just means from March 6 on you will be able to read a book a day by me, even on a Leap Year. #Yolen365

Those of you who follow the cobbled-together mathematics of calendars will know that the next Leap Year is 2020. By then I will probably have close to 380 books out.

I am waving at Isaac Asimov, my old friend, who even in his grave still seems to be producing books. A regular industry, he is. I will never catch up. Nor is that my goal. My goal is what it has always been—write the best books I can, the books I want to read–and get better at writing each time.

Why should you care about #Yolen365? Because it’s a fun statistic. We will be celebrating it all around the country. But it will matter to you only if some of them are books you love. Or if they are books that make a difference in your life or the life of a child you know. Oh, and only if they are books that last five years past their year.

I am often asked if I write my books the way I put on my shoes, one at a time. The simple answer is No. Or maybe it’s Yes.

Actually, I am a juggler of ideas. Any one day I might work on a chapter of a big adult novel, a rewrite (for the 20th time) of a picture book, or wrestle with a couple of poems. That’s because besides being a juggler, I also have a very low threshold of boredom. And I know if I’m bored, the reader will be bored, too.

For instance, I might start an essay like this, then look around for some old ideas to tart up. I may also find a magazine article online that shouts out “Story idea” to me. I am a bit like those dogs in the animated movie Up, suddenly in the middle of talking, their heads swivel and they shout, “Squirrel!”

But because of all those wonderful squirrels, I am never in-between projects or stumped. Or (writer word coming up) blocked. If I feel a blockage coming on, I simply spin around and head in another direction. A sniper couldn’t bring me down. It’s just my way of working.

Of course, YMMV. <Your mileage may vary.>

So besides this short essay, what did I do today? Some research in Russian history for a novella for Tachyon, a short dive into some revisions on a non-fiction book about birds for National Geographic, worked on two new poems for my poem-a-day project that has been going on for seven years. Five years ago I started sending the poems to subscribers. (Oops it’s now into the sixth year!). During those five completed years, I flew to exotic places, crashed a computer so badly that no one (not even in the White Room in California) could retrieve its innards, and had a seven-hour back operation where they filleted me like a fish. And I still sent out a poem a day. (If you want to subscribe, go here:

It keeps me enjoying the writing. And along the way, somehow, the count got up to 365/366.

But the one-book-at-a-time question is not the one most frequently thrown at me. It’s the snarky query that comes from  teachers and fans. “Do you ever sleep?”

Why yes, eight hours a night. Every night. I mean where DO you think I get my best new image or manage to find time to work out my plot problems? I am a hearty dream-rover, and I never miss an opportunity to wake up for a sleepy moment to scribble down a new idea.

For completists, here are the books I have coming out this year:

January 16: Meet Me At the Well with Barbara Diamond Goldin (Charlesbridge): feminist revisionist midrash of the stories about girls and women in the Hebrew Bible, for young readers.

March 6: A Bear Sat On My Porch Today (Handprint/Chronicle).

Mapping the Bones (Philomel/ Penguin).

April:  Monster Academy with Heidi Stemple (Scholastic): picture book.

Mixti-Maxti (Papavaria Press):  adult poems about authors.

On Gull Beach (Cornell Lab of Ornithology): picture book.

Sanctuary: Stone Man Mysteries with Adam Stemple (Lerner): Noir graphic  novel, 2nd book in the trilogy.

Compass Roads (Levellers Press): a book of adult poems about the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts where I  live that I’ve edited.

June 26: How Do Dinosaurs Learn to Read (Scholastic): picture book.

Fall: Come Fly with Me with Heidi, Adam, & Jason Stemple, (National Geographic): bird nonfiction with folk tales and poems as well.

Crow Not Crow with Adam Stemple (Cornell Lab of Ornithology) : picture book

Finding Baba Yaga ( verse fantasy novel

There are also 12 books under contract, all written, and about 30 others making the rounds. That’s a lot of BIC, a lot of YIC, and a lot of joy in one house. The numbers prove it.


Visit Jane Yolen’s site.

The Big Idea: Alan Baxter


As any metropolitan partisan will tell you, cities have their own feel and personality — but in Hidden City, author Alan Baxter takes that idea and, shall we say, runs with it. Get ready.


Cities are living things. Some are so alive they’re almost sentient. Imagine a brain, made of billions of neurons all interacting to create consciousness. Now picture a city with millions of people, each acting like a bunch of neurons in a brain. Of course, this is massively over-simplified, and will no doubt be making any biologists reading cringe and want to break things. But, in essence, this is the first big idea behind Hidden City.

All cities do, of course, have a living vibe, we imbue them with personality. I’ve always loved noir stories where place and setting are as important as the characters; where, in fact, the city is a character. The fictional city of Cleveport in this book most definitely fulfils that role. But in most noir stories, the city is passive while the people are active, front-and-center. That’s not what I wanted here. And the other thing about this idea was that I didn’t just want a living city. I wanted a city that was sick. Dying, in fact.

That presented an immediate problem. Cleveport, as a central character, had to have a believable personality. It turns out I’d set myself an unenviable task. For a while I didn’t think I’d be able to pull it off. How could I make her character shine through? How could she be an active player?

However, for me, a book is never made from just one or two big ideas. Certainly those are often the trigger, as with the idea of Cleveport here, but I need a conglomeration of big and small ideas that keep crashing together until they eventually form a kind of critical mass. That’s when a story is born, kicking and screaming, demanding to be fed — I mean, told. The second set of ideas that really started gelling Hidden City together were focused around magic. If a city was more sentient than most, there’s every chance it would attract magical people, even if they didn’t realize themselves that’s what was happening.

Then I started to think about what might happen to that magic and those people when the city became sick. How would Cleveport’s character show through them? I wondered if the magic would wane, but then something else occurred to me. What if it became inexplicably more potent? And no one realized that was a Bad Thing™. That led me to my next set of problems. I’m not lying when I tell you this book was by far the hardest I’ve ever written in terms of making the ideas work.

The next issue centered on what kind of illness might affect a city? What other sort of symptoms would it present? How would that subsequently affect everything else? I needed effects beyond the strange increase in magic. In the same way that a fever might inhibit a person’s ability to function, it might also show up physically as a rash. Or blistering pustulent sores. Or something. So poor old Cleveport developed an outbreak of parasitic fungus that attacks her population, turning them into violent lunatics. Because, let’s be honest, what better complement to a sick city than homicidal madness?

This fungus and its parasitic lifecycle became something of an obsession for a while. I had to learn a lot to make it work alongside everything else. So I studied. Did you know, for example, that the biggest living organism on Earth is not the blue whale? It’s a mushroom. Well, specifically it’s a honey fungus, apparently very tasty, and there’s one in Oregon that is 2.4 miles across. Yes, miles. One organism. Imagine if that wasn’t tasty, but deadly. And imagine if could spread as fast as people can run. And imagine if it used people as its infection vector. And imagine what it’s like living in my head sometimes.

Anyway, now I had the meat and bones of this novel. Noir, fantasy, magic, horror, action. But plot is not story. Characters are story, and a book needs more than one. Cleveport is certainly the central character in Hidden City, but not the protagonist. That turned out to be a run-down, mildly magical gumshoe called Steven Hines, who specializes in missing persons cases. While authorities start shutting things down and closing the city boundaries, concentrating on the symptoms of the outbreak, only Hines – his talent giving him a clearer than most connection to his city – has spotted the underlying causes. Or at least, he’s spotted that there must be underlying causes.

And something else about story. It’s not just in the characters and how they respond to the immediate threat, but how they respond despite their ongoing lives. Hines didn’t just pop up to deal with the sickness in Cleveport. He’s got shit going on, same as everyone. Through that lens of character – Cleveport, Hines, his buddy Detective Sergeant Abby Jones, and a few key others – I got to explore themes of loss and sacrifice, love and friendship, arrogance and heroism, all while a city suffered. While everyone suffered. And while it was an incredibly difficult book to write, I’m very happy with the way it all came together in the end. Because along with underlying causes, there has to be a root cause, right? And that was the biggest idea of all. But that, of course, would be a spoiler.


Hidden City: Amazon | B&N | IndieBound | Kobo | iBooks | Google Play

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site or read his blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Rachel Hartman

In imagining the story and characters that make up her novel Tess of the Road, author Rachel Hartman had to go places she initially didn’t expect or want to go. She’s here now to explain why she did eventually go there, and what it means for her and her work.


I can’t discuss the Big Idea behind Tess of the Road, alas, without talking about rape — in the abstract, not in gory detail. If you’re not up for that today and need to go, no worries. You get to choose. You are the protagonist of your own life.

That kind of agency is exactly what rape steals from us.

I like to give a heads-up – it only seems fair, the way you might warn a dinner guest that you have cats, are serving shellfish, or plan to be recreationally stung by bees later. With forewarning we allergic types can take take care of ourselves, popping a Benadryl or declining the invitation.

Pop culture, especially SFF, is full of rape, as anyone with this particular sensitivity can tell you. Even rape that isn’t there – implied, impending, alluded-to, narrowly missed – can be too much on a bad day, and I’m one of the lucky ones. My allergy is pretty mild.

I had no intention of adding to this superabundance. I was working on a happy-go-lucky picaresque road novel about a girl and her quigutl best friend. I knew what would happen if there was rape in the backstory – it would inevitably turn into Thelma and Louise. I love that movie, but no thank you. This was my jolly book!

Then I was struck by subtext in the place I least expected it – my community choir – and I had to rethink my position.

Our choir director gave us the song “Cakes and Ale.” It’s a round by Henry Purcell who, in addition to being the greatest English baroque composer, was also a famous seventeenth century party animal. (Legend has it that he died of pneumonia after his wife locked him out of the house in the rain late one night.) He wrote a lot of bawdy songs; “Cakes and Ale” isn’t even his bawdiest.

The narrator of this particular song talks about plying a woman with alcohol and trinkets in hopes that she’ll be “wondrous merry” with him. That could plausibly mean a variety of things, until he says “merry my cock” and removes all doubt. That wasn’t the part that made me feel sick, however. It was the line, “I thought she was afear’d ‘til she stroked my Beard.”

I know what arguments have popped into your head; they also popped into mine. Afear’d is just meant to rhyme with beard – what else was he going to say? Weird? Engineered? Did “cock” mean cock in the eighteenth century, anyway? And the lady stopped being afraid, didn’t she?

She did, if you trust the assessment of the guy who’d been getting her drunk all evening.

Nine times out of ten, I might have thought Ugh, gross, and not been any more bothered than that. Trauma comes back on you like reflux, though, and mine had been recently bubbling up again. I couldn’t stop thinking about the nameless woman in the song. Had she really stopped being afraid, or had the drink extinguished the light in her eyes? Had she swallowed her fear down and tried make the best of things? The whole scenario made me squirm.

I have had plenty of experience with this kind of discomfort, and I have a variety of things I do to take care of myself. First thing I did was sit down and write a parody of the song. Mock your misery away, is my motto!

He gave her cakes and he gave her gold

And drink both strong and grapey.

You might say, “What the hell, it’s a classic — Purcell!”

But this song is wondrous rapey.

It went downhill from there. Annoyingly, the parodizing didn’t make me feel much better. In fact, it merely clarified the things that had bothered me about the song in the first place.

Is that not what he meant?

A beard-grab’s not consent…

Ugh, gross. It was time to implement Self-Care Phase 2: talking to a friend.

When you’re struggling, choice of friend is important. I generally have good instincts about these things, and I had an intuition that Karen, a new friend, was the one to approach. She was in my choir, and had always struck me as reasonable and level-headed. In fact, she made me think of the hyper-rational, mathematically-minded dragons from my first novel, Seraphina. I had great hopes that she would use impeccable logic to tell me I was overreacting.

She did not disappoint, but promptly logicked me right under the table: “Just going by the statistics…”

Ah! She was going to school me with math and prove that I was too sensitive about this song.

“…it’s highly likely that five or six other singers, at least, feel the same as you, or worse. You just happen to be the most dedicated parodist. I think you should send this to Earle.”

Earle, our director, was a delightful Old Hippie, dedicated to putting the community in community choir. If a song made anyone uncomfortable, for any reason, he would find us something else to sing. He’d done it before.

“I can’t ask him to change songs,” I protested. “People should be able to choose to sing this if they want.”

People,” said Karen gently, “should be able to choose kindness when someone else is hurting. And they can’t choose that, if they don’t know you’re hurt.”

“That’s awfully tender-hearted for a hyper-rational dragon-type person,” I said bitterly.

“You’re welcome,” she said. “And you’ve got this.”

I sent Earle my parody without explanation. He got my drift; one particular line – rapey rapey rapey so goddamn rapey – wasn’t entirely subtle. The next day, he announced on our choir’s Facebook page that “Cakes and Ale” had made someone uncomfortable, so we weren’t going to sing it. He’d bring new music next week.

As you might expect, all hell broke loose on Community Choir Facebook.

I tried to stay out of it; Earle hadn’t named me, and I didn’t need the aggravation. I couldn’t stop reading the comments, though. All the usual epithets came into play: Censorship! Political correctness! Special snowflakes! One older woman went on a lengthy tirade about what fragile prudes today’s youth were (I was over forty; it would have been funny if it hadn’t been mortifying). Back in her day, they had understood bawdy songs – and the occasional ass grab – for what they really were: fun and playful!

Earle interjected: Maybe this person objected due to personal experience, not prudishness.

He was being too subtle for her. The ranting continued; she was particularly incensed that I’d complained anonymously, that I hadn’t had the guts to debate in the open. I was a bully, a harpy, a shrill moralizing bitch imposing my will on everyone else.

She just wanted a choice.

I knew what that was like.

I wrote back: I’m the one who found the song rapey. I told Earle via e-mail because I don’t feel I should have to stand up in front of the whole choir and talk about painful personal experiences.

She backed down. Things looked different when I was someone she knew, and not some hypothetical censorious Millennial out to spoil the Baby Boomers’ fun.

What I didn’t realize right away was that I also looked different to her in light of this knew knowledge. The next week at choir she took special pains to say hello, and ask me how I was doing. Weeks passed, and every time she saw me she’d get this pitying look on her face. Sometimes she’d even try to hug me (I dodged), as if I had been magically transformed into someone broken, wounded, and pathetic.

Fighting online had been galling, but this was worse. Were those my only choices, in her eyes? Avenging fury or shattered victim? I began to get angry for real.

Stories shape our expectations and understandings of what’s possible. Our culture has generally whittled it down to two possibilities for sexual assault survivors. You can be a victim, often dead, frequently erased, the great shipwreck of your life serving only as the impetus for someone else’s story. Or you can be an avenger, out to kill the menz (and spoil everyone else’s chill by not letting them sing bawdy songs). That sounds better, and at some level it is, but it’s not like you have much choice in that scenario either. You life is still all about him, and what he did to you. And hey, if you’re super talented and lucky, you can still end up pretty damn dead, like Thelma and Louise.

That’s not the way I would choose to be the protagonist of my own life. There were so many other roads back to self, so many coping strategies, so much life and beauty even after you think your life has been destroyed. It was frustrating that this woman didn’t have any other mental models to choose from.

And that’s when I knew my road novel – my happy-go-lucky picaresque – was going to have rape in the backstory, and that this would not transform it into Thelma and Louise. Tess would walk, and fall, and get up, and find her way back from trauma, just like so many of us do every day (but with dragons).

We get to be the heroes of our own hearts, because we get to choose.

In the end, I wasn’t sorry we dropped “Cakes and Ale.” Another soprano, a woman in her sixties, came up to me later and whispered, “Thank you. I had been calling it The Date Rape Song.” I smiled, realizing we were veterans of the same war, both of us coping through humor and friendship.

I wrote this book for her. And for you. And for all of us struggling to walk on.


Tess of the Road: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Rachel A. Marks

Cover of Fire and Bone by Rachel A. Marks

Author Rachel A. Marks reached into her own personal mythology to help craft her new novel Fire and Bone — a little bit of early imagination finding its way into a tale in present time.


I’m going to be honest right up front; the Big Idea for Fire and Bone is a bit wee. It’s even a little childish. But, hey, I was a kid when the seed was planted, so that’s fitting. You see, my imagination has always been more than reality could handle. And, since I can remember, I believed with very little doubt that faeries were real and—hold on to your hats, folks—I was one.

Like, really. I was a faerie.

I didn’t buy into Santa or the Easter Bunny, but I would have bet my life on fae parentage.

In my youthful head, the story went a little like this: My faerie mother was running from something—a mean elvish king, maybe?—and she couldn’t take care of me anymore. So, she left me on the beach (which is obviously why I loved the beach so much), and eventually these two humans stumbled upon me wrapped in kelp and took me home. They just didn’t remember that I wasn’t really theirs, because they’d been put under a spell.

For the doubters, there were a handful of breadcrumbs my kid brain had reasoned out.

Exhibit A: I had green eyes while my parents had blue and brown.

Exhibit B: I didn’t fit in with other kids. At all. I was too different, too quiet, too aware of birds singing in the trees, or the specks of gold reflecting sunlight in the sand. While the other kids played kissing-tag at recess, I collected leaves and made villages for the ants.

Exhibit C: My favorite thing in the world was being submerged in salt water, as deep as I could go. I’d dive down beneath the waves and hold on to the rocks on the ocean floor, blinking at the foggy world of fish and seagrass. So, obviously, I was from the mermaid species of the fae community.


Needless to say, I’ve always been more than a little drawn to folklore, my childhood whimsy morphing into a hunger to study history and legend. Namely, British and Irish. My grandmother was Irish on her mother’s side, disowned for marrying an Englishman, and that family soap opera, told over cinnamon toast and hot chocolate at my grandma’s humble kitchen table, only urged me on in my discoveries. The wilds of the ancient Celts and their pantheons through the ages became one of my favorite things to study, and the fiction that reimagined the mythos over and over became my favorite thing to read. I loved exploring the darker things that terrified even the Romans, sparking them to build Hadrian’s Wall.

Then a little over a year ago I was asked to put together a proposal for my publisher to consider once my debut series ended. As I sat there, mulling over the strange tangles I was managing to pull out of my deadline depleted brain, my only thought was, I wanna write something fun.

*stompy feet*

I needed the equivalent of book comfort food. And what’s my favorite thing to read about?


But not the cute, Disney reimaginings. I wanted the hypnotic, darker myths, the ancient grit I’d found in my research.

Up popped the big idea: I could reawaken those ghosts of Erin and Albion, and bring them to life in a new way in the modern world—the scent of rosemary burning on the brazier, the distinct blue lines of woad on the skin of a warrior—I could watch the ancient things twist and grow into the iron and concrete of the city as legend wove through reality. I could raise the gods from the dead, and watch them walk the streets once more, playing their games with those weak human hearts in all new ways.

I had my mission. But as I began to create the world of Fire and Bone I realized something wasn’t working. My main character’s journey was too simplistic as it formed. I wanted to take it deeper, draw this strange world around her more, make it wider, weightier. Older. I needed the reader to feel the centuries in every dusty corner. I needed an ancient rite, a thousand-year-old secret.

And so, in spite of my looming deadline, I stopped word-counting and let myself play for a few days. I explored the past of my characters even more, searching out details that might spark the right inspiration, or cast a more effective shadow. I stretched at the framework of my world, picking at the threads here and there. And something surprising bubbled up through the layers.

My very own faerie tale was whispering to me.

…in the long summer of wyne, the babe was abandoned within the Caledonian wood by the widow, for she hoped that the fae would take back their trickster gift and the gods could be appeased. But no wolf or beast consumed the child. It lay, surrounded by the arms of ash and birch, and soon was found by a humble monk of unknown title to be raised in seclusion until her twelfth year…

It was like Christmas came early. I’d discovered the fuel I needed to realize my vision more clearly. Plus, a faerie tale!

Everything about my character, my world, suddenly unfolded in front of me. And I dove into the process, head down, fingers flying, imagination buzzing. I knew I could finally create the story I’d been envisioning in foggy pieces. I’d make it stark, I’d make it funny. There’d be beauty, ambiguity, deadly hunger, and ancient secrets. And I’d drag the reader through the madness with pacing abandon. It was going to be beyond epic. Bwahahaha!

*clears throat*

Well, that was the dream, anyway. I certainly had fun playing in my historical sandbox of myth. And any faerie relations have yet to complain.

Fire and Bone: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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


The Big Idea: Tobias Buckell

The Cover to The Tangled Lands

In their new novel The Tangled Lands, Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell posit a world where magic is real — and exacts a toll, one different from what one might usually expect. Buckell is here today to expand and expound on that toll, and the parallels that toll has in our real world.


What if magic had a price? That isn’t a new idea in fantasy, or even in old stories. There is often a personal price paid for magic, whether it is Ariel dancing on legs that stab her like knives in the original Little Mermaid, exhaustion from casting a spell, or even needing to grind to find all the ingredients like herbs, experience, or spells in a video game in order to cast magic.

But what if magic had a price we all paid?

My latest book is a collaboration with Paolo Bacigalupi called The Tangled Lands. I remember that the moment we lit upon the idea of the bramble (the thorns of which can send you into an eternal deep sleep) and we realized that it would grow as a side effect of magic use, the entire world opened quickly up for us. Everything in the stories we began to write circled around this core struggle: how do people and society deal with the tragedy of the commons?

In The Tangled Lands, whenever magic is cast, there is a side effect: bramble appears. But it doesn’t just appear near where you cast it. It appears somewhere else, randomly,  a while later. It’s just a little, but it grows once it takes root. And it doesn’t take much to be dangerous.

How do you stop people from using it? Do you tell the mother of a child coughing blood she can’t use magic to heal him? Do you tell a mage not to use magic against an attacker?

And then a shopkeeper sweeping up after a long day brushes up against a crevice in a wall, and falls to the ground in a coma. Their son has to burn the bramble out of the walls carefully, then grieve over a parent stuck between life and death.

Who is at fault? How do folks prevent it from happening again? Because everyone has a reason to use magic. Just little charms, here or there. And over time… empires can fall under the choking grip of bramble.

There’s a horror to the almost creeping inevitability of society letting this slow-moving collapse consume us all… so it was intense to create a magical world dealing with the tragedy of the commons because it is a major issue we have faced before and will face over and over again. Whether it is overfishing, clear-cutting, or pollution, society has really struggled with this. But the moment you try to talk about a specific modern concern, people come to it with existing baggage. Examining the core idea without that baggage meant we had tremendous freedom in what stories we told.

Of course, chatting about crazy world building with another author and bouncing ideas off each other is the fun part. For me it’s always the honeymoon of a project like this. But when it comes time to write the book, you have to find a human story that engages.

We told stories about four people: an inventor trying to find a solution to some of these problems, but whose research is used in ways he never wanted, a mother seeking to rescue her children from re-education camps, a brother trying to care for bramble-kissed sister, and a blacksmith struggling to deal with the impact of inequality. But the truth is the story is really all about the land groaning under the weight of all the choices everyone makes on a daily basis about whether their own needs matter more.

I think, sometimes, when looking around at all the creeping inevitabilities heading toward us, we need to talk about them. Somehow. By using this fantasy world, I know I felt I could still tell the stories of individuals persevering against the massiveness of it all without also collapsing into a gibbering mess of despair myself because the real bramble was outside my window. Seeing these characters carry on no matter what, in some small way, gave me a little determination.


The Tangled Lands: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Myke Cole

The Cover of Myke Cole's novel, The Armored Saint

For this Big Idea, author Myke Cole has some thoughts on how people find themselves governed and why — and how these thoughts have resonance for his latest work, The Armored Saint.


Nobody trusts the government.

The single greatest casualty of the political chaos of the past year is our faith in our institutions: from our police to our bureaucracy to our press, scandal after scandal after scandal shakes our foundations. In the vacuum that follows, we routinely bandy around words like “revolution,” and “fascism,” and “dictatorship,” turning to any port in a storm. Teen Vogue surges to the fore of political reportage. Amazon and Berkshire Hathaway flirt with providing healthcare, and we find ourselves leaning on social media to disseminate our numerous cris de coeur.

It’s frightening, but it’s also justified. No matter what side of the political aisle you’re on, in the US or the UK, nobody can be faulted for saying that their government hasn’t been doing a very good job. Nobody can be blamed for cocking an eyebrow or casting a skeptical glance when the authorities come to town. These authorities have routinely abused their power, routinely hyped fear of the other in order to gain more. Bigger and badder weapons, more pervasive and ruthless surveillance, less and less accountability.

Why should we trust them with anything, ever?

But the truth is always more complicated. And even the most passionate resister will admit, when pressed, that the government we despise isn’t always wrong. That the authorities do protect us from enemies who seek to harm us. And that it is possible to stand up to the institutions that smother us, only to find something much worse lurking in the background.

And that’s the big idea behind The Armored Saint.

Heloise Factor has grown up in a world where the priesthood of the divine Emperor, the Order, keeps the devils confined to hell. The Order pitilessly slaughters anyone who they suspect of harboring those wizards whose dabbling in forbidden arts might rip the veil that keeps our world separate from hell, and set the devils loose among us. Riding under the uncompromising mantra of “Suffer no wizard to live,” the Order burns entire villages, leaving nothing alive, if there is even the hint of wizardry. Countless innocents are routinely caught up in their unthinking crusade, and the world simply shrugs its shoulders and moves on. Heloise is raised with a mantra as chilling as the Order’s, “that’s just the way things are.”

But she is an extraordinary young woman and refuses to live like this. In her brave struggle, she forgets one important possibility.

Just because the Order is cruel and corrupt, doesn’t mean they are wrong.

The Armored Saint was conceived before the present political maelstrom was upon us, but it was absolutely written in the midst of it, and as with all of my work, it has pervaded the text. It grew from a book about a young woman finding herself and challenging a cruel and immutable system into a story grappling with the feeling of being cut adrift in a world where it seems nothing can be trusted, where consequences have consequences, and life is often a succession of choosing between bad or worse. 2018 reminds me that our lives are lived out in the midst of a cascade of choices going back generations, chickens all coming home to roost at once.

I think all authors identify with their protagonists to some extent, but it is amazing how deeply entwined I have felt with Heloise all through this journey, and how with each passing event, I feel her presence more keenly. Like all of us, she is wrestling with a world-gone-mad. And like all of us, she is never truly sure if the decisions she makes are the right ones—if she is seeing far enough down the chain of consequences.

Whether she has or she hasn’t, Heloise is amazing. I have been privileged to know her and tell her story. You’ll be meeting her soon, and I hope you love her as much as I do.


The Armored Saint: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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


The Big Idea: Karen Healey

Author Karen Healey has some very specific advice about the use of apostrophes, and prologues. What is it and how does it have an impact on The Empress of Timbra, the novel she co-wrote with Robyn Fleming? Healey is here to fill you in on the details — with all the apostrophes in the correct place.


There are two pieces of high fantasy writing advice, often given, that I think are thoroughly sensible:

  1. Don’t use apostrophes in characters’ names.
  2. Don’t write a prologue.

Don’t use apostrophes in names, because it’s a cliche. You’ll annoy your readers. Don’t write a prologue, because your world-building should be incorporated into the main plot; there’s no point in getting the reader interested in events that happened a generation or a century or a thousand years before your main narrative. You only run the risk they’ll be more intrigued with your prologue than what you’ve decided is the real story.

But just because you’re aware of the guidelines doesn’t mean you won’t convince yourself it’s all right not to follow them, especially when you’ve read enough high fantasy to know stories that have got away with breaking one or both of these rules to spectacular effect.

About a decade ago, my co-writer Robyn Fleming and I wrote an epistolary fantasy novel in the style of the Letter Game, exchanging emails back and forth across the Pacific Ocean. Like us, our protagonists were separated by an ocean, and like us, they were two young women who were close friends. But unlike us, they lived in a second-world high fantasy setting. They were discovering a vast conspiracy, getting embroiled in politics and romances, and saving two nations with a combination of smarts, luck, and magic.

They had apostrophes in their names.

We started the story as a game, but we realised pretty early on that we had something interesting, maybe even something worth developing into a real novel. So we showed it to some friends.

(For the record: Our apostrophes were meaningful. They were significant. They indicated status, linguistic drift, cultural detail, and history. They were the good kind of apostrophe!)

“Ditch the apostrophes,” our early readers said.

“But they are very important,” we told them, and each other. (The biggest joy–and biggest problem–of having a co-writer is that you can easily reinforce each other’s ideas.) “One might even argue that the apostrophes are essential to the very heart of the narrative! You wouldn’t ask us to cut out the heart of the narrative!”

We took the book to a WisCon writing workshop. Every single critique told us to ditch the apostrophes.

“Fine,” we said. “Fine. We guess the world isn’t ready for our apostrophes.” We cut the goddamn apostrophes. The narrative retained its heart. We learned a valuable lesson about murdering our darlings.

Nobody told us to cut the prologue, and the reason for that was because nobody, including us, actually knew it was a prologue until long after we’d finished the sequel to the first book. The sequel wasn’t told in alternating letters, but in alternating chapters. The protagonists are Elaku and Taver, aged eleven and fourteen, the children of one of the main characters in the first book. The story follows them as they meet for the first time, figure out how to grow up, and, just incidentally, get caught up in a political plot that could destroy their homeland.

We had two protagonists again, and political machinations, and hefty doses of smarts, luck, and magic. We had blacksmithing and dangerous herbivores, religion and treachery, pirates and battles at sea.

This time, we left out the apostrophes.

The Empress of Timbra was undeniably a better book than its predecessor. Our villains were more interesting. Our world-building was stronger. The events of the first novel had sparked a period of rapid social and religious change, and through Taver and Elaku, we were able to explore the implications of that from the perspective of characters who were growing up in a world marked by those changes. And then we wrote a direct sequel to that book, still with Taver and Elaku, and plotted a third and realised… the first book was a 90,000 word prologue.

And we had to cut it.

I don’t regret writing that book. The prologue novel gives a depth and vividness to The Empress of Timbra that makes it feel like part of a larger, older world–which it is. Writing it allowed us to explore some big ideas. But when we gently folded that prologue novel away into a virtual drawer, we were able to concentrate on the even bigger ideas that followed it.

The real story isn’t about the women in that prologue novel. It’s about Taver and Elaku, two bastard half-siblings drawn into dangerous conspiracy in a changing world, relying on their smarts, their magic, their luck, and each other to prevent disaster.

So this is our advice to high fantasy writers who might be starting where we started:

  1. Go ahead and write a prologue. But if it doesn’t help you tell the best version of your story, let it go.
  2. Seriously. Ditch the apostrophes.


The Empress of Timbra: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

Read an excerpt (at the Kobo site). Visit the co-author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Sue Burke

The Cover to Semiosis by Sue Burke

Got some houseplants? By the time you finish reading Sue Burke’s Big Idea essay about her novel Semiosis, you’ll never look at them the same way again. That’s pretty much a promise.


Who’s in charge of the planet where you live? Is it you – that is, humans? Maybe. But not everything living on Earth is convinced of that. Some of them think you do their bidding, and I don’t mean your cat.

Let’s evaluate Earth from the point of view of fruit. Apples, for example. Apple trees hope you’ll eat their fruit, then throw away the core with its seeds so apples can expand their range. Or as they view it, so they can take over the world. They don’t entirely trust us, by the way: their seeds are too bitter to eat to make sure we’ll do the job right. How has this worked out? Exceptionally well. We love apples even as they manipulate us. They originated in central Asia and now get tender loving care in orchards all over the world. They dominate Washington State, shaping the economy and the lives of many people. Mission accomplished.

Still, you might feel doubtful. Do plants even know we exist? That’s a reasonable question. The answer is yes. Think about how carefully plants create flowers to cater to specific pollinators. When plants want to, they can even communicate with us humans. Tomatoes, for example, change color to tell you something: eat me! Their uncooked seeds can survive a tour of your alimentary canal, so make yourself a salad. Please.

Plants know you’re watching. We humans – and other animals – are very easy to control with food.

Another example: grass. Most of a grass plant grows underground. It sends up its leaves in a cunning ruse. In America’s Great Plains, bison come and eat the leaves, which are easily replaced, and in the process the bison also eat entire weeds and get rid of them for the prairie grass. This is how grasses wrested dominance over the plains. All they needed to do was encourage the evolution of bison, which took a while, but it was worth the time and effort.

Grass took over American suburbs in sort of the same way, using us and our lawn mowers like weekend bison. Your lawn has you well trained.

The fight between grass and weeds also holds a clue: plants can be horrible, especially to each other. In fact, one botanist, Augustin Pyrame de Candolle said, “All plants of a given place are in a state of war with respect to each other.” They fight primarily over sunlight, which is in limited supply, and they will fight to the death.

Roses, for example, grow thorns so they can sink them into whatever is around them and climb over it. If it’s another plant, and if by stealing all the sunlight they kill that other plant, roses don’t care. This is war – in your garden. Whose side are you on?

Jungles are a constant battle of trees versus lianas and other vines, which can weigh down and smother entire trees as they climb to sunshine. Plants also fight each other with poisons, and some fire-hardy plants, such as ponderosa pine trees in the western United States, will drop dry, oily needles to encourage lightning to kindle a flame. This is one reason we can’t prevent forest fires, no matter how hard we try. The pines are working against us.

So we’re not in charge on Earth, at least not as much as we think. Fortunately, our masters – plants – don’t seem to think very deeply, and they seem pretty willing to share the planet with us. But I write science fiction. What about other planets? What if the plants there were more thoughtful and far too willing?

So I decided to send, via a novel, a group of human colonists to a distant planet where they plan to establish a subsistence agricultural colony. They encounter an unexpected problem: the local dominant vegetation notices their arrival and sees what a clever, busy species they are, and how useful they would be. Meanwhile, these humans need to eat. As individuals, they will face dire choices as they struggle to survive and coexist. Who’s really in charge of their new home?


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

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


The Big Idea: Jasmine Gower

Image of the book Moonshine by Jasmine Gower.

Tedium: Sometimes it’s an excellent motivator. Author Jasmine Gower explains how, and how it helped her novel Moonshine come to life.


The appeal of fantasy is the satisfying escape into the truly impossible, unattainable adventures beyond the reach of even our most exciting moments in the real world. Fantasy provides an opportunity to bring magic and spectacle into our lives so, naturally, part of my upcoming fantasy novel Moonshine was inspired by perhaps the most unmagical thing that has ever happened to me.

I first conceived of the magical prohibition premise of my novel, Moonshine, way back in my high school days before setting aside the project for a number of years. While it was on hiatus, I studied the 1920s more in-depth, learning about the global reach of the flapper movement, the Lost Generation, early 20th century transgender activism, and the racism faced by legendary African American entertainers like Josephine Baker and Baby Esther.  A story about prohibition—magical or otherwise—has quite a bit of interesting history to draw upon, much of which goes ignored in favor of whitewashing and de-politicizing the events in the United States in the 1920s. (Strangely, TV and movies set during Prohibition rarely seem concerned with the motivations behind the Temperance Movement.)

After high school was also when I moved from my little agricultural hometown to Portland, Oregon, and in my daily life became exposed to the city’s historic 1930s brick architecture and horrible, soul-crushing gentrification. I learned about the histories of Portland’s immigrant communities, the college that fell into the river, and the little volcano located in the middle of the city. Modern-day Portland also provided its own fascinating and often horrifying inspiration for crafting a fantasy city of feminist activism, queer communities, dangerous ecology, and black market dealings. And while all of that ended up shaping Moonshine, for the story of Moonshine’s main character Daisy, nothing was quite as influential as my experience working a dull, repetitive, underpaid off-white-collar job right out of college.

It was a basic data entry position, completely unrelated to my English degree and nominally focused on processing workers comp claims, although in truth I didn’t (and still don’t entirely) understand the point of most of the work I did there. My employers must have been satisfied enough with my work, though, as a few months in they moved me from the dungeon-like concrete basement to the bright and airy second floor of our renovated art deco building. There, I was trained in a new task—auditing the work of overseas remote employees even more underpaid than me.

Once more, I was mystified as to the point of the task assigned me. It seemed that I was training the remote employees in my own job, which was strange given that my employer already had me to do my job. That had me on-edge, and I had never gotten on well with the rigid, chained-to-the-desk environment of that office. The tipping point, however, was when my manager threatened disciplinary action after I, following company procedure to the letter, called in sick for a single day after I had contracted scarlet fever. So, that was pretty much the end of that.

It wasn’t necessarily my worst job, but the particular badness of this job provided a compelling question: What does my place of employment even do? Or it would have been compelling, if the answer wasn’t almost definitely just “process workers comp claims and exploit employees,” but maybe for someone else it could have been a question with a more satisfying answer. Enter Daisy Dell, or an early concept of her, who got to be the surrogate in my “maybe my desk jockey job is secretly interesting” fantasies. Could the company be a front for a secret lab splicing superhero genes? Had they captured a werewolf for research on a highly volatile lycanthrope virus? Whatever it was, there was definitely weird science happening in the basement.

And that was when I remembered my magical prohibition concept from high school.

I suppose it stands to reason that the story I ended up writing was not informed necessarily by fantastical elements from my own life, which has a limited supply to pull from, but from the fantasy I built in my head to survive the mundanity. (There were fewer podcasts then, you see.) Daisy’s boring day job does indeed lead her to run afoul a magical moonshining operation, which turns out to be a stressful experience for her, but it was pretty damn fun for me during those long hours of data entry.

My job eventually led me somewhere, too, once I was on my path away from it. After the scarlet fever incident, I only stayed on long enough to cushion my savings to take a while off of work. And the day I was gone from that tedious, miserable day job? I started writing Moonshine.


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

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

The Big Idea: David Mack

What makes a hero? It’s a question that author David Mack had to confront in his novel The Midnight Front. It’s also a question he gives some thought to here in his Big Idea essay.


Heroes are the ones who step up to take the hit for the rest of us.

I know it’s not a new idea in fiction or myth, not by a long shot. But it remains one of the most powerful and effective elements in storytelling. One of the most universal characteristics of characters who are considered to be inspiring or heroic is a willingness to sacrifice themselves for others.

There are lots of ways for characters to be heroic; not all courage involves physical peril. It can take just as much bravery to charge into gunfire as it does to oppose public opinion armed with nothing more than one’s principles. Some might argue the latter action is the more difficult; to die is the pain of but a moment, but to become a pariah, to risk being cast out of one’s community in the name of what’s right and fair — that’s a pain that can last a lifetime.

Ideas such as these guided my thinking as I developed the story for my new epic fantasy novel The Midnight Front. My main character Cade starts out as an ordinary man, one who has no aspirations to heroism. To motivate him into joining the Allies’ top-secret magickal warfare program, I resorted to a well-worn trope: Nazi sorcerers murder his parents as collateral damage in an attack that is meant to slay Cade at the start of World War II.

What I soon realized, however, was that while revenge can be an understandable and even a relatable motivation for a main character, it is not a heroic one. At its heart, revenge is a selfish motive, one driven by a desire to repay pain with pain, loss with loss. Characters who live for revenge often tell themselves that they are seeking justice, but the truth is that most of them care only about their own pain or wounded egos, and on some level they hope that inflicting retribution upon the ones who wronged them will somehow exorcise their suffering.

But that’s not really how it works, no matter what Hollywood might like us to believe. I love a good revenge story as much as anyone, but even the best vengeance-driven characters tend to wind up as antiheroes: Parker in Richard Stark’s The Hunter (or Porter in Payback, my favorite filmed adaptation of Stark’s novel); William Munny in Unforgiven; Wilson in The Limey. Except for the pulpy goodness of Payback, these stories came to tragic conclusions.

There are notable exceptions, of course. Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride is one, and both Alejandro Murrietta and Don Diego de la Vega in The Mask of Zorro — but in all three of those latter examples, our revenge-driven heroes learn before the end that they must fight for something more noble than assuaging their own pain. Montoya risks his life to save Westley; Alejandro puts the rescue of innocent lives ahead of his vengeance; and de la Vega knows that his true legacy lies not in his revenge, but in training a new Zorro to be a hero for the people.

Consequently, while I was willing to let revenge start Cade on his path in The Midnight Front, I knew that it wouldn’t be enough to make a hero of him. Because true heroism requires sacrifice.

My supporting characters teach that lesson to Cade by showing him what courage looks like. But it’s only after a taste of revenge leaves him feeling hollow that he realizes it is an empty raison d’etre. So it is that when Cade finds himself on a landing craft heading for Normandy on D-day, he understands at last that his parents don’t need and wouldn’t want to be avenged; they would want their son to honor them, by following a nobler path, a more difficult path. A hero’s path.

This is an old lesson that we watch heroes learn over and over again. In those moments when characters embrace their best selves during their darkest hours, we cannot help but be stirred:

  • when Tony Stark risks his life to stop the Chitauri invasion in The Avengers;
  • when the crew of Rogue One lay down their lives, one by one, to steal the Death Star plans for the Rebellion;
  • when Steve Rogers nose-dives the Hydra superbomber to save millions of lives at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger;
  • when Diana dares to charge alone across No Man’s Land in Wonder Woman;
  • when the reprogrammed Terminator tells John Connor to lower him into the molten steel to protect the future at the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day;
  • when Spock goes into the reactor room at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan;

…and, last but definitely not least,

  • when The Iron Giant flies toward his fateful rendezvous with a nuclear missile and defines his self-image with his final word: “Superman.”

These are the moments that define the heroes we love. The ones in which they’re asked to give their last full measures of courage and devotion, and they do so without hesitation or protest. In the end, this is what The Midnight Front is all about: teaching one man to take the fall — not for fame, fortune, or romantic love, but for one simple reason: because it’s the right thing to do.


The Midnight Front: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Brooke Bolander

The Cover to Brook Bolander's The Only Harmless Great Thing

I taught Brooke Bolander at the 2011 Clarion Writing Workshop, and while I would dearly like to claim credit for her development into an amazing writer, in fact the talent was always there. It comes to a fruition in the novella The Only Harmless Great Thing; here is Bolander to explain how radium and elephants and fable have all come together in this remarkable story.


So, here’s a thing to think about the next time you get an itch in your getalong to ask a writer where they get their ideas from. Cool ideas for stories? They’re frickin’ everywhere. They live in science journals and history books. They’re written on sidewalks and subway cars and the faces of people waiting at crosswalks. Every single human being you push past on your way to grab a cup of coffee has a past that is a chain of potentially fascinating stories. We live in an age of unfettered, recklessly spewing information. The Internet is a cool idea fire hose that never, ever shuts off.

All of this is a very rambly, long-winded and onion-on-my-belt way of saying that the seed for The Only Harmless Great Thing came from a random comment on Twitter.

Mystical. How on earth do we do it?

Twitter is a lot of things. It’s a terrible distraction. Sometimes it’s just terrible, full stop. It’s also a great place to gather ideas, because when you throw that many disparate minds together and let them chatter like coked parakeets, you’re gonna come up with some wild stuff. It was 2013, so things were not, shall we say, quite as fraught as they’ve become in recent years. There was a lot more shooting the shit and a lot less dodging it as it was flung at our heads via government-issued trebuchet.

Another writer friend of mine, the talented and lovely Helena Bell, posted a poll asking what she should write about next. There were several choices, but the two I remember (for reasons that will soon become evident) were elephants and radium poisoning. I think painting might have been a choice as well, but again, this was in 2013. Recollections of the intervening years in my head look like they were drawn in crayon by Susie, Age 4. I’m pretty sure I rode a velociraptor to my job down at the Unicorn Fart factory back then.

“Why not combine both?” I said. And then, as ominous Foley board thunder crashed: “Wait, shit. Why don’t I combine both?”

Because in the moment it took to type that sentence fragment, my brain had just smashed two clown cars together to create a compressed, bloody, honking rainbow cube of a story idea. Figuring out which floppy shoe went to what polka-dotted limb would take a hell of a lot longer, but there it sat, composed of two terrible pieces of American history my subconscious had immediately (and disturbingly quickly) dredged up from the depths.

The story of elephants in the good ol’ US of A is, like the histories of many things in the good ol’ US of A, really, really depressing. The first, Old Bet, arrived from Calcutta in 1796 and toured with a circus for 21 years before being shot to death in 1816 by a farmer who thought charging townsfolk fees to gawk at an animal was ’sinful’. That pretty much set the tenor for the next couple hundred years of American/elephantine relations. Elephants were tortured, abused, and made to perform tricks and tasks until the stress broke their incredibly sensitive minds, at which point a rampage often ensued, humans died, and the elephant was shot to death, poisoned, or, on one horrifically memorable occasion, lynched. With the advent of electricity came a new and novel way to snuff the rebels out. A killer elephant in Georgia named Daisy was almost the first, but she was spared only to be shot to death by local police after breaking free to finish what she had started, namely Killing All Humans.

Which brings us to Topsy, who you may know about if only because of that one episode of Bob’s Burgers. Like Old Bet and Daisy before her, Topsy was a circus elephant driven to viciousness by cruel handlers and years of abuse. Her one confirmed kill involved a man burning the tip of her trunk with a lit cigar stub. Her owners sold her to the proprietors of Coney Island’s Luna Park, where she helped haul lumber and building materials for awhile until a handful of incidents involving a drunken trainer convinced management she was too much of a liability to keep. Her execution by electrocution in 1903 was recorded by a film crew from the Edison Manufacturing Movie Company and distributed under the title Electrocuting an Elephant. Contrary to popular legend, Thomas Edison appears to have had little to do with Topsy’s death; he was a notorious asshole for a lot of reasons you can read about elsewhere, but this time he was more or less blameless. Topsy wasn’t a victim of the Current Wars, which had more or less petered out some thirteen years earlier. She was simply the latest and most visible victim in a long and cruel system that had been exploiting her kind for centuries.

But the Edison name and the eerily silent footage of her slowly toppling, smoke billowing from her hide, would be enough to keep Topsy in the public memory for years to come.

So much for the elephant part of the equation. My brain has an encyclopedic knowledge of sad animal stories from history. One of my previous short stories involved Laika, so this wasn’t exactly a new development. An upcoming work involves Benjamin, the last thylacine, and it will hopefully complete the triptych so I can go off and write about happy people drinking steaming mugs of hot chocolate under big fluffy duvets for a change.

The radium craze and the horrific story of the Radium Girls was something I already knew about, but I’m a history major, I know about a lot of things I’m later shocked to learn aren’t common public knowledge. In this case, the fact that more people don’t know that an entire factory of women were more or less poisoned to death by their employers within the lifetime of their grandparents makes me want to burn everything down with cleansing fire. Since arson charges are tricky and prison blows, I decided to write a book about it instead.

After the Curies discovered radium in 1898, it didn’t take long for the element to become a wonder additive applied to everything from soaps and chocolate to condoms. It was radioactive—nobody was quite sure what that meant yet, but it sounded pretty cool in marketing slogans—and when mixed with certain other phosphorescent dyes it made a paint that glowed a faint green in the dark. The advent of World War I and the dark, dirty business of trench warfare meant there was a suddenly a ready market for wrist watches with glowing dials that could be easily read at night. Factories were opened to keep up with demand, and girls were hired to paint them. It was, by the standards of the early 20th century, a clean, desirable job: You were working with an element that was said to be great for your health, it paid fairly well, and the paint was fun to work with. The girls would paint their teeth with it. Their skin glittered and glowed faintly from free-floating paint particulate in the air; they nicknamed them the ‘Shining Girls’ because of this. So long as you kept up your quota of dials painted each day, you were just fine. The fastest girls quickly learned how to ‘tip’ the paint brushes with their lips, bringing the bristles to a fine point. It meant swallowing a lot of paint, but again, for the past thirty years radium had been marketed as a cure for cancer, herpes, indigestion, and pretty much anything else that might conceivably make a quick buck.

Behind the scenes, the scientists manufacturing the paint wore heavy protective gear and were warned about the potential dangers of working with the stuff. The girls on the factory floor weren’t so lucky. The ones with worries were soothed, shushed, and reassured of their safety. Why? Because it was cheaper and more efficient to simply not tell them about the potential side effects, and ‘cheaper and quicker’ has always given capitalists a boner roughly the size of Scrooge McDuck’s money bin. What they didn’t know wouldn’t slow the worker’s productivity. Why bother stirring the pot?

Until the girls at last began to sicken and die.

Even that didn’t put the brakes on management, at first. They blamed it on other things. They implied that the girls were contracting syphilis, in the time-honored and ever-ready tradition of the Whores Had It Coming. When a state safety inspector wrote a scathing report about the dangerous conditions at one of the factories, a massive cover-up ensued (it took a woman to eventually blow the lid off). Meanwhile, girls were still falling ill in rapidly growing numbers. Lawsuits came later, and trials, but the wheels of justice move glacially. By the time all was said and done and settlements paid, years had passed. Most of the Radium Girls were already dead.

The factories shuttered. Memories faded. The world moved swiftly on.

Acts of injustice done
Between the setting and the rising sun
In history lie like bones, each one.

Sixteen years separated the death of Topsy and the employment of the first Radium Girls at a factory in Orange, New Jersey, making their stories more or less of a similar vintage. A little girl could have hypothetically been at Coney Island on that fateful January day as a toddler and grown up to wield a brush at U.S. Radium. All of them died for profit, to save their bosses an extra dollar and to make some in the bargain. Animals and women were considered expendable.

The more I thought about this, the angrier I got. The angrier I got, the more I felt that these stories somehow needed to be told together. From an offhand comment on Twitter, something vicious was simmering.

It took another three years for the story to take a shape I was satisfied with, and by that time other things had been rolled up in my story Katamari: the history of uranium, the ongoing project to leave a marker for future generations warning of buried nuclear waste, the history of Coney Island itself. 2016 blew through like a shit hurricane and left me with even more to stew over. I thought a lot about history, how it’s perceived and how it truly is and who gets to tell the narratives that become the memories that become culture. I thought about it as a living, breathing thing that shimmies and shakes and causes ripples that often belie those carefully crafted narratives. I mulled over poison in the ground and in the marrow; how often we forget, the terrible lies we tell ourselves and are told for comfort’s sake. I thought about the ways in which capitalism exploits us, and what we have to gain when we come together in solidarity to fight. And I thought about women—women’s stories, women’s friendships, women’s anger.

I finally sat down and wrote the book very late in 2016. It took me two weeks. It involves an alternate timeline (maybe even an alternate universe) where elephants have been recognized as sentient beings. Of course, that hasn’t stopped their exploitation, because when has it ever? They can speak with sign language, but are not listened to. They can express themselves, but are still more or less slaves of man.

In the aftermath of the Radium Girls incident, circus elephants are bought on the cheap and put to use painting watch dials, being big enough to take a lot of radium before they die and expendable enough that nobody really cares. One of the elephants is Topsy. A factory girl, slowly dying of jaw cancer, is kept on to teach her animal replacement the ropes of the job that has sentenced her to a miserable lingering death. From mutual exploitation they strike up a kind of understanding. Things go from there. Terrible choices are made—choices that will have massive ramifications in an alternate present and a far-flung future.

Also there are wooly mammoth folk tales of the Furmother and an post-apocalyptic elephantine Greek chorus, because this is a deeply weird little puzzle box of a book. I can’t promise that you’ll like it, or that it’ll be your thing. It’s probably not an airport read. The language can be fiddly (I dig fiddly) and there are three different timelines & numerous POVs to spool up in your brainmeats. There’s every chance it might seem as tangly as Christmas lights upon first read.

But it’s short, and it’s angry, and it’s the book I needed to write, turns out, although I didn’t know that back in 2013 when Twitter initially lobbed those acorns at my head. We can only tell the stories we’re capable of telling and hope against hope they reach the people who need them the most. My dearest wish is that The Only Harmless Great Thing finds its people, and that maybe one of you will be one of them.


The Only Harmless Great Thing: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: S. Craig Zahler

S. Craig Zahler writes and directs films most of the time, but the story of Hug Chickenpenny was one that called out for written rather than cinematic form. But Zahler found there was a theme that ran through his book writing efforts that ran through all his other efforts as well. He’s here to tell you what it is.


Perseverance is possibly the single most consistent quality that the protagonists have in all of my different pieces, whether science fiction, horror, crime, western, or just, let’s say, this gothic fairy tale that is Hug Chickenpenny.

I originally created this character probably about 20 years ago. At that time, I was reading a lot of Charles Dickens. Also, I was a big fan of David Lynch—and still am—and so I think those sensibilities are there. But, typically, my inspiration isn’t so much that I see something and want to emulate it, it’s more that I think of something I haven’t seen—perhaps in a genre that I have seen—and think of a new way to bring it to life.

So, in the case of Hug Chickenpenny: The Pangegyric of an Anomalous Child, I was interested in doing something that had a Dickensian scope—and it’s an orphan tale, so it bears that relationship—but, at the same time, I knew that I wanted the titular character to be different from any I’d read about, and for the world to be comparably unique. And so it really comes from a place of me wanting to read a story and write a story that I hadn’t quite seen before. But certainly Charles Dickens, David Lynch, and the incredible books by Mervyn Peake– The Gormenghast Trilogy– are all things that influenced what Hug Chickenpenny became.

So, certainly that’s there: Perseverance. Seeing how someone deals with trying situations and how they overcome them as things get harder and harder, whether it is Arthur with the broken leg in Bone Tomahawk still continuing to make the journey towards his wife, or the terrible prison situation that Bradley finds himself in in Brawl in Cell Block 99.

Hug Chickenpenny starts off in a situation worse than either of these people, and how his character develops through it– as well as the effects of his early relationships with George Dodgett and Dr. Hannersby and the other characters– says a lot about who he innately is. So perseverance is there throughout. I am on day 13 of a 28 day work streak, where every day is 14 to 16 hours. Just, in the last five days, I wrote eight soul songs with my songwriting partner that are going to go into a new movie.

And then, after working until 8 in the morning on Sunday through Monday, I came into the editing room, worked until 5 in the morning last night, and I’ll be here just as late tonight. So it’s something I do: I push hard towards the things that I want. I have a lot of drive, and that’s a common trait for the lead characters in pieces I do. Not all of them, but I’d probably say the most common trait is: they persevere.


Hug Chickenpenny: The Pangegyric of an Anomalous Child: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: Jason Franks

In his Big Idea piece for Faerie Apocalypse, author Jason Franks notes he didn’t want this fantasy novel to have a map — and as it turns out, in many ways, in the writing of the book, he found himself in uncharted territory as well.


A young man travels to Faerie Land looking for a woman based solely on her appearance or other genetic attributes. She has a magical heritage, or royal blood. Of course, she is also beautiful.  In the old days (most of these stories are set in a past era) this was, I guess, considered romantic. By today’s standards it’s creepy at best. What kind of a person does this? This was the Big Idea behind my new book, Faerie Apocalypse.

Initially, I thought it was a short story. I figured out what my protagonist really wanted and I sat down to write it… but once I had begun, I realized that the project was a lot more involved than I had anticipated.

I wanted the engage the sense of whimsy and wonder that makes fairyland stories such a delight for children, and to use that to bring out the darker impulses that makes these stories compelling for adults. I wanted to turn the tropes of the genre against each other.

I needed some distance from the characters in order to maintain sleight of hand and so I made the hard decision not to give most of them names. There’s a story-based reason for this (“Rumplestiltskin!”) but that made it difficult to show enough point-of-view to be engaging. This had knock-on effects that caused me to re-examine the way I write at a nuts-and-bolts level.

My usual prose style is pretty lean (one of my workshop buddies complains that it’s ‘skeletal’), and it didn’t work under these constraints. For this piece I needed something lush, but I didn’t want to let the style get in the way of storytelling. Cormac McCarthy’s work* gave me a good starting point, but mainly I solved this problem through hard graft. I worked it draft after draft, scene after scene, paragraph after paragraph, sentence after sentence, until I thought it was right.

As I built out the story I discovered new scenarios and characters. The story grew to encompass other characters with their own missions: a magician, looking for power; an urchin looking for his father; a wage-slave looking for meaning; a faerie queen who grows tired of being the object of someone else’s quest. It was tough to braid all of these stories together, but as I wrote the book I found connections I had neither planned nor expected.  I was halfway through the first draft before I figured out what was really happening to the Realms under my protagonists’ trampling feet. (Hint: it’s in the title.)

It helped that I knew what I didn’t want the story to be. I didn’t want it to be old-timey. I didn’t want period characters—I wanted mortals originating in contemporary settings (1980s to 2020s). I didn’t want a Faerie Land that is just some adjacent reality—I wanted one that has a reflexive relationship with our own, built from our dreams and our stories. I didn’t want the Faerie Folk to be a bunch of gamebook-classifiable races—I wanted them to be as complex and diverse and perverse as humans. Their immortal lives, bound in storybook rules, make them both more and less than we are.

I also knew going in that I didn’t want a map. The geography and climate in this Faerie Land is mutable and will bend itself to accommodate the stories that play across it—or to the will of those who are powerful enough to influence it directly.

The book is quite short, but I wrote probably 50% again as much material as you see in this final version. The final shape of it is dense and non-linear and twisted. I think it’s a fast read, but a challenging one. I hope you’ll find it as rewarding—and unsettling—to read as it was for me to write.

* Fear not—the book is fully punctuated. Overly punctuated, if I’m honest. I hope you like em dashes and semicolons.


Faerie Apocalypse: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Michael Moreci

Cover to Black Star Renegades

Today on the Big Idea: Author Michael Moreci, with his novel Black Star Renegades, shows you how to write a media tie-in that’s not a media tie-in and in fact becomes something else entirely in the telling.


A lot of writers will probably hate me for this, but the idea for Black Star Renegades was kinda given to me. But don’t worry, because this stroke of fortune was proceeded by years and years misery. I’ll explain:

I’m a huge Star Wars fan. Like, it’s unhealthy. I talk about it a lot (sorry to you, my lovely and patient wife), and I write about it a lot (on my own website and for I even have the Rebel sigil tattooed on my forearm. My brother has the matching Empire sigil on his forearm, so I’m not alone in this. Anyway. One day, I received a call from an editor at St. Martin’s, the future editor of Black Star Renegades. His name is Marc, and Marc said, “Mike, you love Star Wars. Write me something that’s Star Wars.” My first impression was “Isn’t that illegal?” but Marc explained that he wanted something that captured the spirit of Star Wars—pulpy space adventure with a lot of heart, great characters, and boundless imagination. I agreed immediately. Even if Marc had been asking me to write an unsanctioned Star Wars novel, I still would have agreed.

Now, like I said: there’s misery to this story as well. Because the only reason I was on Marc’s radar is because I’d been pitching him for years. I can fill a graveyard with my rejected pitches (and, truthfully, that’s where most of those pitches belong). But that’s how most of professional goes—it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and the trick is to stick around long enough (and be good enough) to one day catch your break. And that’s what happened with Black Star Renegades.

Marc’s phone call and my passion for the galaxy far, far away is what drove the book’s inception. But something strange happened along the way. The more I wrote this book as the stepchild of Lucas’s beloved creation, the less interested in it I became. Don’t get me wrong, Black Star Renegades has Star Wars imprinted in its DNA, and I totally embrace that. I love it for that reason. But I didn’t want my story to be just that. I wanted it to be more, I wanted to have something to say that was my own.

And that’s when it hit me: If I stayed the course and wrote a straight-up Star Wars book, I’d just be a knock-off trying to pass myself off as the real thing. I’d be that dude in the subway selling Versachi bags, and I didn’t want to be that dude in the subway selling Versachi bags.

So I did the only logical thing: I killed the real deal. In the book! I killed the real deal in the book.

But that’s how Black Star Renegades became interesting to me. See, I’ve always had trouble with the messiah complex. The idea that we should sit around and wait for an all-powerful someone or other to come along and save our butts from the fire isn’t a healthy one. It leads to bad places. Like when, oh, I don’t know, a tyrannical buffoon campaigns under the promise that he’s the only one—him alone—who can solve all the country’s problems. And people actually believe him. Because that’s what we’re taught. Iron Man will save us. Luke Skywalker. Katniss Everdeen. Harry Potter. Whoever. There’s a magical chosen one, and without this person we wouldn’t be able to do a darn thing on our own. Sure, we can play supporting roles, but at the end of the day, only one person can vanquish Voldemort or Vader

And that simply isn’t true. That narrative is exactly what I wanted to upend.

It’s funny, because there’s something in the water when it comes to deconstructing the chosen one myth-building, because that’s exactly what The Last Jedi is about. Luke says so himself when he asks Rey if she expects him to take on the First Order all by himself, just him and a “laser sword.” At the time, Rey’s answer would have been yes because that’s exactly what she expected. But she comes to learn, like so many characters in the film story, the dangers in relying on one person—good or evil—to save an entire galaxy. And that’s part of the beauty of The Last Jedi: It shows us that we’re all heroes. Rose, Finn, Poe, Rey—they all play a part in being the heroes of this story. And through their combined efforts, that’s when a difference is made.

Black Star Renegades is unquestionably a Star Wars book. But it’s also an anti-Star Wars book. It’s a galaxy where my version of Luke dies in the first act, and everyone else has to step up and fight back against the tyrannical overlord who didn’t get the memo that one person alone isn’t meant to rule everything and everyone. But the heroes did. They learn that real power comes in unity and togetherness, and that’s how they win.

That’s how we all win.


Black Star Renegades: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Marieke Nijkamp

The Cover of Before I Let Go

We’re back with Big Ideas for 2018! And to kick us off, author Marieke Nijkamp talks to us of her new novel Before I Let Go, and takes us below the cold surface of a community that holds its secrets close.


“Lost has created new legends since you left. It’s such a human thing to do. We tell stories about what we don’t understand.”

That is what Kyra, one of the main characters in Before I Let Go, writes to her best friend Corey. She never sends that letter, but Corey finds it, eventually, when she investigates Kyra’s death. She finds it along with Kyra’s other letters and other stories—and her hometown’s belief that it lost a prophet.

Stories and storytelling are at the very core of Before I Let Go. The stories we tell about the world, about each other, about ourselves. The stories others tell about us. And the tortured truth that exists somewhere in between.

We tell stories about what we don’t understand. For me, when I was growing up: the world. I was a physically disabled, autistic kid in pre-internet days. I didn’t have a clue how the neurotypical world functioned. So I bonded with fictional characters. I dove deep into their psyches and followed them on their emotional journeys. I would ask myself, unironically, What Would [insert character] Do? if I wasn’t sure about the correct response to a situation.

It was a flawed method of learning. Not in the least because I grew up a fantasy reader. And because I—disabled and queer and strange—didn’t exist with any likeness in those books, and I only learned to be other people, not myself. Still, I had entire worlds at my fingertips to study. It helped me pass as neurotypical magnificently, for as much as that’s a flawed concept too.

(I began to swap out passing as different for embracing who I am when, as a teen, I discovered Dungeons & Dragons and role play. when I discovered creating and testing different characters, when I started to write like my life depended on it. And slowly, I learned that understanding is a quest, not a goal.)

We tell stories about what we don’t understand. It was my core tenet at college and grad school, where I spent my time with medieval manuscripts and the history (and politics) of ideas. I learned to ask questions: which narratives were we reading? Where did they come from? What were they trying to achieve? Which narratives survived the ages? Why did they survive the ages? Who tells a story? Why do they tell a story? What is the purpose of a word, a scene, the whole work, of its existence?

Who does a story belong to anyway? Both? Who do we listen to? Who do we trust? What was said in the tales that don’t exist any longer? What stories have we silenced? And whose voices do we silence still?

They’re good questions outside the realm of medieval manuscripts too.

We tell stories about what we don’t understand. That’s how Kyra went through life, and there is a personal truth to it too. That quest for understanding is why I’m a writer. All my books and short fiction start with questions, even those so deceptively simple as how, why, what if.

The answers are far more complex—and always purposeful. I manipulate narrative threads. I make decisions about what details to keep out and what to leave in. Every word, every scene is a conscious choice. Every silence, too. After all, sometimes the most important stories exist between the lines of what is told and untold.

The truth can appear malleable, even though facts are still facts. Manipulation influences interpretation. And stories are both the most wondrous type of magic and the most dangerous things in the world.

“We tell stories about what we don’t understand,” Kyra writes, before she dies, lost and lonely. “I just never considered what it would be like to be at the heart of one of those stories. I want to study myths, not star in one.”

And that’s the heart of it: the spark for this book. From there, Kyra’s legends, Corey’s storytelling, and the tales others weave around them never quite line up. At the start of her investigation, all Corey knows for a fact is that her best friend is dead. And the truth to why, how is yet to be uncovered.

Some might say that stories killed Kyra; others that they saved her. I say Before I Let Go is a love letter to storytelling—but maybe it’s a warning too. In truth, it may be all of the above. Let’s just say, it depends quite a bit on which side of the story you take.


Before I Let Go: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor

Typing in a minefield: When Ryk E. Spoor took on his new novel Princess Holy Aura, that’s what he guessed he’d be doing. Why? And why did he decide to write it anyway? Read on for the answers.


I did not expect to write Princess Holy Aura.

“Hey, you’re the author, don’t you DECIDE what you write?”

Well, yeah, to an extent. But priority goes to what your publisher’s willing to PAY for, and when you have an average of 4 hours a week to write, that priority generally dominates.

Following my completion of Challenges of the Deeps (the third Arenaverse novel), I had no contracts for any solo novels. So I inquired as to whether they wanted to see any more from me, and they asked me to send them some outlines of things I proposed to do.

I sent them three outlines and two general concepts. One outline was for a crossover-fantasy trilogy titled The Spirit Warriors (which follows the adventures of five young people from Earth who we met for a short period of time in my Balanced Sword trilogy), one for a series titled “Players of Worlds” which would begin as apparent fantasy and slowly reveal its rather creepy science-fictional nature (what if your whole planet was someone else’s MMORPG setting, in real capsule summary), and the outline for The Ethical Magical Girl (which was later renamed to Princess Holy Aura). The two “concepts” were for The Door Reopened (a Narnia/Oz/Andre Norton magical crossover world finds it needs its heroes again… when they’re all grown up with kids and careers) and Adventurer’s Academy (epic fantasy world’s school for would-be heroes).

I was pretty sure that if Baen took any of these, it would be either Players of Worlds or The Spirit Warriors, and I was betting on Players of Worlds, as I’d actually worked out the general concept with my editor Tony a couple months previous. Maybe they’d ask instead for me to flesh out one of the two general concepts.

Instead, I got a contract for Princess Holy Aura… and immediately began metaphorically running around in circles panicking.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write this story. I did, very much so. As far as I knew, no one in the American book market had really tackled the mahou shoujo genre straight-on, and the setup I envisioned would allow me to really examine the assumptions of that genre and both deconstruct and reconstruct it in what I thought would be interesting ways. There was a lot of potential for fun, drama, action, and character in the concept, and I already could see the main characters and understand the general flow of the plot from the outline I had (although, as with pretty much any outline, the details of that outline wouldn’t survive contact with the actual writing of the book).

But there were – are – soooooo very many ways that I could write it badly, with badly possibly being “you offend people so badly that not only does THIS book tank, but your other books stop selling too”. I would be touching on some very volatile concepts – gender roles, personal identity, physical gender changes, friendships across both age and sex barriers, adult VS child rights to make dangerous choices, and a host of others, including the more mundane – but no less difficult – challenges of depicting people who were from vastly different backgrounds due to age and culture gaps than I, the author, would be very familiar with.

Princess Holy Aura is a novel-format take on the anime/manga subgenre of the magical girl warrior (mahou shoujo senshi). This is best known in the USA by the anime Sailor Moon, with some westernized versions including W.I.T.C.H., but with a huge history going back several decades. At its core, the mahou shoujo senshi story is of a young (usually ranging from 12 to 16, with some examples both older and younger) girl chosen/empowered to fight supernatural forces by some benevolent force (that’s often disguised as a cute animal mascot); often the first girl warrior is joined by others to form a group of four or five.

I’d originally conceived Princess Holy Aura simply from an amusing scene that I wrote up in a couple of pages, in which a 35 year old man is the one chosen to become Princess Holy Aura, the first of the five Apocalypse Maidens. The idea of a boy being chosen to become the magical girl isn’t unique; there are at least two or three anime that play with that idea, and several webcomics. However, my outline for the story took it in a very different direction. Not only was my protagonist starting as someone much older, but also I wanted to take the story seriously, even if there would be obviously amusing aspects to the events themselves.

But that opened up a potentially huge can of worms – a can that started looking bigger and bigger and bigger once I was committed to doing the story. Consider, please, some of these points:

  • Steve Russ (the main character in his original form) was going to be changing not just age but sex. This can be a fairly challenging topic in and of itself, as you don’t want to just play this for laughs. Besides the obvious physical differences, body dysphoria (the feeling that there is something inherently wrong about the body you’re in) would be a major factor.
  • The other Apocalypse Maidens were all going to be 14-15 year old girls in actuality.
  • That meant that – in the form of an actual 14 year old girl – the protagonist would be spending a lot of time with other such girls.
  • The general attitude of our society towards a 35 year old man who spends lots of time hanging around young teenage girls is, well, not usually positive. (and recent political events are not making that any easier of a concept!)

These are far from all the key points I had to deal with in just handling the character of Steve Russ/Holly Owen/Holy Aura. To make the book work, all these points, and the others, had to be addressed in a manner that made it reasonable.

That meant answering questions like “why choose Steve Russ at all, instead of another teenager (and why do the others end up teenagers anyway?”, “What makes Steve the right choice?”, “How does Holly Owen (Steve’s civilian-female alter ego) learn to interact with others of her putative age?”, and of course “how can you keep the other girl’s parents from killing Steve and his little magical guide Silvertail if and when they find out the truth?”

This in addition to the normal worldbuilding challenges like “who are Holy Aura’s adversaries?”, “How did this all get started, and why ‘magical girls’ anyway?”, and “how can there be these magical girls and stuff when the world’s otherwise mundane?”.

Even when you have answers to these questions, presenting those answers to the reader in a form that will convince them, ahh, there’s the rub. You can never be sure what will work, since as the author you know what you mean, but that mental state can’t be transferred to all your readers.

I think the first key element that made it possible to even partially tapdance my way through this minefield was clarifying and refining one of the key points of the novel and of the magic of the Maidens themselves: that it was strengthened by willing sacrifice of the participants, but sacrifice not in the simple sense of “I give away this thing”, but “I choose to take this responsibility, despite what it will cost me to do so”.

Specifically with respect to Steve and his initial vital decision, Steve isn’t just “giving up being a man”; that is, it is not “becoming a girl” that represents the sacrifice, so much as “letting go of your entire self-image” – being willing, in a very real sense, to give up your self in order to become another self who is needed. He must go beyond playing “Holly Owen” and “Princess Holy Aura”, and become them, make them real, in order to fully appreciate the powers, and demands, of her new form.

Similarly, the willingness of the other girls to risk themselves, and of their parents to accept the risks to their children – these are important sacrifices and acceptance of responsibility that in the world of  Princess Holy Aura represent a huge amount of mystical power.

Still, to make all that work required another tightrope walk. The main character had to be a sufficiently good person that, as she lived as Holy Aura and made friendships with the other girls, the reader could believe that she (potentially still he) did not pose a threat to the others. The flip side of the coin was that Holly Owen and Steve Russ had to have flaws – issues with their lives and/or the events that surrounded them – sufficient to make them believably real. In addition, whatever I sketched out for Steve’s personality, habits, and adult friends and activities had to somehow jibe with the person that Holly would become; she had to be someone who could be understood as a development of Steve in some way, shape, or form.

AAaaaand I had to do all of this, and at least sketch out to an acceptable extent the characters surrounding Holly Owen – her friends (both those who become the other Maidens and those who don’t), the adversaries, and a few other mysteries. And do much of it early enough to let the story progress to the end.

The latter part turned out to require some changes from my original vision. In a standard mahou shoujo senshi series, each new girl gets added in their own adventure sequence, meaning that before you’ve assembled your whole team – and thus can start to address the real main challenges – you have four or five separate adventures, meetings, revelations, and so on.

I couldn’t possibly do that in one book and keep it even halfway manageable. Princess Holy Aura was already going to have a lot of front-loading of its world and mythology, just to let the readers keep up with what was going on, and I had the additional challenge that I didn’t (and still don’t) know if there would/will ever be sequels to the novel. Which meant I had to wrap up the main plotline, too.

The very nature of the mahou shoujo genre had one more challenge to address from the point of view of the kind of stories I usually write, and that is that such series are to a great extent not about the monsters of the week, but about the people and how their battles affect them. Unlike, say, Kyri Vantage (the central hero of my Balanced Sword trilogy) or Ariane Austin (from the Arenaverse novels), the young heroes of these series are not inherent risk-takers, not adult adventurers who have trained for a dangerous profession, living in some distant future world that’s alien and exciting to any reader; they’re ordinary students (or in the case of Steve, ordinary working man), living in a world very much like ours, thrust into utterly extraordinary circumstances.

More, in mahou shoujo the relationships of the main characters are an essential part of the nature of their success or failure against their opponents. Long before the recent My Little Pony made “Friendship is Magic” a byword, mahou shoujo series had made that the essence of their nature (in fact, you could easily argue that MLP:FiM is a mahou shoujo series). So Holly’s friendships and connections with the other girls had to be brought out and made believable.

I did do research (by talking to the appropriate people as well as doing online reading) to give me some insight into the mindset of those both younger than me and those from different walks of life; I do have a near-teenage daughter to serve as something of an inspiration, and some nieces who are far closer to high school age than I am (with about 40 years behind me since that time). But no matter how much research an author does, ultimately the characters, their behavior, their words, their existence comes from what the author knows, and they can’t easily (if at all) create an emotional connection unless they, themselves, can feel it. So I knew that making them believable and making them realistic/authentic might – probably would – be another balancing act.

So basically writing the book would be riding a unicycle on a high-wire over a minefield while juggling lit Molotov cocktails.

Of course, I had one – well, two – major advantages to bring to bear on this challenge. The first was that I had a contract – a legal obligation to write and finish this novel, or I’d suffer consequences (or, at the least, not get the money for the book). “…when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully,” as Samuel Johnson once wrote.

The second was that I had written books while worried about the outcome before. Not this kind of worry, true, but when I’d first tackled Boundary I’d been scared stiff of the sheer challenge before me of writing believable, worthwhile hard SF. And as I discussed in another Big Idea column, writing a sequel to Grand Central Arena and the challenge of somehow matching its sensawunda in Spheres of Influence kept me up more than a few nights.

So I sat down and started writing and reminded myself that in the end, I could only use the same principle I’d always written with: people are people. That applied to men and women and aliens, there was no reason that it shouldn’t apply even to magical mascots and teenage girls. The details would be different, but the basic motives and feelings? They shouldn’t change. I’d already touched on writing younger people in Castaway Planet and its sequel; all I had to do was just keep doing the same thing. Only, hopefully, better.

And sure enough, they started to speak to me. Not just Steve, but Holly Owen herself – the same person, yet utterly different, like Tip and Ozma – and Holly’s BFF Seika Cooper, Steve’s friend Dexter Armitage who also ends up Holly’s friend, artist Tierra MacKintor and basketball star Devika Kaur Weatherill, Cordelia Ingemar and Silvertail Heartseeker. I followed them through first meetings and frightening combats and shocking revelations that eventually brought them together.

Surprisingly, some side characters also came to life for me, especially OSC agent Dana Kisaragi – who got her own parallel short story “On-Site for the Apocalypse”. And I came to know the adversaries, maybe better than I wanted.

Was it a perilous journey, in terms of potentially creating an “Oh, no, Ryk Spoor, No!” situation? Naturally. And I had to accept that for at least some people, it probably would be exactly that. There’s no way not to “squick” some people with these subjects, not if you approach them honestly, and the nature of the story requires honesty.

So in the end, I strode right out into that minefield and juggled my flaming jars of gasoline while jumping on a trampoline. Because the only way to write the story was to write it straight, just like the characters – the people that I was going to meet – would want it told.


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The Big Idea: Molly Tanzer

Absinthe makes the brain grow more creative — at least in the case of Molly Tanzer, whose encounter with the spirit helped to inspire her novel Creatures of Will and Temper. Want to find out how? Sit back and pour a stiff one as Tanzer tells you.


I’m delighted to do my very first Big Idea for my new novel, Creatures of Will and Temper, because I actually did have a “big idea” that sparked the project and then informed my entire approach to it.

This is the story pretty much as it happened: I was sitting on my porch one summer morning, drinking an absinthe cocktail and reading Oscar Wilde’s Victorian classic, The Picture of Dorian Gray, when I got to this part in the book…

[Dorian’s ] eye fell on the yellow book that Lord Henry had sent him. … He flung himself into an arm-chair and began to turn over the leaves. After a few minutes, he became absorbed. It was the strangest book he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.

…and in my intoxicated state, bewitched by spirituous liquors and addled the strong rays of the sun, I thought to myself, What if Lord Henry Wotton was a diabolist and had given Dorian Gray a “yellow book” that was a demon-summoning manual instead of a novel? That would be dope.

This idea took hold of me like the ideas in the yellow book take hold of Dorian Gray, beguiling me and distracting me from what I was supposed to be doing at the time, whatever that was. I can’t remember—probably all that absinthe. Anyway, the important thing is that I started obsessing over what I’d personally want from a Dorian Gray retelling, were I reading it, not writing it, and that served me well.

I knew I’d need to gender-swap Dorian into Dorina Gray, since I like to write about women and women’s issues, and as I wanted to write something exploring the relationships between women, I knew I’d also need to gender-swap Henry Wotton, who became Lady Henrietta Wotton, aesthete and diabolist.

That put the project off to a good start; at least, I thought so. As I continued to think on it, I decided to focus on one of the less explored aspects of The Picture of Dorian Gray—that of mentorship and its various consequences—and for that, I’d need a different take on the Dorian/Lord Henry relationship. In the original, Lord Henry Wotton is not an admirable character, so I decided to instead make Lady Henrietta the Platonic ideal of all the lady teachers I’ve crushed on hard over the years. Similarly, the rather repellent Dorian Gray became Dorina, a mosaic of the artistic young women I went to my small liberal arts high school and college with in prosaic south and central Florida.

But as a lifelong fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I knew I’d also need this motif to be repeated to drive it home—there had to be an “A” plot and a “B” plot that dealt with the same issue in different ways. Dorina’s arc needed a natural counterpart. Thus, enter Evadne Gray, Dorina’s elder sister and a character wholly my creation.

Evadne came to me all at once, just like the idea for this book. I realized that if I wanted to focus on women’s relationships, Dorina needed a sister, not just a mentrix—a sister who was similar to her in terms of her capacity for love and enthusiasm, but so very different in her interests that they’d always be at cats and dogs with one another. Dorina was to be enthusiastic, artistically minded, and socially adroit even while she possessed a healthy dislike of “society”; Evadne needed to be a bit of an awkward jock (fencing is her passion), reserved and concerned with the sort of restrictive propriety that is the last refuge of the born misfit. So often, people cling to that which does not serve them—that had to be Evadne’s core, as an athletic but awkward woman, in contrast to Dorina’s willful rejection of a world that was only too eager to accept her on the basis her youth and beauty, merits she rejects.

Two different misfits who both come to find two different mentors—Evadne finds a fencing tutor as apparently perfect for her as Henry is for Dorina, and every bit as secretly mysterious. And in that way, too, I tried to be “faithful but not” to Wilde’s original novel. Both The Picture of Dorian Gray and Creatures of Will and Temper are about what happens when someone is consumed by passion. In the end, I hope mine is a bit more forgiving of its protagonists, and a bit more hopeful, or at least less cynical in its conclusion about the fundamental nature of humanity.


Creatures of Will and Temper: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Tracy Townsend

Take Borges, toss in a library, add a touch of sub-atomic physics, and what do you get? If you’re Tracy Townsend, you get her novel The Nine. Here she is to tell you how all of these came to be a part of her story.


The best creative decision I ever made was to be bad at my first college job.

I paid for undergraduate in the usual way — a little bit of student loan, some scholarship, and a lot of work-study. I was lucky enough to score a job at the university library, where my employment somehow survived my plot to pretend at total incompetence in the Library of Congress system. There was a method to my madness, of course. When I disappeared for two hours with a single cart of returns, nobody would think twice about my painstaking pace. I mean, it had taken me three tries to pass the shelving exam. (I’d considered throwing the test a fourth time, but that just seemed like gilding the lily.) Truth was, I was dead fast and accurate at re-shelving. I could clear a double-decker cart of volumes distributed over three floors in just over a half-hour. For the remaining hour and a half of my shift, I’d creep to the farthest corner of the reference stacks and start browsing, secure in the time my feigned incompetence had bought.

I love reference books because they’re so eminently browsable. They don’t ask for a reader’s commitment. They’re perfect for those weary moments when you want to feed your mind something, but can’t process a narrative. It was in just such a moment that I picked up  Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings. There, I found an entry titled “The Lamed Wufniks.” (I’m embarrassed to admit it first grabbed my attention because I thought the name was cute – lamed wufniks! Poor little wufniks with bum legs! Little did I realize how mercurial Anglicized spellings of Yiddish words are, or that the words didn’t sound at all the way I sounded them out.) Here’s part of what Borges wrote:

On the earth there are, and have always been, thirty-six just men whose mission is to justify the world to God. These are the Lamed Wufniks. . . . If a man comes to realize that he is a Lamed Wufnik, he immediately dies and another man, perhaps in some other corner of the earth, takes his place. These men are, without suspecting it, the secret pillars of the universe. If not for them, God would annihilate the human race. They are our saviors, though they do not know it.

This mystical belief of the Jewish people has been explained by Max Brod.

Its distant roots may be found in Genesis 18, where God says that He will not destroy the city of Sodom if ten just men can be found within it.

The very idea of God carefully studying mankind in such a peculiarly precise, predetermined fashion appealed to every instinct in my lapsed Catholic body. It would make a hell of a story.

Some elements of it would have to go. I dropped the “lamed” portion of these holy test subjects’ name and invented a spelling of “wufniks” that actually reflected its pronunciation: vautneks. Thirty-six was too many characters. Remembering that nines and threes reign supreme across dozens of cultural mythologies, I pared it down to nine. The notion that God would hand-pick His representatives, knowing already they were just, and simply undo the world when He could no longer find the thirty-sixth man to fill up the game day roster just seemed too tidy. I was more interested in the notion of the experiment itself. Could a tiny, totally random sampling of humanity hope to represent the species well? Is there any way for human beings to know that a creator is studying us, and if we did, what would we do? Do we do “right” only because we don’t want to be caught doing wrong? And what, God help us, is actually “right,” anyway?

I teach at the Illinois Math and Science Academy – Hogwarts for Hackers, where students steep in an equal mix of ethical, humanistic sciences and caffeinated meme culture. It’s the right place for me because as much as I’m a child of the humanities, I’ve always been fascinated by the scientific impulse, the urge to know which is fundamental to human reason. Take physics. So much of its finest details still aren’t understood the way we understand the microscopic details of our own bodies. The idea that there is a particle we can’t actually pin down that’s responsible for why objects have mass is fascinating. Essentially, if we take for granted that everything in our universe is mass or energy (and translatable to one another), then the Higgs boson is a creator-particle, a particle that grants us existence itself, the capacity to be measured and judged and understood. It truly is the God-particle.

As a humanist, my work at a STEM-focused, logic-loving institution recalls the age-old tension tension between reason and faith. If the lamed wufniks were the inspiration for The Nine’s plot, then that tension inspired its world. It’s a world where humanity chains faith and religion to observable, measurable data, and transforms the worship of gained and ordered knowledge into the worship of its creator. I made that world to test my skepticism about the limits of empirical knowledge.

What better way to build that world, and to blow it all up, than to go a little Borges and prove to my character that yes, someone really is watching?

If God is an experimenter, a scientist in His own right, He’s got to keep notes somewhere. And that means someone’s bound to find them, sooner or later.


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The Big Idea: Matthew De Abaitua

Work sucks. In The Red Men, author Matthew De Abaitua has come up with an answer. Uh, maybe. He’s here to explain that whole “maybe” part.


From an early age, I was terrorised by the prospect of getting a proper job. A summer spent working as a security guard on the docks convinced me that my intuition concerning work was correct; it was a desperate exploitative world and not for the likes of me. What if I could somehow accrue all the benefits of going to work – a salary and social status – without having to subordinate myself to its deadening routines?

The big idea of my novel The Red Men comes from this yearning, although it in no way solves it. The novel turns around the question of your collaboration with power, how much of yourself you can trade to get on in the world, or can you deny all attempts by the “real world” to control you and instead live freely and imaginatively.

To explore this question, I invented the Red Men. The Red Men are simulations of real people devised by an artificial intelligence. They are not copies. We will not be able to digitally copy consciousness. Mind cannot be separated from body in that way. Instead, our technology will tell stories about us, based on its observations of our desires and behaviours.

In my novel, these stories are The Red Men and – for a regular subscription fee – they will do your work for you: capable of processing data at light speed, and gifted with your way of seeing the world, your Red Man toils in an office job while you are free to profit from their salary and find more a productive way of using your time.

I was first attracted to the idea of a digital self because it promised an incorporeal immortality. Planning the novel out, I realised that a digital land-of-do-as-you-please wouldn’t work fictively. It would be like writing out a long dream. The readers wouldn’t care about what happened in a realm in which all harm can be undone, all damage reversed. I would need to find a way of making the readers care.

All virtual worlds suffer from being as inconsequential as a dream. That’s why, if you die in the Matrix, you die in the real world – its the only way to make the Matrix matter. The novel may have been born of my immature desire to live in a world governed by the pleasure principle but it could not be told from the point of view of a digital person. Rather, the point of view of the novel had to follow the real people who work with the Red Men, and who suffer from their interaction with simulated people. After years of idle planning, it was this realisation of the narrative point of view that kickstarted my writing.

The Red Men is told from two points of view: Raymond is a down-at-heel poet who is drawn into the customer service department managing the interaction between the Red Men and their subscribers; Nelson is more senior than Raymond, having worked for years for the company Monad that creates the Red Men. So Raymond’s point of view, new to this world, as he discovers Monad and its products, accords to that of the readers. Nelson, who is more steeped in Monad, provides insight into the back story of the technology. Indeed, it is Nelson who first devises the name of the Red Men when he first meets the company’s artificial intelligence, and it is Nelson who is tasked with expanding the program in the middle of the novel, when Monad decide to simulate an entire town to help them predict mass effects and reactions to government policies.

The novel is structured according to this question of whether it is possible to deny the imperatives of the “real world” of jobs, mortgages, health care payments and live in a realm of your own imagining and control. Chekhov once observed of Tolstoy that while he didn’t have the answers, he asked the right questions. A novel shouldn’t be didactic, it is a more exploratory form. Power it with a good question rather than your idea of an answer. The question runs through the heart of Nelson’s relationships – whether he should allow work to take him away from his family – and through Raymond’s troubles, as he is drawn into the work of Monad’s rival company Dyad, which specialises in technology that exploits and inhabits the human unconscious.

When I found my emotional connection to the big idea, I was finally able to write it. Only after I’d spent a few years toiling in an office, subordinated to nonsensical corporate cant and bullshit imperatives, having had the shit bored out of me, was I able to put my big idea on a stage crafted by everyday frustrations and yearnings.


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