BLOG HOP!

August 4, 2014

A couple of weeks ago my friend and mystery writer Vicki Delany tagged me to do a Blog Hop – which for those of you who are unfamiliar with the phenomenon, is a kind of chain letter, blog style. I get tagged by a friend, I tag some friends, and so on. Vicki can be found at http://klondikeandtrafalgar.blogspot.ca/ as well as any bookstore near you. I’ll do some tagging of my own at the end of this piece, but in the meantime, let me answer some questions.

  1. What am I working on?

Boy, am I tempted to say “Chapter 18″ and move on to question 2, but that wouldn’t be polite, would it? Seriously, I am about to read over the current version of chapter 18 of a project called Halls of Law. That’s the working title, at least, and it may end up being the over-all title of a projected two-book series. This is a fantasy novel all right, but it going to be a bit of a departure for me, and is coming out under my new/old name, VM Escalada. In Spain I’ve always been Violette Malan Escalada to the rest of my family, but as you may have noticed, here in North America, we don’t usually use both surnames – which works out well for me.

  1. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

The thing that interests me most about the world is people . . . okay, chocolate, but really, no, people. I love sword fighting, and I love the supernatural and paranormal aspects of fantasy worlds, but what I really love is who people are, how they connect with one another, how they decide what’s important to them, and where they’ll draw the line. As a woman, and as a person who’s been in a good, long-standing relationship, my books also tend toward having a strong female presence, and good, long-standing relationships, but of course I’m not the only writer doing that.

  1. Why do I write what I do?

I’ve said this before, and I’m sure I’ll have occasion to say it again: it’s my belief that fantasy fiction in particular is one of the last places where protagonists can act honourably, without their attitudes or their actions being treated ironically. That’s the kind of book I want to write.

  1. How does my writing process work?

In general terms, I start with characters, and work outward from there. The germ of most of my work is a dialogue, and from there I can figure out, sometimes quite slowly, who these people are, what kind of problem they’re facing, and even how they’re going to go about dealing with the problems. In practical terms, I have a fixed writing schedule, though it doesn’t necessarily involve actual writing, in that I might be revising, editing, or doing research. For Halls, for example, I had to read up on Roman legions. I try to work every day, and on the days that it’s impossible, I try at the very least to think over the book in progress, to keep the characters and their situations fresh in my mind until I can get back to them.

Keeping my answer to question 3 in mind, I’d really like to recommend Howard Andrew Jones to you. Howard is probably best known for his books set in the Pathfinder universe, but I have a special feeling for The Desert of Souls, and The Bones of the Old Ones, set in the world of the Arabian Nights. You can find Howard at: http://www.howardandrewjones.com/

What’s New?

February 18, 2014

I’ve had a lot of emails and other such communications lately from people telling me how much they enjoy the Dhulyn and Parno books. I can’t tell you how much that means to me, there is actually no way to express how important it is for people who work alone 80% of the time to hear from strangers that their work is appreciated, and even loved.

At the moment, all this affection is a little bittersweet, because these same lovely people are also asking me when (and whether) there’s going to be another D&P book. On that front, all I can say is, there’s good news, and bad news.

The bad news is, while everyone who read the D&P books seemed to really enjoy them, there haven’t been enough actual sales to persuade the publisher to finance another one just at present. So even though I love the books, and my fans love the books, and even my publishers love the  books, the practicalities of life have put a stop to them, for now. I have outlines for the follow-up to Path of the Sun (and for Shadowlands, for those of you who enjoy that series) so I do know how they continue, but I’m not in a position right now to do anything about that myself (see the good news, below).

Before I get to the good news, however, there are a couple of things you guys can do for me, that could help to increase the chances of more Dhulyn and Parno. For one thing, the books are still in print, and available as ebooks, so sales are still possible. Please continue to recommend them to your friends (rather than, ahem, lending them your copies). You can also go on Amazon, and Goodreads, and leave positive reviews, as well as talking them up in blogs and posts of your own. Go to www.dawbooks.com and let them know that you enjoyed the books and would like to see more of them.

Finally, you can follow me on Twitter, and friend me on Facebook, if you haven’t already. Not only will you get prompt updates on how my writing is going, but you’ll help increase my “internet presence,” something marketing departments like to see. You can also have a look at my weekly posts at www.blackgate.com.

So, what about that good news? Well, the lovely people at DAW has bought another series from me, one that I hope you’ll like just as much as the adventures of Dhulyn and Parno. I’m at work right now on Book One of  Halls of Law – at the moment I have a contract for two proposed books – which will be coming out under a pseudonym (pretty much standard procedure when you’re trying to increase sales). The name I’ve chosen is VM Escalada, which is my own initials plus the Spanish part of my surname. For those of you who don’t know, in Spain no one changes their name when they marry, and everyone has a double-barrelled surname. So, in Spain, I would be Violette Malan Escalada.

Working on Halls of Law hasn’t left me a lot of time for other things, but I’m hoping to finish a couple of short stories featuring Dhulyn and Parno that I can post for you guys to enjoy. Thanks again for all your kind words and support. I’ll keep you all in the loop.

<img src="http://furstek.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/path.jpg?w=201" alt="Path" width="201" height="300" class="alignright size-medium wp-imageJirelWhen I found sword and sorcery in my teens, there weren’t a lot of strong female protagonists for me to relate to. Jirel of Joiry comes to mind, maybe Red Sonya – but they were already very old by the time I got to them. When I think now of the books and stories I read then, I’m hard pressed to come up with female characters, let alone female protagonists. There must have been some. You know, needing rescuing or marrying or something, but I didn’t find them memorable then, and I don’t really find them memorable now. Okay, I do remember the women that Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser loved, they were well-drawn, significant people. But we all know what happened to them, don’t we? They pretty much continue the tradition of female characters in western literature: if it’s a comedy they marry, if it’s a tragedy, they die.
(Hint: for all their humorous elements, the F&GM stories aren’t comedies)
Flash forward a few years and I’m a writer of sword and sorcery, not just a reader. I’m a woman, living in a post-feminist western society, a person who’s written feminist literary criticism (okay, on 18th-century pastoral poetry, but it still counts). Now I get to actually create the kind of female characters I used to imagine when I was young. Protagonists, mind you, real, more-or-less human women. Not the good (or evil) fairies, queens, and goddesses that sociologists and feminist critics call examples of women as “other”.
How was I going to do that? Keeping in mind that – unlike the men – I didn’t have a lot of models I could use as a guide. And keeping in mind that I wanted to avoid either caricature, or cliché. (I think the phrase “no chain mail bras” will cover what I mean by that). I’m not going to talk about how a writer goes about forming any strong character – there are certain elements that apply no matter who or what the character might be. Instead, I’m going to address my own particular dilemma, how to create a strong, female, sword and sorcery protagonist.
By “strong” we don’t generally mean physically, do we? We mean those elements that make a character believable, compelling, sympathetic, memorable. But when we’re dealing with S&S fantasy, we need to think about the other kind of strong as well. Bottom line, there are things that women can’t do, or can’t do easily, because they have less muscle mass than men. Hence the witch/goddess/queen tendency among pre-feminist writers. Even if you make your female protagonist relatively large, someone will still tell you that a 5’10” woman can’t lift the same sword/axe/mace that a 5’10” man can.
But think, the Grey Mouser is a small, slim man, with much less muscle mass than say, Fafhrd, or Conan. A 5’10” woman can’t wield the same sword, but she can wield a sword, and she could use that sword to whup same-size-guy’s ashcan, if she is, like the Mouser, very, very good. My sensei used to say that women often excelled in traditionally-taught martial arts because they matched so well the smaller, less muscular man for whom the arts were originally designed. Western men tended to rely on their size and strength, where women, like my 67-year old sensei, had to rely on skill, and guile.
Okay, so we can deal with a woman’s physique, we can make her into a believable killing machine. “STOP!” many will say. Women aren’t killers, they’re nurturers, loving, caring givers. (To which I say, “Have you met my mother?” But that’s another story). As far as I’m concerned, the nurturing thing is as much a social cliché (or cultural brand, if you prefer) as the idea that poison is a woman’s weapon. It’s far more accurate to say that, with regard to either nurturing or poisoning, some do, and some don’t.
So what does this mean when it comes to creating the personality of a strong, female S&S protagonist? Well, for one thing I don’t have to make her a mother, or a big sister – though I could if I wanted to. But surely there’s some way that male and female people actually differ? In the same way that men and women have hardwired physical differences, don’t they have hardwired personality differences, that have to be taken into account when creating any female character? I think so. In the same way that women are, generally speaking, smaller, less muscled, and have a higher tolerance for pain, they are, (according to some studies), better communicators, more analytical, with a stronger sense of community, and more likely to take the long view. Yes, I know we all know people of whom this isn’t true (please see above reference to my mother). Social training can enhance or suppress these traits, but the point is that, generally speaking, the traits are there.
So I can make my protagonist, Dhulyn Wolfshead, a finely trained and highly skilled Mercenary, with a life membership in a society that’s a cross between the Samurai and the Musketeers. A person who would have no hesitation to kill if she found it necessary, but who makes sure that she does find it necessary. She can be a great strategist, a good teacher, but is really only fond of her own Partner, and her fellow Mercenaries. Of people in general, she hasn’t a great opinion. But that might be because she reads a lot.
But wait a minute. What was that about social training? It’s been safe to say that how women are seen/see themselves is pretty much a function of how their society sees them. And that’s a big shovelful of help to a writer like me. Because it means that all I have to do to make my female protagonist realistic and consistent, is create a society that accepts her the way I want her to be. And since I’m already creating a society anyway . . . .

I’ve been noodling around with this idea for a while, and since we’re off to Immortal Confusion later this week, it’s popped up again. Here’s what I’ve been thinking: a lot of the problems people have been complaining about in the last year or so with respect to public behaviours might be solved if we went back to observing some of the old rules of etiquette.

Any group I’m in, I’m usually the one who gets asked things like “Is this my napkin?” or, “What do I do with this fork?” This happens because most of my friends know that I’ve made a study of etiquette – though I admit that it’s always been for the entertainment value. Lately, however, I’m finding it’s a subject I’m taking more and more seriously.

We all have a tendency to dismiss the idea of etiquette as something outmoded that only deals with silly things like forks. We forget that it began by making clear that you don’t use my knife, and I don’t use yours. Not because I don’t want your germs, but because you shouldn’t touch another person’s weapons, even if she’s only using them to eat with just now.

In other words, it’s all about behaviours, not utensils.

Let’s take something that’s worrying a lot of people just now. When is it all right to touch another person? And no, I’m not talking about family members, medical situations, emergencies, etc. I’m talking about the category generally known as “acquaintance” (for what constitutes an acquaintance, precisely, look to a future blog). I don’t think there’s anyone out there who hasn’t been touched by someone when they didn’t want to be. So the first question is, how do we know someone wants or doesn’t want to be touched? And the second is, what do we do about it?

Someone once asked my favourite etiquette guru, Miss Manners, “When do I shake a woman’s hand?” Her answer: “When she puts out her hand to be shaken.”

Do you follow? Essentially there’s two clear messages here. The first is that what the toucher wants, or what he/she thinks should happen, doesn’t control what happens. It’s all the touchee’s decision. Your need/right to hug someone stops at their desire not to be hugged. Same as my right to punch you stops a centimetre from your nose. The second message? Watch for your signals.

Okay, I hear you asking me, but how do we know which is the toucher, and which the touchee? Here’s how it breaks down: between a man and a woman, the woman; between an adult/older person and a child/younger person, the child; between a teacher and a student, the student (okay, not in martial arts, but those disciplines have their own etiquette); between a host and a guest, the guest. In any situation where there is an imbalance, the person who because of size, strength, age, experience, or degree of comfort in this location is the more vulnerable – that one is the touchee.

If you’re the toucher, and you’d like to touch someone, wait for your signal. If the touchee puts out his hand, or lifts his arms slightly for a hug, or touches you first, then go ahead. If they don’t, then you don’t. It’s that simple. The touchee calls the shots. What if you’d both like to touch, there’s no apparent imbalance, and you’re each waiting for the other one to go first, and no one does? Well, gee, is that such a tragedy? It’ll kill you to keep your hands to yourself?

But what if one of you decides to test the water? What does the other one do? Well, if you really don’t mind, you can touch back. But say you do mind. Say that, like me, you just don’t like to be touched by someone you don’t know well, regardless of how famously you’re getting along? Well, etiquette states that it’s impolite to correct people, and that does seem to imply that you have to suffer in silence. But it aint necessarily so.

The whole point of etiquette is to minimize discomfort. So in this situation you can and should speak up. What you don’t say is “you shouldn’t touch people you don’t know well.” What you do say is some variation on, “I don’t like to be touched by people I don’t know well, thanks for respecting that.” Their momentary discomfort is more than outweighed by their knowledge that they’re not causing you any further discomfort. And if there’s the added benefit that this person may be more careful with others? Bonus!

Closing thought. What about the people who say, “But I don’t feel like doing this, people shouldn’t be so stuffy and I should be able to do what I want.” Well my dear, here’s the first rule of etiquette club: It’s not about you.

Gonna Roll the Bones

December 14, 2012

About a year ago I read a book called The Desert of Souls, by Howard Andrew Jones. I’d happened to be on a panel with Howard at Confusion in Troy, Michigan, and it turned out that we read the same kind of books (big fans of Fritz Leiber), and thought the same way on many subjects, so naturally, I picked up his book as soon as I could.

By the way, this is what all authors hope will happen, when they go to cons. We hope that through some mystical combination of erudition, wit, charm, cleverness, and sparkling personality, we form the kind of connection with others in the room that makes them go “Huh. I think I’d like her books; I should buy one.”

But back to Desert of Souls. I’m going to say very simply that I loved the book. It has everything that I require to enjoy a book thoroughly, and then some. First, it’s sword and sorcery, my own preferred genre. Second, it features (as most S&S novels do) a pair of adventurers (the scholar Dabir and the guard captain Asim) each brilliant in their own completely different way. For me there was actually a flavour of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin – the intellectual and the man of action, coming together to form the perfect campaigning duo.

I’m not going to tell you what happens in the book (an adventure, of course), but I will tell you the other witty, charming, clever and sparkling component of it: it’s set in the world of the Arabian Nights. That’s right, not an invented, pseudo-middle eastern world, but the actual world as depicted in the Thousand Nights and a Night. So, Howard’s at once armed himself with something that his readers will find familiar, and made things harder on himself by using a setting that’s so well known he can’t really mess with it. And did I mention that the Arabian Nights is one of my very favourite story cycles?

So, let’s see, everything that I require: sword and sorcery, check. Interesting duo, check. Setting I know and love, check. Oh, did I mention a strong female character, Sabirah? Check.

But Violette, you say. What does this have to do with bones? Simple. The new Dabir and Asim adventure, The Bones of the Old Ones was launched this week, and my copy’s already on its way from my brother’s book store. Like all good S&S books, this one stands alone, so you won’t have to read Desert first. But that’s okay, because you’ll want to read it after.

Oh, and here’s Howard’s website, where you can read excerpts: http://www.howardandrewjones.com

 

November 28, 2012

Point of View . . .  with Attitude

 

Writers pay a lot of attention to point of view – so much so, we even have a short form for it (POV). You can find endless discussions on the use of first or third person, limited or omniscient, single POVs or multiples, and so on. But when people, even writers, say something like “It depends on your point of view”, what they mean is perspective – and as the half-full-vs-half-empty crowd can tell you, perspective is everything.

 

Perspective is all about your attitude, and as such I think it touches on narrative voice more than anything else. NV covers a different set of questions from POV: How old is your narrator? How learned? How would they express themselves? And ultimately, how do they relate to the world? What’s their view of it? Are they Tiggers? Or are they Eeyores?

 

When I was in university, sitting around in the bar, we used to play a kind of word association game we called “Happy or Unhappy?” or sometimes “Lucky or Unlucky?” (Aside: the constant mention of bars in my remarks isn’t to be taken as evidence that we drink a lot; it’s evidence that we like to hang around in bars). Though many of the people at the table didn’t realize it, this game is similar to the old “Feathers or Lead?” riddle found in Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal. You would point at someone and ask the question, which they had to answer immediately, without lengthy thought or consideration. In Zelazny’s story it was a life or death riddle – in our game it was meant to tell you something about yourself.

 

It might be useful to play this game with your own characters. After all, each of them, whether a POV character or not, needs to have their own attitude, their own perspective, their own view of their relationship with the world, which would come out in how they express themselves. Point at each of your characters and ask them, “Lucky or unlucky?” “Happy or unhappy?”

 

Make sure all your characters, don’t answer the same way. Because they shouldn’t. And make sure they stay consistent. Because lucky people can have unlucky days, and vice versa. Their attitude will stay the same. Unhappy people can’t be made happy for more than a short period of time, and then it wears off – and don’t we all know someone like that?

 

I know there are nuances, but I’m focussing here on a character’s fundamental attitude because I think it colours everything else about them. After all, can misanthropes think of themselves as happy? Lucky?  

 

A couple of final remarks about playing the game in real life: for one, people can only answer the question honestly the first time (if at all). After that, they’re ready for it. For another, it’s interesting how many people are genuinely surprised by their own responses – people who said “Happy” when they didn’t consciously think of themselves as happy types, or say “Unlucky” when they gave off an “I’m real lucky” vibe. Sometimes they surprised themselves, and sometimes they surprised their friends. Try it yourself . . . later, when you haven’t been giving it too much thought.

November 21, 2012

THE NEXT BIG THING?

 A couple of weeks ago my friend the mystery writer Vicki Delany invited me to participate in The Next Big Thing Blog Series, which would involve my answering a set of questions. Unlike most writers, who are shy, and reserved, and shun the spotlight, I love to talk about myself and my work, so I was happy to jump in.

You’ll find Vicki’s blog post for the series at http://klondikeandtrafalgar.blogspot.com If you haven’t read any of Vicki’s work, I particularly recommend her Constable Molly Smith books, police procedurals with a Canadian twist.

And now, to me.

What is the working title of your book?

What I’m working on right now is the first volume of a two-book series. The working title for the series is Halls of Law. We’re still kicking around the title for the first book. I’d tell you some of the rejects, but that would be too embarrassing.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

I’m a big crime show fan, so I started wondering what a CSI program would be like if the CSIs were psychics. What would their lives be like? How would people know they could be trusted? That made me think of the Brother Cadfael books; what if the psychics lived in a kind of monastery set up? At first I thought this could be a series of crime stories with a fantasy twist, but I realized the cases would be solved pretty quickly, so I put the idea aside for a while. Then I started to think about what kind of problems such a group might have, and that led me to shift the story to an epic fantasy setting.

What genre does your book fall under?

I guess I’ve already given away that it’s epic fantasy. Which makes it a Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones type of thing, rather than a True Blood/Harry Potter type of thing.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie version?

This is the first time I can’t actually answer this question. I often think of actors when I’m deciding what my characters should look like, but this time I used family members and, believe it or not, other fictional characters. Tel Cursar, the young male lead, for example, I imagined as a young Travis McGee, as John D. MacDonald describes him.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of the book?

Kerida Nast, a psychic in training, is forced to run for her life when her country is invaded by people who think psychics are witches and must be exterminated.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My publisher is DAW Books (http://www.dawbooks.com), and my agent is Joshua Bilmes of the JABberwocky Literary agency (http://www/awfulagent.com)

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

The idea’s been kicking around for quite a while, as you know from what I’ve already said. I’m still writing the first draft, but I expect it to be done by the end of the month, so altogether it’s been about eight months.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Now this is tricky, considering that we’re talking about a fantasy novel that was inspired by a crime show. The closest I can think of is Barbara Hambly’s early work The Darwath Trilogy, and its later follow-ups Mother of  Winter and Icefalcon’s Quest; and for something more recent, Robin Hobbs Farseer Trilogy, and its follow-up, the Tawny Man Trilogy.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Did I leave anything out of my CSI explanation?

What else about your book might pique the interest of readers?

Let’s see. One of the books I used for research was The Complete Roman Army, by Adrian Goldsworthy. My friend Paul Weimer recommended it to me, and it proved to be just the thing for helping me set up my socio-political structure. The only other thing I can think of is that the books will be coming out under a pseudonym, V.M. Escalada. They’re a bit of a departure for me, as the characters are younger than I usually write about, so my publisher is going to do a different kind of marketing thing for them. Though I suppose it’s actually a little misleading to call it a pseudonym, as Violette Malan Escalada is my legal name in Spain, where everyone has two last names.  

And now for some recommendations, personally selected by me. Here are five authors who’ll be participating in the Next Big Thing Blog Series next week. So far I’ve only mentioned crime writers (okay, one living and one dead), and now’s the time for fantasy writers. Check them out, you won’t be sorry.

Alex Bledsoe                          http://www.alexbledsoe.com

Elaine Cunningham                 http://www.elainecunningham.com

John R. Fultz                           http://www.johnrfultz.wordpress.com

Dave Gross                             http://www.frabjousdave.blogspot.com

Howard Andrew Jones           http://www.howardandrewjones.com

 

 

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