Thursday, September 18, 2014

Kim Rendfeld Interprets Saxon History in THE ASHES OF HEAVEN'S PILLAR

One of the greatest challenges facing a historical novelist is choosing what information to use from a sea of research. But just as tricky is wanting to find out about a historical event or place and discovering that almost nothing is known about it for sure. Kim Rendfeld dealt with both of these situations as she wrote her latest novel.

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What Was the Real Pillar of Heaven?

By Kim Rendfeld

The title for The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar is derived from the Irminsul, a pillar sacred to the Continental Saxon peoples, including my heroine, Leova. The one thing we know with certainty: Charlemagne ordered its destruction in 772 and took the gold and silver in its temple.

The nature and location of the Irminsul is uncertain—as is whether it was the only one. Some sources say it was a stone pillar, others say wooden pillar, and still others say it was a tree. It’s been described as having an idol of the war god atop it. Because of the presence of a carving, some have placed it at the Externsteine, north of the Saxon fortress Eresburg.

We can’t turn to the pagan Saxons for any clarity. They did not have a written language as we know it, and the Church did everything it could to obliterate a religion it considered devil worship.

So what’s a historical novelist to do with so many contradictions? Choose the most plausible version that best fits her story and confess her liberties in an author’s note. Or a blog post.

My first liberty is to call the Irminsul the Pillar of Heaven. Irminsul is often translated as “universal pillar.” I chose Pillar of Heaven in my novel because frankly it sounds better. And Wodan, the war god whose idol might have surmounted the pillar, was a sky god, so the Pillar of Heaven is not too much of a stretch.

Next was the location. Leova lives in a village just outside the fortress of Eresburg. Having it nearby allowed her to smell the smoke when it burned and see the charred blotch it left behind. It made the loss more real and more devastating.

Flames are a dramatic form of destruction, which is why I decided the pillar should be made of wood. To the Continental Saxons, the Irminsul’s destruction was the equivalent of burning a cathedral. Did the Saxons believe anyone who desecrated their sacred monument would face the gods’ wrath? Again, there is no text to verify it. But this was age that believed in divine favor and retribution, so that idea passes the plausibility test.

From a storyteller’s point of view, actual facts about the Irminsul are not as important as its impact on the characters. And in this case, Leova’s faith is shaken, as you will see in the excerpt below.



“I greet you in the name of Our Lord, Jesus the Christ,” he roared. “My name is Father Osbald. We come in peace and mean you no harm.”

By his accent, Leova knew the priest was a Saxon from Britain, like many of the other priests who had come to her village. They were mild men bearing treats for the children along with the teachings of their odd religion.

“But the God who destroyed the Irminsul will strike down anyone who harms us,” the priest said. “The sound of our horn will summon scores of Christian soldiers to our aid.”

From the corner of her eye, Leova saw Wulfgar and Ludgar shrinking back. Perhaps, the Christian God was stronger than the gods of the Saxons.

“We will give safe conduct to Eresburg to anyone who promises to accept baptism,” Osbald continued.

Wulfgar’s voice boomed. “How can you give safe conduct? You are not warriors.”

“We do not need swords and armor when we have the power of the one, true God. The Frankish soldiers know God will condemn their souls to eternal torture if they harm anyone in our care.”

Osbald spoke Saxon, but Leova could not understand half of what he was saying. From the confidence in his voice, Leova surmised the Christian God had given His priests magic power, enough to cow warriors into submission. How she needed safe conduct to the fortress—and Derwine!

“What is baptism?” Leova asked.

“You vow to follow Christ, forsaking your devils, and He cleanses you of your sins,” the priest replied.

“Do we have to shave our hair in that strange way?” Sunwynn asked.

“No, child.” Osbald chuckled. “The tonsure is an honor reserved only for men of the clergy.”

Baptism appealed to Leova. She suspected the conquerors would be more generous with those who shared their religion. Maybe it was fate to follow a stronger God. The Saxon gods had allowed the Irminsul to be destroyed, Leodwulf and Derwine to die, and Eresburg to be conquered by foreigners. Despite her sacrifices and prayers, the Saxon gods had betrayed her and her family!

“I and my children accept your offer,” Leova called to the Christian priest, “but we will attend to our dead first.”
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To read the first chapter or find out more about Kim Renfield, visit her website, her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist, or like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld.

You can purchase The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar at Amazon and Barnes & Noble and elsewhere.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Sherry Peters sends teen girls a positive message, but through a dwarf's eyes

Some of the greatest speculative fiction contains serious analysis of very real, contemporary human problems, offered up with a magical or surreal twist. My guest, Sherry Peters, tells just such a parable in her novel Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf.

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An Ideal Dwarf

by Sherry Peters

I want to thank Anne for giving me this opportunity to share with you the origins of my new novel Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf.

Sophia Vargara was put on a pedastal during the most recent Emmy broadcast so that the audience had something (the president of the Television Academy did say something, not someone) intriguing to look at. Our young girls are under growing pressure to sext their boyfriends or even boys they like in hopes of getting some kind of attention. Teens are committing suicide after relentless bullying because they are gay, or overweight, or different. Many of us feel like we need to do and exceptional and perfect and if we aren't, no one could possibly love us. 

These kinds of pressures have always existed. They seem to have multiplied and intensified in the last number of years. Even as there is a growing emphasis on tolerance, there seems to be a polarization toward increased discrimination.

And that polarization, that increased pressure, upsets me.

I'm a big believer in story being a way to look differently at important social and political issues. When I started writing about Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf, I spent a lot of time thinking about what life would be like as a female dwarf. The more I thought about it, the more the social issues became clear. I also saw how I could shed a new light on those issues while using humor. I wanted to write a story where the main character has a happy ending, but it isn't in finding love or losing weight or getting the promotion at work. I wanted the happy ending to come from within--from self-acceptance and self-love.

I started with the tropes that I'd seen in so much epic Fantasy, both in books and the movies, like the ever-present enchanting female elf, the female dwarves with beards, mining gems of all sorts from one mountain, and I played with them, turned them around or exaggerated them. I used them to my advantage and created the perfect world for a character who didn't fit in.

In Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf, females make up less than a third of the population. They are the ones responsible for procreation. But just like the rest of us, they have to look a certain way too, they need to be stout and they need to have full beards.

So what if Mabel decided she didn't want a life-mate or to have dwarflings? What if she wasn't as stout or her beard wasn't as thick as was considered attractive? She's stuck trying desperately to conform to what her family and community expects of her, knowing that her true happiness and finding the place she belongs, lies somewhere else. No spoilers, but there comes a point where she has to choose.

I've just released Mabel, and so far reception has been positive. My hope is that at least one person who reads Mabel is given hope that there are others out there like them, who don't conform to society's standards, that they are wonderful and deserving of love--be it from family and friends or a significant someone--and happiness, just as they are. My hope is that at least one girl who reads Mabel stops pressuring herself to starve herself to look a certain way, or to sext a boy just to feel acceptable. My hope is that our young people and adults alike, will accept themselves and find others who accept them for who they are, regardless of appearance, profession, or any number of social constructs we use to discriminate against.

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You can learn more about Sherry Peters on her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

You can purchase Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and elsewhere.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Maggie Hogarth: Creating children's books as a mother-daughter project

Today's guest is Maggie Hogarth, an experienced author (as MCA Hogarth) who recently jumped into the deep end of the kidlit pool, self-publishing her first works for children. She shares her very personal story:

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              "I'd like to write an adventure for Vinny the armadillo," I say to Daughter of her new plush toy. We are in the car, driving home from her grandmother's house. "What should I write?"
                Daughter, who is six, says with enthusiasm, "He can go to the sea! And meet a shark! And the shark can eat him!"
                "But if a shark eats him, there won't be any more stories!" I say. "Besides, I'd like him to learn something in these books. How not to be eaten by sharks isn't a lesson most children need to learn."
                "How about Vinny climbs a telephone pole and can't get down!"
                "All right," I say, trying to work with this. "Then what happens?"
                "And then he falls down and dies!" she finishes gleefully.
                "That's a horrible ending!" I say, and she's already giggling, so I start laughing too. "Besides, what's the message there?"
                "You shouldn't climb up places you can't climb down from."
                I can't disagree with this, but I find myself explaining the concept of reader expectations, and what will happen to Mommy if she writes a book for first-graders that involves the hospitalization of armadillos after all the appalled parents find Mommy's email address.

                Later, I am working on art for Vinny the Armadillo Makes a Friend when she finds me at the kitchen table. I decide to apply for her opinion. "Do you think I should put the unicorn on the cover, or would that spoil the surprise?"
                "I think it would spoil the surprise," Daughter says. "Besides, if you put a unicorn on the cover, boys won't read it."
                "What?" I say, startled into looking up from my sketchbook.
                "Boys don't like unicorns," says Daughter firmly. "They think they're too girly."
                "Even my unicorns?" I say. "My unicorns live in swamps! They have gnarled old horns like the roots of mangrove trees! Moss grows in their manes!"
                "Boys won't buy it. Sorry, Mommy," she tells me, and pats me on the shoulder sympathetically before skipping off to play.


Of all the things I anticipated when deciding to write a chapter book, the one thing I didn't was how much fun my daughter would have walking through the process with me. I normally write for adults—science fiction and fantasy novels and business nonfiction—a process that she knows only as "Mommy stands at a computer and says she's working." For the first time, I was able to expose the inner workings of Mommy's job to her in a way that allowed her to participate. I was surprised at her enthusiasm during every stage of the book's creation, even for the strange minutia, like checking the galleys and making decisions about margin size and font choice. When I finally handed her the Real Live Book, she was as excited as if we'd performed magic. From the intangible discussion we'd had in the car about her new stuffed animal, we'd created a physical object her friends could now buy from the bookstore.

Self-publishing a chapter book was probably not the wisest financial decision I've ever made. Selling children's fiction without traditional publishing's conduits into school and library systems is (at this point) a near non-starter. But getting to hear my daughter's ideas on story, art, and marketing, and seeing the excitement in her eyes when she paged through the final copy, was worth it. Vinny the Armadillo, and my Laundry Dragons, might never make us more than a little grocery money, but we'll both be able to say, one day, "We did that together."

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Learn more about Maggie Hogarth on her website.

Purchase Vinny the Armadillo and the Laundry Dragons books on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Daphne Benedis-Grab lets a passion for Christmas inspire her fiction

The leaves are changing already. Kids are going back to school. Before you know it, boom!, the winter holidays are upon us. Today's guest, Daphne Benedis-Grab, definitely has a little Christmas in her heart. She shares it with readers in her upcoming middle-grade book, The Angel Tree. Please pass the gingerbread.

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Write what you love.  It’s classic fiction writing advice, advice I’ve been given and given to others countless
times.  And though it may be cliché, I think it’s some of the best writing wisdom there is.  A case in point, my upcoming book, The Angel Tree.  This book is bursting with things I am passionate about, that I adore thinking and thus writing about, and it made every step of the very challenging process of writing and editing a manuscript so much easier, because every time I went back to the story I was diving back into things I love.  Such as:

Christmas, of course!  I’ve been nuts about Christmas since I was little.  Yes, the gifts are a part of it, a lovely part, but they really aren’t the point.  To me it’s the feeling of Christmas, the spirit as it were, and all the ways, big and little, we honor it.  For our family it starts with the tree, picking it out, setting it up and then the ritual of decorating it with ornaments bought and made over the years, each with its own story and memory.  Then there’s the music- I have a crazy big collection of Christmas carols and they bring me such joy.  There are the parties, friends coming together and catching up- that is such fun.  And then there are Christmas movies and TV shows, like Elf and Rudolph, that are magic each and every year.  Another essential part of Christmas?  The food.  Which is another thing I’m passionate about so it gets its own section.

Years ago friends started telling me that reading my manuscripts made them hungry.  I delight in describing food I love.  Usually that means sweet things- in The Angel Tree one of my favorite scenes involves fresh cinnamon doughnuts.  But I have almost as much fun detailing a really rich lasagna or a fresh peach.  Food is a pleasure to eat and it is a pleasure to write about.

There are a lot of other things I loved writing about in The Angel Tree- quirks certain characters have that resonate for me, the dog, Valentine- I love animals and love writing about them!  But bigger than that is friendship and people overcoming hardship.  We all have journeys in our lives, times when we struggle and those moments where we connect deeply with others.  Creating those moments for characters is incredibly satisfying; challenging but worth it when an arc holds together in a meaningful way from start to finish.

So when people ask, I will keep giving them the same advice: write what you love.  Yes it might be cliché but the thing about this cliché?  It works!

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Learn more about Daphne Benedis-Grab on her website.

You can purchase The Angel Tree at Indiebound and on Amazon

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Katrina Archer on lying, being valued, and the fear of being UNTALENTED

What if staying alive required having one special skill that was highly enough valued by society to make you worth keeping? Katrina Archer's YA novel, Untalented, explores that premise. And it doesn't take the easy way out. Katrina stopped by to discuss her challenging book.

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Hi Anne, thanks for inviting me to your blog today!
Untalented tells the story of Saroya, a young orphan who finds herself without a Talent in a world where Talent is everything. The core premise came to me after a specific incident in my engineering career: a manager of mine told me I would need to specialize in one key area of focus, or risk devaluing my career. I balked at that: I’m a dabbler at heart, and have always had a wide range of interests that span both the sciences and the arts. I have a short attention span, and get easily bored if I’m not constantly learning new things.
But I wondered: what would a society look like that only valued specialists? What if they’d taken that concept to such an extreme that they’d created a caste system around it? And what would happen to someone in that culture who simply could not specialize? That society is the Kingdom of Veyle, in which we find Saroya, the heroine of Untalented.
The thing is, Saroya knows, deep down in her bones, that she’s not useless. But her society won’t let her prove that to them. She’s cast out of her home, and denied work in the rigidly controlled Guilds of Veyle. So what does she do to survive? She lies. She lies about what she is, she lies about her credentials, and ultimately, she lies to herself about the true extent of her skills.
My family motto is “Sola bona quae honesta”, or roughly, “Only that which is honest is good”. It became an interesting character study for me to deal with someone who must lie to survive, but a great source of conflict, because Saroya’s falsehoods wind up losing her some of her only allies. She lies so much that she finds herself in a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” situation: nobody wants to believe that an Untalented girl might be able to save the capital city from looming calamity, and she’s alienated the only people who might have helped her.
The truth about who Saroya is also has scandalous implications that could bring down the leadership of Veyle, and discovering that truth leads to one of her most difficult choices. Only by being truly honest with herself can Saroya come to terms with who she is and claim her heritage. But by the time she learns that lesson, she’s been squeezed into a corner by the people who will benefit most from preserving their own lies.
Because I don’t see things in rigid shades of black and white, Untalented explores some moral grey areas. Being true to yourself and the people you care about always means telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But sometimes unselfish honesty’s about more than just not lying.
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Learn more about Katrina Archer at Follower her on Twitter @katrinaarcher.
Untalented is available for Kindle and in other editions. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Cupid, Kidlit, and Comics. Oh, My!

It's been a while since I posted an update on my own publications. (Letting other authors tell us about their work is just too much fun!) But I do have a few pieces of news:

1. ROMANTIC RUCKUS. My LGBT mad-scientist sci-fi romance, "The Love Gun," is included in this collection of crazy tales about every imaginable kind of love gone wrong, published by Strange Musings Press. Buy Romantic Ruckus in both e-book and print editions.

2. 2014 YOUNG EXPLORER'S ADVENTURE GUIDE. I'm particularly pleased to have my middle-grade sci-fi story, "Standing Up," included in this anthology. It's about a differently-abled girl who isn't sure she wants to be normal. Or even human! The team behind Dreaming Robot Press has a wonderful view of the potential for science fiction to open young minds. You can hear about their philosophy and also back this worthy project on their Kickstarter page.

3. FrostFire Worlds, from Alban Lake Publishing, has purchased the third story in my series about the dragon Koob and her human daughter, Akilah. (Want to know how a dragon can have a human daughter? Read the series!) "Song from Silence" will run in the August, 2014 FrostFire Worlds.

4. Prose comics! I can't tell you much about this yet, but it's too awesome not to mention. I've been commissioned to write some novelettes and short stories for adults over the next couple of years. They will be heavily illustrated by an astonishingly talented artist, who is also coming up with the basic concepts and characters from which I will build the stories. Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Rerun Greats: Rhys Hughes Defines Magic Realism

One of this blog's first guests was the speculative author Rhys Hughes. I thought I'd rerun his wonderful essay on magical realism. Enjoy!

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Magic Realism (A Personal View)
by Rhys Hughes

The term 'Magic Realism' is a mysterious one and I am frequently asked to explain what it means. The truth is that it's a vague term and has many precise definitions, which perhaps is the same as saying it has no precise definition at all. My response is to shrug and simply say, "It's fantasy that isn't fantasy." But that's really quite unhelpful, especially as 'fantasy' itself is a vague term that encompasses an enormous range of styles and subject matter. 'Magic realism' isn't a genre, but it is possible to talk about it as a type of fiction with a distinctive flavour.
There are certain basic qualities that can be called 'magic realist' that one doesn't usually find in conventional fantasy. A writer of fantasy will often try to create a place or a time that may or may not have parallels with the place and time we currently live in, but generally that invented world isn't supposed to be our world. Even if the fantasy story is set in what seems to be everyday life, sooner or later some incident will occur, an intrusion of the supernatural, that ultimately demonstrates that the fantasy world isn't reality as we truly know it. In such stories, all the magic might be said to be external. It comes from outside.

In magic realism, on the other hand, the magic is mostly internal. A writer who is a magic realist rarely invents new worlds but uses this world as a stage, and yet he or she doesn't write about how life actually is but how it sometimes feels. So magic realism tends to be an emotionally based style of writing, rather than intellectually, politically or philosophically based. The prose tends to be 'hot', 'sultry' and 'tropical'. It uses exaggeration and overstatement to present the subjective worldviews of the characters and these subjective worldviews will often interact and influence each other. It is safe to say that understatement has little place in magic realism.

The most famous magic realist novel is undoubtedly still Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. There is a character in that book who is fatally shot. In a realistic story the wound might be described accurately; in magic realism it is described symbolically. We are told that the character’s blood “came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlour, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining-room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta's chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread.”

This doesn’t mean that the blood really travelled so far, but that the emotional shock of the character’s death was so great that it felt as if his blood was seeking out witnesses to the deed. Magic realism makes very heavy use of symbolism. Every significant event is a symbol or extended metaphor, but even though those events are determined by a literal application of feeling, they are also presented in a deadpan style. So if someone is deliriously happy they might start flying, but nobody around them will comment on this miracle, even if they notice it, because the flying takes place on the inside.

To redefine your own life in magic realist terms you merely have to turn every emotion you experience into a concrete symbol or action. Jumping for joy can now result in leaping over the moon or stars, but don't forget the cosmic ramifications that will follow; being sad might result in floods of tears powerful enough to destroy cities; anger may topple mountains and cause earthquakes. None of this is objectively real but subjectively it is exactly what happens to all of us during the process of living.

I now expect to be told that my understanding of magic realism is wrong, for it is a style of fiction that has many advocates with opposing views as to its real meaning and significance. The best magical realists were either unaware they were writing magic realism, or else they disowned the label when it was applied to their own work, yet it's generally accepted that the original magic realist was Alejo Carpentier. Other Latin American writers evolved the form. Frustrated with the cool rationality and understatement of most Western fiction, they injected colour, vibrancy, mythology and a passion for coincidence, implausibility and hyperbole into their prose.

The heyday of Latin American magic realism was in the 1960s and 1970s. With a few exceptions the style didn’t really catch on in the English-speaking world until the 1980s, and then, for some reason, magic realist novels suddenly flooded the bookstores of Britain and the USA. Back then it was possible for the most difficult magic realists to be translated into English and published by major houses. I remember working my bemused but enthralled way through Mario Satz’s Sol, a book that probably wouldn’t be published now except by a small independent publisher. But an enthusiasm for this kind of literature soon spread to other continents and some of the most accomplished magic realism now comes from Africa, the Middle East, India, and even further afield. Here is a short list of my own personal favourite books in this genre that isn't a genre…

Alvaro Mutis, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll
Mia Couto, Under the Frangipani
Isabel Allende, Eva Luna
Githa Hariharan, When Dreams Travel
Mario Vargas Llosa, The War of the End of the World
Felipe Alfau, Chromos
Amin Maalouf, Leo the African
Cabrera Infante, Three Trapped Tigers
Jorge Amado, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands
Gina B. Nahai, Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith
Fazil Iskander, Sandro of Chegem
Manuel Mujica Lainez, The Wandering Unicorn
Witold Gombrowicz, Ferdydurke
Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The General in his Labyrinth

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Learn all about Rhys Hughes on his website.
Rhys is very prolific. His most recent books include Bottled Love Story, Rhysop's Fables, and The Sticky Situations of Zwicky Fingers.