Thursday, July 17, 2014

Writing Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn (Part 2 of 2: Co-author Day Al-Mohamed)

Last week I welcomed Danielle Ackley-McPhail to discuss her re-thinking of the classic tale "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves". Now it's time to hear the perspective of her co-author, Day Al-Mohamed. Welcome, Day!

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Diversity and Writing the Neutral that Never Was
by Day Al-Mohamed

Several years ago, I wrote a story with a Chicano protagonist.  I submitted it to my writing group and the first comment I received was, “Why did you make him Hispanic?”  It actually came from several people with the intimation that “adding race” was unnecessary.  At the time, I was taken aback.  The only answer I had was: Because I wanted to. There has been a significant increase in the push for greater diversity in speculative fiction.  #WeNeedDiverseBooks has some great articles, and I strongly advocate reading some of those written by N.K. Jemisin or the ever awesome Daniel Jose Older.

Today, I don’t want to talk about diversity on a personal level, and trust me as an LGBT woman of color with a disability, it doesn’t get much more personal.  But it is also a professional issue that should be addressed by authors.  If you were to ask me (and this was a question I received from a recent convention panel): Do I think writers have an obligation to write diversely?  I would say, “Yes.”  Immediately, people bristle at being told they should do something, and get worried about writing something they are not, getting it wrong, tokenism, cultural appropriation etc. but let me explain.

Writers have an obligation to build fully realized worlds, and yes, that means diverse worlds. Look around.  In a single day, how many women do you meet? How many people of other races, nationalities, religions, sexual orientations, or disabilities do you see? How often do we see signs or menus or television programming in other languages?  How many expressions of faith do we come across? What about unique ways of dressing or speaking?  If this world has so much diversity, then so should those worlds we create. It isn’t just about diverse writing but about good writing.

When we’re young and when we first start writing, without meaning to, we’re taught to write to the default.  What’s worse, we’re taught to think to the default and that default is white, male, and heterosexual.  Let me give you a recent example. In the current World Cup excitement we heard commentators, regularly referring to Landon Donovan as the "all-time U.S. leading goal scorer." He has 57 international goals. The all-time U.S. leading goal scorer is Abby Wambach, with 167 goals. The second highest scorer is Mia Hamm at 158 goals, followed by Kristine Lilly who, at 130 goals has more than doubled Donovan’s scoring. Notice something? They’re all women.  When we talk and think about the sport, the “neutral” is men’s. 

Valerie Alexander in her recent article gives another example: “When Sonia Sotomayor was being confirmed for the Supreme Court, members of Congress repeatedly asked her (repeatedly) if, as a Latina, she would be able to remain neutral. I don't recall ever in the history of confirmation hearings, anyone asking, "As a white male, do you think you'll be able to remain neutral when deciding issues of law?"” Here, the neutral is Caucasian.

And yes, as writers we fall into this default thinking too. We write the default.  And just like my writing group, whether they meant it or not, we feel like we have to have some reason, or qualification for the character to be something other than the default. Why does the character have a disability? What is the significance of their race? Because it makes them who they are.  Shouldn’t we want wonderful complex characters who interact with their society from a variety of feelings, thoughts, and identities?  Shouldn’t we want a richer world with the complicated push-pull of politics, religion, race, culture? The default can make for a good story, diversity will make for a great one.  
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You can learn more about Day Al-Mohamed on her website.

You can purchase Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and other retailers.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Writing Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn (Part 1 of 2: Co-Author Danielle Ackley-McPhail)

We've got a two-week special going on! The two authors of Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn will be my guests this week and next, respectively. Today I welcome Danielle Ackley-McPhail, who talks about the crossing of cultures she experienced in researching and writing this story.

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It may seem odd to have a steam adventure couched in the desert, among nomads and a people long known for their faith and a belief in magic. Quite a challenge, in fact, to meld so many different threads: history, engineering, magic, and the Islamic culture. What could they possibly have in common, after all?

You would be surprised.

Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn began—rather naïvely—as a short story based on the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, meant for the upcoming anthology Gaslight and Grimm (Dark Quest Books). Because I always strive for authenticity and did not have much knowledge of the culture and tradition of the Middle East—beyond a familiarity with one variation of the tale itself—I enlisted the help of my friend, Day Al-Mohamed, who quickly became my co-author. Between us we used our knowledge, experience, and a good deal of research to find the right details to seed our story with to create an alternate Saudi Desert fitting to the tale we wanted to tell, where the magical and the mechanical co-existed and reason and faith mirrored one another in an intricate dance.

By taking historic references—such as Charles Babbage’s work shop and Al-Jazari’s The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices and building the story around them we captured the essence of another era, grounded it in fact, and then made it our own. Thanks to resources on the internet we were able to draw on mechanical puzzle boxes, Egyptian stick fighting (dancing), early airship designs, and Persian dynastic history, all of which fed life into our tale, along with an echo of reality that makes “what if” plausible.
One of my covert ways of enriching this tale could have only been accomplished via the internet. Names have power. Names have meaning. In Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn, those names not dictated by the original tale or history also have hidden significance—unless you are conversant with the meaning of Persian/Arabic names, then they are overt. Each name was researched and chosen for a desired meaning relevant to its use.

See, as writers we build worlds and create people with our words and if we take care with our choices we do so very well. Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn has become a tale that the Western World can take up and experience a different era and an exotic culture so very different from their own, and the Middle Eastern World, or descendants of it, can pick up and see themselves, their culture and history, as everyone should be able to do from time to time.

Thank you for reading. Come back next week to hear what my co-author, Day Al-Mohamed, has to say about the multicultural aspect of our tale.

Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn Back Cover Copy

Come, Best Beloved, and sit you by my feet. I shall tell you a tale such as sister Scheherazade could have scarce imagined…
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You can learn more about Danielle Ackley-McPhail at her websites:,
You can purchase Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Blair MacGregor on writing gender equality in the fantasy genre

Traditional gender roles are hard to combat for the fiction-writer, especially in a genre like fantasy which has a long tradition of distressed damsels being captured and needing saving. Even for a writer who is aware of this problem and wants to defy it, knowing how to let the females drive the story takes a lot of thought and practice. Today's guest, Blair MacGregor, generously shares her advice.

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I've always wanted to write epic, sword and sorcery, and dark fantasy stories with female characters as central players in the plot, but my younger self lacked the greater perspective to do so with depth. I didn't understand how to build a society that permitted female characters to get on with the story rather than be sidetracked to prove relevance and competency. I lacked the experience to create characters able to interact without the trappings of gender inequality.

The Bechdel Test is a baseline, but was never meant to be more. After all, I wanted my characters to inhabit a culture that didn't use gender as its guiding measure of value, competency, and ability. In my novel-length works, I chose to focus on three primary aspects of character and culture creation to reach that goal. They aren't exclusive or exhaustive, but provided me a foundation upon which to build.

First, one woman is not enough. The solitary woman operating in a male-dominated setting often spends time and energy struggling to gain and keep respect, and the cost is often a separation (physical and/or social) from other women. It also reinforces the notion that female influencers are Rare and Special—quite the opposite of what I wanted. I needed many female characters—primary, secondary, and beyond—to balance my created world.

Second, I didn't want my female characters to need a mentor to convince them they were both worthy of their goals and able to attain them. Instead, the culture itself should be one that didn't set gender-based limits to begin with. That doesn't mean the characters don't encounter mentors. Quite the opposite. But the decisions wrestled with center on moral choices rather than barriers to acceptance. Guidance focuses on the best way to achieve goals, not whether women are deserving and capable of pursuing them.

Third, I wanted to take a step beyond character agency—that ability to make decisions and take action. Agency (and its partner, competency) are critical in the creation of likeable and robust characters, but agency and competency can be practiced in isolation. My characters had to have influence, too—the accepted and expected power to change the course of events, lead others, and face consequences. Agency alone is hollow if not coupled with influence.

So could my novels still "pass" the Bechdel Test? Ayup. A goddess and a chieftain discuss waging war. A soldier and an outcast debate the morality of power. A pair of dead warriors struggle to help an ambitious ruler. Two powerful women can't decide if they should be allies or enemies.

But—and this is just as important—the men also have conversations that aren't about men. And men and women together have conversations about men and women. Certainly the characters sometimes talk about sex and desire and relationships because that's part of the human condition. No one, however, treats them as defining parts.

Best of all, I didn't have to deliberately include those conversations because the created culture itself—filled with both women and men of agency and influence—requires them to take place.

We absolutely still need fiction that splashes glaring spotlights on gender inequality—work that provides women and girls pathways to achieve their own agency and influence in real life, and provides men and boys an understanding of the positive roles they can play in the process. But as a writer who tells stories within created worlds, I opted for a culture in which questioning gender equality would be the odd conversation rather than the norm.

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Learn more about Blair MacGregor on her website and her Amazon author page.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

K.A. Laity on Tricksters and her novel WHITE RABBIT

It's an old and widespread storytelling tradition, from African folktales to Dickens' Artful Dodger. Without tricksters, literature would be a much poorer universe. K.A. Laity shares her thoughts on why she loves this character type.

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by K.A. Laity

I’ve become immersed in the crime genre in the last few years. Although White Rabbit owes just as much to the tradition of ghost stories, it’s really the crime genre that gave it birth. I’ve always had a fascination with tricksters and confidence men, from Harry in Your Pocket to Jim Thompson’s The Grifters. Dashiell Hammett said that anyone can become adept in a day at pick pocketing, but to be a real grifter one had to be an artist.

I think that’s the appeal. I’ve always been fascinated by people who are skilled. Although I am all thumbs myself, only nimble with words (and then, only on the page) I come a family of people who are good with their hands, who can make things and fix things. My older brother is a carpenter and my younger brother a silversmith.

While I admire the skill of a smooth pickpocket, I have never been desperate enough to really want to try it. I suppose that’s lucky, but I can’t help wondering if I would really ever do it. I found a lot of sympathy for my main character in White Rabbit, Draygo, who runs a fake psychic business to make money after he loses his job.

He’s in a desperate situation, but he’s also got the compelling aspect of history: he learned the fake psychic trade from his aunt who raised him. We find out about his life with Vera in little flashbacks which give us a glimpse of the tricks of the trade, too. The room he uses for his ‘séances’ has been specially adapted, though he’s not always specific about how.

Draygo makes a point of being cynical about ‘putting on a show’ for his clients—incense and candles, florid language, and quite possibly some mechanicals under the table—but the real hidden trick is that he has genuine psychic abilities: he hears and sometimes can even see dead people.

And it’s driving him crazy.

The last thing he needs is one more of them, but as the novel kicks off a big celebrity client arrives with a jangle of jewelry and an entourage. Peaches Dockmuir is the soon-to-be-ex-wife of a media mogul but she’s got a ghost on her mind. Before they can make contact, however, Peaches is gunned down and Draygo looks ready to take the fall.

Desperate moves take desperate measures. Will Draygo finally use the gifts he’s been given? And if he does, will they only make things worse? There’s a reason he’s avoided them so far. When you open up to the dead, they open up to you, too. Maybe faking it is safer.

I don’t know, but I’ll be over here, practicing my three card Monty. Pick a card, any card. Lay down your bets and take a chance.

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Visit K.A. Laity's website to get free reads and to connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Buy White Rabbit Amazon UK (paperback or ebook)
Buy White Rabbit Amazon US (paperback or ebook)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

D. Aviva Rothschild writes speculative fiction about The Beatles!

My respect for originality and the unusual is boundless, so my hat is definitely doffed to today's guest. D. Aviva Rothschild writes novels about John, Paul, George, and Ringo that go way beyond fan fiction.

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With Strings Attached, or The Big Pink Job, is a wholly original and problematic work of fantasy. By “wholly original,” I mean that it only superficially resembles other works of fantasy. If you know about TV Tropes, there's a trope about Standard Fantasy Settings. By those guidelines, Strings is almost 100% noncompliant. I have to admit, I was kind of startled to find that out.

Before the “problematic” part, the story in a nutshell: our four heroes awaken on another planet, 16 years younger and completely terrified. They're on the planet C'hou in Ketafa, a quasi-Victorian society where magic is genuine (and illegal), and where the gods returned 25 years ago, except they're fake. The reader knows the four were placed there as the subjects of a poorly set up alien undergraduate psychology project. After things go sour, the four end up across the sea in Baravada, a dying quasi-medieval anarchistic utopian dystopia (yes, really). Meanwhile, the aliens are kicked off their project for cheating and join up with a gamer in order to have access to the four. Ultimately, thanks to the aliens and the real gods, the four are empowered and charged with finding three pieces of a statue that have been scattered across other planets. This will remove a curse on Ketafa that prevents the real gods from seeing the continent. If the four don't do it, they don't go home. It's just too bad they detest Ketafa. And they're pacifists, so death and destruction are not options even though they've collectively been gifted with enough power to wipe out a city before breakfast. And not everyone wants them to succeed.

Straightforward and hopefully kind of interesting, right? Well... here's where the “problematic” part kicks in. The book falls, however unwillingly, under the rubric of fan fiction because the four protagonists are the Beatles. Well, the ex-Beatles, since it's set in 1980.

Did that suddenly negate your interest in the book? I know it does for a lot of people. And the fantasy aspect turns off a lot of Beatles fans who just aren't into that sort of thing. So, hello small (but devoted) niche audience.

I hate sounding defensive about Strings, because it's quite a decent book and I'm very proud of it. Over the 29 years it took me to write, I put a ton of research into getting their personalities as true to life as possible—no Hard Day's Night or Yellow Submarine Beatles for this writer, thank you! And they grow and change; the men at the end of the book are not the same as when they first arrived. If you know your Beatles history, there are subtle references scattered throughout, but they won't hit you over the head (no characters named Strawberry Fields or nonsense like that). On the fictional side, the two C'hovite societies and the secondary characters are as fully fleshed out as I could make them, with multiple sets of slang and some truly alien viewpoints. C'hou has a mysterious and tragic backstory that I'll be expanding in the two sequels (it's a planned trilogy). And Big Issues get explored: the nature of good and evil, the effects of power on people, addiction.

People have suggested that I change the characters. That would certainly make the book easier to sell. But I don't want to change them. I tried once, and failed. I'm just not interested in writing about four other people (just changing the names isn't enough) in this situation. The Beatles are smart, funny, profane, and emotional; they make excellent characters, and I'm committed to the trilogy as designed.

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Try before you buy! Half of With Strings Attached is posted on D. Aviva Rothschild's website, where you will also find purchase links for all formats.

You can also buy it as a Kindle ebook on Amazon or in print and as ebook on Lulu.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Historical fiction from Christie Maurer: The world of medieval music

As some of you may know, I studied musicology in grad school and taught music history for many years. My specialty was medieval music. Imagine my delight to discover the books of Christie Maurer, whose series uses the world of the troubadour as its backdrop. Christie shares a bit of historical context with us today.

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Troubadours in Life and Literature
by Christie Maurer

The hero of my medieval fantasy series is Sir Loriano of Vayne (pun intended), a whimsical, irreverent young troubadour with a superb tenor voice. The theme is the struggle of a repressed feminine (the Dark Lady) against an entrenched patriarchy (a god of Light and Fire). A troubadour bridges between both worlds—a man who writes poetry to an unattainable high-placed lady, and Loriano is sworn to champion oppressed women.

I wanted The Whitewood Kitarra to show how troubadours related to one another, their work, and their patrons. We meet a group of them on the way to a tournament of verse. The sharp-tongued Gillom is Marcabru, known for his caustic wit. Overweight Rikkert is Gaucelm Faidit, who was very fat and made fine verses but couldn’t sing, so he hired a singer ... At a party, a trobairitz (Comtessa de Dia) sings of her lover’s infidelity. They quarrel, put each other down, steal one another’s verse, and all seek the beautiful countess’s patronage. 

The first known troubadour was Guillaume IX, Duke of Aquitaine (1071-1126), a Crusader and traveler who had two wives and took his neighbor’s wife for a long-term mistress. His poetry ranges from tender passion to outright raunchy.

Troubadours flourished—the 12th and 13th Centuries in Languedoc/Provence. The songs sound weird and plaintive to modern ears, but listen closely and study the text. You’ll discover passion, longing, subtle word plays, and laugh-aloud humor. For example, in Dona, tant vos ai preida by Raimbaut de Vaqueiras the poet courts a Genovese in elegant Languedoc and she tells him off in gutter Italian.

Bertran (Bernatz) of Ventadorn was the master. In The Dark Lady’s Stone Loriano’s poems are a paraphrase of his. My favorite Lancan vei la follhe winds its way through my later chapters. The son of palace servants, Bertran was banished from Ventadorn for making love to the countess. Henry II took Bertran into his house, and some of his poetry for Eleanor of Aquitaine (Guillaume’s granddaughter) was so passionate that scholars wonder if they had an affair. “I will kiss her on the mouth ... so that for a month the marks will be seen,” and “What is life worth if I don’t see in bed, under the window, my lady’s body, white as snow ...”

Jaufre Rudel de Blaye exemplifies amor de lonh, or distant love. He fell in love with the Countess of Tripoli for her reputation, and they exchanged letters and poems. He joined the Second Crusade to go meet her, but he fell ill on the ship and was dying when he reached port. She hurried to his side, and he died in her arms. When Loriano thinks of a lady he will never see again, I hear Lancan li journ en mai . . .

The brutal Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars (1209-1244) utterly destroyed tolerant culture of Languedoc. The troubadours fled to Italy and Spain and French laws, language, and lords replaced what had been, and the Inquisition broke religious resistance.

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To learn more about Christie Maurer and her series, visit her blog.

The Dark Lady’s Stone and The Whitewood Kitarra are available on Amazon and Smashwords

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Julie Mata on Zombie Chickens and Authentic Middle-Grade Fiction

Let's face it: We're not twelve years old anymore. (Thank heavens!) So how do we channel an authentic middle-grade voice that our tween readers can relate to? Julie Mata, author of Kate Walden Directs: Night of the Zombie Chickens, shares some words of wisdom.

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Keeping it Real

By Julie Mata

While I was writing Kate Walden Directs: Night of the Zombie Chickens, I had a conversation with a student about a middle grade book she had just read. She liked the book but felt the author had no idea what it was really like to be a middle school student these days. The character didn’t sound real to her. That comment stuck with me. As adult authors writing about children and tweens, it can be tricky to understand their world and to accurately reflect it. It’s been a long time since most of us walked the halls of middle school! How do we know if we’re capturing the essence of the age we’re writing about?
At the time I started writing this book, my eldest daughter was a high school freshman and my youngest daughter was still in middle school. They became my literary lab rats. I listened in as they talked to their friends. I relished the times, both as a mother and as a writer, when they opened up to me about problems at school. I honed my dialogue to reflect the way they and their friends speak. I also noticed something about children at this age—they develop a wonderful sense of humor, despite all the drama in their lives—or maybe because of it! In my book, I tried to capture that sharp, funny humor in Kate’s outlook on the world.

One of my daughters thrived during these tween years, but the other struggled. We learned firsthand that kids are not always nice in middle school. At times, they can be downright mean. This is a touchy subject because, while I think most people understand this, as adults it makes us uncomfortable. We want our children to always be nice, to always be kind and compassionate. That’s why, if a girl is catty or mean in a book, usually she’s the “bad girl,” or the “bully.” But that really doesn’t reflect reality.

I wanted kids to be able to relate to Kate. I wanted her to sound and act real, and share similar problems. So, she’s not always nice. She does some mean things. She worries about the social ladder at school—who’s at the top, who’s at the bottom, and which rung she’s currently perched on. Mean behavior does not equal bad heart. At this age, physical and emotional changes come whether kids are ready or not. Like her peers, Kate is struggling to figure things out. She’s leaving childhood behind but adulthood is still a scary, gray fog on the near horizon. It’s no wonder kids clump together in groups for support! And there’s plenty of poking and elbowing going on as they try to find their own place.

The last I checked, my daughters have not yet sprouted angelic wings. For that matter, neither have I. While Kate definitely grows and learns from her mistakes, she doesn’t metamorphose into an angel, either. Based on words of wisdom from a 12-year-old middle-grade reader, I tried to keep it real.

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Learn more about Julie Mata on her website.

Purchase Kate Walden Directs: Night of the Zombie Chickens from Amazon or B&N, or directly from Disney/Hyperion.