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.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

M. K. Theodoratus on the Twists and Turns of a Writing Career

Nobody promised us a rose garden, yet here we are anyway, trying to make it as writers. Today's guest, fantasy writer M. K. Theodoratus, has been wending a crooked path through the garden of words, looking for a place where her career can blossom. She shares a bit about her journey so far. 

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Twist & Turn – It’s Not a Dance, It’s a Writer’s Life
by M. K. Theodoratus

After four, maybe five, writing careers, I feel like I’ve seen it all. Publishing now is nothing like when I started writing.

How have I sold over the years? Confession magazines (if you can remember them). Short newspaper features back when they took freelance human-interest stuff. A weekly political column back in the Reagan years. Multiple sales of the same article to lots of little magazines who only bought one-time rights. Now, I’ve been playing with fantasy fiction.

Yeah, my “writing career” has done a lot of twisting and turning over the years as the publishing industry has changed. All the time while, I wrote bits and pieces of fiction, mostly unfinished.

I can verify that change equals opportunity. If the indie publishing movement hadn’t gained a foothold, I wouldn’t be writing this.

My most recent publishing venture started out at a writer’s conference when an indie (aka mom & pop) publisher said they were interested in my dark YA fantasy novel, There Be Demons.

Hooray for me. I got a contract that included nice royalties and a hard cover as well as an ebook. Got some wonderful editing which made the book totally better. Started building a social media platform to help with the marketing of my book, by revising and publishing some of the short stories languishing in my computer. Then, the publisher got sick, and the publishing process has stalled until she recovers.

Welcome to the real world of publishing. A world where writers have to twist and turn in order to survive. Bummer. Publishers and editors no longer hold a writer’s hand and teach them their craft or publicize their books unless they are A-list.

The good news in all of this turning: the “platform” I built now includes eight epubs – four free short stories and four 99c epubs. In them, you can see how I twisted away from one world – the Far Isles Half-Elven – to another – the world of Andor where demons roam.

My world of the Far Isle Half-Elven started when I was searching for a new idea to write about and began wondering how genetic drift within an elf-human population would influence the politics of a magical medieval world. I immediately had conflict in the change from a feudal society to a mercantile one plus the conflict among various individuals based the levels of magical power they controlled. I didn’t have any characters to play with until Mariah jumped into my mind, standing on a cliff in the midst of a receding gale. She was miserable because, after 400 years, her life had turned to dust.

Result: 500,000+ words sitting in my computer, a draft of Dark Solstice (a completed novel without a home now), plus some novellas and short stories. The free stories are downloaded frequently. The 99c novellas sell at a sick snail’s pace, though most of the reviews are nice.

Of course, you should never put all your stories in one world. I wrote other stories but nothing captured my imagination until I wondered about the problems gargoyles faced.

Night for the Gargoyles, which sold to a British e-magazine, was born. I liked the idea so much I drafted a complete novel, There Be Demons, switching points of view between Gillen, leader of the gargoyles guarding Trebridge, and Britt, one of the teens drafter by the angels to help the gargoyles. Snarky teens, conscientious gargoyles, and demons bent on conquest. What’s not to like?

The publisher liked it so much she wanted a sequel … and maybe a trilogy. My story writing twisted only enough to revise some stories to exist in the world of Andor where the demons roam.

End result: I’ve self-publish four Far Isles Half-Elven epubs and four Andor ones. Who know where my next twist will take me?

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You can learn more about M.K. Theodoratus on her website or follow her on Twitter. You can also visit the Far Isles Half-Elven website.

Purchase her fantasy books on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online retailers.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Shauna Roberts on Mesopotamia and Doing Lots (and Lots) of Research

During my inglorious days in Academia, I nearly went to graduate school in Ancient Near Eastern Studies. Thus, I was especially excited when today's guest, Shauna Roberts, offered to discuss how she researched her novels about ancient Mesopotamia.

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Five Reasons I Over-research…
and Over-research…and Over-research
by Shauna Roberts

1. I love research! Although the “butt in chair, fingers on keyboard” part of writing a novel is fun, I prefer research. Whether the subject is ancient cosmetics, the aurochs (the ancestor of modern cattle), or the climate of the Near East after the last Ice Age, research topics often turn into obsessions.

2. I usually take the less-traveled road. For example, my historical novel Like Mayflies in the Stream (Hadley Rille Books, 2009) and my forthcoming historical romance Claimed by the Enemy (Nicobar Press, June 2014) both have what some consider an obscure setting: ancient Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq and Syria). The two books take place in different cities and more than 400 years apart, so I had to do a lot of new research for the second book.

3. Sources often contain mistakes, overgeneralizations, and differences of opinion. Everyone knows by now not to use Wikipedia as a sole source. But it’s not unique in its problems. I worked as a medical and science writer and editor for twenty-five years, and one of the first things I learned was not to trust any source by itself, even when the source was the scientist or company I was writing about.

Writing with confidence about an ancient civilization requires the author to:
• read narrow, specific articles in scholarly journals and then extrapolate to other cities, other decades, other age groups, or the opposite sex
• read popular books and textbooks and then separate wild generalizations about, say, diet or religious practices from generalizations that did hold true for centuries or millennia
• look at art with as few preconceptions as possible and research what you think you see. For example, the equines pulling chariots in Mesopotamian art before 2000 B.C. look like horses, but aren’t. What are they? Scholars disagree.
• take the prejudices of the authors’ time into account. For example, the 1920s field reports of the excavations of the city of Ur describe the finds accurately. But the scholars’ interpretations are clearly influenced by, for example, their literal belief in the Biblical flood story (Mesopotamia actually suffered several extraordinary floods, not just one) and their assumption that women never ruled cities (wrong). 

4. Original sources are often in foreign languages. The scholarly literature on ancient Mesopotamia is often in German or French and partly relies on documents in the ancient Mesopotamia languages of Sumerian and Akkadian. I can read French and German, but not expertly, so I do extra research to verify facts from articles in those languages.

Two summers ago, I took a correspondence course in Sumerian. (Really!) Now I can compare the transcriptions of original texts against authors’ modern translations and judge for myself how reliable each might be.

5. Over-research makes it easier to avoid info dumps. Historical novelists often love their research so much they want to include every last bit in their book. After all, we’ve already generously shared with friends every detail of fabric dyes or furniture construction or cooking techniques of our time period, and readers are just friends that we haven’t met yet.

Over-research curbs that tendency because it leads to finding conflicting interpretations and contradictory evidence. One is acutely aware that few “facts” are 100% certain. For example, I read in the past week that chemical analyses of the bones of ancient Egyptians suggest they were vegetarians. In contrast, ancient art and common sense suggest Egyptians ate a lot of fish. (Glad I’m not writing a novel set in ancient Egypt right now!)

As a reader, I want a novel to provide an accurate understanding of life in a particular era, but I also want a strong plot and characters with understandable motivations. Let’s face it: It’s hard to understand the motivations of people in 1950, let alone those of people in 1950 B.C.E. Authors must modernize characters at least a little—enough that readers don’t see them as alien and incomprehensible.

As a writer, I try to provide the reading experience I desire for myself by writing a story deeply grounded in the time and place but not mired in details (which could be wrong) or explanations (which jerk the reader out of the story).

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Learn more about Shauna Roberts on her website.
Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
You can buy Like Mayflies in a Stream on Amazon and B&N.
Claimed by the Enemy will be available this summer. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Pauline Montagna Expands the Meaning of "Write What You Know"

How can there be any imagination in fiction if we just write what we know? Today's guest, Pauline Montagna, has a very interesting perspective on this eternal question. She explains how that realization helped her write her historical novel, The Slave.

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Write What You Know
by Pauline Montagna

The usual advice to a new writer is ‘Write what you know’. It’s also generally expected that a writer’s first novel will be autobiographical. My first novel ‘The Slave’ is set in Medieval Italy, and although I have visited Italy several times, I have never lived there, and certainly not in the fourteenth century. Neither does my heroine’s story in any way reflect the trajectory of my own life. Yet, on reflection, both of these old saws apply.

Although I was born in Australia, all my grandparents and my mother were born in Italy and I grew up with a strong Italian identity. My mother was born in Basilicata, in a remote village on a hilltop far from the sea. My father’s people came from the island of Elba, off the coast of Tuscany. We lived with my maternal grandparents, and I grew up hearing stories from their village, speaking an obscure Italian dialect, watching my grandmother making pasta and special festive treats unique to her village, listening to my grandfather rehashing Italian politics from before he left Italy in 1938.

But being an Italian isn’t just about the food. It’s about family, community and culture. My place in the family defined my life. My friends were my extended family. My social life took place in our Italian community. My daily life – what I ate, how I dressed, who I mixed with, where I went to school, my interests – were all informed by my Italian culture albeit transposed to another country, and sometimes in the spirit of rebellion rather than compliance.

My Italian identity shaped who I am, and not only as a person, but as a woman. As an Italian girl, I was discouraged from being self-serving, emotionally demanding or sexually adventurous. But by example I also learnt that an Italian woman could be practical, strong, confident and intellectually independent.

As I reflect on what biographical elements went into creating my heroine, it was not the narrative of my individual life, but its context which created her family, her upbringing and their effects on her character.

My heroine’s early life is divided between the city state in which her father is a successful businessman and later a town councillor, and the village in which her parents were born and which they visit regularly. The culture of that village – its inter-relationships, religious festivals, food, dance, games and clothing – is derived from my mother’s village. The culture of the city derives from my father’s Tuscan heritage, though here I applied what I studied at university rather than what I learned at home.

With my Italian background, it should come as no surprise that I leaped at the opportunity to study Italian history at university, getting there early on enrolment day to ensure my place in the only two units of Italian history on offer, ‘Medieval Italian City States’ and ‘Florence and the Renaissance’. It was with great wonder and some pride that I learned that it was in Medieval Italy, in the city states of its northern provinces, that the modern world was born, that in fact the Renaissance didn’t materialise out of a few coincidences sometime in the fifteenth century, but grew out of the culture of independent, progressive, mercantile cities that began to emerge from the Dark Ages as early as the eleventh century.

This period, when Italy was ahead of the world and not the political and economic basket case I grew up knowing captured my imagination. So when I came to embark on my first novel, despite some trepidation, it was this period I would write about. Except for minor details, I didn’t need to do extensive research in dusty libraries as it was already all there at my fingertips. I just needed to get it down on paper. 

The Slave

Aurelia Rubbini, the only child of a rich merchant in fourteenth century Italy, has been raised to be a dutiful daughter, wife and mother, but she longs for something more than the restricted life intended for her. Then one day, her father brings home from a buying trip an Asian slave boy, Batu, who will reshape Aurelia’s destiny.

Aurelia and Batu are inexorably drawn to each other, but their relationship is forbidden as Aurelia is destined for an arranged marriage to further her father’s political ambitions. When Aurelia marries Lorenzo de Graziano, a nobleman with a dangerous reputation, Batu insists on going with her for her protection. But Batu’s presence arouses violent passions that Aurelia, in her innocence, can never understand.

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Learn more about Pauline Montagna on her website. Join her mailing list by May 31 to get your own free complimentary ebook copy of ‘The Slave.’

You can purchase The Slave on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and elsewhere.