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