The paperback of The Stars of Heaven has finally made past production delays (thanks, 2020…) and is available for purchase! To celebrate, today’s blog is an excerpt from Chapter One. I hope you enjoy!
Glancing at the parishioners spilling out the door of Nossa Senhora dos Mártires into the square in front of the basilica, Cecília was left with the sinking feeling that it was getting far closer to ten than she’d originally estimated. Even if she had convinced Tio Aloisio to come to the Baixa with her, they would have had no chance to make it to São Vincente in time for High Mass. All she could hope was that no one had noticed she’d gone, and the entire morning would be one more thing she would have to privately confess at the Palmeiro’s.
She slowed them to a stop just outside the square by another niche—one holding a thick wooden crucifix—and pointed east. “Rua Nova dos Mercadores is that way, if you’d like to part ways here.”
“I’m more than happy to walk you the rest of the way home, Senhorita Durante.”
Because after everything, she needed someone from her bairro seeing her wandering about alone with an Englishman. “With the crowds, I imagine that would make you late for your meeting.”
A conflicted expression moved over Mr. Bates’s face as he scanned the crowd for himself, no doubt seeing she was right.
She saved him the trouble of having to weigh whatever duty he felt to her and however important he considered his meeting. “I’ve lived in Lisbon my entire life, Mr. Bates. I’m certain I’ll be able to make it home without your assistance.”
Mr. Bates began to give one more halfhearted objection before a low rumble moving through the ground made him trail off. Cecília frowned, looking for an approaching coach, though from the way the sound was growing, it would have had to have been a line of coaches barreling toward them.
“What’s that?” Mr. Bates followed Cecília’s gaze.
Cecília shook her head, not having any better idea than Mr. Bates. The rumbling grew stronger, making loose pebbles rattle around her feet as the sound neared a roar.
Earthquake. The thought registered a second too late as the street under her rolled. Cecília tipped forward as shouts went up, mixing with discordant clanging church bells. She put her hand out to brace herself, but the ground lurched again. Her shoulder slammed into the curve of the niche then bucked the other way. She hit cobblestone hard.
The wall of the building across from her split, chunks of white plaster raining down across the street. Rough brick showed through as the ground continued its assault. Then the brick started to tilt. Eyes widening, Cecília curled into herself, everything happening too quickly to make sense. The wall fell. Hard chunks pelted her as it kicked up a cloud of dust so thick that she had no choice but to close her eyes.
Slowly, the shaking slowed, and the roar was replaced by a cacophony of the most horrible sounds Cecília had ever heard—screaming, crying, panicked whinnies of horses. Cecília’s body seized. She tried to unfurl, but her muscles wouldn’t release. Shock kept her curled, eyes squeezed shut as though everything would stop if she didn’t look, as though she would wake up in her bed, the morning a dream. A new roar rose over the screams a second before the rumbling returned. Crying, she dropped her forehead to the ground, mumbling some prayer for mercy as Hell rose up around her. “Misericorda. Misericorda de Deus.”
There was more screaming, more crashing, a loud snap, and pain shooting across her back. Somewhere, her mind registered that something hard had landed on top of her. She choked on dust as she gasped, trying to suck in what air she could under the crushing weight. Time began to blur. Nothing existed beyond the roar and rocking and pain.
The ground slowly stilled once again—after how long, Cecília couldn’t begin to imagine—but she still couldn’t breathe. She struggled to reach whatever had pinned her. One hand touched smooth wood—the crucifix from the niche. She pushed, but it wouldn’t shift. Something had to have been on top of it, pressing into the cross as it pressed into her. Her sight began to blur, her chest not able to expand enough to take in air. As hard as she fought to remain conscious, her mind turned fuzzy.
The third roar barely registered until the crucifix shook loose. Cecília gasped. She ended up coughing, thick dust coating her throat. No longer completely pinned, she still had to fight to free herself. Rough bricks scraped her palms, but they shifted as the shaking stopped, letting Cecília inch her way forward. She could find her way out, if she just kept moving…
Reaching out once more, her hand hit nothing. She froze, the sensation not making sense until she realized she had reached open air. The day had simply turned pitch black.
And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand toward Heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness which may be felt. The words floated through Cecília’s mind, and she crossed herself before she realized how much pain the movement caused. She couldn’t bring herself to rise from her knees. God had thrown her and the whole city down into the earth. There was no other explanation.
Slowly, some light began to filter through the haze in the air, and Cecília’s eyes struggled to adjust. The sight was worse than the darkness. Bodies poked through piles of stone—men with their heads dashed open, mangled limbs reaching out as if trying to free themselves even without the bodies to which they had once been attached. Others were still alive, and some cried for help, some already fleeing over the rubble. They weren’t in Hell. But Lisbon seemed worse.
Buy The Stars of Heaven today in ebook or paperback:
After six years of work researching, writing, and editing, my first purely historical fiction novel, The Stars of Heaven, has finally reached release day! One thing that had long kept me in the “historical fantasy” sphere (beyond the fact that magic is fun!) was I was always a bit intimidated by the amount of research that goes into true historical fiction novels. And The Stars of Heaven was its own level of research hell since, like the bulk of Americans I’ve met, I had never even heard of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake before learning of its existence in a rather unlikely source–an Assassin’s Creed game. After falling down a research hole trying to find out what this disaster was, I found what might be one of the most important events of the Western world that no one outside of Portugal (who hasn’t read Voltaire’s Candide) seems to know about.
So, for those of you out there who, like me, had never heard of this disaster. Here are seven of the most interesting fact I learned while in that research quagmire:
1. It was more than “just” an earthquake.
While the earthquake was the primary disaster (with an epicenter likely somewhere off the Portuguese coast under the Atlantic and large enough to have reports of feeling it in New England papers–estimated to be an 8.4 on the modern Richter scale) Lisbon really couldn’t catch a break. Rather than a quick rumble passing through, there were three distinct waves of shaking, each reportedly lasting for several minutes. Contemporary accounts disagree on exact timing (I imagine you aren’t busy looking at your pocket watch in the middle of trying not to die) but it is generally agreed that the shaking alone lasted at least ten minutes. As the quake also happened on a holiday (All Saints’ Day) in very Catholic Portugal, it also managed to knock over a ton of votive candles and start fires all over the city. As Lisbon is built at the center of a number of tall hills, this created a fire bowl that ripped through what buildings weren’t destroyed.
Since that obviously wasn’t enough though, as often happens with earthquakes under water, the quake then sparked off tsunamis–three of them, one for each wave of the quake–that hit the city and washed out most of the Lisbon waterfront (including the king’s Riverside Palace and Naval Shipyard). When all was said and done, there was practically nothing left of downtown Lisbon (known as the Baixa).
2. An estimated 50,000 died and 100,000 were left homeless.
With the success of Portugal’s overseas colonies (most notably Brazil) in the eighteenth century, Lisbon was a thriving trading port, housing an estimated 10% of Portugal’s total population (approx. 250,000 people). As it was a holiday, many from the surrounding countryside had come to the city to attend High Mass and other festivities, making the already crowded city packed. This led to an estimated 50,000 deaths over the course of the quakes, fires, and tsunamis, and another 100,000 people left homeless.
3. It was the first “modern” disaster with major international aid.
While the Great Lisbon Earthquake was far from the first major natural disaster, it was the first in a major European city after trade had interwoven the major powers so closely (as a port city, Lisbon had a sizable expat community, including traders from across the globe). News of the destruction shocked the world, and many countries immediately sent aid to help the struggling lisboetas (and evacuate any of their own citizens who wished to leave). As this was the eighteenth century, “immediately” often did mean several months between the news reaching somewhere and then ships making it back, but it still was perhaps the first example of the outpouring of international aid we still see following major disasters.
4. It included one of the first scientific seismic studies.
While many did believe the earthquake had been sent by God to punish, those interested in the “modern” methods brought by the European Age of Enlightenment wanted to find a scientific explanation for what happened. This included interviewing those willing to give first-person accounts and sending out surveys asking questions such as “When did you first feel the shaking” (trying to track how the quake moved) and “Did you notice any signs before the shaking started” (such as animals acting strangely or wells running low). It was hoped that being able to understand any patterns would allow them to predict future quakes, or at least “earthquake proof” new buildings.
5. Soldiers marching was used to test earthquake-proof designs.
Paired with the survey, following the quake, architects worked for years to try to build structures that were “earthquake proof” including using different types of latticework to support stone buildings and have the masonry fall out to the street rather than on anyone in the building. To test the different models created (as they couldn’t call up another small quake or use a modern earthquake simulator) they came up with the ingenious solution of having soldiers march in circles around the models to make the ground shake. This allowed them to pick the strongest framing designs.
6. It (more or less) ended the Portuguese Inquisition.
Perhaps less well known than its Spanish cousin, there was also a Holy Office of the Inquisition in Portugal that ran well into the eighteenth century.
While the quake did lead many to double down on their faith, it also put the Church in direct conflict with the scientific methods being used to study the quake (hey, look, that’s what my book’s about… fancy that…) While it was a slow process, the quake more or less was the beginning of the end of the Portuguese Inquisition. Other progressive legislation tied (either directly or indirectly) to the earthquake includes the founding of public schools in Portugal, “modernization” of college curricula (moving away from classic Latin studies), abolition of slavery in Portugal (though unfortunately not its colonies–sorry, Brazil), and opening positions once only allowed to be held by nobility to anyone qualified.
7. It permanently scarred the king(mentally).
While the reigning king, Dom José (Joseph I of Portugal), and his family escaped the quake physically intact (they were spending the holiday in Belém–now a part of Lisbon–which was located on stronger bedrock to the west and not as hard hit as the Baixa) mentally, the king never recovered. Suffering from what most likely would now be called PTSD, he refused to step foot inside masonry again for the rest of his life, going so far as to commission what came to be known as the Real Barraca (literally the “royal shack” or “royal tent”) a grand single-story palace built entirely of wood.
By all accounts, it was an impressive structure filled with tapestries and other luxuries to make it more “royal” than “shack” located on the site of modern-day Ajuda National Palace. Unfortunately, as wooden structures are wont to do, it caught fire and burned down in 1794.
Like what seems to be the bulk of the internet this past weekend, I watched Hamilton on Disney+. And, as will come as a surprise to precisely no one who has ever met me in real life, my husband and I then spent much longer than is healthy picking apart the history behind the play. Now, first things first, I am a fan of the musical. I bought the soundtrack back in 2015 and memorized it all. I spent way too much to go see the performance at the Kennedy Center when it was in D.C. Nitpicking the history wasn’t at all about trying to tear the play down, it was about analyzing the creative choices. There is no doubt that Lin Manuel Miranda is familiar with his topic. Like most (if not all) historical fiction writers, he fully immersed himself in his era (even getting to write at one of Hamilton’s desks at a historical site in New York—proving that there are perks to being a famous writer over the rest of us doing the bulk of our research through commercially published works and whatever we can Google/find online).
Since history does not often conform itself to a perfect narrative, however, the fiction part of historical fiction sometimes does take necessity and leads to little (or sometimes big) cheats to tell the story you’re trying to tell. And so, Hamilton becomes a great example of how things sometimes have to give when you’re digging a great historical fiction out actual history.
Timelines get compressed (or changed entirely):
One of the cardinal pieces of writing advice often given in writing classes is “if it doesn’t serve a purpose, cut it.” When it comes to telling a story, every scene should be propelling your narrative and characters, be that providing new information, taking the characters closer to (or farther from) their goal, or building characterization. Unfortunately, history generally isn’t kind enough to do the same. Especially in the past, things took time to happen. There were weeks between letters being sent and delivered, people would go home to plant their fields before eventually returning to finish whatever “more important” action they started months ago… all in all, a bunch of “actual life” stuff gets in the way of a narrative arc. For that reason, historical fiction often trims the time it takes between events or sometimes even rearranges when specific events happen. The play Hamilton has a bit of a leg up in messing with the timeline in that it can paint with a very broad brush with time passing (when exactly did Hamilton get this letter? Well, it’s sometime between the Battle of Yorktown (1781) and the Constitutional Convention (1787)… pick a time) but even with that, it is still possible to pick out places where the timeline has been rearranged for storytelling.
A good example of this is the song Farmer Refuted. For this song, Miranda uses a common historical fiction “trick” where he takes writing from the actual historical record and then translates it into action on the stage/page. Unsurprisingly, Samuel Seabury did write an actual “Free Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Continental Congress”, from which his lines in the song are taken. Hamilton then wrote a response (two, in fact, since the play is correct in that he was never one for moderation in his writing) which he titled (any guesses?) “The Farmer Refuted”. I particularly like this example as it encapsulates both compressing the timeline and rearranging it. As these were pamphlets and responses written back and forth, obviously there was a lot more time necessary for this exchange than the few minutes shown on the stage where Hamilton literally steps onto Seabury’s soapbox and talks over him. These pamphlets were also written in 1774 and 1775 respectively, placing them solidly before the “1776, New York City” time and place setting given in Aaron Burr, Sir, which is five songs ahead of Farmer Refuted in the play. Since the entire narrative point of Farmer Refuted, though, is to show Hamliton’s bombastic approach to speaking his beliefs (setting up the dichotomy between him and his foil, Burr) and progress the story toward the actual fighting of the revolution, Miranda took these earlier works and transposed them into a single exchange that makes his intended point in a narratively interesting way that the actual timing would not have allowed for.
Similarly, events are rearranged to fit in (spoilers for actual history?) Philip Hamilton’s death. In actual history, Philip Hamilton died in 1801. Fans of the musical will recognize this date as decidedly after the Election of 1800, which in the play happens in its eponymous song two tracks after Philip’s death in Stay Alive (reprise). This change was narratively necessary, however, as Miranda further compressed the narrative toward the end to remove a lot of the other events that led up to the Hamliton/Burr duel. In actual history, this duel is more closely connected to Burr’s New York gubernatorial campaign than his presidential campaign (which is also the reason Hamliton’s death is in 1804, rather than closer to 1800). Since the condensed narrative for the play would not support dealing with the conflict between Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson in The Election of 1800 only to then have Philip die and then there be another conflict around an election, Miranda made the decision to move Philip’s death forward to then allow the Election of 1800 to serve the narrative function of both conflicts between our protagonist and antagonist. While in longer works of fiction, such as novels, readers perhaps might not allow quite as broad of changes to be made unremarked, as there is more time to get into nuances, in a time-compressed play or movie especially, joining these events to serve one singular narrative beat that leads to the historically accurate outcome is understandable.
Characters become symbolic:
While watching the Disney+ broadcast, one of the topics that we kept circling back to was Daveed Diggs’s portrayal of Thomas Jefferson. While Diggs does an amazing job with his physicality and character choices (he’s actually one of my favorite performances in the show) the person he is portraying is decidedly not the reserved, almost comically introverted, by many accounts, Thomas Jefferson. Rather than attempting to write an accurate Thomas Jefferson, Miranda wrote a character meant to be the embodiment of Jeffersonian ideas. He needed a quick, engaging way to show the conflicts between the Democratic-Republicans and Federalists in the early Federalist Period, and an accurate, reserved Jefferson would not have been able to match the bombastic energy of Hamilton’s character. Realism was thus once again sacrificed so that the narratively necessary points could be made. While in fiction it is always necessary to have characters feel realistic enough to be engaging as people, when telling a greater historical narrative, characters do often also fall into a symbolic role as well. One character may be a down-on-his-luck tailor but he is also the symbolic “put-upon proletariat” character the reader needs to connect to to get the full impact of the coming revolution or another character may be a charming poet, but she is also the mouthpiece for Romantic Era ideals to be able to show how the world is changing. In this way, Miranda has turned Diggs’s Jefferson into a charismatic symbol of conflicting political ideals rather than gone for anything close to a realistic portrayal of historic Thomas Jefferson.
Similarly, to serve the romantic subplot of the show, the Angelica Schuyler Miranda has written is a far cry from her historical counterpart. Miranda is on record as saying that he felt Hamilton needed an intellectual equal as a love interest, and thus developed this bittersweet “soulmates who can’t be” relationship between Angelica and Hamilton. Beyond the plainly “factual” errors that building this plot required (Philip Schuyler had eight children, including three sons despite Angelica’s line in Satisfied stating, “My father has no sons so/I’m the one who has to social climb for one”) Miranda also builds a character who is a mental match for his version of Hamilton by giving them a shared dissatisfaction with their lots in life. Unlike other women in the era who were proto-feminists (most notably being perhaps Abigail Adams in her 1776 letter urging her husband to “remember the ladies”) there does not seem to be any real evidence in the historical record that Angelica Schuyler shared the sentiment or would have tried to “compel [Jefferson] to include women in the sequel” of the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal”. Rather than being a historically accurate Angelica who, while definitely witty and period-appropriately flirty in some letters, was already married by the time she met Hamilton and seemingly satisfied enough with her life, she becomes the character necessary to build a love triangle for Miranda’s Hamilton.
With Hamilton being a rap musical, it is hardly surprising that the language used in it is not period accurate (you mean to tell me not only were the Schuyler sisters not a trio of feminists, but they also wouldn’t have said “Work!”?) but this is something that all historical fiction authors come up against. For any book set before the 18th century, it is more or less understood that the piece of fiction the reader or viewer is digesting is a “translation” much in the same way that a fantasy novel is a “translation” from whatever language would be spoken in that fantasy world. Historical fiction readers/viewers don’t expect to pick up a book set in the middle ages and find something written in Old or Middle English. Similarly, there is a certain level of “suspension of disbelief” with any novel that needs to use more modern equivalents of difficult historical phrases to be understood. Obviously, just like with plays getting more ability to compress events in general, Hamilton gets an extra level of suspension of disbelief with its language than “normal” historical fiction due to it form. However, it also treds that line all historical fiction does of providing a “realistic” experience (including actual lines from “The Farmer Refuted” (Farmer Refuted) “Washington’s Farewell Address” (One Last Time) “The Reynolds Pamphlet” (The Reynolds Pamphlet) and Hamilton and Burr’s letters (Your Obedient Servant)) while also remaining accessible to modern audiences. Much like writing that medieval novel in modern English, Miranda manages to translate moments in history using non-accurate language by finding modern “equivalents”, such as a rap battle rather than an early Federalist cabinet debate, much in the same way that a novelist might need to use the slightly less period-appropriate word “science” instead of “natural philosophy” in a throwaway line of dialogue for it to be easily digestible. Obviously, all historical fiction authors need to know where exactly the line is for their own suspension of disbelief and work to keep their “translations” grounded enough to their own internal logic to not lose readers, but as we can see, if the changes are done well, they can do an amazing job of getting people who have never been interested in a period (or perhaps history in general) hungry in finding out more, and that truly is one of the wonderful things Hamilton has managed to do.
For those who are interested in the actual history of these characters and events, I strongly suggest picking up some non-fiction, such as Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, which gave Miranda his idea for the show to start with and seeing for yourself what the musical Hamilton does and doesn’t change. For those who are interested in writing historical fiction, I strongly suggest doing so as well, even if it’s just to be able to fully dissect what Miranda decided to keep and what he decided to change to build a tight, engaging narrative. I will not attempt to argue that every choice was perfect or if he should or shouldn’t have used such broad strokes in places (there are many pieces out there that have done much more justice to those arguments than I could in this short blog post), but if you—like I previously have—are currently caught up trying to balance history with fiction, this musical truly is a great study to at least get your feet wet with what changes may or may not work in your own narratives.
NaNoWriMo is over and we’re into December. And what better way to celebrate the holiday season than with a give away? Win books, a $50 Amazon Gift Card, or other fun prizes both through the group rafflecopter below, and a special give away of Karissa Laurel’s . Find details about both below!
What happens when 14 of the best authors on the planet get together just before the holidays?
We start giving stuff away.
From November 29, 2017 through December 12, 2017, we’ll be featuring a Rafflecopter for you chance to win a signed book of your choice, an e-book of your choice, or a $50 Amazon Gift Card!
All you have to do is follow each of the 14 authors on Bookbub. And we made it easy to do. With a Rafflecopter giveaway
ALSO, each of the authors above will be featuring the giveaway on their Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, newsletters, blogs, and wherever else they can think of and you could win there, too!
So follow all of them on Facebook for even more chances to win books, swag, and other great prizes during this pre-holiday giveaway.
Love gods and fantasy? Join this second Rafflecopter giveaway for a copy of Karissa Laurel’s book Midnight Burning:
When the police notify Solina Mundy that her twin brother, Mani, is dead, she heads for Alaska. Once there, she begins to suspect Mani’s friends know more about his death than they’ve let on. Skyla, an ex-Marine, is the only one willing to help her.
As Solina and Skyla delve into the mystery surrounding Mani’s death, Solina is stunned to learn that her own life is tied to Mani’s friends, his death, and the fate of the entire world. If she can’t learn to control her newfound gifts and keep her friends safe, a long-lost dominion over mortals will rise again, and everything she knows will fall into darkness.
Today for our “Genres (and why we write them)” series, we have J.M. Frey, an author who writes across the speculative fiction genres (namely Sci Fi (social science fiction), Fantasy (epic, urban, steampunk), and horror (urban)). Find her on Twitter or at www.jmfrey.net.
J.M. Frey: Writing Speculative Fiction
Q: What do you love about your genres?
It’s funny you ask, because I just gave a keynote speech for the local Rotary Club about the importance of writing and why SF/F is more than just escapist fluff. I talked about how SF/F can, yes, fun and escapist, and in troubling times like this – the #Brexit, Orlando, ISIL – escapism is important for mental health, for arts therapy, and keep the arts alive and people filled with joy.
But at the same time, it can teach. The Hunger Games speaks frankly about the dangers of dictatorships, media over-control, and blind consumerism and classicsm. Harry Potter teaches readers about racism. Star Trek is about pacifism. Lord of the Rings, much as Tolkien disliked allegories being applied to his work, speaks eloquently about environmentalism. Think of the messages in 1984, Logan’s Run, Metropolis. I think this is incredible that stories can both teach, provide awareness, encourage discussion, and entertain. And SF/F gives us the ability to talk about HERE and NOW by setting it THERE and THEN.
I often talk about how a person is a late. A book is a stone thrown into the water. It causes a ripple and then the lake goes placid. The disruption the stone causes smoothes over. But that stone, it’s still there. At the bottom of the lake. It is now a part of the lakebed. The foundation of that person. It shapes the water like a vessel.
That is why I love writing.
Q: Is there anything you hate?
Self-important gatekeeping nerd-jerks. See: #Gamergate and the 2015 Hugo Ballot.
Q: Has your genre shaped your publishing goals?
Yes! I found Neil Gaiman late in my reading life, and I adore the fact that he writes his stories in the medium that is best for the story, not the medium that he has to. He writes screenplays and poems, and song lyrics, and kid’s picture and middle grade books, novels, novellas, comics… and that’s really influenced and inspired me, because for the first time I felt the freedom to imagine my stories in other mediums. I realized I didn’t have to try to jam things down into novels if they didn’t fit into novels. I could try comics, or screenplays. And this was really better for my creativity – it could breathe.
And I think that’s a very SF/F thing. SF/F novelists very often also write comics, screenplays, articles, magazines, reviews, etc. This is, I think, because the SF/F was so small, so marginalized, and had to be so self sufficient for so long, that we all started picking up work where we could, helping around where we could to promote each other’s work and give one another awards, and generally being a community. I mean, have you seen fandom? Cosplayers, fan ficcers, reviewers, convention committees, people celebrating SF/F in every way possible, spreading out and filling the niches, and learning and teaching.
Embracing every medium, every story, and trying everything, and volunteering is just so SF/F. Fearless exploration and epic quests are between our pages. So of course, we live our lives that way, too!
Q : What expectations do you find placed on you because of your genre?
Well, it’s less about my genre and more about my gender. Because I’m a woman writing SF/F, I find people expect a lot of urban fantasy romance series from me, and not the superhero or epic fantasy stories that I do write. Which is equal parts frustrating and awesome because I can defy expectations when I get people into my books, but frustrating because there were expectations to begin with. Not all female SF/F authors write urban fantasy romance we write other things, too. (And FYI, it’s a bit insulting to be shocked when I say I write epic fantasy. I mean, Marion Zimmer Bradley? Jennifer Roberson? Hello?)
And that’s super-annoying. So is the mainstream awards and review outlets looking me over because I write ‘genre’ (see my first answer for my thoughts on why that’s BS).
But having said all that, it’s nice being part of a genre, because the fans are so loyal, and so enthusiastic, and so creative. You just don’t get that kind of love in mainstream fiction. I adore it.
About the Author
J.M. is a voice actor, SF/F author, and professional smartypants on AMI Radio’s Live From Studio 5. She’s appeared in podcasts, documentaries, and on television to discuss all things geeky through the lens of academia. Her debut novel TRIPTYCH was nominated for two Lambda Literary Awards, nominated for a 2011 CBC Bookie, was named one of The Advocate’s Best Overlooked Books of 2011, and garnered both a starred review and a place among the Best Books of 2011 from Publishers Weekly. Her sophomore novel, an epic-length feminist meta-fantasy THE UNTOLD TALE (Accidental Turn Series #1), debuted to acclaim in 2015.
Thrillers are what I like most to read, so naturally, that genre appeals to me as a writer.
Suspense involving potential dire consequences must be a critical element in a thriller, so it’s a given I’d expect to have that be the undertone of the story. And the driving force of the plot, no matter what the sub-genre (political, psychological, medical, legal, etc.) must be the bad guys (or things) posing threats to individuals (or even the world!), which the good guys must thwart. This conflict, unlike other genres, by and large, involves lethality.
I’d also expect that the battle between good and bad (not necessarily evil, per se) be
exciting.. This is part and parcel of a thriller.
The elements of romance, sex, even humor, can be included in the story to add spice and sometimes provide character motivations – and I like to have them in my books – but they aren’t a requirement. In my view, incidents of intense action are necessary to show the reality and the magnitude of the threat.
The pace of a thriller story should be relatively rapid, avoiding sections that don’t contribute in a material way to the story. (Actually, irrelevant prose should be avoided in most novels, but it’s particularly true in thrillers.) My approach is to use descriptions sparingly – just enough to define characters and set scenes, so the story flow won’t be disrupted.
What I especially like about the thriller genre, as opposed to a mystery (which also incorporates suspense and can play a large role in thrillers) is the ability to write in the POV of the bad guy (girl) as well as the protagonist. In a thriller, the reader quickly learns the identity of the antagonist. That’s why I consider some of the books of Harlan Coben and Lee Child to be mysteries, rather than thrillers. (Thrillers that have some mystery are not the same thing as thrilling mysteries.) Being able to show both sides of the conflict doing their things out of the awareness of the opposite side appeals to me. In my view, this adds, rather than distracts, from the suspense.
So, I write thrillers, but I also want to get them published – and actually sell some! Early on, I found that other genres were more popular among the reading public, the large majority of which, it seemed, consisted of women. And thrillers, as a rule, attract more men than women. So I’m dealing with a smaller segment of the reading public than, let’s say, romance writers do (as Red Adept publisher Lynn McNamee likes to remind me! ) But that doesn’t affect my publishing approach. I’ll keep writing thrillers, because I can’t imagine authoring any other genre. My goal is a simple one: to have an audience of my stuff who will want to come back for more, and to grow that audience with each successive book. That would keep my publishers happy, and it they’re happy, I’m happy!
About the Author
After graduating from the University of Vermont College of Medicine, John L. DeBoer, M.D., F.A.C.S. completed his surgical training in the U.S. Army and then spent three years in the Medical Corps as a general surgeon. Thirty years of private practice later, he retired to begin a new career as a writer. When not creating new plot lines for his novels, Dr. DeBoer pursues his interests in cooking, the cinema, and the amazing cosmos. He’s an avid tennis player, and his yet-to-be-fulfilled goal is to achieve a level of mediocrity in the frustrating game of golf. The father of two grown sons, he lives with his wife in North Carolina.
Rounding out August in our “Genres (and why we write them)” blog series, is author Morgan C. Talbot, who also writes under the pen name Jasmine Giacomo. Find her on Facebook and Twitter or check out her website at morganctalbot.blogspot.com
Morgan C. Talbot: The Two-Genre System
I write in two different genres. My epic fantasy writing appeals to my incurable curiosity about How Things Work. And by “things,” I mean everything from oceanic currents to how people get their carbohydrates to weird creature abilities what happens to city dwellers’ poo. (It’s gotta go somewhere.) I geek out over the ancient history of the landmass’s creation—subduction with a hint of volcanism, or the other way around? I draw maps by hand, of everything from continents to city layout. Doing so helps me visualize the area better. Deep down, I really enjoy the control I have over literally every aspect of my characters’ world. I’m basically their creating goddess, and I’m not always merciful.
The other genre I write in is cozy mystery. Cozy, specifically, because I love that small-town, squad-goals feel of an everyday girl and her friends sussing out the bad apple in their midst. The focus is on a happy ending, with emphasis on the characters’ daily lives and hobbies. We can all be a cozy mystery heroine, the genre says. We can handle it.
These genres don’t really overlap. You won’t find a lot of fantasy-world mystery novels on the shelves. Fantasy expects me to create entire believable civilizations from scratch, while Mystery asks me to use reality (for the most part) and right a wrong. Fantasy is less concerned with justice for every crime than it is with providing some engaging escapism. Mystery relies on the predictable nature of humanity and small-town life.
I adore all these things about my genres, because they’re close to my heart, even though some things are closer to the left ventricle, and others to the right. I love the absolute freedom to create anything my imagination can envision. At the same time, it’s easier to work on complex motives and secrets when the world they inhabit is familiar and comfortable.
It takes a lot of work to create a new world, though. I’ve been working on my latest fantasy world for about fifteen years now, off and on—I finally feel like I’ve learned enough to do it justice. In that time, I’ve written literally all my other novels: three series’ worth. Building everything from nothing is intimidating some days. The struggle with Mystery is not its complexity, but its expectations. The villain gets a head start, and the interplay of sleuth and villain needs to feel organic while furthering the plot and allowing the sleuth to have downtime with her friends and family. And hopefully a cute pet. Or cupcakes.
For years I’ve imagined my characters like actors who auditioned for the part. They get hired, but the writer is still writing the script. I’ve stuck my heroes in mid-pirate-battle overnight and imagined them hanging from the rigging, cursing me roundly, unable to get down for a coffee or even a pee break. Or, of course, they argue with me. “I don’t sound like that. I want to say it this way,” they protest. And I get them a chai and tell them they have to say it my way because they’re foreshadowing something awesome, and we haggle over word choice for twenty minutes. I’ve had side characters chime in, taking my main character’s side against me. That was a weird day. Basically, treating them like they’re real people allows me a deeper insight into their motivations and goals. I suppose I get it from all the people-watching I do. I’ve been told that I’m spot-on with inferring people’s backstories and motives, but I’ve also been told that I creep people out when I speak up about it. I’ll take that as a compliment because this creeptastic skill helps me do my job better.
I’m a woman of two genres, and never the twain shall meet, except in my heart, ventricle to ventricle. I tried giving up each genre at different times, and I found that I couldn’t. The muses won’t let me. And I’ve learned never to argue with your muse. She always wins.
Today in our “Genres (and why we write them)” blog series, we have Mystery and Suspense/Thrillers writer, Russ Hall, author of the Al Quinn series. Follow Russ on Facebook or find him at his website: www.russhall.com
Russ Hall: Writing Mysteries & Suspense/Thrillers. Vive la Différence
I write mysteries and suspense/thrillers because I like puzzles. Readers of mysteries like to be intellectually challenged, to dig, to discover, to work things out to a resolution. Readers in this genre are smart puppies and pretty good at figuring things out, so it’s a challenge to spin them a story that engages and pulls all the way to the end.
Mysteries are all about unraveling the knot, whether from Nero Wolf’s armchair to Sherlock Holmes sniffing around out on a trail. They are often, though not always, more intellectual than physical. Clues must exist in the story if the reader is to participate.
Suspense/thrillers, like the books in the Al Quinn series, have some element of mystery to the stories, in which the dénouement has to be unfolded, or untied by the reader. The reader’s path is additionally one of exploration and discovery. It’s interactive. However, the thriller part is action/adventure with danger that spices the story and keeps those pages turning at a blazing pace.
These are the kinds of books I like to read, because I am a participant in the discovery and danger, all from the comfort of a reading chair.
When writing these books I stay tuned to a mantra Stephen King shares: “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” So it’s important to share and show just enough of the looks, smells, and feel of the settings and characters so they become alive on the stage in the reader’s mind.
To keep my readers guessing I don’t outline the Al Quinn stories. I want to be as surprised
by the twists, turns, and outcome as the reader. If I can’t tell how the story is going to turn out, the reader usually can’t.
A lot has happened to books in the space in the past few years. Once a fan of such books could physically read all of them published in a year. Now that simply isn’t possible. Way too many come out.
What makes books in the genre stand out now is distinctiveness. As the books become more cinematographic, and the story lines character-driven, a lot depends on the hook for a series to gather a growing audience.
The hook in the Al Quinn series is that he is a retired sheriff’s detective and hoped to idle his days alone, but is instead beleaguered by a houseful of people as quirky as himself, all while being immersed in cases as dangerous as he’s ever faced.
In a genre that has been known to split into categories—from cozy to hard-knuckle to police-procedural—the Al Quinn books, are in a space kiddingly (I hope) known as “geezer” fiction. Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri series is one quite good example. Instead of a young and strong character battling the odds, the reader follows the adventures of someone older who must fight the good fight while feeling the same aches and ouches that the reader might experience.
Now, I’m not fond of breaking a genre down into such categories, because good characters and well-told stories can be a form of literature that deserves to be read by a wide audience. Putting aside his age, Al Quinn is pretty fit and able for his years, and he gets himself crossways of some messes I would certainly avoid.
But Al is able to sort himself through and scrap himself out of whatever cataclysmic tangle he faces to a conclusion few readers can anticipate. And he does so, albeit with a few scrapes and bruises, in the nick of time, heroically, while managing to save others. Now isn’t that just the sort of thing to read on the plane, on the beach, or in that cozy reading chair with the fireplace going and a glass of wine or beverage of choice within reach while poor Al is going through all that?
About the Author
A writer of mysteries, thrillers, westerns, poetry, and nonfiction books, Russ Hall has had more than twenty books published. In 1996 he won the Nancy Pickard Mystery Fiction Award for short fiction. In 2011 he was awarded Sage Award, by The Barbara Burnett Smith Mentoring Authors Foundation–an award for the mentoring author who demonstrates an outstanding spirit of service in mentoring, sharing and leading others in the mystery writing community. In 2014 he won First Place in the Austin International Poetry Festival. In 2015 The Writers’ League of Texas awarded “To Hell and Gone in Texas” its Fiction Discovery Prize.
This week in our blog series “Genres (and why we write them)” we have author, Katrina Monroe, who describes what she writes as humorous fantasy. Mostly. You can find her books on Amazon here, follow her on Twitter, or visit The Deviant Dollshere.
Katrina Monroe: Write What You Love
I tend to think of genre as a Russian matryoshka doll with FICTION at the beginning, opening to endless sub-genres, niches, and caveats. Categorizing a novel is anything but a science and attempting to make it one is an exercise in self-torture. Two novels of similar content and style could easily be considered two entirely different genres.
Just to be contrary, let’s call what I write humorous fantasy.
Well, except ALL DARLING CHILDREN. That’s not really humorous at all unless you consider the systematic murder of orphan boys funny.
See? We’ve already hit a snag.
Humorous fantasy is exactly what it sounds like. Fantasy that makes you laugh. Or hopefully makes you laugh. I’m no stranger to dud jokes. Comedy isn’t huge in the traditional publishing world and there are few authors who succeed (success, of course, being defined as making a living through publishing novels) in those particular genres. The ones who do are usually men.
So, why do I write it?
I have two major reasons. First, to be contrary (isn’t that a great word?) Romance is seen as the women’s genre, while the rest tend to be dominated by men. It’s ridiculous, and I have every intention of stomping on those stereotypes. By writing raunchy, comedic fantasy (with few romantic entanglements), I hope to appeal to an audience that wouldn’t necessarily read my work based solely on my obviously female name. Plus, women like boob jokes, too.
The second reason is a pretty simple one. I write the books I want to read. If there was any rule for the kinds of books an author should focus their efforts on, it’s that one. My favorite authors all write humorous fantasy, or humorous memoir, or humorous literary whatever. Point is, they’re funny. Satiric in most cases. I like thrillers. I like mystery. But I love to laugh and I love fairy tales. Humorous fantasy was a natural fit.
Writing humorous fantasy does present its own special problems, though. There are “rules” for writing fantasy, and some taboos applicable to today’s market. If you’ve ever perused the #MSWL (manuscript wish list) tag on twitter, you’ll see that each “I want fantasy” tweet is often followed by a “non-European” caveat. I get it. There are a million sword and sorcery books out there, but few that incorporate non-western culture. The world needs culture diversity, but I’m not the author to give it. I have a weird obsession with European culture, not just British but eastern European, too. It’s my heritage and I find the history fascinating (and too tempting not to capture in satire).
As a result, I’m not a “big name” author. I have my audience and they’re loyal and I love them, but I’m far from quitting my day job. In spite of that (and maybe because of it), I will continue to write what I love. Otherwise, what would be the point? It helps, though, to find a group of authors in the same boat. Author Renee Miller and I founded the Deviant Dolls, a publications group that encourages writers to write the things they love and put them out into the world, regardless of market trends and Big Six desires. Find yourself nodding along to what I’ve said so far? We’d love to have you.
About the Author
Katrina Monroe is a novelist, mom, and snark-slinger extraordinaire. Her worst habits include: eating pretty much anything with her fingers, yelling at inappropriate times, and being unable to focus on important things like dinner and putting on pants. She collects quotes like most people collect, well, other things. Her favorite is, “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” – Dorothy Parker
Brenda Hummel: Young Adult Genre and Uneven Playing Fields
I love reading and writing YA, but the marketing side of this genre is tricky. You have to appeal to two distinct audiences: the young adults plus the older adults in their lives. Since most young teens do not have Amazon accounts or autonomy to buy whatever they feel like reading, they must get parent permission or school approval to acquire a book. Most parents and teachers are not reading and screening stacks of YA books in order to provide their charges with a range of choices. Instead, millions of parents and teachers rely on American Library Journal to rate and review YA books. Moms and teachers know if ALJ says it’s okay, it’s okay! Seems simple—get your book in ALJ. Not simple—you have to submit at least 15 weeks prior to publication. It’s then or never! (If anyone knows a way to get in ALJ after publication, please, please, please let me know!)
So why, in the name of sanity, write in a genre in which you must to win two audiences, who often have opposite tastes and opinions? Because I have no choice. Polarity in Motion had to be written. When Polarity’s nude photo shows up on the Internet, her journey distills the voices of teens I’ve known. Her eyes are opened to more than the dangers of a photo prank. She discovers that the playing field is not even for all kids. This message is my passion. My heart. I cannot not tell it.
Still, there have been moments since Polarity met the world, when I’ve wondered whether I want to keep writing in a genre that is tough to market. But this past school year, those moments of doubt ceased. A high school class from the Northern Lights Community School in Warba, Minnesota read Polarity in Motion. Their teacher Gail Ann Otteson and I had met through Goodreads, and she set up a Facetime conversation with her class and me. I don’t have the words to do justice to the rich experience of having high school students react to my book. Their young faces and their insights warmed my heart and energized my creativity. For example, there’s a strange character, Arvey, who slinks in and out of the Polarity’s life, doing a wicked thing for twisted reasons. Mrs. Otteson’s students asked questions about Arvey and wanted to know if there will be a book about her. Up until that instant, the answer was, “no.” I’m done with Arvey. But now Arvey stomps around in my head demanding that her story be told. At this moment she’s leaning across my dining room table smirking at my laptop screen, too unimpressed to even roll her eyes. Arvey is one of those kids who is looking at an even playing field, but she knows her own feet will never touch it.
I asked Mrs. Otteson’s class if they would like to read chapters from the new book I’m writing (Polarity in Love), and they said, “Yes!” Critiquing chapter by chapter, these students are as insightful as any editor I’ve worked with. I love these students! For example, I used the word “tingle” (way too often) when describing Polarity’s feelings about her hunk, Ethan. The class nixed the tingles. So I’m working on new YA pleasing plus parent appeasing lingo for tingling. How lucky to have this kind of feedback!
Even with the genre’s double marketing challenges, people like Gail Otteson and her students are motivation to keep me in YA! My journey is not that different from Polarity’s. We both can’t stay out of the uneven playing field.
About the Author
Brenda Vicars has worked in Texas public education for many years. Her jobs have included teaching, serving as a principal, and directing student support programs. For three years, she also taught college English to prison inmates. She entered education because she felt called to teach, but her students taught her the biggest lesson: the playing field is not even for all kids. Through her work, she became increasingly compelled to bring their unheard voices to the page. The heartbeat of her fiction emanates from the courage and resiliency of her students.