Saturday, April 5, 2014

A world of one's own

Game of Thrones' new season starts tomorrow. I can't say that specifically gave me the idea for today's post, but it's in keeping. I've been watching more television than I usually have for the past few years. I tell myself it's so I can study how television screenwriters do story but really it's so I can have some together time with my husband. We tend to watch shows that we can both live with. Lately it's Justified, the story about a federal marshall who sometimes steps over the line in trying to bring justice to a wild part of Kentucky (terrific writing, amazing characters) and Vikings. I'm not sure how we got into Vikings. It's visually striking--the landscapes, the costumes and architecture--but not as rich a story and, of course, pretty gory. We just started watching Deadwood, the old HBO Western that starred Timothy Oliphant (of Justified), though it's too soon to tell if it will become a favorite.

Which brings us to the point of the post today. I was thinking of Justified and how it's about to wrap up this season and as we type, the show's producers are working on next season (which will also be the last season). Which is the real world of the show: the world of the viewers or the producers? Are they living in the future or are we living in the past? The producers and directors, actors and set designers, all working away in secrecy for others to enjoy a year later. By the time the audience gets to see it, it's a memory for all the people who worked on the show. It's almost impossible for them to have the same experience of the show.

This came to me because I'm working on a new book. A new book is a really personal thing: it's really just you, the author. You may tell some of your friends about it or share chapters with other writers for their opinion of a passage. But mostly it's just you moving through that world all alone. Like paddling a boat down a river while the river world unfurls around you. You try to capture the unfurling and to bring it back to tell others, but mostly you're alone in this lush, rich new world. 

The new world is Georgian England, around 1780. The country is highly divided between rich and poor. Although the war with the colonies is stretching the country pretty think both economically and politically, England has for years been steadily growing richer; more people have more money, although there are still a lot of poor. On top of that, there is are not many instruments of authority. Crime is rampant with no organized police forces yet, except in London and it is still experimental. Many men try their hand at highway banditry: robbing travelers but at the peril of their life if caught. Two of the main characters of the new book are brothers, twins, who have decided to seek their fortune as highwaymen. Into their lives stumbles a young woman, a servant just turned out by the family that employed her, left to make her own way. The three strike up a very unusual arrangement and set out to see if they can define their own place in the world.

Only time will tell if the book ends up bring published, which seems to me analogous to the moment when a television series goes on the air, the time when the vision of its creators is shared with the rest of the world. In the meantime, it's just me whittling and polishing my private world, hoping to make it luminous enough to draw other people to its light.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

How do you tell a story in tweets?

Twitter is holding its second Fiction Festival in a few days, March 12 - 16, and I'm happy to say that I'm one of the featured authors.

People have been toying around with Twitter as a platform for fiction. As far back as 2008--when Twitter was just starting to get really big--"twitter novels" were starting to become popular in Japan, for instance, but didn't gain much traction here. Over the years, people have continued to try different approaches, everything from flash fiction on Twitter to six-word sentences, to long form told out in hundreds of 140-character tweets.

If you go to the Twitter Fiction Festival website, you'll see the story ideas from a couple dozen writers of all genres that will play out over the next few days on Twitter. The first Fiction Festival was perhaps a bit more international, whereas this year's features mostly well known writers (myself excluded, of course) from all genres, from poetry and playwriting and non-fiction, to literary fiction, mystery, science fiction and young adult. I am amazed at the creativity of my fellow participants. That's one of the nice things about participating in an experiment like this: you get to get out of the ordinary. Get out of your rut. When I first thought about it, I was more than a little nervous. The constraints of writing on Twitter mean that you can't write the kind of fiction that you're used to as a novelist (or can you?). No exposition. You can't go waxing poetically about the setting or scenery--you can't go waxing long about anything, not in a tweet. What about dialogue? And if you're telling a story from a particular character's point of view, does that mean you set up a Twitter account for that character from which to tweet the story? As you can see, there are a lot of considerations and restrictions.

On the other hand, you can put in things that you can't normally have in a novel, like images, and this is what sparked my imagination. I decided that I would tell a story with images and I wanted the images to be strongly linked to place. It made sense to make Washington DC the place since, this is where I live (okay, technically I live in northern Virginia) and after 30 years here, I think I have a good sense of the character of the people who live here (or a subset at least, the army of employees of the federal government who live here).

After coming up with a rough idea of what the story would be about, I drafted my husband into chauffeuring me around the city so I could take the pictures that would be sprinkled through the tweeting. This is a bigger deal than you might think because even on a Sunday afternoon, (a) traffic in DC is terrible and (b) parking is even worse. I spent a day deciding which sites we'd visit and plotting out the most economical route possible. In the end, we left out about a third of the sites because it took even longer than we thought to make our way across the city. I'd wanted to photograph some lesser-known, not your usual DC tourist type places for the story, so you won't see monuments or the Capitol building. Unfortunately, some of the quirkier spots ending up getting cut because of the dang traffic.

I hope you'll join the Twitter Fiction Festival. If you're a reader, I think you'll be treated to some inventive storytelling that you won't see anywhere else. And if you're a writer, I think you might see storytelling in a whole new--and maybe liberating--light. I'm in the process of finishing up my story--over a hundred tweets so far, and growing--and have been amazed at how liberating it is to put a story together in a completely different way.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What is a descent myth?

If you've read anything about The Descent, you know that it's about Lanny, the heroine of the trilogy, going to the underworld to beg for the return of Jonathan, the man she had wronged by drawing him into her eternal punishment. I knew from the very beginning, from when I was just starting to piece the story together, that it would end this way. Her dilemma is made all the richer by because the only way she can get to the afterlife is with the help of Adair, the man she fears (and loves) the most, the only one with the ability to access the magical world.

Underworld myths abound throughout all the cultures of the world. These myths are meant to teach us several lessons, foremost being the finality of death. At the same time, these myths are often highly romantic, sending a hero or heroine into the underworld on an impossible quest: to bring someone you love back to the land of the living. We're probably all familiar with the story of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, Greek goddess of the harvest. The story that sparked my imagination was actually about the wife of a general (Roman, I think) who went to the underworld to beg for the return of her husband, who was being kept by the goddess of the dead. Or something like that: I'd heard it a long time ago in a class at Johns Hopkins from a poetry professor and by the time I decided to use it in the trilogy, many years had passed. I didn't know the exact story the professor had cited and he seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth. I was able to find a few myths that fit the general story but was not able to trace it back to the exact story. 

If you're unfamiliar with underworld myths, here are the two most famous ones to get you started:

Persephone’s story is the most famous of all the underworld tales and one that is full of love: love of the dark lonely god Hades for Persephone, the love of a mother for her daughter. Demeter’s daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld, so that she would be his bride. Demeter petitioned Zeus on her daughter’s behalf, and Zeus determined that Persephone could return as long as she had not eaten the food of the dead. While Persephone had refused to eat for most of her time in the underworld, she slipped up once, eating six pomegranate seeds. Zeus makes a King Solomon-like decision by allowing Persephone to split her time between the world above and the underworld. Every time Persephone is in the underworld with Hades, the mourning Demeter covers the earth in cold and snow, explaining the changing of the seasons.

·       The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is the inspiration for my book The Descent. When Eurydice, wife of the famed Greek minstrel Orpheus, dies, Orpheus goes into the Underworld to convince Hades and Persephone to let his wife return to him. His songs move them to grant his wish, with a catch: during their trip to the surface, Orpheus cannot look back at his wife. If he does, she must remain in the Underworld. You know what happens next: at the last minute, Orpheus’ curiosity wins out (can you blame him? The Greek gods are a notoriously tricky bunch) and he turns around, only to see his wife's shade disappear.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Soliloquy on a lesser demon

I had a Skype session with a lovely book club in Georgia this evening when the question of the character Stolas came up. Had we met Stolas earlier in the trilogy, they asked. It seemed he was such an important character that it was odd that he only showed up in the last part of The Descent.

Without giving too much away to anyone who has not yet read The Descent, I thought I would tell you a little bit about where the idea for him came from. Stolas is one of the hundreds of named demons from Hell.  He was not a minor one, described in Johann Weir's grimoire Pseudomonarchia daemonum as "a high prince of Hell commanding 26 legions" of demons. He is also learned, knowledgeable about astronomy, botany and the like. Which seemed to make him suitable to be a servant of Adair. Of course, he is not an owl but as I wrote his part I pictured him as having an owl-like appearance and you can feel free to do so, too.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

From the book launch on January 14

Sometime before the book launch party at One More Page Books, I got it into my head that I should videotape it and put excerpts up on YouTube. Not because I thought there was a great hungering out for videos of me talking about my books--far from it. But I knew I wouldn't be doing many events for the release (it's a bad time of year for travel), and there were readers who asked when I'd be coming to their area, and so I thought they might be interested in seeing a clip from an event and see that they weren't missing much (haha).

I asked my husband to tape it and we decided we might as well do it on his iPhone. Since it was first and foremost in our minds that this wasn't going to be a big deal, we didn't do much. Got a stand so the picture wouldn't be wobbly. (If you're looking for some good straightforward advice on taking movies on your cell phone, this NY Times video is great.)

All that was the easy part. The hard part was downloading from the phone to the right computer, getting a video-editing package to work, etc. Long story short: I finally managed to snip out three fairly short videos from that evening.

The lovely woman to my left is Jenn Lawrence, from Jenn's Bookshelves. She is a friend and prominent Northern Virginia book blogger and she graciously agreed to interview me for the event.

In the first video, we talk about the inspiration for The Taker:

This one is about living in "Colonial Ground Zero" and researching the past:

And this last one is about the characters in the novels, especially the one you love to hate:

I hope you enjoy them.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Winners; what happens after the Descent? and upcoming events

Jenn Lawrence, Terry Nebeker, me, Allison Leotta
and Kathy McCleary at the book release event at
One More Page Books, Arlington, Virginia
We're almost at the end, friends. The book has been out for a couple weeks and the hub bub is dying down. Such is life. We have our 15 minutes of fame but now things get back to normal. Let me tidy up a few loose ends:
  • Congratulations to the winners of our giveaway (the complete trilogy in trade paperback and a $50 gift card): Laura, Michaela and Robyn! We had almost 3000 entries, a great turnout. Thanks to everyone who helped spread the word.
  • You've read The Descent but you want to know what happens next? At A Dream of Books I give a day-in-the-life for Lanny after the conclusion of The Descent. Massive spoilers!! Read at your own peril.
  • In The Taker books, alchemy crosses over into the magical. Is this an accurate reflection of how alchemy was viewed and practiced, historically? I discuss this at SF Signal.
  • Nice review for The Descent and the series at and 20something Reads.
  • I loved this review at akiiKOMORIreading so much that I made this image and will share on Instagram and Pinterest. Do you have a blurb for any of the books? Put them in the comments below and I'll make images and send them out.

I'm not doing too many events for the book release, but if you're in the area I'd love to see you:

  • January 29th, 7 PM: George Mason Public Library in Annandale, Virginia
  • February 12th, 7 PM: Falmouth Historical Society and Museum. I'll be talking about writing historical novels.
  • February 13th, 6 PM: UConn bookstore at the Storrs Center. Discussion, reading and signing.
  • February 15th, 2-3 PM: Ashburn Library, reading and signing.
  • February 20th, 7 PM: Gum Spring Library, Stone Ridge, Virginia. I'm meeting with the library's book club to discuss The Taker, but all are invited.
Details (locations, links) to all these events are available on the website.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Still more news and interviews: The Descent round-up continues

But first, this interruption: reader Meg Gregory passed along this article about an apartment in Paris that had been abandoned by its owner when the Nazis invaded and was now a virtual time capsule of 1942. Meg said it made her think of Lanny's townhouse in Paris, a jumble of mementoes of the past. If you haven't seen the photos of the inside of the apartment it's definitely worth a look. The painting is of the owner herself, who had been an actress.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming . . .

  • Falcata Times gets me to talk about my dangerous childhood in Alaska and why the cold figures so prominently in The Taker books. Also there's a super nice review of The Descent: "all around a great book".
  • At One More Page, a wonderful UK book blog, an interview. Here's an excerpt: "What was the biggest surprise for you in character development over the course of the trilogy? What happens to Adair—going from being quite evil (if charismatic) where everyone hates you, all the way to having readers root for you—was a pretty tricky thing to pull off. I wasn’t sure readers would go along with it but so far (knock on wood) from the reviews and feedback I’ve seen, readers are finding his journey to be quite rewarding."
  • An interview at science fiction/fantasy site SF Signal.
  • My top ten underworld myths and a chance to win a copy of The Descent at All Things Urban Fantasy.
  • Over at Mass Movement Magazine, I show the inspirations for The Taker in books and movies.
  • A review by one of my earliest reviewers, Christa S. at More Than Just Magic.
  • The wonderful Lelia at Pop Culture Nexis gives a shout out for The Descent: "A shocking and satisfying conclusion."