Y: Yuck/Yum, or, being an author who hates caffeine

It’s my curse.

A writer runs on caffeine. Most creative types do. Hell, most noncreative types do! Caffeine brings your brain to life, chases away all the cobwebs, and lets you work to your best potential.

So what good is a writer who hates coffee?

I’d tried it all! Iced coffee, hot coffee, lots of sugar, lots of cream, fancy espresso mixed drinks… I hated it all! I tried dealing with it and gaining it as an acquired taste, but that was no good, either. I hated it more and more the more I drank it!

It’s a little silly, but not liking coffee makes you feel… bad. You feel like a little kid. And especially in a subculture that loves coffee so much, you sometimes feel… kind of like an outsider? Oh, stop laughing. I told you it was silly!

starbucks canada, bring back valencia orange!
starbucks canada, bring back valencia orange!

In the end I did find my salvation: Starbucks Refreshers!

They’re full of caffeine so they really give you that amazing boost when you drink them, but they’re also sweet and fruity, but they also don’t just taste like juice. They have a really interesting flavour. There are hints of caffeine in it, but not too much! They have lots of different flavours so you can switch them up when you get bored, too!

I still wish I could just like coffee, though! Only Starbucks really has refreshers, and they can be a little pricey! Alas, this is my curse, and I must live with it.

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X: Xhilerating Xercise Xceeds Xpectations, or, writing while walking, or, xs are stupid don’t look at me

A nice, slow walk on a perfect day is just the best. Something about it always gets my creative juices flowing. I can’t even guess at all the hours I’ve spent muttering to myself on the beautiful forested trails in my hometown, brainstorming and even fully outlining scenes.  It’s a bit embarrassing, but sometimes I’ll even compose dialogues back and forth between characters, sounding out the way it should flow with my own voice. And the beat of my feet keeps me going.

It’s hard to say what it is about walking that makes me start writing entire books in my head. If I’m trying to actually burn calories and exercise, the creativity fades. I’m focused on what I’m doing, and keeping together thoughts is tough. But when I’m taking my time, strolling, enjoying the day… it’s like words just come.

honestly, I feel creative just looking at it.
honestly, I feel creative just looking at it.

When I need inspiration or am suffering a little writer’s block or am trying to put together my scattered ideas for something, it’s always a walk that gets me going. Places like this are my lifeblood. Looking at this photograph makes me want to put on my sneakers and breathe in some fresh, clean air. Being by myself in places like this turns me into the most talented person alive. The ideas come faster than I can catch them and everything just slides into place.

Of course, a lot of it fades once I sit back down. But I can carry little pieces of it with me, and I do. There are so many great scenes in my debut novel that were sketched out and pieced together while I walked a beautiful forest trail. There’s a magic out there, plain and simple.

As a footnote, gosh I hate the letter X. What a useless thing it is! It’s essentially useless in English unless it’s attached to an E! This language is maddening sometimes. It’s a good thing that we’ve stolen all the nice words from every other language out there. You need something to recommend you, English!

W: Write Women Unique

Here is the trick to writing strong female characters:

Write your women unique.

We need frumpy housewives to stand beside femme fatales and for both of them to be equally valuable to the narrative. We need fine ladies in sparkling gowns and we need rough tomboys in stained overalls. We need women who spend five hours on their hair and women who shave their heads. We need ladies in politics and ladies on the battlefield. We need adventurers and we need beaurocrats. We need women who are amorally machiavellian and women who are dedicated to a code to the point of fanaticisim. We need tall fat women and short bony women. We need black women and white women and brown women.

When all your female characters stand together, they should create a beautiful collage of opinions, colours, outlooks, sizes, and paradigms. They should agree on some things and be willing to fight it out on others. They should each be different.

When none of your female characters are comfortable in dresses, you have a problem. When none of your female characters can handle themselves in a fight, you have a problem. When none of your female characters are interested in romance, you have a problem. When none of your female characters are focused on their careers, you have a problem. When none of your female characters want to have children, you have a problem.

And when those “nones” become “all?” You still have a problem.

Real women are unique. We come in every single variation you can possibly imagine. We’re all strong in different ways and we’re all weak in others. We all value different things. We all have different dreams, different fears, and different desires.

Strong female characters aren’t a template. Strong female characters are a rainbow.

V: Venomous Opinions from Point of View Characters

One of the cornerstones of my writing style is my fanatical dedication to character voice. It’s very important to me that every single word of the narration feels as if it’s coming from my point of view character and not from me. That applies to everything. What’s observed and what’s ignored, what metaphors or similies are used, the exact words chosen to describe something… it’s just so important to me that those things always feel like they’re attached to the narrator. I want my POV characters to be the lens through which the entire story is observed. This is something I love about my writing!

But I also make a point to have my characters be flawed. So what do I do when those flaws come through and infect the narrative?

It’s hard. Even though my characters are the ones telling the story, it can still be very offputting. My primary narrator is a traditional sort of young man who’s never been in a situation to have his very default views challenged. Though he grows a lot throughout the planned four books, he’s still, for example, scandalized and confused by LGBT people. When he sees his first black woman, he performs the faux pas of immediately comparing her skin to coffee. And sometimes it’s just basic stuff, like the fact that he’s twenty, inexperienced, and notices women in an entirely sexual way.

While that’s him, and not me, I need to make sure that the reader knows that I know it’s not okay! So then we reach a point where a trade-off has to be made.

I’ve come up with a few little tricks. One is to have him actually vocalize his ugly thoughts whenever possible, so that someone else in the scene who’s more forward minded can be annoyed by him. This also helps creates a diversity of opinion within the story, which immediately makes it feel more real.

But people don’t always just say what they’re thinking outloud, and that’s when I have to admit that I’m still struggling daily with what to do. I don’t like to sanitize my characters. I like them flawed. I like them real. I like their predjudices, hang-ups, and ugly thoughts. At the same time, I think it’s extremely important to make it apparant to my readers that they are flaws.

I tweak and I tweak. I ask opinions from my workshop friends, my agent, my editors. I make sure people know that I want to be told is something is coming off the wrong way. And I just do my best and constantly look to improve. I think that’s all any of us can do.

U: Undressing History, or, fashion research and invention

I had to do a lot of fashion research for my debut novel. My protagonist is very concerned with appearances and is always studying people to see how they hold up against the current trends. That meant that I had to know what those trends were, in enough detail that Christopher Buckley could fixate on it.

Some authors are just immensely talented at writing descriptions of clothing. Gail Carriger is one of them. When I read her words, the gowns and coats she’s painting just come alive. I admire the incredibe detail that goes into her work. I just can’t do that! I have to be a little more subtle in my descriptions to give them that sort of life, and let my reader fill in some details.

That’s why I find it actually really hard to just describe clothing in photographs! What I write never comes out looking how I want it to. And that’s why I like to mix a little bit of invention in with my research.

My novel may have the aesthetic of Edwardian England, but it doesn’t actually take place there. So I’ve been able to have some fun. I add and take away bits from the fashions of the time, mixing things that were in fashion years before, years later, or never in fashion at all.

M-4316I’ll start with something like this beautiful plate, and then just… tweak it a bit. Sometimes for ease of writing, where I might obscure the exact cut of the overgarment. And sometimes to conform to my little world-building details, where I’d give her lace gloves because I wrote those as a current fashion trend in Darrington. And then I might tweak a little or a lot more depending on the character. Fashion isn’t universal, after all! While my narrator, Chris, always is dressed to the very letter of the stylebook, his boss, Olivia Faraday, likes to experiment and shock with her choices. I might drop the underdress entirely above the waist for her to give a plunging neckline, or have her throw leather belt to cinch the waist up.

I admire the hell out of people who can write actual historicals, but one of the reasons I don’t is because I’m not interested in mimicking a time or place, but in creating one. Allowing myself a bit of flexibility while still remaining true to an overall aesthetic leaves things a little loose and strange.

T: Technology and Fantasy, or, the story of the flashbulb camera

Today I’m just going to tell a little story about something that happened to me while I was writing my debut novel, The Deathsniffer’s Assistant, and how it relates to figuring out the level of technology your fantasy novel can have.

I was writing a scene where reporters are trying to get a statement on a major event. Newspapers have been around since long before the Edwardian era, and they’re a major background presence in my books. But I got wondering about illustrations, and decided to do some research about the history of photography.

As it turns out, the earliest use of what we’d consider a camera, with film and flashes of light, was invented in the latter half of the 19th century. But photography’s development was stymied by the methods that had to be used to get the bright flash of light required. The theory of photography has been around since ancient China and Greece. However, it was only with the advent of gunpowder that the ability to create a burst of light bright enough on command became possible. And my society never discovered gunpowder! Suffice to say, I couldn’t just use our history of the camera. I had to trace and conceptualize an alternate history.

As it turns out, that wasn’t very hard. In my world, technology is mostly achieved by spiritbinders, mages who summon elementals from another plane and bind them into objects, creating enchanted power sources for them. One of those elements rules light and darkness. It would have been beyond easy for my spiritbinders to have developed the camera flash a lot earlier than ever happened in our world.

it just screams
it just screams “old school.”

Enter the iconic flashbulb camera. It wasn’t invented until decades after the era I was aiming for, but it fit with aesthetic regardless. Who doesn’t feel a burst of early 20th century nostalgia at the sight of a flashbulb? And moreover: using the flashbulb actually made more sense. If spiritbinders had developed a method of reliably creating a flash earlier than photographers in our world did, their tech would be more advanced than ours in the same era.

And so I just used it! I think the image of all those camera flashing and popping gives the scene it’s used in a lot of life and character, and I actually ended up working elements of its unconventional tech into the plot instead of just using it for set dressing!

The moral of the story is that good fantasy tech should feel organic to the world. Don’t just think about what year you’re going for and check what year X or Y was invented in. Look into how it was invented, and see if and how your society could produce it! Those little touches add a lot of realism.

S: Stirring up Genre Stew

My debut novel, The Deathsniffer’s Assistant, is a classic whodunnit mystery novel. There’s a brilliant detective and her erstwhile assistant. There’s a gruesome murder. There’s a suspicious grieving widow, a conniving mistress, and a slimy creditor. It has all the elements of a by the numbers detective yarn.

It also has some more elements. A lot more elements.

The Deathsniffer’s Assistant is a genre smash to say the least! I’m telling a coherant and full murder mystery at the same time as a fantasy novel filled with wonderous creatures and strange magic. And as if that wasn’t enough,  I also thought it would be a good idea to write relationship driven, very personal character arcs for the two leads that have a beginning, middle, and end… and while we’re here, let’s throw in an overarching narrative with conspiracies and ecomonic depression and feuding political ideologies and… geez!

I love genre-mashing, but it’s tough! You need to provide what your reader is looking for in every element you’re covering. I knew that to do it well, I had to identify just what those things were.

I tried to pinpoint the most important elements of each of the different genres I was pulling together and incorporated them. But even that was a challenge! If I included every major expected beat from all of my genres separately, the book would be way too cluttered. So then there was combining my touchstones into macro-events, trying to handle multiple genre expectations in the same scene, finding places that the genres overlapped so one beat could pull double duty…

It’s hard to tell what you really have until someone else sees it. I remember finishing my first draft, both elated and terrified. I had finished a novel, and I thought it was good… maybe. Or maybe it was a completely unreadable mess that was trying to be too many things at once. What if my genre stew disappointed mystery fans and fantasy fans at the same time?
But no! What a relief it’s been to have so many people tell me that they loved the way I combined all the different elements together. And I think the key was that I always kept in mind that to tell so many stories at once, I had to juggle them all with equal respect.

COVER REVEAL for THE DEATHSNIFFER’S ASSISTANT

My mother put together a little book documenting the years of my young life. Every year, she’d give me a little interview. What is your favourite memory? What was your favourite subject? Who were your best friends?

Then the big one: what do you want to be when you grow up?

Starting right from kindergarten, my choice never wavered: I want to be an author.

Today I’m so pleased to take a huge step toward fulfilling this lifelong dream by sharing with you all the cover of my debut novel, available this July, THE DEATHSNIFFER’S ASSISTANT.

click for full size!
click for full size!

ABOUT THE DEATHSNIFFER’S ASSISTANT:
After losing his parents in the Floating Castle Incident, the sensitive and mannered Chris Buckley has spent six years raising his magically talented little sister, Rosemary, on the savings that his once-wealthy family left behind. But that money is drying up, and Chris finds himself with no choice but to seek out work in Darrington City as it spirals into a depression. The only employer willing to consider his empty résumé is Olivia Faraday, the manic Deathsniffer. Olivia’s special magical gift gives her a heightened intuition which makes her invaluable in hunting down murderers.

When a Duchess of the mysterious Old Blooded Nobility calls on Olivia to solve the mystery of her dead husband, Chris finds himself tangled in Olivia Faraday’s daily life and unable to extract himself from the macabre questions of the investigation. His involvement grows more complicated as political forces in Darrington close around Rosemary, seeing her as a tool that can be used to end the depression at the cost of her freedom—or even her life. Chris must juggle the question of who killed Viktor val Daren with the responsibility of keeping Rosemary and her magic safe from those who would use her up and toss her aside. Worst of all, he begins to learn that the national disaster that took his parents’ lives may not have been the accident it seemed.

The Deathsniffer’s Assitant will be available JULY 13th. Check it out on Goodreads and mark it to-read, and check out its page on the Curiosity Quills Press website for updates!

R: Random Facts About Me

I’ve talked a lot about my writing, a lot about my inspirations, and a lot about my interests. But what about me? It’s tough because I’m a super private person! I don’t like putting myself out there. It’s my instinct to try and conceal facts about my life. But I want my readers to feel like they know me, so in this post I’m going to share five random facts about me that are not available anywhere else in my online profile!

1. I love cold weather and hate “nice days.”
It happens at least once a week. I’m paying for something at a cash register, and the friendly cashier looks out the window. “Horrible weather we’ve been having!” they bemoan, indicating the snow. Or “It’s finally nice outside!” they chirp, talking about the 28 C/83 F weather outside. And I smile and nod and agree and get my change, because arguing about the weather with a poor service employee just doing their job is a douchey thing to do. But deep inside, I’m crying. Because I love snow, ice, and freezing cold. And if it’s too warm for a sweater, it’s too warm for me. Something is deeply, deeply wrong inside of me, everyone agrees.

2. I didn’t eat a taco until I was 28.
It’s not that there isn’t Mexican food where I’m from. It’s just that Mexican is foreign food where I’m from, like Indian or Thai. It’s there, you just have to know where to look for it, and it’s considered something of an acquired taste among the locals. There’s only ever been one Mexican restaurant in my hometown, and it’s so high end that I never went. We don’t even have Taco Bell! My best friend is from Southern California and she finally sat me down and made me some nice, authentic tacos with real guacamole. I had no idea what I’d been missing!

3. My favourite colour is purple.
Oh, yes it is! My wardrobe, my jewelery, my makeup, even the colour I painted my bedroom… there’s a definite pattern! I love every shade! Royal, violet, wine, burgundy, magenta! Maybe it’s embarrassing to love purple (and pink!) so much, but it makes me happy, and happy is good!

I still want to be her when I grow up, I'm not gonna lie.
I have to confess: I still want to be her when I grow up. I’m not gonna lie!

4. I love mice.
Longtime blog readers might recall that my first novel when I was just a little sprout was about a nonhuman lady detective, Mary the Mouse. You also might think it sounds familiar when I say that my childhood role model was Gadget from the Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers! What came first, the chicken or the egg? I can’t say, but I do know I’ve collected mouse stuffed animals, figurines, magnets, Christmas ornaments and other bits and bobs both kitschy and classy since I can remember!

5. I love birthdays and Christmas more than anything because…
I love giving and receiving presents! I don’t know which I love more. It’s like choosing between your own children! The feeling of opening a gift and knowing that someone you love picked it out just for you? Or the look on that same loved one’s face when they see what you spent months working on? How could anyone choose! I’m like a little kid on birthdays, whether it’s mine or someone else’s. And I put little kids to shame when December 25th comes around!

Q: Queens of Fantasy, or, random female characters in fantasy who I think are ballers.

I established earlier this month that I’m a feminist. I’m proud of that. Having been interested in SFF since I was just a little girl, I’ve always loved female characters I can identify with and admire in the genre. It’s a sad fact that a lot of books I’ve read — and even books I’ve loved — just don’t have good roles for women. But it’s also a good fact that more and more every year I find a lady who makes my toes curl with joy between the pages of a fantasy novel. I’d like to hope that, with my own book coming out this summer, I’ll be contributing just a little bit to all the great fictional women out there. But for now, I want to take some time to write a love letter to some of the ones already kicking around.

To make this list a little more fun, I’m going to try to name five different female characters I adore who are all different kinds of awesome.  Because I think even more than strong female characters, we need varied female characters. So here we go!

1. Malta Vestrit (Realm of the Elderlings Series // Robin Hobb)
Malta is my favourite iteration of the spoiled, willful princess type.  She’s materialistic, petty, and self-absorbed. And while she has an amazing arc, slowly becoming more and more strong and independent and fierce, she keeps being all those things. Malta’s love for beautiful things, her unfair judgements of people, her penchant for primping in the mirror… They’re a part of her. Whether they’re good or bad doesn’t matter. Having those traits doesn’t keep her from having adventures, becoming a queen of an ancient race, and fighting tooth and nail for her family. Why can misanthropic assassins be heroes, but overindulged girly girls can’t? While she kicks ass left and right, Malta gives us the answer: there’s no reason at all.

2. Sabetha Belacoros (Gentleman Bastard series // Scott Lynch)
A con woman and spy, Sabetha gives us our roguish ne’er-do-well. Sabetha is a feminist dream. She’s politically savvy, brilliantly clever, frighteningly competent. She dresses down men who sexualize her, but is in charge and exercises agency with her own sexuality. A brilliant actress and con woman, she can play any role required of her with aplomb and loves every minute of it. Sabetha is so amazing that she almost feels like cheating to list, except for one thing — a lot of readers hate her! How did Locke Lamora ever lose his heart so completely to such a “shrill harpy?” She’s a “bitch!” And somehow, that makes me love Sabetha more, because I imagine how she’d treat the complaints: with a witty retort that left haters with their pants down while she rode away with all their money.

3. Irrith (Onyx Court series // Marie Brennan)
Irrith is my queen for the rough and tumble boyish type of character. She’s a sprite fae from northern England and is always seen with twigs in her hair, wearing tunic and leggings, making trouble. Irrith is completely unfeminine, and even prefers to glamour herself as a gentleman while walking among humans. While her arc is about understanding love and why we fragile human lives value it so much, femininity is never forced on her. She’s wild, fey, and strange, and she revels in it. The impish tomboy character isn’t uncommon in fantasy, but Irrith is one of my favourite iterations because she never resents either her own femininity, or the femininity in others. She respects the hell out of all other women and avoids that “not like those OTHER girls” trope I hate so much!

4. Phedre de Montreve (Kushiel series // Jacqueline Carey)
Ah, yes, the a curiously common erotic priestess of a strange god archetype. How can there be such an amazing version of it? Phedre is defined by her sexual appetites and preferences, her status as a prostitute, and her relationship with the god of pain and pleasure, Kushiel. And yet she’s the true mover and shaker for the most important historical events of her time and the sole narrator of her amazing story. One thing I love about Phedre is that she never learns to fight and has essentially zero action scenes. Her power all comes from her command over her sexuality and her boundless cleverness. It’s refreshing seeing a woman empowered by her story without needing to muscle her way through it.

5. Eshonai (The Stormlight Archive series // Brandon Sanderson)
And what would a list of amazing fantasy women be without a lady who wears armour and wields a magic sword? Of course, Eshonai isn’t in a chainmail bikini. Her armour is full bodied and half of it is built right onto her body. She’s not human, but she is human. She’s a conservative traditionalist in her society, but can be a bit of a maverick. She cares so much about her family and is defined in large part by her relationships with her sister and her mother, strong female connections. Eshonai is a warrior through and through, fighting and willing to die for her people. She’s the traditional fantasy knightly ideal type, only for once, that role has gone to a woman. There’s a lot of terrible things that could end up happening to this fierce bruiser lady, so join me in hoping she gets to keep her agency as the story moves forward!

I encourage everyone to check out these books! They’re all wonderful and amazing, and the women within them are incredible too. Five completely different types of women, all strong and fierce and empowered.