Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Let me tell you something

I've been invited to speak in a friend and colleagues college course on Human Sexuality about the romance genre (erotic romance in particular) and I'm ecstatic. I had grandiose plans of having goodies to hand out and possibly a costume to wear (because I always want to wear some kind of costume), but inevitably life looked me up and down and laughed hysterically, gasping out between chuckles, "Bless your heart." I was able to create a PowerPoint and still consider myself victorious to some degree.

As with my other grandiose ideas my vision for my guest lecture hasn't quite met the pinnacle of historical reference and research validity I'd planned, BUT I was able to avoid the dreded trap of justifying the genre with more than, "It's not porn!". I'm actually so tired of this disclaimer because I feel it automatically puts me in a defense to justify the importance of women (as the majority of the genres readers are) having an outlet to explore and embrace they're sexuality. I of course had to include some aspect of it because as these students are a reflection of larger society's beliefs regarding sex and sexuality it can't be avoided. 

I'm hoping that we'll have frank and direct conversations about erotic romance and why it scares the mainstream so much. Because frankly, I can only think of fear as being a motivator for the constant barrage of distasteful comments readers and writers of erotic romance receive. I often feel there is a subconscious thought of, "Kill it with fire!", when it comes to the genre I find myself writing in. Regardless of how one may feel personally about Fifty Shades of Gray, it did provide us a look into the pysche of society when it comes to their beliefs regarding women's expression and consumption of sex. 

I've got all of these great plans for my lecture that is founded in my belief that romance and all of it's sub genres shouldn't be the black sheep of fiction, made to feel like the gaudy relation that is invited to the table because of the wealth it brings but never truly respected. I've got those grandiose plans you see, and I'm giving life some major side eye as it smirks at me, but bless my little heart because I'm going to try my best anyway.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Lumberjacks, Vampires, and Writing What You Know.

'Write what you know' has to be one of the most-given pieces of writing advice in the entire history of the craft. I remember really hating this as a teenager. I mean, what had I done in life? All I wanted to do was crank out some story so I could pass some class or another, and they wanted me to write what I knew and slant it to some theme or assignment that I couldn't even choose? Bleh. I knew nothing in the scheme of things except living in what I perceived to be a boring town and going to school. As I grew I still remained somewhat ruffled about this piece of advice, even as I wrote for fun, because I liked writing speculative fiction and there's no way you can "know" that sort of thing, right?

Yeah, I can be an elitist idiot that takes things literally at times. 

Now, I realize how lucky I've been to have the experiences I've had - no matter how mundane. Every little interaction, every emotion, every experience is fodder for something and has the potential to be magic. Plus, I consider my insatiable curiosity one of my better traits. Both come in handy when I'm writing fantasy and horror. Don't believe me? Let me explain (Come on, you had to be expecting this, otherwise it would be a very short and pointless blog entry).

As a kid I harbored a deep and burning grudge that my parents got to pick our summer vacation choices. I was convinced I must have been a serial killer in a past life. As we cruised down the American highways I would always collect brochures at rest stops and dream of what it must be like to have parents who loved me. After all, only heartless maniacs would pass up waterparks, amusement parks, giant malls, pointless roadside attractions, and other obvious vacation spots for every historical site that could possibly enrich my mind and raise my history grade (that didn't need raising, thanks). I would sigh and fondle over those brochures and hope against hope that Gettysburg was closed during the week or maybe every worker in every historical site in Philidelphia would go on strike or something. 

To be fair, this resentment usually lasted a couple of days until we were actually well into our vacation. It probably didn't help that we were crammed into a small tent trailer and at least one of my parents has an overpowering sense of humor that does not do well in enclosed spaces, especially when paired with a kid who wants to read or listen to music or sleep and dream about whatever power ranger is dreamiest or something (Who knows. That was ten million years ago). 

Eventually, though, I would lighten up and enjoy myself. Truth be told, we probably shouldn't have done most of the Revolutionary and Civil War battle sites in the same trip; to this day I still tend to get a lot of them mixed up. There is also the story embedded in family folklore about the time when I was like four and we went to Mesa Verde and somehow everyone thought it was a good idea to go on a tour that involved actually climbing ladders and hand and foot holds up the canyon walls and across the pueblos. (Also to be fair, these were fenced in and I was flanked by both parents and the park guide. Still, retelling this story is guaranteed to give my relatives heart palpitations). There were other adventures I was probably guilty of - the same trip out west might have involved a trip to the dinosaur museum in Utah that featured a dig site at the time and because I saw it on Reading Rainbow I may have tried to make a break for it so I could climb up to the fossils and be at one with the dinosaurs (hey, they let Levar Burton do it on TV...). There may have been one museum visit in Peoria where we stayed right up until closing and I may have been almost locked in with an exhibit of an exposed burial mound that revealed hundreds of exposed skeletons. To this day I remember the panic of trying to find the door as the minutes ticked down until five, caught between the vertigo of an outdoor balcony that was fairly high up, and the madness of having to walk right by this gigantic room full of exposed full skeletons. I was eight. When I read the Bradbury story "The Next in Line" I actually broke out in a cold sweat remembering my own experience. 

By the time I was a pre-teen, though, I began to get fascinated with some of the mundane aspects of history. I really liked hearing about what it was like in the everyday life of different Native American tribes or the colonists before the Revolutionary War. I liked learning about miners, and to this day some of my favorite books are by Laura Ingalls Wilder (including her journalism collection and her diaries). Admittedly, though, my mind tended to wander and I was always adding my own flair to things. I remember distinctly during the Philadelphia trip wondering what it would be like if the displaced ghost of Benjamin Franklin was the one giving us the tour, and I probably added my own flair to many other trips that I'm not remembering. There was at least one trip I spent sketching disturbing looking trees that Brian Froud would be proud of. Still, there is something to be said for the hardcore lives these everyday people lived. The adversity they had to put up with is incredible. When I read about pioneers, the Dust Bowl, or any number of hardships that make up American history, I'm humbled. I mean even back as a teen I recognized that I was a huge wuss. It also doesn't help that part of my family history has had books written about it, which just goes to prove that I am a definite wuss and a disgrace to all those that came before me who could survive in the wild in subzero temperatures without even a blanket and walk away like it was nothing.

So it probably isn't a huge surprise that I would still be fascinated with reading about the everymen of American history: the miners, farmers, pioneers, laborers, and lumberjacks. I remember reading the books of Lilian Jackson Braun, who also tends to gravitate to similar topics (though without the ghosts and evil trees), in my adult years and really began to wonder if I could do something with that particular interest of mine in a speculative sense. But what?

There are many elements of speculative fiction I "know," not because I've lived them, but I am a huge geek and darn proud of it. I was perusing different educational sites about lumber camps and came across the entry "mooner." While not really defined, it referred to a supernatural creature that haunted lumber camps.

This fit in nicely with the speculative things that I geek out over...specifically, vampires. I love vampires. I love reading new takes on them, I love the movies, I love the folklore. Not everything vampire is good, and I appreciate when people know the mythos and work with it instead of against it. Barring this, I like when people use vampirism as a metaphor or backdrop for something else. I'm not one of those who outright prefer evil vampires over vampire romance or urban fantasy smooth criminal vamps over mindless feeding corpse-like vamps or old school Dracula/Gothic types. If it's done well, if it works, then I'm willing to give it a chance. Still, I like my vampires to use their teeth, and I think playing the moral grey area is always interesting. I think there can be romance mixed in with bloodshed, there can be mindfulness mixed in with a hunting mindset. It's the contradiction that makes things tense, and it's the knowledge that you're never going to win against something like that that makes the genre so full of possibility.

While maybe not an obvious choice, I like the use of vampires as metaphor, the thought of them being like Nietzsche's superman, but with teeth. I also like thinking about what happens when a normal person is tossed into that type of lifestyle and has to make reason of all the horrible things they're expected to do to survive (or is it any worse than any other pioneer trying to survive in an unsettled country?). 

That time period and life in the lumber camps was hard enough as it was...what if there was something bigger and badder than the strongest lumberjack? What if there was something to balance out all the shenanigans that tended to go on in the saloons during the weekends? What if there were motives bigger than the obvious, a subtle game being played, although it could never be won? It was an intriguing thought, and when put together with the historical aspect, I suddenly had a really interesting concept. Not only that, but the blend of bad boy lumberjack, innocent newcomer, well-meaning townspeople, and this sense of "other"...well that was too good to pass up.

Now I still had to look up things, I still had to do my research. Still, I can't help but think this story would never have come about if I hadn't gravitated to my own love of history and tendency to warp things to my whim (As you can imagine, my parents just love knowing what was in my head during all those family trips). 

Curious to see how all of this could come together? Well you'll just have to read the book to find out!

Like many young men at the end of the 1800s, Bill signed on to work in a logging camp. The work is brutal, but it promised a fast paycheck with which he can start his life. Unfortunately, his role model is Big John. Not only is he the camp’s hero, but he’s known for spending his pay as fast as he makes it. On a cold Saturday night they enter Red’s Saloon to forget the work that takes the sweat and lives of so many men their age. Red may have plans for their whiskey money, but something else lurks in the shadows. It watches and badly wants a drink that has nothing to do with alcohol. Can Bill make it back out the shabby door, or does someone else have their own plans for his future?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Happy Mother's Day!

Happy Mother's Day to all the people who celebrate it! This is a wonderful time of year to buy books for those you love. It's almost summer reading time, so it's time to stock up on books. There are a few I'd like to get for my days loafing on the local beaches:

1. "The Girl Next Door" by Jack Ketchum

2. Some of the Rizzoli and Isles books. I have one of the short stories.

3. "Dinner With The Cannibal Sisters" by Douglas Clegg

4. Play catch-up on the Preston/Child novels I've missed.

5. "Monstrosity" by Edward Lee

What about you? What's on your summer reading list?

Here's where to find me on the web:

Elizabeth Black - Facebook

Elizabeth Black - Twitter

Elizabeth Black - Amazon Author Page

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Santa Fiction

Last night, my son asked me if I had ever lied to him. If there was anything I wanted to admit to, because he was pretty sure I was a liar liar pants on fire.

Um. Yes. Yes I have.

Which led to the "Oh crap, which lie did he find out about?"  moment. So I pulled up my mom pants and said, very seriously, "Yes, son, I have. Dragons no longer live, they went extinct around the time dinosaurs did." 

(although really, even I don't believe that. C'Mon. There are caves somewhere in the world where a dragon is just waiting to launch himself into the night sky. It's why the ice caps are melting--- he finally woke up)

Sigh. Big eye roll. (I didn't know 7 year old boys *did* that).

"Is there any other lie that you want to tell me about? Because, otherwise, I don't know if I can ever trust you again." 

I asked him, repeatedly, what he thought I had lied about. I got the above answer several times. Finally, we got to the heart of the matter. Santa Clause. Easter Bunny. And his reaction was not what I expected. "You shouldn't be spending all that money on me. It's too much."

My father had the perfect response to the Easter Bunny ("Rabbits don't lay eggs.")

But then we started talking about how the stories came to be believed. About magic, and how sometimes the most magical thing we can do is be kind to one another as that's what the holiday's are about. There's a germ of truth in the stories, in traditions. It might not start anywhere near where it ends up, but there is that little sparkly bit that takes hold and carries us away.

The myths and stories that define our childhood are only a jumping off point for most writers. It's where we learned in the magic of story telling, the magic of believing with our whole being. I don't know about others, but as a kid I constructed in my head a whole Easter City under a little hill with chocolate rivers and jelly bean paths and a basket manufacturing plant. Santa had the North Pole, so the Easter Bunny had to have his warren. It was one of the first lessons in World Building that I had. 

Be kind with the stories and myths you tell your children. And when they ask if you ever lied to them... make sure you know what they're asking about before you respond. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Germ of an Idea...

Like the chicken and the egg, the basic question of writing is:  Which comes first; characters or ideas?

In my case, it's generally ideas.  Classic students of writing may not approve (My sister never did.)  But, speaking as an author of the otherworldly and paranormal:  tough.  Ideas are what motivate me to write.  I can't speak for other writers of the genre, but the germ of a story begins for me with the germ of an idea.  An idea for a concept, a world, a possibility.

With "Black Goddess," it began with a scientific concept, as many of my ideas do.  The idea, which I'd happened across in a Scientific American article was that all the matter that composes our world, from the planet itself to that annoying hang-nail in your thumb was formed in the cores of exploding suns billions of years ago and has had a very long journey.  I thought...if all the atoms that compose us could just be shifted back in time...all those exotic cosmic events of eons past could become part of us again.

And, there it was: A way to link the everyday and the mundane with the celestial; a favorite theme of mine.  Now, how should that manifest; in what kind of characters interacting in what way?  When the idea first came to me, I had in mind nothing more than a short story.  I thought...a young man pursuing a love relationship and finding a past billions of years long.  Everybody enters a relationship with a past, right?  Classic theme.  I thought I'd give the story the title "Baggage."

But, in the course of actually designing the characters around that central theme, of actually getting to know them, starting from their core motivations and building from there, I got pulled into areas that just couldn't be dealt with so easily.

I don't know...maybe some characters are conceived fully formed in the minds of their creators, but my characters sometimes come to life during development in ways I didn't expect.  In setting up the physical reasons why this situation came about, I first had to do some physics research and came up with an experiment to facilitate the central idea.  Then, I had to design a character who had a compelling reason to want to travel back in time.  I also had to design a physicist with her own motive for sending him there.  The core motivations for the protagonists had to be dark, and I wanted to make them personal as well as connected with much larger and timeless themes of primal evil and the obsession to understand it.

Here, I had to research something other than physics:  torture.  Its causes, its victims.  The effects it has on people, and how therapists try to deal with it and why.  As a political volunteer, I'd thought about these issues before, but now I had to study them in more psychological depth.  Again, I had to create characters to explore these themes, and although the misguided therapists of the story were functionaries more than actors, I had to make them come alive; I had to make them flesh and blood and real enough for the reader (and me) to believe in.  It becomes random sometimes, all these tangential threads, but in addition to being an enjoyably unpredictable journey, it's also a challenge to tie all these threads together in making the story work.

All the characters, both central and supporting, have their own inner demons to combat, and their own ways of coping.   The two central characters, the young lovers of the piece, were the key to it all; the nexus that ties all the other characters together.

Joshua Sinclair, the protagonist, is completely lost.  His life has been torn apart by a senseless chain reaction of tragedy that has destroyed his faith and left him with no purpose in life but to answer the eternal question 'why' or die trying.  The young woman he loves, Lark Jeffries is the stable character, the rock that may become Joshua's salvation, if he's not too far gone for her to save.  Being the most stable character, Lark is of course in danger of becoming the most boring.  I tried to bring her to life in the most direct way possible.  I gave her a past, a primal drive (love), enough hope to keep her course true and enough insecurity to make her journey difficult and interesting.  She's found a way through the darkness by daring to face and overcome it with unconditional love; something none of the people around her, least of all Joshua have learned to do yet.

The developing relationship between Lark and Joshua touches on the heart of existence itself; is there a higher purpose in life, or are we just raw matter that arrogantly believes it has a soul?  Here, I had to research eastern religions, and take a crash course in the Karmic cycle of death and rebirth, in order to explore the central theme of surviving evil, loss and despair.  I've always liked the parallel between the Buddhist concept of Karma and cosmological physics with its vision of the oscillating universe, and the recycling of cosmic matter.  The question of whether one sees the process with hope or despair was expressed through the characters.

My research into eastern religions took me to the Hindu goddess Kali.  I'd heard of Her before, and She was the ideal embodiment of the theme I was pursuing; Goddess of Death, but also of Life and new beginnings.  She ended up becoming, in a sense, the title character of the story.  And so, I changed the title to "Black Goddess."

So yes, my characters are born of ideas, but I have to sketch out each character before I can begin; to justify every action and reaction by knowing what drives them to do what they do.  The story is basically about taking the ultimate leap of faith.  I feel like that's what I'm doing when I follow the germ of a thought, not always knowing where it will lead.  Whatever characters that road puts in your path, you just have to make sure you do right by them

Monday, May 5, 2014

Hand Beneath the Pump

If you have seen or read "The Miracle Worker," you know that there is a moment when Annie Sullivan is trying to teach Helen Keller that the signs she keeps making in her hands mean something. As they stand beside the pump, and Annie runs water into Helen's hand, wearily signing "water"over and over, suddenly--a lightbulb goes off in Helen's head, and she makes the connection that has been eluding her all along.

Why am I bringing it up? I had one of these "watershed moments" the other day about my writing, and I think it is worth sharing.

My husband refuses to critique anything I write. He says I can't take criticism, and I have spent more than ten years arguing that I can take constructive criticism, that I am getting better at accepting edits all the time...but I have been wrong. If anyone suggests something I don't agree with in their edits, I argue or justify, or ignore it. I can be a terrible editing subject.

As I was in tears over an edit I thought was asking way too much by way of rewrites, my husband said quietly, "You know why the QA department loves me?" (He's a computer programmer.) "Because I know they are trying to make my code the best it can be; that I might have missed something that would make it better; and I listen to what they have to say."

I thought about what he was saying. Really thought about it. And, for the first time, the analogy made sense to me. Editors are a writer's QA department. They see things we might not. They understand things we don't. We need to listen to them. Without whining about it. :) I made the changes they were asking for...and you know what...they were right. It was a stronger story for them.

(Okay, I may be a little self-serving, as I am about to go into editor Don't forget about our new Steampunk anthology, now open for submissions.)