Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Puppy and Chopin

It's summer, Mr. Darcy is 10 weeks hold, and here he is, learning to appreciate classical music (as well he should, with a name like Darcy vom Steinbeckland). I'm practicing a Chopin Prelude, much to his enjoyment. Sometimes he flops over my right foot and we have a Discussion. Or he tries to chew on the pedal. Once or twice, he's tried to "sing," a sort of subdued howling. Mostly he plasters himself up against the piano. Lovely to have such an undemanding audience!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Mid-July Reads: A Few Short Reviews

From time to time, I post short reviews of what I've been reading. Here's a new batch:

Sherwood Smith’s delightful Regency Danse de la Folie from Book View Cafe.It’s engaging and fun in a way that doesn’t ask you to leave your intellect or your knowledge of Jane Austen’s work at the door. Various characters have various romantic and other adventures before the couples sort themselves out. (Complete side-thought: our new German Shepherd Dog puppy, is named Darcy vom Steinbeckland; he has a tuft of white lace on his chest and gold dust on his toes; the rest of him will be tall, dark, and handsome.) (Second barely-related thought: I’d been lamenting not having an ereader, but the family exchequer wouldn’t cooperate. My younger daughter addressed this situation by passing on to me her Kindle 1 (I think that’s what it’s called — the absolutely no-frills e-ink one) so now I am gleefully working my way through all the BVC books I want!


Chaz Brenchley. House of Doors from the UK publisher Severn House, which is also putting out much of Barbara Hambly’s recent work. Newly-widowed British nurse goes to work at Very Strange gothic house (D’Esperance), treating wounded soldiers in WWII. One of the earmarks of superlative writing is the ability to make a sequel (or “middle book”) so appealing and self-contained that it doesn’t matter whether you’ve read the first volume. Which I hadn’t. Half the delight in this book is the use of language — it’s a story to be savored as much for the style as for the plot. Which plot has some great twists. The cover says, “A haunting tale of terror…” but although I don’t care for horror as a genre, I loved the weirdness and how it all wove together. For me, it was as much a tale of healing as “terror.”

Ben Winters, The Last Policeman. This was a freebie from the Nebula Award weekend, and I doubt I would have picked it up otherwise, but I’m glad I did. It belongs to an odd subset of novels that, for all their gadgets and rayguns, are essentially some other genre. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife is an example. I think Winters’s book is better, albeit of the gritty police procedural novel rather than a romance. Earth is doomed — an asteroid’s going to go smack and end Life As We Know It. With six months to live, what’s the point of solving a murder? Lots of twists and layers that left me wanting more.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Spirituality in the Seven-Petaled Shield



When most people hear the word spirituality, they think of organized religion, and that in itself is a fascinating topic in terms of world-building. But what I want to talk about here is how we as writers define and develop the spiritual foundations of our story. In this sense, spiritual as distinct from religious can mean mystical, unworldly, magical, or psychic. I look at spirituality as those qualities and experiences that are not physical but can have a profound influence over the experiences and decisions of our characters. I am well aware that this opens me up to accusations of being woo-woo, and perhaps a different word would better encompass the ethical, moral, and emotional landscape of a story. Spirituality creates one of the interwoven layers that answer the question, “What is the story about?” If the entire answer is some high-falutin’ jargon about the battle between good and evil or love conquers all, the elevator pitch fails because although these may be themes, they are not story cores. Likewise, without this dimension, a description of the physical action of the story falls flat. The Wizard of Oz is “about” a whole lot more than a girl who gets swept away by a tornado. Nor can it be described completely as a tale of friendship, courage, and belonging. Stories are specific, and all of these concepts are general.

Although the first “Azkhantian Tale” was necessarily set within the sword and sorcery genre by the market I was aiming for, I wanted to play counter to the prevailing expectations. The market (Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress) required a strong female protagonist, and that’s the kind of story I wanted to write. But I didn’t want yet another iteration of the lofty heroines of the “rape and revenge,” “slaying the dragon,” or “rescuing the prince/ss” type. I wanted to get away from the physical-strength  = heroism paradigm, because there are many kinds of strength besides that of mighty thews and bulging musculature.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Horses in The Seven-Petaled Shield



Scythian gold comb


The stories that gave rise to The Seven-Petaled Shield began with my love of horses and a special exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County of the art of the nomads of the Eurasian steppe. I marveled at the beautiful gold artifacts of the Scythians, depicting horses, elk, and snow leopards, and the lives and adventures of these people. The Greek historian Herodotus described the Scythians as “invincible and inaccessible,” and Thucydides asserted, “there is none which can make a stand against the Scythians if they all act in concert.” This world, its people, and its marvelous horses practically begged for stories to be written about them.

The Scythians were only one of many nomadic horse-faring peoples who roamed the Central Asian steppe from the beginning of the first millennium before the Common Era into the 20th Century. Sarmatians, Cimmerians, Massagetae, Alani, and many others were followed by such groups as the Hun, Kazars, Uzbeks, Bulgars, and Magyars. Although these peoples differed in culture, language, religion, and place of origin, they shared the characteristics of nomadic horse folk. They were highly mobile, superb archers, and their survival depended on their horses.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Women Heroes in The Seven-Petaled Shield



Novels begin in many different ways, drawing their “motive energy” or “visions of ultimate coolness” from varied sources. Which is a high-falutin’ way of saying that there is no one right way in which to begin a story. It can start with a visual image (very common with me, as I’m a visual writer), an emotional turning-point, or an idea that grabs the imagination. Or a line of dialog or a melody. Many writers experience a tango-like dance with their creative inspirations, which ranges from the times the source dictates its own story in total defiance of genre boundaries and market demands, to those instances when the writer summons a story to fit certain specifications. The world of The Seven-Petaled Shield began with the latter.

My first professional short story sale was to Marion Zimmer Bradley for the debut volume of Sword & Sorceress. (It was, of course, an occasion of much rejoicing!) When the anthology became an annual series, I kept submitting stories, and looking around for different cultures and situations. For one of the later volumes (XIII), I wanted to explore the tensions between a nomadic horse people and a city-based culture like Rome, and their different values and forms of magic. I did not call them Romans and Scythians, but these models were very much in my mind. As I delved further into my research, researching aspects of life and warfare that spoke to me, I learned that although Scythian women were definitely second-class citizens, the Sarmatian women rode to battle and were likely the origin of the “Amazons” of legend. Thus began a series of “Azkhantian” tales, in which the women of a nomadic horse people battle against the relentless incursions of Gelon (this world’s Roman Empire) What could be more perfect for a sword and sorcery story featuring a strong woman protagonist?