What Roleplaying Teaches Writers

Written by James L. Sutter

As the editor in charge of Pathfinder Tales—the Tor and Paizo novel line that tie into the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game—as well as the author of two of the books myself, I spend a lot of time talking with people about the boons and challenges of writing fiction tied into a game. But what’s often easy to overlook in these conversations is just how much RPGs can teach us about the craft of writing.

The most important thing we learn from pen-and-paper roleplaying games is that anyone can be a storyteller. Books, movies, TV, video games—all of these can inspire a would-be writer, but the audience’s role is still fundamentally passive. These media are fun, but do nothing to fill the chasm separating us from creative “professionals”: the gulf between “Wow, that was cool,” and “I want to do what they did!” At the end of the day, we’re still standing outside the dream factory looking in.

tor_Redemption-EngineRoleplaying games burst right through that wall, Kool-Aid-Man style. By their very nature, RPGs force audience members to take control, to see themselves as storytellers. RPGs are improv, and even the best-written adventure module is still only a stage for the participants. Creativity is mandatory, and as people game, they come to identify as creative. I can’t count the number of professional authors I’ve met who were drawn into writing by the urge to create more elaborate backstories for their characters, or settings for their game, or journals of their parties’ adventures. Gaming breeds writers like salad bars breed bacteria.

A writer can gain much more from gaming than simple confidence. By running games—and being lucky enough to work on Dungeon magazine and help create Pathfinder—I got an invaluable education in crafting worlds, plots, and characters.

Designing your own setting is one of the great joys of RPGs, and packed with lessons for writing science fiction and fantasy. It’s where I learned that I could combine tropes from vastly different real-world cultures to make societies that feel brand new yet relatable. That magic without logically consistent laws is boring, and that the constraints those rules impose are half the fun. That even your purest “good” gods or nations are more interesting when they have flaws, and vice versa. That money and geography determine your national borders, and that rivers should always flow downhill and together rather than splitting apart. (You’d be amazed how many fantasy maps ignore that fact.)

tor_Liars-IslandWriting an adventure is excellent training for plotting a novel. It needs all the same elements—the hooks and clues that draw the protagonists in, the rising action, the climactic battle—but comes with the added challenge that you don’t get to control the heroes. You’re writing a script that could change wildly at any moment if the characters zig when you expected them to zag—not unlike adapting a novel outline to fit unexpected character developments or editorial requests.

As for characters—well, they’re the heart of roleplaying, aren’t they? And as every roleplayer learns, the more you know about a character’s background and personality, the easier it is to get into their heads and create realistic reactions to any situation.

Fiction and roleplaying games are just two different styles of storytelling, so whether you’re rolling dice or pounding a keyboard, you’re exercising the same muscle. Each makes us better at the other.

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A Writer’s Dirty Little Secret

The Devil's Only Friend by Dan Wells
Written by Dan Wells

The dirty little secret is that I don’t write for you. Sorry. I think that most authors are the same, or at least similar: we love it when you read our books, and we certainly hope that you like them, but in the end we’re not really writing them for approval, and we’re not writing them for fame, and we’re certainly not writing them for money. There are easier and far more efficient ways of getting all of those things.

When we write, or at least when I write, I do it because there’s a story inside my brain that I love so much I can’t not tell it. There are characters I want to learn more about; there are situations and problems and thorny, complicated, impossible choices that I want to force an imaginary person to grapple with. I tell stories because I love to tell stories, and thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading them, but even if I were the last person on the planet I’d still be writing them, using whatever lonely writing device managed to survive the apocalypse. I write for me, is what I’m saying, and that makes me the first and toughest audience I have to deal with.

Which makes it tricky when my editors start asking for more books in a series I consider finished.

The John Cleaver trilogy—or as I’ve had to start calling it, The First John Cleaver Trilogy—came out about six years ago, and people liked it, but I finished it and moved on to other things. I wrote a mind-twisty thriller about schizophrenia, and a post-apocalyptic YA series, and a book about cloning that isn’t out yet, and some tie-in fiction, and some horror shorts, and a thing about a Mormon pioneer superhero, and the point here is that I moved on. When you write what you’re excited about, and you’re an easily excitable person, you end up piling your plate with a little bit of everything from the Genre Buffet. People kept asking about John Cleaver, asking if I ever intended to write more, and my answer was always the same: “I love that character, but I’m done with him. He has completed his arc.”

I’ve lived in Germany, in Stuttgart, for the last two years, and I absolutely loved it, in part because it gave me a chance to talk to new people and see the way they acted and reacted to things—very different reactions, obviously, than Americans would have. This helped me to see my own life in a way I hadn’t before, and that got me thinking—I guess you could say that I looked at myself as a character in a story, in a place and a situation that weren’t originally part of the outline. It changed my story fundamentally though I remained true to who I am.

Those experiences made me think about John Cleaver, and how a wild new shake-up to his life might change certain parts of him while leaving his core identity untouched. I began to wonder about new arcs that his character might take, and about different challenges that he might face, and all of a sudden I had it—an amazing new idea that I couldn’t let go of. I knew I could write a new John Cleaver trilogy, but more importantly, I was excited to write it. I was thrilled. I called my German editor and asked if he might be interested in another John Cleaver series, and his response was to email me the cover he’d already mocked up for it, with a title and everything. It seemed safe to say that I wasn’t the only one excited by the idea, so I contacted my agent and my American editor and we got the ball rolling, and now it’s finally here: The Second John Cleaver Trilogy. I think of it as The Last John Cleaver Trilogy, but I guess the one thing I’ve learned is to never say never, right?

So what, you might be asking, is the new book about? I don’t want to spoil anything, but here’s a quick teaser: in the first trilogy John was alone, fighting creatures he called demons in his own home town. The new trilogy starts one year later with John on an FBI kill team, which might sound like a good step up, but come on: if there’s one thing John hates more than monsters, it’s authority figures telling him what to do. The teenage sociopath does not play nicely with others, and the monsters they’re hunting do not take kindly to being hunted….

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Follow Dan Wells on Twitter at @TheDanWells, on Facebook, or visit him online.

Flying with the Real Fae

Long Black Curl by Alex Bledsoe
Written by Alex Bledsoe

My Tufa novels, of which the upcoming Long Black Curl is the third, are all about music. They’re about other things, too, of course, but a central theme is how music touches people, affects them and brings them together. But I never expected that my novels would, in fact, bring me together with a tribe of musicians that could’ve stepped right out of those pages.

In 2013, I was a presenter at the Pagan Unity Festival (a.k.a. PUF) at a state park outside Nashville. Like many such festivals, there was a lot of music, including two appearances by a band I’d never heard of: Tuatha Dea.

I’ll admit to a bias here: some pagan-themed music strikes me as a bit overt, wearing its heart (and environmental concerns, and European folklore, and feminist agenda, and so forth) on its sleeve to its overall detriment. So I’d planned to skip the concert that first night and rest in my cabin.

Imagine my surprise when, from the pavilion down the hill, I heard a musical roar like nothing I expected. And I was even more surprised when I recognized the song as a snarling cover of the Cranberries’ “Zombie.”

That was my introduction to Tuatha Dea, a band that, as I said, sounded and looked as if they’d stepped right out of one of my Tufa novels. They’re an eight-piece ensemble that rotates on the instruments, with an emphasis on heavy drums. Their performance that night was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen Springsteen multiple times. They completely blew my idea of pagan music out of the water. I also was lucky enough to become friends with them, and to enthusiastically swap copies of my novels for their CDs.

Then came the biggest surprise: a call from band leader/songwriter Danny Mullikin, asking if he could write songs based on my Tufa novels.

I’m pretty sure my response boiled down to, “Yes, please.” Danny was kind enough to keep me updated on the process, sharing lyrics and early tracks with me, but I deliberately gave him no input; I wanted to be surprised like everyone else by the final product, which the band titled Tufa Tales: Appalachian Fae.

And I was. I mean, I knew the songs would be good, and that the band would perform them well. But the surprise was how thoroughly they captured the atmosphere I strove to create in my novels. Feel is always an intangible quality, almost impossible to really describe or copy, but they clearly got it.

They did three tracks titled after my first three novels, and so far have two videos, for the songs “Long Black Curl” and “Wisp of a Thing.” (If you look very closely in the “Wisp” video, you might spot this author for about one and a half seconds.) They also do a rocking version of the classic folk tune “The Five Nights’ Drunk,” which they call “Granny’s Bedtime Tonic.” And there’s a wonderful instrumental called “Dance of the Tufa.”

I’m proud to be associated with this band, and I’m incredibly flattered that they felt so connected to my work. Creating art is always fun, but inspiring it may be the biggest rush of all.

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Follow Alex Bledsoe on Twitter at @AlexBledsoe, on Facebook, or visit him online.

A Young Lady’s Time Travel Guide to Regency England

A School for Unusual Girls by Kathleen Baldwin
Written by Kathleen Baldwin

Part 1

So you think you’d like to travel back in time to the Regency era? You’ve read about all those dashing dukes and handsome viscounts and you’re all agog to jump into a time machine. Very well, but you’ll need this handy guide.

Ask yourself this question: are you unexceptional enough?

You heard me correctly. Unexceptional. During the Regency era it was a high compliment for a young lady to be deemed unexceptional. The Beau Monde, the beautiful people of fashionable society, tended to dress alike and behave like the rest of the flock.

Woe unto those who didn’t conform.
I’ve written a book about young ladies who did not fit into the Regency mold, A School for Unusual Girls. Take it from me; it did not go well for exceptional young women. They were shipped off to schools to a reform their manners. Rumors of harsh punishments and torturous training devices at these schools abounded among the Beau Monde. So watch your step!

First and foremost, you must not stray too far from the norm. It simply is not done, especially if a young lady is still of marriageable age. One mustn’t be too tall, too short, too brainy, or too brightly dressed.

The gentle reader inquires, “What about turquoise blue?”

For a ball? Are you mad? Subtlety, my dear, subtlety is the key. Picture me fanning myself vigorously to show my agitation.

Speaking of fans…

Beware the Danger of Fans

Do not, I repeat, do not purchase a fan to take on your journey back in time. That would be risky, indeed.

There is an entire language of the fan that every proper young lady must study before she is licensed to wield one of these dangerous devices.

This is absolutely essential training. Otherwise you may think you’re simply fanning to cool yourself down, but the gentleman across the ballroom thinks you are signally him for an assignation in the garden. You flirtatious vixen! And should you accidentally tap the ruddy thing against your cheek, oh heavens above, you’ve just told the gentleman that you are in love with him.

What Clothes Should You Bring?

Dress Changed for Part 1 blogAs mentioned earlier; no strong colors, the paler your ensemble, the better. Consider bringing a flimsy white cotton or silk nightgown. Tie a length of pale pink ribbon under the bust and it might serve as an everyday gown.

In the space of a few years, British aristocracy went from dressing in intricately engineered, highly ornate gowns like the ones Marie Antoinette used to wear, to dressing in simplistic Grecian gowns as did Empress Josephine. This might have had something to do with the guillotine lopping off the heads of so many ladies who wore those big gaudy gowns.

It is a trifle odd that Regency folk were so strict about the morals of their young ladies but then dressed them in nearly transparent muslin reminiscent of nightclothes. One Season it was all the rage to dampen one’s chemise (underwear) so that more of the young lady’s, ahem, charms might show. Unfortunately, that year turned out to be a brutally cold winter. Many women died of pneumonia and other lung ailments and so the craze ended abruptly.

I’ll return with more help for you brave time travelers. Until then good luck on your journey! And may you fall blissfully love with the most eligible handsome duke or earl at the ball. If Regency literature is any indication, there seems to be an abundance of the handsome devils.

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Is it Okay if I Cook You Slowly?

Trial of Intentions by Peter Orullian
Written by Peter Orullian

I learned the phrase “Violating Your Expectations” in college, when studying Shakespeare, and it’s stuck with me ever since. It’s the idea of taking a reader someplace they’re not anticipating. With my series, The Vault of Heaven, that was always my plan: To begin in a warm place of familiarity and comfort, and then apply heat enough to boil you. Kind of like that thing where the crab is placed in a pot of room temperature water. It sits, content. And before it knows what’s happening, the water is boiling, cooking the crab.

I started down that path with my first book, The Unremembered. Now, in my second book, Trial of Intentions, I turn up the heat. And there are a number of things in the book that I think equate to cranking the dial on the stove.

First might be the music. In book one, it’s clear there’s a music magic system. But it’s not understood or used much. In Trial of Intentions, that changes. In spades. Not only does a character use that ability with savage intent and results, but she also goes to the one place where she can study it. Take it further. These were some of my favorite scenes to write, as I found in them a dark beauty.

And, in keeping with the “violate your expectations” theme, there’s this whole science thing that begins to amp up in book two. This is where readers who think they have one of my main characters pegged as a farm boy are in for some violation. I’m a bit of an amateur astronomer. And I use it as a leap point for creating an entire city dedicated to science and populated with colleges of astronomy, physics, mathematics, philosophy, and cosmology. Like the music scenes, these were a blast to write, and also where the lion’s share of my research time was spent.

Of course, what’s an epic fantasy without war, right? And I give you some. In fact, there’s an entire culture dedicated to what it calls “gearworks”—the building of siege engines and the like. But then, I had this counter notion: What if one of the main characters decides that it would be best to avert war? While some people are building alliances and escalating to war on a grand scale, others are employing every means possible to stop the war before it begins. I found the juxtaposition of these opposing motivations a fun challenge to write.

I’ve also spent quite a bit of time on my magic systems. So far, there are five. But most of that time was devoted to creating what I call “governing dynamics.” Each magic system ladders up to a set of unifying principles. It made sense to me that this world would have something akin to mechanical laws for magic, laws that different cultures would tap into in different ways. The various cultures might not even call those laws by the same name. But readers will see that all these different magic systems tie into something I call Resonance. I think it gives the world a kind of coherence.

Finally, it’s always been the case that the world of my series is a harsh place. So much so that there are those who find refuge in self-slaughter. This is only lightly touched upon in The Unremembered. But in Trial of Intentions, suicide steps into the glare of the spotlight. It lays near the center of motivation for at least one of my characters, who’s seen it up close and too often.

Like I said, this was always part of the story. But when I finished writing book two, I realized the resonance of it was stronger than I’d planned. Or maybe that’s just my read of it, because I had a friend recently make that choice. The book doesn’t linger overlong on the topic, but I hope it gives some emotional context for a few of the characters and their relationships.

In the end, however, some carnage is inevitable. Battles happen. Some involve skills of science. Some involve swords. And some, music magic.

All of which is to say, I think Trial of Intentions turns the gas up to get the pot boiling. Cook you good.

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Follow Peter Orullian on Twitter at @PeterOrullian, on Facebook, or visit him online.

Pirate’s Booty: Black Market in the French Quarter

Pirate's Alley by Suzanne Johnson
Written by Suzanne Johnson

In Pirate’s Alley, the new book in the Sentinels of New Orleans series, the pirate in the title refers to the undead historical pirate Jean Lafitte. The charismatic French smuggler led a kingdom of a thousand ruffians south of New Orleans in the early 1800s and played a pivotal role in defeating the British at the Battle of New Orleans exactly 200 years ago this past January.

What Jean Lafitte likely did NOT do, however, was lollygag in that narrow passageway in New Orleans’ French Quarter we know today as Pirates Alley. (The real alley has no apostrophe in its name, New Orleans never having been a place to dwell on such frivolities as punctuation.)

When the city was laid out and the original St. Louis Cathedral built in 1720, an alleyway was left open to provide a shortcut from the Place d’Armes at the front of the cathedral to Royal Street, behind it. Today’s Pirates Alley is still about 600 feet long, 16 feet wide, and covered with cobblestones installed in 1831.

One New Orleans legend insists this alley was a popular spot for pirates to hang out, which is how it got its name. Another insists that Jean Lafitte, who controlled black market goods flowing into New Orleans with which he’d undercut the local merchants, would conduct business in the alley, right under the merchants’ noses.

A third legend says it was in this alley that Jean Lafitte met with General Andrew Jackson in late 1814 to make the deal that placed pirates fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the outnumbered American soldiers to fend off the British.

The first two stories are unlikely.

For one thing, the alley is mere yards from the Cabildo (now the Louisiana State Museum), built in the 1700s to house state government. Here, the Louisiana Purchase took place and, in the Place D’Armes (now Jackson Square) in front of it, criminals such as pirates were hanged.

Pirates Alley is also next to the site of the “Calaboose,” an infamous prison where—you guessed it—pirates got locked up and held in squalid conditions, often only emerging when it was time to swing from the hangman’s noose.

So the legends that the alley, which would have been an unpaved strip of mud in Jean Lafitte’s day, was a pirate hangout? I don’t think so.

Pirates Alley does have significance to our favorite French pirate, however. Jean Lafitte’s older brother Pierre, his partner in the family business, was arrested and imprisoned there in 1814 for smuggling and piracy. Pierre, quite a few years older than Jean, suffered greatly in the harsh conditions of the Calaboose for months while Jean tried to secure his release; he’s believed to have suffered a stroke while chained to the wall of his cell.

Did Jean Lafitte and Andrew Jackson strike a deal in the dark alley? Probably not. Jackson was outraged at being forced to make a deal with the “hellish banditti” he thought Lafitte to be, and Lafitte thought Jackson was a pompous blowhard. Sources seem to indicate that most of their negotiations were conducted in writing.

Still, shortly after Jean agreed to provide the general with intelligence on the British (who were also trying to make a deal with him), Pierre Lafitte made a sudden “escape” from the Calaboose.

To get from the prison to the Mississippi River, on which he likely fled the city, Pierre and his brother would have passed through—where else?—Pirates Alley.

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Follow Suzanne Johnson on Twitter at @suzanne_johnson, on Facebook, or visit her blog.

A Spectrum of Worlds

A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab
Written by V. E. Schwab


To most writers, it’s a backdrop, to some even an afterthought, but to me, it’s always been a character. Setting is one of the very first—if not THE first—thing that comes to me when I’m writing a book. It’s not that I don’t care about the other pieces—the people and the plot and what have you—it’s that for me, as a writer and a reader, setting IS one of the most important aspects, and it’s always integral to the plot.

Sometimes, its importance is obvious, as in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, in which a second London lurks under the surface of the first, or Andy Weir’s The Martian, set entirely on the surface of Mars. It might be a time as well as a place, as in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, in which Ursula is continuously reliving the years leading up to World War II. Other times, it’s built into the fabric of the story in other ways, like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, set across a Canadian expanse after an apocalyptic disease. Or perhaps it creates a framework for the plot, as with Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train. Whatever the form it takes, and whatever the framework is fantasy, thriller, dystopian, historical, the fact remains that a good setting is a living, breathing element, a character all its own.

My newest book, A Darker Shade of Magic, houses not one but FOUR versions of London (Grey, Red, White, and Black), and each one takes a different shape: Grey the mundane world, Red the magical empire, White the wasteland, and Black the source of all power.

In essence, A Darker Shade of Magic—or ADSoM for short—gave me a chance to turn my setting into not only a character, but an entire supporting cast. Through the four iterations of London, bound together by only a name, I was able to explore not only time, but also space, and the ways that different actions shape the world in which they happen. The color terms and relative absence/presence of magic are not the only things that set the Londons apart. Though each ones occupies the same geographical footprint, with the Thames (or the Isle, or the Siljt) at its heart, each city was inspired by a different part of the world, a different aesthetic, a different breed of empire. The worlds sit, layered like pages of paper in a book.

Grey London, which you could call the template, is based on the world as we know it, modeled on early 19th century England, with its smoke-clogged streets and its ailing mad king. If there was magic once, it has been forgotten.

The crown jewel of the worlds, Red London, features a plush, eastern motif, full of spires and night markets, spices and luxury. Here magic thrives, woven into every part of life, respected by some, worshiped by others, and used by all.

Its neighbor, White London, a world once more powerful than Red, is now slowing dying, starved out by the magic it tries to control. It has the arctic air of the far north, ruled a pair of wolf-like twins, Astrid and Athos.

And Black London, well, no one knows. The site of a magical catastrophe, and sealed off from the other worlds, it’s the city known only through bedtime stories and nursery rhymes. Until now.

The characters are as much a product of their setting as anything else. The main characters, Kell and Lila, come from different Londons. Kell, a magician with the rare ability to move between worlds, belongs to the elite and fantastical Red London, while Lila has grown up as a street rat-turned thief in the magic-less Grey world. To them we add the Danes, the rulers of White London, desperate to hold on to power, and their servant, Holland, bound not by will, but by magic.

I’m a firm believer that when crafting a story, the world—or worlds—in which it’s set must come before the characters. It must shape them. For what are people, if not the product of their environments? A setting is wasted when it simply exists to fill the space behind the action. Similarly, when the characters and the world in which they live are bound by nothing more than convenience.

The characters of ADSoM are diverse, and so are the settings they occupy. When you step into the book, you step into several worlds, each one different, but all connected, as tangled with each other as the kings and queens, magicians, smugglers, and thieves who roam them. They are a strange cast, my Londons, but I can’t wait for you to meet them all.

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Follow V. E. Schwab on Twitter at @veschwab, on Facebook, or visit the magical Londons online.

Dolls Aren’t Just For Children

The Doll Collection edited by Ellen Datlow
Written by Ellen Datlow

Dolls, perhaps more than any other object, demonstrate just how thin the line between love and fear, comfort and horror, can be. They are objects of love and sources of reassurance for children, coveted prizes for collectors, sources of terror and horror in numerous movies, television shows, books, and stories. Dolls fire our collective imagination, for better and—too often, for worse. From life-size dolls the same height as the little girls who carry them, to dolls whose long hair can “grow” even longer, to Barbie and her fashionable sisters, dolls do double duty as child’s play and the focus of adult art and adult fear.

—The Doll Collection, Introduction

I’m a doll lover. I admit it. I collect whole dolls and parts of dolls: heads and arms and legs Datlow_VoodooDolland torsos. Voodoo dolls (I used to go down to New Orleans every few years and each time would discover different styles); three-faced dolls, the kind whose faces change from sleeping to smiling to crying with a twist of a little gadget at the top of the head; kewpie dolls, the adorable creatures invented by Rose O’Neill; Japanese kokeshi dolls, made of wood with painted faces and bodies. A changeable Little Red Riding Hood/wolf/grandma doll given to me by a friend. A two headed Chernobyl kitty made for me by that same person, inspired by my account of the tour I took to the infamous nuclear accident site in Ukraine, and given to me by my class, the summer I taught Clarion West. The next time I taught, several years later, my students each made me a doll on a stick modeled after themselves. My love of dolls is no secret. Anyone who enters my apartment can witness that interest.

Why do I collect weird dolls? No idea. I’ve recently found photographs of me as a young child with a doll I was given by my grandparents. She’s pretty normal. I remember owning a knock off of the popular “Ginny” doll of the 1950s. Again, nothing weird about her. My mom wouldn’t buy me or my sister Barbie dolls—she thought they were too mature for kids, but also they and their clothing were expensive.

So I never owned a Barbie doll—until an enterprising friend created a three-faced Barbie Datlow_VampireBarbiefor me: Piranha Barbie (with a mouth made of a wicked-looking sea shell), Vampire Barbie (a couple of very pointy canine teeth) , and the dog-faced girl (not adapted from a Barbie, but instead a baby doll). I’ve also been privileged to visit Japan’s largest private collection of Barbie Dolls, owned by a Tokyo businessman.

I personally am not creeped-out by most dolls (except perhaps the very disturbing, lifelike dolls created by Japanese artist Katan Amano), but I know many people who are. Why might that be? Dolls often reside in “the uncanny valley” a phrase that refers to a theory developed by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970: it posits that objects with features that are human-like, that look and move almost, but not quite, like actual human beings, elicit visceral feelings of revulsion in many people. The “valley” in question refers to the change in our comfort with these objects—our comfort level increases as the objects look more human, until, suddenly, they look simultaneously too human and not quite human enough, and our comfort level drops off sharply, only to rise again on the other side of the valley when something appears and moves exactly like a human being.

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Follow Ellen on Twitter at @EllenDatlow, on Facebook, or visit her website.

It’s Not a Costume, It’s My Day Job

The Eterna Files by Leanna Renee Hieber
Written by Leanna Renee Hieber

I’m asked often if my being a professional actress helps me as a writer. It entirely does, in more ways than I likely understand about my own process at any one given moment. Being an actress is a holistic aspect of how I see the world and operate as an artistic professional.

One of the most often complimented aspects of my work is my ability to create atmosphere and ‘set the stage’ for my novels. This is most certainly due to a life on the boards. My penchant for diving deep into character, reveling in the intricacies of dialogue and inner monologue, comes from professional theatre and playwrighting training, novel writing coming to me as a professional venture after I’d established myself in the former.

I set my books in the late 19th century because it’s the era that birthed the entirety of our understanding of modernity and is thusly somewhat recognizable to us and yet, the Victorians are rife with conflict and hypocrisy that it is a source of dramatic tension and conflict in and of itself.

Leanna Renee Hieber as Lucy in Dracula

Leanna as Lucy in Dracula for the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, photo: Rich Sofranko

One of the most important factors in differentiating the daily life of a modern character from that of any historical character is their clothing. This is especially important for women, whose fashion has changed far more radically and comprehensively than basic men’s clothing through the years. We wear, on average far fewer layers (and pounds) of clothing in the 21st century than the 19th.

Another important gift the theatre gave my historical novels is a tactile reality and personal experience ‘existing’ in other time periods with which I can paint details. How we move in our clothes and interact with our world is something we take for granted, but as a writer, I can’t; not if I’m writing strong, empowered women who, while they may chafe against the restrictive society roles and mores around them, still remain influenced by and bound to the fashion of the age. Knowing what it is like to move, sit, prepare food, lift, climb stairs, walk, trot, run, seize, weep, and collapse in a restrictive corset, bodice, bustle, petticoat, hat, layers, gloves, and other accessories—all of which I’ve been personally subjected to in various historical plays and presentations I’ve acted in—is vitally important to taking the reader physically as well as visually and emotionally through what my characters are experiencing.


Photo: C. Johnstone

I write fantasy, so I hardly operate off the ‘write what you know’ principle, but knowing from personal experience some of those intimate details—like the precise unease of chafing corset bones against your skin—helps me consider my heroic ladies of The Eterna Files that much more impressive in all the crazed antics I set them to.

Overcoming restrictions is a big theme in my work. That a restrictive society further enclosed its women in cages of undergarments and elaborate systems of outerwear is too important a factor of world-building not to have at the core, and I hope it sets a vital tone for how readers can feel my work as well as read it.

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Follow Leanna on Twitter at @Leannarenee, on Facebook, or visit her website.

Looking at the World Finn Fancy Style

Finn Fancy Necromancy by Randy Henderson
Written by Randy Henderson

I’d visited Port Townsend often before writing my book, but this time Finn had offered me a tour of its truly magical side.

Finn’s family home, like a surprising number of the houses in this small seaside town, was a massive Victorian affair that might have belonged to the Addams Family, with a yard of tangled plants and gnarled trees. A child would almost certainly find tunnels and caves in that growth, a secret fort, perhaps even a path to fairy land. And the garden — if I didn’t know better, I’d think a Cthulhu cult had moved in and were trying to breed tomatoes and roses together to create a plant of ultimate chaos, destruction, and evil red yumminess.

How could I not have been inspired by such a place?

Finn stepped out onto the porch, his day’s work in the family necromancy business done, his eyes bloodshot and watery.

“Greetings, program,” I said. “You okay?”

“Imagine the sweetest-smelling perfume,” he replied. “Something candy-like. Now, pour a bottle of that into your eyes. That’s the joy of fairy embalming. Why? Because you wrote it that way, you sadistic nerf herder.”

I am your father,” I said, and made the Darth Vader wheeze.

“Lucky me,” he replied, and pushed past me.

We hiked toward town, but I was surprised when we turned north and headed uphill rather than down. Down was the way to the main waterfront street lined with funky shops, museums and restaurants, including the best ice cream shop and pizza restaurant this side of Italy, a giant store full of New Age magic supplies, and even a shop specifically dedicated to writers.

“I thought you were going to show me the secret passages,” I said, referring to the Shanghai tunnels rumored to still run hidden beneath the town, remnants of the 1800s when the town was a major shipping port.

“Too dangerous right now,” Finn replied. “They’re used mostly by feyblood creatures, and you did a good job of getting them riled up. It’s almost like you’re trying to build us up to a war or something?”

I avoided his questioning look and quickened my pace, whistling the chorus to “Blasphemous Rumors” by Depeche Mode.

Finn caught up with me, and as we passed the enormous, castle-like fortress of the Jefferson County Courthouse, he described the history of the town. Its many grand Victorian buildings spoke to the dreams of the town’s early builders, that this was going to be one of the biggest port cities in Washington. Unfortunately, the Great Depression, a lack of railroad connections, and a nasty infestation of gremlins killed that dream. But when most mundanes abandoned the town, the area’s rich and important magical history made it a natural home for humans and creatures of a magical nature.

Eventually, mundanes rediscovered the charm of Port Townsend and started to move or retire there, “fixing up” the area and changing it from a small town full of mill-workers, sailors and ex-hippy artists, to a town focused around tourism and the arts.

“In some ways,” Finn said, “I imagine you could compare the clash of cultures and classes in this town to that of us magicals versus the mundanes, or even humans against the feyblood creatures.” He eyed me sideways. “Though again, I hope you aren’t building us toward some kind of culture war?”

“What’d you say?” I asked. “You want some Culture Club?” I began to sing “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me.”

Finn sighed and took the lead again as I continued singing. We wandered our way eventually to Fort Worden.

Fort Worden is awesome. I love this place more than a brownie loves brownies, more than a Smurf loves to Smurf.

Fort Worden State Park was once a US Army base protecting access to the Puget Sound from any potential invaders in the Pacific, with enormous canons mounted on concrete bunkers. The bunkers remain, ghostly gray structures with mossy walls and rusting steel doors, and labyrinthine tunnels running beneath—a fantasy playground.

It was easy to imagine that those tiny arched holes throughout the bunkers might be doorways used by gnomes; or that the grass-filled stone circles might be man-made fairy rings; or, if inscribed with glowing runes, that the gun placements might be used for some purpose more devastating than even the thousand-pound guns they once held. It was easy to imagine that walking those narrow passages beneath the bunkers might eventually lead you somewhere other than simply out.

And those bunkers are spaced out along bluffs and hillsides covered in a forest of cedar and madrona, filled with hidey-holes and natural tree forts that just begged me to imagine what magical beings truly lived there.

We ended the visit on a bluff overlooking the rocky coastline and lighthouse far below.

“Thanks for the tour,” I said. “It’s always a good exercise to look at the world like a child might. I’ve gotten some great ideas for the sequels.”

“Ah, bat’s breath,” Finn said. “Look, if you’re really writing sequels, can you please just do me one favor?”

“What’s that?”

He blushed a bit as he said, “Maybe not make me so awkward with the ladies?”

I turned and walked back toward town, whistling Simply Red’s “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.”

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Follow Randy on Twitter at @randyauthor, on Facebook, or visit his website.