My first Boskone — in fact, my first ever SF/F Con — was in 2015. I’ve been back every year, faithfully checking into the Waterfront Westin in Boston each February for another weekend of panels, readings, and excellent conversation with new and old friends.
The 2020 Boskone took place just before the world locked down due to COVID-19. The 2021 edition wasn’t quite as lucky, but the New England Science Fiction Association, who organize the convention, rallied round and faced the challenge beautifully to produce a well-planned three-day virtual event.
With pared down and yet still extensive programming, there were plenty of interesting things taking place over the weekend, with the added bonus of recorded panels so attendees could catch up later. There was also a dedicated social Zoom open all day to give us a little of that feeling of chatting to people in hallways, in the con suite, and in the lobby lounge area. Was it the same as in-person? Of course not, but it was a good solution for a hard situation, and the virtual con had the advantage of broadening event access for those who might not otherwise be able to attend.
Some of my personal highlights from the weekend:
The Friday night reading by Paul Tremblay and Joe Hill was fabulous, and it was great getting to hear them chat about horror and writing.
The Agents: Revealing the secrets panel with Mur Lafferty, Michael Stearns, Joshua Bilmes, and Sara Megibow had good advice, such as: when vetting potential agents, remember there are bad agents, but there are also good agents who might be bad for you.
Supernatural Sleuthing with Dana Cameron, Leigh Perry, Nancy Holder, Bracken MacLeod, and David McDonald was a blast and had some of my favorite Boskone regulars on it. Advice included: a mystery needs to be solved. A mysterious novel just needs to create atmosphere. It’s all about audience expectations and author promise
The Guest of Honor interview, where Joe Abercrombie told Joe Hill that, “I like characters that are neither heroes not villains, but something in between”.
I loved the panel on The Representation of LGBTQ+ in Popular Culture, with Gillian Daniels, John Chu, Julia Rios, Jennifer Williams, and Sara Megibow — they could have done with double the time! One point made over and over was that ‘good representation’ shouldn’t mean just positive — characters should be allowed to be messy, nuanced, etc. In other words, realistic vs ‘good’.
GoH Joe Abercrombie joined Rebecca Roanhorse, Marie Brennan, Aleron Kong, and Bob Kuhn to talk about The Gritty Underbelly of Fantasy. A lot of the discussion centered on ‘grimdark’ being a reaction to the good/bad simplicity of classic fantasy.
A discussion on Post-Pandemic SFF Conventions, with Brenda Noiseux, Gerald L. Coleman, Steven Silver, Priscilla Olson, and Marcin Klack brought up a lot of interesting points, such as the current situation being the jumping-off point for future hybrid events which include virtual aspects so as to be accessible and inclusive for those who would not normally be able to attend due to financial, physical, and geographical constraints, among others.
Virtual con burn-out is just as much a thing as in-person event exhaustion. It’s tiring staring at a screen, and it’s tough to schedule watching time around things going on at home. Recordings helped with this, but screen fatigue definitely puts limitations on watching.
Despite this, I got a lot out of the panels I watched, and with the recorded events there was the bonus of being able to pause to take notes.
The chat feature during panels was for the most part lively and fun, and no unpleasant incidents occurred during the events I watched.
One nice aspect of having webinars routed through Grenadine was that it allowed us to see who was ‘in the room’ before the webinars started. It was nice being able to spot people I knew!
I wish I’d planned times to meet up with friends in the social rooms! I did drop in and look around, but it was the equivalent of randomly walking through the con suite to see if anyone I knew was there…
This was a huge undertaking and seemed overall to run very smoothly. Well done NESFA for another successful Boskone!
Left: Supernatural Sleuthing panel; Right: Joe Abercrombie and Joe Hill at GoH interview
It’s been a long, long, LONG, LoNG year for everyone. A lot of my to-read list got set aside in favor of rereads or comfort reads, and you know what? I’m fine with that. We all cope however we can, whether that means devouring every new ARC you can get hold of on NetGalley, or abandoning novels entirely in favor of binge-watching The Dragon Prince on repeat. That said, I did manage to read some new books over the past few months, so here are a few.
Recent Reads: Crunching numbers, solving crimes.
I’d been wanting to read Kin by Snorri Kristjansson for ages. Unfortunately, it took a while for it to become available here in the US. A shame, because this Agatha Christie meets Vikings murder mystery deserves ALL THE READERS. It’s fun, clever, and dark all at the same time, and an absolute delight to read.
Set in the year 970, a tension-fraught family reunion at the farm owned by a former Viking warlord quickly sours as old quarrels resurface and eventually blood is spilled. The warlord’s adopted daughter, Helga, sets out to solve the murder before an innocent is punished for a crime she is sure he did not commit. Kin is the first of the Helga Finnsdottir Mysteries, and I look forward to reading book 2, Council.
Another series that had been on my list for a while is Mark Lawrence’s Impossible Times sci fi trilogy. I took advantage of a Kindle promo this year to grab all three, and honestly had a blast with them. Starting with One Word Kill, Lawrence, who is known for his dark fantasy books, dives into the 1980s with a tale of time travel, numbers, and Dungeons & Dragons.
The story starts in 1986, introducing us to 15 year old math genius Nick Hayes. A visit from a future version of Nick sets him on a path full of intrigue and time paradoxes that closely parallels the D&D game that Nick and his friends play on weekends. The story continues in Limited Wish and Dispel Illusion, following Nick through the eighties and nineties. It’s a clever and fast-paced trilogy, with lots of fun pop culture throwback moments and some really great characters. Well worth a read.
A while back I’d read the first three novels in the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, and this year I decided to start again from the first book and work my way through. I’ve just finished the 10th book (including two novellas), False Value, and I can honestly say that this series has been a consistent bright spot for me this year. Alternately white-knuckled-page-turning and laugh-out-loud, Aaronovitch’s work is a guaranteed hit for urban fantasy enthusiasts.
The series follows policeman Peter Grant as he learns to navigate his way through London’s supernatural world as part of the Folly, the Metropolitan Police’s department for dealing with the weird and unusual. Between river deities, vengeful ghosts, and the fae, Peter’s cases are never dull. False Value drops Peter into the world of tech startups and corporate security, and has enough twists to keep readers on their toes. If you’re already a fan of the series, this 2020 release keeps up the good work. If you’re new to it and looking for a great read, I definitely recommend the series (but do start at book 1!).
Now Reading: Reconnecting with old friends…
As I’m sure all fans of epic fantasy are aware, the fourth book in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive is here! I’ve only just started Rhythm of War, and I’ve carefully avoided spoilers, chapter previews, etc., so I can’t say much about it yet, but Sanderson is a talented writer who never lets his readers down, and I already know I’m going to enjoy it! (I did however look up a recap of the past three books as a refresher before diving in.) At 1219 pages long, I’ll have plenty to keep me busy over the next couple of weeks, and I look forward to reconnecting with favorite characters like Kaladin and Shallan.
To Read: The stuff of myths and legends.
I have two books on my Christmas present list, and I can’t wait to unwrap them! The first is The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab, the tale of a woman who makes a bargain to live forever, but is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets. It came out earlier this year and has had some great reviews — the owner of the indie bookstore I use was thrilled when she saw it on my shopping list. I’ve loved other books by Schwab, such as the Shades of Magic trilogy and the Monsters of Verity duology, so I’m pretty sure I’m going to like this one, too.
I saw author S.L. Huang talking about Burning Roses on Twitter, and just knew I had to get it. Another 2020 release, the story is a fairytale retelling mashing up East and West by bringing together Red Riding Hood and mythical archer Hou Yi, as both characters are forced out of middle-aged retirement in a joint quest to save the world. We definitely need more older heroes, especially women, so this one went straight on the to-read list!
I hope you found some interesting stories to delve into this year, either in books or other media, and I wish you all fantastic fictional worlds to explore in 2021!
“Names are important as they tell you a great deal about a person.”
Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind
Now you’ve had a while to consider your world in general, it’s time to put some thought into your main character(s). What feel do you want people to get when they meet them on the page? Do you want readers to immediately emphasize with them, or will your characters have to work for appreciation?
Sam, for instance, is usually a ‘nice guy’ name. Think Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings. Sam Winchester from Supernatural (discounting the whole ‘soulless Sam’ phase…). Or bar owner and shapeshifter Sam Merlotte from Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries. If you name a character Sam, readers are signaled that this is probably NOT a villain.
Names have nuances, shades. This doesn’t mean they belong exclusively to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters, but names can be a good indication of personality. Think Maggie Stiefvater’s Ronan Lynch, from her Raven Cycle books. There’s a sharp name if I ever saw one, and it suits the shaved-headed street-racing Ronan perfectly. Another sharp name, also with an ‘R’ coincidentally, belongs to private investigator Rojan Dizon, the world-weary main character in the fantasy trilogy by Francis Knight that starts with Fade to Black.
Names can play off each other, too. In Victoria Schwab’s Monsters of Verity YA duology, the narrative is shared by two main characters: Kate Harker of the knife’s edge smile and August Flynn, the heart-of-gold monster with the soft gray eyes. Hard vs gentle in the names, and hard vs gentle in their personalities, too. A perfect combination.
If you’re writing a story set in the real world (whether sci fi, urban/contemporary fantasy, or other subgenres), you have some serious decision-making to do with regards to classic vs trendy names. In Part 1 of this post, I already mentioned Scalzi’s option to use long-lasting names like John and Susan. In my Blade Hunt Chronicles books, I have a vampire — Alex — who’s almost 1000 years old. I wanted a name that could have plausibly been in use and yet still felt current, and I figured that Alexander was a timeless choice. The problem with trendy names is that they can date quickly, so if you want something a little different, think hard about which modern names feel as if they may have lasting power.
This brings us to the kid lit names vs adult names conundrum. If you’re writing for teens or preteens, you’re going to need names they can relate to — whether you’re dabbling in real-world sci fi/fantasy or far future/secondary worlds. Unless you’re setting a story in the 1980s, Tracy is probably not a good choice for your female lead (though it may be perfect for an older supporting character like a parent or mentor!). Rick Riordan is great at names that are fun enough to appeal to his middle grade and YA readership, while at the same time escaping the ‘trendiness trap’: think Perseus ‘Percy’ Jackson ( a nod to the Greek and Roman mythology that most of his work is based on) and others such as Annabeth, Leo, Jason (another nod to mythology), and Nico.
Hot tip! Use your own kids or borrow one from a friend to test your names on. I bounce YA character name ideas off my teen daughter, and her feedback is priceless.
When it comes to stories that are not real-world based, there’s more leeway. But you still need to take youth appeal into consideration. In the Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins’ main character Katniss is named after a plant. However, variations of names with ‘Kat’ in them are common enough (and another of those timeless classics) for the name to feel relatable. This is a great name, by the way: the hard K sound suits Katniss’ hard-as-nails personality, and the sibilance of the ending evokes an arrow let loose. So good!
How about where to source names? Baby naming sites are, of course, a fabulous tool. There are so many of these sites nowadays that you can add search words to narrow things down. For instance, ‘Celtic baby names’ might help with your sword-wielding fantasy heroine; ‘unusual baby names’ may lend a sci fi vibe to your blaster-toting wise-cracking space mercenary. There are sites that let you narrow your search down by number of syllables, and you can always look up names with a particular letter if you know the vibe you’re going for.
There are specialist sites, too; I once spent a pleasant afternoon looking up names used in Britain around 1000 CE for my coven of ancient witches. And you can also search surnames; there are several sites that will help you find the most common ones to fit your character’s background, or surnames that have been around for centuries — handy if your thing is urban fantasy and your detective just happens to be the heir of a long line of demon slayers. But don’t discount looking closer to home… My kids’ school directories and yearbooks are a great resource for first and last names. The same goes for town Facebook groups or the local newspaper.
Hot tip! Keep an ongoing list of interesting names you come across, even if they have nothing to do with the story you’re writing; someday you’ll thank past you. I keep a list on my notes app and update as I use up names or find new ones, and I’m very thankful for past me!
And, finally, we can’t talk character naming without talking diversity. We live in a beautifully diverse world, and hopefully your work will reflect that, even if you write second world fantasy or far-flung sci fi. If you’re writing in a contemporary setting, as I tend to do, then naming is where it all starts. Your work has an entire cast of major and minor characters, so please put some thought into what identities you choose for them.
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.”
T.S. Eliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats
“Names and attributes must be accommodated to the essence of things, and not the essence to the names, since things come first and names afterwards.”
Galileo Galilei, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo
So you have a cool idea for a story. You’re ready to start writing. But, wait! What’s your main character’s name? And what about the best friend/love interest/mentor/talking animal sidekick? If you’re anything like me, you need that perfect names to move forward. But deciding a character’s identity isn’t quite as simple as pulling up a bunch of baby naming sites. (Disclaimer: I love baby naming sites!) First, you need to do a bit of homework…
Before anything else, take a moment to think about your story’s world. I’m not saying you need to write up a 50-page document on your universe (unless that’s part of your process), but it’s worth doing some brainstorming, even if you’re a ‘pantser’. Is your story set in contemporary times? In the future, but still on Earth? Is it set in an alternate history past? In space, centuries from now? In a completely new fantasy world?
Doing a little worldbuilding before you name your characters (yes, even the ones with minor ‘walk on’ roles) is crucial as names add layers and texture to your story. If you’re writing in contemporary times or in a near enough real world past/future to be relatable, it’s also a way to bring in diversity by way of first and/or last names. In Andy Weir’s The Martian, for instance, which is set in a not-too-distant future, character surnames include Martinez, Ng, and Kapoor.
What if your story is set further in the future; will completely new naming conventions and trends have set in? John Scalzi gets around this in his Old Man’s War universe by using classic names that have been around for centuries and will most likely endure — John, Harry, and Susan, for example. Not only does this make historical sense, but it also serves to give us an initial familiarity that goes on to be turned on its head once the characters arrive in space and their entire lives change. After that, the soothing weight of his ‘Harrys’ and ‘Johns’ becomes a tether to a life left behind. In contrast, the different alien peoples his characters encounter all have unique naming conventions depending on their languages and biology (in terms of vocalization).
In Pierce Brown’s Red Rising universe, set on Earth’s colonies within our solar system, names have moved on from contemporary choices and naming conventions are according to social caste. The upper class, for instance, leans heavily on Latin names from the Roman period: Virginia, Pax, Titus, Adrius, Nero, etc. It’s a nod to his characters’ Earthly origins, but also helps underline the importance of the military and the separation between classes.
If you’re writing sci fi with no Earth connections, you have a little more freedom. But it helps to give the main characters names that at least feel familiar. In Star Wars (a galaxy far, far away), we have Luke and Leia to anchor the story. In Jo Zebedee’s Inheritance Trilogy space opera, key characters like Kare and Ealyn sound like they fit right in with Zebedee’s Northern Irish background. The same goes for secondary world fantasy. Of course, you can go as wild as you want with character names. But if they feel like names we might see in our day-to-day, it’s easier to relate. Elspeth Cooper’s Gair (The Wild Hunt) and Peter V. Brett’s Arlen and Leesha (The Demon Cycle) come to mind — they’re different, yes, but not so much that we can’t imagine them in our lives. Of course, a well-known trick in secondary world fantasy is to use variations of everyday names, lending instant familiarity. In this category we have characters like George R.R. Martin’s Jon Snow, Jaime Lannister, or Benjen Stark (A Song of Ice and Fire).
Once you know your world, it’s time to pick it apart a little and set a few naming standards to help readers navigate your fictional universe. Do your dystopian future rebels use military-style callsigns? Do your fantasy working class characters tend to be named after the saints in your fictional religion? Do the northerners and southerners in your world have distinct histories so that names have regional variations?
Robin Hobb is a great example of this in her Farseer books. The nobility in her Six Duchies is often named after a virtue. Members of the Royal Family include Chivalry, Verity, Patience and so on. Flower names tend to appear amongst the commoners — Laurel and Nettle, for instance. In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R Tolkien also uses flowers as girl names among his hobbits — Sam Gamgee’s daughter is named Elanor after the golden blossoms of Lothlórien, and his wife’s name is Rose. In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, many of the kings seem to follow a naming pattern, too: see Caspian, Rilian, and Tirian. And in her Seven Realms/Shattered Realms books, Cinda Williams Chima has a cool convention for the Royal Family of her Queendom of the Fells: Raisa ana’Marianna is daughter to Queen Marianna ana’Lissa and mother of Alyssa ana’Raisa.
You don’t have to over-complicate your character naming, but having a few standards in place to help readers understand things like nationality, class, alien species, or religion is a relatively simple way to build richness and depth into your story (and it can be lots of fun, too). It means that, instead of a random mishmash of names, your readers will be able to identify a consistency that adds realism to your fictional world and brings it to life.
Life has been weird ever since COVID-19 went global. The past few weeks have been simultaneously dragonfly-quick and slow as a New England winter. One day drags by while the next is gone in a blink, and time, for me at least, has become a fickle capricious thing, heavy as stone yet as hard to hold onto as a handful of fine, dry sand.
That being so, I suddenly realized it’s been a month and a half since over a thousand sci fi, fantasy, and horror fans gathered for Boskone 57, and I’m long overdue a con round-up!
Boskone 57 was once again held at the Westin Waterfront in Boston on President’s Day weekend. For once I had no program items I was scheduled for on Friday, so I was able to drive in and settle down, catching up with friends and getting in the mood for my Saturday panels.
On Friday I only watched a couple of program items. One was the interview with Holly Black, Boskone’s YA Guest of Honor. This brought a fun insight into Holly’s work and creative process, as well as a chance for a sneak peek at some of her upcoming projects.
I also caught the Fashion in Fantasy Worlds panel, with Janice Gelb, Melissa Caruso, Zig Zag Claybourne, Nightwing Whitehead, and Sarah Morrison. My main takeaway from the panel was that fashion in novels is about the flavor, not the details; it’s about how the character feels in the clothes they wear, and not necessarily the clothes themselves.
Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny, and I was more than ready to go by the time programming started at 10am. I always like to sign up for a kaffeeklatsch if possible, and this year I was lucky enough to have the chance to sit down with the wonderful Charlaine Harris, who confessed that “I write because I get bored!”
Next up was Blood-Curdling Science Fiction, with Errick Nunnally moderating, and Julie C. Day, Nicholas Kauffmann, Darrell Schweitzer, and myself as panelists. We were supposed to be discussing the line between horror and sci fi, and since I write (and read) mostly fantasy, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. But the conversation ended up being great, and I had a really good time. Our takeaway? That horror is a matter of feeling, and mashes well with any genre. Oh, and that science is creepy!
I had a quick lunch and then went to Holly Black’s reading at 1pm — another thing I always like to do at Boskone is fit in a reading or two, if possible, as I really enjoy hearing stories in the author’s voice.
Afterwards, it was time for a panel on Editing from Agent, to Editor, to Publisher, with Joshua Bilmes, Beth Meacham, John Kessel, and James D. Macdonald, moderated by Melanie Meadors. Some of my notes on this panel include:
Polish your work as much as you can before sending it to beta readers (John and James) BUT don’t over-edit, as earlier drafts can have a raw intensity that can get lost in the polishing process (Beth).
“When a manuscript is accepted by the publisher, that’s when we like to say the real work begins” (Beth).
Remember that your editor is not supposed to be your uncredited co-author! Be prepared to do the work (James).
Revision letters: recognize that your feelings are going to be hurt (Beth). Give yourself time to absorb editorial critiques before reacting to them.
Later in the afternoon, I headed down to the New England Horror Writers Meet Up, hosted by Jack Haringa. I was delighted to find that I wasn’t the only ‘accidental horror’ writer around, and that lots of us tend to tread the line between horror and other genres, occasionally tipping one way or the other. For more information on this group, look up http://nehw.blogspot.com.
I had two more items on my schedule for the day, and I was in both of them! The first was a panel I was moderating, Books That Get Kids Reading, with Michael Stearns (who writes as Carter Roy), Julia Rios, and Trisha Wooldridge. Not a lot of people showed up to watch, unfortunately (the 6pm dinner slot is a tough one!), but we still had a great time exchanging book and graphic novel recommendations for kids and teens. Our panel was unanimous in several things, including our love for diverse books and our admiration for Carlos Hernandez’ Sal and Gabi Break the Universe (as well as for his publisher, Rick Riordan Presents).
To finish up the evening in style, I once again took part in the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading, where members of BU each had a six-minute slot to showcase their work. I love this reading format, which is like a literary taster menu of voice, style, and genre. For my turn, I chose an excerpt from my short story The Sugar Cane Sea, which comes out later this year in the Not All Monsters anthology by Strangehouse Books.
On Sunday I caught one last panel, Law & Justice in Speculative Fiction, with Leigh Perry, Kenneth Schneyer, Bracken MacLeod, and Diana Rowland. The panelists discussed how concepts of law and justice work — or not! — in fictional worlds, and what were some of the common traps that writers fall into, as well as pointing out a dearth of restorative justice in fictional worlds.
After this, it was time to pack up and return to real life. Boskone was, as always, full of wonderful conversations and inspiring panels and presentations — I was sad to take off my con badge, but it’s always exciting to get home and apply that creative boost to my own writing. And of course, to start the countdown to Boskone 58!
It’s February tomorrow, and February brings ALL THE CONS. Or, well, two at least.
I’ll be in NYC next weekend for the SCBWI Winter Conference, which runs from February 7-9. I’m not part of any official programming, but will be wearing my ‘NESCBWI Regional Conference Co-Director’ hat (not literally. I own no fancy conference hats, alas), so come and find me if you want to talk about all things books, writing, and kid lit, or just to hang out and have a cup of tea in the hotel lobby. Hit me up on Twitter! @jspinkmills
From February 14-16 I’ll be in Boston for my yearly pilgrimage to Boskone. I’ll be on three program items, which leaves me plenty of time to catch up with people and make new friends. Planning to go to Boskone for the first time? Already a regular but we haven’t met yet? Come and find me — let’s chat!
Besides hanging around the lobby bar or attending other people’s panels, here’s where you can find me at Boskone:
Blood-Curdling Science Fiction
15 Feb 2020, Saturday 11:00 – 11:50, Marina 2
Where does the thin (red) line between science fiction and horror lie? Why does science fiction horror fascinate us so much? What is it about horror in SF that is so absolutely terrifying? What examples do we have of science fiction that will make your blood run cold? And is it getting harder to make SF fiction that is truly scary?
Errick Nunnally (Moderator), Juliana Spink Mills, Julie C. Day, Nicholas Kaufmann, Darrell Schweitzer
Books That Get Kids Reading!
15 Feb 2020, Saturday 18:00 – 18:50, Harbor II
Hundreds of new children’s books are published every year. Yet recommended reading lists still include the same old children’s classics, with only a few new titles. Our panelists share some of their favorite new children’s books and authors from recent years that should be added to the lists.
Juliana Spink Mills (Moderator), Michael Stearns (Upstart Crow Literary), Julia Rios, Adi Rule, Trisha J. Wooldridge
Broad Universe Group Reading
15 Feb 2020, Saturday 20:00 – 21:20, Griffin
Join members of Broad Universe — a nonprofit association dedicated to supporting, encouraging, and promoting female authors of science fiction, fantasy, and horror — as they read tidbits of works and works in progress. Readers will include LJ Cohen, Marianna Martin, Roberta Rogow, Juliana Spink Mills, and Trisha J. Wooldridge. Moderated by Elaine Isaak.
Stephen Palmer is the author of fifteen novels, dabbling in a variety of genres from science fiction to slipstream, including steampunk, alternate history, and fantasy. He tells tales of the past-that-might-have-been, and the future-that-might-yet-be. His gripping and thought-provoking prose is both wildly creative and chillingly conceivable.
In the Factory Girl trilogy, Stephen Palmer brings us a meticulously constructed clockpunk alt-Edwardian world, full of bustling automata and a myriad of other tiny details. The story of Kora and Roka, different personalities of the same young woman, the ‘girl with two souls’, sweeps us along from England to Africa and back again in an intricate plot that centers on themes of identity and society.
The Girl With Two Souls, The Girl With One Friend, and The Girl With No Soul will be released today and throughout December 2019 in brand-new editions from Infinity Plus Press.
Hi Stephen, thanks for joining me on the blog. Congratulations on the release of the new editions of the Factory Girl trilogy! Could you tell me a little about the cover changes?
The trilogy got some good reviews, which I and Keith Brooke – my outstanding editor, and the man behind Infinity Plus Books – were pleased with. But afterwards I felt it could maybe do more. Last year I met Tom and Nimue Brown at the Asylum Steampunk weekend, and on the Saturday I got to see more of Tom’s artwork. Tom has a unique style of creating images, which I immediately fell for. Nimue hand colours the art for their graphic novels – they are a fantastically talented pair. With both of them being fans of the trilogy (Nimue reviewed it for her Druidlife blog), it occurred to me that the trilogy could benefit from being re-jacketed. I floated the idea to Keith, and he agreed. In due course the arrangement was made with Tom and Nimue. I saw them in Stroud a few months ago, and we had an enjoyable chat in a pub. Lovely couple.
After a while I sent Tom a few descriptions and other suggestions, and he came up with the images this year, all three of which we loved.Then it was a matter of firing up Photoshop to create the cover designs.
Identity is a key theme in the Factory Girl trilogy, as indeed with many of your other works, such as the excellent Beautiful Intelligence. What is it about this theme that fascinates you?
That’s a good question, a wise question. I’m going to have to think a bit about it. [Thinks for a few days…] Well, perhaps it’s because the main direction of my thinking life is the relationship between human beings and the real world, a relationship which, in my own life, has been conveyed by understanding. Understanding, for me, is the most fundamental aspect of individual and social life. It’s what motivates the majority of my life anyway. I think Kora’s need to understand the circumstances of her life is based in part on my own drive for meaning.
Human beings have two main ways to create meaning, including the meaning of other people, which is identity. We can create it ourselves from what we are told, or we can find it out from first principles. I would characterise the former as narcissistic and the latter as realistic. The former says: this is what I believe regardless of the real world. The latter says: I’ll test the real world, see what it tells me, then make a decision based on that. Most people form their identity from a blend of the two. They’ll be born and brought up in a particular culture, which they’ll adopt as the norm. But a lot of people will move on from that. I think this is why women in general are a better representation of humanity than men. Men take so much on faith. Women tend to communicate more, and better, which allows them to see themselves from other perspectives; and that’s a key to personal growth, I think, including for identity.
In Beautiful Intelligence this aspect of social life is more generally presented. Leonora is going for the individual, faith-based option via her AI, while Manfred decides to see what the BIs will tell him. His first scene, the cutting of the bonds between the nine BIs, is his answer to his thought process. Leonora by contrast has no idea what Zeug will do because she has imposed her own ideas onto it.
A lot of my work is about this split in human meaning and its relationship with identity. Even in my debut, Memory Seed, the priestesses of the Goddess realise at the end of the novel that their lives have been lived regardless of what the world was telling them. The story ‘First Temple’ in my recent collection Tales From The Spired Inn tells the same story in civic life. We cannot be saved. We have to save ourselves.
Your main protagonist is actually two characters in one: Kora and her ‘other soul’, Roka. What inspired her creation? Did you find you had to do a lot of research into subjects such as dissociative identity disorder to pull off this ambitious character?
About a year before I put the trilogy together I had an idea for a book title – The Girl With Two Souls. I don’t know why this title popped into my mind, unless it somehow represented ideas which interest me, and which are the philosophical theme of the trilogy: do human beings or other creatures and creations have a soul or spirit? Anyway, I wrote it down for future reference, as it seemed a particularly intriguing title for a novel. The year after, that title and the whole thematic template for the trilogy merged and came out in a single two hour splurge. I knew Kora was the girl with two souls, I knew she had one black African parent and one white British parent, and I knew she would alternate between Kora and some other character. Now, the strange thing is, this alternation of identity has been recorded in reality; there are some individuals with DID who alternate regularly, day by day. I was so astonished to read this that I remembered it much later, when it became the central aspect of Kora’s mental condition.
I did do a little research, but not much – just enough to make the grounding plausible. There are aspects of Kora which are my own invention, while other aspects are psychologically grounded. Also, I wanted to emphasise that the Edwardian society surrounding Kora would look at her from a Christian perspective, i.e. that she did have two souls within. There was very little understanding of mental conditions in those days – a theme of my WW1 novel Tommy Catkins. Freud, for instance, had in 1910 only been published for a couple of decades. So Kora is psychologically grounded, but also a person of my imagination.
I think this might be a good point to mention an aspect of the trilogy which some readers found perplexing, and that is the “second novel” which intertwines with the main one. This is Amy’s Garden by Reverend Carolus Dodgson. I can tell you that right from that opening splurge of ideas I knew Amy’s Garden had to be a central element of the trilogy. It is of course an alternate version of Alice In Wonderland – I’ve always loved that book, like millions of others. So I re-wrote it, using Dodgson’s love of logic in my own particular way, asking and answering questions about consciousness and the human condition. Amy’s Garden is a book Kora cannot live without. As she declares much later, it is her heart. I did everything I could to encapsulate in the smallest possible amount of prose, and as vividly as possible, ten central aspects of consciousness and the human condition: that is what Amy’s Garden is, over twelve brief chapters. Kora, lacking a steady identity, grasps at a deep level that the book speaks to her, which is why she carries it in her pocket and is never parted from it. And in Amy’s Garden itself I played with a kind of conceptual echo, since Amy herself carries a book in her pocket…
By the way, in Alice In Wonderland, Alice’s sister is not named, though some believe she is called Lorna. I called her Amy, and had Alice herself appear briefly part of the way through Amy’s Garden, alongside her parents. Now, in real life back in 2013, I knew two sisters called Amy and Alice, which is where Amy’s name came from. They were students at the college where I worked! I never told them, of course…
In your blog post ‘The Unemployment Problem’ you talk about your automata. Did you go through different models for employment in your world before settling on that one, or was it clear from the start which direction you wanted to go in?
The second line in my notebook from that two hour splurge says: touchstone, steampunk. I knew right away that I wanted to write a steampunk or steampunk-influenced work. So automata were the direction to go in. I think I was also influenced by a television documentary I watched presented by Professor Simon Schaffer called ‘Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams.’ This was broadcast in autumn 2013, and I remember being fascinated by it, as at the time I knew nothing about how complex automata were in historical times. I’ve watched it a couple of times since, it really is an amazing documentary.
I particularly liked the idea of automata being the slaves underpinning the British Empire, as so much of the wealth and power of that real era came from exploitation: of the working class, of people in colonial nations like India, and, in previous centuries, of actual slaves, like those taken from West African countries. Linking these automata slaves with Kora’s father and his Factory seemed the perfect connection to me, and made for some great plot twists!
The Clockwork Garden is amazing! How did the idea for this come about? And additionally, what is your personal favorite Factory Girl location?
How strange that you should mention the Clockwork Garden in that way! It so happens I can remember exactly how it came about – no coincidence, maybe. I was at the day job, out for a lunchtime stroll – this would be autumn 2013 – and was walking back to the college through a place in my home town of Shrewsbury called the Quarry, which is basically an old sandstone quarry now converted into a beautiful green park adjacent to the River Severn. By this time I was putting together all the details for the novel, prior to writing the first volume December 2013 – January 2014. As I looked out at the trees and bushes I had a sudden mental image of them all made in metal. From that single thought came the whole idea of the Clockwork Garden. I remember being pretty excited about this idea – I wrote it down in my notebook as soon as I got back, then, later, made it more sophisticated to include clues about the Factory and other details. I love it when inspiration strikes in this way. As I’ve written on my blog and at SFF Chronicles, I think authors should always listen to their subconscious. It’s where a lot of the important work happens.
I think my favourite location is probably Dr Spellman’s house in Sheffield. It was very important to me because it was the first safe location for Kora after she was sprung out of Bedlam Mental Hospital. My version of Bedlam was inspired by an actual mental hospital, you see, and Dr Spellman’s house is topographically almost identical to a house I know. Because in those first two chapters you don’t know for sure that Dr Spellman is a good man, I intuitively hit upon the idea of using a house I have fond memories of. The reader of course wouldn’t be aware of any of this, but it was important to me; it affected the tone of my writing. I wanted to write from a position of knowing deep down that Kora was safe, not in peril as she was inside Bedlam. This all sounds a bit odd, I know, but when I created the template for the trilogy it all came out of my subconscious in one go, which told me that the whole thing was ready formed in there and just waiting for the right moment to emerge. So it felt right that Dr Spellman’s house should link to my own memories in some way, giving it extra depth and an aura of safety. From that house, Kora is able to explore. It gives her a solid foundation. There’s a scene at the beginning where Dr Spellman is waiting for Roka, and he is sitting half asleep at the top of a staircase; that’s directly out of my own visual memories of this house.
You also have a new novel on the way, set in the Factory Girl world. Could you tell us a bit about The Conscientious Objector?
After writing the third volume of the trilogy I had a year off, as I’d done a lot of work, felt exhausted, and needed a rest. But, as I rested, I realised Erasmus Darwin had a tale yet to tell, so in December 2015 I began The Conscientious Objector, which takes place in 1914 – 1915 and tells of Erasmus’ reaction to the outbreak of what even then was called the Great War (i.e. World War 1). Erasmus of course loathes physical combat, as evinced by his reaction to being given a pistol by his Uncle Frank when Frank’s house is under siege in The Girl With One Friend. I realised that in WW1 he would by inclination be a pacifist, and perhaps even a conscientious objector, though that would be a very dangerous position for him to take. Conchies, as they were known, could be shot by firing squad. Many were. (My subsequent WW1 novel Tommy Catkins went deeper into this soldiers’ dilemma.)
I wanted Erasmus to have a female companion, so the other main character is Claudia Cooper, a strange woman of very mysterious origin. As I thought about these two characters and their relationship I decided to use the notion of early childhood memory, focusing on that point when we have our first recallable memories – usually around the age of three or four – but for Claudia blurring them into something indistinguishable from fantasy. As a consequence, much of the novel is Claudia and Erasmus delving deep into her origin via a most extraordinary special mission given to them by the British generals on the Western Front. The novel ends with a revelation which, of course, I couldn’t possibly divulge here, but which presents both Claudia and Erasmus with a life-threatening situation the like of which neither has ever encountered.
This novel, like the trilogy, also has a second book intertwined with it, which I wrote shortly after completing Amy’s Garden. It is Amy’s Adventures In Narkissos, a much darker work, as is suggested by the scene in The Girl With Two Souls where Kora, via the Amy doll, asks a question about it, to her immediate shame. This second Reverend Carolus Dodgson book details more of Amy’s world, asking questions of its reader about the role of selfishness (or more accurately narcissism) in their lives.
Do you have plans for more work in this setting?
No. It’s done and dusted. I’m terribly restless creatively, and I have two other alternate history fantasy/steampunk works finished or in preparation. But I do feel great warmth towards the Factory Girl trilogy, and I feel very lucky that Keith published it. He’s been a tremendous support to me. Many thanks for asking these great questions Juliana, I had fun answering them!
And thank you, Stephen, for sharing your insights on your work!
Find Stephen’s work on Amazon (see links above); other buying options including Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords available on the Infinity Plus website.
With Worldcon a wrap, at least for me, I was ready to take time off to wander around Dublin and get some sightseeing done. I had a theme for the day, and that theme was ‘words’. Pol and I started out together at the Dublin Writer’s Museum, and then went our separate ways. My path took me past Christ Church and St. Patrick’s cathedrals, with a pause to enjoy the architecture and St. Patrick’s Park, and then onto the gorgeous Marsh’s Library — the oldest public library in the country.
Dublin Writer’s Museum
Christ Church Cathedral
Marsh’s is well worth a visit is you’re in the area; the section open to the public is small, but the ambience is incredible! You can just imagine the scholars of the past sitting at the wooden desks pouring over the leather-bound tomes… (Go follow their lovely bookish feed on Instagram!) Next, I strolled past Dublin Castle and visited my last stop of the day: the Chester Beatty Library, a fabulous building that mixes the old and the modern beautifully. The Chester Beatty houses a collection of manuscripts, rare books, and other fascinating items from Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. I wandered back home via Temple Bar and the Ha’Penny Bridge, to pack my bags ready for Belfast the next morning.
Quote spotted on street
Chester Beatty Library
On Tuesday August 20th, Pol and I set off for Northern Ireland, with a picturesque train ride up through the Irish countryside. In Belfast, I headed to Jo Zebedee’s house in Carrickfergus — a huge thanks to Jo and her wonderful family for hosting me for a week! Titancon began on Thursday, so on Wednesday we still had time for a little sightseeing, which began with a drive up the coast (and past the filming location for the Wall and Castle Black in Game of Thrones), stopping at the ruins of the ‘Bishop’s Palace’ in the parish where Jonathan Swift was minister. A thoroughly rainy afternoon was spent in company of fellow Chrons members Pol and Paul, visiting Carrickfergus Castle before a well-deserved pub dinner.
The ‘Bishop’s Palace’
View from the castle gate
Thursday August 22nd was the first day of Titancon/Eurocon. I was instantly smitten! This is a much smaller con than the madness that was Dublin, and I thoroughly enjoyed the casual atmosphere, with good conversations waiting around every corner, and a small but interesting selection of panels. After the opening ceremony with Guest of Honor George R.R. Martin himself, it was time for my own panel: I was moderating Found in Translation (Juliana Spink Mills, Francesco Verso, Radoslaw Kot, Jean Bürlesk) and have been assured I did a decent job of it! Jo and I left early, without staying for the famous Titancon Literature Night, but all in all it was a great first day.
Friday, I skipped the morning programming and headed over to the Titanic Belfast museum, which was particularly interesting for the glimpse of Belfast in the early 1900s, as well as the scope of the shipping industry in the day. I made it back just in time to catch a great panel on Medbots, Tricorders, and More (Kerry Buchanan, Catherine Sharp, David Nordley, Christine Doyle), where Christine drew a parallel between space exploration and the colonial era on Earth, talking not only about a fear of being contaminated with alien diseases, but also that care will be needed not to contaminate other species/peoples with Earth diseases.
Titanic museum across the water
Titanic Belfast museum
Following this, I caught a presentation on underwater archeology by Radoslaw Kot: Capital Ships Lost. My next program item was A Closer Look at Anthologies (Ellen Datlow, Kerry Buchanan, Paul Corcoran, Sarah Murray, Claude Lalumière). I found the differences in approach taken by an editor dealing with larges presses (Ellen) and small presses that depend on the KU pages-read system (Paul) particularly interesting, in terms of specific strategies used.
The last event on Friday was our DISTAFF book launch. DISTAFF is an all-women’s sci fi anthology put together by a group of us from the SFFChronicles.com forum, including Kerry Buchanan, Jo Zebedee, and myself, all present at Titancon. The anthology was officially released on August 15th (see our website and my blog post for more information), and finally we had a chance to celebrate all our hard work! We had a great turnout for the launch party, which included readings, an interview by author and editor Paul Corcoran, and lovely cupcakes and sci fi themed chocolates. A huge thanks to everyone who came and made our evening such a special one!
Kerry, Paul, Jo, Juliana
Yummy launch treats
Chrons members at the launch
Saturday was the last official day of Titancon, apart from the traditional Sunday coach tour (see upcoming blog post) and feast (which I skipped). My first program item of the day was Peader Ó Guilín’s Toast Mutant Interview , followed by a panel on the Modern Use of Irish Mythology (Jo Zebedee, Ruth Frances Long, Ian McDonald), where Ruth told us that, regarding different parts of Ireland and mythology, “We come at things from different angles, but we all end up at the same point.”
Next up was a panel called YA For Everyone (Ruth Frances Long, Karen, Rain Devlin, Peader Ó Guilín), where Peader reminded us that YA isn’t just about plot-driven stories, but also stories that people think young people should read, that will educate them—issue-driven stories (drug use, disability, etc.). The panelists also brought up another matter, that of shelving issues: if YA is treated as a genre, do we need subgenres? The closing ceremony came soon after, with Toast Mutants Peader and Pat Cadigan, and Guest of Honor George R.R. Martin. Afterwards, six of us Chrons folk topped this off with our very own farewell dinner — a lovely and fitting end to the event.
More to come! The Titancon coach tour and my day out in Howth…
From the moment Worldcon 2019 was confirmed for Dublin, I knew I wanted to go. Eurocon was taking place a week later, in Belfast, and this was the most golden of golden opportunities to get to meet some of my UK and Irish SF/F writing friends in person. I talked it over with my husband, and we decided I should take the plunge and buy the memberships to both cons.
Fast forward two years and there I was, landing in Dublin on a grey and drizzly Wednesday morning at oh-my-god-it’s-early o’clock for my first ever Worldcon. I had arranged to meet my friend Pol, who was sharing a rental house with me and a couple of others from the forum we all post on — the SFF.Chronicles.com. Pol was fresh off the ferry from England, also arriving at horrible o’clock in the morning, so we kicked off our adventure by spending the hours until we could check in by traipsing all around Dublin. Two museums and a multitude of other stops later, including Trinity College and the statue of Oscar Wilde, it was finally time to drag our exhausted and zombie-like selves to a taxi and head over to our home for the week.
Death globe selfie at Trinity College
The rest of the day was spent settling in, getting to know my housemates in person, and popping over lightning quick to the event venue to get our registration done. Thursday morning was Day 1 of Worldcon, and the four of us — Pol Dee, Jo Zebedee, Shellie Horst, and myself — took a taxi in the morning, excited to get started. The first panel I caught that day was Invasion and the Irish Imagination (Jo Zebedee, Peader Ó Guilín, Ruth Frances Long, Ian McDonald, Jack Fennel), a lively and thought-provoking discussion. Perhaps my favorite moment was when Jo told us, “as writers, keep asking those questions, and asking them hard.”
Later, in Sports in Science Fiction and Fantasy (Neil Williamson, Chris M. Barkley, Rick Wiber, Fonda Lee), Fonda talked about sports as a microcosm of society, and suggested that “sports are a way to reflect and reinforce some of the social conflicts and divisions.” I was particularly interested in this panel, as I’m getting ready for another revision pass of the SF sports thriller that I wrote last year. Lots of great tips!
View of the Liffey…
…from the conference center
I managed to fit in two more panels that day, Found in Translation (Rebecca Gomez Farrell, Jean Bürlesk, Umiyuri Katsuyama, Andy Dudak), and ‘Celtic’ Fantasy and Mythology (Kerry Buchanan, Kathryn Sullivan, Kristina Perez, Deirdre Thornton, David Cartwright). I also connected with some of the other SFFChronicles members who were attending Worldcon, and a few other ‘e-friends’ who I had been looking forward to meeting in person. As evening fell, we shared another taxi home to our ‘con within a con’, to chat about our day over dinner and a well-deserved glass of wine.
Friday was a day for readings, with one by Charlie Jane Anders — a delightful surprise, as I wasn’t familiar with her work — and Victoria Schwab — who is every bit as amazing in person as she is online. At the end of the day it was my turn ‘on stage’, as part of the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading. It was lovely to be part of Worldcon’s programming, and we had a nice turnout for our event.
The Broad Universe group
Con badge and con nails
BU and anthology swag
By Friday, Worldcon was busy, busy, busy; lots of people and lots of lines everywhere for all panels and events. We were forced to strategize, paring things down to basics, attending only the things we really wanted. For me, on Saturday, this included a great panel on Gender and Sexuality in YA (Victoria Schwab, Sam Bradbury, Diana M. Pho, Rei Rosenquist, Rachel Hartman), where we were urged by Rei to “stand on the ground you stand on” and know which story is actually ours to tell. Victoria added that writers need to understand the core of their own identity first.
Other Saturday events included a reading by Adrian Tchaikovsky, and a kaffeeklatsch with Peter V. Brett, where much Demon Cycle wisdom was shared. But possibly my favorite moment of the day was going out to dinner with a mixed group of SFFChronicles members and writers from Otherworlds NI, a Northern Irish science fiction group, the brainchild of Jo Zebedee. The Otherworlders are all collectively lovely, and us Chronners were more than happy to become honorary Otherworlds adoptees. This, to me, is the highlight of these events: the friendships forged or strengthened, the conversations held, the smiles and laughter gathered.
I kicked off Sunday by attending a kaffeeklatsch with fellow Broad Universe member Randee Dawn. This was followed by a panel on Getting Published and Staying Published (E.C Ambrose, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, George Sandison, Michelle Sagara, Rachel Winterbottom), where Elaine reminded us that most writers’ careers are a rollercoaster of ups and downs instead of a linear ascension. At What is Irish Science Fiction Now? (Jo Zebedee, Val Nolan, Atlin Merrick, Sarah Maria Griffin), Sarah declared that “no one is going to talk about us if we don’t talk about ourselves. (…) It is urgent that we represent ourselves.” When the subject turned to the divide between perception of ‘literary’ vs genre fiction, Sarah delighted the audience by saying, “I do believe they’re called book shelves for a reason, and not book plinths.”
Sunday evening was the Hugo’s ceremony, which Pol and I livestreamed from the house as we were both absolutely out of energy. I had already decided to give the last day of the con — Monday — a miss in the name of Dublin tourism, but I felt that Sunday was the perfect ending to an extremely hectic but very rewarding event.
More to come! Touristing in Dublin and Belfast, Eurocon/Titancon, the Titancon coach tour, and my day out in Howth…
It’s today! It’s our day! After over a year of planning, writing, editing, formatting, and all the other things that go with taking a book from concept to fruition, our collaborative sci fi anthology is out in the world. Fly, little book, fly!
Click here to read about DISTAFF on our website, and don’t forget to order your copy. Enjoy!