The Shadows Inside

Leaning into shadows turns the ordinary extraordinary.

Back in the olden days of pre-COVID 2020, I was on a con panel called Blood-Curdling Science Fiction, on the blurring of lines between sci fi and horror fiction. Our discussion focused on that gray zone that lies between genres. There are many genres that play well with others, but I think that perhaps horror is the one that best suits them all.

Horror and sci fi? Good. Horror and fantasy? Great. You can make it fancy and call it literary. You can pulp it up or lean into gore or slasher fiction; send it into space or ground it on Earth. You can stick some romance in there or comedy, and you’re still golden. Like a nicely paired bottle of wine, horror goes well with everything.

Wine pairings aside, why is it that so many non-horror writers like to lean into the shadows? Take me — I’m an accidental horror writer who doesn’t actually write horror. But I’ve sold four stories to dark fantasy or horror-leaning anthologies in recent times and have another coming out, probably in 2022, that is definitely on the side of nightmares.

Personally, I find playing with darkness in my stories to be cathartic. It’s a way of acknowledging child-me who checked her bedroom wardrobe was tightly shut at night and jumped into bed so nothing could catch her ankle on the way. I’ve outgrown the jumping bit (though I do always shut my wardrobe — old habits die hard!) and have learnt to rationalize those bumps in the middle of the night, but it can be quite gleeful to tap into that younger self who believed with all her heart that magic was real and that shadows had teeth.

It’s not quite as easy to believe in magic nowadays, though I try my best! But the darkness, well. That’s just another flavor of magic, and one too easily remembered. And perhaps this is why so many works of fiction flirt with horror, even if they officially belong to other genres. This darker side of magic, the shadows from our childhood nights that still live inside us, will always make a strange sort of sense. As readers, we know it’s not real. But when daylight ebbs and the sky goes dark, that reality blurs, just a little, just enough to tip the ordinary into the extraordinary. And then, the shadows creep out to play.

Happy Halloween! 

If you’re looking for darker stories, please consider helping out The Pixel Project in their work to end violence against women by buying their first charity anthology, Giving the Devil His Due. It’s full of excellent writers dishing up justice both hot and cold, and profits go to a good cause. More information here.

Also, Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas is up for preorder! It includes my short story Moon Under Mangroves (a tale of aging, creepy swamp crabs, and a cursed compass) among a long list of work by fantastic authors. I’ve seen the PDF and it’s absolutely gorgeous and just full of illustrations and little graphic design treats! Check out the publisher’s page here.

Food and Drink in Sci Fi and Fantasy

When I was young, I was fascinated by mentions of food in children’s books, especially in stories written long before I was born. I remember marveling at World War I-era fare in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series (1930-1947) and the endless picnics in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books (1942-1963), which always seemed to include fresh tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, and massive slices of fruit cake.

As a grown-up, I still find mentions of food in books fascinating, especially when it comes to speculative fiction. Even commonplace meals gain a strange and otherworldly aspect when tossed into a vast fantasy saga or a thrilling space opera. For instance, take a look at this description of a centaur’s breakfast in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair:

“A Centaur has a man-stomach and a horse-stomach. And of course both want breakfast. So first of all he has porridge and pavenders and kidneys and bacon and omlette and cold ham and toast and marmalade and coffee and beer. And after that he tends to the horse part of himself by grazing for an hour or so and finishing up with a hot mash, some oats, and a bag of sugar. That’s why it’s such a serious thing to ask a Centaur to stay for the weekend. A very serious thing indeed.”

The Silver Chair — C.S. Lewis

But food and drink often move past sustenance and become key plot devices. Countless drops of poison have been administered in handy flagons of ale or goblets of wine; feasts have gathered enemies for slaughter; assassins have burst out of cakes to gun down their targets. And when it comes to politics, mealtime conversation and table manners can cut as sharp and deadly as swords on the battlefield, winning or losing crucial ground for those involved.

In The Martian by Andy Weir, a good deal of the shipwrecked-on-Mars saga revolves around food: how to make it last, and how to farm enough potatoes to survive until rescue. One of my favorite examples of food and drink as a plot device, however, is Arthur Dent’s search for the perfect cup of tea in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Arthur’s desire for a decent brew escalates from amusing side joke to an epic quest that eventually takes over all of the ship computer’s processing power and lands the crew in a spot of hot water, pun intended. 

“No,” Arthur said, “look, it’s very, very simple… All I want… is a cup of tea. You are going to make one for me. Now keep quiet and listen.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — Douglas Adams

Sometimes food can help move a plot forward, literally. After all, without the Elven lembas, the intrepid adventurers in J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings would have to stop to hunt and gather food, slowing down both the quest and the story pacing itself. And the addition of these handy marching rations leads to the running gag of the hobbits’ obsession with proper meals. (You can even make your own lembas: the internet is full of recipes, but this one by Tea With Tolkien looks particularly yummy.)

For a long time, speculative fiction, and especially fantasy, centered on Western cooking. Every inn served stew and beer, every traveler carried hunks of crusty farm bread in their saddlebags. Thankfully, fantasy in recent times has spread its wings beyond the Eurocentric model and now we can feast our imaginations on a whole range of delicious options. I have a critique partner whose wonderfully rich world draws heavily from different East Asian mythologies, and I love it when her badass reaper sips from delicate cups of jasmine tea, or her unruly kitsune gorges on steamed bao and mochi cakes. As for me, I’m working on a short story right now set in northeastern Brazil, where my characters breakfast on fresh bread rolls with Minas cheese and doce de leite, where fear is bitter as pitanga fruit, and joy tastes as rich and sweet as guava jam. 

Whether writers use meals to add color and shading to their worlds, to move their stories forward, or simply as a pause for their protagonists to catch their breath, it’s almost impossible not to include food and drink in fiction. After all, be the characters human or alien, I think we can all agree on one thing: everyone has to eat!

“Boys,” Annabeth interrupted, “I’m sure you both would’ve been wonderful at killing each other. But right now, you need some rest.”

“Food first,” Percy said. “Please?” 

The Mark of Athena — Rick Riordan

Have Book, Will Read #26

It’s summer! Which conjures up images of beach reads, books by poolside, or lazy afternoons lost in words under a leafy tree with blue sky above. Right now, it’s — checks out of window — yup! Pouring down. AGAIN. But hey, cozying up to a sleeping dog on the sofa works just as well. So, what have I been reading since my last Have Book, Will Read? Here are some of my favorites…

Recent Reads: Found family, forced team ups…

I absolutely adored The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune. This book deserves every inch of the praise it received. Klune immerses us in the tale of forty-year-old Linus Baker, a case worker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, who is whisked from his grey, bureaucratic, city existence to the sweeping ocean vistas of the Marsyas Island Orphanage, where life is anything but dull. The inhabitants are extraordinary, even for Linus’ line of work, and the most amazing of them all is perhaps the island’s master and protector, Arthur Parnassus.

This is a book about falling in love: with found family, with each other, with oneself. It’s a book about discovering that there is more to life than simply settling for safety, and that some things are worth fighting for. Beautifully written and captivating, it was also lovely to have an older protagonist and to be reminded that aging should not mean giving up on the right to happiness and joy.

I can never resist a bit of urban fantasy, and I tore through Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police series which starts with London Falling. When an investigation that brings together officers Quill, Ross, Costain, and Sefton encounters the supernatural, the four find themselves the unwilling recipients of magic that confers the Sight — the ability to see that which is hidden beneath London’s surface. A new team emerges: the only ones who can police the shadow world around them.

This series is a gritty, brutal take on the genre, and Cornell’s style takes some getting used to, as he has a tendency to hop from one character’s point of view to another’s, sometimes within the same scene. But I found it a fast and riveting read, and it’s also a little different from most urban fantasy. Usually, main characters are either already ‘in the know’, such as with Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus or Seanan McGuire’s Price family, or else they have someone who guides them through this new world of the supernatural they have discovered, as with Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant. In Cornell’s series, the four main characters stumble accidentally upon magic, and proceed to fumble their way along almost entirely on their own — a different take on the usual set up that I enjoyed immensely.

I first came across Charlie Jane Anders at WorldCon in Dublin, where I heard her read from her award-winning novel The City in the Middle of the Night and loved her writing style. So when I found out she had a YA novel in the works, I put in a preorder for Victories Greater Than Death, the first in her trilogy. Victories brings us Tina Mains, who has grown up an average teenager. Except, she’s anything but average. The clone of a famed alien war hero, she’s known all her life that at some point the beacon hidden inside her will activate and she will be swept away from Earth to join the battle in space. But when that finally happens, Tina finds out that fulfilling her destiny may be more complicated than she ever imagined.

Anders has a down-to-earth and chatty style of writing, where dialogue and character are at the forefront of everything. Much as I love an action-led tale, it’s nice sometimes to switch gears and dive into something like this, and to get lost inside a character’s thoughts and emotions. Found family is everything in this book, as are themes of acceptance, diversity, and respect for one another. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and look forward to the upcoming sequel, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak.

Where to start with The Last Sun by KD Edwards? There’s just so much I loved about this book! Rune Saint John is the last of the fallen Sun Court, one of the great Atlantean Houses that now live on New Atlantis, formerly known as the island of Nantucket in the USA. Rune and his companion and bodyguard Brand are hired to search for the missing son of Lady Justice, ruler of the Crusader Throne. But while investigating, Brand and Rune uncover more than the missing man — they find a legendary creature that may be connected to the massacre of Rune’s family.

Why did I like The Last Sun so much? First and foremost, the characters. Rune and Brand are fantastic, and their relationship is just perfect. Other characters that join them — Rune’s ward, Max, and Addam, the man they’re hired to find — are just as wonderful, and the overall dynamic is great. The magic and world felt fresh and interesting, and I really liked the concept of the Arcana with its Courts based on Tarot cards. Edwards’ voice is just right for this, and the story moves along quickly and is surprisingly light, considering Rune’s completely horrible backstory. But Rune never feels like a victim; he takes charge of his life and refuses to let the past define him. Also, you have to respect an author that unabashedly takes one of fanfic’s great topes (there was only one bed!) and 100% makes it work, with a great big wink at the reader to let them know they’re in on the joke.

I usually try to keep my reading round-up to speculative fiction, but I need to make an exception for the excellent debut crime novel Knife Edge by Kerry Buchanan, and its sequel, Small Bones. I’m familiar with some of Buchanan’s fantasy work, which is very good indeed, so when I found out she was moving into the crime genre I knew I had to check it out.

Knife Edge introduces us to Northern Irish police detectives Asha Harvey and Aaron Birch in this chilling tale of a serial killer and the victim he allows to escape so he can play with her in a terrifying cat and mouse game. In Small Bones, we dive deeper into Asha as a character as she investigates a cold case that no one knew was a murder. Both books are a nail-biting read; I made the mistake of picking up the second in the evening and just had to finish it in one go! One thing I enjoyed is the pattern that Buchanan establishes, where the main point of view is shared by Asha and whichever character is connected to the case in that particular book (escaped victim Nic in the first, and Sue in the second, who accidentally digs up a child’s skeleton while gardening). If you’re a crime fiction fan, these are definitely worth reading.

Now Reading: Too late to say sorry?

It’s been a while since I’ve dipped into middle grade, and I’m thoroughly enjoying The Ship of Stolen Words by Fran Wilde. Sam Culver has one solution for tight situations: the word sorry, his go-to for anything and everything. But on the last day of fifth grade, his favorite word disappears. He soon connects the loss of his ability to apologize to a mysterious portal at the back of the local Little Free Library, and before long he’s caught up in an adventure to help save Tolver, the young goblin who stole his words.

This has been a great read so far (I’m in the middle of it right now), with a nice balance of fun, action, and deeper motifs. And although the theme of the book brings a message — don’t cheapen your words; only say sorry if you really mean it! — at no time does it feel preachy or moralistic.

To Read: Sequels and seconds.

Next up is Mister Impossible, the sequel in Maggie Stiefvater’s Dreamer Trilogy. I liked the first book, Call Down the Hawk, a lot; it’s a good ‘growing up’ of the Raven Cycle series that felt like a natural and necessary progression for Ronan, Adam, and co. Book 2 landed in our mailbox a while back, but I had other novels on my reading pile to get through first. However, my daughter, who shares my passion for Stiefvater’s work, is not-so-patiently waiting for me to get to this so we can discuss, so it’s time to catch up on Ronan Lynch’s journey into the depths of his magic.

Another Book 2, although this one is not a sequel, is the sophomore release by Casey McQuiston, One Last Stop. McQuiston established her name as a rising rom-com star with the delicious Red, White & Royal Blue back in 2019, and now she brings her talents to this time-travel romance set in the New York subway. I’m looking forward to it!

Note: You can find all editions of Have Book, Will Read on my review page, here.

A Good Start

A good opening will tempt the reader to step into your world

Story beginnings are tough! We all want to write that amazing opening sentence; that perfect attention-grabbing first paragraph. After all, the first few words may be our only chance to convince readers to push that door wide and step into our worlds. The truth is, however, that there is no right way to open a novel. There’s no magical recipe, no slick formula. There’s the right way for YOU and for YOUR STORY.

There are many things you can use your story opening to do. For instance, you can:

  • Introduce the main character (or the antagonist!)
  • Establish the genre and/or target audience
  • Set the tone, or vibe (dark, light, funny, fast-paced…)
  • Introduce the setting
  • Give the reader a taste of backstory
  • Present a ‘flash-forward’ or ‘teaser-trailer’ of what is to come.

You won’t be able to fit all of that into your opening, of course, so you should begin by deciding what is most important to you in that ever-present quest to hook the reader. A fun middle grade novel might open with the main character making a jokey comment, so that right from the start readers know what the tone of the book will be. A fantasy writer might choose to prioritize setting; a space opera might jump straight into a battle scene.

Here are some examples:

Tom Pollock, The City’s Son (Skyscraper Throne trilogy)

I’m hunting. The sun sits low over Battersea, its rays streaking the brickwork like warpaint as I pad through the railway tunnels. My prey can’t be far ahead now: there’s a bitter, burnt stench in the air, and every few yards I find another charred bundle that used to be a rat.

This opening paragraph manages to do an impressive number of things at once. It sets the tone (action/adventure, probably a little dark); it gives us a brief teaser of the character, even though we haven’t been properly introduced yet; it tells us the setting (urban and ‘real world’, or at least a version of the real world); and it hints at genre (urban fantasy, in this case). It’s also a great hook — don’t you want to find out who this is and what they’re hunting inside a railway tunnel?

V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic trilogy)

Kell wore a very peculiar coat. 

It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.

I love this opening! It’s also very different from the previous example. Instead of a taste of the story, we’re given a quirky image to consider. Who is Kell? (Character introduction.) Why does he have this strange coat? (Hook.) It also hints at genre; with a magical coat in scene, it’s clear that this book falls under the fantasy umbrella.

Naomi Hughes, Afterimage

Ten minutes before the explosion, I’m trying to work up the courage to go through a parking lot gate.

At first glance, this opening is just bare bones. If you look a little closer, though, you’ll see how hard that single sentence works. It has a great hook, for starters. We get a two-for-one dramatic event: one large, external, and still incoming (the explosion), and one small, intimate, and immediate (the narrator’s internal debate), creating an interesting juxtaposition of tensions. It tells us we’re in the real world, possibly an urban setting. It also hints at possible mental health issues, like anxiety or panic disorder, which is an additional hook that immediately makes us want to know more about the protagonist. 

Patricia MacLachlan, My Father’s Words

My father, Declan O’Brien, beloved shrink to many people, sings as he makes omelets for our breakfast.

Here’s an example from a middle grade author. It’s a quiet and unassuming opening, but I think it works very well to establish several things: that the protagonist is most likely a child; that we are in the real world; that life is good, and gentle, and everything is as it should be; that the father is central to the story. This opening sets crucial groundwork for the reader, since soon after this opening, the main character’s father dies in a car crash. The rest of the book is about learning to live with a void. I added this example, because it’s vastly different from the previous opening, yet for this style of book, it’s perfect.

Now go back to your own writing, and try these exercises:

1. Look through some of your favorite books and see what choices the authors made at the start. How do those choices compare with the ones you made in your work?

2. Play around with your own opening, rewriting it in a variety of ways so that each time the focus is on different elements — maybe setting instead of character, or backstory instead of immediate action. Let yourself try out the different possibilities. 

3. Pass your opening paragraph around to a few friends or family who know nothing about the story and ask them what they got from it. (We did this as a writer’s group activity a while back; we each read our openings without any explanation and then the group tried to guess as much as possible about the story. It was a lot of fun, and useful, too!)

Above all, remember: there is no right way to open a novel. Every story needs a beginning, but what’s right for someone else’s story may not be right for yours.

Boskone 58 Round-up

Agent secrets panel

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.

Some thoughts:

  • 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

Have Book, Will Read #24

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!

December blogging vibes…

Naming Characters in Sci Fi and Fantasy: Part 2

Click link for Naming Characters in Sci Fi and Fantasy: Part 1

“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.

Naming Characters in Sci Fi and Fantasy: Part 1

“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,

It isn’t just one of your holiday games;

You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter

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.

These aren’t the names you’re looking for…

See Part 2 for my thoughts on individual character names, as well as a brief look at differences between names in stories for children/teens and adults. Also: sources!

Con Round-Up Part II: BOSKONE

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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.

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With con buddies and Boskone regulars Shecky and Clarence Young (the photo is Clarence’s)

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!

photo by Dana Cameron
Blood-Curdling Sci Fi panel (photo credit Dana Cameron)

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.

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With Dana Cameron after the Law & Justice panel (thanks to Dana for the photo)

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!

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View from my room

Check out my Con Round-Up Part I: SCBWI NYC

NYC SCBWI and Boskone 57 Schedule

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Con bags at the ready…

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.