Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

Guest Post by Sandra Ulbrich Almazan: Adapting Ancient Settings

Please join me in welcoming Sandra Ulbrich Almazan talking about adapting ancient settings in her new novel, Seasons’ Beginnings.

I’m captivated by the ancient setting of her book, and even more so by her character, Kron Evenhanded–a mage of the type artificer–who takes on the role of finder! (Sound familiar?) 🙂

If that rocks your boat as much as it does mine, be sure to click over here for a sample once you read what Sandra has to say. (It’s fascinating!)

~ kah

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan

My son went through a stage where he was obsessed with ancient Egypt. We read lots of books about it, watched documentaries, and visited the Field Museum and the Oriental Institute in Chicago. I picked up a lot of knowledge about the culture (and other ancient Middle Eastern cultures) myself. Since Seasons’ Beginnings, the first book in my Season Avatars series, is a prequel and set several hundred years before the rest of the series, I wanted to incorporate some of what I’d learned about ancient cultures in the setting of Seasons’ Beginnings. However, although the country I’d developed has a river snaking through it, it has a more temperate climate than Egypt. How could I adapt ancient Egyptian and Middle Eastern cultures for my world?

There are no pyramids or animal-headed gods in my world. The climate wouldn’t permit hippos to swim in my river or camels to travel across my land. Instead, I focused on areas that I thought would translate better to my setting. These areas include food, politics, and technology.

Grains are a staple in many cultures, and their uses are also similar. Women have to grind grain at home before they can cook with it. My characters eat flatcakes made from ground grains and drink beer. There’s a scene where my main character visits a brewer, and she has to strain the solid material out of the beer before serving it to him, just like an ancient brewer would have. Wine is also available, although it’s imported from across the sea by ship. Just like in Egypt, my characters obtain fish and greens from the river.

Although ancient Egypt is known for its pharaohs and the division into Upper and Lower Egypt, other ancient cultures, such as the Hittites and the Babylonians, organized around city-states. The city-states, ruled by kings, could conquer other lands to form empires or gain power when an empire collapsed. Most of Season’s Beginnings takes place in the city of Vistichia, which is initially ruled by a city-king. The Oriental Institute has on display reliefs from the courtyard of an Assyrian king. The magnificence of this exhibit inspired me to create a mosaic for the courtyard of the Magic Institute, another setting in Seasons’ Beginnings. This mosaic has a different design and a different purpose; it’s a memorable image magicians can use as a guide when transporting themselves to the Magic Institute.
Although magic plays an important part in my story, my main character channels his magic through man-made objects. The technology level (Bronze Age) of the story therefore is important. As my main character must face someone who has time magic, he needs materials that don’t break down easily and goes to desperate lengths to get them. He also uses water clocks and sun dials to counter the time magic. Some of the other things my hero uses for his magic are necklaces (their materials and designs are inspired by ancient cultures), weavings, and clothing.

Borrowing from other cultures may not always be overt. There are many aspects to a culture, such as language, religion, customs, and more, that can be used as is or adapted to a different setting. The key is to make sure these borrowed items are a natural fit to the setting or can be imported from contact with another culture. With a little thought, any culture can be based on another yet still unique.

Buy Seasons’ Beginnings at Amazon

Buy Seasons’ Beginnings at Barnes and Noble

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan started reading at the age of three and only stops when absolutely required to. Although she hasn’t been writing quite that long, she did compose a very simple play in German during middle school. Her science fiction novella Move Over Ms. L. (an early version of Lyon’s Legacy) earned an Honorable Mention in the 2001 UPC Science Fiction Awards, and her short story “A Reptile at the Reunion” was published in the anthology Firestorm of Dragons. Other published works by Sandra include Twinned Universes and several science fiction and fantasy short stories. She is a founding member of Broad Universe, which promotes science fiction, fantasy, and horror written by women. Her undergraduate degree is in molecular biology/English, and she has a Master of Technical and Scientific Communication degree. Her day job is in the laboratory of an enzyme company; she’s also been a technical writer and a part-time copyeditor for a local newspaper. Some of her other accomplishments are losing on Jeopardy! and taking a stuffed orca to three continents. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband, Eugene; and son, Alex. In her rare moments of free time, she enjoys crocheting, listening to classic rock (particularly the Beatles), and watching improv comedy.

Sandra can be found online at her website, blog, Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads.

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

I’m Hosted Over at Sandra Ulbrich Almazan’s Blog Today

I’m hosted over at author Sandra Ulbrich Almazan’s blog today!

She asks me questions about Stoned in Charm City, my favorite authors, urban fantasy, and the biggie: What’s something people wouldn’t be able to guess about you just by looking at you?

Hint: If you’re a faithful reader of my blog you might just know the answer.

Sandra writes terrific fantasy and has a novel coming out later this year. You should check her out (even if you don’t read the interview with me! 🙂 )

Monday, October 28th, 2013

What Do You Know About Selkies?

cover=selkskin-optimized-250If you’ve ever wondered where selkies come from, I’ve got answers for you!

Melissa over at My World…In Words and Pages asked me to talk a bit about them for her “Mythical Monday,” post today.

A selkie features prominently in my story, Selk Skin Deep, so it was a natural fit.

Go on over and take a look.

Even if you’re not interested in my tale, I highly recommend Melissa’s Web site. She’s an ardent book blogger and discusses all things fantasy. Her reviews are spot on, and she almost always has a book giveaway running.

So, I say again, go take a look!

Friday, June 28th, 2013

Writing Prompt – All in a Day’s Work

Backhoe digging dirt in a field.Most people work to earn a living.

So, unless you write about fabulously wealthy people all the time, I’m going to assume that your characters are working-class folk.

And even if you write fantasy, your character is going to have to make a living somehow–whether it be by herding sheep or in the castle guard–so I think you might find this useful.

For most people, work defines who they are. When you meet someone at a party, you’re inevitably asked, “What do you do?” We’re slotted into pigeonholes at first meet: he’s a computer programer, she’s a lawyer, he owns a plumbing and heating company…

This works for fabulously wealthy people who spend their time on good causes, too: She does books for a soup kitchen, he’s a doctor at a free clinic, she reads to the blind.

And like it or not, what we do for a living–or to fill the time–shapes us. We spend a huge amount of our time in pursuit of it: exposed to the politics, embroiled in projects, learning our pecking order, gaining experience both good and bad.

So knowing what your character does for a living is important–even if it’s never mentioned in the book. Because what he learned on the job is a takeaway to his life. Keep this in mind when creating new characters.

Here’s Your Prompt:

  • Write a scene or a story about an important event in a person’s life…but come at it from the perspective of work: you can only reveal things as they are happening on the job.
  • Write a story about a person who keeps making the right decisions at work, but keeps landing in deeper and deeper trouble for them.
  • Write the scene (or an entire story) about a bitter person who’s got the dream of a lifetime–her dream of a lifetime–and how it ruined her.
  • Go large on the work idea: write a story that takes place at a business. The characters can only be seen as how they act on the job – no scenes away from the workplace.
  • Write a story where your main character is having trouble keeping his job. This difficulty can be central to the story or not.
  • If you Journal…
    • Write about the loss of your job.
    • Write about all the summer jobs you’ve had, or about your favorite summer job.
    • Write about your Worst. Job. Ever. (Or worst boss!)
    • Have you ever been profoundly effected by someone else’s job — or job loss? Write it.

Good Luck!

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

New Short Story Available!

Cover of Short Story: Selk Skin Deep by Kelly A. HarmonI have a new story available via Kindle!

Selk Skin Deep is an alternate-history — military history, too — about a Selkie who is also a Navy SEAL.

Selkies hail from Scottish folklore. They are mythical creatures that live as seals in the ocean, but can come ashore — shedding their skins — and become human.

Most selkie stories are about women selkies who come to sun on the beach, and whose sealskin is stolen by a man. Without her skin, she’s forced to remain in human form until she gets it back. The man generally forces her to be his wife/maid/servant (sometimes mother to his kids) until the story ends when she finds where he’s hidden her skin and she returns to the sea.

You can read more about selkies at Wikipedia.

My story is a bit off the traditional beaten path. Here’s the description:

Kennedy never envisioned a Navy SEAL like him.

1967. Vietnam. Fat-boys and comp-B bombs explode aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Livingstone killing thousands. Everyone dies if the carrier sinks, unless one SEAL – one selkie – puts the lives of humans ahead of his need to keep his secret.

Inspired by the true story of the U.S.S. Forrestal fire of 1967, award-winning author Kelly A. Harmon weaves alternate-history and fairytale into this action-packed and emotionally charged story.

This review is from when the story was published in the Bad Ass Fairies 3 Anthology: In all Their Glory:

“Selk-Skin Deep” by Kelly A. Harmon is a very well-written, harrowing story of an accident that didn’t have to happen aboard an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam war. The selkie uses his advantage to try and save the ship and its crew. Ms. Harmon has written an action packed, suspenseful account of a naval battle with a poignant ending.” ~ Tangent Magazine

You can buy Selk Skin Deep on Kindle now. It should be available for Nook and via Smashwords very soon.

Friday, April 6th, 2012

Writing Prompt: Food for Thought

One of the big criticisms of fantasy fiction is ‘dining’ scenes. They often become the joke of the story, and it’s those scenes that are discussed as clichĂ©d in reviews, no matter if they’re a key scene that the entire plot hinges on.

Three dwarves walk into a tavern…

See what I mean? Hard not to make a joke out of it.

But I’ll argue until I’m blue-faced that dining scenes are necessary to make the fiction realistic. And if you want to argue some more, I’ll state that these scenes are just as clichĂ©d, if not more so, in other genres:

  • the engagement announcement made at dinner (in any genre)
  • the discussion of other worldly food (especially those slimy, living foods consumed by bug-like creatures) in science fiction novels
  • the ‘let’s have a polite chat over dinner’ (but you know someone’s going to get killed) in a western or gangster story
  • the cozy, steamy, dinner for two which escalates into a torrid love-fest of unusual positions and food in usual places

Your job with today’s prompts is to create a scene, a poem, a short story or vignette that is about food or dining, but isn’t clichĂ©d.

Here’s Your Prompt:

  • Write about one of these things:
    • hunger
    • simple dishes
    • eating alone
    • forbidden fruit
    • temperamental chefs
    • eating alone
    • a family meal
    • a holiday dinner
    • family recipes
  • Someone yells from off in the distance, “Come and get it!” You hear the klaxon sound of the triangle, bell, or digital tone if you happen to be aboard ship.
  • These are the ingredients…
  • Use the five senses (taste, touch, smell, hearing, sight) in your writing, but focus on one of them; for instance: the smell of fresh-brewed coffee; the site of lush, colorful fruit, the taste of something hot and spicy, salty or sweet; the sound of crunchy cereal, or fries sizzling in grease; the feel of salted nuts or buttery popcorn when you lift it out of the bowl…
  • “Sustain me with raisin cakes, Refresh me with apples, Because I am lovesick. ~ Song of Solomon
  • The refrigerator’s full, but there’s nothing to eat…
  • The cupboard is bare…
  • A pie eating, ice-cream eating, hot-dog eating, you-name-the-food-eating contest at the local fair
  • Write about the guy standing on the corner who “Will Work for Food.”

Good luck!

Monday, March 19th, 2012

Read My Latest Short Story for Free

On the Path by Kelly A. HarmonYou can now read, “On the Path,” for free if you participate in the Amazon digital lending program.

Here’s a link to it.

I’ve been sitting on the fence about the program until now. It sounds great in theory, but I don’t know how it will work in practice, so I’ve been “watching” it.

Though I have to say I didn’t add On the Path to the program because I’d heard anything good about it (or anything bad for that matter) – I just haven’t had any time to do anything else with the story.

I had these great aspirations to get “On the Path,” onto both the Smashwords and B&N platforms as well, but my spare time has been non-existent lately, so the story has been idling over at Amazon Kindle by itself for a few months.

(They just make it so easy, you know?)

Since my time is not going to free up soon, I’ve decided to put On the Path into the lending program for at least three months to see if the sales are any better than on it’s own.

Here’s the link again if you’re interested.

Please feel free to share the link!

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

Latest Manuscript Takes a Surprising Turn

Bugs Bunny on MarsBugs Bunny fans will recognize the phrase, “I knew I shoulda taken that left turn at Albuquerque.”

I’m sitting here saying the same thing as my current manuscript is no longer recognizable: It’s taken a left turn into erotica.

You regulars will know that I write dark fantasy and science fiction. (Those of you who came here after googling “erotica” know that now, too.)

So, it’s as surprising to me (as you) that I’ve written three complete — and soon to be four — scenes in my current manuscript that are so steamy, I had to step outside in the cool air for a minute before I sat down again to finish them. (And nobody’s even had sex yet!)

I was reluctant to release them to my critique partners for their review. (But they enjoyed them — even the men — so that’ll show me to want to hide my work.)

What’s strange to me is that I think the male lead in the erotica section is going to become a major character. At first, he was a walk-on. In the second scene he tempts the book’s main character, not only with the promise of really good sex, but with heart’s desire: healing a demonic wound which will not heal.

I can’t decide if she’ll go all the way with him in this next scene. If she does, she damns her immortal soul. But she’ll be whole again, gain a huge amount of knowledge about something, and have incredible sex all night long.

She just might be tempted. After all, her immortal soul is only lost to her if she dies. There are ways to cleanse it before that happens, right?

Yeah, I’m still working out the sticky bits of the plot. This is what happens when the characters start talking to you and they refuse to play the roles you’ve cast them in.

I can’t wait to see how this turns out.

But I’m curious: as a reader, would you be willing to pick up a book not quite like the last you read by an author, or would you bypass it in favor of something else?

Saturday, December 10th, 2011

Interview: Gary W. Olson, Author of Brutal Light

Gary W. Olson is a writer of horrific and fantastic stories. In his own words, he says his “fiction tends to blend aspects of the genres of science fiction, fantasy, dark fantasy, and horror, if only because I don’t believe that the boundaries of these genres are or should be all that firm in the first place.”

His book, Brutal Light is recently released from Damnation Books, and he’s kindly stopped by to discuss it, the writing life, and things that scare him…

As is my wont, I sent Gary a list of a bazillion* questions and asked him to answer 6 or 8 of his choice. In return, he’s offered to give away a free copy of his book to one lucky commenter…

Tell us a little about Brutal Light.

The story centers around a young woman, Kagami Takeda, who has a connection with an enigmatic and godlike sea of light she calls the Radiance. This connection affects others around her, either causing some form of insanity (in the case of her family) or bestowing heightened abilities (in the case of her lover, Nick Havelock). As a result, she has all but withdrawn from human contact, save for those few she’s already affected. But there are many others who covet her for the power they believe she can be made to yield, and when she is provoked to use this power, they come after her. Worse, the Radiance itself appears to have manipulated her into creating her own nemesis, with the power to destroy her.

The action takes place in both the ‘real,’ physical world and an unreal world that I’ve named the Noumenal (loosely inspired by Imanuel Kant’s definition of ‘noumenon’ as an unknowable, indescribable reality that in some way underlies observed phenomena). In the book, it mainly takes the shape of a primal, dark forest, with all sorts of beasts hidden within, but this is because Kagami’s connection with the Radiance is so dominant she can force a shape to it that others have to accept. Left to its own, it is a free-flowing mix of dream, nightmare, and memory–save that if you encounter something that is a memory, there’s no guarantee it will end the way you remember it, or that it will even be your own memory. It gave me a way of having present action take place within flashbacks, and a rather unnerving way for characters to learn what other characters would rather stay hidden.

Author - Gary W. OlsonWhat scares you?

An assortment of things. Very intense-looking guys with axes, for instance. Torture–I probably shouldn’t be entrusted with any state secrets, because I’d spill it before the first scalpel is waved at me. Mental trauma, especially–either something that leaves my mind intact but unable to operate my body or speak intelligibly, or something that affects my ability to think. I’d almost rather face the guy with the axe.

Then there’s loss of identity, in all the many forms it can take. We work so hard to define ourselves by our work, our physical characteristics, our locations, our beliefs, and those who we let in, and when any of these are shaken or stripped away, we have to face what we’ve been covering up. There’s the lurking idea that, beneath it all, there’s nothing there–there’s an emptiness beneath that nothing can fill, for which death would be a mercy. I sometimes think my motivation in writing now is to push against this fear, to find something beneath it all that is not simply a bandage over the abyss.

Have you ever written something that you’re afraid to let other people read?

I had a general trepidation about letting people read my writing. In the case of Brutal Light, it was pretty heightened, because of all the dark places in my mind I felt I was baring. It’s not just a matter of worrying about what people will think about the violence or the sex — it’s about whether people will read the book and start wondering if, like my characters, I have murderous thoughts or a bad case of self-loathing or what have you.

And since the book is sprinkled with true thoughts, albeit distorted or amplified and mixed in with made-up ones, being understood is almost as second-thought-provoking as being misunderstood. But one of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever read (from a source I sadly no longer recollect) was “If it doesn’t make you squirm, it won’t make the reader squirm.” That to me means facing your fears and your dark places, writing in a way that is honest, no matter how vulnerable that makes you, and ignoring the internal censor that asks ‘but what are people going to think about you when they read this?’

What is the toughest part about being a writer and how do you get past it?

There are two tough parts for me: getting started and everything after. Getting started in particular because I have a tendency to get bogged down in outlines, and trying to make sure I’ve thought every last thing through. Sometimes I just have to set to writing and trust that what’s coming out will lead somewhere.

The other tough part comes once I’m past the initial idea and plotting and I’m deep into writing the story. The excitement of the new has faded, and there’s still this long road to go until I reach the end. Inevitably, on that road, there are other ideas that come to me that seem much more exciting than what I’m working on at the moment, and the challenge is to stay focused and see my current story through. I don’t know if it’s true of writers in general, but I have to work hard at avoiding bright, shiny distractions.

What are your thoughts on the future of books?

Bookstores are slowly fading, and e-reading is on the rise. I count myself as a recent convert to e-reading, thanks to the Kindle app on my smartphone. I think that this trend will continue, though it will be a long time before paper editions of books entirely disappear. That may be a long time coming, if it ever does–I think regular print books will become for certain readers like vinyl records are now for certain music lovers–an aesthetic choice as much as a means of reading stories. But as more and more kids enter the world of reading through electronic gateways, and grow up thinking that it’s ‘the way’ to read, I think paper books will see an eventual end.

How long did you write before you had anything published? What was your first story or novel that was published? Where was it published?

I started writing in 1989, for a humorous shared-universe fiction group called Superguy, and it was through one of the friends I got to know who also wrote for the group–Greg R. Fishbone, who’s gone on to published writing success of his own–that I got my first publication in 1996: a serialized novelette called ‘Electricity in the Rain.’ Unfortunately, Mythic Heroes, the magazine it was in, folded before the serialization was done. I had a couple short stories published in Outer Darkness magazine in 1999 and 2001, but for the most part was focused on my first novel.

That took a long time, both for life reasons (getting married, moving around, etc) and because I was dissatisfied with the novels I’d attempted. Finally in 2004 I started on what was to become Brutal Light, finished my final draft of it in 2007, and spent another four years looking for a publisher. The good side of this is that I feel I learned a lot about writing during this time; my next work should take much less time.

How do you feel now about your earlier works?

The temptation I always feel is to look at them and see the flaws–the awkward phrasings, the paucity of necessary detail–but after a while, I generally come to see the parts I liked and made me feel as if I’d done good–the storytelling, some bits of incisive dialogue, things like that. Sometimes that backfires; I can take a look back on something I wrote and say ‘wow, that was good… so why can’t I write that good now?’

Where can we find you online?

I am far-flung across the net; my user accounts are legion. The hub of it all is my website, GaryWOlson.com, which hosts my main blog and has information on everything I’ve written, what I’m working on, where I’m going to be, and so on.

The full list of these journals, RSS feeds, and social media sites–which, since it seems like I’m always adding stuff, I’m usually good about keeping up-to-date–is on my links page.

There’s also a slightly abbreviated version on the right-side column of every page of my site.

Cover of Brutal Light by Gary W. OlsonExcerpt from Brutal Light.

When Kagami appeared in the front seat, Nick Havelock knew his night was only beginning. Her hair was wild and dirty, her skin brown, green, and red. Intense light snapped across her eyes and in the spaces between her fingertips. She smiled, revealing the red in her teeth.

Havelock kept his cool. She was not his first vision of blood.

“It would be good,” he said, “if you let me get off the freeway first.”

He was on westbound I-696, just passing the Southfield Freeway. The Telegraph Road exit was only a few miles further. The eleven o’clock traffic was light, and he thought that with a little luck, he could be ready for her in his apartment in ten minutes. Kagami leaned close. Freeway lights gave her a pulsing beauty.

“Nick,” her voice came in a whisper. “Let the monkey drive.”

“No,” he answered, as the memory of doing exactly that two nights before came to him. “You said it was dangerous, and it was.”

“There’s no time to be safe,” she replied. “Are you going to do this, or am I gone?”

She gave him no time to answer. A blink, a shiver, and she was nothing.

He stared at the empty seat. His heart hammered his ribs. His eyes could go no wider.

A car horn’s blare snapped his attention back to the freeway. There was a merging SUV to the right, a Camaro nearly in his blind spot to the left and back, and a U-Haul truck in front. He accelerated, and then shifted hard into the lane to his left. SUV and Camaro horns blared.

Screw ’em. I have to get home. I have to–

I have to go.

Nick passed the U-Haul and shifted right. The Camaro sped past, giving him one more horn blast in parting. He paid it no mind, instead focusing on the hypnotic blur of yellow strips. He let his breathing grow regular, and let the road fill his mind. The hum rose all around. The road uncoiled. He opened his mouth and drank in her noise–

Only it was not just her noise anymore. There were other sounds, other tastes that lingered on his tongue and in his mind. There was blood in the stream. Bestial roars in the white noise of the world. They spoke of fear and terror.

He felt his body quake. It felt so far away.

The abyss drew him down again.

Buy Brutal Light

Amazon.com (Kindle edition)
DamnationBooks.com (.mobi, .epub, .pdf, .pdb)
Links for of all other vendors (continually updated)
Print ISBN: 978-1-61572-539-7
Digital ISBN: 978-1-61572-538-0

* A ‘bazillion’ is somewhat exaggerated. The list was closer to thirty…

Monday, March 21st, 2011

Dragon or Wyvern?

WyvernCan I assume everyone knows what a dragon is?

A wyvern is a similar creature to — some say a sub-species of — the dragon. It stands on two legs instead of four, and its tail is often seen as arching over its head, scorpion-like, so that it can use the spade-shaped tip to poison it’s enemies.

They’re often depicted in English heraldry on flags and shields and coats-of-arms (such as this flag of the Ancient Kingdom of Wessex, located today in England).

Some people feel they’re interchangeable creatures – but wyverns lack the intelligence of dragons – so you won’t find them starring in any thoughtful stories. In fact, it’s pretty rare to see them “starring” at all.

I’ve written both dragon stories and wyvern stories. I tend to use dragons for “intelligent” tales and wyverns when I need a fierce creature who acts on base instinct…but it seems a shame to me that such a fine (if evil and nasty) creature gets pushed out of the limelight by its more intelligent cousin.

I’m sticking with the intelligence theory: that it’s this lack of smarts that makes the wyvern so unattractive in stories, though it could easily be that it’s not popular because a wyvern has less versatile “artillery” than that of various dragons (and is therefore less useful, in a story).

Or, maybe the wyvern is not used as much because fewer people are aware of the myth.

What’s your take? And which do you like better: dragons or wyverns?