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Sweet Friendship and the Promise of Spring

First, happy spring equinox! The time of year when I try to balance writing with the realities of country living is fast approaching. I've been setting my alarm to try to train myself to wake up earlier. The quantity of outdoor chores multiply rapidly as the weather warms. If I want to keep up daily writing, I have to get those chores done early. If I start too late, I work outside until dinner time or sometimes until dusk, and by then I'm in no state to write. But, if I get the chores done early, before my brain has really woken up, then I can call it quits by the afternoon (coincidentally the hottest part of the day) and spend the rest of the time in the nice, cool house writing up a storm. Assuming I have the strength to type.

One of these days I have to pick up a copy of Dragon for Mac, but not before I buy editing and cover services for the first book in my new series. (Shhhh, don't tell anyone. I have to finish A Dark Radiance, the last book in The Poisoned Past series first. The cover is a done deal, and it's gorgeous.)

Anyway, if you're all thinking that I lead a solitary life punctuated by the bleats of newborn or panicky animals and workouts with my delightful powerhouse of a husband, you're not too far wrong, except that I know quite a few authors and I'm friends with a fair number of them. I've been lucky to get to know AJ Downey recently, and we're going to have a fun author weekend here pretty soon.

We met at a few book selling events, and we decided that enough was enough of this ... we wanted more time to talk and plot and plan (as authors do), so I went to visit her in Seattle. We had a thoroughly splendid day shopping around Pike Place Market, and we had a couple of really good meals there. And soon, soon now she'll come down to SW Washington to stay with me, so that we can brew up some goodies. Specifically, we're going to be making lip balms and solid perfumes.

What fresh madness is this, you're probably wondering. Well, it turns out that swag is a super-important thing in the romance and erotica book world. I sort of knew this. I love reading romances (though I'm super picky ... suggest a good paranormal set in the regency period or earlier and I will send you a free short story if I love it) but I usually buy them after seeing them on FKBT or check them out from the library. Actually, my very favorite right now, Scandal, is being posted chapter by tortuous chapter by Navessa Williams. Where in the name of all that's yummy is Chapter Seven??!!! But I digress. Apparently this swag thing is super important at romance book signings. AJ makes high quality lip balms and solid perfumes and she's going to teach me how to make them too.

Now why would I, a historical fantasy author, want to make swag? Well, as those of you who've read my stuff know, things can get a bit steamy in the lives of my characters. And, a certain someone invited me to submit a story to a steamy sort of anthology. A few days ago I received confirmation that my story was accepted. So, I'll be promoting that book, along with my other books, and since I'll be promoting erotica, well ... swag seems like a good idea.

Because it's one story in an anthology (although I may take it further later on,) I decided that I'm going to theme my lip balms and perfume solids after the scents and flavors of the Lord Jester's Legacy books. Hopefully they'll turn out splendid. If not, it won't be AJ's fault. I'm sure she'll keep me out of trouble, though.

These things aren't really meant to promote my books and stories. They're more of a thank you to readers for your support. Without readers, writers would be pretty pointless, so I'm extremely grateful for readers. If you happen to see me at an event and you've read any of my work, including this blog, please, come on over and ask for a lip balm or a solid perfume. I'll be more than happy to give you one.

Well, it's after midnight, and my alarm will be waking me up awfully early. So much for going to bed at a reasonable hour. Once again, happy equinox, everyone. May you have a beautiful spring.

Beautiful Things

It's not quite spring yet, but I can feel it coming in the air. When I go out to the barn to feed the goats, chickens and barn cats, there's an ease in the atmosphere that wasn't there before. I can see it, too. Chionodoxa (glory-in-the-snow) and tulips are emerging, and my earliest daffodils are already tall, though they won't open for a while. There's some new green pushing through the old, tired grass that's been hammered by the winter weather. The goats have been leaving the barn and upper field to look for forage in the lower fields, though they aren't finding much yet. Robins have arrived. The songbirds have started hunting about for nesting sites, and some have been staked out, though I don't think there's much building going on yet. The crisp scent of snow has been replaced by the waking earthiness of soil not quite ready to be turned for planting yet. The rivers are full, the streams are wild. We'll get more snow, but it'll run off right away. Right now the sky is platinum and steel, but later today we'll have that distinct, white sun that blazes in springtime, so sharp that sometimes it feels like it cuts.

I've been battling a cold for a little over a week. My brain is finally coming back from it enough to start to work again. I wish that sickness didn't affect me this much. How perfect would it be to sit in bed, tea delivered at regular intervals, typing away on projects with only brief pauses to cough, or use a kleenex. Instead of an outdoor break or a meal break, I might nap. In reality I sit restlessly, sorting through emails in a bleary haze, forced to reread sentences that are blurred by fever or exhaustion caused by an inability to sleep for more than a few hours at a stretch. In nine days I feel like I've fallen behind a month. I'm not sure how that's possible, but I'm sure it's the case.

So today I'm ready to get something real done. I've already been up for three hours (woke at 5am) and I've gotten some writing done, as well as a bit of housework. I'm particularly eager for the jeans tumbling in the dryer right now. I'm ready for a nap, but I'm not frustrated. As sleepy as I feel right now, I'm still more alert than I have been for days. It'll feel good to wear real clothes, feel good to feel clean instead of slouching around in pajamas, feeling dirty no matter how many baths or showers I take.

Yes, I was at Radcon and yes, that's where I caught this cold. Totally worth it! I was part of an excellent panel on cover design, one on diversity in fandom, and one on historical fiction. The cover design panel was a bit awkward at times. Two of the panelists ... well, they didn't have as much experience with cover design and illustration, and I wasn't the best moderator in that I wasn't able to find as many ways to include them in the discussion as I would have liked. But hopefully a good time was had by all.

Cover design is so, so important. Right now I'm re-reading Elements of Graphic Design by Alex White, and it feels like I've forgotten more of this book than I remember. What's really going on, I suspect, is that I've been looking at cover design for long enough that more of the book is making sense to me than it did before. Authors that purchase their covers from professionals still have to know design principles so that they know what they're getting, and so they can work with the designers more effectively. Besides, how can you truly tell a good cover from a bad one unless you've looked at design principles? It's too hard to tell if you're having a positive response to the overall design, or just the typography, or just the color scheme, or the illustration ...

The other day, while I was too sick to do much more than stare at the screen, I went looking through some sites with premade covers. I was doing that partly because I wanted to recommend some good ones for friends who were looking for inexpensive alternatives to custom covers, and partly because if I found a good one I wanted to buy it and use it as a prompt for a stand-alone novella. I came across a really stunning knight in armor ... but the typography was almost illegible against all that contrast of dark, highly textured grays and pale highlights on the armor. I looked at the terms for the cover and, as is very usual, you end up with a jpeg rather than a psd file, non-negotiable. Which makes sense. The reason given was that unless you owned the same fonts, you wouldn't be able to apply the typography yourself anyway. I would use my own, but mainly I wanted to take that armored background and apply some Curves actions to reduce those highlights as much as possible. (I probably would have added in some color to the background and highlights and deepest shadows as well, because I'm like that.) Unfortunately, that wasn't an option.

That's an example of having a strong positive response to a flawed cover design. Don't get me wrong: the designer had done an excellent job of mitigating some of the negative aspects of the image, and the typography was about as strong as it could be under the circumstances. I just knew how to make the cover work better, to take it up a step. Also, the changes I would have made would have taken a stock photo and altered it enough that it wouldn't necessarily be confused with another book that used the same stock photo. (This happens a lot in fantasy and science fiction, as there isn't nearly enough suitable stock photography or genre art out there.)

Until you become aware of this sort of thing, and aware of the possibilities available in graphic design, how in the world can you expect new authors considering self-publication to understand the ins and outs of cover design?

Anyway, inspired by my hunt through those premade cover sites, I ended up buying five new graphic design books, as one does when one is obsessed with beautiful things. In the process I came across a really neat book for people who aren't in it to make money, but want to make beautiful things. Since I couldn't justify it as a business purchase, I gave it a pass this round, but the book is now on my wish list. Maybe I'll get it for my birthday. The book is:

The Complete Book of Chalk Lettering

You'll want to buy some art chalk at the same time as the book, because the book has chalk surfaces on which to practice! It's really well reviewed, and the sort of thing that I know I would love.

You're welcome.

If you're interested in buying the lettering book and don't mind going through my affiliate link click here:


Home Again from Manhattan

I feel as if I've come home from a different planet. Manhattan was so awesome, but I need this. Waking up to the rooster crowing. Birds peeping as they squabble over the suet feeder. Sunlight streaming through the leaves and blossoms of my orchids, my cat, Baby Sheldon, rubbing his nose over my chin on both sides, paws around my neck, purring. And oh, the quiet. Even the birds are quiet in the late morning, when everything in the world seems to take a breath.

In Manhattan, all hours of the day and night, there are sirens. They're like the reverse of wolves, howling as they coordinate to find and take care of people in trouble. Honking, though in the small hours of the night that tends to go away, as the roads meant to accommodate hundreds of thousands of vehicles finally have just the right number traveling through them. Bright lights of huge LED screens blare across the distances between the buildings like search lights. Though it's light, it feels like a sound, like a fog horn. The whistles of traffic cops. From the 36th floor, it's a symphony. I think it would be harder to be down in it at ground level.

It's all wonderful, all fun, but coming home, I realize why we live here. I think I could be happy living just about anywhere, but here I'm content. Our little farm is the perfect work environment for me. And here, I feel like there's just so much to do! People do complain that there's nothing to do in a rural area and there's so much to do in the city, but I think they're talking about entertainment. I'm thinking about work, about the things that I know how to do and want to do, especially in the garden and with the farm. I'm lucky that my work is extremely pleasurable.

I'm lucky overall. If there's one feeling I could pick to describe my trip to Manhattan, it's that I'm fortunate: lucky to have the means to travel and stay in Manhattan, lucky to have such good friends who took good care of me while I was there, and lucky to have this kind of home to come home to afterwards. Thanks, T&K, and H, for showing me around your awesome town. And thanks to my DH for bringing me along on such a neat adventure.

Thanks for reading. TTYL!

Manhattan

So I spent three days in Manhattan. There was so much more to do. But! I got to go to a gorgeous library, some very fine museums, ate some incredible food, saw some sights, and enjoyed a light dusting of evening snow in Central Park. Here are a few highlights:

The American Museum of Natural History: Dinosaurs and gemstones. There's a lot more than that but those were my favorites. And the ocean life. And the Seriously, who could not spend many days oggling the awesome? It became overwhelming fairly quickly. The brain becomes so full of wonder that stuff leaks out the bottom. We were so terribly, terribly footsore that we were limping, and yet we dragged our butts to the fourth floor after hours of hobbling for a last push through the land of prehistoric critters. Oh, and meteorites are amazing. Also, there's this trope in classic fairy tales where 'each (fill in the blank) was more beautiful (or amazing, or incredible) than the last.' The AMNH delivers that sensation. I had an opportunity to poke my head back in on Sunday, and so of course I took it. They were on the verge of closing and ushering people out, but we took refuge in a science display and lingered by the Willamette Meteorite until they started closing up the various displays.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: (On Fifth Avenue) Mummies! And art!! And amazing furnished rooms! I saw maybe a quarter of the displays, and those at lightning speed. The collections are extremely well organized. And, like the AMNH, overwhelming in quantity and quality. Bonus: Central Park is right there. The park is gorgeous, and totally worth walking through while you're trying to stuff your overflowing brains back in through your ears.

Museum of Modern Art: So, two stories pretty much sum up my experience in this amazing musuem. I was walking through a room, looking at the amazing art, turned around, and there was Starry Starry Night. I audibly, literally gasped. And then, while following signs for the bathroom, I glanced to the side and stopped dead in my tracks. "No way ..." On a random wall, on the way to the bathroom, "Christina's World" by Wyeth. So, legs crossed, trying not to pee my pants (okay, it wasn't that bad, but) I had to stop to take a picture. MoMA is like that over and over again. I loved it.

Okay, I could go on with more landmark highlights but let's move on to food!

Café Frida: OMG the delish! I had the chicken burrito, and my friend had the vegetable burrito. Sooo good. And the guacamole was amazing. Even the side salad that came with my burrito was outstanding. The leaves were all perfect, not a wilted or mashed one to be seen, and dressed to perfection. Highly, highly recommended. It's right behind AMNH.

Uncle Jack's: I don't know why this isn't rated a 5.1 on a 5 star scale (though it's got a decent rating and rave reviews all over the place.) The porterhouse that my DH and I split (it's listed on the menu as 'for two') was unbelievably juicy, flavorful, seasoned to perfection, and it was cooked to a true and real medium, not the medium that's served in restaurants that have a lot of people come in who order a medium and send it back because 'it's too bloody.' The seafood was fresh and yummy. The drinks were fab. The service was amazing. They took great care of us. And although it was crowded, we didn't do a lot of waiting around (though I may not have noticed because we were having such a good time.) This is not the sort of place that you dash in and dash back out anyway. The food is meant to be savored. Highly recommended (but be prepared, it is a very nice restaurant with high end restaurant prices.) (Also, be aware that some of the seafood is served raw, so if that's not your thing, ask before you order seafood items.)

I could go on for quite a bit longer, but I think this will do. Thanks for reading! I hope you get a chance to visit NYC, and in particular, Manhattan. I loved our room in the Wyndham New Yorker, btw. On the 33rd floor, there's a room where Nicola Tesla lived. How cool is that? Also, our view from the 36th floor was amazing. Yay!

New York City museums, here I come!

No, I didn't get a crazy offer from a NY publisher. But I am going to Manhattan for a long weekend.

Right now I'm in a really nice hotel room near PDX, listening to the fan in the bathroom whine like a vacuum cleaner outside our door. We've got winter weather coming in with a vengeance, including the promise of freezing rain, so we reserved a spot yesterday afternoon. Our inner sense of perfect timing was operating at peak efficiency because hours later all the hotel rooms near the airport were sold out. I felt badly for the two ladies at the reservation counter stuck with the choice of getting a single king bed suite (the last room available) or setting out farther south in hopes of finding a two bed room. We would have traded with them, but, well, we have a single king bed suite.

So why Manhattan? My DH travels for work and we spend a lot of time apart, which is ideal for writing but not so great when it's your 26th wedding anniversary. Plus, I've always wanted to visit the American Museum of Natural History and (apparently its neighbor,) The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I'd be hard-pressed to think of something more fun than spending the day viewing dinosaur skeletons and Van Gogh. So he got us a great hotel room on 8th street right in the middle of it all, and we'll be boarding a red eye flight early this evening, to arrive just in time for coffee and donuts in NYC. Maybe there will be snow in Central Park. I haven't Googled to find out. I want it to be a surprise.

While my DH is working, I'll be shepherded by, check this out, my grade school through high school best friend who was also my next door neighbor from 1978 through 1985. I've seen her only a pair of times since then, the last time being about twenty years ago. I think we'd be hard-pressed to figure out which of us is more excited. On my side, I'll be visiting for the very first time (except as a toddler) a legendary city that's at the hub of the American experience. On her side, she'll be showing me her town, something I personally enjoy immensely when we have people from all over the US and from around the world come visit us in the Pacific NW. When I told her I'd like to see The Met, she said no, we're seeing all the museums. All of them. (You're awesome, H!)

Fortunately I have all my main holiday shopping done, so I won't be tempted to pick up anything bigger than a stocking stuffer. And yes, I know I have a million pairs of gloves (I love gloves) but I'm going to keep a lookout for a pair that comes up to the elbows. One must have a goal when one is looking at window displays on Fifth Avenue, something I've been told by friends that I must do. And also I have to have my picture taken in front of the massive tree at the Rockefeller Center. That won't be a hardship. I love big, beautiful trees.

From the writing standpoint, I'll be paying special attention to all things 18th century. New York was thriving by the 18th century, and was a place of political and strategic importance. I'm sure I'll find all kinds of interesting things about New York when we see all the museums. All of them.

Technical Issues ... solved?

So now it seems I've got two livejournal identities and they've gotten tangled somehow. This has resulted in my writing blog entries, posting them, and having them vanish.

I'm a bit gunshy now, so I'm not going to spend a lot of time writing today, but I did want to at least try to say hi, I'm still alive, still writing, and all that stuff.

I've been to England since my last post, btw. I visited some 18th century buildings in York and Sheffield, and roamed through the forest that once neighbored the mighty Sherwood Forest. Good times.

Now I have some wonderful guests from Germany. Let's see if this posts correctly, and maybe next time I'll tell you all about it.

Radcon Report: Research Panel

I had so much fun at Radcon! Thank you, organizers, for the amazing party you put on.
Here's what we talked about on one of the panels I sat on:

Research and Writing

You're writing along, when suddenly you need to know how a primitive firearm works, or what fabrics were available, or whether there's water on Mars. Discuss what matters, what's distraction, and what your reader really wants from a writer's research. (with Esther Jones, Jeanette Bennett, Peter Jones, and S. Evan Townsend)

It was a pleasure to sit with so many authors who take research seriously.
High on everyone's list was figuring out the source of, for example, Wikipedia entries and getting the information directly instead of in a diluted and possibly interpreted/biased form. Forums are also a great place to do research! Reading about the issues that professionals and passionate amateurs argue about will help you learn about what is important to an expert on the subject you're interested in.
We also mentioned significant negatives. For example, revolvers don't have safeties, but if you do research on firearms, you might never notice that because no one comes out and says it. So if you want to get something right and not end up losing your reader over a dumb incorrect negative detail, it becomes important to have an SME (Subject Matter Expert) to have a look over the relevant sections of your book.

An audience member asked how to contact an SME and if I'm recalling correctly I believe she wanted to know if it was hard or expensive. It really isn't. SMEs are experts because they love their subject, and will be happy to discuss it with you, usually free of charge. Having said that, the one thing you have to respect is their time. Everyone is busy, but most especially many SMEs are busy working in their field, or if its a hobby, that hobby will take up a lot of time in addition to their day jobs. So, when you contact an SME be super-organized and as specific as possible with your questions. If you ask them to read something to check your facts, don't expect them to read the whole book. And be sure to ask for references that they respect. They'll often have favorite books or forums they'll point you toward, or may even have written books that might be of use to you.

We all agreed that you can end up running down a rabbit hole when it comes to research, at which point you're not writing one damned word. My recommendation was to research in advance only those things that are critical to the plot, like weather, physics, political and social climate, technical issues with machines/technology, major players in the time/region, and major events. Everything else: costumes, food, jewelry, the favored games of the period, and whether a phone came in pink or green for a given year you can look up later if it turns out you're going to keep that detail in. We all have our own system for marking a place that we needed to research a detail. I use XXXX when I need to fact check something, and I keep writing. It only makes sense, right? Otherwise you're always going to be throwing yourself out of your writing flow, plus you might end up rewriting or outright eliminating the chapter. Don't waste time.

I found out, btw, that I write blackpowder fantasies. Who knew? :)

We also all agreed that you don't want to put all of your research into the book, nor do you want weird, often irrelevent-seeming details that crop up simply because you thought they were cool. So, two characters discussing wine (very) briefly in the midst of a flirtatious encounter is sexy. The two characters going into a long discussion about French vs. California wines in the 1970s ... not so much. Now we're basically listening to a lecture and the story is gone.

One part of the discussion that I wanted to be there and I was happy everyone jumped on was with direct, real life experience. Not everyone is so lucky to live near a working replica of a period square-rigged sailing ship complete with cannons, but I do and you can bet that I've sailed on her on several of their river romps where they engage in mock combat with their sister ship. (That would be The Lady Washington. Highly recommended!) I like going to cultural fairs. There's really no better way to see Greek, Czech, German, Chinese or whatever culture without traveling around the world. Of course you're going to see a version of that culture that's not 'pure' (and is that really what you're aiming for?) but hey, you'll get to taste the food, witness traditional dance, hear the traditional music, and if you're friendly and respectful, you might find out what that community cares about.

Quick note: read up on cultural appropriation, and then don't appropriate. Be respectful, and don't portray other cultures in a way that they'll find offensive. Thanks!

I gravitate toward sources where there's arguing. I guess I must enjoy contrary people. :) But actually, I have good reason. If a restaurant advertises 'authentic' Lebanese food, I may take it for granted but I won't trust that's true. If, however, in the reviews people are arguing about whether it's as good as what they had in so and so region or if the food is obviously more like something you'd find in Damascus (Syria) and it's clearly not 'real' Lebanese food, I'm totally going to accept the flavors there as pretty representative of the region. People don't bother squabbling over the details unless they have a vested interest in getting things perfectly right (and of course some of them are just trying to be more expert than the experts) and the fact that they're discussing it at all means the restaurant is going to be pretty damned close if not perfect for what you need for your research.

And yes, engage all the senses in your research. Reading is great, but smelling the smoke after firing a flintlock firearm is worth a hundred books. Looking at Van Gogh paintings with your own eyes is going to give you a better sense of the artist than looking at prints.

Speaking of art: museums all over the world hire experts to talk about their displays and almost no one uses them. They're paid to feed you all the information you'd want to know about their subject. So please, stop and ask the nice lady about the human development display at OMSI. Discuss 1940s flight at the flight museum. Pester the zoo keepers about the number one issue with keeping captive elephants. And when you're at the county fair, chat with the blacksmith at the period technologies booth or talk to the 80 year old standing by the tractors about the tractors he drove when he was young. He might even tell you about his favorite radio show, and it might not be the one everyone else was listening to.

Your research should inspire you to write. And then, you must write!

Next time: Fantasy Coloring Books for Adults

Where is EM? + Shawna Reppert!

I'm going to be places, doing stuff, in the future:
Radcon! Feb12-14 in Pasco, WA
I'm there as Kamila Miller but you'll know me by my crazy big hats. :D
The Portland Spring Home & Garden Show Feb 25-28 in Portland, OR
This goes to our Facebook page so you can look up author schedules and ask questions!
And of course I'll be right here. :D

I'm excited but also sad because I have Shawna's last guest post. Well, maybe not her last. I'll see if I can lure her over here again someday. But all is not lost! I have another great author lined up with a guest post. This one's about horses! Yes, those crazed behemoths that get treated like cars in most fiction. Well, we'll have none of that! I will return with posts of my own, I promise. I'm hard at work on new books, but I write full time now (gulp) so it shouldn't be so long between posts.

Anyway, here's Shawna:

The Allure of the Dark Hero

A while back I talked about attractive villains.  Today I want to address a somewhat related subject: the dark hero.  You know the ones I’m talking about.  The heroic figure that isn’t all sweetness and light, the one that isn’t always comfortable to be around.  Sometimes you don’t even know if you should trust him at all.
The mystique of the dark hero goes back at least to the Regency period (Think Mr. Darcy with his taciturn, standoffish ways.)  The Victorian Sherlock Holmes with his often abrupt, condescending manner and his seven-percent solution of cocaine definitely fell into the category.  During the golden age of radio, listeners thrilled to the exploits of the Shadow, by his very name clearly a dark hero.  
Dark heroes abound in speculative fiction, as well.  Severus Snape (in my opinion the true hero of the Harry Potter books) has legions of fans.  The ever-popular Batman is called the Dark Knight.  Even Aragorn, for all his untarnished honor and courage, is arguably a dark hero.  In his Strider persona he is so grim and foreboding that the hobbits initially wonder if he’s a servant of Sauron.
I’ve heard it argued that the attraction to dark heroes arises from a perhaps unhealthy attraction to difficult men, the urge to be that one person who understands them, that can warm their cold hearts.  I have to admit I once bought into this theory, enough that I had a long heart-to-heart with a psychologist/writer who was co-teaching a workshop on character development regarding the relationship between Cass and Raven in Ravensblood, which was then early in the first draft stage.  We decided together that no, I wasn’t encouraging unhealthy relationships and yes, it was possible for these two to overcome their past difficulties if they really committed to it.  We both had a moment of mutual happiness for the people involved before remembering that they were fictional.
It’s possible that a slightly dysfunctional taste for bad boys could be part of the popularity of the dark hero, but I think it’s a very small part. For one thing, Aragorn and Batman are at least as popular with straight males as they are with women.  And there are more and better reasons why people like their heroes with a touch of the shadow side.
Part of the appeal of the dark hero is the character’s complexity.  A good guy with no emotional baggage that is kind, cheerful and reliable might make a great boyfriend, but he’s just not going to be as interesting to read about. With the reliable nice guy or the always-good hero, you know what to expect.  Predictable is nice in real life, but not so much in fiction.  An ambiguous hero keeps readers guessing what’s coming next.  (Of course, you can still have a great story with a good-guy hero.  But the author needs to find other ways to spice it up.)
Yet another good thing about the dark hero— the reader likes to live vicariously through the characters.  While hopefully very few of us aspire to be truly evil, I think a large percentage of us at various times wish we were brave enough to be Not Nice.  Wouldn’t you just love sometimes to drawl dark, snarky lines like Snape does?
The dark hero has another advantage.  Those moments of grace that readers so love and remember are also heightened when they come from a character not known for sweet charity.  There’s a reason that the screen capture of Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes embracing Mrs. Hudson on his return from supposed death circulates so often on Facebook.  No matter how many times I see it, it still gets me.  The tender gesture means more coming from a character not given to effusive displays.
Then there’s the moment in Pride and Prejudice when Darcy quietly and at great expense ensures that the officer who ran off with Kitty Bennett marries her as promised, all to save the Bennett family, whom he previously scorned, from ruin.  Such an unselfish gesture coming from the ridiculously kind Mr. Bingley might have made the reader smile for a moment and move on.  When it comes from the cold and haughty Darcy, the reader swoons and remembers forever.
So, go on, love your dark heroes without guilt.  And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch Pride and Prejudice.  Again.

________________

Thanks Shawna!
Shawna's third book in the Ravensblood series, Raven's Heart, is finally out! I hope you've been inspired to start reading with Ravensblood, but if you missed your chance, here's another reminder. I can't emphasize enough how fun these books are. If you love attractive villians, dark heroes, and tales of redemption, you'll love these stories. Check them out here.

_______________

The reformed dark mage Corwyn Ravenscroft, Raven, has finally found his place in the world. He has a fiancé, friends, and meaningful work. Yet a shadow hangs over everything. His former master, the darkest and most powerful mage of their time, the man he betrayed, the man he thought he had killed, still lives. William is determined to destroy everyone and everything Raven ever loved.
Will Raven find a way to defeat him, once and for all? Or will he see the life he has built crumble around him as William rises once again to threaten the Three Communities, perhaps even the world?

Here's another fabulous guest post by Shawna Reppert, author of Ravensblood:

A/N I originally wrote this blog and its companion blog The Allure of the Dark Hero several years ago, so some of the references are a little dated. Where I could, I updated within the blog. On one crucial point, I added a note at the end.

Oh, The Villains!

So, been thinking about villains lately.  Specifically about the attractiveness of certain villains, and how it makes the tales they appear in richer and more compelling.

No, this is not an attempt to justify having blown much of a long weekend watching the David Tennant’s Doctor and John Simm’s Master play off one another in season three of Doctor Who and fangirling over Loki in Thor and The Avengers.  OK, not much.

(Besides, I could argue that Loki in Thor is more a tragic hero than a true villain, but that would be another blog.)

Ahem, yes.  Villains.  There are as many ways of writing villains as there is writing, period, and I couldn’t begin to cover them all in a blog. (Though Jessica Morrell covers the subject nicely in the book Bullies, Bitches and Bastards.  I highly recommend it.)  So I’ll just stick with the compelling villains, why they fascinate, and my thoughts on how to build one of your very own (in fiction, that is.  Though if anyone out there has figured out how to make a Loki, make an extra one for me.  I promise to take care of him and heal his wounded soul and. . . Sorry.  I blame the cold meds.)

OK, back on topic.  Loki is, as I mentioned, a wounded soul. (I’m dealing with the Marvel movie-verse Loki here, not the original Nordic myths.)  Forever in his brother’s shadow, his intellect and sensibility are discounted while Thor’s strength, bravado and charisma are praised. And then he finds out that he is not Thor’s brother at all, and his own origins are far darker and the people he thought were his parents have lied to him all his life. He has ample reason for turning against his brother, and villains with reasons are always more believable than villains who are evil for the sake of evil.  More, we have a reason to sympathize with him in the same way we sympathize with underdog heroes like Harry Potter.  Yes, attempted fratricide is taking things a bit far, but haven’t we ever wanted to get even with those who got the attention, the glory, the affection that we thought we deserved?

The latest incarnation of The Master is also wounded, driven to madness by the sound of drums only he can hear. We viewers may hate him for what he does to the Doctor (not to mention the Earth), but we have to also feel sorry for him.  It takes the storyline from simple Good v. Evil to something more complex, poignant and therefore memorable.

Having a complex villain makes it more believable when the hero sympathizes with/ wants to save or redeem the villain. This in turn makes for a more complex and sympathetic hero.  (Witness Thor at the end of the first movie, The Doctor with the Master in season three, even Frodo with Gollum, who is certainly villainous even if he isn’t The Villain.)

So, a wounded, lost and vulnerable villain is a good start.  But if you want a villain so compelling he gets his own fan club, you need more.  Sex appeal helps.  I’m not talking about the Mimbo on the Cover of the Book, but a villain with that je ne sais quoi that comes more from grace and presence. Of course, this is easier in TV and film, where the right actor goes a long way.  In the classic Doctor Who, Anthony Ainley brought a sardonic sexuality to the role that the early-adolescent me only barely understood, but the more mature me can’t resist.  I could fill a whole blog with examples and not run out (Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan, anyone?)

In fiction, we bring out that sex appeal the same way we develop any aspect of character— with how the character sees himself, with how others react to him.  In my urban fantasy series Ravensblood, William Blanchard may be a paranoid, conscienceless dark mage bent on world domination, but he never lacks for willing sexual partners, and even Raven, who has no desire to sleep with the man, acknowledges his aesthetic appeal.

People read books and watch movies or television for a lot of reasons, but one of the most important motivations is wanting to spend time with the characters.  While it’s safe to say none of us would actually enjoy dealing with the Master in real life (or Avengers-Loki, though Thor-Loki I kind of think I’d like), when he comes on screen, we know something interesting is about to happen.  John Simm’s Master in his dance-videoesque sequence is just plain fun, with a little bit of sexiness thrown in when he pulls his wife in for a kiss.  My William has a dark sense of humor and occasional bursts of manic energy that were a blast to write, and which I’m confident readers will enjoy.  (He also follows the wounded villain pattern, even though I only let the tiniest tip of that backstory iceberg show in the first novel. The reader finds out more in the upcoming third novel.)

So go on, love those villains.  You can’t help it.  The writers obviously meant you to, the manipulative so-and-sos.

(A/N As I get ready to post this, I realize that it is completely biased toward male villains.  Truth be told, I can’t think of a female villain that I have found as compelling as Loki or the Master (or Khan, or even Vader).  I don’t think it’s just because I’m a basically straight woman; there are plenty of female heroes and sidekicks that rock my world.  I think there is a dearth of richly drawn, compelling female villains.  Readers who can come up with examples to contradict my theory, please post comments.  I’m curious.)

UPDATE: As noted, this blog was originally written several years ago. For Doctor Who fans that means pre-Missy. While I am still trying to adjust to a female Master, I do have to admit Missy as a villain has her charms. In season 8, I thought she was a bit over-the-top, but the expansion of the complex relationship between her and the Doctor in season 9 made me warm to the character.

Thank you, Shawna, for another insightful post!
I highly recommend Shawna's books, especially the Raven series. Raven's Heart, the third book in the series, will be released soon! You won't want to miss it, so be sure to follow Shawna on her Amazon page.


The reformed dark mage Corwyn Ravenscroft, Raven, has finally found his place in the world. He has a fiancé, friends, and meaningful work. Yet a shadow hangs over everything. His former master, the darkest and most powerful mage of their time, the man he betrayed, the man he thought he had killed, still lives. William is determined to destroy everyone and everything Raven ever loved.
Will Raven find a way to defeat him, once and for all? Or will he see the life he has built crumble around him as William rises once again to threaten the Three Communities, perhaps even the world?The reformed dark mage Corwyn Ravenscroft, Raven, has finally found his place in the world. He has a fiancé, friends, and meaningful work. Yet a shadow hangs over everything. His former master, the darkest and most powerful mage of their time, the man he betrayed, the man he thought he had killed, still lives. William is determined to destroy everyone and everything Raven ever loved.

Will Raven find a way to defeat him, once and for all? Or will he see the life he has built crumble around him as William rises once again to threaten the Three Communities, perhaps even the world?The reformed dark mage Corwyn Ravenscroft, Raven, has finally found his place in the world. He has a fiancé, friends, and meaningful work. Yet a shadow hangs over everything. His former master, the darkest and most powerful mage of their time, the man he betrayed, the man he thought he had killed, still lives. William is determined to destroy everyone and everything Raven ever loved.
Will Raven find a way to defeat him, once and for all? Or will he see the life he has built crumble around him as William rises once again to threaten the Three Communities, perhaps even the world?

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Interview: Shawna Reppert


I’d like to introduce Shawna Reppert, fantasy author extraordinaire! I first became aware of her work through Ravensblood, a full-length novel that begins a really fun urban fantasy series set in Portland, Oregon. Although I enjoy urban fantasies where magic is hidden, disguised, or part of an underground, I found it refreshing to have magic exist openly in the world she created. But the part I loved most was how her two main characters, Cassandra Greensdowne and Corwyn Ravenscroft (Raven), keep pushing at very old and important questions like: can the ends justify the means, are some acts unforgivable, and can someone who’s done really awful things redeem themselves?

Welcome, Shawna! Can you tell us a bit about Cass and Raven?

Corwyn Ravenscroft is a dark mage from a long line of dark mages. He generally goes by Raven, a name that started out as a taunt when he was younger, but a name he later embraced as a badge of defiance when he embraced the dark. But anyone who knows the symbolism of ravens in the various pagan traditions knows that they are not unambiguously dark. I play with that symbolism throughout the books with Raven’s changing relationship with his past and his ancestry.

Growing up, Raven wanted to be a Guardian—sort of magical law enforcement. But despite his aptitude, he was rejected by Guardian Academy because of his ancestry. In his pride and bitterness, he turned to the dark and to William, the most powerful and darkest mage of their time.

William wants a return to the old days, where the most powerful mage was ruler absolute. But William would not be a True King from the fairytales. He would reign in blood and terror and darkest magic.

Raven discovers that he does still have a conscience. It’s rather inconvenient.

Cass—or Cassandra, Raven always uses the formal version—is , when the story begins, a Guardian, and also Raven’s former apprentice and lover. When she apprenticed to him as a young woman straight out of General Academy, he deceived her about the extent of his involvement in the dark. When she found out the truth, she also found out that a ritual he had planned would risk her powers if not her life. She left him and turned evidence against him.  Now she is trying to live down her past. Until her past comes to her door, asking for her help.

Cass rebuffs him, telling him that she isn’t about to be the same kind of fool twice. But when a mistimed suicide message brings her to his side while he is still alive, she can no longer deny his sincerity as she is kneeling in his blood, trying to staunch the flow from his wrists. Trust still doesn’t come easily, on either side. After all that had gone before, it would have been unhealthily naive to allow one single act, even one so dramatic, to wipe that all away.
Questions of light and dark only get more complicated.  To win a pardon and a return to society, Raven agrees to return to William as a spy. To have a chance of surviving to enjoy that new life, he has to ensure that they defeat William, once and for all. But in order to keep his cover, Raven finds himself performing darker and darker acts.
Raven doesn’t forgive himself quickly or easily for the things he did in William’s service, not the things he did to escape it. It’s a slow and gradual process, and his redemption is hard-won.
With the Ravensblood series, I wanted to create a world where good and evil was not as clear as it seemed at first blush. Not everyone in William’s following is wholly bad, and some of them are there because the felt that the light had left them little choice. Not all who consider themselves to be on the side of the light behave with honor, kindness and compassion.

When I read Ravensblood, I felt Raven may or may not have betrayed Cass when it came time to create the stone. Maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part, and I may be influenced by Cassandra’s point of view, who feared he might do it but also probably felt deep-down that he couldn’t have gone through with it because it’s just not in him. Abuse victims, caught in the heat of the moment of physical abuse, sometimes make it to a phone and call the police, only to later decide, when things have cooled off, that they don’t want to press charges. Some of that is based in fear (not just fear of more severe abuse but also fear of being alone, fear of being caught leaving, fear of placing children in harm’s way, fear of never finding anyone better, and many other complicated fears that are hard to understand for someone who has never been abused), but also some of them felt that they brought it on themselves, and that their abuser wouldn’t have gone so far as to kill them. Part of the richness of your book is a strong sense I get of this powerful, often misunderstood and over-simplified dynamic that usually leads to talk about ‘why doesn’t she just leave’ or ‘why would she put herself in a position to be lied-to/harmed again.’ I like how the narrative remained dark, suspenseful and edgy, but also by putting us in Raven’s head the reader understood that he wasn’t ‘that kind of guy’ without letting him off the hook for what he’d done and almost done. Care to comment on that?

I am well aware of the abuser/abused dynamic. I have some friends that have survived horrifically abusive situations, and I myself spent over a decade married to a man who was a master of emotional and psychological manipulation. I very much did *not* want that to be the dynamic between Raven and Cassandra.  She’s a smart, strong brave woman brought up to value herself, and at the very first sign of danger, she walks out.
I don’t want to dismiss or sugar-coat the evil of Raven’s deception. He himself does not make excuses. In fact, I start the series with what logically would almost be the second or third book of the series, simply because what Raven does prior to rediscovering his conscience is so horrible that I fear readers would hate him an not want to read more.
He is, however, not the classical abuser. He doesn’t have a need to dominate and control—he loves Cassandra in part for how she stands up to him. He apprenticed Cass with the ritual in mind, never intending to fall in love with her, or even to fall in bed with her. When his relationship with her changes from that of mere master and apprentice, he finds it much harder to continue with his plan.
I did write a tiny glimpse into the Raven of that time period in a short story titled Unkindness of Ravens. It’s part of a two-pack of short stories called Duet for Ravens, which is available on Amazon. (The other story is about a very young Raven, and introduces a force in his life which makes his later redemption more possible, from a psychological standpoint.)
As to whether or not Raven could have gone through with it, I almost don’t want to answer that question. Certainly in Ravensblood he proves he is capable of betraying an apprentice to his death, although the realization of the depth to which he’s sunk is the final catalyst that reawakens his conscience. Consider, too, that at the time of Cass’s apprenticeship, Raven was much deeper in thrall to William. He might have gone through with the ritual, and it would have destroyed him utterly. When he comes home to find Cass packed up and left in Unkindness, a part of him is glad she escaped with her life.
Remember that Cass doesn’t fall back into his arms at his first request for help, either. She realizes her continued attraction to him, of course, and aware of the danger that puts her in. She doesn’t even begin to trust him until he proves that he would very literally die than continue to serve William. Raven understands why she doesn’t want to trust him again, and he respects her for it.

It’s your care and awareness in the abuser dynamic that really made the story work for me. I feel like you also helped people understand the emotions beyond the fear and that expectation of betrayal from both characters. It made for a very exciting read!
Just one more question/observation: Both characters have a hard time accepting love into their lives, and they both employ effective defense mechanisms to protect themselves (and others!) from being hurt. On top of that, there’s constantly refreshed evidence that they’re not worthy of love or trust (each for different reasons) by just about everyone with which they have contact. Did you deliberately structure things that way, or did that dynamic evolve naturally as you wrote?

That dynamic is far more a part of Raven’s psyche than Cassandra’s, though is does play a part for Cassandra as well (I’ll get to that in a moment.) For Raven, on a conscious level, it’s a natural outgrowth of not being a sociopath, yet having done things that few people with an operating conscience would be capable of. He has an operating conscience, yet during his years with William he buried it so deep that it might as well have not been there at all—until its screams became so loud he could no longer ignore them.  If he didn’t come out of that experience feeling that he was unworthy of love or forgiveness, I frankly would have been worried about him.
Of course, if I left him there to wallow, I would have ended up with a character no one wants to read about. A central part of the series, at least with the first few books, is Raven’s path to self-forgiveness, his reintegration into society, and his learning to build emotional ties with others.
On a subconscious level, Raven’s sense of unworthiness also stems from the physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his father at a very young age and the guilt he feels over his mother’s death at the hands of his father. (Rightly or wrongly, he feels certain she would have left his father were it not for him.) Add to that a youth where all of his peers and most of the adults around him assume that he will grow up to be the dark mage his father had been before his death at the hands of Guardians, and you have a man who struggles to believe that he is capable of being loved.
Note we’re not talking about sexual confidence. Raven, after the awkward adolescence of his backstory, grows into a man proud of his ability to attract partners.  His confidence in his abilities to sustain a romantic relationship is another thing entirely. Also, for those who haven’t read any of the series, I want to stress that Raven is far from lacking self-esteem in other areas. In matters of intelligence, education, culture, and magical ability, he is justifiably proud and extremely confident. And he hides his emotional vulnerabilities behind a wall of cold reserve.
Again, to remain a compelling character, he has to overcome that sense of unworthiness, but a small part of it will always linger deep in his core. Likewise, the cold exterior melts somewhat over the series, although he will always remain a bit formal and distant, especially with people he doesn’t know well enough to trust.
Raven’s issues with trust have both practical and deep psychological aspects.  On a subconscious level, children who are abused at a very young age have difficult trusting as adults, as do children who are bullied.  What saves Raven from being hopelessly destroyed on an emotional level is that there are a few positive adult influences that came into his young life from time to time.  His mother, before she was murdered. A Guardian who found him alone in his father’s mansion after his father fell in the last days of the Mage Wars and took care of him until his mother’s brother accepted custody. Cassandra’s aunt Ana, who had been his teacher in General Academy and later brokered the deal for his pardon.
On a practical level, Raven has learned that very few people see beyond his name (though this changes somewhat later in the series as he proves himself through his work with Guardian International Investigations.) Also, in the beginning of the series, he finds it hard to trust people who have very little practical reason to trust him.
Cass is, by far, the most psychologically healthy of the two. She was raised by her aunt Ana, who is kind and loving and, in Jungian terms, is very much the Wise Old Woman. Yet I was very fortunate to take a class on character development early in the formative stages of the series, as I mention in the blogs your readers will see in the coming weeks. It was co-taught by a stage actor and a psychologist. The psychologist made me realize that Cass’s early youth would create vulnerabilities she had to overcome. Her parents are killed when she is very young, too young to fully grasp what death means. No matter how loving and nurturing Ana is, a loss like that at an early age will feel like an abandonment, and will leave emotional scars.  In Cass’s backstory, those scars cause vulnerabilities that the dark mage Raven can exploit.
By the time Ravensblood begins, Cass is much stronger psychologically and therefore much less easy to manipulate, and Raven is trying not to be the sort of person who would seek out and manipulate someone’s insecurities. Cass, however, is trying to prove herself, both to herself and to society at large, after the mistake of unknowingly apprenticing to a dark mage. Her past makes her largely an outcast among her colleagues in the local Guardians.
By the beginning of Raven’s Wing, Cass has been promoted to Guardian International Investigations, made up largely of brilliant mages with quirky temperaments, and where she is not the only one with a shadowed past.  There she comes fully into herself.
That Cass has difficulty trusting Raven in the beginning of Ravensblood is not a sign of weakness but of strength.  He has deceived her in the past, has been witness to, if not party to, acts of dark magic that few people would contemplate. She’d be stupid to trust him until he proves himself, but once he does so her loyalty to him is absolute, as is her trust.
Well, her trust in his intentions is absolute, though in Raven’s Heart they disagree pretty dramatically over one particular point in method.  But I can’t go into that yet. Spoilers!

Shawna Reppert is an award-winning author of fantasy and steampunk who keeps her readers up all night and makes them miss work deadlines.  Her fiction asks questions for which there are no easy answers while taking readers on a fine adventure that grips them heart and soul.  You can find her work on Amazon and follow her blog on her website (www.Shawna-Reppert.com).  You can friend her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter, where she posts an amazing array of geekery.  Shawna can also sometimes be found in medieval garb on a caparisoned horse, throwing javelins into innocent hay bales that never did anything to her.

I have a couple of fascinating guest blog posts coming up from Shawna about dark heroes and attractive villians! The first of those should be up in about a week.

Among other places, you can find Shawna's books here. And be sure to look for Raven's Heart. The release date is February 6, 2016. You have plenty of time to read the rest of the series before then!