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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.

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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!


Star Wars Episode VII No Spoilers

I had fun watching The Force Awakens on Wednesday. Definitely worth seeing.

But.

(You knew there'd be a but! You must be psychic.)

I wish I hadn't gone in with everyone I know squealing in the back of my mind about how epic it is, because the movie had problems. I'm blaming the script. The acting, the special effects, all that was as damned close to perfect as I've seen in a long time. But the script needed work. It needed to go deeper. The plot had a lot of predictability in it. And, once again, what is it with thrones? I ranted about this with Lord of the Rings, and apparently no one listened. Leaders do not lead from fucking thrones!

So, in my opinion, this is a must-see event, and yes, I'll see it again, and I will own the movie. I will eagerly await the sequel. Disney, hurry up and take my money! But, if you haven't seen it yet I recommend going in with attitude set to normal and expectations kept in the seated position with seatbelts on. Once you've seen it once, ignoring all the hype and the crazy marketing machine that's been unleashed in the name of Star Wars, you can go back and enjoy it for what it is: the continuation of a story that's enraptured generations.

Doing the Goodbye Math

So I was doing some math, because that's what I do for fun sometimes, and it helps me decompress. I thought I'd figure out how long I've been living with my coworkers, as in, what the time passage would have been if we were living together 24/7 instead of me showing up for nine hours a day-ish (unpaid lunch.) It turns out that, when I assume a sixteen hour waking day, and factor in vacations, I've basically been living with my coworkers the equivalent of slightly less than a year and a half. During that time we've had a lot of roomies come and go, but the core group that I identify with have all been at this house I've chosen to call work a long time. Some of them have been there for the duration.
It feels ... weird. I'm not sure what I was looking for when I began crunching the numbers. Am I trying to make myself sad?
Growing up, early on my family moved in and out of towns in far less time. It wasn't until we came to the PacNW that we stayed in one place, finally. On my own, I tend to be a settler. :D We lived for seven years in our first, so-called starter house, you know, the one that the real estate agent reminded us that we can move out of it in a couple of years, like it's a perk to not hang out in the first home you choose or something. We've been in our current house for close to fourteen years. I've contemplated moving, but it's along the lines of, it would be nice to try a different climate. The passion to relocate isn't there. I love my house, love my town.
And I love my coworkers.
I'm leaving my day job because my evening job is where my passions are rooted, and juggling the two has become too painful. I've been short-changing my writing and design work, and marketing that work has been an afterthought rather than a serious pursuit. So it's no surprise that, at the moment, I'm the writer that almost no one has read, though lots of people have seen my cover designs. (But hardly anyone cares about cover designers! And that's totally cool. It would be a little weird to have people run up to me and say OMG, I love your cover designs! Would you <blush> please sign my copy of Big Bloody Book of Violence? <squee!!!>) I'd like to be better known for a few reasons, but one big one for me is it would be so wonderful to find people who like the same stuff I like. More than I'd like to be better known, I'd like some serious writing and design time, so I can immerse myself, and learn, and play, and grow as an artist.
Having some time to practice violin again wouldn't hurt my feelings either. And the garden needs some serious work. And then there's the goats, and the chickens, and I'm thinking about teaching our little herding dog how to run agility courses (though she'll never compete: she's too aggressive with other dogs.)
So here I am. I've packed to leave my house-of-day-job. I'm taking all the essentials, but I'm leaving a few things behind. Not on purpose. It just happens like that, when you've shared a home with people you like, and in the complicated process of collecting your shit you lose track of stuff. I know I'll be leaving behind big pieces of my heart, but there's just so much of it scattered around, I know I'll never get it all, so I guess it'll just stay there. As for the other, less-tangible things, they'll remain behind, and if anyone finds them there maybe they'll be reminded of me.
I'll come in to visit a lot, but I'll be an outsider. Will it be awkward? I don't know. But I can't not come back. That would be horrible, to shop there with my head ducked down and dark glasses on, trying to avoid eye contact or worse, never shopping there. I have to go in, and say hi, how's it going.

Okay, I'm sad now. Mission accomplished, I guess. But I have this work, this work that's my life. The day job was also my life for a year and a half, by my calculations, and well over seven years, counting the usual way and taking away my fourteen months that I took off for personal reasons. This is the math of saying goodbye, and thank you for your support, and I guess I'll be seeings you here and there, when it's time to pick up new hinges, a carton of my favorite cereal, some low-salt almonds and of course some chocolate.

I'll miss you. No math required.

BiMart, October 2007 - January 1, 2016

The End is the Beginning

Any transition, regardless of whether it's labeled good or bad, is stressful. It's one of the reasons that our subconscious works so hard to sabotage things like weddings, promotions, and creative pursuits. Intellectually we understand that change might be bad, but it might also be good, and that if we never take risks, we'll never excel. Our subconscious doesn't give a crap about any of that. Our subconscious wants smooth sailing, and doesn't want us to lose, or win. As long as things stay the same – and it's worked so far because we're still breathing, right? – then things probably won't get worse than they are, and that's good enough for it.

I've turned in my notice, so screw you, subconscious. (Deep breaths. Deep breaths! But not too deep because you can hyperventilate even if you breathe slowly if you breathe deeply enough.)

January 1, 2016 will be my last day at my day job. January 2, 2016 will be my first day as a full time writer. Yes, it's scary, in case you're wondering, and yes I'm very excited. I just hope that I do in fact have wings, or that there's water underneath this cliff I've decided to jump off of.

It's a pretty big cliff. Maybe water won't help.

Anyway, to celebrate, and to welcome in the new year, I'll be hosting a series of guest posts. These won't be traditional interviews, and they won't be about the writing process, at least not directly. You'll get to take a peek into the fertile brains of people who ask questions like:
  Why do birds chirp?
  What does a banana leaf taste like?
  How does it feel to hit the water when you've jumped from a height of fifteen feet?
  How long does hair, once it's cut, keep its color?
Yes, writers are strange, but we've harnassed this strangeness to entertain readers, so it's not all bad. These guest posts promise to be entertaining, and interesting, and I hope to learn some stuff too.

Speaking of strange writers, I got mixed up with a bunch of them in an anthology. Asylum sold out at Orycon, where it had a fantastic release party. It was a big box of books, too. They even sold the editor's free copy. I barely got my hands on mine in time.

You can find it here.

I hope to get some of the Asylum authors to post a guest blog here and there as well.

I'll be posting more as well. In theory I'll have more time to devote to my blog, although in practice I've heard rumors that suggest that you end up even busier than you were before.

My subconscious is now officially terrified, faced with the idea that I'll be busier than I am now. (Deep breaths!)

Until next time, I wish you all peace, happiness, safe shelter, good food, and the best company.

World Fantasy

I managed to get an invite to World Fantasy, which is completely sold out. I'm very tempted to go.
But.
It's a huge investment.
At the same time, I will be right there with my target audience.
I have two weeks to decide. That should be more than enough time. I'll try to make the decision within the next few days. Chances are that I'd be going alone, which can be overwhelming and lonely. But it can also be amazing.
Because it's World Fantasy Con.

Speaking of world fantasy, I'm writing in a different world in my so-called spare time. It's brought home the fact that setting is, or at least should be, a big deal. It affects everything. Character attitude and expectation. The challenges the characters face will be deeply affected by setting. The solutions that the characters can come up with, and the resources available to them, will also be deeply affected by setting.

If the setting doesn't matter, there's a problem. A world problem. When the characters change locations, then likewise the problems they face and the resources they have available, etc. etc. will be affected. Maybe one place they're battling cold conditions. Another, they might be struggling to find enough water (and you don't have to be stuck in a desert to have that problem!) Meanwhile, the main conflict in the book carries onward.

Stuff to think about.
This topic came about as a result of a panel I sat on for Sasquan (Worldcon 2015) with Denise Connell, Teresa Nielson Hayden, and Robert J. Sawyer. Steven Silver was also going to be on the panel but had to cancel.

I'm not going to recap the panel, because that would involve putting words in the mouths of people that are far more capable of representing themselves with more eloquence than I can muster. I will, however, go over some things that we didn't get to go into in depth due to time constraints.

The moderator suggested that we read this article to prep for the panel. I did and I was glad. It was fascinating. I suggest that you read it as well, but in case you don't have the time (in which case I thank you very much for spending your limited time with me!) the two sentence summary is that authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stack the deck in their character's favor to make them look smarter, and don't insult your audience. The author (Graham Moore, screenwriter for The Imitation Game) also wrote a neat twist at the end of the article.

I write quite a few characters that are smarter than me. They're not all intelligent in the same ways. I'll give you my initial list, and you can build your own from there.

Spacial Intelligence: The ability to visualize in three or more dimensions and to be able to map and rearrange things. These things may be objects that are literally oriented to each other, like shapes in a Tetris game, or they could be scenes in a book, lines or concepts in a poem that's being developed, social maps (how people in a group or how various groups relate to each other) or even more abstract things I can't even imagine. People with spacial intelligence can create metaphors for what they're studying that they can visualize in their minds or on paper and then orient and reorient them to learn new things and to create greater efficiency, artistry or effectiveness in the system they're modeling.

Organizational Intelligence: Less abstract than spacial intelligence, organizational intelligence takes an existing body of data and sorts it or resorts it so that it makes sense or reveals a useful pattern that can lead to problem solving. People who are organized can appear to be extremely intelligent even if they're of average intelligence simply because they can find what they need and can realize when something is missing, duplicated or out-of-place.

Emotional Intelligence: They walk in the room and instantly know who is nervous, who is bursting with news, who is intent on violence and how to manipulate each and every one of these people. They can comfort grieving friends while the rest of us stand around awkwardly not knowing what to say, and figure out how to get the general of the army to stand his men down until news of the treaty arrives. This is a largely overlooked form of intelligence. I use it extensively in The Lord Jester's Legacy and it's also important in The Poisoned Past trilogy.

Fact Collecting: Trivial Pursuit made useful. It's an element of Sherlock Holmes' intelligence, and he's often depicted running various experiments in order to build his mental catalogue of seemingly useless bits of information that later prove critical to his ability to solve crimes. It's a bit of a cliche' that individuals who collect facts tend to rattle them off even if no one cares to hear about them. Although this can be true, it's not a requirement to make your fact collector eager to share his or her body of knowlege at dinner parties or on dates.

Memory: A well-honed and/or a genetically enhanced memory is extremely useful. Being able to recall entire conversations helps catch liars (or sustain lies), and people who have eidetic ('photographic') memories can, for example, picture a page in a book they'd glanced at and reread it to themselves to pick out relevant details long after they no longer have access to it. People with good memories tend to do well academically. They may have an advantage when learning languages as well (though that is a separate skill) and also have an opportunity to do well socially. I had a college professor who memorized the names of every student in his classes every term. He was very popular as a result, except among the people who wanted to skip classes. People who remember the names of your kids and ask whether your aunt's surgery tend to be well-liked.

Perceptiveness: People with perceptive intelligence live more in the present than most people, who tend to live in their heads (or on their iPhones.) They notice things that most people overlook. Some perception is very specialized. My daughter can spot wildlife that's invisible to most people, but she has no idea when someone is flirting with her. Sometimes perception is an ability to get an instant feel for a situation without being able to point specifically at the clues that give that impression. For example, someone might get a bad feeling when they go into a bar without actually noticing that all the people there seem to know each other and that most of them tensed when the stranger came in.

Observing the Negative: A specific, conscious form of perceptiveness. People who observe the negative notice what's missing or what's been deliberately omitted. It might be a ring on a finger that has a pale band on an otherwise tanned hand. Or, when someone remarks that they're paranoid and can't stand to be too close to people, the person who can observe the negative notices that this supposedly paranoid person is voluntarily giving up information without being asked and is standing three feet away. People who are able to detect the negative visually often find the trick behind optical illusions more quickly.

Lateral thinkers: They rarely take things for granted and often look for more options even after a solution or explanation has been agreed upon. Lateral thinkers make a game of figuring out many ways of interpreting data. Rather than going for the first, easiest route, they search for alternatives, either as an exercise or because they realize that choosing the best among many options has great advantages over picking the first workable option, and increases the chances of discovering a compromise or hybrid option to a difficult problem that appears to have only one solution. Lateral thinkers tend to be artistic, creative, and can improvise.

Engineers: Engineers take a physical problem, such as how to cross a river, and come up with a solution with the available materials. They may rely on lateral thinking, but more often they employ a form of spacial intelligence combined with an excellent understanding of practical physics. In my experience, some of the best engineering minds exist among farmers, who have to solve physical problems, such as fixing gates and moving large loads of wood up a steep hill, on a daily basis.

That should get you started.

For additional reading:

A nifty commentary on the Dunning Kruger effect
Psychology of Intelligence Analysis
Lateral Thinking (ebook format)

At Sasquan: Worldcon in Spokane, WA

Actually, technically I'm not at Sasquan yet. We got in later than we expected and registration was closed by the time we walked to the convention center. But we had a nice light dinner at an Irish pub and explored the immediate vicinity.

The tarnished silver and platinum sky as we came in glowed in tones of tangerine, hot pink and white gold. The waitress we spoke to at the pub told us that the smoke blows in and out. It caused at least two major wrecks in the area, including a 40 car pile-up near Ritzville (which we drove through on our way.) These intense fires transform the area from a beautiful desert filled with starry skies and brilliant days of clear blue into gray, mysterious places where one moment everything is uncertain and unnerving to deadly. Between the dust and the smoke when a fierce wind blows through, driven by heat from both the sun and the wildfires, visibility can go from okay to nothing in seconds.

We were lucky, and I was shocked by the scope of the fires. As an owner of livestock on acreage that's vulnerable to wildfires (can you say uphill from a freeway with dry grass, dry trees and inaccessible gulleys that could seriously hamper firefighting efforts) my heart aches for all the impacted people, but especially those with livestock who are having a rough time trying to find somewhere to take their horses, cows, goats, sheep, etc. or who have to go through the heartache of having to leave their animals behind and hope that they escape the fire somehow.

I'm grateful that we're safe, and well-fed, and that our animals are safe. I plan to enjoy myself at the convention, but those intense skies and that smoke-filtered sun are a constant reminder that there's a nightmare burning not far away.

Come see me at Sasquan! I'll try to post my schedule tomorrow. In the meantime, Oubliette is available for 99¢ during the duration of the convention and for a couple of days afterward. I'll also be signing copies at the NIWA table in the dealer's room. If I'm not there, catch me at a panel or in the halls or check back at the NIWA table later. I'd love to autograph a copy for you!