Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Diversity in Fantasy: Spire City, Season Two

Here's another guest post from my good friend and fantasy city architect,  Daniel Ausema:

Diversity and Appropriation

I'm thrilled that Nick is hosting this series of posts again this year. I loved reading the interviews last year and hearing how others approach the questions of diversity in fantasy. And I'm looking forward to the various posts this year as well.

Looking back at my interview last year (, I said much of what I would say still today. Spire City has allowed me to step outside myself, and the diversity of characters and the often messy interactions among the various people are some of the things that keep me coming back to my own characters (and to those in the books I read). I continue to try to bring in the views of people with different experiences and to be honest about how those people contribute to the city and are treated by it.

All of season one is now done (and collected in two bundles, Contagion and Epidemic), and we are now several episodes into season two, with episode 5 coming out on February 20. Since last year, the core group of characters has expanded to include two friends from a different city, each of them very different in how they react to their infections and to the others in general. There are also new characters from different levels of Spire City's society—a deeply religious girl whose infection is very advanced, a woman who used to be a dangerous enforcer for a subterranean gang of infected people. Chels remains the central focal point of the series as she grows into her realization that she can do something to stop this infection, if not for herself then at least for others.

So that's just a quick update. I wanted to focus this post, though, on a companion issue to the idea of diversity, and that's cultural appropriation. So say, like most of us participating in this series of posts, that you completely agree that diversity is valuable and that works of fantasy ought to embrace the reality of the interplay of many peoples throughout history, all ages, ethnicities, religions, genders, orientations, and identities of all kinds. You're all set, then, to go borrowing from all over the place, right?


There's still the tangled issue of appropriation. The danger here is in blindly crashing through a complex culture and just grabbing a few things that seem exotic or cool. It's an understandable impulse, and it can lead us to a smug sense of having got it, but when you dig down and look at what's going on, it can be just as insulting as simply white-washing history.

I forget where I first came across it, but a good mindset when incorporating and drawing inspiration from other cultures is the paradigm of conqueror, tourist, and guest. The blind crashing and stealing is the conqueror mindset. As writers we might be tempted to tear away a mythological creature here and a historical kingdom there and weave it into our stories. To a certain extent, this is what all creative writing is, weaving together all the influences we have and letting them affect each other in their own ways. But much better if we understand those influences first and how they work(ed) in real life.

So a second approach is as the tourist. We see these cool, fascinating things. We take snapshots, post cool pics to Facebook, say “isn't this so (exotic, quaint, fascinating).” We bring in those elements to our own stories out of admiration. OK, that's better than the conqueror, but it still sets up a sense of difference, of emphasizing the other-ness of this distinct culture.

So the real goal, in writing diversity, is to first be welcomed as a guest. Approach the culture with an openness that doesn't rush to quick judgments. Understand how the different parts of the culture work together. Look for things that you find fascinating, sure, but then try to recognize how those things fit in with everything else. Get to know people who identify with that culture (at least we can do this through books, and for some historical groups that may be the most we can do as well, but the internet makes meeting people from many contemporary groups much less of a challenge than it once was). Don't quiz them or treat them as a source at your personal disposal, but do your best to get to know them and understand how their culture affects the way they see things, especially the things that you don't even think about to question. And do all this with respect for the people and cultures you meet along the way.

This is a huge topic, and there are others out there who can speak much more eloquently and in depth (and from a point of expertise) about the issues involved. So don't take this as a final and complete exploration, but rather as a reminder for us all, myself included, as we seek to create diverse and amazing secondary worlds for our stories, to be aware, respectful, and open-minded about all the influences that come our way.

Please visit Dausema's blog here: Twigs and Brambles

You can purchase the first episode of season 2 of Spire City by clicking on the image above or on the following link here (other episodes are linked there as well): Spire City, Season Two: Pursued

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Diversity in Fantasy: The Lone and Level Sands

And now, our second guest post by a truly treasured friend and author, Nyki Blatchley:
Diversity in The Lone and Level Sands
The ancient ruins in the desert hide more than just scientific interest — evil lurks there from the dawn of history. Archaeology students Zadith and Musu thought it would give them valuable experience to spend their summer break on an important dig in the desert with their professor. They didn't expect to be menaced by the local military, a rival expedition with unorthodox methods, or an ancient evil from the dawn of history. But this is no ordinary site. An outpost of the city of Kebash, lost for ten thousand years, it holds terrors worse than death for Zadith and Musu.

I'm Nyki Blatchley, fantasy author. I've been writing fiction almost all my life (I started at four) and I've had a novel and about forty shorter pieces published, around a dozen as stand-alone ebooks. I live just north of London and work as a freelance copywriter. Which means that, when I'm not writing — I'm writing.

My short ebook The Lone and Level Sands, published in December by Musa Publishing, is the latest story set in a secondary world that I've been developing for several decades. Many of them, including my novel At An Uncertain Hour, have a traditional type of setting for fantasy — no gunpowder, no heavy industry — but I've recently beenbringing the world "up to date".

The Lone and Level Sands is archaeological fantasy in the tradition of Indiana Jones, and set in an equivalent period. Not all needs to be the same, though, since this society has developed in its own way. In particular, although the society isn't entirely without sexism, women are far less restricted than they were in the 1930s, and the two women (out of six significant people in the story) are anything but along for the ride.

In general, I tend to gravitate towards writing about women about as much as men, and I try to avoid falling too far into the traps either way. It's easy to assume that a "strong woman" in fantasy will be a tough, brawling, swearing swordswoman. Well, I do have characters like that, but I also have women who are strong as scholars, mothers, businesswomen — or archaeologists.

Racial diversity is a little more complex. As a white European, I started off (in my teens) writing exclusively about white characters, before I began to understand this as a shortcoming. Fortunately, one advantage of working with the canvas of an entire world — as opposed to a few neighbouring countries — is that can be put right without having to alter the original few realms. I've written from the POV of people from most of my world's races — one of my most recurring characters, Eltava, would in our-world terms be a cross between Chinese and Native American.

My world has a racial distribution not unlike our own (give or take the odd green-skinned people), but culturally it doesn't work in quite the same way. As in our world, civilisation rose more or less separately in several zones. Unlike our world, no one of these zones managed to overwhelm the rest, so the "modern" world is much more even, both politically and culturally, than our own.

The continent that provides the setting for The Lone and Level Sands, for instance, has a geographical and racial profile similar to Africa — black peoples mostly, with "Mediterranean" type races in the far north — but, unlike Africa, its ancient and high-achieving civilisations haven't been suppressed. In a real-world setting, the archaeological expedition would have been dispatched from an American or European institution. Here, it's come from the south, from a world-beating university in a highly influential country with a black population.

So, by presenting black people who've never known the cultural trauma of the slave trade and destructive colonialism, am I demeaning that real-world heritage? The exact opposite, I'd say. There were specific global reasons in our world for what was done to Africa (and to the Americas, Australia and many other places), but to create a different world, with a different history, where the black races still suffered as slaves would come perilously close to suggesting this was their inevitable destiny. Which is obviously nonsense.

It's sometimes suggested that there should always be a "reason" for having a character who's not male, white and straight. As far as I can see, the only reason needed is that the world (ours or any other) is a wide and wonderful place full of diversity, and not to reflect that would be stupid. It would be unrealistic. And it would be boring.

Click on the cover image above or on the title here to purchase the book: The Lone and Level Sands
Be sure to visit Nyki's Website
And his Blog

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Diversity in Fantasy: Strange Magic

Our first guest blog post in the "Diversity in Fantasy" series is by author James A. Hunter.

Yancy Lazarus is having a bad day: gangland murders, colossal frame job, a demonic nightmare, and some secretive ass-hat with mean ol’ magical chops and a small army of hyena-faced, body-snatching baddies. Now, he’s gonna have to figure out how all the pieces fit together before he ends up with a toe tag. Jeez. Some days just aren't worth getting out of bed for. 

Hi all, my name is James Hunter and Strange Magic is my debut novel, and the first in a planned series of novels featuring Yancy Lazarus, the wandering blues musician turned gunslinger, mage, and Fix-It man. So just a little about me: I’m a former Marine Corps Sergeant, combat veteran, and pirate hunter (seriously). I’m also a member of The Royal Order of the Shellback—‘cause that’s a real thing. And, a space-ship captain, can’t forget that. Okay  … the last one is only in my imagination. Currently, I work as a missionary and international aid worker with my wife and young daughter in Bangkok, Thailand. When I’m not working, writing, or spending time with family, I occasionally eat and sleep. 

I’ve been an avid reader for years and years—fantasy, sci-fi, and horror have always been my staple genres. As a young kid I didn’t much care for reading, but as a teenager I discovered the Harry Potter books and fell in love (so thank you J. K. Rowling). I have worked seriously at writing on and off for six or seven years—turning out two and a half novels, which were irredeemably bad. But writing had grown into something that I really loved doing, so I kept churning away at it. Strange Magic was my third complete book and the first novel I finished that I thought: this is good enough for someone else to read. 

Alright, on to the really good stuff—diversity in literature. One of the great things about being a writer is having an opportunity to step outside of yourself and into the shoes of someone else; to temporarily take on a point of view other than your own. That’s a big part of why I love books so much, and that is at the heart of diversity: getting a chance to see in new ways, and from new perspectives. Though my novel is typical of the broader Urban Fantasy genre in a lot of ways—smart-mouthed, self-deprecating, underdog hero—I also wanted to do something that would contribute a new perspective. Not an easy thing to do in any genre and though I don’t think I’m exactly breaking fresh and untouched soil with Strange Magic, I do like to think that Yancy offers a viewpoint rarely seen in Fantasy or Urban Fantasy: that of an older protagonist.

Typically, when discussing diversity within the written world, the focus tends to be on underrepresented minority groups such as racial minorities, LGTB folks, or women, but one category that rarely gets touched upon are the elderly—to me, it seems there is a remarkable amount of age discrimination within popular genre literature. Most heroes/heroines in Urban Fantasy, (despite race, gender, or sexual orientation) are almost uniformly late twenty something’s or early thirty somethings (assuming the books aren’t YA, which a lot of them are). Occasionally, you will have someone in their early forties, or immortal beings that have existed for ages, but rarely do you see someone who would qualify as a Baby boomer taking center stage. 

When older characters do pop up, it’s invariable in a secondary role: father or mother figure, perhaps a mentor, or a trusted counselor. In some ways, it’s almost understandable—most people don’t want to read about budding romances between sixty-year-olds, and someone with hip dysplasia would have trouble cutting it in an action adventure. With that said, having very few older protagonists sends a message to folks that are outside of this popular (younger) prescribed age range. You’ve been relegated to the bench. Your story is over. You can coach, maybe—give some guidance, sure—but leave the rough stuff and the romance for the young guys and gals. 

So, I purposely made a character who could qualify for retirement, someone who isn’t quite so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as your typical fantasy protagonist. Likewise, Yancy’s partner, Greg, is a retiree monster hunter who holds his own just fine despite being able to nab the early bird special. It would have been far easier to write an early thirty something protagonist—I’m in my late twenties so this would have been my natural perspective—but I specifically chose to create a character with a lot of history, much of it not so good. He is a deadbeat dad and a war Vet with PTSD, who is basically homeless. A guy running away from a lifetime of difficult choices. He is not a bright young kid with a future stretched out before him, and that’s a view that’s worth looking from too. Again, this isn’t exactly groundbreaking stuff, but it is a story that’s worth telling. 

Ultimately, as an author, my main goal is to tell a good story, but I also want to create characters that a wider portion of the population can relate to and identify with. There are a lot of older, deadbeat dads and moms out there—guys and gals who have made bad decisions, and often regret those decisions; people who are looking back on life, sure, but who still have their share of stories to tell and be a part of. As one of my readers commented, “[It’s] nice to read a story with a protagonist who's got contemporary life experience to mine. Semper Fi, Yancey.”  Hopefully, people will enjoy Strange Magic for what it is—an action packed, noir style romp—while simultaneously being reminded that regardless of our age, or the decisions we’ve made, redemption isn’t ever really out of grasp.

Click on the cover image or on the title here to purchase this book:
Strange Magic 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

February "Diversity in Fantasy" Series

It's February again and I'm bringing back my diversity series on my blog. I have several guest spots planned for some of my author friends here regarding their approaches to diversity in their recently published work. All comments are welcome. And if you would like to recommend an author (including yourself) for one of these guest spots, please message me and we'll see about including it.

 Our first post will be coming up soon from my new friend, James A. Hunter.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Hispanic Fantasy Heritage

With today being the last day of Hispanic Heritage Month, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge some of the prominent Hispanic writers in the fantasy genre who have helped to pave new roads in our genre and open up more opportunities, perhaps, for writers like me. I made these posts two years ago on the writers' forum I participate on,, and I thought it would be nice to share them here. These features are just an image (when available) of the author and a bit about them from their Wikipedia page as well as some assistance from my friend, Nyki Blatchley, whose blog can be found by clicking his name. 

Isabel Allende 
 A Chilean American writer whose works sometimes contain aspects of the "magic realist" tradition, and is famous for novels such as The House of the Spirits (La casa de los espíritus, 1982) and City of the Beasts (La ciudad de las bestias, 2002), which have been commercially successful. Allende has been called "the world's most widely read Spanish-language author". In 2004, Allende was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2010, she received Chile's National Literature Prize. 

Rudolfo Anaya
Rudolfo Anaya is a Mexican-American author. Best known for his 1972 novel Bless Me, Ultima, Anaya is considered one of the founders of the canon of contemporary Chicano literature.Anaya’s use of Spanish, mystical depiction of the New Mexican landscape, use of cultural motifs such as La Llorona, and recounting of curandera folkways such as the gathering of medicinal herbs, gives readers a sense of the influence of indigenous cultural ways that are both authentic and distinct from the mainstream.

Leslie Marmon Silko
Leslie Marmon Silko is a Native American writer of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, and one of the key figures in the First Wave of what literary critic Kenneth Lincoln has called the Native American Renaissance.Silko has noted herself as being 1/4 Laguna Pueblo (a Keres speaking tribe), also identifying as Anglo American and Mexican American. One of her more successful books is the collection of poetry, short stories and photographs, Storyteller.

Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges was an Argentine short-story writer, essayist, poet and translator born in Buenos Aires. His work embraces the "character of unreality in all literature". His most famous books, Ficciones (1944) and The Aleph (1949), are compilations of short stories interconnected by common themes such as dreams, labyrinths, libraries, mirrors, animals, fictional writers, philosophy, religion and God. His works have contributed to philosophical literature and also to both the fantasy and magical realism genres.

Laura Esquivel
Laura Esquivel began writing while working as a kindergarten teacher. She wrote plays for her students and wrote children's television programs during the 1970s and 1980s. Her first novel, Like Water for Chocolate, became internationally beloved and was made into an award-winning film. Her other titles include The Law of Love and Between the Fires.

Gabriel García Márquez
Gabriel García Márquez started as a journalist, and has written many acclaimed non-fiction works and short stories, but is best known for his novels, such as One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985). His works have achieved significant critical acclaim and widespread commercial success, most notably for popularizing a literary style labeled as magic realism, which uses magical elements and events in otherwise ordinary and realistic situations. Some of his works are set in a fictional village called Macondo (the town mainly inspired by his birthplace Aracataca), and most of them express the theme of solitude.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The "Aha" Moment

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what types of things I look for when I’m reading just about any piece of fiction. I believe that folks who enjoy reading and do it as often as they can for the sheer joy of it do so for many reasons, but a key one is because reading makes us feel a little smarter for a while.

While reading nonfiction and non-prose writing (like academic stuff) does this just as easily, readers are already coming in expecting to grow as a person and be a bit wiser as a result. We aren’t necessarily or actively looking for this effect when it comes to reading literature for fun. This is why I am especially delighted to get that same feeling when I read in genres that aren’t typically meant to exercise the analytical side of my brain.

© 2005-2014,

As many of you probably know, my preferred genre is fantasy, which isn’t reputed for its ability to make us turn on our thinking caps. However, one thing I do find fantasy works well with is those “figuring out” moments. Fantasy introduces us to whole new worlds, or at least new situations, which we don’t see in our everyday lives. This one unifying theme of less than probable things occurring in these stories that wouldn’t normally occur in the real world leads readers to have to make a lot of assumptions. We assume the people in your world look like humans, that this eternally dark land is where the villain lives, that your fierce and fanged beast feeds on the blood of the living.

Because readers are constantly guessing at things when it comes to fantasy, the fact that we get something right based on the context writers have given us tends to bring us great joy and excitement in the prose. We’ve managed to “figure out” what the author was trying to get us to figure out. Sometimes we even get to solve puzzles the author may not have even consciously considered. How many of you caught the ring motif in A Dinner of Onions by Nora Harmony Wallace, which she claims she never intentionally included (bonus points to anyone who gets that reference)?

The danger, however, in writers offering up foreshadowing and other clues and Easter eggs for the readers is spelling everything out. At that point, readers feel like the author no longer trusts in their capabilities to figure things out and that the information is now being handfed to us. As a writer, I want my readers to be like, “Wow, I figured that out,” rather than “Dude, I totally saw that coming.”

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Second World-Building

A great deal of both past and present fantasy is set in what many call “second” or “other” worlds. These are settings that, for all intents and purposes, are some period of Earth, but a different Earth. The climate, geology, biology, and ancient history are the same as Earth for the most part, but there are plenty of key differences to make it a fantasy version of some time period of our Earth. Much of what many consider classic fantasy prefers to do this in a medieval-type setting. The places, people, and societies all closely resemble a snapshot of a country (or mix of countries) from pre-industrial Europe. I remember one of my college professors joking with me about the settings of all the classic, black-and-white horror films, and he said, “Oh, they’re all set in Europia!” For a lot of fantasy, which shares many of its roots with horror, it is still considered the standard for writers to set their story in some nondescript, old-world version of an amalgamation of European countries.

When I think of second world fantasy settings, particularly for medieval-type worlds, I like to think back on the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode Thine Own Self. In this episode, Data wanders into a village on a pre-industrial world after an explosion occurs during a mission to collect radioactive debris from a crashed probe. This village is very much like what one would expect from a common fantasy setting. The people and their mannerisms, social structures, and beliefs are like those of pre-industrial Europeans, but they also clearly are not. Their dress is similar to Pre-Victorian dress, but with plenty of key differences. The village is a lot like old-world Europe, but it obviously isn’t.

©1994 Paramount Pictures

 And I think that these notions are important to keep in mind whenever second world fantasy writers do their world building. If you want to do a medieval setting, that’s fine, but make sure you do your research on the things you want to incorporate. Bring in what you want to from any culture of your choosing, but above all else remember that while your world may be inspired by and made to resemble a pair of French/German kingdoms in 16th century Europe, your world is not Europe. Be clear that you have invented a second world inspired by these cultures but it is definitely not these exact cultures, otherwise, you’ll end up with readers repeatedly asking themselves, “Is this bad alternate history or just bad fantasy?”