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?”

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Diversity in Our Writing Projects: Umbral Heretic

Introducing my good friend, Erica, and her novel in progress, Umbral Heretic. The following interview is conducted by me, Nicholas Mena.

Your work in progress is titled Umbral Heretic. Where did this story come from for you? What was your inspiration?

I've enjoyed making up characters and stories in my head. They've occupied my daydreams since I was a kid, and at various times, I've tried writing stories about them. But I'd never gotten through a novel-length work or written anything I considered good enough to submit anywhere.

This all changed one day when I was walking my dogs along the river, and I got this image in my head of a healer in a fantasy world finding an almost dead man down by a riverbank. I started wondering who these two people were, why things had happened the way they did, and what they were going to do about it. It grabbed onto my imagination, and I decided I had to write their story down. As I am a pantser, not an outliner, it has certainly taken some unexpected twists since I started, but the notion that these characters were each going to be outsiders with things in their past they were ashamed of has been a constant.

While you’re setting is reminiscent of what can be considered an older era of Europe, there are many facets of it that don’t make it typically medieval. Would you mind elaborating?

A big difference that monotheism hasn't taken over, and there isn't one religious institution that dominates the entire continent where my novel takes place. The conflict between two different religious traditions is part of the story, and it's part of what has driven my protagonist from his home country.

Another difference is that the current level of social organization and technology is more analogous to the Renaissance, or even the very early Enlightenment in many ways, though I've tossed in plenty of twists based on general differences in history and geography, and of course, the presences of magic.

The geography of my world is also different. There are only three large continents, none as large as Eurasia, and the continent that spans the equator is actually the largest in the east-west axis. Borrowing the notion (from Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel) that the large size and orientation of Eurasia (and not the superiority of any given culture) contributed to its ascent as the largest colonial power, I have a world where no one civilization has held sway over the others historically.

The men and women in your stories (as well as your other humanoid races) don’t often stick to stereotypical gender roles. Those of us who know you well know this is a big issue for you. What were some of your reasons for having such diverse roles for your people in your society?

I don't know about often not sticking to traditional roles (the characters I've focused on are not typical members of their societies in many ways), but men and women do fall along a spectrum in many of my world's cultures. My favorite modern fantasy writers include Lynn Flewelling, Robin Hobbs, Glenda Larke, Kate Elliot and so on. They all have fantasy societies where women are doing most of the same things as the men, so I never thought that was an unusual approach in modern fantasy. My world is no utopia, but I wanted to write a story set in a place where men and women can both aspire to a variety of roles, where they're free to mingle socially, and where they have similar levels of autonomy.

I can't say why this is so important to me. Some of it's because I'm a woman, obviously, and I get pretty tired of reading stories where women can't participate fully in the story's events (or worse yet, lack motives and goals of their own). For me, traditional gender roles always felt like shoes that pinch my toes and rub blisters on my heels, especially when I'm told I must or mustn't do something because of my sex.

You seem to have two prominent protagonists in your story. Can you tell us a bit about them both and some of the challenges they face?

Jarrod is a dark wizard who is "cursed" with a conscience. In my world, umbral magic is pain driven, and it's addictive, so it's a serious problem for someone who gets woozy at the sight of blood. He's deeply ashamed of what he's become, and his attempts to bury his past and deny what he is, drives much of the conflict in the story.

Tesk is a healing student who has no interest in heroics outside of the infirmary. Pursuing her craft required her to sever ties with her own family, so she's learned to trust rationality, not her emotions. When she saves Jarrod's life and they become friends, she's very conflicted. He's got problems that would lead any rational person to turn tail and run, but her instincts are telling her that he's a good person who needs allies if he's going to undo the harm he's wrought.

Why are including new, less standard, and more diverse tropes and themes so important to you, particularly when it comes to the fantasy fiction you write?

I can't say exactly why, but it's something that's been evolving throughout my life. I was a strange, awkward child who never really got sucked into what passed for mainstream culture in 1970s-era Southern California. Maybe this has allowed me to relate more to people who are treated as outsiders in larger ways than I ever was. At some point, I just started to notice how one-dimensional many of the standard fictional tropes were and how they didn't usually reflect the world that was out there.

One thing that's always bugged me about classic fantasy is how homogeneous cultures are within their worlds. It's so common to see descriptions like this in fantasy novels: "The "men" of such and such a land are tall and fair, with booming voices and an appetite for mead. They mistrust magic and are quick to anger when slighted." Even as a kid, I thought it was strange that all the citizens of a country would be so alike in appearance and demeanor, when I knew darned well real people weren't.

Umbral Heretic takes place in a part of my world that resembles Northern Europe in some ways. But I've tried to make it clear there's a wider world out there. Each of my pov characters (and the important support characters too) are outsiders in one way or another. Each of them has been a victim of prejudice, whether it's based on their land of origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or social class, and this is what provides them with the perspective they need to resolve the main conflict.

What are your own personal aspirations for Umbral Heretic? What would you like your future and present readers to take with them from your story?

I'm in the process of polishing it up for submission to agents, and would dearly love to see it trade published with a pretty cover and sitting on the shelves of bookstores next to the works of some of my favorite authors. It would be amazing to be in a waiting room somewhere and to see someone reading this book and to have them turn to me and comment on how wonderful it was (without knowing I wrote it, of course). I suspect that's a dream many writers have for their first novel. Silly, but there you go.

As far as what I want my readers to take away from it? Whatever they want, really. My ultimate goal is to be entertaining. But if the readers think that my characters are interesting because they're more complex and filled with internal conflict than your typical fantasy heroes, then I'll be especially happy. If there's any overarching messages, they're that suffering can make people more, not less, empathic, and people can fail at things but not be failures.

Any final comments or questions?

The only other comment I can think of is that the story has a dog, and no, at the risk of making a spoiler, she's not going the Old Yeller route. I adore stories with cats, horses and wolves, but for whatever reason, I've always noticed that these species seem to be very well represented in fantasy. Dogs, for whatever reason, are thinner on the ground. So (at some urging from my test readers) I've decided to give the dog who found Jarrod by the river some other roles in the story, even though she's just a normal dog and not magical.

(A question for the interviewer) As a question for you, Nick, I know you've said you usually don't gravitate towards traditional secondary world fantasy, but you enjoyed many things about UH when you test read my first draft. What sorts of things would you like to see writers of secondary-world fantasy stories doing more often?

 Yes, secondary world fantasy is not my regular cup of tea, but I'm usually not one for outright exclusion. In fact, that is something I like to see in my fantasy, a fair amount of inclusion. I like boundaries pushed or even ignored. I like a bit of controversy and going against the grain. I'm one of those who used to be in the "Popular Things Suck" Club until it had too many people in it. I'm also a fan of old tropes breaking old stereotypes. Give me dark elves living in the swamps, but only because they are amassing forces for guerrilla warfare against the tree-elf overlords. Give me a venomous, black hydra who wishes he were mauve and had a beefcake wyrm hubby to grow old with (and not be killed off for his forbidden love in the third act). Give me knights in shining armor slaughtered by a killer bunny. You can do the same-old same-old when it comes to fantasy, but please do something different with it too.