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Diary of an Accidental Sidekick: Spandex Not Included

I’m not going to lie, I half expected her to take me to the bat cave, or fly me off to the Fortress of Solitude where I’d freeze to death while Alina perused her spandex sidekick costume collection. I mean, no one thought Faeries were real until a few years ago, so I figured anything was possible.

Turned out she lived in an apartment. The only improvement I could gauge over the place I’d been staying in was a fridge with fresh food and wards so strong I thought I stuck my finger in a light socket when I went through them. I still felt oddly charged.

“I didn’t think wards were supposed to hurt people unless they are breaking through them,” I groused even as she passed me a can of soda, the oh-so-bad-for-you good kind.

“Humans are so whiny.” She picked up an apple from a basket off her kitchen counter. “You’re still breathing.” Alina took a bite out of her apple, crunching for several seconds before saying, “It didn’t hurt you, it charged your powers. I designed it to do that. Enemies get drained. Friends get a pick-me-up.”

“Naps and caffeine are little pick-me-ups. That was…intense.”

Alina just laughed and finished her apple, leaving me to poke about the place. It seemed so ordinary. She had a computer, a comm unit, a pile of dirty laundry in her bedroom, and an empty spare room. Unlike the homes I had squatted in, her apartment had no decorations, no pictures or knick-knacks.

“How long have you stayed here?”

Alina glanced up from the computer, “I’m not good with time.” She shrugged a shoulder. “Not as long as the war, but not that much less either.”

A few months ago I would have laughed at that response, but I got it. After the UnSeelie unleashed zombies everywhere infrastructure went to shit. Humanity went from just shy of launching an interstellar space program to just trying to survive. Not everywhere got hit that bad, but the areas spared weren’t the centers for technological marvels either. Sundown and sunrise became the only really important times. It wasn’t that you were guaranteed safety during the day, but the ghouls and especially the UnSeelie preferred the dark. You had the hours in between to find food, water, and whatever else you needed and the rest you stayed in whatever safe haven you had. Wednesday or Sunday, it no longer mattered very much anymore, at least not to me.

I walked over to Alina and looked at the news video she had pulled up. The nice looking blond dude smiled at the camera as he babbled about supply depot hours and shuttle rails resuming service. I suppose time always meant more to some people. I jabbed a finger toward the screen. “Mr. News Anchor there has a job, but how do they expect people to pay for supplies or rail tickets?”

“Computer, deactivate.” Alina yawned, turning toward me. “Don’t know. I’m a Faerie. I hunt and I play. I leave the running of things to other people.”

I wasn’t sure if I was appalled at her lack of concern, or unnerved by how much that sounded like my existence up until I took off that ghoul’s head, well mostly took off.

Alina clapped. “Speaking of which, time to play!”

“Uhhh.”

She snatched my hand and pulled me into her bedroom, toward the closet. Visions of horror movies ran through my head. Maybe she had a dungeon behind a secret door and planned to tie me down and do evil things. My eyes unfocused as I started to panic. I yelped when something hit me in the face.

I pulled the material off my head. I held a frilly pink skirt. “What is this?”

“I told you I’d get you a costume.”

I stared at her. Was she serious?

“Costume. Clothes. To WEAR.” She said the last word slowly, as if I were possibly demented and couldn’t understand her.

I held up the skirt which probably wouldn’t even cover my ass. “Wear doing what?”

“Accompanying me, of course. I have some errands to do.”

“What sort of errands?”

She rummaged in her closet. “Feed Norm, check wards around the city, pop into Marseille for a manicure, get some chocolate from Ghana. The Queen likes it and is too busy to go herself.”

My jaw dropped. “Marseille? Ghana? Those aren’t errands. Those are round the world trips.”

She paused, holding out a black sheer blouse. “I forget. You humans are stuck in your little three dimensional existences.”

“Yeah, oops, silly me, plodding along in three dimensions.” I tossed the skirt back at her. “This three dimensional being doesn’t do pink or frilly.”

She held out the black blouse. “As I thought, Goth?”

“Don’t you have jeans and t-shirts in that abyss?”

She wrinkled her nose. “No. They are so plain, so lacking in style. “

Great, my faerie keeper was a fashionista. I suppose the mention of a manicure should have clued me in.  I took the blouse and layered it over the black tank top I was wearing. I glanced down. It looked decent, if perhaps a bit snug across the chest. I had a fuller figure than Alina. “This will work.” I raised my head only to have black pants shoved at me. “No, I’m good.”

She tsked. “No. Those jeans are threadbare.”

“They are comfortably broken in.”

“They have holes in the knees.”

“It’s a fashion statement.”

“They are light colored. Blood will ruin them.”

I opened my mouth, but had nothing to say in argument. I took the pants, mumbling, “They probably won’t fit. My ass is bigger than yours.”

She grinned at me. “Honey, I’m a faerie. I can manage a bit of alterations.”

Of course she could.

By the time she finished playing dress the human, I felt like a life-sized doll. She insisted on doing my hair and somehow managed to make it sit in some braided twisty thing on top of my head. I felt oddly grown-up, not that I wasn’t an adult, mostly, but my last normal day had been spent in a college classroom frowning at calculus equations that made my head want to explode. The most important responsibility I’d had at the time was showing up for my work-study job on time, and that just consisted of answering a phone. I went from that to surviving. All the other stuff, getting a degree, holding a job, going on dates, learning to dress like an adult and do something with my hair other than shove it in a ponytail…sort of derailed when the world turned into a zombie apocalypse.

I didn’t know what to expect when she grabbed my hand and poofed us out of my comfortable three-dimensional existence. I wanted to hurl and scream, explode and implode all at once, but could do nothing. Having one’s body and mind translated across space was not the least bit fun. The moment reality became familiar again, I wretched, barely avoiding my clean clothes.

Alina patted my back. “It’s always disconcerting the first time. It gets better.”

She wanted me to do that again? I was about to argue that when a lizard looking creature with large pointed teeth and double spinal crests waddled up. It looked like a dinosaur, kind of, but not quite. “What the fuck is that?”

“Norm. Finn’s busy. He asked me to feed him.”

I looked at those teeth. I wondered if he ate goth girls.

Alina walked right up to him and patted his head. His fat tail thumped the ground and he waddled after her as she went through a sliding glass door into a huge well-furnished house with lots of leather, real wood, and rustic nature décor. A smashed computer lay on the ground. Someone had a temper or really didn’t like electronics. I couldn’t particularly judge. I’d felt like smashing a few computers now and again.

By the time I quit gawking, because whoever lived here had to be filthy rich, and joined Alina in the kitchen. Norm was munching on a pile of raw ground meat. My stomach heaved, threatening to bring up whatever was still in there, but Alina grabbed my hand. “Done here. We’ll get the chocolate and the manicurist should be open by then.” She popped me back into that quasi-existence before I could protest and I resigned myself to a day of hurling.

I’m not even sure where exactly we popped to, as she left me to retching and popped us off again before I could take a look around. The smell of acetone and polish hit me like a wall, doing nothing to help my stomach.

A gentleman in a flamboyant lavender suit waved Alina into a blush red chair and prattled at her in French. I plopped down in the small row of chairs arranged in front of the counter, as far from the smell of nail crap as I could get.

“Paul says he’s happy to do your nails too.”

“No, thank you.”

I dozed off, exhausted by all the dimensional yanking about and hurling. I blinked, wondering what woke me when a moan answered that question. I expected to get blinded by the sight of naked bodies. Instead Alina sat drying her nails with a smug smile on her face. Beside her Paul writhed, fighting bonds holding him bound to the chair.

“Uh, did Paul piss you off?”

Alina laughed and waved bright purple nails at me. She leaned down and whispered something and he jerked in the chair and then relaxed. She laughed again as I watched the bonds disappear and Paul grinned up at Alina like she was a goddess.

She waved and left him without a second glance as she came to retrieve me. “What did you do to him?”

“I traded one service for another, silly.”

“You weren’t even touching him.”

Alina grabbed my hand.  “I don’t have to. A bit of energy applied with just the right intent and humans turn into mindless puddles of orgasmic bliss.”

“What was with tying him to the chair?”

She shrugged “He likes that sort of thing.”

Reality poofed again and this time I managed not to hurl, perhaps because I was a bit preoccupied with wondering what sort of crazy freak I was now associated with. As if reading my mind, the moment we were solid again she winked at me with a grin.

“You’re associating with a Faerie, honey. We invented freaky.”

Great. Just great.

Diary of an Accidental Sidekick: Be careful who you save

If you’re reading this diary I probably got eaten by a ghoul, or maybe I just lost the damn thing. I’m not good with keeping up with stuff, so it’s even odds.

**

Filled with pilfered canned goods and a squashed candy bar, my backpack thumped against my back as I walked down the litter-strewn street. I sipped soda, wrinkling my nose at the fake sugar after taste, but all the good sodas were gone. A police car zoomed by overhead, but I gave it no heed. Petty crap like looting fell off their radar months ago. Cops were busy with undead, murderous Fae, criminal magiks, and maybe even aliens. I glanced up at the rose-colored sky. Puffy white clouds dotted the horizon, reminding me of the sheep in the mattress commercials that used to be on television. I wasn’t sure the alien stuff was for real. I never saw anything. Of course, I lived in nowhere Kansas at the time. If aliens had tried to invade, they gave Kansas a wide berth–can’t blame them. I didn’t make it to a city until after the shit hit the fan with the Fae.

I scanned the sky one more time and then turned my attention to the alleys as the sun sank lower. Little green men were the least of my worries. I kept my eyes and nose tuned for the sight and stench of zombified men and women. The UnSeelie were equal opportunity employers when it came to creating ghouls.

Whistling a tuneless melody, I counted the blocks until I reached my place. A major perk of civil war and insane amounts of death was that no one came around collecting rent. People that still had jobs and families tended to huddle together in clusters around the city. “Stupid sheeple.” It just made it easier for the undead to find their prey.  When I could no longer find food or water within a reasonable vicinity, I moved on to a new residence. Sadly, there were plenty.

A block away from the cute little picket fence number I had co-opted I heard the scrape and scrabbling sounds of a scuffle. An empty garbage bin clattered and rolled out of the next alley. I stopped in my tracks and a moment later a flash of black and purple whooshed past. A woman let out an oof, but kept her chin tucked so her head didn’t crack against pavement. Her elbow, however, smacked hard and the sword in her hand clattered to the ground. Before I could decide if I should say something, a familiar stench heralded a streak of pale, bloated flesh and shredded clothes. In one motion I dropped the soda and snatched the sword up, swinging in an upward arc that fell a couple inches short of chopping the thing’s head off, so it sort of dangled there, still alive and glaring at me from its askew position. Blood a nasty, greenish-black hue bubbled out of the stump.

“Eww.”

A knife spun through the air and severed the remaining bits. The eyes on the ghoul quit glaring as the head thudded and rolled toward my boot. I backed up a step.

“Thanks for the save.” The woman got up with a wince, rubbing her elbow. Her purple, chin-length bob somehow fell neatly into place without her touching it. The corset blouse, black leggings and pleated skirt seemed more suited for a date, but the boots coated in dust and dried blood, not to mention the sword, suggested she was one of those who went around hunting the undead.

I realized I still held the sword and handed it back. “No problem.”

As soon as she took the sword, I stepped over the dead ghoul, anxious to get home.

“My name’s Alina. What’s yours?”

I wave a hand goodbye, ignoring her. Anyone crazy enough to stalk death could stay far away from me. I heard the pop and sizzle of mage fire, more reason to keep walking. Power drew them. Not that I was a nonmagik. I wasn’t that lucky, but I figured the more magic you used, the easier it was for the ghouls to locate you. I kept my stuff to warding my home of the week or passive stuff, like listening to the trees talk.

I waved at the pin oak in the front yard of my current home and the leaves rustled back. Best thing about this city were the trees. They couldn’t really do anything beyond warn me of an approaching ghoul, but I didn’t mind. I could listen for hours to their stories of rain and winds and sun, such a different view of a parallel existence.

Wards brushed my skin, making the hairs on my arms and neck stand up as I walked through the front door. I kept mostly to the living room. It didn’t matter that the occupants were never coming back. It was just too creepy sleeping in someone else’s bed. I pilfered clothes from time to time and used whatever else I could find, but not sleeping in their beds was the only respect I could offer the dead.

I checked the tap in the bathroom and grinned when water still flowed. I never took that for granted. Some places the pumps no longer worked, but I lucked out in finding a house with running water. It made me want to linger simply for the surety of clean water. I kicked off my thick soled boots, shed the black tank top, jeans and undies and soaked in a hot bath.

Sooner or later, whoever was fixing shit would take note of what places were occupied and which were empty and they’d cut the power and water to conserve resources. Until then I planned to enjoy it.

I thought of the purple-haired girl and sighed wistfully. She’d had amazing hair. My own hair, a nondescript blondish-brown tangled if I looked at it crosswise. Hair like hers probably cost a ton of money. Money came from jobs that didn’t exist anymore. Ergo, I had crappy hair.

“Hair like that? Probably magic.” I said aloud as I rinsed suds out of my own. “A big fat purple bulls-eye for the undead. Probably why it found her.” It made me feel better about my non-magical hair.

Toweling off my hair and donning clean clothes, I stretched out on the couch. I didn’t like using electricity too much after dark. An UnSeelie or smarter ghoul might notice. I put her out of my mind and fell asleep to the music of trees, waking to a halo of purple hair backed by morning sun.

“Hi!”

I screamed and hit her with a pillow.

Her hair whooshed in front of her face as she dodged, and then went right back to its perfect bob. “I should have expected that.”

“Damn right. How’d you get in?”

She let out a laugh that was heartier than a giggle, but high and fluty. “You mean the wards? Oh sweetie, I could do wards like that before I could write.”

I punched my pillow back into place with a scowl.  “Yeah, well, good for you. You know what they are. They mean stay out. So out.”

“Not a morning person are you?”

“I’m not a person person. Go away.”

“You handled that ghoul well.”

“Yes, well, I majored in ghoul killing in college.”

Alina kept smiling, unfazed or maybe oblivious to my sarcasm. She glanced around the room. “It has running water and electricity. Most don’t, so I see why you like it.”

I felt trapped, a strange woman meandering around my living room, with me under a blanket in little more than a tank top and panties. “Are you a stalker?”

Alina glanced over her shoulder. “Only of my enemies.”

“Is this because I killed that thing? Do you have a ghoul fetish or something? Did I interrupt?”

Alina laughed. “No, no. You probably saved my life. I’d like to repay that with a favor.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Seriously. Train with me, hunt with me, and I’ll give you a safer place to live.”

I scowled. “Hunt? You mean voluntarily find ghouls?”

“Among other things, yes.”“That sounds like the height of stupidity.”

She shrugged. “It’s either we hunt them or they hunt us. I know which I prefer. Do you?”

I clenched my teeth. She was right. I knew she was, but I didn’t want her to be. I wanted a safe, tree-filled corner of the planet to hide in, which was cowardly, but I didn’t want to die. Everyone I had loved already had. I wasn’t in a hurry to join them.

“How about this? Train for a bit. You don’t have to hunt right away if you aren’t good at it. You still get the safe living space and I get company.”

“I’m antisocial.”

“I won’t throw parties.”

In spite of myself I snorted. A change in the tree song outside caught my attention and I listened to the new subtle harmony aimed not at the world at large, but at the woman standing in front of me. It recognized not the who, but the what of who she was, an ancient.

I scowled at her,realizing as light played over her face, that her eyes shimmered and glowed opalescent. “You’re a fairie.”

“Yes, I am. And you, human, what’s your name?”

I expected more than simple affirmation, but it wasn’t like she’d been trying to hide it. I probably sounded stupid, as if I’d looked at a dog and been shocked it was a dog. Lacking any real reason to hold onto animosity, I told her my name, “Christine.”

“So is it a deal?”

The most powerful sort of being on Earth stood in front of me, offering safety, a commodity in shorter supply than clean water. That sort of opportunity didn’t happen twice. “Okay, but this doesn’t make us buddies or partners.”

“Of course not. You’ll be my sidekick. If you ask nicely, I’ll even get you a costume.”

I just stared mutely as she wandered off to the kitchen, images of spandex dancing through my head. What had I gotten into?

***

Visit HC Playa’s Amazon author page for more stories in the Crossroads of Fate universe and other works.

 

 

 

 

 

Writer’s Ramble: Interview with J.H. Fleming

Today we welcome J.H. Fleming to Writer’s Ramble. J.H. Fleming started her first novel in the 9th grade. That novel will never see the light of day, but it sparked something that has resulted in numerous short stories and 5 novels so far. She received a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing from the University of Central Arkansas, and it’s very possible she’ll try for a Master’s at some point.

She owns roughly 1,100 books and spends her free time befriending dragons, fighting goblins, and learning the craft of the bards. J.H. lives in Northwest Arkansas with a dog, a cat, and a turtle.

 

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1) The tag line on your website says that not every character gets a happy ending. What inspired that?

So when I first began to take my writing seriously I noticed that pretty much every story I wrote ended with someone dying, or the bad guy winning. I didn’t intentionally set out to do this. My stories just naturally tended to go that direction. This has changed a bit over the last few years (there are some happy endings now and then), but I’m definitely not the sort who believes everything will always work out. Bad things happen sometimes, so why shouldn’t this be reflected in my fiction? The tag line serves as a reminder, and a warning for readers.

2) Do you know at the front end whether your main characters will get that happy ending or not?

It depends on the story, but most of the time no. I’m more of a pantser than a plotter, so I really discover the story as I write. Often I’m just as surprised as a reader will be when a character dies.

3) You have works out of many varying lengths, including poetry. Which do you find the most challenging to write?

Definitely poetry. I actually used to write a lot of poems and songs when I was in high school, which I forgot about. I only remembered when I discovered old notebooks. But most of the time I stick with short stories and novels. I recently tried poetry again because I was inspired, but it’s not a form I’m comfortable with. Perhaps I just need more practice, lol.

4) What are some challenges you deal with for each (novel, short story, poetry) that are unique to those formats?

I have the same problem for both novels and short stories, actually. The way I write tends to be too long for short stories (too much detail, too much going on, too many characters), but a little short for novels (not enough of everything). So maybe I should actually be writing novellas. I have to be aware of exactly what I’m doing, whether I’m adding too much or glossing over things that should be expanded on. I actually have a unique situation with one tale because of the way I decided to publish it: I write only a thousand words at a time and post it on my blog. I intended this to be a different story every week, or at most only a few weeks for each story, but I’m on week twenty-something now and am still on the first one. So what started as a short story is currently novella size, and fast morphing into a novel. I have a general idea for an ending, but I really don’t know week to week what exactly will happen. This makes finding that balance I mentioned a little more difficult, because I’m still not entirely sure what the finished product will look like.

For poetry, I find the whole process challenging. You would think it’d be easier, considering the form as a whole is shorter than a novel or short story. But that just means each word has to be exactly the right one, and that’s no easy task.

5) Do you have a favorite fantastical species or mythos? If so, what about it do you find compelling?

I could list several, but I’ll go with faeries. A lot of people have some sort of image in their head when they think of them (Tinkerbell, for example), but they’re much more complicated than that. There are Seelie (good) and Unseelie (bad), and within these there are all sorts of different species with varying appearances and dispositions. Gnomes, for example, or goblins. Both are technically fae, yet many people don’t realize this. They think only of tiny people with wings. And even when you know a faery is Seelie or Unseelie, their thoughts and motivations are so different from humans that you can never be completely sure what to expect.

6) What is it about fantasy and magic that you find personally appealing?

For me it’s about endless possibility. Absolutely anything can happen, and you don’t have to get technical about how everything works. When there’s mystery, or something that can’t be explained, it feeds my sense of wonder and inspires me to expand my imagination. If ‘x’ can happen, why not ‘y’? What else is possible?

If you liked what you read, check J.H Fleming out on your favorite social media platform and don’t forget her books are available on Amazon!

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Writer’s Ramble: Phillip Duncan on writing horror

Today we welcome Phillip Drayer Duncan to discuss writing horror (Note: NOT the horror of the writing process, publishing, or marketing. Those are different beasts.). Phillip is the author of 4 novels and 14 short stories. He has work published with Yard Dog Press, Pro Se Productions, and Seventh Star Press. His work includes The Moonshine Wizard, Assassins Incorporated, The Warden, and others.

He was born in Eureka Springs, AR and has spent most of his life in the Ozarks. Along with reading and writing like a madman, his passions include kayakin’, canoein’, fishin’, and pretty much anything nerd related. More than anything, he enjoys spending time with his ridiculously awesome friends and his wonderful family. During the warm months he can be spotted on the river or around a campfire. During the cold months he can be found hermitting amongst piles of books and video games. You might also see him at a concert or attending a con. His earliest books were acted out with action figures and scribbled into notebooks. Today he uses a computer like a real grown up. His greatest dream in life is to become a Jedi, but since that hasn’t happened yet he focuses on writing.

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We begin our interview by strapping our victim to a chair and turning on our interrogation spotlight…..

1) What was your first moment in childhood where you experienced what some might see as horror?

Well, my very first memory is taking a nose dive off the bathroom counter. Not sure what I was doing up there to begin with, but my life might have been cut short if not for the fact my underwear caught on a drawer handle, leaving me dangling upside down. My mother quickly came to the rescue.

In addition to that, we lived way out in the middle of nowhere in southern Arkansas. I remember we had an old barn beside the house. There was a creepy mannequin in the barn made out of chicken wire and who knows what else. It was terrifying. In an attempt to keep my brother and I from wandering into the copperhead infested barn on our own, our parents told us that the mannequin was the bogeyman and if we went in the barn it would kidnap us. We didn’t go into the barn.

And there were copperheads everywhere.

My mom still has pictures of ones they killed. Seemed like they were an everyday occurrence, everywhere except the backyard. It was the only safe place for us to play. But the reason the backyard was safe was because there was a giant king snake that lived under the house and roamed the backyard. It was quite friendly and would let me play with it as a toddler. But because it was there, the copperheads stayed away from the area directly behind the house. My mom would joke that it was my first babysitter.

Also, from the same toddler time period, I got to hold my first gun, which was a rather large revolver. Somehow I managed to pull the hammer back and then pulled the trigger. Of course it wasn’t loaded or anything, but I was holding it up against my chest so when the hammer came down it grabbed a hold of my tender child flesh. I can still remember the look of my chest skin twisted into the hammer, and I can remember clearly the black and yellow oil mixed with the blood. I still have the scar today.

2) Have you used it in your writing?

I don’t know that I’ve ever used those specifically in my writing, but certainly each of those things played some role in shaping my imagination. Now, that’s it’s been brought up, I probably will find a way to fit them in somewhere. I like to draw from real life experiences because much of the time they’re more horrifying or hilarious than what I can think up.

3) Do you prefer gore, psychological or a merging of the two? 

Probably more of a combination of the two. When I’m writing ‘scary’ things I don’t know if it usually would fall under the common concepts of horror, but is more creep factor. Everyone once in a while I come up with an idea that creeps me out, and if it creeps me out, then there’s a good chance it will creep out the reader. For example, my clowns in the Moonshine Wizard, people love them. I still I can’t believe I wrote them. But in order to create something super creepy, I find that the psychological and gore factors kind of have to walk hand in hand. The clowns are scary because they mutilate and eat people. They are terrifying because our beloved character is helpless to their will, and they’re funny, and oddly friendly, and their insanely evil leader is in the form of a small child.

 4) What pacing do you find works better, a slow build of tension or a bam/keep hitting them with more approach?

 I tend to lean toward a fast pace, and that’s one of the things that my fans seem to appreciate. But, I still try to build tension as the scenes fly by. Having tension gives the fast pace a solid ground to build on.

5) Do you have any colors or symbols that you like to drop into your stories as foreshadowing?

Actually, in the last novel I wrote, there is the mention of a colored object which is a big clue for what’s going to happen later, but I don’t want to go into too much detail. One of the things I’ve been toying with lately is carrying some things between universes. Again, without going into detail and giving it away, there’s a symbol which plays a key role in one of my novels, which inevitably will show up in other unrelated novels, maybe as a quick cameo, or it may play an integral role in the story. There’s at least one character I’ve also been doing this with. Over time, people who read my work will run across this character in different universes and will have the leg up to recognize them. This is all assuming that my publishers don’t catch on and make me stop torturing my readers.

If you’d like to find out more about, please visit PhillipDrayerDuncan.com or check out his Facebook page. If you like what you’ve read, and want a creepy read, check out his books on Amazon!

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Writer’s Ramble: Frank Tuttle

Today’s Writer’s Ramble features an interview with Frank Tuttle. If you like what you read, don’t forget to check out his site and of course, BUY a book 🙂

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Bio:
Frank Tuttle is a professional athlete. Wait. No. Frank Tuttle is a moderately round fantasy author who started writing during the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and made his first professional sale in 1996, to the now-defunct Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine. Frank’s stories have also appeared in Weird Tales and, though he isn’t sure these count, various police blotters throughout the American South. Lately Frank has moved from short stories to novels. His Markhat Files series is nine titles long, and he is two books into a YA trilogy which will feature four books (math was never Frank’s best subject). The YA series currently includes ‘All the Paths of Shadow’ and ‘All the Turns of Light.’
When Frank isn’t writing, he tends to his pack of rescue dogs or hunts ghosts. He notes that ‘hunts’ is far too strong a word; he generally just sits in the dark and invites spirits to speak into his array of microphones or pose for his camera.
Frank writes to Pink Floyd, chews pencils, and likes  good beer, black and white movies, and another good beer.

 ***

1) What challenges do you face writing a series vs stand alone stories?

Stand alones are easy — you introduce a setting, add characters, and stir in two heaping cups of trouble before you let it bake and hope you wind up with a tasty, tasty word-cake. Then you clean up the pots and pans, and start all over with different ingredients. Or, if you cook as well as I do, the Hazmat Team from the sheriff’s office suggests you just eat out from now on as they fix the yellow QUARANTINE tape in an X across the locked kitchen door.

But with a series, you’ve got recurring characters. Running story arcs. Inside jokes. Now, in a calm and orderly world, readers would start with Book 1 and proceed in a methodical fashion to Book 2 and then 3, and so on.

One might notice, though, that we live on Earth. So you must assume many first-time readers of the series are going to dive into Book 7, and you’ve got at best a couple of pages to convince them the read is worth the time. Somehow, you’ve got to get readers quickly up to speed, show them who is who and what is what and why this character loathes the other character and why dogs in this world hold political office and you’ve got to do it without tipping your hand.

Info dumps are the death of reader engagement. Instead, you’ve got to tell little stories about the stories you’ve already told and you’d better make these little stories both amusing and brief. It’s a bit like stage magic — the hand, or in this case the sentence, had bloody well better be quicker than the eye, because there are a thousand other books clamoring for the reader’s attention.

Too, you’ve got to keep the cast of characters fresh and entertaining. Which means they need to lead lives of their own, even when they’re not in the spotlight. I noticed before I even started writing myself that the books which stuck with me were filled with people who, even if they were not the protagonist or the antagonist, deserved books of their own. They lived hard and if they died they died well. Keeping that level of detail and focus can be tough, especially when you find yourself really getting interested in one of the supporting cast.

All that is followed by the need to occasionally retire or even kill off a supporting cast member. You’ve got to be VERY careful with that. Now, if it serves the story, fine. But be prepared for some backlash — readers get attached to the people they’ve spent a lot of time with. If you’re going to hit fans with a death, there’d better be a significant payoff involved. Or you’ll simply lose readers, and that’s not what any writer wants. Except maybe Mr. George R. R. Martin, who mastered the art of the gleeful fictional bloodbath and keeps fans coming back for more.

Finally, there’s continuity. It’s so easy to state that Evis the gangster vampire always wears a black fedora in Book 2, and then have him strolling around town in a light grey derby in Book 9. Thankfully my editors have better memories than I do, most of the time!

2) How have you dealt w/said challenges?

I’ve dealt with the situations discussed above like so many writers before me — with a wildly ineffective campaign of alcohol, blue-streak cursing, and extensive rewrites. I could improve my emotional stability and overall quality of life with the simple purchase of a buck-and-a-half notebook and a cheap pen, and I could start keeping what grown-ups call ‘notes,’ but I look on my desk and I see booze and a cuss jar and a manuscript in its 14th iteration of rewrites, and I don’t see a notebook or a pen. Sigh. It’s true what one of my teachers said — “Live and don’t learn, is that it, Mr. Tuttle?”

I can credit good editors to helping me avoid any public missteps. And they can credit me with what I suspect is a considerable number of migraines and incidents of private rage.

3) Do you find it any different to write your female protagonist vs male?

Yes. I do. Here’s why.

I’m male. I’m 53. The protag of my ‘Paths of Shadow’ series is Meralda, who is 18 when the books start. That’s a gender gap and an age gap, and while I can vaguely remember being 18 (my memories are a confusing mish-mash of blue police car lights, loud music, and gas station burritos) I have no recollection of ever being female, although I did try to walk in heels once.

Which led to a lot of soul searching. Research. And finally, late one night, a realization.

Write her as a blinkin’ PERSON. Don’t try to ‘make’ her a woman. Women are people. People come in a vast and bewildering spectrum of hopes and fears and likes and dislikes. Yes, being a woman presents a unique series of challenges and difficulties. These challenges and difficulties are called ‘men.’ I checked again, and since I appear to be one of those, I stepped back and looked hard at how I myself have interacted with women. Then I had a few drinks. Made some hasty late-night apologies. It became clear to me that Meralda might be the smartest, most capable being in the room, but if someone with a beard said two and two equals five, she’d have to drag out a chalkboard and present a half-hour lecture just to prove her point that no, it equals four. And even then there’d be a lot of ‘Well, but’ type muttering and someone would probably suggest that she ‘be a dear’ and go make coffee.

That was a sobering realization. So I decided that by damn Meralda WOULD be the smartest person in the room, and I’d make bloody sure the men around her knew it. And I did something else — I wrote about better men. Men who didn’t always patronize, or mansplain, or ignore. I’d like to think that younger female readers found a hero in my bookish, exasperated Mage Meralda, and that my younger male readers might see men in the book behaving like good men.

Now, my Markhat Files series starts out with Markhat, the titular protagonist, as a single tough-guy private eye in a world where magic works. The tradition in film-noir gumshoe books is, of course, to introduce a parade of female romantic interests, all of whom are discarded at the end of the current book. Well, Darla, who (spoiler) later marries Markhat, was having none of that. Now, Darla and Markhat work as a team, and I love the Nick and Nora Charles vibe that now fills the books.

Writing Darla is a lot of fun. Her biting wit is easily one of the best aspects of the series. Woe betide anyone who suggests she go put on a pot of coffee; they’ll find their head stuffed in the percolator, and the cup lodged in an orifice not conducive to the introduction of a hot beverage. And she’d do all that with the most serene of smiles.

I will suggest to my fellow male authors that they simply shut up and listen. Listen to women talk. Females are not strange alien beings operating on some far-off and inscrutable mental plane. And by the way, not every female needs to be some ass-kicking non-stop killing machine, either, any more than all males need to be portrayed as such. There are so many different expressions of strength. They are all around you, every day. Just listen.

4) In your opinion, what types of conflict create the most compelling stories?

I try to couple an external conflict with an internal one. Here’s an example — in “All the Turns of Light,” Meralda suddenly and inexplicably finds herself able to bend and reshape reality on a whim. But her investigation into the phenomena convinces her that she might well, and quite by accident, unravel the fabric of her universe by exercising, or failing to suppress, this newfound ability.

At the same time, she has an entire airship full of people looking to her for safety in the face of a magical attack. Which leaves her tempted to use her powers, even risking all of creation, or instead to face an enemy with nothing but her wits and a few trinkets. Does she trust her mind, or embrace a powerful but dangerous ability? Does she risk everything for the safety of a few? And will she lose herself by becoming, in effect, a deity?

Meanwhile, the airship is getting pounded. Someone has to DO something.

Big decisions for anyone so young. I struggle with decisions and life’s little mysteries at drive-thrus sometimes — fries, or onion rings? And why am I not in a car?

Markhat’s cases often put him in situations that challenge his beliefs, or raise the specter of his wartime PTSD. He struggles with a deep cynicism, a persistent haunting fear that nothing he can do will ever change the fate of the people he loves. His world is dangerous and corrupt. Justice and safety are something only the very wealthy can afford. Which is why, for instance, he’ll go off in search of a blind kid’s stolen dog — because someone NEEDS to, but no one else will. And if the search awakens his demons, and it invariably does, that’s the price he’s determined to pay.

Conflict is the beating heart of any story. It can’t falter. It can’t beat too fast. It certainly can’t beat too slowly.

If it stops, the book is dead.

5) What genre do you like, but find intimidating to write (if any)?

I love reading science fiction. But I’ve never been able to write it; magic always creeps in. I don’t know why. I suppose I see magic as something our world lacks, and sorely needs. No whiz-bang hyper drive gadget can make up for that cosmic omission. Maybe one day I’ll get past that, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.

I’d also like to write a humorous romantic fantasy. I have such a book outlined, and the first chapter is complete. Maybe one day soon I’ll tackle it. People are never more irrational, or more entertaining, than when they’re trying to untangle matters of the heart.

Writer’s Ramble: Sela Carsen

Today  we have with us paranormal romance author, Sela Carsen! She’s here to educate us on romance. No, you can’t have her number. No, you can’t have mine either. We are not the romance you are looking for. Move along.

Sela Carsen was born into a traveling family, then married a military man to continue her gypsy lifestyle. With her husband of 20 years, their two teens, her mother, the dog, and the cat, she’s finally (temporarily) settled in the Midwest. Between bouts of packing and unpacking, she writes paranormal romances, with or without dead bodies. Your pick.

Sela

***

HC and I met for the first time recently at MidSouthCon, which was a fun and eye-opening experience for me, as it was also my first full con experience. People are cool. Weird and cool.

Upon our return to our regularly scheduled lives, she asked if I’d come and write a blog post for her on Romance. Big R, genre romance.

I’m guessing y’all aren’t romance readers.

[HC here! I read romance, among other things, and I’ve found if you stick a romance plot in a book with explosions guys read it and think it’s AWESOME.]

Which is actually kind of neat for me. I spend a lot of my days surrounded (online) by romance writers and readers, and it’s wonderfully comforting to have that touch-point in common. We speak the same language, as it were. One of the most enlightening experiences I ever had was going to a Pop Culture Association conference, and sitting down to dinner with people who looked at genre romance from the perspective of serious literary criticism. My inner nerd nearly exploded in joy.

But it’s good to get out of my comfort zone, too.

Crafting a Romance – Fiction vs. Reality

Today, we’ll start with the basics. The rules, as it were, of romance. There are two.

Yes, just two. According to Romance Writers of America, the only elements necessary for writing genre romance are:

  1. A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.
  2. An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

That’s it. No, there are no rules about sex scenes. I know plenty of great – and popular – romance writers who don’t write sex on the page at all. I also know writers who write things that’ll fry the circuits on your Kindle.

Also, no, there’s no machine at the Harlequin headquarters that cranks out plots and characters for a mix-and-match game. I’ll tell you something about the folks who have made HQ the top individual publisher of romance in the world – “110 titles a month in 34 languages in 110 international markets on six continents.”: these people know their audience.

They know who their readers are, and they understand what their readers are after.

The readers are after the fantasy.

Kelly Faircloth at Jezebel wrote a fantastic piece about a year ago that goes into the history of HQ, but my favorite part of the article is this:

“There’s a persistent tendency to assume that romance fans read only on a single level. Either we’re housewives fluttering against the confinement of the patriarchy like moths at a kitchen window, or we’re deluded foot soldiers in the backlash to the feminist movement, or we’re dowds somehow simultaneously repressed and sex-crazed. What so many critics miss is that it’s perfectly possible to roll your eyes at yet another hero with [a] jet, an island and an over inflated sense of his own authority; arch your brow at the fucked-up gender politics of a particular scene; cheer when the heroine reads the hero the riot act; and swoon at the emotional climax.”

Why do you think this one genre accounts for $1.08 billion in annual sales?

We’re writing the fantasy.

That’s what it really comes down to. Whether there are wizards slinging spells, aliens shooting ray guns, cowboys throwing lassos, or billionaires taking over yet another family-run business (but taking the owner’s daughter instead, a la Beauty and the Beast), it’s all a fantasy.

In real life, we’re just ordinary folks. We’re self-actualized, we’re busy, we’ve got a lot going on in our lives. We do the job thing, we do the family thing. We come home at night, make dinner, do the dishes, put the kids to bed, and binge watch NCIS and/or Supernatural.

Raise your hand if you want to read about that.

I didn’t think so.

So instead, we fantasize. We lose ourselves in worlds where there never seem to be dirty dishes in the sink. Instead, we want to read about a Russian mob enforcer who kidnaps the heroine – leaving behind her dishes – because she accidentally witnessed a hit, but instead of killing her, he falls in love with her.

That’s not so different from the hacker who follows the White Rabbit to a club, and gets asked if he wants a red pill or a blue pill.

The biggest difference is that romance – whether it’s contemporary, paranormal, SFF, or any of a thousand sub-genres and niches – is focused on the development of the relationship between the main characters. There can be world building to rival George R.R. Martin, there can be plot twists to out-do Gone Girl, there can be characters who start out as old men but turn green and go to war, but the focus isn’t primarily on the plot or the world. The story is the relationship.

And, of course, all that plotting and world building and sticky relationship stuff leads to the Happy Ever After. These days, romance readers are better about the Happy For Now ending,  something you frequently see in series, but what you don’t do…what you never, ever do at the risk of pissing off thousands of readers who will then burn you in effigy on a flaming pile of your books – is you don’t cheat your reader out of a happy ending.

Just. Don’t.

Romance readers don’t think it’s clever. When we pick up a romance novel, we have certain expectations. We don’t think killing off your MC is a neat twist. We think we just invested our time, our money, and our emotions on characters we came to embrace and love…and then you screwed us over.

But if you can give us that fantasy, and end it with a contented sigh, everyone is happy. Readers, as well as writers, because readers will pay us real money to make them happy again.

Now, by fantasy, some writers think that women all have the same fantasy. That it’s all the same domineering alpha male towering over a submissive female without a thought in her Fifty Shades of Gray Matter.

I’m not going to say it doesn’t happen. And I’m not going to say that alpha males aren’t a huge seller. They are. They totally are.

But a lot of the alpha males of romance fantasies aren’t the same as they were back in the 70s and 80s. Yes, they’re take charge leaders who have very, very pretty chesticles, but when they screw up (when, not if), they’re smart enough to admit it and change, rather than lose the woman who would walk away, rather than put up with his crap. And if they’re broken-hearted heroes, they know – or they learn – to lean on their heroines for emotional support.

The heroines, especially, have changed. Where Kathleen Woodiwiss and Barbara Cartland made romance writing history with their sweet, naïve, ingénue heroines, those gals are much harder to find these days. Heroines, like real women, come in every shape and size, every degree of character from nurturing mama to hard-ass billionaire. And just like real women, the extremes aren’t mutually exclusive.

Crafting a romance comes with the truth that people are people. It can be tough to figure out where fiction and reality separate. There are romances out there – sweet, happy romances – that are about the bill paying and the dish washing and the diaper changing. The fantasy is having a partner to share those experiences in a way that can seem like a dream sometimes. Just as much as there are stories where the hero is such an asshole that you want to scream “Run!” at the heroine. And there are readers for all of them.

Romance lets you roll with the fantasy, no matter what kind of characters you like.

Want a charming rogue of a space pirate falling in love with a nerdy archaeologist, looking for remnants of old Earth? Got it.

Want a drug-addicted bi doctor in love with his charismatic boyfriend, and a former prostitute, and her rock-star girlfriend, all working to bring down a shining city with a rotten core in a dystopian future? Yup, that’s out there, too.

Alien Viking wolf shifters protecting the Earth from other alien invaders, and falling in love with humans? Totally. I should know. I write them. 😉

There are billionaires and bear shifters, cowboys and virgins, boys next door and tough female cops out there for every taste.

As long as the relationship is front and center, and we all get our happy sighs at the end, it’s all good. And that’s the reality of romance.

If you liked what Sela had to say, hop over to her website, her Facebook Page or check out her books!

Writer’s Ramble: Jason Fedora

It’s that time again where I bring you another edition of Writer’s Ramble. Today I am interviewing Jason Fedora. Please feel free to check out his bio and his book, available on Amazon AND at MidSouth Con 34 THIS WEEKEND. Regional folks, I’ll be there too with a special promotion, so stop on by and get your geek on!

Head shotTruthofBetrayal

 

  • How did you discover your passion for writing?

It was two things actually. The first happened one day while in grade school. It was Monday after Easter Sunday. The teacher asked the class to write a story of how we spent Easter. At the time I was getting inspired to write. I was also huge into Transformers. While the other kids wrote about hunting Easter eggs and such, my story revolved around Spike, the human in the Transformer’s TV show, showing the Autobots the customs of hiding and finding Easter eggs. While the Autobots were hunting for the eggs, the Deceptacons attacked. Lasers, rockets, and fists were either shot or thrown between the two warring parties. In the end, the Deceptacons were defeated and the Easter egg hunt resumed. My teacher gave me a C and my mother fussed at me, but to me at the time it was one of my proudest moments. It showed me I could tell stories.

The second was while I was a teenager and my best friend showed me how to play Dungeons and Dragons. My mother had the game but would never play it with me. My friend came along with the books and taught me to play. Eventually several others joined us and we had all night marathon sessions of D&D. It’s funny or maybe sad, depending on your point of view. While the other teenagers were riding around and going to parties, we were sitting around a table killing Orcust and Githiyanki. Once I got the rules down I tried my hand at Dungeon Mastering, which turned out to be my downfall as a player. After a few sessions my friends thought I was good, which meant i hardly ever got to play a character after that.

  • Do you approach story telling from a character building perspective and then world building or vice versa?

My ideas always start with a character and a problem that must be solved. I don’t think I have ever created a world and then built the character–seems kind of backwards to me. When I get an idea for a story, the character is doing something cool while solving the problems. I then start expanding on the character, which in turn creates the world. Before long the character is a living breathing entity and the world is a physical place.

  • Which part of the story tends to bog you down? The blank white page, the murky middle or wrapping everything up at the end?

Oh my God the middle. Writing the middle is like driving on a deserted road needing to use the bathroom but there is no store. You just know if you stop to go in the woods someone will suddenly appear, looking to see what’s going on. The middle seems like it goes on and on. The blank page has never intimidated me. As I have not had the problem of filling it up. The wrap up is to me the best part. It’s the climatic part of the story where everything you have been working towards come together, not to mention the end is now in sight. It’s a great feeling to type out the last word and then lean back in your chair knowing you have accomplished something special.

  • Tell us about your book and what inspired the story?

My book is about a man who betrayed everything he lived for, loved and fought for. His friend, who is more like a brother, must hunt him down to find out why. It’s about the true meaning behind people’s actions and the events that caused them. The story itself was one I wrote while in high school, using elements and events I came up with while I Dungeon Mastered. The story evolved over the years as I tinkered with it. When the dam broke so to speak, I said to myself “I’m going to be a writer.” I pulled the story out and worked it until it became fleshed out. It was Tommy Hancock, my editor, who drew out the full potential in me. With his help the story became rock solid, the characters became living people with feelings, wants and desires, and the world became a place you could touch, experience and walk in.

Bio

Jason Fedora’s writing career started when an elementary teacher had her students write an Easter story. While everyone else wrote of fluffy bunnies and family, Jason wrote about an Easter egg hunt that became the battle ground between the Autobots and the Decepticons. Jason has come a long way from that five page short story. He has recently had the Truth of Betrayal, a high fantasy, published by Dark Oak Press. Jason has one up and coming short story to be released by ProSe Press and is currently doing edits for Unknown: War Drums, a paranormal fantasy with his father, as well as Pillars of the World, the sequel to Truth of Betrayal.