Snowed in and Snowed under

Snapshot_20140802_2by Chantal Boudreau

This year, the weather has brought me ample fodder for story concepts. Be it imagined scenarios of the aftermath of a bus crash during an April snowstorm or co-workers sharing ideas of snow monsters taking over the world when winter never goes away (not someone who writes stories herself,) the massive snowfalls we have endured here in late winter/early spring seemed to have inspired some unpleasant icy fantasies.

But that’s the thing about fiction – genre fiction in particular. The stories are found in the unusual, not in the norm. You’ll rarely see a “day in the life of…” kind of tale when exploring the speculative unless it’s presented in such a way to highlight the differences between our mundane existence and the strange alien planet, or the magical fantasy realm or the dystopian future society. Everyday life doesn’t tend to make for an exceptionally interesting story unless there is something exceptionally interesting about the protagonist(s)’s everyday life. Even in literary fiction, characters tend to have their eccentricities and are moving toward some point of self-discovery or self-destruction not just adhering to the status quo.

The entertainment value of a fictional story comes from events that wouldn’t typically happen. They might be used by the author for some sort of social commentary or moral point, something not likely to happen as the result of a protagonist sitting there twiddling his or her thumbs. Whether a character’s involvement is proactive or reactive, the story results from challenges, accidents, ambitions or extremes – something beyond the average.

I’ve been subject to the extraordinary for years, accused of being a weirdness magnet and of knowing everybody everywhere on more than one occasion (because I always seem to bump into acquaintances in the strangest of places.) I think that’s why, unlike some writers, I don’t cringe when people ask “where do your ideas come from?” I’ll gladly tell them. My life has always run so far outside of the norm, even when I’m trying to be just your average old boring accountant/mom, that I can’t escape new story ideas. I see them in my family, my friends, my co-workers, my environment, my goals, my fears and my trials and tribulations. Sometimes they even show up in the floors, doors or walls. With all this plot material building up in my head, if I didn’t write the occasional story, it might just explode.

So despite my unhappy mutterings about the record-breaking snowfall we’ve had this year, it’s really not all that bad. It’s just another one of those unusual experiences I can file away to break out when I need fictional inspiration – as the urge strikes me.

Something to keep me busy the next time I end up snowed in or snowed under.

Advertisements

If All Were Equal

fisherby Chantal Boudreau
When someone mentions female characters in fantasy, some stereotypes come to mind. There is the damsel in distress, the plucky princess, the matronly queen or the bawdy tavern wench, just for a few examples. These seem to show up everywhere, unfortunate tropes who sometimes serve as sidekicks and who often give the male hero extra purpose to their cause, but don’t have much purpose in their own right.
Then there’s the flip-side – the “strong female” character: the man-hating amazon, the stoic and noble female warrior who is an exception to the norm, the experienced sorceress or priestess who often proves self-sacrificing. While they may have a prominent role in the story, they tend to be loners and atypical of the women in that particular fantasy culture. Most of the women in the story other than that one outstanding character fall into the traditional medieval female roles: the maids, the gentlewomen, the housewife mother with multiple offspring, perhaps an assistant to some professional or the healer/midwife.
What I enjoy more, but rarely see, is a fantasy society that is counter-culture, where men and women share roles with unbiased equality – where it’s the norm rather than the exception. Considering this is not something we’ve managed to achieve even in our own modern society, it would be nice to find more of that in the fabricated worlds of fiction. There, such a societal scope is an option for its creator rather than what we’re forced to live with in the real world. Why not break with tradition?
How does a writer apply this concept effectively? Lately, I’ve been watching the television show “The 100” that does a fantastic job of this. While it is post-apocalyptic/dystopian science fiction with YA elements rather than fantasy, it is a great example of gender-bias free storytelling. Just as a list of the female characters who aren’t what you would normally find in the average speculative fiction tale, you have the leaders of three of the factions who are female (the leader of the rebellious 100, the leader of the techno-savvy “Sky-People” and the leader of the tribal “Grounders”.) The head of security for the Grounders is a fierce and unyielding warrior woman who is now mentoring one of the 100 women in warrior-training as well. The head of engineering for the Sky People is a woman and their female leader is also a medical doctor. Even the more demure female characters (residing with the Mountain Men) have their moments of bravery.

The leaders make tough decisions too, and sometimes fail, but pick themselves up and move on, coming up with new strategies. At one point, one of these women chooses to kill a man who was once her romantic interest rather than see him tortured before execution as part of a punishment from their allies (he did murder innocents because of a misunderstanding and a mental break – and he was in the wrong.) She doesn’t fall apart after the fact, even though it was a painful and tragic decision for her. You just don’t see that in the average tale that presents women as predominantly soft and emotional. A typical female character would never be able to spare a loved one from torture by killing him, specifically because of their romantic relationship (“I can’t kill him – I love him.”)

Better yet, in “The 100” nobody questions these characters’ competency because they are female. Real people who have experienced life as both man and woman say that for the most part what they’ve found in our society is men are assumed competent until they are proven otherwise whereas women have to prove they are competent before being accepted as such. This unfair set of gender-biased assumptions often carries over into fiction. I’d like to see that change (as I’d like to see it change in the real world.)

I’ve made an effort to use men and women equally in responsible positions in my fantasy stories. The head of a major mercenary guild is a woman, Magic University is headed up by both men and women at various times, the head of the Renegade resistance in Feltrey is a woman, the Jadorans and Templars of Oron are equally men and women, assassins and soldiers as well as wizards. One of my heroes is a middle-aged female retired schoolteacher. A character’s competency has no basis in gender, age or social status. Everyone has their strengths and potential and are recognized for what they bring to the table.

In my fantasy fiction, I choose to not have a woman’s competency challenged just because of her gender. I hope to see this become commonplace in the fantasy I read, maybe inspiring more change in our own society in future.

Perking Things Up

by Chantal Boudreau

I, like many writers, am a lover of coffee. I drink coffee every day, try to get my hands on the best coffee possible for my price range, and I have a cubicle shelf cover dedicated to coffee quotes and cartoons, known as “the coffee wall”. Considering how important coffee is to me, it makes sense that I include it in my writing from time to time, right?

In my recent FOODFIC post, “Flavouring Fantasy,” I discussed the idea of using mundane things like food and drink to enhance fantasy fiction, taking world-building to another level. The same exercise can be applied to most genres, even those not related to speculative fiction.

And while coffee is a mundane thing, it is still something I happen to be passionate about. They say you’re supposed to write about what you know, and I know coffee. Here are a few ways I’ve found to use my passions as fuel and fodder for my writing:

Realism/Research: I have much more enthusiasm for researching something I find fascinating or intriguing to begin with. Incorporating coffee into some of my more realistic, detail-oriented stories means I get to find out new information about something I really like. For example, writing my short story “Waking the Dead,” a tale linking zombies with coffee, required research into types of coffee grown in Haiti as well as rust, a fungal affliction that affects coffee plants. I had the pleasure of increasing my knowledge of coffee while gathering the facts I needed to make my story more believable.

Focus: Especially with short stories, I find having a focal point for my story facilitates the creative process and strengthens the plot. Several people have said the “Waking the Dead” is one of my better zombie stories and I would attribute that the fact that coffee serves as a central theme.

Simile/Metaphor: Sometimes when you need something to explain an extraordinary or supernatural event in a fantasy setting, the best way is to compare it to something else you know very well. Coffee has served as a tool for me, functioning for the sake of comparison in the past. Here’s an example from Magic University, describing Ebon, one of the competitors, drawing sustenance from magic:

He continued onwards, abandoning the map face up in the mud. He had not expected this would happen, and knew it meant that he would have to feed, something he rarely felt the inclination to do. This did not please him. Feeding took time and energy, and he had neither.

Arriving at what he believed was his destination, he began his search. He had no trouble locating the leather wallet that contained the token. He could pick out with ease the two glowing magical auras surrounding the purse, and they smelt absolutely heavenly, like the aroma of fresh bread or strong coffee. He salivated at the thought of absorbing all of that sweet, distinctly different energy. The one reminiscent of coffee was harsh and bitter, but strangely satisfying, the other somewhat bland, but slightly sweet and very substantial. That was the only one he intended to feed off of, absorbing what he could as quickly as he could. This was the plan, but once he started, he could not stop.

He had not recognized his hunger, had not realized just how ravenous he had become. He sucked back the spell’s energies, lost in the instinct to feed and absorb. Before he had realized it, he had completely devoured the first spell and had started in on the second. He had lost all track of time, and as the last drop of energy slipped past his ethereal lips, he stretched out, thoroughly satisfied and replenished.

As you can see, there are several ways to use ordinary but much loved things to spice up your story, allowing you different way of deriving greater satisfaction from your tale – or in my case, ways to perk things up.

And if you are more invested in your story as a writer, chances are, readers will be too.

A Mother of an Idea

In honour of Mother’s Day, I decided to delve into the topic of mothers…parents in general, actually… in fantasy settings. I addressed the manner in which the parents of adolescent protagonists are often kept out of the storyline in my blog post “Parents – They Get in the Way of Good Fiction” but this is about what happens when a writer reaches that point in a longer running series where they deem it necessary for characters who have been romantically involved to finally start having children of their own.

From what I’ve seen, this is very dangerous territory in which to tread, especially if a writer aims to preserve realism within their fantasy. More than one series has effectively “jumped the shark” by adding children to the mix. You have to consider how children will affect the plot before adding them. Continuing on as if nothing has changed never works, and trying to avoid the obstacles younger offspring pose to progression of the plot has led to some pretty blatantly abused speculative fiction tropes I know that as a reader I don’t usually like to see.

Introducing children brings up a lot of questions modern couples face when deciding if the time is right for them. Should the couple marry if they haven’t already done so? How will the new addition affect character roles and dynamics? How will this impact characters’ health, livelihoods and availability? Will it change how and where they live? If the setting is a static one, like a town or castle, children could be integrated into the story without being overly disruptive, but what about if the story centers on a quest involving a great deal of travel or action? A child isn’t something that can be added to the story as a novelty item and then just swept under the carpet when they become inconvenient…or at least, they shouldn’t be. Plus the pregnancy itself could possibly take one of the characters out of the storyline for the duration, if not permanently.

Whether there has been any consideration with regards to becoming a parent or not, if a writer hasn’t addressed the issue of birth control, which may not be readily available in a fantasy setting, and characters are sexually active, eventually you would anticipate children to be the end result. When some of the young adults in my Fervor series become sexually active with no contraceptives available, they do not do so without consequence. I would expect similar results in novels set in lower tech worlds with no contraception or perhaps with something not consistently reliable.

For example, I have allowed for magical contraceptives in my Masters and Renegades world-building but even those do not always work as expected. Sometimes magic can be manipulated to yield unpredictable results, as my dwarven character in Magic University would attest. Spells can fail or be deactivated. Nothing is perfect.

So once children do come along, what then? You could keep them out of the picture until they are older(and with them likely one or both of their parents), try to work them into the story in minor ways or put them at risk (potentially bad parenting at its worst.) Or you could do something a little more extreme. These are my three least favourite speculative fiction tropes for dealing with the situation (although I won’t promise I’m not guilty of using these myself):

1) Supernaturally rapid aging to hasten the child into adolescence or adulthood – I absolutely hate this one and it has been done to death, from fantasy novels where a pregnancy is magically quickened so the child is born within days of conception so mom warrior-woman can get back to her quest as quickly as possible with baby in tow, to the sci-fi TV series baby who miraculously develops into adult over a matter of days or even hours (or in some cases, instantaneously). This trope is almost always accompanied by some sort of hokey explanation for eliminating the offspring inconvenience.

As I mentioned – I’m guilty of applying these under different conditions. I use it in Fervor, in a way, but in that case the children have been in stasis for years and have been kept in an unnaturally young physical form for their real age. The removal of the stasis causes them to develop rapidly to catch up to their actual age, not to surpass it. That, and the children involved are not a plot device for protagonist parents but the actual main characters themselves. Stasis plays into the plot as a whole and is not a means of hastening the characters into adulthood.

2) The child is outrageously precocious for their age – In more than one way the child thinks or behaves like an adult. While this one doesn’t bother me so much with older children who have been forced to fend for themselves or perhaps been trained extensively since birth, like in the movie Hanna…or have been genetically-manipulated to have heightened intelligence or targeted for such traits like Ender… I object to toddlers and preschoolers spouting Yoda-like wisdom without any attempt at explaining why.

3) The child is the extra special, chosen one, focus of a prophecy, destined to change the world, etc, etc (I think you get where I’m going with this) – I understand this approach more than the other two. It’s an excuse for involving children in a story with their parents where it would have been unthinkable otherwise. If the child has a unique or particularly unusual background, forcing them to be inherent to a plot, it makes some sense. It still seems to be more common than it ought to be though. Just how many “Chosen Ones” are there?

Running into one of these tropes seems to be par for the course in speculative fiction involving children. Then you get the stories that go overboard, like a certain series involving sparkly vampires offering up all three in one child(ugh).

Some writers have managed to handle the introduction of children with great forethought and finesse – it can be done. It requires a certain amount of creativity along with the acceptance that there may be sacrifices required and a reorganization of how things are done, just as you would have to do with the arrival of a child in real life. It helps if the writer is a parent themselves, since the experience is eye-opening. Maternal, or paternal, instinct can be a powerful force.

And remember, parents are still people too, including step-parents, foster parents and surrogates. You don’t just cease to exist because you’ve chosen to procreate (or raise someone else’s procreation.) So if the time is right, let your characters get to it.

Cheers to all the moms out there as your special day approaches.

The Challenging and the Challenged

To follow along with associated ideas from my last post where I discussed mental illness in fantasy, I wanted to address the lack of characters in fantasy with physical disabilities, or marginalized characters as some publishers describe them. While losing a limb, having a sense fail them or facing paralysis isn’t as unusual in the science fiction genre where technology exists to overcome such challenges – like prosthetic limbs that work as well or better than the one lost or regeneration tanks exist where one can simply regrow said limb – you don’t see as many major injuries resulting in disability in fantasy. You don’t tend to see many characters who have been disabled since birth in any speculative genre either (Robert J Sawyer’s WWW trilogy is an example of a story that addresses this with excellent characterization and research – the protagonist a blind teenage girl.)

This is unfortunate for a few reasons. Aside from the fact that challenging characters with one more sizable obstacle can make your story that much more interesting, in a fantasy world where technology is low-level or in some cases practically non-existent and the characters find themselves facing danger and potential injury or death on a regular basis, one would expect to see more battles ending with wounds having permanent effects. You are much more likely to see a character die in one of these battles than emerge with a lasting injury. Is that entirely realistic?

One could argue that in many fantasy worlds, magic is available to heal these kinds of injuries, or that a lack of decent medical treatment means these wounds will kill the injured party in the long run. That might be true in some cases, but not all, and what of the costs of any magic involved? Would that magic be readily and immediately available? If not, why aren’t there more battle-hardened veterans with hacked off limbs or lost eyes? Would disabled people always be relegated to the ranks of peasants and beggars?

I love adding these extra challenges to the mix. In my Snowy Barrens Trilogy, the shamans are required to take a physical “mark” as part of their initiation: missing thumbs, feet, eyes and even a split tongue that results in a speech impediment – injuries that cannot be healed or they lose their intended effect. I also have characters with supernatural injuries that cannot be healed properly by any means, including magic. As a result, they are left with a permanent limp, a paralyzed arm and a lack of speech, all the result of the type of dangers they face on a daily basis, dangers that have maimed them but not killed them. How they cope with these disabilities and how they function despite them add dimension to the tale. It even affects their relationships with other characters. Their situation makes them distinct.

In Fervor, the majority of the characters begin the series lacking one of their senses. My protagonist, Sam, is deaf and this proves problematic at times, despite being able to communicate telepathically. Other characters are badly injured later in the series during a nasty skirmish and some of the damage is permanent. Considering circumstances, it would seem pretty miraculous for everyone to escape unscathed, and I’m not big on building miracles into my stories. Just as I take issue with fantasy stories involving multiple lengthy battles where none of the heroes or prominent secondary characters ever die, I feel the same way about a lack of serious injuries.

And finally, there’s the issue of a fresh perspective. Those who are able-bodied have a certain way of looking at the world, but how might that change if you had to tackle obstacles from a different angle because of differing circumstances. Like in my yet-to-be-published dark fantasy short story where my protagonist is hearing impaired:

“The building shivered all around Pierre Belanger, as if winter’s bite had given it chills. He could sense it in his own bones as much as he could feel it in the weathered wood that surrounded him, an ominous tremor that set him on edge. It might not have bothered him quite as much if the scent of death didn’t hang in the air, an unhealthy sourness that he could taste if he breathed too deeply.

He had been trying to rest, but sleep didn’t come very easily. He didn’t have to hear the wind howling outside to know a storm raged there. Everyone took it for granted that such sounds didn’t bother him, but they were wrong. Just because the roars of the wind did not torment his ears, he still was aware they were there.

Pierre was about to roll over and burrow his way deeper into his moth-eaten blankets when a newly arrived light caught his eye. He raised himself up onto his elbows to see who had entered. He could barely make out Phillipe LeTour’s face in the flitting shadows from the candle, but he could see that the man’s expression was grim. He knew that meant only one thing. Matthieu’s condition had worsened.

Phillipe did not need to walk over and tug on Pierre’s sleeve to urge him to follow. Pierre threw off his blankets and struggled into his boots as quickly as he could manage, despite being tormented by fatigue and by the frosty sting to the air. Matthieu was his world at the settlement, both his only friend and his only family on Île Sainte-Croix. If he lost Matthieu, he would be more than just lonely. He would be more isolated than he had ever been before in his life.”

A hearing–impaired protagonist, he looks at the world differently and the writer’s challenge is to do that character’s perspective justice. That means focusing on the things he would be more aware of through his other senses and finding ways to communicate without regular speech.

So I put out my own challenge to other writers…how about giving this type of marginalized characters a chance to carry your story? You could be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Something in the Air

 by Chantal Boudreau

When people think of fiction, they usually think of film or books. Those tend to be the most common forms of media used to tell a tale in modern times, whether they be delivered by more traditional means of TV or print, or the more technologically advanced offerings of the Internet or ebooks.

What people don’t tend to think of as often, but is certainly another method to share a story, is audio. Considering the oral tale-telling tradition predates print, it’s not a surprise it still remains an option. Some authors offer public readings but that’s not a convenient way of connecting with a large audience…unless you are J.K. Rowling and have access to the Sky-Dome. The preferred method of reaching the most people with audio using today’s technology are podcasts.

Just as with print or ebook options, there are a variety of ways to podcast your stories. Similar to books, you can “self-publish” – narrating your own tales and presenting them on your own website or via free venues like podiobooks.com. If you would rather have someone else serve up your story, the Internet seems to be rife with speculative fiction options: Escape Pod, Podcastle, Pseudopod, Drabblecast, Starship Sofa, Tales to Terrify and many more. Some are the equivalent to the small press options in print, offering minimal payment or nothing other than exposure in exchange for your story and some are pro-rate venues, very particular about what stories they air. Most are free for the listening, although they do solicit donations from listeners to support their efforts.

No matter what option an author chooses, it is a great way to expand your audience and reach people who may have not otherwise gotten a taste of your tales.

I’ve dipped my toe into the podcast water, with a couple of recent releases.  You can find my story “Little Sister” on Tales to Terrify.  I’ve also participated in the Wicked Women Writers competition from Horror Addicts.  Check out this year’s offerings – dark and speculative tales of disaster – and vote for your favourite.

Keep at it…Ahem…

This has been a month of rejections for me, so far. Rejection is a part of trying to become a published writer, everyone knows that. Friends will try to encourage you by telling you “such-and-such was rejected X number of times before it was published.” That’s nice, but that honestly has no bearing on my success or failure. For every success story after multiple rejections you can reference, there are an equal number of people who struggled all of their lives to get some acknowledgement of their prowess…some recognition of their work…without anything significant to show for it. Even some of the legendary writers we consider truly successful died without seeing much if any of that for themselves.

One example? H. P. Lovecraft, one of the Masters of Horror, died nearly destitute. His name didn’t elicit the kind of recognition then that it does now. His works were only known in small circles through amateur press associations and essays he wrote for newsletters. He had diligent fans among those who did know his work and they made sure his work was published after he passed on. Discovering things like that is certainly not encouraging, to say the least. We writers would all like to think that if we are going to be known for our writing someday, we could at least be alive to see it.

Another example? Speculative fiction greats like Ray Bradbury and Frank Hebert struggled for years before they were published. And while both writers did eventually gain great recognition, Mr. Hebert’s break with Dune came from a small publisher who typically published non-fiction automobile maintenance manuals. He had difficulty getting much of the rest of his work published, and some of his work is only coming to light because his son is seeing to it that his stories are being published after his death. Try reading his dystopian novel, High-Opp, as a sample of something that was perpetually rejected. It’s a good book (although I would have liked to see a slightly different ending). Another situation that suggests this industry is as much timing, luck and trends as anything else

The way I see it, you can’t look to others’ successes or failures to govern what you do. Learn from other people’s mistakes? Sure, but when it comes to writing, submitting and hopefully publishing, you have to chart your own course. Set your own goals, keep going even when things don’t look so great and don’t let any number of rejections decide anything for you. Don’t gauge your success on any external forces or by comparing yourself to others, but rather by what accomplish in relation to what you have planned. Even if you get turned down now, you could end up being a writing legend someday (although you might not get to see it in your lifetime – boo 😦 .) What matters most is being able to look back and say “I tried.”