Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Character of Objects

  
Set design has always fascinated me. In film, the background can be a glorious experience: period pieces with sumptuous detail, majestic landscapes, fantasy worlds rich with history. Think Harry Potter, the Star Wars movies, The Lord of the Rings, Avatar. These are universes the audience becomes immersed in.
   But it's the little details that I love. Set designers not only create a world for the characters to inhabit, but a world created around the characters. One of my favorite films, The Company of Wolves, uses objects with an almost fetishistic symbolism. Lipstick, a baby doll, a white limousine...they're more than set decorations. They exist to convey meaning, or as a tool to create character. Objects not only seem to be characters themselves, but are used to convey characters' inner lives in  Wes Anderson's films  (The Royal Tenenbaums.) In Beauty and the Beast, objects such as candlesticks and tea pots actually are characters.

 
   Objects became significant when our primitive ancestors began using natural things as weapons, toys, tools, and talismans. Anthropologist Daniel Miller describes objects/artifacts as being simultaneously material force and symbol. What a character carries on his/her person or what decorates their living space can pinpoint their personality and add a bit of history. Have you ever watched a film or television show again and looked at a character's living space? Notice the posters on the walls, the color scheme, the personal items. On paper, such things might seem superficial, but a few dashes here and there of a character's space can enhance their personality. Bright colors or dark? Antique or modern? Clutter or Spartan? If writing a fantasy, what kind of weapons does your character favor? How did they acquire the weapon? Do they carry talismans? Does a character carry a certain object that has special significance for them? Bedrooms are the best places to display personality. Even if you don't use the details in the actual story, envision a room for a character journal. What would Voldemort's bedchamber look like? Or Han Solo's? The first Queen Elizabeth's?


      A well-read copy of a favorite book. A pair of favorite shoes. An heirloom hair clip. A battered laptop. Worry beads. A paperweight. What do these say about your character? Do they carry Gummi Bears in their pockets? Think Indiana Jones's fedora, Doctor Who's screwdriver, the wands in Harry Potter. As with any detail, deliberate and sparse touches can enhance the world you're trying to create, the sensory experience for the reader that either draws them into an exotic place or a nostalgic one.
   We choose what we surround ourselves with, as if we're building an altar, with each object selected for what it makes us feel, identify with, signify. Objects can be the altar that tell the story of your character's inner world, their psyche, how they see life.
   When I found a cow creamer like the one from Buffy's kitchen and the monarch butterfly pillows from Willow's bedroom, I felt as if I'd found pieces of the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Like memorabilia or collectors' items, these took on an almost magical significance. No matter what your character is, human or not, from this world or not, the things they choose to identify with can add a subtle touch of personality to their story.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Fantastic Fantasy Finds: Moonheart by Charles de Lint (1981)


One of the first fantasy books I ever read, this dark urban tale is set in Ottawa, Canada. And one of its main characters is a house. (I love mysterious, weird houses, from Shirley Jackson's Hill House, to Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves.)
   Tamson House takes up an entire block in Ottawa. Its residents are eccentric. Sara, a young woman who lives in the house, is used to all this.

   Then something evil arrives after Sara meets a young man named Kieran Foy. Kieran knows all about otherworldly things--such as the native spirits of the land. Sara soon finds herself in another world, meeting Taliesin, the famous bard, speaking with native spirits called quin'on'a. She and Kieran both meet faery lovers of a sort. But there's dissent among the native spirits, some of whom hate the immigrant faeries and anyone who isn't from the land. Kieran and Sara return to Tamson House in time to battle the dark thing invading it. As the evil seeks to take over Tamson House, the eccentric residents are soon under siege, and some of them discover their own connections to the otherworld.

 
   With a rich, original mythology of Celtic and native folklore, Moonheart is an urban fantasy touched with horror and filled with intriguing characters, its atmosphere one of dream-touched realism. This isn't exactly a fantasy find, since anyone who reads fantasy knows this is one of the best. If you liked American Gods, or urban fantasy, you'll love this one.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

THE NYMPH: The Original Lost Girl

 
 Nymphs have undergone quite a few metamorphoses. Female elements of nature, spirits of water, air, and woods, they frolicked with satyrs and the gentler fauns. In Greece and Rome, nymphs were treated as potentially dangerous. 'to be among the nymphs' was a double-edged sword--a paradise (Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides, for instance) but one was trapped there forever, like an insect in amber. It meant death. Nymphs were not the cute girls portrayed in books and Disney cartoons; they were in the category of vampiric fauni ficarii, phantoms and faeries that haunted the wild places. As with mermaids and the Russian Rusalka, (the water spirits of drowned young women,) the nymph's playful beauty concealed a sinister core. Being elemental and connected to nature, they were neither good nor evil, but in between. If not exactly femme fatales, they were nature mimicking human form; the invisible world, motives unknown, as a sentient being. A folklorist visiting Greece in the early 1900s wrote: "The Nereids are conceived as women half divine yet not immortal, always young, always beautiful, capricious at best, and at their worst, cruel. Their presence is suspected everywhere. I myself had a Nereid pointed out to me by my guide, and there certainly was the semblance of a female figure draped in white, and tall beyond human stature, flirting in the dusk between the gnarled and twisted boles of an old olive-yard. What the apparition was, I had no leisure to investigate; for my guide with many signs of the cross and muttered invocations of the Virgin urged my mule to perilous haste along the rough mountain path.' (J.C. Lawson, Modern Greek Folklore)
 
 Yet the Greeks call nymphs 'the kind-hearted ones,' 'the ladies,' 'our maidens,' 'our good queens,' and leave them milk and honey and ask for their blessings when children are born. They are faery godmothers and protectors of children. They grant men oracular powers.
   'Nymph' in Greek is synonymous with the stage between the larva and the adult insect, and bees, butterflies, and dragonflies are significant symbols representing the mysterious, diaphanous, and alien world of nature. Nymphs are girls on the verge of womanhood, forever stuck in that phase of their lives, without their own stories or the epics that drove Greek heroes. Forever barefoot to represent their connection to earth, free of any care because they are semi-divine, they are innocent, and only predatory when confronted by male power, whether that power stems from beauty or strength. As Diane Purkiss writes, "Like illuminations, nymphs brighten the edges of stories without reaching the middle. Why this terrible blankness? Because nymphs are young girls to whom nothing has happened yet, nothing that needs to be told." (At the Bottom of the Garden)

 
 In mythology, nymphs have names with meanings such as Brightness, Scarlet, Sunset Glow, perfect for fairy tales or suitable for exotic YA heroines (Calypso, Pomona, Syrinx.) They are long-lived but not immortal, capable of love forever.
   When Daphne runs from the gorgeous Apollo, preferring to transform into a tree rather than belong to him, it is because she doesn't want to change, to grow up, to give birth to a hero's story, never having had one of her own. And that is what nymphs will always be, beautiful insects trapped in amber, the Lost Girls.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Guest Interview: Jordanna Max Brodsky

Welcome Jordanna Max Brodsky, author of the fantasy novel The Immortals (available now from Orbit Books) and the upcoming Winter of the Gods (February 14, 2017) to It's All About Story. You can find Jordanna on Twitter @JordannaBrodsky

Jordanna's website:
https://www.jordannamaxbrodsky.com/

Jordanna's Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/JordannaMaxBrodsky/

Jordanna's books on Amazon:
https://www.amazon.com/Jordanna-Max-Brodsky/e/B017QDBBUG/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1

1) Describe The Immortals in one paragraph.

The Immortals follows Selene DiSilva, a private investigator in modern Manhattan who specializes in punishing men who abuse women, and who just happens to have lived the first two thousand years of her life as the ancient Greek Goddess Artemis. After so long without worship, her powers have faded. She lives a near-mortal life now, estranged from her Olympian family, and avoiding mortal entanglements. But when she finds the body of a young woman washed ashore on the banks of the Hudson, gruesomely mutilated and wreathed in laurel, her ancient rage returns. Selene starts regaining her powers, but at the price of the deaths of the very women she's sworn to protect. To hunt down the killers, she'll have to team up with a brilliant and charming male classics professor--quite a challenge for the perennially chaste goddess. And she'll have to seek help from her other least favorite source as well: the city's other Immortals.

2) What inspired The Immortals?

I've been a fan of Greek mythology since childhood, when my parents handed me D'Aulaires book of Greek Myths. I devoured each story, reveling in the adventure, romance, and epic battles. Then I got to the last page: "Everything must come to an end, and so did the rule of Zeus and the other Olympian gods. All that is left of their glory on earth are broken temples and noble statues." That always seemed both anti-climactic and terribly sad. I much preferred a world in which the gods still walked among us. So I created one of my own.

3) Was The Immortals your first work of fiction?

Nope. But it is the first one I published! The publication road was quite long and hard, and there were several times when I felt I should just throw up my hands and abandon my dreams of a creative vocation. So for all those aspiring novelists out there, don't give up! (See my answer to question 12 for more on this.)

4) What song or music piece would you put on a soundtrack for The Immortals?

Anything by Ani DiFranco. She's my favorite folk singer-songwriter, and I spent most of my young adulthood listening to her lambast the patriarchy. She also lived in New York City for a while in her youth, and her songs perfectly capture the uniquely grimy beauty of the city that both Selene and I call home.

5) Which character in The Immortals was easy to write? Which was the most difficult?

Theo Schultz, the Columbia classics professor who becomes Selene's partner in crime-solving, was both the easiest and hardest character to write. Easy because he is the most like me--talkative, curious, and not particularly physically adept. Hardest because the Theo who seems to flow most easily from my pen is a little too much like me. In first drafts, he tends to emerge as a nerdy weakling--not unlike myself. I'm constantly working to make sure he is a strong enough partner for Selene. He can never compete with her in the kickass department, but I've made sure he's always brave, smart, and funny nonetheless. At the same time, I've resisted making him too stereotypically "manly." He is, at heart, an intellectual. He fights his battles with cunning and wit, not brawn. I leave most of the kicking and punching to Selene.

6) What is your writing space like? Or can you write anywhere?

I definitely have ridiculously specific writing-space needs. Ever since writing an over-long thesis in college, I've suffered from tendonitis in my wrists and hands, so if I don't have an ergonomic space, I wind up in a lot of pain. Often, I won't be able to type at all for days afterward, so I try to be very careful. I'm quite short and have small hands, and it seems normal desks and tables were made for giant men, so I've had to improvise. I've got two different desks in my apartment, one sitting and one standing, and I mix it up by also using a board on my lap while sitting on the couch or in the library. Sometimes I work standing at the kitchen counter as well. My only non-ergonomic concession is writing on the train or subway during my commute. Since the trip's never more than forty-five minutes, I can usually get away with it. And since there's no Internet available, the trip is often my most productive, distraction-free writing time. Otherwise, I use a vertical mouse, an external keyboard, and try to have my monitor at eyelevel.

7) Any odd writing habits? Rituals?

Like many writers, I like to listen to music when possible while composing or editing. I can't deal with lyrics--unless they're in a foreign language--and I've found recently that I work best when it's just the same song over and over. It almost creates a trance state in which I can completely disappear into the story; I'm never distracted by thinking about the new song that just popped up.

8) George R. R. Martin describes 2 kinds of outliners, the Gardener (let it grow) or the Architect (plan it). Which are you?

Depends on the book. In The Immortals, I started with the plan for a building, then diverted enormously along the way, wound up tearing everything down and turning it into a weed pile, then finally trimmed it back into a garden. My next book, Winter of the Gods, proceeded more smoothly from plan to finished product. I actually think the better metaphor for my process is a Sculptor. I build a basic armature in the correct shape, then I throw a huge, ugly mound of clay on top of it, creating something so malformed and hideous that it never deserves to be seen. That's the first draft. Bit by bit, I shave, mold, and shape the clay into something that actually resembles art. While I'm at it, I can bend the armature, too. It takes countless drafts and rewrites, but eventually I wind up with a finished sculpture.

9) What are some of your favorite world myths or fairy/folk tales? Why?

Obviously, I'm a fan of the Greeks! Artemis, of course, is my favorite goddess, and my favorite myth about her goes like this: She's just finished hunting for the day, and she's bathing in a waterfall. Through the trees, she sees a young man watching her--the hunter Acteon, renowned for having the best pack of hounds in all of Boetia. But because it's forbidden for a mortal man to look upon the virgin goddess naked, Artemis metamorphoses him into a stag. His famous pack of hounds catches the scent and tears their own master apart. That's the sort of justice that Artemis believes in--the sort of justice my heroine, Selene, still wishes she could mete out. The story appeals to me because too often in world history, women have suffered the abuses and disdain of men without fighting back. As cruel as Artemis can be, she's defending her exclusive right to her own body. I think that's something all of us can sympathize with these days.

10) What is your favorite fictional world, one you'd want to visit?

I've been an enormous George R.R. Martin fan since long before the television show, but I have absolutely no desire to visit Westeros unless I have Brienne there to defend me. Otherwise, I grew up on Tamora Pierce (who taught me girls could be warriors), Mercedes Lackey (who taught me to respect gay love before it was cool), and Juliet Marillier (who taught me that a great romance can bring you back to a book over and over) But let's be honest, I'd probably just pick the Star Wars universe, some time in the yet-to-be discovered future when the Jedi are back and peace rules the galaxy.

11) Who is your favorite fictional character?

Well, if we're not considering the Greek gods as fictional, then I'd have to say Princess Leia. I was her twice for Halloween as a child. I still have the costumes.

12) What is the best writing advice you've ever received?

An old friend of mine who happens to be a best-selling novelist once told me, "Everyone's writing a novel, but almost no one has written one." He always reminded me that there are plenty of people out there who write gorgeous prose or have phenomenal ideas, but very few who can actually sit down and finish the darn book. In other words, don't worry if you aren't a genius and every sentence isn't perfect. Just keep at it. Writing a novel isn't magic--it just looks that way from the outside. It's hard work. That may sound daunting to some, but I found it incredibly encouraging. If you persevere, you can do it!

13) In The Immortals, are there any hidden acknowledgments to friends, places you've lived, favorite writers, etc;

For sure. The entire book takes place on Manhattan's Upper West Side, which is where I live. The same is true of the sequel, Winter of the Gods. The Natural History Museum, Central and Riverside Parks, and even the bookstore and Chinese restaurant are all places I frequent. The book is also full of names I blatantly stole from friends, which has occasionally gotten me into trouble. No one wants to be portrayed as a murder victim! I've learned my lesson. In the next book, I stuck to imagined names!

14) Can you tell us anything else about your writing experiences?

You always hear the advice, "Write what you know." And in terms of my setting, I've done that. However, I also think it's perhaps more important to write what you WANT to know about, even if you don't already. I had a background in Greek myth, but not a comprehensive one. And I certainly knew nothing about specific Greek mystery cults or Ancient Greek language before I started working on The Immortals. Now, more than ever, we're lucky enough to have the world's libraries at our fingertips. If you're patient, don't mind research, and are willing to ask experts for help, I really feel you can write about anything you're passionate about. so don't be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone!



15) What do we have to look forward to after The Immortals?

Book Two of the Olympus Bound series, Winter of the Gods, is out in hardcover, e-book, and audiobook (read by me!) on February 14th. I'm already in edits on the third and (probably) final book, which will likely come out early next year. After that . . . we'll see!

Thank you, Jordanna!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

20 Questions to ask your Main Characters

Dreaming up characters...

I've read ways to make your characters more unique, but I thought I'd share this list of what I ask as I'm creating their profiles. I don't even use most of it in the actual books, but it helps to make the characters more vivid to me. Some are ordinary questions, some are odd, and some seem to be about the end of the world...







1) What childhood toy do you remember the most?

2) What is your spirituality?

3) What physical activity do you enjoy the most?

4) What animal species would you save at the end of the world?

5) What childhood book made an impression on you?

6) How are you feeling at this point?

7) What is your perfect day or evening?

8) What do you like to do when you're idle?

9) What would your last meal be?

10) What's your favorite movie?

11) Science or the supernatural?

12) Who's your favorite relative?

13) What country would you most like to visit?

14) Would you rather be a king/queen, general, ambassador, or revolutionary?

15) What is your favorite sound?

16) If you could make up a holiday, what would it be?

17) Which famous deceased person would you most like to meet?

18) Which 3 possessions would you grab if you had to leave in a hurry?

19) What's your current grievance?

20) Why should anyone be interested in/follow you as a main character?

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Sinister Folklore of Trees


Recently, a majestic oak on one of my routes was taken down. To be fair, it seemed to be diseased, but I couldn't help feeling sad, wondering how long it had stood there, with a neighborhood growing up around it. It reminded me of a Tanith Lee story, 'The Tree: A Winter's Tale', about a tree that was due to be taken down, but the family of the house kept reliving the same day over and over, and not in a funny, Groundhog Day kind of way either, so that the tree would stand forever. Recently, Peter Wohlleben's book, The Hidden Life of Trees, explained the nature of trees and how they communicate.

So here is some folklore on trees you should be wary of.

BIRCH: Witches' brooms were made from its branches. It is called the Lady of the Woods in Celtic folklore and walks at night. The birch spirit is feared and adored and causes death to those she touches. Check out The Birch, a great short film on YouTube.

ALDER: Walpurgis tree. Associated with elves, water spirits, the Erl King and his daughter. Alder wood turns red when cut and resists decay. The wood was used for divining instruments. The tree often grows near Saints' wells. As for witches, red-haired ones loved it, and red dyes made from alder sap were used by Italian witches.

ELDER: Threshold trees. Guard the home from evil. An elder wood walking stick will protect a traveler. Associated in Native American and Celtic folklore with the Elder Mother. Also with the Scandinavian Mother Hulda. It's friendly to humans. Fingernail parings, hair, and teeth were buried beneath it to keep from them from being used in bad magic. And don't forget elderberry wine!

ELM: Another witch tree, but also a tree of the Goddess. The Romany made magic wands from its wood. Coffins were also once built from the timber. It dislikes people and is an entry into the land of the dead. In some folklore, it is said the first woman was created from an elm. It's also linked with Dionysus because it was planted in vineyards.



FIG: Inhabited in Greece by the fauni ficarii, the dusois, dangerous spirits that take the forms of nymphs and satyrs. In Sicilian folklore, fall asleep beneath a fig, wake up confronted by the figure of a nun with a knife. It's also a fertility tree. In Muslim myth, the tree is associated with knowledge. It's the tree under which Buddha received his enlightenment. In Africa, the fig houses dead ancestors.

HAWTHORN: The May tree. A fairy thorn. The blackthorn is guarded by Lunantishee fairies. In Ireland, a road was re-routed in 1999 to avoid taking down a whitethorn said to be sacred to the Sidhe, the dangerous Irish fairies. Never bring a hawthorn blossom indoors because it causes bad luck. In Welsh folklore, it is associated with the malevolent chief of the giants. Also the tree of enforced chastity, hence the May tree.


OAK: Turn your cloaks
           For Fairy Folks
           Are in old oaks
Tree of Zeus. It attracts lightning. It's the guardian of otherworldly doors--an opening between two oaks leads to Faerie. The sacred oak king became a sacrifice in some cultures. It is the Druids' tree and the dryads' tree. It's a protector. Acorns were worn by witches for protection against bad spirits. It's friendly to humans...well, except maybe the old oaks. In their case, watch your back.

WILLOW: A fertility tree. A water tree. It wards off snakes. It's the Goddess's tree, associated with Persephone and Artemis. The Greek enchantress Circe had a grove of willow trees. It's a dangerous tree, said to walk during moonlit nights. Willow wands channel energy. It's bark contains salicylic acid, which is a natural painkiller and used in aspirin.

YEW: A healing tree. It contains an element currently being used for curing breast cancer. It is Hecate's tree, a witch tree, and hostile to people (though perhaps not to women, considering). Some trees grow to be hundreds of years old and it is often found in churchyards. Its wood was once used for archery bows, shields, and spears.

So walk carefully among these trees, and be careful of the ones that might strike out.

Sources:
The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft by Judika Illes
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols by Adele Nozedar
The Ultimate Fairies Handbook by Susannah Marriott




Friday, December 16, 2016

The Awesomeness of The Female Surrealists



I love art as much as I love writing and music, but my ultimate favorite artists, aside from the Symbolists, are the female surrealists. You might have heard of Dali, Max Ernst, and Magritte, but a few of their associates, including the famous Frida Kahlo, were amazing artists in their own right. Mysticism, the Goddess, animals, nature, and feminist themes are predominant in their works, which are all deeply personal representations of their imaginations.


LEONOR FINI

Born in Buenos Aires and disguised in childhood as a boy by her mother (to avoid being found by her father), Leonor moved to Paris in the late 1930s. She knew Max Ernst and Jean Genet. Sphinx-like and mysterious, she had an affinity for felines. She lived with two men at one time, both her lovers. Her paintings are ritualistic, fascinating, erotic, inspired by the Symbolists and the Pre-Raphaelites. They are fairy tales. There's even a song written about her by Katell Keineg.


LEONORA CARRINGTON

I love her self-portrait with a delicate black hyena and a white rocking horse. She had a fondness for Celtic and Mayan mythology and even lived in Mexico, married to Max Ernst. Most of her paintings are fantasy scenes of delicate, human-looking creatures, heavy with symbology. She also wrote Surrealist fiction.


DOROTHEA TANNING 

Her paintings are disturbing renderings of womanhood and adolescence. Born in Illinois, she read Alice in Wonderland and the Gothic authors to escape what she considered a boring, Midwestern life. She moved to New York, where she eventually met Max Ernst (He got around) and became his lifetime companion.


REMEDIOS VARO

 Alchemy, owls, and forlorn, attenuated people, were Remedios's totems. Her paintings are delicate and child-like. She was born in Madrid and eventually settled in Mexico. The spirit world lurks just beneath the surface of her paintings.

Sources:
Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement by Whitney Chadwick
Surrealism and Women by Mary Ann Caws, Rudolf Kuenzli, Gwen Raaberg