Monday, August 31, 2009

Past imperfect: recreating 1975 for Blood Groove

When I decided to set my vampire novel Blood Groove in the seventies, in particular the year 1975, I gave myself an interesting dilemma. It was a period I remembered (I was 12 in '75), but not with the historical details I'd need to recreate it. So I had to do a fair bit of research to make sure I didn't get any of the particulars wrong.

From the 1975 JC Penney's catalog:

What I did remember, and vividly, were the attitudes of the time, both among the people around me and as presented in the media. By "media," I mean TV, radio and print; these were all we had, and even they were incredibly limited compared to today's all-access culture. For example, there were only three TV networks, and each major city had one station for each. With such a limited choice, we had the kind of cultural nexus almost impossible now. We all watched Happy Days, for example: it was something you had in common with just about everyone you met, regardless of age or ethnicity. We all knew both the latest ABBA song, and the new one by the Ohio Players, because the same radio station played both (and few radio stations were cooler than WHBQ in Memphis). And while there were numerous music magazines, the clear touchstone was Rolling Stone.

We had divisions, of course: American Bandstand vs Soul Train was a big one. So was Led Zeppelin vs Lynyrd Skynyrd. But cultures overlapped far more than they separated, because with so few outlets, you couldn't afford to be picky or you'd miss something.

On a more immediate level, 1975 was an interesting melting-pot of consciousness and obliviousness. It was after the big events of civil rights and the women's movement, the former of which made a significant mark on the South. In my home town of 350 people, the races had no choice but to get along, with the result that, for us kids at least, racism seemed both dated and unwieldy. (A caveat: I realize I'm speaking from the point of view of a lower-middle-class white boy, and my African-American schoolmates may have a vastly different view of our shared history.)

As for the women's movement, for us it existed primarily on television, where Mary Richards, Ann Romano and Maude Findlay made us laugh at the sexism they constantly battled. It certainly had little or no relation to the women we saw every day: our mothers, teachers and older sisters. I don't mean they didn't care about such things, but if they burned any bras it was in the privacy of their own homes, and if they resented the glass ceiling it wasn't mentioned at the dinner table. Southern gentility was much more of a priority than any political movement.

So those things I recall vividly. And in doing research for my very specific place and time, I confirmed that it was, essentially, like that. And what can I say? We did call each other "jive turkeys," warned potential combatants to "get the funk out my face," referred to an attractive woman as a "fox" and a "brick house," and (God help us all) expressed our approval with "Dy-no-MITE!" Using this slang in the book does date it, but that's the point. If Baron Zginski had appeared five years earlier or later, or in any other place, the story would've been entirely different.

So when a reviewer mentions the "...appalling treatment of female and minority characters," and another commenter states that "the blaxploitation dialogue was lame," I can't offer a defense. From the perspective of 2009, those comments are undeniably true. But to tell the story I wanted to tell, and deal with the thematic issues that interested me, I couldn't set this novel in 2009. And I couldn't recreate 1975 without accurately depicting the attitudes of the time.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Announcing the cover of Burn Me Deadly

Here's the cover of my next novel, Burn Me Deadly. The artwork was done by Jean-Sebastien Rossbach, who also did the paperback cover for The Sword-Edged Blonde.

So what do you think?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Read chapter one of The Sword-Edged Blonde

You can read chapter one of The Sword-Edged Blonde by going here.

And don't forget to leave a comment here for a chance to win a signed copy of the paperback edition (and maybe an advance copy of the sequel, Burn Me Deadly.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Monday, August 17, 2009

First dragons: Vermithrax from Dragonslayer

My upcoming novel BURN ME DEADLY involves, in part, a group who worship fire-breathing dragons. Because really, if you're writing fantasy, eventually you have to deal with dragons in some fashion. They're a trope, like swords and/or sorcery. Ignoring them would be like leaving the horses out of a western.

Not that I mind. Dragons continue to fascinate us because, much like vampires, they can symbolize practically anything a writer wants them to represent. Just look at the cultural differences between Asian dragons and their European counterparts, and the richness of the creatures as metaphors becomes apparent.

Still, everyone has a "first dragon," the one that awoke their sense of wonder about the creatures. For many it's Anne McCaffery's elaborate world of Pern, where genetically-engineered intelligent dragons bond with their riders; for others it's Smaug in The Hobbit, guarding his hoarde deep in a cave. But for me, it was the awesome Vermithrax from the 1981 film, Dragonslayer.

At the time of its release, Dragonslayer got a bum wrap for "ripping off" Star Wars. There's a naive young hero (Galen, played by Peter MacNicol) who is mentored by an old wizard portrayed by a distinguished British "Sir" actor (Ralph Richardson). There's a semi-magical weapon (a special lance, the "Dragonslayer" of the title) and a big, black-clad villain (Tyrian, played by John Hallam). Even Emperor Palpatine himself, Ian McDiarmid, has a small role as a village priest.

Of course, in the hindsight of twenty-plus years we can see these as simply standard fantasy elements that Lucas borrowed as well, and it's more interesting what the film does differently. Yes, there's a noble and strong-willed princess, but she's not the heroine. There's a Twelfth Night element in one bit of masquerading (the sole part of the film that simply doesn't work). And the medieval setting is vividly realized, helped by the suitably ponderous Alex North score.

Then there's the dragon.

First and foremost for me, Vermithrax maintains the integrity of basic biology. She's clearly a reptile, and so has only four limbs: her wings are modified front legs, similar to a bat's, or fossil pterosaurs. I'm endlessly annoyed by the six-limbed dragons (four legs plus wings) depicted in standard fantasy. No vertebrate has more than four limbs, and that counts wings. Saying, "it's a fantasy story," is a dodge, not an acceptable explanation.

Second, Vermithrax is scary. She eats human sacrifices, breathes fire and leaves a path of destruction. When she first appears, emerging from a literal lake of fire to tower over the hero, she's awe-inspiring.

Third, she doesn't talk. The dragons of Pern communicate telepathically, which is justified since they're genetically engineered to do that. But the chatty Draco in the inanely hokey Dragonheart has started a trend of talkative dragons that would embarrass even Walt Disney. Dragons are reptiles: they have no lips, and no mammalian voice boxes. Again, saying, "it's fantasy so it's okay," is an evasion, not a justification.

All subsequent dragons have been measured against this considerable standard. In fact, in the twenty-plus years since Dragonslayer, I've only encountered one other dragon that came close to equalling its impression on me (more on that in a later post). When it came time to create my own dragons, Vermithrax was my starting point.

The dragons worshipped in BURN ME DEADLY are folkloric, ancient creatures that, if they really existed, lived long before the dawn of man. They flew, and breathed fire, and laid waste to everything in their paths. They have qualities (intelligence, a compulsion to vengeance) that don't quite mesh with reality, but much of this is caused by the way stories change over time. Were there real dragons in the story, they would be much more in line with what I describe above: plausible, genuine, and terrifying.

But there are no real dragons...are there?

Leave a comment about your own "first dragon" before the end of this week and be entered to win one of three signed copies of The Sword-Edged Blonde paperback. One lucky winner will also receive an advance reader copy of Burn Me Deadly.

BURN ME DEADLY hits stores on November 10, 2009.

(There's a perceptive review of Dragonslayer here.)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

In honor of the King

To commemorate today's anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, I was going to post one of my favorite clips of the King. But when I found this, I realized Elvis himself would probably rather watch it. So here you go.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

My workspace is featured at Sitting Pretty

My desk, where the magic happens (and by "magic," I mean sitting unshowered and muttering to myself a lot while drinking way too much coffee and keeping a weather eye on my heathen children. Oh, and writing, too.), is featured at Sitting Pretty, an online magazine about "exploring the desks where writers work."

Monday, August 10, 2009

On writing The Sword-Edged Blonde

(Originally published in the Tor e-mail newsletter)

A man walks into a bar.

If this happens in a science fiction or fantasy novel, the author has his job cut out for him. Not only does he have to describe the bar physically, but also its patrons. They might include aliens, ogres, trolls or elves, all of which can have any number of permutations. Then the drinks have to be laid out, and the money system enumerated. When all that's done, the author might have enough imagination left to finally describe the man who walked in.

I'm unusual as a fantasy or science fiction reader, in that the details of made-up societies, worlds and cultures hold far less interest for me than the people (I include non-humans in that term) who inhabit them. I remember listening in wonder to another well-regarded fantasy author describe the elaborate monetary system he'd designed, and for which so far he'd had no use. It's something I could never do.

When I wrote The Sword-Edged Blonde, I wanted to pare it down to the things I, as a reader, cared most about: namely, the people. Anything that distracted from them, and from the reader's emotional commitment to them, I either left out or minimized. For example, many fantasy characters have names that, if not literally unpronounceable, at least challenge the tongue; I named my hero Eddie LaCrosse. Eddie's office is, in fact, above a bar, one that is no different in feel and atmosphere from any you might walk into today. Eddie uses swords that, like modern guns, have make and model names, and the people speak in rhythms, patterns and tones that don't try to sound "otherworldly." There's no time spent digressing into societal details that don't apply to the immediate situation; this is not to belittle authors who do that sort of thing well, it's just something I neither crave as a reader nor excel at as a writer.

I did invent one term. Eddie is essentially a private investigator functioning in an Iron Age world. In our world, PI's are known by various, vaguely derogatory terms: shamus, dick, peeper, etc. I decided that Eddie's reality needed a similar term, and came up with "sword jockey." To me it rings with the same thinly-veiled contempt as "gumshoe" or "snooper."

The Sword-Edged Blonde (and its upcoming sequel, Burn Me Deadly) have been called high-fantasy stories written as if they were Forties pulp detective novels. That's exactly my intent, but it's not just an ironic stylistic choice; rather, it's a sincere attempt to let readers connect with the characters by letting as few things as possible get in the way.

So the man (or woman) who walks into a bar in Eddie's world could, hopefully, be you. And you'd be right at home there.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

New interview posted

I'm interviewed about both The Sword-Edged Blonde and Blood Groove over at Graeme's Fantasy Book Review. He asks some fun questions.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Reviewing According to Crow at Guys Lit Wire

Over at Guys Lit Wire, a blog that reviews books for teenage boys, I discuss Ekaterina Sedia's debut novel, According to Crow. If you've read her two later books, The Secret History of Moscow and The Alchemy of Stone, then you'll want to check out her first one. If you have yet to discover the extraordinary Ms. Sedia, then let this be your introduction.