Sign up for my newsletter to receive news and updates!

Posts Tagged ‘Spark of Life’

Spark of Life: David B. Coe on RADIANTS

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts! I got too busy to keep up with coordinating them, I’m afraid. But my friend David Coe has a new book out, so I’m delighted to introduce you all to Radiants, a supernatural thriller with a queer, teenaged protagonist. Sparking this story to life required him to unfollow some earlier, well-meant advice — but I’ll let him tell you that tale himself . . .


David says:

cover art for RADIANTS by David B. CoeA couple of decades ago, while working on my debut fantasy series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, a first-contact story about two societies, one pastoral, one highly technological, I mentioned to my editor an idea I had to market the series as “an ecological fantasy.” He told me, in no uncertain terms, that this was a terrible idea.

“No one,” he said (I’m paraphrasing a little), “wants to read an ecological fantasy. Keep politics and social issues out of your work. Just write your story.”

Over the years I have defied that advice again and again, though I have tried to do so with subtlety and nuance. I didn’t take the ecological themes out of that first trilogy — and, to be fair to my editor, one reviewer writing for a prominent publication strongly objected to the presence of those themes. In several subsequent series, I have dealt with issues ranging from race to mental illness and addiction, but always I have done my best to keep my social content in the background, visible to those who care to look for it, but unobtrusive.

Fast forward to my newest work, Radiants, a supernatural thriller to be released October 15 from Belle Books. When I showed my initial draft of the novel to my agent a couple of years ago, before we began to shop it to publishers, she came back to me with surprising feedback. She told me the book felt a little flat to her. This was not the part that surprised me; I sensed the lack of energy as well, but was at a bit of a loss as to how to fix it.

What I hadn’t expected was her advice. “Publishers these days want books with some social relevance,” she said. “You’re so political, so passionate in your opinions. Let that guide you in your revisions.”

How far we’ve come.

As soon as she said this, my mind began to whir.

Radiants tells the story of a teenaged girl, DeDe Mercer, who has the ability to control the thoughts of others. She can step into someone’s mind, make a decision for them, and then jump back out, leaving her will imprinted on their thoughts. She and other Radiants (who have a variety of abilities) access their talents by drawing upon planetary energy systems — the rotational and orbital energies of the earth and moon. And though DeDe has been warned by her mother not to use her power at all, she is confronted by a situation that leaves her with little choice. DeDe’s abilities come to the attention of government agencies, several of which send operatives after her, all hoping to turn her into a tool. Or a weapon. I loved the set-up from the start, but armed with my agent’s advice, I saw new possibilities.

Those who seek to use her, who seek to create an army of Radiants, don’t care about the consequences of their ambitions. But DeDe soon realizes that her deceased father, who was also a Radiant, saw the danger. Too many Radiants drawing upon those planetary energy systems threaten to destabilize earth’s orbit and rotation, imperiling the very survival of the planet.

DeDe’s decision to use her ability despite her mother’s objections is prompted by an injustice against her closest friend (and crush), Kyle, who is genderqueer. Kyle is bullied for what feels like the hundredth time, and rather than just taking it, they fight back, bloodying the nose of a much larger student. Though they were defending themself, the principal of the high school decides to suspend them and not the instigator. DeDe refuses to let this decision stand and uses her power to change his mind, setting in motion the events of the novel.

The government agencies pursuing DeDe and her family stop at nothing to have their way, and think nothing of kidnapping DeDe’s mother, splitting the family. DeDe and her brother, Miles, who is about to come into his power, fight back to win their mother’s freedom, a conflict that forms the narrative core of Radiants.

An allegory for global warming. A story about gender identity and bigotry. An indictment of governments using their power to separate children from their parents.

Once I recast the plot in these terms, my passion for the book grew exponentially. I still loved my characters and narrative, but now I also cared deeply about my themes, my underlying message. I didn’t feel the need to disguise these elements of my storytelling. Instead, I reveled in them.

Don’t get me wrong: Radiants is first and foremost a thriller. It might well be the most tightly paced, action-packed book I’ve written. I don’t bludgeon my reader with politics. But neither do I shy from issues that matter to me.

And once I allowed myself to write this way, my novel came to life.

Many thanks to Marie for hosting me on her site!


From the cover copy:

DeDe Mercer is a Radiant who can control other people’s thoughts, make them do what she wants. For years she’s controlled her power, keeping her secret, never using it on anyone—until the day she had no choice.

Now the government is after her, after her brother, too, because he’ll come into his power before long. The Department of Energy, the Defense Intelligence Agency, Homeland Security — they all want her, and they’re willing to do anything, hurt anyone, kill if necessary, to make her their weapon.

But DeDe has had enough. They think she’s a weapon? Fine. They’re about to find out how right they are.

David B. Coe is the award-winning author of more than two dozen novels and as many short stories. He has written epic fantasy — including the Crawford Award-winning LonTobyn Chronicle — urban fantasy, and media tie-ins, and is now expanding into supernatural thrillers with Radiants and its sequels. In addition, he has co-edited several anthologies for the Zombies Need Brains imprint.

As D.B. Jackson, he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. He has also written the Islevale Cycle, a time travel epic fantasy series that includes Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, and Time’s Assassin.

David has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford University. His books have been translated into a dozen languages. He and his family live on the Cumberland Plateau. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.


Like me, he has multiple professional identities! You can find him as David B. Coe on his website, Facebook, and Twitter, or as D.B. Jackson on another site, Facebook, and Twitter.

Spark of Life: Mike Reeves-McMillan on ILLUSTRATED GNOME NEWS

I’ve said before that I crave more fantasy novels incorporating that revolutionary-yet-simple technology known as the printing press. It turns out Mike Reeves-McMillan is on the same wavelength, because his lates Gryphon Clerks novel is all about newspapers and the power they have to change things. Not to mention little things like freedom and racial equality and social change — y’know, things that are maybe just a wee bit pertinent nowadays. But I’ll let him explain . . .


Mike says:

cover art for ILLUSTRATED GNOME NEWS by Mike Reeves-McMillan

Illustrated Gnome News came to life when one of the protagonists found some people who were worse off than she was, and decided she had to help them.

Let me back up for a minute. Illustrated Gnome News is the sixth novel in my Victorianesqe magepunk Gryphon Clerks series. Although it is a series, linked together by the setting and with overlapping characters and key events, each book stands alone as a complete story and contains all the backstory you need in order to orient you to what’s going on, so you can start anywhere you like.

The most important event driving the stories so far is Gnome Day. The gnomes have, for centuries, been effectively slaves of the dwarves, but because slavery is so very illegal in all human realms (the humans having been slaves of the now-vanished elves), there’s been a long-standing legal fiction that says that the dwarves don’t own the gnomes themselves; they only own their service.

A few years before the start of Illustrated Gnome News, the local human ruler, for her own well-considered reasons, declared that this was a distinction without a difference, and any gnomes outside the self-governing dwarfholds should consider themselves free (and, not coincidentally, available to work for the humans directly, cutting out the dwarven middlemen). The day of this proclamation became known as Gnome Day, and kicked off two wars; one of them — the Underground War with the dwarves, conducted mostly by means of economics — is still underway, and showing no signs of slowing down.

The rising generation of gnomes is now asking: So, we’re free to . . . do what, exactly? Are we, for example, free to work at whatever we like, even if it doesn’t match the rigidly gendered concept of work that’s been enforced by the dwarves for centuries? (Men work at “hard” crafts like engineering; women at “soft” crafts involving food and cloth.) Are we, perhaps, free to have non-traditional relationships? And if not, why not?

At the start of the book, though, Ladle, the overworked editor of the only gnomish newspaper, the Illustrated Gnome News, isn’t thinking about that. She’s focussed on day-to-day problems: the newspaper is losing money; the owner has foisted his annoying and frankly useless daughter on Ladle as advertising manager; and while she’d like to spend more time with the golden-voiced Cog, who runs the magepunk equivalent of a radio station in the next office, both of them are working far too hard to do anything about it. She’d love to do what the paper was founded to do — promote the true emancipation and prosperity of gnomes with hard-hitting investigative reporting — but instead she’s stuck writing about trivia, because it takes less energy and attracts more eyeballs.

The moment of inflection, for her and for the story, is when a young gnome writes to the paper to say: my friends and I are on the street because we want to live our lives in ways our parents can’t accept. But instead of following our dreams, we’re living in squalor and being exploited by gangs. Can your newspaper help us?

The answer to that question not only blows Ladle’s daily grind wide open and gives her something to fight for, it ends up being key to the uncovering of a plot to set gnome freedom back for years. Along the way, the protagonists find unexpected friendships, alliances, and loves, and dare to risk everything to strive after their authentic lives in the face of what’s expected of them.


From the cover copy:

They may be putting out a newspaper, but there are some things they don’t want becoming news.

The Illustrated Gnome News is the only newspaper serving the newly emancipated gnome community, but there are days when Ladle, the paper’s overworked editor, thinks that’s because nobody else is stupid enough to try to run one. She has to balance not scaring off all their advertisers with putting out a paper that stands for a better future for all gnomes. Including those gnomes who don’t match up to traditional ideas of what’s proper.

One of these is her friend Loom, the first gnome woman to qualify as an engineer. But Loom has a secret that would shock conventional gnomes even more than that, and must somehow find a way to pursue her own happiness amidst the wider struggle to turn gnome emancipation into true freedom.

Mike Reeves-McMillan lives in Auckland, New Zealand, the setting of his Auckland Allies urban fantasy series; and also in his head, where the weather is more reliable, and there are a lot more wizards. He writes a secondary-world steampunk/magepunk series, the Gryphon Clerks, and a Leverage-meets-Lankhmar sword-and-sorcery heist series, Hand of the Trickster, in addition to Auckland Allies. His short stories have appeared in venues including Daily Science Fiction, Futuristica, Compelling Science Fiction, and Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, and he blogs about writing and reading fiction at The Gryphon Clerks.

Spark of Life: D.B. Jackson on TIME’S DEMON

A while back, I started up a series of guest blogs called “Spark of Life,” where authors could talk about one of my favorite parts of writing: those moments you didn’t plan for, where it seems like your characters or your plot have taken on a life of their own. I got busy and fell out of arranging these posts, but I’m reviving it now — starting with a post from D.B. Jackson that resonates so hard for me. In my case it was a line earlier in the same book, rather than a previous one . . . but I seriously don’t know how I would have pulled together the final confrontation in Warrior if it weren’t for a totally unexpected line I’d written a couple of months before.


David says:

cover art for TIME'S DEMON by D.B. Jackson The Spark of Life moment I had with my newest book, Time’s Demon, the second volume in my Islevale Cycle, actually began with a throwaway line in book one, Time’s Children. The circumstances take some explaining, so please bear with me.

The Islevale novels are time travel/epic fantasy. They are set in an alternate world that is home to Walkers (my time travelers) and humans who wield several other sorts of magic. As the title of book II suggests, it is also home to various sorts of demons – Ancients, as they prefer to be called – including Tirribin, or time demons. Tirribin appear as children, though they live for centuries. They feed on the years of humans, and since they consume years as they spend them, they never age. They are predators – canny, dangerous, but also childlike in their capriciousness, their curiosity, and the fact that they can be distracted from the hunt with a riddle. Better make it a good one, though . . .

Walkers and Tirribin share an affinity for time, and so Walkers don’t have to fear time demons quite the way other humans do. Early in book I, when one of my heroes is still training to be a Walker, she befriends a Tirribin named Droë, and mentions this to one of her instructors. The instructor warns her of the dangers, even for a Walker, of interacting with any Ancient. “You know Tirribin can be dangerous. One is said to have killed a trainee many years ago, before I came to Windhome.”

That’s it. That was the line. I had no particular incident in mind when I wrote it, although I believe that somewhere in the depths of my hind brain I knew that I would use the thread later.

Skip forward to my work on Time’s Demon, the second book. I knew that I wanted Droë to figure prominently in this novel – hence the title. I also knew that I wanted to give some vital back story on one of my other key characters: the assassin, Quinnel Orzili. Orzili is not a Walker, but rather a Spanner, someone who uses magic to travel great distances in mere moments. Spanners, like Walkers, are trained in Windhome.

The problem was, I had too many plot threads and I wasn’t sure how they all connected. I was still following my heroes from book I, including the young woman who receives that warning from the instructor in Windhome. I had Droë’s story. And I had Orzili’s narrative threads as well – the backstory and the “present” story. All of these plot lines needed to be included in the book and I knew that for this middle volume to work, for it to feel complete and at least somewhat self-contained, all of its disparate storylines needed to cohere in some way.

As it happens, all of the Islevale books, including the third volume, Time’s Assassin, which I am completing now, have defied my attempts to outline them. I’m a plotter – I like to plan my narratives in advance. I always write with an outline. Or I did, until this series. It’s ironic in a way: Here I am writing time travel, which is incredibly complicated on its own, in a sprawling epic fantasy with multiple plot threads and point of view characters. If ever I needed to outline any set of novels, these were the ones. And I just couldn’t do it. To this day, I’m not sure why. Different novels demand different approaches, and these books demanded that I wing it.

So I was writing the early chapters of book II, in which I explore Orzili’s backstory, and Droë shows up. I hadn’t planned to write her into this part of the series, and I still don’t know what made me do it, but the moment I re-introduced her to my readers, I knew: Droë was, in fact, the Tirribin who killed a trainee, and that trainee was Orzili’s friend. The boy’s death at the hands of a time demon sets in motion the key events that lead to Orzili becoming an assassin. That event, first mentioned in a throwaway line in the first book of the series, becomes a key moment in my story arc – the nexus connecting my heroes in book one, my title character for book two, and the key villain for the entire series.

Plotting a novel, or a series for that matter, is an inexact undertaking. Even when we can outline, even when we think we know precisely what should happen, our characters have a way of surprising us. That is both the joy and the challenge of writing fiction. We want our characters to do and say the things that advance our narratives, but we also want them to act and sound and feel to our readers like real people. And often that means allowing them the agency to do and say things we don’t expect. I hadn’t known that Droë would show up when and where she did in Time’s Demon. But when she did, it breathed new life into the entire novel. It was the spark I needed to make my plot points come together.


From the cover copy:

Fifteen-year-old Tobias Doljan Walked back in time to prevent a war, but instead found himself trapped in an adult body, his king murdered and an infant princess to protect.

Now joined by fellow Walker and Spanner, Mara, together they much find a way to undo the timeline that orphaned the princess and destroyed their future. But arrayed against them are assassins who share their time-traveling powers, and hold dark ambitions of their own. And Droë, the Tirribin demon on a desperate quest for human love, also seeks Tobias for an entirely different reason.

As these disparate lives converge, driven by fate and time and forces beyond nature, Islevale’s future is poised on a blade’s edge.

D.B. Jackson is the pen name of fantasy author David B. Coe. He is the award-winning author of more than twenty novels and as many short stories. His newest novel, Time’s Demon, is the second volume in a time travel/epic fantasy series called The Islevale Cycle. Time’s Children is volume one; David is working on the third book, Time’s Assassin.

As D.B. Jackson, he also writes the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. As David B. Coe, he is the author of the Crawford Award-winning LonTobyn Chronicle, as well as the critically acclaimed Winds of the Forelands quintet and Blood of the Southlands trilogy; the novelization of Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood; a contemporary urban fantasy trilogy, The Case Files of Justis Fearsson; and most recently, Knightfall: The Infinite Deep, a tie-in with the History Channel’s Knightfall series.

David has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford University. His books have been translated into a dozen languages. He and his family live on the Cumberland Plateau. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.

You can find him on Twitter @DBJacksonAuthor, or on Facebook as DBJacksonAuthor or david.b.coe.

Spark of Life: Ruthanna Emrys on DEEP ROOTS

Like most people who don’t know Lovecraft’s fiction all that well, I associate him pretty much entirely with coastal New England towns. I didn’t know, until I read Ruthanna Emrys’ words about her sequel Deep Roots, that he also wrote about New York City. Of course in typical Lovecraftian fashion he found it utterly horrifying — but for Ruthanna, it’s an opportunity for her Deep One protagonist to rebuild her community.


Ruthanna says:

DEEP ROOTS by Ruthanna Emrys

The spark for Deep Roots came years before I wrote it. Years before I read Lovecraft, or imagined Aphra’s first steps into freedom as she left the internment camp, or thought up the details of her family’s life beneath the Atlantic. That spark struck, and sputtered out, in half a dozen stories before this one: two chapters of a cyberpunk dystopia in high school, scattered post-apocalyptic dreamworlds, a half-written urban fantasy about magical infrastructure failure. And at long last that spark caught, and burned, for the second Innsmouth Legacy book.

Aphra’s insular community of amphibious humans—considered monsters by their neighbors—was destroyed in a government raid when she was twelve. She spent eighteen years imprisoned, watching her friends and neighbors die one by one in the bone-dry air of the desert internment camp, finally released at the end of World War II into a world she barely recognized. In Winter Tide she returned to the ruins of Innsmouth, hoping to recover the esoteric knowledge buried there. In the process she found new family, made fraught alliance with the government that once caged her, and came away determined to rebuild what they destroyed.

And then what?

Aphra’s story is, among other things, a transformation of H.P. Lovecraft’s wildly creative and infamously bigoted horror stories. Winter Tide took place among his imagined Massachusetts coastal towns: Arkham, Kingsport, and of course the remnants of Innsmouth. Lovecraft found such towns scary because they were full of people not descended from rich white Anglo-Saxons, and also old houses. Aphra finds them scary because they’re full of people who abetted or ignored her family’s destruction.

But small New England towns weren’t the only places that Lovecraft thought terrifying. He spent a few years living in New York City—and his stories and letters from that time are full of vile rants against the immigrants living (and horror of horrors, speaking languages other than English) there.

Some of those immigrants were my family. He described them, or people much like them, with the same language he used for his invented monsters.

My parents moved from New York to rural Massachusetts a few years before I was born. But I grew up visiting the city. I learned to find my way around the subway, and keep my balance as the trains juddered beneath the street. To walk in starling synch through the crowded sidewalks. To gravitate to menus describing all the treasure you can carry through Ellis Island, and love foods that couldn’t be found anywhere on Cape Cod. And every time we crossed the bridge into Queens, I could feel the city’s heartbeat, a thrumming, wakeful energy linking me to millions of people jostling to do those same things.

I tried to write that rhythm, and that sensory palette, for years. The smell of the subway and the primal shriek of the train coming in, the echo of tiled foyers in Greenwich Village, the music of all those languages that Lovecraft feared. And it never quite fit—it didn’t belong to the cyberpunk assassin or the meditative AI. It belonged, it turned out, to Deep Roots.

Of course Aphra would go to New York. It was only logical: she wants to find her remaining relatives on land, and you can find ten of anything there. But New York also accentuated her internal conflicts. Aphra grew up in a small community of people who shared a culture and a faith and a set of assumptions rarely found outside their walls—and she thrived there. But whatever she does, she can’t rebuild that. Even if she finds a town’s worth of people with Deep One ancestry, they won’t have grown up there. They won’t take the same things for granted. The family she’s making for herself now includes people from many cultures, many faiths, many sets of assumptions. So New York, with all that cosmopolitan community that I love and Lovecraft hated, is both the opposite of what she finds comfortable, and the epitome of the new kind of life that intrigues and terrifies her.

So that’s the spark—that rhythm I’ve felt since childhood and can imagine in my sleep, finally finding its place in a late ‘40s New York full of Deep Ones and aliens and—truly terrifying—ordinary humans.


From the cover copy:

Ruthanna Emrys’ Innsmouth Legacy, which began with Winter Tide and continues with Deep Roots, confronts H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos head-on, boldly upturning his fear of the unknown with a heartwarming story of found family, acceptance, and perseverance in the face of human cruelty and the cosmic apathy of the universe. Emrys brings together a family of outsiders, bridging the gaps between the many people marginalized by the homogenizing pressure of 1940s America.

Aphra Marsh, descendant of the People of the Water, has survived Deep One internment camps and made a grudging peace with the government that destroyed her home and exterminated her people on land. Deep Roots continues Aphra’s journey to rebuild her life and family on land, as she tracks down long-lost relatives. She must repopulate Innsmouth or risk seeing it torn down by greedy developers, but as she searches she discovers that people have been going missing. She will have to unravel the mystery, or risk seeing her way of life slip away.

RUTHANNA EMRYS lives in a mysterious manor house on the outskirts of Washington, DC, with her wife and their large, strange family. Her stories have appeared in a number of venues, including Strange Horizons, Analog, and She is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, which began with Winter Tide. She makes homemade vanilla, obsesses about game design, gives unsolicited advice, and occasionally attempts to save the world.

Spark of Life: Kate Heartfield on ARMED IN HER FASHION

I’ve talked before about how some of my stories have pivoted on pieces of music, with lyrics or just the general feel making my subconscious decide which way the plot needed to go. And the entire Great Cataract sequence in The Tropic of Serpents? That came from a photo of Iguazu Falls. So it’s no particular surprise to me that not just the initial inspiration but the spark of life for Kate Heartfield’s Armed in Her Fashion came from a painting.


Kate says:

cover for ARMED IN HER FASHION by Kate HeartfieldMy debut novel, Armed in Her Fashion, was inspired from the beginning by a piece of art: Dulle Griet by Pieter Bruegel. I suppose it was only natural that when I got stuck, near the end of the first draft, I returned to the painting for fresh inspiration.

Bruegel was a 16th century painter in the Netherlands. He was influenced by the monstrous, surreal visions in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, a century before. But Bruegel merged those grotesque imaginings with images of ordinary peasant life, and in Dulle Griet, we see a very ordinary-looking woman, holding a frying pan, leading a raid on the mouth of Hell.

Griet herself, a traditional Flemish figure who sometimes represents greed or shrewishness, was the beginning of my story. I wanted to know what would lead a woman to raid Hell; what was she looking for? What could she hope to gain? What could she teach us about how women have provided for themselves and their families throughout human history, and about how their communities saw them?

I set my own version of Griet in the Bruges of 1328, in a city under siege. Margriet de Vos is very ordinary: a wet-nurse, and a widow. Determined, pragmatic, sharp-tongued and old enough not to care what names people might call her.

But the weirdness in the background of Bruegel’s painting influenced the novel’s world. This is an alternate version of 14th century Bruges, in which monsters are very real. The Hellbeast in my novel is a literalization of the Hellmouth that appears in Bruegel’s painting, which is itself a late version of the Hellmouths that appear in medieval European art. As I considered the amalgamations of human figures with musical instruments, birds and devices that appear in so many Bosch and Bruegel paintings, the novel began to explore the promise of body modification, and the horror of non-consensual weaponization of the body.

As I neared the climax of my plot, I knew what had to happen, but I didn’t know why; I didn’t know what events in the world of the story could force my plot in the direction I needed. One day, I glanced at Bruegel’s painting again, and I realized there was one element I had not yet included in the novel: Eggs. They’re everywhere in Bosch and Bruegel. Maybe they’re an alchemical symbol, or maybe they signify greed, or gluttony, or fragility, or the promise of new life. Probably all the above. I knew what they signified for me: a deeper level of world-building, and a new twist in my plot. They represented change and renewal, and I knew right away what these eggs were and why they mattered to my characters.

Like many writers, I often turn to the art created by others when I feel my creative well running dry. Often, that means putting on a piece of music or watching a movie. But when I really need to recharge, I go to the art gallery.


From the cover copy:

In 1328, the city of Bruges is under siege from the Chatelaine of Hell and her army of chimeras. At night, revenants crawl over the walls and bring plague and grief to this city of widows.

One of those widows, Margriet de Vos, will do anything to make sure her daughter’s safe, even if it means raiding Hell itself.

Kate Heartfield is the author of Armed in Her Fashion, a historical fantasy novel from ChiZine Publications, and The Road to Canterbury, an interactive novel from Choice of Games, set for release in spring 2018. Publications will publish two time-travel novellas by Kate, beginning with Alice Payne Arrives in late 2018. Her fiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies including Strange Horizons, Podcastle, and Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare’s Fantasy World. Kate is a former newspaper editor and columnist and lives in Ottawa, Canada. You can find her at her website or on on Twitter.

Spark of Life: Bryan Camp on THE CITY OF LOST FORTUNES

Gods are hard to write about in a convincing manner. Too often they seem like plot devices, or else like ordinary characters who happen to have a lot of power. But some authors manage to strike the right balance of personality and numina . . . and sometimes the route to that balance goes off the expected map. Here’s Bryan Camp’s account of how Baron Samedi came to life for him in The City of Lost Fortunes — and hey, maybe if we make pleading puppy-dog eyes, he’ll tell us the rest of the story!


Bryan says:

cover art for THE CITY OF LOST FORTUNES by Bryan CampEven though I wrote and rewrote this novel for a decade, I didn’t truly know what I was trying to write, or how I should go about doing it, for years. To learn those two details, I had to travel to a sleepy little town in central Mexico. It was there that Baron Samedi, one of the loa of the voodoo faith, sparked to life for me, and through him, the whole novel.

It might seem strange that I came to understand the voodoo guardian of the cemetery by leaving New Orleans, a city filled with cemeteries and a place where voodoo looms large in both the popular imagination and in actual practice. It’s certainly not why I went there. I was just trying to get a degree. At the time, I was earning an MFA from the University of New Orleans, through their Low Residency program. It was a pretty sweet deal: Spring and Fall semesters, all my classes were online (which meant I could keep my job as a high school teacher) and for a month during the Summer semester, I fulfilled all of my residency requirements abroad. That summer, I was taking a New Orleans Literature class with Dr. Nancy Dixon (who literally wrote the book on Nola Lit) and a Fantasy and Science Fiction workshop led by the brilliant Jim Grimsley. It was in that workshop where I met Rachel E. Pollock, a good friend of mine who is one of those people who just unfairly brim over with creativity and talent. She’s not just an amazing writer, but she’s also an artist and an artisan who sews costumes for plays and . . . look, she’s awesome, all right?

Anyway, we were talking about what we were writing, and I told her that I had this novel I wanted to rewrite for my thesis, full of deities from all kinds of myths and faiths, among them Papa Legba and Baron Samedi. Rachel, being as awesome as she is, had a friend who practiced voodoo. When I named the different gods I wanted to write about, I saw a flicker of something sly move across my friend’s face. “Oh,” she said, with a fierce, conspiratorial grin, “I’ve got a story about Samedi.”

I have to pause here and tell you something about voodoo that you may not know. The loa don’t manifest physically in our world; they come here as spirits and inhabit the bodies of their devotees. If you are ridden by one of the loa, they aren’t merely inspiring you in a way that you translate and interpret. They’re not along for the ride; they’re in the driver’s seat. They don’t, in short, communicate through you. If they’ve got something to say, they speak with your mouth.
So when Rachel said she had a story about Samedi, she didn’t mean it was something she’d come across in a book. This was not a matter of folklore scholarship. She knew someone who, within the boundaries of her faith, had spoken to Samedi. This was more of a “friend of a friend” situation. Just three degrees of separation between me and the spirit world. For want of time and space I won’t go into the whole narrative, but suffice it to say that the punchline was Samedi promising that he “had the biggest Spock of all the loa.” He uh, he used a word other than the name of a beloved sci-fi character, but I’m trying to keep this PG here.

What made this line equally hilarious and illuminating was that the body he was inhabiting when he said it was female. That told me a whole lot about Samedi. It told me that he was 100 percent, grade A bro, with all the self-aggrandizing, genital-obsessed swagger that went with it. It told me he had a pretty high opinion of himself. It told me that his own reality was more significant to him than the circumstantial factors of his presence in ours. More crucial than just giving me all these insights into his personality, though, was the fact that this line made it explicitly clear to me that he had a distinct personality to begin with.

I’d been thinking about the figures in myth as archetypes, as symbols, perfect abstractions that merely represented some universal fear or yearning or blessing shared by all humanity. That made it difficult to write about them in ways that weren’t stilted or insincere. It’s hard to get Fear of Death to have a meaningful conversation; hard to predict what Filial Piety’s favorite movie might be. To be clear, myths are archetypes and symbols, but that’s not all they are. They’re also characters, with their own flaws and hungers and strengths. Their own friends and foes. Their own voices.

Once I had that voice in my ear (in a manner of speaking) I was able to see the whole character, how he would act and react. Not just how he would dress and the kind of alcohol he would drink, which I knew from the literature that recorded oral traditions, but why he always wore a suit and preferred rum. And that, for me, was the moment when this figure of myth made the shift from an idea into a character. Through these kinds of thoughts, I was able to really imagine the rest of my immortal beings as people, and thus, The City of Lost Fortunes really started to open up and breathe.

All because Baron Samedi couldn’t stop talking about his eggplant emoji.


From the cover copy:

In 2011, Post-Katrina New Orleans is a place haunted by its history and by the hurricane’s destruction, a place that is hoping to survive the rebuilding of its present long enough to ensure that it has a future. Street magician Jude Dubuisson is likewise burdened by his past and by the consequences of the storm, because he has a secret: the magical ability to find lost things, a gift passed down to him by the father he has never known—a father who just happens to be a god. When the debt Jude owes to a fortune deity gets called in, he finds himself sitting in on a poker game with the gods of New Orleans, who are playing for the heart and soul of the city itself.

Bryan Camp is a graduate of the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop and the University of New Orleans’ Low-Residency MFA program. He started his first novel, The City of Lost Fortunes, in the backseat of his parents’ car as they evacuated for Hurricane Katrina. He has been, at various points in his life: a security guard at a stockcar race track, a printer in a flag factory, an office worker in an oil refinery, and a high school English teacher. He lives in New Orleans with his wife and their three cats, one of whom is named after a superhero. You can find him on Twitter (@bryancamp), Facebook (@BryanCampNovelist), or Instagram (@bryanlcamp81).

Spark of Life: E.C. Ambrose on ELISHA DAEMON

Some of the best moments I’ve had while writing have come when a character who was supposed to be a minor spear carrier insists on developing depth and color and an interesting relationship with the protagonist. You can engineer that kind of thing deliberately, of course, but the best ones (in my experience) are the characters who do it organically, without me planning for it, because my subconscious sees an opportunity there. And apparently E.C. Ambrose’s subconscious saw something in Martin Draper . . .


E.C. Ambrose says:

cover art for ELISHA DAEMON by E.C. AmbroseOne of the most fun aspects of writing a book is when the characters take on a life of their own. It’s always surprising, and always delightful—though it often requires some re-jiggering later on to incorporate the character’s unexpected actions. When I was writing Elisha Barber, the first volume in the Dark Apostle series which ends with my new release, Elisha Daemon, meeting Elisha’s best friend was one of those moments.

Elisha, the protagonist of the series, is a barber-surgeon in 14th century London: cutting hair, pulling teeth, performing blood-letting, and other minor operations. In the first scene of the book, Elisha is shaving a man’s beard when Elisha’s brother barges in to call Elisha to a childbirth. The client, a wealthy cloth merchant, protests this departure, calling the brother’s pregnant wife a whore. Infuriated, Elisha insults his client, realizing he’ll have to apologize later. Their exchange made it clear that they knew each other well: in fact, that Elisha knew his client was gay. Apparently, this guy had hit on Elisha in the past, but they retained their working relationship in spite of Elisha’s rejection. Elisha had not denounced or blackmailed his client, which told me a lot about Elisha and his attitudes. Interesting.

Then, in chapter four, things got very interesting. Elisha’s sister-in-law has lost the baby, Elisha’s brother has lost his life. Elisha kneels in their bloody house, trying, literally, to pick up the pieces when Martin shows up, and Elisha immediately calls him by name—crossing several levels of the social hierarchy. It’s one thing for a lowly barber to maintain a polite relationship with a wealthy patron whom he knows to be gay, and another thing entirely for the man to show up at his house—to even know where he lives. In spite of his terrible day, Elisha apologizes to Martin. Martin’s warm, sympathetic reaction placed their relationship in a whole new light.

Martin gives him a gift, a scrap of cloth, that proves to be useful in more ways than one later on. I was writing this book by the seat of my pants—no outline, just a few notecards—so I often had to do a mental inventory to see what tools or clues I had left for myself to get through a given scene. Martin’s gift was one of these, a small, apparently worthless item that adds meaning throughout not only this book, but also the succeeding volumes. An unexpected character can be like that: a gift you don’t know you’ve been given until they make their power known.


From the cover copy:

In this fifth and final installment of The Dark Apostle, barber-surgeon-turned-sorcerer Elisha must save plague-stricken England from its path of destruction–or risk succumbing to the very dark magic he is trying to eradicate.

Elisha was once a lowly barber-surgeon from the poorest streets of 14th-century London; now, he may be the most powerful magus alive. He faces the necromancers, a shadowy cult of magi who draw their power from fear and murder–and who have just unleashed the greatest plague the world has ever known upon a continent already destabilized by wars, assassinations, and religious conflict.

Empires and armies are helpless with no clear enemy to fight. The Church loses its hold upon the faithful as prayers go unanswered. Europe has become a bottomless well of terror and death, from which the necromancers drink deep as the citizens sink into despair. Elisha knows that if there is to be any chance of survival, he must root out the truth of the pestilence at its unexpected source: the great medical school at Salerno. There, Elisha might uncover the knowledge to heal his world.

But as he does, his former mentor, the beautiful witch Brigit, lays her own plans. For there may be one thing upon the face of the planet deadlier than the plague: the unfiltered power of Death within Elisha himself.

E. C. Ambrose is a fantasy author, history buff, and accidental scholar.

Spark of Life: Harry Connolly on THE TWISTED PATH

Sometimes your story turns out not to need an Evil Villain or Menacing Threat with capital letters. Sometimes all it needs is the everyday arrogance and callousness of ordinary people — as Harry Connolly is here to describe.


Harry says:

cover art for THE TWISTED PATH by Harry ConnollyThe Twisted Path, the new novella in my Twenty Palaces series, has been simmering on the back burner for a long time. I wrote my first notes on the story in early 2011, months before Circle of Enemies, the third entry in the series, was released.

But from almost the beginning, it was going nowhere. I knew what I wanted the predator to be (in the Twenty Palaces stories, the supernatural entities aren’t good or evil; they’re just links in the food chain). And I knew, vaguely, where it would take place (Lisbon) and what shape the plot would take. And I knew, in a general way, that I needed a human villain that was linked to the predator.

But it was dead on the page.

It wasn’t until I actually went to Lisbon that the story really began to take shape.

First of all, engagement with the culture (which Google Maps could never have provided) gave me a thematic foundation. But the real spark for this story happened on our first full day in the country.

My sister-in-law arranged for us to take a tour of Lisbon via tuk-tuk, and our driver was the first Portuguese person I met. His English was excellent (having lived for several years in Colorado) and he was exceedingly outgoing, cheerful, knowledgeable, and welcoming.

But he was weird, too. He kept pointing out expensive cars on the street and never tired of saying “Look! A Porsche!” And while we wanted to see things that were old and beautiful—historic Lisbon, basically—he kept driving past shopping centers to show us where we could buy nice jackets or shoes or whatever.

He only dropped his affable outgoing manner once, when he parked in a spot beside the castle that was clearly marked as a no-parking zone, and a cop told him he had move. His smile vanished, and as he drove away, he complained bitterly in Portuguese and English for several blocks. How dare that cop tell him not to park in a no-parking zone! Who did he think he was? And so on. The guy was furious.

Later, he drove down to the waterfront and made us all climb out of the vehicle to watch a cruise ship pull out of the dock. That was it. A cruise ship. We stood in the parking lot of some random restaurant while he stared up at that great lumbering thing for about ten minutes. Honestly, I had no idea what he was thinking, or even if he was thinking at all.

Later, over lunch, he tried to make a case for Portuguese colonialism, insisting it was actually not that bad because his people were only interested in trade and fucking the natives. Except he used a different n-word in place of “natives”.

If I had realized my sister-in-law had found and hired him over Facebook, at this point I would have stepped in to say something like “Dude. Enough.” But I didn’t. I honestly couldn’t figure out his relationship to our hosts. They couldn’t be strangers, could they? Not if he’s going to be this friendly. And if they knew each other, and I said something to him (something that would have been more harsh than “Don’t park there”) how would that blow back on them?

Instead, I shrugged it off, and had a talk with my son about it later.

Maybe I should have realized right away that he was the perfect for the human villain in The Twisted Path, but it took an embarrassingly long time to make the connection. I almost never “cast” real people as the characters in my fiction, but in this case I had to. This friendly, toxic, weird and shallow guy made a perfect foil for blunt, self-conscious Ray Lilly. And once I had him in place, I realized I didn’t need that original predator at all. My oddball tour guide pushed it right out of the story.

And with any luck, he’ll never find out. I have no idea if he’d respond like the friendly, smiling tour guide or the furious, bitter, ranting guy who couldn’t believe that someone had actually told him no, and I’d rather not find out.


From the cover copy:

Ray Lilly has been summoned to the headquarters of the Twenty Palace Society to answer one question: How has he managed to survive mission after mission fighting alongside his boss, Annalise? He doesn’t have the power of a full peer of the society. He’s a wooden man. An assistant. A diversion. The other peers want to know what’s going on, so it’s off to Europe for a trip to the First Palace. And no place in the world is safer than inside the headquarters of the Twenty Palace Society, right?


Child of Fire, Harry Connolly’s debut novel and the first in The Twenty Palaces series, was named to Publishers Weekly’s Best 100 Novels of 2009. Both sequels, Game of Cages and Circle of Enemies, received starred reviews. He has also self-published a Twenty Palaces prequel titled, cleverly, Twenty Palaces.

In 2013, his Kickstarter for his Great Way trilogy was, at the time, the ninth-most funded campaign in the fiction category. The first book in that trilogy has gone on to sell over 13,000 copies.

Harry lives in Seattle with his beloved wife, his beloved son, and his beloved library system. You can find out more about him and his other books at

Spark of Life: Jaine Fenn on THE MARTIAN JOB

Writers joke about how there’s inspiration in shower water, but it’s true — backed-up-by-neuroscience true — that you’re often most primed to solve creative problems when you aren’t thinking about them. Washing dishes, driving somewhere, anything where you’re operating half by reflex, leaving the rest of your mind free to wander. So let’s let Jaine Fenn tell us about how going to a music festival solved her heist problem for her!


Jaine says:

cover art for THE MARTIAN JOB by Jaine FennIt started with a misquote…

Writers can be lazy creatures. It’s not that we don’t work hard when we have to but if we can find a way to make our difficult jobs a little easier, we’ll probably take it. So, when Newcon Press approached me to commission a novella, with the only stricture being that it had to be set on Mars, I had an idea which — I thought — would be an easy ride, as well as indulging my love of heist movies. I would take a classic heist story, and retell it on Mars, with added SF elements.

The movie in question was the British 60s classic, The Italian Job (not the remake; we don’t talk about the remake). My memory of the film was a bit hazy so I started out by re-watching it. Turns out, the plot would appal any Hollywood screenwriter today. The protagonist and his crew have it all their own way until the very end, when they don’t; everything’s going swimmingly then someone screws up for no good reason — worse, the film ends before this unexpected and un-foreshadowed twist is resolved. Hmm. So much for ripping the plot off wholesale.

So, what could I use? Obviously there had to be a car chase, for some value of ‘car’. And I needed to riff off the film’s most famous line. For anyone not familiar with it, this occurs when Michael Caine’s character is overseeing a practice run by his explosives expert. Said expert uses a bit too much bang-bang, and the car they were practising on gets blown to pieces, at which point Caine’s character pipes up, ‘You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!’ I decided that the SF version of this would be, ‘You’re only supposed to blow the outer airlock!’

And that, for some weeks, was all I had: a concept and a misquote. My protagonist, Lizzie, was taking up residence in my subconscious, but structure-wise I could not see how to make the story work. After I realised I wasn’t getting anywhere I decided to focus on the end, because I reckoned that’s where the original falls down.

The break came at a music festival, while I was having fun with friends and not consciously considering the problem. That’s another thing about writers — about most creatives in fact: sometimes the best way to solve a problem with your current project is to do something completely different. I came up with a final line which was a nod to what happened at the end of the film but, I felt, did actually resolve the situation. It ended up as the semi-penultimate line, and as it’s kind of a spoiler you’ll have to read the book to find out what it is.

Having finally pinned down my almost-final line unlocked the story for me. Lizzie Choi stopped being a fuzzy concept with a potentially interesting background and interesting foible (has a criminal family she’s trying to forget; fond of meaningless sex) and started to become a real person, the kind of person who would speak that penultimate line. I could even hear her, and when you start hearing your characters, it’s time to get down to work.

It would be an overstatement to say ‘The Martian Job’ wrote itself from there. But it was one of the easiest-to-write stories I’ve ever worked on. Hung on the scaffolding of a first line I’ve always wanted to use (‘If you’re listening to this, I’m dead’) with that misquote around halfway through and knowing what my closing lines were I could then build my story. It was almost as though I let Lizzie Choi do her stuff, then just sat back and watched.

I’m pretty happy with the result, and I’m not the only one: since coming out in December from Newcon, ‘The Martian Job’ has sold, as a reprint, to two other markets, and has appeared in Locus’s Recommended Reading List. Well done, Lizzie.


From the cover copy:

When Lizzie Choi receives a message from her brother telling her that he’s dead, she assumes it’s a joke. Lizzie, an employee of the powerful Everlight Corporation, already has to live under the cloud of her mother’s misdemeanours and could do without her brother, Shiv, adding further complications.

By the time she realises that this is no joke and comes to understand what is being demanded of her, she knows she’s in trouble. The last thing she wants to do is travel to Mars and take Shiv’s place in a criminal undertaking, especially one of such magnitude and danger, but…

Jaine Fenn is the author of the Hidden Empire space opera series, published in the UK by Gollancz, as well as numerous short stories, one of which won the 2016 British Science Fiction Association Shorter Fiction Award. She also writes for the video-games industry, working on games including Halo and Total War. Whilst she likes the idea of going to Mars, when it came to it she would probably chicken out.

You can find her on twitter as @JaineFenn, or support her on Patreon for unique access to audio recordings of her fiction at

Spark of Life: Joshua Palmatier on THE THRONE OF AMENKOR

When I decided to title this blog series “Spark of Life,” I didn’t expect that the moments where the characters and stories came to life would involve literal sparks. But in the case of Joshua Palmatier’s novel The Skewed Throne (the first book in The Throne of Amenkor omnibus), it really was the White Fire that brought things to live — or rather, his heroine’s response to it.


Joshua says:

cover art for THE THRONE OF AMENKOR omnibus by Joshua PalmatierThe “Throne of Amenkor” series—my first published trilogy—has a special place in my heart. The obvious reason is because THE SKEWED THRONE, the first book in the series, was the first novel I ever sold. But more importantly, it was because of its main character, Varis. In essence, she is the entire series. So I thought I’d talk about how and when Varis “came to life” for me.

The idea for the novel came from two sources: First, while writing another novel (unpublished), I had to will an ancient museum with interesting artifacts, and one of those artifacts was a throne that appeared warped in some way and those who approached it heard voices; this became the Skewed Throne. Second, I had an incredibly strong visual in my head of a young girl on the rooftops of a city, staring out over a harbor, with a wall of white fire approaching from across the ocean, stretching across the horizon. This became the White Fire, and was the catalyst for the story.

The woman in the visual was Varis, of course, but she hadn’t come to life yet. There was no spark at that point. Both of those images were static. The spark that brought her to life came almost immediately when I sat down to start writing. I began with the typical “portentous prologue” that seemed to be at the beginning of all fantasy novels in the 80s. The White Fire seemed perfect for this, after all. It was monumental in scope, affected everyone, would change the culture of the world. Perfect for a portentous prologue. So that’s where I began.

But then a magical thing happened. After a few paragraphs of this portentous prologue, that ponderous, powerful voice that everyone hears when reading such prologues got interrupted. By Varis herself. She cuts into it with a scathing remark. The interruption is jarring, and with a single line—“Fire, my ass”—you get an instant characterization of Varis herself. The contempt and self-reliance that comes across with those few words is what suddenly and immediately brought the entire book—what would become a trilogy—to life for me. The moment I typed those words, I drew in a sharp breath, because I knew that this character that I had yet to become familiar with had a life and depth that I would want to explore. She was going to be a powerful character, one that could sustain a series, someone who was strong and resilient and yet who had hidden hopes and vulnerabilities.

That moment was when the character—and thus the story—took life for me. Varis bloomed in my head, and while the plot centered around the White Fire and the Skewed Throne, that plot would have been empty and meaningless without the voice of Varis to tell it. That is how all of my novels get written: when a character or characters suddenly speaks and comes to life inside my head. It’s always about the character.


From the cover copy:

The Throne of Amenkor Trilogy omnibus brings together The Skewed Throne, The Cracked Throne, and The Vacant Throne for the first time.

One young girl holds the fate of a city in her hands. If she fails, it spells her doom—and the end of her world.

Twice in the history of the city of Amenkor, the White Fire had swept over the land. Over a thousand years ago it came from the east, covering the entire city, touching everyone, leaving them unburned—but bringing madness in its wake, a madness that only ended with the death of the ruling Mistress of the city.

Five years ago the Fire came again, and Amenkor has been spiraling into ruin ever since. The city’s only hope rests in the hands of a young girl, Varis, who has taught herself the art of survival and has been trained in the ways of the assassin. Venturing deep into the heart of Amenkor, Varis will face her harshest challenges and greatest opportunities. And it is here that she will either find her destiny—or meet her doom.

A professor of mathematics at SUNY College at Oneonta, Joshua Palmatier has published nine novels to date—the “Throne of Amenkor” series (The Skewed Throne, The Cracked Throne, The Vacant Throne), the “Well of Sorrows” series (Well of Sorrows, Leaves of Flame, Breath of Heaven), and the “Ley” series (Shattering the Ley, Threading the Needle, Reaping the Aurora). He is currently hard at work on the start of a new series, as yet untitled. He has also published numerous short stories and has edited numerous anthologies. He is the founder/owner of a small press called Zombies Need Brains LLC, which focuses on producing SF&F themed anthologies, the most recent being Submerged, The Death of All Things, and All Hail Our Robot Conquerors!. Find out more at or at You can also find him on Facebook under Joshua B. Palmatier and Zombies Need Brains, and on Twitter at @bentateauthor and @ZNBLLC.