The King in the Stone by Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban is an irresistible blending of history and legend. It’s a love story, a quest, an action-adventure tale, and a time-travel epic. Yes – all of those things – but mostly it’s a crackling good story that kept me reading well into the night. It’s told from alternating points of view of Andrea and Julian, two star-crossed lovers. The courage and determination of these characters, along with the complexity of their relationship keep the story moving along with plenty of twists and turns. There are a lot of other characters, but Ferreiro-Esteban handles her large cast so deftly that there is no confusion as to who’s who. One of the things I liked best about the book was the setting. Though the author doesn’t include a lot of lengthy descriptions, she manages to endue the mountains with such a sense of ancient wisdom and mystery that make it believable that this reality-bending adventure could actually happen. The writing style fits the story, with passages that are as magical as the mountain setting, yet the prose remains uncluttered and is never intrusive.
I was given an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The release date is July 25, 2016.
I’m delighted that Keith Shaw has agreed to share some of his thoughts about creating a believable world for fictional characters to inhabit. Having read his Neworld Papers, I have a great deal of respect for his opinion on this matter.
Here’s what Keith has to say:
As a writer, when you hear the term “world building” you might think, “Oh, that’s for science fiction and fantasy writers. It’s not for me.” But you’d be wrong. There are three distinct kinds of world building, and every novel—from memoirs, to whodunits, to space operas—contains at least one type.
- Created World — The Writer as God
This is the type of world building that most people think of first. Because created worlds do not exist, they are solidly in the realm of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. In books featuring created worlds, the world itself is often as important as any character living in it.
One of the best-known and most fully realized created worlds is J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythical Middle Earth. It is a highly detailed world that encompasses the cultures of men, elves, dwarves, orcs, wizards, and, of course, hobbits. Tolkien created volumes of historical backstory, genealogy, and even a written language.
- Altered World — The Writer as Instigator
An altered world is based upon the real world… but with a change. Altered-world books often fall into the realm of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fiction, where the author instigates one or more changes to the real world and then asks the question, “What if…?”
Science fiction: In The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick imagines a world in which the United States lost World War II.
Fantasy: Harry Potter lives in a world where magic coexists with the muggle world.
Horror: What classic horror story do you get when you ask the question, “What if a man could create life?” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
- Real World — The Writer as Reporter
This is the most common type of world building. No matter what genre you write, if your story is set in the world as we know it, you are limited to the knowledge, social structure, physicality, and technology that exists at the time and place of the stories.
Writers of historical fiction must make an actual time and place come to life for the reader. For instance, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is classified as fantasy, but you could argue that it takes place in two real worlds: Scotland of 1945 and Scotland of 1743. Claire Randall begins as a woman with twentieth century sensibilities in postwar Scotland—our first real world. Of course, Gabaldon uses magic as a device to transport Claire to 1745, but once there, the heroine is in the same place at another time. Gabaldon’s challenge was to create two distinctive versions of a real-world Scotland.
Mystery writers can set their detectives in a country manor house, a suburban neighborhood, or the gritty bowels of a city. The California world inhabited by Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone is different from Tony Hillerman’s Navajo reservation, home to Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Robert B. Parker’s PI (private investigator), Spenser, prowls the neighborhoods and social circles of Boston, while Sandra Carey Cody’s Jennie Connors investigates murders in middle-class suburbia and the Riverview Manor. The reader identifies the detectives with the world in which they exist.
So, even if you don’t write horror, sci-fi, or fantasy, your protagonist still lives within the confines of a world you have built. It doesn’t matter if your characters are cops, crooks, reporters, doctors, teachers, spies, or politicians. They come to life in a part of the real world unique to their own stories.
KB Shaw is the author of the YA science fiction series From the Shadows and Neworld Papers. A member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), he also writes short stories and screenplays and gives presentations and workshops on world building. Website: www.iPulpFiction.com
Thanks, Keith, for sharing your expertise.
I’ve been trying to find words to express what this day and the privilege of living in a free country mean to me, but none of mine seem adequate, so I’m borrowing some from Thomas Jefferson. I do this without apology. It can’t hurt to remind Americans (including me) of the principles that shaped us as a nation. So … the opening words of the Declaration of Independence:
IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united
States of America,
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Thank you, Thomas Jefferson, and the other brave men and women who made a free and independent life possible for so many of us.
Who is Christopher Latham Sholes and why am I thanking him? He’s the man who patented the typewriter, way back in 1868. His wasn’t the first typewriter, but those that came before weren’t very practical. Using them, it took longer to type a document than to handwrite it. Those early machines were so cumbersome that they were considered novelties and were used only by people who were very rich or very bored.
What prompted Mr. Sholes, a newspaperman in Milwaukee, to improve the existing typewriters? His printers went on strike and he had a paper to get out. What did he do? He, along with some collaborators, kept experimenting until they had a machine that made their jobs easier. Once again, necessity was the mother of invention.
The machine to the right doesn’t look much like the one on which I learned to type in high school and even less like the computer on which I pound out my ideas now. In fact, it looks downright intimidating. I’m not sure how long it would take me to write an entire book on one of those. Still, it was a huge step forward and I’m grateful for his persistence, as I’m sure are most of my writing cohorts. Ernest Hemingway is said to have loved his typewriter, which he placed on a high piece of furniture so he could write standing up. Jack Kerouac was so impatient he couldn’t stand having to change paper so often. He trimmed long sheets of drawing paper to fit in the typewriter. When he finished, he taped them together, creating a manuscript that was 120 feet long. How many words do you suppose that was?
I can’t help but wonder how many of today’s books would be unwritten if Mr. Sholes hadn’t persisted until he came up with a machine that was practical for use by ordinary people. I wonder if I would have the tenacity required. I have a hard time imagining writing without a delete key. Thank goodness I don’t have to.
So, join me, my friends, in thanking Christopher Sholes and all the other intrepid souls whose vision and persistence have given us tools that we take for granted.
Another interview this week – this time with KB Inglee, a fine writer, a fellow Sister in Crime, and a good friend.
Why a writer? Certainly not for the fame and fortune…or maybe it is?
I wrote my first short story when I was in fourth grade. It was called “A Star for Rosanne”. Star was a horse, but I don’t remember much about the story. Marguerite Henry was my favorite writer at the time, so I wrote it as I thought she would. When my daughter was young I wrote children’s stories for her. I was in my 50s before I started writing seriously. Why do I write? I have no idea, I just have to.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a New Englander with deep roots there. I have always loved history, so it was natural to start by writing historicals. Many years ago, just after I came up with Emily, I was on one of those internet communities that had nothing to do with writing. I made friends with someone who was also writing. He told me that I needed to do what I was writing about. I was shocked to find a living history museum within walking distance of my house. I started historical interpretation there. Delaware is not New England but I feel at home here.
Where can we find you on the internet?
Why did you choose the genre you write in and how would you describe your writing style?
My mother read mysteries and passed them on to me. I wrote my first Emily stories for her. I knew it was going to be either mystery or horse stories, maybe both. It was a longtime before I got started because I kept putting off the two things that scared me: characters and plot. You need a well-constructed plot for a mystery. Plot is still hard for me. Character turned out to be a snap. My stories are character driven traditional mysteries with a slight feminist twist.
Tell us about The Case Book of Emily Lawrence.
I’ve been writing Emily short stories for over 20 years. She and her friends were the first characters I developed. Case Book is a collection of 17 Emily stories starting in 1859 when she was seven, and ending in the 1890s. Emily is the daughter of a Harvard professor, who is expected to marry a professor and settle into an academic life. Instead she chooses a young man who wanted to be a detective. Most of the stories are of their life together in Washington DC, a few are about her life after his death. All are mysteries, but not all are crime stories.
If you could live in any world from a book or movie, which would it be and why?
I can think of lots I would like to visit, but none where I would like to live. The London of Sherlock Holmes, the countryside of Thomas Hardy, Colonial New England. Delaware in the years following the Revolution.
I imagine you’ve been reading all your life (all great writers have). What was your favorite book growing up?
Anything by Marguerite Henry.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I work at two living history museums. I tended a flock of heritage sheep for several years, I demonstrate a working water powered mill built in 1704. I read a lot, both fiction and non-fiction.
The infamous question- what advice would you give to any aspiring and new authors out there?
Write for the joy of it, and if you are serious, persist. I had written nearly fifty short stories and four novels before I had anything published.
What can we look forward from you in the future?
I am putting together a second series about a young man in New England in the years following the Revolution. He takes on whatever task is at hand and pays a bit. He tutors young men for the Harvard Entrance Exam, he keeps the books for farmers who aren’t good business men, he teaches at Andover Academy for a few weeks. His best friend is his horse. I knew I could get a horse in there somehow. Iccarus and Medusa made it into print once. And All Our Yesterdays, an anthology of historical mysteries, published by Darkhouse Books.
Thanks for your time!
Thanks for having me.
This week I have the pleasure of sharing my conversation with Don Swaim, author of The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce: A Love Story, Hippocampus Press, New York, 2016.
1) Why a writer?
It beats math. Besides, the creative impulse is a compulsion in people like myself, and I was comfortable with my childhood reclusiveness of reading and writing, at the age of six tapping out my first fledging stories on my mother’s Remington.
2) Tell us a little bit about yourself.
As early as high school I planned to be a writer of some sort, and studied journalism in college because, well, journalists wrote. After a career as a broadcast journalist, working in radio at CBS in New York for more than thirty years, I resigned to write full time. In the process, I fostered the Bucks County Writers Workshop, which initially met at the county’s free library.
3) Why did you choose the genre you write in and how would you describe your writing style?
I never chose a genre, but if I adopt any they choose me. Apologies for the cop-out, but if my writing style can be described, it’s eclectic.
4) Tell us about The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce: A Love Story.
I had written a slim literary thriller about H.L. Mencken, which was published by St. Martin’s Press, and was considering fictionalizing some other literary figure. I was familiar with Ambrose Bierce, having read his Civil War, supernatural stories, and humor, but was intrigued when I learned about his mysterious disappearance into Mexico, where he had gone hoping to reach Pancho Villa in 1913. To this day, Bierce’s whereabouts are unknown.
Carlos Fuentes had published a poetic short novel centered around Bierce, The Old Gringo, but I thought I might write a more extensive book focusing not only on Bierce’s bizarre eclipse in Mexico, but the totality of his life. The first part of the novel occurs in Mexico as Bierce rides with Villa during the revolution, the second part is set in Saratoga Springs, New York, where Bierce falls in love with a young widow; thus, validating the book’s subtitle. Both sections of the novel are filled with ample flashbacks to illuminate Bierce’s dramatic, often turbulent life and career.
In the many-year process of writing the novel, I launched an early Internet site devoted exclusively to Ambrose Bierce (http://donswaim.com), which is now the definitive online Bierce resource.
Researching and writing the novel was both exhilarating and difficult, but publishing it was a different challenge. I went through at least three agents and scores upon scores of rejections. It was the renowned scholar of fantasy and imagination, S. T. Joshi, who read a draft of the novel and championed it, which led to its publication by Hippocampus Press, a feisty, independent publisher in New York focusing on classic horror, poetry, and the scholarly.
5) If you could live in any world from a book or movie which would it be and why?
I’d be reluctant to live in a world without computers and antibiotics, but would relish standing at a bar quaffing cognac with the often misogynistic Ambrose Bierce as he pontificates on literature, politics, and the nature of man. He wasn’t always right but he was colorful and flamboyant.
6) I imagine you’ve been reading all your life (all great writers have). What was your favorite book growing up?
I was in love with the childhood classics, not knowing at the time they were jewels in our literary crown: The Wizard of Oz, Alice, Treasure Island, everything by Jules Verne, and in addition a beautiful little storybook for young children read to me by my mother, Little Buffalo Boy, written and illustrated by H.C. and Lucile Holling (1939).
7) What do you do when you’re not writing?
To most people, my existence would be an incredible bore since writing commands nearly all of my attention. That said, I’m a voracious reader, collect rare books and first editions, build and maintain websites, and fill my ears with enchanted music of all flavors.
8) The infamous question- what advice would you give to any aspiring and new authors out there?
I’d never be so presumptuous as to give anyone writing advice (outside of a workshop context), other than to say that if one doesn’t stick with it it’ll never be written.
9) What can we look forward from you in the future?
I have much to say, assuming I can find a forum for my tales about Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Walt Whitman, disc jockeys, and tabloid crime reporters.
10) Where can we find you on the internet?
The Ambrose Bierce Site: http://donswaim.com
Wired for Books: http://wiredforbooks.org/swaim/
Book Beat: The Podcast: http://donswaim.com/bookbeatpodcast.html
Bucks County Writers Workshop: http://donswaim.com/buckswriters.html
WCBS Newsradio88: http://donswaim.com/wcbsnewsradio88.html
Thanks for your time, Don. The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce: A Love Story sounds fascinating. I look forward to reading it. By the way, love the cover.
I wasn’t thrilled when our book group chose All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Duerr. I’d heard a lot of good things about the book, plus it was suggested by someone whose opinion I particularly admire, so I didn’t object, but I have to admit my first thought was Oh, no. Not another book about World War II and German brutality. I was wrong. This book is different from most that I’ve read. I was immediately drawn in by the writing itself: sumptuous descriptions, inclusion of details that added texture and layers of meaning to the settings and the people who inhabited them. Even more important was the theme of the story: the humanity of individuals trapped and transformed by the inhumanity of war.
The story unfolds in short chapters – so short, in fact, that they seem more like bursts of memory than episodes in a novel. There are multiple points of view (one of my favorite story-telling devices). The two main characters are a French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, six years old and newly blind when the story begins, and a German boy, Werner Pfennig, age eight, living in an orphanage in a coal-mining town, obviously intelligent, but without much promise of a future when we first meet him.
Doerr juxtaposes the girl’s lack of sight and the resulting heightening of her other senses with the boy’s fascination with invisible radio waves to evoke the unseen life teeming around us – to make us aware of possibilities waiting to be explored.
I won’t go into plot points because the book isn’t about events, but rather about the inner workings of the human spirit. We witness the step-by-step progression from innocence to evil as we are shown the training methods of an elite school for German youth, but, even here, no one is totally evil. Even the least admirable character is given small moments in which we sense what he might have been had it not been for the horror of war.
Some characters risk their lives to help destroy the invading force, but they can’t accomplish much on their own. In order to prevail, good needs good. To me, the most tragic figure in the book was Frederick, a sensitive boy who became part of the Hitler Youth – not to further his own interests, but because his patriotic German parents desired it. Without actively rebelling, he resists efforts to break and dehumanize him and is ultimately destroyed. Having said that, I have to wonder if his actions were really in vain. At least one other boy recognized his heroism and was moved by it. Were there others whose thoughts we did not see who were similarly affected?
One of the points that came up in our group’s discussion was whether or not Werner was an albino. Doerr makes it a point to repeatedly state how blond (actually white) the boy’s hair is, how pale his eyes. My own feeling is that he was not an albino, but that the author used his physical appearance to portray the ultimate example of the blond Aryan favored by Hitler. This, coupled with Werner’s performance when he is chosen to attend an elite school, shows him as the seemingly ideal Hitler Youth. The genius of the book lies in the fact that the reader understands the sensitivity and humanity that lie beneath that façade.
Volkheimer, a brutal killer who loves music, says of Werner: “What you could be.” I closed the book thinking the same could be said of any character within its pages.