Interview: the writers of Carmilla

  Carmilla, J. Sheridan LeFanu's 1871 novella that predates Bram Stoker's Dracula, is a seminal work of genre fiction.  It introduces the idea of the lesbian vampire, something that later writers would expand into its own genre (check out Hammer's The Vampire Lovers for a fairly faithful, if overtly sexed-up, version).  It's also surprisingly contemporary in its writing style.  So Read more

Movie Review: Mythica, A Quest for Heroes

Back in 2011, I stumbled on Arrowstorm Entertainment's Dawn of the Dragonslayer, a low-budget fantasy epic that had the look of a much more expensive film. But what really got my attention was the care given to the performances: leads Richard McWilliams and Nicola Posener really dug into their characters, and director Anne Black gave them the time to Read more

Dramatics Interreptus

My younger son turns seven in about a month, and the other day I realized that I was about that age when I realized just how important stories were to me. My parents left me to stay with friends of the family for an afternoon; I have no memory why. But while I was there, I started watching the TV Read more

Seeing It a New Way

In my teen writing class at the Mount Horeb Public Library last week, we segued into discussing Catcher in the Rye, and one of my students made the following observation (which I'm paraphrasing): Some of my friends have said that, since the characters in the book were rich, Holden's problems weren't that significant. But in so many other books I've read, Read more

A True Story of Frog-Gigging and Disappointment

I wrote the following piece for a memoir class taught by Michelle Wildgen, best-selling author of Bread and Butter and You're Not You (soon to be a movie starring Hilary Swank). When I was a kid growing up in rural Tennessee, my dad determined that I would follow in his footsteps and leave a trail of dead small animals behind Read more

Guest blog: Steve McHugh on Changing Times

Posted on by Alex in blog, fantasy literature, guest blog, writers, writing | 1 Comment

My friend novelist Melissa Olson put me on the track of Steve McHugh.  He’s the author of the Hellequin Chronicles series, about an immortal sorcerer who still battles evil in the modern day.  I asked him to talk a bit about how he chooses the flashback scenes for the novels, which jump back and forth through time, much like the film and TV series he mentions as an influence.–A.B. 

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Back in 1986 there was a film called Highlander. For those of you who haven’t seen it, just take my word for the awesomeness that was contained within that 90 mins. Apart from having Queen do the soundtrack and having a Frenchman play a Scotsman and a Scotsman play a Spaniard, the thing that stuck with me the most were the flashbacks. The main character, Connor Macleod (of the Clan Macleod) was a 500 year old Scottish warrior and the story followed his battle against an evil nemesis in 1980s New York. But throughout the story there were flashbacks to previous parts of his life, from the Highlands of Scotland to Nazi Germany.

McHugh_Crimes_Against_Magic_cvr_FINALI found it incredibly interesting that we got to see parts of his life throughout the ages. And then when the Highlander TV show started in ’92 (with Duncan Macleod) they kept the idea of each episode having flashbacks to the main characters 500+ life. So, when it came to write my own books, I knew I was going to use the idea. The main character, Nathan Garrett, is a 1600-year-old sorcerer, so that gave me a huge scope to add the flashback portions of his life into the book. I wanted the flashbacks to have a relevance to the storyline of the current time, be that introducing characters or situations that were still in the modern portion of the book. The hard part was figuring out what setting to use. Less than a quarter of the book would be set in the flashback sequences, but they still had to make sense and tie in with the modern story.

For Crimes Against Magic (the first book in the Hellequin Chronicles) it took me a while to work out the exact date that I wanted to use. I had the idea of setting it during the hundred years war in the 15th it down to the battle of Agincourt in 1415, but I didn’t want to use the battle itself as some would have noticed if there was a sorcerer flinging fire about the place. So after some research (and reading the wonderful Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell, I settled on the 1414 destruction of the city of Soissons. From there the flashback came pretty easily, as did having it sync up with the current story.

McHugh_Born_of_Hatred_cvr_FINALMy second book, Born of Hatred, was a little easier. I wanted to write it in the late 19th century in America. From there I just researched the country, getting closer and closer to the state that worked and eventually settling on Montana. At the time, Montana wasn’t part of the United States, so that gave me a few plot ideas and the managed to set the whole flashback in stone.

Book 3, With Silent Screams, isn’t out until next February, but it was the book that has given me the most trouble with the flashbacks. I originally had it down as being 1970s Wisconsin and even wrote it in that way, but over time it changed to 1970s Maine for various story reasons that just made sense.

I have several more books plotted out in the same series, and have already got ideas for the flashback parts for each one. Sometimes I think I’m just making my life harder for myself, but then I realize that I really do love writing the flashback parts and all the research that goes into making them engaging. Besides when you have a 1600 year old character to write, you might as well make use of his huge life to do things you could never do with a human character.

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Thanks to Steve McHugh for sharing his process.  You can find him at his website, on Facebook and on Twitter.

Genre respect and the NYT

Posted on by Alex in blog | Leave a comment

It’s an ongoing issue that genre fiction–mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, horror–is somehow less important than so-called “literary” fiction. That involves forgetting that in many cases the disposable genre fiction of yesterday (Jules Verne, HG Wells, Edgar Allen Poe, HP Lovecraft, Louis L’Amour, Jack London, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler) has become the acknowledged classics of today.

Still, it’s frustrating to still see this play out right in front of me, as it did last month in the New York Times. I won’t use the authors’ names here, because it’s not important; it’s not hard to figure out if you feel the need, but it’s utterly beside the point. To me, what’s important is how this “corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals” (props to Spiro Agnew) pronounces and supports its judgment.

Here are two excerpts from the literary novel’s review:

So does the new novel deliver? I’m not so sure…the author seems a bit lost, adrift in unfamiliar waters, and the book feels less like a second novel than it does another try at a first.

There is only so much we can read this way before we are overwhelmed by the desire to drop the pretense.

And here are two from the review of the genre novel:

[The author's] novel has the stylized quality of books by Angela Carter like The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, and it displays similar pyrotechnics.

Yet in a highwire act of her own, [the author] still raises the novel above the ordinary through her ability to convey the richness of the [characters’] emotional lives, coupled with impressive writing.

Clearly the first review was less than positive, while the second was close to a rave. Now, the kicker: which book got the three-page excerpt also published in the New York Times? That’s right, after their reviewer says “There is only so much we can read this way before we are overwhelmed by the desire to drop the pretense,” the Times decides to put that to the test.

As I said, I mean no disrespect to either writer. I do mean disrespect to this constant shafting of the genre in which I work, in which a lot of people do great work that readers actually want to read. How do I know? You don’t get David Foster Wallace conventions; you do get Terry Pratchett ones.

But perversely I also enjoy this lack of respect. Like Superman and Lex Luthor, or Batman and the Joker, your hero is measured against the strength and cunning of the villain opposing him/her. And when you get right down to it, the Literary Establishment is actually a lot like Lex Luthor: powerful, entrenched, sophisticated, and–most delightfully–fundamentally threatened by those aliens in their brightly colored costumes.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go put on my cape and long underwear.