16 December 2012

Guest Blog: Alma Alexander

This week, we’re welcoming author Alma Alexander whose title EMBERS OF HEAVEN blends history and fantasy. Alma is be here to talk about the novel and offer a  copy to a lucky winner. Here's the blurb:

Four hundred years after The Secrets of Jin-shei, the Syai Empire is on the brink of civil war. A new voice preaching equality promises hope for the downtrodden, but the ensuing people’s revolution brings terror, reeducation camps, and death to anyone embracing the old ways.

An outsider and a child of two worlds, Amais searches for the magical bond of jin-shei, the women’s oath, in her ancestral home of Syai, unaware that her quest will bring her to the very person who may destroy her and her family. And yet, she must face him, or all hope for Syai will be lost…

**Q&A with Alma Alexander**

What's the one thing that keeps you going back and writing?

Well, there are stories to be told. They more or less march up to me and they shake me by the shoulders if I have been procrastinating too long and they more or less tell me to get on with things, if I don't mind, thank you. My stories are in a way my muses - they kind of inspire and re-inspire themselves until they are done, and I keep going back to them and talking to them and cajoling them and yelling at them and threatening dire action if they don't do as I say... They are my friends, and a collective nemesis, and they demand that I tell them.

What can I do but obey? I am but a humble writer, and they need my mind and my hand to release themselves out into the world. So I lend them. Willingly. Often. Again and again.

Why did you base "Secrets of Jin Shei" on a fictional China instead of making it a pure fantasy setting, as in, say, “Changer of Days”?

The first inkling I had of the story which became "Secrets of Jin Shei" was a page of ten character sketches, each a short paragraph long - the characters were nameless and faceless at this point, all that existed of them was their history. I kind of knew that they were going to be Oriental but not that they were to be specifically Chinese-inspired. Until I received a newspaper clipping about a dying language, a written women's language taught from mother to daughter in China - and of how the last woman who had learned it organically in this way, now in her nineties, was dying, and would take the living language with her. And my ten character sketches sat up and became people, and after that China was inevitable.

With the fantasy duology, "Hidden Queen"/"Changer of Days", it was more of a pure joyous storytelling, something that came from absolutely nowhere but my own imagination. It was tied to nothing and nobody that had ties to or roots in the "real", our, world.

Every book is different. Look at just these two examples - one purely imaginary, the other researched and rooted in an actual historical and geographical setting but still fantasy and not REALLY that - and then, the new one, the latest one, "Midnight at Spanish Gardens", is set in a cafe called Spanish Gardens... which existed once. Exactly as I described it.

A story chooses its context - at least, my stories do. Stories are like semi-sentient jewels, seeking for the setting that best shows them off. And they know best.

What are some of your favorite resources for research? Do you purchase the books you need, or find them at the library?

Yes. [grin]

The expanded answer is yes, I buy them, I borrow them, I cadge them from friends if they have what I need, I use whatever means necessary.

And let me put in a plug here for used bookstores. There are two in the town in which I live, and they are fantastic - and they are STUFFED with treasures, some which you never knew you needed until you trip over the actual volume in a bottom shelf somewhere. I've found gems of obscure biographies in these stores, books long out of print, which contained PRECISELY the context I needed for a scene or a chapter or a character. I've found illustrated coffee table books which I would never have been able to afford new being sold for a kind of price that was well within my budget - and the pictures in which gave birth to spectacular settings in my novels. Old outdated encyclopedias can be invaluable resources (as in, "Good GRIEF - they actually believed THAT?")

I remember walking up to a bookstore employee once and asking him, semi-seriously, "If I were a book on Byzantium, where would I be?" (He pointed me to the right shelf with a big smile). Memoirs, letters, even old creaky out of print novels by writers you've never heard of which happen to be set in the world which you are researching. As always, caveat emptor - you have to do ENOUGH research to know what's true and what's pure malarkey - you have to know the real rules before you are allowed to break them. But anything can be grist to the mill.

Research can be intoxicating and dizzying and it may be difficult for the neophyte to know just when to STOP. But while you're doing it, it's amazing, it's like riding a wild horse without tack, and you never quite know where you're going to end up. And sometimes that final destination is quite, quite different from the one you thought you were aiming at. Good research will do that - redirect you to Wonderful, instead of just This Will Do - if you let it.

What scene do you like the most? Is there anything a character did that surprised you? 

I'm going to answer this one as pertains to the newest latest novel, "Midnight at Spanish Gardens".

Truth is, concerning favourite scenes, that I find it hard to answer these questions - because there are a dozen scenes in this book, which I love. The scenes that bookend the book - Olivia's thoughts on Spanish Gardens as she first approaches it, after so many years have passed since her last visit, and her thoughts about the place in the aftermath of the whole story that takes place between the covers of this book. The scene where John finds out about... but that would be a kind of spoiler, and this is one of the most powerful scenes in the book. The scene where Dorotea meets Quincey's family at their wedding.

Several of the conversations in Spanish Gardens itself at the reunion.

Almost every scene with Ariel. The thing about scenes, for me, is that they have never been something that stands out as and of themselves. I know some writers literally use them as building blocks for a novel, working scene by scene, building up a story that way - whereas I tend to tell the story and then be surprised when it breaks up into discrete scenes afterwards. I am a most organic writer, and to me the value is in the whole, not the scenes. That said... YOU, the reader, might find individual scenes, which matter more than others. If anyone out there wants to let me know which, I would be fascinated to hear it.

And as for my characters doing things to surprise me... EVERYTHING my characters do surprises me. My best characters are very much in charge of their own stories. I have learned the hard way that my characters are not TAME characters - they are not hawks trained to jesses and hood. I set them free, and then I follow where they lead me. Everyone is happier that way. And my characters, my lovely ever surprising characters, are real people who live and breathe, they are someone you just haven't met yet, but they exist. And if they walked out of the book, off the page, and stuck out their hand for you to shake it, you'd recognise them even if you have never formally met. Yes, they surprise me. I've been known to weep at some of the things my characters have chosen to do. I wouldn't have it any other way.

And on the heels of that...

Anghara has been around for a long time and you often say the Jin-Shei girls basically forced you to write their story. Which characters were the most difficult for you to write, and why?

The characters from "Midnight at Spanish Gardens" have traces of people I have known who once also frequented that cafe. One of the things that Simon tells Olivia about her life choices - "you are just misguided" - was actually uttered in that place. And more than that, the person who said it remembers saying it. Sometimes things are just given to you and they are gifts indeed.

Writers are often asked how they create characters - and some will tell you that they have charts or biographical files, everything meticulously noted and sketched out, characters drawn with an almost dictatorial hand - thus you shall be, Character A, and  no other way.... My characters, instead, tend to step fully formed out of the woodwork and stick out their hand and say, "Hi, my name is X, this is my story, start writing." I often don't know all that much about them, factually, biographically, except what they choose to tell me in a context where they believe information is pertinent or required. But on the other hand I know these characters far, far better in some ways than the carefully scripted ones can ever be known. Because mine can slide right off their original storyline... and it doesn't matter, because they are real enough to take the altered timelines and CHANGE WITH THEM if that is necessary. Which is, often, where they surprise me the most.

This might sound impossible, almost insane, to a non-writer, or to a writer of carefully regimented casts of characters who believes that giving them this much of a head can only lead to disaster. But really, this is not difficult at all. The thing a writer like me quickly learns to do is just listen well, and the stories which are filtered through me are mine only to shape and to polish. They are their characters' tales to tell. And I know how to keep out of the way. That’s the BEST way to treat characters who know what they are doing.

Do you intend to write a sequel, and what is the next project you are working on?

Again, a sweeping question. There are always sequels if you look for them. There MAY be another story in the Jin Shei universe, someday.

There definitely is another tale in the Changer of Days universe, but it's on the back burner. What I'm working on now, oddly, is the final "sequel" which will round off my Worldweavers series to a satisfying conclusion - and the finale is either going to be one fat book, or the final installment divided into two shorter volumes. But it's a ripsnorter of a story, and I am finding incredible ways in which everything ties together at the end - although, as I have already said elsewhere, I have a fantastic cast of characters and it shouldn't surprise me that they know what they are doing... After that, I have a couple of other projects in the pipeline. In the meantime I have a slew of shorter fiction out in the Fall 2012/Winter 2013 bracket - stories in anthologies "Dar Faith 2: Invocations", "Scheherezade's Facade", "Airships & Automatons" and another Steampunk anthology coming out soon  from Sky Warrior Books, as well as sales to publications such as Phantom Drift (October 2012) and Aoife's Kiss (coming up in the spring of 2013). There's plenty out there to read.

Future projects include another YA series, a new historical fantasy, and a new fantasy trilogy, Coming soon. Watch my blog, my Facebook fan page or my website for details...

Alma Alexander is the author of Secrets of Jin Shei and Embers of Heaven. Read Alma’s personal blog and access her articles at www.SFNovelists.com - on the 5th of every month - and www.Storytellersunplugged - on the 30th of every month.  Follow Alma on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook  and visit her Amazon page.