A Fantasy Author's Adventures in Fiction & Life

Category: Books & SFF Author Interviews

Twitter’s slow death has made 2023 a hard year for authors to celebrate our books, with many of us (myself included) losing our biggest platform. Meanwhile, many diverse authors are still finding the surest path to get our books out into the world is going indie. But without financial backing or publisher connections to promote our books, indie books of even the highest standard risk languishing in obscurity.

So as a queer, neurodiverse, chronically ill indie author of fantasy worlds, the logical thing was to showcase SFF worlds, diverse characters and key themes fellow authors of other worlds have written here. Most of the thirteen books in this post are first in a series, and all come with a Goodreads link to bookmark for future reading if you wish.

Genre: cozy epic fantasy set in pre-medieval times.

Cast:
Asexual spectrum rep (ownvoices). and gender non-conformity.

Major themes:
blind fear & hate vs. good, love and friendship in day-to-day life.

Short
Blurb: in a world where dragons & their riders are feared & killed, the life of one devout village huntress is changed forever when she meets a dragon hatchling.

Series info: book 1 of 3, all out now.

Goodreads: link

Book cover
Title: DragonBirth
Image: young woman kneels before grey baby dragon, between two broad trees in a forest.

Genre: Victorian Steampunk

Cast: includes black & queer characters, variable socio-economic backgrounds, a talking cat.

Major themes: capitalism, equality, and societal expectations.

Short Blurb: Solving crimes is hard enough with secret societies and criminal chocolatiers to contend with, but add to that Dexter the talking mechanical cat, and it’s safe to say John Sinister is not having a good day.

Series info: stand alone, out now.

Goodreads: link

Book cover
Title: Dexter & Sinister, Detecting Agents
Image: grey and white cat wearing goggles on its forehead and a green scarf sits looking up and out at the viewer, on a red background.

Genre: Scifi/ Mystery/ Comedy -recent past Earth & alternate dimensions.

Cast: bi main character.

Major themes: friendship, maturity, growing older.

Short Blurb: They’re not detectives, but they have to become detectives in order to figure out who’s telling people that they’re detectives.

Series info: book 1 of 3, all out now.

Goodreads: link

Book cover (mostly blue toned)
Title: Duckett & Dyer, Dicks for Hire
Image: one detective raises an arm to their neck and looks uncertainly at the other, who thumbs up's the viewer with a crooked, uncertain smile Between them stands a dark, yellow eyed bull flanked by hands with eye balls instead of finger tips.
Bellow the title, a gun shoots a blue squiggle and sparks.

Genre: epic, portal, YA fantasy with beginnings in Australia, but mostly set in an alternate world (Umarinaris).

Cast: nonbinary and aromantic asexual leads (ownvoices), other queer, neurodiverse and BIPOC characters.

Major themes: found family, friendship, optimism and visionary leadership vs. adversity and war.

Short Blurb: King Kyura doesn’t want to invade Tarlah. Heir Ruarnon doesn’t want their people invaded and Aussie Linh has no desire to visit another world. But this book isn’t about getting what you want, it’s about people doing their best under exceptionally challenging circumstances.

Series info: book1 of 3 (1-2 out now, 3 on pre-order till April 2024 release).

Goodreads: link

Other Worlds -SFF Books Showcase

Genre: YA fantasy alternate history set in 1600s Viking and Spanish settled Canada.

Cast: First Nations / Indigenous rep, queer rep (after book 1 including ownvoices bi rep and lesbian, gay, trans, ace/aro rep.)

Major themes:
anti-colonialism, anti-racism, climate change, elemental/ nature-based magic, people’s lives diverging within parallel worlds diversity.

Short Blurb
: A rebellious heroine faces a colonial world coming unstitched: in a region tainted by prejudice and on the brink of civil war, 17-year-old Kateiko has to decide what’s worth dying – or killing – for.

Series info: book 1 of 4, all out now.

Goodreads: link

Book cover
Title: The Call of the Rift, Flight
Image: A teenage girl walks alone through a dim, misty rainforest, carrying a spiked flail and magically lifting tendrils of water from a creek. The girl has brown skin, long brown hair blowing in the wind, and an arm tattoo of a bird and flowers. She wears a brown belted tunic, green leggings, tall fur-lined boots, leather bracers, and an embroidered red cloak. A line at the top says, 'The wind dies a thousand deaths, and still it returns.' "
and thanks so much, by the way!

Genre: gothic horror/dark fantasy-ish set in 13th century Eastern Europe in the fictional country Tristanja.

Cast: Bi & pan rep, demiro, polyam, and PTSD (ownvoices for the queer rep/polyam and PTSD).

Major themes: overcoming/healing from PTSD, rediscovering your sexual self after sexual trauma.

Short Blurb: Meya is Lord Deminas’ latest chambermaid and favourite source of blood to drink. To avoid being his next servant to vanish, she must uncover all of Castle Tristanja’s dark secrets.

Series info: 1 of 2 related books, both out now.

Goodreads: link

Book cover
Title: My Lord
Image: naked young woman kneels in a bare stone room, strange red markings on the floor around her, a gold goblet before her, her hands raised and long, dark red hair flowing over her pale skin.

Genre: dark urban fantasy set in modern times (the 90s-present years) in small American cities.

Cast: includes a trans man, mental illness/ disability and DID rep (ownvoices).

Major themes: religious trauma, reversing the light vs dark narrative (dark’s good, light’s evil), angels & demons.

Short Blurb: Follow a trans man trauma survivor from childhood to adulthood as they face not only an evil angel, but also a sinister entity in their own head.


Series info: book 1 of 2 out now.


Goodreads: link

Book cover
Title: Everything is Wonderful Now
Image: upwards angle at a stone statue of a bare chested man, one hand raise to stone, wind blown locks, eyes wide, mouth open to cry out.


Genre: Dark Paranormal Fantasy set a few 100yrs from now in a post-apocalyptic world.

Cast: includes a lesbian and many POC characters.

Major themes: simple living, with money, rulers & religion no longer tolerated.

Short Blurb: An eviction. A stolen gemstone. A hidden network. Will retrieving her precious obsidian get Tricky killed.

Series info: book 1 of 2 out now.

Goodreads: link.

Book cover
Title: Dead Lake
Image: wooden slatted side of a house before golden, sunlit lake waters, a thin tree rising on the right.

Genre: YA sci-fi Futuristic setting near future (2165)

Cast: A plus size Jewish protagonist (ownvoices).

Major themes: a morally gray hero, how where we grow up influences our choices and perspective.

Short Blurb: Jorden Lund isn’t the chosen one, he’s the guy who volunteered. His suicide mission: build a bomb, destroy a space ship and save the world. Falling in love was not part of the plan. Now completing his mission means sacrificing the girl he loves.

Series info: book 1 of 2 out now.

Goodreads: link.

Book cover
Title: The Goodbye Kids
Image: space background, planet in sky, silhouette of girl and boy leaning towards each other in foreground, with full body silhouettes of them running hand in hand across a platform, a burning ship in space beyond them.

Genre: Scifi/Fantasy set in the US – 2,000 years from now.


Cast:
Black, Latino and queer leads.

Major themes:
accepting oneself/found family, bringing down corrupt govt/upsetting the status quo.

Blurb:
In the distant future, the United States is long gone… the Realm stands in its place… and one peasant woman will become the catalyst for a revolution. The Serrulata Saga is a speculative dystopian sci-fi adventure you won’t want to miss.

Series info: book 1 of 5 out now.

Goodreads: link.

Book cover
Title: Gathering of Four
A young black woman with short hair stands in a red dress, her hands raised either side, flames burning from them. A young woman stands with a revolver raised in her right hand on the left, two men standing on the right, one holding a raised sword.

Genre: Dystopia/Sci-Fi World/Era: Near future Earth and alternate universe intersecting with it.

Cast:
mental health rep (own voices), lesbian lead.

Major themes:
What is a human? How much impact can one person have on the world? Bigotry & othering.

Short
Blurb: Local dumpster fire has her ex come back into her life. Plot twist — the ex is an android.


Series info: book1 of 2 out now.

Goodreads: link.

Book cover
Title: Kotov Syndrome
Image: a young woman's face, anime cartoon-ish style, her face framed with a long brown fringe on both sides and over her nose, her eyes glowing red, her mouth tiny and open.

Genre: urban fantasy/Sci-Fi set in the multiverse.

Cast/ Major themes:
include Dissociative Identity Disorder, Autism, kink/body positivity, and being transgender/queer by a trans, neurodivergent POC author with DID.

Short Blurb:
Years after a senseless murder, an autistic transgender man and his young teen nephew hope to finally find closure. Instead they are whisked away into the vast multiverse where a mentally unstable robot is set to activate the Mortal Engine.

Series info: book 1 of 2 out now.

Goodreads: link.

Book cover
Title: Mortal Engine
Image: a man with glowing red skin and a black beard stands with fanged mouth open, swathed in a bright blue, interior glowing red cloak, with neon lines waving around him.

Genre: Future, alien planet

Cast:
LGBTQA+ main characters (except the gorilla, though apparently no one’s asked him 😉 ).

Major themes:
good vs bad, interplanetary culture clash.

Short Blurb:
When space poachers release Earth animals on an alien world, threatening a fragile new alliance, they anger the wrong people: a veterinarian, an accountant, and a furious sign-language-fluent gorilla are coming for them.

Series info: stand alone, out now.

Goodreads: link.

Book cover
Title: A Swift Kick to the Thorax
Image: floating manuscript pages over outer space background, pen floating below, bite mark in bottom right corner of pages.
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SFF Author Interviews:
Mara Lynne Johnston (Swift Kick to the Thorax -Comedy SciFi).
Debbie Iancu Hadad (The Goodbye Kids, YA SciFi)
Natalie Kelda (YA SFF)
Elise Carlson (Epic YA Fantasy)

Manipulator’s War: Origins

Natalie was one of the last fellow fantasy author’s I was lucky enough to meet before Twitter imploded. We face similar chronic illness challenges, but are still making steading progress bringing our fantasy books out into the world. This Fantasy Author Feature Natalie Kelda talks about mental health, the theme of finding joy and belonging in her SFF books.

Tell us a bit about you. Where’s home and what’s your life like outside writing? 

I currently live in West Yorkshire, UK but I was born and raised in Denmark. I moved to the UK to study some 7 years ago and somehow landed a job through volunteering and love it here too much to leave. Outside my 9-5 office job I spend most of my time writing or talking my adventure cat, Barry, on walks. Due to some ongoing health issues I don’t hike or do any martial arts at the moment but I hope I can return to these activities eventually as they give me a lot of joy and I certainly miss them.

What drew you to your genre/audience age?

Worlds different to our contemporary one have always been what drew me to reading fiction so it makes sense I mostly write fantasy, sci-fi and historical fiction. I love exploring the other and getting a break from modern life and nothing is more immersive than creating those new worlds yourself. While I enjoy reading everything from MG to adult, my voice and the themes I usually explore lend themselves best to adult audiences. I have dabbled in MG and YA but find it difficult not to become too whimsical when writing for younger audiences and I don’t enjoy having to mind the layers and themes I imbue a story with. So basically, I enjoy as much creative freedom as possible.

What are some big themes your writing explores?

I tend towards the dark side of mental health and the human experience. I enjoy scrutinising humanity’s faults and weaknesses. Sometimes this means my main characters are very morally grey and stepping on the fine lines between good or bad. Other times the main characters are the ones fighting a corrupt and (often) incorrigible society that tries to kick them back down when they’re straining to stay upright. Most of my main characters have poor mental health. Not only are they fighting an unfair system, they’re also fighting their own inner demons and these can prove a lot more difficult to get rid of or live with than the crooked government.

Found family and a sense of belonging are secondary but almost as strongly recurring themes. The sense of being lost and directionless, of not having a place to fit in, of being other and different to everyone around them. Their stories regularly revolve around finding ‘their place’ and ‘their people’.

What drives your point of view characters? 

I think it usually boils down to finding happiness and a place to belong. Sometimes external forces trip them up but often they lay down booby traps in front of themselves, never even seeing the tripwires they need to dismantle in order to find that place of joy they’re searching for. They might know the end of the road they want to reach but can’t see what’s right before them. They’re also often fiercely protective of the people they call family – at least once they find those people. 

How much do your point of view characters resemble or differ from you? 

It varies between each character. I don’t purposely add something of myself as my main characters (and often most of the side characters too) appear in my mind like preformed people. Some will have one small thing – Merlon struggles with insomnia, Tara and Balfour with anxiety while Cali has my touch and noise sensitivity – others won’t really have much at all in common with me. Iolanthe believes slavery is fine and Torhildr thinks those who she judges unworthy deserve to be killed, obviously neither of those are things I would ever agree with. I do notice I have certain types of characters appear more often than others and this usually matches with my own personality. Most are depressed or anxious, many don’t like being the centre of attention and would be described as “reserved” or “quiet” if someone met them.

What influenced the settings they inhabit?

In my space fantasy series, Inner Universe, I have created a huge world with enough planets and galaxies I can take full advantage of all the travelling I have done. I have been extremely fortunate that I saved up enough (by working 3 jobs while studying) to move abroad, alone, at age 21 and from there on I worked in countries all around the globe. This means I have first hand experience with both Outback Australia and working outdoors during Canadian winter. I can pull on skills learned while doing martial arts and Viking reenactment when I write fight scenes and know what it’s like to forage your own food or live without electricity and running water for months at a time. I noticed a shift in my writing from before I had all those life experiences to after and definitely hope I’m not done raking up knowledge first-hand by going out there and doing the things most people only read about.

What do you gain from writing your books and what do you hope your readers will gain from them? 

This ties back to the main themes in my stories: mental health and belonging. I suspect I’m autistic and have never truly fitted in anywhere. I struggle a lot with chronic depression and moderate anxiety but the one thing that consistently helps and keeps me afloat is writing characters who keep fighting even when they face much larger challenges than I (hopefully) ever will. It’s my hope that my stories don’t just bring catharsis and healing for myself but also for other people who find life difficult – because it’s really bloody hard sometimes and it can be nice to read about characters who aren’t so different to yourself.

Where can we find your books?

Author hand-stamped paperbacks and my free short stories are available on my website(https://nataliekelda.co.uk/shop) while ebooks of River in the Galaxy and Outer Universe can be found on Amazon and they are available through Kindle Unlimited as well.

Fantasy Author Feature: Natalie Kelda

Author bio

Storytelling and inventing new worlds has been a part of Natalie’s life since before she could read or write. Nowadays she mostly writes in English but you’ll often discover hints of her native Danish or some of the other languages she has picked up along the way.


Website Twitter Bluesky


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Related Reading

You’ll find more talk of fantasy characters, setting and world-building inspiration in:

Fantasy Author Features: Nikky Lee (YA SFF)

Debbie Iancu-Hadad (YA Fantasy & SciFi)

Mara Lyne Johnson (Comedy SciFi)

Nikky’s Interview Of Me

Ash Oldfield’s Interview of Me

Where Fantasy Worlds Come From

Where do you get your ideas? is a question writers are often asked. But the question that interests me more is ‘where do the ideas for an entire fantasy world come from’? Having already blogged about the cultures and characters in my YA Fantasy Trilogy, I took the question to three fellow SFF authors: Joyce Reynolds-Ward, Mindi Briar and J.F.R. Coates.

How did you develop your magic system(s)?

J.F.R Coates

I love magic. A well-done magic system can add a huge amount of depth and interest to a world, and it’s no a surprise I’ve found a way to include magic in every story I’ve written so far.

I believe there are several important factors to consider when coming up with a magic system. How widespread is this magic system? Who can use it? What is the source of magic? And how is it used?

With my sci-fi series, I took a different approach. I worked hard to make something separate to the Force in Star Wars, so I linked the magic to the subspace dimension that also controls the setting’s FTL travel. Only a select few can utilise this magic, and it allows for the manipulation of inorganic matter. There is even one character who can sense the ripples of distant events through this dimension, giving him a limited ability to see into the future. Knowledge of this magic is strictly controlled by the religious fascist antagonists, so exploration of these newly-developed powers is just one of the many ways the main protagonist can break away from his old life.

Joyce Reynolds-Ward

In the Goddess’s Honour world, magic is tied to tangible things. It’s present in the land to various degrees, and the leaders of various nations must be able to channel and control that land’s magical strength in order to lead. Some nations require that the prospective leaders be able to weave a Tapestry or create some other sort of artefact that is reflective of the combination of their strength and the land’s.

In Becoming Solo, each chapter has an epigraph from assorted guides to that world’s particular form of witchcraft. Since Solo is, essentially, 4H Style Revue with magic, I needed a magic system that could be incorporated into clothing –and a reason for why it was so important for the woman winning assorted Crowns–Style, in this case to win those crowns, as well as what it meant to the magic system.

Mindi Briar

The “magic” in the Halcyon universe derives from the existence of alien dragons, who are able to teleport and read minds. I hate long travel scenes and wanted a way for my characters to travel between planets instantaneously. The dragons became intense pacifists who won’t teleport anyone they perceive as distressed, which means that pilots often have to take calming drugs. That prompted a bunch of questions about what it would mean for humanity to be in a symbiotic relationship with aliens.

In Adrift in Starlight, the dragons are revealed to be hiding the existence of other alien races from humans to protect the aliens. Later in the series, as the trust between humans and dragons breaks down, humans begin working on ways to steal the dragons’ power for themselves using genetic modification. This results in a group of humans who have dragon-like powers —the excuse I needed to give my characters “magic” but keep it plausible in the realm of science fiction.

What informs secular culture in your world?

J.F.R. Coates

This largely depends on what genre I’m writing, as that can play a big part into my vision for the world. My fantasy setting of Farenar tends to be one that I would like to live in – there is still conflict there, with wars between the gods and different interpretations of magic providing plenty to keep interesting, but I don’t tend to include a lot of the bigotry present in our world.

My sci-fi series, on the other hand, was a look towards the future of this world. I considered what might happen a few hundred years into the future if a few certain key events played out – largely revolving around the rise of the Catholic Church returning to a place of utmost power, like it had wielded in the Medieval Ages. This resulted in a pretty grim fascist empire controlling two of the three star systems humanity had reached. This also gave me a chance to explore the third system through the story, with all the issues and problems they face.

Mindi Briar

Quite honestly, I’m writing a world I would want to live in. I got into solarpunk back in 2015, and that’s been a huge inspiration for the planet Halcyon. I came at it with the mindset of, “If I got dropped on a new planet to build a society from the ground up, how would I structure it?” So I made it a socialist utopia where everyone works together for the common good, with the dragons as telepathic enforcers to keep everyone honest. It took a lot of drafts to fully flesh out my ideas, and half of it doesn’t even hit the page until book 3 in the series.

The other planets in the Halcyon universe are the late-stage capitalism foil to Halcyon’s socialism. There’s environmental damage, prison slavery, wealthy people taking too many resources…the Imperial government is kind of my take on where society could go if nothing ever changes.

How did you decide who would occupy positions of power?

J.F.R Coates

Characters in positions of power come in various forms in my stories – I definitely have a few with noble goals and intentions, but probably an equal number who abuse that power. Some even sway from one side to the other. The type of character they are can depend a lot on what my intentions for that power structure are. It is no coincidence that those in power in the fascist empire of the Reborn setting are older white men.

Monarchy and hereditary rule isn’t always portrayed as evil in my worlds, but it does lean that way more often than not. I like to display it as a flawed system, even when the characters in power have the best of intentions. This is certainly shown through the Destiny of Dragons fantasy series, where two of the main characters get their opportunity to rule, with varying levels of success.

Joyce Reynolds-Ward

Positions of power are tied to both leadership roles and the favour of the Seven Crowned Gods in the Goddess’s Honour world.

In Becoming Solo, leadership roles are earned by proof of magical strength and becoming a Solo-qualified magician, either by Academy graduation or else winning Fair Crowns. Otherwise, the witch either loses their power or must join a family spell matrix, where their power joins with others to produce magical goods. Solo magicians get to take credit for their creation. Family spell matrix participants are not identified in the products that the family creates for the use of those who are magical and non-magical.

Mindi Briar

In early drafts, Halcyon was ruled by a queen. It was my fantasy-world default, because who doesn’t love a good royalty story? However, the deeper I dove into worldbuilding, the more obvious it became that a monarchy was fundamentally incompatible with the idea of a socialist community. It had to become a democracy. But I still left the dragons in charge because their control of human culture had interesting implications that I wanted to explore.

In contrast, all the other planets in the Halcyon Universe are controlled by an emperor—one man with absolute power. This is portrayed as problematic in a number of ways that are, again, based on my frustrations with real-world systems of government.

What inspired religions?

J.F.R Coates

Religion takes a massive role in both of my settings. In the Reborn series, the entire conflict revolves around the position of the Catholic Church as the primary antagonist. I took a deliberate look at the church in the modern day and extrapolated out what I believed to be a logical conclusion, should the church be guided by the will of corrupt and power-hungry minds. These are people who do not care about the heart of the religion (which I intentionally did not criticise throughout the story), but are instead guided only by their own ambition. This is a religion that has been weaponised into something truly monstrous. Looking at how the world has developed since I first started writing the series, sometimes I wonder if I did not go far enough.

By contrast, the Farenar setting portrays religion much more positively. If anything, the religion spawned the world in my mind – it all started with the gods. They live, breathe, and walk through the world and are a big part of the many conflicts. Most of them seek to better the world, but some of their number seek instead to rule it.

Mindi Briar

Writing a made-up religion based on the dragons turned out to be an interesting way to deconstruct my personal IRL beliefs. Writing characters who were discovering big, life-changing truths about the universe was a way for me to dive deep into what I thought those truths were for myself. (And that’s the short version of how writing magical sci-fi helped me leave a cult…lol.) Anyway, I wouldn’t say the Halcyon Universe’s religion is an exact representation of my spiritual beliefs, but there are scenes, settings, and situations very heavily based on my religious past, with something of a rose-tinted filter over them.

What other sources of inspiration does your world draw on?

J.F.R Coates

So many of my inspirations come from the great authors who wrote rich and vivid worlds before me. I may not take directly from their work, but their writing has always inspired me to improve me own. My favourite authors will always include Neil Gaiman, Robin Hobb, and Philip Pullman. Our stories may be very different, but they are certainly my inspirations.

Other inspirations can come from strange places. One WiP series has been inspired by my childhood in Somerset, my fascination with an island in the Bristol Channel, and local myths.

The Reborn series was spawned because a friend told me to “turn him [main character] into a stoat.” So I did. And I wrote four books to explain why.

Mindi Briar

Reading fantasy and sci-fi inspires me all the time! I love to read books with lush, creative, wild descriptions that transport me somewhere new. It kickstarts my own imagination and forces me to think about different aspects of my own worldbuilding. A fantasy about road construction? Yeah, hmm, who builds the roads in my world? Or I’ll pick up a book that’s created a totally unique social culture and it’ll force me to think about how my world’s culture would be different.

J.F.R. kneeling beside an emu to pet it, wearing grey tshirt, jeans and sunnies over his short brown hair.
J.F.R. Coates

website
Reborn Book Cover: one fox person lifts another off rocky ground by the hand, storm cloud cloud background.
(The book with the Catholic Church as antagonist)
Mindi in a bright pink top and green, floral, elbow length cardigan belted at the waist and purple framed glasses. Smiling whimsically to one side, her long blonde hair half tied back.
Mindi Briar

website

Adrift in Starlight Cover: title displayed over purpled planet background, blonde (white) woman character hanging from top of cover reaching to hold mixed race, dense dark curled woman character hanging in the sky.
(The book with dragons)
Blonde Joyce smiling in black brimmed hat and glasses.
Joyce Renalds-Ward

Joyce’s website

Becoming Solo Book Cover: woman with gold face paint in red and gold robes holding ball of light between her outstretched hands.
Pledges of Honour Cover: title above a stone, silver sword with a brown and a purple stone tied to its hilt lying on grass, right.
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Related Reading

Manipulator’s War Origins -the inspiration for the character’s, themes and world building in my YA Fantasy Trilogy.

Fantasy Author Features:  
Mara Lynn Johnstone (SFF)

Debbie Iancu-Hadad (YA, SFF)

Nikky Lee (YA, Fantasy)

Nikky’s Interview Of Me

Fantasy Author Feature: Mara Lynn Johnstone

Mara Lynn Johnstone and I met via Twitter when I was preparing to become an indie author. I was an ARC reader of her debut SciFi novel Spectacular Silver Earthling, which stars a robot with attitude, whom a friend compared aptly to Bender from Futurama. In this interview, she talks about the inspiration for her world building and whacky characters.

Tell us a bit about you. Where’s home and what’s your life like outside writing? 

I live in California, where the weather is lovely when things aren’t on fire or flooding. Husband, son, cats. I do a lot of writing-related things even when I’m not working on my own projects: organising events and anthologies for the local writers’ club, judging for contests, and planning multiple cooperative projects with other writers. Plus I play a lot of D&D with good friends, which is an excellent form of storytelling that sometimes leads to actually writing things down.

What drew you to your genre/audience age?

I’ve always loved reading fantasy and science fiction— all the exciting adventures that I couldn’t expect to do in real life. While I would have loved to grow up to be a dragon-rider, dimension traveller, or shapeshifting magician, I made the decision early on to write about it instead. I’ve never looked back.

What are some big themes your writing explores?

I’m sure if you look closely, a lot of my stories boil down to “Treating others well gets you farther than treating them badly.” That’s a pretty basic trope, but it’s amazing how many different ways you can show antagonists who are cruel and sow the seeds of their own downfall while the protagonists cooperate. Now that I think about it, the last three books I wrote all hinge on the main characters making friends who help make victory possible. It’s definitely something that’s held true in my own life, so I’m not surprised it comes through in fiction. Anyone who’s worked retail can tell you that the nice customers are the ones who get all the favors, while the pushy ones only think they’re getting a better deal. Friendship is magic in all forms.

What drives your point of view characters? 

They often have a catastrophe to avert, a kingdom/species/planet to protect, but sometimes the core conflict is as personal as specific friends that they care about intensely. My characters tend to be optimistic and resilient, though with a definite range on the “dignity to silliness” meter. A good sense of humor is crucial in coping with all manner of crises.

Some are more like me than others, but there’s always a facet that makes them feel familiar on a deep level. An element of “Oh yes, this is what I would do.” That can mean being patient and chronicling part of their life through art, or being the centr of attention with witty things to say, or being ready and willing to befriend any random animal that crosses their path. I like to say I’m an ambivert: just as happy reading alone as dancing on a table with friends. I can see myself in the quiet characters just as much as the wisecracking loudmouths — as long as they’re kind. And I like to think that all of my main characters would make good friends, just in a variety of ways.

How much do your point of view characters resemble or differ from you? 

A Swift Kick to the Thorax Book Cover, floating manuscript pages over outer space background, pen floating below, bite mark in bottom right corner of pages.

And for the record, Robin Bennett of A Swift Kick to the Thorax has the most similarities of any character I’ve written, simply because her first short story was an exploratory bit of nonsense that I didn’t expect anyone to ever see. Ha. It turned out to be great fun, and snowballed into two novels and an endless list of short stories. I regret nothing.

What influenced the settings they inhabit? (What real world places, experiences, studies etc influence your world building?) 

I keep a collection of ideas to use in fiction someday, and that includes many interesting locations. The sandstone beaches and bizarre rock formations in Spectacular Silver Earthling were based on those at Salt Point State Park. The car chase through a lightning storm in Swift Kick was inspired by a photo of thunderstorm weather over farmland. I am endlessly fascinated by how many awe-inspiring sights there are in our world; more than enough to create a whole galaxy of others. I’m always taking note of more. 

What do you gain from writing your books and what do you hope your readers will gain from them? 

I have fun with it, first and foremost. Delightful adventures; memorable experiences; fictional friends who are near and dear to my heart. Since I grew up reading constantly, I’ve lived many a life through other writer’s books, and I hope to bring readers along for the ride with my own. There’s so much to do and see: excitement and drama, exploration and close calls, good times and cathartic emotion. My characters can find things to enjoy in even the darkest times, and they’ll see you through to the other side. Often with a feeling of “Woo, that was intense! Let’s do it again.”

Where can we find your books?

maralynnjohnstone.com/books

Headshot of SciFi author Mara Lynne Johnstone, a white, brunette wearing blue rimmed glasses, a big smile, elf ears and with a blue stuffed dragon perched on her shoulder.

Mara Lynn Johnstone grew up in a house on a hill, of which the top floor was built first. Interested in fiction, she went on to get a Master’s Degree in creative writing, and to acquire a husband, son, and three cats. She has published several books and many short stories. She writes, draws, reads, and enjoys climbing things and can be found up trees, in bookstores, lost in thought, and on various social media.

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Related Reading

You’ll find more talk of fantasy characters, setting and world-building inspiration in:

Fantasy Author Features: Nikky Lee (YA SFF)

Debbie Iancu-Hadad (YA Fantasy & SciFi)

Natalie Kelda (YA SFF)

Nikky’s Interview Of Me

Ash Oldfield’s Interview of Me

Fantasy Author Feature: Debbie Iancu-Hadad

Debbie Iancu-Hadad is author of YA Fantasy and SciFi with strong romantic threads. Our debut trilogies publishing journeys have run parallel and we’ve been critical readers for each other during our editing journeys. My favourite things about her books are her well-developed characters, their flaws and the banter and relationships that exist or develop between them. I also enjoy the fast pace of her stories, which keep me turning pages through her fantasy and sci-fi worlds. In this Fantasy Author Feature, we discuss her characters and story worlds.

Tell us a bit about you. Where’s home and what’s your life like outside writing? 

I live in Meitar in the south of Israel. I’m self employed and when I’m working I give laughter yoga workshops, chocolate workshops and teach people how to improve their humour. 

I’m married and have two kids, my daughter is almost twenty and my son just turned 18. And my writing buddy Shugi is a five months old golden retriever mix. 

What drew you to your genre/audience age? 

I write the kind of books I’ve always read, which is fantasy and sci Fi for YA. Maybe one day I’ll write for adults but I’d probably need to grow up first. My first Nanowrimo project “The goodbye kids” was inspired by my daughter when she was 16, and I just stayed in the zone. My Achten Tan series has characters ranging between 16-22. 

What are some big themes your writing explores?

I like to discuss what makes us belong to a place and how where we’re from shapes our perspective. All my locations are very immersive, whether it’s a space station or a town made of bones in the middle of the desert. 

Another issue I want to promote is body positivity and the inclusion of people with disabilities. 

What drives your point of view characters? 

A profound desire to prove themselves. Mila in Achten Tan wants to release her magic and get her voice back. Kaii the chief’s son in The Bone Master doesn’t want responsibility but won’t turn his back on a friend. Haley in the Goodbye Kids just wants to avoid getting hurt again, but desperately needs a friend. 

How much do your point of view characters resemble or differ from you? 

There are probably pieces of me in all my characters, if not my current self then the way I was when I was younger. 

I’d love to say I have magical powers but sadly I have yet to come into my powers (I’m hoping it’s an old lady thing that’s still in my future). 

Joking aside, all my characters work through the sense of being an outsider. For me that reflects moving from England to Israel as a child and always feeling like a part of somewhere else. 

What influenced the settings they inhabit?

Achten Tan is a place like no other, a town built inside the rib cage of an ancient leviathan. 

The place is the brainchild of Chris Van Dyke, who initiated the original Achten Tan anthology. I just moved in there and refused to leave. 

The space station and futuristic world of The Goodbye Kids are nothing I’ve ever experienced outside of my imagination. I was going for a sense of extreme isolation. 

What do you gain from writing your books and what do you hope your readers will gain from them? 

Millions and millions of dollars…ha ha, I wish. 

No, but seriously, I love having people share my character’s journey and being able to leave daily life aside for a while. I write about magic and it might be a cliche, but books really do have the ability to transport us to another time and place.

Where can we find your books? 

On Amazon

My fantasy debut, “Speechless in Achten Tan,” has a kick-ass tattooed witch who can’t speak, a city made of bones, giant ants, a heist by a cool ensemble cast, magic, romance, banter, innuendo, & cute boys kissing.

Prepared to be left… speechless!

Speechless in Achten Tan (Both books are on sale till Feb 14th)

The Bone Master follows Kaii Haku as he leaves the comfort of Achten Tan to save a friend kidnapped by pirates.

Connect with Debbie on:

Facebook
Twitter
Instagram
DebbieInacu.com

Author Bio

Head and shoulder photo of bright red haired Debbie, wearing a denim jacket and pink tops. She's plus sized, blue eyed and has a pink lipped smile.

My name is Debbie Iancu Haddad (46), I’m a mother of teenagers (it’s like being a mother of dragons except they burn you with sarcasm). 

for my day job, I am a public speaker specializing in teaching people how to use humor and a laugh yoga instructor.

I was born in Israel to a British mother & Romanian father who met in the immigration center in Beer-Sheva. When I was 10 months old the family returned to England for six years and re-emigrated in 1981.

Growing up bilingual in Israel was a huge help and saw me through a BA, an MA, and a third of a PhD. Even though I take studying seriously (almost no one who knows me would say too seriously) – my research interests focused on humor.

My MA was an exploration of Diet humor and my doctorate research was about humor as a communication tool used by managers and headmasters.

You may ask “don’t I take anything seriously?”

The answer is: “No. But thank you for asking”. 

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Related Reading

You’ll find more talk of fantasy characters, setting and world-building inspirations in:

Fantasy Author Features: Nikky Lee (YA SFF)

Debbie Iancu-Hadad (YA Fantasy & SciFi)

Mara Lyne Johnson (Comedy SciFi)

Natalie Kelda (YA SFF)

Nikky’s Interview Of Me

Ash Oldfield’s Interview of Me

Fantasy Author Feature: Nikky Lee

As as an Aussie YA Fantasy author on Twitter, it didn’t take me long to bump into fellow Aussie and SFF author Nikky Lee. In this interview, Nikky tells us what draws her to writing YA, what drives her characters, the real-world influences on her world-building, and what she hopes readers will gain from reading her work.

Tell us a bit about you. Where’s home and what’s your life like outside writing? 

Hi, I’m Nikky. While I was born and grew up in Perth, Western Australia on Whadjuk Noongar Country, I now reside in Auckland in Aotearoa New Zealand. I write all things speculative, from dark and epic fantasy through to dystopian futures, space opera and the occasional piece of horror. I also write a mix of short and long fiction. 

Outside of creative writing, I work in marketing as a communications and content specialist for a market research agency. So anything with words usually goes through me, whether it’s a report for proofing or blogs, case studies, website copy and so on. 

When I’m not writing, I’m an avid kayaker, swimmer and coffee lover.

What drew you to your genre/audience age?

I’ve always loved speculative fiction, I grew up with Narnia and Star Wars and those cemented my love of the genre. If it had magic or space battles I was there for it. As for writing short fiction, that development has been relatively recent. For the longest time, I struggled to write anything that wasn’t novel length. My ideas were too big and sprawling (and still often are). Then I stumbled upon a prompt for a submission that really sang to me and I thought I’d give it a go. From that I discovered short fiction is a fantastic way to experiment with style and tone and ever since then I’ve been hooked on writing short stories in addition to longer works.

What are some big themes your writing explores?

In my debut novel, The Rarkyn’s Familiar, the theme of what makes a monster a monster is very prevalent. Along with themes of friendship, found family and not judging by appearance or heresay. My shorter works have examined heaps of other themes, such as climate change and dealing with loss and grief (Dingo & Sister), corrupt people and gods in power (The Dead May Dance), and letting go of a loved one (Ram’s Revenge), to name a few. 

What drives your point of view characters? 

Cover of the Rarkyn's Familiar. A large winged, bird-like monster with a glowing red and glowing white eye flaps above a young woman carrying a sword and wearing a brown cloak.

Good question! I’ll limit this to the characters of The Rarkyn’s Familiar as it’s my best known work so far. For Lyss, she’s haunted by the murder of her father and wants nothing more than to bring those responsible to justice. She’s practical and full of grit and determination to get what she wants, but the trauma she’s experienced has really shaken her. She’s often afraid and is constantly fighting to not succumb to that fear. However, once she meets Skaar, her priorities quickly shift to survival. 

Skaar is the other main POV in the story, as a non-human character his worldview is different in many ways to the likes of Lyss and other human characters and yet surprisingly similar in other ways. Like Lyss, he has past traumas that haunt him. But after several years imprisoned at human hands, the tantalising hope of freedom is what drives him, along with the desire to survive.

How much do your point of view characters resemble or differ from you? 

Hmm, this is a tough one. There’s a lot of me in Lyss, and I’ve taken inspiration from some of my personal journeys, particularly my mental health journey, to tell Lyss’s story (more about that here). There might be a bit of trait admiration at play as well where I give my POV characters traits I admire—resilience and resolve being chief among them, as well as a willingness to strive for might seem like impossible goals. 

And there are probably resemblances that I’m not even aware of that only someone who knows me could spot. Stubbornness might be one 😉

Which real-world influences have contributed to your world building?) 

In the case of The Rarkyn’s Familiar, its world building was inspired by a lot of fantasy that’s come before: Robin Hobb, Tamora Pierce and Hayao Mizakai’s Princess Mononoke for their fantastical creatures and immense landscapes, as well as Kentaro Miura’s Berserk, which was my first foray into grimdark fantasy and inspired elements of the Empire’s corrupt nature. I’ve blogged about it in more detail here.

Countless visits to the South Island of New Zealand has helped me dream up my mountain settings. As for the society and culture of the book, a couple of elective units in medieval and ancient history came in handy 🙂

For my other stories, Dingo & Sister was primarily inspired by a trip across the Nullarbor, an arid plain in Australia between Perth and Adelaide. Unbelievably hot (something like 47 degrees celsius outside) and red red sand. For other story settings, particularly those set near the coast, I’m lucky to have an abundance of water activity experiences to draw on (surfing, snorkelling, fishing, sailing and so on) from a childhood spent camping and holidaying all over the Australian coastline.

What do you gain from writing your books and what do you hope your readers will gain from them? 

First and foremost, I write to entertain. My stories are a form of escapism for me and, I hope, for my readers too. While my work can delve into some heavy topics and I’m conscious about how I portray certain topics, I’ll prioritise entertainment over social commentary (though that’s not to say you can’t have both!). However, if I can make my world and characters feel real in the mind of my reader and sweep them away into lands of magic and wonder after a hard day at work, I consider that a win. 

As for what I gain from writing, it’s mostly escapism, as I said earlier. But on occasion writing has helped me process something from the real world, be it a personal fear, an event, an issue I’m wrapping my head around, or a notion I’m simply coming to terms with. For example, Ram’s Revenge was a story that was partly me coming to terms with the fact that my grandmother wouldn’t be around for much longer. Of course, I usually don’t realise it at the time, only when I look back at it later. 

Where can we find your books?

You can find my books online wherever good books are sold. 

The Rarkyn’s Familiar store links.

Dingo & Sister store links.

Author Bio

Dark haired, blue eyed nikky, pale skinned headshot with a big smile.

Nikky Lee is an award-winning author who grew up as a barefoot 90s kid in Perth, Western Australia on Whadjuk Noongar Country. She now lives in Aotearoa New Zealand with a husband, a dog and a couch potato cat. In her free time, she writes speculative fiction, often burning the candle at both ends to explore fantastic worlds, mine asteroids and meet wizards. She’s had over two dozen stories published in magazines, anthologies and on the radio.

Her short fiction has been shortlisted six times in the Aurealis Awards with her novelette Dingo & Sister winning the Best Young Adult Short Story and the Best Fantasy Novella categories in 2020. In 2021, she received a Ditmar Award for Best New Talent. Her debut novel, The Rarkyn’s Familiar, was released in 2022 and is the first of an epic fantasy trilogy about a girl bonded to a monster.
You can connect with Nikky on: Facebook Instagaram Tik Tok Twitter

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Related Reading

You’ll find more talk of fantasy characters, setting and world-building inspirations in:

Nikky’s Interview Of Me

Writer Pantser Interviews

My Fantasy Feature Author Interviews of:

Debbie Iancu-Hadad (YA Fantasy & SciFi)

Mara Lyne Johnson (Comedy SciFi)

Natalie Kelda (YA SFF)

Writer Pantser Interviews

Confession: the earliest incarnation of Manipulator’s War was not planned. I swiftly created a cast of thousands, moving sometimes with purpose, sometimes without and usually taking too long to get there. I’d imagine a scene or two, then sit down and write —I was a pantser. From the murk emerged main ideas and characters. The rest got deleted and the best re-written, informed by character craft and story structure studies. From there, several rounds of critical reader and editor feedback informed notes that led to a full fleshing out of my characters and story. If your first pantsed novel or two are a mess, what can help you bring structure to pantsing and help you minimise epic edits? I’ll interview three SFF authors below to find out, tracking their journeys from their pantser’s journey from story chaos to a semblance of order.

Book Beginnings

In the beginning, did you have scenes, themes or conflict ideas in mind?

A. E. Bennett: I had an overall idea of where I wanted the story to go and who my characters were, but when I wrote the initial draft of Gathering of the Four, I didn’t have any of what you might call the “meat” of the story. My characters had vague motivations, but nothing concrete to really do, which is I think part of the reason why my first draft was such a mess.

Azalea: I’d have characters and a general idea of certain scenes and plot, but nothing really concrete. I just went for it, with whatever came to mind at the time. I’d usually burn out after a few chapters.

Miriam: I had a general idea of the world I wanted to play in and a few snips of witty banter, that was it.

Did you know your main character, what makes them tick, or how they would grow?

A. E. Bennett: Oh, The Four were well-developed when I started. I already knew what Leora, Roland, Aurora, and Leopold looked like and all about their personalities. What I didn’t have was how to get them from point A to B to C. I was in search of a plot!

Azalea: I thought I had them figured out, but once I moved away from pantsing, it took a lot more planning and deep-diving to actually get into the meat of them. There were some stories I’d tried to write that I had zero idea who they were—I planned to find that out in the first draft.

Miriam: Not at all. I knew the MC was sexy and had wings haha.

Critical Readers

When did you first let a critical reader read your work? 

A. E. Bennett: I sent a version to critique partners before my editor. Some were incredibly helpful, others… not so much. I was new to understanding what makes a good critique partner and I didn’t properly vet some of the folks I sent my work to. Lessons learned!

Azalea: When I started writing Witch in the Lighthouse, it was the first time I tried bullet outlining. It was the first time I felt like I had come to the keyboard prepared, and with some semblance of confidence that I could at least finish a story. It was extremely barebones, but I had made a commitment to myself to bring the novella to completion. I wasn’t even sure it would reach novella status—short story at best. I may have let my critical reader at the time read some early chapters before I completed the first draft, but they definitely helped me work on all the drafts I had after that.

Miriam: I initially made the mistake of letting friends and family critique my work, and none of them had the balls to tell me it was awful. They either thought it was amazing, or were “too busy” to finish it.


How did critical readers help your pantser’s journey produce a well structured book? 

A. E. Bennett: Well, I think the critique partners who helped me the most made me realize that, for something like the epic story I’m writing, pantsing doesn’t really work for me. As I’ve started work on the second book, I’ve realized that I do need an outline and structure in order to make The Serrulata Saga work. I guess you could call me a “reformed pantser” – haha!

Azalea: It wasn’t until I started structuring and writing a general bullet-outline that I started taking writing more seriously, and felt like I was capable of completing a story. Critical readers have helped me strengthen said outlines, however. If I had stuck to pantsing, I don’t think I’d have ever finished a story. I don’t mind being a bit loosey-goosey with chapter outlines at times, but I find the more structured I get, the less work I have in the long run. 

Miriam: Finding people who weren’t afraid to hurt my feelings shot my writing forward, but I would say it was attending writing  conferences that made the real difference in my career. I ended up shelving that pantsed series and plotting something completely new. Working with a group of critical readers is important because all writers have different skills and struggles.

How could you work more efficiently with critical readers?

A. E. Bennett: I’ve gotten much more selective about who I share my work with and whose work I critique with regards to genre. My books don’t appeal to everyone (which is fine, obviously) but I’m not going to get the feedback I need from someone who’s writing high fantasy, when that’s not what I do. I also don’t tend to enjoy critiquing certain genres myself, and I’m much more open about what types of books I will/will not make a good critique partner of. It’s been a learning process! 

Azalea: Knowing what I want out of a read-through/critique helps, and asking for that particular feedback helps everyone stay on the right track. If I feel like a certain area is weak, I try to focus on questions in that area.

Miriam: As Azalea said, know what you want out of a critique. So many times I’ve sent out an early draft looking for plot holes and structural issues, and a reader has fixed the grammar instead. Those readers need to be cut from your team or brought on later in the writing process.

Structure/ Plantsing

When or how did you move towards a form of outlining?

A. E. Bennett: I now make an overall outline – where I want the story to go and how I want it to end up. Some of my books are starting to overlap now, so I use an Excel calendar to keep everything sorted. I then go back and write bullet points about what needs to happen in each chapter to keep things moving. Sometimes my characters surprise me – I’ll certainly admit that – and I have to move things around, but after all of the pain involved with ripping Gathering of the Four apart and putting it back together again, I find this method to be much more efficient. 

Azalea: My outlining started in 2017, when I started writing Witch in the Lighthouse. It was very light bullet outlining, one to two sentences per chapter of basic scenes, and I’d figure out the details as I went along.  Now my outlining has evolved to one to several paragraphs per chapter, and I like utilising character sheets. I started using Fantasia Archive to help me stay more organised, and this helps tremendously.

Miriam: My outlining started just shy of a decade (or 300,000 words) into my writing career. I start with my character’s goal, motivation and conflict, and then outline the end of the novel so I know where I’m heading. From there I write a line or two per scene for the entire novel. Namesakes was the first novel I properly outlined, but I didn’t have a good handle on structure until I wrote Blessed Prey.


With the benefit of hindsight, when was the best time to plan?

A. E. Bennett: I should have thought about some of my side characters earlier. In the first draft of Gathering of the Four, I had a lot of side characters standing around doing nothing or entering or exiting scenes with no real purpose. I could have saved myself some time – and heart ache – if I had thought more about why they existed. 

Azalea: It feels like every time I start a new novel, my method changes, even if just slightly, but one thing that never changes is that there are some things I just can’t predict in the planning that I end up having to scramble over later. There is still a pantser in me, I guess.

In my current WIP, my first draft has been very transformed from what I had written initially, all just from changing the attitude of a single character. That led me to push deeper into the background of what happened offscreen, to really get a handle on why characters were behaving the way they were onscreen, and for it to make sense to the reader. Planning all of these aspects before I’d even written the first draft would have been a blessing, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20. I’m learning all the time!

Miriam: I wouldn’t change it. I learned the things when I was ready to learn them.

Where You’re At

Are you a pantser, plantser or plotter now, and what’s your current process?

A. E. Bennett: I’m much more of a plotter now. Since The Serrulata Saga is shaping up to be more books than I originally planned. I do need to think more carefully about who is doing what and when and why. 

Azalea: I’d call myself a plantser, with an emphasis on plotting. Each time I try to plot more and more, but as usual, you can’t predict everything. I am much more detail oriented now than I was in 2017, my writing has improved by quite a lot, and I’ve found, for now, what works for me with critical readers and who helps me more than otherwise. I still wind up editing many, many drafts! 

Miriam: I’d call myself a planner. I don’t have every aspect of a book or series plotted out, but I do have a solid road map before I go in. I know how the series ends before I begin the first book. My writing time is planned so that I always have something to work on, even if a WIP is off with critique partners. I draft fast and messy, then go though 6-10 rounds of revisions and edits, first working with early readers for character, structure, and plot, then more feedback from another group of readers to make sure those issues are fixed and address scene and line-level stuff. One of my readers is specifically for consistency (makes sure if the character had a coffee at the start of the scene she doesn’t have boba at the end etc) and other readers for sensitivity.

I use ProWritingAid so that my editor gets the cleanest draft possible, and when she’s done, I have the book proofread.

Advice

What advice would you give to pantsers, plantsers or aspiring plotters?

A. E. Bennett: Take your time! There is a lot of pressure to churn books out (at least, in my opinion) and you won’t do yourself any favours by rushing. I self-published two books last year and I should have held off on pushing out Gathering of the Four. It was sloppy and I think a lot of people gave up on it because of that. It’s in much better shape now, and I’m proud of it, but for a long time I wasn’t and that was really painful. Don’t be like me – have patience!

Azalea: Find a method that works for you, but try many. Ask questions, opinions, for help, and take your time. I also like to tell writers to just get the first draft down—you can edit later. Little, minute edits aren’t going to stop your progress (usually), but getting hung up on a sentence or paragraph can really turn your process into a slog. Leaving yourself notes in areas you’d like to go deeper on later can help to keep your momentum instead of stalling. Keep going!

Miriam: No one is interested in stealing your stuff, they have their own books to work on, and your early work is awful. Don’t worry, it’s supposed to be awful! But no one wants to steal it, so get it out there, get feedback from other people who write your genre. And show up. So much of writer culture is complaining about writing, making memes and tweets about not writing… that won’t get you anywhere. Do the work.

A. E. Bennett
Headshot of Azalea Forrest, long strawberry blonde hair, black-rimmed glasses, white.
Azalea Forrest
Photo of Miriam holding zir first two books. Miriam has shaved short dark blue-black hair, pale skin with pink cheeks and brown eyes.
Miriam Cumming
Gathering of Four Bookcover. Four characters depicted, the lead a black woman with arms wide wielding fire magic from both hands.
Witch in the Light House cover. Cloudy sky with lighthouse on dark horizon.
Namesakes cover. Mixed race MC wearing tie and white shirt, green headscarf concealing hair and holding glowing books, encircled in green glow with glowing circle archway in background.

Manipulator’s War: A YA Fantasy’s Origins

My first novel began as a speculative mission seeking answers to things teenage me wanted to know. Like, if grown ups are so mature, with so much knowledge, patience ect, why do sane adults start wars? And where can I hang out with people as emotionally mature as me? And when can teenagers do shit that actually matters, instead of stereotypical, hormonal, dull, monotonous real-world crap? Where’s the action, adventure and interesting places? And how fast can you rush through them, trying to achieve how many goals? This blog explores the influences that answered these questions in my first YA Fantasy Manipulator’s War.

Narnia’s Influence

My escapism into fantasy began with Narnia, read to four-year-old me by my mum. To this day, I enjoy re-reading the books periodically, so naturally my first fantasy featured a royal heir and characters from the real world. I liked contrasting a blunt, irreverent Aussie cast with posh, British-inspired rulers, so Linh, Troy, Fiona and Michael are Australian. And while Narnia seemed a place for C.S. Lewis to revisit his childhood, teenage me was grappling with grief and trying to understand the world I lived in. So my Ruarnon Trilogy was going to be darker. It would be as uncertain and insecure as I found life (and later the pandemic). There wouldn’t be physically present gods, this would be an antheist’s reply to Narnia.

Archaeology and Realism

Teenage me knew that in kids books bad guys are bad and good guys are good and those are the lies adults tell kids, the real world being far more complicated (and hopefully less sexist and gender diverse oblivious now than it was when I was a kid).

At Uni, I studied the ancient Mediterranean World. I learned that for all the talk of nobility and what’s right and just in kids books, usually people start wars because other people have stuff, and they want it. But that was boring. A king who believed in pacifism declaring war would be much more interesting. Maybe I could have the greedy bastards wanting to seize stuff somehow twisting said ruler’s arm to make them go to war against their will? What would that take? Yes, Manipulator’s War answers this question.

As for ‘bad guys are bad and good guys are good’, wouldn’t it more interesting if the ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ had the same values, goals and desires? The same motivations? So Kyura and his traitor-filled court came to be, opposite Ruarnon and their generally more loyal court.

My external conflict would be people wanting stuff. Those people (the Zaldeans) philosophies and beliefs about the afterlife are influenced by Celtic Warrior culture. To make it interesting, they’d need to be an empire. But ’empire conquers kingdom in exponential expansion’ = boring. Rome vs. Carthage is more interesting because it could go either way. What about a war that had gone both ways, between an empire invading a colony-turned-kingdom allied to a second empire? The allied empire would need to be a sometimes selfish, unreliable ally, because undying loyalty is predictable. Enter the Timbalen Empire.

The Ancient World

Manipulator's War cover on fragmented yellow paint background.
Cover by GlintofMischief.

As for a setting, I studied ancient Egypt at Uni, so there was every chance fashion, architecture and Tarlahn afterlife beliefs would have Egyptian influences. I particularly liked the idea of the heir becoming co-ruler with the current king, for on-the-job learning. Meanwhile, in the Zaldean Realm, the governors would be siblings of the king, the royal family’s power being more comparable to that of Persian emperors —over life and death—not weak medieval dependence on nobility for wealth and resources.

The fashions would be more androgynous than the world I’d grown up in, and Tarlahns would be more accepting of nonbinary and gender non-comforming people than say, the Romans. Pharoah Akhenaten’s style of art and fashion would influence this. Meanwhile, the Zaldean Empire would be hardcore warrior culture and generally toxic masculinity, hence the Zaldean insatiable appetite for war, wealth expansion (again, similar to the Celts, but to be fair, also the Romans).

Characters Getting Bits of Me

But what of characters? I’d have a ‘prince,’ yes. But I’m nonbinary, and I wanted to write an alternate form of ‘masculinity’. In hindsight this was a nonbinary main character using he/him and they/them pronouns. But mixed pronouns for a point of view character written in third person may do reader’s heads in, so I stuck to they/ them. To balance the patriarchy and sexism of the Zaldeans, and ‘good guy’ Tarlahns, I’d need ‘gender non-comforming’ (read kick arse and highly competent ?) women: enter Ruarnon’s best friend Lenaris and General Takanis.

What of the Aussie characters? As recently as 2020 I thought, I really should write some more diverse characters. So Michael became an Aboriginal Australian. (The Murai were always BIPOC, and never colonised or enslaved). But what of LGBTQ+ and neurodiversity? Well, my aversion to labels had, it turned out, prevented me from identifying as nonbinary. I knew I was asexual, though only later in life did I hear of a-romantic. When I did, sure enough, I realised I’d subconsciously written a nonbinary main character (Ruarnon) and subconsciously written them as asexual and aromantic, with an Aussie offsider who was also asexual and aromantic (Linh).

Diverse Characters & Creating Character Voice

So it only seemed fair to give other LGBTQIA+ identities a place as well. When I thought about it, it made a lot of sense for people loving Troy to be pan-romantic. It wouldn’t just be trauma and a lone wolf nature that introverted Michael was quiet about, he’d be queer too. And it would be wrong not have lesbians. And in this day and age I feel trans people’s humanity needs to front and centre in their representation, so both trans women in this trilogy are in loving relationships.

I decided to give the portal characters their own personalities and voices by portioning my own character traits between them and exaggerating those traits. Again, only later in life with the benefit of much reflection, can I spot that Michael got my autistic traits, while Troy embraced my ADHD ones wholeheartedly and Linh I think has a smattering of both. Fiona was the ‘normal’ character, but she’s a sweety, so I think we can forgive her.

Internal Struggles

Ruarnon would carry the weight of their people’s survival on their shoulders. They would be a bookish heir, standing in the shadow of a war hero father, defending their people. Inexperience and an introverted personality would make them struggle to persuade others to follow them. They would be quiet and thoughtful, when the people are used to loud, large leaders swinging their spears around (yep, this would not be sword and sorcery ????).

As for Linh and my portal characters, having apparently stumbled into a fantasy world by accident (it wasn’t accidental ofcourse, but only later do they learn why), uncertainty would be the bain of their existence. Restlessness, and having to choose between staying safe and never seeing loved ones back home again would propel them into danger. And through the experience none of us wanted of uncertainty during a pandemic, their challenge would mirror ours. As may the strategies they would learn to maintain perspective and to manage their mental health.

L.O.T.R, Final Fantasy & Shakespeare

I love the fellowship in Lord of the Rings, and how close knit (after Edmund sees the light) the Pevensie children are. Friendship in the face of adversity was an obvious theme to explore. But so would be manipulation, treachery for self-gain and the struggle to sustain belief in what is right in the face of overwhelming opposition. That way was likely to lead to tragedy and is how I suspect studying Macbeth, and learning that tragedy in ancient Greek stories was thought to expunge the spirit of evil thoughts, bled into Manipulator’s War and Kyura’s character arc.

Another large thread of my Ruarnon Trilogy was influenced by playing Final Fantasy, a thread of mystery. I loved the experience in those games of learning about the big baddies piece by piece, fighting their lieutenants first, then finally meeting the big baddie in a dramatic in person clash.

Cozy Mysteries Influence

I also love murder mysteries, Midsummer Murders and Poirot being among my favourites. But the standard elements of a Who Dunnit are SO familiar to readers and viewers. I wanted something less predictable, an alternative, like why is Nartzeer only sending his lieutenants abroad to fulfil his will?

But the greatest mystery I could align with my story was who is Nartzeer, what does he want, and how can everything my characters learn about him be turned up-sidedown? How can Ruarnon and allies anticipate, let alone combat an enemy whose acts of hostility make no sense to them?

That mystery, and developing my ultimate antagonist, King Nartzeer and his backstory were my favourite parts in writing this trilogy. I hope you have (or will) enjoy reading Manipulator’s War and the Ruarnon Trilogy nearly as much as I enjoyed writing them.

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Related Reading

You’ll find Manipulator’s War and the rest of the Ruarnon Trilogy on my books page.

For more about me and my writing, see my interview by fellow author and poet Lily or my answers to fellow YA Fantasy author Nikky Lee’s 10 Questions.

For more about my queer identities: Identifying as Nonbinary, and What Does Pride Mean to You?

And my neurodiversity: I Think I’m Neurodiverse and Managing my Neurodiversity.

An Interview with Emma Lombard

Many writers who joined Twitter after Emma Lombard (in my case in 2019), have learnt a lot from her. Not just about how to Twitter as a writer, but also from her blog posts and the example she’s set in areas like developing your author platform as an unpublished author. But Emma is no longer unpublished. I’m excited to say that her debut novel, historical fiction Discerning Grace (book 1) is out now, and to be posting this interview with Emma about it.

What inspired you to write DISCERNING GRACE?

I’ve always been a little nosy—I know, I know … curiosity killed the cat! But back in 2001 during one of my regular letter-writing sessions to my grandmother in England, I decided I’d like to know a little more about our family history from the older generation. Once they’ve passed it’s so hard to find out what kinds of people they knew and the sorts of things they got up to.

So, my darling late grandmother, whom I was incredibly close to, indulgently began answering my questions and documenting memories of her own childhood and stories of ancestors. All it took was for me to read the opening to one of her letters and I just KNEW I had to write a story about it! This is what the letter said, ‘Your GGG grandmother was only 16 when she ran away from home to marry a sea captain … her family cut her off and she sailed the seas with him …’

Come on! What author couldn’t resist a little bit of real-life inspiration like that?

And so, that is how my purely fictional, historical naval adventure— with a dash of romance—blossomed. I’ve been thrilled by the journey of writing it and all the research too, but most of all, I’ve loved imagining the incredible courage and fortitude it would have taken my ancestor to choose such a life! Plus, there is my GGG grandfather’s side of the tale to consider too. As my grandmother put it, they were ‘obviously a very enlightened couple, and she a very, very liberated woman.’

An Interview with Emma Lombard

What was the best piece of writing advice you received when starting out?

To give my main character, Grace Baxter, more agency instead of her being a victim of circumstance. I was pushed to get her to create and direct her own circumstances. This was a bit more of a challenge having a female lead character in the early 1800s because of societal restrictions on women in those days. But I also figured that there had to be pioneering women, even back then, who broke the mould. Since Grace is inspired by my three times great grandmother, who indeed bucked the norm in her day by leaving her well-to-do family in England to elope with an English sea captain and live with him at sea, I felt I had a little more leeway to play with when writing Grace’s character. And besides, what’s a rollicking romantic adventure without a feisty heroine!

What is your favourite historical era and why? Do you have a favourite historical female? Why?

I’m open when it comes to reading historical fiction through the different eras, from Jean M. Auel’s prehistoric The Clan of the Cave Bear, to Vikings and Romans, through to later centuries like in Wilbur Smith’s Courtney series. As for writing it, I’ve been so immersed in the 19th century since I’ve been writing my own books, that I have a soft spot for this era. There’s a great balance of knowledge and information out there since it wasn’t too long ago—say unlike the ancient Egyptian era. I have huge admiration for historical authors who write about ancient times. The research required for that is mammoth (snigger)!

While there are many well-known historical females, my research unearthed a whole world of unknown women whose stories have not had a spotlight shone on them. These have been my favourite historical females to find—mothers penning journals about parenthood, sisters writing letters to relatives from the other side of the world, wives aboard ships keeping diaries that recorded tiny details of daily life not captured in a ship’s log books. It took me ages to find some resources that spoke about women aboard ships who were not just there to entertain the sailors, but who played a pivotal role in sailing the ship, raising a family aboard, and supporting industrious endeavours. These are some of my favourites:

  • Seafaring Women by renowned historian, Linda Grant De Pauw
  • Female Tars by Suzanne J. Stark
  • Hen Frigates by maritime historian, Joan Durett
  • She Captains by maritime historian, Joan Durett

What message are you sharing in your books?

The themes in my first novel, DISCERNING GRACE (Book 1), include:

  • an independent woman
  • the importance of love over money
  • appearances can be deceiving
  • love can conquer all
  • triumph over adversity

Does each book stand alone, or are you building a body of work with connections or themes between each book?

I love reading a long series where you can immerse yourself into another world and get to know the characters intimately through several books, so it felt perfectly natural for me to write a series too. It has been a joy to evolve my characters from their young and naïve selves in the first book, and mature them through their life experiences in subsequent books. Discerning Grace (Book 1) is out now. The second book is nearly ready to publish, and I have complete draft manuscripts for books three and four.

A movie producer wants to turn your book into a movie and you get to make a cameo. What would you do in the movie?

Ooo, isn’t this every writer’s dream!

Due to the nature of my story aboard a 19th century Royal Naval tall ship, there aren’t that many female characters, though I could play no role on the ship since I get hideously sea sick!

I would have to stick with a role that is safe on land, so perhaps one of the dinner guests in my opening scene.

You have created images for your main characters, how does that help you write them?

I asked my beta readers to send me images of real-life people who they thought most looked like Seamus and Grace. Those images, along with the descriptions from my book, created the basis for the artwork I’ve commissioned (because I can barely draw a stick man!) They turned out exactly as I envisaged them in my mind’s eye! 

It has been marvellous to have them drawn so young and fresh when we first meet them. For the subsequent books in the series, I can envisage the deepening of Seamus’s smile line beside his mouth, or the crow’s feet around Grace’s aquamarine eyes. I don’t necessarily speak to my characters, but I do sit and watch them interact and play out scenes in my head (it must look like I’m staring into space, and not working, when I do this!) I only need to look at their body language in their artwork for an inspirational reminder about how they react physically and verbally to different situations.

Since I own this artwork, I’ve actually created my own Redbubble store called, By-the-Book (yes, like the name of my newsletter), where my readers can grab their own favourite keepsakes.

What do you do for fun? What does a perfect day look like?

In everyday life, I’m Mum to four teenage sons—my men children, all of whom are taller than me—and two cantankerous cats who often thrash it out for a spot on my lap! I live in the perpetually sunny city of Brisbane in Australia. I love building jigsaw puzzles (especially Wasgij, backwards puzzles), playing Candy Crush (my secret shame!), and playing board games with my boys—though gone are the days when used to I beat them, they whip me soundly now. And I totally suck at Risk! Having raised four rambunctious boys, my perfect day these days constitutes solitude and silence. It doesn’t matter where, as long as those two ingredients are present.

Emma Lombard's portrait.

AUTHOR BIO

Emma Lombard was born in Pontefract in the UK. She grew up in Africa—calling Zimbabwe and South Africa home for a few years—before finally settling in Brisbane Australia, and raising four boys. Before she started writing historical fiction, she was a freelance editor in the corporate world, which was definitely not half as exciting as writing rollicking romantic adventures. Her characters are fearless seafarers, even though in real life Emma gets disastrously sea sick. Discerning Grace, is the first book in The White Sails Series.

Connect with Emma: WebsiteFacebookInstagramGoodreads 

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