On comics and graphic novels: an interview with Bruce Mutard

Ever since I was a Tintin-devouring child, I’ve loved comics and graphic novels, so it’s a great pleasure today to be featuring a really interesting interview I did recently with Bruce Mutard, one of Australia’s most prominent creators in these genres.

Bruce has been writing and drawing comics for 25 years, producing 4 graphic novels: The Sacrifice (Allen & Unwin, 2008), The Silence (Allen & Unwin, 2009), A Mind of Love (Black House Comics, 2011), The Bunker (Image Comics, 2003) and a collection of short stories, Stripshow (Milk Shadow Books, 2012). He also has had short comics stories in Overland, Meanjin, The Australian Book DSC04353 copyReview and Tango among others, and has illustrated several books for Macmillan Education’s Stories From Australia’s History, series. He has just completed a Master of Design in comics studies on the interaction of words and pictures at Monash University. He has conducted many comic workshops, and given talks at Melbourne Writers Festival, NMIT, RMIT, Edith Cowan University, University of Melbourne, Monash University, and presented papers on comic theory at Oxford University, Loughborough University and University of Arts, London among others.

Bruce is an eloquent and knowledgeable advocate for comics and graphic novels generally, and holds the comics and graphic novels portfolio within the Australian Society of Authors. Recently, his passion has led him to a new direction. Read on!

Bruce, you’re about to launch a new imprint, Fabliaux. Can you tell us about it? What motivated you to start it? What has the journey been like so far? And what kinds of books will you be publishing?

The idea for Fabliaux started a few years ago when I was still thinking of self-publishing some of my own work that wasn’t suited or wanted by my existing publishers. This was primarily my short comics collection: Sex, Politics and Religion: Stories To Break Up Families By and Alice In Nomansland – a still unpublished graphic novel that is predominately naughty humour, and unlike any other I’ve done. Those books are still floating about, though I’d much rather other mutard alicepublishers took them on. Anyhow, I’d always nursed the possibility of publishing other people’s work if I thought it needed to take print form, and that there might be enough of a market to make the investment back. I chose the name Fabliaux because it has a literary pedigree and doesn’t have ‘comics’ in it, limiting the sorts of books I might be able to publish. I may one day do prose, poetry, artists books, art books or kids books. Anyhow, Fabliaux is a term given to a genre of ribald and comic tales told by jongleurs in France in the 12th and 13th Centuries; the precursors to similar bawdy tales in the Decameron and The Canterbury Tales.

from Roman de Renart, medieval French fabliau

from Roman de Renart, medieval French fabliau

So far the journey has been ‘artistic’, which is to say that I’ve blundered into publishing with the eye on the creative end-goal, satisfying my authors, but less concerned about the costs and how to market the work! To that end, my aim is to publish books that have a niche readership, but nevertheless one that is proven to exist, and to make sure the print quality is the best for the work. I’m an author first and foremost, so that is my main role, but since that often takes me to markets, fairs, conventions and the like, I might have an opportunity to sell some of these books. I won’t do mass-market books, as I have neither resources nor time to put into the marketing and administration of such an enterprise. I give my author’s contracts and generous terms, though no advances. I make no promises other than to publish and do my best to take the authors work to the world in my stumbling fashion. Don’t laugh, please.

The launch title of Fabliaux is the provocatively-titled Art is a Lie, by Carol Wood and Susan Butcher–a unique work indeed. Tell us about it–how did you discover it? What drew you to it so much that you chose it as the launch title of Fabliaux?

I’m pretty certain Art Is A Lie is unique. In short, it’s a collection of 1-3 page comics strips mostly first printed in a US art magazine, Artillery, over the past 9 years under the title, Dead or Alive. Essentially they are spoof biographies of famous artists, done in myriad of styles so no two Art is a Lie Dalistories look the same. Imagine Picasso as done by EC Segar (Popeye), Duchamp as a Dick Tracy story, Hieronymous Bosch as done by Don Martin (MAD), or the 5000 Fakes of Dr Seuss. Imagine Frida Kahlo as a Betty Boop cartoon, or if you can, Tom of Finland as done by George Herriman. You probably can’t imagine such things, but they do exist in this book. There’s fumetti of which a couple all the characters and backgrounds are intricately constructed models that Carol in particular, makes. The level of detail in these is astonishing. In short, they are brilliant and I think the world needs to know about it! As for discovering it, I’ve known Carol and Sue for perhaps 20 odd years on and off, so when they showed me the work they’dArt is a Lie Picasso been doing for Artillery, I was blown away – laughing. Since the magazine was not available in Australia, I wondered if there would ever be a collection of the strips so I could have a well thumbed, cup ring stained, annotated copy on my bookshelf. The magazine’s publisher was in no position to produce such a book, nor were the Pox Girls. For many years, nor was I, but as the old saying goes: ‘good things happen to people who wait.’

The rise of self-publishing has been talked about a lot in recent times, but not so much another phenomenon–the rise of small presses founded by creators: authors, illustrators, graphic novelists, who are publishing other people’s work. Why do you think this is happening? And do you have any thoughts on what it means for the literary landscape and the publishing industry?

It is probably a confluence of factors. Firstly, there is the general contraction of sales across the industry that has lead to a reluctance on the part of established publishers large and small to take on new projects, even from authors they’ve published. Unless an author has earned out their advances (assuming they got one), it’s hard to place a new work, especially something that is a challenging literary work. The old template publishers worked from by having commercially successful works subsidise the publication of works of merit has diminished. But those authors who have been fortunate enough to do well out of their literary career, generally love writers, good writing, good books and having been through the mill of building a career in writing, also know how much more difficult it is to get published today. So, I think their passion for literature means they are willing to set up imprints and publish those works that the established publishers have forgone, not to prove the latter wrong, but simply to ensure good work gets published, be it in print or digital. Some may have a better business head than others (like me), but I’m sure it’s passion for the art, craft and life of words and pictures, that drives them.

The comics/graphic novels scene has both expanded and contracted in recent years in Australia. There seems to be more creators than ever yet less opportunity for them to be exposed at the traditional showcase events, such as Comicon, Supanova etc. Can you comment on that? 

I would agree there has been a huge expansion in the number of creators and works being produced in recent years. The Ledgers committee (The Ledgers are the recently reinstituted annual Australian comics awards) had a long list of more than 250 to sift through last year, whittling that down to about 40 for the shortlist. There are so many more people considering comics as a medium with which to tell their stories or non-fiction. I would disagree that there are less opportunities to showcase their work; if anything, it’s the opposite. True, showcasing comics work is not overly rewarding at the pop culture expos like Supanova and Ozcomicon for the simple reason that they are nowhere near as popular as the other stuff on show. The main reason people to go to those is to dress up in cosplay, get photos and stuff signed by the stars, attend their speaking sessions, play some games, buy copslay merchandise, get prints, toys, books and dvds. It’s very rare that there is a comic guest that requires one to buy tokens in advance and line up for an hour or more to get something signed (Stan Lee is one such). stan lee signingAlthough comicons began with all comics, they have evolved with time to embrace all the pop culture that was largely born in comics, or spec fiction. It’s a case where the children of comics have gone and built a world that left its parents and grandparents long behind. Occasionally, these elders are known to express a little pique at being marginalised or forgotten. But there’s nothing wrong with that; evolution is healthy and the events bring joy to tens of thousands of people every time they are put on.

But in the last few years, a good number of comics only events have sprouted up which probably resemble the comicons of old in their early days. There’s Comic Gong in Wollongong (which may evolve to be more pop culture); Comic Con-Versation in Sydney in September, run across several library services; the Homecooked Comics Festival in Melbourne, put on by the City of Darebin; The Central West Comics Festival in Parkes; the Zine and Indy Comics home cookedSymposium in Brisbane, the Sticky Zine Fair in Melbourne and numerous zine fairs that are also very good places for comics creators to sell their work direct to the public. I suppose the biggest problem in Australia is that these forums are almost the only way most creators reach their public, for aside from those few of us whose work is published by mainstream book publishers, most are sold through a few local comic shops and/or online. There is no national comics distributor that reaches all the local comics shops, let alone high street bookshops that sell graphic novels. Most of the latter do not sell ‘floppies’ or mini-comics. The Australian comic shops buy 90-100% of their stock from Diamond Comics Distributors – a near monopoly comic distributor in the USA, where all the Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, IDW and other popular titles come from. These stores very rarely set up accounts with anyone else, unless it’s manga, Anime, Dvds, figurines and other stuff they might sell. I know that you can’t find my books from Allen & Unwin in most Australian comic shops because they won’t set up accounts with Allied Distribution for a few local graphic novels. So, if you go to your local comics shop in your capital city (there’s a handful in major regional centres), then you’re most likely to find what is produced by creators who reside in that city, as they have personally taken their work to be sold there – usually on consignment. There have been a few attempts over the past couple of decades to create a national comics distribution system, but aside from one who failed at the first hurdle, the others foundered on the lack of support and interest from the comic shops. Australian comics are by and large marginal sellers compared to the American comics and Manga. The reasons for this are the simple fact that we don’t produce comics that compare with the slick overseas products (see question 6, below).

Tell us about your own books–and whether you’re working on something new.

The-SacrificeMy own books to this point, have been very specifically set in Australia and dealing with Australian themes, which has been at times appreciated for that fact because it’s uncommon. For instance, my novel, The Sacrifice, is set very specifically in Melbourne, during the years 1939-1942, following the travails, loves and life of a dedicated pacifist, whose unwillingness to enlist is corroded by a rapidly changing cultural and societal matrix as a consequence of war, and of course, the influx of American troops. The Australia of that period: ‘white’, xenophobic, English, colonial and still a bit cocky even after the bruising taken by participating in WW1, is evoked with considerable detail, to the point where due to the presence of the juxtaposed narrative images, it is a major character in the story. My next book, follows the daughter of the principal in The Sacrifice as she serves as an army nurse in Vietnam during 1970 to 1975. But there are plenty of extended parts set in Melbourne during this period, which will show the changes from the previous era, but also how much it’s changing for the better, even if it was barely perceptible during that period. I have been working on this book for the better part of 8 years and there is a considerable way to go, due to having completely revamped the story twice. On the side, I on occasion do smaller projects by commission, usually silencecover if they offer me a challenge to do something that I’ve never drawn before, or it’ll mean comics appearing in a place where they’ve rarely, if ever appeared. So for that reason, it is not the money that motivates me, but what I might learn by doing the work. Examples are the all-comics issue of Cordite, where artists adapted contemporary poems into comics. For me, the challenge was to take words that are usually so visually evocative and allusive, into something actually visible, but without simply illustrating them. I adapted A Frances Johnson’s poem, Microaviary (about drone warfare of all things) because when I read it, all these images by association flooded into my consciousness from my unconscious, and it was immediately apparent to me that I should simply put those images down. To that end, about half the actual words disappeared into the Mutard_panel_1images, and where they remained, the images added new contexts and layers, so that in a sense, it was a new work. I would love to do more such ‘collaborations’ and there is talk of such.

Aside from that, I have also recently completed my Masters degree, researching what it means to ‘write with pictures’ which is how I actually think of my craft. It is another way of saying that in comics, the pictures need to do the bulk of the work of conveying the story. In cinema, they call it ‘show don’t tell’. It’s about the most sagely three words of advice I could give any budding comics artist, only it’s also one of the hardest balances to achieve. Words are easy to put down, cut and paste and have a sort of precision about them, especially compared to the polysemous nature of images. What I really learnt from my research was how little study had been made into the formal properties of what I called juxtaposed narrative images. Much ink and pixels have been devoted to the content via all sorts of prisms (feminist, Marxist, deconstructionist, structuralist, sociological, medical, Freudian, Friedman, etc.), but strangely, little has been done to place it within art theory or as a visual art. Rather than produce a new work for print, I took it into space as an exhibition, where there was no page  one, no need for the meta boundaries of the page – just walls, doors and of course, the space CD 01within the room itself. I really want to do a PhD and take this much further and develop a new theory of comics that starts with the proposition that it is a medium, not a genre of literature. So, this means technically, the answer to the question ‘Are comics literature?’ is actually, no. But I Stanley Bruce Mutard Space oddity 01try not to say that in polite company.

Is there a distinctive ‘Australian’ style and approach to comics and graphic novels? Do you see your own books as fitting within that?

While I wouldn’t say there was any overarching style in terms of appearance, such as manga has, or the ‘ligne claire’ (clear line) school of BD, or the sort weightless dynamism pioneered by Jack Kirby that signifies the superhero genre, I would say there is a characteristic idiosyncrasy in Australian comics. It may sound strange to say, but comics might be one area where the ‘tyranny of distance’ is still at play. By that I mean few creators here really think they have a chance of ever being able to make a living from comics, or getting hired to work for the big comics publishers in the USA, Europe or Japan. There are a number of writers and artists who comicozhave succeeded, particularly with the US comic publishers (speaking English helps). But since the Australian market is so small, and therefore the prospect of sales is limited to local readers, Australian creators tend to produce work that is not obviously aimed at readers in those other markets. They tend to produce comics for the sheer joy and pleasure of it, and garnering a few readers tends to satisfy them. Some might say that this elffin-cover-1displays a lack of ambition or professionalism, but it’s not. Those who really do want to make a living in comics doing work for hire, put in the long, hard yards at improving their skills, getting the feedback from industry professionals as they hawk their portfolios at the US shows (or European ones). As for selling ones own creator owned graphic novels to compare with say, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, David B, Rutu Modan, Art Spiegelman and so on, have a harder row to plough. Even in the US market, few creators make a living exclusively from their comics, but at least there are substantially more and much larger comic’s shows with which to showcase and sell their work. In the last few years, some Australian creators (including myself) have made the trek to North America to sell work at shows like Toronto Comic Arts Festival, the Small Press Expo, CAKE and the like. It’s an expensive way to showcase ones work, and I’m not convinced it’s worth it given that any follow up sales have to be made via ones social media or site, necessitating shipping hard copies overseas, which has a frightful cost, (normally more than the margin between retail price and cost of production). There is no question that building a big reputation in comics would be easier if based in the USA, Canada or perhaps in Europe.

That said, not too many local works are specifically Australian in content or character either, often being set in imaginary worlds, mining the tropes of spec fiction genres. There is a strong trend to autobio comics, which depict the prosaic and quotidian with some reflective humour. I find autobio comics to be interesting in that with the presence of the image, the authors often depict themselves quite unfavourably and viscerally – a trend set by Robert Crumb. For some reason self-loathing almost seems to be a requirement for autobio comics, where the body and its liquids seem to feature prominently. I guess there is a safety in ink, where it is not possible to Mutard comic 2transmit physical infectious agents, though it is very prone to spreading infectious memes!

I was brought up reading within the strong French tradition of ‘bandes dessinées‘,or BD, as comics and graphic novels are known there. That whole area of publishing is mainstream in France, the books are sold in every bookshop, creators are routinely invited to general literary festivals as well as the BD-oriented ones, and the books cover many different genres and age ranges .In America and Japan, the other two great traditional centres of comics and graphic novels, the art form is similarly respected and accepted in the mainstream of publishing. But not in Britain or Australia, where the mainstream either ignores it, or looks down on it. Or both! What’s your take on this?

Long have some of us looked to France and wished the cultural acceptance of comics there, was replicated here. In Japan, it is certainly a similar case, although I believe it is not a career too many parents would hope their sons and (few) daughters would take up, as it’s punishing work and pays badly. I would disagree that comics are a respected art form in the USA. The same pejorative connotations that have tarred and feathered comics here and in the UK, applies to the Anglophone speaking world in general. This view generally runs along the lines that  little-nemo-19060812-s comics are mostly for kids, are superficial, sub-literate, containing very little content worthy of literary merit, nor give cause for and reward consideration by academia, literature festivals and arts grants bodies. And for much of the history of Anglophone comics, including a fair proportion of what is produced today as ‘mainstream’ or superhero/action/spec fic comics, you would not find much to convince you otherwise. Despite revisionist historical appreciation of the skills of George Herriman, Winsor McCay, EC Segar, Walt Kelly, Jack Kirby, Bill Gaines (as publisher), Harvey Kurtzman, Will Eisner and so on, very few people appreciated what they did at the time they produced their work, such that Roy Lichenstein could blatantly plagiarise comics artists work without attribution or reward.

It has only been since the revisionary comics of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Bill Sienkewicz, Frank Miller and Art Spiegelman in the mid 1980s, did a wider appreciation of comics as a form of literature to be taken seriously, take root and found fertile soil in which to grow. Now there’s an abundance of academic studies mining a new field of comics studies (why not; it was a new field with ground to stake like a new unfarmed fertile valley), mainstream book publishers suddenly taking an interest in a genre they hitherto ignored and republishing collections of comics, graphic novels and studies (but mostly only those creators who had V_for_vendettaxachieved considerable acclaim and attention within the comics market first). Literary festivals started to invite a few of the leading lights of comics to participate, though I think still in a way that shows they don’t get comics in the same way they don’t understand spec fiction; they are generally programmed as a separate stream, not integrated into the main program. Most importantly for me, is the sudden appearance of often substantial comics collections in public libraries (and some school libraries, though there is still an inconsistency in how to shelve it: ideally as it’s own section, not within general fiction or non-fiction). All of this points to the steady progress comics have made to enter the arts mainstream in the Anglophone world. There is still a long way to go to attain a mass readership like the Franco-Belgian world has, and it will probably never get there given the plethora of new competing forms of content (and their delivery) for the public’s attention, but it’s no longer considered a juvenile activity. There’s a level of immediate Mausrespect for the medium and its makers now that was largely absent as recently as 15 years ago. There is no better time to be making comics than now – even if it’s almost impossible to make a living at it. But that’s the same as being an author in general!

Recently, a librarian told me something that astonished me–she said that she had no idea how to read comics and graphic novels. It seemed to me to encapsulate a major problem: that unlike in the strong European tradition of comics and graphic novels specifically directed at children, young Australians rarely get a chance to ‘learn to read’ in those genres. And there is in fact very little for children published in those areas in Australia. Yet at the same time it seems a very natural art/literary form for children to respond to. Why do you think so few Australian comics creators write for kids?

There could be a number of explanations to the librarian’s difficulty: a structural cognitive deficit where her mind simply couldn’t interpret the iconic recurrence, and therefore ‘sculpt’ space and time within her mind in the additive way that comics requires; a kind of visual dyslexia if you will. Or, she can read words, but not ‘read’ images. It may be that she has grown up having absorbed the pejorative tag on comics and therefore, unconsciously resistant to them (when I appeared on the First Tuesday Book Club with Jennifer Byrne, she told me she didn’t ‘get’ graphic novels, either).

But you’re right, it seems in the great effort of comics to persuade the Anglophone world that comics are NOT just for kids, we’ve forgotten to keep them. Once upon a time superhero comics were all suitable for kids thanks to the requirement to receive the imprimatur of the Comics Code Authority seal (and therefore, appear on American newsstands). In the mid 1980s, the revisionism of the genre allied with the bulk of American comics being sold in specialty comics shops patronized mostly by adolescent males of all ages, meant the arrival of mature readers labels on comics, which very soon grew to encompass all genre comics, as almost all the readers were adult males. Naturally, their interests are somewhat narrow, meaning the content was (and continues to be) largely a mix of violence, gore, swearing and captain congobadly drawn sexy women in contortionist poses to satisfy the male gaze. But that is modifying as the readership of comics expands to embrace women and a plurality of voices, there are now comics for everyone. Thank heavens!

Since most comic creators tend to love comics, there is no surprise that they write and draw the kind of material they like to read (for good or ill), which tends to the adult. I am one such creator; almost all the work I create is aimed at 15+ readers of all genders. Given what I said above regarding Australian comics and the book market here, there isn’t a lot of incentive to produce comics for kids in the way there is for picture books. But this is changing as there are few comics aimed at kids coming onto the market, like Gregory Mackay’s delightful Anders and the Comet , Sorab Del Rio’s Rudy Cool, Sarah Ellerton’s Finding Gossamyr, Ruth Starke and Greg Holfeld’s Captain Congo, (an adventure in the ‘Tin Tin’ mold).

andersThere has been a slowly building countervailing trend to produce comics for kids (like Toon Books, run by Francoise Mouly), especially in a pedagogical context, since many teachers I’ve spoken to are happy to find anything that kids will read. At long last the educational world has accepted that reading comics is still reading, and moreover, helps with reading by having words constantly associated with what they stand for, even emotions, smells, sounds, the sense of touch and the like. In that respect, the arguments put forward for picture books can be applied to comics as well. I hope this will lead to the presence of comics available to readers at all age groups in a manner found in Japan and Europe.

Guest post: Jan Latta, author and wildlife photographer

Today I’m delighted to welcome Jan Latta to my blog.cover 50% 72dpi222

Jan is an adventurous author and photographer who follows animals in their natural habitats to create her series of 14 True to Life books for children. She’s travelled to Borneo for orangutans, the mountains of China for pandas, Uganda for Dr Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees, India for tigers, nine times to Africa for the big cats, elephants, rhinos and zebras, and Sri Lanka for the endangered leopard book.

In this fascinating guest post, she tells the story about a day in the Maasai Mara, Africa.



3.am: I hear a noise outside my tent I can’t identify – the rustle of leaves followed by munching sounds. I hold my breath and listen. Then I hear the deep rumble of a large animal’s stomach. I open the flap of my tent and see a magnificent bull elephant, and he’s only a metre away. I watch him eating and as I’m not in any danger, I go back to sleep.

5.0am: After my wake-up call and a mug of tea I open the zipper of my tent and wriggle my torch into the sky. This is the signal for the guide to escort me to the jeep.

6.0am: I watch the gentle beauty of a journey of giraffes in the golden sunrise. When they are close I can see the little Oxpecker birds clean the giraffe’s teeth and then ride on their mane. There is a lioness lapping water from a puddle. She looks at me and her eye contact is mesmerizing. She walks right up to the jeep, still looking up at me, then turns, walks beside the jeep and then into the bush. My guide says, “You didn’t take a photo?” I said no, because it was so special to have eye contact with her. My guide said it was the lioness we saw yesterday with her wildebeest kill and her two cubs.lena_the_lion_by_jan_latta_0980795869

9.0am: Fat hippos grunting, honking and farting their way up the river with their nasty habit of swishing dung into the next hippo’s face. A herd of elephants walk silently past the jeep and there is a tiny calf trotting along with its wobbly little trunk exploring everything. It’s adorable. Then I see my favourite animal, the cheetah. She is resting in the tall grass after her morning hunt.chipper-lge

11.0am: Drive back to camp for lunch and a shower. The guide calls the camp when we are close and a bucket of hot water is waiting for me. The bucket is tipped into my inside shower unit by a rope outside. I wash my socks but I have to stay guarding them because last year baboons stole all my socks from the tent rope. I wonder what they do with them?

3.0pm: On the way to see the lioness again there is a huge male lion walking towards her area. This is very dangerous because the male will demand the wildebeest remains, or he might kill the cubs to mate with the lioness. The guide stops and I hold my breath. What will happen? The lioness is rigid and stares at the male – but he just flops in the grass and falls asleep – plonk –he’s the daddy!

On the way back to camp I see a very cranky rhino on the horizon. 10 minutes later he thunders out of the bush, with dust and dirt flying everywhere. I yelp a warning and the guide accelerates. The rhino gets closer and closer to the jeep but finally we pick up speed and escape him.

7.0pm: I walk to the main tent to have dinner with the camp manager. During dinner we hear a loud bang, and unzip a section of the tent to see a lion chase a wildebeest right through the middle of the tent. Wow!! The Maasai run to help me and I try to calm down but realise I have to walk back to my tent with the pride close to camp. Two Maasai escort me safely back to my tent. The lions roar throughout the night and in the morning I hear the soft pant breathing of a lion right next to my tent. rufus

I’ve had so many amazing adventures creating my series of 14 True to Life books and it is a privilege to be so close to them in the wild. To be the “voice” to tell their story in both photographs and words.



Check out Jan’s website here. You can also buy her books and DVD direct from the website.

Watch her fabulous wildlife videos on You Tube!

Connect with her on Facebook here.

Contact her for exciting school and festival presentations:  janlatta@truetolifebooks.com.au

Guest post: Claire Boston on creating characters

AllthatSparklesBTRomance novelist Claire Boston is a guest on my blog today as part of her blog tour, and she’s going to talk about creating fantastic characters with particular reference to her new novel, All that Sparkles, part of The Texan Quartet.

Claire was a voracious reader as a child, devouring anything by Enid Blyton as well as series such as Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, The Baby-sitters Club and Sweet Valley High. Then one school holidays when she’d run out of books to read, her mum handed her ‘Hot Ice’ by Nora Roberts and she instantly fell in love with romance novels.
The love of reading soon turned to a love of writing and Claire struggled to keep within the 1500 word limit set by her teachers for any creative writing assignments. When she finally decided to become serious about her stories, she joined Romance Writers of Australia, found her wonderful critique group and hasn’t looked back.
When Claire’s not reading or writing she can be found in the garden attempting to grow vegetables, or racing around a vintage motocross track. If she can convince anyone to play with her, she also enjoys cards and board games.
Claire lives in Western Australia, just south of Perth, with her husband, who loves even her most annoying quirks, and her grubby, but adorable Australian bulldog.

Welcome, Claire! HeadShot

Creating characters that talk back to you

by Claire Boston
It’s my belief that characters are at the very centre of any story. Without good characters, the reader won’t care enough to read on, no matter how good the plot might be. So when it comes to crafting characters my process has grown over time.
When I first began writing I started with the obvious – name and physical appearance:
– Hair length, colour
– Eye colour
– Height
– Weight
– Age
I added in their occupation, maybe a little about the family background and got to work. Needless to say my characters didn’t leap off the page for my early stories.
Then someone recommended Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Debra Dixon. It’s a really easy read and I have gone on to recommend it to many others. I learnt my characters had to want something, there had to be a reason why they wanted it and there had to be something stopping them getting it. So the character’s goal, motivation and conflict were added to my character profile.
This helped me immensely and my characters definitely came to life, but last year I discovered Cherry Adair’s Writers Bible. This is a 59 page document that she uses to plot all her stories and is available from her website. She has ten pages dedicated to character development, which absolutely fascinated me. The questions she asks about her characters are in depth and comprehensive. Now, not all of it is relevant to my writing, but I’ve taken the bits I like and I’ve added it to my character profiles. I won’t go into detail about the questions because it’s copyrighted information, but I believe it has helped me shape my characters. (Oh and if you’re a plotter, you might love her 16 pages of plotting that’s also in the Writers Bible)
I really love to get involved with my characters and find out what makes them tick. Imogen and Christian in All that Sparkles were so much fun as was Imogen’s father, Remy. I know my characters have come to life when I’m writing dialogue and one of them says something and I think, “I didn’t know that about you.” Or they talk back to you and tell you they’re not going to do what you want them to do. (I don’t think I’m mad, as I’ve had other authors say that their characters talk to them as well!)
One of the reasons that All that Sparkles is part of The Texan Quartet is because I couldn’t bear to leave my characters behind and I had to find out what happened next with them. I hope you enjoy meeting Imogen and Christian as much as I did. You can let me know what you thought by contacting me:
Twitter @clairebauthor

You can buy All that Sparkles http://bit.ly/1EkAGL5

More about All that Sparkles:AllThatSparklesCover

Imogen Fontaine is living every girl’s dream.

She is a fashion designer for her family’s haute couture label, lives in a mansion, has a great circle of friends and is the apple of her father’s eye. Everything is perfect.

Until the day that Christian, the boy at the center of her childhood heartbreak, walks back into her life.

From there her life starts to unravel, as long-kept secrets are revealed. Imogen learns that her past was built on lies and betrayal, shattering the illusion of her perfect existence. She must seek out the truth if she has any hope of forging a new path for herself and discovering true freedom.

But can she convince Christian that there is a place for him in her new life?

Guest post: Adèle Geras on retelling fairy tales

FEAgerasToday I’m delighted to feature the wonderful Adèle Geras on my blog. Adèle is a renowned British author who has written more than 95 books for children, young adults, and adults. Her best-known works for young people are Troy(shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize and Highly Commended for the Carnegie Medal); Ithaka; Happy Ever After(previously published as the Egerton Hall trilogy) Silent Snow, Secret Snow, and A Candle in the Dark. Her novels for adults include Made in Heaven, Cover Your Eyes, and A Hidden Life.

This week, her latest book, Two Fearsome Fairy Tales from France, with gorgeous illustrations by Fiona McDonald, comes out with Christmas Press, and to mark it Adèle has written about why she loves retelling fairy tales.

Retelling Fairy Tales

by Adèle Geras

 This week, two fairy tales, retold by me, are going to be published by Christmas Press in Australia.  The book is called Two Fearsome Fairy Tales from France.  They have been beautifully illustrated by Cover.inddFiona McDonald. I love the look of this book. The designers have found a fairytale font that I’d never seen before and the whole production is gorgeous. I can’t wait for it to appear.

I’m a bit evangelical about fairy tales. I was brought up on them. Almost the first thing I can remember reading for myself was a version of Rapunzel. I can bring to mind even now, decades later, the look of my edition of Andersen’s stories ( which are not all traditional, of course) with Rex Whistler’s illustrations. I think it is important that children can still read the story, and not just look at Hollywood versions of these tales.

Retelling fairy tales is one of the things I like doing most as a writer. The reason I’m often asked to do this is, I think, because back in the 90s, I wrote a trilogy of novels based on fairytales, set in my old boarding school, Roedean. They are now published together as a book called Happy Ever After.  Shortly after they came out I was commissioned to retell some fairytales and that book (Beauty and the Beast and Other Stories) is the one from which my Two Fearsome Fairy Tales from France  are taken. I’ve also retold The Six Swan Brothers as well as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. 

For a lazy writer like me, it’s a real pleasure not to have to think of a plot. I always find working out the plot the hardest thing of all. I  always have to scratch about a bit when I’m writing something original.  This is never a problem with fairy tales.  They are there, and the reason they have lasted for so long and have been passed down over the centuries is because they are very good stories, dealing as they do with the most basic aspects of human existence: love, death, ambition, jealousy, fear, etc. They teach us that good will triumph, that the wicked will be punished and that it never hurts to be polite….look what happened to the unfortunate sister who was rude to an old woman by a well and ended up spewing toads and vipers from between her rosy lips.

Wonderful characters abound in fairy tales. Princes, monsters, ogres, dwarves, dragons, beautiful damsels who turn out to be braver and cleverer than they know, dreadful mothers, wonderful nurturing mothers, horrible husbands (Bluebeard is a lulu!) and envious siblings. The writer has nothing to do but let the  narrative unfold and all is well.

This might be thought boring but it’s not.  Just as having a fourteen – line limit for a sonnet is liberating rather than restricting, so the fact that you can’t change things too much makes you concentrate on the language. And that’s where the fun starts. I strive to make the words themselves as resonant and beautiful; as suitable to the tale I’m telling as I possibly can.

I hope very much that everyone who reads my versions of Beauty and The Beast and Bluebeard goes on to read lots more fairy tales told by lots of other people.  And I hope that someone asks me to retell another fairy tale, one of these days….

Adèle’s website: www.adelegeras.com

Follow Adèle on Twitter: https://twitter.com/adelegeras





Guest post: Goldie Alexander on fictionalising history

Last week, I featured a guest post by Wendy J.Dunn, about how she creates her historical fiction. Today, I’m presenting a guest post from Goldie Alexander on a related subject–the importance of fictionalising history.

Goldie Alexander writes award winning short stories, articles, radio scripts, plays and books. Her novels are published both in Australia and overseas for readers of all ages. Her books for adults include: ‘The Grevillea Murder Mysteries’ ‘Lilbet’s Romance’,  Dessi’s Romance’,Penelope’s Ghostmentoring your memoir and ‘Mentoring Your Memoir’. Her first YA novel ‘Mavis Road Medley’ was a Notable CBCA, was shortlisted for by the Office of Multi-Cultural Affairs and is listed as one of the best YA books in the Victorian State Library. Her best known book for children is: ‘My Australian Story: Surviving Sydney Cove’. Her fiction for children includes three collections of short stories and several mysteries, fantasies and science fictions. Her other historical fictions include: ‘The Youngest Cameleer’, ‘That Stranger Next Door’, My Holocaust Story: Hanna’ and the verse novel ‘In Hades’. She has also co-authored a non-fiction book, The Business of Writing for Young People, with fellow writer Hazel Edwards.

Welcome, Goldie!Goldie%20A1

Fictionalising history

by Goldie Alexander

Back in the dark ages the history I was taught when very young consisted of memorising facts and dates. I could recite all the kings and queens of England, though I knew almost nothing of our own history. I recall with wry amusement a first year university British History course made up entirely of 16th Century documents, but with no explanation as to why I was required to understand them.
In a way fictionalizing history is writing about time. Time is the element in which we all live much like fish in water and yet the realisation that time flows on and on and never flows backward is one of the most stunning of childhood discoveries. Time is what makes discovering history so important, because time is the narrative of mankind. It provides answers as to how people lived in the past as well as the roots of contemporary laws, customs, and political ideas. The accuracy of that old adage, “you can’t know where you are going unless you know where you have been” holds true. Historians realize history does repeat itself, though with different permutations. This repetition has importance in all societies. It teaches younger generations the value of certain social attitudes, it helps social change and gives sound governmental policies. A good example is the Aborigines of Australia who managed to hang onto their history for 40,000 years by word of mouth. A knowledge of history clearly proves early man’s love of the arts and demonstrates that once a civilisation is able to maintain a steady food supply that their creative ideas flowed whether the evidence appeared on rock walls, papyrus, or cedar bark.
A child immersed in facebook, twitter, instagram, or playing the latest computer game, might ask, why lilbets-romance1bother with those old stories? So the challenge for us authors who write historical fiction is to make these stories as relevant and exciting as any Hunger Game or Vampire novel and to write what our youngsters will enjoy, and incidentally learn a lot. I think this can happen if the author is able to turn the story into a compelling ‘here and now’ narrative. The best historical fiction works on the premise of “What if you were there at the time?”
It goes without saying that all historical fiction in whichever medium it appears (film, TV, or novel) must be based on careful research. My favourite faux pas is Elizabeth Taylor’s ‘Cleopatra costume’ with its frontal zip and the extra wearing a watch. Does anyone here recall that? Nothing is more irritating coming across a glaring error such as dialogue set well in the past in the past using a contemporary idiom.

There are certain rules we authors keep. We know that good historical fiction has a strong internal logic and is easy for young readers to follow. If the story darts too quickly between ‘times’, unless this is carefully stated, this can confuse even a sophisticated adult. And the story must contain some kind of quest. The characters must have a clear idea of what they desire or fear. They must be wholly rounded, and as three dimensional as if living in the present. The reader must be able to identify with these characters and feel empathy or compassion for their situation.
Some writers worry that readers might not like characters who exhibit typical prejudices of their time. But flawed characters who gain the readers’ sympathy and understanding despite their flaws are a key element of good fiction. Good historical fiction balances a characters’ flaws with qualities we can respect and admire, and gains sympathy for them without excusing prejudice, cruelty and the like.

surviving sydney coveI have written a number of historical novels for young readers. As an Aussie author, I mostly stick to our own history. I fictionalised the lives of our First Fleet in “My Australian Story Surviving Sydney Cove”; wrote about life during the Great Depression in “Mavis Road Medley”; wrote about the little known non-indigenous discovery of Uluru in “The Youngest Cameleer”; explored the First World War for very young readers in “Gallipoli Medals”; and imagined life in Melbourne just before World War Two in “Lilbet’s Romance”. One of my recent novels ‘That Stranger Next Door’ centres on the Australian equivalent of the mid-fifties McCarthy Senate inquiries and can be compared to the Children Overboard incident as both have political overtones. I believe the events I use as my settings have helped shape my country as to what it is now. My most recent novel ‘My Holocaust Story: Hanna’, my only historical novel set in the Warsaw Ghetto, partly shaped what I am now,
Browsing, I came across this comment in Good Reads; “Historical fiction gives me the opportunity to engage with what it would be like to live in those times. It is always great when you find a good source and even more so if that source confirms what you have already imagined. There is so much to learn from the past, it would be waste to just write about our day to day Holocaust Cover Smallpresence.

Writers are often chastised for writing about the past – as if only 21st Century problems are relevant, as if writing fantasy is the only way we will persuade youngsters to read. Certainly there are vogues involving vampires, zombies, super- adventurous girls, and a heap of Tolkien-style fantasy. In the end I doubt they will have a long life. These novels are often commercially driven and may only last until something new takes over. On the other hand history is never out of fashion and fictionalising it, is the best way of ensuring that some understanding of past mistakes might prevent them happening again.





petrov large cover

Guest post: Wendy J. Dunn on writing historical fiction

Today I’m delighted to welcome historical novelist Wendy J. Dunn to my blog, with an intriguing guest post about how she approaches creating the imaginative landscape of her books, whilst also recreating a very particular historical period.

Wendy is an Australian writer who has been obsessed by Anne Boleyn and Tudor History since she was ten years old. She is the author of two Tudor novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This?, the winner of the 2003 Glyph Fiction Award and 2004 runner up in the Eric Hoffer Award for Commercial Fiction, and The Light in the Labyrinth, her first young adult novel.

While she continues to have a very close and spooky relationship with Sir Thomas Wyatt, the elder (Tom told the story of Anne Boleyn in Dear Heart, How Like You This?), serendipity of life now leaves her no longer wondering if she has been channeling Anne Boleyn and Sir Tom for years in her writing, but considering the possibility of ancestral memory. Her own family tree reveals the intriguing fact that her ancestors – possibly over three generations – had purchased land from both the Boleyn and Wyatt families to build up their own holdings. It seems very likely Wendy’s ancestors knew the Wyatts and Boleyns personally.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, Wendy is married and the mother of three sons and one daughter—named after a certain Tudor queen, surprisingly, not Anne.

After successfully completing her MA (Writing) at Swinburne University Wendy became a tutor for the same course. She gained her PhD (Human Society) in 2014.

As a committee member of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia, Wendy was also part of the team who put together the very successful inaugural HNSA conference of historical fiction writers and readers, recently held in Sydney.

Welcome, Wendy!wendy dunn

Some Thoughts about Writing Historical Fiction.

by Wendy J.Dunn

I have now written two novels inspired by the story of Anne Boleyn. My first published novel, Dear Heart, How Like You This? tells her story through the voice of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Elder. A real historical person, he was not only a Tudor diplomat, but also a very gifted and important Tudor poet. Reconstructing him in fiction became my means to explore the nature and cost of love, as well as how Tudor women’s lives were controlled by their gender. The Light in the Labyrinth, my first young adult novel, as well as being a coming of age story, also casts a light upon women’s lives.

Why two novels about Anne Boleyn? Well, she has fascinated me since childhood, from the moment I first watched the movie Anne of The Thousand Days, and came away inspired by its construction of a strong, intelligent and very brave woman. By the movie’s end, Anne had become my hero, alongside my very first hero, her daughter, Elizabeth Tudor.anne boleyn

In my teenage and early adult years, I immersed myself in novels to do with the Tudor period. I also immersed myself in history books to help me learn more about the context that shaped the people of this era. These non-fiction books made it very clear that women in this period had very little ownership of their own lives. Even their identities came from their fathers, and then their husbands. More and more, Anne Boleyn stood out as a woman who was able to claim a true identity. While years of research have helped me to recognise her imperfections, it has also increased my reasons to love and respect her. Through my research, I now believe Anne’s insistence of her right to own and use her voice resulted in her death. This is the woman who lives in my imagination.

And this is the thing. Whilst my characters are birthed through research, and the knowledge I gain by research, I am a writer of fiction. Research is the key that opens the door to my imagination, when I begin typing up my daydream of another time and place. A time and place where my characters step forward and tell their story. For me, doing historical research has four main purposes: it deepens my well of historical knowledge; it gives me ideas turn into fiction; it takes me from the threshold of conceiving my first idea to the actual task of constructing historical fiction, when I build a world through imagination, and, finally, it continually fuels my imagination in the act of writing. It is my response to research that produces an imaginative reaction that takes me deeper into the process of story writing.dear heart

Writing The Light in the Labyrinth, a young adult novel, brought with it particular challenges. Young adult novels tend to be written in first person, and I tried to do this with Kate’s story. However, I decided to challenge myself by switching to third person limited. While the story was still revealed through Kate’s perspective, it was a very different structure to my usual way of writing.
Another challenge was giving voice to a 14-year-old girl from the Tudor period, a time very different from our own times. 14-year-old girls in Tudor England were considered old enough to be married and have children. The life of Catherine Willoughby, the Duchess of Suffolk, provides an example of this. Some historians claim Catherine was as young as fourteen when she married Charles Brandon, a man close to fifty. Kate’s experiences had to evoke that of a Tudor girl, yet also speak to girls today.
History seems to know very little about Katherine Carey’s early years. Like her aunt, Anne Boleyn, even her birth year is the subject of debate. This historical ‘silence’ allowed me imagine, at the start of The Light in the Labyrinth, Kate living with her mother at Rochford, a property owned by the Boleyns, and at least two days of riding from London. My research suggested this property was not well liked by the Boleyns (in the 16th century, it was situated in a very unhealthy area). Yet Mary lived there with her second husband, William Stafford, rather than be too close to her immediate family. I don’t believe it was simply because Mary had disgraced her family by her choice of a second husband – a man without wealth or title. While she seems to have married for love, her marriage could also be also be seen as an act of defiance, the claiming of her own life and identity.
I wondered what kind of mother she could have been for Kate – imagining that Kate saw her as a soft mother, but really Mary was not soft, rather too aware of the hardness of life. Through my knowledge of the lives of Mary and Anne Boleyn, I was able to imagine my Kate Carey, a girl influenced by admiration for her aunt, Anne Boleyn, and rebellious against what she saw represented by her mother.
the-light-in-the-labyrinth-coverThe silences of history offer historical fiction writers those vital gaps to enter by use of their imagination; a time they can use “historical circumstances with the greatest economy” (Kundera 2003, p. 36). In my own practice, I also deepen my understanding of what William Styron means when he writes: “while it may be satisfying and advantageous for historians to feast on rich archival material, the writer of historical fiction is better off when past events have left him with short rations” (2010: 428).
By this I mean I know have done my research about the Tudors and their period. This research has had time to soak into the depths of my unconsciousness. These gaps in historical record are my invitation to allow my imagination free rein, when I can let my characters speak, and re-construct their lives.
This is why the “curious, alluring space between fact and fiction” (Parini 1998, p. B4) is vitally important for me as a writer: it gestates imagination. It takes me “back then” (Thom, 2010, p. 26). And if I am taken “back then”, as a writer, I believe it also follows I have the possibility of taking back my reader through the construction of my text.

Works cited:
Kundera, M, 2003, The Art of the Novel, Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
Parini, J 1998, ‘Delving into the World of Drewww.wendyjdunn.comams by Blending Fact and Fiction’, The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 27, p. B4.

Styron, W, 2010, The Confessions of Nat Turner, Kindle edition: Open Road.

Thom, J. A. 2010, The art and craft of writing historical fiction, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Wendy’s website: www.wendyjdunn.com/
Like Wendy on Facebook: www.facebook.com/authorwendyjdunn
Goodreads author page: www.goodreads.com/author/show/197156.Wendy_J_Dunn

Follow on Twitter: @wendyjdunn

Interview with Jane Routley

JaneRoutleyToday it is my great pleasure to feature a really interesting interview I did recently with Jane Routley, multi-award-winning author of haunting and gripping fantasy novels, whose earlier books, I’m delighted to see, are enjoying a deserved comeback through ClanDestine Press, but who’s also hard at work on several new fantasy novel projects. And she’s also continuing with another wonderful side to her writing–Station Stories, intriguing non-fiction vignettes inspired by her day job. Read on!

Your new ebook, The Three Sisters, has just been released by ClanDestine Press. It was first published in 2004 under the pseudonym of Rebecca Locksley, and received fantastic reviews, including one from the great fantasy author Sara Douglass, who deemed it a ‘captivating read’. Can you tell us a bit about the book’s journey from its initial publication to its new release now? Did you make any changes to the original book, and how did you approach the question of pseudonyms for this new release?

The pseudonym Rebecca Locksley was an attempt to re-launch me for marketing reasons. At that time big bookshops like Borders were only ordering numbers of books on the strength of previous sales. Harper Collins had enough faith in me to think it might be worth re-launching me and making a big marketing push with posters and dump bins etc… In The Three Sisters I had wanted to write a three sistersprequel to my Dion Chronicles, to deal with the history of the Klementari and their contact with the Aramayans. The name change came when I was too deep in the book to change the story. To be honest even though I understood the reasoning, I wasn’t very happy about it. I changed the names and some of the geography, but the magic system and the characters – everything that mattered -remained the same.
Since the name change didn’t achieve what Harper Collins had hoped and publishing has changed enormously with the advent of ebooks, I thought I might as well consolidate and change my name back for the re-issue.
Oddly enough when Clan Destine offered to re-releaseThe Three Sisters under my own name,I started out changing the world back to that of the Dion Chronicles. Somehow it just felt wrong so I must have changed more than it seemed at the time. Also I was worried people would think I was setting out to deceive.
The Three Sisters has been re-copy edited and I’ve smoothed out some stylistic edges that seem rough to me now but otherwise it’s much the same book that was released in print.
There is a sequel to The Three Sisters which has never been in print, which I spent a lot of time writing and which people still write and ask me about. Fingers crossed Clan Destine will bring it out some time next year.

In both your earlier Dion Chronicles and this book, you have created vivid and intriguing characters, acting in richly-depicted fantasy settings. How do you go about creating the world of your books?

I usually start out with an idea or a character. I’ve always loved the vividness of Angela Carter and Vernon Lee and I’ve tried to emulate it. Fairy tale and history fuel my world building. I tend to imagine my self living in my worlds. I imagine daily life, the smell of fresh bread and the feel of velvet robes. Hence there must always be the sense that there are bakers and seamstresses in the back ground even if they are not described. You need to make sure that everything follows logically.
For instance, your characters need ways to earn livings, which leads to ideas about social structure and economies.
The Three Sisters is set in a kind of medieval world but one in which a country is being colonized. I’ve plundered a lot of my history reading for that. For instance the local women are regarded as valuable slaves because of their skill at weaving. The women captured after the fall of Troy were used in just such a way. Later in Medieval times the work of weavers was the basis of much of the wealth of the Medici’s and the English Monarchy. Hence my history reading fuelled that piece of world building.
On the other hand fairytales are the back ground for a lot of my writing about the Tari. But even though they are magical they still have to eat! And they are human enough to need something to do during the day. I always notice in fantasy books when someone is just sitting round in their castle/cottage/flat waiting for the plot to catch up with them and it always irritates me. Real people,even magical real people, get bored with nothing to do. Even if you never mention it, at least have an idea in your head for what they do every day.

As a writer, are you a plotter or a gambler’? Do you plan your journey into a book, or do you just set out and see what happens?

As a writer I’m more of a gambler than a plotter. I know what I’m interested in writing about and I usually have some idea of where I want to go, but I never have much idea of how I’m going to get there. Every book I start I try to be more of a plotter. It must save so much time and angst. I always get to a point where the book goes dead and I’ve learned that that’s because I’m trying to make the characters do something that doesn’t work. Gee it’s miserable when it happens! I wish I didn’t have to go through it. On the other hand I get bored easily, so perhaps it’s best if I don’t know how things are going to go.
As a gambler, I know I write stories and books to see what’s going to happen if… For instance I’m interested in female roles in fantasy. In The Three Sisters I wanted to subvert the idea of the beautiful woman everyone desires. My suspicion would be that it would be horrible to be so desired. Sort of like that famous photo by Ruth Orkin of an American girl in Italy 1951 running the gauntlet of leering men. Elena’s quality of fatal beauty deprives her of much of her chance for agency and forces her to make a horrible sacrifice that many women in history have had to make. And I wanted to portray what it mage heartwould be like to occupied by a colonizing force, which is an important theme in Australian History. So I keep asking what happens next when these conditions apply and over time I dig into the story and get closer and closer to the story that feels right for me. It’s a bit like being an archaeologist or painting an oil painting.

Are you working on a new novel now? If so, can you tell us about it?
My current project Shadow in the Empire of Light, is an example of the way I work. I was tired of reading traditional patriarchal gender roles and especially tired of the nice girls don’t have love affairs trope that is so much a part of traditional fantasy. It’s Fantasy for heaven’s sake!! Let’s live a little!! So I tried to design a world in which women are men’s equal and gender is less of an issue. At first it came out a bit dull. I hadn’t realized how much the sex war supplied tensions.
So I added the element of class. In the Empire of Light wealth is passed down the female line and all mages become nobles. Those without magic are peasants.
My heroine Shine Lucheyart is well born but she has no magic and no mother to leave her an inheritance. She works as a poor relation in the house of powerful sorcerer relatives. But she’s smart and feisty and in the first book she spends a lot of time getting sorcerer cousins out of trouble.
Her main aim is the cut loose from her family and, with her telepathic cat for company, make her fortune. I had a lot of fun with gendered language and also fun making it a sexy silky kind of book. I’m looking for a publisher now.

You are a multi-award winning, internationally-published author. How do you think the genre of fantasy fiction has changed over the years since you were first published?

The introduction of sparkly vampires and the growth of urban fantasy is one major new part of the genre. Fairy tales seems to have left nature and have become more and more entwined with our grungy urban settings. I’m not sure the type of historical fantasy I write has changed all that much. A lot of it seems just as sexist and humourless as it was when I started out. There are a lot of women centred fantasy novels nibbling away at the edges, but the mainstream….? Women are still being married off to save their brothers from ruination or in constant danger of being ravished by every man they meet. On the other hand there is the Game of Thrones phenomenon which can only be good for all fantasy writers simply because it’s gone so mainstream. Looking at G o T is a great way of looking at gender roles in Fantasy. A lot of women say that G o T is too rapey. That’s true. It’s set in a war and that’s what happens in the chaos of war. But there are a lot of strong women in the book. You have Aya, Danerys and even the appalling Cerci just to name the main ones. On the other hand you could accuse it of exceptionalism since all these ladies are exceptional and not the norm and the rapeiness is a drag to read if you’re a woman. Still compared with Tolkien we are definitely making progress. I guess one should be happy for small steps.fire angels

Separately to your fiction, you have created a wonderful compendium of non-fiction ‘Station Stories’ of vignettes and micro-stories inspired by your work as a station host at a Melbourne station host. How did ‘Station Stories’ start, and how do you see it as developing? Can you share with us one or two stories that stand out?

As a writer I’ve always wanted to celebrate everyday life – to make little photographs of it but with scents and sounds. Because everyday life is full of tiny transcendent jewel-like moments of delight and sorrow and interest. Fantasy writing doesn’t give you much scope for this. When I first started to work at a railway station (unfortunately my writing doesn’t pay the bills)I was delighted by all the little stories that played out on station platforms and kept a diary so that they wouldn’t be lost. Over time and with my discovery of social media these have metamorphosed into ‘Station Stories’. I really wrote them for my own pleasure. People tell me to look for a publisher for them and perhaps I will. But I already think of it as a small weekly column and I try to post one every weekend. I’d love to build up a following for them so that lots of people get this little story maybe on their mobiles maybe on Monday mornings as a bit of a sweetener. Without really planning it that seems to be what I’m working towards.
Here are two of my favourites.
A regular
G, one of our regulars is extremely disabled. He drives his wheelchair with a stick mounted on his head and communicates by tapping out words on a communicator. Were I so disabled, I think I’d be scared to leave the house, but G goes out to his job most days and has a busy social life. Recently I was tasteless enough to tease him about checking out the pretty girls. The way he tapped out “I’m engaged” and the dignified way he looked at me as it sounded out, made me feel rather small. Serves me right!
Yesterday he was waiting for a friend at the barriers and we got chatting. Hundreds of people headed for the Soundwave festival were going past and my task was to call out “Soundwave passengers – buses to the left!” at regular intervals.
I was startled to hear a little mechanical voice repeating my words. G had typed the words into his communicator and helpfully kept pressing the button at regular intervals until his friend arrived and he shot off in his wheel chair to greet him.

Station Heroics
Today the Crystal lady was in great distress (although not willing to miss her train) because she had dropped a container of freshly made organic peanut butter on the train tracks. I leapt in to help like the hero station host I am. Although these days railway employees are forbidden to enter the Pit (this is the evocative name we rail types use for the area of train track between the platforms) I do have a Scoopy Thing. This thing, created by some great hero station officer of times past,is a plastic milk bottle cut in half and attached to a pole. It enables me to fish all kinds of things – mostly mobile phones safely out of the Pit.
The ST performed admirably but to be honest, I’m not sure the Crystal Lady will want the peanut butter as the jar has a big germ emitting crack in it. Still that’s her decision for tomorrow.

Station Stories can be followed at www.janeroutley.com

Interview on Wordmothers site

sophie-masson-deskI was interviewed recently by Nicole Melanson of the fabulous Wordmothers site, which features interviews with female authors, artists and book industry professionals. She asked some great questions. Full interview is here, but below is a short extract.


As a child, I heard lots of stories—my family’s always told them—and I’ve always seen the world through that prism. To me, creating stories is as natural as breathing, and I need it pretty much as much! That is still exactly what compels me—creating stories, living in their world, and sharing them with other people.


It’s the same as it ever was—the constant challenge of staying published, of interesting publishers in your work, of reaching readers. I’ve been very lucky as a writer in that I’ve made a living at it for many years now, but I never take anything for granted and I keep an eye out for opportunities; I stay flexible while also never sacrificing my integrity.

Also, I never allow myself to dwell on rejections but simply pick myself up and try again. It doesn’t mean that it’s easy to do that though! There are always times when you think, what if the publishing dries up? What if I can’t get anyone interested? But I don’t dwell on that either. It sharpens the wits but you can’t allow it to sour the writing!




Guest post: Duncan Lay on the reality of fantasy

duncan lay Last-Quarrel-Episode-1_cover1An interview with legendary US fantasy author Raymond E Feist inspired Duncan Lay to begin writing fantasy. He is the author of two best-selling Australian fantasy series, the Dragon Sword Histories and the Empire Of Bones. He writes on the train, to and from his job as production editor of The Sunday Telegraph, Australia’s biggest-selling newspaper. He lives on the Central Coast of NSW with his wife and two children.

In this fabulous guest post, Duncan explores how he created the world of his new series, by inspiring himself from the real world.

When you begin to read a fantasy story, the author is asking you to put aside your disbelief when you crack open the front cover. What lies inside could include fantastical creatures, magic, non-human characters – really, it could be anything.
Personally I think fantasy is best when it comes with a layer of reality, as it gives the reader something to hold on to, something familiar to ground all the fantastic, amazing other things they are reading.
Part of that comes from the characters, making them as real as possible but I also think part of it needs to come from the world they are from.
I know that some authors lovingly construct a world from scratch and good on them, I say. Personally, I think that a touch of the real world in a fantasy story gives the reader something recognisable and allows them to more easily believe what else is happening.
In my new series, The Last Quarrel, there are two lands. Gaelland, which is based on Ireland and the Kotterman Empire, which is loosely based on the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. In real life, these two countries had nothing to do with each other but this is fantasy, so anything can happen!
The beauty of basing your fantasy country on a real country is you instantly have no problem with character names. Those baby name websites not only offer you endless options but also helpfully say what the name means, which allows you to pick names that offer a hidden side to the character. Place names are also a breeze, although you can also mix those up a little so as not to represent actual places. Thus I have Lagway (Galway), Lunster (Munster), Meinster (Leinster), Londegal (Donegal) and so on.
Best of all, it allows you to learn from history. After all, people survived and thrived in those conditions, in that weather, through war, disease and famine. How they did it gives you an insight into how your characters might live, what they might wear and eat. It can influence their speech, their mannerisms and their history. Of course, being fantasy, you can pick and choose which aspects you keep and which you discard and replace with your own!
I loved the idea of Ireland for many reasons. The thought of a small, proud country that, through no fault of its own, is next to a larger more powerful one is obvious. How it deals with that larger country’s ambition is a matter of history. Ireland has a proud warrior tradition, its own songs and legends and a powerful national character. One of the main characters, Fallon, even uses the shillelagh, the traditional Irish fighting stick. Plus I was fascinated with the story of the sack of Baltimore, an Irish village that was stripped bare by Arab slavers. Putting the two together gave me a strong base for my story.
The Ottoman Empire also interested me. The way it was seen as the “sick man of Europe” during World War I, which led to the battle of Gallipoli and the forging of the Anzac legend, makes it instantly fascinating to anyone in Australia. The idea of a mishmash of an Empire, cobbled together from a variety of countries and held together by willpower and a steel fist, made it an obvious choice for me. Naturally there are heroes and villains on both sides!
History books are a great help with research but I also find books such as the Horrible Histories series are even more helpful, offering a really gritty view of life in different times.
And the best thing is, you can always mix and match things, as well as make them up if it comes to it. After all, it is fantasy and it only needs a little reality!

Duncan’s website: http://www.duncanlay.com/

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About The Last Quarrel:

The Last Quarrel is a series in 5 episodes, the first of which came out on January 22, and further episodes will be released at fortnightly inteervals in February and March, with Episode 2 coming out this week! Keep an eye on Duncan’s Momentum page for more information as episodes are released.

Episode 1:(out now)

Gaelland is a nation gripped by fear.

In the country, fishing boats return with their crews mysteriously vanished, while farms are left empty, their owners gone into the night, meals still on the table. In the cities, children disappear from the streets or even out of their own beds. The King tells his people that it is the work of selkies, mythical creatures who can turn from seals into men and back again and witches. But no matter how many women he burns at the stake, the children are still being taken.

Fallon is a man who has always dreamed of being a hero. His wife Bridgit just wants to live in peace and quiet, and to escape the tragedies that have filled her life. His greatest wish and her worst nightmare are about to collide.

When an empty ship sails into their village, he begins to follow the trail towards the truth behind the evil stalking their land. But it is a journey that will take them both into a dark, dark place and nobody can tell them where it might end…


Prince Cavan is sure his younger brother, Swane, is behind the children going missing in the city. But his father refuses to listen and sends him away to investigate reports of selkies stealing people from the countryside. A furious Cavan fears this is part of a conspiracy. But then he meets Fallon, a simple country sergeant who has his own theories about the attacks on Gaelland. And what they cannot achieve apart, they must just do together …

Using dreams in your writing

DSCN21310001 DSCN27170001The other day, I had one of those amazing story-style vivid dreams that when you wake up, you know is going to feature in a novel or story. And that’s exactly what’s happened: it’s gone into the Trinity sequel, and in doing so has pretty much cracked a particular problem I had with part of the plot. Those kinds of dreams are gifts, and they come rarely; but even smaller, less powerful dreams can help to enrich your writing, and so today I thought I’d reproduce on this blog, a workshop piece about how to best make use of those dreamy opportunities for your fiction! I first wrote it as a blog post some time ago, and it’s also been republished in my non-fiction ebook, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers.

A short dream workshop

From time immemorial, human beings have dreamed–every night we go into what one of my sons’ friends once referred to as ‘those brilliant eight hours of free entertainment.’ And from time immemorial, writers have used images or scenes from dreams, or entire dreams, to enrich and expand their creative work in waking life. I’m certainly no exception. My night-imagination has always enriched my day-imagination. Several of my short stories have started directly as dreams, for example, ‘Restless’, a chilling ghost story I wrote not long ago, began as a really creepy and unforgettable nightmare. Another disturbing story, ‘The Spanish Wife’, a vampire story set in the 1930’s, started as a dream in which someone said, very clearly, ‘No-one took any notice of him till he brought home a Spanish wife,’ and that turned into the very first sentence of the short story. Images and scenes from dreams have also gone into my novels, and in one case, a very vivid and intriguing dream inspired an entire six-book children’s fantasy series of mine, the Thomas Trew series. It’s not always fantasy or supernatural stories that have sprung out of dream-compost for me, though; everything from family stories to thrillers to historical novels has benefited from it.
Over the years, I’ve learned quite a few techniques on how to best use vivid, scary, tantalising or intriguing dream sequences in my writing, and how to investigate them for best effects. Here’s a short workshop based on some of the techniques I’ve developed over the years:

*Think of a dream you’ve had. Any dream. It doesn’t have to be anything
exciting or unusual. Go back over the dream-scenes, as if you were a police witness being asked to remember an event. Who was in it? What did they look like? What were they wearing?
Were they people you knew or strangers? Were there any animals in it? What sort? What was the setting like? Indoors, outdoors? What could you see? Smell? Touch? Hear? Taste even? What were you in it—a participant, a helpless observer, a godlike figure?

*If you did something supernatural, like flying, what did it feel like, physically? (I’ve often had flying dreams and in them I feel a strong pull in the chest, arms stretching. Once I even woke up with what felt like an actual slight ache in the arm muscles—very spooky indeed!)
*Were there any machines in your dream? If so, what sort?
*Did anyone speak, and if so what did they say? Many dreams in my experience are like silent movies, with thought-subtitles and maybe some music, but a few have dialogue, even if it’s often minimalistic and quite enigmatic.
* Knowledge: Do you know why you were in that particular place, at that time? If you had some supernatural ability, did you know why? If there are interesting objects or gadgets in the setting of your dream, do you know what they can do, and why, and who made or used them? Backstory is very often missing in dreams, but is very important in a story, even if you only spend a few lines on it.
*Now, once you’ve written down as many descriptive details as you can about what was there in the
dream, think about what wasn’t there, and write that down. While you were dreaming, did you
know for instance why you or other people were doing things(even if it was a kind of weird dream-logic?) Did you understand the sequence of events? Was there a sense the dream was moving towards some conclusion, or just randomly jumping about? Motive, continuity and plot—all very important in actual stories—are often missing from dreams.
*Think of your own self in the dream, however you appeared in it: did you
recognise yourself? Did you feel it was fully you or something that was only partly you, or a stranger? Did characters behave randomly? Character development is usually absent in dreams
too though it very much needs to be present in a story.
*What about the setting? Were there things missing: for instance, if you were in a house, were there doors? Windows? Furniture? If you were outside, was anything odd: for instance trees growing upside down, or a wall of water appearing out of nowhere?
*Now put those two things together—the things that were there, the ones that weren’t—and you have the beginnings of a real story framework, where the wild imagination of the night and the more disciplined one of the day cross-fertilise and turn into something amazing and wonderful.