This past weekend I had the delightful opportunity to be a panelist at SheaCon, a yearly conference organized and run by fans of author K.M. Shea. I joined Emily Deady for a Saturday discussion about our fantasy novels, with a bit about our writing process at the end.
First off, I would like to give a huge THANK YOU to Kitty’s Champions. This was a fun event with an engaged audience.
I didn’t realize until afterward that there was a during-panel chat for the audience to react to our remarks. It was probably best that I hadn’t noticed, because that allowed me to focus on my designated questions without any extra stimulus for my distraction-prone brain. I did read the commentary later, though, and was overwhelmed at the amount of love and excitement that the SheaCon attendees expressed.
Again, thank you, thank you, thank you.
Secondly, thank you to those who submitted questions for our panel. We had these ahead of time, so that we could prepare. Our moderator, Gwen, did a fantastic job choosing which ones to ask. However, because of time constraints, we obviously could not cover everything.
Thus, on behalf of those who took the time to submit questions, I’m going to answer my additional questions here. (Some are spoiler-ish. You’ve been warned.)
SheaCon questions submitted but not discussed
Will there be more books in the world of THE HEIR AND THE SPARE?
No. This novel falls firmly in stand-alone territory. I would have to introduce more calamity for additional books, and I think these characters deserve some tranquility instead.
Do you enjoy writing books with darker themes?
No…? I’m not sure that my definition of “darker” matches everyone else’s, though. It’s possible that I’m a bit warped in that respect. For example, I didn’t think THE HEIR AND THE SPARE was a “dark” book when I wrote it, and I did enjoy its writing.
To me, darker themes lean into, accept, and revel in the depravity of humankind, and that’s never my goal. I might address those themes, but it’s always with the intent to purify, resolve, or bring hope.
How do you decide on the designs for your book covers?
It’s a painful process for sure. I often look at trends in my genre and those peripheral to it, but I’ve found that I don’t particularly like most trends. Plus, chasing them only means that I’ll need a new cover when the trend changes, or else I risk my title looking dated a few years down the road.
So, instead, I focus on identifying my book’s intended aesthetic. Is it classic? Minimalist? Whimsical? Haunting? Is there a specific art style or font style that invokes this? Then I pick a color palette and brainstorm ideas from there.
Do you ever write bonus scenes for your stories to show what is happening at a different time or for any other reason?
Sometimes, but rarely. I wrote “Prince of Ruses” to explain the false prince’s whereabouts during his six-month absence near the end of KINGDOM OF RUSES. I’ve had ideas for other shorts, but mostly I like to leave those threads open for my readers’ imaginations.
ANNALS OF ALTAIR
When did the genetic anomalies start appearing?
They were basically always there, but written off as charisma or the like. I figure that the government started identifying them as genetic anomalies in the mid-1950s (post WWII, Cold War era).
How many kids are like Oliver and how many are more like the Wests?
Prometheus collects anyone with the genetic marker for these abilities, and there are roughly 1000-1500 in their system at any given time, from ages 0-18. Only about 5% of those will manifest as projectors, and only a fraction of a percent will be null projectors (like 0.2%). During Oliver’s time there, he, Quincy, and Cedric were the only nulls in the system.
Nulls and delinquent projectors always go to Prom-F, so that campus naturally has a higher concentration than the others.
Do we ever find out what happens to kids after graduating from Prom-F?
Not in the course of the published books. I will say that there’s no one path. They do all funnel through Prom-E, but that’s an end-point for some and a mile marker for others.
What was your favorite part to write for this particular book?
This questions was listed for the series, but not attached to one particular book, so I’ll answer my favorite parts of each.
- For A BOY CALLED HAWK, I love the scene at the park where Hawk calls upon the local birds for help.
- For A RUMOR OF REAL IRISH TEA, it’s when Happy unleashes his full influence. I loved the idea of a child’s unbridled emotions slamming into and possessing adults who are used to constraining their feelings.
- For OLIVER INVICTUS, Not-Emily was fun to write. She had to be equal parts innocent and shady, always pretending she was harmless while scheming inside her own head.
Where did you get the idea for projectors and null projectors?
My nephew. He was a bird-charmer as a child, best friends with his chickens, his cockatiel, and his budgies. One day I saw him walking around with a hen cradled in his arms, and I had a flash of inspiration about a character who could communicate with birds. Everything developed from there.
Is level 5 the highest level?
Yes, it’s a 5-point scale. If anyone were deemed stronger than Oliver or Happy, they would still be classified as Level 5. If they were ridiculously stronger (which I’m not sure would be possible, as these two are already ridiculously strong), then previous Level 5 projectors and nulls would get downgraded to Level 4.
Did you plan on writing Oliver’s story when you started the series?
Nope. It was a nice bonus idea that percolated after the first two books ended. However, I always knew that Oliver and Emily would stray from the GCA/Prometheus fold, but that it would happen a few years down the road.
How many factions are there that are fighting the government? Is Altair the only one that tries to avoid violence?
There are many, many factions, and most do avoid violence because the government has the worst weapons and the amorality to justify using them.
Each faction has its own focus, though. Altair is about hiding dissidents and keeping secrets; Talmadge is about spying and inter-faction communication; Sigma is about scientific research, especially where projectors and nulls are concerned; Odeon is for creatives offering hope and moral support. Smaller, more independent factions like Sparta and the Overmountain Brotherhood are more geared toward combat and active resistance, similar to splinter-cell militias that currently exist in the US.
I have a head canon that Oliver and Honey will end up together because she would know that she couldn’t influence him to love her. Is that inside the realm of possibility?
It’s inside the realm but wouldn’t happen until their adulthood. I see a friendship between them being the necessary intermediate step. As teenagers, Honey would annoy Oliver too much (intentionally, haha) for him to fall in love with her.
That being said, if I were ever to write a fourth book, it would involve Honey and Oliver having to team up.
RUSES OF LENORE
How did you come to the idea of the immortal prince?
My original concept for KINGDOM OF RUSES was of a shady group of government types keeping their country in check with stories of fictional monsters, sort of a “men behind the curtain” scenario, with a fake figurehead to take the focus off of them. The main character was an assistant to these men, and an elf-type of creature would show up and make trouble by bringing these fictional creatures to life.
As soon as I decided on Viola in that MC role, the shady men became her family, and the immortal prince became their deep, dark secret kept to protect the land.
Is Mr. Moreland aware of how cunning Mrs. Moreland is? In the first book, was she aware that the Prince is a ruse and, if so, did Mr. Moreland realize?
He’s aware. He married her as much for her brains as her beauty. In the first book, she doesn’t know that the Prince is a ruse, but she’s aware that shenanigans are afoot.
Mrs. Moreland possesses one of my favorite qualities: she knows when to mind her own business. She allows others their boundaries and backs away when she inadvertently crosses them. In the case of the Prince, the instant he saved her baby’s life, many years prior to the main story arc, she shut any door of inquiry into who or what he was.
So, for example, she knows about the hidden passageway in her family’s apartment, and she’s perfectly aware that her family often sneaks through it behind her back. However, she doesn’t investigate out of respect and gratitude for the Prince. (And also because it amuses her when people think she’s completely oblivious, haha.)
What were your favorite tropes you used in these books? Did you prefer writing one over the other?
I know it can be problematic, but I like the Stolen Kiss trope. It appears in Books 1 and 2 in two different forms, and then I inverted it for Book 3, where Edmund teases but remains respectful almost to a fault.
I also like the outsider-looking-in trope in Books 2 and 3, where Flora and Rosia each are newcomers with no knowledge of what’s really happening behind the scenes. It allows for some fun dramatic irony, where readers of the previous book(s) can recognize people and significant details before the main character does.
Which character in these books do you relate most to?
Flora, without a doubt. I relate so closely to her that I get upset when I come across someone criticizing her. (Yet another reason I don’t read a lot of commentary about my books.)
At the start of her story, Flora’s doors of opportunity have all shut. She’s graduated from all the education she’s allowed to have, her father has pulled her away from her beloved home and garden, and familial duty requires that she set aside her preference for quiet company to support him socially in his new position. She’s in a state of limbo where she doesn’t know what she wants and if she did, she couldn’t choose it anyway.
When people complain that she’s “too passive,” I have to wonder if they’ve ever had their lives derailed, and how quickly they recovered. Maybe they could give me some pointers, haha.
Is it possible that Jack Summerfield or Laelia could get their own stories? Or if you plan on writing more stories set in Lenore, what/who do you think you would write about?
I mean, anything’s possible. The main sequence for this series is complete, though, so anything I write would be short and peripheral. I’d rather not speculate on a what or who, lest I give someone false hope. That being said, one reader did request a Nicholas/Elizabeth prequel, and that’s the first idea that has piqued my interest.
(Again, though, I consider this series done.)
So the ending of the romance for book one actually happens off screen in book two. Why did you choose to have it this way?
It’s a goodnatured tease. Declarative scenes are awkward to write, and if they don’t happen in tandem with the climax of the book, they can turn cloying. So, I opted to leave the final declaration in KINGDOM to the reader’s imagination rather than enshrine it with words.
However, some people (mainly my mother) were annoyed by this. Thus, when I provided more story, I still withheld that particular scene. First, because Book 2 is Flora’s book, not Viola’s, and second, because I stand by my authorial choice of Viola and the Prince’s open ending. By keeping it off-page, I’ve entrusted the details to my readers. Use that power wisely!
BRINE AND BONE
The story’s prologue and epilogue are both told from the 1st person perspective, while the rest of the story is told from the third. What made you decide on that structure?
It’s a gimmick, and a shameless one. Point of View is an awesome tool for establishing sympathy between readers and protagonists. The closer the POV to the MC, the more readily we sympathize.
I prefer 3rd person POV, which is why I used it for the main body of the book. However, when I decided to tell this story from the perspective of the “other woman” of the Andersen tale, I wanted my readers to know without a doubt where their loyalties should lie. The 1st person prologue puts you straight into Magdalena’s head. You understand her feelings through her own words and instinctively empathize with her. The epilogue, using this same device, cements the story’s sense of hope, both for her and for Lili.
There are references to fae of the air as well as of the sea. I got the impression that they were different from the children of the air mentioned in the epilogue. Can you speak a little as to how they’re different, given their shared elemental association?
There are fae of the land as well as the sea. (I think this is what the question’s referring to.) Basically, in this world, mermaids are a type of fairy that lives in the water, as opposed to the fairies that live on land. The children of the air are different, in the sense that they were fairies at one point, but they’re able to keep their scraps of souls after death instead of absorbing into the larger whole from which they emerged. The fae of the land, like the fae of the sea, have longer lives but no existence beyond, unless the children of the air collect them at their death. Most of them are fine with this arrangement.
In the book it clearly states that Magdalena’s empathy magic is different from everyone else’s, but we don’t really get to see any instances of others using magic. So how is magic normally done/experienced? Are there any other people with magic like Magdalena’s? Is magic different based on race?
Most human magic is used for healing. Magdalena can determine the origin of a wound but can’t heal it, whereas most magicians/sages can heal the wound but won’t know how it happened, and they might not recognize silent illnesses at all. Outliers like Magdalena are rare, but not unheard of.
Master Demsley actually treats Finnian with magic on the trip back to the sage’s seminary, but he knows how to treat because Magdalena can give the prince’s exact physical condition. And treatment by magic exhausts the patient, of course, which is why Finnian still needs to rest in the aftermath.
Fae magic, on the other hand, is much more extensive, with a special focus on illusions and transformations. In this book, they are a different species rather than a different race, so their abilities don’t match human abilities at all.
How was Lili able to completely hide her pain and function as she did when Magdalena could barely manage? Did Magdalena’s magic amplify the pain that Lili felt?
Lili is a fairy at her core. She doesn’t process or react to pain the same way that a human would. Also, while Magdalena’s magic doesn’t amplify the pain, it doesn’t warn her beforehand either. So Lili, who has agreed to this torment in exchange for her glamour and her false legs, expects the pain she inflicts upon herself and steels her nerves accordingly, whereas Magdalena is always taken by surprise.
Lili’s condition comes straight from the Andersen tale. In “The Little Mermaid,” the sea witch warns the titular heroine that when she drinks the potion, it will feel like a sword is passing through her, then her fin will shrivel into two human legs, and from then on she’ll feel like she’s walking on knives. The mermaid accepts this, deeming it worth the price of getting an immortal soul.
What inspired Prince Finnian’s character? And why did he want to marry Magdalena even when he was quite young?
I like ambiguous characters, and Prince Finnian falls in that category, where his personal desires are in conflict with his public duties. He decided he would marry Magdalena when he was young because she repeatedly expressed how he inwardly felt: refusing outings he wasn’t allowed to, distancing herself from others when he had to stay diplomatic towards them, etc.
Basically, he saw in her a kindred spirit. He knew he’d one day marry one of the girls at court, so he decided early on to marry the girl he admired the most.
SOOT AND SLIPPER
This is the second fairy tale retelling of yours I’ve read that features a Prince who has been in love with the oblivious heroine from a very young age. Is this a trope you particularly like, a reaction to the insta-love that often plays a role in fairy tales (source material as well as some retellings), or just a coincidence?
Yes, to all three options. I know that insta-love happens, but I shy from using it too much. When I’m writing a novella, the timeline is usually short. Creating backstory where an attachment already exists is a mechanism for establishing the main relationship so that it has more of a foundation than if two people who only knew each other for three days decided to get married. (Plus I think it’s cute.)
That being said, I didn’t overtly plan a parallel in Finnian and Fernand’s respective childhood infatuations. It just happened to work well for both of these stories to replace the insta-love in their original versions. So in that way, it is just a coincidence.
How did Marielle come to make a deal with a fairy? Is it a case where they just turn up whenever someone wants something particularly badly (as the Godmother implies is the case with Eugenie), did she specifically do something to attract the fairy, or did she just run into her?
Marielle went looking for a fairy. She was obsessed with image and convinced that she’d drawn the short stick in life, so she felt justified in tromping through the forest until she found one.
(And the fairy, ever willing to enter into mischief, didn’t make herself difficult to find, either.)
Did the fairy decide to bless Eugenie because she had made a deal with Marielle? Why did she decide to become Eugenie’s godmother?
The fairy created a counterfeit in Marielle, so for the sake of balance, there had to be an original who rightfully possessed all the qualities that Marielle sought. The “blessing” the fairy gave Eugenie was a promise to watch over her, which is not a great blessing to receive from a creature prone to mischief.
Basically, she blessed Eugenie with her presence as a godmother, in the manner of a self-invited guest who ruins someone else’s celebration. Which was mischief in itself, so of course the fairy was delighted all around.
Scurvyhead and Sir Goldenhair are both less well known fairy tales—do you have any other fairy tales that you haven’t seen a retelling of that you think deserve them?
All of the stories from that collection (THE GOLDEN PHOENIX AND OTHER TALES by Marius Barbeau) are lovely, and I’ve never seen any of them adapted.
“Jorinda and Jorindel” by the Brothers Grimm is another I haven’t seen adapted, but it has some excellent beats.
What inspired your world-building for this book?
My world-building in general, and for this book in particular, is minimalist. I framed the modern world of Helenia to be much like our own, except with magic. The ancient world is supposed to feel like something out of mythology, with similar vibes to THE ODYSSEY or BEOWULF or another ancient epic where men and monsters exist together.
I’ll add that the first anime I watched (in adulthood) was INUYASHA, about a modern girl who travels back in time through a well in her family’s shrine. That was a decade before I worked on NAMESAKE, but the idea of a time-traveling portal in the family garden lodged pretty firmly in my brain.
General writing/publishing questions asked of all SheaCon panelists
What do you wish you had known when you started out on the publishing journey?
I wish I’d known how many wonderful readers exist. That might sound cheesy, but I never wanted to publish. I felt self-conscious about my writing and wasn’t sure it would appeal to anyone else.
So, I would have approached publishing with a lot more care and confidence if I could have glimpsed my future audience. My readers make this whole process worth it.
How long does it take you to publish a book from the start of the writing (if pantser) or plotting (if planner)?
It varies from book to book. I’ve done it in as little as six months, but in some cases it’s years. I try not to rush the publishing side of my craft, as I believe it’s better to have a solid book than a quick payout.
Do you use any methods/structures when creating a book?
This varies from book to book as well. If there’s a source for the story (a fairy tale, for example) then that creates a structural frame that I can keep or stray from. Most story-structure and pre-writing methods don’t work for me, though.
I’ve tried 3-act structures, 4-act structures, sticky note plotting, and general outlining, among others, but the only effect is that they kill my creativity. Discovery writing has served me far better.
How far in advance do you start advertising your newest book to publication?
I don’t advertise until I have a preorder page, and I don’t create a preorder page until I have a finished, formatted draft (both ebook and print) and a cover. I might mention what I’m working on, but advertising is reserved for items I definitely can deliver, because I live in fear of not keeping my promises.
So, all the ducks must be in a row before I announce.
(Also, I don’t actually advertise other than word-of-mouth. A million thanks to the readers who recommend my books!)
How many books do you generally work on at once?
One actively, with two or three passively in the background. Right now, I have three book files open: the two NAMESAKE sequels, and a standalone draft that needs revisions. I’ll hop over to other works-in-progress if inspiration strikes, though.
The self-publishing scenario intimidates me. How does one even get started?
The nice thing about indie publishing is that you can set your own goals and deadlines. The first step is to have a completed manuscript, including draft revisions. So if you’ve written a first draft, edit it. If desired, find beta readers or critique partners who can give you honest feedback, and revise accordingly.
Once you have a final manuscript, it’s just a matter of formatting, getting a cover, and publishing, and there are hundreds of resources to help with that.
Each of these steps can be as involved or as laid back as you’re comfortable with. They can be as cheap or expensive as you want. However, the final product should always be as polished as possible.
As an upcoming author, what is the best way to gain traction for your book?
I have no clue. It still boggles my mind that people want to read my stuff.
What is the most effective marketing service for a new author?
Again, no clue. There are many marketing services, but they don’t guarantee ROI. Some of the more popular ones are prohibitively expensive to newcomers, and even with established authors, they’re becoming little more than white noise.
In the current internet climate, though, keywords are king. Your best marketing practice might be to research these so that the shop algorithms work with you instead of against you. Publisher Rocket is a great resource for that, though it does have a one-time license fee.
I am a big fan of independent and self-published books, but I’m also curious: what are the not-so-great aspects of traditional publishing?
I’m leery of the contracts in traditional publishing. Trad pub authors still have to market and promote, just like if they indie published, but they relinquish rights and/or control over their intellectual property. Basically, trad pub lets someone else make design and distribution decisions, and the publishing companies take the lion’s share of earnings for that privilege (divvied up among their editors, typesetters, cover designers, printers, distributors, executives, shareholders, etc.). They can cancel your contract if they feel your book under-performs, and they’re reportedly opaque about how they calculate royalties.
Have any of you had your books translated into another language? If not, do you think you will in the future? If yes, how did you go about finding a translator?
I’ve not had any books translated. It would be fun, but I have no clue how to find a translator, or which foreign markets would even want my work.
How does it feel to see appreciation and love for the work that you have created?
It’s humbling and sometimes overwhelming. I think I will always have a little voice at the back of my head that says, “They’re not talking about your books. Someone’s misunderstanding, and it’s probably you.”
Nevertheless, I’m so grateful for my readers, for their kindness and excitement. I’m incredibly glad that my fictional refuges have provided refuge to others as well.
If you could choose one book, movie, or video game to take a one-month all expenses paid vacation to, which would you choose?
This is tough. Maybe PERSUASION by Jane Austen. I could stay a month in Bath and Lyme and be happy.