“Everything Is Awesome!”

“Everything is cool when you’re part of a team,” proclaims that zingy song from The LEGO Movie. In the context of the movie, the song turns out to be ironic, but for me the words ring true, as I’m part of the team of writers at Gilded Dragonfly Books, and we are celebrating the publication of our newest holiday anthology, A Stone Mountain Christmas.

I had a chance to chat with my fellow Gilded Dragonfly writers when I attended my first (as Nan Monroe) meeting of the Georgia Romance Writers on November 15. Here’s a picture of us; my husband Matt, whom my writing comrades have dubbed “Nan’s prince,” took the photo:

Gilded Dragonfly family

Front row L – R: Carol Ansardi, Mary Marvella, Jackie Rod. Back row L – R: Melba Moon, a.k.a. M.J. Flournoy, Nan Monroe, Yasmin Bakhtiari.

You can read our work in Haunting Tales of Spirit Lake as well as A Stone Mountain Christmas. Readers of these anthologies will enjoy a pleasing variety of styles and perspectives. The anthologies are available on Amazon.com. We are all awesome!

***

Anna diStefano, one of the speakers at the 11/15 GRW meeting, imparted this bit of crucial wisdom: It’s important to know why you write.

This should be obvious, but it isn’t. When we’re caught up in the hard work of writing, particularly in the choresome business of preparing a draft for publication, we may forget what we love about writing. We may lose sight of why it’s so important to us. If we’re to make any impact as writers, we need to keep our purpose clear before our eyes.

So on this day I declare why I write:

1) I write so the female monsters in my imagination will find both agency and love.

2) I write to play around with the usual notions of what a romantic hero and heroine should be, in appearance and situation.

3) I write for the same reason I read: to transform myself, for a little while, into something other than the real, physical, twenty-first century me. I write, as I read, to stretch myself beyond the here and now.

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Fairy Tales and Me

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” — C.S. Lewis, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature

Frankly, I find it hard to imagine any fantasy author not having a deep familiarity with fairy tales. But I wonder how many of them own three translations of The Complete Brothers Grimm and two translations of The Complete Hans Christian Andersen. I do — along with five different “folktales of the world” collections, and compilations of Scandinavian, African, Chinese, English, Celtic, Italian, and French fairy tales. (No, my collection is not complete.) They are the well to which I return again and again when I find my inspiration waning, and I’ve never failed to come across something useful in them. Most of the stories I’m proudest of have their roots in fairy tales, employing folktale motifs even if they’re not linked to a specific tale.

Many of my plays for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company are folktale adaptations. “The House Across the Way” is a Cinderella variant; “Candle Magic” is a steampunk retelling of “The Little Match Girl”; “The Worst Good Woman in the World” has its origin in an old Russian story called “The Bad Wife.” But I want to throw a spotlight on two plays of which I am especially proud.

One of my favorite “around-the-world” collections, Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters, came about because its editor, Kathleen Ragan, saw that too many of the best-known and most popular fairy tales featured female characters as passive victims (e.g. “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty”), and she decided that a search for more proactive fairy-tale heroines was in order. Her compilation features an impressive array of virgins, mothers, and crones whose courage and ingenuity saves the day. One story that caught my attention immediately was “The Tsaritsa Harpist,” the story of a Queen who disguises herself as a traveling minstrel-man in order to rescue her husband the King from the clutches of a foreign enemy. Since I have a bent toward writing about women who play musical instruments, I knew at once that I wanted to use the basic story as the foundation for something of my own.

But how could I make it mine? First, I wanted to do away with the cross-dressing element. I didn’t fancy setting my story in a society in which traveling minstrels must be men or appear to be men. Yet the disguise aspect was crucial to the story. The heroine must rescue the hero without his realizing who she is. So my mind began to turn around this idea: what if, in this alternative steampunk world, the powers that be have decreed that all music should be played by clockwork automatons? What if the heroine must pretend to be, not a man, but a machine? Thus did “The Tsaritsa Harpist” become “Sarabande for a Condemned Man,” performed by ARTC at LibertyCon in Chattanooga, TN and at DragonCon in Atlanta in 2011. I’ve written three major plays for ARTC since then, and I love all of them. But “Sarabande” may well be my favorite.

An earlier play, 2008’s “Nothing at All,” has a more complicated history. Its source was an obscure English tale called “Nix Nought Nothing.” While a King is journeying through a foreign land, his wife gives birth to a son and decides that until the babe’s father comes home, he will be called “Nix Nought Nothing.” The King doesn’t have a clue about this, but unfortunately, a wicked giant does. When the King needs his help to cross a river, he says he’ll gladly carry him across if only the King will give him Nix Nought Nothing. The clueless King agrees. Drama ensues.

The titular Nix Nought Nothing is a bit of a drip, utterly helpless and reliant on his resourceful love interest (the giant’s daughter) when faced with danger. I didn’t want to make a hero or heroine out of such a weak personality, but the idea of the name that isn’t a name burrowed into my brain and wouldn’t leave me alone. You must do something with this, it insisted — but how to make something out of Nothing? I started with the story’s big unanswered questions: why does the giant want Nix Nought Nothing in the first place? And why, after he rears the lad to adulthood, does he suddenly start threatening to kill and eat him? The villain’s motivations became the seed of my elaboration, so my villain served as the fulcrum around which the story turned.

I decided my villain should be, not a giant (I like my giants to be good — another blog for another day), but a short, stocky sorcerer patterned after Claude Rains, one of my favorite actors from the classic-movie era. He has, not a daughter, but a son who is a life-long invalid. Through his magic he learns about a skilled healer called “Nothing-at-All,” and, like the villain in the original tale, he tricks her long-absent father into giving her to him. Yes, my Nothing is a girl. I switched the genders of my heroine and hero. This Nothing is creative and resourceful. The villain has good reason for believing she can cure his son, so he has a tangible, understandable motive for laying claim to her. Why, then, does he later become a threat? Because he sees her feelings for her patient growing beyond what a healer should feel. He becomes jealous. So Nothing-at-All must find a way to save herself from the old man and, at the same time, finally cure the young one.

The story I managed to weave from this little English folktale so delighted me that I wasn’t ready to leave it behind once the ARTC script was done. Another idea was kicking around in my head, of a society populated entirely by shape-shifters, in which pacifist were-mice were locked in a struggle with rootless marauding were-rats. I had the concept, but no story to put into it — until I decided my Nothing-at-All could be something I couldn’t recall having seen before: a female were-rat protagonist. She is “Nothing” because her chaotic people haven’t bothered to give her a name, and the were-mouse who adopts her as a child dubs her “Nicht Naught Nothing” partly in an effort to keep herself from getting attached to her. But she soon learns that being “Nothing” gives her a freedom no other were-rat has, to author herself and her own story. “I may be Nothing,” she tells the hero, “but I might be anything.” So, as the ARTC play “Nothing-at-All” was transformed into the novel Atterwald, my heroine taught me why the whole idea of “Nix Nought Nothing” caught my attention in the first place.

I have a legion of tales from all corners of the world left to explore. I have no idea what I’ll find in them next, which ideas will catch hold in my mind. Being surprised is half the fun.

Who Are These People?

Baltasar for Kelley AWA 09_small Meinrad for Kelley AWA 09_small Nicthel for Kelley AWA 09_small

The city of Atlanta, very near where I live, is a fan convention paradise. Not only is it the site for DragonCon, a mega-convention for fans of science fiction and fantasy, a wild, wonderful, sprawling event where the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company performs every year; it’s also the home of Anime Weekend Atlanta, a convention that celebrates Japanese animation in its multitudinous forms. My husband, Matt Ceccato, got me interested in anime before we were married, and persuaded me to come to AWA with him; we’ve been back every year since. The convention has much to offer: lots and lots of screenings of anime old and new, discussion panels on everything from anime history to cosplay, and a manga reading library. But my very favorite thing — the thing to which I look forward year after year — is Artist’s Alley, where gifted artists congregate to share their visions of characters both in anime and in pop culture in general. Some of these artists will take commissions; tell them what you want them to draw, and they’ll produce a brilliant work to your specifications.

A few years back, I started sniffing around Artist’s Alley with an idea: I wanted to see what characters from my stories might look like if I ordered drawings of them, if I gave the artist a brief description of the image in my head. First I had to find an artist whose drawings matched my vision, and I found Kaysha Siemens. From the descriptions I gave her, she drew the above pencil portraits of Baltasar, Meinrad, and Nichtel, the three major characters from my upcoming novel Atterwald. They fit my vision so perfectly that every year since, I’ve gone back to her with new commissions. I’ll be sharing more drawings in future posts.

Perhaps my favorite thing about it is that at the time I asked for these three portraits, I hadn’t even finished Atterwald‘s first draft. With the drawings I had a new reason to push myself to the conclusion, and to make their story as engaging as possible. Those penciled faces looked up at me and demanded that I bring them fully to life, not just for myself but for others who might enjoy their company. They wanted to be known. So I learned the value of commissioning portraits of characters whose stories are still in progress or may still be in the conception stage. Once drawn, they have a more tangible reality than just an idea in my head, and I simply can’t let them down. I have to help them become what they were meant to be.

So here is Baltasar, my ambitious and cold-hearted wizard, looking like a jovial Claude Rains (but don’t trust him). Here is Meinrad, his sickly, rebellious son, looking appropriately edgy. Here is Nichtel, the violinist whose music has strange powers; her eyes radiate hope.

Soon you’ll have a chance to get to know them.