Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author


Getting your buddies together for the adventure

Here’s a fun post from Chris Winkle at Mythcreants: Seven Ways to Bring Characters Together

You have a character that’s made from oozing lava, and another that’s a rolling snowball. They’ll make a great lava-snow duo, but right now they won’t so much as say hi. Don’t worry, storytellers have many tried-and-true plot devices for bringing characters from different walks of life together. Start by looking through these seven.

Yep, that’s an issue, and for me it can be a biiiig issue. It took a long while to everyone to get together in HOUSE OF SHADOWS, for example. That book may have offered the most separated plot threads I’ve ever had.

Let me see, long does it take the two lead characters to meet each other in WINTER OF ICE AND IRON (pre-orderable now for a mere $7.99)? It seems like forever but in fact they meet for the first time on page . . . let me flip through this copy here . . . page 205, at the beginning of chapter eleven. That’s a hair over a third of the way through the book, and then yes, one of these seven reasons does pressure them into becoming a team.

Oh, the seven ways Winkle mentions are:

1. Alliance of necessity
2. Have one hire the other
3. Start them off as antagonists
4. Give one leverage over the other
5. Make one guard the other
6. Make one investigate the other
7. Lead one to shelter the other

All of those are common, aren’t they? In WINTER, a common enemy provides the biggest push, which makes it a #1 type of situation, though there are aspects of some of the others as well.

It seems we should be able to find three more reasons, though the above are fairly broad and inclusive. Here’s one that’s pretty much missing from the above list, though:

8. They just happen to bump into each other and there is instant chemistry. That’s mostly for romance, and of course romances can use anything off that list, but the just-happen-to-meet thing certainly also happens in romances.

How would you characterize the romance in ATTACHMENTS by Rainbow Rowell, where the female lead isn’t aware of the male lead till right at the end, while he is falling in love with her by reading her emails? That’s certainly peculiar and seems like it deserves its own category, though how you would characterize that . . . maybe:

9. Falling in love long distance, with “long distance” meaning via letters, diary entries, and so on. Are there other examples of this besides Rowell’s book? Seems like I’ve got something right on the tip of my tongue.

It would be nice to get to ten. What about:

10. Have one impulsively rescue the other. Is that too similar to (7) above? I think it’s different. Think about Miri rescuing Val Con and vice versa in AGENT OF CHANGE. I’m sure there are other instances of sudden impulsive rescue followed by a partnership.

Of the batch, I’m not keen on (4), especially not if the character holding most of the cards is unlikable.

If the author can pull it off, I’m particularly into (3). Think of Nicholas Valiard and Inspecter Ronsarde in Death of the Necromancer.

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Great SFF works we should not forget

Here is a post by Victor Milan at tor.com: Five Classic Works of SFF by Authors We Must Not Forget

Interestingly, I have read only one of these — Lord of Light by Zelazny. But I do think it’s a shame to stop at five when there are so many. Couldn’t Milan have at least gotten to ten? I figure I’ll help him out by providing a few more, which I’m listing below in the random order in which they occurred to me:

6. The Gaean trilogy by Varley. It’s practically a crime, how little attention Varley gets today. There may be no other author of his era who would better appeal to modern readers.

7. Ringworld by Niven. Niven pretty much founded the era of extraordinary SF settings, and did it better than practically anyone since. Also, Michael Whelan’s vision brought it to life for readers:

8. Dune. Obviously.

9. The Riddle-Master of Hed by McKillip. Hard to believe this was first published so long ago, but so it was. Modern readers are sooooo missing out if they do not grab up this trilogy.

10. The Last Unicorn by Beagle. Again, I’m amazed to find out how old that one is. But everyone still reads it, right? Or do modern readers miss out because they’re so swamped by the recent releases that are getting the current buzz? That would be a shame.

What else should obviously be included on a list of must-read classic or great SFF? If you have a moment, please drop one book published before, say, 1990, in the comments.

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Fantasy or SF?

Here’s a fun post, via File 770: Fantasy or Science Fiction: Do You Know Your Stuff?

It is a list. Here, for example, is the section on metals:

iron = fantasy
wrought iron = steam punk
steel = both
stainless steel = SF
damascus steel = historical fantasy
aluminium = SF
gold = fantasy
silver = fantasy
platinum = cyberpunk
chrome = cyberpunk
lead = steam punk
copper = fantasy and steampunk
brass = steampunk
bronze = fantasy
tin = historical romance set in Cornwall
adamantium = high fantasy or superhero

It’s kind of funny, isn’t it? Because it’s moderately true. Though I just dropped a brass clock into a fantasy, it’s kind of a gaslamp fantasy, which is sort of an equivalent of steampunk.

There’s plenty more at the link.

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You should never discount the value of a good ephiphany whapping you between the eyes at an opportune moment, so that suddenly you realize THIS is the main motivation of your important antagonist / THAT is the thread that can tie all the far-flung parts of your story together / THERE is the plot twist you need in order to pull off the climactic scene, and so on.

For those of us who write without a detailed outline, epiphanies of that sort may be particularly important. Generally I just trust that The Answer (or at least a Good Answer) to a pressing character or plot issue will present itself to me in the nick of time, if not before. Why, I clearly remember, because it was not that long ago, figuring out how to actually end the third Black Dog book when I was . . . wait for it . . . 120,000 words into the manuscript.

Generally speaking, these moments of sudden realization are suffused with a sense of inevitability the moment they occur to you. (Or at least to me.) It seems remarkable you didn’t have that exact detail in mind from the beginning, and ideally when you finish your first draft, it will read as though you did.

I bring this up because you never know what might spark such an epiphany, but most recently for me it was this post by Janet Reid, in particular this passage:

[I]f your character doesn’t have to change, move, decide, risk something in the first 50 pages, it’s often a pass from me.

THAT’S IT! I cried, because I had been struggling with chapter three or so of one of my current Works In Progress for ages. (That struggle is one major element that has led to my switching back and forth from one WIP to another all summer long.) I knew it was a problem with passivity or inaction or both, but somehow framing it as The protagonist needs to make a decision by page fifty did the job. I immediately revised chapter three (again, sigh), this time finally putting an important decision into the protagonist’s hands, where it obviously had belonged all alone.

Sometimes it’s something that is just that obvious, and was just that obvious all along, yet somehow you didn’t see it.

I strongly suspect that you can’t get an epiphany of that sort to happen when it would be convenient, ie before you write the dratted chapter in the first place. I think you have to have the problem in the back of your mind for long enough that the solution is ready to crash down on you in an unmissable OF COURSE DUH moment. Then any little thing can bring it down. But for me, first I have to write it wrong before I can do it over right.

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Blog / Real Food

Real food: confit chicken

Or do I mean “confitted”? What is the adjective form of this word? The question seems rather unsettled if you just google the various forms.

Either way, this recipe was both good enough and interesting enough that I would like to share it with you all.

I don’t usually take a portion of anything I cook to my parents, because most often it is Indian; Thai; spicy; contains chickpeas, cilantro, or artichokes; or involves combination of these factors, none of which generally appeal to them. (Desserts are different, but alas, these days I don’t make that many desserts except for special occasions.)

But this was excellent, and much to everyone’s taste. Forthwith:

Chicken Confit with Andouille and White Beans.

The original recipe, from Bon Appetit, is here. I did not make this recipe quite according to the directions, but I stuck fairly closely to the original, for me. The recipe might seem like a little too much trouble, but it can be made in stages and the actual work involved is pretty limited, especially in the somewhat less involved version I made. So here we go:

1½ bone-in skin-on chicken thighs, which is, it turns out, four. I almost never buy bone-in chicken, but bought a big package because it was more economical that way. This was good enough I’ll probably use the rest of the chicken thighs to make it again.
Salt, pepper
1 bulb garlic, the outer skin rubbed off, halved (not clove of garlic, bulb).
2 shallots, halved, or if you can’t find them – generally I can but this time I couldn’t – one small onion, skinned and quartered.
4 sprigs thyme, or say half a tsp or so dried.
2 bay leaves
4 juniper berries, which I’m sure aren’t crucial but I happened to have some.
1 C olive oil, and you have probably heard that lots of so-called olive oil is adulterated with cheaper oils, so you may want to check online for unadulterated brands, which is what I do every time I buy olive oil because I never remember that sort of thing.

Then later you will need:
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
½ of a 14.5-oz can of whole peeled tomatoes, crushed. I don’t know why you couldn’t use the whole can and next time I will, as the tomatoes were hardly overpowering in the final dish.
4 C cooked large white beans, from 1½ C dried, plus 1 C of the cooking liquid, but I will add that since I’m not a purist when it comes to beans, I actually used two 15.5-oz cans of cannellini beans. They were delicious. Three cans would probably not be too much.
2 andouille sausages, or since the ones I got came four to a package, I just used all four.
1 thick slice sourdough bread, in crumbs, tossed in oil, for a garnish (I skipped this step).

You can confit the chicken one day and then hold it for two or three days before you finish the dish, which is why it really is not that much trouble.

Season the chicken with the salt and pepper. Try not to forget that step as I forgot it and then found the chicken slightly underseasoned at the end. Place in a small Dutch oven. I didn’t know there was any such thing as a small Dutch oven. I certainly don’t have such an item. I used a saucier that was just barely large enough to hold all four chicken thighs in a single layer. Add the garlic, shallots or onion, thyme, bay leaves, and juniper berries. Pour the olive oil over everything and bring to a bare simmer on the stovetop. Then put the pan in the oven, covered, and bake at 225º for 2½ hours. That is 225º, not a typo. I turned the chicken thighs over once, but it didn’t say to. So far, as you can see, the active preparation time is really minimal. You are supposed to cool the chicken overnight in the oil. I poured everything into a biggish Tupperware container and stuck it in the fridge for three days, until I was ready to go on.

Now, when you’re ready to proceed, scoop about 1/3 C of the fat off the top of the container and put that in a pan. I am much too lazy to bother measuring it; I just spooned a generous amount into the pan. Heat this fat over medium heat and sauté the onion and garlic for ten minutes or so. Squeeze the confitted garlic cloves out of their skins into the pan. Add the tomatoes and cook five minutes. Add the beans – since the recipe called for a cup of the cooking liquid, I didn’t drain the cannellini before I added them. Add the broth from the confit (the broth, not the rest of the fat, which you can reserve for frying eggs or something). Bring everything to a simmer, pour into a 9 x 13” baking pan, and nestle the confitted chicken thighs into the beans. Arrange the andouille sausages around and between the chicken thighs, wherever they fit. Bake uncovered at 350º for two hours. Yes, two hours. I rotated the pan back-to-front halfway through, which you should probably do unless your oven bakes more evenly than mine. You can finish up by topping the whole thing with the crumbs and baking another twenty minutes if that suits you, but I left out that step. The active prep time for this step was maybe twenty minutes.

The skin on top of the chicken thighs crisped up beautifully. (Of course the skin on the bottoms of the thighs did not, but if you have a lot of dogs hanging around hoping for a share, that problem takes care of itself.) The sausages also crisped up, and the beans held their shape but were wonderfully soft and creamy, and basically the whole thing was *really good.* This is definitely a dish you could make for a special occasion. If you do try it, I hope you enjoy it as much as my family did.

I feel I should add that the baking dish did get quite a baked-on crust around the edges. I took it outside to the big sink where, in the summer, I bathe the dogs. I set the dish in that sink, filled it up with hot water, and left it overnight. It will no doubt occur to you all that it would be more practical to line the baking dish with aluminum foil and just throw the foil away. That will make the clean-up as easy as the preparation. Next time I’ll remember about the foil.

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Good News Tuesday: “Yeah, Sure” edition

I had to laugh when I saw this one:

This might be the end of the common cold as we know it

I mean . . . it could be true, and someday I suppose more than likely it will be true, but I sort of feel like the common cold is right there with death and taxes. Plus, you recall how Myra Grant’s zombie apocalypse in FEED started, right? Pretty sure it was a “cure for the common cold” that got together with a “cure for cancer” and there you go, zombies.

Still, you never know! Maybe in a few years we will actually see significant progress in zapping the common cold.

Either that or a zombie apocalypse.

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Here’s something interesting —

Had you heard about this graphic novel from Sharon Shinn?

It is eight years after Colleen Cavanaugh’s home world was invaded by the Derichets, a tyrannical alien race bent on exploiting the planet’s mineral resources.

Most of her family died in the war, and she now lives alone in the city. Aside from her acquaintances at the factory where she toils for the Derichets, Colleen makes a single friend in Jann, a member of the violent group of rebels known as the Chromatti. One day Colleen receives shocking news: her niece Lucy is alive and in need of her help. Together, Colleen, Jann, and Lucy create their own tenuous family.

But Colleen must decide if it’s worth risking all of their survival to join a growing underground revolution against the Derichets …

I knew this was going to appear eventually because I heard a little bit about the development of this project from Sharon a few years ago. Other than that, I know only what’s in the above description. Graphic novels based on books don’t generally work for me . . . I’m thinking of Patricia Briggs here . . . but graphic novels that are meant to stand alone often do. I would not really have expected a graphic novel from Sharon Shinn, so this looks quite interesting.

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Reading lets us live a thousand lives

Here’s an interesting article: Passing Over: How Reading Lets Us Live a Thousand Lives

Someone once asked the great short story writer Jorge Luis Borges “Don’t you regret spending more of your life reading than living?”
Borges replied:

“There are many ways of living, and reading is one of them… When you are reading, you are living, and when you are dreaming, you are living also.”

It’s hard to improve on that.

The author, Charles Chu, adds,

Our memories are not so different from the stories we find in books.

In fact, our memories are stories. Like the writer that draws bold, red marks through the lines of his draft, we constantly update our memories — we erase the boring moments, color the lines with bits of drama, and, more often than not, we make ourselves into the heroes of adventures that exist solely in our minds.

It’s a good article, drawing on cognitive neuroscience and also harkening back to CS Lewis. If you’ve got a minute, click through and check it out.

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Clearing out the Samples folder

So here I am back in real life, more or less, having returned from ArmadilloCon. Which was a great experience; I met so many neat people and the whole convention was just a pleasure. Also all legs of the plane flight were smooth and completely trouble-free, which I’m sure is generally the experience, but you’d never know it from social media.

Anyway, last night, having finished one book and not really being inclined to start another, I decided my Samples folder on my Kindle was getting out of control and it was time to do something about that. It was up to 73 samples; I don’t know, maybe all of you with ereaders have more samples than that on them. It seemed a little over the top to me. So I took a couple hours to open 52 samples and decide whether to keep it or delete each one (the other samples I knew I wanted to keep, so all those were safe from the Scouring of the Samples Folder.) I am now down to 47 samples total, which doesn’t seem quite so over the top, although I guess it is still quite a few.

Of the 52 samples I looked at, I wound up deleting 26 samples and keeping 26, which is mildly interesting because I wouldn’t necessarily have expected a perfect 50% ratio like that. It’ll probably never happen again. Anyway, in case you are mildly curious, here are the ones I kept:

The Spymaster’s Lady, Bourne
Dark Run, Mike Brooks
The Star-Touched Queen, Chokshi
A Key, An Egg, An Unfortunate Remark, Connelly
Child of a Hidden Sea, Dellamonica
Irona 700, Duncan
The Accident Season, Fawley-Doyle
Mirrors, Gifford
The Bird and the Sword, Harmon
Beastkeeper, Hellisen
A Business of Ferrets, Hilgartner
The Killing Kind, Holm
The Cloak Society, Kraatz
Afterward: A Novel, Mathieu
Burning Bright, McShane
The Left-Handed Fate, Milford
Killing Trail, Mizushima
A Corner of White, Moriarty
Sleeping Giants, Neuvel
Clockwork Heart, Pagliassotti
The Westing Game, Raskin
Substrate Phantoms, Reisman
The Anvil of Ice, Rohan
The Man Who Rained, Ali Shaw
The Girl with Glass Feet, Ali Shaw
Misfit, Skovron

I am not surprised to note that I had to read a lot more of a sample before deciding to delete it vs often just a sentence or two before deciding to keep it. There were just a few where I read the whole sample and then decided to keep the sample. Some of the ones I kept have just amazingly catchy openings. I don’t mean that these are the most appealing samples overall, just that the first couple lines are particularly captivating. For example, there is this one:

1a. The Man Who Rained

The rain began with one gentle tap at her bedroom window, then another and another and then a steady patter at the glass. She opened the curtains and beheld a sky like tarnished silver, with no sign of the sun. She had hoped so hard for a morning such as this that she let out a quiet cry of relief.

That is a rather beautiful opening. The lines are poetic and immediately create a sense of mystery. Going on with the first couple pages, I will add that this story does not immediately look, well, happy. But it is certainly lovely and I won’t hesitate to go on with it.

I recently had a chat with someone about authors who write on the edge between fantasy and the real world and Ali Shaw came up, which is why I picked up a sample of the above book. Also this one:

1b. The Girl with Glass Feet, by the same author

That winter there were reports in the newspaper of an iceberg the shape of a galleon floating in creaking majesty past St. Hauda’s Land’s cliffs, of a snuffling hog leading lost hill walkers out of the crags beneath Lomdendol Tor, of a dumb-founded ornithologist counting five albino crows in a flock of two hundred. But Midas Crook did not read the newspaper; he only looked at the pictures.

Which is both poetic and funny. Not that it strikes me as dumbfounding to see five albino animals in a group of 200; look at the occasional park where white squirrels outnumber grey ones. You don’t need a terribly large number of carriers of albinism before you get 2.5% albinos. Still, that’s definitely an engaging opening. I understand this story is something of a tragedy. Still, I will likely go on with it. Also, pretty cover:

This next one is quite different.

2. The Cloak Society

You don’t just fall into supervillainy. It’s not like theater or baseball or the after-school club you join because all your friends are members. Supervillainy is a way of life. It’s something you must want with every fiber of your being. You have to wake up every morning thinking, “Hey, this world is mine for the taking,” and mean it. Most people don’t comprehend the passion needed to be successful in such a thankless field, one that boasts such a low rate of success.

Instant keeper. Tons of charm.

Here’s another that I particularly liked:

3. The Left-Handed Fate

Baltimore was a beautiful, twinkling, probably hostile collection of lights up ahead, half-hidden by two sheltering arms of land and one massive fortress. The topsail schooner Left-Handed Fate slid like an elegant knife through the water, trying as hard as ever she could not to look like a British privateer as she passed under the guns of Fort McHenry.

That’s certainly appealing. The first few pages look highly promising.

4. A Corner of White

Madeleine Turner turned fourteen yesterday, but today she did not turn anything.

Instant keeper. What an clever, intriguing line that is.

And I want to mention one more sample that that provides an interesting counter-example to all the above:

5. Misfit

I nearly deleted it after the first glance. It opens this way:

Jael Thompson looks at her reflection in the bathroom mirror and frowns. She pushes back her curly black hair and stares into her green eyes so hard that the rest of her features blur.

Oh, ugh, first person present tense. Kind of tends to be my least favorite. It *can* work, though, obviously, so after that first automatic flinch I went on. This is one I was leaning toward deleting, though. I read the whole first chapter leaning that way. There were things I liked about it, but more things that made me think well, lots of other books here that seem more promising. Then . . . the kicker at the end of chapter one caught me.

So it’s not the case that everything necessarily depends on the first two or three sentences, or the first page. That’s an ideal place to hook your reader, obviously, but if your reader will stick with you for the first chapter, a hook right there is an additional way to keep the pages turning.

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Folk Magic

An excellent post by Marie Brennen at Book View Cafe: New Worlds: Folk Magic

In discussions of fantasy worldbuilding, you hear a lot of talk about magic systems. About how they need to have rules. And then you wind up with something like Dungeons and Dragons or Brandon Sanderson’s various novels, where the magic is as codified and quantified as a video game.

This bears very little resemblance to magic in the real world.

By that I mean magic as people have believed in it for millennia, magic as it has fit into the structure of real societies….

Folk magic is difficult to talk about because it isn’t some kind of unified system whose underlying principles can be laid out in a paragraph or two. Folk magic is nailing a horseshoe above your door for protection (always open side up, so the luck doesn’t drain out). Folk magic is eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day in the hope of bringing prosperity. Folk magic is trying to blow out every candle on your birthday cake in a single breath so that your wish will come true. It’s superstitions and habits people don’t even think about as superstition, because they’re just what you do, and the suggestion that you should do otherwise would be met with confusion and disbelief.

This all blurs into a kind of magic one might call “Fairy tale magic,” which is also thoroughly opposed to a magic-as-science scheme with codified rules and axioms and theorems.

I’m always being nudged, more or less forcefully, to codify magic in my books. This is awkward because I’m more inclined toward fairy tale magic, where the rules are understood without being pinned down for inspection.

In fairy tales, If you’re in the forest and an animal speaks to you and asks for help, probably you should help it. Because that’s just what you should do. When you step into a witch’s cottage, you’ll probably have to pay a price to get out again, and it may not be a price you want to pay. When you set foot on a road, you never know where you might wind up — but if you leave the path, you’ll certainly fall into an adventure. True love can win through any contest or obstacle.

None of that is exactly folk magic. But it’s certainly not the systematized magic-as-science that editors generally prefer, either.

I think you find fairy tale magic *mainly* in fairy tale retellings, but also in fantasy novels that are original fairy tales, a category that is unrecognized but seems to me discrete. It’s exemplified by most of Patricia McKillip’s books, some of RA MacAvoy’s books, of course some of my own books, and a handful of other titles. I’d like to see more like that, which means I’d like to see less of a demand for codified magic systems.

And yes, it would also add depth to many fantasy novels to add elements of folk magic, as Marie Brennen suggests:

Folk magic is about belief. It’s a net of delicate little threads that can rarely move the whole plot, but they connect people to each other, to the landscape they live in, to their religion and their history and their fears and their hopes for the future. The presence of fireball-hurling wizards would not, I think, erase the need for that kind of thing in people’s lives; if anything it might make the need stronger, as the common folk now have to fear not only the swords of the nobility and the judgment of harsh laws and the vagaries of the natural world, but the arcane powers of the magical elite. And on a narrative level, it adds a whole layer of texture to the story. A child is sick and her mother tries cures that have nothing to do with modern germ theory or pharmaceuticals; maybe it helps or maybe it doesn’t, but either way it tells you a lot about the mother and the world she lives in, and it makes the mother seem more real. Because when we face problems like that in real life, we cling to any belief that offers us hope and that sense of control. (Yes, even today.)

Obviously today, yes. Look at astrology. And homeopathy, there’s a good example.

One story I can think of where ordinary folk put milk out for fey creatures is Arafel’s Saga by CJC. There is a story that is more a fairy story than not, even though I never seem to think of it that way. It is, though. I’m reading something right now, Chains of Gold by Nancy Springer, which also fits: ordinary people never eat elderberries because of a folk belief the shrubs are associated with death. Of course Nancy Springer also often writes fairy tales; I should think of her more often when I am listing authors who do.

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