Wednesday, July 29, 2015

It's OK to judge a book by its cover! - interview with cover artist Dawne Dominique

Over the past few months I've featured several of my fellow writers from Secret Cravings Publishing, so there's a good chance you've already seen one of Dawne Dominique's arresting, intriguing covers. Her craft is direct result of passionate experimentation and self-education.

MJN: You have designed countless covers for several publishers. Do you keep track of every project?  Do you sometimes bump into a cover on Amazon and say, "Hm... this looks familiar?"  Do you ever feel the urge to go back and revise one of your covers?

DD: I keep a Master List for two publishers. I’m sent cover art forms for the rest. I’m also a folder freak with my computer. *chuckles* Being a paralegal in my ‘other’ life, I’m an organized fanatic. I have to be, so that extends to my cover artist business as well. Every publisher I work with is different in the way they release, in the timing of their releases, the amount of books being released, and/or the formats they’re releasing (eBook or print).  It’s my Indie authors that keep me on my toes.  You know the saying—when it rains, it pours?  I keep a spread sheet for those authors.  Turnaround time is less than a week. I don’t sleep a lot. 

Of course, I’ve seen some covers out there that look a little like mine.  Creative minds can be similar in technique.  Thankfully, I haven’t run into a situation wherein one of covers has been copied (literally). I take what an author has given in me in terms of how they want their cover to look (descriptions, scenery, genre, etc.) and I go from there. It’s inevitable that some creative minds think alike. Hopefully, not identical.

With respect to going back and wanting to revise a cover I’ve done...sometimes. And it’s usually only with my own book covers. I would be a cover artist’s worse nightmare. I’m never satisfied. Even after it’s published, I find something I want to change.

MJN: You were voted best cover artist by Preditors & Editors several times, but last time the competition got very tight.  In a way, it's a popularity contest.  Enough people have to show up and vote for you.  How do you develop an internal protective mechanism to keep your emotions in check when the temperature rises?

DD: I don’t believe it’s a popularity contest.  It’s recognition of cover artist talent.  I’ve never been one who gives emphasis on ‘popularity’.  Even as a teenager, I had created my own crowd. Renee Barrett, the other cover artist in contention for first place with me, is an unbelievably talented cover artist, and an absolute wonderful person through and through. In fact, she emailed me on Facebook and congratulated me on the win. I admire her talent so much.  And vice-versa.  That’s professionalism. This business is competitive, true, but I’ve never been one to get upset or pout. Life is too short for such silliness. I will say that I’ve worked with a few authors that I won’t work with again, but I can count them on one hand...minus a few fingers. I’ve been doing this for many years. As an author myself, I’ve had to grow thick skin.  Patience is virtue to being a good cover artist. I grew up with a mentally challenged little brother, and I have him to thank for the abundance of patience I have today.

For me, recognition for all my hard work is nice to receive. Just being nominated for any award is a thrill, but without the authors I’ve worked with none of that would be possible, so any award or recognition is for them too. It’s their books. I’m merely taking their words and depicting art.

MJN: With technology making graphic art so easy to create and edit, you have to stay on top of the latest advancements.  All cover artists I've worked with tell me that so much of it is self-taught yet you keep having to exercise your muscle to stay competitive.  New editions of PhotoShop make it so easy for new artists to emerge, so the established ones have to stay one step ahead.

DD: I’m a self-taught photoshop artist. I began experimenting with digital art in the early to mid-2000 with an easy-peasy program called Serif. In fact, I still use an advanced Serif program for print formats, along with photoshop. I always say technology is great...if it works. Throughout the years, I’ve upgraded programs several times, but I still use the same photoshop that I’ve used for the last five years.  Graphic art has come a long way since its inception. For me, it’s all about having my own style. I use what works best for me.

MJN: Is there a graphic novel series that you like and derive inspiration from? I have a feeling that you are a fan of the Sandman series.

DD: The Sandman series covers are amazing artwork. The horror/darkness aspects to them draw me in. My personal favorite of Neil’s is a book called The Ocean at the End of the Lane. That cover is haunting, simplistic and definitely eye-catching. That’s what I strive to do with my own cover artwork. I’m also partial to The Watchmen series.

MJN: For an author, one of the benefits of working with a smaller press is having a say in the cover design. I imagine that on occasion an author gets a little frantic because he/she doesn't know how to communicate his/her thoughts to the cover artist.  What advice would you give to an author working with a cover artist that would make the creative process less stressful and more productive to both of them?  You gave me excellent advice: keep things simple and don't go crazy with too many characters and props on the cover.

DD: A lot of the covers I create are character specific. I can never, ever get a character to be as an author has imagined. Yes, the author has envisioned their characters in a hundred different ways. They’ve given birth to them, so to speak. I get it. I’m an author myself. But my scope of models is based on stock photography sites.  I’ve had more than a few authors request a different model than the one I’ve chosen (sometimes two or three) because “they don’t like their look.” In retrospect, it doesn’t matter how an author has imagined their character(s).  If that particular model fits the character descriptions in the book, then I’ve done my job. Every reader is going to imagine the character(s) as they see fit.  A cover is merely a guideline.  The best advice is exactly what I told you:  Keep things simple. Two characters maximum (except for ménage, but I prefer using just the main character on those), and a background that quirks curiosity in readers and makes them look closer. If there’s too much going on the front, the eye doesn’t know where to look first.  We artists call that a ‘busy’ cover. It’s the simplistic, striking artwork that renders second looks, and those second looks can usually generate a sale.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Shannon O'Connor - weaving nursing and romance

Like most of my fellow authors, Shannon O'Connor has a day job - in nursing - a profession that's often romanticized, glamorized and otherwise misunderstood.  In her debut novel Red Waves is more than just a steamy romance between an injured surfer and a nurse. It's an exploration of a particular psychological makeup of one succeeding in a caring profession, the rewards and pitfalls of being programmed for altruism.

MJN: Your debut novel features a nurse protagonist. You are in the profession yourself, so you know the terminology and the mentality in and out. I am not in the medical profession, because I frankly suck at biology and chemistry, but I remember that my earliest romantic fantasies involved a wounded hero. I grew up in Russia, watching World War II movies, and there was always a tomboyish nurse who would pull men twice her size across the frozen field and patch up their wounds. There's something endearing and empowering about patching up a lion, isn't it? 

SOC: Nursing is a highly respected job. In polls most people trust what a nurse tells them compared to any other profession, so in turn there's already expectations drawn up in reader's minds about Audrey before they even read about her. She is a tomboy who patches up people for a living, but there's so much more to being a nurse and hopefully the inner thoughts of Audrey help people grasp some of that nursing mentality. In many ways Chad helps to heal Audrey, but toward the end of the trilogy the empathy from nurse Audrey empowers both of them. People are vulnerable when they need help from doctors and nurses and Audrey doesn't take that for granted. 

MJN: Interestingly, some people tend to idealize nurses, calling them angels and whatnot.  And others will tell you that nurses and doctors have to have a certain amount of callousness and cynicism in order to not fall apart. Where do you find that balance between compassion and impartiality?  Is it something that many professionals struggle to achieve even after decades of working in the field?

SOC: Funny because Chad calls Audrey an angel. I've been in healthcare since I was a teen. My very early memories in the hospital some people were very callous and cold-hearted from what I observed. From what I have witnessed it depends on where a person works and their co-workers attitudes will shape their own profession. I happen to work for an extremely great healthcare organization and team of co-workers that truly care for the patient's well-being. I'm very good at not showing my feelings on my face or actions. I can't show distress or it will make the patient freak out as well. Staying calm is the most important thing I've learned throughout the years. Patients are very observant and they know whether a nurse really cares or not. I worked Oncology for a few years and knew when I couldn't emotionally handle losing my patients whom I became very close with, so it's also knowing what area of expertise will bring the best out of me while caring for others. Years of working in the field will only enhance skills if a person has the basic care and need to help others--kindness is the number one requirement. 

MJN: In your novel, Audrey, the protagonist, has a psycho ex-husband who is seeking revenge for her sending him to prison.  I find it fascinating that so many strong, level-headed, good-hearted women run into absolute nut jobs.  Why do you think that happens?  I personally think that if a woman has strong morals, she expects that others abide by the same moral code.

SOC: You've really described Audrey. She's strong, level-headed, and good-hearted, which in many ways was how she innocently trusted her life to turn out great when she met and married her husband. Not everyone can be great at everything though, so I've seen women like her become trapped by psycho men that are threatened by the women's strong presence and try to tear them down. When I was growing up I trusted whatever others would say and quickly learned to expand my examination skills to see beyond. If a person can make a more informed decision about someone they can choose more wisely their future spouse or people they want to associate with. It comes down to self-respecting enough to not let someone else tear you apart. Unfortunately, Audrey learned these lessons a little too late. 

MJN: How do you come up with your characters' names?  Chad Slater feels like a slap on the rump.  Does the sound of the name reflect the essence of the character?

SOC: I always liked the name Chad, but the name was never a fit when I was thinking of names for my four sons. When I thought about my male character being a professional surfer it popped in my head. The last name Slater goes with surfing because of the world famous surfer, Kelly Slater. It's also a family name rooted in the city of Huntington Beach, California where the novels are set in. Chad Slater just sounded sexy and he does like slapping on Audrey's rump, so it works perfectly. Audrey was a name my sister loved and wanted to use for one of her children, but never came to be. It's very sexy, yet innocent.

MJN: Let's talk about the cover. It has a bit of Baywatch color scheme. Is that the collective memory you were hoping to evoke?

SOC: I wasn't thinking Baywatch, not sure if the cover artist had those thoughts when she designed it. I was very detailed in what I wanted and didn't want on the cover. Many people judge a book by its cover, so I wanted it to be great. Of course, the man's toned body will let readers know what's inside. The red cross symbolizes nurse Audrey and the other two books will have symbols to represent Audrey for each. I think Dawne did an amazing job and I was so happy the way it turned out---even better than what was in my mind. But if readers think of Baywatch when they see it, that can only be good because that show is worldwide, even today. Hopefully, the cover gives a full picture of what to expect inside the pages and readers enjoy entering Chad and Audrey's story. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

What if Spartacus had lived? - interview with historical novelist Robert Southworth

Greetings, commies!
This is a long-overdue interview with my highly esteemed literary colleague Robert Southworth, who has reinvented and elaborated on the versatile Spartacus legend. Today Robert joins us to discuss the research behind his books, his journey towards publishing independence and being a role model to his chidren.

MJN: Your Spartacus series has made quite a splash.  I am delighted that your work is gaining the commercial and criticial recognition it deserves.  However, there seem to be quite a few fictionalized accounts of Spartacus' adventures with varying degrees of historical accuracy.  How do you make your work stand out?

RS:  Firstly, I would like to say that all works on Spartacus are in essence fictional because so little is known about the man. I am not sure i ever set out to make my work stand out from the crowd. The reason is simple and perhaps a little mundane, it’s because I wrote the story that felt right. I never set out to play to the audience or compete with other  writers. I feel that would compromise me as an author, and the story would suffer. However, if my Spartacus novels do stand out then that may be due to the fact that I have taken the legend of Spartacus beyond the defeat of the slave army. A time when many believe the legendary hero fell, and Romans could sleep easily in their beds.  We love to cheer for the underdog, and so what would happen if the scourge of Rome actually survived.

MJN: I understand you have recently tackled another iconic image, Jack the Ripper.  I've seen sample covers on Facebook.  Can you tell us about it?  Will it be another series?

RS: Yes, I am currently writing the Ripper Legacies which will be a series of three books. Its a little hush hush at the moment, but what i can say is, it wont be me picking a character from history and making the facts fit, which I feel a few recent TV programmes have attempted to do in recent years. This will be a fully fledged fictional novel, lots of fictional and factual characters interpersed through-out the novel that will hopefully capture the imagination of the readers.

MJN: One of your novels, Wrath of the Furies, is set during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. What impresses me about your writing is the effortless way you weave historical facts into your fiction.  It shows a solid platform of knowledge.  With less skilled authors, you can tell that they are trying to artificially inject facts to make themselves look more knowledgeable, but that's clearly not the case with you.  Did you already have so much knowledge of Roman history, or did you learn a lot over the course of researching and writing your novels?

RS: Like most authors i have a general understanding of the era’s in which i write. However, as i loathe heavily laden fact based novels, i always try to use facts as a mere tool to move the story along. What facts i do put in the book i research thoroughly to ensure accuracy,  because the readers of historical fiction will soon make you aware of any errors. If for story purposes i do have to change a fact, for instance a date  i will always include a passage in the historical note at the rear of the book explaining the reason.

MJN: We've spoken about this on several occasions, but I wanted to take our discussion out in the public, because opinions seem to be divided on this subject. What about the pros and cons of going with a small press versus doing indie all the way? You've had experience with both.  Your first Spartacus book is with a small press, and you've expressed dissatisfaction with their marketing methods, the high pricing and the low loyalty percentage.  So you decided to take charge of the subsequent books and seem to be very satisfied with that experience.

RS: I believe when authors start out many are obsessed with being traditionally published. I still remember when i first received my acceptance letter, the sheer joy i felt that Spartacus would be traditionally published. As time went by that joy turned to frustration. Decisions were made against my wishes, in fact my opinion was never sought. Royalties were virtually non-existent despite sales being reasonably free flowing. The decision to then self publish from that point was relatively straight forward. I choose my own schedule and earn substantially more in royalties. I would add that i dont blame the publishing company in any way. The problem was my naivity, and if i hadn’t been like an excited school child i may well have seen the pitfalls.

MJN: You are a doting father.  In addition to your latest bundle of joy, you have older daughters.  Sometimes teenagers put on this veneer of cynicism and indifference when it comes to things that matter to their parents.  Do your daughters take interest in your literary life?

RS:  My two elder daughters are far beyond the teenager stage and have their own busy lives, they obviously want their Dad to succeed. However,  i write about subjects that neither have an interest,  but they support in terms of spreading the word. My third daughter loves that i’m a writer, and to my delight has just won her first writing award at school. The two boys are too young, and making mud pies seems to have their full attention.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Romania's first Ragdoll Cattery - interview with Bev Elian

Greetings, commies and fellow cat lovers!
Today's guest is beautiful and enthusiastic Beverly Elian, a British living in Bucharest, Romania with her husband and three children.  Beverly is not just a cat breeder with highest ethic.  She's also an educator, pioneer and advocate.

MJN: Ragdolls are an American breed and only recently started being included in European-based feline organizations.  When did Ragdolls first become available in Romania? How were they received by the cat lovers?

BE: Ragdolls first appeared in Romania with me.  I imported the first male from UK, a female from UK and a female from USA in 2000.  They were the very first Ragdolls to be registered and bred here.  I since have imported from USA and Canada different pedigree lines and continued to work on the type and temperament.  It is not quite true that it is only recently being included in European-based feline organizations.  The first Ragdolls appeared in the UK in 1981, and considering the breed was recognized in the 1970's in the USA, it is not so much later.  What has occurred is an explosion of everyone breeding 'Ragdolls' but many of these cats are not in the standard at all, do not have the correct temperament, and should not be labelled Ragdolls.  Initially Romanian people viewed them similar to the street cats known as 'burmesa', however this is not a recognized breed in any organization, simply a pointed domestic cat and slowly over the years many people came to understand that a Ragdoll is different, in temperament and type.  It is not an easy breed to work with as the pattern and colour has to be so exact for the shows, but who can resist these big blue eyed babies who behave like small dogs?

MJN: In the US, breeders make buyers sign contracts to ensure the wellbeing of their alumni.  The contract includes paragraphs about not declawing cats, not allowing them outside, not putting them in shelters or euthanizing them without the breeder's approval.  Do you have similar practices in place in Romania?  Are there ways to enforce the terms of the contract?

BE: Ragdolls are very gentle, kind cats, and are bred for apartments.  My cats do not go outside as they do not have the same instincts as our domestic cats, are not afraid of people, or other animals and consequently they do not have the skills to run away from danger.  Yes, we do have an agreement with the future owner not to let them outside, if they do, we are not responsible for what happens.  An owner is asked to contact us if he cannot keep the cat any longer rather than just abandoning it.  Declawing is a barbaric practice and is illegal within the EU, even though the practice of cutting off all the toes of the cat continues.  Yes, I put that in the agreement as many people do not know what it is and when they find out they are horrified.  All kittens going as pets without breeding rights, are neutered/castrated before leaving.  There are no exceptions.  The reasons?  1)  USA has been practicing early neutering for decades and there are absolutely no side effects to the kittens, if anything their recovery time is amazing.  They go for the operation at about 3 months and in one hour come home, running, playing, eating like nothing ever happened.  An older cat limps around for a few days in discomfort.  2)  There is nothing more unpleasant than a female calling in heat or a male marking his home and pet owners do not want to be bothered with this so new owners are thrilled to find out the kitten is already neutered/castrated.  3)  As stated above, these babies are carefully raised to be the best Ragdolls from the best pedigree lines, not to be mixed with other breeds or non-breeds and sold as 'Ragdolls'.  If someone wishes to breed then I am always happy to help them find a male and female of the best type, health and quality.

MJN: Do you attend cat shows frequently?  Do you spend much time educating the people about the breed?  In the US, breeders also have to think like judges and advocates, not just cat lovers.  When you run a cattery, you have to engage many of your talents.  

BE: I attend shows very frequently, both as exhibitor, organizer of Magnificats Cat Club shows in Romania and also as a WCF (World Cat Federation) All Breed judge and love all the different aspects of shows.  The one thing you have to have when running a cattery is understand cats, how they think, not add human emotions to cats' behaviour, but really try and understand the cat behaviour.   Cats are solitary animals, some are happy to be in a small group, but putting a large number together can bring about huge problems - stress - fighting - illness.   All my cats have their 'places' where they go to be on their own, whether it is the flower pot on the balcony, or behind the cushion on the sofa, they have their individual place.  Your vet becomes your best friend, helping you with many different aspects in the cattery.

MJN: What is your protocol for placing retired breeders? How many litters do you get from any given queen before you decide to retire her?  

BE: A retired breeder has a special place in my heart, so I must make sure he/she goes to a great home, where they will be loved and cared for.  Having lived with the cat I know their habits, would they be happier on their own or could they be with another cat or dog?  Are they timid or outgoing and loving?  What they love to eat the best?  There is no rule as to how many litters a queen has before I retire her, some are born to be mothers, others are alright as mothers but not that interested.  How hard was the delivery and nursing for that mother?  Did her babies grow and thrive as they should or was there a problem?   Is the cat happy in the community or are there fights going on?  Males have to be kept separately so I try to retire them very early to have a normal home life.
MJN: You are a mother to three children. Do they share your passion for cats?  Do you envision them as your future assistants and heirs to your Ragdoll empire?  

BE: My children adore animals, give them respect, kindness and care, have not shown any interest in having a cattery so I don’t encourage them to take over mine.  I want to see them enjoying their lives in whichever way it pleases them, and if breeding is not part of it, then that is fine.  Breeding is not for everyone emotionally, and definitely you need to be financially stable to be able to breed.  Trust me when I say there is no profit in a good and healthy cattery, there isn’t!    Healthy animals need the best food, the best vet care, and sparkling clean environment to thrive.  It takes money, time and effort, so breeding is for the love of the breed, not for profit.   Many, many people make that mistake and end up with problems.

MJN: Are there any new breeds that Romanian people are interested in and would like to see available in the coming years? 

BE: I have introduced several breeds whilst still having Ragdolls.  At the moment I have Persians as well, and they are adorable!   I introduced Cornish Rex, Singapura and now Selkirk Rex to Romania.  I love all breeds and this is actually why I became an all-breed judge, as I cannot have all the breeds at home, but at least I get to see and handle them whilst judging. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries - by Scottish author Stuart Laing

I am excited to feature a mystery writer Stuart S. Laing, the author of the Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries set in 18th century Scotland.

MJN: As a native born Scotsman, you write novels that are set in your home country.  It's not secret that Scotland has been a source of fascination for authors all over the world.  There are ethnic purists out there who will tell you that only a native Scotsman can write an authentic Scottish novel.  As a Russian-American writing about Irish history I run into that sometimes.  "Why don't you write about your own people?"  What is your attitude towards non-Scottish authors setting their novels in Scotland?

SL: I honestly don’t believe that a person’s background, or nationality, should matter a great deal in regard to what they write. If the books are written with a passion for Scotland I have absolutely no issue with people from abroad setting their novels here, after all you don’t have to be a murderer to write murder mysteries (fortunately).

I do find it slightly jarring though when authors mention something incongruous such as animals native to North America scurrying through the Scottish countryside. One instance of this was a recent book I read which mentioned Raccoons scampering around the Scottish woods! Things like that can be an unnecessary distraction, but I wouldn’t consider it justification to make the claim that only native-born people should write books set in their homeland. It comes down to doing your homework. If you know what you are writing about it doesn’t matter if you are from New York or Edinburgh. You don’t have to be there to write about it.  If that were the case there would be no science fiction unless written by NASA astronauts. No war novels unless written by combat veterans, and no historical fiction unless the author first invented a time machine!

MJN: You have a rather voluminous series of novels featuring a character Robert Young.  What is the genesis of that character?  Is there a real life person behind the figure?  Is he your alter ego? 

SL: Robert, along with his wife Euphemia, have appeared in six novels now, but first appeared in a series of short stories set in my hometown during the years of occupation by the forces of Oliver Cromwell during the 1650s. The stories were written for the amusement of the ladies of a Bible study group I attended with them. They enjoyed these connected tales and encouraged me to write more. I had to produce a fresh short story on a weekly basis to keep them happy, which was fun.

When I first decided to write a ‘proper’ book I knew the characters so well that it made sense to bring them along with me. The main change was to move them forward a hundred years in time and relocate them from Fife to Edinburgh. The movement in time to the 1740s was largely down to my own love for that period and its familiarity to many readers. It was a conscious decision though to not place Robert either in one camp or the other regarding to the Jacobite rebellion. He, like most others, simply wanted to avoid being dragged into the dispute between German Geordie and the Old Pretender.

As for the history of Robert Young of Newbiggin himself, I suppose I have to confess that he wasn’t based on anyone in particular other than using my father’s Christian and middle names. The title ‘of Newbiggin’ was also a nod towards my father as he grew up on Newbiggin farm. I needed a name when writing the first short story, and so my father found himself being volunteered. As far as I know he hasn’t investigated any murders in Edinburgh though!

As for being my alter ego? I think there is an element of wish fulfilment for every writer with their characters. They say and do things we would never dare do ourselves. And Robert Young gets the chance to walk the streets of Edinburgh while it was still a cramped, smelly city before the expansion of the New Town and the march of progress which leaves us with the city we now know, and love. I enjoy being able to share the old city alongside him.

MJN: Some of your novels like A Pound of Flesh and A Capital Crime run rather long - 130-140K words. I believe there are certain industry-set standards for novel lengths in various genres.  Do you ever set a limit to how long any given novel will be?

SL: I don’t set an upper limit to how long a book should be. I work on the premise that a novel should be at least 80,000 words. If people are parting with their hard earned cash then I want to know that I am giving them value for their money.

A Pound of Flesh is the longest of the books so far, while the others have all come in at around 110-115K words. I think that each book is as long as it needs to be to tell the beginning, middle and end of the story. There is nothing worse, in my opinion, than scenes which you feel have been included simply to pad out the book and lengthen it. Again that is purely a personal opinion and no doubt some readers will find certain domestic scenes within my own books as being superfluous, but they are all there for a reason.

MJN: The cover art on your novels is reminiscent of 1970s horror film aesthetics.  Are you aiming to evoke a certain pang of nostalgia from your readers?

SL: To be honest I hadn’t actually considered them to be reminiscent of those movies but now that you have mentioned it I can see what you mean. As I create all my own covers and thoroughly enjoy the whole process of finding an idea then developing it until I have the finished image, I think that there is a certain attempt to recreate something that conjures up a glimpse of how Edinburgh was back in the 1740s. I hope that they look more like a mystery tale than a horror story though.

We all know the old saying that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but there is no doubt that most people do appreciate a cover image that hasn’t just been cobbled together in five minutes. My own covers are all inspired by a specific scene in each book. Getting back to the 1970s horror movie posters for a moment, I admit I always loved the posters created for the old British Hammer House of Horror films so perhaps subconsciously they have inspired me.

MJN: One thing that stopped me from writing mysteries is the fear of inadvertently tripping over another author's plot.  There are just so many ways a person can be murdered.  How do you manage to keep your plot twists original and fresh?  How do you avoid those deja-vu moments where your readers roll their eyes and say, "I've seen that before."  At what point is it okay to resort to staple techniques?

SL: You are so right about the fear of stealing another writer’s ideas. It is a dread that every author feels at one point or another. It doesn’t matter whether you are writing a Regency romance or a horror story with vampires and werewolves, you have that nagging voice at the back of your mind saying ‘this has all been written before!

I try to come up with something different for every story where the main cast of characters remains unchanged while the supporting cast come and go as required. Happily though the 18th century provides ample scope for a whole host of despicable villains to run amok through the streets and alleys of old Edinburgh!

One advantage in writing a series featuring the same people is that you are also telling the story of their lives as time goes by. Alongside the mystery to be solved you have the day to day events which come to the characters, be it falling in love, illness or being reunited with long lost friends or family members. And yes, these are all basic staples of fiction but they are also things which the reader can associate with. Few of us, happily, will ever come face to face with the victim of a violent crime but we all know that feeling of falling in, and out of love. We also share the satisfaction of solving a mystery. It can be simply finding the missing TV remote control or finishing the crossword puzzle in the newspaper over our morning coffee. Mystery books are the same. You have to put the clues there for the reader to discover, so hopefully, they can say before they reach the end of the book, so and so is the killer. I don’t like mysteries where the investigator announces information which has never been shared with the reader until the denouement where all is revealed. Personally I feel a little bit cheated when that happens.

Hopefully I can continue to come up with fresh ideas, fresh mysteries and fresh adventures for Robert Young and his friends to enjoy for many years to come.

Thank you Marina for allowing me the opportunity to answer your questions.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Chad T. Douglas - author of the Lore Trilogy

Greetings, commies!  The dirty cougar in me is positively tickled to present a dashingly handsome and impressively prolific Chad T. Douglas, the author of the Lore Trilogy.  Lore is a story of two young lost souls, drawn together by love and moved across continent and oceans by fate.  Today Chad talks about the daunting task of keeping the natural and the supernatural elements in balance.

MJN: Your Lore trilogy is described as "surprising and captivating new take on a familiar and well-explored genre." Vampires, pirates, werewolves - that's an intricate mix. A good speculative fiction novel always has the right mixture of natural and supernatural.  The two elements have to be in balance.  How do you maintain that balance? 

CD: The Lore series is something of a catch-all for fans of many varieties of contemporary, popular fiction. I've been told by a few reviewers, interviewers, and readers that any book series trying to capture so many audiences with a single story immediately sounds too good to be true, and I'd have to agree in most cases. 

The laundry list of mythical creatures, legends, folklore and fantasy tropes that can be found in Lore has actually kind of become the series' unofficial tagline in some regard. I've been going to book festivals for years now, and all day long I watch people passing my booth. They're turning their heads, checking out all the sights, and suddenly, they see the big eight-foot banner hanging from my table. They stop. Whether they're right next to my table or out in the middle of the street, they stop dead in their tracks. Then, one of two things will happen. In most cases, they squint, they read (usually I see their lips actually moving as they do), and they slowly grin and approach the booth, saying something to the effect of, "Okay, I have to know more about this." In the other case, once they finish reading, they roll their eyes, give me a look of absolute skepticism, and walk away. Those types have already convinced themselves I'm peddling a Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, or Twilight knock-off, and I'm late to the game. Those who venture in ask me tons of questions, and I love the looks on their faces when they find out that Lore does, in fact, deliver on its hefty promises, and in ways they didn't expect at all. 

When I set out to write the series, just as when I set out to write my newest novel, Earthshine (science fiction), I took to it in a way that would convince a reader like myself that the characters, world, and story within might have actually happened, or could. I love details. When they're handled just right, they can suspend even the cleverest reader's stubborn sense of disbelief. Now, not everyone wants the details, and therein lies a challenge--how do you write convincing fiction while keeping your audience from dozing off? The key, in the way I write, is to prioritize details by importance, giving the most important details more spotlight while sprinkling in bits of well fleshed-out details here and there for support. Anything critical and central to the story deserves a good, sometimes lengthy explanation, but typically, most readers are fine if you spare them a thesis on everything else. The foundation has to be solid. I don't ask my readers to assume much, but I'm also always prepared for questions about things I simply left out of the book for the sake of good storytelling economy. 

Lore, for example, includes a number of fictitious journal entries written by one of the main characters, Geoffrey Mylus. In the journals, the scientifically-minded Geoffrey keeps notes on everything--werewolf and vampire anatomical studies, the controversies surrounding global magic trade, the hunting behaviors of legendary sea creatures, the link between triangular trade and the appearance of merfolk in the Caribbean...everything. Any time I had to stop and weave something fictional into factual history, Geoffrey wrote a journal entry. It helped keep the deeper, more technical backstory compact, and organized it into optional chunks of story that a reader could take time to peruse, or skip right over if they chose.

In summary, I guess my style of balancing comes from loving to be surprised by a story. A good story has a top layer anyone can love, and deeper content for those looking to do some more digging. I love nothing more than when a genre I think I know does something I've never seen it do before, all while doing a great job of handling the fundamentals. I try to write those kinds of stories. Finding a story like that is like loving chocolate and finding out someone has just done something with chocolate you've never tried before. In other words, blood-sucking doesn't keep vampires alive, new contexts do.

MJN: I love the tasteful, mysterious, minimalistic covers. They look three-dimensional.  I noticed the combination of rustic and high-tech esthetics. 

CD: Thank you! Although writing has become my hobby and career of choice, I have a fairly extensive background with the visual arts as well, and I enjoy directing the cover design process. When it comes time to get book covers done, I'm always incredibly excited and incredibly stressed. A lot of authors struggle to pick a name for their characters. Names have to be just right. Well, the same goes for me and my book covers.

The Lore series is currently wearing a brand new set of covers, and every last detail was intentional. Each book's foremost feature is an animal, and each animal is taken from an important little tale told in the beginning of the first book. Additionally, each of the animals is surrounded by other images or materials that have some subtle but critical role in that particular installment of the story, such as the flowers on the cover of A Pirate's Charm, the black cloth background of East and Eight, and the old belt buckle on The Old World.

In the case of Earthshine, minimalism was key, at least in part. Before I wrote Earthshine, I had always had a handful of critical scenes in mind. In one of them, Benni, the protagonist, was in surgery. In her dopey, anesthetized state, she experiences a bunch of strange sights, sounds, and sensations, and also appears to be enveloped in a kind of white void. It was a highly symbolic and downright trippy moment, and that clean, bright, white void is also echoed in a lot of the popular fashions and architectural styles of the futuristic city Benni lives in. Additionally, it was meant to make the book look like the packaging that would be used for a trendy, cutting-edge software manufactured by Tika, a big tech company in the story. At the same time, Benni herself is very colorful. She's a student of visual arts and fashion in a world where everyone is playing a game of keep-up with the fads of the day. The illustration of her character depicts her in a moment where, for the first time in her life, she stands out, and for once, it isn't because she chose to. Once I saw the way she popped against that white background, I decided the cover was perfect the way it was, and scrapped any plan to develop a more involved background for the cover.

MJN: With the risk of sounding like a dirty old woman, you have an extremely alluring headshot.  I imagine you turn many heads when you go to book events.  Do you ever fantasize about having your book adapted as a screenplay and actually playing one of the male leads?

CD: Haha. You're too kind! And yes, I'd love to see any or all of my books translated to the big screen, granted they're given the proper treatment. Actually, one of the reasons I didn't depict any of the characters in Lore on the covers of the books was because doing so would have instantly colored in some of the blank spaces in the readers' imaginations. I've always wondered whether the books would ever even get close to being popular enough to warrant a screenplay. Still, having some forethought, I figured I ought not to create a specific look for Thomas Crowe, Molly Bishop, and the crew, beyond what their textual descriptions already covered. I didn't want to create a potential headache for some poor soul having to manage a movie casting and a look-alike contest at the same time. 

As for the remainder of the question, I have thought about being in film adaptations, but I definitely do not want an important role. I want to be one of those extras that the film crew sneaks into a shot. I want people who have the DVD to have their friends on the couch, pausing and replaying the thing, pointing at the TV going, "Look! Right there! He's one of the werewolves in the back of the shot, I swear! It's gotta be him." I just think that would be a much cooler kind of inclusion. I'm a narrator and a writer, but not an actor, as far as I can tell. I think that distinction is also why I can't sit at a table in the middle of a restaurant...

MJN: In your biography it says that you frequent book festivals.  Be entirely candid.  Are those events worth attending for small press authors?  Do you manage to traffic many copies that way?  Or do you have to be a member of the panel to get more exposure? 

CD: In my experience this is a strongly debated question, and there are some major factors that affect each author's answer, most of all just their unique, personal experience with the process of publishing. When anyone asks me if book festivals or independent publishing made a difference for me, my answer goes something like this: "Well, if I hadn't published my first three books myself, I wouldn't be published right now." From there, the rest of my experience follows much the same philosophy. Back around 2009, before I really knew what I was doing, I swiftly got the impression that getting a big publisher's attention wasn't a matter of twisting their arm; honestly, I felt as though I were going to need some kind of treasure map, a secret password, and a magic ritual. Well, I'm not the type who asks permission and patiently waits to be allowed my chance to get started, so I set up my own press and got to work. 

Around the time I did that, things took off. I started with small signings here and there around my hometown, the town I went to college in, etc. As a matter of fact, my second signing, two or so months after I self-published A Pirate's Charm, landed me my first writing job. I soon began to sign up to exhibit my books at large festivals all over the state. Now, not all books see the same degree of success, and I'm sure some of mine is attributable to the audiences I write for, but I can honestly say that going to festivals, learning to design attractive booths, being there in person to sign copies, and gradually beating the introvert out of myself in the process resulted in a satisfying amount of book sales. A lot of authors I met during that time swore that ebooks were the way to go, print books were "out", and online marketing (exclusively) was all any indie author needed. Online marketing and ebooks are great, and these days I'm a member of the digital crowd, but I still believe in book festivals, print editions, and showing up in person. I've found that readers really appreciate the self-starter author who cares enough to show up in person, stand on their feet for five to eight hours, meet every reader with an enthusiasm for their questions, and sign books for no extra charge. That said, I know the natural progression of a successful book, series, or author entails attending these things less and less, just because the big dogs can't be everywhere at once, but I can't imagine ever giving it up, no matter how much success I may see. It's worth it, and I feel like literally going out into the world to show people something you've made is a rewarding part of the experience.

MJN: Many sci-fi and fantasy writers testify that their best work is born out of phobias and nightmares.  Do you have any emotionally disturbing experiences, real or imagined, that fueled your creative process?

CD: Yes, sometimes that's the case. For me, so far, this applies much more to Earthshine, my science fiction, than it does to Lore. Earthshine is, at its core, my (frustrated) creative response to a lot of anxiety I began to feel around the time I was in college. It's the product of a lot of nagging realities that affected me and others, friends and the like, as we grew into independent adults, anticipating what awaited us beyond college in a world that seems to love collecting, creating, and wallowing in complicated issues. During that time, I began to see a lot of things going on in the background--little, quiet problems that either no one has noticed yet, or problems that seem inevitable, but don't yet exist. In short, I did a lot of looking down the road and worrying about what distant things might be approaching, and of course, speculative fiction seemed to be the way to go about discussing those worries. The most frightening thing Earthshine expresses, I think, is that it's not some story about good people living in a dystopian society run by bad people. It's a story about how flawed people don't hold themselves accountable for the bad societies they create for themselves. 

A lot of writing, in my experience, is the process of gathering all of my deeper thoughts, especially those produced by less-than-cheery thoughts and realizations, giving them an organized context, making something meaningful out of them, presenting them to strangers, and seeing whether anyone relates. The goal, and this is important, is not primarily to try and create a message or a moral or anything like that. I'm much more interested in producing a feeling in the reader that feels universal, but is also hard to pin down. I like trying to tell a story in a way that motivates the reader to get some mental and emotional exercise, and leaves them trying to figure out why what they read made them feel what they felt. When I can get them to feel what I say and not just hear or see what I say--to share in the things that make me laugh, the things that anger and depress me, and the things that inspire me--I think that's when I've done a good job.