Guest Blog: Fact and Fiction–Pulling it Together

Today, I have another writing friend here to give everyone a new perspective on research. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the post. Please welcome Morgan Smith to the blog!


Fact and Fiction – Pulling it Together
By Morgan Smith

I have said from the very start of my writing career that I don’t do “writing advice.”

That was kind of a lie, because now I’m going to tell you about the terrible, dangerous nexus between all those carefully garnered facts and writing fiction.

Beware, beware: because the days/weeks/months you’ve spent organizing all those incredible details into easily-accessible files can trip you up.

It’s called the info-dump for a reason: it will appear like giant walls of text: blow-by-blow summaries of exactly how the monetary system in your world/14th century France works; recipe-by-recipe descriptions of forty-seven different kinds of food served at a medieval banquet; long political diatribes detailing the exact relationship of one peerage to another in a semi-feudal society.

You must resist. You must. Plenty of authors don’t, and while there are readers who like a fictional story to read like a high school text book–I’m not saying there aren’t–the vast majority of readers are looking for something that takes them out of themselves, without the destination being a classroom. Most readers are, in the end, looking to escape, and nowhere is this more true than in fantasy fiction.

You, as the writer definitely need to know and care about every bit of this. You need to know your world inside and out. It’s really the only reliable way to make sure your world holds together as tightly as the Great Wall of China.

But the hook in this enormous net of factoid fish is that your readers really do not care.

They don’t need to know those details and frankly, they don’t want to. There is nothing that will stop a reader faster than stepping outside the story to deliver a History 101 lecture on currency exchange in the fictional 1200’s.

 But then, why bother doing all that work?

 And this is where the authorial magic trick occurs.

When you know your stuff, it shows. You only need the most minimal of details to make your reader feel that they are in good hands–because for some reason, when you really, really know your apples, you don’t need to deliver all those details.

It all somehow magically bleeds through in the way the prose gets out. The reader senses that there is authority there without the writer having to prove it by listing all the minutiae out. They can feel the reality, BECAUSE you aren’t spending 20,000 words showing them the skeleton underneath the flesh.

And they will rave about your world-building, even though you have only twitched the curtain aside for a microsecond, and given them the merest glimpse of the mechanics. They’ll feel it, and they’ll know it, and they will sink deeper into the story, never daring to let go.

And that’s a reader worth having.


Morgan Smith is a former goatherd, a textiles geek, and occasionally an archaeologist. She is also the author of several fantasy novels including “The Shades of Winter”, “Casting in Stone”, and “A Spell in the Country”, a romantic fantasy called “The Mourning Rose”, and a memoir about growing up hippie in the 60s. Her life is held together by caffeine, cigarettes, and cheap granola bars, and she will drop everything to go anywhere, on the flimsiest of pretexts.

Social Media:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/morgansmithauthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/morganauthor1

Blog: https://morgansmithauthor.wordpress.com

Website: https://theaverrainecycle.wordpress.com/2017/06/18/welcome-to-averraine/

Published:

Casting in Stone Book 1 of The Averraine Cycle

They said ill winds blew at her back. They said she was cursed: a hex, and a jinx. And it was true: everywhere she went, no matter what she did, misfortune seemed to follow in her wake. But that, of course, wasn’t the worst of it.

A Spell in the Country Book 2 of The Averraine Cycle

What if you weren’t “The Chosen One” but still had to try to save the world?
https://www.amazon.com/Spell-Country-Book-Averraine-Cycle-ebook-dp-B07VJB8XFY

The Shades of Winter A Novel of Averraine

An aging band of sea raiders set out on one last voyage of revenge, and get a whole lot more than they bargained for.

The Mourning Rose

Manners meet magic in this tale where curses mix with curtseys, and Charm takes on a whole new dimension. 

Flashbacks (an unreliable memoir of the ‘60s)

A collection of memories about growing up hippie in Toronto, during one of the most interesting periods of the 20th century. Not to mention the sex, drugs and rock and roll…

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Guest Post: What’s So Important About Diversity Anyway?

Don’t stab me. I swear, this is a pro-diversity post. Today, my friend Jennifer L. Gadd is making a guest appearance to tell us why diversity in books is so important in her and every classroom. I firmly believe her opinions to be dead on, and can’t wait to hear your responses. Her post begins below.


What’s So Important About Diversity Anyway?

By Jennifer L. Gadd

Disclaimer: I am an old white lady. This blog belongs to a white lady. We’re doing our bit to bring this important point home. 

The bulletin board in Jennifer L. Gadd’s classroom

Let me start out by making everybody angry. I’m one of those author-by-night, English teacher-by-day people. My classroom library has over 2300 books in it. You know what I did at the beginning of this school year? I culled over 200 books. They’re currently sitting in boxes taking up a lot of space in my very small Toyota Yaris.

Do you want to know what I pitched? The Little House on the Prairie. Caddie Woodlawn. The Cay. The Indian in the Cupboard. Indian Captive. The Secret Garden. Peter Pan. The Slave Dancer. To Kill a Freakin’ Mockingbird. A lot of other classics. Your childhood favorite, no doubt. And mine.

Sorry, not sorry. Here’s the cold, hard truth. Every single one of these classics contains stereotypical portrayals of marginalized people—maybe even slurs. They are, not to put too fine a point on it, racist.

But wait, you say, they are a product of their times! Okay, Karen. Slavery and displacement and criminalization of sexual expression were also products of their times, and we’re trying really hard not to tolerate them anymore. But wait, you say, these are classics! So we do things simply because we’ve always done them that way? Is that a Keurig on your counter or a percolator, Kevin? But wait, you say, they have historical value! No, they don’t really. We have better historical interpretation now. And as Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.”

So let’s just move past all the excuses white folks give to enforce and enshrine their own literary canon. Anybody can read anything they want in the privacy of their own homes, so if you want to read TKAM for the 835th time, I will not try to stop you.

Maybe though, you’d be interested in reading something new. If you follow YA lit on social media, you might have seen the #ownvoices hashtag and wondered what that was about. #ownvoices is a long-overdue movement in literature: books by authors from marginalized people telling their own stories. No longer are people whose voices have not been heard content to allow white writers to interpret their stories for them. Happily, this movement is also proving to be highly profitable, so traditional publishing is ready and willing to make their buck by signing African-American, Latinx, Asian, Muslim, LGBTQA+, disabled, neurodivergent, and other authors they wouldn’t have given a second glance a few years ago.

Everyone benefits.

I think back to my own education in the Sixties and Seventies in southeast Texas. I was privileged to have Beezus Quimby and Meg March to show me ways to be a big sister. I had Kit Tyler and Nancy Drew as models for how to be the plucky and intrepid heroine of my own life. And I imagine my Latinx and African-American classmates checking out books in that very same library at Brookside Elementary, almost all of them about white children, written by white authors. Or perhaps worse, books about Latinx and African-American children, written by white authors. Never seeing themselves or their actual lives reflected back to them in the stories that were available for them to read. Never seeing people like themselves showing what they could become. I think about the queer and neurodivergent kids who had zero representation in stories to show them they were not alone or weird, forced to keep themselves hidden and unknown to others to escape ridicule or even danger. How did they survive without books that were for them?

#Ownvoices books also benefit white kids. We live in a diverse world that gets smaller every passing day. The interpersonal skills needed to be successful now include an ability to dialog, work with, and–to a degree–understand people from diverse backgrounds. Any child reading an engaging and engrossing story develops empathy and deepens their understanding of those who are different. I fail to see a downside to that. There is absolutely no reason a white kid cannot relate to an African-American or LGBTQA+ protagonist. Girls have been reading books with male protagonists since, oh, Beowulf and before, and never mind children of color. Not only is it okay to read books about people who aren’t exactly like you, but it’s also good for you!

Many of the recently published #ownvoices stories have an added benefit. When people tell their own stories, the stories are not simply about their marginalization or their trauma. #Ownvoices books get to be about authentic lives. This allows readers to see deeper than and beyond the escape from slavery or persecution or the rescue from the “thug” life or the coming out or the “inspiration porn” as a character adjusts to disability. Readers see people who aren’t like themselves as people just living their real lives, not serving as plot points.

The book I’m currently reading in my classroom is Dread Nation: Rise Up by Justina Ireland. In this post-apocalyptic story set in postbellum Baltimore, the Civil War has ended, not because of any decisive military victory, but because of the rising of the dead. In these post-Civil War times, it is the former slaves who are trained and given employment as attendants who protect rich white folks from the shamblers. The protagonist, a black girl named Jane, is the daughter of the white woman who owns the plantation on which she was born. In Ireland’s story, steeped in a rich background of authentic American racial history and the fantastical overtones of a post-apocalyptic nightmare, we are given a black female protagonist facing a zombie apocalypse. How often do you see that?

These are the kinds of stories my students want to read—and believe me when I tell you that they do want to read. They want to read engaging, well told stories in which they can see themselves represented in history, adventure, world affairs, and EVERYWHERE. Authors such as Ireland, Jason Reynolds, Marie Lu, Christine Day, Tom Ryan, Meg Medina, Joseph Bruchac, Kwame Alexander, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, S.K. Ali, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Sandhya Menon, Meredith Russo, Tomi Adeyemi, Alex Gino, Taherah Mafi, Ibi Zoboi, Samira Ahmed, and so many others offer fresh new stories that haven’t been told before. I’ve cleared some space on my classroom library shelves for them because kids these days are ready to devour them.

And so can we. We just have to stop clutching our pearls, put down our beloved, but problematic, childhood classics for just a little while, and read them.


Jennifer L. Gadd is the author of Cat Moon, the first in The Were-Children paranormal series, The Second Battle, and other books for young adults and children. In her day job, she is the reading interventionist at an urban middle school in Kansas City, Kansas.

Writer In Motion

Graphic by K.J. Harrowick

While I was off the radar recently, I wasn’t completely dormant. I’ve been working on a wonderful new event, called Writer in Motion. The experience was a lot of fun for me as an editor, and even more eye opening for the writers involved. The project involved writing a short story based on a prompt and posting it in its most raw form. Then, again, posting it after self-edits, then again after using Critique Partners assigned from within the pool of writers working on the project. Then, finally, the stories were to be posted after edits by professional editors. I happened to be one of those editors, and I am so grateful to have been selected for this project. 

Below are the four posts about dealing with working with me (#TeamJustine) and the lovely stories that resulted.   

Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid) by Sheryl Stein: http://www.wrekehavoc.com/2019/07/writer-in-motion-week-four/

Desert Wind by M.B. Dalto: https://authormdalto.wordpress.com/2019/07/04/writer-in-motion-the-final-draft-a-k-a-thank-the-gods-for-editors/

The Clementine by Megan Van Dyke: http://www.meganrvandyke.com/2019/07/05/writer-in-motion-the-final-draft/

Life and Death by Sheri MacIntyre: 
https://sherimacintyre.com/2019/07/06/wim-the-end/


And that’s just the four I worked with. Check out the rest of the amazing people that participated in this event, here. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find your new favorite author?

Full Circle

I’ve been very secretive about some things going on in my life, but they have had a profound effect on me, so it felt like time to share. Yep, this is one of those personal, life story blog posts, although it is somewhat writing related. You’ll see why. Sorry if you’re only here for the writing stuff. You’ll have to get to know me a little this time around.

At the end of March, I had a hysterectomy. Now, for some, this would be a traumatic experience, but it truly wasn’t. You see, my reproductive system and I have never been friends. We had a brief truce for a short period of time that brought me a gorgeous child. But other than that, we were bitter enemies. I wasn’t sad to see the main troublemaker go. I was actually looking forward to it. 

It’s an odd thing. My womb was gone, and in that same week, I nearly lost the woman who carried me in her womb. It’s a long story, and not one I think my mother is particularly keen to share, but I thought my husband was communicating with my mother during my recovery. He thought I was. By the time we realized, neither of us had talked to her in a week. We all tried to call her to no avail and my husband rushed to check on her. As I recovered from my surgery, my mother collapsed in her home, was unable to get up for a while, and very nearly died. My husband found her unconscious. 

She has thankfully pulled through, but the outcome completely changed our lives. 

Mentally, my mother is as okay as she ever was. She’s always struggled with some mental issues, but she’s feisty and funny and, after a slight struggle, is 100% back to who she had been. Physically, though, she’s weaker than she was, and since April, she’s been in a physical rehabilitation center until she can get back on her feet. 

My mother had lived in the same apartment for 42 years, so the place had managed to accumulate a lot of stuff. A lot of stuff. All of which she kept. But after being stuck in that place as she was, unable to move, my mother didn’t want to go back. 

I set about cleaning out her apartment, scoring her a new one, and preparing it for her return home. And in the midst of all that, after visiting my mother regularly, something in our relationship shifted. We’d had this terribly complex relationship, both with our fair share of mental illness that would grind together whenever we butted heads. She has been mellowing out quite a bit as she’s grown older, and in this time, we have repaired a lot of it. Is it still fragile? It may always be. 

And then I received the proof for an upcoming anthology I will be published in. My essay in that anthology is about generational mental illness and how my mother’s sometimes abusive behavior impacted my life and informed the way I raised my son. There isn’t a single word I wrote that was untrue, but I find myself feeling horrendously guilty. 

In her famous writing book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott wrote, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” And perhaps that’s true. But it’s a complicated feeling. 

My relationship with my mother is healing. I’ve cast a discussion out into the world about that relationship at its worst. 

The point was important, and I believe that what I wrote will have a chance to help another. In the end, as a writer, I know I must be true to myself and what I’m trying to say, despite the difficulties it may cause. 

Still, I cringe whenever I read it. Have any of you ever put something in writing and had regrets afterwards? Share in the comments and make me feel better. :/

Dogs Can’t Meow: Why Even Fantasy Writers Need Research

As an editor, a writer, and a vocal member of the writing community, I hear a lot of strange rules that people make up about writing. As a matter of fact, our next CraftQuest discussion will be exactly about that (subscribe to our channel for updates)! One of my absolute favorite ones is this: If you’re writing fantasy, you don’t need to research. You’re writing about things that don’t exist in reality–why would you need to search for clues within reality? No. Just no. As a writer, you NEED to research. It’s a fundamental part of your work. And it doesn’t matter what you’re writing.

In real life, i.e. not your imaginary book land, there will always be things you don’t know. I know that the infamous “they” tell you to write what you know, but I’ve gotta tell you, if I wrote only what I know into every manuscript I work on, my work would be painfully boring. I’ve written about powered individuals who fight monsters. I’ve written about a girl who is best friends with Aphrodite. I’ve written about spiking your brother-in-law’s martini with coolant. I haven’t done a single one of these things, no matter how sorely tempted I’ve been. What have I done? I’ve been terrified for my life and I’ve been in chaotic situations. I’ve been friends with someone who wanted more for me, and I’ve been friends with someone who thought I should be something I was not. I’ve watched someone abuse someone I loved and wished for a way to free them from the neverending spiral of abuse.

So, how do you write about the things you do not know? You have to do research. You have to learn new things, understand different lifestyles, different histories. You have to dig deep. But what about fantasy and science fiction? You don’t have to do research for those, do you? I mean, they aren’t even real! Why would you need to research something when it’s all made up in your imagination?

Because the key to fiction is relatability. We enjoy books because we relate to their characters or their worlds on some intrinsic level. They reflect something about our world. Which means they have to, at least somewhat, feel similar to our world. On a planet where the physics are different? You have to justify that change. Create a world where someone is immortal? Why? How does their body work that is different from how ours do? You can’t just randomly have someone buried alive for a week and have them survive. You have to explain that they don’t need a whole helluva lot of food, water, and oxygen to survive. You can’t just have a dragon without wings fly through the sky. How does he stay up? Is some kind of magic at play? Without that, they wouldn’t be aerodynamic enough to swoop through the sky.

If your character rides a horse-like creature, you have to understand how to describe riding a horse and relate it back, because when we read, we base the adventures on our own somewhat similar experience. Your job, as a writer, is to come as close to capturing a relatable experience while still balancing that with the new and fantastical ways of the world you’ve created in a consistent fashion.

So how do you make sure your world feels relatable to your readers, even if you play with changing some of the rules? You take what you don’t already know and you…research it.

When I Grow Up

Logan as a model again. I asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, and this was his face.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” We’re all asked a few hundred times throughout our childhood. And I realized that now that I’m, at least technically, “grown up,” nobody asks me what I want to be anymore. It’s an interesting thing that we’re all asked about our future vocation when we’re far too young to do much about it or to even know ourselves well enough to know what we want. And when do we lose that? When do we start to know ourselves well enough to know what we want for the rest of our lives? What’s the imaginary age that we decide what we’re capable of?

From the time I started school all the way up to my pre-teen years, I wanted to be an English teacher. Teachers are our heroes when we’re young, until we either fall apart under the pressure of expectations and testing and regimented thinking, or we realize they’re just human like the rest of us. I loved English in particular, and there was this amazing writing teacher in my school, Michael Shaw, who was incredibly quirky and pleasant and wasn’t afraid to be silly as hell if it made the kids in the school love to learn. Every year, he would dress up as Johnny Appleseed to teach us about Earth Day before people really cared about ecology the way they should. He was so engaging, that I quickly decided I wanted to be him.

That dream died when I realized I was decidedly not him. I was prone to outbursts of temper I was not good enough at holding back to work with tiny humans all day without being labeled as the monster teacher. I couldn’t even teach my full-grown adult of a mother how to use a computer mouse without losing my temper and treating her like an idiot. Not cool, I know. But I was journeying into teenagerhood with very messy role models and a burgeoning battle with depression and I wasn’t handling it well. And then I met Dr. Jonathan Dzik.

Doc, as all his students called him, took a chance on a moody student who purposely pressed his buttons for entertainment value. And, persnickety by nature, he had a lot of pushable buttons. While I actually attempted to drive him crazy, he actually attempted to guide my efforts to more useful things, like the school musical. He was right, I was a far better singer and actress than I was a teenage asshat. And just like that, I discovered a new answer to what I was going to be when I grew up. An actress and a singer, obviously.

The truth was, I wasn’t actually good at being a teenage asshat, my compassion and empathy often tripping me up and making me suffer after my various attempts at being an unfeeling wench. So, it wasn’t very difficult to be a better singer and actor than an asshat. Another truth? I sucked at acting. And while I still think I possess singing talent, that 1) often comes with a dancing requirement and I can’t do a choreographed step without tripping over myself; and 2) after a year and a half of auditions with professionals, I quickly learned that the industry was not ready for a singer who shopped in the plus sized section. I was in the era before Kelly Clarkson and Adele, when every singer looked like Britney Spears and were lucky if they even grazed the gorgeous sounds of Christina Aguilera’s vocal chops. I could have kept trying, but the constant requests to lose weight killed my self-esteem dead enough that I became determined to find a thing where people could value my brain and not my belly.

I had been writing since back in the days of Mr. Shaw, but I didn’t really think it could be anything. Mostly, I just wrote silly stories based on television shows. And then, one day, while I stood at the counter of the video store I worked at, stuck in the job-with-necessarily-flexible-hours I needed to go on auditions. It was an incredibly boring day. I was the only person on shift. So I picked up the pad I used for inventory lists, and started writing an idea that had been running around my head like a squirrel searching for a nut.

I’ve broken up with writing a few dozen times since then, but it’s always been a lie, and I always come back. My love for it birthed my intense desire to learn more about the hows and whys behind what works and what doesn’t. That led me to editing, to helping other people learn what will work best for their manuscripts.

That girl who thought she couldn’t possibly have enough patience to teach a room full of kiddies all about reading and language finds herself slaving over manuscripts written by authors of various skill and scope and helping to teach them what they don’t already know and guide them on the path to a more polished manuscript. And suddenly, I can hear that little girl’s voice, answering the question of what she wants to be when she grows up with a very self-assured “An English Teacher” and she doesn’t sound so foolish. Because she must have seen something within herself that the grumpy teenager somehow missed.

That kid wasn’t exactly right. She was close enough though, and it makes me wonder. I may not have known what I wanted to be, but I always knew I wanted to help others, to spread knowledge, to share. Perhaps we shouldn’t be asking children what they want to be when they grow up. I’m a legal secretary who writes and edits in whatever time she can scrounge up and that’s far from what I imagined. Perhaps we’d be better off asking who they want to be when they grow up. That, at least, lends them a greater chance of landing far closer to the mark.