Retreat, Day 3

I haven't written here yet.

I haven’t written here yet.

Words achieved today: 5022
Current Hearts of Tabat wordcount: 85264
Total word count for the week: 10022
Total word count for this retreat: 10022
Worked on Hearts of Tabat, Christmas story for anthology (“My Name is Scrooge”)
Time spent on SFWA email, discussion boards, other stuff: 10 minutes, but I’ll give it an hour this evening
Other stuff: prep for Saturday’s class
Steps: 10410

Excerpt from today’s work, part of Hearts of Tabat:

At the head of the Tumbril Stair is a landing, stone-bannistered, which overlooks all of the city. From that central point, one can look right and see the Duke’s castle far atop the cliffs overlooking the city, and then fifteen terraces down, shelf after shelf, flat lines broken by avenues of flowering trees and other staircases small and large and immediately at hand the oily black iron lines of the Great Tram with its basket cars swinging up and down, laden with those who had the pennies to spend on such transport.

At the edge of the water lies the Winter Garden and then the bay. Retreat inward a little, and the gaze encounters the docks and warehouses that are the center of the city’s industry. Keep traveling leftward for more shelves, and the great clots of smoke that mark the Slumpers, and then the salt-marshes, planted thick with purple and green reeds, a single channel leading through them to allow ships to come down from the Northstretch river and reach the sea.
The five terraces closest to the water were the saltwater neighborhoods; above them lay the freshwater. In Tabat, one distinguished between saltwater and freshwater, from matters such as foodstuffs to professions (for pilots it was the most important distinction, and the most bitterly fought). Even the markets were separated by that division, with the Saltmarket hosting only wares that knew the sea’s touch: dried fish for chal (which always must be made with salt fish), and bushels of seaweed, dried and fresh, smelling tangy sharp and green, and the woven reed-ware — baskets and hats, parasols and stiff caplets, tight woven and rain-repellent — that everyone wore once the summer heat started, until time to burn them in autumn’s bonfires.

Saltwater tailors dealt with fabrics from elsewhere — silks and petals from the Rose Kingdom, cheap bright cottons from the Southern Isles — and freshwater with homegrown, wools and flaxy linens, stiff and glossy but prone to wrinkling and expensive to maintain.

The Nittlescents were saltwater merchants, their house built on trade, perfumes and attars. Adelina had done her turns in the manufacturing side of the house, but her nose was not keen enough to be a perfumer, and she preferred the numbered side of things, the flow of revenue and payments that was the ledger reflection of that industry.

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Retreat, Day 2

Photograph of a cat and lemons.

Lemons. Cat provided for scale

I’m holing up and working hard on the sequel to Beasts of Tabat. I let myself have July 1 off because that was a travel day, but yesterday I managed 5k words, though that last half was like pulling teeth. This morning I got up and sat down without checking e-mail and got 1000 out of the way. My goal is 25k each week until the middle of August, which should see me with Hearts of Tabat in a decent final draft, several stories I’ve promised to people completed, the YA novel further along down the road, and perhaps even some more of Exiles of Tabat (book 3) drafted. I will be teaching while here — tomorrow is the first section of Writing Your Way into Your Novel.

To keep myself honest, I’ll be posting word count and WIP excerpts.

So, yesterday:
Word count – 5k
Hearts of Tabat current word count – 82184
SFWA time – hour and a half on call plus e-mail plus skim thru discussion boards

From Hearts of Tabat, an early chapter, still in rough draft form.

This is what a riot looked like. Pink velvet darkened to plum by spilled punch, and flickers of angry firelight glistening on the sticky surface. Two shattered windows, broken glass spiderwbs in reverse, light from the aetheric lamps hanging over the street outside washing in, acitinic blue white over the parquet floor that had been Benarda’s pride, two hundred and thirty different kinds of wood, each dedicated to a different Trade God, zebra-striped bits of southern wood like dappled petals around her boots, as though she trod on clots of dirt-streaked snow, chips of mammoth ivory salting the petals in tiny white freckles.

A punch bowl, shattered by the first brick that had come in, landing soundly in the middle beside the overturned table, sending punch and bits of curved luster-glass everywhere, a great puddle of liquid changing the colors of the woods beneath them, tinting them dark and rose.

Two paintings askew on the walls, others lying on the floor in a jumble that drew the eye as much as their subject matter, impious and arresting, the torches that had set the rioters outside afire. Someone must have known what the paintings would be like, must have tipped people off, organized the crowd.

There. Marta’s eyes, glittering hate at Adelina across the room. Gods, even now the woman would rather hold her grudge against Bella rather than worry about keeping herself alive.

This is what a riot sounded like: angry shouts coming in through the windows, drowning out the frightened whispers all around Adelina (“Was that Bella Kanto who just went out? Of course I knew she’d be here.) Benarda somewhere behind the scenes, ordering someone else to do something, it was unclear what. The woman’s best chances of keeping her gallery further intact had just walked out the door in order to stand down the crowd, which had grown from the few dozen that had been here when she and Bella had first arrived, immediately after the now-absent Duke’s speech

This is what a riot smelled like: smoke and sweat and alcohol and all the mingled pomades and perfumes – who was still wearing vetiver, that went out last season? And what was that intriguing cinnamon and musk blend, was that an actual edge of rum in it or some remnant of the punch?

That was what a riot felt like: Leona’s small fingers in Adelina’s own, Bella’s tiny cousin and the center of all this clamor breathing hard, the gasps and gulps of air she took in when stressed.

Adelina’s own pulse beat fists against the hollow of her throat, pressed tight fingers behind her brows every time the streetlight struck her eyes, hammered at the pit of her belly, unnerving her.

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Submerging, And Other Random Thoughts about Novelspinning

Picture of roses

Found in a Seattle alley. They smelled like grandmothers and summer.

One of the questions I’ve been asked several times and never known how to answer before is “How is writing a novel different than writing a short story?” The smart-ass answer is, of course, a novel is longer, but it’s more than that, more a question of the complexity that a greater length affords you, an ability to move in four dimensions rather than just three.

A short story is smaller, flatter, closer to two-dimensional, while a novel has at least four dimensions and probably much more than that. Things interconnect in a short story, but in a novel those interconnections become even more important, indeed are their own kind of building block. In a novel, things reflect, are doubled, made more complicated, imbued with meaning. So what’s the difference beyond that? For me, it’s what’s required in the writing, in getting enough of the book in my head to be able to figure out where it’s going next.

How does one achieve that? The answer that’s emerged for me is submersion. There needs to be — at least for me — a period where I’m focused on the writing to the exclusion of anything and everything else. To go to sleep with my words echoing in my head, to wake with dreams lingering in which pieces of the story have been predicted or deciphered. To not be watching television or playing videogames, which fills up my head with pop culture crap (I do not decry it in its place, simply claim that for a writer, too much can be detrimental.)

To work at novel length — at any length, really, though — is a willingness to let your unconscious wander and then capitalize in the rewrite on the wonderful things that process has revealed. You can’t hold a novel in your head the way you can contain a story, seeing it as a complete entity. Instead you exist within it, seeing outward, creating a hollow space in which the reader can live while experiencing the funhouse ride you have constructed.

I start with a roadmap that tells me the basic arc, but every few chapters I have to recalculate and check that map, and make sure no necessary sidetrips have presented themselves (or need to be dropped from the itinerary). I know by now, having completed five of these things, that I can reach the end. I just don’t know exactly how much gas it’ll take or what the terrain will present me with. That’s half the joy and most of the terror of this enterprise.

I don’t want to discount writers with a more straightforward plotting process — mileage will always, inevitably, vary and anyone who claims to have found the One True Way for anyone other than themself is full of hooey. Here’s a truth: all that matters is that you write. That you produce words of fiction rather than words about the art of fiction writing or the state of the world or the publishing industry or any of the ways in which the world has wronged you (a fascinating topic to you, but few others). This is not to say that critique and revision are not important as well, but simply that for either to take place, the act of creation must have preceded it.

I’m counting down the days till July because I’m taking a month and a half for submerging myself, heading off to housesit for a friend in another state. It’s what both my waking and unconscious mind are telling me to do in order to finish up this book and get a running start on the next, Exiles of Tabat. To dive deep into the roots of the story and blunder around, colliding with those hidden pillars, overgrown with metaphor and symbology, so semiotically-shagged that you must reach out for them with something like a special bat-sense, akin to sonar, because otherwise you’re just a blind man, holding onto an elephant’s tail and gravely expounding on how like a snake an elephant truly is.

Those pillars inform everything because they hold it all up. A story is just a story, a spaceship just a spaceship… but that’s not true at all, is it? In a novel, a spaceship’s cargo hold is packed tight with meaning: exploration, escape, the forces of technology, even fripperies like references to other fictional spaceships or science.

Things in books are more than just things, because even when we’re reading “just for entertainment,” there’s a level on which they show us what is and isn’t okay for humans to do. Everything is political in that it works to normalize (or mark as abnormal) what’s presented in it. A book with a protagonist preaching libertarian values or fondling her gun is just as political as any other viewpoint and to pretend such stories are not political is disingenuous or ignorant at best and outright dishonest at its worst.

But I digress, because I don’t want to talk about opinions of art, but rather what I can say about its creation. I’ll have wireless, so I’ll be teaching some classes, and there’s a few other things to do, but mainly I’m just going to write and write and see what I can get done. The book for sure, and a handful of stories that I’ve promised people, and at least an outline for Exiles. I am extremely lucky to have a spouse who doesn’t mind my heading off to hole up, as well as the economic circumstances to do this, and I am going to make the most of it, particularly in the post-Nebulas lull, because I’m itching to get the second book out there and see what people think, because it’s a weird structure, and man, the people who didn’t like the cliffhanger in the last are not going to be happy with this one.

Life’s been contentious lately, at least in the overall climate. If you want to feel happier, go do something nice for someone else. Give someone a kind word or a smile. And wish me luck, because today’s got a series of downers in it – but they are all quite survivable and July is coming soon.

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Catching Up, Plus Nebulas Report and Sundry Advice for New Nebula-Goers

cat Rambo and Nick Offerman

At the Nebula banquet, with Nick Offerman. Photo by Bud Sparhawk.

Okay, holy cow, the Nebulas were a blast but also a giddy whirl. Here’s some highlights. (Sundry advice piece #1: It’s good to do these, not just because it makes you remember some of the things you should be following through on, but because it lets you acknowledge some folks and maybe build some ties.)

Starting the Nebula Weekend Off, or Friday Begins on Wednesday

Wednesday I flew in and lucked out: Kate Baker, SFWA’s awesome Operations Director, and I arrived around the same time, so we shared a taxi in. That was an experience in and of itself — the driver driving on the shoulder of the road, more than once, while Tagore songs blasted us and we shouted conversation over the roar of the wind through the window I couldn’t roll up. We arrived at the Palmer House unscathed.

Thursday I spent the day in the SFWA board meeting. We have board meetings face to face twice a year as well as the ongoing session on the discussion boards and assorted video calls. The board meetings are a nice chance to talk out stuff quickly, so we covered a wide range of things. I have a certain impatience with meetings engrained from years in academia and the corporate world, but Kate Baker had arranged to have enough coffee and food there to sustain us, and there are definitely worse people to be stuck in a room all day with. 😉
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Guest Post from Halsted M. Bernard: Critiques, Counts, and Quests: Motivational Tools for Writers

ConversationsWhen I first became aware of BIC-HOK a few years ago, it enthralled me. I love a good acronym, and doubly so one that promises to whisper the secret to being a writer right into my eager ear.

Butt in chair, hands on keyboard became more than an acronym for me. It became a mantra. Show up, and the rest will take care of itself. My butt was in the chair, and my hands were on the keyboard. And I was writing, cranking out crappy first drafts, and feeling less like a writer with every one.

Motivation, as it happens, is beautifully and frustratingly subjective. Some of us are motivated by the simplicity of showing up every day. Some of us need a little external nudge from time to time. If you are in the latter group, I have some secrets to whisper to you.

Although writing is generally a solo endeavour, the power of a good writing group is not to be underestimated. Like-minded, similarly-driven individuals can help you hold yourself accountable for all those stories you say you’re going to write someday. And once you’ve written the stories, a good writing group can provide you with the constructive criticism that you will need to improve them. Groups that meet regularly and stick to a specific critique format are particularly useful because they provide structure for those of us who need that sort of external impetus to produce workable drafts. I found my first writing group on Craigslist, but if your time is limited or your locale is remote, you might prefer to join a virtual group like instead.

If you are intrigued by the power of group accountability, I have a magic spreadsheet to show you. No, really! It’s called the Magic Spreadsheet and it is an ingenious invention. Log your daily word count in the spreadsheet and it automatically gives you points for making your quota, going over your quota, and maintaining a writing streak. When your points add up, your level increases and so does your word count quota, so it never gets too easy. And if you relish a bit of competition, you can check out the leaderboard sheet to see how your counts stack up with the other writers who are participating. If you think this tool might help to motivate you, you can find more information in the Google+ community or the Facebook group.

Wrangling spreadsheets, even magic ones, might not sound all that thrilling to you. If you’d rather picture yourself slaying the dragons of procrastination with a magical morning-star, I’d encourage you to check out HabitRPG. HabitRPG is an open-source habit-building app that is structured like a role-playing game. It enforces good habits by awarding you XP and gold, and can be used to manage your to-do list as well. There are many groups, or guilds, in HabitRPG that are devoted to writing communities. These guilds create challenges for their members (like meeting a daily word quota) and also provide space to chat in real time with other writers. If you prefer to quest solo, you can use HabitRPG as your own, lone fantasy metaphor for all those real-life bits and bobs you have been procrastinating, including but not limited to your writing.

Remember, tools to spark writerly motivation can be helpful, but anything that detracts from actual BIC-HOK should be considered cat hoovering: any excuse to avoid writing, even vacuuming the cat.

BIO: Halsted M. Bernard obsessively archives the present, but cannot stop thinking about the world after this one. She lives in Edinburgh with her husband, two cats, a few gadgets, several fountain pens, and many books. Find her online at

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Being Epic

I’m getting ready to head off to the Nebulas in about an hour. Ten years ago at this time, I was getting ready to go off to Clarion West for six weeks. I’d quit my job at Microsoft and my husband had agreed to shoulder the mortgage solo for a while so I could follow my dream.

Now it’s a decade later. A lot of stuff has happened. I’ve had some stories published. I got to read in New York at the KGB bar with Chip Delany. I got nominated for awards a few times. I edited some cool stuff. I ran for Vice President of SFWA and won, and now I’m coming up on being President. And I published a novel.

And now that novel is here in a big wonderful bundle of fantasy, curated by Kevin J. Anderson. Here’s a picture of all that epic goodness:


StoryBundle lets you adjust your own price to get a whole bunch of epic and excellent titles. A minimum bid of $5 gets you the basic set of six books: The Magic Touch, by Jody Lynn Nye; Gamearth, by Kevin J. Anderson, The Crown and the Dragon, by John Payne, One Horn to Rule Them All, edited by Lisa Mangum, Invisible Moon, by James A. Owen, and Beasts of Tabat. Make that $15 and it includes A Stranger to Command, by Sherwood Smith, Hard Times in Dragon City, by Matt Forbeck, The Alchemist, by Paolo Baciagalupi, The Executioness, by Tobias Buckell, The Ghosts of the Conquered, by Matthew Caine, and Glamour of the God-Touched, by Ron Collins. There’s also a bonus story by Kevin J. Anderson and Neil Peart from Rush, “The Bookseller’s tale.”

Want it? I’ve got five bundles to give away and I’m trying to a Rafflecopter giveaway. Spread the word and you can win!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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The SF That Was: Isaac Asimov Introduces Anne McCaffrey

dragonsingerOne of the things I’ve been trying to do in recent years is look more at the history of the field. In the thrift store, I love finding F&SF anthologies from the 60s and 70s, in part because it’s interesting to see which names kept on going, which faded away. Often the most riveting story in a collection is from a writer whose name I’ll only see that once. In reading anthologies, I find that often one of the most revelatory parts is the introduction, less for anything said about the stories than for clues to the publishing climate at the time.

Recently in the thrift shop, I picked up a couple of paperbacks: two volumes worth of early Hugo winners, edited by Isaac Asimov. Of course I bought them. How could I not, in light of recent controversies? They’ve been an interesting read – particularly when I’m reading the first Nebula volume at the same time — and sometimes illuminating. If you’d like to read the book I pulled these from, it is More Stories From the Hugo Winners Vol II, published in 1971.

I certainly have realized that despite my admiration for Asimov’s work, the good doctor and I would probably have not gotten along particularly well — at least from my point of view. Every intro to a story seems much more about Asimov than either story or writer, in an egocentric way that seems a little charming but I’m betting was pretty grating to be around at times. (I by no means claim that Asimov is the only SF writer to exhibit this trait.) But Mr. Asimov is not here to defend himself and was very much a product of his time, so I’ll leave it at that.

Because I found it striking, this is taken from his introduction to Anne McCaffrey’s “Weyr Search”. It’s a glimpse into the social mores of that time (the early 70s) that’s interesting. I have refrained from adding any inline commentary. As you read, you may admire my restraint in that.
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Guest Post from Karen Heuler: Let’s Be Brutally Honest Here

Photograph of Karen HeulerSo, how many people have you killed?

I mean, characters.

And how long have you been doing it?

I have to confess: It was hard for me to kill my first character, but after that it got easier. I actually stopped noticing how many there were or who they were.

I occasionally killed a major character, at the end, but even before I got to the end it was possible for me to kill minor characters as if they were placemats. I even people killed people I wanted readers to love. If it bumped up the plot, I was all for it.

And then I suddenly realized that I had gotten used to killing characters. I was killing them without remorse.

How many, I wondered, had I killed?

Ah. I didn’t want to go back and count. It was like going back and counting calories after an expensive dinner out. Why ruin it?

More than ten? Of course. Hundreds? Possible. Thousands?

Well, actually, even more than that. Like a great many writers these days, I’d killed off a proportion of the planet for an apocalypse that caught my fancy. It was a particularly lovely apocalypse. It would make a wonderful, visual, stunning movie. Not your usual, squishy, guns and guts and screams and hands-smashing-through-glass kind of movie, either. A grand and glorious apocalypse with lots of people dying in a very artistic way.

See? Even now I’m proud of it.

I remember being outraged by how easily Orson Scott Card got Ender to destroy a whole civilization and then absolved him of responsibility. Nope. Own up, Ender! Responsibility exists!

And yet.

And yet, I kill people.

How long will it go on? Will I ever grow tired of it? Will I switch to stories where no one dies; where, in fact, people fall in love and have babies? They could be strange new babies; I could, conceivably, do that.

Because even though I feel no guilt, I feel that I should feel guilt. It somehow isn’t right to say these weren’t really people and I didn’t “really” kill them.

Besides, I’m sure that the idea of killing is not a slippery slope. It isn’t, is it?

Just because I can write about it so easily doesn’t mean I’d ever actually do it, right?


Bio: Karen Heuler’s stories appear in literary, fantasy, and science fiction magazines regularly. Her 2014 novel, Glorious Plague, was about a strangely beautiful apocalypse, and her second story collection, The Inner City, was chosen as one of the best books of 2013 by Publishers Weekly. She lives in New York City, where murder never happens and rents are extremely low.

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Guest Post from Luna Linsdsey: Putting the Mind Sciences in Science Fiction

Google's predictive powers cause this question to answer itself.

Google’s predictive powers cause this question to answer itself.

Hard science fiction tells stories based on the hardest of hard sciences, particularly on the engineering and technological application of these sciences. If a story doesn’t have space ships, terraforming, anti-grav, robots, or semi-accurate descriptions of planetary orbits and atmospheres, it cannot join the elite ranks of hard SF.

Any story which dips overly much into issues of society, culture, or what it means to be human, is often tagged as soft science fiction. Even cyberpunk, a high-tech genre, is usually considered soft, because of its thematic commentary on the fallen state of mankind.

The implication is that hard SF is somehow “better”, just as the hard sciences are “better”. Physics is a hard science. Psychology is not. Psychology is assumed to be flimsy, weak, inaccurate, and easy. “Soft.” Therefore, SF that deals with it is equally easy.

This division seems a little unfair, because to me the “soft” sciences are arguably far more complex than hard sciences. Physics and chemistry picked up the low-hanging fruit of empirical discovery, those aspects of our universe that could easily be discovered by looking through a microscope, telescope, or mass spectrometer. But understanding the interplay of synaptic pathways? That takes advanced tools like fMRIs and scanning electron microscopes, which have only recently been invented.

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Guest Post from Anne Leonard: Writing “Strong Female Characters” in a Patriarchal Secondary World Fantasy

Cover of Dorothy Dunnett's book CheckmateIn Dorothy Dunnett’s sixth book, Checkmate, we get this passage:

She had been led into behaving like a female. And she was being dismissed as a female. But she had charge of his good name, although he might not know it; and she had work to do, although, like a fool she had lost sight of it.

Here we see the character of Philippa Somerville in all her complexity: determined, strong, imperfect, aware of her role in her culture and refusing to be limited by it. Philippa is a prime example of the “strong female character” existing in a patriarchal world, and although the novel is historical rather than fantasy, it and its companions have a lot to teach about writing strong women without giving up the conventions of a patriarchal social structure.

Yes, this is another post about writing “strong female characters.” I am coming to this issue from the position of someone who likes traditional epic fantasy with pseudo-medieval (or at least pre-industrial) cultures. This is my comfort read, and it is what I like to write. This is partly because that was what I grew up on, partly because I’m enough of a romantic to still have a soft spot for heroes, and partly because I like to interrogate that social structure. For me, interesting female characters are the ones who have to face social oppression – the same social oppression I do – and who fight against it within the limitations of their own beliefs about their roles. Feminist fantasy with matriarchal or egalitarian societies isn’t as interesting to me as a writer because it avoids the very problems I want to get my teeth into – what is a woman to do when oppressed? What if she doesn’t know she’s oppressed?


One of the problems faced by fantasy writers who consider themselves feminist but like to write about secondary worlds based on historically patriarchal cultures is the disconnect between the oppressive culture and the strength of the female characters. This disconnect is why people tend to fall into the assumption that a strong female character has to be a Brienne of Tarth, acting like a man.

That assumption leads to the argument that a strong female character is not historically accurate. Under this logic, because there aren’t lots of historical episodes of women going around acting like epic heroes, there’s no need for a strong female character in epic fantasy. Aside from the silliness of saying fantasy has to be historically accurate, the problem with this argument is that there are lots of different kinds of strong women in history. What makes a woman a strong character is not her physical prowess (though it could be); it’s her agency. The character’s agency is where the clash between oppression and strength is negotiated.

Consider The Handmaid’s Tale; most of Offred’s narrative is describing how she is being subjugated in Gilead and remembering what it was like before. She’s not fighting back or leading a revolution. No one would say she’s not a strong female character, though, because she has voice, feelings, thoughts, memories, and choices. Her agency is internal, in how she responds to the situation in which she is caught. (And if you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale, why not? Go read it!) Even if the character accepts the stereotypically gendered roles of her culture, she has to make decisions, and these decisions have to have consequences. This is almost a basic rule of writing, regardless of the character. Something needs to be at stake to move her story forward.


Some of the best examples of dealing with the disconnect between a patriarchal power structure and a strong female character are historical novels about real women with real power. The Lymond Chronicles (6 books, beginning with The Game of Kings) by Dorothy Dunnett are far and away my favorites.

Set in Scotland, England, France, Turkey, Russia, and some other places during the period between Henry VIII’s death and Elizabeth I’s accession to the crown, Dunnett’s books are amazing for their historical detail, storytelling, intelligence, and characters. In the fourth book, Pawn in Frankincense, Dunnett writes one of the most devastating scenes that I have ever read, leaving George R.R. Martin looking cuddly by comparison. (The books can be read individually, but the reading experience will be much richer taking them in sequence.)

The women’s stories include the growth of Philippa Somerville, a gentleman farmer’s daughter, from child to adult; the consequences of a love affair 30 years past; estrangement between a mother and her son; the unhappiness of a young merchant woman who despise herself and the people around her; and a woman who endures abuse because of her devotion to the cause of an independent Ireland. One woman is a courtesan who has considerable power over powerful men. Several women are queens or courtiers. These books show how women with power wield it (the mother of Mary Queen of Scots is described as having “the thick oils of statesmanship” oozing through her veins), and they also present women who don’t necessarily have political or legal power but have power of personality and rich, complicated lives.

Significantly, the women are not all likeable. (Nor are the male characters, for that matter.) Mary Tudor comes off as rather pathetic, Margaret Douglas is scheming and power-mad, the Dame de Doubtance is a creepy astrologer without a shred of empathy. The younger Philippa is at times frustrating to read because she is absolutist who makes some bad decisions with significant consequences. The strong female character doesn’t have to be the heroine. She doesn’t have to be perfect. But she does have agency, and her choices matter.

These women also aren’t the sixteenth century equivalent of suffragettes or bra-burners. They don’t question the sexual double standard, they don’t don armor and go to battle, they don’t talk about being oppressed or fight overtly against it. (And yes, in one sense it’s kind of absurd to talk about a queen being oppressed – but on the other hand, it’s quite clear that no one is very comfortable with power lying in a woman.) While some of them engage in activities that don’t fit our idea of what women did in the sixteenth century, that’s only a part of them. They are living full and complex lives within the patriarchal society, rather than rebelling. A strong female character can, like Philippa, be aware of being “led into behaving like a female” and put that behind her without questioning her internalized conception of being a female. A strong female character is something feminist readers want, but the character doesn’t have to be a feminist to fit the bill.

Dunnett is not the only writer of historical fiction with strong and interesting female characters. Here are a few recent other books which should satisfy anyone looking for “historical accuracy” in trying to decide what role women should play in epic fantasy:

Cover of "Hild" by Nicola GriiffithHild, by Nicola Griffith. This is based upon the life of the woman who became St. Hilda of Whitby. Set in 7th century Britain, the book is thick with historical and physical detail. It presents the life of women who are family of the Anglo-Saxon kings, including slaves and women of lower rank. Hild is a mystic who both does women’s domestic tasks and leads men in battle. She is bisexual; she is listened to by men but is forced into a marriage; she has complicated relationships with the people around her.

shadowonthecrowncoverShadow on the Crown and The Price of Blood, by Patricia Bracewell. These two books are about Emma of Normandy, who in 1002 was married as a teenager to AEthelred the Unready and became a queen of England. In many ways Emma does not have power compared to the men around her, but she fights for what she can get and she uses it. She is a survivor — she was a Queen of England for over 30 years, to two different kings.

Theodora – Empress, Actress, Whore and The Purple Shroud, by Stella Duffy. These two books chronicle the life of Theodora from her childhood as a sex slave to her death as the Empress of Byzantium in 548. The title The Purple Shroud refers to a speech made by Theodora which is said to have inspired Justinian to put down a revolt rather than to flee Constantinople. Theodora is an interesting character because of how she rises through the social ranks and because of her forceful personality.

wolfhallcoverWolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. Although these books are largely the story of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VIII, they include as characters Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, and Cromwell’s wife and sister. They depict the ways women interact with powerful men. The relationship between Cromwell and his wife Liz is nicely drawn, and Liz, like Dunnett’s Philippa Somerville, is a good example of a woman on the fringes of political power who has her own agency.

Sharon Kay Penman has written too many historical novels about English royal families for me to list here, but her first, The Sunne in Splendour, is notable for its portrayal of Anne Neville, wife of Richard III, which is almost 180 degrees from Shakespeare’s portrayal of the same. Edward IV’s wife Elizabeth Woodville is also a strong – and unlikeable – character. Penman’s novel When Christ and His Saints Slept is about Matilda of England (Empress Maude) and her war to gain the English crown in the early to mid 12th century.

In sum, the writer of epic fantasy can keep full-blown patriarchal power structures and ideologies as part of the world-building. But history is rife with stories about women in such worlds who also have power, agency, and complex lives. Putting such characters into the epic fantasy world is only going to enrich and deepen it.

Bio: Anne Leonard has been writing fantasy and other fiction since she was fourteen and finally, after a career with as many detours as Odysseus, published her first novel, Moth and Spark, in 2014. She has a lot of letters after her name that are useful when trying to impress someone. She lives in Northern California. Her website is She can be found on Twitter at @anneleonardauth and on Facebook at

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