Award-winning author
Unusual times, remarkable places

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

28 October 2008

Evoking a sense of wonder

The tie that binds together speculative fiction—uniting the disparate genres of fantasy, science fiction, horror, alternate history, myth, and, I would argue, often historical fiction—the golden fairy dust that transforms even run-of-the-mill prose into words of magic, a gateway to a new world, or a new way of seeing, is a sense of wonder.

None of my writing books contains the recipe for this fairy dust.

There are worksheets aplenty for creating characters, plots, conflicts, and other basic elements of novels, but I’ve yet to see one for creating a sense of wonder. Earlier in this blog, I discussed what makes a legend in my posts on Gilgamesh, John Henry, Black Bart the pirate, and El Cid (see Today I propose a list of elements (some of which overlap) that contribute to the reader’s sense of wonder.

Juxtaposition of the familiar and unfamiliar

“A vampire shouldn’t be afraid of the dark, he told himself. Yet the short walk from where a cab had let him off on Metairie Road through these gloomy woods, barely lit by a weak moon, had seriously creeped him out. He wished he’d worn a shawl. His lightweight linen dress and lace hosiery were fine for the Quarter, but here they left him feeling chilled. And the heels of his pumps sank into the gravel, nearly causing him to twist an ankle several times.”
—Andrew Fox, Bride of the Fat White Vampire (horror)

“The wargs chased the elf over Pittsburgh Scrap and Salvage’s tall chain-link fence shortly after the hyperphase gate powered down.”
—Wen Spencer, Tinker (fantasy)


“Surpassing all kings, powerful and tall beyond all others, violent, splendid, a wild bull of a man, unvanquished leader, hero in the front lines, beloved by soldiers—fortress they called him, protector of the people, raging flood that destroys all defenses—two-thirds divine and one-third human, . . .”
—Stephen Mitchell, editor, Gilgamesh (myth)

Appeal to the primitive part of the psyche that believes in magic

“Carrying the white crystal in her hand, Raeshaldis crossed the Court of the Novices through luminous blue darkness, climbed the rock-cut stairs still higher up the bluff. Well above the rest of the Citadel, she came into the Circle, the open space in which the rites of the Summoning of Rain were worked each spring.”
—Barbara Hambly, Circle of the Moon (fantasy)

Evocative or mood-altering language that conjures a different time or place

“Any human life lies in the future as well as in the past, of however short duration that future may prove to be; the two are hinged together like a door that swings, and that swinging is the present moment.”

“The ceiling was of wood, the work of Saracen carvers, very delicately fretted, with painted stars between the bosses. There was a thin band of Greek scrollwork in marble, running all round the walls, a frieze of tendrils and fronds.”

“It has been with me from my early days, this sense of a crossing point between man and God that can lie in the work of hands. And on that April morning, still, the touch of heaven was the touch of my King, whose power was celebrated in that wood and that stone. My trance of mind was wonder at Gold’s power and the King’s; the voices around me still sounded, now loud, now soft, but the voice I heard was that unwavering one of majesty.”
—all three examples from Barry Unsworth, The Ruby in her Navel (historical fiction)

Appeal to the belief that there are wonders in the world yet to be discovered

“The tendon at the base of Kargen’s war-spike ached. He flattened the heavy quills that armored his back and sides, and stepped out of the tree to drop quietly toward the earth. Falling, his thoughts were on the weak, and on how they must be eliminated if his people were to survive.”
—Charles Gramlich, Cold in the Light (horror)

“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto”

“Henna was thirteen when she was gleefully married off to the eldest son of one of the best families in Calcutta, and her marriage was achieved by an audacious network of lies as elaborate and brazen as the golden embroidery on her scarlet wedding sari.”
—Roopa Farooki, Bitter Sweets: A Novel (contemporary fiction)

“Sister glared at Na-tanh, Corn Flower, sprawled on his stomach in a curdled puddle of half-digested beans and bad booze. If she put the chile powder into his breechclout now, he probably wouldn’t even notice it. He looked dead, but he snored like a bear. He had made himself stupid with pulque, a brew that smelled worse than old moccasins.”
—Lucia St. Clair Robson, Ghost Warrior (historical fiction)

A place whose rules are unknown, either to the reader or to the character

“Papa was dead, and they had to move to the country when Mama’s year of mourning was up. Now that Papa was dead, Mama said, they didn’t own the house any longer. It seemed strange that someone they had never met could own a house that had always been theirs.”
—Caroline Roe, A Potion for a Widow (historical mystery)

“Among the Blood, males were meant to serve, not to rule. He had never challenged that, despite the number of witches he’d killed over the centuries. He had killed them because it was an insult to serve them, because he was an Eyrien Warlord Prince who wore Ebon-gray Jewels and refused to believe that serving and groveling meant the same thing.”
—Anne Bishop, Daughter of the Blood (fantasy)

“He had never seen human food, he didn’t know what to do. Then Shamhat said, ‘Go ahead, Enkidu. This is food, we humans eat and drink this.’ Warily he tasted the bread. Then he ate a piece, he ate a whole loaf, then ate another, he ate until he was full, drank seven pitchers of the beer. . . .”
—Stephen Mitchell, editor, Gilgamesh (myth)

The road not taken

“Some of the silver and copper coins he set on the counter bore the images of Isabella and Albert, others—the older, more worn, ones—that of the deposed Elizabeth, who still languished in the Tower of London, only a furlong or so from where Shakespeare stood.”
—Harry Turtledove, Ruled Britannia (alternative history)

Extrapolation from today into the future

“From Mahout Station he took a bus. Fuel-cell powered, electric-engine drive, it contributed no emissions to befoul the already dangerously polluted urban air. Sanjay was able to breathe freely as he stepped off, however. It was nearing the end of the monsoon season, and recent rains had washed the atmosphere above the city blissfully free of contaminants. If the climate was kind, he would not have to wear his face mask for another month or two.”
—Alan Dean Foster, Sagramanda: A Novel of Near-Future India (science fiction)

The “wow!” factor: gadgets, gizmos, magic, surprises, and other cool stuff

“The day war was declared, a rain of telephones fell clattering to the cobblestones from the skies above Novy Petrograd.”
—Charles Stross, Singularity Sky (science fiction)

“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”
—John Scalzi, Old Man’s War (science fiction)

“Krebs winced when Fluff, or maybe it was Puff, looked up at him. Its ears stood straight up and drool slid down over its teeth, dripping onto the hardwood floor. “If they leave any bunny slipper turds around you have to clean them up.”
—Linda Wisdom, 50 Ways to Hex Your Lover (romance)

Description that hones in on the alien, the strange, the exotic, the extraordinary
See every example above

I’m curious: Do you agree? Would you add other factors or subtract some of mine from the list? Do you have any techniques for adding wonder to your writing?

22 October 2008

My Town Wednesday: Santa Ana winds

“My Town Monday” is the brainchild of Travis Erwin at One Word, One Rung, One Day. The goal is to introduce one's blog readers to what’s special about the place where one lives.

Imagine a snowstorm in Chicago in the dead of winter, but take out the cold and snow.

Imagine a tropical storm in New Orleans, but take out the rain and humidity.

What you have left is the Santa Ana winds—hot, dry, howling winds that blast Southern California in fall and winter, knocking down trees, ripping roofs off buildings, flipping over trucks, and drying out the already arid region. The winds, thick with desert dust, make breathing difficult and coat homes inside and out with a brown film.

During the Santa Ana winds, fire looms as a major threat, particularly in October. The winds dry out vegetation, making it catch fire more easily. Once a fire starts, the fierce winds feed oxygen to the fire and enlarge it, and they also help it spread by blowing sparks to new spots. The result can be acres and acres of devastation, lost forests, and hundreds of people left homeless.

A Santa Ana wind starts in the deserts of Nevada and Utah when the weather is cool and the air pressure high. The high-pressure system pushes air southward and downward toward Los Angeles. As the air goes downhill, it compresses and heats up. Meanwhile, its humidity level drops, and the dry air sucks moisture from plants and bare skin.

To make matters worse, the wind’s voyage takes it through canyons and between mountains, constricting it and making it race at average speeds above 30 or 40 miles per hour.

Each episode of Santa Ana winds lasts only a few days. Fog sometimes follows.

“Santa Ana” is Spanish for “Saint Anne.” The early settlers did not blame the winds on the saint, who, according to Wikipedia, has a broad patronage that includes carpenters, childless people, equestrians, grandparents, homemakers and housewives, lace makers, people moving to new homes, old-clothes dealers, seamstresses, and stablemen, among others. Rather, the winds may be named after one of the places they hit, the Santa Ana Canyon in Orange County.

Other theories for the name abound, however. Because the winds are also called the Santana winds, some people argue that the name means “devil’s winds.” In Spanish, Satanás is one of the words for “Satan.”


Next week’s topic: evoking a sense of wonder in your writing

15 October 2008

Whack-A-Mole Writer

Whack! I finish a draft of my book. Hooray! Uh, oh. Up pops a deadline for a proposal.

Whack! I get an ophthalmologist appointment out of the way. Hooray! Uh, oh. Up pops three follow-up eye appointments and a prescription to take to the pharmacy.

Whack! I clear enough work from my schedule that I can spend my weekend on chores. Hooray! Uh, oh. Up pops a cold that immobilizes me for both days.

I wish that, like the kids’ game, there were only four moles in my Whac-A-Mole life. But instead, the moles seem limitless. Anything I shove into my tight schedule pops something else out. Now that I work on my fiction every weekday, moles are flying everywhere.

Exercise? I think it landed behind the couch.

Hobbies? Duck! Some chores just went flying.

Reading about the craft of writing? Only at the expense of actual writing and chores my husband wishes I would do.

Reading in my genre to stay abreast of trends? In doctors’ waiting rooms and just before bed when I’m too tired to do anything else.

Reading for fun? I look forward to getting so sick that I can’t do anything more strenuous than hold a book.

Does anyone else lead a Whac-A-Mole life? Anybody have any hints for stuffing more moles into a 24-hour box?

08 October 2008

My Town Wednesday: Stuff in my yard


“My Town Monday” is the brainchild of Travis Erwin at One Word, One Rung, One Day. The goal is to introduce one's blog readers to what’s special about the place where one lives.

Because this is a busy week, instead of writing a blog post, I'll share some photos of roses in my yard with you.

Roses grew well in humid New Orleans, so I expected to have a hard time with them in the Southern California desert. Instead, here in Riverside roses grow even better than in New Orleans, as long as one remembers to water them. (Yes, I did lose a few rose plants at first.)

Because the Santa Ana winds blew away most of my plant tags and because the yard already had several rose bushes, I only know the identities of a few of these roses. If anyone can identify any others, please let me know what they are.

Souvenir de la Malmaison (Bourbon, 1843)

Mr. Lincoln (Hybrid Tea, 1964)

Anonymous roses


Contest update

The winner of the Jade Lee book give-away is Scott Hall of Blog of the Beast. Congratulations, Scott, and thank you, everyone who entered.

01 October 2008

Interview—and book give-away—with award-winning romance writer Jade Lee

Jade Lee's newest historical romance novel, The Dragon Earl (Leisure Books, Dorchester), is a Regency with a twist: The hero was stranded in China as a boy and has trained to be a Buddhist monk. The heroine meets him when he interrupts her wedding, claiming to be the earl she is supposed to be marrying. Earlier this year, Jade published Dragonborn (Love Spell), the first in a new paranormal romance series, and The Tao of Sex (Harlequin Blaze). Her first books were published under the name Katherine Greyle.

Welcome to my blog, Jade, congratulations on your recent books and new series. Thank you also for giving away a book to one of my blog readers.

In 2003, when you decided to reinvent yourself as Jade Lee, what were your goals?

Goals? Are we supposed to have goals? Actually, I just wanted to write something very sexy just to see if I could. Devil's Bargain was about the steamy, sexy underbelly of Regency England. It's a training of a courtesan book, and I just loved writing it. My editor loved the book, but worried that fans of Katherine Greyle (light, funny regencies à la Julia Quinn) would be shocked and horrified by the shift to dark sensuality. So . . . a new pen name.

And, btw, anyone looking to find a pen name: Google it first! Yeah, Google wasn't so big when I started Jade Lee, so I forgot to check on the Internet for it. Jade Lee is the name of a very big porn star. No lie. That's why my Website is

Most of your recent books take place in China or have a character from China. Did you need to persuade your editor to let you set a book outside the traditional historical romance locales?

Actually, I never intended to leave Regency England. Love it there (and am very glad to return in The Dragon Earl). But my editor heard me talking about my grandmother's funeral in Hong Kong. It was a bizarre experience because of some of the wacky traditions my senile grandmother wanted (such as forty-nine days of crying and an auspicious burial date . . . which was three weeks away . . . in August . . . in Hong Kong. Hard to keep a body on ice that long!). Anyway, Chris Keeslar (editor extraordinaire) wanted me to explore writing in a Chinese setting. I was resistant. I'm both Chinese and American (Indiana Hoosier, on my father's side). In my mindset from childhood, Americans stood up and were counted; Chinese girls sat down, stayed silent, and looked pretty. I failed on all three Chinese counts, so why would I want to explore that repressive, horrible society?

Turns out, my Chinese heritage is so much more interesting than I ever imagined. And that whole repressive aspect actually made the exploration of sensuality with the Tigresses all that more interesting. I just had to try! Push past my comfort zone. Talk to my mother! So, the Tigress series was born. And then it turns out that there's a lot more to explore. Go figure! Someone should have told me that China has a vast and diverse history! Oh, wait, maybe my mother did . . . .

With The Dragon Earl, you return to the Regency romances you wrote as Katherine Greyle. Was that because you missed writing about England or for some other reason?

I missed England and the Regency. Plus, the Tigresses had run their course. I was looking for something new. But I got to bring Chinese martial arts into the Regency, so yippee!

Your Tigress series of historical romances explores the Dragon-Tigress religious sect in old China. Could you explain briefly what this sect is and why it fascinates you?

Because tantrics are fun! The Tigress sect actually exists. There's even a temple now in California. The following is a huge simplification, but here goes:

All Buddhists are looking to elevate their spirits to merge with the Great One (my name for it, btw). Traditional Buddhists do this by living pure lives, dropping away the yuck, and hoping to elevate their spirit through meditation. The fighting Buddhists use the discipline of martial arts to help elevate their spirit. The tantrics (and tigresses/dragons) use the excitement of sex to elevate their spirit.

Cool, huh? Now put what we might call a sex cult into that repressive Chinese society, and you've got a ripe field for conflict. Also remember that even well past the Victorian age, many Chinese people were taught that the whites were a kind of monkey. They didn't even realize the whites had names for "father," "mother," "sister," or "brother" because monkey colonies appear to be big communes. So . . . imagine the fun of having a white woman convince a Chinese man that she is more than a monkey. She's actually his equal! And that doesn't even begin to address the prejudices on the English side regarding the Chinese. All this gave me a very rich field in which to play!

Most of your books have required substantial research. Were you able to research your Tigress books here, or did you need to go to China? Do you have any suggestions for efficient research?

I've been to China many times, so I didn't need to go again. And I had my mother right here in the US to ask questions about Shanghai. She grew up there. But, of course, she didn't know about the tigress cult, so that I had to research. In fact, the whole concept came when I was wandering through a museum bookstore. Hsi Lai's book The Sexual Teachings of the White Tigress literally fell on my foot. I picked it up and the rest is history!

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

I have two pieces of advice for new writers:
  1. It's a marathon, not a sprint. Get a writing habit and stick to it. Eventually you will break in!
  2. How do you become a writer? Just sit down and write. Just write . . . every day.

How do you write so many books a year?

Caffeine. Plus the daily habit. Yes, daily, even weekends. There is no magic bullet except to write, to learn, and to write some more. Eventually you'll pick up techniques that speed the process, you'll learn ways to build conflict quickly and sustain it better, and your strengths will get stronger, your weaknesses fade away, and then you will be able to leap tall editor piles in a single bound!

The Dragon Earl ends with a satisfying resolution for the hero and heroine, but loose ends still dangle for a couple of the other characters. Are you planning any sequels?

Oh yes! I'll get to Christopher's story for The Dragon Earl soon! No title yet, but it's coming!

Thank you, Jade, for visiting my blog today to talk about writing and your new books.

It was great fun! Thanks for having me!

Jade may be dropping by during the day, so feel free to leave questions for her.

Now for the contest: Post a response to this blog by 11:50 pm Pacific time on Sunday, 5 October, and you will be entered to win your choice of The Dragon Earl (historical romance set in England in the Regency period) or Dragonborn (fantasy romance), courtesy of Jade Lee. Thanks, Jade!

Learn more about Jade and her books at her Website at and her blog at Her book The Dragon Earl is available at all major bookstores and can be ordered online from, Barnes & Noble, and Borders.


Great News

Carleen Brice, whom I interviewed here in March about her debut novel Orange Mint and Honey, was honored as Breakout Author of the Year at the African American Literary Awards Show. Way to go, Carleen!