Sharon Shinn is the author of nearly two dozen fantasy novels, including the bestselling Twelve Houses and Samaria series. She has won the William C. Crawford Award for Outstanding New Fantasy Writer and was twice nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.
I could make a strong argument for being Sharon Shinn’s biggest fan, so it was an absolute thrill for me to get to interview her and ask all–and I mean all–the random questions that have built up over 13 years of reading her books. We talked about everything from her writing process to Joss Whedon, plus, of course, her newest novels and what might be up next for her.
Elena: You have three books coming out this month (Quatrain, Gateway, and an inclusion in the Never After anthology), so let’s start with those.
I read that Gateway is set in an alternate-universe version of St. Louis. How alternate are we talking—and is it more SF alternate or fantasy? What was the inspiration behind the altered setting, either way?
Sharon Shinn: Pretty alternate, and straight fantasy! My heroine steps under the Arch (the “Gateway to the West”) and ends up in a city that has some geographical points in common with St. Louis, but is a completely different society. It’s a world that was settled by Asians instead of Europeans, so, since she’s Chinese, she fits right in. It was fun to find ways to connect this city, called Shenglang, with St. Louis. One example: Where St. Louis has the Cardinals baseball stadium, Shenglang has a giant aviary filled with countless varieties of red birds.
This is one of those stories I’d had in my head for years, but I didn’t know how to tell it. I knew I wanted my heroine to move from the real world to an alternate world where she would meet a charismatic man who might or might not be a villain—which is essentially the plot of Gateway. But I couldn’t figure out how to prove he was good or bad and I couldn’t figure out where to set the story. Once I decided to put it in St. Louis, suddenly the whole story became clear.
Quatrain is a collection of novellas set in worlds from other books. Which of those worlds were you the most excited to go back to? And did writing any of the stories for that collection inspire new stories for one (or more) of those worlds that you had previously thought yourself finished with?
Before I started writing, I think I was equally pleased at the thought of going back to the worlds of Gillengaria, Auburn, and Heart of Gold. I was a little nervous about returning to Samaria, because it had been a long time since I had visited it and I didn’t have a clue what story I would write there—I just knew that I wanted to include an angel novella. I knew exactly what I wanted to write for the other three stories, but it took a while to piece together the Samaria story.
As I wrote the novellas, the one I became most excited about was the one set in Heart of Gold. I simply love it. I love the two main characters and I love the story itself. And I can envision writing a complete novel about those characters—in fact, I’ve been mentally putting together the plotline. Not sure I’ll ever sit down and write it, though.
I know you have published a few short stories in anthologies. I am curious whether it’s a form you like? What about novellas (which you seem to be very comfortable writing, given that you’ve published 4 or 5 in group anthologies like the upcoming Never After, plus, of course, Quatrain)?
I don’t write many short stories, and I don’t read many either—it’s not a form I really like. I think I just tend to imagine or enjoy stories that are more sprawling and populated; short stories are much more about a single idea, a single moment. So our styles are not really compatible. 🙂 Having said that, though, I’ve been pleased with the handful of short stories I’ve published in the last few years.
On the other hand, I have come to love the novella form. At roughly 100 pages, a novella gives me time to develop characters, sketch in a world, and unfold a plot—but it also forces me to write with great efficiency, which I think is a good thing for a writer who can be as wordy as I can!
Many people will tell aspiring novelists that they can hone their skills by writing short stories, but I tend to disagree; the two forms are so different. What I’ve started recommending is that they write novellas instead. Might be harder to sell novellas, but they’ll learn a lot about putting together a story without investing the time it takes to write a full-length book.
will be your 5th young adult novel. What brought you to writing YA novels?
It never crossed my mind to write YA until I got a form from some company that publishes reference books about young adult authors (can’t remember which one). Until that point, I hadn’t given much thought to who was reading my books, but then I started paying more attention, and it was clear that a good portion of my readers were 17-year-old girls. I know that the books I read when I was a teenager have stayed with me my whole life, so I thought this was a pretty cool demographic to have.
Even so, I’m not sure I would have started writing YA if I didn’t have an idea for a story that centered around siblings who were 12, 10, and 8. I never sold the book (someday!) but it made me want to try another one in this field. I’d had the idea for The Safe-Keeper’s Secret knocking around in my head for years, but I’d never been able to figure out how to tell the story. Once I considered it as a YA book, all the pieces fell in place. And then once I wrote that book—which I did not conceive of as the opening to a trilogy—I was consumed with ideas for its sequels.
In a way, the YA books are like novellas for me—they tend to be shorter and more focused on a single idea. So I don’t have to construct a meticulous, detailed saga; I can write a story that moves quickly and has one or two powerful emotional punches.
As an aspiring writer myself, I’m always curious about other writer’s processes of creation. I read an interview where you admit to your insane (read: makes the rest of us insanely jealous) writing schedule, and attribute it to the fact that you are basically transcribing stories that have been in your head for a long time already. Can you tell me a little more about your particular process of creating a new story?
Well, if it makes you feel any better, my rate of writing has been slowing down recently! I used to be able to churn out 3,000 words a day on a pretty regular basis, but in the past couple of years, this has dropped closer to 2,000 words a day. And sometimes less…
I almost always begin with characters, and usually the idea springs from a scene between two characters that I sort of “overhear.” They’re arguing about something, they’re afraid of something, something has just happened. I then work my way backward and forward from that scene. Why are they here? Why is he mad? Why is she worried?
For instance, I had some glimmerings of the story I wanted to tell in Archangel, but the scene that was most strongly in my head was the one where Rachel wakes up under Gabriel’s wing. (There might be a few spoilers here.) Why did she think it would be a good idea to kill herself? Why was she surprised that he would want to save her? The answers to those two questions pretty much sum up the plot of the book and the tone of their relationship.
Twelve Houses books, I knew I wanted to write a series about six strong characters. So I spent a lot of time thinking about them and their personalities and their interrelationships before I wrote a word. I also had a pretty good idea of the whole story arc through the first four books, so that I could drop in clues about later books in earlier ones. For instance, I knew that Justin would have need of Senneth’s necklace in Dark Moon Defender, so I described it first in Mystic and Rider.
I’m one of those writers who pretty much has to have the whole story worked out before I start the first chapter. Otherwise I find myself stumbling through the book, not sure where I’m heading. I don’t need all the side conversations, the banter over breakfast, the flirtation at the ball, but I need to know the major plot points. And I really like it if I do know a few of those small, unimportant, intimate exchanges in advance—that greatly helps me develop the characters from the beginning. So, for example, I knew that Justin would berate Kirra for getting involved with Romar; I knew that Valri and Cammon would develop a close relationship. In Heart of Gold, I pretty much knew the entire conversation Nolan and Kit would have as they took the train into Geldricht. Having these scenes so clearly in my mind—even though they’re not major turning points in the plot—helps me see the characters much more clearly.
Has your process changed at all from when you were first writing, through learning more about yourself and about writing, or through clearing out some of the stories in your head, etc.?
Hmmm. I don’t think so. Well, when I was writing my first unpublishable manuscripts, I would sometimes write the most vivid and exciting scenes first, and then go back, start at the beginning, and stitch the whole thing together. But that hasn’t been true for twenty years now. These days, I start on page one, I write as fast as I can (telling myself, “I’ll fix that later” when I write a particularly awkward scene), and I keep going. Then I go back and revise multiple times. I rarely do much wholesale cutting and rewriting—I’m usually pleased with the structure of my first draft. I just go back and clean stuff up and throw away boring scenes and rewrite bad sentences.
Speaking of Samaria….The books in that series have a lot of biblical people and geography names, which are just part of the world (since it was built by religious fanatics). But are there any biblical stories that you have intentionally referenced, or even rewritten (as, for example, NBC’s regrettably short-lived Kings was a reworking of the story of King David)?
There were only a couple of places where I was making a specific Biblical allusion. First, of course, the Archangels’ names are based on the Archangels of the Bible. Second, I named Raphael’s wife Leah, because she was the “false” wife, and Gabriel’s wife Rachel, because she was the “true” wife. Other than that, I was using people names and place names mostly as a way to show how far the Samarian settlers had changed from or forgotten their origins. So, for instance, they still have the word “Lucifer,” but it no longer means what it did in the Bible. But that’s not a criticism of their society—language changes and cultures evolve. Modern-day English speakers use all sorts of words that meant something completely different when they entered the lexicon.
Music played a huge part of some of the Samaria stories. I was just wondering what part it plays in your own life?
I used to have more time for music than I do now. I grew up in an extended family where music was a big part of any get-together—my mom would play the piano, my cousin would play the guitar, various cousins would sing. I play the piano, too, but not very well. I was in choirs all through high school and college and off and on since I’ve been working in the real world, though not lately.
Whenever I write about singing, I’m usually remembering what it feels like to sing harmony with my cousins on Christmas carols or camp songs. We still sing when we get together, especially at Christmas, but some of the musicians have scattered and it’s not quite the same.
Are any of the musical scores referred to in the Samaria books meant to be specific works that survived the trip from Earth? If not, are there any of them that correlate to a specific work, to give a general idea of what it is supposed to be?
I always figured that most of the “sacred” works sung at the Gloria were brought over on the spaceship, particularly the works for which they had recordings, since the settlers lost the technology for recording music. I was singing “Elijah” in a community choir when I wrote Archangel, and certainly Mendelssohn informs all the Glorias. But other than that, I never had specific works in mind. I’m sadly lacking in knowledge of classical music.
What about the voices—do you usually have (or have you ever had) a particular singer in mind when you describe a character’s range and tonality?
My cousin Karen was my model for Susannah in Angelica (I think it even says that in the dedication) but other than that, no.
In your notes on Summers at Castle Auburn you discuss Corie having been written as an intentional foil to your usual “prickly” heroine. Over your books you’ve now written a couple characters like Corie, but most of the women are loners or hardened or emotionally inaccessible, at least to start with. Why does this character type attract you?
You know, I’ve wondered this many times myself, and I’m not sure I know the answer. In my own life, I’m a lot more like Corie or Susannah than Rachel or Laura (from Wrapt in Crystal). I’m pretty outgoing, I have a lot of friends, I connect easily with other people. But I can identify with those prickly heroines, too. There are certainly times I’ve been moody and withdrawn!
But I think maybe what draws me to those heroines are the backstories. Why is Rachel so stubborn and fierce? Why does Elisandra conceal what she’s thinking? What makes Laura so remote and joyless? They all have some pretty powerful reasons for their behavior.
I have heard other writers say that characters feel almost like children so I won’t ask who is your favorite…but which character are you most proud of writing?
I’m not sure I’d talk about them in terms of pride, but I’ve really loved hanging out with Senneth and the gang. I wish they were real so I could spend time with them. (Or does that indicate a psychotic break with reality?) They were the most fun ever to write about.
Which of the worlds you have created is your favorite, and why? And which would you most like to visit (if it’s not your favorite)?
I don’t know that I have a favorite, but Samaria would be awfully interesting to visit. I’d like to hear a Gloria some day. I’m afraid of heights, so I’m not sure I’d want an angel to pick me up and fly me somewhere—but it would hard to resist if the opportunity presented itself.
Your bio mentions that you are an editor for a trade magazine. What brought you to editing professionally?
I majored in journalism in college because I knew I’d need a job once I graduated and I wasn’t sure how quickly I’d be able to make any money as a novelist. (Turns out…not quickly at all!) I’ve been an editor at various trade and association magazines for thirty years now.
What is/are your favorite style/usage manual(s)?
AP Stylebook and my beat-up old Merriam-Webster dictionary.
I know you have advice to an aspiring writer up on your website…so how about advice to an aspiring editor.
I think it might be pretty similar: read, read, read, across all genres; figure out why something works and why it doesn’t. But I’d also add: Be compulsively curious about everything, from history to science, because you never know when an author is going to toss in an incorrect fact that only your total recall of arcane data is going to identify as wrong.
Also, it probably goes without saying, learn how to use, spell, and punctuate the language. Know what a dangling modifier is, know when to use a semicolon, know the difference between illicit and elicit, comprise and compose.
Actually, that’s probably the advice I’d give to an aspiring copyeditor. For someone who aspires to be the kind of editor who acquires books, I think I’d say: Read. Love books. Cultivate a sense of what is commercially viable. And be willing to work hard. At least, it always seems like my editors are superhumanly busy!
Does this have anything to do with why your books are beautifully edited (probably one of the things I enjoy most about opening one of your novels is the comfort of knowing I’m not going to find typos, or catch myself mentally rewording your sentences)? What led you to be such a careful writer?
Well, I have found plenty of typos in my books once they’ve appeared in print! But, yes, I try really really really hard to use proper grammar, write sentences that are not difficult for the reader to navigate, and occasionally create a phrase that is actually beautiful. 🙂 I appreciate that editors and copyeditors can catch errors and improve clumsy language—but—the writing part is as important to me as the storytelling part.
I’m pretty sure that being a lifelong journalist has contributed to my understanding of the rules of writing. On a magazine where I worked for many years, I had a copyeditor who taught me virtually everything I know about punctuation (and I still get stuff wrong). I’ve heard some journalists say that being a reporter ruined their ability to write creatively, but for me the opposite was true.
What is your goal for your own writing in terms of its style? Is there a particular effect you are trying to achieve, and if so, what brought you to choose that type of style for your writing voice?
I’ve always thought that journalistic writing should be absolutely limpid—so clear, so uncluttered that you can practically absorb it through your skin. You should hardly be aware of the words as you take in their meaning. Creative writing, on the other hand, should still be easily readable—you shouldn’t have to struggle to get through the sentence—but it should be more complicated and more rewarding, filled with unexpected textures or bursts of flavor. So, I don’t know, journalistic writing should be vanilla pudding and creative writing should be chocolate pudding laced with chocolate chips, espresso beans, and the occasional swirl of amaretto.
Which of your published novels was the longest/most difficult for you to write, and which the easiest, and why do you think that was the case for each?
Quatrain was a lot harder to write than I thought it would be! I figured—four stories, each 100 pages long, piece of cake compared to my usual 500-600 page manuscripts. But what I forgot was that I would have to reread all the previous books so I didn’t forget any details. Then I’d have to write each novella as if the reader had never encountered that world before, so I’d have to do enough world-building to establish place and society, and then I had to develop characters and establish a narration. Four times! What was I thinking??? It took forever.
That being said, I think the thing that’s taken me the longest to write is the book I’ve been working on for the past eight or nine months (still not confirmed to be published yet). It’s set in a completely new world with a complex culture, and there were parts of the story I didn’t have completely clear in my head as I began writing. So it went very slowly and required a great deal of rewriting before I was happy with it.
The easiest book to write, by far, was The Safe-Keeper’s Secret. As I said, the story had been in my head for a long time and it was just a matter of sitting down and getting the words on paper. I think I wrote it in six weeks.
This could be a misperception on my part, but it seems like romantic fantasy has developed more truly into a subgenre of fantasy in the past few years, unlike when you were first publishing. If that is the case, how has that shift affected your work—both in how do you feel like it’s affected your success (i.e., better because of more readers or worse because of more competition), and in how you approach new projects (e.g., do you feel any pressure to conform to market demands that didn’t exist when the market was more niche)?
Yeah, I’ve had the same perception! When Archangel and its sequels were first being published, a lot of traditional reviewers seemed bemused by the fact that my fantasy novels had such a heavy emphasis on romance. Which left me bemused, because there were certainly fantasy writers before me who had included love stories in their books. Now, nobody even questions the notion that romance can be a critical component of an SF or fantasy novel.
I think it’s great, partly because I like to read books with romances in them, and partly because I do think it creates a deeper market. Has there been an effect on my own sales? Hard to say. But these days, there are a lot of romance-oriented Web sites that also cover fantasy-romance, and they frequently review my books, and I have to think that’s a good thing.
Who was a writing idol when you were starting out, and whom do you particularly admire now?
I think my major influences were a whole raft of 19th century authors (Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope), followed eventually by Georgette Heyer, Dorothy Sayers, Western writer Ernest Haycox, and Anne McCaffrey. Throw in some Peter Beagle and Robin McKinley, shake well, and you pretty much get a sense of my writing style.
These days I don’t have much time to read, but some of the SF/fantasy authors I follow are Juliet Marillier, Naomi Novik, Julie Czerneda, Kay Kenyon, Louise Marley, Ann Aguirre, and Emma Bull. I enjoy writers like Mary Jo Putney and Shana Abé who can combine romance and fantasy. I’ve also started reading contemporary romance writers, including Jennifer Crusie, Suzanne Brockmann, and Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Other out-of-genre titles that I’ve read and loved in the past few years include Bel Canto, Time-Traveler’s Wife, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and American Wife.
Were you a reader as a kid—if so, what were some favorites?
I read incessantly when I was growing up. Some of my favorite books from childhood were: Carol Kendall’s The Gammage Cup, Jane Langton’s Diamond in the Window, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. But I also read Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books, Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew and Dana Girls mysteries, Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators series, Jim Kjelgaard’s dog stories, Robert Heinlein’s juveniles, Andre Norton’s books, and pretty much everything I could get my hands on.
Why did you choose to write fantasy/SF?
I think that’s just the way my mind works. When a story presents itself to me, it’s almost always in a fantasy or speculative world. Although I do like the fantasy conventions—the quest, the self-discovery, the magic, the chance to battle great evil and save the world. These story elements never cease to be satisfying to me.
Why do you write love stories? Do you think you might ever write something longer than a short story that isn’t a love story—under a pen name, even, if you feel like “Sharon Shinn books” need to be love stories?
Mostly I write love stories because that’s what I like to read, and I like how a love story can give a certain structure to a book that also includes action, suspense, mystery, magic—whatever else it contains. I DO think that, by now, the people who read my books expect romances to be at the heart of them and would probably be disappointed if I wrote a book without a romantic element. So I would have to think about how I wanted to approach a non-romance book if I ever decided to try to write one. A pen name would certainly be something I’d consider.
Among my unpublished books are several in the “Moonchild” universe where Wrapt in Crystal is set, and they follow six main characters through many adventures. While the six eventually pair off, the bulk of the series (as it exists in my head) is far more focused on action than relationships—though the friendships among the six characters are what really keep the stories interesting. (I tend to think of them as early prototypes for the Twelve Houses characters.) These manuscripts are the closest I’ve come to writing non-romance books. I also have a couple of other stories at the back of my mind that involve friendships as opposed to love…not sure I’ll ever write them. And by the time I DID write them, they might have spontaneously developed romances. That just seems to be how my brain is wired.
Speaking of those unpublished Moonchild manuscripts: does your reluctance to revisit them have anything to do with a similarity to Firefly (coincidental or otherwise), since you’re not shy about being a Joss Whedon fan?
Ha. I wish. Those books are really straight space opera, and what keeps me from revising them for publication is that I’m so bad at science that I don’t think I could make the adventures plausible. If I ever published them in some POD format, I’d have to include all kinds of disclaimers. “I don’t know how FTL works! I don’t understand terraforming! I barely know what you mean when you talk about carbon-based organisms!” Too humiliating.
So which Whedon project is your favorite?
I loved Buffy, I enjoyed Angel, but I will be a Browncoat till I die. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over the cancellation of Firefly.
I’ve been intrigued by Dollhouse, but so far it’s more of an intellectual pleasure than an emotional one. I wouldn’t say I’ve really bonded with any of the characters yet, but they sure are interesting to watch.
Is there a particular question that you have expected someone to ask you that no one ever has? If so, what is it (and, of course, what’s the answer!)? What about a question that you’ve hoped someone would ask but no one has?
I think the question I’ve always both expected and kind of wanted, but never gotten, is: Is there some kind of theme that you find yourself returning to over and over again, whether consciously or unconsciously?
And the answer is: Yes. Broadly speaking, most of my books are about identity—someone, usually a woman, discovering or revealing or accepting who she really is. It seems I approach this theme in a couple of distinct ways.
There are the books that feature someone in disguise or someone concealing a true identity (all five of the Twelve Houses books, Wrapt in Crystal, Shape-Changer’s Wife, Truth-Teller’s Tale). There are the books that feature a lost or misplaced child (Safe-Keeper’s Secret, Dream-Maker’s Magic, Alleluia Files—even, to some degree, Jenna Starborn). There are also stories about someone who has somehow been torn away from his or her proper place in the world (Kit in Heart of Gold, Lilith in Shape-Changer’s Wife). Of the upcoming books, Gateway’s heroine spends half the book pretending to be someone she’s not, and there are two lost child subplots in Quatrain.
Of my unpublished manuscripts, I think six feature someone in disguise and four feature a lost child. The heroine of my latest manuscript has been torn away from her heritage—and there are a couple of lost child grace notes toward the end.
Even my short fiction includes people disguising who they are or what they’re capable of (“Bargain with the Wind,” “The Double-Edged Sword,” “The Sorcerer’s Assassin”).
The funny thing is, I never deliberately set out to write about these kinds of identity issues! I’m usually halfway through plotting—or all the way through writing—when it occurs to me that I’ve revisited this same particular theme. I’m not sure I can explain why it holds such fascination for me. Maybe because self-discovery is such an ingrained part of fantasy literature. Maybe because I love that dramatic moment when the truth is revealed. Maybe because, when I was growing up, my cousins and siblings and I always played games about running away from home and finding out we were really from an entirely different family. Maybe because I believe, no matter how well you know them, people can always surprise you.
Can you tell me anything about what’s up next for you?
I’m not sure I want to talk about this too much until I find out if my editor likes it enough to buy it, though all signs are positive. But since I’ve already alluded to it a couple times:
The book I’ve been working on this year, Random Blessings, is set in an entirely new world. In this culture, there are five categories of people, all defined by a combination of elemental and corporeal traits—earth/flesh, air/spirit, flame/mind, wood/bone, water/blood. My heroine is a woman of blood and water who has been living a quiet life in exile with her father, who was banished from the royal city ten years ago for mysterious reasons. But one day a stranger comes to town and tells her she must return with him to see the king….
Sharon, thanks again for taking the time to answer so many questions!
You can find out more about Sharon and her fabulous books at her website.
– originally published – 10/7/2009
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.