Author Archives: disquietingvisions

Word Alchemy — Writing Historical Fantasy

by Michele Lang

Writers of historical fantasy face so many pitfalls.  We have to get our historical facts right, and capture the truth of a place we can never visit – the past.  We have to build a believable world that incorporates both the historical setting and the fantastical elements we interweave.  We must create convincing characters that embody both the historical milieu and their own peculiar magic — and most difficult of all, we must make this multilevel process look effortless or we lose our readers.

By trial and error, I’ve developed some moves designed to balance the historical and fantastical in my work:

*Escape the Research Bog:  I am a history freak who would gladly stay stuck in the research phase forever, but I have to stop research at some point to write.  Some people recommend you do all of your research up front; others say that you should search for information only after you’ve dug your characters into a deep hole.  Why not do both?  Get oriented, and when you think you know enough, follow your characters.  And when you come up short, dip back into research to get clues that will help you advance.

*Secondary Sources:  History is written or other documentary evidence of past events.  Secondary sources of evidence – scholarly historical works, essays, biographies – will give you the best overview of a particular historical period.  To get up to speed quickly, I suggest starting with middle grade or YA histories – they tend to present the facts in a straightforward way.

*Dig Deeper with Primary Sources:  Once you have a feel for the major events and geopolitical forces at play, you need to hunt out primary sources.  Diaries, newspaper articles, and letters will give you the voices of people who lived through the period.  Their biases and unspoken assumptions will tell you a lot more than a scholarly history, but remember that these individual voices are not objective.  It’s good to read a number of them, and see where they disagree.

Where to find good primary sources?  A well-researched history will list primary sources in its Bibliography; costume books and cook books can also give you some insights into the clothes and culinary delights of a place.

*Metabolize the Past:  To get a flavor of a place and time, go deeper still and listen to the music, wear the costumes, eat the food, smell the spices, drink the libations.  The Internet is a great place to find organizations devoted to exploring and recreating historical periods.  Obvious places to start are groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism.

*Some Dangers and Opportunities:  Beware travel guides!  They are a good introduction, but guides are themselves a product of a particular place and time.  No location is static, and some places transform more completely and abruptly than others.

For example, I write about 1930s Budapest in my LADY LAZARUS series.  Budapest entered its Golden Age before World War I; by the end of World War II the gilded city was blasted into ruins.  When I first visited Budapest in the 1980s, the city was a muted gray, and the people never stopped moving.  During Budapest’s heyday, the city had a thriving café culture, where lawyers, photographers, moviemakers, and poets plied their trade, debated the politics of the day, and made loitering an art form.

And yet, details bring the soul of a setting to life.  At a bakery in the old city of Buda, I bought a hard, heart-shaped cookie with a mirror stuck into it, the stiff black icing spelling out “From My Heart” underneath the mirror in Hungarian.  I still remember the quail eggs floating like eyeballs in my soup, can almost taste the hot coffee served alongside pitchers of hot milk.

Travel can’t give you a city as it was decades or centuries ago; still, nothing is better for capturing ephemeral sensory details, the telling details that will sometimes give you the essence of a place.

*Magic in History:  My favorite part of writing historical fantasy is discovering the point of departure from the bare historical record — where the fantastical elements begin to grow organically from the place and time of your story.

Here’s another example from LADY LAZARUS.  In my preliminary research I learned that the Werewolves were partisan units trained by the SS to keep fighting after the war was lost in 1945.  In the world of LADY LAZARUS, these partisans are actual werewolves, and the Wolf’s Lair , where Hitler commanded the Eastern Front, becomes the headquarters of the werewolves and their pack leader supreme.

A great historical fantasy illuminates the past by embellishing it with magic.  To achieve this balancing act and tell a compelling, believable story is a kind of magic in itself.

Here are some links for your own writer’s grimoire:

Article by Elizabeth Bear – “Achieving Freshness in Fantasy.”  How to put original spin on material that may have been mined by other writers before you.

“Historical Research for Fiction Writers” by Catherine Lundoff.  A nice overview of historical research, with a list of internet resources at the end.

For inspiration, check out the website of the PBS series “History Detectives” – the show itself is fun to watch, and you might get story ideas from watching the investigators hunt down clues about the past.

You can listen to the audio from when Michele was a guest of Blog Host, Gail Z. Martin’s Ghost in the Machine podcast here:

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Freebie Friday from Jennifer St. Giles

Guest blogger, Jennifer St. Giles, wants to share the first three chapters of Collateral Damage on her  website:

Or get a short excerpt at:

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Damn the Consequences! Full Speed Ahead!

by Jennifer St. Giles

That was Sergeant First Class Jack Hunter’s only viable option in Collateral Damage, the first book in my Silent Warrior Series.  These books are romantic thrillers featuring military heroes and heroines with extraordinary hearts.  Collateral Damage starts two weeks after Jack has been seriously wounded on a FUBAR mission in Lebanon.  Jack sees the picture of prominent American businessman, Bill Collins, on the news, who he swears he killed in Lebanon two weeks ago, but nobody believes him, especially since Collins reportedly died in Brazil just yesterday.  Leaving the hospital, Jack goes AWOL to uncover the truth.  Instead of answers, he gets assassins, more questions, and a terrorist plot that threatens to ignite a world war.  As Jack fights to keep Lauren Collins, Bill’s estranged widow and her twin sons alive, he lays more than his life on the line and stands to lose everything when the truth behind Bill’s death comes to light.

There is an interesting story behind Collateral Damage.  In early 2001, I read a magazine article about mining from asteroids in the near future and being the writer that I am, my mind whirled with “what if’ questions.  What if a new or highly concentrated element was discovered?  What if that element became the basis for a new super fuel?  What if someone or group of someone’s decided to use that new fuel to gain world-wide power?  What if?  What if?  What if?

I sat down and wrote the proposal for the story then.  I set the story ten years in the future and used the world’s dependency on oil and inflamed religious factions to bring about global chaos as the backdrop for the story.  I chose an extraordinary soldier for my hero and an ordinary mom for my heroine and threw them into the deep end of trouble where they uncover the truth, conquer the odds against them, and fall in love with the best and worst of each other.  I sent the proposal out to agents and editors.

Then 9/11 happened and no one wanted to touch the story.  Al-Qaeda and terrorists were issues too sensitive to use, especially for a romance writer.  I went on to become published in the historical and paranormal suspense markets and Collateral Damage sat in my file cabinet for nine years.  But the way the real world events kept playing out since 9/11, I couldn’t get the story out of my head.  I kept seeing how ripe the world was for this “what if scenario” and I finally decided in 2010 to write the book.

To make the story less sci-fi and more realistic, I went from a space mined fuel to an algae-based biofuel and I went from generic American businessmen to a ruthless environmentalist as the mastermind behind the plot.

My next problem was to bring the big world plot down to a personal level.  In the book, both Jack and Lauren, my every day hero and heroine, are affected by collateral damage from the choices other people in the story make.  They learn from each other that how they deal with the fallout is what determines the quality of their future.  In fact, I think that in one way or another everyone becomes a victim to collateral damage in their life.  What do you think?

This is my first military inspired thriller and my first e-book release.  I would love to hear from you on your opinion of the book and also the e-book format.

You can listen to the audio from when Jennifer was a guest of Blog Host, Gail Z. Martin’s Ghost in the Machine podcast here:

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Freebie Friday – Tony Ruggiero

Our guest blogger, Tony Ruggiero, is kind enough to share some excerpts, audio and written, on his web page at:

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Gimme That (Really) Olde Tyme Religion

by Gail Z. Martin

Last week I mentioned that it was nice to see the swell of books dealing with parapsychological abilities (clairvoyance, psychics, etc.).  Another trend I find exciting is the more nuanced way authors are presenting Wicca, Magick and Paganism.

There’s been  a definite evolution in the way the Craft is described, and the care taken to differentiate Wicca and White Witchcraft and Magick from the negative stereotypes.  I’m pleased to see that the Craft is presented in a positive, balanced way that clearly differentiates it from the bad spin haters have given it over the centuries.

With the growth in the number of people who are reexamining the Old Ways, whether that is the resurgence of Norse practice to the wide range of Druids, goddess-worshippers and others, it’s important for authors to get the details right.  The wealth of excellent handbooks available from publishers like Llewellyn make it inexcusable for an author to “just make stuff up” instead of being grounded in a firm understanding of how magical systems and ritual works.

Getting it right doesn’t require that the author be a practitioner; however, it does require approaching belief systems with enough respect to be accurate so as not to perpetuate misinformation.  If you know practitioners well enough to be able to ask questions and confirm interpretation, all the better.

Dealing with any religion in fiction is always tricky, especially if an author who is not a practitioner is trying to describe someone else’s beliefs.  When that’s the case, it’s especially important to tread carefully, research, and try hard to put yourself in the mindset and worldview of a practitioner even if it’s just for the duration of the writing project.  Make sure you understand the role of ritual and ceremony, especially if your own tradition does not value those elements.

It’s easy to spot writers who have very little experience with religious traditions other than their own.  (If an alien race that has never had contact with Earth has a religion where everyone goes to a white, pointy-roofed building on one day of the week and sit in rows to listen to someone up on the stage, you’ve just described Presbyterians in space, not an alien religion.)

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Something old…Something new

by Tony Ruggiero

The final installment of the Team of Darkness vampire series is on its way to bookstores for the Halloween release. Book four, Operation End Game, is the much anticipated story where readers learn what happens to Commander John Reese, Christina and Dimitri. Does Reese become a vampire? Will he be with Christina? Will Dimitri come between them or will he help them?  Will the secret government Agency leave them alone? Knowing Tony Ruggiero’s penchant need for realistic vice happy endings, many readers are on the edge of their seats waiting to see what happens. All of the questions do get answered, or so Tony Ruggiero says they will. Tony gives us his thoughts on ending the series:

“Saying goodbye is always tough even when it is a fictional story comprised of characters we have made up from our imagination and even some which are non-human like vampires. Yet this miraculous transformation happens. We come to live and breathe with the characters, we take meals with them, we feel what they feel and hope for their success as much as we hope for own. They do what we cannot and thereby give us hope in our own meager lives. When the series ends or our characters die (no spoilers here—I swear, well maybeJ) they take with them a piece of us, but they leave something in return. The memory of them and what they are/were but more importantly— what we can be.

I heard a line in a movie once that summed this up quite well. The character said something along the lines of how it didn’t matter if the event/story was true or not. What mattered was if you believed in it. Belief comes in many shapes and forms and as long as it gives us hope—I guess that’s a good thing. That to me is the value of reading fiction and that’s the way I will always remember Commander John Reese, Dimitri and the others. They gave me hope that I could write this series…and I did. Now I hope that they have given you something as well to remember them by.  As to will we see any of these characters again…well that part is still up in the air…maybe even orbiting Earth (yes…that is a hint).

Thanks to DragonMoon Press for having given me the opportunity to share this story with readers everywhere. And thank you—the reader for taking this one last journey with me and the Team of Darkness.”

You can listen to the audio from when Tony was a guest of Blog Host, Gail Z. Martin’s Ghost in the Machine podcast here:

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Which witch is which?

by Gail Z. Martin

While we’re on the subject of supernatural makeovers, I love what has happened with the witch/wiccan/clairvoyant theme.  If you’ve been following my posts on Shelfari, you’ll see that I’ve been reading quite a few series where there’s a strong female protagonist who is a witch/clairvoyant/medium/psychic-something.  It’s the new kick-ass female empowerment.

I think it’s interesting that, at least in the books I’ve read (and there are a lot I haven’t, so go easy on me if I’ve missed something), it’s always only the women who have the witch/clairvoyant/psychic powers.  The men are skeptical if not hostile, and sometimes threatened to the point of walking out on the relationship.  I’m betting there’s a psychological comment on our culture in there somewhere.

It’s also interesting that in pretty much all of the books (again, that I’ve read—which leaves lots out, I know), there’s always at least one good girlfriend who believes in the heroine’s unusual gifts and provides support and encouragement, as well as playing wingman for everything from breaking and entering to CYA on broken dates.  Supernatural powers as the ultimate female bonding glue!

I also enjoy seeing a wide range of psychic abilities presented in a way that is much more realistic (at least, according to my psychic friends).  Clairvoyance, precognition, channeling, astral projection and psychometry are just some of the gifts I’ve seen treated with respect and integrated into series in recent years.  Much better than just lumping everything together!

Interesting side note—judging from the books, psychic powers seem to go hand-in-hand with a love of shoes and/or a passion for vintage clothing.  Go figure!

The really great news is that according to Locus Magazine, there were 614 original fantasy novels published in 2010 from major publishers, and 384 paranormal romances, as well as 251 new horror titles.  Plenty to read!  Locus notes the trends for vampires, werewolves and zombies show no sign of ending.  Some off their favorite humorous titles: Eat, Prey Love, I Kissed a Zombie and I liked it, and my personal favorite, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer (if you don’t get it, hum the tune of Tiny Dancer).

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It Is Not What It Is

by Michael A. Arnzen –

I can’t quite put my finger on when I first noticed the rise of the popular expression, “It is what it is,” but I suspect it began circulating in American culture almost a decade ago, shortly after the fall of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. Sure, maybe it was already circulating in sports lingo and on military bases before then, but now I hear it all the time, whenever there is some kind of suffering, exhaustion, or tragedy at hand.

Lost your job due to the economy? It is what it is. Teenager out of control, experimenting with drugs and texting at the dining room table? It is what it is. Crazy unemployed man on the loose at the local playground with a shotgun, hunting down his drug-addled son? It is what it is.

The phrase is probably meant to summon our courage so we can deal with the reality of a situation. It means “get over it.” Accept the facts and move on.

But nothing is what it seems and I see this phrase as defeatist, not pragmatic. It is irresponsible at best, and censorious at worst.

As a fiction writer, especially a HORROR fiction writer, one of my essential aims to alert others to the fact that nothing is what it seems on the surface. Nothing “is” what we think it is at first glance. The truth is always “out there,” not present and accounted for. There is always something more than meets the eye, and often this “something more” is something we don’t usually want to face or confront. Horror writers show us things we don’t want to see; they remove the mask from the superficial versions of reality we often come to accept. Horror readers like to be reminded of this, and open themselves up to exploring the unknown and looking with morbid curiosity at the things they are told they shouldn’t or can’t know.

One of the greatest examples of this would be a shapeshifter or werewolf story. My favorite has to be John Carpenter’s version of “The Thing,” based on John W. Campbell’s short story, “Who Goes There?” [ ]. In this story, a shipwrecked ancient alien — essentially a mimic — is thawed out of the arctic ice near an isolated research camp. It takes the form of the last creature it devoured, and progressively devours the entire camp. We never really see the “thing” itself; the alien is unknowable. But we do see it in moments of horrifying transition, when characters catch it in the act of transformation from one being to another. These are always the coolest, and most grotesque, moments in a werewolf or shapeshifter story: the “turning” moment, when man is shown in a state of becoming something new.

It is what it is? No, it is always something else. Something either unknowable, or something different than what we expect. And something that changes. That change is scary. But it is responsible for the entire thrill.

One of my favorite horror writers, Robert Bloch (the man who created Norman Bates, in Psycho), once said that “horror is the removal of masks.” That’s become my defining phrase for the genre, and something I firmly believe that writers need to perform on the superficial skin of everyday “reality”. We tear of the mask to show “It is not what it is.”

If I didn’t see such things as my aim, I would write encyclopedia articles or laboratory reports and attempt to capture in words what things “are.” Or I would be a journalist, and tell stories that purport to chronicle events and say “and that’s the way it was” on such and such a date.

I do not mean to damn science and journalism. Objective science is responsible for raising our awareness for the way things are, but scientists never settle for things being “what they are.” They take what “it is” and unveil what ELSE it is, or what else they can do about it. They invent just like writers, sometimes. They cure things. If we said “cancer is what it is” we’d never try to find a cure.

And if we believed that journalists were solely reporting facts, we would only need one news station or newspaper, and we could consult it the way we do a common dictionary, as a guidebook to the truth, without question. Instead, clearly, there are multiple viewpoints at play in any event, and while good journalists report THOSE VIEWPOINTS, they can never entirely testify to have the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

We NEED fiction writers to indulge the imagination and consider all the alternatives, scary or not. The freedom of fiction to make things up provides society with viewpoints that science and journalism can never provide. Our aim is to show different ways of being/thinking/doing — alternatives to perceptions and common truths (if not common sense). The fiction writer’s motto is inherently that “there is always another way” of thinking/seeing/doing.

Some might argue that fiction is nonsense and tell me to get over it already, because it makes more sense to address real world problems and issues. But the more you think about it, the more the expression “it is what it is” is more nonsense than any fiction story. Stories follow a plot logic, and unfold meaning through drama. The expression “it is what it is” is illogical, and closes down meaning altogether. Let me explain.

First off, the phrase “it is” is an empty set. What is “it”? Anything. Let’s call it X. What is “is”? Being and existence. The weakest and most generalizing verb in the universe. Thus “it is what it is” turns the potent question “What?” into nothing more than an equal sign. It is what it is. X = X.

Such algebraic thinking is unquestionable, but when language and ideas enter the picture, it becomes a claim, a point of view. Logicians call such a way of thinking a “tautology” — a false argument, fallacious because it draws no conclusion from its premise. It circles back on itself, presenting the premise as if it were the conclusion. It is not only an “empty” set, but a “closed” one. Thus, it has the suggestion that the idea is inarguable, when in fact it is actually illogical and simply seeks to close down further discussion and thought. It answer the potent question “Why?” with the answer “just because.” Why is X that way? Just because it is.

It asks us to give up. To stop thinking, and to give up considering alternatives to the status quo. To accept the given “reality” and not to question where that version of reality came from. It is a claim to authority over the truth. When I hear “it is what it is” I hear the echo of a parent, saying “Why? Because I said so, that’s why.”

Now, sure, sometimes things really are what they are, but whenever someone feels the need to say so, I wonder: What are you afraid of here? How do I know you are seeing the same “it” that I am? What qualifies you to be the person who stops this discussion? And what ultimately happens when I accept your definition of what “it is”?

Declaring “it is what it is” seeks to deaden. To put an end to inquiry. To control a problem through a shrug.

But things always change, and I say it is better to treat the statement as a transition. To reply, “Okay, so now what?” or “Why is it that way?” To recover the power of those questions, what and why. That’s the only way to transform a situation from “it is what it is” to “it is what it was and now it’s something else.” Hopefully, something better.

But as The Thing teaches us, it is not always so hopeful. Sometimes “it is” something worse, far worse, than we ever imagined. That’s the fun part of horror and fantasy writing. Stories from these genres are sometimes called “cautionary” tales, because they warn us not to, say, go into the woods alone…but they also prick our curiosity about what else might be out there. They encourage our wonder, while reaffirming our fears. If “it is” worse than what we think “it is,” I would want to know that, not put my head in the sand. Because when your head is in the sand, it only makes it easier for the reaper to change his golf swing. Horror fiction reminds us to keep looking, even if we don’t want to, even when we’re told we shouldn’t. And maybe it encourages us to have a little fun dodging the scythe.

Horror fiction not only destroys the “it is what it is” tautology, it also shows us that “it is what it is not.” That things are sometimes so alien and Other that they are the exact opposite of what we believe them to be. They are UNdead, UNknown, UNreasonable, UNcanny. This is not mere opposition. It is more like “contrarianism”: it challenges us to distrust what is given to us as the Truth with a capital T. This is also why horror is discredited and denounced by those who see the entire genre as something threatening. They treat it as childish or whimsical nonsense and nothing more. Because those Truthmakers have something to lose in the questions that such a worldview raises. But there is as much truth in nonsense as there is nonsense in truth. And fiction, especially fiction of the fantastic, is a powerful reminder of this.

I read speculative fiction — science fiction, fantasy, horror — because I want to know what else “it” could be. I write horror fiction to ask that very same question.

So go ahead: tell me that it is what it is. All you’re doing is giving me ideas for more stories, so I can show you just how wrong you really are.

Michael A. Arnzen is a college teacher by day and a horror writer by night. He has been educating novelists since 1999 as faculty in the Writing Popular Fiction graduate program at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA, where he is currently Chair of the Humanities.  His often funny, always disturbing horror stories have won four Bram Stoker Awards, an International Horror Guild award, and several “Year’s Best” accolades. His latest book of short fiction, Proverbs for Monsters, collects the best of his writing over the past twenty years.  A new “how to” book he co-edited, for writers of all genres, called Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction, will be published this Spring from Headline Books.

He invites you to subscribe to his creative newsletter, The Goreletter, at

As a special deal to readers of this blog, Mike Arnzen is offering signed copies of his crazy music-enhanced storytelling CD, Audiovile, for just $5 ppd! To get a sense of what it is like, visit this link for a new single (not on the CD) called “Attack of the Bleu Man Group” at:

To get the special discount you need to order via paypal to and mention the phrase “GAILZ” when you provide your information.

You can listen to the audio from when Michael was a guest of Blog Host, Gail Z. Martin’s Ghost in the Machine podcast here:

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Freebie Friday: Charles Gannon

Our guest blogger this week, Charles Gannon was kind enough to share the following poem with us:

The Charge of the Flight Brigade – removed from Charles’ forthcoming Baen novel.

The Charge of the Flight Brigade final to download.

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Whither the Werewolf?

by Gail Z. Martin

Werewolves are the new hot, hairy heartthrobs.  Whether it’s Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series or the uber-handsome werewolves in MaryJanice Davidson’s Queen Betsy books, or Quentin in Dark Shadows, or even the tragic Remus Lupin in Harry Potter, werewolves are the bad boys you can’t help but love.

In many ways, the werewolf has always depicted the brutal side of male behavior. And the truth is, there’s nothing sexy about domestic violence.  (Read Tanith Lee’s take on the Little Red Riding Hood story in Red as Blood to turn this trope on its head.) Yet today’s werewolves manage to soften that brutality by focusing their aggression outwards against threats to the mate, rather than internally against their family.

So here’s my question—how domesticated can we make werewolves before they become puppy dogs?  Are we reflecting a desire to find a wolf—or a golden retriever?  And if the wolf is a little too scary, is a German shepherd or a pit bull good enough?

Don’t get me wrong—I think there’s room for people to want a broad spectrum of werewolves, from alpha males to Yorkies (well, maybe that’s going a little far).  And perhaps it’s no different than the trend to shift a vampire from being a monster to being a ultimate-warrior male who is tender at home and rips heads off out in the street (it’s business, not personal).

Yet in many ways, werewolves are traditionally more duel natured than vampires, because vampires never cease being undead, while werewolves are just like the rest of us except around the full moon.  I’ve always thought that real violence is more a part of the werewolf mythos than the vampire trope because a vampire can take blood without killing, and even provide an orgasm for the donor.  Getting gnawed on by a wolf, on the other hand, is more of a downer.

Is there a point to this rambling?  Probably not.  Just some random observations and a few unanswered questions.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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