Monday, November 29, 2010

A New Setting

We’ve been house-hunting these past few months. If you ask us why, we’ll tell you it’s because our sons have graduated high school and we don’t need to stay in the same school district. We’ll tell you that our needs have changed. In truth, it’s a combination of a desire to try something new, a fear of waiting too long, and the fact that our last move was more than twenty years ago. Apparently it takes that long for the trauma to fade.
Still, we lack the stamina to move far away. It requires too much decision-making, too much risk-taking, and besides, I like the Midwest--most of the time. I understand it.
Moving across the river seems doable.
We’ve kept it kind of quiet. Those we’ve told have responded with variations on amused skepticism and frank disbelief. I mean, we’re living in a perfectly adequate house. I come from people who stay put unless they’re run out of town.
“If you move, where will I play tennis?” my son asks—the 25-year-old who lives four states away. These days he plays at our neighborhood courts once or twice a year. But I understand. This is his childhood home—the only home he remembers. This is where his story began.
House-hunting is like having this obsessive part-time job that you know is going to cost you money. I discover that my husband and I have absolutely nothing in common when it comes to what we want in a house.  We make dual (dueling?) lists of essential features, knowing that no one house will ever meet this long list of demands.
Not a house we can afford, anyway.
We begin with a budget, but soon we’re saying things like, “For only $50,000 more, we could buy that house with the media room.” Even though we know we’ll never set foot in it. Once we’ve made the mistake of looking at homes that are out of our price range, the houses we can actually afford begin to look a little cramped, a little plain, a little frayed around the edges.  
Our old home is like a comfortable pair of shoes—well broken-in. We never noticed its genteel decline—we were participants, after all. The decorating may not be au courant, but it is of our own choosing. In the homes we’re looking at, we see that the cabinets are dated, the carpet is stained, and the counters are topped with Formica instead of granite. Or, if we don’t see it, our realtor points it out. “At this price point, I expect hardwood and granite,” she says.
Sometimes, I walk into a house, and feel like an intruder. I cannot see myself living there, no matter how fancy it is. Or maybe because of how fancy it is. I don’t want to feel insignificant in my own house, like I have to dress up to get out of bed.
Other homes immediately capture my heart. I imagine looking out at the world through those windows. I envision carrying my coffee onto that screened porch and flopping into the swing. I see gardens where the grass grows now. I spin madly around that kitchen, preparing supper on Christmas Eve.
I begin to write stories.
A few weeks ago, we walked into a house in the historic district of a small town. It was more money than we wanted to pay. It lacked many of the features we were looking for—the spacious workshop, the sunroom, the acres of privacy, the attached garage. Other houses were snugged in on either side.
And yet, I was smitten. That house spoke to me. It had a large, fenced in backyard—I could see flower gardens against that fence—hollyhocks and gladioli and hydrangeas. It had a beautiful kitchen, a lovely side porch and a finished third floor, which I loved, despite the sloping walls. There was a large office with windows on two sides, and it was walking distance to the library, the bookstore, the ice cream shop, and the waterfall in the park downtown.
And in the second floor hallway, there was a sign on the wall—Home is where your story begins.
We bought the house. And so, our story goes forward from there.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Why I Write Fantasy Fiction

Why I Write Fantasy Fiction

I don’t know which is worse in the eyes of some readers and writers of SERIOUS BOOKS—writing fantasy fiction, or writing for teens. In the tone of voice an adult might use when admiring a two-year-old’s childish drawing, they say, “Keep at it, and maybe one day you’ll get to write a real book.”
I’ve previously discussed being dissed as a writer of fantasy fiction by the literati. I’ve also explained why I write for teens.
Truth be told, writers don’t need to seek out more opportunities for humiliation—our lives are humbling enough as is. So why write fantasy?

1.  The easy answer is that fantasy sells, and has been selling for years, especially to young readers. On a recent New York Times bestseller list (October 1, 2010) eight of ten bestselling chapter books and five of ten bestselling series books were fantasy novels of one kind or another. Fantasy these days is such a broad genre that there’s room for a broad range of readers and writers.
That said, I think it’s a mistake to follow trends. Writing a novel is difficult enough if you like what you’re writing. I think readers can tell when you’re just going through the motions. So, keep an eye on the market but write from the heart. Not every genre suits me, but fantasy does. Therefore I write it. That’s not to say I always will.
2.  Fantasy expands options when it comes to plot and conflict. The element of magic is one more weapon in the writer’s arsenal. Not only is Buffy the Vampire Slayer forced to navigate the social minefield of high school—but there’s a hell-hole under the cafeteria.
In The Demon King, Han Alister is an orphaned  streetgang leader who’s being hunted for murders he didn’t commit. Also, he’s carrying a magical amulet that could destroy him.
Princess Raisa ana’Marianna stands to inherit a political snakepit of a queendom from her mother the queen—if she can manage to hold off a rebellion of powerful wizards desperate to regain power.
In The Warrior Heir, Jack Swift is a high school student whose girlfriend just broke up with him. The principal hates him and he’s worried he won’t make the soccer team. Also, two powerful wizard houses are hunting him, meaning to play him in a deadly magical tournament.  
Alternative worlds expand options as well. The Seven Realms series takes place in a quasi-medieval world. In medieval times, sixteen-year-olds were adults, for all intents and purposes. And so, as a writer, I can put my teenage characters into dire and dangerous situations; I can shovel heavy responsibility onto their shoulders and send them out on the road without worrying about Children’s Protective Services.
3. Fantasy provides a forum in which to explore Big Ideas in a safe place. I don’t mean safe for the characters—I mean safe for the reader. Long ago and/or far away provides a certain distance.  It’s clearly a created world, even if I manage to entice the reader into it.
In the Queendom of the Fells, I can address environmental and gender issues without the distractions of contemporary politics. I can explore revisionist history without pointing any fingers. I can put the conflict between good and evil into stark relief in an ecumenical way.
            Fantasy can free the reader of pre-conceived notions, expectations, and biases and allow them to experience a different sensibility—new ways of looking at the world.
4. All fiction provides escape from real life, if only briefly. The reader chooses the escape that suits him or her best. A gritty contemporary novel may not offer escape from a gritty contemporary world.             Fantasy does.
5. Finally, and perhaps most important, fantasy is fun. In a world that seems bent on the destruction of pleasure reading, fantasy satisfies.