Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Coal Miner's Grand-Daughter

P.D. James once said that "All fiction is autobiographical"  ("and much autobiography is, of course, fiction.”

I think that's true. Where else do we get unique material but from our own lives--the people we meet, the experiences we have, the places we've been--and the stories handed down through family.

Many people believe that fantasy writers draw on some (drug or psychosis-fueled?) inner well of make believe in order to create fantastical stories. I've had more than one talented writer tell me, "I could never write fantasy." Sometimes this is accompanied by a kind of shudder that tells me that the tagline is, "and I would never want to."

I find that certain elements of my own story worm their way into my fiction again and again. It's not an intentional thing. Stories suffer when writers set out to teach a lesson or prove a point or make readers feel this way or that way. I never set out with an agenda. But when I'm staring at a blank screen with a deadline in front of me, I tend to gravitate toward certain kinds of characters and certain themes.

My grandfather is third from left
For instance, transformation stories have always given me hope. I'm the daughter of a truck driver, the granddaughter of a coal miner turned factory worker, and the great-great granddaughter of a man who worked in the iron furnaces of Appalachian Ohio. My ancestors were scrappy people who worked hard, lived hard, and died young. They also told stories.

Like how my grandmother's sisters owned a honky-tonk bar by the roadside and played banjo and fiddle in a hillbilly band. Or Uncle Vinnie Nash who used to steal his wife's shoes so he could go out and dance with other women. Like how my great-grandfather got drunk and went to the barn and was kicked by a horse, and he died. Or my great uncle who got drunk and set fire to himself and he died. Or my great-uncle Claude who was killed in a slate fall when he was forty-one years old.

The women were strong -- they had to be! Like my several times removed cousin who filed a paternity suit in 1871 against her employer's brother. Despite being called into court, where she was quizzed about relations with other men and forced to describe every time they "did" it, she won her suit. Strong women populate my stories--women of whom little is expected, who accomplish much.

Some people are born to privilege, and squander that opportunity. Others are born to fail, and find a way to succeed. I'm intrigued by how some people change and survive, while others don't. In my Seven Realms series, the streetlord Han Alister finds ways to repurpose the skills he learned on the mean streets of the Fellsmarch slums to survive among enemies in a ruthless court.

Readers of my fantasy stories might notice that coal mines and miners show up repeatedly. In the Heir Chronicles, set in contemporary Ohio, one of the characters is trying to protect her Appalachian mountain home from a mining company that wants to "mountain-top" it in order to access the veins of coal underneath. In Flamecaster, the first novel in my Shattered Realms series, one of the characters is a blaster in a coal mine who uses those skills as a saboteur fighting against the oppressive Ardenine empire.

 I'm a first generation college graduate. I've never stopped transforming myself. I've worked hard, I've been lucky, and I've done better than I ever could have imagined. And yet I've never lost my inbred mistrust of "the man" and the feeling that I'm just a slate-fall away from disaster. Those are the kind of characters I write about. Those are the kinds of stories I tell.  Welcome to a world where survival and transformation stories have   an overlay of magic.

Welcome to the Shattered Realms.

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