Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Interview with Lindsey Duncan

My guest today is fantasy author, poet and musician Lindsey Duncan, whose work has been widely published, including a story in the anthology Unburied Treasure.

Welcome to the blog, Lindsey. Could you tell us something about yourself, and what you do when you're not writing?

Glad to be here!  I’m currently a culinary student – I just finished a diploma in baking and pastry, and am continuing to complete an associates degree in culinary arts – and a professional harp performer living near Cincinnati, Ohio.  I also teach beginning harp. 

Right now, the combination of work, school (and writing, of course!) keeps me hopping:  I think if I did the math, it would come out to roughly two full-time jobs!  When I do have a bit of free time, I enjoy reading, both the expected fantasy and science fiction and historical or cozy mysteries.  Non-fiction, too, though I tend to classify that as research …

That's certainly a lot. How long have you been writing, and how did you start?

I can’t ever remember not writing; I would say that by process of elimination, it would have to have been after learned to read, but then I remember dictating stories about talking multi-colored sheep to my mother.  When I was very young, my family had an old typewriter, and I diligently pecked out tales, bedeviled by typos – the texts would include such gems as “swrod, I mean sword” – before I encountered my first computer.  Apart from required cursive practice, I’ve never looked back. 
I know the feeling. My early efforts included words like "parashootist" and "obtikal illooshan".

I never did learn how to type properly, though:  I’ve developed my own typing system that has my left (dominant) hand doing the majority of the typing, with the sequence determined by the neighboring letters.  My parents used to call this the Columbus Method: pick a key and land on it.

It’s always been fantasy, too.  Even when I did a “real world” project, as I did for my cursive practice, I went straight to knights and castles.  And, of course, those talking sheep …

You also play the Celtic harp, which is an instrument I've always loved. Can you tell us about it, and how you got into playing it?

The Celtic harp is the “original” harp – in Ireland, they have found carvings of this style of harp dating back to the seventh century.  Obviously, the modern harp has some further evolutions, in particular the levers: tiny switches above each string that adjust the pitch of the note a half-step.  This allows the harp to get sharps and flats or change keys without retuning the whole instrument.  Ancient harps were strung with gut or wire – wire harps are played with a completely different technique, but that’s a whole other topic.  You’ll still see gut-strung harps nowadays, but most use nylon instead, as mine does.

(I do educational programs now and again, and I love nothing more than to call kids up to touch the strings … and *then* ask them what they think the strings are made of.  This always gets a few good “ewws.”)

I first “met” the harp at the Cincinnati Celtic Festival.  There was an event on the schedule called, “I’ve Always Wanted to Play the Harp.”  It was an informal thing, just a few harpers (harpers play the traditional harp; harpists play the orchestral harp) helping interested parties try out the instruments.  As soon as I got my hands on a harp, that was it:  I was in love.

I always associate harpers with smoke-filled halls where they play and sing ancient heroic lays. So does your writing and music interact at all, or do you keep the two art-forms separate?

I find that music and musical themes sneak into my writing, whether I intend them to or not.  I enjoy writing about musicians and their misadventures.  Thanks to a writing prompt, I even wrote a story loosely inspired by one of my more trying gigs … loosely.

Since starting culinary school, as I’ve pulled out older stories to edit them, I’ve noticed a surprising number that involve pastry, chocolates and cooks.  Life has a tendency to find its way into fiction.

As a harper, I arrange almost all the music I play, and I’ve even written a few sets of lyrics to traditional tunes.  I’ve never had much luck composing my own music, though, and this has always frustrated me.  It feels like a gap I should be able to bridge.

Earlier this year, a local conductor sat down to talk to me at a gig, and we discussed various musical topics.  Somehow, composing came up, and I mentioned my feeling.  He quoted a famous musician:  “God composes.  I arrange.”   (Alas, I can’t for the life of me remember who, nor can I find the quote online.  Pipe up if you happen to know!)  I’m not a religious person, but this idea – that the raw, creative essence is part of the universe, and that what the human creator does is express it – really appeals to me.

Your story in Unburied Treasures, Stone Unturned, is a haunting tale. Can you remember what your inspiration for it was?

Stone Unturned was originally written for a monthly challenge at  The challenge was to take five elements and write a story where each was an integral part.  In the spirit of making things unnecessarily difficult for myself, I always try to add another layer to the challenge topic.  In this case, I knew I wanted to write about history and myth, so I decided to construct the story so each element appeared both in the present and in the past.

The concept of being able to sense the past of an object by touch is one that has always fascinated me.  I decided to give my main character this ability.  (And the magic used in Stone Unturned has a tangential musical element, too.)  It is this talent that unfolds the story in the past … and gradually reveals its connection to the present.

You've been published all over the place. Can you tell us about some of your publications? What's currently available?

My contemporary fantasy novel, Flow, is available both as an ebook or in print from Double Dragon:

Flow follows two very different characters:  teenaged Kit, bitter in the wake of the death of her mother and unable to control her budding powers; and Chailyn, a water-witch raised in the underwater Vale and only now sent to the surface for her first mission.  The pair team up to uncover her mother’s killer and find more than they bargained for:  predatory fairies, a rival organization to the water-witches known as the Borderwatch, and secrets buried in both their pasts.  They also meet Hadrian, a bizarre young man with hyper-accelerated perceptions who invites himself along on the journey.

If you just want a taste of this contentious world, check out Xmas Wishes, a short story in the same setting – only a dollar, too!  Also available from Gypsy Shadow is Taming The Weald, which was one of my favorite stories to write and does some blissful blurring of the lines between science fiction and fantasy.  I have to say that “strange children” is another element I’m drawn to a lot in writing.

For freebies, my most recent publication, Polestar, is in the June/July issue of Plasma Frequency.  My first publication there, Mythocraft (all the way back in Issue 2) was nominated for that year’s Preditors & Editors Readers’ Poll.

Abyss and Apex has been wonderful to me – they’ve published three of my short stories, with another coming out sometime next year; the first story (HourBy Hour) was in their first Best Of anthology, and I got the chance not only to read from it at the World Fantasy Convention in Calgary, but to meet the magazine’s editor, Wendy Delmater.

My most recent story there was Dancing Day, which was another monthly challenge involving five elements – this time five elements that were distinctly Christmas-themed, the challenge being to apply them in a new way.  There’s still a hint in the title, which is derived from one of my favorite period carols to play.

Could you tell us something about what you're writing at the moment, and any future plans?

The novel I’m working on right now is Unnatural Causes, a fantasy-mystery cross.  When a controversial enchanter is murdered, her familiar and her apprentice team up to find out who killed her.  I’ve been deliberately taking the writing of this one slow:  it’s from the first-person perspective of the familiar, and since in this setting, familiars are otherworldly beings, I want to make sure that I consider the way I’m framing her thoughts.  In this world, magic is performed by creating phantasmal thought-machines, visible only to the enchanter and others with the talent. These machines execute the spell.

I haven’t firmly chosen a future project.  Most of the novel-length works I’ve considered are rewrites, reimaginings, or new adventures for previous characters, including the idea of a sequel for Flow.

One shorter (comparatively) work I know I want to write is a – wait for it – zombie novella.  Of course, I know that zombies have been done to my death; my hope is that my take on the origins and themes of reincarnation will get past an editor’s groans.   In fact, the idea would have never come to me if we weren’t saturated in zombie culture.  Here’s how it came about:

I dabble in photography, and the flutist I played with in White Orchid – a much more serious photographer – invited me to a quirky northern Ohio town that was also hosting its annual Zombie Walk.  Wandering around town as the attendees prepared to walk was amazing: we saw costumes from the very simple to the elaborate, from the hilarious to the impressive.  (And the disturbing in a non-zombified context: the teen who, when asked how he had costumed his arm to look like it was broken, demonstrated it wasn’t a costume – he was double-jointed.  Oww.)  The “CDC” walked around in hazmat suits.

In any case, to make a long story short (too late!), I got some great photographs.  Most people were happy to mug for the camera, but I did get some candid shots as well, and that’s where the story comes in.  Among those pictures of people being themselves amongst the pseudo-gore and dishevel were a few images that illustrated a story in an eyeblink.  Some day, I hope you’ll be able to read it.
Sounds intriguing, and I hope I do get a chance to read it.
Many thanks for telling us all about yourself. You can find out even more about Lindsey on her blog.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Heap Many Moons - The Way Primitive Peoples Don't Really Talk

We've all encountered old-fashioned idea of how "primitive" peoples speak: "Heap many moons we hunt buffalo," or some such nonsense.  After all, primitive people must speak a primitive language, right?

Of course not.  Even setting aside the question of how primitive the cultures in question are, there's really no such thing as a primitive language.*  Every language expresses precisely what its speakers need to express.  A language spoken by a nomadic tribe of herders and hunters might not have technical words for scientific or sociological concepts, but it'll have vocabulary that enables people to talk about a whole range of concepts, emotions and relationships that are important to them — many which can't be clearly expressed in English or other majority western languages.

The "heap many moons" style of speech is a very simple example of pidgin, a type of language that arises when people from different cultures need to communicate on a basic level.  It's usually for trade, but pidgins can be heard whenever Britons or Americans abroad are trying to make themselves understood to "foreigners who have the nerve not to speak English".

Where the contact is regular and long term, a pidgin can develop regular rules and vocabulary, and eventually, given the right circumstances, children might start growing up speaking nothing else.  At that point, it goes through a metamorphosis into a creole, a language that's flexible and rich enough for its speakers to say whatever they need to.  There are creolised languages from the Caribbean to the Pacific, and many are elegant and expressive.

All languages intended as the primary means of expression for a people are tailored exactly to what that people needs.  Whether or not the Inuit really have fifty words for snow,** they can certainly talk about snow in a lot more detail than a people whose language has evolved on the equator.

What a language does or doesn't have inevitably reflects what matters to the society.  Many of the Australian Aboriginal languages didn't have counting systems at the time Europeans first arrived.  This wasn't stupidity — if you rarely see more than a handful of any given object, including people, why would you need to count?  As soon as the concept was introduced to them, it took a remarkably short time for this gap to be filled.

On the other hand, many of them have degrees of sophistication in their grammar that European languages can't match.  English, for instance, has one way of expressing the first person plural pronoun — we (with the variants us, our and ours).  Some languages, though, (including Old English) distinguish between whether you're saying I and you or I and they.

This might seem strange to those of us whose languages have done without it, but it's actually a distinction between two very different concepts.  If you tell someone "We're meeting at eight o'clock," you might mean "We're meeting — you can make it, right?" or "Us lot — we're meeting up.  Just saying."  In English, we have to rely on tone and context to make it clear which we're saying, but it can be a useful distinction to make.

On the other hand, in many of those Aboriginal languages that didn't have counting systems there might be up to a dozen different ways of saying we, depending on exactly who the other person is, whether they're related to the speaker, whether or not they have the same Dreaming.  In these societies, it's vitally important to clarify these issues, and the languages have developed incredibly complex grammar to accommodate that need.

A similar, though simpler, concept that occurs in many European languages is the distinction between the familiar and formal versions of the second person pronoun.  This will be known to anyone who's learnt French, German or Spanish.  In French, for instance, you'd address a close friend or family member as tu and a more casual acquaintance or stranger as vous, while  German has equivalents for both the singular and plural forms.

English used to make this distinction, too, using thou and you, but thou has died out, except in a few dialects.  There are various theories for why this should have happened, but the effect (if not the reason) is that English-speakers don't have any of the complex social niceties needed to use this particular grammatical form.

The history of language is littered with abandoned grammar that once expressed vital concepts.  Early forms of the Indo-European language family, which includes almost all European languages,*** had not only a singular and plural, but also a dual number.  This may originally have been used to express any two things, though by the time it reached classical Greek it was only used for specific pairs: the eyes, the ears, egg and bacon, Simon and Garfunkel and so on.

On the other hand, the abandonment of the dual may reflect a fundamental change in how we view the relationships between things.  For us, there's an obvious difference between one and all other numbers, and that forms an essential part of the patterning of our minds.  There's a mathematical justification, of course, since one really does behave in ways that are different from every other number.  On the other hand, two is also a unique number, the only even prime, and viewing doubleness as a thing apart in the same way as singleness may have been integral to how those societies saw the world.  Perhaps it explains why triple deities are so common, if three was the first plural number.

What a language does or doesn't include can have an enormous effect on a society.  To return to classical Greek, there was a simple but far-reaching linguistic habit among the Greeks.  The language had two little words (men and de) that could each be slipped in as the second word of a clause to set it up in opposition to another clause or sentence.  You could roughly translate men as "on the one hand" and de as "on the other hand", but such little words could be used without the clunkiness of the English phrases.

It's unlikely to be a coincidence that the language which adopted this structure was spoken by a people who essentially introduced philosophy and logic to the west.****  Whether the structure nurtured a logical frame of mind or the impulse for logic created the structure (or a bit of both), a naturally dialectical language was perfectly adapted for Socrates, Plato and the rest to debate philosophy.

From subtle relationships to logic to high-tech (or even talking about snow), all languages are rich and expressive in the concepts their speakers care about — and, as long as they're human, that will certainly include a full suite of emotions and imagination.

If the hero(ine) in your story meets a primitive tribe, by all means show communication difficulties between them, but don't make the mistake of believing that really is how they speak or think, any more than your hero does.  They're probably too busy gossiping about the stranger who doesn't know the first thing about their way of life to bother with all those heap many moons.

* Not among any known human society, at least.  Various species of animals may have very simple languages — prairie dogs, for instance, appear to have a vocabulary of a few dozen words to tell each other about food and danger — and these would qualify as primitive languages.

** I'm fairly sure I've come across a debunking of that, but I'm not certain.

*** Except for Finnish, Estonian, Lappish, Hungarian, Turkish, Maltese, Basque and some minority languages in Russia.

**** It's often said that the Greeks "invented" philosophy.  Of course, the Chinese and Indians also "invented" it, and no doubt other cultures did too, but however dubious that claim might be, the Greeks certainly originated the western tradition of philosophy.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

We'll Have a Yabba-Dabba-Dystopia

Today marks the publication of the latest edition of PlasmaFrequency, including my "flintpunk" story The Petrologic Engine.

Flintpunk? Well, let me explain how this story came to be. As you probably know, the "punk" genres have really taken off in recent years. It started with cyberpunk, but it was steampunk which really set the pattern, with its concept of retro-future science and technology — steam-powered spaceships, clockwork robots and the like. The range has varied from mannerpunk to dieselpunk — I'm just waiting for someone to come up with "punkpunk".*

A while ago, I took part in a writing challenge to write a story in one of the punk genres. Since I don't believe in doing things by halves, I came up with my own: flintpunk, retro-futurism set in the Neolithic age.

So what do I mean by flintpunk? Well, I have been known to describe it as "a serious, dystopian version of the Flintstones". Imagine if the Neolithic age had progressed to modern-level technology and social structures, but without ceasing to be Neolithic. Megavillages instead of cities; multi-storey roundhouses instead of skyscrapers; shardcasters instead of guns. And megafauna operating machinery, but no dinosaurs, of course. Cavemen and dinosaurs side by side only really work in the context of a kids' cartoon**.

It's not a good society, though, and I think that makes sense too. Creating a modern-style society out of Neolithic resources isn't going to be as easy as making one out of the resources we have, and it's going to need a very strong, centralised government. Strong, centralised governments have a way of getting paranoid and deciding that the ends justify the means.

And the Petrologic Engine of the title? Sorry, you're going to have to read the story to find out what that is.

I thought I was being very clever inventing flintpunk, till I discovered that there's already a recognised genre called stonepunk. On the face of it, they're much the same thing, but not entirely. Most of the works I've seen cited as examples of stonepunk don't seem to have the retro-future aspect, but are simply fantasies or semi-fantasies set in a stone age society, such as Jean M. Auel's Earth's Children series.

The Flintstones have also been cited. As we've seen, they have retro-future technology, but a cosy family setting hardly qualifies for the "punk" aspect. Though I'd certainly watch a version where Bedrock is a police state, and the Flintstones and Rubbles are members of the resistance. Perhaps Pebbles and Bam-Bam have been brainwashed at school into spying on their parents. Perhaps Dino is really a government agent. The possibilities are endless.

But that's another story. I'm pleased with the way The Petrologic Engine turned out, and especially that a magazine I respect seems to agree. Maybe I'll return to the megavillage sometime for more flintpunk, though only if a good enough story comes to me. Maybe flintpunk will come to be acknowledged as the name of a genre — the same as I'm still hoping for flintlock & sorcery, which I coined for The Treason of Memory. I seem to like flint, don't I?

* And I'm sure one of you is going to tell me that someone already has.

** Or in the context where no-one's looking at anything except Raquel Welch's fur bikini.

Plasma Frequency Issue 14 is on sale from today in print, Kindle, ePub or PDF format. Besides The Petrologic Engine, it features work from Jes Rausch, Andrew Knighton, DeAnna Knippling, Damien Krsteski, Jamie Lackey, Sylvia Anna HivĂ©n, Nicole Tanquary, John Zaharick, Steve Coate and Frances Silversmith, with a beautiful cover by Jon Orr.