Back in the World: Matriarchy Edition

October 17th, 2015Posted by Nancy



There have been one or two comments about the fact that Cold Hillside appears to be set in a matriarchy.  One person objected to this, on the grounds that reverse oppression is not an improvement over the original brand (a fair opinion).

I didn’t set out to create a matriarchical culture for Lushan.  The original germ of the idea was two countries with different political structures and visions of power and the people trapped between them. That idea required that there be some level of authority wielded by women and at least one of the countries had to be ruled by a woman, even if it was not the norm. Once I started toying with the idea of using the Faerie Court then the Queen had to be one of the powers.

As I started to develop ideas for the novel (a very long and painful process, as any readers of earlier posts know), I realized that there were two core concepts I wanted to be there, no matter how those ideas expressed themselves out in the course of the actual writing.

The first came out of the realization that I didn’t want to write a conventional fantasy novel about the struggle between good and evil (to use the broadest of cliches) but a psychological drama that happened to be set in a fantasy world.  In the most perfect imaginary version of the book, it would be like a Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine novel, with added fey.  Sadly, I didn’t come anywhere close to that but part of that vision the book was the focus on the relationships and how they drove the story.

Though there is a central male-female relationship within the book, in my mind the relationships between the women are equally important.  Teresine’s loyalty to Sarit, Lilit’s thorny interactions with her mother, Raziel’s reluctant acceptance of her place in the world through Teresine’s tutelage, the disappointed anger that drives Amaris’ relationship with Teresine – exploring all of these was part of what kept me grinding away at the book when it would have been easier to quit.

In order to have these relationships be central to the characters, they also had to be central to the plot, which led to the second core concept.  These couldn’t be women who had no power or agency within their world.  Once I started down that road, I found that I loved writing a culture in which most of the key parts that in a traditional fantasy would have been played by men were fulfilled by women.  The rulers, the advisers, the soldiers, the leaders of the merchant houses, the religious figures, the bakers, the bartenders, the farmers, the apprentices were all more likely to be women than men.  At a certain point, I had to work at not automatically defaulting to making virtually every new character who walked into the scene female.  (As an aside, I had no trouble at all imagining the universe of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice populated entirely by women.)

There are male characters I love in the book.  The most fun I had during the whole process was writing Daen.  He wasn’t like anyone I had ever written before and most of the time I could just stand aside and let him talk (and believe me, he swore A LOT more in the first draft).  Lilit’s father Hendren is the most genuinely decent person in the entire book.  Teresine’s conversation with Perrin and her encounter with the foreign soldier were unexpected glimpses into the lives of the men who contributed to the survival of Lushan through their engineering and martial prowess.

Could I have written this book within the context of a patriarchical culture?  Maybe, but it would a hell of a lot harder.  Could I have created a more egalitarian society? Maybe, but I didn’t.

In the end, I wrote the only book I could.



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Back in the world: Italy Edition

October 3rd, 2015Posted by Nancy

It’s been a very long time since I posted here, obviously. I’ve launched the book, been to Italy, survived the summer in a blur of activity, haven’t completely imploded from my job and it’s already September. Time to get back in the world and start doing things again, even writing a blog no one reads.

But let’s not overdo it on the first day. Intead, here are some pictures of Italy. We spend two weeks there in May, going from Rome to Venice to Montalcino to Florence and then back to Rome. Other than having my wallet stolen on the metro on the last day of the trip (and I was paranoid enough to have all my credit cards and most of my money stashed somewhere else, so all they got was 50 euros, some receipts and an Ontario driver’s license), it was wonderful. Loved Venice, liked Rome better than I thought I would (despite aforementioned loss), wished it had not rained ALL the time in Florence, and enjoyed the Tuscan countryside. The food was incredible, the wine even better.

Our apartment in Rome. I have mixed feelings about staying in apartments (I know it’s taking away housing stock from locals) but it is so much more pleasant than staying in hotels. Several of the owners bemoaned the state of the economy in Italy and they relied on the apartments or agritourism rental cottages to stay afloat.
The view from the apartment in Rome

We went to Pompeii, hiked up Vesuvius, and toured the Vatican and the Colisseum/Palatine Hill complex. We sprang for the guided tours on most of the trip (including three tours in one day in Florence) because it allowed us to skip the lines and make the most of our limited time in each city. I admit to fondness for the movie Gladiator and had a few flashbacks while touring the Colosseum, especially of the circling shot when the “barbarian horde” first walks out into the arena.

From Rome, we took the train to Venice. I loved Venice. Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it’s a “disneyfied”shell of it’s former self. It was still beautiful, fascinating and full of art, food, history and mystery.

Our trip coincided with the Venice Bienale contemporary art show, so we spent a day (not long enough) visiting the pavilions and exhibitions. Below is the South Korean entry – a short science fiction film guaranteed to appeal to people like us.

Life in the Tuscan countryside is easy for a visitor. It was a bit tougher for the hardworking team on the farm where we stayed. Well, except for the resident cats, who mostly slept and attempted to mooch food.

It rained in Florence, which meant we were even happier to spend time looking at old scientific instruments at the Musee Galileo and the art at the Uffizi gallery. The colour and detail was overwhelming. One of my favorites was by Filippo Lippi and featured these lovely little girls, who are a trifle bored by the grand events around them.

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Upcoming Events

March 29th, 2015Posted by Nancy

I’ll be reading in Peterborough on April 2nd as part of the ChiZine Peterborough series.

Time: 5:00

Place: Sadleir House, 751 George Street North, Peterborough, Ontario


And on April 10th and 11th, I’ll be at Ad Astra.  I’m doing 3 panels and a reading.

If you’re in the area, come on out and say hello.





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Words into pictures

March 12th, 2015Posted by Nancy

girl homeOn my way to the “Page to Screen” cocktail party designed to link Canadian writers and publishers with film and TV production companies, I was thinking about the ways in which each of my books might work -or not – as a movie or television show.

I love movies and it’s very clear that what makes a great book does not necessarily make a great film.  The key is to translate the heart of what the story is about into a visual medium, without violating the author’s vision of the characters and the meaning but also without slavishly replicating every single incident or line of dialogue.  I like to think I’d be the kind of writer who would happily cash the cheque and then get out of the way, accepting that what the final product turned out to be would not change the book I wrote.  I’ve never written a screenplay and I’m not sure I want to, because much of what I love about writing is performed by other people – the actors, the cinematographer, the director – in films.

But of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t have some thoughts on the matter.

The Night Inside

This was actually optioned a long time ago and I even read the script.  To me, this would be the easiest of the books to film.  There are few special effects required, there are neighbourhoods in Toronto that approximate the Queen Street of the early 1990s and you could either treat it as a period piece, set it in an indeterminate time, or update it to the present (though you might have to throw in a couple of “Twilight” comments).  It could even be effectively done in black and white on a low budget, like the new film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

Blood and Chrysanthemums

One of the main challenges with this would be determining whether it was a standalone project or was part of a longer piece that included The Night Inside.  Again, special effects are minimal, but the scope of the story broadens, requiring sections to be shot both in Toronto and Banff.   Because I based the Fujiwara diary sections on elements of Japanese popular culture (the ghost story, the samurai tale, the noh play etc), I’ve always imagined it would be fascinating to treat each of these as their own “movie within a movie” and choose a style of film-making based on the original Japanese examples I watched.  For example, Fujiwara’s transformation into a vampire, in the story “The Lady of the Autumn Moon”, is based on the classic Japanese ghost story included in the film Ugestu.


The Fujiwara diary sections might also work as animation, in the Studio Ghibli style.  (Damn, now I want to see that…)


A Terrible Beauty

I realized that with each book, the fantasy elements increase and so would the budget.  The key to A Terrible Beauty would be the right setting and the appropriate use of CGI.  It would now be possible to create Sidonie’s inhuman appearance without resorting to the dreaded “bumpy forehead” of Star Trek fame.  Just narrow her jawline here, add some cheekbone there (a la Angelina Jolie in Maleficent) and there you are.  (I’m sure I’m completely over-simplifying that.)


Cold Hillside

And up the budget and complexity goes again.  I think it would certainly be possible to make a single, long film of this but it could also work as a mini-series.  Vistas are required for this one, and strange cultures, and the multiplicity of place that is the Faery Court.  You could always go the Dangerous Liaisons route and concentrate on one or two key settings, costuming and close-ups to do the work and at least it doesn’t really require a cast of thousands and contains no epic battle scenes (sorry).

Dangerous Liaisons


Don’t ask me who would play anyone, though.  I generally have no idea.



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The sound of my voice (on reading aloud)

March 1st, 2015Posted by Nancy




I just finished the rather long process of recording an audio version of Cold Hillside as a gift to a friend.

I’m not a bad reader, but it was definitely a challenge.  First of all, I had to actually listen to a few audio books.  I found that interesting but time-consuming – I could have read the books in half the time it took to listen to them.  It quickly became apparent there was no way that I could do voices beyond the most simple of characterizations, so everyone in my version sounds basically the same.  It also became apparent that with 148,000 words to read, abridging it beyond the occasional elimination of a “said” was not in the cards.

Then there was the technical part of the process.  I’m very bad at dealing with technology and so I had to find the simplest possible program to use.  Fortunately, my husband is very good with technology and he found me one called Voice Record Pro, which would work on our IPad.  It was so intuitive that even a techno-peasant like me could figure out how to record and edit the files.

So with the technical part of the problem solved, it was on to the reading itself.  I soon realized that I could not edit out every single stumble, so I restricted my fixes to more egregious errors.  Some of the chapters had as many as five sections that I had to edit and stitch together to form the final file.  Despite my attempts to maintain a relatively consistent volume, it did vary somewhat, as I recording a chapter at a time over several months.

The hardest thing was reading the prose itself.  Every clumsy sentence and every repetitive word is glaringly apparent, which is why reading your work aloud is a useful part of the editorial process.  I’d done that for portions of  the book but not all of it.  Fortunately, due the wonders of e-books, I can work with the publisher to correct the few typos that survived the proofing process and reword a particularly infelicitous sentence or two.

The recorded version is by no means professional quality but it worked for what I wanted it to do.

Next time, I’m going to read the whole damned thing out loud before I submit it, though.



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The curse of reviews

December 20th, 2014Posted by Nancy

And now comes the time in a book’s life when the reviews start. I wish I was one of those writers who could grandly proclaim that I never read reviews but that would be a complete lie. I shamelessly admit to googling myself. A good review will make me happy and a bad review will make me huddle in the corner and beat myself over the head with my very old, very heavy copy of Roget’s Thesaurus.

I remind myself that I’ve survived bad reviews before. I will never forget opening a copy of Maclean’s magazine (Canada’s equivalent to Time, at the time) in the dentist’s office and discovering a FULL-PAGE REVIEW of Blood and Chrysanthemums. A full-page BAD review. The dentist probably could have given me a root canal and I wouldn’t have noticed because I was so devastated. When I was apologizing to the Penguin publicist about it (because that is the kind of sad person I am), she was baffled. “It was a FULL-PAGE ARTICLE in Maclean’s,” she kept saying. “No one will remember whether it was good or bad. All they’ll remember is that they read about you in Maclean’s.”  I’m not sure it’s true but it did make me feel better.

Once I achieve a bit of distance from the initial elation (I rock!) or despair (I am the worst writer in the world!), I try to take the less than glowing reviews for what they’re worth. There are some people that you could never have made happy, because they wanted a book you did not write (sorry, The Night Inside is NOT a vampire romance).  Sometimes you’re forced to admit, like the witch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, that “it’s a fair cop.”

Given that it’s been a long time since the last round of reviews, my skin has thinned a bit. So you’ll forgive me if I haven’t quite reached the “it’s a fair cop” stage yet and may spend a few moments huddling in the corner with a very strong martini (because damn, that Roget’s hurt).


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The week in links..

November 29th, 2014Posted by Nancy

Discovered somewhat belatedly that I’d made a couple of “to read” lists.

The list is always a good source for my own “to read” list and November’s installment featured 3 ChiZine books, including Cold Hillside.
Also made it onto a list on Buzzfeed. I guess that means this thing is real…
Also, the fabulous Sam of Cakes Cove has launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund her new retail store in Toronto.  Contribute now and get some delicious rewards.


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It’s real…and it’s spectacular!

November 13th, 2014Posted by Nancy


Thanks to Vincent Haig for the incredible cover art, Sam Beiko for the cover design, Sandra Kasturi for believing in this book, and to everyone at CZP!

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Soundtracks Part IV

November 13th, 2014Posted by Nancy

Cold Hillside turned out to be like neither A Terrible Beauty nor Blood & Chrysanthemums when it comes to the music I associated with writing it. While it didn’t have either artists or songs that connected directly to the content, I had an ITunes playlist called “Cold Hillside”, which is certainly more than I would necessarily been able to muster for B&C.  At some point I seem to have erased the playlist so I’m working from memory of what was on it.

Because the writing of this novel took such a long time, my musical tastes changed and expanded, and albums in high rotation on the ipod came and went. During the periods when I was tentatively poking at writing, or distressed over the fact that I wasn’t writing, or trying to determine if I would ever write again, I took comfort from the music of a number of singer-songwriters who tend to be associated with country or folk so the playlist was dominated by woman like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch.  Very little that they wrote had a direct bearing on the novel itself, but it answered some emotional need I had while writing.

Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Come On, Come On” album is one of my all-time favorites and this song is pure poetry.

This song by Lucinda Williams is one of the rawest evocations of addictive sexual and emotional need I’ve ever heard.

It’s hard to pick a single song from Emmylou but this one, from her album “Red Dirt Girl”, does have an emotional connection to the novel.

And, because we’re now watching the publishing world slide into the transitional chaos that has mired the music world, and I know writers who make pennies while their work gets posted on sharing sites without their consent, here’s a song from Gillian Welch. Sadly, she’s right: “we’re going to do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay”.

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Soundtracks, Part III

October 26th, 2014Posted by Nancy

After the non-soundtrack post last week, we’re back on topic.  A Terrible Beauty most definitely had a soundtrack.  Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, Sarah McLachan’s 1993 album, turned out to be the perfect blend of mood and music for that book.

The lines “The night is my companion/and solitude my guide/Would I spend forever here/and not be satisfied” seemed written for an ancient vampire who enacts a nightly ritual of request and refusal with a captive painter. (The writing of the song Possession is a fascinating story in itself, but I leave it to you to check that out.)

A few excepts below.


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