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Heather Rose Jones has written a fascinating series of historical fantasy novels featuring queer female characters. This is a big deal since LGBTQ+ characters have thoroughly been ignored both in our history textbooks and our historical fiction. Oh, and Heather’s books are a lighthearted romp through history instead of the tragic tales that seem so typical of today’s LGBTQ+ stories.
Anyway, that’s enough rambling, it’s time to let Heather explain her wonderful series!
1. Can you tell us a bit about your Alpennia series?
The Alpennia series is, at its core, a fun, feel-good romantic adventure. I took a dollop of Georgette Heyer, a bit of Alexandre Dumas, a dusting of Ellen Kushner’s Riverside, but most of it was simply my dream of a complex, character-driven fantasy where the girl got the girl in the end. I wrote the first book, Daughter of Mystery, without any clear idea that it was going to be a series. I’d wrapped everything up. My characters were going to live happily ever after. But as soon as I’d finished, the question started nagging at me: which other character deserved her own story? The answer to that was clear. I’d fallen in love with Antuniet Chazillen despite–or perhaps because of–her being an antagonist in the first book. And as soon as my imagination turned to her, most of her story unrolled in front of me. After that, the threads just kept spinning out, weaving the cloth of the whole series.
The books have been marketed as romances, but that’s rather misleading. Although romantic relationships are a strong element, the series is driven more by the social and political challenges that my characters tackle to achieve their goals. And the magic. One major strand is how Margerit Sovitre learns that magic is deeper and more complex than what she first understood it to be. As the series goes on, a continuing theme is how she tries to integrate her experience of magic as a religious mystery with the ways other people around her experience it. Another continuing theme is the political and social transformation of Europe through the upheavals of the early 19th century, as seen through the lens of my little invented country. Yet another theme is experiencing all that through characters who are all, in some way, disenfranchised from power. Perhaps the most important continuing theme is the ways in which women create communities and networks that sustain them in the face of patriarchal society. And through it all, I want it to continue to be a fun, feel-good romantic adventure. I suppose I have my work cut out!
There are two books out currently. Daughter of Mystery is a coming-of-age romance between Margerit Sovitre, an unexpected heiress, and Barbara, her bodyguard. The Mystic Marriage continues those characters, but centers more on Antuniet Chazillen’s quest to redeem her family’s honor through alchemy, and her tangled relationship with Jeanne, Vicomtesse de Cherdillac, a social butterfly with more steel underneath than you might think. The third book is coming out in November 2016: Mother of Souls. This one introduces some new characters. Serafina Talarico is a frustrated scholar of mysteries from an Ethiopian immigrant family in Rome, and Luzie Valorin is her landlady in Alpennia, a widowed music teacher who aspires to compose opera. They all get tangled up in an international plot to affect the political balance of Europe through sorcery.
There will be at least five more books to finish the series as I currently conceive it. My standard answer on that point is “five more, or however long it takes to get to the revolution.”
2. What part of a story usually comes to you first?
I always start with one very vivd, emotionally-charged scene. Then I work outward from that scene to figure out how and why my character ended up there, and what consequences flowed out of it. For Daughter of Mystery, the “seed scene” was the confrontation over the reading of Baron Saveze’s will when Barbara discovers she’s been left to Margerit as a possession. For The Mystic Marriage, the scene was after the sweetheart divination at the Floodtide ball when Antuniet realizes she’s fallen in love with Jeanne de Cherdillac and knows it will mean nothing but heartbreak and disaster. For Mother of Souls, everything revolves around the climactic performance of Luzie’s opera.
It often takes me a lot of tries to get the rest of the plot to work out right, but the emotional core of that starting scene is always an anchor.
3. Most of your work revolves around queer female characters. Did you decide to do this or is that just how your characters appeared?
Back when I first started writing fiction, when I was in college, I wrote the same sort of characters that I found in the books I loved. So they were straight, and often the central characters were male. But over the years, I got more and more frustrated that I couldn’t find books with characters who were like me. Why should I always have to compromise and identify with a man? Or with a woman whose relationships are oriented toward men?
What seriously spurred me to start doing something with my writing was that frustration and hunger. If no one else was going to write the books I wanted to read, then I’d have to do it. The way I tend to describe it these days is that life is short, and I’ve chosen to prioritize writing those stories that center around queer women. I have a lot of other stories in my head, but I can’t write them all, so I’m writing these one.
So the characters didn’t just “appear” as queer women, rather I found those characters and asked myself what their stories were.
4. Have you found your queer characters more difficult to write than other characters?
Not at all! In fact, to some extent it’s much harder to write characters the more different they are from me. I had quite a challenge to write Jeanne de Cherdillac, because she’s such an extrovert and so good at social interactions, and she’s so strongly driven by her sexual desires that she’s made some unfortunate choices. But specifically writing queer character is easy. Not that writing straight characters is hard. After all, I have a lot more literary and real-life models for them! One thing that makes writing historic queer characters easier is that I’ve done a lot of research on historic understandings of sexuality. So I have a lot of models from history to work from as well. One of the most common missteps in writing queer historical fiction is transplanting modern people into historic settings. I always try to start from the history.
5. What are some of your favourite books with queer characters?
I’ll always have a soft spot for Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword, which was the book that both told me “you can write about this sort of character” and also left me heartbroken because Katherine loved Artemisia but they didn’t end up together. That was my moment of “Damn it, I’m going to have to do this myself!” Most recently, T. Kingfisher’s The Raven and the Reindeer was the book I would have given the moon and stars to have found when I was a teenager. My other favorite from the last year is a novelette “The Ghost Dragon’s Daughter” by Beth Bernobich, and some of the minor characters in her River of Souls series make me long for more books that feature them. The most unusual book I’m going to list here is a novel published in 1744, The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu. It’s an ungodly mess of a book, mixing together philosophy and lectures and travelogue. But the core of the book is the tale of two women who go romping across Europe together, both disguised as men, and who regularly declare their love and devotion to each other, and end up deciding to foreswear men and marriage and spend the rest of their lives as a devoted couple. There’s never any overt suggestion of sexual activity, but in every other way, it’s a lesbian romantic adventure. It just warms my heart to know that such a thing could be imagined and written in the mid 18th century.
6. Can you give us a brief rundown of your writing process?
When I settle down to one, I’ll let you know! Seriously, it’s been different for every book so far. For Daughter of Mystery, I was a total pantser–had no idea at all where the book was going as I wrote it. I wrote that one mostly longhand at first, transcribing as I went along, and it took years to finish a first draft. For The Mystic Marriage, I had a much more solid notion of the basic plot to begin with. I wrote from an outline, but the outline changed drastically toward the end. For that one, I composed on the laptop.
Mother of Souls was even more tightly outlined. As I go along, the constraints of the existing background and the need to plant foreshadowing for the rest of the series means I have to be a lot more structured. I did a lot of composing by dictation for this one, making use of my commute drive to lay out the basics of scenes. Then I’d flesh them out more fully as I transcribed them. Mother of Souls was also the first book where I promised a delivery date before I had a first draft anywhere near completion. So my writing was a lot more schedule-driven. In the end, I took a week’s vacation to write a chapter a day to finish the first draft.
My writing has to fit around my rather demanding day-job and my commute. My basic princple is that when I have a project going, I write something evey day no matter what. But another basic principle is that I have to avoid imagining the story in too much detail in advance of writing it down. Otherwise the life starts bleeding out of it. So I could never be an extreme plotter. That would kill the story for me.
7. Do you believe in writer’s block? Why/why not?
Oh, it’s definitely a thing. I mean, obviously, if people experience it, then my belief is irrelevant. When I have trouble writing, it generally isn’t a problem with having the ideas flow, but simply with being mentally exhausted. My day-job involves a lot of writing and problem-solving–in many ways, it’s very similar to writing novels. So when work is being very intense, sometimes it bleeds away all the fiction-writing energy.
8. What has been the biggest challenge of your writing career so far?
I’d have to say that the biggest challenge is connecting with my readership. Mainstream fantasy readers don’t tend to look to the lesbian publishers for SFF books. There’s often a different flavor of genre than what they’re looking for. Conversely, readers who focus on lesbian fiction aren’t really used to the “mainstram fantasy” style of story I’m telling. They tend to be looking for something more much romance-focused and not quite so convoluted in plot.
So here I am, writing mainstream-style fantasy for a lesbian publisher who isn’t quite sure how to market my books. It’s being something of a long, slow slog to build a readership and communicate what my “brand” is to the people who are looking for exactly what I’m writing. But I can see it happening now, after two and a half years. In the year after my first book came out, I was horribly depressed, thinking I’d never make that connection. But one great thing about independent presses is that you get a bit more support for the long haul. There’s less of a sense that if you don’t make an immediate hit, you get written off.
9. If you could give an aspiring writer only one piece of advice what would it be?
If someone’s an aspiring writer, the only useful piece of advice is: write. That’s the only thing that turns aspiration into reality. And the second most important piece of advice is: read. Read widely. Read all sorts of books. Think about what those books are doing and how they’re doing it. Read non-fiction. Read about people living lives very different from your own. Get inside other people’s heads. Stretch your understanding of the world. But, write.
10. What are you working on right now that readers can look forward to?
I’ve already mentioned Mother of Souls, which is currently with my editor. I tend to have a lot of projects sitting around in various stages–short stories, research project, ideas for novels that I need to think about more before I plunge in. The thing I’m trying to focus on at the moment will be my first book-length self-publishing project: a collection of the short stories I had published in the Sword and Sorceress anthologies, completed by a concluding novelette. The working title is Skinsinger: Tales of the Kaltaoven. I’m revising the original stories and starting to make connections for cover art and editing and whatnot. And then it’ll be time to start on the next Alpennia book, which will be a bit of a change of gears. It’s titled Floodtide and will be a YA story, focusing on a teenage working-class character whose life intersects with the protagonists of the series, but who has entirely different concerns and priorities.
Heather Rose Jones is writing a historic fantasy series with swordswomen and magic set in the alternate-Regency-era country of Alpennia. She blogs about research into lesbian-like motifs in history and literature at the Lesbian Historic Motif Project and writes both historical and fantasy fiction based on that research. She has a PhD in linguistics, studying metaphor theory and the semantics of Medieval Welsh prepositions, and works as an industrial failure investigator in biotech.
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