Yes, Virginia. There is research in Fantasy Writing.

            So I work in History Land, rather than Library Land. Wild shift, but there you have it. Because I’m trying to keep up with the people I work with, I wind up doing a lot of reading. I have a goal to read one non-fiction book a week, because I have perfected the art of skimming text, and retaining important information… It will take me a month or more to read a novel. Shuddup.

            Anyway, my coworker and I got on the subject of historians, and then broadened out to non-fiction writers in general who don’t do proper amounts of research, and fill in the gaps with fiction. They are annoying, and sometimes it’s an honest mistake. When it’s not, and someone bends the timeline to fit their narrative, that’s when it really makes my blood boil.

            If you think your ears were burning, then I was ranting about you at work, because not only did you publish inaccurate information, you had the audacity to target one my friends in a public forum. You opened your mouth, and used your influence in your community to do permanent and irreparable damage to their life, and career(s, who has one job anymore?), because you were jealous they’re a better human being than you ever will be, and probably more talented. But hey, how can we find out if they’re too heartbroken to write? Congratulations, you’ve beat someone who wasn’t competing with you, but trying to work by your side. The only reason I haven’t stooped to your level and called you out by name, is because God reminded me I’m a Christian and revenge belongs to Him. Also, yeah. You need to check over your manuscript for the reprint. That’s not how it went down.

            If you think your ears were burning because you did something awkward at that conference, where we were hanging out: Don’t worry about it, fam. I’m awkward too. I get two drinks in me and start taking selfies with people I just met. By the way, did I ever send that to you? Text me. Honestly, mistakes happen. Sometimes we make assumptions without having all the information, and then we have to change because we found new information. It’s chill, man. Just fix it for the reprint.

            Anyway, the Nice Lady in the room, started giggling and asked “Helen, remind me what you write again?”

            “Young adult fantasy, ma’am.”

            “Ah. And in fantasy, I’m sure there’s not much research, because you’re making up everything, right?”

            And unfortunately, I hit her with the “WeLl AcTuAlLy” and not in that tone, on purpose. I just know how I probably sound. And poor Nice Lady got trapped in a conversation about how I am so fricking frustrated with the intricacies of the Gishlan eco-system.  Like I told her, “I don’t want a palm tree, just growing next to a cottonwood.” which, made her giggle, because of course, she’s nice, and was originally gently suggesting, maybe, just maybe, I should be nicer too. But I went on to explain “I had to make sure the soil would support cotton crops, because otherwise, everyone would have to wear leather.” The ecosystem mimics my homeland, Goshen County, with heavy spoonfuls of Oregon and California. Because a fourteen year old started this series for me, and she wrote a beautiful looking place that felt like home. I had family in all three places. Do you know how not impressive a redwood is to a four year old? Everything is big. What’s a big tree? Did you know we have cotton in the Bible Belt because of an iceberg that predated humanity deposited enough PH in the soil when it melted? The other part of the world where cotton grows easily is India. I had to learn that, so I could give us those nice princess dresses we all love so dearly.

            I had to think about where they got wood to build furniture, where their rock quarries were, what kind of stone they had, I had to think about what kind of food they were able to grow, I had to look at the blue prints of multiple castles, to see how I wanted to build Slipsong Castle, which has housed 19 generations of Amethyst’s family, thus far. I just had to log in to an online database to tell you that. I had to build the Gishlan royals their own family tree, to keep them all straight. There is only so much land will support and I have to have approximate knowledge of these things so I don’t break science.

            I didn’t tell the Nice Lady this because it was some sick own. It was just the truth. Yes, I can make up crap as I go along. But I wanna make up good crap, so I choose to research. I think she was actually interested, and curious, when I explained things like “If you have giant mushroom farmers, you need them to have an economy for mushrooms, an ecosystem that will support the mushrooms, a purpose for growing them, and you need to know how mushrooms work or the mycologists will come after you.” We can’t have the mushie farmers gathering their seeds in the fall. (Mushrooms don’t have seeds. They produce spores. So when you have that urge to kick shrooms in the field, it’s because that’s how they spread, and at one point, the instinct to kick the shroom probably kept some of your ancestors alive… Either that or the mushrooms are farming us for our delicious rotting corpses, and they told you to smack their sex organs to further their agenda. Cool right?!) Buy the t-shirt here.

            So this is me telling you to go ahead and lose yourself in your research. Write what you know, but go forth and know more! The libraries, museums, and archives are here to help you do just that… The mushrooms on the other hand…

            No one wants to see your character chase the bad guy through the house with a broadsword, and then get enlisted in the war, and go into battle with a cutlass. (Because I will die if I don’t over explain, everything, to everyone, all of the time: broadswords and claymores are supposed to be used in open spaces. Like fields. Battle fields. Cutlasses are smaller, and easy to maneuver around a confined space. Like your apartment. Which is why I sleep with one.) Guys, I’m telling you, if you’re a fantasy writer, get yourself a blacksmith. Here! Borrow mine! Lonnie is amazing and has spent hours teaching me about steel grades, knife types, general maintenance, and who else knows. I just absorb. One of these days, I will have him forge me a broadsword so I can practice acting out scenes before I put them on paper. Research! The one I have now, the balance is way off, and the pommel obviously isn’t doing anything.

            Even when I was writing silly fanfiction for the The Road to El Dorado meme group, I took my happy self to the library, and asked for books about the Aztecs… In doing so, I found out I should’ve asked for Mayan! Either way, I wound up learning a lot about the culture, and the people. “You can’t write offensive content about a mermaid, because mermaids don’t exist.”–or so an indigenous woman sang to me on Tik Tok, to the tune of ‘Colors of The Wind’. If you have skin, and a culture, and you choose to write characters with different colored skin, and a different culture than yours, I strongly recommend you listen to people with that skin tone, and culture, talk about their experiences. Maybe even hire a sensitivity reader. There are plenty of content creators on social media, that will voice their frustrations with the entertainment industry, talk about their culture, and their experiences as a human with skin, that mushrooms will eventually eat. I don’t recommend you ask these content creators to work for you for free (you do that, you get what you deserve), but I recommend you actually consume their content and learn from it. Although the fic remains unfinished, I’m pretty fricking proud of what I made.

            So yeah, that’s my advice for this month. Find what interests you, pull on a thread, then threaten your kidnappers with fan theories about ‘El Dorado’ and how it ties in to Mayan mythos. Google the domestication of cats, then have your characters ride large ones through your cotton fields! Write about how Alaska doesn’t really grow vegetables, but people still thrive there. Learn how to darn socks, and can fruit. Teach yourself folk magic, so you can borrow it for your wizards. Read old magazines from the 60’s, so you can get a handle on the fashion. Trap your entomologist friend with the sweet allure of coffee so you can try to understand how he’s trying to cure cancer with fly brains. After all, I was just picking my coworker’s brain about herbal remedies for colds, so I could give plants to my imaginary friends! Just go have some fun doing research! It’s still important, and kinda fun. 

          This the part of the blog where I beg for money. Feed me if you dare. It will keep this blog alive. Choose this link for a monthly subscription, or this link for a one time donation.

You Don’t Need Money to Become a Published Author

            I have been in this industry for a decade. I have seen every type of scam, scheme, and actual honest help. There are scores of people out there ready to take your money so you can achieve your dreams. (Trust me. I have poetry about it written in glitter pens from a decade ago.) So let’s talk about what you think you need and what you actually need.

Scam: “Give me $1,000 and I’ll give you a book.” and sometimes they promise fame and fortune too. These people do a really crappy job doing exactly what you could accomplish all by yourself but often give you an inferior product. It used to be a guy with a printing press in their basement, now I’m sure it’s more of a guy who knows how Lulu dot com works. It’s basically vanity publishing, and often, because of that, your books won’t even be available on Amazon. Sometimes they just take your money and run. Don’t give them money.
(I’ll let you guys know of a few of the “publishing houses” that have approached me climb into my inbox. Tehe!)

Scheme: I have seen smallish companies that offer to do things like take over the production of your book from start to finish. Which, I mean, if you wanna throw $1,000 at someone to do that for you go for it! Just do your homework and make sure they’ll actually do the job right. They’re usually upfront with their practices. “We’ll do all the work it takes to get your book self-published on Amazon. Editing, cover art, listing it,” etc. They have different tears of help they can give. They’re not necessarily bad. They just do things you could easily do yourself.

Actual honest help: Okay. This is what I do. It’s still not ideal, but it’s what’s working for me. Over the years I have accumulated a team of freelancers to do everything I can’t do well myself. Poor Richard does my cover art, and sometimes gets memes about how crazy I drive him made about him, even though he assures me I’m not that bad; Caren Speckner is an awesome human who edits my stuff so I don’t look like an idiot in public while allowing me to keep my Goshen County accent. (Most people cry “That’s not grammatically correct!” but that’s how I talk…) Cierra does my logos in that traditional American tattoo art I’m so fond of and allows me to pay her in bones and bottles, because I’m a cowgirl who likes booze. In Tales from the Gishlan Wood she’ll be doing the flags.
If you choose this rout Pay. Your. People. That street runs both ways and I’ve seen authors walk off with 35+ hours of work without paying their freelancers. Not a “I’ll pay you $5 a month until it’s done.” just poof! Not cool.
The reason I say this is not ideal is because these people’s services are something a traditional publisher should be paying for. The reason they should be paying for them is because traditional publishers know more about making books than you or I. At least they’re supposed to. Poor Richard’s cover art might not fit current marketing trends! Accent or no, it’s still grammatically incorrect. And traditional American tattoo art? Not in my good Christian suburbs. The price you pay for a good traditional publisher is less creative control. But. I am confident that if I got a wild hair and started self-publishing my books, say, next week, it’d be the best quality product I could offer the public. Perhaps, one day, I will find a traditional publisher that shares my vision.

            Like many things in life, you don’t need money but it sure as Heck makes things run smoother. Jeeze. My biggest expense when I published War and Chess was buying copies to resell. I’d buy them 50 at a time, so that costed about $300.  I remember I would save my money $20 bill by $20 bill at a time in a ceramic pig I made in middle school that sat in the corner of my parent’s house. (Obviously, I have no money hidden there now.) It was a big investment but I made the money back by selling copies at book signings. Those were some treasured and adventurous times.

            Not having money doesn’t mean you don’t have to work. It means you have to work twice as hard to accomplish the same thing. You can publish a book without spending a dime (especially if you self-publish on Amazon). If you’re sleeping on your own career because “YoU cAn’T aFfOrD iT.” I’m here to tell you it’s bullsh*t. You can do anything you set your mind to.

Family Matters

            Okay, this is probably some super niche advice but what else am I here for? Can’t write the same blog posts everyone else is doing! Come let Auntie Helen give you some advice: Never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line. Just kidding. That’s not it. Although Princess Bride has never steered me wrong before… The advice is “make your characters a family tree.”

            Speaking as someone who has at least 18 greats aunts and uncles, four grandpas, cousins from Sweetwater County Wyoming, to Goshen County Wyoming, Texas to Australia , family is not an easy thing to keep track of. Your imaginary friends probably don’t have a neat and tidy little family tree either. It has helped me so much to keep track of the Gishlan royal bloodline.

            Starting with War and Chess… Well we know that Princess Amethyst is King Alabaster’s daughter, right? Well who were Amethyst mother’s parents? And their parents before them? More importantly who were King Alabaster’s parents and where did they come from? And those people? And the people before them? Wait! Didn’t Helen casually mention something about writing about Amethyst’s granddaughters? Who did they come from? Who did she marry? Who did her children marry? It is impossible to keep track of it all in your head. Don’t try it.

            I found this nice little website that won’t ask too many questions or try to link you back to census records─ which is great if your friends are real! But in this case they’re not. No one can see your family tree unless you invite them too and they don’t get too upset if you character’s great aunt ran off with the duke of Flim Flam because she couldn’t handle the pressure of being queen. They even have a space with biography notes where you can write that! And if you have art/fanart/concept art there’s a place for that too! This wonderful website I’m pushing so hard is called Family Echo.

            Definitely make yourself a login so you can save your work! I credit this site with giving me fodder for the next Gishlan books! There’s about 15 generations between Princess Amethyst and the first queen of Gishlan. That’s a whole lot of people to write about. Currently, in my head, Amethyst’s great granddaughter has two kids. So. Many. People.

            Having a mapped out family tree is especially important to me because the way dates work in Gishlan is by season/day/dynasty as compared to month/day/year. So for example War and Chess would have taken place on a day like Spring, 15th day, Alabaster. I toyed with a book for a while that was all a servant girl’s diary. Dates where especially important then. I can’t have characters walking into an abandoned house to find a rumpled up old diary if I can’t figure out who should’ve been the ruling power at the time. I’m telling you, map out your character’s family tree.

            Even if you’re writing that one weird orphan who becomes the chosen one. No one comes out of thin air. Someone had to raise them too. You can either pay homage to their parents or show respect to their biological parents by including them. Even if you don’t use the information in the book it’s something you know about them. Genetics are a powerful thing. I’m pretty sure I have personality traits similar to my great great grandfather.

            And really, reading V.C. Andrews’ [the real V.C. Andrews] Flowers in the Attic series I had to stop and make myself a family tree just so I could keep them all straight. I mean, that one’s gross but it was relevant to what I was doing. If you want to incorporate inbreeding in your fictional story you’re going to need a family tree. (I will only judge you silently.) Your readers might appreciate one too. Even if you want to bring on the main character’s distant cousin of their aunt’s uncle (I’ve got family like that) you need to have it plotted out in your head where they fit. Don’t expect yourself to just carry that around in your brain.

            Making a family tree will help you get to know your main character a lot better, and who knows! Something more may come out of it! Like an entire series of books following the family around! *COUGH* Let it flow, let it fly, Family Echo is my go-to.

As always, if there’s something I haven’t covered that you’d like me to leave me a note! Don’t forget to hit subscribe! Comment and say hi! Don’t be a stranger!

How To Donate Your Book to a Library

            Having worked for James Bond’s library I have up close and personal experience with the subject. But every library is different so I turned to the Library Think Tank – #ALATT on Facebook. One of the biggest groups of librarians online. I asked them what’s their process for accepting donations from indie authors. (You’re not James Patterson. I promise.)

            The short answer: Don’t.

            If you’re afraid to have your feelings hurt you can stop reading right here. Otherwise, I’m going to hurt your feelings.

  • Build a connection with your library.

The library you visited on vacation and casually decided to gift them a copy of your book is more likely to put it in the book sale rather than on the shelves. Your local library, where people know you, and actually like you are more likely to support you. People in your hometown want to read your book but some folks just don’t have the cash to get their own copy. Your local librarians understand this. If they think there’s patrons that want to read your book they will be twice as likely to actually put it in the connection.

DO NOT just buy a copy of your own book from Amazon and ship it to the library without a note. It’s a sure fire way to make a librarian go “What’s this? Hmm. Weird.” Then toss it in the cart that runs over to the book sale without a second thought. I’ve seen that happen more than once.

  • Get reviews.

Yes. Even if you and the librarian have matching friendship bracelets you need to get reviews. Preferably from people who don’t like you. Or just don’t know you! Embracing the stranger danger is probably best in this case!

Why? Because librarians have a lot to do and don’t feel like reading your book in their personal time. (I told you I’d hurt your feelings.) Personal time is when you can read Chuck Tingle if you want to! Or fan fiction! They want to read the reviews at work and see if it’s a good fit for the library’s collection. Also, the librarian you’re friends with might not be the librarian in charge of acquisitions.  The folks in cataloging get the final say. That’s their entire job. And if they can’t quickly discern if your book fits the collection they’re going to set it aside with every intention of cataloging it later. Later could very well mean never.

  • You gave a gift. Don’t pester them.

You remember that time your aunt gave you that weird bowl with cats painted all over it, and she got mad you didn’t fill it with Orange Fluff and bring it to Christmas? But you still had it. It was just in your house holding out of season fruits you paid too much money for? And then because she made a big deal out of it you started resenting it and now it sits in your cupboard holding other bowls? Yeah. That’s what happens if you call them up twice a week and ask if your book is on the shelf yet. That’s the trickiest part of gifts. When you give someone a gift they’re under no obligation to use it. Hopefully they like it. Don’t be your mean aunt.

  • Build a quality book.

First, turn to page 101 in War and Chess. Now click this link. This is why I don’t deserve a PS5. Out of all the book signings I’ve had, and all the places I’ve been to, there are five places in the world that have my book. All of them are in Wyoming.

Get yourself a good copy editor, an ISBN, and there are a lot of libraries that absolutely require your book be translated in English. America has no official language but English seems to be the most common tongue. If your book has type-os, ugly cover art that doesn’t match the story, disturbing imagery for the target audience─ There was one librarian who told me a story about reading a book about the tooth fairy to her story time kids. It was written by a local author. But what made it memorable was the tooth fairy ripping off her face in the end. That story time group is in middle school now but they still pop in and complain about their shared trauma.─ all of these little things will prevent your book from entering a public library’s collection.

            Last of all, you need to understand that your book might not make it in. Every library is different. Some libraries have an acquisitions board! Some libraries are prepared for you and have instructions on their websites! But you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. The real trick to getting your book in a library is putting in the time and work, and making a good book. There’s more to books than plot. If you do make it in understand you’re lucky and always say thank you.

Join me next year for a whole new bundle of blog posts! Don’t forget to subscribe so you won’t miss a thing. Thank you for all your support. You reading this means you helped me achieve my goals of keeping a monthly blog for one year! Thank you! As always, if you’ve got questions, something I didn’t address yet, or you just want to say “Hi” go visit that Contact tab off to the left. I practically live on social media! Merry Christmas, Happy Yule, Happy Hanukkah, and New Years! (We survived!) Be blessed.

NaNoWriMo Is Weird

            NaNoWriMo is weird. You’re just expected to write 50,000 words in 30 days!? Do you have a death wish? Don’t get me wrong, the whole non-profit organization is great. I love it! In my own way I participate every year! But the holiday, NaNoWriMo, concerns me.

            Have I ever told you the story of my music career? I have? Well here’s the story again: Once upon a time there was an operatic soprano who played trumpet. If you’ve met sopranos, and you’ve met trumpet players individually, you would know that a trumpeting soprano is the human version of glitter. Really arrogant glitter.

            This little trumpet playing soprano left home at 18 and played on street corners for tips. She traveled all around the continent (yes, Canadian and Mexico too) dooting for dimes, moved into an apartment, then only played a mute because it was too loud, then stopped playing all together after a while. She stopped singing in choirs in favor of getting a job *Snorts in global pandemic*

            Why did she stop making music? She got burnt out.

            I loved music. It was everything to me. But one day, after a while, I just stopped! My stereo is still more important to me than my TV, I have a display of instruments in my house (pretty, pretty please don’t rob me), and I sing to myself but other than that… I’d like to think that writing was more of everything to me but in all honesty, I got burnt out.

            DON’T GET BURNT OUT.

            I cannot stress it enough. Do. Not. Get. Burnt. Out.

            You know what happens when I sit around making jewelry for my Etsy store until my fingers hurt? I don’t want to look at the pretty things I just made, I don’t want to think about jewelry, I don’t want to wear jewelry. I want it waaaaaaay the heck over there! Thankfully, I keep going back to it, but only when writing is too much.

            Do not use NaNoWriMo to hurt yourself. I know we all want the good grade but it won’t help you in the long run if you write for thirty days, wind up hating it, and then never touch a keyboard, a typewriter, or pen again. If you’re having fun then by all means keep going! If you’re loving the extra accountability, then keep going! If you’re just having a good time himming and hawing, and actually having someone listen to you talk about your book, keep going! But if you’re going to use NaNoWriMo and all its weirdness to hurt yourself throttle back. When you get obsessed that’s how you know it’s time to take a break.

            NaNoWriMo is weird and it is not kind to those of us who want to be the very best that no one ever was. We put too much pressure on ourselves and it’s not a good time. NaNoWriMo is weird, here’s your permission not to break your neck and make yourself hate writing.

If you want to see me epically fail at my NaNo goals you can find me on their website. I’m nelehjr. Next month’s blog post will be about gift giving! How to Donate Your Book to a Library! Of course, if you want me to cover something I haven’t yet, smash the contact button, or drop me a comment.