Pitch Wars 2019 and why I'm sitting it out this year ...

I’m posting this because several people have been asking me about my participation in Pitch Wars 2019, and I want to be perfectly upfront about what’s going on with me. Before I say anything else, I want you all to know that being involved with the Pitch Wars community was one of the most positive things that happened to me in 2018. The mentors are some of the most caring and nicest people that I’ve had the pleasure to get to know in the writing community, and I was flat out lucky that Elvin Bala submitted his work to me.

However, 2018 came with several personal problems for me. I turned in Where Oblivion Lives in February, but all novels receive editorial feedback, so part of 2018 was also spent in refining Where Oblivion Lives before I was able to turn to the sequel, Carved from Stone and Dream. Over the summer, I suffered a meniscus tear in my right knee, which was painful and threw me out of work for several weeks. Once I had the surgery for the tear, my husband suffered hospitalization for a heart issue. Then we had two hurricanes, during which one of them gave us a nine day loss of power, immediately followed by the holidays.

Of course, while all of this was going on, I was also working with Elvin on his Pitch Wars submission. This wasn’t a bad thing, because Elvin did all the heavy lifting on his book. I spent no more time reading and commenting on his book than I would have for any other author. My biggest problem was that all of the Pitch War deadlines hit at the same approximate time as my deadline for Carved from Stone and Dream, the novel that I simply couldn’t get a handle on for the longest time.

Michael R. Fletcher probably read thirty incarnations of that book and gave me some great advice every time. I’m not sure if I would have made it as far as I did in December without his help. Unfortunately, by December I had about 30,000 words of what needed to be an 80,000 word novel. I wound up taking time off work and writing non-stop—twelve and fourteen hour days of doing nothing but pumping my way through that book, which was due to be turned in almost a week before Where Oblivion Lives released in February 2019.

Michael, Judith Tarr, and Beth Cato all graciously gave me blurbs. David and the team at Harper Voyager helped me any way they could—they got a box of ARCs for World Fantasy Con and I gave them all away. Another hundred copies were given away on Goodreads. The book received a starred review on Publishers Weekly on Christmas Eve, and while the people who have taken the time to read it have generally been very complimentary about the book, Where Oblivion Lives is way behind everything else, and I’m afraid it’s too late to play catch-up.

Of course, there is a certain freedom to all this. Carved from Stone and Dream veered wildly away from what I wanted, meaning another quiet horror novel focused on a different character. Rather than the gothic tone of Where Oblivion Lives, Carved from Stone and Dream turned into Miquel’s and Rafael’s story, and it has a distinct military fiction/war novel flavor that is roughly equivalent to Band of Brothers meets The Bunker, but instead of an army of guys riding to the rescue, it’s Ysabel and her friend Violeta. Rather than force the story, I rolled with it, and for better or for worse, it is what it is.

So, with all that said, since the adventures of Diago and Company might very well come to end with this last book (for we all live and die by our sales), I want to focus one hundred percent on promoting Carved from Stone and Dream and making A Song with Teeth the best novel that I can write. I want to do this for the people who have supported these characters and their stories and who have all been so gracious with their feedback.

And that means spending a large portion of my time in 2019 and 2020 on those two things. Once I’m done, I’ll consider reapplying to mentor Pitch Wars again. As I said in the beginning, it was an incredibly wonderful experience, and I love being able to give back to up-coming-writers.

Meanwhile, watch for me …

A Lush and Seething Hell [book review]

Horror is many different things to different people. What scares one person isn’t the same as what frightens another. For me, the best horror is a deep examination of our negative emotions; those thoughts and fears that disquiet in the depth of the night: moments left undone, words unsaid, the strange, the weird, the obscene brought to light. Done well, it is a cerebral exploration of the darkness that lies within everyone.

If that is your vibe, too, then here are two stories done exceptionally well and collected in a single volume entitled A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs:

The first story
The Sea Dreams it is the Sky

I read this story as Word document last year. It immediately reminded me of the Jorge Luis Borges story, “The Gospel According to Mark,” which I read many years ago. Stylistically, both works begin in the most mundane of ways and make a slow, steady progression, first into the surreal and then into horror. Jacobs takes the unsettling imagery of a country at war with itself and gives us, what I like to call, Borges meets Lovecraft.

Refugees from the fictional Latin American country of Magera chance upon one another in their self-imposed exile in Málaga, Spain. One is the poet, Rafael Avendaño, and the other is a teacher, Isabel, who is our narrator. Avendaño is thought by most to be dead, murdered by the fascists who now rule Magera, but instead, he escaped with his life, but not with his art. Since his exile in Spain, he no longer writes poetry.

Isabel, on the other hand, doesn’t approach her friendship with Avendaño with any sense of reverence. She finds his poetry to be misogynistic and puerile, nor does she teach his works in her classes. He invites her to a movie. She goes. Their strange friendship begins.

When Avendaño leaves Spain to return to Magera, he gives Isabel the key to his apartment and asks her to look after his place. There, she finds a book authored by Avendaño entitled Below, Between, Beneath, and Beyond. Here, she finds the story of Avendaño’s days before, during, and after the fascist takeover of Magera, where Avendaño is required to translate a book, Opusculus Noctis, which he titles A Little Night Work.

As she reads Avendaño’s autobiography and discovers his notes on A Little Night Work, Isabel decides to return to Magera to find Avendaño. Here, their stories converge, and the Lovecraftian aspects of the story emerge in full bloom.

Lovecraftian stories can be hit or miss for me, primarily because the endings can swerve into the obscure with the ending so ambiguous or arcane that the reader is left foundering for a solid landing. Jacobs avoids that pitfall here. He keeps the narrative tight, and as the story seeps into the surreal, leading the reader to a logical ending that seems neither too real, nor too opaque.

It’s a hard balance to write, but Jacobs handles it like a virtuoso, drawing the reader into his world and unveiling the strange, the weird, the obscene, to bring the true horror of evil into the light. This is the kind of dark fiction I love to read, and I offer it to you, highly recommended.

The Second story
MY HEART STRUCK SORROW

My Heart Struck Sorrow is my favorite of the two. While Lovecraftian stories have their allure, southern stories with the devil are some of my personal favorites. Primarily because the devil and his kin are often stand-ins for those aforementioned emotions. Stories that entwine music and madness are also some of my favorites, so with My Heart Struck Sorrow, I got the best of both worlds.

This is one of those stories that the less you know going in will enhance how the story works for you, so I’ll only give a very basic overview of the plot.

Cromwell is a music librarian in the Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. His wife and son have recently died, leaving Cromwell in a state of grief even as he returns to work. There, he finds that the grandniece of Harlan Parker has died and bequeathed their rather massive collection to the Library of Congress.

A war hero, Harlan Parker once worked for the Library of Congress, travelling across the south to collect and index folk music on a commission of ethnomusicology, but something strange happened during Parker’s travels, causing him to abandon the commission and simply disappear into his sister’s Springfield home, where he remained until the end of his days.

Cromwell and his co-worker, Hattie, go to the Parker estate to catalog and preserve the estate’s records. In doing so, they find a secret room, because all horror stories should have at least one secret room, and in this small chamber Cromwell and Hattie find acetates of folk music that Parker recorded during his travels, along with Parker’s diary from the late thirties.

Soon Cromwell is immersed in Parker’s writings and infatuation with a song known interchangeably as “Stagolee,” “Stackalee,” or “Stagger Lee.” As Cromwell listens to the recordings Parker created and follows the events within the journal, he is led into Parker’s increasingly bizarre adventures in the rural south, which at times, seems to mirror Hell itself.

Yet, in the end, Jacobs loops the story back to Cromwell, and the two seemingly divergent trajectories are brought together in a startling conclusion that is both poignant and horrific in its intensity. My Heart Struck Sorrow moves like a song with the refrain of “Stagger Lee” as the backbeat, a thumping baseline of desire for power, for revenge, and finally, as the music winds down, for remorse unanswered by forgiveness.

While I enjoy and admire many writers, it’s rare I stand in awe of another contemporary author’s work, but this is one of those times. If you love horror and genuinely excellent storytelling, you should enter A Lush and Seething Hell. You won’t regret the trip.

Tell the Devil I said hello.

Fieldnotes: Spanish refugees in French concentration camps

Writing historical fantasy is all about the details, so I’m always a little amused when someone tells me they didn’t know about a particular fact, because frankly, until I started writing the Los Nefilim series, I didn’t know about it, either. I’ve said it before, and I’ll reiterate here: the Spanish Civil War and the role of exiled Spaniards during World War II wasn’t taught in American schools back in the seventies and eighties. At most, the Spanish Civil War was given a bare mention as an incident that happened between World War I and World War II, and the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Spanish exiles was never broached.

Likewise, the only mention of concentration camps in any form came in reference to the Nazis during the nineteen thirties and forties. Rarely, a teacher mentioned the American concentration camps, where we interred Japanese-Americans during World War II, but the instructors were very careful not to use the term concentration camps, although that is exactly what they were.*

Before I begin the discussion, it’s important to know the difference between a concentration camp and a prison. For the purpose of this post, I’m using Anne Applebaum’s definition of concentration camps as:

“… camps constructed to incarcerate people not for what they had done, but for who they were. Unlike criminal prison camps, or prisoner-of-war camps, concentration camps were built for a particular type of noncriminal civilian prisoner, the member of an ‘enemy’ group, or at any rate of a category of people who, for reasons of their race or their presumed politics, were judged to be dangerous or extraneous to society” (Applebaum, p. xxxiv).

These camps initially came into existence through colonialism.

The Spanish were the first to utilize the term, reconcentración, in colonial Cuba in 1895, where the colonists faced a series of local insurgencies. By removing Cuban peasants from their land in order to “reconcentrate” them in camps, they found a way to deprive local insurgents of food, shelter, and support.

Sometime around 1900, the term moved into the English lexicon, and the British used a similar project to contain the Boer insurgency during the Boer Wars. From there, the term kontslager appears in Russian, probably through Trotsky, who was familiar with the Boer Wars.

In 1904, the Germans colonized South-West Africa and followed the British example, except for one important twist: the Germans added forced labor as an integral part of their camps. Members of the Herero tribe who were interred in the German camps were forced to work for the colonists. In 1905, the term Konzentrationslager (often abbreviated as either K.Z or K.L.) first appears in the German language.

While Applebaum doesn’t go into French colonialism, it’s not hard to see how the French colonists would be aware of the Spanish, British, and German measures to restrict local populaces. Regardless, the French were certainly familiar with the concept and utilized it when overwhelmed with Spanish refugees at the end of the Spanish Civil War.

France had long been a haven for refugees fleeing political persecution from many European countries; however, by the end of the nineteen thirties, France was undergoing a poor economic outlook coupled with political divisions of its own, along with the increasing threat of war with Germany. France’s Prime Minister, Édouard Daladier, was a French Radical-Socialist politician, who sought to turn France from being a refuge toward being a place of transit for those fleeing persecution.

Albert Sarraut, the French Minister of the Interior, was responsible for dealing with the arrival of Spanish refugees in 1939. Sarraut distinguished between prison camps and concentration camps when he said, “Let us repeat that: the camp of Argelés-sur-Mer will not be a penitentiary centre but a concentration camp. It is not the same thing” (Soo, pp. 6-7).

The immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War left over half a million Spaniards crossing the Pyrenees during a brutal winter. As they fled, Nationalist, German, and Italian planes strafed civilians with the same intensity as the military targets. One French lorry driver suspected that the children he carried were targeted deliberately:

“My lorry was crowded with children. The plane swooped so low that they must have seen it. But that did not stop them. Seventeen of the children were killed” (Soo, p. 46).

Traumatized by the war and the long journey over the Pyrenees, the Spanish found themselves treated like prisoners. They arrived in France, not to find a welcome, but instead barricades, where they were forced to leave what few possessions they might have managed to carry into their exile.

French officials confiscated personal possessions and dumped them into a ditch filled with chloride and lime. The Spanish were only allowed to carry in only what was strictly necessary. With the loss of personal possessions came the loss of identity for many people, a loss that was might have been chipped away, but never totally disappeared.

The first camp was established at Argelès-sur-Mer on 1 February, where the refugees found nothing but barbed wire. Families were separated, with men in one section and women and children in another, until Argelès overflowed and more camps were established at St. Cyprien (7 February), Barcarès (9 February) to relieve the overcrowding (Kendall, 2018).

Taking a page from the German colonists, the French put the Spanish to work in constructing the camp. Remember, this was February and the Spanish had no shelter from the cold winds and the sand. It would be months before any type of shelter would actually be constructed.

Spanish refugee in the sand at Argelès-sur-Mer (copyright Robert Capa 1939)

Spanish refugee in the sand at Argelès-sur-Mer (copyright Robert Capa 1939)

A report from the UK’s International Commission for the Assistance of Child Refugees in Spain describes the initial camp conditions:

“Aregles [sic] camp is on a sandy expanse by the sea. There is no shelter of any sort from wind, sand or rain. A bitterly cold wind from the mountains has produced a raging sandstorm for the past few days. There is a great deal of ‘dysentery’ probably from lack of good water and absence of sanitary arrangements. The refugees scoop hollows in the sand for protection against the wind, but if they go more than a few inches down it is wet. A number of women living in the camp and nearly 80 children nearly all of whom suffering conjunctivitis from the sand [sic]” (Soo, p. 60).

The French government, for their part, hoped that the horrendous conditions would prompt the Spanish Republicans to return to Spain, and the Spanish knew it. The Manchester Guardian published an extract from an internee’s letter that read:

“Am now in a concentration camp where we are treated just like infected dogs and by the Senegalese blacks … Obviously, they were ordered to be rough with us, so as to make us tired and oblige us, more or less, to go with Franco, which is what the authorities want … The food ration consists of: 8 a.m. a tin of hot dirty water, meaning to be coffee [sic]; 3 p.m. half a pound of bad bread and a tin of small and very bad sardines to be shared between three people. And that’s all … We’ll die like flies soon. It would have been better to have been killed by bombs” (Soo, p. 61).

At Argelès, French officials stated that families would only be reunited if they agreed to return to Spain. Men were given the option of joining the Foreign Legion or returning to Spain, which very few actually accepted. In the Gurs camp, only 473 Spaniards signed a repatriation agreement (Soo, p. 81).

Others did risk returning to Spain over the summer. Approximately 250,000 refugees returned, but this number might have been higher, since many could have returned clandestinely in order to avoid possible imprisonment and repression under Franco.

Those who remained in the camps, and especially any Republican soldiers who stayed in France, were instrumental in fighting for France against Germany: first in the army and then in the Resistance. But that is another story …

__________

*Nor have we learned from the past. Immigrants seeking asylum, which is perfectly legal, are currently being housed in concentration camps in the United States.

Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: a history. New York: Anchor Books, 2004.

Kendall, Meaghan. “Internment of the Spanish Exiles in France.” August 11, 2018.

Soo, Scott. The routes to exile: France and the Spanish Civil War refugees, 1939-2009. Manchester, MI: Manchester University Press, 2013.

alpha-gal ain't no superhero but she’ll have upcoming events regardless

So for those who don’t follow me in all the other places where I hold court on the Internets: we finally discovered what is causing my hives. I have an alpha-gal allergy, which doesn't mean that I'm allergic to super heroes.

Due to a tick bite last year, I can no longer eat red meat. Essentially, my diet is restricted to chicken, fish, and vegan food. As a woman who loved roast beef and bacon, this wasn't happy news to me. Fortunately, though, it's something that I can adapt to and might even make for a healthier me, so while I weep and wave good-bye to my favorite foods, I will also probably lose weight and feel better. Here’s to a new phase of life!

In spite of hives and adjusting to a new diet, I had the opportunity to attend MystiCon in February and RavenCon in April. Both were wonderful events, where I got to meet up with some old friends and make some new ones.

Then I came home, and a couple of weeks ago, another tick bit me. This one was an assassin. It tried to kill me with Lyme disease, which I was diagnosed with last Friday. We're in the antibiotic stage right now, and I'm feeling much better this week; although I still suffer some extreme bouts of fatigue.

I'm taking it easy until I get my strength back, because I have a couple of events mid-May and early June that I'm really looking forward to attending.

Greensboro Unbound
May 16-19, 2019
Events will be held in downtown Greensboro, NC

Saturday, May 18, 2019 at 12:30 -- I’ll be joining authors Jenna Glass and Sheree Renee Thomas for a panel about The Real and the Unreal: Speculative Fiction. This particular panel will be held at the Greensboro History Museum, 130 Summit Avenue, Greensboro, NC. If you’re local to the Piedmont Triad area and you’re going to be around, I hope to see there!

ConCarolinas 2019 / Deep South Con 57
May 31-June 2, 2019
8629 J M Keynes Dr., Charlotte, NC 28262

My schedule for ConCarolinas / Deep South Con 57 is now live! If you're a fan local to the Charlotte area, I hope you’ll drop in!

A little farther out is AtomaCon in the Charleston area (one of my very old stomping grounds), November 22-24, 2019. I'll be posting more about that as we get closer to the date.

If you want to keep up with my appearances and dates, you can check out the Events page on my blog.

When I'm not being attacked by killer ticks, I'll be busy working on edits for the next Los Nefilim novel, Carved from Stone and Dream, and working on writing the third novel. I'll share the cover art and blurb for Carved from Stone and Dream as soon as I can. I’m very excited about this one, because you get to see more of Rafael.

Be safe, watch out for ticks, and if I don't see you at a local event, I'll catch you online!

Watch for me ...

The Silence: a review from the deaf perspective

This isn’t going to be a long review, because I wasn’t able to get far into the movie. Two things I want to get out of the way up front are: first, I love Tim Lebbon’s books, and second, in terms of plot and cinematography, The Silence might very well be an excellent movie. I don’t know, because I wasn’t able to get past the “deaf” character’s actions. In other words, this review is about how poor representation ruined what might have otherwise been a good movie for me.

The_Silence_2019_film_poster.jpg

Nor is this review an attack on Ms. Kiernan Shipka or her talents as an actor. Ms. Shipka seemed to do well with the material she was given; however, it appears she wasn’t given much. I understand that she learned ASL for the role, but as I’ve stated in other posts, there is much more to being deaf than knowing sign language.

As with all my other posts from the deaf perspective, I also want to point out that this review is written from my perspective as a deaf person, which can and will differ greatly from those of the Deaf community, or from people with a different type of hearing loss. In other words, your mileage may vary, which is fine.

Viewing the movie as someone who loves horror films, I can say that my gripe with The Silence began before Shipka’s character, Ally, ever hit the screen. I’ve spoken of this particular issue in novels, and it’s no less annoying in a movie: the need to leap too fast into the action without any attempt to cultivate tension. The opening scene could have been a claustrophobic buildup of horror. Instead, it was delivered like an awkward prologue that was over so quickly, it felt like an aside.

Then we meet Ally, who tells us how smart she is because she learned to lip-read so fast after her accident … and I flinched, because that is not how it works. Even so, I gave the film a few more minutes, because I wanted to see how the story would explain that particular skill.

Essentially, Ally’s backstory is this: she was in a car accident with her grandparents three years earlier. Due to the traumatic head injury inflicted during the accident, Ally was rendered completely deaf. In addition to recovering from whatever other brain trauma she might have endured during the accident, Ally is now perfectly healthy, except she is deaf. In three years, she has learned ASL and how to lip-read and moves through the hearing world without the annoying dizziness, vertigo, or tinnitus that burdens the rest of us.

At no point are we led to believe that Ally moves in anything other than a world of silence. She doesn’t wear either hearing aids or a cochlear implant. This tells me, as a deaf person, that her hearing is completely gone, and due to whatever injury she sustained, assistive listening devices do not help her.

Within the first five minutes with Ally, we see her taunted from behind by a group of her high school classmates, who are actually acting like they’re twelve. That was just weird.

Immediately after Ally is taunted by her classmates, she walks down the middle of a street…

—let me pause here to say that deaf people, who can’t hear cars coming NEVER walk down the middle of any street without constantly looking over their shoulders—

…her boyfriend approaches her from behind and puts his hands over her eyes.

And I almost shut the movie down then, because that is the most horrible thing you can do to a deaf person: sneak up on them from behind. Seriously, you scare the crap out of deaf people when you do that. It’s horrible. Don’t do it. Ever.

But this is Ally’s boyfriend, who will soon be getting his drivers’ license, and Ally informs him that her parents will probably never let her drive because she’s deaf …

Dear Ally’s parents and the producers of this movie,

Deaf people drive all the time and we’re probably safer drivers than hearing people, because we are paying attention with our eyes.

Thank you,
Me

Then Ally arrives home and my nitpicking reaches monumental levels. The usual systems designed to help deaf people pinpoint noise (for example: doorbells, phones, fire alarms, or loud noises) are large bulky boxes that indicate why a light is flashing. They could have been there in the background and I just missed them, but after going to all the other lengths to show Ally’s deafness, the director doesn’t bother to show us that her home is equipped for a deaf person.

Ally’s family uses pidgin sign language to communicate. As a family having to adjust to a late-deafened child, it’s possible they’re doing the best they can. They also make asides that Ally can’t hear, and although unkind, I found this plausible as well.

Still, it bothered me that Ally follows conversations with ease. Even with lip-reading and signing, most deaf people are moving on a delay and the faster the topics change, the more frustrating communication becomes for the individual. Also, to lip-read with Ally’s accuracy, one needs to have some residual hearing.

Later that evening, Dad comes into her room and at one point, they forget to sign, but Ally has no trouble following the sudden topic shift, and that was it for me. I’d watched about all of the movie I could watch, because I realized from that point forward I would be doing nothing but critiquing Ally.

Those critiques turned into my biggest issue with The Silence. Whereas A Quiet Place presented a moment of ableism in the lack of captioning during the spoken parts between hearing characters, The Silence is the ableist viewpoint on full display. At no point did I believe that Ally was actually deaf, and if you can’t make me believe in your characters, then I’ll never buy into your story, no matter how good the film.


WhereOblivionLives.jpg

Frohock has intricately woven a unique reinterpretation of history. Eloquent prose accompanies a lyrical theme amid prewar tensions, enriching this imaginative historical fantasy. –starred review, Publishers Weekly

Where Oblivion Lives is available at Scuppernong Books | HarperCollins | IndieBound. You can find links to Amazon and B&N at the HarperCollins link. If you're an audiobook fan, we've got you covered: the audiobook is narrated by the talented Vikas Adam and is available from Audible.

A few people have asked if you have to read the novellas first in order to enjoy Where Oblivion Lives. The answer is no, BUT if you want to read them, you can find the Los Nefilim omnibus at HarperCollins, as well as links to the individual novellas right here.

How to write strong male characters, or writing non-toxic heroes

Okay, that title is a tweak on all of the numerous blog posts I once read (and to be fair, wrote) about writing strong female characters. Remember those? Back a few years, you couldn’t swing a dead rat without knocking down a blog post on how to write a female character. I enjoyed those posts, not simply because what the authors were saying was true, but also because of the empowerment those essays gave to both the authors and the readers.

However, when I floated the idea on Twitter of writing a similar post about male characters, I was met with some snark, such as a recommendation to gender-flip everyone, or make all of the characters female. Frankly, the suggestion of gender-flipping the characters and suddenly all-is-well-with-the-world-and-bluebirds-sing as a solution tells me the individual in question hasn’t been around toxic women, which is another blog post altogether, but suffice to say that gender-flipping isn’t a cure and completely avoids the toxicity of some male characters.

Another individual advised me to write a gender-balanced novel, which tells me they haven’t read mine.

For the record: the male/female ratio from Where Oblivion Lives is 17 men and 15 women. This is a rough count from my style sheet and omits anyone who is/was an actual historical person.

With a bisexual protagonist married to his gay partner, I was highly conscious of the number of females and their roles as I wrote the story. Whenever possible, I made the supporting characters females in high-profile jobs (such as Sofia, who is the chief of Guillermo’s spy unit, and Carme, who is more badass than all the men put together) wherever and whenever possible. However, we’re not here to talk about them.

“Toxic Masculinity” and Why I Dislike the Term

The term “toxic masculinity” is mutable, depending on the time period, who is defining it, and whether it is the product of popular jargon or actual gender studies. No one denies that male violence and sexism are issues that need to be addressed on a cultural level; however, the cause of those issues aren’t necessarily masculinity. Men do not burst from the womb loathing women and fighting the other babies in the nursery. Misogyny and violence are learned behaviors, and one of the many places where men learn those toxic behaviors is by reading books with characters who make misogyny and violence an acceptable part of being male.

Also, I’m not here to lead a discussion in gender studies, because I’m not qualified for that. I’m a writer and we’re here to talk about writing characters that provide positive role models not just for young men, but also for young women. So rather than “toxic masculinity,” I’ll be talking about the toxic behavior we normally ascribe to men, and how I avoided making the men in my novels behave in ways that would make violence and misogyny seem appealing.

I gave the toxic behavioral traits of glorifying violence and power-structures to my antagonists, Jordi and Karl. They believe they are “destined for greatness,” and that by virtue of birthrights and poorly constructed ideals of male dominance, their place is assured. Stylistically, I approach these aspects of character through their actions and by what the other characters observe of Jordi’s and Karl’s behavior.

For example: we never go into Karl’s point-of-view, but we see him through Diago’s eyes as Diago walks through a drawing room, looking at pictures of Karl standing triumphantly over big game animals he has killed. Diago notes that “Karl likes killing things.” However, it’s not so much about killing as it is about Karl’s need for dominance over other creatures.

Does this mean that Guillermo and Miquel don’t possess toxic behaviors? No.

The difference between the Jordi/Karl and Guillermo/Miquel dynamic is that Jordi/Karl see nothing wrong with their behavior and make no efforts to change. Guillermo and Miquel, on the other hand, tend to listen when confronted about their behavior, and they do make sincere efforts to modify, not just their actions, but also the thought processes that lead to those actions, thereby making an active effort to break the cycle of toxicity.

WRITING nontoxic heroes

Is not as hard as it sounds; although it takes a lot more than just adding more women to the cast. The women have to be proactive and possess agency of their own, and the men need to respond to them as equals.

One of my favorite scenes from Where Oblivion Lives is the dinner scene, where Guillermo’s eight-year-old daughter, Ysabel, decides to make her stand for independence. Her mother, Juanita, is in full support of her daughter and coaches her from the sidelines. Guillermo’s behavior is toxic in that he wants to control the situation, and he uses manipulative means to do so. At the same time, this particular scene is the catalyst for some of the subsequent changes in Guillermo’s personality later on in the novel.

I’ve edited the scene down to its essential parts, but it all begins after dinner when Ysabel asks if she and Rafael and can go outside and play fútbol:

Guillermo traded a calculating look with Juanita. “I don’t see the harm in it.” Before Ysabel could move, he pointed at his jubilant daughter. “But it had better be fútbol and not that spy game you’ve started playing. No more of that. I don’t want you creeping around the compound listening under windows. Do you understand me?”

With her round face and thick auburn curls, she was an eight-year-old version of her father, right down to the way her face belied her guilt when caught flat-footed in a scheme. “How am I ever going to be a proper nefil if I don’t learn how to gather information?”

“If you want to be a proper nefil, you’ll follow orders and I’ve just given you one.”

Ysa showed no sign of letting the argument go, however. “You said you learned on the streets when you were younger than me.”

“That was a different time.”

“Not that different,” Juanita said.

Guillermo’s cheeks flushed pink. “Whose side are you on?”

As cool as her milk-pale skin, Juanita rested her chin on her hand and met her husband’s glare. “It’s not about sides. If she was a boy, you’d be complimenting her on her acumen.”

“That’s not fair,” Guillermo shot back. “I give my experienced female Guards the same respect and assignments as I do the males.”

Ysabel seized the opening. “How did they get their experience?” She didn’t give him a chance to answer. “By doing the work.”

“They weren’t eight years old.”

“I want to learn, Papá.”

Seeking to help his friend, Rafael said, “Ysa is really very good at it, Don Guillermo, and she is very careful.”

High praise indeed, given that Rafael spent his first six years on the streets. Nonetheless, Diago touched his son’s arm and whispered, “Be still.”

Guillermo ignored everyone but Ysabel. “This has nothing to do with your gender. You’re my daughter. If something happens to you, my heart will die.”

An appeal to the emotions. Nice save, Diago thought, taking mental notes in case Rafael developed a sudden interest in proving his value to the Inner Guard through espionage. Fortunately, his son seemed more intent on picking the almonds off his plate with his fingers.

Ysa stood her ground and retorted, “I’d be in a lot less danger with your guidance.”

And touché. Diago wondered what prompted her to challenge her father today. A quick glance at Juanita told him that whatever the reason, she supported Ysa’s cause, because she assessed her daughter’s attitude with the eye of a maestro watching her student deliver a master performance.

Juanita said, “She has your craving for knowledge, Guillermo, and she is ready to begin learning about the family business.”

Guillermo’s cheeks reddened again, but this time from chagrin rather than anger, because everyone at the table knew Juanita spoke the truth.

She continued, “Besides, she’s right: it’s better she work under your supervision rather than running amok on her own.”

* * *

Although I don’t actually state it, a couple of things can be noted from Guillermo’s behavior:

  1. He doesn’t immediately deny Ysabel’s request and send her to her room. The closest he comes to an ultimatum is “If you want to be a proper nefil, you’ll follow orders and I’ve just given you one.” However, he doesn’t cut her off when she continues the argument. This shows he does respect his daughter’s opinion as well as her personal autonomy.

  2. Nor does he treat her like a child. He tries to reason with her on an adult level, and even though he’s manipulative at one point, he knows in his heart of hearts that both of the women in his life are right. That much is evident from his actions. As much as he wants his little girl to stay a little girl forever, he recognizes the fact that she isn’t mortal and that he is going to have to eventually teach her the family business, ugly though it is.

As Guillermo’s character arc develops, we see him proactively working toward changing how he views his daughter and her place in Los Nefilim. Ysabel blossoms into a strong leader in the second novel, primarily because of her parents’ partnership and mutual respect for one another.

Any character (male or female) can certainly possess toxic behaviors—in this particular scene, it’s Guillermo wanting to be overprotective to the point of crippling Ysabel—but the key to making the character non-toxic is having them resist that impulse to lash out and exert dominance over others based on nothing more than the power dynamics of the relationship. Guillermo exhibits a willingness to listen, and subsequently, a willingness to change. These two points are what elevates him over his brother, Jordi.

GIve the toxicity to your antagonists

As the antagonist, Jordi and Karl exhibit the classic toxicity often associated with male characters. They are abusive, violent, and in their reasoning, the world belongs to them. They feel justified in their excesses. And I deliberately give them those characteristics, because by showing toxic behavior in all its ugliness, I have the chance to contrast the two types of men.

Why saddle THE WOMEN with the responsibility
of SHOWING MEN THEIR TOXICITY?

Parenting is a partnership, where the spouses play to one another’s strengths and weaknesses. In this case, it just happened to be Juanita nudging Guillermo in the right direction. Later on in the same novel, Miquel has his own ideas of how to raise Rafael, which Diago ignores, so it’s not about women but about spouses.

It also just so happened that I needed a character arc for Guillermo and the issue of Ysabel’s upbringing fit his personality perfectly while showing that men make good parents. Which brings me to my final point …

Words have power

… and our characters exist through our words, so they, too, have power. Writing a story requires being conscious of the world around us, but also of the world we want to see. In stories, we shape our worlds through our characters and their interactions, which often mirror our own. Fortunately, we don’t always have to show our readers the world as it is, but we can explore the world as we’d like to know it. Shifting the toxic behavior normally associated with men from the heroes to the antagonists gives us a chance to reshape our world.


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Frohock has intricately woven a unique reinterpretation of history. Eloquent prose accompanies a lyrical theme amid prewar tensions, enriching this imaginative historical fantasy. –starred review, Publishers Weekly

Where Oblivion Lives is available at Scuppernong Books | HarperCollins | IndieBound. You can find links to Amazon and B&N at the HarperCollins link. If you're an audiobook fan, we've got you covered: the audiobook is narrated by the talented Vikas Adam and is available from Audible.

A few people have asked if you have to read the novellas first in order to enjoy Where Oblivion Lives. The answer is no, BUT if you want to read them, you can find the Los Nefilim omnibus at HarperCollins, as well as links to the individual novellas right here.

A few random thoughts

Before I begin, I want to take a moment and thank everyone who has taken time from their busy schedules to either rate or review either Los Nefilim (the omnibus or the novellas) and Where Oblivion Lives. I know your lives are just as busy as mine, so please know that I appreciate your time! Knowing what you love, or hate, helps me steer the series in the right direction. I won’t sacrifice the story I want to tell, but if there is some small way I can make the series more enjoyable to its fans, I like to do that.

Which brings me to the Los Nefilim Snippets (see the sidebar). I haven’t been around much, but it’s mainly because I’ve got several things going on this year. I’m promoting one book, editing a second, and writing a third. It all tends to take up a bit of time. I wrote the first post in what I hope becomes a series for the fans of quiet moments in the novels: Los Nefilim Snippets. There are only two right now, but I’ll probably add one a week or every two weeks as time allows. They’re fun for me to write—more fun than coming up with blog post topics.

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Author’s copies finally arrived for Where Oblivion Lives! That means I can now come up with some ideas for a contest to give away a few copies. So watch the blog, my newsletter, and my Twitter and Facebook feeds for those.

I also discovered that I can leave annotations with Goodreads through my Kindle Notes and Highlights. There were about eight things I wish I’d had space to note within the text, so I compromised and waited for publication. You can go to Goodreads and read the annotations. The last two are spoilers and concern Rudi. I’d suggest you finish the book before reading those. I used spoiler tags so they’d be hidden and no one would accidentally stumble on them.

The next book in the Los Nefilim world is called Carved from Stone and Dream. I’ve been busy locating photos that evoke the essence of that novel’s story for the cover art, as well as coming up with cover copy (blurbs, etc.) for it.

If you want a hint (and a teeny excerpt) about Carved from Stone and Dream, the key refrain will be: “Don’t blink:”

Miquel stared back, projecting a calm he didn’t feel. This was another interrogation trick: mention a loved one and watch the source carefully for a twitch, or a tear, or a blink. Anything to indicate the jab hit a nerve. Miquel knew that if he showed the slightest interest in Diago’s welfare, Benito would use Miquel’s fear as a cudgel. Don’t blink.

I’m also getting a great deal of glee every time someone signs off one of my social media accounts or a review with “Watch for me.” You guys are made of awesome.

I’ll be around.

Watch for me.

Schoolyard brawl ... Los Nefilim Snippet

A lot of you—seriously, more of you than I ever expected—said you’d like to see slice of life vignettes with the Los Nefilim characters. Little stories along the lines of “A Rose, A Dragon” aren’t hard to write, and these little shorts also work as characters studies for me.

So I added a category for Los Nefilim Snippets in the sidebar. That way, if you miss one, you can find it easily.

The following snippet has floated in the back of my mind from time-to-time. The sequel to Where Oblivion Lives is called Carved from Stone and Dream, and it takes place several years after the events in Where Oblivion Lives. In Carved from Stone and Dream, Rafael is fourteen and he plays a much more prominent role in the story. As I wrote his character, I thought a lot about the difference between Diago’s and Miquel’s personalities and their parenting skills.

Miquel is angel-born and more likely to use martial means to solve his problems. Diago tends to fall back on diplomacy. In Carved from Stone and Dream, we see the end result of Diago’s and Miquel’s parenting. But before Rafael grew into an emotionally stable youth, he suffered his own growing pains.

Here, we see the diamond in the rough:

Santuari, Spain
March 12, 1933

The front door opened and then snicked shut quietly. In the kitchen, Diago glanced at his watch. Across the table from him, Miquel stubbed his cigarette in a tin ashtray. They exchanged a glance. It was too early for Rafael to be home, yet Diago recognized his son’s soft tread on the floor.

And he’s sneaking … which never indicated good news. Diago lowered his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. Please don’t let him be in trouble again …

Miquel leaned back in his chair, so he could see into the living the room. “Rafael? Why is school out?” A frown creased his husband’s mouth. “What happened to your face?”

“Nothing.”

Diago dropped his hand, alarm spreading through his chest. “What’s wrong with his face?” He rose and went to the kitchen door.

Rafael had already crossed the small living room and stood at the hallway’s entrance. At eight, he’d finally begun to acquire some height, though he was still small for his age. Dust coated the wild curls surrounding the lacerations on his face. His shirt was torn and his pants ripped.

He paused and smoothed first his hair and then his shirt with one hand. With the other, he twisted the strap holding his schoolbooks together. A large bruise blackened one eye and the side of his face.

Swallowing hard, he met Diago’s gaze. “It’s okay, Papá. Doña Juanita says it’s just a bruise and it’s already healing and it’s okay.”

Miquel joined Diago, standing just behind him. “Wow, that’s a shiner. What does the other guy look like?”

Diago nudged Miquel silent with his elbow. “Why were you fighting?”

“Georgio called me a monkey again.”

“And then you hit him?”

“No, I did what you said. I tried to be nice and I asked him to please stop calling me a monkey and then he started singing that I was a monkey from Morocco, and when I told him to shut up, he shoved me.”

Diago winced. “So why did you get sent home?”

Rafael glanced at Miquel. “Because this time I hit him back like Miquel told me to do, and it felt good, because I was really mad, so I hit him again. And then Emilia hit me to make me stop hitting Georgio, so Violeta hit Emilia, and then Ysa hit Georgio with a rock … at least, I think that’s what happened, because Ysa had her slingshot in her hand and Georgio was yelling and there was blood everywhere …”

Diago lifted his hand. “You may stop now.”

Rafael exhaled and looked down, feigning contriteness that wasn’t reflected in his eyes. “I’m really tired and my head hurts. May I go to my room?”

The play for sympathy fell flat with Diago. If Juanita had examined Rafael, then she gave him aspirin. If he thinks Miquel is going to smooth this over for him, then he has another thing coming. “Where was Father Bernardo during all this?”

Resigned to his interrogation, Rafael exhaled a long-suffering sigh. “Inside the church grading papers. He came out and broke up the fight when Georgio started screaming about murder; although I don’t think Ysa was trying to kill him.”

“She should have,” Miquel snapped.

Diago elbowed his husband again, more sharply this time.

“Ow!” Miquel put some distance between them. “What was that for? Georgio is twelve years old and in his second-born life. He is almost as big as I am. He has no business picking on Rafael.”

Knowing he had an ally in Miquel, Rafael nodded. “Father Bernardo broke up the fight. He pulled Georgio off me and I think that’s when my coat ripped, and oh”—he reached into his jacket and gave Diago a note—“Father Bernardo wants to talk to you and Miquel. I think you’re in trouble this time.”

“I’m not in trouble.” Diago took the note and shot his husband a poisoned glare.

Miquel stiffened. “What do you want? That Georgio beats him up everyday? Rafael needs to learn to fight back.”

Diago scanned the note. “You can explain that parental philosophy to Father Bernardo when we meet with him in an hour.”

Miquel shrugged. “You can handle it. I’m meeting with Guillermo.”

Diago gave the note to Miquel. “Not anymore. Guillermo is going to be there, too. See?” He snapped the paper with his fingers.

Anger flashed through Miquel’s dark eyes as he glanced at the page and then back to Diago. “Why are you looking at me like that? This isn’t my fault.”

“Who taught him to fight?”

“I taught him to stick up for himself.”

“Really? After you promised me—”

Rafael fidgeted. “Are you two going to fight now, because—?”

“We’re not fighting,” they said in unison.

The phone rang, jolting them all to silence. Miquel went to answer, jerking the handset from the cradle. “Miquel.” He closed his eyes as he listened. “Yes … yes … he’s fine … no, we were just talking about that … of course. I’ll see you in an hour.” Replacing the handset, he stood for a moment with his head bowed. “That was Guillermo. I’m going, too.”

Fieldnotes: pink lists and the pink triangle

A few short notes on why I chose to use male protagonists and antagonists in my Los Nefilim series, and maybe a few historical facts that not many people know. There are women in the novel, as well, and I adore writing them, because they’re all so vicious (Carme, Sofia, and the Corvo twins to name a few).

The thing is, though, the books originally started with Guillermo as the protagonist. As I became more involved with different people online, I realized that my novel with Guillermo, Diago, and Miquel followed every terrible trope out there. In my case, multiple rejections became a second chance.

I considered flipping the genders and making them all women. Then I spent some time studying the various time periods. As I did, I found that laws against homosexuality were generally written against men, going back to the Visigothic Code, which specifically addressed sodomy and no other form of same-sex love. The code itself states that anyone accused of sodomy “not only suffer emasculation, but also the penalty prescribed by ecclesiastical decree for such offences.” [1] Ecclesiastical decrees during the 13th century dictated the death penalty for sodomy. [2]

Women, on the other hand, were (and quite often still are) seen under the false assumptions that they are either: a) naturally affectionate or b) not in control of their own desires. There is the added perspective that, seen through the male gaze, f/f copulation can be arousing to males, and therefore less likely to be seen as a punishable offence.

Regardless of the reasoning, as time moved on, the persecution against gay men remained in place. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that both psychologists and physicians began to study sex and gender associations more openly. One of the most renowned was Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a German physician who founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, which pioneered “the first advocacy for homosexual and transgender rights.” [3]

Hirschfeld believed that "homosexuality was part of the plan of nature and creation" like other forms of love and affection. In 1919, he co-wrote and acted in the film Anders als die Andern ("Different From the Others"). Conrad Veidt, a prominent German actor who makes a cameo in Where Oblivion Lives, played one of the first homosexual characters ever written for cinema in this film. Because of this, he is Rudi Grier’s hero.

Hirschfeld, for his part, uses his role to play himself and makes an attempt to educate his audience. A portion of the film is devoted to Hirschfeld testifying in court that “the persecution of homosexuals belongs to the same sad chapter of history in which the persecutions of witches and heretics is inscribed."

Unfortunately, Hirschfeld became a Nazi target in the early 1930s. He escaped arrest only because he was on a book tour when the library at Hirschfeld's Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute of Sexology) was raided on 10 May 1933. The Nazis burned thousands of books.

In Spain, France, and Germany (where the majority of the Los Nefilim series takes place), police kept lists of known homosexuals. Pierre Seel, a young Frenchman, frequented Steinbach Square in Alsace, which was a place where men went to meet for sexual encounters. Unfortunately for him, he one day lost a treasured watch to a thief. He went to a police station to report the theft and found himself on the receiving end of a lecture from the detective. Seel didn’t know for certain, but based on later action by the Gestapo, he realized the detective must have placed his name on a list of known homosexuals. [4]

In Germany, these were known as "Pink Lists." When the Nazis seized power, they rounded up these men and told them to report to Gestapo headquarters. Seventeen year old Pierre Seel was likewise summoned by the Gestapo to be interred in a concentration camp.

After the murder of Ernst Röhm, the laws against homosexuality (women were still exempt) became stricter. The obsessively homophobic Heinrich Himmler had the Gestapo step up their raids. In 1937, he told SS leaders that “it was regrettable that gay men could not be killed, but at least they could be detained.” [5]

According to Richard Plant, in his book, The Pink Triangle, between the years 1933-1944 between 50,000 to 63,000 men, 4,000 of whom were juveniles, were convicted of homosexuality under Germany’s infamous Paragraph 175. [6] Forced to wear a pink triangle, these men were detained in the concentration camps and suffered harsh treatment from both the guards and the inmates.

While German law required consent for castration, several gay men were castrated against their will. In order to “cure” the men of their homosexuality, men wearing the pink triangle were forced into particularly hard labor. They were often isolated in separate barracks, where they were forced to sleep with the lights on and their hands above the blankets at all times.

At the end of World War II, gay men were prohibited from seeking reparations for their time in the concentration camps, because homosexuality was still against the law. The laws in most countries didn't change until the mid- to late-60s. Even then many men were too ashamed to come forward. Where the Nazis failed to kill them, society turned them into pariahs. Some, such as Pierre Seel, married and forced themselves into heterosexual marriages. (Seel's ended in divorce.)

In spite of numerous books and studies of the holocaust, I was able to find only three or four books devoted entirely to the men who wore the pink triangle (these are just the ones that I’ve read):

  • Herger, Heinz [trans. by David Fernbach]. The men with the pink triangle: the true, life-and-death story of homosexuals in the Nazi death camps. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 1980.

  • Plant, Richard. The pink triangle: the Nazi war against homosexuals. New York: Henry Holt, 1988.

  • Seel, Pierre. I, Pierre Seel, deported homosexual. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

So what does all of this have to do with Los Nefilim?

Well, it all sort of goes back to my decision to do things differently with the original story. You see, Guillermo started as the protagonist for the Los Nefilim world, but the more I wrote, the more I realized this was Diago’s story. If I changed his gender, then I cheated him of his story, one that has been little more than a footnote in most history books.

Writing Los Nefilim from a woman's point of view would have drastically changed the characters' perception of the rapidly changing world. By keeping the male point of view in these books, I can balance Miquel’s hope for a more tolerant world with Diago’s pragmatism. Later, in Where Oblivion Lives, Diago's actions with a young German man take on more poignancy because both must remain hidden from the other for different reasons.

More than anything, I want to show you what Hirschfeld wanted to show his audience with Anders als die Andern ("Different From the Others"). That is why my cast is predominantly male.

If you're looking for kick-ass women, I can direct you to a ton of good books, but I'm keeping my boys, because they have a story to tell, too. It begins in 1931 in Barcelona, in a novella called In Midnight’s Silence …
__________
[1] FLAVIUS EGICA, KING. Book III, Title V, Section VI. Concerning Sodomy, and the Manner in which the Law should be Enforced.

[2] Michael Goodrich Ph.D. (1976) Sodomy in Medieval Secular Law, Journal of Homosexuality, 1:3, 295-302.

[3] Goltz, Dustin. "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Movements", In Lind, Amy; Brzuzy, Stephanie (eds.). Battleground: Women, Gender, and Sexuality: Volume 2. Greenwood Publishing Group: Westport, CT, 2008.

[4] Seel, Pierre. I, Pierre Seel, deported homosexual. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

[5] Wachsmann, Nikolaus. KL: a history of the Nazi concentration camps. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.

[6] Plant also notes that six lesbians were arrested, which is considered a "bewildering statistic, since sex between women was not against the law."

Hey, hey, it's release day for Where Oblivion Lives!

It’s finally release day for Where Oblivion Lives, and the book kicks off with an awesome review at RockStarLit Book Asylum!

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“I would have given this book six stars if GoodReads would have let me. Well worth checking out and quite easy to jump in at this point. But, I can guarantee if you’re like me, you’ll want to go back and catch this series from the start.” —Jennifer (BunnyReads)

I’ve got an interview coming up on Thursday at the Fantasy Hive, where I’ll be talking about the novel, and I’ll be at MystiCon this weekend for a ton of excellent panels. You can find all my comings and goings at my Events page.

If you didn’t pre0rder, you can still get a copy at:

Scuppernong Books HarperCollins | IndieBound

The talented Vikas Adam narrates the audiobook, which is available from Audible.