Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today, Heather Rose Jones – I first met Heather at RainbowCon 2015, and have been impressed by her intelligence, depth of knowledge and wit ever since.
Thanks so much, Heather, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Heather Rose Jones: My first vocational ambition was to be a bird. My mother later wrote up a picture book story about that when she was in teacher training, much to my mortification. I moved on to aspiring to be a zookeeper at the San Diego Zoo. My parents and teachers decided that wasn’t sufficiently ambitious and convinced me I really wanted to become an exotic animal veterinarian. None of those plans ever came to fruition, although some of my characters succeeded in growing up to be birds.
JSC: When did you know you wanted to write, and when did you discover that you were good at it?
HRJ: I’d been making up stories in my head since as early as I can remember, but I first started seriously writing things in high school. And when I had a year off before I started college, I spent a lot of it writing. My family was living in Europe that year and English reading materials were thin on the ground, so I wrote instead.
I think I really honed my writing skills on non-fiction. I wrote a lot of historic reseach papers in the context of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and that gave me a chance to get lots of practice in communicating ideas and word-smithing. Another skill-builder was songwriting. I wrote a lot of folk-style songs with historic and SFF themes to perform at conventions. There’s nothing like trying to get plot and characters down in three verses and a chorus to learn how to make every word count. So I don’t know that there’s any specific point where I can say, “This is when I knew I was a good writer.” It’s a gradual process and always continuing.
JSC: Do you have any strange writing habits or superstitions?
HRJ: Not really a superstition, though it might seem like one. I do my best to avoid visualizing my stories on a detail level in advance of writing them. Back when I was mostly making up stories in my head and not writing them down, I’d go through a cycle where I’d be adding more and more details each time I worked through the story, but then they’d start eroding away, until I could only visualize the basic plot outline but the great dialogue and descriptions I’d come up with were gone. So if I find myself imagining a scene on the level of dialogue or detailed description, I immediately take it down — either in text or recording. I imagine it as being like catching the wave when surfing. My writing process is the surfboard and I need to avoid getting too far out in front of the wave or getting wiped out.
JSC: How would you describe your writing style/genre?
HRJ: I tend to describe it as “traditional fantasy”. My stories tend to be character-driven with a lot of complex worldbuilding, rather than being strongly action-based. I tend to use a fairly literary style, although I aim for different voices depending on the specific story. For my Mabinogi short stories and others with a medieval setting, I’m aiming for a flavor of a translated medieval romance. Currently I’m working on a YA novel (still in the Alpennia series) where the working class protagonist needs a very different flavor of prose than my previous protagonists.
JSC: If you were stuck on a desert island all alone with only three things, what would they be?
HRJ: Let’s start with a boat, a ship’s radio, and a flare gun. I can’t very well write books on a desert island, can I? (Sorry, I have a habit of challenging the premises of hypothetical questions.)
JSC: What was your first published work? Tell me a little about it.
HRJ: It really depends on how you define “published” (and whether you count recordings of my songs as publishing). But the most traditional answer would be, my short story “Skins” in volume 12 of the Sword and Sorceress anthology series, originally edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley. The story was inspired by a dream, and it eventually spawned an entire story cycle in the same setting. In fact I’m currently working on a collection that brings that whole set of stories together, finished off by a new novelette. It’s set in a sort of alternate Iron Age-ish feeling pseudo-Europe, centering around a clan of shamanistic shape-shifters and their complex interactions with the non-magical human society around them.
JSC: Tell me one thing hardly anyone knows about you.
HRJ: I’ve answered this sort of question so often I’m not sure I have many secrets left, but here’s one of my favorites: On two occasions I’ve spent a year living outside the USA. Neither of the countries I lived in exists now. (Czechoslovakia & West Germany)
JSC: What’s your writing process?
HRJ: My usual answer to that is “when I have one, I’ll let you know.” My process has tended to be different for each book, at least in terms of the mechanics of setting words down. In terms of inspiration, I usually start out with a specific, very emotionally charged scene, and then I build the plot outward to figure out how the characters got there and what they did afterward.
The Alpennia series started out as a complete “pantser” project — I had no idea where the first book was going to go when I started it. But now that I have the general outline for the series as a whole developed, I’ve shifted to more advance planning and outlining.
I have to fit my writing around a very intense day job, and I’ve found that if I work out the details of the story too far ahead of writing them down, I start to lose things. So my usual daily process is to review the outline the night before to remind myself where I am, then dictate the next few scenes during my commute, then stop at a coffee shop for an hour or two before work and transcribe the dictation. I may do some editing on a different project on my lunch hour — I work best if I don’t stop to edit much until I have a solid draft. I can put in some more intense sessions if my weekend is free. And when I was finishing up the first draft of Mother of Souls I even took a week’s staycation to write a chapter a day in order make my self-imposed deadline. When I wrote Daughter of Mystery, the first draft was almost all long-hand, but I’ve trained myself to compose on the keyboard. And training myself to be able to dictate new text was even trickier.
JSC: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done in the name of research?
HRJ: Hmm, weird for me or weird to other people? Most of the research I’ve used in my writing was done for its own sake. That is, the stories emerged from the research rather than the research being done for the stories. So almost every weird thing I’ve done could end up being research for something. I guess the stranges topic I’ve every worked on was a plausible biological basis for a sensitivity to the touch of iron (for a group of people meant to evoke legends of fairies). I figured that a sensitivity of that sort would need to have an evolutionary advantage, so I postulated an environment with an endemic anaerobic iron-metabolizing bacterium, where the iron sensitivity was part of an immune response. Humans without the iron sensitivity would be much more likely to succumb to the bacterium. So you could end up with localized gene pools that had selected for the iron sensitivity. I never did end up writing the story, but I knew what all the symptoms would be. It’s one of the few times I’ve used my professional background in medical research for fiction.
JSC: What are you working on now, and when can we expect it?
HRJ: At the moment I have over half a dozen projects. I’m working on the next Alpennia novel, Floodtide, which is the YA I mentioned above. I’m writing an Alpennia short story to submit to an anthology, which involves an episode from Jeanne de Cherdillac’s “wild youth”. I’m editing and formatting the collection of my Sword and Sorceress stories mentioned above, which will be titled Skinsinger: Tales of the Kaltaoven. There are several other Alpennia short stories in stages of completion that fill in some of the background for the main series. And I just got hit with the inspiration for a twist on Beauty and the Beast that takes the story in a rather different direction than the traditional. It’s tentatively titled The Language of Roses. Oh, and there’s a short story I really need to finish about a harpy moonlighting as a writer’s muse. And another sweet little historic romance short about a lonely Nantucket widow and a mermaid. (I have to check my writing folders to remind myself of all the in-progress stuff.) And of course, there are all the other Alpennia books to finish the series, which are in various stages of background research. As for when you can expect it–good question! I’ve found it a bit stressful to promise delivery dates for things I haven’t actually completed yet. But I plan to have the Skinsinger collection out sometime this summer, which means I need to get cracking on it.
And now for Heather’s latest book: Mother of Souls:
All her life, Serafina Talarico has searched in vain for a place where she and her mystical talents belong. She never found it in Rome—the city of her birth—where her family’s Ethiopian origins marked them as immigrants. After traveling halfway across Europe to study with Alpennia’s Royal Thaumaturgist, her hopes of finding a home among Margerit Sovitre’s circle of scholars are dashed, for Serafina can perceive, but not evoke, the mystical forces of the Mysteries of the Saints and even Margerit can’t awaken her talents.
When Serafina takes lodgings with Luzie Valorin, widowed music teacher and aspiring composer, both their lives are changed forever. Luzie’s music holds a power to rival the Mysteries, and Serafina alone has the vision to guide her talents. For sorcery threatens the fate of Alpennia—indeed of all of Europe—locking the mountains in a malevolent storm meant to change the course of history. Alpennia’s mystic protections are under attack and the key to survival may lie in the unlikeliest of places: Luzie’s ambition to write an opera on the life of the medieval philosopher Tanfrit.
Serafina knew the monument Kreiser had specified. The gardens were not as full as the time she visited with Luzie and the boys. The children that played along the hedge-bordered paths today lived here, as did the shop girls out on a midday break. The visitors were a different mix as well: courting couples of respectable families, attended at a safe distance by maids or governesses, clumps of students from the university who hadn’t escaped the city for their more abbreviated summer season, walking with heads together in argument.
Serafina settled herself on a bench and looked around to see if Kreiser were in view. Her heart skipped. An achingly familiar figure was winding through the paths with an awkward case in hand.
Olimpia Hankez noticed her, hesitated, then shifted her path. “It’s a lovely day,” she offered.
It was what one said in Urmai. One praised the cool breezes that had first made the spot popular so many years ago. One admired the gardens and made note of whether the crowds were thick or thin. One didn’t exclaim in surprise at the sight of a former lover.
“You’ve come for work?” Serafina asked, nodding at the art case under her arm.
“I thought I’d set myself up and sketch. I need new faces,” Olimpia said, with a rueful twist of her mouth. “And you?”
“I’m meeting someone,” Serafina returned, trying to keep the answer as uninviting as possible. She could still be moved by Olimpia’s energetic grace. The betrayal hadn’t changed that. Luzie hadn’t changed that. Luzie filled a different place in her life, in her heart. A quieter place. Other spaces were still empty. Olimpia had filled one of them for a time. There had never been any word of forever between them. How could there have been? Olimpia dealt in bodies—explored them, appreciated them, immortalized them and then moved on. And for her? She barely knew what she was searching for.
From the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of Kreiser’s ruddy face. Olimpia saw the movement and followed it. Her eyes widened slightly. Had she recognized the Austrian? Or did she think it an assignation? Or both perhaps?
She said only, “It was good to see you again,” and moved on.
If Kreiser had noticed Olimpia he said nothing when he settled himself on the bench and placed a well-worn atlas in her lap. Even before she opened the covers she could feel the tingle of some mystic residue within the pages. There were no preliminaries this time.
“I thought this might help. Open to the marked page,” he instructed.
She found the ribbon and spread the book across her lap. It was only a section of land, taken out of context, with little markings for roads and rivers, tiny buildings indicating towns, and a faint glow perceptible only to the sensitive where Kreiser had marked a pattern of symbols across one part.
Next he opened a small case that shone brightly with fluctus and unwrapped layers of cloth to lay a frozen lump in her outstretched hand. It became slick with melt and made her fingers ache with the cold.
“Don’t worry about where the ice itself came from,” he said. “Follow the cold. Trace it back to its origin. Use the map.”
Serafina clenched her fingers around the ice, holding it away from the atlas and hoping that she could find the thread before it had melted away.
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 [http://hrj.livejournal.com/tag/lhmp] 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.
Facebook (author page): https://www.facebook.com/Heather-Rose-Jones-490950014312292/