J. Kathleen Cheney discusses: The Things the Writer Isn’t Telling You (Even When We Want To)

December 31, 2013 Author Feature, Guest Post 14

by J. Kathleen Cheney

I’m excited to have author of The Golden City joining us here on Not Yet Read, Ms. J. Kathleen Cheney! Look forward to Pabkins’ review of The Golden City soon!

The Golden City series

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One of the fun things about writing a historical fantasy novel is that you get to write in interesting time periods about interesting places…but you also get to stretch that world. My world has selkies and seriea (that’s Portuguese for a siren) and witches of several different types. As the author I get to sit down and think hard about how the world would be different due to those things. Authors slave over this, doing massive mental gymnastics to work out precisely how these things all fit together. We call it worldbuilding.

(Have you ever read one of those books where the world didn’t make any sense at all? With too little worldbuilding?)

But one of the challenges of worldbuilding is not to say too much, either. I’m not advocating secrecy or evasion. I’m just talking about boring the reader. There comes a time when readers rolls their eyes and skips on to the next scene. The author, who has worked so hard to build their world, wants to show it off. But that’s like showing someone all your vacation pictures at a party–it’s easy to go too far.

(Or read one of these novels, with way too much info being thrown at you?)

As the writer, I often have to bite my tongue and not include that neat tidbit I figured out that makes my universe work. But since I’m here, I’ll talk about selkies for a moment. (Pulls out photos.) For those who don’t know, a selkie is a magical creature who lives most of his or her life as a seal, but can remove their pelt and be a human, more or less. If you take their pelt away, they’re trapped in human form.

To flesh out the selkies who appear in my books, I studied seals, among whom the males often have harems of as many as fifty females. Having one male per fifty females seems unbalanced to me, so I had to consider what such a ratio would mean. To me it made sense for the females to be self-sufficient, so although the male appears to be in control of the harem, he wouldn’t be. They would be in control of him, which would be a reason for a male to seek out less-controlling human females at times.

In folklore, selkies also have a reputation for seductiveness, although I’ve never unearthed exactly why they’re so seductive. I reasoned that it must relate to their sealness, so my selkies always have a hint of seal musk about them. They would be attractive, naturally, and have lovely, deep eyes. And surely part of their seductiveness is pure magic.
But this raises a question about two of my characters: Erdano and Alessio. These two half-brothers are the sons of a selkie, one by the local selkie king and one by her human husband. And one thing they have in common is their desire to have a harem. Both brothers have more lovers than they can shake a stick at. So why isn’t the countryside littered with their progeny?

Well, here comes the tidbit that only I know: in my world, although a selkie female is fertile with a human male, a selkie male isn’t fertile with a human female. I’ve written three books in this setting, and I’ve never found a way to work in that little bit of information without it being an egregious bit of infodump. It’s among that stack of vacation photos that would bore the reader. (In fact, farther down in that photo stack is the question of whether a selkie male would then be fertile with a female seal. We really don’t want to go there.) But this is the sort of thing writers contemplate when working on their universe…it can be messy inside our minds.

So what are the kinds of things that you always wonder about, but your favorite writer never told you? What makes you sit and ponder after reading a book? What makes you want to write your own version?

The Golden City

For two years, Oriana Paredes has been a spy among the social elite of the Golden City, reporting back to her people, the sereia, sea folk banned from the city’s shores….

When her employer and only confidante decides to elope, Oriana agrees to accompany her to Paris. But before they can depart, the two women are abducted and left to drown. Trapped beneath the waves, Oriana’s heritage allows her to survive while she is forced to watch her only friend die.

Vowing vengeance, Oriana crosses paths with Duilio Ferreira—a police consultant who has been investigating the disappearance of a string of servants from the city’s wealthiest homes. Duilio also has a secret: He is a seer and his gifts have led him to Oriana.

Bound by their secrets, not trusting each other completely yet having no choice but to work together, Oriana and Duilio must expose a twisted plot of magic so dark that it could cause the very fabric of history to come undone….

The Golden City (The Golden City #1)

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Tabitha (Pabkins)

When I'm in the zone I can flip book pages faster than the eye can see - screaming "More Input!" I'm a book, yarn, & art supply hoarding goblin who loves to draw, make toys and craft all sorts of creepy cute things. My current habit is to listen to audio books while I'm arting it up!
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14 Responses to “J. Kathleen Cheney discusses: The Things the Writer Isn’t Telling You (Even When We Want To)”

  1. Nathan (@reviewbarn)

    Having recently read a book where the author had the info and was going to cram it in somewhere, thank you very much, I appropriate the thoughtfulness. I always knew editing could make an author cry as they watched hard work and great ideas get pulled to make the whole better, but I had never really considered how what was not written could cause a bit of angst.
    Nathan (@reviewbarn) recently posted…The 2014 Barneys: Day 7My Profile

    • Tabitha the Pabkins

      Heck yes! You know the info dumping is so reader specific as to what they can handle and can’t. I realized this when I read Charming by Elliott James and so many other readers said there was a ton of info dumping but I didn’t consider it info dumping because he was telling the story in a way such that …as if he was writing a training thing for a future person, to prepare them for these things – so in that case it worked perfectly. Other times you get dumps of history front loaded in a book that just torment me and I NEVER like that.

      I love getting the extra bits of info – I think that would be a nice thing to have at the back of a book in an extra section. Like a “history” section. Or details on the species.

      • J. Kathleen Cheney

        Readers tend to gravitate toward the writers whose taste in infodump levels match theirs. So even if you like the story, a writer’s style might include too much or too little for that reader.

        But then you know for their next book ;o)

  2. Sam @ Realm of Fiction

    I can appreciate how balance is important when it comes to world-building. I do like the detail most of the time, but I also agree that it’s crucial not to bore the reader. Info-dumps are never a good thing, either. Though it’s nice to know when an author does have the answers to any questions, should they come up. 🙂 I love the sound of this book! The cover is gorgeous too. Thanks so much for sharing.
    Sam @ Realm of Fiction recently posted…The Best of Books in 2013: The Wrap-Up PostMy Profile

  3. Wendy Darling

    I LOVE this post, and am going to look into this series immediately. It’s so interesting to read about what an author deliberately leaves out, but I really do think that that kind of thought process adds some texture to the book, even if it’s not explicitly stated. These selkies sound amazing! I want to hear all about these deep, lovely eyes.

    Thanks for featuring this post, Tabitha, I’m looking forward to giving this a try sometime.
    Wendy Darling recently posted…Favorite Books of 2013My Profile

    • Tabitha the Pabkins

      Marvelous! I’m so glad the post sparked your interest. I think you will enjoy this book. The setting is Portugal and its so lovely, its such a refreshing change to see a different regional setting. She writes beautifully and the characters are great!

      Sometimes I wish they could add these little extra tid bits of information into a extras section at the back. But hey that’s what guest posts are for right!!

    • Tabitha the Pabkins

      But what if sometimes they never find that perfect moment to weave it in there!! You know what I loved that companion guide book to The Hollows – Kim Harrison’s series – with all those extra info on the species and what not. J. Kathleen Cheney said she was going to put up something like that on her website about her world. So I’m looking forward to that. I love water based species! Probably another reason why I loved this world so much.