Author Sharon Shinn creates some of the most unusual and fascinating worlds in genre fiction today. A planet where angels act as administrators and guides and a benevolent deity rains down bounty upon the land…if you sing the right song at the right time. A wild and unruly land where powerful “mystics” hold magical powers, but are hated and feared by many people who are not as gifted. Or a nation where the course of someone’s life may be determined by three coins that are chosen from a barrel on the day of their birth. Each of these are vivid, layered, and colorful places – populated by equally colorful characters.
Shinn’s most recent series is called Elemental Blessings, and it takes place in the country of Welce, in which every citizen is affiliated with one of the major elements (earth, air, fire, water, or wood), with personality traits to match (for example, hunti or wood-affiliated individuals tend to be stubborn but reliable), and they can pull “blessing coins,” representing character traits or strengths, whenever they need special insight or guidance. We’ve met avatars of water, air, and fire in the three previous books in the series. In her latest book in the series, Unquiet Land, a torz, or earth-affiliated, woman comes to terms with her turbulent past…while setting the course for her own future.
Recently, the author agreed to answer a few burning questions for Geek Speak. Here’s what she had to say about her own elemental affiliations, writing strong female characters, and how she chooses character names.
GS: You’ve told stories from the point of view of representatives of four of the elements: coru, elay, sweela, and torz (water, air, fire, and earth, for readers following along at home). Is a hunti book planned, and if so who will be the heroine? Do we know her yet?
SS: I’m not sure! It would certainly make sense to have a fifth book to complete the set. I’d probably make it about Princess Natalie, who’s been a minor character in a couple of the preceding books. She’s still a child at this point, so I’d need to introduce a ten- or twelve-year time gap. But at the moment I don’t have a story about her that I’m dying to write, so…I don’t know when or if this book might ever happen.
GS: You probably get this question a lot, but which element are you aligned with? Which are your blessings?
SS: I used to think I was torz (earth) but lately I’ve been leaning more toward hunti (wood) because I can be SO dogged and stubborn. But there’s definitely a little sweela thrown in.
As you might imagine, I’ve had my blessings pulled a number of times. But the set I like best is the one I got one night when the members of my writer’s group all drew blessings for each other: intelligence, certainty, and imagination. Really, I could hardly ask for better, either personally or professionally.
GS: On your Facebook page, you draw three blessings at the beginning of each week. How do these blessings influence you as you go about your week? Do other people tell you that they are influenced by the blessings you draw?
SS: I don’t know that the blessings really influence my life, but I like starting off the week with this sort of hopeful ritual. And it’s always interesting to consider what the blessings might mean, especially when all three are taken together. For a while it seemed like the ones that kept turning up were all about endurance, persistence, resolve—not really the fun ones. At the same time, they were great messages because there always IS so much hard stuff to get through and they served as reminders to just keep going.
I love it when people post in response something like “You have no idea how much I needed that today!” I also like to hear what they’ve pulled from their own stash of blessings. But do I remember the blessings long after I’ve pulled them and posted them? Do I wake up every day the rest of the week and say, “Don’t forget! Be persistent!” Can’t say that I do. J
GS: In the romance genre in particular, there seem to be a lot of alpha heroes running around – billionaires and doms and the like. But one thing I’ve noticed in the Elemental Blessings books and also in the Twelve Houses (Samaria, too, although maybe to a lesser extent) is that the most powerful characters seem to be women. (Senneth would turn Christian Grey into a tiki torch without a second thought.) The men are no slouches, either – Darien is obviously formidable, Tayse is the most accomplished warrior in Gillengaria, etc., but the fact that their partners are tough and powerful is barely remarked upon – it’s just a fact of life in your world.
Is this a deliberate choice on your part? And a broader question – how do you go about creating your characters and their worlds?
SS: It IS a deliberate choice, but I also think it’s been kind of a slow evolution on my part as a writer. In some of my earliest unpublished books, the women aren’t nearly as strong, even when they’re the main characters. They’re more like traditional romance heroines—often emotionally resilient, but not powerful physically. And the heroines in my earliest published books also aren’t particularly kickass—Lilith in The Shape-Changer’s Wife, Rachel in Archangel, Laura in Wrapt in Crystal. They’re smart or they’re obstinate or they’re highly skilled, but they’re not fighting off villains or burning down buildings. But I think my heroines get stronger as you progress through my published works.
One of the things I love about both Senneth and Kirra is that they’re uncontainable. They have to want to be in the room, they have to want to be in the relationship. You can’t force them to do anything. On the one hand, that’s the way life should be, right? On the other hand, it makes for interesting characters to write, because if they can’t be compelled, how can they be persuaded? What’s their moral code? What are their passions? If they can’t be contained, can they be trusted? This makes them really fun to work with.
In Unquiet Land, there’s a climactic action scene near the end of the book, and the four characters involved are all women. I didn’t even realize it until I was revising the first draft. I love the idea that a book can be full of a dozen powerful characters, some men, some women, all of them with essential roles to play, all of them negotiating their own terms. I think having just one strong character—male or female—would make for a pretty dull story.
As for the broader question of creating characters and worlds—that’s a whole essay in itself! Mostly I think about them a lot. I usually have a couple of world-building ideas and a couple of character ideas, and as I move people around in possible plotlines, I get a clearer idea of the world and the characters, so I refine them both. But here’s a basic tenet of story-telling: If you have a character who can control fire, you put her in a situation where she needs to make something burn. If you have a character who can control water, you put a river right in the middle of her city. And you go from there.
GS: Kind of a random question, but I’ve wondered this for a while. How do you come up with your characters’ names? They’re awesome. (“Willawendiss” is a personal favorite of mine.)
SS: Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard! I often try out several names as I’m writing my first draft, so someone might be called “Marco” at the beginning of the story and “Nico” at the end. In Heart of Gold, I wanted the gulden characters to have sharp, curt names with hard consonants (Pakt), while the indigo characters had soft, flowing names (Nolan Adelpho). I often try out different syllable combinations. I might think, “I have too many K names, I need something that starts with an R.” I want the names to be pronounceable, so I try not to load on too many unnecessary letters. (Even so, I get it wrong a lot. No one can pronounce Glyrenden from The Shape-Changer’s Wife. It’s GLEER-en-den, by the way.) It can be a long process. Sometimes I’m several chapters in and I’m still identifying people as Hero and Heroine, or even just Name.
And yeah. Willawendiss is a little over the top, but I love it too.
GS: And finally, who are some writers you admire? How have they influenced you? What was your “gateway drug” – the first fantasy novel or series that caught your attention and made you say “Yeah, I want to do that?”
SS: I’d been reading sf/f since I was pretty young—Heinlein’s juveniles and Andre Norton’s books and the random standalone fantasy like Carol Kendall’s The Gammage Cup. I always knew I wanted to be a writer and I always figured I’d write fantasy, so I’m not sure I can identify the book that made me say, “That’s the kind of story I want to tell!” But—in genre—some of my profoundest early influences were Anne McCaffrey, Patricia McKillip, Joy Chant, and Robin McKinley.
Out of genre, I was devouring Regencies by Georgette Heyer and westerns by Zane Grey and Ernest Haycox. What they all had in common was fabulous world-building (even the westerns) and a core of romance. Add a little Jane Austen, a little Charlotte Brontë, and you pretty much have the recipe for what I’m still writing today.
Our thanks to Sharon Shinn for her participation in this interview. Unquiet Land is released November 1.