This is Your Brain on Writing

An interesting article in the New York Times. Are there specific parts of the brain which activate while writing fiction? Do experienced writers engage different areas of their brain than novices? It’s just a start, but the results are fascinating.

A subject testing out a researcher-designed writing desk before being slid into a scanner that watched his brain activity as he wrote. Credit Martin Lotze/University of Greifswald

A subject testing out a researcher-designed writing desk before being slid into a scanner that watched his brain activity as he wrote. Credit Martin Lotze/University of Greifswald

An Informative Q&A with Fantasy Author Roberta Trahan

As a part of the continuing 47North Author Blog Swap series, I am honored to welcome fellow writer Roberta Trahan on the Bag of Good Writing Blog for October.  Roberta was one of the first 47North Authors I met when I first ventured onto Twitter and she is always ready to lend a hand, voice support and is a wonderful source of information on writing, social media and life in general.  The first novel in Roberta’s The Dream Stewards fantasy series, The Well of Tears, is currently available everywhere, and the second installment, The Keys to the Realms is scheduled for release on May 6, 2014.


Richard (REP): Roberta, welcome to the Bag of Good Writing Blog!
Roberta Trahan: Thanks for the invite – I am honored!

REP: Could you introduce us to the Dream Stewards series?  What is the basic premise of The Well of Tears?  Can we get a little teaser for The Keys to the Realms?
Roberta: The Dream Stewards series is built around the life of a real king, a legendary ruler who united Wales in the early 10th century and secured a lasting peace for the first time since the days of Arthur. This series follows a group of sorceresses called to serve as the king’s advisors, and their struggle to protect him and his destiny.

Here are the taglines for both books:

The Well of Tears: In a war ravaged land where black magic is rising, a powerful sorceress fights for her family, her order, and a king who can save them all.
The Keys to the Realms: To keep the magical order of the Stewards and the prophecy it protects from falling to the dark forces seeking to overtake it, a young sorceress must face the truth about herself, her calling, and the king who is destined to lead them all.

REP: Why fantasy?  What is it about the fantasy genre that attracts you the most?  What challenges you the most?
Roberta: I’ve never been able to adequately answer that question. I’ve lived part of every day in my imagination since a very young age – 6 or 7 years old. Whether it was an escape from the harsh truths of real life or simply a really fun place to play, the genre has always appealed to me. The first short story I ever wrote was a third grade assignment – an alien encounter tale. I get excited by the idea of undiscovered realities and unexplored possibilities. And then, there is the whole magic as an extension of personal power thing. I would say that what challenges me most about fantasy is exactly what I crave from it – its limitlessness. I have to be the one to set boundaries when my natural inclination is to push them even farther.

Author Roberta Trahan

Author Roberta Trahan

REP: I can see in your biography that you are fascinated by your Celtic heritage.  Can you tell us how your personal history influences your writing and fantasy?
Roberta: There are common threads throughout all ancient tribal and clan cultures, notably the existence of some kind of unique mythology, and a deep connection to the natural world. Both my Celtic heritage and my Cherokee lineage are rife with oral storytelling tradition and the proverbial cautionary tale – as well as an integrated magic system. I sort of feel that the need to examine how beings are connected to and interact with their environment is hard wired into my DNA – and therefore at the root of every story I write. My heritage influences how I perceive the world we live in, as well as the ones I envision.

REP: Have you ever visited Cornwall and Wales?  Do you use real-life locations in your fantasy novels?
Roberta: Other members of my family have visited Cornwall and Wales, though I have not – yet. Real life locations are necessary grounding stones in The Dream Stewards series, especially given the historical context of the stories. The village of Pwll and Stradey Woods are two examples of actual places that figure prominently in The Well of Tears and The Keys to the Realms. Fortunately, I had a lot of help with my research and that enabled me to create realistic settings for some pretty unrealistic events.

REP: What fantasy authors and novels have influenced you the most?
Roberta: Wow – that is a long list and tough to rank. I am influenced in some way by every author I admire, even those of their works I don’t particularly love. I guess the top three would be Marion Zimmer-Bradley (Firebrand, Mists of Avalon), David Eddings (The Elenium Trilogy), Guy Gavriel Kay (Fionavar Tapestry series), and then just about anything by Robin Hobb, Terry Brooks, Jennifer Robison, or Kate Elliot.

REP: Who is your favorite character you have ever written?  Have you ever written a character whom you truly despised?
Roberta: Oh, that is SUCH a hard question. I think we authors have love-hate relationships with all of our characters. My favorite so far is Thorne Edwall, who appears for the first time in the second book, which will be released next spring. He is a dark and reluctant hero who is constantly at war with his conscience. On the flip side, I can’t really say I despise any of my characters – I know what makes them who they are, so I have a natural empathy for them all, even the worst of the worst.

REP: Do you think that being a female author brings a unique perspective to your fantasy writing?  How?  I remember when I read The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley in 1983 and how the King Arthur story from the perspective of the female characters totally blew me away.  The female point-of-view seemed quite unusual then.
Roberta: Yes, The Mists of Avalon was certainly groundbreaking when it came to female point of view characters. However, I tend to think every writer’s perspective, whether it is male or female, is unique regardless of gender. Although I make a point of addressing uniquely feminine issues in my story lines, that’s just me speaking from my own experience, and don’t all authors do that? I can honestly say that I am not trying to infuse any particular agenda into my writing, feminist or otherwise. My mission, when it comes to my point of view as a woman, is to honor and respect both men and women by examining and embracing their differences. I actually enjoy writing male characters more than female. I wonder what that says about me…

REP: It appears that the ranks of female science fiction and fantasy authors are rich and growing rapidly now.  Do you think that the wild success of the Harry Potter series ignited the love of books in many young girls and offered them a tremendous career writer role model in the form of J. K. Rowling?
Roberta: As the mother of kids who grew up during the Harry Potter years, I would have to say that Stephenie Meyer did more to attract girls to fantasy with her Twilight saga than JK Rowling. My son and husband are much bigger Harry Potter fans than my daughter and I. Remember, the main character in that series is a boy. Hermione falls into the traditional supporting role of “behind every successful man is a strong woman”, which is far less appealing to today’s young woman than Bella, who is the star of her own show. If we’re talking women as writing role models, there are many who preceded Rowling and Meyer and are still influencing the young women of today – Madeline L’Engle, just to name one.

REP: What has been your experience in the current sci-fi/fantasy atmosphere, where there has been quite a bit of controversial hubbub regarding how female authors are being treated by some of their male peers?
Roberta: I know it’s a very hot topic these days – sexism in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy industry and genre, but I don’t really have anything anecdotal to add to that discussion. I have experienced nothing but professional courtesy and respect from my male peers – whether they are fellow authors or publishing folks. What sexism I have encountered has come from certain readers, who naturally bring their personal biases to their reading experiences. And that’s perfectly fine with me – I don’t write for them.

REP: Can you tell us a little about yourself? At what stage in your life did you decide to become a writer?
Roberta: Remember that third grade writing assignment? That alien encounter story got me into a heap of trouble. My teacher thought the concept was far too sophisticated for a kid my age and accused me of “borrowing” the idea from somewhere. I hadn’t, and by the time my mother got through with him, Mr. Hines had a new respect for me. I was deeply wounded by his inference, but I was smart enough to understand that what all that uproar really meant was that I had done something pretty good. That was the moment I knew I was meant to be a writer. I have been following that path ever since, or at least trying to. I was lucky to have a very supportive parent who encouraged me from a young age. It wasn’t always so easy to stay on the path, and it took me a long time to get where I am now, but I have always known I had a calling.

REP: Could you briefly tell us the story of how you got your agent and got your first book published?
Roberta: Wow, that story is anything but brief, but I’ll try to stick to the highlights. When I finally decided to try my luck as a novelist, I decided to approach it as a career change. I read books, took classes, and looked for mentors. Through a series of painful life events, I was eventually introduced to a woman who changed everything for me – an editorial / publishing consultant whom I hired to read my first manuscript and give me feedback. A professional and personal relationship grew from that meeting, and she became my publishing guide as well as a dear friend. For the next ten years, while I polished my writing craft, I also learned the industry from the ground up, working as a marketing and PR consultant for authors and small publishers. I found my agent by referral, as a result of many years of networking.

My first agent, who recently left the business, worked tirelessly for two years to sell my first book. Unfortunately, we set out to find a home for it soon after the economic crash in 2008, and although we received great feedback from editors, none of them were prepared to take a risk on a hybrid fantasy from a new author in such a volatile business climate. We received 17 rejections over the next 18 months, exhausting literally every option, and then decided to put the project aside. I began writing a new series, and my agent moved on with other projects. But, being the amazing agent she was, she never really stopped looking. Two years later, when a new and revolutionary opportunity appeared on the horizon, she was ready and waiting. Through a chance meeting with Alex Carr, who was heading up the as-yet unannounced new Amazon Publishing imprint 47North, my agent finally got me my big break.

REP: As a writer, you are heavily invested in exploring the writing life and the creative process.  Do you have a set of writing rules or rules for the writing life?
Roberta: Coming to terms with your creative process is an evolutionary journey that morphs over the years. Life is multi-faceted, and its demands definitely conflict with the artisan’s mentality. Feeling good about all of it all the time is virtually impossible, but I have learned to celebrate the small victories. My rules are pretty simple – write something every day, set realistic short and long term goals (realizing they are subject to change at a moment’s notice), and give my writing life the same respect I give everything else I do.

REP: World building is of course a major component of any fantasy book and series.  Can you give a new author any advice on how to approach and execute effective world building?
Roberta: World building is an essential component in fantasy – second only to plot and character development. I approach world building in fantasy the same way I approached historical or cultural research in college – examine every aspect of the world and its variances by region: physical (geography, topography, climate, vegetation, animal life, agriculture), cultural (language, clothing, food, tradition, religion), social (family, community, class structure, commerce), and political (governance, commerce, law). The more time and effort you devote to this, the richer and more believable your world will be.

REP: Any overall advice for a new author?  Would that advice be any different if the recipient is female or male?
Roberta: Again, I don’t get this whole male/female thing when it comes to writing. If you are a writer and your goal is to be published, accept that this is a career like any other. It requires training, practice, and an education in industry practices. Talent will only carry you part of the way. The rest is just plain hard work and dedication.

REP: Point taken. What book(s) are you reading right now?
Roberta: I’m currently reading Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, the short story anthology Unfettered (edited by Shawn Speakman), and Stant Litore’s Zombie Bible series.

REP: What is your favorite coffee?  What is your favorite chocolate?
Roberta: Ahhh,the coffee…my favorite is Peet’s House Blend, but I’m always looking for the next best cup. I absolutely love any and all artisan chocolates – the latest treat came from a friend, truffles from Choco Delice. Yum.

REP: Thank you Roberta, for dropping by!
Roberta: Thank you for having me, Richard. It’s been fun!

In conclusion I’d like to offer many thanks to Roberta Trahan for chatting with us here on the blog!

To connect with Roberta Trahan, visit her online:

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