Wendy Wagner: Five Things I Learned Writing Skinwalkers

As a young woman, Jendara left the cold northern isles of the Ironbound Archipelago to find her fortune. Now, many years later, she’s forsaken her buccaneer ways and returned home in search of a simpler life, where she can raise her young son Kran in peace. When a strange clan of shapeshifting raiders pillages her home, however, there’s no choice for Jendara but to take up her axes once again to help the islanders defend all that they hold dear.

From author Wendy N. Wagner comes a new adventure of vikings, lycanthropes, and the ties of motherhood, set in the award-winning world of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

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1. BABIES ARE NOT FOR EATING.

You’d think this one would be obvious, but clearly you haven’t spent time in my head, where my chain of logic went: “If cannibalism is bad, and I want my bad guys to be really bad, then they shouldn’t just eat human being,  they should have a taste for the cutest, snuggliest form of human flesh imaginable!” Certain I was a genius, I wrote a baby-snacking scene while chortling gleefully.

Luckily, other people read my novel before it went to press and pointed out a flaw in my thinking. Yes, eating babies is evil. It’s so evil that if you want the cannibals in your story to ever be more than villainous puppets fit only for destruction, you’d better not include it. That’s why zombies can eat whatever they want to eat–they’re exactly the kinds of villain you feel just fine about nuking from orbit. They’re totally beyond redemption. Besides, any group of people that sees babies as a scrumptious morsel will probably eat itself into extinction. It’s just stupid. And gross. So I got rid of both baby-eating scenes originally included in the novel

Note: I would never eat a baby. In fact, I love babies. I just want to hold them and kiss their sweet-smelling heads and nibble on their adorable toes. Ummn … maybe I should stop talking now.

2. FIND-AND-REPLACE IS A WEAPON OF MASS DESTRUCTION

Sometimes you have to make a repetitive change to your manuscript. Maybe you’ve changed a character’s name or you realized someone’s hair really ought to be brown, not blond. (True story: I went through the entire novel thinking Jendara had blond hair, even though I looked at a picture of her every single day I was writing. Maybe I should get my eyes checked.) The fastest way to make sure you fix every reference to this erroneous word is to call in an air strike and wipe it out. That’s right: find-and-replace.

Now find-and-replace has saved my life many times. In Skinwalkers, I used it whenever I changed my mind about the spelling of one crew-member’s name–so about once a week. But one mistaken find-and-replace can cause you no end of problems. For example, I called one kind of boat a “raider” in the first draft of the novel. But I decided it sounded too Battlestar Galactica, and decided I’d better change it to “long ship” to better convey a Viking image. But did I type “long ship” into the Replace field? Nope. Instead, my nautically bemused brain wrote “longboat.” And like an idiot, I hit enter, changing a vast swathe of Nordic watercraft into the kind of large row boat Ishmael and Ahab cruised around in. I didn’t catch it until I turned in my manuscript, and my editor thought I was nuts.

Don’t be me! Be very, very careful whenever you use find-and-replace. Heck, take the time to approve every change. The extra twenty minutes might really pay off. I wound up changing half of those long ships into a totally different kind of small, clinker-built boat that’s much better suited for the book.

3. RESEARCH BREEDS SERENDIPITY

Skinwalkers may be set in an imaginary world, but I did a great deal of research on the folklore, art, plants, geology, and climate of the places on our planet that are most like its setting: Scandinavia. Outside of watching Troll Hunter, I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about that part of the world, and I wanted the book to be filled with the flavor of the former Viking realm. I read a lot of travel guides and blogs about Norway and Denmark.

And then I found the stamps of the Faroe Islands.

While looking for images from Norse mythology, I kept finding artwork on stamps from this tiny little country. The Faroe Islands are located between the tip of Scotland and the bottom of Iceland. Their language is very close to Old Norse, and they are very proud of their culture–hence the stamps. Photographs of their shoreline directly inspired my favorite setting in the entire novel, a small, spooky island called “the Isle of Ancestors.

Research will pay off more than you can ever expect it to. Wade into the flow of information with your eyes open, and you might find gold.

4. KEEP ON KEEPING ON.

I’m not going to lie: Even though my editor reassured me that my book needed very few substantive edits, the list of changes he sent me was longer than some short stories I’ve sold. Looking at it nearly made me hyperventilate. It looked like work. A lot of work.

But there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years, and that’s not be afraid of doing the work. I just printed out the list, broke down the larger problems into sequences of smaller tasks, and I did it. I checked off everything as I accomplished it, and if I fixed something that broke something else, I just wrote it down on my secondary to-do list. And eventually, I fixed everything.

Remember: there’s not much you can’t do if you cut it up into smaller tasks and you just keep at it.

5. I AM AN INADVERTENT MISOGYNIST. 

Let’s just get one thing straight: Pathfinder is a game for anyone, no matter their gender. That’s something I like about the organization, and I was really excited to get to write them a character who is a strong woman with many facets. Jendara spends a lot of time fighting, but she’s also a caring mother, a semi-successful homemaker who is happy to share the domestic load with her son and companions, and she’s a great friend to men and women alike. I felt really good about turning in a manuscript with characters who were good role models for equality.

But when it was time to revise, my editor pointed out many, many instances of gender-biased language. I lost count of the number of times I referred to a group of fighters as “men.” In situations with a crowd, I almost never described anyone but the guys. Jendara may have been a well-rounded female character, but she was definitely a rarity in her world.

I’m a woman and I believe very firmly in equality for all human beings. I was pretty ashamed to see my own work, and I’m glad I got a chance to fix it before it went out in the world. It’s all too easy to use those same old phrases without thinking about them, but as a writer, it’s my job to think hard about the world I’m making with my words. Do I want it to be the same world that’s told women they have to stay home out of sight, or do I want it to be a world where everyone can adventure, no matter their gender?

Writing Skinwalkers was a major learning experience. I couldn’t be more glad for the education.

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Wendy Wagner: Website | Twitter

Skinwalkers: Amazon | B&N

17 comments

  • OK, I really, really need to read this book. I can pretty much count on one hand the number of fantasy or SF books I’ve ever come across that had a mother as a protagonist, or indeed a mother as any sort of major character who actually does stuff.

    If they have any impact on the story at all, it’s usually by falling into one of three roles: (1) dying (usually, though not always, before the story even starts) to provide motivational angst; (2) innocent that must be protected, including by lying to her constantly so she doesn’t have to know supernatural stuff exists; (3) controlling influence that tries to stop the main characters (her kids) from having adventures (the latter two are more common in YA than elsewhere).

    So, a Viking mom fighting werewolves? SIGN ME UP!

    • I agree but as a Mum I get why Mums don’t do much in literature other than being Mums. I’m trying to think of a way of having a middle aged Mum heroine and make it realistic. So far everything stops short at ‘oh no, hang on, she wouldn’t have time for that’.

      Cheers

      MTM

      • Christopher Brookmyre’s novel “All Fun And Games Until Somebody Loses An Eye” features an arse-kicking 46-year old grandmother as the heroine. Her (grown up) son disappears and she goes on a rampage to get him back. Not quite the same as a character with kids still at home, but maybe useful depending on what kind of story you’re working on. She’s a great character either way.

  • Having walked beside you in items 1,2, 4 and 5 I absolutely get where you’re coming from… Only number one wasn’t about dead babies in my book, it was a particularly grisly force feeding scene.

    And I’d just like to second Lynna’s comment. Your book sounds ace.

    Cheers

    MTM

  • I have never played the Pathfinder games so maybe you needed the cannibals to be redemptive specific in that world. However, and I have read Chuck say this, can you really make a race or an individual do something so heinous that they are beyond redemption? That seems like a narrow barrier to me. I can think a two or three examples of this. Hell, it seems that in The Black Company novels that idea is central to the story. Granted I have only read the first novel but most everyone could be labeled ‘morally ambiguous’ at best.

  • Well I’ve definitely fallen in love with this book – hell, us middle-aged mums need more adventures in our lives that AREN’T purely fridge-related – and I fell completely in love with these five things too. I could relate to them so much – particularly, I’m ashamed to say, number 5. I think it’s that quandary of ‘making your heroine tough and capable and heroic’ versus ‘reflecting the truth of the world you know and have grown up in.’ It’s a complex line to tread sometimes.

    I have added this book to my ‘gonna get when I got some money’ list on my Kindle (’tis Mothers’ Day in the UK on Sunday HINT ALERT HUSBAND AND NUMBER ONE SON…) Beautiful cover it’s got too, I have to say.

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