Sarah Chorn: Five Things I Learned Writing Seraphina’s Lament

The world is dying. 

The Sunset Lands are broken, torn apart by a war of ideology paid for with the lives of the peasants. Drought holds the east as famine ravages the farmlands. In the west, borders slam shut in the face of waves of refugees, dooming all of those trying to flee to slow starvation, or a future in forced labor camps. There is no salvation.

In the city of Lord’s Reach, Seraphina, a slave with unique talents, sets in motion a series of events that will change everything. In a fight for the soul of the nation, everyone is a player. But something ominous is calling people to Lord’s Reach and the very nature of magic itself is changing. Paths will converge, the battle for the Sunset Lands has shifted, and now humanity itself is at stake. 

First, you must break before you can become.

History is grimdark.

Usually, when I have a story idea gestating in my hindbrain, I end up going to the library and basically checking out every historical nonfiction book they have on shelves. Then, I start reading. I read until one triggers whatever I’ve got stewing. What ended up poking this particular bear was a book called Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. It opened up by talking about the Holodomor, an event that is absolutely tragic, horribly brutal, and almost unknown to the wider world.

The Holodomor took place between 1932-1933 in Ukraine. Essentially, Stalin passed a bunch of measures like poorly implemented collective farming, the imprisonment of kulaks (land owners), and the destruction of local traditions which uprooted families, which destroyed lifestyles, overworked land, and resulted in the starvation of millions of people. He also imposed these insane grain requisition quotas which left people with nothing – literally. Estimates vary between 3.3 to 7 million people died of starvation in the Holodomor.

I’ve spent the past year basically inhaling all the history I could about the Holodomor, and Stalin. I can’t even tell you how many books I’ve read on these topics. Thousands and thousands of pages, at least, in preparation to write this book. I can tell you, however, that while I am a dark fantasy author, any darkness I could have possibly thought of has already happened somewhere in history.

I hear people say that grimdark fantasy isn’t realistic. I learned, in writing Seraphina’s Lament, that our own history might be the most grimdark story ever told.

There aren’t many secondary-world fantasy books featuring communist government systems.

Once I started talking about Seraphina’s Lament with people, trying to get reviewers to read my book, I realized that there are almost no fantasy books set in secondary worlds with communist government systems. Kings, queens, and emperors seem to take center stage, and a bunch of government systems born from that. While I call my governmental system in Seraphina’s Lament “collectivism” it’s largely the same thing.

The world is a big place, and a large part of writing, at least for me, is to explore parts of it—both ideas and ways of life—that I may never actually experience. I’ll never get to live in Ukraine during the Holodomor, nor will I ever live in Russia when Stalin was the Premier, but learning about it, and twisting it so it fit into my own secondary world and story, was a really interesting, if sobering, experience, and broadened both the world I live in, and the world I created.

Interesting things happen when I take real world events, and set them in secondary worlds.

While my book may be based on historical events, it is set in a secondary world. While I was building my world, some interesting things developed that I just didn’t foresee when I was doing my research. For example, in Russia, collective farming plots were often given based on how large the family was that was living on it. Many Russians would consider farm workers and hired help as family. In this way, they’d get more land to farm. (This detail was taken from the book A People’s Tragedy, The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924 by Orlando Figes)

So, I took that idea and sort of poked at it a bit and twisted it. In my world, collective farming evolved in the same way, but resulted in non-nuclear family units. Most collective farmers are part of polyamorous groups, numerous husbands and wives. This evolved as a way for people to band together, pool resources and protection, and work larger plots of land. Larger families, essentially, boosted the chance of survival. I don’t really go into too much detail on it in the book, but it’s touched on.

I was also very careful about some details. I have interludes sprinkled throughout the book that detail short snippets of life of the average citizen in this world, unattached to my core characters. These stories (all but one) are directly influenced by eyewitness accounts of the Holodomor that I read in my research. I changed them to fit my world, but I left them there as homage to those who experienced these tragic events, and really lived them. (These interludes were largely inspired by eyewitness accounts in the books Red Famine by Anne Applebaum and Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder)

In this way, building a secondary world based on real-world events was really interesting. It was a challenge to see how to alter which important bit of world building, what to add that is pure fantasy, and which parts of the book to keep as homage to all those who lost so much due to Stalin’s horrible policies.

I can’t outline to save my life.

I tried. I tried so hard, but I just can’t do it. I keep seeing people wax poetic about the glory of outlines, but for me they just make me feel confined, constrained, and tied down. My story freezes and my muse basically just flips me off and walks away. I’ve never been able to color inside the lines. I decided, in writing this book, that I need to stop paying attention to how other people write and just write the way that works best for me. Once I really got that in my head, the floodgates opened and this book just poured out. Sure, editing it was a lot of work, but it was worth it.

There is an incredible amount of vulnerability involved in sharing your art with people.

Once this book goes out into the world, it will stop being mine. It will be yours.

And that is absolutely terrifying, exciting, and intimidating. I’ve been a reviewer for ten years now, an editor for two, and you’d think between all of that I’d be ready for this step but I’m finding that nothing really prepares you for this. Here is what I’ve spent the past year pouring my soul into. Now it is yours.

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Sarah has been a compulsive reader her whole life. At a young age, she found her reading niche in the fantastic genre of Speculative Fiction. She blames her active imagination for the hobbies that threaten to consume her life. She is a writer and editor, a semi-pro nature photographer, world traveler, three-time cancer survivor, and mom. In her ideal world, she’d do nothing but drink lots of tea and read from a never-ending pile of speculative fiction books.

Sarah Chorn: Website

Saraphina’s Lament: Amazon