Amanda Cherry: Five Things I Learned Writing The Dragon Stone Conspiracy

When the Fäe go to war with a Nazi cult, one woman will protect humanity’s future.

As World War II rages, accidental immortal Pepper Elizabeth Jones is on the run from government agents on both sides of the Atlantic. Hidden in neutral Ireland, she is summoned to meet with a mysterious general, The Righ, who tasks her to save magic itself from the Nazis. Now, she must race against the clock to stop an evil ritual and prevent the Nazis from gaining a world-shattering supernatural power.

This book is part of the Strowlers Shared Cinematic Universe, a collaborative global story that anyone can join.

Tell your story. Change the world.

PREPCRASTINATION IS POWERFUL

My first book was a contemporary fantasy set in an imaginary city. If I needed a point of fact, I probably knew it off the top of my head. And if I didn’t just know? I was free to make it up. Making things up is, as it turns out, one of the chief skills involved in being a writer. And, I came to learn, I am actually quite good at making things up. Need a fancy bar? Make it up! Need a traffic light so the character has to stop driving and see something? Make it up!

Making things up is so satisfying. And easy! And awesome!

And did I mention easy?

Writing historical urban fantasy that [partially] takes place in real locations is an entirely different animal. It is not easy. It is, quite honestly, the opposite of easy. Unless you don’t care about accuracy (but, then, why are you writing historical urban fantasy when you could instead be writing just-regular-fantasy and saving yourself a lot of difficulty: see above re: making things up)

I am a history nerd, and I wanted an accurate book! I wanted all google-able real-world things to be as real as real can be. This was both for my own edification and also to keep the vultures of popular review platforms from screaming ugly things in my general direction.

The desire to make the historical reality as accurate as possible led me down such research rabbit holes as maps of the pre-WWII Berlin subway (which I found!) & the price of bus fare from Donegal to Dublin in 1943 (which I did not find). There were days I spent so much time trying to figure out what car to put on a road, how far X was from Y, or whether or not there would have been streetlights someplace that I barely got any words on the page at all.

These deep dives into time and place are some of the best procrastination techniques I have ever stumbled upon. I mean: copious researching is a super-easy way to keep from having to do any actual writing while still feeling all, “Whee! Look at me! I am Very Much on task!”. Y’all: IT’S A TRAP.

Yes, I had to do the research, but I also had to do the writing. Because even the best-researched books patently refuse to write themselves.

Dangit.

WHERE IT’S BETTER NOT TO BE ACCURATE

So, there’s research, and then there’s reality, and then there’s perspective. And when writing about history, especially the ugly parts, balancing those things can be um…well…challenging.

There are parts of the past most of us find nostalgic and delightful. Just look around at the Rockabilly movement and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Fedoras. Victory rolls. Benny Goodman. Yes. Yes. Yes. Give me the music and the dancing and the clothes and slang words like “Murgatroyd,” and Casablanca on the marquee at the Bijou. All of it.

Ok. Not all of it. Because things were happening in the world of my book that are much better left in the past.

Jim Crow, Eugenics, that time Hitler was Look Magazine’s Man of the year.

Yeah, no.

There is at least as much NOPE in the 1940’s as there is wonderful- and figuring out which parts of 1943 to keep and which to toss was an adventure I wasn’t aware I was signing up for. I wanted to evoke the era with enough delight to keep the reader happy to be there, but also with enough dread to remind y’all that the stakes are serious.

And as though that wasn’t a fine enough line to be walking, I discovered pretty early on in my writing process that I had bought myself a ticket on the evolution-of-language-train.

Figuring out how to be period-immersive while leaving behind harmful language was a lesson I’m glad I learned, but it didn’t come easy.

Just because the book is set in 1943 doesn’t mean I have to bring all of 1943’s problems into it. So much easier said than done….

When it came time to introduce a character with Romani heritage, I was a big mumbling mess of yikes. The only word Pepper would have known to describe this character is considered a slur these days; y’all know the “G” word. I’m not gonna write it here any more than I did in the book.

There we stood: a character who, without malice, wouldn’t have known better and an author who does know better but isn’t sure how to go about making this work in a way that neither pulls the reader out of the world of the story nor puts a slur in my book.

Writing around your protagonist’s prejudices, especially those borne of the time in which they live, double especially when they’re your sole POV character is a whole ball of wax. But with the help of my editors and the support of awesome friends with Romani heritage, we made it work.

Because, in the end, it’s about the reader’s experience, and since we don’t live in 1943, I’m not confined to the vocabulary of the era.

AND WHERE HISTORY IS HELPFUL

This book is about some imaginary magic in a real place. Real people rub shoulders with fictional ones, and my adventuring protagonist goes back and forth between actual historical locations and the world of the fantastic.

In order to make this work, I had to ground the adventure in actual historical time and place.

Starting with time.

When this book could possibly happen was the first problem I had to solve. I had constraints on all sides, both in-universe and real-world. Can’t be before THIS can’t be after THAT, and I need to get this guy out of the way.

You know how, when you’re writing a fanfic and you need to shoehorn this very intense conversation between your favorite pair into the cut between scenes in the movie? It was like that, only with Nazis.

And this, my friends, was 100% a job for history-nerdery. Putting those old fanfic muscles to good use, I dove deep into Things I Learned in College and found just the right historical moment to exploit for my purposes (insert evil laugh here). I got rid of Himmler and I did it with a real-world reason. Go me.

Sometimes history gives you just what you need—you just have to bother to go and look for it.

If you’re the type of reader who likes to Google what else was happening on the very specific dates given for the events of a piece of historical fiction, I see you, and you won’t be mad about this one.

Or maybe you will, but at least you’ll know I did my homework.

HOW TO USE “STET” WHEN I MEAN “STFU”

One of the things that happens when you write a book is that you’re not actually done writing it when you think you’re done writing it. Other people get to tell you things about what you wrote and how you wrote it and then you have to write more things in your book (or take some things out of your book—ugh.) based on what those other people say.

Those people are called Editors and in my case they do the very heroic thing of turning my long rambles of storytelling into something people are willing to buy and read. It’s neat!

One of the things I learned from my first book was how working with an editor happens—the processes and power balance and all that jazz. For me, a big part of learning to work with an editor was learning when to accept their suggestion and when to shake my head and say STET. For those of y’all unfamiliar with the term (as I was just one book ago), that’s a word writers use when we choose not to accept the editor’s version of something and instead want to leave the words the way we had them in the first place.

With THE DRAGON STONE CONSPIRACY, there were far more fingers in the pie than there were with RITES & DESIRES (a thing to be expected with a larger IP, no worries) and some of those fingers were really long and over-stretchy. And one of them just…didn’t like the way I write. Like… not at all.

Reading through and responding to those notes kind of sucked. Ok, no—it didn’t kind of suck, it sucked bigtime.

I wanted to get *so* defensive. I wanted to yell and scream and stomp my foot and explain in the greatest of detail not only that the person was wrong but also how much and how come. However, authors throwing temper tantrums in the general direction of their editors (especially when those editors weren’t the source of the offending comments) is generally frowned upon.

Luckily, the industry has gifted me the beautiful tool which is STET. And boy did I make use of it.

It’s now fighting “snollygoster” for the title of my Very Favorite English word (although it’s technically Latin, so I suppose it’s actually fighting “Post hoc ergo Propter hoc” to be my favorite Latin).

STET is good. As an early-career author, it was kind of empowering to stand up for my writing, my voice, and my choices. Self esteem not really being the biggest thing for most of us writer-types (especially those of us who are new to the business), it was uncomfortable, but rewarding, to use all caps and demand my words be respected.

It was also way more professional than some of the other words I might have chosen.

Good times!

WORD RATIONING

I write books, and sometimes other things (like guest blog posts) as my job. All of these things, books and otherwise, are made up of words. Words are the tools of my trade the same as wrenches and hammers are the tools of a mechanic’s trade. And I love words—I always have.

When I was in second grade, we were doing a phonics exercise wherein we were each assigned a letter of the alphabet and tasked with going to the blackboard (yes, I’m showing my age here, but whatever) and writing down a word beginning with our letter. I got the letter “T”. I then proceeded to that chalk board and proudly wrote “totalitarianism” for my whole class to read.

My teacher called my parents.

Words are my stock and trade, and they’re also my hobby. And there are some I apparently like way more than a person really ought to. I have a particular affinity for oddball words (see above re: snollygoster) and I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t use my favorite words in my writing. Words are good, and we should use them!

In getting RITES & DESIRES revised and ready for primetime I learned all about my addiction to “that”— which is a thing I continue to work on. But while working through revisions on THE DRAGON STONE CONSPIRACY I learned that isn’t my only word problem.

Too much of a commonplace word is one thing. But multiple instances of a beloved-but-uncommon word is enough to be disruptive. So I’m told.

I have now learned to read my own work with a critical eye for overuse of words that aren’t part of everyday speech for people who are not me.

I am now allowed only one “hodgepodge” per manuscript. One “slapdash”. One “ramshackle”. And I only get a “snollygoster” every other book. It’s a hard-knock life, y’all. But it is what it is.

Learning to parcel out the more peculiar words in my vocabulary has been a useful tool as far as making my work more approachable, but I still love my weird darlings and won’t be giving them up entirely any time soon.

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Amanda Cherry is an author/actor who still can’t believe people will pay her to write books. She enjoys documentary films, fried food, and spending time on her boat. In her spare time, Amanda volunteers as an announcer and referee for Flat Track Roller Derby. Amanda lives in the Seattle area with her husband, son, and the world’s cutest puggle. She is represented by Claire Draper of the Bent Agency.

Amanda Cherry: Website

The Dragon Stone Conspiracy: Amazon | Bookshop