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Lara Elena Donnelly: Five Things I Learned Writing Amberlough

Amberlough is a vintage-glam spy thriller, set in a world with all the glamor and terror of 1930s Berlin. The economy is faltering, the government is riddled with corruption, the shadow of fascism is creeping across the political landscape, and the populace is partying hard enough to ignore their precarious situation.

Secret agent Cyril DePaul has betrayed his country to protect his lover, black market kingpin Aristide Makricosta, but when he gets in over his head he turns to street-smart stripper and drug dealer Cordelia Lehane for help. As the twinkling lights of nightclub marquees yield to the rising flames of a fascist revolution, these three will struggle to survive using whatever means — and people — necessary. Including each other.

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I learned a lot writing Amberlough. These five things are just the things that changed me the most. Some changed the way I approach writing. Some changed the way I evaluate relationships, the way I consume media, the way I see the world. Some of these things feel eerily, unfortunately timely.

1) The second book is harder

This is technically cheating, because it’s something I learned as I moved on to my next project after Amberlough. I remember Amberlough coming out in a giant surge of joy and inspiration and furious typing. That is not what happened. What happened is I struggled and moaned and gave up a few times and then came back, and tweaked, and reordered, and killed off some characters, brought some back to life, and ascribed different actions to different people.

I was really, really beating myself up, wondering why the next project wasn’t as easy, why it wasn’t coming out as effortlessly. The truth is: human brains are bad at remembering pain and unpleasant experiences with clarity. My brain wrapped the difficult process of novel writing in a clever disguise. Well, brain, I have news for you: it just makes the second novel harder.

2) Question your unconscious bias

Amberlough is an anachronistic novel — I based a lot of the culture on late 1920s and early 1930s Europe. Which meant I kept defaulting to familiar norms. Female secretary, male boss, white people everywhere, etc. for no particular reason. But I knew I wanted the book to be about the forcible streamlining and homogenization of a messy, diverse place. And I couldn’t do that if I didn’t start with messy diversity.

Creating a diverse fantasy world full of fair representation is a worthy pursuit, but it’s also an excellent narrative tool. Diversity instantly creates tension. For instance: Cyril, one Amberlough’s main characters, is an affluent white man from a politically-powerful, old-money family. His boss Ada Culpepper is the daughter of two black immigrants—asylum seekers from a nation essentially destroyed by Cyril’s family. Though the race and gender politics in Amberlough are different than those in our world, and even though Cyril and Ada’s differences don’t contribute directly to the plot, they don’t see the world quite the same way, and this colors every interaction between them.

Similarly, Cyril’s beard Cordelia is an orphan from one of Amberlough City’s worst slums, who works as a burlesque dancer and drug dealer. She and Cyril become close friends, but there are certain things they will never, ever understand about each other. Those things create excellent opportunities for character development. For instance, when Cyril is telling Cordelia how he became a spy:

“When I was younger,” he said, ignoring her, “it seemed so exciting. Everything was a game, and ruthlessness had a kind of . . . romantic appeal.” Then, he looked up, and his eyes widened, flashing like mercury. “I’m sorry. You’re from the Mew. I wasn’t thinking.”

She licked her teeth, tasting good tobacco and clean gin. “Nah. I ain’t pinned. We’re all idiots when we’re kids. Only difference is, I stopped being a kid a lot sooner than you.”

The shame was plain on his face, and satisfying.

3) Espionage isn’t glamorous

Ian Fleming did a great job convincing us all that spies are sexy, and Amberlough follows in those scandalous footsteps. Very seldom do spies act like James Bond. Far more often they are like le Carré’s Smiley, or even less assuming. They’re usually just normal people, gathering information that might be useful handlers who hope it’s relevant. Intelligence is built on a foundation of thousands of separate, simple reports that make one complex picture.

One of the sexiest things about espionage is that important secrets are traded among people who generally have access to them by virtue of their position in life. This means ambassadors and their families (or their lovers); old money, society journalists, high stakes gamblers; well-known authors, actors, and other famous people who travel around the world in wealthy and elevated circles.

These aren’t generally the same people who are trained in Krav Maga or sharp-shooting. More often, they’re in the camp of people reporting on seemingly banal overheard conversations that, in the context of a larger operation, can become vitally important. During World War II, for example, one man was selected as an agent for Operation Doublecross simply because he bore a startling resemblance to General MacArthur. He had no training in tradecraft whatsoever.

4) We’ll root for anybody if they’re compelling

When I sent a draft of this book to my mom, she called when she was done and asked me where I’d learned to write such awful characters. And, more than that: how had I made them so likeable?

The people in this book are not good or nice. They are scheming, manipulative, devious, selfish, secretive, meddling, violent, and destructive. They commit horrible crimes and destroy other people’s lives to save their own. But my beta readers loved them. I loved them. I reveled in coming up with new ways for them to connive and conspire. It’s amazing how invested you can become in someone’s awfulness, if you’re sympathetic to their motivation. Amazing, and a little scary.

5) Injustice has no signpost

Reading history, it’s easy to point to a juncture and say, “That’s where things went wrong. I would notice something as crazy as a rigged election, or a fascist coup, or the dismantling of democracy.” But not if it looks like business as usual. And usually, it does.

For instance, I did a lot of research about rigged elections, though much of this information didn’t end up in the book. Mostly because, like spy work, the details are a little boring.

Rigging an election is as simple as workers at certain polling places saying, “Did you bring your ID?” Or people “losing” ballot boxes. Or candidates telling bald-faced lies, saying they’ve won when they haven’t, and steamrolling any objection. Or, I don’t know, making a stink about some emails at a critical point one week before people head to the polls.

As I read my research material (sent to me by a friend who consults on electoral conflicts) I remember wondering, “That’s it? Why didn’t people…do something?” If rigged elections were decided by one momentous handshake in a dark, smoky room, I could understand—no one would see the problem to stop it. But these weren’t cloak and dagger operations. These were the end result of many banal injustices, piling up in the open.

There is no moment of “This Far and No Further.” These things happen by slow increments, a current growing swifter each moment as the river approaches the falls. Change is wrought by small actions, multiplying and metastasizing into something huge.

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The all-singing, all-dancing Lara Elena Donnelly is a graduate of the Alpha and Clarion writers’ workshops. Her work has appeared in venues including Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Nightmare, and Mythic Delirium. Her debut novel, vintage-glam spy thriller Amberlough, drops on February 7, 2017 from Tor Books. A veteran of small town Ohio and the Derby City, Lara now lives in Manhattan. You can also find her online at @larazontally or

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