Monday, May 27

Guest Interview: Melissa F Olson, Author of Trail of Dead

E.M. Powell: I’ve been a guest blogger for a number of great sites. But today I get to host a guest on mine for the first time. Most of you will probably be expecting an author of historical fiction, because my novel The Fifth Knight is in that genre. But of course The Fifth Knight is also a thriller and I love my thrillers. So I’m delighted that my first guest is also a thriller/mystery writer who writes urban fantasy. Welcome, Melissa F Olson, author of Trail of Dead!

Melissa F Olson: Thank you very much! I’m happy to be here. I think it’s so much fun when you can combine a thriller plot with other genres or settings.

EMP.  So tell us, what’s Trail of Dead about?

MFO: Trail of Dead follows the story of Scarlett Bernard, a young woman in LA who has a unique ability: She nullifies supernatural powers. If a magically inclined creature like a vampire or a werewolf gets close to her, they revert back to human. In my world, vampires are dead during the day, and werewolves struggle with their inner beast, which makes Scarlett’s ability a unique commodity to the supernatural. She also makes her living cleaning up supernatural crime scenes, so she has strong ties to the magical community even though what she does is basically undoing magic.

EMP: But this isn’t the first time we meet your kick-ass heroine, Scarlett Bernard, is it?

MFO. Nope, Trail of Dead is the sequel to Dead Spots, which was published in October 2012 and introduced Scarlett and her world. Dead Spots opens with Scarlett arriving late to a grisly crime scene, and getting caught by a police officer who eventually blackmails her into helping him solve the crime. The two of them work together again in Trail of Dead.

EMP. I love her name. What inspired it? Did she have any other names before you settled on this one?

MFO: Thank you! Names are important to me – almost every name in my books has some significance, even if it’s just a private one in my head.  When I was casting about for a name for my lead character, I wanted a name that was unique, strong, and sort of badass. The series originally had a somewhat different setup, with a heroine whose superpower was finding lost things or people. Her name was Runa, short for Aliruna, a Norse goddess who found lost things. I came up with Runa’s whole character, but never felt like I could connect with her. I kept tinkering, and came up with my current protagonist, Scarlett Bernard.  “Scarlett” is often associated with the stubborn, melodramatic heroine of Gone With the Wind, but the Scarlett in my own life was actually a two-year-old, the daughter of one of my closest friends. Even at two this Scarlett was terrifyingly strong-willed, unpredictable, and independent-minded. She’s almost five now, but I’m still in awe/somewhat afraid of that little girl. I named my protagonist Scarlett in honor of her, and the second I had the name, it was like I knew the character. I didn’t completely retire Runa, though – she pops up in Trail of Dead as a foil for Scarlett’s love interest, Jesse!

EMP. Mini-Scarlett sounds amazing! And I know what you mean about name significance- I do the same with my characters. As a historical writer, I have to do a lot of research to make sure I’m being as true to the time period as I can. You write paranormal. Do you have to devote a lot of time and effort to world-building in the same way?

MFO. Oh, yes! Worldbuilding is the most complicated, frustrating, wonderfully fun part of writing urban fantasy, because your reader’s enjoyment of the book depends entirely on how much they’re willing to suspend their disbelief. I think you have to mix in believable, logical information when you create new worlds, because it gives the reader an anchor. Before I wrote a word of Dead Spots I sat down and wrote a sort of blueprint of the way magic works in Scarlett’s world, and how it adhered itself to evolutionary processes that ended up creating these creatures we know and love. I eventually posted the blueprint on my website, so my readers can use it as a reference just like I do.

EMP. Have other writers/TV shows/movies given you ideas? Where else do you get your ideas from?

MFO. I think Scarlett owes a lot to Buffy, of course. I try to bring some of Buffy’s attitude to the character, just in the way she approaches really tough situations: with a “let’s go to work” sigh and a quip. My protagonist is emotionally quite damaged, which I loved in urban fantasy series like Jim Butcher’s and Rob Thurman’s. And I often get structural elements from works I admire. For example, I read a really cool twist ending in one of Thurman’s books, and wanted to try it out with Dead Spots. I’ve always liked the movie Batman Returns because I think it does a really neat job balancing two villains, which I did in Trail of Dead. In both of those cases it was like seeing someone perform a really neat skateboard trick and decide you want to try it yourself: you might fall on your butt, but you might also make it your own. Hopefully I pull off the latter.

EMP: Hey, we have a genre collision- actor Anthony Head was ace in Buffy- and he showed up as Uther Pendragon in the BBC Merlin series!
Anthony Head + Chainmail. Welcome to my world!

EMP: Being a writer is very strange profession. We essentially lock ourselves away and make up stories in our heads about imaginary friends. My imaginary friends have chain mail, yours have fangs and excess body hair. What do your family and friends think about what you do?

MFO: The locking-yourself-away thing is one of the reasons I’ve come to enjoy conferences, readings, and signings so much – getting to actually go out and talk about these things that have just been exploding out of your head is so refreshing. I’m also extremely lucky in this area because I have a remarkable support structure who backs me up every step of the way. My husband is my biggest fan, which sounds sappy but is completely true. He gets more excited about where the books are going than I do! My sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even my grandparents all come to my signings and talk up my books whenever possible. The urban fantasy genre throws them off a bit sometimes – mostly my family reads John Sandford and James Patterson – but they would cheer me on if I was writing, for example, an index to the New York City yellow pages. I always say I’d probably be a much better writer if I didn’t have such a great family, because a lot of great writing comes from terrible childhoods, but I still wouldn’t trade my family for anything!

EMP: And then of course there’s our readers, the people who buy our stories of imaginary friends. You’ve had some terrific reader reviews for the first Scarlett Bernard novel, Dead Spots. Do you read your reviews? Do bad reviews bother you?

MFO: Oh, boy. Yes and yes. I try not to read the reviews, but it’s so hard to stay away. As a writer, getting a book published can be a long, difficult process, and the whole goal is to simply put your book in front of other people – so when it finally does get published, it’s hard not to wonder what everyone thinks. But I’m the kind of person who never really processes compliments, but agonizes over every criticism, so reading reviews aren’t always healthy for me. The silly thing is that a lot of reviews will complain about something that the very next review praises, so you can make yourself crazy trying to please everyone.  I do my best not to let my reviews on a past book influence my work on a new book, but it can be quite difficult.

EMP: Historical writers (nearly) always get asked which historical figure they would like to meet. So, as a writer of urban fantasy: if you could choose for a day, would you choose to be a vampire or a werewolf? And why did you make your choice? (I know- completely unfair last question!)

MFO: Can I have the historical figure question instead? Just kidding. Within my own books’ mythology, I think I’d actually prefer to be a witch. They lead the most normal lives, while still wielding magical powers. If I had to choose between vampire or werewolf, though, I’d probably go with werewolf. The third Scarlett Bernard novel will focus heavily on the werewolf world, and I’ve been doing a lot of research lately into real wolves’ pack behaviours and interactions. I’m pretty confident that I could fit right into a wolf pack at this point!

EMP: Melissa, thanks for stopping by! It’s been an absolute pleasure.

MFO: Thank you! I’m so glad we could do this.

Trail of Dead is published by 47North on 04 June 2013 and is available for pre-order here. In the exciting sequel to the paranormal thriller Dead Spots, scrappy Scarlett Bernard must track down her old mentor and use her supernatural gift to stop a killer who is leaving dead witches throughout Los Angeles.

We also have a giveaway! Melissa is offering a free copy chosen at random. To enter, leave a comment on this post. The winner will be chosen at random. Post your comment by 09 June 2013 to be eligible to enter.
Author Melissa F. Olson

Melissa F. Olson was born and raised in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, and studied film and literature at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. After graduation, and a brief stint bouncing around the Hollywood studio system, Melissa moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where she eventually acquired a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, a husband, a mortgage, two kids, and two comically oversize dogs—not at all in that order. She is the author of Dead Spots and Trail of Dead.

Tuesday, May 21

How to Organise a Book Festival

Every writer will tell you how there aren’t enough hours in the day, how hard it is to fit in actual writing with editing, proofreading, promotion, publicity. Not to mention maintaining a website, a Facebook page, Pinterest boards, a Twitter feed, a blog. Oh, and there’s the day job. Like the rest of us, author Ebba Brooks faces all those time challenges. But unlike the rest of us, Ebba also has a very large item on her to-do list: ‘Organise & run Prestwich Book Festival.’ 
Ta-dah! Looks easy, doesn't it?

Yes, you read that right: a book festival. This year, Prestwich Book Festival runs from 14 May to the 15 June, with 20 writers fronting 14 events. Happily, I’m one of those authors presenting one of those events. (You can find details here or at the end of this post). I’m attending others as an avid reader and book fan: I love to hear writers discuss their work. Yet as someone who goes to lots of writing-related festivals and conferences, I haven’t the first idea of how to go about organising one. I thought this would be the ideal opportunity to pick Ebba’s brains and see just how it’s done. She’s very kindly taken time out from PBF 2013 to share her wisdom.

Hi Ebba and thanks for stopping by. PBF 2013 kicked off on 14 May and is now in full swing, with some sold-out events. When did you start planning for your May 2013 deadline?

Back in June last year, as soon as the 2012 festival ended, I got a steering group together and we kicked some ideas around which have formed the basis of this year’s programme. But there have been a few twists and turns along the way as funding to support any kind of arts activity isn’t easy to come by. I eventually secured Arts Council Grants for the Arts funding in March this year (for which I am hugely grateful) and that’s when putting the plans into action kicked into gear.

As well as a terrific line-up, you’ve got some noteworthy Patrons for the festival: Howard Jacobson, Sherry Ashworth, and performance poet John Cooper Clarke. How did you persuade them to lend their support? What’s the role of a Patron in a festival?
Howard Jacobson- Winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize & Patron of PBF
A patron is a figurehead for a festival, who gives a certain amount of credibility to it by lending their official support. It’s fantastic to have the seal of approval from the likes of Howard Jacobson, and John Cooper Clarke as well as the tireless Sherry Ashworth who is also on the steering group and has been very actively involved in making the festival happen. None of them took much persuading: the festival sold itself.

Prestwich Book Festival has a great new look this year, made possible by your artist-in-residence is Dave Kirkwood. Dave has also been responsible for an incredible project, 3hundredand65. Can you tell us a bit more about 3hundredand65?
Dave Kirkwood's PBF illustration for Paul Cookson, poet-in-residence at the National Football Museum

Dave is  a very talented artist, marketer and designer: last year he jointly ran the project which aimed to create a book in 365 tweets, each one by a different author, but all illustrated by Dave, in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust, from his home in Prestwich. It started small but by the end of the year had attracted some major celebrities to take part: Terry Pratchett, Simon Pegg, Jonathan Ross, Danny Baker, Jennifer Saunders, Minnie Driver, Stephen Fry and many, many more contributed. This year it’s being turned into a graphic novel.

Your strapline for 2013 is: ‘This year, we celebrate food, faith and football.’ What inspired it?

The interests and passions of local people. Pretty much everyone round here has an interest in at least one of these three themes!

Your line-up includes a Booker shortlisted author, a Glastonbury poet, an award winning Guardian journalist and an award winning food critic. How did you approach people in the first instance?
Award-winning Guardian journalist David Conn's latest book.
I asked them very politely, using people with personal connections where they existed.

The thorny question about funding! The website credits Arts Council England, which is really good to see. But applying for grants and funding often turns people off trying to do what you’ve done. What was that process like?

Hard work, and probably the least enjoyable aspect of the whole process. But once you start researching, you realise there are actually quite a lot of funding sources out there, it’s just a matter of tapping into them (which takes a lot of time and effort).

You’ve got a number of excellent venues: Manchester Jewish Museum, The Irish World Heritage Centre, Prestwich library, St Hilda’s church (among others!). All are very different and will have their own atmosphere and potential. How do you decide about venues? Is it a deal breaker if you can’t get a particular venue?
Manchester Jewish Museum
I love venues that add something extra to an event, and when you get the right balance of venue and artist it’s amazing. We’ve got lots of interesting venues right here on our doorstep (the newly refurbished British Legion, for example) and it’s great to encourage people to discover what’s under their noses.

What are your three favourite things about organising a book festival?

1) Bagging a big name. Shallow, yes, but very exciting
2) Knowing, just knowing, that an event is going to be extraordinary
3) Making a contribution to the community: enjoying so many great events on my own doorstep, and knowing that many other people have too

What are your three biggest headaches from organising a book festival?

1) Money: I’m not a natural accountant, but am having to force myself to keep spreadsheets to account for every penny. Yuck.
2) General paranoia: what if no one shows up?
3) Trying to fit it in with family life, my writing and my two other jobs...

If anybody reading this is thinking they’d like to have a go at organising author events or are ambitious enough to go for a whole festival or conference, what’s the one piece of advice you’d like to share?

You need to combine seeing the big picture (ie a vision of what you want to do) with being very detail oriented – because getting the details right is what event organising is all about.
PBF Food Birds!
And your own writing? What’s in the pipeline that you’d like to share?

My ambition for this year is to start submitting short pieces to journals and competitions as my writing has been fallow for much too long. And now I’ve said it in print, I’ve got to do it...

Ebba, many thanks and best of luck for the rest of the festival.
Thank you!

When she's not organising PBF, Ebba Brooks blogs as Jenny Wren & Bella Wilfer. You can find her here.
I too will be appearing at PBF at St Hilda's Church on Tuesday 28 May 2013 to talk about my #1 Amazon Bestseller, The Fifth Knight. I'll be sharing the evening with fellow Historical Fiction author, Deborah Swift. Our evening is titled Knights, nuns and sisters on the run and is a tribute to the late historical fiction author, Beverley Hughesdon.

Wednesday, May 15

Book Review: Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith

Many historical fiction authors take on the Big Stories. I took on the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 for my thriller, The Fifth Knight. But when I got offered (in my capacity as a reviewer for the Historical Novel Society) a copy of Seth Grahame-Smith's Unholy Night, I jumped at the chance.
For Grahame-Smith has taken on one of the biggest story of all: the birth of Christ. It’s the birth story from the perspective of one of the Three Wise Men (yes, they of gold, frankincense and myrrh fame), Balthazar. 

But Balthazar isn’t a king or a wise man. He’s a hustler and a thief on the run from the might of the Roman Empire and becomes an accidental hero in his defence of the holy family. The story of that defence is the substance of the novel. It’s a breath-taking ride, with a mash-up of historical fact, fiction and fantasy that is Grahame-Smith’s trademark and deeply moving at times. 
The real star for me was the evil King Herod. Here the author really lets rip with brilliant results. Like your villains badder than Bad Jack McBad? Then look no further, because Herod ticks every bad box and throws in a few more for good measure. 

As regards the holy family themselves, Grahame-Smith portrays Mary and Joseph as real human beings caught up in overwhelming circumstances. That's no mean feat. So many biblical based novels and movies descend into cardboard cut-outs of Mary (particularly) and Joseph because of the weight of religion and history they carry.
As to be expected, there are some zombies, but maybe not enough to satisfy die-hard Grahame-Smith fans. 
So did he succeed with the Big Story? For this reviewer, definitely. It was a hugely enjoyable, thrilling read.

Reviewer's Note: I was provided with a free copy of this novel by the Historical Novel Society in exchange for an impartial review. An edited version of this review has been published by the Historical Novel Society in May 2013.

Seth Grahame-Smith, Bantam Press, 2012, £12.99, hb, 410pp, 9780593071106

Publisher's Blurb:

From the author of the New York Times bestselling Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Huntercomes UNHOLY NIGHT, the next evolution in dark historical revisionism. 

They're an iconic part of history's most celebrated birth. But what do we really know about the Three Kings of the Nativity, besides the fact that they followed a star to Bethlehem bearing strange gifts? The Bible has little to say about this enigmatic trio. But leave it to Seth Grahame-Smith, the brilliant and twisted mind behind Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to take a little mystery, bend a little history, and weave an epic tale. 

In Grahame-Smith's telling, the so-called "Three Wise Men" are infamous thieves, led by the dark, murderous Balthazar. After a daring escape from Herod's prison, they stumble upon the famous manger and its newborn king. The last thing Balthazar needs is to be slowed down by young Joseph, Mary and their infant. But when Herod's men begin to slaughter the first born in Judea, he has no choice but to help them escape to Egypt. 

It's the beginning of an adventure that will see them fight the last magical creatures of the Old Testament; cross paths with biblical figures like Pontius Pilate and John the Baptist; and finally deliver them to Egypt. It may just be the greatest story never told.
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