Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Leading us to Sanctuary:
An Interview with Lynn Abbey

Interviewed by Lazette Gifford
2004, Lazette Gifford


Lynn Abbey is returning to her roots... but those roots are in Sanctuary, a town filled with dark magic, notorious thieves, and wondrous tales.   With the revival of the famous (or perhaps infamous) Thieves' World books, Lynn Abbey has begun the publication of a very popular series of stories, long missed by readers.

However, if the Thieves' World Series is the only writing you associate with Lynn Abbey then you are missing a wonderful array of fantasy novels.  Lynn's unique, exciting stories are filled with wonderful adventures and great characters.  From the publication of her first book, Daughter of the Bright Moon, fans have looked forward to each new tale.

Be sure to visit The Worlds of Lynn Abbey (http://www.lynnabbey.com/) to keep up on her latest work in both her standalone novels and the Thieves' World books.

 

Vision: Let's start out with a simple question that's sometimes hard to answer:  When did you start writing and what drew you to it?

Lynn: My parents might say that I started telling stories when I learned to talk and decided that I'd become a writer the day I recognized a typewriter, but my professional career began in early 1977 when I was recuperating from an auto accident.  With one ankle broken and the other severely sprained (not to mention a fractured skull) I found myself taking advantage of friends' hospitality.  For several weeks I lived on a sofa at Bob Asprin's house, reading my way through his library of SF and Fantasy while he was at work.  As the haze receded, I began to think that I could write a novel, too.

The truth is that I wasn't very good at it, but I had an unfair advantage: that auto accident?  It occurred while I was on my way to the airport to pick up Gordon Dickson, who was coming in to Ann Arbor for the annual SF convention.  Gentleman that he was, Gordie felt the need to do something for the fan who'd wracked up her car and body on his behalf and I was not so far gone that I didn't immediately think of "free advice from an established author."

Gordie stuck with me for the better part of a year.  He later admitted that he'd done his best to discourage me, but I'm dense when it comes to discouragement and never picked up on his many hints.

Persistence pays and so does a willingness to follow directions.  Each time Gordie told me to do a rewrite, I went home and did my best.  After several false starts he encouraged me to have a go at chapter two; after that it was, in his own words, "clickety bang."

As to why writing and not some other form of creative endeavor, I think the answer lies in my high-school sophomore English class.  We were give that hoary old assignment: write a short story.  I'll date myself here, but the Berlin Wall had just gone up and I decided to write a short story about a group of friends whose lives had been divided and who devised a plan to bring the East Berliners to the West.  I gave them a simple plan that involved a river, never mind that I still don't know if there is a useful river flowing through Berlin. (A clear indication that I'd eventually find a home in fantasy fiction.)  It took a while to write; I'd guess it was about five thousand words long -- fairly lengthy for a high-school assignment -- when I turned it in.

My teacher decided that some of stories needed to be read aloud.  I clearly remember that most of the stories which preceded mine were "frame" stories that began with "I went to bed" and ended with "and then I realized it had all been a dream."  Superficially, they were much more fantastic than mine and I was starting to worry that I'd blown the assignment.  Then it was my turn and I read without interruption -- I mean totally without interruption: there wasn't a sound in the classroom until I finished and then my fellow students and my teacher applauded.

There is nothing that compares to an unexpected round of applause and I had never gotten one before.  It was as though someone had flicked a light switch.  I'm no athlete and my piano lessons were going nowhere; I got good marks in school, but there were always kids who outshined me -- until I wrote a short story.  Suddenly, I knew there was something I was good at.  It wasn't something I imagined I could turn into a career, but that bedrock faith that I could write was what blinded me to Gordie's attempts to discourage me.

A good fifteen years had passed between my short story and what would become DAUGHTER OF THE BRIGHT MOON, during which time I'd written no fiction, unless one counts a few under-researched term papers and my journal..  The process of getting two college degrees had stunted and twisted my "natural" style, but with Gordie's help, I recovered it and never looked back.


Vision: Would you like to tell us about writer Gordon Dickson and your first novel publication?

Lynn: I guess I've already answered part of this question.  I was one of those rare and fortunate writers who did not go through an amateur period of creating unpublished/unpublishable fiction.  The idea that I could write had been part of me, but I didn't actually start writing with professional intent until a golden opportunity fell (crashed) into my lap.

Gordie had mentored many other authors before he agreed to mentor me and had evolved a mentoring style which emphasized asking questions: What were you trying to achieve here? (Or, in my case, Don't you think that adding characters... dialog... a hint of a plot?)  It was a very gentle strategy because it didn't involve him giving his opinions (I never guessed how hopeless he thought I was in the beginning) and it allowed me (and his other mentorees) to find solutions in our own words.

When gentle questions didn't work, Gordie would take a problematic chunk of prose and run it through his typewriter (this was pre-computers, of course) and rearrange it.  He rarely added or subtracted words, just changed the order of the sentences, then he'd hand it back.  Flaws of style and sequence would fairly leap off the page and the means to correct them would, too.  Looking back on the process, I realize that his rearranging tactic was just another way to keep his opinions to himself and let me find the answers that worked for me.

The final tactic I remember Gordie using didn't come into play until there was a substantial piece of prose under consideration.  Again, in retrospect I know what he saw: a plot had bogged down, character motivation had become obscured, or the logic of cause and effect had evaporated.  Gordie could have gone after the problem piece by piece, but experience had convinced him that the best way to solve the problem was to suggest something absurd, to recommend a turn of plot or character which he knew would be utterly unacceptable.  The idea was that in the process of defending the integrity of my story, I would clean up the structural problems without focusing on them.  And it worked -- I've used it myself with the writers I've mentored.

The actual process of selling my first novel was exciting at the time, but the market has changed so much that there's nothing useful left in the tale.  That sale, though, changed my interaction with my mentor.  I was no longer an apprentice but had become a journeyman and we talked less about specifics, more about the craft of writing in general.

Gordie said that the journeyman stage would last until I'd published (not written, but published) a million words.  He likened it to a cabinetmaker or other artisan.  In the beginning, every time the cabinetmaker began a new job, he spent as much time out in the toolshed grinding out the tools he'd need to solve the problems that particular job presented.  Gradually -- and unconsciously -- he'd spend less time grinding new tools until, around the millionth word, he'd find himself in need of a new tool and, returning to the toolshed, he'd realize that the grinders were covered with dust.

It took me about twelve years to reach my million-word mark and when I got there I found that, as usual, Gordie had been there first.  The challenge now is to continue to challenge myself in ways that get me back into my toolshed because it's possible to become so comfortable with one's style and structure that one ceases to grow.

Vision: Fantasy seems to be your genre of choice.  Do you like to write in any other genres?  What is it about fantasy that draws you to write in that genre?

Lynn: I've thought about writing in other genres, but my imagination just doesn't seem to lead me in other directions.  Actually, I don't so much think of myself a fantasy writer as a writer of histories of places that don't exist.  I'd like to write the histories of places and people that have existed, but I've never been satisfied with the completeness of my research.  In order to feel free enough to write at all, I have to give my research a "twist" that allows me to say, Okay, this is NOT 12th century France; I don't have to have the background nailed down perfectly; I can wing it.

The only market for the histories of places that don't exist is the Fantasy half of SF/Fantasy.  Writing genre fantasy requires a few more research "twists," most of them involving magic.   By the time I start the first draft, whatever magic system I've built is meant to seem fundamental to the world I've created, but it's really an afterthought.  I have a problematic relationship with magic: when push comes to shove, I don't believe in it.  When I set out to write a new novel and I reach the moment when it's time to add the "magic," in my own mind I'm adding "science."  My magic is always empirical -- it can be analyzed and replicated and there is always a specific "engine" driving it.  Nothing happens that breaks the "rules."

After twenty-plus years, my "tool set" has gotten seriously biased in favor of genre fantasy.  A year or so ago, I considered writing a "mainstream" novel and, despite several time-consuming efforts, I just couldn't come up with a concept that made my ears wiggle and didn't involve fantasy-genre elements.  I delved a bit into what mainstreamers call "magical realism," thinking that it might work for me, but "magical realism" is based on magical magic, that is, the happening of things that cannot be explained by the characters and are not explained by the author.  This is not my kind of magic, so "magical realism" wasn't an option and I returned to the fantasy fold.

I've also thought about writing on the SF side of the house -- the process by which I create my magic systems shouldn't really be that much different from the processes by which SF authors overcome the constraints of E=mc2.  As a result, I do have a small collection of traditional SF ideas which I've never been able to sell.  I'm known as a fantasy writer and neither my agent nor my editors want to risk my "brand" (such as it is) by jumping genre.  If I want to write SF, I'll have to write it under another name.

When I started out, I thought being a writer was all about writing.  Writing is important, but the business of a writer is publishing and the realities of publishing can be very limiting, even unpleasant.  I'm not constrained by being a genre writer.  Any story I can imagine, I can cast as a fantasy novel and probably get it published.  Were I to decide that I didn't want to be a genre writer, or that I wanted to switch genres, I'd be looking at starting over and when one expects the royalties to pay the rent, that's just not practical.

Vision: Why did you decide to bring back the Thieves' World series?  How does working on the new incarnation compare to working on the old ones? Have you enjoyed getting back into the world?

Lynn: Ah, Thieves' World... otherwise known as the project that ate my life in the Eighties.  For me the rise and fall of the 1980s incarnation of TW was deeply personal and intertwined with the rise and fall of my marriage to co-editor, Robert Asprin.  Suffice to say that when the marriage began to go south, one of the first casualties was Thieves' World, which ceased publication a good five years before the divorce was finalized.  By the time the divorce was final there was very little perceived value left in TW both from a New York publisher's perspective and from my own.

In the "who gets what" negotiations that accompany all divorces, Thieves' World was pretty much an afterthought: something that wound up on my side of the ledger along with other responsibilities and debts.  I did not imagine that there would be any future value in the milieu and frequently swore that "pigs would fly" before I stuck my hand in to that meat grinder.  But time really can heal wounds and by the mid-90s, when I realized that I was signing books that were older than the readers offering them to me, I began to reconsider my position.

Resurrecting Thieves' World was an arduous project made easier when we secured the interest of Tom Doherty at Tor Books.  Tom had been the publisher at Ace when Ace published volume one of the original series (which no one, at the time, suspected would become a series).  He was willing to take a chance on a package of old and new material.

A dozen years is a long time in the world of publishing.  The market is more fragmented and competitive than ever, and overall readership is down.  Finding a niche is the first challenge; inserting a book into that niche is the second.  Our strategy was to level the playing field by advancing the milieu chronology a character generation and inviting a mix of old and new writers to create stories in the reshaped milieu.

It's been great to work cooperatively with a group of talented authors again, but the book world has become an unforgiving place and it remains to be seen if Thieves' World can reestablish a toehold in a sufficient number of imaginations to become a regularly scheduled product.  If enjoyment were sufficient, then we'd be home free with a solid core of writers and a host city that, for me anyway, is endlessly exciting.

At the moment, Thieves' World stands right on the edge.  The sales figures for volume two of the new anthology Enemies of Fortune, which will come out this December, will tip the scales one way or the other.  From a purely selfish point of view, I urge everyone whoever enjoyed a visit to Sanctuary to come back and see what we're up to.

Vision: Has working as an editor on such a famous series like Thieves' World presented you with any specific problems? 

Lynn: I'm a writer first and an editor second... or maybe third or even fourth.  Successful editing requires a very specific set of skills and I don't claim to have all of them at my command.  I'm also fortunate in that, because Thieves' World has always been an "invitation only" anthology, my reading is pre-screened.  It takes a special talent to read dozens and dozens of stories looking for the handful that merit inclusion in a magazine or anthology.

That said, the challenges that arise in Thieves' World tend to fall into two categories: continuity and compatibility.

Continuity problems are fairly straightforward, with absolute conflicts being the easiest to resolve.  If writer A and writer B both lay claim to the same piece of real estate or character, it's usually possible to come up with a chronology that allows both stories to exist.  Failing that, there's always the "but little did he/she know" clause that allows a bit of drama in one story to be completely reworked in a subsequent story.  (This is also known as the "best laid plans gang oft awry" rule.)

It's a bit more complicated when an author does something hard to ignore -- plagues, natural disasters, the night it rained fish in Sanctuary... When a story like that arrives, either it's got to be the last story in the volume or every other author has to have a whack at rewriting their story to incorporate the "big event."  This happened in TURNING POINTS when Dennis McKiernan decided not only to feature a major single-elimination martial competition, but to frame his story with a combination lunar/solar eclipse cycle.  Fortunately, he got his story in very early and the other writers in the volume were able to incorporate both the competition and the eclipses.

Dennis also fell victim to the "but little did he know" clause.  In his story, Soldt, Sanctuary's resident swordmaster and assassin, loses the final duel of the competition.  It works dramatically, but it's a bit out of character, so in the published anthology there's a scene at the very beginning of the book, setting up the dynamics of the eclipses to come, where Soldt learns that he's expected to throw the final duel so the powers-that-be can find out what other characters are up to.  Nothing in Dennis' story changed, not even the final scene where Soldt wakes up with a drug-hangover and vows that someone's going to pay for the indignity.

Compatibility problems are touchier because the Thieves' World ground rules allow author A to make use of author B's character.  Sometimes author A does something that sends author B right through the roof and the editor has to scramble to play peacemaker.  The classic compatibility problem happened early on in the first series.  Andy Offutt had created a thief, Hanse Shadowspawn, and was having ten kinds of fun dragging Hanse through the mud (Andy freely admitted that Hanse incorporated all the traits of every bully who'd ever given him grief in school).  Then we invited Janet Morris to play in the sandbox and she ante'd up Tempus Thales, the baddest bully on the block, and more beside.

Janet read about Hanse and thought, What a neat character!  Tempus will take this young punk under his wing, both professionally and romantically.  Janet politely asked us to clear this with Andy and that Southern gentleman of the old school just about melted the phone when asked if Hanse was up for an affair with Tempus.  (But the really interesting thing about this was that it permanently changed Andy's perspective on Hanse.  Suddenly Andy realized how emotionally dangerous the life of a gutter-rat could be and things began to change... Take a look at Andy's stories in the first three volumes to see the transformation.)

Vision: As an editor, what advice can you give to new writers?  Can you explain about the differences between an open anthology and ones like Thieves' World which are invitation only?

Lynn: Some of the best advice I can give an aspiring author is trivial.  Most times an editor doesn't know you from a hole in the wall when he/she opens the envelope containing your story.  That manuscript is your avatar -- it stands for you and makes your first impression.  And, as the old saw goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression.  So, go the extra step to insure that you don't start at a disadvantage.  We used to recommend that you put a new ribbon in your typewriter before typing the final draft of a story.  No one uses a ribbon typewriter any more, but your final draft is not the time to try to wring a few more sheets out of your inkjet cartridge.

Don't forget the standard things everyone tells you: use an easily read font, preferably at 12-pitch, never less than 10; 3/4" margins are a minimum, 1" are better; double space your lines; make use of your spellchecker!  Unless your return address says United Kingdom, try to conform to standard American style (that's color, not colour; gray, not grey).

Yes, it's true that you're trying to stand out from the crowd, but leave that challenge for your story, not your format.

Oh, and very important, if you're submitting to a particular editor, get the gender and spelling right.  I know it's a silly mistake when I get something addressed to Lynn Abby or Lynne Abbey, but I notice it every time and it tweaks my mood as I start to read and you never want to tweak an editor's mood.

As for the differences between open anthologies and invitation-only anthologies... they're pretty much self explanatory.  Editors of open anthologies actively seek submissions from all comers, established and unknown (they may not have a level playing field behind the invitation, but they are willing to read whatever the tide washes up at their feet).  Open anthology editors usually seek to spread the word that they're reading and the minimal requirements for submission.

Editors of invitation-only anthologies tend to be a secretive lot.  We're looking for very specific things in our story mix and know the "voices" we're looking for to round out the chorus.  Additionally, an anthology like Thieves' World operates on a time lag... ideally, the writers are hard at work on the next volume's stories when readers first lay their hands on the current volume.  There's almost no chance that an unsolicited story will mesh with the next volume's storylines.

But, if there's a "closed," invitation-only anthology out there that draws you like a magnet, then your best course is to contact the editor and offer selections from your already written (preferably already published) prose and ask to be considered for a future volume.  I do keep a small file of samples from not-yet-invited authors.  The cold, cruel fact is that I wouldn't be doing any of them a favor if I asked for a story.  In the hierarchy of publishing, unless you've already got a substantial body of publishing work, producing stories for a pre-made milieu, be it Thieves' World, Star Trek, or Forgotten Realms, is going to be a negative credential, something to be overcome when you try to market your own stories.

Vision: You have worked extensively in universes that were not fully your own (such as Thieves World and Forgotten Realms).  Do you find that there are any specific things that give you trouble? How did you get involved in writing for those types of books?

Lynn: It's true I've done a lot of shared-worlds and work-for-hire.  Ask me if I think it's always been good for my career and the unequivocal answer is No, but it's paid the bills when the bills need to be paid.  I've developed a reputation as someone who can turn a sow's ear into a silk purse when it comes to pulling a story out of a murky milieu and that keeps my name in circulation.  (I guess it's good to be known for something?)

Contractual considerations are very important in shared-world or work-for-hire situations.  I make sure I know exactly what's expected and, when possible, I try to get it written into the contract that if the powers-that-be sign off on a detailed outline of the project and I deliver a book that conforms to that outline, then the powers-that-be can't meddle with it or call for rewrites.  That's the most annoying risk that I find associated with work-for-hire situations: somebody's always trying to move the goal posts.  It's a good idea to nail those suckers down before I start the first draft.

Money is another thing.  You usually don't get the copyright or reprint rights in a shared-world or work-for-hire situation (Thieves' World is an exception), so your ability to make additional money off your work is limited.  My agent usually tries for a higher royalty.  At the very least, we want the advance money up-front.

While there are exceptions, the quality of editing in the work-for-hire world is generally a few notches below what you'd find elsewhere and I've had a few run-ins with editors who thought they were really collaborators.  That can be very annoying.  It can be worse than annoying when you don't have an agent running interference for you or you don't have the financial freedom to walk away from a project that's turning sour.  (I always make sure I have an escape clause that allows me to pull my name off a project if I have to abandon it.)

Truth is, the money can be decent, but I really don't recommend the work-for-hire route as an entry into publishing.  Too many things can go wrong.  It's harder to get stand-alone material published, but it's worth the wait and effort, and then, if you really want to do a Star Trek novel, you can pretty much dictate the terms.

Thieves' World, by the way, was my entry into the work-for-hire world.  Because I'd been involved in the creation of a successful shared-world it was assumed that I'd know the rules in other shared worlds so the invitations flowed my way.  It was a classic case of being in the right place at the right time with the right credentials -- but it still wasn't the best thing for my career.

Vision: You have a unique relationship with the Emma Merrigan books.  Would you like to tell us about those stories?

Lynn: Ah, Emma Merrigan and the TIME books.  I'm not sure how much of the background I can admit to.  Suffice to say that things had gotten a bit rocky between ACE books and myself.  We were arguing over two outstanding books from an old contract.  They didn't want the books originally on the table (the second and third books in the SIEGE OF SHADOWS trilogy) and weren't showing enthusiasm for anything else I suggested.  So I asked them, Well, what would you like me to write for you?  I got a request for a contemporary fantasy, possibly involving a mother and her daughter, and witchcraft.  I swallowed the impulse to say that sounded a lot like a book I'd written for them back in 1982 called The GUARDIANS and got to work on a story.

They had had very specific complaints about the believability of my protagonists, so I decided to play it safe and model my new heroine on the most believable character I knew: myself.  Emma is not an autobiographical character, but we do have a lot in common.  Whenever Emma has to react to something, she reacts the way I would react.

To be honest, as I wrote OUT OF TIME, I was hoping ACE would reject the book.  I was in a rather manic and not terribly mature mood as I wrote and, ironically, the whole process was very liberating.  I took risks with the style and characterization (and the parameters I'd been given) and, before long, I was having serious fun.

One of the risks I took was turning one of the classic fairy-tale tropes on its head.  Fairy-tales (and modern fantasies in general) tend to be about young people on the brink of adulthood discovering their destiny, powers, whatever.  In modeling Emma after myself, I had a heroine who was far enough into her adulthood to be thinking about golden years and retirement plans.  She had a dull life, but it was the life she'd built for herself and she was determined to be content with it.  And, of course, I had to shake it down to its foundations.  Emma discovers the paranormal powers she should have discovered back in junior high... she also discovers the mother whom she never knew (remember, ACE wanted a mother-daughter angle) and who happens to look not a day over twenty-five.

The power Emma discovers is the ability (and obligation) to walk through time to trace a curse to its historical origin and "mooting" it in the moment of its creation.  A mooted curse ceases to exist in the present and the formerly cursed individual is set free.  There's more to it, of course, and it gives me the opportunity to indulge one of my great passions: the collection of historical trivia.  In OUT OF TIME Emma unravels a domestic tragedy in 11th century England, in BEHIND TIME she deals with 17th century Paris, in TAKING TIME (which was published in April) the focus is on a series of forest fire in the Thumb region of Michigan, and in DOWN TIME, Emma tries to take a vacation and winds up digging into the dark shadows of colonial Nassau.  And she does all of this while trying to hold down a job in the library at a Midwest university, among other details of ordinary life.

Vision: Once upon a time you lived in a unique three-person writing community with authors Jane Fancher and C.J. Cherryh.  What was it like to live in the company of two other writers?

Lynn: It was a lot of fun and it was more than three authors, it was three authors and several hundred characters.  Mealtime conversations could bound and rebound over several universes as well kept track of one another's projects.  Fortunately, none of us do voices.

Friends who are not writers try to be sympathetic and understanding of a writer's mood, but, truly, it takes one to know one.  Carolyn, Jane and I didn't have to waste time explaining things.  There was (and, over a greater distance, there still is) instant understanding when a scene stagnated, an editor balked, or you were holding a brand-new book in your hands for the first time.

Our little writer's colony existed for about three years and it would take nearly that long to share the stories we accumulated.  There was the time I was home by myself for a weekend and, in the course of feeding Jane and Carolyn's cats, managed to let a pair of mallards into their living room and leave them there overnight, or the nights when dying cutworms invaded my bedroom, our marathon holiday decorating binges, and the many, many times we thrashed out a recalcitrant plot.

I went to Oklahoma to recover from a shattering divorce and I couldn't have found a better, safer haven, but in time I realized that I needed to be closer to my parents, which entailed moving to Florida.  A few years later, Jane and Carolyn moved to Washington state -- so these days we're about as far apart as you can be and still be in the continental US, but the friendship and camaraderie persists.

Vision: I seem to remember you once saying that you wrote to support your research habit.  Is that still true?

Lynn: That's probably an exaggeration -- my writing has to support more than my research habit, but I love to curl up with a book about some dusty corner of history.  There are some periods I come back to again and again (we'll deal with that in question 12) but I'm always trolling for trivia.  When I was working on TAKING TIME, for example, and I needed a plot complication, I remembered reading that someone was blaming the Great Chicago Fire on the breakup of comet Biela.  Sure enough, a little Internet review and I was able to work a little astronomy into my forest fires.  I don't think I'd have uncovered Biela by doing research for TAKING TIME, but because I'm constantly sifting through neat stuff and have a good memory for odd information, I was able to recall Biela when I needed it.

Right now I'm reading a book called Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky.  The title's accurate -- the book's about all the ways salt has figured in history, from the Roman's taste for garum to the cultures that have used salt as currency, plus how (and more importantly why) the Chinese make thousand-year eggs.  I just know that some of this information is going to make it into a book someday.

Last year I went on a Venice jag and now I'm planning a fantasy that's set in an environment that's not quite Venice but owes a lot to last year's reading.

Vision: Do you have any advice or tips for writers that can help them with research?

Lynn: I hate to admit this, but organization helps.  I have a computerized database of "stuff."  (The program I use is askSAM for Windows.)  Whenever I encounter an article that makes my ears wiggle, I give it a number, write a summary for my database and put the article in a file cabinet.  Searching the database is faster and easier than trying to have a fancy filing system.  Once I know that article 1389 has the comet information I want, it's just a matter of flipping through the file cabinet until I find it.  (Or the bookshelves, because books are in there, too.)

When I started the database my computer was an Apple ][ and I was storing the database on 5 1/4" floppies.  My computer's a lot faster now and, with a 60 gig hard-drive, conserving storage space is no longer an overriding concern so, sometimes, I scan the whole article into the database or download it from the Internet.

Nothing is too obscure for my interest... you just never know when some quirk of science or history is going to prove useful.  It's also true that the act of creating a database record helps solidify my memory of the oddity I'm preserving for future use.

In the last few years I've become more reliant on the Internet for research.  I'm addicted to Google.  I Google everything from neighborhood restaurants to deep historical questions, but I try not to rely on something that I can only source to the Internet unless the source is impeccable -- a university website or something similar.  There's a lot of hearsay and worse out on the Internet and, though, I write fiction, I like to think that my background information is solid.

I operate on what I call a "10th grade standard" -- that is, if a high-school sophomore reads, say, BEHIND TIME instead of her world history text and faces a pop quiz on seventeenth century Paris the next morning, she's not going to fail if she relies on what I wrote.  I find this is a good benchmark for how much evidence of research is enough in a fiction project.

C. J. Cherryh had the best answer to the questions of what and when to research.  She pointed out that there are two professions where it's useful to know how to crack a safe... and only one of them is legal.  For a good fiction writer -- and that includes writers of SF and Fantasy -- there is simply no such thing as useless research.  I never pass up an opportunity to learn how something is made or used.  Even if it's something that I won't likely use directly in my fiction, I'll pick up cues for craft and attitude that I can incorporate into any invented background.

Vision: Tell us about your interest in Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Lynn: I got caught up in Eleanor's story back in college when I first ran across her second husband, Henry II.  Optional reading for the course included Amy Kelley's "Eleanor and the Four Kings," a book that's a little dated now, but still a good introduction to the life of this amazing woman.

Eleanor would have been amazing no matter her century, but for the twelfth century she was downright scary.  The prevailing culture just didn't have a pigeon-hole shaped to hold her.  The powers-that-were spent half a century trying to clip her wings.  Henry put her under house arrest for twenty years because, as skilled a king and emperor as he was, he couldn't rule his lands once she declared her opposition to him.  (One of the questions one has to ask is how different the map of Europe would look today, if Henry had managed to remain faithful to a woman who was, it must be acknowledged, a good fifteen or so years older than him?)

Part of the fascination with Eleanor is that most of what's known about her was preserved by those who considered her an abomination to the name of womanhood, and just possibly in league with the devil himself.  It's very hard to reach through and find the real woman behind the propaganda.  My guess is that Katherine Hepburn came close enough in "The Lion in Winter," which ranks among my favorite movies and without which no Christmas is complete.  (Her line, "How, from where we began, did we reach this Christmas?" has accurately summed up a good many years of my own life.)  I understand some bright light in Hollywood has decided we need a new "Lion in Winter" and has cast Glenn Close as Eleanor... I'll probably go see it, and probably wish I hadn't.

If all my dreams come true, I'll have a chance to write a straight-up historical about Eleanor before senility sets in.  It won't be an easy task... the primary sources are hard to come by and my Latin's gotten very rusty over the years.  More likely, I'll figure out a way to capture her life "sideways," through a fantasy-laced book.

 

Vision: Would you like to explain about the little old lady from Schenectady?

Lynn: If you write, one of the questions you're always trying to answer is, Where do you get your ideas?  And, if you write, you know how pointless a question this is and how difficult it is to answer.  You can try a serious answer, giving credit to the hard work that underlies creativity and the need for maintaining a prepared mind; or you can resort to sarcasm.  One of the sarcastic answers in circulation is that as authors we subscribe to a service run by a little old lady in Schenectady from which we get a plain brown envelope filled with ideas at set intervals.  Another is that we get them by climbing to the top of the nearest steeple and casting a baboon's knucklebones by moonlight.

The truth of the matter is that ideas are a writer's cheapest commodity.  If I never had another idea, I still couldn't write my way through all the notions rattling around in my hindbrain this morning.  Ideas aren't magical; the only tricky part is holding on to one long enough to get it written down.  But neophyte writers tend to believe that there is something magical about ideas and that if they can just get a hold of a good one, then their futures are ensured.

Enter the Internet.  Before I started writing I programmed mainframe computers for a living, so, when the sudden buzz back in the mid-90s was creating a personal website, I wanted to incorporate something a little extra.  This, of course, required chasing down an idea which turned out to be using a pseudo-random number generator to mix up some standard fiction tropes and present them as the idea-basis for a story.

It took me about three days to put the generator together, another day to gussy it up as the "Schenectady Steeple."  The telling irony is that will work as advertised.  A writer has to add a tremendous amount of imagination to what the generator supplies, but if you're desperate for an IDEA to act as a framework for your story, the Steeple will provide it.  I've gotten e-mail reports from writers' groups and English classes that have used the Steeple as an exercise in story mechanics.

I think of it as my little contribution to Internet culture and the demystification of the writing process.

Vision: Which do you prefer to write, short stories or novels, and where does editing fit into the picture?

Lynn: Preference really has nothing to do with it.  I think in terms of novels.  When I have an idea, it goes from vague, cloudy notion to 100,000 words in a heartbeat.  If I aim for a short-story idea, I then get to spend the next portion of my life removing 90,000 words from what my imagination generated.  Which is to say that, for me, writing a short story is much, much harder than writing a novel.  I wish I knew how to imagine a short story, because I rather like the form, but they're too time-consuming for me to write on a regular basis.

That said, from an editorial perspective, I can usually tell the difference between a short story idea and a novel-length one when someone describes the idea to me.  Think of a dark room and a lightbulb coming on.  A short story idea focuses on the lightbulb, a novel idea focuses on the revealed room.  A good short-story writer has an instinct for sketching in just enough background to ground the specific story.

If plot, setting, and character are the three elements of fiction, a short-story writer is often a pole-sitter, and, like pole-sitting, short-story writing requires an exquisite sense of balance.  Novelists, frankly, can get away with more.  A novel can have a dull spot or two, because the reader has made a different commitment.

I've read short stories that are as dense as a 19th century novel and novels that really are short stories filled with a lot of helium.  In the right hands, both extremes can be commercially viable, though the over-expanded short story is a riskier endeavor -- the literary equivalent of pixelation can occur when a story is expanded beyond its "ideal" length and readers can feel cheated, never a desirable thing.

A good editor -- and I don't claim to be one -- can deduce the "ideal" elements of a writer's style and story and administer the necessary guidance to trick the writer into revealing it.

Vision: You seem to like to write sets of books.  Is this something you would suggest for new writers?

Lynn: I write sets of books, but I've also written a lot of orphans.

The attraction of books in sets is that once you've invested hundreds of hours in creating a coherent universe your story's grown to around a half-million words and can't be written as anything less than a trilogy.  The attraction of stand-alone material is that you'll never find yourself in the situation where only the middle book of your trilogy is available from the publisher.  A compromise is to create your world and then set an open-ended series of loosely connected stories there; this allows you to reuse your world but, in theory, frees you from needing six inches of retail shelf space to make a sale.

My sense of the current marketplace is that the compromise position is the safest course.  Publishers want to know that there's a potential for "more," but are leery of the commitment necessary to promote a tightly interwoven trilogy, at least for a newly acquired author.

Vision: What publications should your fans look for in the future?

Lynn: I'm trying to keep busy.  TAKING TIME, the third book about Emma Merrigan, was released by ACE in April of this year (2004).  They've got the manuscript for the fourth book, DOWN TIME, but haven't given me a publication date; I suspect late 2004 or first quarter 2005.  I'm not sure if there's a fifth Emma book on the horizon.  I'm actually without an active ACE contract for the first time in my career and it's a very strange feeling.  I'm hopeful my agent can negotiate more Emma books, but that's up in the air right now.

There's another Thieves' World anthology in the pipeline.  ENEMIES OF FORTUNE, featuring stories by C. J. Cherryh, Steven Brust, Dennis McKiernan, and Robin Bailey among others, will hit the stands this December.  I'm hopeful that there'll be more TW anthologies.  The situation's a little iffy right now.  The market's soft and Tor hasn't seen the numbers that it would like to see.  But I'm going to scramble for some licensing deals over the next few months.  With luck, we'll capture the elusive momentum and keep the stories rolling.

I've just concluded negotiations to resurrect Rifkind, the protagonist from my first books, DAUGHTER OF THE BRIGHT MOON and BLACK FLAME.  It's been a long time since I've written old-fashioned sword and sorcery; I'm hoping it's like riding a bicycle.  The working title is RIFKIND'S CHALLENGE.  She's back in the Wet-Lands, determined to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a friend and discovering that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  It promises to be a lot of fun.  The manuscript is due in December, but I hope to have it finished before them.  A 2005 publication is likely, with Tor putting out a hard-cover edition first, followed by the mass market nine months later.

I'm doing some world building in my spare time.  I started with the Italian Renaissance in general and Venice in particular and have been mixing in other elements for the last several months.  I've finished the first draft of the "first act" of the story and turned it over to my agent for marketing.  The working title is CHASING FATE and so far the response has been good.  If all goes well, we'll have contracts by the end of this year and a book by some time in 2005.

Vision: Thank you to Lynn for a wonderful Interview!

Check out  information about Lynn Abbey's work and her upcoming projects, as well as ISBN's and ordering information for her books at her website: http://www.lynnabbey.com/