Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

Finding the Path
An Interview with Diana Pharaoh Francis

By Russ Gifford
Copyright © 2007 by Russ Gifford, All Rights Reserved


Diana Pharaoh Francis has written fantastically detailed and wonderfully realistic fantasy novels including Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood.  Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award.   Her next book, The Cipher, the first of The Crosspointe Chronicles, will be available in November 2007. 

We reached Ms. Francis in Montana, where she teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western. She has graciously shared her time, and her thoughts.

Be sure to visit her website for more information: www.dianapfrancis.com!

Vision: What was the first book that you wrote? Did it look anything like your first published novel? Did you start with novels or short stories?

This first novel I wrote was a romance novel.  At the time, my roommate was a romance fanatic and owned probably well over five or six thousand romance novels stacked three and four deep on her floor-to-ceiling bookshelves besieging her room.  It was like having my own personal library.  So I read a lot of them and started writing it.  I wrote it mostly on my lunch hour while working doing paste-up and layout for a newspaper, and I wrote it entirely by hand.  Iíd drive from work to Taco Bell, buy a diet coke, and eat my lunch while scribbling.  It sits in the trunk still (or rather, bottom of the file cabinet.)  It takes up four spiral notebooks.  I havenít read it in at least fifteen years, and I confess Iím a little afraid toóand probably couldnít read my chicken scratch if I wanted to.  And as far as I remember, it in no way resembles my first published novel, Path of Fate, except that it has a beginning, an end, and is probably close to as long.

I started out writing short stories, because that was what was assigned in my college creative writing courses.  That was the first time it actually occurred to me that I could actually write down the stories Iíd been telling myself for years.  I started my first novel in graduate school, though I never finished it.  It was a crossover sf/f and it had a cast of way too many.  I couldnít juggle them all.  And it was a little shallow and silly.  Then when I started my PhD program, I had another idea and was working on it at the same time I was writing my dissertation.  Iíd switch back and forth whenever I got stuck on one or the other.  It still sits in the trunk too.

Vision: You currently have two ongoing series Ė The Path series, and the Crosspointe series. Both beautifully done, with realistic characters and vividly painted scenes. (I occasionally feel the wind nipping at my hair when I read one of your outdoor descriptions!) Did you start your stories with the characters, or the plot? Did these start as a series, or was that a result of finishing the stories and realizing there were other places for these people to go, other situations to explore?

Thank you for that compliment.  I really appreciate it.  Actually the Path books are a trilogyóall wrapped up and done.  The Crosspointe books will hopefully be an ongoing series, though each stands alone with different characters in each book.

But to answer your question . . . .  The Path books started out as just a single book.  I had this character in mind who was afraid of heights and who was forced to go flying (or have the impression of it) and ended up puking.  And I had this question about what kind of people sacrifice themselves for total strangers?  The rest of the story seemed to grow up around those two ideas and came from the things around me at the time.  For instance, a friend does research on goshawks, so I was able to go out into the field with him and experience them, plus ask him a whole lot of questions.  It wasnít until later that the books turned into a trilogy.  That came about because after I was done with Path of Fate, the question of ďWhatever became of Mysane Kosk?Ē kept bothering me.  I mean, the equivalent of a magical nuclear bomb was dropped.  Surely it had to have more effect?  So I started plotting out the next two novels, and then went back to Path of Fate and added in some foreshadowing.

For the Crosspointe books, I had been taking notes on little scraps of stories that didnít seem to have anything in common.  Then one day, it occurred to me that they could fit together into an actual story.  I began with figuring out the world.  Then I started wondering who lived there.  Actually, the first book focuses on Lucy, a customs official, but she wasnít one of the first characters I thought of.  I shelved about three other stories and focused on her.  The why of that is mostly that her story suddenly grabbed me and the others were still gestating.  Still are.

Vision: Where are these series going now? What are your hopes / intentions with these? Do you see yourself continuing them, or did you plan them as trilogies and then move on? If they are planned as trilogies, how did you avoid that 'middle book' syndrome Ė the 'this is just a vehicle to get us from Book 1 to Book 3' feeling older trilogies used to exhibit Ė because that is certainly not present in your situation!

Well, as I said, the Path books are a trilogy, though originally I had no intention of writing Path of Honor and Path of Blood.  Iím pretty content to leave them, though there are a couple of characters Iíd like to go back and write about.  Maybe in short story form.  Soka for one.  Juhrnus for another.  Their stories seem more unfinished.  As for middle-book syndromeóIím still not convinced Path of Honor doesnít suffer from it.  It was a bear to writeópartly because it was a sophomore book, partly because it was a middle book, and partly for the personal stuff going on in my life.  It took longer than I wanted and required more extensive rewrites.  Plus I had a new editor for it and this was the first book she found on her desk when she arrived.  So it took us some time to sort out our visions and ideas.  I worked hard to arrive at a satisfying endingóeven though it still seems more like a pause in the storyline to me.  So Iím really glad to hear that you donít think it suffers from middle-book syndrome.  A lot of what that book was about for me was that I intentionally had everything in Path of Fate end with this huge hopeful happily-ever-after feeling with the big crescendo of orchestral music as she rides off into the sunrise of a new day.  I did that because I knew that in Path of Honor, I planned to explode it.  Thereís no way this newly powerful person could show up and not be scary as hell to all the powers that be, and she couldnít miraculously solve all their problems (even if they could agree on their problems) and then on top of that, she might be incredibly powerful, but sheís clueless about what sheís doing, which means she screws up a lot.  I really wanted to explore what would really happen in that situation versus the romantic fairytale ending.

I donít expect to run into middle book syndrome in the Crosspointe books, because they are, at least at this point, all stand alones.  The broader political and cultural issues continue to wax and wane, but the individual stories are hopefully resolved in each book.  Now that could change if I decided there was a story that needed more room to be told, or if I wanted to pursue a sequel to any.  And of course, if my editor was remotely interested.

Vision: I said above your characters are vivid. Some writers seem to have characters that all share the same point of view, or at least seem to be pulling in the same direction. You've created a lead character in the Path series that certainly stands out. She's headstrong, and acts on her convictions Ė yet inside tends to doubt and wonder. As such, she's very convincing, and very real. How did you do that? And how do you avoid the similarity existing in the rest of your surrounding characters? What tips or tricks do you use to prevent her character from permeating into the other supporting characters?

Something else thatís good to hear.  Thank you.  Itís a constant concern for most writersóhow to differentiate the voices of their characters?  For me, I get to know them really well and try to think of exactly how they would speak, the kinds of words they would and wouldnít use, what motivates them, what they fear, and so on.  When you look around at real people, they are incredibly individual and what makes them so are their unique sensibilities and minds.  So I try to find those for my characters. 

As for tips and tricksóIíve used catchphrases, specialized dialects, a certain kind of attitude, physical signatures, and so on.  But I think the most important thing is to truly know your characters inside and out.  For instance, in The Cipher, which is coming out this fall, my character is Lucy.  She starts out as one of those tactful sort of people who tend to not be blunt or not to speak their minds because she wants to be polite.  However all that changes for her.  She no longer has time to waste on the niceties and no inclination to spare feelings.  So she becomes blunt and itís very freeing for her.  I think her voice is one of the best Iíve ever written.  At least she amuses me to no end.  To give you some idea of her voice, hereís the first line of the book:  ďThere were some days that deserved to be be drowned at birth and everyone sent back to bed with a hot brandy, a box of chocolates and a warm, energetic companion.  Today was without question one of those days.Ē  Sheís got opinions.

Vision: Your books deal very realistically with the underdeveloped rural outdoors and the difficulty of crossing large distances in a world where horses are the fastest mode of transportation for overland crossings. The travails of living off the land, the realistic depiction of saddle sores and horse hooves makes one feel you've 'been there and done that.' Is that true, or is this another example of meticulous research? And if so, where would writers find those details that make it all seem so real?

I grew up on a cattle ranch in northern California, and I pretty much lived on horseback.  So thatís where a lot of the horsey stuff comes from.  I did a very small bit of endurance riding, but it was enough to teach me that going 25 miles on horseback through the mountains is extremely hard.  Iíve had saddle sores (I occasionally would ride in shorts), though to be honest, I rarely used a saddle.  I rode almost entirely bareback.   I think it would not be far off the mark to say that my childhood was entirely devoted to horses and books.

The living off the land stuff comes more from living in Montana.  I live in an incredibly rural area, which pretty much describes all of Montana.  I live in high mountain desert, and my county is the same size as Delaware and Rhode Island put together, but with a population of only 9,000 people.  Thereís a lot of open country here, and a lot of wildlife.  I see antelope, elk, deer, and moose every day.  Hunting is a way of life hereópeople winter off what they hunt.  Many of them cut up and process the meat themselves (my husband does).  The only time I eat beef is when I go to a restaurant, though I occasionally buy chicken and pork.  But mostly we live off venison.  Course itís really heart healthy, but thatís another story. 

So yeah, a lot of what I know about living off the land comes from being here and living in a world where thatís what a lot of people do.  It makes it easy to ask just about anybody a how-to question and get an answer.  But Iím also an avid reader and observer.  So for instance, the log jam in Path of Fate comes from watching logs coming down a river in Oregon and getting jammed up.  I read survival guidesódid you know that bat guano is explosive?  That if you build a fire in a cave where there is bat guano, itís going to be a serious problem?  I remember reading David Quammenís essay ďStrawberries Under IceĒ and that, in combination with some of my survival reading, gave me the idea about taking shelter under a traveller pineóthough they are called traveller pines for just that reason; they were used for shelter.  They had a thick bed of accumulated needles underneath for warmth and for comfort, and the snow and rain really doesnít penetrate underneath. 

I also have a close friend in Oregon who oozes this kind of information.  We go camping together and she talks about lighting fires without matches and what various plants are used for.  That helped me to create the natural world, and also give me a foundation for understanding the ecology of a place.  I also did a lot of research on plants and their uses for Reisil, since sheís a healer and has to know these things.  But this was also useful information to have for establishing the natural world.  Now lately on the Discover Channel has been a showóand Iím totally forgetting the name of it right nowówhere they drop a guy into inhospitable surroundings and he has to stay alive and find a way to safety.  That show can tell you a lot about survivalófrom making fire to building shelter to finding food and water . . . . Itís pretty phenomenal information.  I wish Iíd had it when writing the Path books, but Iím filing away information for later use.

I guess the main advice Iíd have for writers who are researching something they donít necessarily know something about is to do it thoroughly.  Really understand your subject.  Youíll ending up knowing tons more than what actually makes the book, but those little details you include will make a world of difference in creating a world and characters that have depth.  Hereís a for instance.  Iíve been working on a book called The Black Ship.  Itís the second in the Crosspointe books.  Itís set mostly on a square-rigged clipper ship.  Hereís the problem:  I donít sail.  I donít know anything about sailing or ocean currents or tides.  Or at least, I didnít.

But the first thing I did was dig for a lot of different books.  Some were on modern day sailing, many were on square-rigger sailing.  Some were written by sailors of the 18th and 19th centuries.  I read fiction (Patrick OíBrien anyone?) and non-fiction accounts of sailing.  I bought dictionaries of sea words and I scoured the internet for more info.  I found a group on MySpace who are squarerigger sailors.  I found a guy who currently captainís a squarerigger ship.  I looked up a squarerigger ship (the Lady Washington) and sailed on heróit was a short sail, but I learned a lot about the workings of the sails. 

My point is that I researched.  I still feel I could and should know a lot more, but Iíve been able to use the language and create scenes that I think are accurate and that my readers wonít be jolted out of the reality of the story.  For the Path books, I stopped to research a lot.  Every small thing I didnít know about, I went and looked up, asked about, drew from my notes, and so on. 

Vision: Your website lists you as an author of high fantasy adventure.  Can you tell us what that means to a story?

That was something that my webdesigner came up with after reading my books.  I thought it fit pretty well.  High fantasy, to me, refers to fantasy that is set in a pre-technological setting, focuses at least some on the nobility or leadership of a land or lands, the stakes are high (and concern a larger group of people or world), and includes magic-wielders of some sort, or that magic is integral to the world.  The adventure part is simply thatóaction and adventure, versus a sort of interior struggle, though hopefully I include both elements.  Otherwise the characters wouldnít be very interesting.  The Crosspointe books fall into this category fairly well, also, I think.

 

Vision: You have a short story (All Things Being Not Quite Equal) that you are turning into a full length novel. How do you go about expanding a shorter work into a longer one? How does your approach differ when writing a short story rather than a novel?

This one has been hard.  I published the story more than 10 years ago now, I think.  And there are things about it Iíd like to change, now that Iím doing a novel.  But I feel I ought to remain faithful to the original, so Iíve been struggling against that.  When I began to work on the novel, I decided to set it a couple of months after the story ended.  But I struggled with an opening chapter.  I ended up starting it eight or ten times, and finally came up with an opening chapter.  It was really hard because I knew I had to include information that had been in the story, but I couldnít retell the story.  After I got three chapters done, I realized that that first chapter was really a second chapter, and had to write a whole new opening.  But now I think it works.  Course it hasnít sold yet, but Iím keeping my fingers crossed.  I really like it and enjoy writing it. 

The short story was a pretty tight and closed story line.  But the novel is obviously going to be more complex, with a lot more characters and more events.  When I write short stories, I pretty much have to know everything thatís going to happen before I start.  I donít write them well unless I have an ending.  Novels are a little different.  I try to map out the major events (and often those change drastically as soon as I begin writing) and then I jump in.  As the characters develop and change and as new events happen that I didnít see coming, the story changes.  It can be thoroughly uncomfortable not knowing where things are going, but in a novel where I have time and space to let things play out, I can live with that discomfort.  But with short stories, when it happens, I tend to freeze up until I mentally sort things out, which is why I donít write a lot of them.  

 

Vision: Besides high fantasy, what genres do you write in, and why? Would you like to try your hand at any others?

I have been known to write the occasional historical fantasy story.  A lot of that grows from my research from my PhD studies.  And I write the occasional skewed vampire storyóone where things arenít quite as expected.  Like my ugly vampire story.  Iíd like to try my hand more at an urban fantasy, perhaps paranormal romance.  If I ever get a good idea.  Iíve discovered itís a lot of fun to be able to include pop-culture references, which you canít do in traditional fantasy.  But donít get me wrong, I love writing traditional fantasy.  Itís my primary love.

Vision: Who has influenced your writing?

Pretty much everything Iíve read.  For the Crosspointe stuff, I think you can see a lot of Dickensian influences.  In Path of Honor, I think you can see some Foucaultian influences.  But really, everything I read provides something fertile to help grow me as a writer, to help grow my imagination.

Vision:  Your website, www.dianapfrancis.com, has a number of articles for new writers. What drives you to want to help new and would-be authors?

Itís a pay it forward thing.  When I was starting out, I wrote letters to Marion Zimmer Bradley and Sheri Tepper asking newbie questions and generally looking for encouragement and a connection to women writers in sf/f.  They very kindly wrote back with advice (and I do mean wroteóthis was a time before email was prevalent).  I really appreciated that.  And then I was able to do a con workshop at Wiscon with Nancy Kress who was amazing.  Iím in a position to offer the same sort of help and support to aspiring writers and I want to as best I can. 

Vision: So, given all that - are there common mistakes you see new writers making? What suggestions would you give them?

There are a couple common mistakes I see regularly.  One is having stories that arenít finishedówhat I mean by that is that a lot of new writers get so hung up on getting the early chapters right that they never finish.  Better to finish and then revise once you actually know exactly what your story is about.  Along with that is the tendency to think that once youíve written it, maybe revised once or twice, that your book is ready.  It may not be.  It may need a lot more work.  You have to keep working at improving your craft.  Heck, Iíve got four books done and a fifth about to turn in, and Iím still trying to figure out how to be a better writer.  And then finally, I think itís important to keep writing.  To not put all your faith in one project.  It may not sell.  And the second one may not.  But you keep writing no matter what, keep revising, and eventually itíll happen for you.  Plus I think you learn a lot from completing new projects, which allows you to go back to earlier writing and see better where the fractures and holes are.

 

Vision: Do you see the Internet as a good tool for upcoming writers? How should they be using it, if it is?

Itís a great tool for connecting to readers, for spreading the word about your work, and for getting feedback.  But you have to be careful.  The world of publishing is very set in its ways, and dare I say, old-fashioned.  You canít publish your work online and expect publishers or agents to a) find it, or b) they may not want it if its already been electronically published.  Plus, a lot of people will put their work up on their blog or on MySpace groups or wherever with an expectation of criticism from whoever is out their reading.  But there are a couple of problems with that.  First, many donít actually want criticismóthey want validation.  And it can be soul-destroying when you donít get it.  Second, you have no idea whether your readers will be skilled enough to give you quality feedback, or even like the sort of thing that you write.  You really need to know something about them and be able to discuss their opinions before you can decide.   

Vision: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I donít think I ever did.  It was just something I did because I needed to.  I sent out short stories because I wanted to see if anyone would buy them, but the concept of WriteróI still have a hard time thinking of myself as a writer.  I keep wondering if anybodyís actually reading my stuff and whether they know what a goob I am, and if they did, would they keep reading?

Vision: Has writing changed who you are or how you see the world? Are there themes that matter most to you?

Unfortunately, writing has made me more of a hermit.  I have a day job and kids and the writing.  I donít socialize or get out to events the way I used to.  I think thatís unfortunate.  One of these days I hope to be able to find a schedule that allows me to have more balance.  Sometimes I think I must be the most uninteresting person in the world for being locked up in my office so much.

As far as themes goóIím fascinated with heroes.  With people who sacrifice and people who ignore other peopleís suffering.  Iím interested in the way cultures clashóthe way that each side believes itself to be so very good, and yet often the results are so very bad.  Everything is shades of gray to me anymore.  Thereís very little thatís black and white.  Okay, pedophilia, rape, child abuseóin my book those crimes pretty much mean you should have your throat cut.  Those are black and white.  But so much else is not.

 

Vision: Let's get to the crux of writing. What started you on this career path? Has your career progressed the way you thought it would?

It feels a lot like luck got me started.  Or animal instinct.  It just was what I needed to do.  Ever since I was a kid, I told epic stories and acted them out.  I grew up on a cattle ranch and had a lot of open space and alone-time to do that (though I frequently involved my friends).  I was a daydreamer and Iíd spin these convoluted adventures to entertain myself and my friends.  Itís a wonder I ever heard anything in school.  I got very lucky with my first booksóin that the first publisher I submitted to bought them.  And they also loved my Crosspointe idea.  So all that has been shockingly wonderful.

But I never did very well selling stories.  I thought that Iíd never sell a book, considering my short story track record, so that was all the more astonishing.  And I donít make a living wage doing this by any means.  I wish that were different, but I hope to one day.

 

Vision: For the record, are you a full time writer, meaning you are able to support yourself solely on writing? If so, how long did that take? And is it a reasonable goal for a new writer to aspire to?

No, Iím not.  And I donít think itís a reasonable goal, at least not in the short term.  Yes, itís possible to make enough money to support yourself, but many, if not most, sf/f writers do not.  And many who do, struggle with paying insurance and have a spouse or partner who also works a more stable job to make sure the regular bills are covered.  It takes a long time to build a career and the vagaries of the publishing world can be very difficult.  But that doesnít mean you shouldnít strive for it.  It just may take awhile longer than you expect or want.

Vision: What is your average day like? Do you write every day?

I try to write every day.  I teach at a University and we are on the block sysem.  That means that every student takes one class at a time, for three and a half weeks, for three hours a day.  As a teacher, it is an exhausting way to teach and makes it very difficult for me to sustain a regular writing schedule.  I try to get in a lot of extra hours on weekends.  I do not teach in the summers, and so I spend long hours writing then.  I tend to be a get-up-late and go-to-bed late sort of writer, though lately Iíve been more distracted at night than I like and am thinking to switching to an early morning schedule to see if it helps. 

Vision: Any things you can recommend to would be writers that you think could help them move forward in their careers? Are there skills you should have sharpened, habits you wish you would have developed? Did you have any special background or training that helped you?

Theyíve probably heard this before, but the two things they have to do is read and write.  Reading teaches you so much about writing, stuff that just clings to you by osmosis.  It teaches you about story-telling, about history, about developing characters and every nuance of writing.  And I donít mean just read what you write.  Read everything, a wide spectrum of things.  The other thing is that writers write.  That means put your butt in the chair and stay there until youíve written.  No matter how bad you think it is.  I have a sign on my computer that says ďAbandon All Standards and Write Fast.Ē  For me, that means get the draft down and then go back and revise.  Donít let that internal beastie editor keep telling you that everything youíre writing is crap.  Donít let it get in your way. 

I didnít develop discipline as a writer until I was working on my dissertation in college.  Now I write every day.  Okay, thatís not true.  There are days when I canít, but I write at least five days out of a week.  And usually more.  Even for a few minutes. 

As for special backgroundóI have an MA in creative writing.  That taught me a lot about how to look at my own work critically, and let other people do it, without getting upset and angry.  Writers have to have thick skins.  But we often donít.  But remember, your work isnít your babyóitís your art, and you have to be willing to manipulate and change it if you want to improve.

 

Vision: Any "if I'd known then what I know now" thoughts? Are there things you could have done that would have made it easier for you to reach this point in your career?

I wish Iíd stuck with some of my vampire stuff.  Itís become very popular now and the market is saturated.  But I still have a story I want to tell.  If only Iíd done it about ten years ago . . .

But other than that, I donít think thereís a magic key or a magic path.  Itís slogging away, itís persevering, and itís never giving up.  And itís doing the writing.  Donít think about it, wish you had time for it, or plan to start tomorrow.  You have to write.  Now.  Make it a priority.  Itís hard because you donít know if it will ever pay offówill you ever get published?  And a lot of people around you will see it as a hobby (luckily my husband has always been a huge supporter of mine).  But you have to say noóthe writing is a priority and itís valuable and important.

Vision: What do you have coming out that we should look for? What sort of things do you plan, or hope, to write in the future?

In November is when the first of the Crosspointe Chronicles will hit the shelves.  Itís titled The Cipher.  Itís set on an island in the middle of a very strange, magical sea, and the story revolves around blackmail, political intrigue and betrayal.  In it, Lucy Trenton is a customís official who finds herself in a whole lot of trouble and the only person she can trust cannot be trusted at all. 

As for planning and hoping . . . . Iíd like to be able to continue to write in the Crosspointe world for awhile.  Itís really unusual and thereís a lot of stories to be told.  Iíd also like to sell my ugly vampire novel.  And as I said, Iíd like to play a little more with contemporary or urban fantasyóif I can think of a good story.  Maybe one day Iíll sell enough books to be a full-time writer.  

Vision: Thank you for taking this time for this interview. Any last words you'd like to say to our readers?

Just that breaking into publishing is difficult and heartbreakingóbut it can be done.  Really.  It can be done.

For more information, be sure to visit the Diana Pharaoh Francis website:

www.dianapfrancis.com