Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tea with Kelly Harmon

Today Toad welcomes Kelly Harmon to her corner.

What made you realise you wanted to be a wordsmith, and what career path did
you follow to get there?

I’ve always written fiction. I can’t remember a time that I didn’t want to be a writer.

I scribbled constantly in a three-ring binder full of loose-leaf all through grade school. At home, I would use my mom’s Royal manual typewriter, eking out one or two typed pages a day before my fingers would smart from those sticky keys.I harangued my parents continually for an electric typewriter, which I finally received for my 12th birthday. That’s when I really started churning out the words. (That’s also when I taught myself to type–I still can’t use my
right pinky to shift.)

I studied journalism in college because I thought it would offer me more job opportunities than an English degree would. It did, but not many.

What are, in your opinion, some of the most important interests an author should cultivate?

In order to write well, I think authors need to know a great deal about people and relationships. Knowing what makes people tick, or what motivates them, enables a writer to create believable characters. It’s the tiny details, knowing the psyche of a character, and writing it into the book, which will make the straight-A, goody-two-shoes character’s sudden leap into hitch-hiking and
prostitution seem believable, rather than just convenient for the story’s sake.

Relationships are very telling about people. In a book, if the husband treats his wife like dirt, but bows and scrapes to his mother...what does that tell the reader? Maybe the guy’s just an ass, or a Momma’s Boy. On the other hand, he might have some psychological problems that manifest in other ways. A good author would know how this guy will react in certain situations – and in other
relationships – and use that information to carry the plot forward.

Was there any specific event that sparked off Blood Soup?

It wasn’t an event, so much as a research jaunt, that sparked the idea for the story.

I’m an avid genealogist, and at the time I was writing Blood Soup, I was putting together a family cookbook which included a recipe for a special-occasion soup called "Czarnina" (char-NEE-nah), or, in English: blood soup.

Despite the title’s connotations, blood soup isn't so sinister a meal. Blood constitutes only a small fraction of what is used to create the broth. The other ingredients are fairly routine and include cloves, peppercorn and fresh apples and pears to create a sweet-and-sour soup. The soup is dark in color (czarnina means “black”) and I’d toyed with using the title as a play on words for the dark theme of the story.

Instead, my mind continued to return to “blood” as the key to the story.

As I worked through the plot, I thought of ways blood could be used for healing or as a medicinal ingredient. Taking it a step further, I wondered at the efficacy of using blood to save the life of another person: Could blood from a well person pull a dying person back from the brink? Could it strengthen a weak constitution? I considered whether or not a person could subsist on a diet of mostly blood...human or animal. And, what happens to someone who develops such a taste, so much so, that it’s like an addition?

That line of questioning solidified Prince Amalric’s character: he was a weakling as a child and fed blood to fortify him. He came to crave it as a youngster, often demanding it. He reveals his strong temper - like an addict - when someone has eaten the last bowl of soup which he considers his.

Although King Theodicar set in motion the events which lead to Amalric’s eventual rule, Blood Soup is actually about Amalric , whose blood lust was thrust upon him by a determined father and who must come to realize that he’s not the rightful heir to Borgund.

And that's how Blood Soup came to be.

Briefly share what Blood Soup's all about.

Blood Soup is a story about murder, betrayal and comeuppance.

The story opens with a pregnant Queen Piacenza. Her husband, King Theodicar, naturally hopes for a male heir. The Queen is from Omera, where the first born rules, no matter the sex of the child. This causes no end of friction between them.

The Queen’s nursemaid, Salvagia, casts runes about the birth. Over and over, they yield the same message: “A girl child must rule or the kingdom will fall to ruin.” The women are convinced the baby will be a girl.

When the queen finally gives birth, the nurse and the king are equally surprised, and Theodicar is faced with a terrible choice. His decision will determine the fate of his kingdom. Will he choose wisely, or will he doom Borgund to ruin?

What advice do you have for anyone considering being a wordsmith as a career option? (this includes being a journalist.) What should they study and what career options are available?

If you want to write fiction, don’t find a writing job at all. Get a degree in something else you enjoy and take some writing classes on the side. Choose something that pays a decent wage and/or is a job someone is always looking to fill. This way, you’ll have a skill set you need to make some money while you’re waiting for your novels and short stories to be published.

(Yes: this advice runs completely counter to what I did, which was to study journalism in college and work for newspapers. I found the experience invaluable when it comes to learning about human nature; but the hours were long and stole time I could have been devoting to writing fiction.)

There’s another reason I advise studying something other than writing: you’ll gain extensive knowledge in another subject which you can use in your fiction.

For instance, if you study can write a novel - even a series of novels - with the main character being an archeologist or the setting being an archeological dig. Your writing will be richer for your having studied the subject so extensively already. Imagine not having to do all that research!

If you want to write non-fiction for a living, an English or journalism degree (or even, public relations/advertising) could lead to a variety of jobs: reporting, writing brochures or sales literature for foundations or large companies, translation, advertising, etc.

You could go the reporter route...but there’s more money to be made in freelancing. The difference is: you’ve got to work harder for the freelance dollars. You’ve got to make your own leads, find your own stories, and be organized enough – and driven enough – to make it work for you.

High-paying writing jobs often require specialized experience: medical writing, legal writing, engineering, etc. If you want a high-paying writing job, explore those venues.

Can you write non-fiction and fiction? Sure, I do it all the time. But I’m not certain you can make a full-time career out of either if you do them together.

That being said: your mileage may vary. No matter what you decide... good luck!

Useful links:

Twitter: @kellyaharmon

Read the first two chapters for free at Scribd:

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