Quenby Olson is the author of The Half Killed, and this month’s r/Fantasy RRAWR pick!
Quenby lives in Central Pennsylvania where she writes, homeschools, glares at baskets of unfolded laundry, and chases the cat off the kitchen counters. After training to be a ballet dancer, she turned towards her love of fiction, penning everything from romance to fantasy, historical to mystery. She spends her days with her husband and children, who do nothing to dampen her love of the outdoors, immersing herself in historical minutiae, and staying up late to watch old episodes of Doctor Who.
For those who don’t know, The Half Killed is your fantasy novel debut – typically you write Regency style romance. What about your process is different when writing Fantasy?
There is definitely more of a formula with romance. Most romance-readers (and I’m happily one of them) demand a Happily Ever After, so no matter what I put the characters through, I know that Point B always has to be “they fall in love/marry/trot off into the sunset.”
So it changes the way I plot. No matter what rocks I throw at the characters, their paths must join back up at the end. Fantasy on the other hand… Well, I can throw rocks at the characters and make them bleed without a chance at healing.
Right. There’s a lot more room for tragedy there, and sometimes the ending that punches you in the gut is the one that stays with you.
Yes. Which can also make the fantasy stories more difficult to plot, because I know they can go anywhere. No holds barred, really, if that’s where the story takes me.
The relationship between Thea and Chissick is pretty interesting given the Victorian setting – Chissick takes on the role of Thea’s protector but there’s an unspoken agreement that she’s in charge. He’s quite a forward thinking man. Did you feel any pressure to add romance to the mix?
Hah! When the story first began in my head, I considered it. Then, as I put all the pieces together, I realized it absolutely wouldn’t work for the characters at that point in their lives. Then I tried to go the traditionally published route with The Half Killed, and while I did get interest from several agents and publishers, the number one thing I heard was “add romance” in order to make it more marketable. But it simply didn’t work for me. And so when I self-published it, I was able to keep their relationship as it is in the book presently.
For what it’s worth, I found it refreshing to read a friendship develop based on mutual respect and regard without necessarily having to go in that direction. Especially given that Thea is going through an extremely difficult time. She’s an excellent example of a female character who has tremendous inner strength but also moments of extreme weakness and frailty. Is that something you set out to do?
Yes, definitely. I think I was becoming tired of seeing so many “strong, female characters” be only women who came equipped with a catalog of sassy one-liners and the insistence that they didn’t need any help from anyone.
On a personal level, I’ve found that it’s more difficult, takes more courage and strength to admit when you need help, to accept assistance from others. And to endure. Thea has gone through so much, and just the fact that she has survived against so many odds shows such an incredible amount of strength to me.
Absolutely. That’s a very good message for people to take away from the book. Was there anything else along those lines that you were hoping to get across?
It wasn’t until halfway through putting the book together that I realized (and someone who was reading what I had written so far pointed out to me, as well) I had written a story with a female protagonist, a wide array of female supporting characters, but that it didn’t feel imbalanced in any way. In other words, not a book written specifically towards a certain audience, as if I had been checking off boxes as I went.
I don’t want to say it’s something I consciously try to do now with other works, but I hope it’s something I can continue to pull off without thinking about it. I think if I tried to force it (add more women, take away something else, etc.) it would come through that I was forcing it.
There’s a host of colorful side-characters, each of whom you grow to feel sorry for to some extent… you probably still wouldn’t want to hang out with them, though. They’re a bit Dickensian. In fact, Dickens and Gaskell came to mind quite a bit when I was reading. Are there any Victorian era writers you found yourself drawing inspiration from as you wrote?
Not on purpose, that I can recall. But I did read a lot of Dickens while I was growing up, as well as George Eliot, and the Brontës. They so often had a darker, emotional punch to their stories, so when I tell people about the tone of this story, I often fall back on the usual, “Well, if you like. these authors, then hopefully you’ll enjoy…”
The Victorian voice of the novel comes across as very authentic – how much research does that take, and is it difficult to avoid falling down a research hole?
Oh, thank you! And… it takes a lot of research. Sometimes one little line can be hours of finding the right article or historical source. And the research holes? Stinkin’ impossible to avoid. Oh, I want to know how someone carries their money around? Lemme just spend an entire day looking up various fashions from that time and all the accessories and by the time I’m done I’ve changed the line to avoid having that original niggling detail in there in the first place!
I’ve seen Kay (fellow author K.S. Villoso) say that this is why she prefers epic fantasy – she can just make it up as she goes along.
Travel is the worst. You have to find old maps, the routes used at the time, the vehicles of the time, find out speeds that could be reached, how long those top speeds could be kept up, until you really wish it was epic fantasy and a dragon or airship could swoop in and make all of those problems disappear. And that gives me a head full of useless-in-real-life information. Goodbye, pin numbers! Hello, knowing how long it took to travel from Cornwall to Cheshire in muddy Spring weather.
And that’s made more complicated, no doubt, by the fact that even the supernatural elements of The Half Killed are rooted in reality. The psychic frauds and whatnot. The Victorians really loved their weird sources of entertainment.
Yup. And were very much into death and the macabre. Like the post-mortem photos, the Gothic literature… it was as if when Queen Victoria went into mourning the entire country became obsessed with death and odd things in support of her.
Very much so – it was almost expected that you copy whatever the Queen was doing at that time. Elaborate wedding cakes, Christmas trees, etc.
Her hair style…. yeah, everything. Which, I guess she was the celebrity of the time. Nowadays everyone copies the Jennifer Aniston haircut. Back then… Queen Victoria’s parted hair and bun.
I think I really just aged myself with that answer.
Fortunately we’re the same age, so I can’t make fun of you too much.
You have definitely woven death and the macabre into the fabric of The Half Killed, giving it a Horror-meets-Fantasy-of-Manners feel but without straying into gore and cheap scares. Was that difficult to avoid?
I didn’t actively avoid it. I was worried about a couple of scenes (the prologue, the examination of two different dead bodies) that I was being too specific with things, that it would put people off. But I also thought if I took a more clinical view of things, treating the bodies as the evidence they were, that it hopefully wouldn’t make people recoil and go, “Ew!”
I have no stomach or tolerance for gore, but I seem to be okay touching on it in my writing if I take that approach.
I’m the same way – it was one reason I had been dreading the horror square in Bingo.
Yeah, and even old school slasher movies (I’m not touching the torture porn genre with someone else’s ten-foot pole) give me outright terror and nightmares for months. I’m better at the slow burn horror, the psychological horror. Movies like The Others are perfect for my scare threshold.
I remember being on a date at the cinema watching Scream 2 of all things (who’s old now?) and I was so anxious during one scene that I straight up excused myself to go to the bathroom even though I didn’t need to!
I saw the first Scream at a sleepover. Okay, rephrase: I saw the first part of Scream at a sleepover and then I spent the next hour or so in the kitchen talking with my friend’s mom.
We have more in common than I realized. 😀
Ok, so I nominated your short story Splintered Teeth for a Stabby because I found it very moving – I know you were going through a tough time when you wrote it, and I’m curious about how much that kind of turmoil fuels your creativity.
Sometimes I wonder how my mind would work if my experiences had been different. If my childhood hadn’t been terribly dysfunctional, if I hadn’t come from parents who had even more difficult lives than my own… would I write differently? Would I write at all? I realized this in the last year or so, that there is a huge part of me in every book and story I write. Anger and rage and helplessness and fear… it all shows up there.
Thea’s endurance, pushing through when everything is absolutely crumbling down to hell around you… It’s a survival trick, I think. Write these demons out on the page, work through the tangle of crap in my head and sort it out, piece by piece, with every word that dribbles out from the ends of my fingers. I mean, most people I know think of me as a generally happy, positive person. And the writing helps that, to keep me moving forward, to push these characters around and know that I can push myself up and out and forward, too.
So in some ways writing is a form of therapy? It wouldn’t be the first time I’d heard an author say something of that nature.
Oh, definitely. It’s like taking all of those moments that stick with you, and not in the best way sometimes, and laying them out in front of you, making your characters go through them, experience some of the same emotions… it hurts sometimes. Definitely, definitely.
It’s interesting, because to me reading is a form of therapy. When a writer strikes on something insightful that resonates with my own experiences, there’s this feeling of not being alone. Someone gets it. It’s like in those moments the author is speaking directly to you.
Perhaps this is why some people find such catharsis in novels where others don’t get that. Someone told me the other day that if they caught themselves crying at a novel they would see a therapist, and I was so confused by it. To me that’s like seeing the doctor because you’re breathing.
I’m confused by that, too. I just… it’s a release, isn’t it? When you find those moments in writing and music and movies? And it seems so much easier to catch your breath afterwards. So much art is fueled by emotion. It is someone else experiences and emotions on display. I can’t imagine not having those moments of, “Ah, yes. I’m not the only one who sees it that way.”
Yeah, to me those moments are kind of the whole point.
In a world with… is it eight billion people now? You need to find those connections or feel lost in a crowded world.
Ok, so last question: Can you tell me something about the self-publishing world that might be surprising to someone on the outside of it?
That it is by no means the easy way out.
Traditional publishing is often about finding books that will sell, finding books that are easy to market. So self-publishing, for me at least, was taking something I was told couldn’t be marketed, that was too niche, too much of a mix of genres, and putting it out there despite the odd “add romance” advice. (And I adore romance, but I’m not adding snuggles to every story just so I can see it find a certain kind of audience.)
I asked this question of Darrell Drake too, and his feeling was that the traditional publishers who are snapping up successful self published writers are sort of letting you guys do the legwork for them. It’s great when it happens and we’re excited for the author, but it’s low-risk for the publisher at that point.
Oh, yeah. We work our butts off to gain a following, figure out how to market, start to find an audience, and then they can sometimes swoop in – like my desired dragon or airship! – and go, “Oh, hey! We choose you!” when… we’ve already proven that there is an audience, that we’re in it for the long haul.
But on the plus side, perhaps down the line this is a thing that can be pointed to. “Look, not everything needs to be farm boy adventures to be successful!”
Oh, yes. A thousand times yes. My hope is that some of us can prove that there is a desire for things that can’t be easily shoved into a literary cubby-hole. And that it starts a cry for, like you said, something more than the farm boy adventures.
Amen to that. Thanks so much for joining us!
The Half Killed is available on Amazon now.