I’m very proud of these books and still very much in love with them.
But how did this love affair with talking animal stories begin?
Today I’m letting you into the ten hidden stages behind the Chronicles.
Stage 1: An Idea
Ideas comes from everywhere. I can’t stop them.
This one began with a dream in 2014. We were shut inside a gated compound while outside, crying babies were dying from exposure. We couldn’t get out, but my dog Dinny (an ancient and beloved German Shepherd) snuck out and carried the two babies into safety.
From small kernels of inspiration, a big story grew.
Dogs had to feature!
Stage 2: A Short Story
The story of the babies left to die Outside was too good to lose, especially during the height of the worldwide refugee crisis. The wise and compassionate canini Mashtuk and Zelie, the heartless humachines, and fully-human Hector appeared in my head. I wrote them into a story and submitted it to progressive journal Overland. My first ever short story acceptance!
If you’ve read The Pale, you might like to see where it started.
Stage 3: A Novel
After the story was published, an indie publisher contacted me because my Overland bio said that I was writing a novel about these characters.
I hadn’t started, but I immediately began. Ideas came too fast and the novel grew too long, but I submitted it within six months.
Stage 4: A Rejection
Sadly, The Pale Version 01 didn’t make the grade. The novel was BLOATED with too many characters and dozens of subplots, and falling over itself with over-complex world building.
While the feedback was positive, the novel needed severe editing.
Stage 5: An Acceptance
More time passed. I took a good hard look at my manuscript and pruned a few thousand words. Some of the off-cuts were old favourites: names for every (and I mean every) minor character, a newly invented calendar based on the many seasons recognised in indigenous cultures, and a subplot involving flashbacks to the time before the Great Cataclysm…
Then I sent the new manuscript to my dear, dear beta readers. Their ultra-valuable feedback (thank you – you know who you are!) resulted in more tidying…and THEN
Oh, my. Having a novel published was a lifelong dream come true.
I fell onto a steep learning curve. Working with fiction editors challenged me, but I could see that every discussion, every point, made my work better. A wonderful cover artist sent me concepts, and I jumped with delight on the one with the city and the canini – of course, it’s Mashtuk!
I’ve talked about launching here, and I can still remember the wonderful feeling. The Pale sold some copies. Readers contacted me and asked about the characters and what happened next? The characters gambolled around in my head.
And the publisher said: is there a sequel?
Next week, I’ll explain how I got from a single dream to a three-novel series … and perhaps a set of short stories in genesis.
Fi Phillips is a fantasy author living in North Wales with her family and a pooch called Bailey. Writing about magical possibilities is her passion.
Her debut novel, Haven Wakes, was released in 2019 by Burning Chair Publishing and the second instalment in The Haven Chronicles is due to be released later this year.
When she isn’t ‘authoring’, Fi works as a freelance copywriter. Fi tells me how inspiring she fins the potential in that space where imagination meets science.
Fi Phillips: Fantasy with a touch of Science
I’m a fantasy author. I love all things magical – from people with spell-casting powers, to mythical creatures, to artefacts that can do the most marvellous things. If there’s magic involved, let me at it.
But here’s the thing. I also love reading about scientific developments. I’ll give you an example – robots. There’s a whole world of robots out there, right now. Some are the kind of robots I remember from childhood viewing, like Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet, clumsy and cumbersome and unlikely to outrun or even outwalk you in a chase. Others are altogether more advanced and scarily relevant to the world we live in. You just have to look at the progress that Boston Dynamics has made to realise that. And then, there are the robots which are currently floating around and being useful, like the Astrobees (no, that isn’t a kids TV programme – they really exist) on the International Space Station.
My favourite fantasy novels and films are those that have a mixture of fantasy and science, stories like Sheri S Tepper’s The True Game series or the Nicholas Cage film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. That’s why my debut novel, Haven Wakes, includes all of that – magic and robots and plenty of future-tech that is being developed as we speak (read?).
Inspiration for me is the place where imagination and science meet.
“Mind yourself.” Steve pulled Hartley aside as a small robot struggled down the centre of the pavement, pulled equally ahead and back by the four dogs it held the leads to.
“Is that normal?” said Hartley.
“Of course. That’s the kind of job robots do. Walk the dog. Serve in a shop. Clean up.”
“So what do people do?”
“Everything else, I suppose,” said Steve. “Or nothing.”
“Sounds peculiar to me,” said Hartley, still watching the robot as it untangled one of its limbs from the dogs’ leads. “Where’s the fun in having a dog and not walking it?”
The retail and eateries district that the department store sat in was a grid of mismatched shop fronts. The stores were split into three main types.
There were the older stores, like Sebastian Green and Sons with their faux-old pillars and marble-floored entrances, that attempted to mimic old world prestige. They sold the type of item that needed to be seen before purchase. It was also the kind of item that only the richest could afford, from rhodium jewellery to the latest solar sports car and the rarest of plants.
Dotted in between the shop fronts were the pick-up pods that varied in size depending on exactly what you were collecting. The largest pick-up pod that Steve had ever seen was one that supplied cars. Scan your identity from your wrap-phone, the door opens, and away you go.
“Surely that isn’t edible?” Hartley pressed his face against the window of an eatery, the third type of store in the district.
A conveyor belt of food-filled glass plates travelled around the eatery counter. At one end of the belt, waiter robots recovered the plates to serve to the waiting customers. At the other, the nozzles of the 3D food printer moved speedily around each plate, forming the pre-ordered food.
“That’s the advantage of synthetic food,” said Steve. “You can form it into any shape you want, and it’s fast.”
“Ludicrous,” said Hartley, shaking his head as he stepped back from the window. “There’s not enough on one of those plates to touch the sides.”
Oh, I love that! Especially the part about why you would have dogs but let the robot walk them! And 3D printed food. Wow. More please.
After the roller coaster that was 2020, it’s time for a change.
Welcome back to Last Word of the Week. In the 2021 series, I’m looking for inspiration.
Each week, a different author will tell us what inspires them. Then they will share an extract from one of their books!
I’m looking forward to their encouraging words and their stories.
I’m going to launch the series
My inspiration for stories comes from family, from culture, and from nature. Our precarious planet provides us a flimsy shield from the vastness of the universe. I love to look out and in, to our own species and the precious flora and fauna around us, for insights into what it means to be alive.
The worldwide refugee crisis and Australia’s punitive response is the inspiration behind my sci-fi fantasy series, The Chronicles of the Pale. Writing these three books helped me work through my despair to find a way to hope for the future.
Here’s an extract from Book 3: The Ruined Land. In this scene, Feather of the Storm tribe arrives at the den of the canini (yep, taking wolf-dogs) of the Ravine. Oh, you can see a list of characters here if you wish.
The Ruined Land
‘I never thought to belong to such a pack,’ said Callan, one paw scratching busily behind his ear.
‘Nor I,’ commented Feather, cross-legged on the hard floor of the pack’s main den. He shifted a little as Callan leant back against him. On his other side, the half-grown canini cubs Niccolò and Rhosyn were tangled in slumber, their paws occasionally flapping against his leg in a dream run. Feather watched as Callan rose to all four feet, shook himself vigorously, and then settled again by his side with a long, soft exhalation. In the hours since they had rediscovered each other, the big white canine and the tribal envoy had been almost inseparable.
Freeing one hand to stroke a bit of comfort over Callan’s back, Feather looked around the den. From where they sat against the far wall, they had an excellent view of the astonishing company they shared. By the entrance, Hippolyta the leader of the ravine canini was engaged in serious conversation with Marin, huntmaster of the Storm tribe, and his partner Willow. Beside Willow, Jarli sat quiet and frowning, listening much more than he spoke. From the way that he leant close every time Willow spoke, Feather guessed that the Storm’s foremost couple had recognised the outclansman as the father of the twins, a man whose claim to raise them was greater than Marin and Willow’s plan to adopt. The older pair were probably trying to convince Jarli to stay with the tribe rather than taking his infants back to the less safe life of the outclan Owl. Feather was glad to be out of that conversation. The decision was Jarli’s, and it would not be easy.
For himself, his only thought was to return as quickly as possible to the new settlement of Newkeep Port, where Jana, and little Rasti, would be waiting. His father Helm, too. The easy, joyful reunion he had with his own daughter Freya, here in the ravine, had made him think again that he should make more of an effort to connect with his father. He was uncomfortably aware that he had not only failed to mention Helm’s return to Freya or to anyone else in the tribe, but also that he had avoided serious discussion with Helm during the weeks that they had laboured at the Newkeep site. He swallowed his worries. Problems for another day. It was enough to enjoy the nearness of Callan and the sense of happy community that pervaded the ravine.
In the space between the elders and the den, a handful of tribal children slept among the rest of the canini, human and canini young mingled in attitudes of casual trust while their parents guarded the ravine. He had not seen such a thing since the days when the packs of Callan and Waleen had shared their lives with the Storm. It was a pleasant sight. Lifting his gaze, Feather could see the shadows of equii – Pinto and Violeta, whom he had met within minutes of reaching the ravine. He had been told that the senior equii liked to visit the canini every few days, taking it into their round of the territory as they led the rest of the herd from pasture to pasture. It had given him much joy to find that quite a large herd of equii had found shelter here in the ravine. On their journey, he and Jarli had seem more bones than they cared to study, but Feather was sure that some of them were equii. He had feared that all of them, all who had run from their confined life in the Settlement, had perished on the unforgiving stretches of Broad Plain. That many had found safety, and that some at least of them had once more opened their minds to speech, was an unexpected but joyful discovery.
‘That was a good thought of yours, Callan,’ he commented, indicating the visitors.
Callan looked away, hiding some emotion. ‘For them, I daresay. There was no future for them out on Broad Plain. I don’t know that they’ve added much to our comfort, though.’
Feather smiled at the back of Callan’s head. ‘They have rediscovered their language, and they are safe. Knowing that must be counted as a benefit to all of us as well. Their lives are precious, and worth saving.’
‘Hmm.’ Callan sent a look back over his shoulder, his face creased in the semblance of a grin. ‘Trust you to find some good in that. As long as they don’t completely strip the ravine, I suppose there will still be food for all.’
They stayed silent for a while, enjoying the contentment of their reunion. The afternoon was fading, and Feather noticed a ripple of movement as the next detail of lookouts left to take up position at the pinch point of the trail. A good sentry post, but also a death trap, by everything Callan had told him. He returned Freya’s wave as she returned from her turn on guard, glad that he had seen no sign of the ravening horde of giant vulpini as he and Jarli had crossed Broad Plain. They had encountered only carcasses. In fact, it looked as if the vulpini had grown to excessive size and then suddenly died, all their life force sucked out of them by the freakish growth spurt. Interesting.
Just as the thought stuck him, he saw the humachine Hector join the group by Hippolyta. The big silvery creature sat at the leader’s feet, accepting a bowl of stew which one of the Storm youngsters handed him. Feather stilled his hand on Callan’s back. ‘And that one,’ he said softly. ‘What is he? Who is he? Can we trust him, Callan?’
‘Ah!’ answered Callan. ‘That is Hector of the Ravine. Mashtuk adopted him. He is to be trusted, yes.’
‘He’s from the Pale,’ murmured Feather, frowning, although he heard the faith and affection in his friend’s voice.
Yoon Ha Lee is a Korean-American writer of science fiction and science fantasy. YHL has a B.A. in math (maths to those of us in Australia) from Cornell University and an M.A. in math (yes, maths) education from Stanford University. Yoon loves to explore mathematics for story ideas. His fiction has appeared in several revered sci-fi & fantasy (SFF) publications such as F&SF, Tor.com, and Clarkesworld Magazine, and his stories have been chosen several times for “The Year’s Best…” anthologies.
Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to review Yoon’s fabulous book, Hexarchate Stories, an instalment in his much-loved Machineries of Empire series. I introduced my review with this sentence:
Prepare to be amazed and captivated by this collection of science fiction delights…
Imagine my pleasure when Yoon agreed to be interviewed for the Last Word of the Week!
Welcome, Yoon, and thank you for speaking with me today. You’ve been widely published and have quite a name in SFF circles. What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
YOON: There is a lot of writing advice out there. Realize that every writer is different, and that advice that works for one person may not work for another. There’s often no harm in trying something to see if it works for you, but if the advice doesn’t work, there’s likely nothing wrong with you. It’s intended for a different kind of writer, that’s all. Take what works and discard what doesn’t.
That’s very reassuring. Do you have a go-to routine for writing?
First I make tea. Then I sit down to write, except my tortoiseshell cat, Cloud, jumps up and blocks the keyboard. I pet her until she decides that she’s had enough worship and wanders off. Only then do I get started. Really, worshipping a cat is one of the most pleasant ways to brainstorm anyway. She interrupts me at intervals for more petting, which is a great way for me to take typing breaks!
I think I need another blog series called ‘authors and their feline muses’! How much research is involved in your writing?
It depends on the story! In a sense I’m constantly researching, because I keep an eye out for ideas and interesting facts as I read or browse the internet or listen to conversations. Some stories are mostly invention, so they don’t require me to research anything specific. On the other hand, my forthcoming novel Phoenix Extravagant is set in a fantasy version of Korea during the Japanese occupation, and its protagonist is a painter, so I spent six months reading everything I could get my hands on about Korean archaeology and art history. Spoiler: it’s hard to find much on those topics in English; I am indebted to my mom for helping me find books!
Ah, a secret research assistant. Excellent! How do you deal with plot holes – if you ever have any!
First, I go to my husband and whine at him, usually with the words, “Joe, my novel is brokedy.” Then I make him take me to a cafe, where I explain why my story isn’t working (and probably the other patrons are giving us weird looks because we’re talking about nanomachines or undead generals or whatever). He brainstorms with me and comes up with a solution. I ask him to type it up and email it to me. I read the email. Then I ignore his suggestions and do something completely different. Strange as this method sounds, it works!
I must try it! I can’t get my husband to read my books until they arrive in paperback form. How you get feedback about your story before it’s published?
I have a trusted group of friends whom I ask to beta read for me. There’s usually a few people willing to volunteer at any given point in time. Some of them are writers, some of them aren’t. Every beta reader has different strengths and weaknesses, so I try to get a few different viewpoints. For example, my husband is a physicist, so he’s great at finding logic holes. Character arcs, not so much.
Good plan. What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?
Right now I’m working on a science fantasy short story for the Silk & Steel anthology. I’m a novice fencer attending the Red Stick School of Fencing in Baton Rouge, so there will be dueling! My duelist character is going to be much more competent than I am–what else is wish-fulfillment for?
I’m currently under contract for a sequel to my kids’ Korean mythology space opera, Dragon Pearl, so I’m excited to be working on that after the short story’s done. I love space opera so it’s going to be fun returning to that genre. That’s due in October. And after that, who knows?
That’s quite a program! And you’re the third SFF author I’ve met who also fences… What’s your favourite genre to read?
I have two right now–nonfiction and tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs). The world is full of weird and fascinating facts; my shelves have books on linguistics, military history, music theory, and other delights. As for the RPGs, I’m a gamer with an interest in game design, so I love looking both at older settings like TSR’s Planescape (a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting) as well as indie RPGs like Monsterhearts 2 or Tiny Frontiers.
Are you planning to write any graphic novels?
I’d love to give it a go; I’ve experimented with one- and three-panel gag strips in the past. My current project, sort of in the nature of a warm-up, is a 22-page comic adaptation of my short story “The Battle of Candle Arc,” originally published in Clarkesworld Magazine (http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/lee_10_12/). I have a script, thumbnails, and color test, so the next step will be to do the pencils. Trying to make a story work in a visual format is extremely interesting. I’m personally looking forward to drawing exploding starships because, please, don’t we all?
What would be a dream come true for you?
This is a very long shot, but I would be thrilled if someone made an animated TV adaptation of Ninefox Gambitor even all of Machineries of Empire. I suspect that doing it as live-action would be cost-prohibitive because of all the “magical” special effects and space battles, but maybe animation would ameliorate that? It’s nice to dream, anyway!
A wonderful dream – I’d love to see that! Thank you so much for the chat. You’re an inspiration.