Corrina Lawson

This issue, we interview Corrina Lawson about her two new alternate history stories (which will be of particular interest to followers of the Heathen and Religio paths). In Freya’s Gift and Dinah of Seneca, the Roman Empire is still around and busy establishing colonies in the western hemisphere. Unfortunately, conflict between the native Mahicans, the long-resident Vikings, and the newly-arrived Romans is on the rise … and it is up to two strong women and the men they love to keep the peace ….

Eternal Haunted Summer: Have you always known that you are a writer, or has your path been rather roundabout?

Corrina Lawson: I’m one of those people who always knew she was a writer. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t making up stories.

I remember vividly the first time I sat down and wrote what I thought was a great piece of fiction. I was in ninth grade and I had an opening chapter of a story that combined elements of the elves from Lord of the Rings and the idea of domed cities where humans were kept in slavery from John Christopher’s Tripod series.

The next story I wrote featured a teenage Jim Gordon avenging the death of a friend.

I’m sure if there had been an internet when I was growing up, I would have been all over anything to do with fan fiction. 🙂

As I started applying to colleges, however, I worried about being able to support myself as a fiction writer, so I majored in journalism.  For the first seven years after college, worked as a daily and weekly newspaper reporter. After my twins were born, I started writing fiction again to stay sane and realized how much I loved it. I’ve actively been writing stories since then.

EHS: Which romance titles first pulled you into that genre? Any particular favorites that you recommend?

CL: I fell backwards into reading romance. I read Victoria Holt/Jean Plaidy growing up, but my favorite books were either in science fiction and fantasy or mysteries. About nine years ago, I was on the old Laurel K. Hamilton yahoo list and someone recommended J.D. Robb’s In Death series. I vaguely knew that J.D. Robb was romance writer Nora Roberts, but I figured I’d give the series a shot.

loved Naked in Death.

So after that, I thought, hmm … I might be missing some good books by skipping the romance genre.  I’m still picky about which books or writers I like, but that’s true of all genres for me. I have so little time to read that I want whatever I do read to be really, really good.

For people looking to begin reading romance, I’d recommend anything by Jennifer Crusie or Pat Gaffney. Both of them are contemporary writers, however, so if you want more SF/F, you need Linnea Sinclair or Karen Harbaugh. Christine Merrill, a good friend of mine, writes wonderful Regency romances for Harlequin Historicals. Her premises range from a woman trying to escape an abusive father who offers herself to her neighbor across the street as his mistress, a spinster and book lover who goes looking for an easy-going husband who can counter her brother’s mismanagement of her fortune, and a thief and spy who gets in over his head with a widow.

And, of course, Nora Roberts’ In Death series. For her regular romances, I’d start with Montana Sky.

EHS: If you could correct one misconception about the romance genre, what would it be?

CL: Well, “trashy romance novel” tends to all flow together as one word to the general public. I’d love to get the “trashy” out of there, because I think the general perception is that romance novels are not well-written.

That’s just flat out not true.

I used to be one of those snobs, sniffing especially at the Harlequin novels, but what happened when I read even those is I found excellent characters, great plots and stories that made me happy.

It’s true there’s awful writing in the romance genre. Sturgeon’s Law is that 90 percent of everything is crap and romance is no less guilty of it than the other genres. And yes, there’s the Harlequin and Silhouette romances with names like “The Billionaire’s Secret Princess.” But while those books may not be to everyone’s taste, it doesn’t mean they’re badly written, any more than someone looking for a good superhero smash-up story is reading trash. It’s not the subject matter that makes a book inherently lousy — it’s bad writing.

Romance gets a bad shake for two reasons.

The first is that it features, generally, a happy ending. Happy has far less respect in art than tragedy, with the assumption that one can’t portray what life is really like unless really awful stuff happens. But life is also very full of happy. I’ve been married for over twenty years. Happy endings are possible for many romantic couples and they’re no less valid than a tragic ending.

“Realistic” is not the same thing as “grim and gritty.”

The proof is not in how a book ends, but how well a book is written.

The other reason romance gets a bad shake is that it’s viewed as “for girls.”

Girls! Writing about feelings and stuff! There can’t possibly be any merit at all in that.

I won’t get into a feminist rant about how women’s efforts in a patriarchal society tend to be denigrated as lesser simply for having been produced by women, but there’s definitely that element in the lack of societal respect for romance.

Unless, of course, a man writes romance well. Then it’s somehow more important.

EHS: Both Freya’s Gift and Dinah of Seneca cross genres, combining alternative history, romance and historical fiction. How did you come up with that combination? And are they set in the same fictional universe?

CL: They’re in the same fictional universe, yes.

How did I come up with blending all the genres?

As you can see from my first efforts at writing in the above answers, I apparently blend genres naturally. But Dinah’s universe also grew from a little bit of anger.

Basically, I was pissed off at publishing. More specifically, I was frustrated at getting so many rejections. 🙂

I’d written a romantic mystery that was in the tradition of classic mystery-solving couples like Nick and Nora Charles or Laura Holt and Remington Steele and I couldn’t sell it. My rejections said that such a strong blend of mystery in a romance just wouldn’t sell. I know now that part of the problem was that I had to become a better writer. My work was not of sufficient quality as yet to sell.

But, at the time, being told that mixed genre didn’t sell annoyed the hell out of me. 🙂

So I started writing a book just for me. I figured if I couldn’t please publishers, I could please myself  This, by the way, is probably what makes me a writer. Most people, when given an hour of free time, don’t run to their computer to make up stories.

I didn’t originally have the idea to make Dinah’s story alternate history. I was going to make it a medieval fantasy. I based the original three cultures in the book on Roman, Viking and Native American cultures because I thought that was an interesting contrast. The Romans were very patriarchal. The Native Americans, particularly in the Northeastern United States, were matriarchal. The Vikings were somewhere in between. After I wrote a few chapters, I thought: “Oh, heck, let’s use the actual cultures, not fantasy equivalents.”

The book also started with a character, Dinah. I’d just read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cordelia’s Honor and I was struck by the fact that Cordelia was both a seriously dangerous and competent woman and one who also wanted to be a mother and have a family. I thought that was an interesting departure from the usual “kick-ass” heroine who had trouble with relationships and didn’t want to bond to anyone. And the fantasy world kinda built itself around Dinah.

EHS: So, just how did both the Vikings and the Romans end up in North America? And how do the Native Americans feel about that?

CL: The Vikings were already here in our reality. There was a small settlement in coastal Canada about AD 900, which is when my stories take place. I just nudged them a little bit further south, into the New Jersey/New York area. 🙂

The Romans are another story. I gave their empire five hundred years more than they got in our reality. 🙂

Being a fan of I, Claudius, I created the alternate timeline by allowing Claudius to have an extra two decades as emperor, building on what Augustus Caeser put in place. Claudius was succeeded by his son Britannicus who became one of the greatest emperors ever. And so my universe avoided Nero and much of what came after.

I haven’t worked out all the details quite yet. Five hundred years of history is a lot to fill in and I’d rather leave it open a bit for future stories. What I do know is that the Romans in my world are at the end of their empire, as they were in AD 500 when things started to crumble in our world. So the Romans in North America are equivalent to the outposts in Britain in our reality. They’re at the very fringes of the empire, outnumbered and surrounded by enemies.

The Native Americans were okay with the Vikings for a while since the Vikings in my story were a small number and they intermarried among the natives. The Mahicans, however, are tired of Rome’s expanding communities in Manhattan and in Seneca, which is modern-day Albany. As in King Philip’s War — where the tribes united and rose up against English settlers — the Mahicans have united to counter the Romans.

Of course, the Romans have black powder, which the Mahicans didn’t count on, and highly trained and well-led soldiers.

EHS: Sif and Dinah are both very strong women. Are they modeled after particular historical figures? And how important is it for you that the women in your stories be strong, as opposed to “Perils of Pauline” types?

CL: Neither of them are modeled after any particular historical figures though, someday, I really want to work Eleanor of Aquitaine into a story.

Dinah’s background as a spy and slave made her long for a home; that was there from the very first time I sat down to write about her. It made her very easy to write.

Sif …. I’ve no idea where Sif came from. When I wrote Sif in Dinah’s book (I wrote the novel before the short story), Sif basically owned every scene in which she appeared. She’s just tough and strong and feels a tremendous responsibility to her people. We don’t get to see her vulunerability in Dinah’s book, but I was able to get how much Sif’s hurting on the page in her own story.

I’m not so much interested in writing “strong” women as I’m interested in writing complicated women who have their own story. (That’s the type of men I’m interested in writing, as well.) A three-dimensional character is a great start and then, since Dinah and Sif push their own stories, by definition they need to be strong as well. There are some other female characters interspersed throughout the stories and a few of them are weak, just as the men range from weak to strong and all the points in between.

I honestly can’t stand cardboard characters of any gender. The whole women in refrigerators syndrome bothers me as a feminist issue but, as a writer, it bothers me more as a cheap plot device, a shell of a person just there to be used to cause emotional angst. The old saying of “there are no small parts, only small actors” comes to mind. Every single character in a book, even if we don’t see much of them, has to feel like they’re there as part of his/her own story.

EHS: Considering the place of the Goddess Freya in Freya’s Gift, faith obviously plays an important role in that tale. What about in Dinah of Seneca?

CL: The strong faith in both books came about as a surprise to me, but now I can’t imagine either story without it.

At first, I intended to use the Viking faith in Freya’s Gift as more historical background. These people believed in their Gods as much as we believe in God or Allah or other deity today. It informs their life and their decisions. Once I started writing from their point of view, I could almost feel that faith.

When Dinah’s book starts, Gerhard feels as if Freya has some plan for him because of his participation in the fertility ritual that takes place in Freya’s Gift. When he first captures Dinah, who’s spying on his camp, he finds her knife. That’s where his faith comes in. The handle of Dinah’s knife holds a carving of a cougar, Freya’s symbol. Gerhard decides right away that this means Freya brought Dinah to him.

At that point, Dinah cares more about escaping (which she does) than the Norse Gods. As the story builds, she starts to believe that maybe a higher power is bringing her and Gerhard together as allies and lovers.

I think faith is also an eternal question. Why am I here? Why did these things happen to me? Is there a plan or am I out here alone flailing in the dark? Humanity has asked these questions in a different way over the millennia and continues to ask them today.

And the more I write, the more I realize how deeply interested I am in these questions.

EHS: What kind of research went into Freya’s Gift and Dinah of Seneca? Any particular texts or sites that you found especially useful?

CL: I have an Eyewitness book that focuses on Roman society. True, it’s a children’s book, but it has the most awesome diagrams and drawings. It helps immensely to see Roman uniforms and the layout of a Roman fort.

I’ve read a lot of books about Rome over the years, so I can’t point to any particular one beyond that. I, Claudius is fiction, but it raised a lot of questions in my mind about the actual history, so it sent me searching years ago for the real stories. It’s amazing to me that we have the Roman texts that are contemporary to the time period still. Though one has to remember that we’re only getting one or two perspectives. Suetonius, for instance, was the equivalent of Matt Drudge in the Roman world. He can be notoriously unreliable. 🙂

For the Vikings, I did a great deal of internet research and bookmarked a ton of articles. It was particularly difficult to find blueprints for a longboat. While we are used to the images of them, I needed more details, such as how many people they could hold. I also watched a ton of documentaries on the History Channel. I love that Channel! The “Barbarians” series was incredibly useful not only for the Vikings, but also for providing information on the later Roman Empire as it was taken down by the Goths.

The Mahicans were another story. We (white society) basically wiped them completely out. We destroyed their settlements and pushed them further west. Along the way, much of their oral history was lost. For instance, it took me a full day to get down to the actual names of the tribes. Iroquis and Algonquin are names given to them by the French, and Delaware by the English. They called themselves the People or The People of the Long House. Incidentally, James Fenimore Cooper’s Mohicans should really be “Mahicans.”

And since I was already dealing with Mahican society about 500 years before the first Europeans encountered them, my research problem worsened. I eventually got as close as I could. I have the Native Americans divided between the Lenape west of Manhattan and the Mahicans, to the north. And I relied heavily on my memory of the recreations of Lenape villages in Waterloo Village in New Jersey.

I eventually delved into King Philip’s War, too, to get a sense of how the tribes worked together. But 500 years is a long time, so I won’t claim historical accuracy. I got as close as I could and used what worked in the story.

EHS: Freya’s Gift is being released only in ebook format. As both an author and a reader, how do you feel about the shift towards ebooks?

Happy.

Confused.

Terrified.

Cautiously optimistic.

I like ebooks. I have a Sony eReader. But right now, they’re a very small segment of the market. I have published friends and I know ebooks sales make up less than five percent of their total sales.

I think Freya’s Gift will sell well because erotica is the biggest ebook market right now. But publishing overall is in a complete state of flux. Will print books survive? If ebooks take over, will they be pirated as much as songs? And if they are, how does an author get paid for their work?

Right now, traditional print publishing by a big New York city publisher is still the best way to make money as a writer. I can sell maybe several hundred copies of Dinah of Seneca the first year and my publisher will be happy. A sale to a NYC publisher will instantly provide national distribution of thousands of copies. There will be more exposure and much more chance for readers to pick up my book.

Being able to reach readers directly on the internet is awesome. But the flipside of that is so many writers who are vying for attention. The risk is being lost in the shuffle without the marketing push of a major publisher.

The new iPad (hate that name) may flip the market. My eReader is great, but it’s not as user-friendly as an iPod. It should be plug and go. Instead, I use a program called Calibre instead of Sony’s program to download books because it’s easier. That’s not a good thing, marketing-wise. The Kindle and the nook both offer wireless download, which helps. But I wonder if dedicated eReaders are going to go the way of cassette tapes as multi-function devices like netbooks and the iPad come down in price.

I have no problem with the format. I do worry about the long-term future of the publishing business due to excessive pirating. Every author I know, large and small, has had their books pirated and the attitude is that this is not the same as taking a physical copy.

If people are going to demand books for free, how do authors make money? I’m willing to concede this attitude might not change, but I would love to know what new methods I can develop to make money other than sell the story itself.

Because if many authors can’t make money writing, they’ll have to take other jobs, and they’ll produce fewer stories, and we’ll all be poorer for it.

EHS: Freya’s Gift is being published by Samhain Publishing , while Dinah of Seneca is coming out from The Wild Rose Press . Why did you go with those publishers, and would you recommend them to other authors?

CL: Ah, that’s a story.

The Wild Rose Press has a strict editorial rule against characters committing adultery. Dinah of Seneca skirted the edge of that, as there’s a fertility ritual in that story, but I worked it out with them. However, there’s just no way to have the story inFreya’s Gift without Sif sleeping with a man not her husband. So as much as my editor at Wild Rose liked the short story, it wasn’t suitable for that publisher.

So I submitted it to Samhain and Ellora’s Cave, the two biggest and most popular of the erotica epublishers. Samhain got back to me first and I’m thrilled the story found a home there.

I would recommend both publishers. Wild Rose Press has just been tremendous to work with. My editor, Sarah Hansen, is terrific and offered suggestions that really improved the story. They’re professional, but they’re also very nice, which is always good. And I love their selection — they feature historicals in time periods not usually covered, like the Revolutionary War or Civil War. They’re looking for stuff that is outside the box. I doubt Dinah could have found a home elsewhere, as it is such an odd mix of genres.

Samhain is great because it is so well known among readers who favor ebooks and they’ve been around longer, so they have a strong marketing presence. My editor, Jennifer Miller, was also excellent and helped me a great deal with my comma splice issues, among other things. 🙂

EHS: What other projects are you working on?

CL: Currently, I’m about 65,000 words into a sequel to Dinah of Seneca, called Sky of Seneca. This time, I pulled a heroine from the Lenape tribes, a young woman growing into leadership of her people. I had initially thought the hero of this story would be the son of my Roman commander, but I was wrong. It turned out to be Ceti, the garrison engineer, who appears in Dinah as young and gangly, but he’s grown into himself for this story.

If Sif is my Lady of the Lake, Ceti is certainly my Merlin. In this book, he’s busy building a glider so he can fly. It’s a little bit ancient steampunk.

Both their peoples are menaced when the Roman empire sends a fleet to demand obediance from its breakaway colony.

I think if I write another book in this universe, it will have to be set in the storyverse’s Roman empire. As soon as I can figure out exactly what that’s like. 🙂

I also am actively submitting a superhero romance, Phoenix Rising. I’ve high hopes for selling that. And one of these days, I want to write the third book in my romantic mysteries. It’s currently in rough draft form, but it’s a mess. But my first two books in that series, featuring a crime reporter and a security expert, are polished and also being submitted.

I have this idea for another historical erotica. There’s an ancient legend surrounding the death of the medieval knight William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, and his sons. Something about a witch’s curse. That would be fun to play with.

And one of these day, I really want to sit down and finally write a comic script, just to learn how it’s done.

EHS: Which conventions, fairs and workshops will you be attending in the coming year?

CL: Right now, I have two events scheduled: the New England Romance Writer’s annual conference from March 26-28 and the national Romance Writers of America conference in Nashville from July 28-31. Each conference has a literary signing open to the public. Dinah won’t be out until May, so I won’t be signing at the New England conference.

The Nashville signing to raise money for literary will be my first public signing. I’m pretty psyched about it.

I’d love to go to more conventions — I love meeting writers and readers — but my mom schedule rarely allows me to get away much. Instead, I tend to visit with people virutally. 🙂

Anyone interested in talking or anything else can find me on Twitter under CorrinaLawson, on Facebook under the same name, at my writing website, or my blog. I also hang out a lot at the You’ll All Be Sorry Forum on ComicBookResources.com, user name Corrina.

And I have a weekly comics column, Comic Spotlight On. It appears every Wednesday.

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