SFFWRTCHT: A Chat with Author Courtney Schafer

Born in Georgia, raised in Virginia, Courtney Schafer dreamed of adventures in the jagged mountains and sweeping deserts of fantasy novels. She escaped the east via Caltech, obtaining a B.S. in Electrical Engineering, while learning to rock climb, backpack, ski, scuba dive, and stack her massive book collection so it wouldn’t crush anyone in an earthquake. Now in the climber’s paradise of Boulder, Colorado, she got her masters in EE at CU Boulder between adventures. She married an Australian scientist, went to work for an aerospace company and took up figure skating, because life was too easy. A voracious reader, she always wished fantasy novels were written faster, until she started writing her own to satisfy the craving . Her first novel, The Whitefire Crossing, released in 2011 from Night Shade Books and her second, The Tainted City, released last Fall. She can be found on Twitter as @cischafer, via her website or on her blog.


SFFWRTCHT: First things first, where’d your interest in science fiction and fantasy come from?

Courtney I. Schafer: I loved science fiction and fantasy from birth, I think! Narnia, Neverland, Alice in Wonderland, Jungle Book, L’Engle, Yolen, Diana Wynne Jones—I jumped right in, and my love of the genre has only grown with age.

SFFWRTCHT: Who are some of your favorite authors and books that inspire you?

CIS: Dorothy Dunnett, C.J. Cherryh, Patricia McKillip, Carol Berg, Emma Bull, Tad Williams, Mark Helprin, Elizabeth Bear, David Brin…but I could go on about favorite books and authors for hours, I’ve read and loved so many.

SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to become a storyteller and how did you get your start?

CIS: I read fast, and new books don’t come out fast enough. At last I decided to stop whining and start writing my own stories, but I was afflicted by the perfectionism curse. Never made it past a couple pages until friends from work convinced me to do NaNoWriMo in 2007. I wrote 65,000 words of Whitefire’s first draft (about half the story) and had so much fun I never looked back.

SFFWRTCHT: How did you get started learning your craft? Study in school? Learn as you go? Workshop? Bribe a genie?

CIS: I sold my soul. No, I’m kidding. I read a lot (a book a day for many years) and I thought about what worked in those novels. That gave me a leg up. But in the end, it’s practice that makes perfect. That, and a critique group with eagle eyes for flaws.

SFFWRTCHT: To your mind, what are the core elements of a good epic fantasy?

CIS: Give me compelling characters, an interesting and different world, and plenty of tension.

SFFWRTCHT: Where’d you get the idea for the Shattered Sigil series?

CIS: I got the idea for the series by thinking about the type of fantasy book I wanted to read, plus the things I love to do (climbing, etc.)

SFFWRTCHT: Which came first–plot or characters? Theme? World?

CIS: Landscape first – I knew I wanted a setting reminiscent of eastern Sierra Nevada/Owens Valley, since I love hiking there. Characters were second – Kiran first, then Dev. From Kiran’s initial situation, the plot evolved.

SFFWRTCHT: What were your inspirations in creating the city of Ninavel?

CIS: I was kinda thinking of wild, anything-goes frontier towns and the early days of Las Vegas, but with more diversity and magic. If you mean literary inspirations…no specifics jump to mind but likely lots of authors influenced me.

SFFWRTCHT: Tell us about magic in your world. You’ve got a city where magic runs rampant and another in which it’s heavily controlled by the ruler.

CIS: Many people who read Whitefire assume that the city of Ninavel is ruled by mages, but Sechaveh (the lord of Ninavel) isn’t a mage. Just very, very clever and good at using alliances. But yes, I wanted to explore a nice big culture clash over magic, exploring the danger vs. the opportunity it affords. So one society embraces magic, no matter the method or cost, the other tries to harshly limit it. And of course, the darker the method of magic, the more powerful the spells that can be cast.

SFFWRTCHT: The series, at least in Whitefire Crossing, centers around the thief Dev who takes a job smuggling a boy into a neighbor city past wards. But then he discovers the boy is a blood mage and hunted by fellow mages and trouble ensues. Dev, Kiran, Ruslan, Cara, Simon, Pello. An interesting cast. Nathahlen are ordinary folk & then various mages, right?

CIS: Yup. Mage talent is rare, most Ninavel residents are still ordinary. Also, it felt more realistic to me to have more than one way to do magic.

SFFWRTCHT: How many kinds of magic are there in the Ninavel metropolitan area?

CIS: Great question! I never wrote ‘em all down. Probably hundreds. Only limited by mages’ creativity. I wanted to make it comparable to creating art, or stories, or solving algorithm problems; in the real world, there are often lots of ways to achieve the same result.

SFFWRTCHT: How long does a typical novel take you to write?

CIS: So far my first drafts have taken me four to five months, revisions at least another six months, so a year total to finish a book. I hold out hope that when my son’s older the writing may happen faster, but maybe that’s wishful thinking!

SFFWRTCHT: Are you an outliner, and if so how detailed?

CIS: I like to know the start, the end, and a couple “signposts” along the way, then discover the path to get there as I write.

SFFWRTCHT: One POV character’s perspective is told from first person and the other from third. An interesting choice. Why?

CIS: I prefer highly opinionated, strongly active characters for first person, whereas for introspective angsty characters, I like the greater emotional distance of third person, to keep the story from bogging down. Plus, it’s easier to keep secrets from the reader in third person, which I needed for Kiran’s character.

SFFWRTCHT: Would you keep the first person/third person split you have in the Shattered Sigilnovels in future works?

CIS: Not unless I thought the story required it. More likely next book will be all in first or all in third. Not sure which.

SFFWRTCHT: Your love of climbing comes out in the book. It plays a major role as do snowy mountains. Life as research perhaps?

CIS: Life as research? You bet. I love the mountains, and I wanted to try and share that love with people who might never otherwise experience it.

SFFWRTCHT: As opposed to your already existing knowledge, how much research did you need to do to design the Whitefires?

CIS: I’d done so many backpacking trips in the Sierras and read so many books already on geology, history, etc. that I just worked off that knowledge. But Cadillac West was one non-fiction book that really captured my imagination about Owens Valley region.

SFFWRTCHT: Does everything you write (e.g. magic) need to pass the engineer test? Must it always
make sense?

CIS: Heh. I wish I could write numinous magic like Patricia McKillip, but I fear my engineer’s brain isn’t wired that way.

SFFWRTCHT: Are the stories chronological? Does Tainted City continue where Crossing left off?

CIS: Tainted City picks up about two months after the end of Whitefire Crossing, and covers about another month or so of chronological time.

SFFWRTCHT: Give us a quick plot summary of Tainted City, please.

CIS: Dev and Kiran return to Ninavel in hopes of earning freedom, only to find the city more treacherous than their worst fears.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like–specific block? Write ’til you reach word count? Grab it when you can?

CIS: As mom to a three-year-old (and I also work part time as engineer), I grab writing time when I can. Late at night, lunch hour, etc. It’s actually been toughest on my husband, who rightfully points out I never said anything about taking on a time-consuming new job when we decided to have a kid! But he’s a trooper.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any writing rituals, tools? Scrivener? Word? Something else? Do you write to music or does silence reign?

CIS: Pandora is my friend. I also make playlists of songs that help me quickly get into the story again. I’m a big fan of gothic/electronic/industrial music. My Tainted City playlist has Icon of Coil, Front 242, Seabound, etc. Other than that, Word is it.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you think the tone of the songs is reflected in what you write? Cadence, etc?

CIS: I pick the songs because they remind me of characters or scenes or overall feel of book, so maybe?

SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

CIS: Best writing advice: Just Do It. Get the story down and worry about revising later. Worst: don’t write a sequel to a book you haven’t sold. That paralyzed me for a bit while Whitefire Crossing was on submission to editors. I wanted so badly to write Tainted City, but I felt guilty when I worked on it, thinking I should be doing a new unrelated book. Eventually I said the hell with it: I’m writing Tainted City,and I don’t care if nobody ever reads it. I should’ve done that earlier; I should’ve been thinking, if TWC sells I’ll need as much head start as possible on sequel, given my limited writing time! And I’m a firm believer in Write What You Love. Writing a book is hard. Why do it if it’s not the story your heart wants to tell?

SFFWRTCHT: Have you done much with short story writing? Anything in the Sigil universe?

CIS: I’m embarassed to admit I’ve never yet written a short story. (The shame!) I do have idea for one in the Sigil universe. Set in Dev’s Tainted days (but with a different character as the protagonist). Hoping to write it soon, see how it goes.

SFFWRTCHT: You mentioned Cadillac West as an influence. Have other non-genre authors inspired your writing?

CIS: Aside from Dunnett (who I’ve talked about ad nauseum)…Adam Hall and Dorothy Sayers come to mind.

SFFWRTCHT: if you could no longer write fantasy (because someone cast a spell on you), what would you write, and why?

CIS: Science fiction. Duh. Aside from SFF…adventure thriller. As for why – because those are genres I like to read. A spy thriller would be tricky to get past the job folks, though.

SFFWRTCHT: I’m still boggled at how quickly you read. Do you find that this “skill” (for lack of better word) hinders your writing/editing?

CIS: Line editing, yes. I must read a manuscript out loud to really catch typos. I swoop right past ‘em otherwise. Reading fast doesn’t hinder writing, but I sure wish I could write as fast as I read.

SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?

CIS: Right now I’m all about book three of the Shattered Sigil series, The Labyrinth of Flame. After that…we’ll see! I’m a “one book at a time” sort of girl. I’ve had some ideas for possible new series, but they’re all in a pretty vague state at the moment.

6 thoughts on “SFFWRTCHT: A Chat with Author Courtney Schafer”

  1. I love how the internet can sometimes work in strange patterns. A week ago I had never heard of Dorothy Dunnett and now this mention is at least the third or fourth one, from wildly different sources in terms of genre sensibilities of the various blogs, in just the last couple of days.

    I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t gotten to Whitefire Crossing yet, ashamed because what initially excited me about the book was the Big Idea post on Scalzi’s site where you also mentioned your love of the mountains and climbing. The fact that you were working that element in the book was what excited me and still does. More so over the last year as I’ve taken up trail running and taken my appreciation for the outdoors to the level of actually spending time in the outdoors fueling that appreciation. When I see shows/docs of people running/climbing in the mountains it gets my heart pumping.

    I had never known people could read so prolifically until the evolution of book blogs. I still cannot fathom how it is done, but I admire anyone who can do that and also take care of all the other aspects of life, so well done you and everyone else who manages to do so!

    Great interview Bryan (and welcome to SF Signal!!!) and Courtney. It has gone a long way towards building even more excitement about the series. And anyone who enjoys Patricia A. McKillip is a rock star in my opinion. :)

      1. I need to check, I’m thinking I may have it downloaded on my laptop at home waiting to be uploaded to my Kindle. One of those promotional things that Night Shade did. Hmmm….

    1. Thanks, Carl! Great to see a fellow Patricia McKillip fan – and hooray for another outdoor adventurer! I don’t do any trail running (I do enough pounding of my knees and ankles during figure skating practice and on mogul slopes), but I have plenty of friends who love it.

      Oh, and Dorothy Dunnett is AMAZING – if you haven’t read her novels, you absolutely must give them a try. The books are intellectually challenging but extremely rewarding. (My favorite quote about Dunnett is from one guy’s post on a Dunnett mailing list, talking about her Lymond Chronicles: “When I finally finished the books, I suddenly understood the urge to make disciples. Why weren’t my friends reading these books? My God! They didn’t know who Francis Crawford was! Who were these people?” It’s so, so true.)

      I hope you’ll give Whitefire Crossing a try – and that you’ll thoroughly enjoy it. ;)

      1. My brother gave me her book The Riddle-master of Hed when we were really young…he just picked it up randomly for me for a gift and a fantasy fan was born. A Patricia A. McKillip release is like an EVENT. Always makes me happy.

        I look forward to checking it out. Figure skating, eh? Makes my ankles feel fragile just thinking about that. :)

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