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Roberta Trahan, Author of THE KEYS TO THE REALMS, on Novel Research, Writing Strong Women and The Value of Community

Roberta Trahan is the bestselling author of THE DREAM STEWARDS epic fantasy series and the SciFi novella AFTERSHOCK. Her lifelong love of speculative fiction began at an early age, when a certain star-trekking television series inspired an alien-encounter essay that both shocked and horrified her third-grade teacher.

First published nationally as a teenager, Roberta went on to earn a degree in journalism and advertising at the University of Oregon and then worked in various sales, publicity, and marketing positions before eventually turning to creative writing as a career.

Roberta credits the work of classical masters like J.R.R. Tolkien, Marion Zimmer-Bradley and Mary Stewart with igniting her love of fantasy, folklore and history. But it is her own Celtic heritage that she claims as her muse. She blames a rogue alien genetic marker for her chronic addiction to caffeinated substances and her compulsion to invent imaginary worlds. She is also enamored with hummingbirds, and easily distracted by small, shiny objects.

A Pacific Northwest native, Roberta currently resides with her family in the Seattle area and is actively involved with her local writing community as an instructor and speaker.

Sarah Chorn: When you aren’t writing, what are you typically doing?

Roberta Trahan: When I’m not writing, I’m typically reading. I have TBR piles in every room of my house, taunting me. Recently though, I started cooking for fun. I discovered a delivery service that drops off a box with all the ingredients for three recipes to my house every week. I’m not a particularly good cook when left to my own devices, but I *can* follow directions fairly well. So this is kind of like taking private cooking lessons in my kitchen, and the results are yummy.

SC: You have a background in journalism and advertisement, how has that influenced your writing career?

RT: I think my years as a copywriter and marketing consultant has made it little easier to navigate my writing career. More than anything, it has allowed me to side-step some of the frustrations many writers experience with the non-creative parts of making a living as a writer – how the publishing business and the book market work, what to expect, what not to expect, and how to maintain professionalism. It also gave me something to barter with when I was first starting out. I was able to trade my marketing services for editorial help, copyediting, career advice and such. I am very lucky that my past career life intersects with my current one in so many ways.

SC: Your bio says that you are very involved in your local writing community. I wonder what sort of things you’ve learned by being involved with a writing community that would have been harder to learn alone.

RT: Honestly, I can’t say enough about the value of community. Writers do write alone, but they don’t get published alone. Spending time with others who share your struggles and your dreams goes a long way towards staving off the dark nights of the creative soul. Being involved in the writing community has put me in touch with people, information and opportunity I don’t think I could have found on my own. The writing is business all about relationships – the ones that get you where you want to go, and the ones that keep you sane along the way.

SC: The Keys to the Realms is the second book in your Dream Stewards series. What are some of the things that you learned from writing and publishing the first book in the series? How is writing the second book easier and harder than the first?

RT: The most important thing I learned from writing the first book was that I had a lot to learn about writing novels. The second most important thing I learned the first time around was to trust my instincts and when to hold the line. Once a book is picked up by a publisher, a lot of people get involved in refining the work. When you’re first starting out it’s really tough to know when the input of others is helping or hurting the work. One of the biggest challenges with the first book was deciding which genre it should lean toward – epic fantasy, or historical fantasy. The decision was made to market it more as historical fantasy, which didn’t pay off the way the publisher expected. If I had it to do over again, knowing what I know now, I’d so some things differently. That said, I wrote the best book I could at the time and I’m still really proud of it.

In many ways writing the second books in the series was easier – the world and many of the key characters were already developed, as well as the core story. It was also an opportunity to re-position the series and ground it more firmly. But because my skills and voice had evolved (there was a 5+ year gap between drafting of the first book and the second), I realized I was at risk of changing the whole tone of the series without really meaning to. Fortunately, I had the indomitable Betsy Mitchell as my editorial guide throughout the process of writing The Keys to the Realms.

SC: I can imagine that writing historical fantasy requires a ton of research. Do you have a method for your research, how to keep all of your information straight and all that? Any tricks and tips you’d like to share with readers?

RT: My research method is essentially two-fold – the ravenous consumption of all the information I can find on my chosen subject, and then find an expert in the field to help me digest it. I also vet my sources very carefully to make sure they are not only credentialed but also have the respect of their peers. I also recommend including cultural references in your research too. Folklore will tell you a lot more about a particular civilization or society than the official documents and politics will. Every writer needs an organizational system with categories that makes sense to them, so that they can easily find your way back to the piece of information you need (using the favorites bar on your browser to bookmark things gets out of hand really quickly) – I add a research file to each specific book project file on my computer and sort the information I want to use into it. And of course, back it up – I use cloud storage AND a thumb drive.

SC: One thing that sticks out to me with your books is that you seem to favor very strong female characters, which is quite empowering. History is full of strong women, and I wonder if you have any strong women that you admire in history – any that you’ve researched for your novels and used as inspiration?

RT: Way back in the 80s, when I a twenty-something single chick, one of my gal pals and I were discussing how hard it was to be career women, how hard it was to overcome the cultural and social stereotypes regarding working women and family, and how we felt forced to sacrifice our professional goals in order to achieve our personal ones. In a vulnerable moment, my friend admitted to me that she had a recurring dream in which she was a superhero, with superpowers. She believed this was a subconscious metaphor for the power she was lacking in her real life. I knew exactly what she meant – it was a pivotal moment in my understanding of myself. I think that conversation has been taking place since the beginning of time and is still relevant today. And that is the real reason I write about strong women overcoming insurmountable obstacles in my books.

As far as feminist icons, you’re right – history is full of them. When researching Celtic mythology and history for the Dream Stewards books, I spent a lot of time studying the warrior queen Boudicca, the diplomatic queen Cartimandua, and also the British Empress Elen Luyddog. These women were Roman era rulers who achieved success in different ways, and their respective approaches partly inspired the heroines in the Dream Stewards books.

SC: The Keys to the Realms, as well as The Well of Tears blends history and mythology seamlessly. However, I wonder if it was difficult for you to merge history, myth, and fantasy and keep it all balanced so well. Did you ever struggle with that, and if so, how did you overcome those struggles? Did you have a hard time working with any specific parts of the myth or the historical time period you’re working with in these novels? How did you deal with issues you faced in that regard?

RT: Thank you for saying that part about blending the history and mythology seamlessly! I worked really hard on that, although I think I succeeded better with The Keys to the Realms than with The Well of Tears.

The first book received a lot of criticism for straddling the line between fantasy and history too much, and not landing squarely enough one side or the other. Lovers of historical fiction/fantasy were disappointed in the lack of “hard” history –and some epic fantasy readers didn’t respond well to the use of such a familiar and well-worn “real” world back drop.

What I was aiming for was an epic fantasy with an original magic system that was grounded in an ancient belief system, set in a historical context. I wanted to pay homage to the known history, culture, and indigenous beliefs of Cornwall and Wales – and yet create a completely fantastical society and series of events. I tried to accomplish this by using as much cultural and mythological authenticity as I could in the magic system. Then I hung the whole thing on the shoulders of a king who actually did exist and who actually had made significant accomplishments during his life. The details of his exploits and the political maneuverings during his reign are scant. This all left me a lot of wiggle room, which was both incredibly liberating and totally terrifying. My intent was always to write true fantasy, but I just couldn’t let go of my own fascination with the history. The result, especially with The Well of Tears, was a much more hybridized series than I had originally set out to create.

SC: Your characters in The Keys to the Realms face a lot, and they have to overcome a lot. There is plenty of backbiting, betrayals, and underhanded moves to keep everyone busy. Bad things happen to good people, and much of the book is spent dealing with those bad things. However, you manage to develop your characters so incredibly well and realistically in the face of these challenges. Are there any specific characters that you sympathize with more than others, or situations that hit home a bit harder than others?

RT: I explored a lot of tough personal issues in The Keys to the Realms – especially betrayal, and loss. Every character in the book is committed to a world-ending crusade, and they have all made gigantic individual sacrifices in order to see it through. I think this is inspired by my own feelings about the responsibility we all have to the greater good, and I just might be preaching that a bit in this series. Also, several main characters have to learn to question authority, and come to grips with the reality that power and title don’t automatically make someone worthy of your respect. I think that whole “blind trust” thing is a particular theme I return to again and again in my writing – partly because it’s something I had to learn the hard way.

SC: How many books are you expecting to write in this series?

RT: The Dream Stewards was originally planned as a trilogy. I’m working on the third book now, but I also have outlines for three other novels set in the same world that follow the adventures of some of the secondary characters.

SC: What can we be looking forward to from you in the near future?

RT: Well, I’m currently working on several projects. In addition to the next Dream Stewards novel, I am also deep into a contemporary epic fantasy, a horror novella, and a novel-length sequel to Aftershock (my post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventure novella). Now I’ve just got to find the focus and discipline to get them all finished!

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