Bill: Shawna, please tell us how and why you became a writer and how your creative process works.
Shawna: I became a writer because I couldn’t imagine not being a writer. As soon as I realized that someone wrote the stories in my Little Golden picture books, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. One of my earliest memories before I could even block-print my name was insisting that my mother write down a story I was telling her.
As far as process, I started out as a pantser, as I think a lot of us do. I had some idea of story arcs and character arcs and how to put a story together. I knew the character I wanted to write about and generally how the book or story would end, and off I went. But repeatedly writing yourself into corners isn’t fun.
Then I took a seminar with the amazing teacher, Eric M Witchy. Eric insisted he didn’t make me write an outline. (He kinda did.) But in the process of writing the outline, I realized that if I had pantsed that novel, I would’ve ended up in a world of hurt when I reached the last chapter. I would’ve had to do a substantial rewrite of the entire book to weave in a character that made the resolution possible. I took to outlining with the fervor of a convert.
I tend to use the hero’s journey as outlined in Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey as the outline to my outline, if you will. I feel the universal archetypes and story patterns slip past the conscious mind to speak to the soul of the reader.
For a while, I had a complex system of index cards, color-coded for POV and labeled with the part of the journey that each scene represented. I’m now 10 novels in and I’ve internalized the structure of story and character enough that I no longer need quite such a formal process. But if I find myself bogging down in a chapter, I’ll outline the section to get a better idea of what needs to happen and in what order to make the novel work.
A lot of writers, especially beginning writers, think that outlines are dull and that outlining takes the joy of discovery out of the creative process. For me, it’s just the opposite. It’s like stepping back from the painting to see the whole picture more clearly. When I outline, I can make connections between characters, events, back-story, etc. that I didn’t see before. I can then strengthen those connections for a deeper and more powerful story. Maybe because I’m a story geek, I find the whole thing very exciting.
Bill: I’m a big fan of “walking the streets and alleyways of Alternative Portland” in your Ravensblood series. Can you tell us about the books and what gave you the inspiration for them?
Shawna: Ravensblood is a dark urban fantasy with a strong redemption arc. My protagonist is a powerful dark mage seeking redemption by becoming essentially a double agent for the Guardians (The division of the police to handle magic crimes in my alternate universe). He is spying on his master William, whose ambition to rule threatens the Three Communities, perhaps even the world. To keep his cover, he has to commit acts that threaten to pull him even further down into darkness.
In later books Raven, having won his pardon, has to learn to accept his dark past, redefining himself and reintegrating into a society that isn’t always ready to accept a reformed dark mage into its midst, all while helping the Guardians with new (and old) threats.
I lived in Portland for a little over a decade and still live just under an hour away. I love the Pacific Northwest, and so wanted to use it as a background. Some of the places mentioned exist in the real world, some are purely fictional. Some are a little of both—for example, in Ravensblood, OMSI has an extra ‘M’. (It’s the Oregon Museum of Magic, Science, and Industry.) The bullet-nosed Stude that makes a cameo in the first book of the series actually was parked for years in a SE Portland neighborhood very similar to the one in which that particular ambush took place. I particularly like putting in those quirky little spots that make Portland so…Portland.
My late editor said that various McMenamins pubs show up so much that the company should give me free beer for life (I prefer hard cider, if anyone has a connection…)
I think it makes it fun for readers. I’ve been putting little notes in the front or back matter about some of the places of interest that are real-world so readers can do their own exploring.
Bill: When I started reading your Werewolves and Gaslight series, I thought “Sherlock Holmes and werewolves—cool!” But then the lightbulb went on, and I realized there was a deeper meaning there. Can you tell us about that?
Shawna: For me, it’s not enough to write a gripping whodunit without a rich, vivid backdrop to help it come to life. And while it’s lovely to read about (and to write about) splendid balls and fine dresses, and all of the beautiful things the Victorian era had to offer, it’s dishonest to do that without facing the dark underbelly of that time. There were a lot of people living in abject poverty in conditions you can barely imagine, and this is a dichotomy we are starting to see more and more in our own times, with an economy that seems designed to channel resources ever upward, so that more and more of the wealth is in the hands of fewer and fewer people.
Among other things, what drew me to writing steampunk were the parallels between the Victorian times and our own. The stereotype of Victorian times as being very frozen and set in their very strict morals and social code overlooks that it was actually a time of great flux.
Women, at least those of means, were able to accomplish a lot more than they ever had before. They were able to travel to Egypt and ride camels to pyramids. Women were even able to get higher education at Oxford. (Of course, they couldn’t actually earn a degree because, you know, let’s not go crazy.) They were starting to do things that were making the male establishment pretty uneasy. The whole image of woman as domestic goddess, unable to comprehend things like finance and politics and too delicate to be troubled by anything going on in the outside world, fit only to make the home a lovely sanctuary for their hard-working men, that was a pushback against the advances women were making towards being something other than helpmeet to men.
Social mobility was becoming a possibility. Not a probability, mind you, but the very notion that one could rise above the station one was born to was pretty revolutionary. It challenged the notion that one’s place in the world was decreed by God.
In Victorian times, people of the working class could get an education. Benevolent religious organizations were holding free schools, where even an absolutely dirt-poor beggar kid could learn to read and write. There was a lot of concern among the upper classes that working people would start “getting above themselves.” They were feeling threatened and pushed back by trying to make certain the rigid social lines that protected their privilege were kept in place.
We see the same sort of dynamic in our own times. There have been great strides toward justice and equality. We had a black President. We have a marriage equality act. These are all things I never thought I would see in my lifetime, and I am very, very glad to have been wrong. And now we are facing rapidly escalating push-back by people who are vested in preserving the former status-quo.
The London of my steampunk world faces the social inequalities of the real Victorian London, plus it has werewolves, the very bottom rung of the social ladder. Sometimes it’s easier to talk about hot-button issues by moving the discussion into another time and (slightly fantastical) place.
Bill: You’ve written several other books besides these series. Would you care to highlight some of them?
Shawna: I’ve published three stand-alone novels with a more traditional fantasy feel. The most recent of my stand-alones, Brother to the Wolf, is sort of a passion-project. I didn’t want to do another version of Robin Hood. There’s plenty of those out there already, some good, some great, some that…er, don’t add a lot of merit to the subgenre. But since I love the Robin Hood legend, and especially the older, more pagan versions of the tale, I created an alternate world with similar history and conflicts and wrote an original tale with similar themes.
Where Light Meets Shadow is a male/male fantasy romance with elves, healers, and bardic magic. I definitely wanted a plot that encompassed more than just a romance. There are two races of elves in an uneasy détente following a bloody war in which neither side was entirely right or wrong. The two lovers will either help heal the divide between their two peoples, or be torn apart in a second war. Because the main protagonist is a harper, I also got to geek out over Celtic music and ask my Irish musician friends a ton of questions.
The Stolen Luck was my debut novel, another male/male fantasy romance. I actually didn’t set out to write it as a romance. I was interested in exploring what would make a good man go against his own beliefs and values, and I wanted to make that reason compelling enough that the reader could feel like, in the same set of circumstances, they might make that same choice. The romance came up as I followed that age-old advice to writers: put your protagonist in a tough situation, and then make it harder.
Bill: Shawna, thank you so much for your time. I think I can speak for all of your fans in wishing you every success with your latest project.
Would you like to learn more about Shawna and her books? Please visit her at https://www.shawna-reppert.com/. Sign up for her newsletter and get a free gift!
Also check out the Northwest Independent Writers Association at https://www.niwawriters.com/.