Today in the Writer's Corner we meet Allyn Ransom.
Amanda: Hi Allyn. Welcome to the Writer’s Corner, where we talk all things writing in our corner of the world!
Allyn: Thanks for inviting me!
Amanda: So tell us a little bit about yourself.
Allyn: At heart, I am a treasure hunter. I collect information and ideas and share them with others. I sometimes describe myself as “trivial” because I know so many unrelated bits of information. To give you just a small taste of what that means, I spent twenty years working on my family’s history.
In terms of basic autobiography, I was raised in Erie, Pennsylvania and always seemed to be the odd one in the bunch. After I earned my BA in English at Penn State University, I returned to Erie convinced that trying to be a writer would be a waste of time. I worked at the library for more than a decade. I took a job in the courthouse and lost it when the county executive wasn’t re-elected, and spent the next fifteen years working in retail. When my father’s health reached the point where he couldn’t care for himself, I quit and spent the last four years traveling from Erie to Florida and back with him. Caring for him gave me a chance to return to my dream of writing. Since he died last March, I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up, and “writer” seems to be the answer.
Amanda: Where are you in this big wide world?
Allyn: I’m still migrating between Erie and Zephyrhills, Florida twice a year.
Amanda: You’re releasing Earth Fire. Tell us anything and everything.
Allyn: Earth Fire is the first book in the Legacies of the Dragon series. It’s the story of a young mother who is called on by a soldier to solve the mystery of who killed the king. It’s also the story of two brothers, Medenva and Rysa, who fell in love with a mysterious woman named Donezan. She married Rysa, and gave their children the ability to use magic. The descendants of both brothers are bound by mutual hatred, need, envy, and fear. Zheann and the captain not only face the challenge of their own prejudices, but of far greater dangers is what Zheann suspects is true.
Amanda: What inspired you to start writing?
In college, I started out hoping to be an astronomer. That didn’t work out, so I ended up with a degree in writing, and a firm conviction that unless my name was the same as someone who already wrote best-selling books, no one would even look at what I wrote. I walked away from the dream for thirty years.
About five years ago, I reached the conclusion that my father was no longer able to care for himself enough to be on his own, so I quit my retail job and became his caregiver. That let me multitask. I could sit and write when he didn’t need me, and my dream of being a writer revived.
Amanda: What are you working on right now?
Allyn: I am days away from finishing the last galley proofing of Earth Fire. I’ve been told that it should be available for purchase by the end of the month. You’re not the first to know, but this interview is the first public announcement of that fact. Once I get the galley proofs sent back, I will be editing Soul Fire and working on the rough draft for Word Fire.
Amanda: Describe your writing space? What makes it uniquely you?
Allyn: For the first several years after I started writing again, I had three writing areas. The first was a laptop on my bed in my father’s motorhome. The second was a laptop on my bed up north, and the third was an 8*8 bedroom turned into an office with so much furniture there was really only room for one person to sit. Last spring, I moved some of the furniture from that room to my living room, and added some bookcases. My desk is where I can look out the picture window. In January, I moved into a new trailer in Florida. I pushed the sofa and lamp forward about four feet and put a desk someone gave me behind it next to the window. I bought a used file cabinet and a new bookcase to complete my southern office.
Amanda: But you’re not just a writer, you’re also an artist. How does your art practice help shape you as a writer?
Amanda: On a typical day, how much time do you spend writing?
Amanda: Can you tell us about your process before you jump in and start writing?
Allyn: The closest thing I have to a ritual is getting flavored water, coffee, or tea to drink. While I was taking care of my father, I didn’t have the opportunity to listen to music while writing much, but if I listen to music now, I prefer instrumental background music. It doesn’t have to be soft, but it can’t be very loud. If it’s more than white noise, I tend to be distracted.
Amanda: Have you ever based a character on someone you know? Did you ever tell them?
I have, but not a character from Earth Fire. Another story was born from a conversation I had with the woman who as my best friend at the time. I changed her into the brother of the main character. I discussed the story with her, so she knew. Unfortunately, that’s the story that I gave up on (for now) before starting Earth Fire.
Amanda: How do you do research for your books?
Allyn: I love to do research. One of the things I hate about writing is the arbitrary nitty-gritty details of a character or a world. I may not care what color hair a character has, but I need to know. I spent quite a bit of time last year researching statistics and parameters to set up a random generation process for both worlds and characters. I’m nowhere near done but I’m out of ideas and statistics at the moment. The problem with research is that I could spend a year developing a character or a world, and another year or two developing the languages. I could spend more time tracing the ancestry of the families of the main characters and the sequence of political leaders.
If I did that, I’d never get the story done. That was part of the reason for the research on worlds and characters, so that I could speed up that process. But what I noticed is that even in the best-selling books, most of the time sharing all that information bores the reader. Most of the time, I limit my research to specific questions that come up as I’m writing. At the same time, everything I experience, read, see, or hear is research
Amanda: Have you ever hidden a secret inside a book? Can you give us clues how to find it?
Allyn: I’m not sure I can say that I’ve hidden secrets, but I’ve hidden lots of things. A couple characters say things that fit their circumstances, but you’ll recognize that they also fit circumstances in other stories. At least two characters were inspired by characters in The Lion The Witch, and The Wardrobe, This Present Darkness, and Tom Baker’s Doctor Who. Probably the things I’ve hidden most are humor and philosophy.
Amanda: Do you have a writing kryptonite?
Allyn: I think life is a huge chunk of kryptonite for a writer. During the past year I’ve been trying to balance writing with starting life over. I now have to do it all myself, and having the chance to do things I’ve wanted to do and moving four times just over a year (to Pennsylvania, back to the motorhome in Florida, to a new trailer in Florida, and back to Pennsylvania) has been a challenge.
Amanda: Is there a taboo topic you’ve ever wanted to explore?
Allyn: There are lots of taboo topics I’d like to explore. The challenge for me is that I see literature, and especially fantasy literature, as representative. My parallels may or may not be obvious, but for me, they are separated enough that some of the emotional baggage of the real life issue is lightened, and can be explored.
Amanda: What about reader’s block? Is that even a thing?
Allyn: Reader’s block exists. I have difficulty reading when I’m working on a story because I don’t want what I’m reading to contaminate what I’m writing. I also have a difficult time reading fiction. I can’t shake the feeling that I’m wasting my time. My way around it is to have a book on CD in my car at all times, so that when I’m driving, I’m also reading, and I don’t feel guilty. Non-fiction is easier for me to read because I’m learning, but right now I’m not doing much of that either.
Amanda: If you could tell your younger writer self some advice, what would it be?
Allyn: My advice to my younger self would be - don’t give up. Don’t run away.
Amanda: What was the inspiration for the story?
Allyn: Earth Fire had several pieces of inspiration. I had been working on another story that wasn’t working. I picked up Where Do We Go From Here? By Martin Luther King, Jr., and White Guilt by Shelby Steele, and somewhere in one of them, I read an interview that sparked the idea of a story in which descendants of slaves were given recompense. I haven’t been able to find that interview since, but the question that the story seemed meant to answer is “What is the cost of hatred?”
About the same time, I happened to see a National Geographic map of what they believed Doggerland looked like before it sank. They said that a volcanic eruption and the collapse of an ice dam may have been responsible. That gave me the setting for the story.
I needed a reason for the volcano to erupt, and dragons seemed to fit, but I didn’t want a typical dragon. The obvious place to pull the idea of a dragon from was the serpent of Genesis 3, but the main dragon in my story was a female, probably inspired by the White Witch from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
Sometime after that, I found myself wondering about the dragons further. In my story, they are magical beings, so what would magical beings be like? Not all the dragons spent time among the people, but what would a magical being who hadn’t rebelled and who hadn’t spent lots of time with people be like? Estaen came into the story, and surprised me by telling me that he wasn’t going to do what I wanted him to.
The last pieces of inspiration were Ursula LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea and the then popular works by Brandon Sanderson and George R. R. Martin. I had recently re-read the LeGuin book, and had been impressed with its simplicity. Her works aren’t necessarily one character perspective stories, but they are very limited in the number of characters’ perspectives. While I like the multiple plot line and multiple character stories, I found myself wanting to try to tell a simple, straightforward story
Amanda: Where do you draw inspiration from?
Allyn: Everywhere. I’ve already shared a little about the inspiration for Earth Fire. Before I came to Florida last fall, I skimmed through a book about a man-eating tiger. That inspired a character for the next trilogy, which is set 10-15 years after Word Fire ends, but a picture a friend shared on FaceBook is inspiring me to consider an alternative.. When I came to Florida last fall, part of my goal was to find the inspiration for the location for that trilogy. I was successful. One of my trips was to a sinkhole, and another introduced me to the Calusa people, who are at least part of my inspiration for the Te people.
Amanda: How many plot ideas are just waiting to be written?
Allyn: Oh dear. After the first trilogy, I hope to write two more trilogies set on Tecur. The first is the story of Zheann’s daughter, Dren, and the second is set at some point in the future, when the weapons Zheann helps make in the first trilogy are either legendary weapons or power or forgotten and rediscovered, and one or more of them fail (or are damaged.) I also have a plague novel I’d like to write, an adventure novel based on a fairy tale, and the story that I gave up on when I started Earth Fire. I’ve also considered a novel, or series of novels based at least vaguely on the movies of a well-known actor from some time back. I don’t know if I can find a way to put together the vastly disparate storylines into a story, but it would be fun to try. And then there’s the even more impossible dream. Before I ran away from writing thirty years ago, I had the idea of trying to take European history and develop it on an interplanetary scale. I suspect it’s a bigger story than a thousand authors could tackle, so it will either remain a dream, or be refined and reduced somehow into something that is tenable and (I hope) glorious.
Oh, and in addition to those story ideas, I also have an idea for a group of characters who are based on gemology. All I know is that they aren’t superheroes - they don’t have the mystical powers of the gems, but the have some of the physical characteristics. The emerald character, for instance, has to be small and have a sibling who is aquamarine. Sapphire and ruby are non-identical twins. Lots of characters, no story so far.
Amanda: Are you a plotter or pantser?
Allyn: I pantsed Earth Fire and Soul Fire. I tried to plot Word Fire for NaNoWriMo two Novembers ago. It really helped me get writing done, but I changed the end of Word Fire and have to revise Word Fire completely. Chances are good that I’ll be pantsing the revision.
Amanda: Are you a world builder or character creator?
Allyn: I love the idea of doing both in intricate detail. I would love to be a Tolkien, but the thing that I have emphasized to other writers is that the story is the key. A great world or character are useless if the story isn’t there. That’s where I try to keep my focus.
Amanda: What are you reading right now?
Allyn: short stories by Edgar Allen Poe and Preston and Child’s The Pharaoh Key.
Amanda: Any advice for writers?
Allyn: My best piece of advice for writers is to make a commitment to yourself that you are not going to stop writing until or unless someone you respect, who knows far more than you do about writing, reads your story and tells you to stop writing. As long as the decision is yours, you are free to run away whenever you want. If you give that authority only to someone else - especially someone who doesn’t know you’ve given it to them - you won’t feel as much freedom to give up.
Amanda: Any advice for readers?
Allyn: Expect more, forgive more, think more.
Amanda: The next book - when can we read it? And what can we expect?
Allyn: The next book is Soul Fire and it takes up immediately where Earth Fire left off. The day has been saved, but at great cost, and it only crosses one problem off Zheann’s list.
There are still consequences of the disaster at the end of Earth Fire, and none of her sentient enemies have been defeated. If Earth Fire examines the price of hatred, Soul Fire explores the price of love. I hope to finish editing it by next fall, and have it ready for my readers next year at this time.
Amanda: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for coming along today. It’s been great to chat.
Allyn: I’ve enjoyed it. Your questions have made me think.
Amanda: Where can readers find more about you and your books?