Author Archives: Jillian Kuhlmann

About Jillian Kuhlmann

Nerd. Writer. Mama.

The Heart is a Lonely and Not Particularly Wise Hunter

I’ve got a thing for tragic bastards.

I should clarify, my desire is purely for dudes of a fictional variety. I have exactly zero time for the bullshit of living, breathing disasters. But I have been thinking a lot lately about the themes and sorts of characters that resonate with me, what I’m drawn to read and write. As silly as it is, my recent experiences playing Dragon Age: Inquisition have made this pretty clear to me. I’ve always appreciated Bioware’s nuanced characters and the ability players have to befriend or isolate or irritate them, and this installment in the series is, in my opinion, the best in terms of executing this particular hallmark of the studio.

My first two play-throughs, I barely spoke a word to Solas, became absolute besties with Dorian and Cassandra, and romanced Cullen, whose awkward word vomit and head scratching endeared him completely. But, I kept seeing folks talking about the draw of the Solas romance and how it tied in with the game’s overall narrative – which is spectacular – so I decided to give it a try and rolled an elven Inquisitor.

And now I’ll never look back.

What is it about colossal fuck-ups that is so appealing?

While the charming, well-intentioned dude may at first secure my attention, it just doesn’t last. Perhaps this is why your average romantic comedy can’t hold my attention – I love a good love story but I need even more than space and elves to complicate things for my weird little heart. I need world-shattering mistakes.

There are other fictional fellas in here. Not surprisingly:

As I am writing the final book in my series and contending with some of the choices and realizations in The Dread Goddess, I am trying to feel my way forward with Gannet and Eiren – without giving anything away, certainly things between them have never been easy, and there are new troubles now. In earlier drafts of the first few chapters, something just didn’t feel right. The forgiveness, the comfort, the ease with which they were moving forward, together. Because something is wedged between them still, and Gannet is, of course, claiming responsibility. Given what he knows and doesn’t know about himself, and what’s at stake, there was a tension and a distance that wasn’t at play yet in that draft.

So, I had to make some changes.

In each book, we’ve learned something new about Eiren and Gannet and about their world, and now that they’re presumably holding all of the pieces, they’re finding that their shapes are strange, sharp, fragile. I feel as much at Gannet’s mercy as Eiren does, sometimes. Even though I’m technically steering this ship, there are storms in their characterizations that even I underestimate, or miss alltogether.

But, take heart. I may enjoy tragic bastards, but I do not enjoy tragedy.

Replaying = Rereading

Sometimes I turn the difficulty down on games so I can enjoy the story.

I bristle when this is called “casual” mode – because there’s nothing casual about an immersive gaming experience. I’ve noticed recently that some titles are referring to this as “story” mode, which is a whole lot closer to what I am trying to get out of my games.

I sat on the couch in my parents’ living room as a kid and cursed into an empty soda can watching my dad play The Legend of Zelda on our Nintendo. I’d later swap controllers with my brother, working our way through Resident Evil 2 – because, survival horror. Safety in numbers, right?

I spent as much time playing Morrowind and Knights of the Old Republic as I did writing papers as an undergraduate in literature and creative writing, and I got through my Master’s thesis raiding Karazhan.

Games, and RPGs especially, I just. love. them.

I was talking with my husband recently about the replayability of certain games, not unrelated to the fact that I am working my way through Dragon Age: Inquisition for a fourth time. I know, I know. He’s judging me, too.

But the interesting thing was, we weren’t quite in agreement about what makes a good replay. I might deviate slightly from the choices I made in my first – or second or third – play-through, but often, I’m replaying a game like I might reread a book. I want to experience the story I grew to love again, just the way I experienced it the first time. I would imagine my husband, who often makes entirely different choices and pursues different outcomes, is more typical in his desires. It’s not that I don’t want to see more of the world. It’s just that I identify so strongly with a particular narrative thread that I can’t let it go.

This is probably a good explanation for the allure of fanfiction, too. There’s just always more between the lines of dialogue and morally defining moments of choice – I don’t want to miss anything.

What about you? Are you a replayer?

Five Favorite Reads of 2017

While 2017 was perhaps my least productive writing year ever – even the poetry I scribbled in the sixth grade amounted to more worthy words than I managed within the last twelve months – I did read some incredible books.

And I am trying to take it easy on myself, especially after seeing one of the excellent Lucy Knisley‘s daily comics yesterday.

Part three of my Hourly Comic Day. #HourlyComicDay #HourlyComicDay2018

A post shared by Lucy Knisley (@lucyknisley) on

I think for creators the world over, especially here at home and especially, especially those of us whose work is not inherently social or political, it’s an incredibly challenging time to make things. Mostly it feels damned selfish, when energies could be better spent collaborating with, advocating for and elevating the voices and struggles of those who are being ruthlessly targeted in our current political climate. So I’ve been endeavoring to be a better human and friend, and escaping at night not as often into worlds of my own creation, but into those of others.

I’ve got higher hopes for 2018. Or so I am telling myself.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine combined two of my favorite things: a 1920s aesthetic and a fairy tale retelling – one of my favorites, The Twelve Dancing Princesses. The freedom the princesses yearned for in the original tale is such a delightful fit for the expanding social boundaries of the Jazz Age, I’m surprised this hasn’t been attempted before. But, thrilled that someone as skilled as Valentine did it.

I read a lot of Shannon Hale this year but Book of a Thousand Days was by far my favorite. Another fairy tale retelling, and such a unique lens. Dashti was tough and brilliant and I absolutely loved her as a narrator – the journal format doesn’t work for many books, but like Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper: A Tortall Legend series, it works so well here. This is definitely a book I can’t wait to share with my girls when they are a little bit older.

Side note, I’ve become obsessed with the move adaption of Austenland. I’ve watched it three times since finishing the book and it’s become my go-to guilty pleasure film.

I did a lot of traveling in 2017 which meant a lot of devouring comics on airplanes. Rat Queens absolutely stole my heart, and probably nicked bits of my soul and charged some suspicious things to my credit card, too. I’m so cool with it. While the first few volumes are strongest, in my opinion, I’d recommend the whole series to anyone who enjoys rowdy ladies.

There is so much to be enchanted by in The Bear and the Nightingale that I am not even sure where to begin – the characters are real and flawed and fascinating, the writing is absolutely lovely and the world Arden has crafted is both haunting and beautiful. I wanted all of the creepiness and the mystery and the feelings. A book I’d wish I’d written if it weren’t for the joy of having read it.

I didn’t actively avoid reading Rainbow Rowell but somehow I’d never managed to read her work until I picked up a copy of Landline at a library used book sale – and my goodness, did I read this at the absolute perfect time. As a many-years-married creative-type in my thirties, this book was so sweet and stirring and affirming. I loved Georgie. I loved Neal. I know Georgie and Neal. I cried and cried reading this book and told my husband all about it. I feel like if i weren’t quite who I am, right now, it might not have resonated as much for me. But I am and it so did.

What about you? What were your favorite reads last year?

Fantasy Casting Book of Icons

When I had time for journal-based roleplaying games, one of my first and favorite things to do in developing a character was to think about what they looked like. I loved scrolling through icon collections of lesser known actors and actresses, or beloved familiar faces in unique roles, and choosing just the right person to play my version of Padma Patil or Eddie Carmichael (had a soft spot for roleplaying Ravenclaws, even though I’m pretty sure I’m a Gryffindor). Anyone who has ever played in one of these games, or ever seen a movie that’s been woefully miscast, knows what it’s like to see someone playing a character who is just all wrong.

Strangely enough, picturing my characters is not something I do much in the beginning. Maybe it’s because all of the shit I gave myself as a young writer for describing what people looked like by letting them look in the mirror, or because I immediately drop any book that tells me what a character is wearing or describes their “tresses” within the first 10 pages. Still, I know that it’s important to have a few details to go on, and that usually those details belong somewhere in the beginning of a book.

Writing in first person presents a unique challenge when conveying what your main character looks like, but I’m particularly fond of how Eiren describes herself and her siblings in the first chapter of The Hidden Icon, when looking at her mother she,

“… studied the vault of bones beneath her skin, like mine the color of the honeyed beer she and my father enjoyed, the taste of which had always paled considerably when compared to the thrill of pilfering some from their reserve.”

I wish now that I’d had resources like Writing with Color when I was working on the first book, because it’s incredible. Even though it’s fantasy-land, it’s important to check assumptions and language when it comes to writing characters of color. For me, Eiren has always been a brown girl, and I hope that she was always for readers, too.

We don’t get much else about Eiren in the first few chapters, beyond that she’s a small woman, made smaller by the challenges of living in exile. Again, she sees herself in comparison to others, this time, when she observes Morainn rising from a chair and feels,

“… weak as a foundling child. Morainn had eaten well and stretched her legs in the flower of her youth, and I’d spent the last five years living like a rodent in a cave.”

I did give Gannet a little bit more structure in the beginning, though, even with half of his face obscured for the reader and Eiren both.

“The man wore a half-mask roughed of some metal fitted to his features, riding the bridge of his nose and curving back to his ears. It was the mask I saw and little else, registering but barely the sandy hair, the thin, blank line of his lips.

He was less formidable in proximity than he had been at a distance. I could not keep from studying his face as the moment lengthened to discomfort, the rough lip of the mask below his cheekbones, splitting his brow above. His hair strayed from where it had been smoothed back, softening his unnaturally muted expression.”

Despite the fact that I have a lot more to go on with Gannet’s description, or maybe because of it, he’s always been harder for me to point to a real person and say, that one. I don’t think he’s traditionally handsome, and I picture him with a wide, expressive mouth that would probably be goofy on someone who smiled a lot. His nose is severe because frankly, I like noses.

And Eiren, well. She’s beautiful but melancholy, too. She’s also never had cause to pay attention to how her hair or body is dressed, allowing an innocence to persist in her appearance that might not otherwise for someone of her age and experience.

Most recently, I’ve been pairing these two together in my mind and feeling pretty confident about their potential.

Sonam Kapoor is just the most glamorous usually, which I feel like works for Eiren’s sisters but not so for her. But when I saw her in Saawariya, I just felt like there was a dreamy quality about her, an intense grace and depth that felt right for Eiren. As for Austin Butler, his model face is all wrong for Gannet and I would never have looked at him twice if it weren’t for a laundry-filled Sunday when I decided to give The Shannara Chronicles a watch. Dude has got so much more going for him when he’s walking and talking and, you know, emoting.

And not to bribe or spoil folks or anything, but if you’re interested in seeing a bit more of Gannet’s face, you should probably make some time to read The Dread Goddess.

So, what do you think? Who would you cast? And what about Morainn, Antares, Imke, or Jurnus? Clearly I ought to give them a think next.

What Teenagers Write About is Weird

Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?

When I was in the fifth grade, heavily influenced by multiple readings of The Secret Garden and The Little Princess and my own deep desire for Kirsten, I wrote a short story for class about a Victorian-esque pauper girl who coveted a doll in a window at Christmastime. Naturally, that porcelain beauty was bound to sustain her more than bread or soup or central heat, so a kindly young mother who had lost her own daughter to illness made everyone’s dreams come true by adopting the child and buying her the damn doll. Appealing narrative for an 11-year-old with no disposable income, right?

I think of this story now and then, and remember that my fifth-grade teacher told my parents I was writing at a college-level. I thought that was a bit of a joke until I taught college, and then I suspected for a hot minute it was an insult, but still. She was an incredibly supportive teacher and the first in a long line of teachers who indulged my love of writing fiction.

Even at 13, I recognized the need for [REDACTED].

In the seventh grade, I wrote what I realize now was basically erotic friend fiction – though with far fewer butts and a whole lot more dystopian wasteland. This was the first long-form piece I ever wrote, beginning with a natural disaster that conveniently swept all of the adults out of the picture and allowed me to populate a post-parent fantasy land with my peers. We foraged for food, crafted weapons, built shelters Island of the Blue Dolphins-style, and even relocated from Ohio to the beach, where I was able to introduce new characters from my class who had been presumed dead. Why? Because it took me months to write this thing and I was crushing on somebody else by then and needed a reason to write them into the story.

Teenagers, man.

The best/worst part is honestly that I shared this, chapter by painstaking chapter, with my English teacher. She was so nice about it that I wonder now if she even read it, or if she just felt sorry for the girl who repeatedly had her name slandered on the chalkboard by some of the same boys she was writing about. If I could go back in time, I’d make them eat those pages. Or just kick them repeatedly in the shins.

But it was easier at thirteen to retreat into a world whose boundaries I could write and rewrite, whose conflicts were of my own devising and whose resolutions happily followed a linear narrative. There is still an element of joy in controlling a world when I’m writing – or at the very least, trusting that when I’m not in control I’ll reach a suitable ending.

And at least the most embarrassing things I’ve ever written and will ever write are behind me.

I hope.

You Say it’s Your Birthday

So, last year I had some lofty goals for 34. Now I’m 35 and this year I just have a lot of excuses.

  1. Finish writing another book. I would argue there was an aggressive rewrite of book two in my series, but that doesn’t count. Been dabbling since.
  2. Continue to work out at least three times a week.
  3. Read 34 books.
  4. Watch Star Wars: A New Hope with my oldest daughter. It’s not that I think four is necessarily old enough, it’s that I just can’t wait any longer.
  5. Attend Books by the Banks as a guest. With my second book slated for publication in May, I am cautiously optimistic. Was not invited. Going to day drink instead.
  6. Finish one new costume for Dragon*Con. Of course I have more than one planned, but I’m being realistic about my sewing follow through.
  7. Run a successful writer’s retreat. After the holidays I plan to hit the ground hard plotting for a writer’s retreat in April at a castle. If that sounds like something you’d be into, you know how to reach me.
  8. Go swimming.
  9. See a play.
  10. See Bethany and Stephen get married!
  11. And my girls are going to be flower girls, so, weep profusely.
  12. See Alex and Christopher get married!
  13. Go to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Dreaming big, friends. And I never wanted to leave.
  14. Grow vegetables.
  15. And then eat them.
  16. Blog twice a month. So close I’m counting it.
  17. Sew something for each of my girls. I’ve actually already managed this, but I’m not letting myself completely off the hook.
  18. Write real letters. Volunteers? I have a lot of stickers to compliment my poor handwriting.
  19. See live music.
  20. More candid photographs of my girls with my actual camera.
  21. LARP more. After years of playing I took a break when my littles were very little, but I found time again last autumn and I want to keep it going.
  22. Send Miss E to kindergarten in style with a Schultüte. Her first day of kindergarten sans cone, but she opened it at home and I got a photograph with my proper camera.
  23. Grow my hair out.
  24. Or cut it off if I’m really feeling it. It had to go.
  25. Watch Gilmore Girls in its entirety. I love it now but never watched it while it was on the air, so I am woefully behind.
  26. Knit. I may as well if I am going to be watching television; these hands are so rarely idle.
  27. Finish the quilt that’s languished half-assembled since before I was married.
  28. Discover some new music. Any recommendations?
  29. Visit my dad at least once a month. This hasn’t worked out due to schedules, but we are on really good terms right now.
  30. Endeavor not to fight with him.
  31. Acquire a Stratton compact. While Peggy Carter turned me on to these vintage beauties, I’m not attached to hers unless I get lucky. SCORE.
  32. Read, paint, dance, and dream more with my girls.
  33. Appreciate my husband in word and deed.
  34. Elect a female president. #sorrynotsorry You know what, WE DID. 

I Dream of Cosplay, Again

I told myself I wasn’t allowed to start planning cosplays for next year’s Dragon Con – and I am too broke to buy fabric anyway – but that doesn’t mean I can’t compile a list of dream cosplays that I may lack the time and skill to make, right?

Just run with it.

After this year’s experience with painting my entire face you’d think I’d be turned off by it, but of course pining after a Kyoshi warrior means the application would be even more complex. Alas, I can’t resist a beautiful badass.

Captain America Peggy Carter because, obviously. I may or may not already have bookmarked tutorials on triple victory rolls. I’m not telling.

Maybe it’s the hair. It’s certainly not the shoulder pads. But cosplaying Rachael from Blade Runner at least means I won’t need to wear a wig and don’t need to worry about my weird smile. Because, you know, she doesn’t.

Isn’t this concept art by Enolez Drata amazing?

I’ve been wanting to join the 501st since I first met (and drank with) them many years ago at an Ohio convention, and of course I can’t let myself just make an officer – the easiest way in, though still screen accurate – I have to aim BIG. I loved every little thing about Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, and Kreia turned Darth Traya was no exception. And I’d have a reason to buy a red lightsaber. That’s called winning.

What do you think? If I were going to make one of these dream cosplays happen in the next year, which should it be?

 

Meet Ramona

I’ve been working on something a little different.

And I thought you might like to take a peek.

She’d had the dream again.

Within minutes of waking, Ramona’s hands were pawing over the mess on her bedside table, skimming her glasses, her phone, upsetting two books splayed open, kissing like lovers. Her fingers found the roll of tape she’d left there the night before and she was up, eyes squeezed shut as she moved by touch in the dark to the wall opposite her bed where she’d drawn the map.

Lines drawn in thick, black permanent ink spidered from the window to her bare, aggressively tidy desk. Structures had been meticulously trimmed from a variety of magazines and discarded books and taped against the wall in various places, some labeled, others awaiting identification. Ramona gently peeled one labeled ‘Bazaar’ from the lower left quadrant of the map and placed it several handspans further right, next to another clipping – a squat ruin she’d cut out of a tattered National Geographic – labeled ‘Arena.’ The snap as she tore a new piece of tape was startling in the silence, and only after she’d made the adjustment did she open her eyes and turn on the light.

The harsh fluorescent glow further illuminated the stark, impersonal dormitory: bed pushed against one wall, built in wardrobe and desk opposite, door and window with its navy drape squaring off like combatants. The rug underfoot was cheap and thin, the curtains and bedspread worn but without personality. The wall with its world realized in marker and college scraps was the only thing that felt like it belonged to Ramona, and she’d have to paint over it in less than a week.

She sat down on the edge of her bed without a sound, reaching for her glasses and her phone, checking her face, checking the time.

4:07 AM.

Yesterday it had been nearly 6 AM when the dream woke her.

It wasn’t always the same dream, it just always was. It was the world as she knew it, twisted, the places she recognized warped and peopled by strangers – or not at all.

Dr. Cutter was interested in the dream. It had been she who had first suggested Ramona keep a journal, sketch what she recalled upon waking, as though getting it all out of her head would keep it from coming back. But it didn’t, and the notebook hadn’t been big enough, anyway. So she’d sacrificed the security deposit on this year’s board and started drawing on the walls.

There was the strip where she and her mother and brother had bought groceries and visited the check advance place to borrow against dad’s upcoming pay day, the taquería where between the three of them they’d demolish an easy conquistador’s dozen.

Ramona had layered clipped photos and crude sketches underneath of the main edifice she’d chosen to represent each place on the map, indicating what was different, what was the same. There were some places she frequented often – her high school, the trailer where she’d grown up, her grandma’s house just down the street, the quarry – and others she’d go months without seeing, sometimes whole years – the labyrinthian downtown, the derelict grocery, the sculpture park. In the park there was a bronze statue of a woman in the center of a reflecting pool, her arms raised in invitation. But when Ramona dreamed of her, the gestures were always different and Ramona had noted this, too: arms overhead like a dancer’s, fists clenched against the stiff folds of her robe, arms absent, hacked off or lost like an ancient Roman statue.

Because it really wasn’t one dream, but many. Ramona moved through them each night, pursuing whatever mad trajectories her sleeping mind conjured. Usually, she was alone. But sometimes she was with her brother, Felix.

Felix.

He’d been the reason she’d gone to see Dr. Cutter in the first place, six years ago, in the weeks following his disappearance.

Author SOS

I’ve had a lot of questions recently about how book sales are going, and the honest answer is, I have no idea.

The even more honest answer is, it’s not really about the money.

Folks ask where they should buy the book so I get a better cut, and truly, it doesn’t matter. People want to help and I think that is amazing, but even checking my book out from the library – or requesting that your library order it if it isn’t in the system – would help me out. The best thing you can do for me? If you liked my books, recommend them. Review them. Loan your copy to a friend. If you can’t afford copies but want to read, ask me for one and I’ll loan you mine. Really, really.

Because it’s not about the money right now. it’s about reach.

I wear this necklace when I want to feel brave. Like today.

I will get paid, eventually, but I have no delusions about how much (not much). And while I absolutely believe that writers ought to be compensated well for their work, and that making a living writing is often the end game, that’s not where I am right now. I work full-time and will likely continue to work full-time for the foreseeable future. I like what I do, so I’m okay with it. Writing for a living isn’t something I can dream of until my books are in more hands and heads.

So, if you want me to keep writing and creating, share. Your thoughts, what you liked, what you didn’t like, what you wanted to see more of, what you want to read next. Tell me, and tell the readers that you know. Share your copies with friends and family who you think would like them, too. Review, please, on Amazon and Goodreads.

This is a pretty bold cry from me in response to the love I’ve felt following the publication of my second book. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t like to ask for help even when I really need it – missed out on a critical life skill there, I know – but this is how you can help me, if you want to help me.

And if you don’t or can’t or forget or won’t, that’s cool, too. No one book is for every person, and we’re still friends.

Campfire Fairy Tales

Memory is a powerful thing, and strange, too, triggered by seemingly inconsequential sounds, smells, feelings.

The smell of a campfire in summer drags me, no longer kicking and screaming, into memories of family tent-camping trips. I hated camping as a kid. My parents always chose the primitive sites for the privacy and I don’t know, the mud, I guess? I would ride my bicycle up the hill at our most frequented camping ground to use the proper bathroom and marvel at the dry grass, the unfiltered sunlight, the showers.

One camping trip, I asked my mom to take this picture for a prettiest eyes contest in Teen Magazine. Because thirteen.

But there were good times despite my need to pee in a tiled environment. My brother and I would hunt for fossils in various creek beds, stifling our disappointment when the dinosaur teeth we found turned out to be horn coral by digging up blue-grey clay, or capturing crawdads. Some years we went to Red River Gorge and went caving, negotiating tight crawl spaces in our shorts and sneakers, straddling shadowy crevices and feeling the gooseflesh rise on our bare legs, not sure if the culprit was a fear of falling or the subterranean chill. We ate our weight in BBQ chips and s’mores, biked everywhere, conjured ridiculous stories in the dark. One particular trip we slept all together in a tent that was so small I now feel my parents ought to be sainted, and my father told us a ghost story with some kind of beastie, reaching out at an opportune moment and clawing at the side of the tent with his fingernails. We shrieked and laughed and slept, eventually.

Even now when I shake the sand out of my daughters’ shoes after they’ve been digging at school, the grit sticks to my fingers and clings to the hairs on my arms, drawing out memories of lakeside picnics and water so murky you never knew what you were getting into. Now I know: it was goose poop and mud.

But ignorance was bliss, and that meant bare feet and cannonballs and not washing my hands as often as I should have done before indulging in the aforementioned chips. Because really, isn’t childhood about impulse? Going and doing and being as on as possible, as often as possible? What do you think?

Better yet, what do you remember?