Thursday, October 10, 2013

Fall Into Fantasy Blog Tour: Kristin Cashore, Author of Bitterblue

Welcome to Penguin’s Fall Into Fantasy blog tour. Join Alison Goodman, Morgan Rhodes, Kristin Cashore, Melissa de la Cruz, and Michael Johnston as they share what fantasy means to them in a series of guest posts throughout the week of October 7th. Today’s post comes courtesy of Kristin Cashore, author of the New York Times bestseller Bitterblue.
Mastering Details in Bitterblue
Kristin Cashore
One of the things I love about writing fantasy is that I end up needing to know the answers to odd and specific questions—the kind of questions you can’t Google. For example, it turns out that Google can’t tell you how much rope a nefarious lord can hide under his jacket during a state visit to a queen in a high tower. (My trapeze instructor, Kaz, helped me with that one, by letting me fool around with the ropes at trapeze class.) Nor can Google easily tell you what adjective describes a lord who’s been stripped of his title and property. (With the help of my friend Marc, I settled on “disennobled,” then ended up taking the entire line out of the book. That’s another thing that happens a lot: you take time to find the answer to a question, then the book changes and you don’t need that information anymore.) Another question that’s too overwhelming for Google: “If a government is comprised of two legislative bodies with equal power, one of which is made up of members of the nobility and the other of which is made up of representatives elected by the people, but there is no longer a monarch, not even a representational one—what would you call that?” Happily, my friend JD, who’s got a human brain (vastly superior to a search engine), did not find the question overwhelming. Consequently, on page 534 of the Penguin edition of Bitterblue, Bitterblue describes the new government of Nander as “a sort of . . . aristocratic and democratic republic.”
Bitterblue presented me with a whole range of weird questions I had fun asking my friends. Could a nine-year-old child, precocious in arithmetic, divide 1058 by 46 in her head? (Maybe.) If you entered a maze, put your left hand on the wall, then walked, keeping your hand on the wall and turning left at every corner, would you be guaranteed to find your way out of the maze? (Not necessarily.) If our real-world days were divided into thirty hours instead of our real-world twenty-four hours and our watches consequently showed fifteen hours, what real-world time would it be when the fifteen-hour watch said twenty-five past two? (Almost two o’clock.)
Some of these questions were more important to the integrity of the book than others, but I found myself treating each and every question, no matter how small, with respect. Little things in a book can make a big difference. And it doesn't matter to me that the amount of time I spend working on a particular aspect of a book be proportional to the space it takes up in the book. What matters is that I believe in all the parts of any book I'm writing, big or small.
One particular Bitterblue question was so much fun for me to think about, and provided so much entertaining conversation, that I want to share it with you in more depth. It hails from a scene near the beginning of the book, when a character is tasked with disguising a boat so thoroughly that people looking at it might not see a boat at all.
Here’s the question I posed to friends: “Could a small boat, like a rowboat, covered with small mirrors, blend into a river so that you might not notice it at first glance? If one were careful about angles and approach, could it even stay slightly hidden as it approached shore?”
JD’s response should demonstrate why I like to ask JD questions:
“What is the ambient light level in which this boat is designed to operate? Are we talking bright daylight, with or without clouds? Dusk? Deep night (with or without moonlight)? I find it hard to believe that this would work, unfortunately. One of the big issues is that mirrors are nearly 100% reflective (at all angles), while a water surface is nearly 100% transparent when you look straight at it, and it becomes more and more reflective as the angle away from straight-on increases. This is why you see dappled light bouncing off ripples in the river when you look across it from the banks, while staring straight down into it from the middle of a bridge leads you to see mostly the water, with perhaps a very faint reflection, depending on lighting conditions. And don’t even get me started about polarization! A boat with a bunch of mirrors would, I think, stand out, because (a) it wouldn’t ripple; (b) the reflections would not look the same as reflections from the water (due to being mirrors and not water); (c) the reflections would at least in part reflect the watcher and whatever was behind them; and (d) I think it would be obvious that the boat was above the waterline, the same way that you can tell that water is rushing over a big rock by the way the water humps up. I could imagine such a boat confusing someone, but not working as a method for infiltration. You might be better off inventing a submarine, a diversion, or hiding your characters in a hollow log....”
(JD later suggested the Pirates of the Caribbean trick of walking under the rowboat on the bottom of the river, even though MythBusters has proven it's not possible--which led to an excellent tangential conversation about exploding toilets and underwater escapes from cars on MythBusters.)
Lance’s response should demonstrate why I like to ask Lance questions:
“That sounds to me like a fundamentally empirical question. You get the rowboat; I’ll start collecting mirrors.
“It does seem to me that it would be practically impossible. Even if things were sufficiently shaded such that the mirrors didn’t catch the sunlight, it’s going to reflect things from all the wrong places. I think it’s going to look like an approaching disco ball.”
Of course, this made me want to write an approaching disco ball into this book (and every book), but, unfortunately, brought me no closer to a solution for my boat problem. Lance also provided a few links to photographs that made my day—and made me wish I was a visual artist, instead of being trapped behind words. For example, the invisible shoe and the man of mirrors(scroll down). He also provided a link to the Ghost Blind , a mirrored device for hunters that didn’t make my day, but that made me want to take it into Harvard Yard and have fun popping out at people.
Anyway. At this point in the conversations, it was becoming clear that my mirrored-boat camouflage wasn’t going to work. Luckily, Marc’s more encouraging response should demonstrate why I like to ask Marc questions:
“I’ve been thinking about this question all day. I suspect it is possible, but difficult, and would depend more heavily on lighting than on approach. Something covered with mirrors will sparkle in the sun, but if the entire river is sparkling, that could be okay. A large, leafy, fallen branch over the top would probably help.”
A large, leafy, fallen branch! Marc was a genius! At this point, I took out any language about mirrors and resorted to language about large, leafy branches.
Weeks later, however, the conversations were still going on, and Marc added: “Note that a well-designed boat can have a lot of its mass under the water. And like the blind, the mirrors only have to be on the front of the boat if you’re trying to hide from people on the shore you’re approaching.” To which I responded: “I took out the mirror language, but maybe I’ll take another look at it today. I could say something vague. When in doubt, I try to be vague.”
Ready for the final result?
Here’s an excerpt of Po speaking to Bitterblue on page 89 of the Penguin edition:
“Well, from what I gather, you’d be impressed with the way she’d hidden the boat. It was all rigged up to look like a big, leafy, floating tree branch…. It involved mirrors…. when we got closer and your guards recognized it for a boat, they were quite bowled over.”
So. Does that seem like an awfully big production for the sake of a few words in a throwaway paragraph?
If so, welcome to novel writing. J
(My thanks to Kaz Stouffer, Marc Moskowitz, JD Paul, and Lance Nathan!)
About Bitterblue:
Enter the Graceling Realm and let it work its magic . . .

When Queen Bitterblue took the throne of Monsea, she was a child, and her advisers ran the kingdom for her. Now she is beginning to question their decisions, especially how they handle the legacy of her father Leck, who who ruled through his Grace—a special talent for mind-altering—and his taste for darkness and violence. Bitterblue needs to know Monsea’s past to lead it into the future, so she begins exploring the city sreets at night, disguised and alone. As she does, she meets two thieves, who hold a key to the truth of Leck's reign. And one of them, with a Grace that he hasn't yet identified, holds a key to her heart.
About Kristin Cashore:
Kristin Cashore received her master's degree in children's literature in 2003 from Simmons College, where she was named a Virginia Haviland Scholar. She is a freelance educational writer who writes content for textbooks and teacher editions, as well as book reviews and articles on children's literature. She lives in Cambridge, MA, and has an incredibly witty, funny blog at: