Friday, August 09, 2019

Instilling Wonder in Your Fiction

By Julie E. Czerneda, @julieczerneda

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Stories have a way of sweeping readers into another world, and this is particularly true in genre fiction. Creating a sense of wonder helps pull readers into our stories. Julie E. Czerneda visits the lecture hall to day to share tips on how to put the wonder in our fiction.

For twenty years, Canadian author/former biologist Julie E. Czerneda has shared her curiosity about living things through her science fiction and fantasy. The first installments of her Night’s Edge series (DAW) A Turn of Light and A Play of Shadow, won consecutive Aurora Awards (Canada’s Hugo) for Best English Novel. Julie’s edited/co-edited sixteen anthologies of SF/F, two Aurora winners. The Gossamer Mage is Julie’s twentieth novel published by DAW Books, and she couldn’t be more proud to belong to this esteemed publishing family.

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Take it away Julie…

Julie E. Czerneda. Roger Czerneda Photography
Humor me a moment. Close your eyes and imagine you’re listening to the theme music for Star Trek or Harry Potter. (Or play it, that’s fine too.)

Gets the pulse up, doesn’t it? That little tingle of anticipation. Because there’s wonder to come.

I’d argue other themes prime us for action or adventure. It’s all good. I’m a fan of grand sweeping music that raises the adrenaline too. Right now, as I type, I’m playing Pacific Rim.

But it’s not right for this essay—pause—I’ve switched to Alice in Wonderland. Ah. There you go. That little tingle’s back.


It’s important to me, as a reader and person. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I joyfully infuse my work with it because I’m allowed and because, even if readers might not notice, I need it there. Wonder—let’s define it as something remarkable and unexpected—is what made me fall in love with genre in the first place. And to keep looking under rocks for cool new buglies, as it happens, which is relevant.

You see, like anything else in writing, everyone has their own approach to instilling wonder. Here’s mine.

Wonder in Science Fiction

For me, the key here is “cool factor.” Looking under rocks? It’s about what I don’t know I’ll find, then what I do. I’m a biologist and naturalist, so I’ve a good notion what might be there, but nature always surprises.

When I create an alien being, I draw on what I know about physiology, ecosystems, evolution, society, rocks. What’s surprised me in the past from the real world? The weird and wondrous? I include it every chance I get. Animals that see ultraviolet. Plants that hear bees coming and sweeten their nectar (how cool is that?). Organisms that live in extreme environments and those we think we know well. I’ll take a fact or discovery it’s unlikely most readers know, unless they’re fellow biogeeks, and use it to put wonder in my alien creations.

With the bonus of paying tribute to the reality of life on our world.

From Hidden in Sight:
…the Busfish reigned supreme in terms of harnessed biological power.

Art by Luis Royo
Size aside, it was a remarkably ordinary creature; Ersh-memory gave it an amusing resemblance to the Cod which had been so pivotal in early Human history. Its tall, thin dorsal fin flopped untidily in the air, having temporarily lost the support of water. Antennae and other rigging were leeched to the thickened scales of its back, just in front of the fin. Its eyes were protected by goggles, while its gills were covered by plas domes, much the way a respirator would seal over the mouth slit of a humanoid. The plas on the wharf-side gill-cover was scratched and dented, explaining some of the corresponding damage to the wood. Any metal and the older of its blue-yellow scales were coated in a crust of tyr-barnacles or showed white remnants of glue where previous hitchhikers had been scraped free. My Oieta-self itched with sympathy.

Boarding wasn’t for the weak of circulatory pumps. I led the way, having experience in the matter – if not previously in a form that would actually be a food item for a wild Busfish, which I suddenly discovered added a significant level of apprehension. It wasn’t panic–exactly--but I might not have poled myself down the ramp as swiftly if it hadn’t been for a shove from behind. I flashed an indignant red.

Wonder in Fantasy

A horse of a different color, as the expression goes. For me. What I love in fantasy is when what I expect or know from this world is overturned. Surprises. Secrets! Toads revealed to be guards in armor bedecked with gems, not warts. Oak trees and roses with opinions. The more ordinary the bit from this world, the more entranced I am by imbuing it with wonder.

It’s not only living things. It can be a physical “known” I tweak. We’ve all been caught out in the rain.

From A Play of Shadow:
Art by Matthew Stawicki
At the first rain drops, Bannan took Jenn’s hand and together they ran to the shelter of the next arched bridge. Just in time, for with no other warning, the clouds seemed to burst open, mimrol falling in great sheets. To his deeper sight, the canal was transformed by silver splashes and rings crisscrossed and spread, overlapping the ripples.

Ripples disturbed anew as the magic rain was greedily snapped up by pale yellow beaks that rose from the water then sank again. Dozens. More.

While an appetite for mimrol was unexpected, the beaks were as familiar as home. Bannan laughed with relief. “Turtles!”

Why Wonder at All?

Wonder. Whimsy. Glimmers out the corner of the eye. You can write without and many do. There’s room—nay need—for all manner of stories and writers, and that’s a wonder of itself.

By the same token, I argue there are very good reasons to add wonder. I believe it feeds and strengthens the imagination. I find even the slightest hint of it will lure me deeper into a story, whether reading or writing. It’s what I came to science fiction and fantasy to find, and why I’m still there.

Most of all, the presence of something wonderful or wonder-filled adds hope. That there’s more than we know. That it’s not all out to get us (though Bannan best watch those turtles). That there’s a resilience to this made-up place, as there is to this world, and it’s worth, as Samwise Gamgee would say, worth fighting for.

I end with one of my favorite “wonder” bits from The Gossamer Mage.
…he’d written one intention of memorable originality. The result still swam in the temple fountain of Xcel, all grave eyes and mischievous whiskers, trilling its song by moonlight to bewitch even dry old men with lust. Gossamer.

Not an accomplishment to share. He’d hastily destroyed that pen and done his utmost to forget those words and its shape. Though he dreamed it. When the world grew drab by day, predictability more deadly than age, he’d wake in the dark, blood pounding. At such a moment, Saeleonarial would swear he’d heard a faint splash, smelled musk on a warm summer’s night. Been young and unafraid of the future again.


You could win the Julie E. Czerneda Library! To celebrate the publication of Julie's new book, The Gossamer Mage, her publisher is giving away 18 signed books!

Enter Here for U.S. Residents Giveaway  |  Enter Here for Outside the U.S. and sign up for Julie’s newsletter to enter.

About The Gossamer Mage

Art: K. Anderson; Concept :R. Czerneda
From an Aurora Award-winning author comes a new fantasy epic in which one mage must stand against a Deathless Goddess who controls all magic.

Only in Tananen do people worship a single deity: the Deathless Goddess. Only in this small, forbidden realm are there those haunted by words of no language known to woman or man. The words are Her Gift, and they summon magic.

Mage scribes learn to write Her words as intentions: spells to make beasts or plants, designed to any purpose. If an intention is flawed, what the mage creates is a gossamer: a magical creature as wild and free as it is costly for the mage.

For Her Gift comes at a steep price. Each successful intention ages a mage until they dare no more. But her magic demands to be used; the Deathless Goddess will take her fee, and mages will die.

To end this terrible toll, the greatest mage in Tananen vows to find and destroy Her. He has yet to learn She is all that protects Tananen from what waits outside. And all that keeps magic alive.

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