Turning Points: How I Tricked Myself into Writing Fantasy by Rebecca Barnhouse (+Giveaway)

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? Here is author Rebecca Barnhouse revealing hers…

Guest post by Rebecca Barnhouse

This is me at fourteen, skinny legs splayed Gollum-like on the living room floor as I hunch over my artist’s pad, drawing creatures which might appear in the fantasy novel I want to write. One-eyed creatures, like the Cyclops (of which I am yet ignorant); one-legged creatures, like C. S. Lewis’s monopods (of which I am not); small creatures, large ones, some from named species, some as yet unclassified. Even as I draw them I am ashamed of how foolish they are, how derivative. How lame.

At fourteen, I read fantasy all the time. I write fiction all the time, too. My best friend and I are the bookish kind of girls who give each other as gifts new words (draconic!) and stories featuring the two of us and other characters you might recognize: Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, The Man from Atlantis. So why can’t I write fantasy, my favorite genre?

Several years later, the two of us collaborate on a realistic, contemporary YA novel. It’s not publishable, but it’s not meant to be; we’re only writing it to amuse ourselves. Yet for me, it opens a door I hadn’t realized was shut. Finally, I think I’ve found my genre: the contemporary YA novel. I write four of them and begin assembling my impressive collection of rejection letters.

In the meantime, I keep reading fantasy, along with a lot of other genres, and every now and then I feel a twinge. What is it about me that makes me unable to write this genre that I love? I’m visited by those same feelings of shame that I felt as a teenager sprawled in the living room. I am unworthy.

At some point, I go to graduate school and learn to be a medievalist. You would not believe the things you can get academic credit for. At the British Library, I am shocked every time I am allowed to touch a manuscript made a millennium ago, of which there is only a single copy in the entire world. I look furtively around, fill out a request slip, and yet another priceless codex is brought to me. Apparently I am the only one who recognizes that I am a fraud. My professors even award me my doctorate, although I suspect it’s just to get rid of me. Ten years in grad school is enough.

After I get a teaching job, I attend an SCBWI conference where someone asks me why I don’t write about the Middle Ages. Ha. I know way too much about the medieval period to set fiction there. All I would be able to see would be my mistakes. You would not catch me going down that road. Still, I marvel at the people who have never studied the Middle Ages from a scholarly perspective, yet who write captivating tales about it that get the details mostly right. (I don’t feel this way about all of them: I write an academic book that takes YA writers to task for all the errors they make in historical fiction about my beloved era. Clearly, I am working out some psychological problems of which I am unaware at the time. To those authors, I apologize.)

Then a funny thing happens. I teach a fifteenth-century text, The Book of Margery Kempe, over and over again, rereading it countless times. Every time I do, I am struck by the way the servant girl in the story is treated. I imagine her life when I’m crouching in front of the fireplace, blowing on the ashes. I think of her when I venture outside in this cold, bleak northern city in which I’ve found myself. Words start arranging themselves in my head. I compose a page mentally, then a chapter, even a plot, but my job keeps me far too busy to allow me to write them down.

Then, magically, it’s summer and school is out. The words rush forth. How could they not, when I know them so well? I don’t think about the genre (which I can’t write), just the story I want to tell. When I finish, I get some of the nicest rejection letters you can imagine. Robbie Mayes at FSG writes, “I hope you will try and try until you find a publisher for this.” Wow. You bet I will.

Yet when I finally have the time to give the novel the complete rewrite it needs, a different story is pushing to get out. Beowulf is another text I teach regularly, and I love the story of Wiglaf, the young warrior who comes to King Beowulf’s aid in his most desperate hour. I want to tell his tale—but I can’t; I’ve promised myself that I will do that rewrite. (Happily, it works and The Book of the Maidservant becomes my first published novel.)

Yet the instant the revision is finished, I turn to this new story, about Wiglaf. I’m okay writing about the Middle Ages now, because I’ve just done it and nothing terrible happened. But can I write convincingly from a boy’s perspective? That I’m not sure of. I’m so worried about it that I’m halfway through the scene with the dragon fight before the lightning bolt hits me: if there is a dragon, I must be writing fantasy.

But it doesn’t feel like I’m writing fantasy. The texture of daily life in sixth-century Scandinavia, the interior lives of my characters, the research: all of that tricked me into thinking I was writing historical fiction. The concern about whether I could write from a boy’s point of view distracted me, too.

Until that dragon came along.

When I decided I wanted to write another book set in the same world—the novel that would become Peaceweaver—it was because I wanted to tell the story of a girl whose uncle punishes her by sending her to marry into an enemy tribe. The fact that dragonsmoke drifts through her dreams, that she’s far-minded, or that monsters impede her progress? Those are just facts of her life. The poem Beowulf, which informs both Peaceweaver and The Coming of the Dragon, blends history and fantasy to tell a story. So do my novels.

But now I know what I didn’t understand at fourteen, when I was trying to invent a fantasy world to write about: it’s the story that matters. The genre will take care of itself.

Like Christopher Barzak, her former student, Rebecca Barnhouse is an English professor in Ohio. Her most recent novel, Peaceweaver, was released by Random House Children’s Books in March 2012. She’s currently working another novel, tentatively titled Ring-Giver and scheduled for a Fall 2013 release. Like her previous two books, it’s fantasy set in 6th-century Scandinavia. You can find her at www.rebeccabarnhouse.com.


Three winners have been chosen! Each wins a *signed* copy of the Rebecca Barnhouse book of his/her choice. Here are the winners…

Winner #1: Will Klein, who won The Book of the Maidservant!

Winner #2: Lauren, who won The Coming of the Dragon

Winner #3: Erika, who won Peaceweaver

Congrats to all the winners, and thank you to Rebecca for donating her books for the giveaway. Winners will be emailed for their mailing addresses.

There’s more in the Turning Points series. Catch up with any posts you may have missed here.

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