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Life on the Deckle Edge

Janice Hardy conjures up BLUE FIRE

What if pain were a commodity - a weapon? What if you were 15 and possessed the rare ability to draw pain out of someone, but you could release it only into another person? What if your daily choices literally meant life or death for others? Welcome to the world of Nya, the bold and struggling protagonist in Janice Hardy's THE HEALING WARS series for ages 10 and up (Balzar + Bray/HarperCollins).
Book One, THE SHIFTER, came out last year and (drumroll...) Book Two, BLUE FIRE, has just been released.

Welcome, Janice! First, the question I'm sure you always get from young readers: How did you come up with the idea for this series?

That’s a popular one from just about everybody. I was playing with common ideas in fantasy and trying to turn them on their heads. I thought about healing, and how it’s always portrayed as something good. I started wondering if it could be used for evil. How could I make healing bad? I came up with a ten-page outline that was really awful. I shoved it in a drawer and forgot all about it. Years later, I found it again, and that pain shifting idea still resonated with me. I kept thinking about the type of culture that would use pain like a commodity. Once I had the world basics down, it was easy to see how someone who could shift pain could cause – and get into -- trouble there.

What most appeals to you about writing fantasy?

I get to make it all up. There’s something very satisfying about creating a world with rules and people and landscapes that are different from what I see every day. Anything can happen, and my creativity is only restricted by my imagination. I need to have rules of course, but if I want to break one, I just find a plausible way to do it. So nothing is even set in stone if it makes the story better. There’s a lot of creative freedom in a set up like that.

Can you tell us a little about your process for "world building?"

I like to start with someplace real as a foundation. As fun as making it up is for me, trying to do every last detail can get tedious. So I find real places that fit the general idea of the world I’m planning, and use them as jumping off points. That way I’ll already have a climate, what types of food and plants are native to that area, landscapes, maybe even some cultural details I can use to flesh out my worlds. I change what I need when I need it, but having some research done makes it easy to look up the food eaten if I have my characters stop for dinner, or to know what’s growing in the fields they pass.

Creating a solid culture also makes it a lot easier to plot, because I’ll know how these people live their day to day lives and where trouble might come from. For example, in The Healing Wars, my protagonist Nya is always trying to get odd jobs so she can eat and pay her rent, so I needed to know the jobs she might be able to find. A lake city is probably going to have a lot of fishermen, so the Geveg docks is a busy place. But Geveg was a once-wealthy city currently under occupation by enemy forces, so there are a lot of orphans and refugees about. Getting any kind of work is hard with fierce competition, so the docks are also a dangerous place.

How did these characters reveal themselves to you?

Nya evolved as the world developed. I knew I wanted a pain shifter, and that being one was bad, but I didn’t know why. As the healing economics of the world developed, I saw that healing was expensive and something only the rich could afford. But any time there’s a disparity like that, a black market of some type will step up to fill the void, so suddenly I had the pain merchants. Soon as they appeared, I knew Nya had to get involved with them, so the bad guy was born.

Nya’s sister Tali was the only planned character, because I realized that Nya’s plight would be worse if she knew exactly what she was missing (she wants to be a “real healer,” but can’t because of her ability). So I gave her a little sister who had everything she wanted. The love interest, Danello, was a totally walk on character. I got to a scene where someone “jumps out” (no spoilers) at Nya and needs something from her, and suddenly I knew it was a throwaway character from the opening scene. And then he went and insisted on being a core character for the series.

BLUE FIRE was the same way. Nya meets people, but I never really knew how big a role they’d play until the story was done. Characters I really expected to be big (and spent time creating) turned out to be walk-ons, and walk-ons ended up becoming major characters.

Do your characters ever surprise you?

All the time. I’m a light outliner, so I always know where my characters are going, but never how they’ll get there. Every scene, I just look at what’s going on and ask what the characters would do next based on the situation, their goals, and what’s currently at stake. I might have one idea planned for them, but when I get there, it’s clear they’d never do it that way. Nya is the worst (or best?) at this. She’s so impulsive and makes instant decisions that I have to run to keep up with her sometimes. I’ve never written a character so instantaneous before.

My characters also keep secrets, and a lot of them revealed those in BLUE FIRE. I was writing along, then they said something that made me realize they weren’t really X at all, but Y, and they had all these reason why they were hiding this big thing about themselves. It’s fun to discover these things, but they make me do a lot of revising.

The stories are action-packed - making the books hard to put down! What's it like to write such fast-paced scenes?

Thanks! Dialog and action are what I see first in a story, so my first drafts are always heavy on those, light on description and internalization. I like to get the skeleton of the story down first – who is after what and what goes wrong – and flesh it out after. I also love getting my characters into trouble, so I don’t let them sit around feeling safe very often (I have a friend who says she wants to adopt Nya so I can’t be mean to her anymore).

From a technical standpoint, I think always having that goal with stakes directing me makes it easier to keep the pace fast. Even when she’s going in the wrong direction storywise, Nya is still moving. “What can go wrong?” is a favorite question of mine, and I approach every scene that way. I also try hard to let the bad guys actively try to stop my characters so they’re providing real obstacles and not just delays. I hope that gives the story a better sense that anything can happen and Nya isn’t always going to win after the struggle is over. Keeping things unpredictable keeps the story moving.

I happen to know you're a graphic designer by day. How does being a "visual" person impact your writing?

I’m getting asked this a lot recently, so I’ve been thinking more about it. I think it plays a much larger role than I ever expected. My degree is in Visual Communications, and writing is communication, though we use words instead of pictures. But we still have to “draw” our worlds and characters and make them real for our readers. I think understanding how a visual piece works helps me narrow down what’s important to the scene visually and what’s just “stuff.” If the scene were a painting, what would I want in there to tell the viewer about this snapshot of this person’s life? What matters? The viewer isn’t going to spend all day staring, you need to get all that to them fast before they move on. Scenes are really no different, and you probably have less time because there’s a story there dragging them along.

Tell us about the (gorgeous!) cover art for these books.

Thanks! I’m so thrilled with the illustrations Brandon Dorman has done. (http://www.brandondorman.com/) His use of color is just incredible. I’m terribly proud of the cover for BLUE FIRE, because I got to do something quite rare: design my own cover. As a designer, the covers have always been important to me, and I asked early on if I could please oh please be included in the cover design process. My fantastic editor over at Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins was gracious enough to agree, and I’ve been there from concept on.

For BLUE FIRE, she asked me if I had any ideas for the look, and I did five mock ups using clip art and stock photos. One of them was the hands idea you see on the final. Brandon changed it around a bit (he turned the hands up and put the city skyline at the top) and his eye was dead on, because it really made it pop. I got to do it again for book three, and the early sketches so far look awesome. Again, my concept, his illustration skills and cover designer eye. I’m so blessed to be included in this process.

How do you manage your time, balancing writing with your other work?

Luckily, my design clients don’t need me every day, so I’ll have weeks where projects are in, and stretches where there’s no work at all (more and more common the last few years, sadly). That makes it a lot easier to juggle. But my typical schedule is to write from 8 to 11am, grab lunch, then work on any design projects in the afternoons. If I’m on deadline for either side, I adjust my schedule. When both need me at once, I tell my poor husband he won’t see me much for X days and spend far too much time at my desk. It’s funny, because I have two jobs, but they’re both technically freelance. I never know when work will come in or how busy I’ll be.

Will the third book be the final one in the series? When will it be out?

Yes, book three wraps up the story. It’ll be out October 4, 2011.

Any words of wisdom for writers interested in tackling this genre?

Don’t be afraid to push limits. Shove your characters beyond their comfort zones, go deeper with your worlds and the people that make up those worlds. Fantasy is about bigger than life, adventures that illustrate things in our own lives in an exaggerated way. Find what’s unique about your world and characters and bring those aspects to life. Everyone has seen the “default” fantasy setting of Medieval Europe, so bring something new to the landscape that’s all you.

Here's the official BLUE FIRE blurb:
"Part fugitive, part hero, fifteen-year-old Nya is barely staying ahead of the Duke of Baseer’s trackers. Wanted for a crime she didn’t mean to commit, she risks capture to protect every Taker she can find, determined to prevent the Duke from using them in his fiendish experiments. But resolve isn’t enough to protect any of them, and Nya soon realizes that the only way to keep them all out of the Duke’s clutches is to flee Geveg. Unfortunately, the Duke’s best tracker has other ideas.

"Nya finds herself trapped in the last place she ever wanted to be, forced to trust the last people she ever thought she could. More is at stake than just the people of Geveg, and the closer she gets to uncovering the Duke’s plan, the more she discovers how critical she is to his victory. To save Geveg, she just might have to save Baseer—if she doesn’t destroy it first."

...and Janice's Bio
"A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy THE HEALING WARS, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books include THE SHIFTER, and BLUE FIRE from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel."

Thank you, Janice, for such a great interview! Janice will be signing books at THE HALL BOOK EXCHANGE in Gainesville, Ga., on Oct. 23. You can also visit her online at http://www.janicehardy.com and take in all her great writing tips and interviews at:
The Other Side of the Story Blog
by clicking here.

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