Playing with Fire: Writing Realistically or Not?

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It’s a good thing I love the push and pull between fantasy and reality — seriously, that theme’s in almost all of my stories — because I had to deal with that balance of opposing forces when I wrote my last teaser.

In the teaser (which will soon be available to those who sign up for my free email newsletter), my hero Calder runs into a burning building to save his friend. He goes up to the second story, finds his friend, and escapes with little more than a singed head of hair. There’s also cool special effects you’d find in any action movie.

Problem is, in a real fire, he’d have died instantly.

One of my betas is an EMT, so he told me what you could expect in a fire. The kiss of death? There’s an eight hundred degree difference between the floor and standing height. As he put it, Calder’s head would have caught on fire when he entered the building.

So as a writer, how do I balance the reality of a burning building with the dramatic expectations Hollywood has given my reader?

I’ve read exactly one book that has a similar situation. Not sure if that’s good or bad, it’s just what I’ve read. It was Cold Fire by Tamora Pierce. An arsonist is setting fires in town, and the main character and her teacher go in and rescue tons of people. How? They’re forge mages. Their magic inures them to heat and smoke. They can hold red-hot pieces of metal, magically blow smoke out of the way, and — to a small extent — control fire.

Pierce’s characters are perfect for entering burning buildings. I doubt she had this purpose in mind when designing their magic, since this book is part of a second series. But their powers allow her to keep the reality of a burning building and have people going in for the rescue.

I don’t have characters with those kinds of powers so I had to fudge a little. I decided that since the fire was started by magical means, it didn’t have to behave like a real fire. That way I sacrifice reality, but get to keep the rescue — which is more important to the purpose of the story than a realistic portrayal of a burning building.

So in this case, fantasy won out over reality. But the next case will be a whole different fight.


Jennifer A. Johnson is a newly published fantasy writer thanks to The Adventure of Creation anthology. She's still revising her first novel, but you can sign up for her free newsletter to pass the time.

1984, Big Brother, and Narrator

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With a member of my writing group submitting a novel based on 1984, I thought it was a good time to read the original. It’s been on my To Read list for years, but never a high priority.

I started reading, and was immediately struck by the similarities between 1984 and my novel-in-progress, The Narrator. There are clear parallels between Big Brother and my eponymous antagonist, and between Winston and my protagonist. Who knew?

It was inevitable, I suppose. 1984 explores a theme that crops up in most of my own work: the line between fantasy and reality.

If you’re not familiar with the book, Big Brother constantly alters records to bring them in line with the present. If they’re allied with one country against another, then that’s how it’s always been. If they make a prediction and it doesn’t come true, the predictions are altered to match what really happened. People can be “vanished,” or killed and erased from every record. With the past and present always under revision, Winston has trouble keeping everything straight.

Similarly, the narrator re-writes my protagonist’s history, and he has trouble recognizing which events go with which timeline. He has brothers in one timeline, but otherwise they’re similar enough that he can’t differentiate. Add the fact that the narrator told him he’s a fictional character, and you have a real mess. Which parts of his world are real, and which are the narrator’s creation?

Which life is his real life? Or does he not have a real life at all?


Jennifer A. Johnson is a newly published fantasy writer thanks to The Adventure of Creation anthology. She's still revising her first novel, but you can sign up for her free newsletter to pass the time.

Why Doctor Who is Brilliant and a Cheater

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In honor of Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary, I wanted to talk about time travel. (Spoiler warning, but none of the episodes I mention are from the latest season.) I asked my friend what aspect of time travel to focus on. During our discussion, he asked which school Doctor Who followed: whether time travelers can change history, or whether they can’t. When I said “both,” he said that’s cheating.

He’s right. It’s cheating. But it’s also brilliant.

According to the Doctor, time is in flux. Anything can happen. But the exceptions are fixed points in time, moments that can’t change from what has already happened.

Great example? Pompeii. Vesuvius erupts and destroys Pompeii. The Doctor can’t stop that. Actually, he causes it, which is one of my favorite aspects of time travel. But he can’t evacuate the town to save everyone or do anything to stop the volcano erupting because Pompeii’s destruction is a fixed point.

The majority of episodes don’t deal with fixed points. The Doctor is free to try to save people from the disaster of the day. This approach allows them all sorts of flexibility.

But they can get in trouble when they break their own rules. I distinctly remember two instances where the show has broken its rule about fixed points.

In one episode, the Tenth Doctor visits a scientific expedition on Mars whose total destruction is a fixed point. He keeps trying to leave without getting involved, because he knows that he can’t save them. But then he changes his mind and saves a few of the team members. This time, history has a way of correcting itself, and it turns out not to matter that he saved them.

In another episode, the Eleventh Doctor is supposed to die at a specific time in a specific place. And when he doesn’t, time breaks. All of time happens in the same moment. (It’s a strange concept I don’t really understand yet; just go with it.)

Two fixed points that are changed when they shouldn’t be; two completely different consequences. That rule-breaking is how the show truly cheats at time travel. But since they did break their rule, it would have been better to have consistency. Personally, I prefer the first consequence, since fixed points in time aren’t supposed to be able to change anyway.

But those are the exceptions. Most of the time, the fixed point is one more obstacle the Doctor has to face when trying to save people, like in the Pompeii episode. I love that type of conflict.

Still doubt that it’s brilliant? Here’s the proof: Doctor Who is 50 years old, and going strong.

Happy 50th, Doctor!


Jennifer A. Johnson is a newly published fantasy writer thanks to The Adventure of Creation anthology. She's still revising her first novel, but you can sign up for her free newsletter to pass the time.

The Reality of Romanticizing the Past

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I’ve noticed an interesting theme this past week in my activities: romanticizing the past. In the book I read, the main character romanticized the Regency era; and the Renaissance Festival I went to Saturday celebrated the romantic ideal of the Middle Ages. Since I’m regularly guilty of romanticizing both periods, the juxtaposition got me thinking.

I’m a Jane Austen fan. I love the romances, but I also love the culture. The mannerisms, the courtship, the courtesy. Dancing that doesn’t involve grinding up against your partner. Very clear rules that provide structure, versus an ambiguous “let’s go hang out without defining whether it’s a date or not.” Yes, that happens to me a lot.

Of course, that’s the rose-colored glasses version. As Definitely Not Mr. Darcy explored, real life was much less romantic. Medicine included leeches to balance the humors, and cloves to cure toothaches. Women had no voice, no free will, and no purpose beyond birthing sons. Not to mention the terrible hygiene in their attempt at brushing teeth and their all taking baths in the same water.

But at least they took baths, unlike medieval people. I’m not even going to start in on their living conditions, because it’s just going to be worse than those of the Regency era. Instead, I’m more interested in the meshing of romanticization and fantasy.

The Renaissance Fair doesn’t just romanticize the past. It recreates it. It keeps the knights who value honor and chivalry, the good kings and fair ladies, tradesmen with authentic wares, and even the tavern wenches. But it also adds its own elements. An obsession with dragons and fairies, a medley of centuries crammed into one village, and the reality of magic rather than the hope of it.

Which time periods do you romanticize?


Jennifer A. Johnson is a newly published fantasy writer thanks to The Adventure of Creation anthology. She's still revising her first novel, but you can sign up for her free newsletter to pass the time.

Oh, to Be Human

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As humans, we have a pretty sweet deal. We have books. And indoor plumbing. And opposable thumbs. No wonder all of the non-humans are trying to get in on this gig.

I kid, of course. But I do enjoy a good human transformation.

Whether it’s a little mermaid wanting a pair of legs or a crow turning in his wings, each character who wants to be human is in love with one. And what really draws me to these characters is their decision to sacrifice everything they’ve known in order to be with the one they love.

The little mermaid doesn’t just give up her tail. She gives up her family, her way of life, even how she breathes. Plus, you know, her voice. So she gives up everything for the man she loves, and can’t even tell him.

In Disney’s version at least, she manages to cope pretty well with the transition. She finds her balance moderately quickly and is eager to learn everything she can about life as a human. But at least she was already used to hands and whatnot.

In Tamora Pierce’s Trickster’s Choice, Nawat the crow falls in love with Aly the human. He takes on human form to be with her, giving up his feathers and his flock, but he has a much harder time with the transition. He tries to woo Aly as a crow would, with offerings of bugs and shiny rocks — which, unsurprisingly, she doesn’t go for.

But as he learns more about humans, the more torn he becomes between his crow self and his human self. Humans don’t think the same way crows do. Humans lie and betray and play with the feelings of others. Nawat ends up sacrificing more than he bargained for when he first became human.

His love, however, carries him through. He may not think much of humans in general, but he can still believe in Aly.

And that’s what’s so great about characters becoming human. There’s that culture clash between their old world and the human world (which, as an anthropology major, I love), but there’s also a deep undercurrent of love that drives the character. All of their sacrifices, all of their differences, none of it matters because they are able to be with the one they love.

P.S. Want to know why the post’s picture is a doe? Sign up for my free newsletter (to the right, there). One of the early stories is about a doe who becomes human to — you guessed it — be with the man she loves. Edit: my newsletter has changed and this story is no longer available.


Jennifer A. Johnson is a newly published fantasy writer thanks to The Adventure of Creation anthology. She's still revising her first novel, but you can sign up for her free newsletter to pass the time.

At Least Stab Me in the Front

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I love a good betrayal. It’s so…delicious.

Done right, it’s a shocking revelation. The heroes are devastated by their misplaced trust. The villain becomes bigger, badder, stronger. And everything changes.

A perfect example: Peter Pettigrew. (Yes, this is Harry Potter, I cite Harry Potter a lot.)

He turns over his best friends to Voldemort. People he grew up with, shared secrets with, got into trouble with. He sent them and their son to their deaths, because his master was the baddest kid on the playground. Even better, he framed his other best friend for that betrayal.

Well played, you rat. Well played.

Another good example is from Tangled, when Rapunzel realizes Mother Gothel kidnapped her.

She’s spent eighteen years living a lie. She thought her mother loved her, wanted to protect her from people who would use her magical healing hair — never knowing that’s exactly what her “mother” was doing. Worse, she is willing to keep up the charade to save the man she loves. That’s sacrifice right there (but that’s another theme for another post).

Luckily, I haven’t suffered any heart-wrenching betrayals yet. I hope I never have to. Little betrayals are hard enough — when you think someone will stick up for you, but throws you under the bus; when you thought you were friends with people but actually weren’t; or when you trust someone and they just plain let you down.

How do you feel about betrayals? Love them? Hate them? Wish they would turn themselves in for a reward?


Jennifer A. Johnson is a newly published fantasy writer thanks to The Adventure of Creation anthology. She's still revising her first novel, but you can sign up for her free newsletter to pass the time.