The Qwillery | category: Sarah Chorn


The Qwillery

A blog about books and other things speculative

Guest Post by Sarah Chorn, author of OF HONEY AND WILDFIRES

Please welcome Sarah Chorn to The Qwillery with a guest post about some of the research she did to create the fascinating magic system in her new novel Of Honey and Wildfires.

And please join The Qwillery in wishing Sarah a very Happy Publication Day!

Guest Post by Sarah Chorn, author of OF HONEY AND WILDFIRES

One of the most unique aspects (in my humble opinion) of Of Honey and Wildfires is the magic system. “Shine” (what magic is called in this book) is based on the oil and coal industries in the mid-to-late 1800’s. Shine comes in a liquid and a rock form. It’s either pumped out of the earth in big wells that people dig, or it’s mined. Shine is used for a whole slew of things. People add it to their food and drinks. It’s used to heal injuries and illness. It’s used to power trains, and send messages. There’s also a darker side to it, but I’ll let you read the book to figure that out.

I do a whole lot of real-world research when I write. I like to base as much of my secondary worlds and magic system on the real world as possible. I went down some pretty wild rabbit holes when I was researching oil and coal to make my “shine” in this book. For example, did you know that people would drink oil as a curative? Did you know that oil was used in China some 7,000+ years ago?

Fascinating stuff, right?

So, here is where I will geek out a bit about the aspects of oil and coal that I didn’t know before writing this book, and how I used this information to inform my “shine” in Of Honey and Wildfires.

The early 18th century marked a change in society, from agrarian to more industrial as steam engines and the like were introduced to the world.

Suddenly, coal was a thing people could use to heat houses, and even power engines. The benefit of coal was that a little of it went a long way. A half-ton of coal produced four times more energy than the same amount of wood.

Soon, people started wondering what else the earth held in it (some say that environmental concerns drove people toward oil, some say it was just a natural progression). Regardless, the oil industry entered the American landscape in 1859 with a well dug in Pennsylvania.

That, however, is not really where the oil industry starts. Not globally, at least. Now, follow me, dear reader, while we go down a rabbit hole that will take us back a few thousand years, to China.

The earliest sign of wells being dug is in the Zhejiang Province, in China. Evidence for wells, dating back some 7,000 years ago, when people were just starting to enter the region and cultivate the land. At this time, people in the coastal regions would boil water from the sea to produce salt. Salt was a valuable preservative, used to preserve foods as well as in cooking. As people moved inland, and the population became denser, people inland began to dig salt wells. The first recorded salt well was dug in the Sichuan Province around 2,250 years ago.

There is evidence of the drilling techniques changing over time, from using percussive methods to break through the rock and shale, to eventually using bamboo and pressure, which allowed people to dig deeper wells, easier. The first well to reach more than 1,000 meters in depth was the Shanghai Well in 1835. Oil, natural gas, petroleum and the like was often an unwanted byproduct of salt water drilling.

Guest Post by Sarah Chorn, author of OF HONEY AND WILDFIRES
Early 20th century scene. Zigong City, with hundreds of salt transportation boats on the Fuxi River. (Image from Zhong & Huang) Taken from the article linked one paragraph down.

Salt was often traded on boats through rivers, while bamboo pipeline was created to pump oil and natural gas. For a long time, the salt and natural gas industry were two separate beasts (the salt being more useful and desired than the oil), but there is evidence of a fledgling natural gas industry dating back to 61 BC. Around the 16th century, technology was developed that allowed people to cultivate more natural gas. Usually, until this point, wood had been used to boil the water, which would then evaporate and leave behind salt. Now, natural gas could be used, preserving more trees and reducing deforestation in areas.

This merging of the salt and natural gas industry is what allowed Zigong’s salt production to reach an industrial scale. (I highly recommend you read this article about all this to gain more depth and detail, as well as pictures.) Another fun fact: Herodotus claimed that asphalt was used in the construction of walls, nearly four thousand years ago, and much of it was found on the banks of the river Issus. (more here)

This brings us to the US oil industry. In 1849, a man named Samual Keir began extracting oil from the saltwater wells on his property. After some experimentation, he discovered that the substance that was the byproduct of his saltwater wells had the same chemical properties of the stuff his wife was being prescribed for her ailments. He decided to see what else it could be used for. He started selling his oil for medicinal purposes and, of course, being the enterprising soul he was, he grew rich.

In the 1850’s, Kier started drilling for crude exclusively, rather than finding it as a byproduct of salt water. He joined up with John T. Kirkpatrick and started the first oil refinery wherein they refined the oil so it was cleaner and more efficient “carbon oil.” (more here)

From news of Kier’s success came the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, created by George Bissell and Benjamin Silliman. (more here)

In 1859, one very lucky chap, Edwin Drake, was sent by the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company to rural Pennsylvania dig, specifically, for oil. He ended up with a well that was 69.5 feet deep. While whale oil had been used for a long time, this “rock oil” was safer than many other oils used on the market, like camphene, which was explosive. This discovery turned Pennsylvania into one of the first “producing states.”

Guest Post by Sarah Chorn, author of OF HONEY AND WILDFIRES
Edwin Drake, right, stands with friend Peter Wilson of Titusville, Pennsylvania, at the drilling site – but not the original cable-tool derrick – of America’s first oil well. Photo courtesy Drake Well Museum. (Image found in this article.)

Fun fact: Crude oil had been found in medicine as far back as 1814, though the oil used for these was found using primitive drilling methods, and the people who found this crude (in Kentucky and Tennessee, respectively), were often drilling for brine, using “spring poles” instead of the pressurized drilling used in Pennsylvania. The small amount of oil was an unwanted byproduct and thus, put into medicine. (more here)

Truthfully, oil has been used throughout civilization in many different ways, but usually, the finding of it was met with dismay. It was an unwanted byproduct of drilling to find brine, which was a valuable source of salt, used to preserve food, and etc. (more here)

Anyway, back to good ol’ Americana Black Gold.

Word got out about Drake’s find in Pennsylvania, so all sorts of people decided to come out and find their own oil. There was so much competition, that within two years, Drake had to shut his well down. Not long after, more oil was found in states out west, and Pennsylvania sort of dried up while people hied off to Texas and other states to strike it rich with the black gold.

This seems like a good place to stop things for now. It leaves a jumping-off point for what happens next – the introduction of big oil companies, Rockefeller, frontier life, western expansion, the resource curse, all of which I used in one way or another as jumping-off points for the creation of not just the magic system, but issues faced in Shine Territory as a whole.

The research I do while writing often fascinates me and helps me inform my plot and characters in some unexpected ways. I learn far more than what I actually use in my books, but knowing these things helps me add dimension, texture, and layers to my writing.

I hope, if you choose to read Of Honey and Wildfires, you’ll enjoy the magic system as much as I enjoyed creating it.

Of Honey and Wildfires
April 28, 2020
Kindle eBook, 308 pages

Guest Post by Sarah Chorn, author of OF HONEY AND WILDFIRES
From the moment the first settler dug a well and struck a lode of shine, the world changed. Now, everything revolves around that magical oil.

What began as a simple scouting expedition becomes a life-changing ordeal for Arlen Esco. The son of a powerful mogul, Arlen is kidnapped and forced to confront uncomfortable truths his father has kept hidden. In his hands lies a decision that will determine the fate of everyone he loves—and impact the lives of every person in Shine Territory.

The daughter of an infamous saboteur and outlaw, Cassandra has her own dangerous secrets to protect. When the lives of those she loves are threatened, she realizes that she is uniquely placed to change the balance of power in Shine Territory once and for all.

Secrets breed more secrets. Somehow, Arlen and Cassandra must find their own truths in the middle of a garden of lies.

About Sarah

Guest Post by Sarah Chorn, author of OF HONEY AND WILDFIRES
Sarah has been a compulsive reader her whole life. At a young age, she found her reading niche in the fantastic genre of Speculative Fiction. She blames her active imagination for the hobbies that threaten to consume her life. She is a freelance writer and editor, a semi-pro nature photographer, world traveler, three-time cancer survivor, and mom to one six-year-old, and one rambunctious toddler. In her ideal world, she’d do nothing but drink lots of tea and read from a never-ending pile of speculative fiction books.

Website  ~  Twitter @BookwormBlues  ~  Facebook

Interview with Sarah Chorn, author of Seraphina's Lament

Please welcome Sarah Chorn to The Qwillery. Seraphina's Lament (The Bloodlands 1) was published in February 2019.

Interview with Sarah Chorn, author of Seraphina's Lament

TQWelcome to The Qwillery. What is the first fiction piece you remember writing?

Sarah:  I wrote a book in Kindergarten. It was about a family of bears that got lost in the woods while it was raining. I remember stapling the pages together and tying them with yarn and then proudly giving it to my teacher, who thought it was so wonderful she read it to the class during story time. I still have it sitting in a box in my basement.

TQAre you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?

Sarah:  I’ve tried so hard to plot. I keep seeing people wax poetic about how wonderful plotting is and I try. I try so hard, and I hate every second of it. I feel too constrained, I think. I’ve never been good at coloring inside the lines. I guess I’m a pantser and always will be. It’s just how my mind works. I love the discovery I feel as I write.

TQWhat is the most challenging thing for you about writing?

Sarah:  Finding time to do it. I have a day job, I’m also an editor, I have two small kids, and a house and family to take care of, plus health problems due to my Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. I almost never get an hour to just sit down and write. Seraphina’s Lament was written in 5-10 minute chunks throughout the day. I rarely get more time than that to sit at my computer.

TQWhat has influenced / influences your writing?

Sarah:  I’ve been reviewing books for about ten years now, and I’ve been an editor for going on three. I’ve read a lot of books. It would be impossible for me to say that those books didn’t influence me in some way. I love lyrical writing, and poetic prose, and I tend to glom onto authors who write that way and study their books intensely. Mark Lawrence, Margaret Atwood, Catherynne M. Valente and so many others.

TQDescribe Seraphina's Lament using only 5 words.

Sarah:  This question is killing me. Five words? I had to turn to my writing group to help me out here, because the tagline for the book is six words – “You must break before you become.” And one of my friends in my writing group piped up with, “A song from the Decembrists popped into my head when I was thinking of your book. The lyrics are, ‘Everything is awful.’”

So… there you go. I guess. This should be a question writers are asked in hell.

TQTell us something about Seraphina's Lament that is not found in the book description.

Sarah:  A lot of Seraphina’s personal story arc is almost autobiographical. There’s a whole lot of me in her. I gave her my spine and leg injury and chronic pain. She walks with a cane. Her days are dictated by the limits of her body. More than that, she’s coming to grips with herself, her situation and her body in ways that I very much felt during my own life when I was going through cancer treatments, and coming to grips with my Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome diagnosis, and the ways this chronic illness is altering my body. The book’s tagline, “You must break before you become” was a line I thought up when I was in the hospital.

TQWhat inspired you to write Seraphina's Lament? What appeals to you about writing Fantasy?

Sarah:  I’ve always enjoyed fantasy. I think there’s a certain freedom with exploring complex ideas, that can often be uncomfortable, that you get in a secondary world, that you just can’t really accomplish when you write fiction set in the real world, and I’ve always liked that. Plus, I just really dig being able to create my own world, and the people that fill it. I guess I have a bit of a god complex in that way (har har).

Seraphina’s Lament was inspired by a trip to the historical nonfiction section of my library. I happened upon a bunch of books on Russian history and basically thought, “This looks neat and I know nothing about Russia so let’s change that.” It happened that the first book I read was on the Holodomor, which was a tragic genocide that I knew nothing about until I happened across it. I was transfixed. Up to 10 million people died in 1932-1933 due to Stalin’s horrible policies. Almost no one in the west knows anything about it, which is, in my opinion, completely and absolutely wrong.

I was reading this book, and the story just came to life in my mind. I knew I had to tell it.

TQWhat sort of research did you do for Seraphina's Lament?

Sarah:  I had to do an absolute ton of research. I had to not only understand what had happened, but it’s broader impact, and all the events that took place that led up to the Holodomor. I’ve spent over a year buried in Russian history. You can’t understand Stalin and his policies unless you understand Lenin. Lenin doesn’t make complete sense unless you really know more about the last three Tsars (at least), and Europe leading up to and through WWI, and the list goes on. One thing led to another, which led to another. A lot of my research gave me context for the events I was writing about. I didn’t realize how important that context would be until I was actually writing the book and detailing the events that take place in it.

However, it was equally important for me to understand the events of the Holodmor, and all the things that surrounded it. Yes, my book is set in a secondary world, and yes, I absolutely do take liberties with events and twist them enough to fit my book and the trilogy this is going to become, but the Holodomor was a tragic, horrible event, and I wanted to stay as true to it as I possibly could and doing that took a shocking amount of research.

TQPlease tell us about the cover for Seraphina's Lament.

Sarah:  Pen Astridge did the cover art, and I cannot praise her enough. She’s amazing. I’m pretty terrible with that sort of thing, so I sent her a rundown of the plot, some important points, and basically told her to go nuts with it. I was probably the least helpful person she’s ever worked with in her life. However, she sent me the cover for Seraphina’s Lament and I just about died. It doesn’t depict any one person or event, it’s more symbolic of people being marked by drought, and famine, and the death and tragedy that flows in its wake.

She’s an amazing cover artist. I can’t recommend her enough.

TQIn Seraphina's Lament who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?

Sarah:  The easiest character surprised me a bit. I expected him to be the hardest, but he’s the one where the story just took off and I wrote without thinking. That’s Taub. I expected to have a hard time writing about him because cannibalism is gross and just generally uncomfortable, but his part of the book came easiest. Maybe because he’s just so far outside of my comfort zone it was easier to write about him? I’m not sure why, but Taub just flowed out of me.

The hardest was Neryan, who is Seraphina’s twin brother. He is basically smothered by survivor’s guilt and he’s emotionally torn a few different directions. I had a hard time pinning him down, trying to keep his guilt relatable without overdoing it. I had to rewrite a lot of his chapters during edits, and nailing down his motivations was really a struggle for me. I think he was so difficult because he’s so incredibly close to the center of events, but not actually the center of events, and trying to keep him balanced just right was one hell of a task.

TQDoes Seraphina's Lament touch on any social issues?

Sarah:  There are a lot of social issues in the book. Slavery is a topic, as are governmental policies and how they affect people. Disabilities take a role through Seraphina, and so does race. There’s a lot here for people to chew on, if they want to, but I also tried very, very hard to not be preachy or in-your-face about any of it.

TQWhich question about Seraphina's Lament do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

Sarah:  I think I’d like someone to ask why I thought it was important to make Seraphina disabled. The answer would be for a lot of reasons. One of which I mentioned above. Another is because I don’t see a lot of myself (my chronic pain, and disabilities) in fantasy books, and I really wanted to write a character that I could relate to. It’s important to see ourselves in the books we read, and I really wanted my chronic pain to be represented, not just for me, but for all the other people out there who deal with chronic pain. Maybe someone else with chronic pain will pick this book up, and see a character being strong, and central to the plot WHILE dealing with chronic pain. Too often we get swept into the margins or pushed onto the back burner. I want people to see a disabled person being badass because we belong in stories too.

TQGive us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Seraphina's Lament.

Sarah:  I’ll give you the start of Seraphina’s first chapter, where I’m trying to describe her (my) chronic pain – this is how she starts the book:

Seraphina felt like she had swallowed the sun.

Agony, to her, wasn’t something that happened; it was a force that burned inside, as much a part of her as her soul. It started in her right foot, and traveled like a forest fire up her twisted leg to settle in her hip, and then eventually made a home in her lower back. Skin too tight, too much sensation for one body to hold. This was how she imagined the universe felt before it birthed planets. All this pain and pressure, this stretching and then, inevitably, the explosion.

TQWhat's next?

Sarah:  I’m currently working on An Elegy for Hope, which is the book that follows Seraphina’s Lament. I’m also writing a social SciFi book about genetic modification called Glass Rhapsody.

TQThank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

Sarah:  Thanks for having me!

Seraphina's Lament
The Bloodlands 1
February 2019
Trade Paperback and Kindle eBook

Interview with Sarah Chorn, author of Seraphina's Lament
The world is dying.

The Sunset Lands are broken, torn apart by a war of ideology paid for with the lives of the peasants. Drought holds the east as famine ravages the farmlands. In the west, borders slam shut in the face of waves of refugees, dooming all of those trying to flee to slow starvation, or a future in forced labor camps. There is no salvation.

In the city of Lord’s Reach, Seraphina, a slave with unique talents, sets in motion a series of events that will change everything. In a fight for the soul of the nation, everyone is a player. But something ominous is calling people to Lord’s Reach and the very nature of magic itself is changing. Paths will converge, the battle for the Sunset Lands has shifted, and now humanity itself is at stake.

First, you must break before you can become.

About Sarah

Interview with Sarah Chorn, author of Seraphina's Lament
Sarah has been a compulsive reader her whole life. At a young age, she found her reading niche in the fantastic genre of Speculative Fiction. She blames her active imagination for the hobbies that threaten to consume her life. She is a freelance writer and editor, a semi-pro nature photographer, three-time cancer survivor, and mom to two kids. In her ideal world, she’d do nothing but drink lots of tea and read from a never-ending pile of speculative fiction books.

Website  ~  Twitter @bookwormblues

Guest Post by Sarah Chorn, author of OF HONEY AND WILDFIRESInterview with Sarah Chorn, author of Seraphina's Lament

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