Tag Archives: advice for writers

Female Warriors in Fantasy Fiction
Part 1: The Shield Maiden in History

By William Stacey

I met William Stacey through an online writer’s group. His manuscript for Black Monastery impressed me so I reached out to him and became one of his beta readers. That novel did well, becoming a Breakthrough Novel Award Quarter-Finalist on Amazon in 2014.   

He is a former army intelligence officer who served his country for more than thirty years with operational tours in Bosnia and Afghanistan; a husband, father, and avid reader with a love for the macabre; and last but not least a skilled and thoughtful writer.  I knew he would write a great blog, and he did not disappoint!  

Look for Part 2: The Female Knight in History coming later this month.


Twenty-year-old university dropout Cassie Rogan has returned to her small British Columbia home. Tortured by an accident that killed her parents, she drifts, failing life at every turn. When an uncanny lightning storm hits the forest, Cassie discovers that, after centuries of atrophy, the forces of magic are flowing back into our world, and Cassie can wield arcane powers. But everything comes with a price… Available on Amazon.

**Spoiler Alert!**

There’s a brutal swordfight in episode 10 of season 4 of Game of Thrones when Brienne of Tarth goes toe-to-toe with thuggish Sandor, “the Hound,” Clegane. To HBO’s credit, the fight is violent, exciting, bloody—and most importantly—completely believable. It was easily one of the best things I saw all last year on television. Gwendoline Cristie’s portrayal of tragically noble warrior Brienne is nothing short of amazing.

But…even in the make-believe world of Westeros, Brienne is an aberration.

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She is consistently underappreciated and often the subject of scorn, ridiculed by both men and women (I’m looking at you, Cercei Lannister). George is an amazing writer, and his portrayal of a female warrior in a fantasy setting was, in my opinion, perfect—because—as unpopular as this may be with some—there has been only a very, very small percentage of female warriors throughout history. Right or wrong, warfare has pretty much always been a boy’s club.

Now, I get it. Westeros is a fantasy setting, not reality. However, I think Westeros is also pretty obviously modeled on medieval Europe. In fact, so is most fantasy fiction produced in the West. I’m not going to imply that this is somehow wrong; certainly I’ve used medieval Europe as a mirror for much of my own fiction. I think it’s normal to create worlds similar to what we’re already familiar with (although some would also call it boring… but hey, people also say that the zombie craze is over, yet we’re getting a new Walking Dead series spin-off). European history is immediately relatable to most readers. Call a character a knight and a picture pops into our heads—even if that picture is often biased by the movies. Writers can introduce a little bit of world building—put in a castle, a few knights, a dragon—and readers are good to go.

Fiction isn’t reality, I do get that, but grounding a story in history can often make it much more believable. If you need an example, read anything by Bernard Cornwell. He writes the best medieval combat out there because he researches everything. So, if fantasy is more realistic when it’s modeled on real history, what’s the state of women warriors in fiction today? Is Brienne of Tarth a believable character? What about Lagertha, the famous Viking shield maiden who fought beside Ragnar Lothbrok? How are we writers doing with our heroic female warriors? Well… not bad, actually.

Let’s start with Lagertha and female Vikings. Did shield maidens exist? Sadly, probably not—at least there’s no firm historical evidence that they did, and certainly not as a significant portion of any Viking military force. Did (at least some) Norse women fight in battles? Absolutely, just as there are anecdotal examples of women who fought as warriors in medieval Europe. Historically, though, these examples are so few and far between as to be statistically irrelevant. There is little-to-no proof that female warriors ever accompanied Viking armies in large numbers, and likely 99.9% of Viking warriors were male. It’s possible that the enduring legends of Viking shield maidens are confused with that of the Valkyries, Odin’s female (but not human) messengers who carried fallen warriors to Valhalla.

Admittedly, history isn’t always black and white, and not all historians agree on the existence of shield maidens with some insisting that they did exist. The twelfth century historian Saxo Grammaticus wrote of the heroic Lagertha (Lathergertha in his writings) as well as other shield maidens who fought with the Viking armies. The problem with Saxo, however, is that his histories are considered by some to be largely fictional, including details from myth and legend. As a credible source, Saxo isn’t.

Still some people remain convinced that there were, indeed, female Viking warriors. The History Channel’s outstanding Vikings series—with the incredibly cool Lagertha portrayed by Katheryn Winnick—may be reinforcing these beliefs. In 2014, an article (bearing a picture of Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha) was published on Tor.com with the headline, “Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female.” The source for this new information was a paper published in 2011 in the journal Early Medieval Europe, written by Shane McLeod, where, following reexaminations of Viking burial sites in Britain, McLeod proposed that the ratio of female-to-male Viking settlers may have been much higher than was previously thought. Through osteological sexing (bone analysis) of fourteen burial sites in Britain, six were found to likely be female. McLeod concludes by suggesting that maybe a third to one half of Viking setters—not warriors, setters—may have been female. Fair enough. That’s an interesting finding and bears further investigation; after all, fourteen burial sites is hardly a significant sample. The problem, though, began when some took McLeod’s findings and twisted them to say something that he wasn’t at all saying—namely that half of all Viking warriors were female. They weren’t. And while some female Norse burial sites have been found to contain swords and other traditionally male-centric items, that’s hardly proof those women were warriors. It just means they were buried with weapons. Judith Jesch, the Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham, stated, “It is likely that there were occasions when women had to defend themselves and their families as best they could, with whatever weapons were to hand. But there is absolutely no hard evidence that women trained or served as regular warriors in the Viking Age….Women warriors must be classed as Viking legend.”

I’ll repeat what I wrote earlier: fiction isn’t reality, and certainly fantasy fiction is even further removed from reality. Historically, shield maidens may only be legend, but so were dragons—and those glorious, fire-breathing creatures aren’t going anywhere. Authors need to decide for themselves. In my latest fantasy novel, The Sword of Heaven: Book 1 of the Vampire Queen, I have Viking-like female warriors fighting side by side with their male counterparts, but I also have a European-styled medieval kingdom where gender expectations forbid women from bearing arms. I accept that shield maidens didn’t exist, but I’m putting them in the book anyhow. My story-world, I can do as I want. However, if I were to write another historical Viking story, such as I did with Black Monastery—rather than a Viking-like story—I probably wouldn’t include the historically inaccurate shield maidens.

So, sorry, Lagertha, while I don’t believe you ever existed, I still think you rock!


Travel into Your Imagination


No good vacation goes unpunished.  They are work from the whole booking-travel-and-lodging thing to the packing thing to the prepping-your-work-and-personal-life-to-survive-two-weeks-without-you thing. I find myself so harried before vacations that I wonder, why am I doing this again?  This vacation, my work life was particularly bad…STRESS!

But I marched all my ducks into a row with my trusty cattle prod and got on a plane to cross another bucket-list item from my to-do list.  I’ve always wanted to take any one of my good friends back to the Northeast to share my childhood stomping grounds.  Finally one of my dearest friends agreed to come with me to spend a week each in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

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But this is a blog about writing, not vacationing, so what’s the deal?  Well, in addition to the fun, family, and friend time, I’ve gotten more out of my travels. I’ve cultivated  a wider first-hand understanding of the world from people to places to nature.

This was my friend’s first trip to the Northeast.  For the most part, she’s spent her time on the West Coast.  Sharing such a different place with her was an interesting experience for me.  I saw things in new ways. We spent a lot of time driving so we talked a lot.


Wolfeboro claims to be the oldest resort town in America. We got to see it from the deck of the Mount Washington on a day cruise.

For instance, we were driving through New Hampshire when my friend asked, “What is the biggest city in the state?”  Huh, I didn’t have any idea.  So out comes the trusty smart phone and voila!  It’s Manchester. Of course next to that information is the population: 109,565.  Wow, that twisted my head.  Largest city in California is Los Angeles at 3.8 million.  My hometown, what I think of as a medium-sized suburban area between San Francisco and San Jose, has a population of over 140,000.  Shoot, the population of the Bay Area is five times the whole state of New Hampshire (7 million vs. 1.3 million).  And cities…well, the Bay Area alone has 101, while New Hampshire totals 13.

The point of this is that wherever we are, we get sedentary in our thoughts of what is “normal.”  While we know that things are different in some way anywhere we go, feeling it gives a whole new perspective.  If you follow my blogs, you have heard me say that what readers want from fiction is an emotional experience.  You as a writer can give them that experience so much more vividly if you yourself feel it first.  Statistics don’t generate such emotion, but every day of our week in New Hampshire, we felt and saw the ramifications of these statistics.

NH. cov. bridge.20150703_104450_resized

That sign reads: Five dollar fine for riding or driving on this bridge faster than a walk.

NH.cov.bridge.20150703_104546_resizedI live within three minutes of three major freeways.  I go everywhere on freeways.  But in New Hampshire, we went almost everywhere on twisty two-lane highways (just one lane each direction) with turnouts for passing if we were lucky.  We only got on the interstate thrice in the week, and two of those were to cross into and out of New Hampshire.   Every day we were there, we drove along highways overhung with leaves that I knew would burst into glorious golds, reds, and oranges in the fall.  We rumbled across a one-lane covered bridge with a sign warning of “dire”  penalties if you drove faster than a walk (a walk?! How different is that?  Not even a number, just something subjective…talk about a different mindset from the Bay Area).  We rode alongside twisting brooks bubbling white over river rock.  We wended through notches of bald granite towering over us.  I never noticed how spectacular they were until my friend did…I had remembered them as normal from childhood; I needed her eyes to really see them.  The whole state of New Hampshire is granite, and it infiltrates its very nature…maybe down to the state motto, which is as intractable as the craggy granite cliffs: Live Free or Die.  Something as simple as the ground people walk on can characterize not only them, but become a metaphor for an entire culture.

NH.conway.church2.20150702_163415_resizedOn our car trips, we passed through dozens of towns, with clapboard general stores, steep, snow-shedding-rooved old houses, and quaint white churches that looked like they belonged on postcards.  But you better be paying attention…some towns were only two blocks long—no blinking.

This trip reminded me of how people in a smaller, less populated world lived (or at least one of the ways).  And as small as these towns seemed to me, many were metropolises compared to the types of towns I put into my fantasy novel.  These contrasts generate the feelings I draw upon to write from an emotional place to create an emotional experience for readers. I can characterize entire civilizations with just a few choices, so long as they are good solid choices…solid as granite. When I write, I lean on the memories of these woods where I roamed as a child, on the snow and the thunderstorms, the small towns that close up at 5:00, and the apple pie that grandma put on her old rustic farm table. Even the air smelled different on the forested little island of Black Cat where we stayed.  Travel refreshes and adds to those memories.  This trip revitalized my connection to things that I use in my writing.


Grandma’s house, full of hugs, apple pie, and memories. I used to sleep in that room to the upper left, but it was a shed dormer then, not a gable. And Grandma’s beloved tiger lilies are gone…but then, that’s why we need our memories.

Whether you live in a concrete metropolis with seven million people trying to rush about on ten-lane freeways or alone on a tiny island that needs a boat to get to the nearest town, if you write, you can weave travel experiences into your imagings.  Get out of your “normal” and feel—feel something different.  Everyplace has its own characteristics, from real estate to food to landscape to nature and to people. Get out there. Smell it, touch it, taste it, listen and see it.  What surprises you? What touches your heart?  What can you use to make your own worlds come to life?  Weave the magic moments of your travels into your story the next time you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard to create vivid new worlds to share with your readers.


Cabin on Black Cat Island, a view from the dock.

The Writer’s Toolbox
Real Heroes Don’t Get Charlie Horses
Part 4: But how do I do it?

inkwellIdentifying the words that have connotation worth mining can be a challenge if you are not used to thinking of words in this fashion. Poetry is rife with examples of mining connotation. Find some you like or that has an emotional component like one you are looking for and read it. Make notes; pay close attention to metaphor; write down words that attract your attention. Contemplate what those words contribute. Look them up in the dictionary, then the thesaurus.

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Hey, as long as you have the thesaurus open on your desk or desktop, peruse it. Think about how some words evoke different feelings within you, even though they are under the same heading. Pairs like shadow and shade, rock and stone, chill and cool all have different connotations. Shadow tends to be spooky or disturbing, shade restful. Rock is a little less formal-sounding than stone, and the use of rock is more common in the western United States and stone more so in the east. Cool is refreshing, chill is unpleasant, even scary.

As you look through the thesaurus entries, note that the long and complex words tend to leave you cold. Long Latinate-based words can be too neutral. In the worst scenario, they can be so dispassionate as to feel cold. When you are working with neutral words, some are better than others even if neither has heavy connotation. Shorter words tend to be better and are usually not Latinate. Our original example of The clouds moved across the sky, though neutral, is much better than The clouds locomoted across the sky. They are both synonyms from the thesaurus, but locomoted is long and Latinate. Latinate words run the risk of being boring, off putting, cold, or scientific feeling. That said, I like the sound of The clouds traversed the sky. Maybe there is a story where that would be the right choice.

Now that you have looked through some thesaurus entries, it is time to try an exercise to help your next scene. I had a terribly difficult time with a battle scene, and I kept consulting with readers and SCA fighters and reading books on tactics. The scene got more organized, but it never got better. I finally figured out that all the staging and proper window dressing in the world was not going to save the scene. What it lacked was an emotional connection to the reader. Emotional situations were happening; they just weren’t connecting with my reader on an emotional level. So I did two things, I looked for ways to expand my understanding of what sensory events were occurring in a battle (in my case I watched movie and Internet clips), and I spent time with a thesaurus to generate lists of words related to events, the sensory experiences of the characters, and relating to what I watched on the clips. Here are some of the words I looked up: battle, slash, clangor, explode, rage, weak, energy, dance, destroy, adrenalin, taste, scent, perfume, odor, cloying, and fetid. Note how the last five relate. If a word doesn’t work (perfume didn’t work for me) keep looking. Look up entries from within the list you are looking at, they themselves will likely have alternative choices, which will help you refine your word lists.

Now you have useful words swimming about your head ready for you to pluck. Or a list you’ve generated to peruse when you feel you need stronger or different terms. The result for my battle scene was nothing short of transforming. It may not have become the definitive scene to end all battle scenes, but it jumped the chasm from boring to engaging.

Go Forth and Do

If you look at your writing, you may see that you have made choices already where connotation is aiding you. Now you understand what it is you were doing when you chose those words. With your conscious understanding of connotation as a tool for writing, you can control more effectively how your reader connects to the scene you are portraying. You can amp up or dial down the emotional elements, revving up your readers or resting them so you can take them refreshed on the next thrill ride. Your job as a writer is to provide the reader the emotional experience they seek. Connotation can be a powerful and subtle tool for manipulating the emotional connection between your story and your reader, so get out your virtual whetstone, hone your new tool, and put it into your writer’s toolbox.

The Writer’s Toolbox
Real Heroes Don’t Get Charlie Horses
Part 3: Pitfalls, Why Are There Always Pitfalls?


As with everything, pitfalls await you as you experiment with connotation. For one thing, connotation can be cultural. 9-1-1 instantly brings up painful memories for people in the United States, but this combination of numbers might leave a blank stare on the face of someone who lives in South Africa for instance. Both are English speaking, so they share a language, but that culture did not experience the tragic events of September 11.

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What is true culturally is also true individually. Your experiences within your culture differ from your neighbors, your coworker’s, even your own relatives. So what you find meaningful is not what someone else might. Every family has its stories, its inside jokes. These create a micro culture that is specific to that family. “Johnny, do you want a chicken leg?” mades my great aunt bust up laughing, but leaves me cold. She and her brother shared a chicken-leg story from their childhood. They’ve told me it, but I wasn’t there, I don’t remember the mundane story, but the event is etched vividly on Grandpa’s and Great Aunt’s minds such that chicken legs now have additional connotation, but a connotation that cannot be mined to reinforce the emotional scenery of any story I might write.

Another risk is that of purple prose. If you push too hard too fast with heavily laden connotations, you can wind up overwriting your scene such that it becomes melodramatic, trite, or comic. So when I push, I try to get readers to review the words, and then I question them about spots where I felt I might have pushed too hard if they haven’t already mentioned it.

This is a clunker from my past that I took a brief risk with: He finished his run of the line with a feather of hope tickling his liver. The grounds upon which I based this risk were that among the four humors, hope is associated with sanguine, blood, and liver, so I went for the liver tickle. Problem is, the four humors are more remote than, say, liver and onion jokes. And the association of liver with hope is a distant connotation that just doesn’t ring soundly enough with modern readers to rely upon it. Solution? Just drop the last three words. I knew at the time it was likely headed for the axe, but it is worth taking risks. I’ve been amazed at what uncomfortable risks have paid off. Try them, just be prepared to execute them.

The Writer’s Toolbox
Real Heroes Don’t Get Charlie Horses
Part 2: The Charlie Horse Syndrome and Other Ill Applied Connotations

So we’ve just reviewed what connotation is and how it can be used, but let’s look at what happens when the word with the wrong connotation is used. Enter our bad guy:

His lip curled into a leer as he towered over her. She shuddered every time he moved, at every flex of his fist, at every step that brought him closer. He pushed his fuzzy black hair away from his stone-cold eyes, and said…

Queue the sound of a record scratch…Huh? Fuzzy hair? Bunnies are fuzzy, chicks are fuzzy, our childhood teddy bears are fuzzy. Clowns have fuzzy hair, your BFF has fuzzy hair on bad hair days, newborns have fuzzy heads…Do you see the commonality? All of these things are nonthreatening.

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Threatening things are not fuzzy: Wild boars bristle; hissing cats raise their hackles; and gorillas thump their chests as their hair stands on end. While you might stretch the denotation of fuzzy to cover a boar, hissing cat, or angry gorilla, the connotation just screams out against it. So here, the villain has got himself a comic do. Read it again, only this time substitute the word wild for fuzzy. Same tangle-haired look, different feel. One builds your tension, one ruins it.

The title example is one of my favorites and really underlines the point well. In it, the scene is dire and the pain all but unendurable. Note how the end undermines a lot of work to portray a desperate situation. In this example, our fantasy hero is being tortured by magic:

Every time the witch curled her finger or touched him, Gerrick felt another muscle convulse. She brushed Gerrick’s leg and his calves curled in pain. She traced her finger lightly up his thigh and blazed a fiery trail of knots up to his groin. She curled her lips in her knife-edged smile and leaned over to kiss his naked stomach. The muscled clamped so hard he choked on a mouthful of vomit. She worked her way up to his chest. His diaphragm snapped tight, knocking his breath from his laboring lungs. His heart clenched, shooting pain down his arm. By the time he threw his head back under the ratcheting of his neck muscles, he was in agony; the Charlie horse all over his body was the worst pain he’d ever felt.

A Charlie horse? A Charlie Horse is what Hubby gets in the middle of the your favorite show, and he goes hopping around holding his leg going, “Ow-ow-ow! Charlie horse, Charlie horse!” It’s a funny pain when you see someone with it. It’s a mundane pain, one I would say most would not associated with the worst pain they ever had. And frankly, the words Charlie horse just plain sounds light weight, even humorous.

So you see, real heroes don’t get Charlie horses.