Writing a fantasy book series requires the author to spend endless hours developing the world in which unique and complex characters live and interact with one another. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU professor and author Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson, who has published 10 books, about her writing process and tips for aspiring writers. Learn about her brainstorming process and where she finds sources of inspiration for her themes, characters, and urban fantasy settings. Also learn why she writes multiple stories at once, why she uses character sheets to help track her characters’ interactions, and all the research involved in ensuring these magical worlds are complete and engrossing for the reader.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and today we’re talking with Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson, full-time faculty in the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. And today our conversation is about the writing process. Welcome Jennifer.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Thanks Bjorn, happy to be back.
[Listen to her first podcast: What it Takes to Write Paranormal Novels for STEM Professionals]
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And so really just to jump in, I wanted to talk to you about your own writing process, you as a published author, many different novels, many different themes and topics and subjects in those novels. And so what writing themes make sense for you and why even use themes?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Themes are the easiest way for me to connect with certain concepts I want to pull forward. And by that, I mean I tend to write a lot of fantasy and urban fantasy. And the reason that I stick with that realm mostly is because the backdrop of where they are comes into play. And a lot of people really don’t necessarily think about towns as a tertiary character, but they really do make a difference in the story you’re trying to tell. You can’t tell the same story that’s based in New York City that you can that’s based in Flint, Michigan. The dynamics are far too different.
So, picking thematic units, whether it’s going to be about the environment, whether it’s going to be about the social norms of the people in a specific area, just help bring more flavor to those characters. So, it’s a little easier for me as a writer to make the setting and the story far more robust by working with those themes.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love that you do urban fantasy. And so can you describe why you choose urban fantasy, in the sense that Lord of the Rings, GOT, traditional, there’s many different stories that are fantasy, but why choose urban fantasy for just yourself?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Okay. So I’m going to give a little bit of an explanation. Within fantasy, there’s not just an overarching, it’s actually been refined through the past year. So “Lord of the Rings” is considered high fantasy. So you have elves and fairies and those types of creatures. “Game of Thrones” is more fantasy based as you come in with the dragons and the rites and night-stalker-type characters.
Urban fantasy is generally werewolves, vampires, but, the city. So it’s in a city setting. And you see a lot of series based either in New York, in LA, a lot down in New Orleans because it’s those communities that help pick up a lot of flavor. It helps develop those characters in ways that a lot of people try not to.
For example, when you look at a lot of the New Orleans-based characters, so the television show, “The Originals,” the author actually had the book series based in New Orleans as a background because of the history of New Orleans with starting out as penal colony, the types of people that were brought in there, the huge amount of discord that happened when Italian immigrants first moved into the Louisiana area. So when you take that real-world history and then base your fantasy characters there, you just have a more robust pot to pull from.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love that you focus on urban fantasy because it’s great when authors choose to do what you described as more traditional fantasy, where there’s elves or different worlds that don’t exist, but they put a lot of real-world issues and themes in that. It’s a fantasy and sci-fi, is a very good way to discuss the issues of today.
And so why do you think it helps to use an urban setting and a city setting and especially settings that are not LA and are not New York and even not New Orleans? Because there’s been so many stories and so many movies, and so many novels all set in those, New York will continuously always be a place. Why is it a great idea for authors to not choose those well-trodden areas?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: The history, quite frankly. The country’s huge. Everybody understands the United States of America is just this massive place. But choosing smaller cities helps people understand where some of this really rich history we have comes from.
The amount of research, and I do a lot of research before I write, I know we discussed this in the other podcast, but I learn so much more by understanding the setting that I’m working with. It’s amazing. Just the cultural lore that comes from different areas, honestly helps you write stories that you wouldn’t think of writing before.
So, my biggest example is actually not fantasy. I wrote a cowboy romance, which the stipulation is I couldn’t make it paranormal because that’s what I’m comfortable with. And just by doing research, I learned so much. Number one, about Montana. Never been to Montana, it never crossed my purview to actually go there. But understanding how people came together in these small clusters of communities as the territory was being developed.
And then the very real job of the cowboys who were primarily Hispanic and Black and how they started to build the culture of towns that are now well-flourishing, but back in the day, were really small, really communal. How people came together to work against external threats, usually including the weather and then the animals that they were hurting. So there’s just a lot of information.
There’s a lot of regional flavor that can be injected into a story if you step outside of LA, or if you step outside of Louisiana. And, I’m guilty, I have a series set in New York. But where I try to be different is the story setting is under Central Park. So for people who are not aware, the subway lines in New York are multi-layered. So they would build a subway line. It would flood they’d pack on top of it, and they would elevate and then build another subway line. So the subways are multi-tiered. They go down pretty far south. And the big thing lately has been having these rave parties in old subway stations that have been unearthed. Not quite sure that it’s legal and I haven’t been to one, but I’ve seen some pretty amazing pictures. So that’s actually where I set my story was underneath Central Park.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That really lends and transitions really well to the next question, is for your stories, what inspires them and how do you get your ideas? You’ve already talked about a few stories. But when you are deciding to write a new story, do you sit there and let divine inspiration just hit you? Do you go out and research stuff and have ideas gestate from that? What’s your process for trying to come up with new ideas?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: It is very multi-pronged. So sometimes I just have a real good idea for a story. Sitting there, my mind’s wandering and I come across ideas. A lot of time, it’s brainstorming. So I live in a household of storytellers. So my husband runs a D&D campaign with my kids, which I think is hilarious. I have not been invited and I’m okay with that, not bitter. But, they are magnificent storytellers.
And both of my kids, from the time they were little, this is what they grew up with. So at any given time, they will pop in say “Mom, I have this story idea to run by you.” And then sometimes I’m like, “That’s a great story idea. I think I’m going to use that one.” They’re like, “Okay,” and they keep going.
My husband and I brainstorm a lot. That’s just one of our favorite pastimes, “Let’s talk about this world and let’s talk about things in it.” Especially if there are expansions of a story that I already have out, sometimes those brainstorming sessions turn into whole different series, just because I’m done with that world. I have a finite with it, but I can pick up the story and move it to another series. So there’s a lot of that.
And then not to sound like a weirdo, but goodness gracious, life is crazy and sometimes you just see themes and things around you. Or, if you’re at the gym, and I tend to spend quite a bit of time at the gym, listening to other people talk, people have very interesting lives. And at any given time when people are talking about things, I’m like, “That’s a really awesome concept. Okay, I’m going to take it and I’m going to make it paranormal and there’s my new story.”
Interestingly enough, one of my gym buddies told me when she first met me, she just thought I was a really quiet person, which then I laughed hysterically. I’m like, “Nah, not really.” But she knows I write. So she would come up and she’d be like, “I have a really great thing for you to put in a book.” I’m like, “Okay, cool.” And so gyms are small, like any other setting. So now I have random people walk up. They’re like, “Oh, you’re that author chick. Well, here’s the situation.” And then they give me all these stories. And I’m like, “Okay.” And they’re like, “Well, are you going to write about it?” And I’m like, “If I do, I’ll give you a shout out.” There’s a plethora of different ways that inspiration strikes.
Yes, sometimes there’s divine intervention. But a lot of time for me, it’s the “what if.” So you can see a regular everyday situation and then it’s like, all right, but what if I have a teenage witch who can throw a fireball, then what happens? How do the dynamics of high school work if some people have magic and some don’t?
So it’s being able to play with reality and make it fun and then mess with the characters and make their lives rough and difficult and terrible, which again is usually a parallel for things that happen in real life. Life is not always easy, but if you can blame it on your cousin who threw a fireball at your head instead of blaming it on maladjusted, social anxiety that a lot of people have, the story is a little easier to read and then does the job of offering escapism.
People see the parallels with their life. People who are anxious understand what anxiety looks like, but in a magical realm, anxiety can look like creating a small hurricane in your backyard. So it comes together nicely.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I really like how you’re talking about a character throwing a fireball at someone, and then that causing some sort of issue because just like you said, really delving into people’s actual issues is very complicated and very messy. And in fantasy or anything like that, when you have these individuals whom are essentially superpowered, one would almost think that their lives would be easier. But in stories, they’re never easier. They still have all these issues and all these problems and all these emotional and difficulty in communication and all these different things. Even when they’re going up against like a big bad, or a boss, that they have to defeat to save the world or whatever, they still have these same issues.
And just like you said, it’s an easier way to connect with those issues rather than being like, “Well, yes, X happened in my life and I’m still dealing with it so many years later and it’s messy and I really should be going to therapy. But this person in this book is going through what I’m going through, so I’m really able to connect with that.” And this leads us to the next question is, as part of your process, why do you write multiple stories at once?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: For me, it’s so I don’t get writer’s block. And everybody talks about writer’s block, “Oh, I can’t get through it. Oh, I can’t do these things.” So my whole process for writing is really actually pretty boring. And when people ask me for advice, I get a lot of side eye because the answer is “You write daily.” But it’s a little more than just writing daily.
So without getting into the science of all of it, I write at the same time every morning, I have a word count that I get to every single day, which is 5,000 words. It sounds like a lot, I know that. I built it up in steps. It’s not like I sat down one day and was like, “Viola, 5,000 words.” No, I started much shorter than that. I started at 500. That was doable for me, and I’ve slowly built it up. But it is the same exact time every day that I sit down and write.
But the reason I write multiple is because there are sometimes my brain just is not gelling with a particular story. The one I’m currently working on, I finally realized the reason my brain wasn’t working with a particular story is I never figured out how it ended. I just had the conflict and I had the end. So the whole resolution part in the middle I had never talked about, I had never thought about. Bless my husband, as I shook him awake at four in the morning and was like, “I figured out why I can’t do this. We need to brainstorm the story.” And he was a good sport and made coffee and we did. But working on multiple projects gives my brain the ability to bounce back and forth between ideas.
So when I’m getting stuck on something and it makes me frustrated, that’s when I want to quit. But when you have four or five projects that you’re working on, I can ping pong back and forth because they’re just different enough that my brain has to say, “Oh right, here are these particular characters. What situations do we have them in? How do I want to work with the writing process for them?”
And I know that’s not for everybody. Quite a few of my friends work on one story, very steadfastly until they get it done. And there are two different methods by which people write that are talked about often. You have your “plotters” and your “pantsers.” So plotters, people who create outlines and they’re like, “This is A, B and C all the way through.”
And then pantsers who are people who fly by the seat of their pants, who just write chapters. And then they have a kind of loose outline of how the story’s supposed to go and they go back and forth until they get them done. I will say that I’ve very, very much started out as a plotter. And I actually do write outlines when I’m creating a story and everything is fresh. And I put down the key points that each portion of the story should have, break it down into chapters and put out how the flow of the story is going to be.
At this point, because I have an outline, I can pick and choose between the chapters I actually want to write. Some chapters are far easier than others. For example, personally, I find it really hard to write fight scenes. Not the physical, going to take an axe and swing at you type of fight scene, but verbal sparring between partners. I honestly thought that was going to be the easy part.
Just put stuff down on a page and woo, they have it. It’s emotionally taxing because when I create characters, I’m invested in them. I want to see how these things go. So when they’re saying hurtful things to each other, it’s not just, how do I put down these hurtful things that are going to cut deep, but then how do I resolve it later? So there’s a lot of brain process that goes into creating ideal situations. And then having different sets of characters to work with allows the problems that I’m having with one book and making it go when I stop there, I’ve got other things to work with.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I like how you talked about, you say plotters and pantsers?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Yes.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Because my writing style has always been a pantser, where I just write whatever as it comes out and then as whatever I’m writing takes form, that’s where the organization comes. Now with characters, do you have a character sheet where you have an idea of what they do, what they like, to ensure that your characters are consistent throughout the entire novel? If you’re a pantser like me, sometimes you can be inconsistent with your characters. And so as a reader who reads it from beginning to end, that needs to make sense for them. Even though, as a writer, it kind of exists all at the same time.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Sure. And so I’m a gamer, I have a gaming family. So character sheets, 100%. That actually is some of the fun parts of creating this person with their personality. And what do they like? What don’t they like? Do they have allergies? Do they have these weird little rituals that they go through?
Humans, by nature, are pretty ritualistic. So if you really start to think about how you get ready for the day, some people take a shower and then do their maintenance, then brush their teeth then go. I know there are some people who brush their teeth in the shower. I can’t get my head around that because I would be the one to accidentally put soap on my toothbrush. So those have to be separate ideas. But definitely I use a character sheet.
And when I write multi-series book, which I think I only have two standalone books, so most of my experiences, multiple books in a series, I keep an active spreadsheet of characters’ interactions, whether or not they have beefs against each other in weird little ways.
When I do my werewolf books, I print out a copy of the months so I can then highlight what the phase of the moon is in because. For the canon of the stories, I absolutely need to have things very clearly delineated in saying, “Okay, if the full moon is here, this is what these characters have to do.” And it just helps me stay organized so I do have that consistency. That’s very much a part of being a plotter, is making sure you have details that are all the way through.
The other part that people never get to see really is all of the work about the world that I know that never hits the page because in building a world and making the rules for a magical world so they’re consistent and everybody has to follow them, I have a very huge 3D knowledge of how the world works, what’s happened generations before, sometimes what happens generations after. So the picture is complete for me.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Is there any historical era or type of history that you draw from for inspiration? For example, George RR Martin, that’s his name, obviously took a lot from English history. Do you take history from American history, local history, family history?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Well, family history, I suppose in the weird Easter egg way that in every single book that I’ve written, I have put a true incident from my history in the book. So whether it’s a situation or an interaction with another person. And call me crazy, but every now and again, I actually forget the entire breadth of the story. So I remember the main points of it, but then I’ll go through and read and I’ll be like, “Hey, here’s this little incident, ha ha,” personal chuckle, personal in joke.
But as a historical time period, not necessarily. But I definitely do draw from having lived as an African-American person and that flavors the books in different ways, just about how you have some personal actions or you have a relationship with a person, then all of a sudden the relationship skews sideways when you learn, well you actually support things that I didn’t think you would. So, not necessarily a timeframe, but definitely I use inspiration of my life and experiences to flavor the books in certain ways.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: So one of the things we were talking about during the break is talking about existing stories and we were talking about “Firefly” and “Serenity” and also “Black Panther.” And so in a recent podcast I did, we criticized “Serenity” for having a lot of Chinese and Asian imagery, but very little representation of actual Asian characters.
When you have in your own teaching, how do people respond to that? Do they even notice the lack of say representation in the sense that it is being rectified much better these days? But then at the same time, sometimes people dismiss that as like, “Well, it’s too much, or it’s a little too politically correct.”
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: In terms of “Serenity” and “Firefly,” I ran a writing course about it. One of the big reasons that it favors heavily on Chinese culture is the creator decided at that time in the future, the two superpowers, which being the United States and China, had had some kind of merger.
And then we did talk about where they felt the creators and the writers felt it was okay to erase the Chinese actors as this is what Americanized television has really done for a lot of cultures. They fetishize and they like certain areas of that culture, but don’t bring in representation. And it’s that weird power dynamic and struggle of the people with the money always make these decisions on what people want to see. And they’re like, “Oh, well they would never accept a Asian character in this particular series,” but never explain why. And it really comes down to a level of comfort.
Well, because they’re Caucasian individuals, that’s what they’re comfortable with seeing. And sometimes when you bring the other in, it forces you to look at events through a different lens. And it’s not always comfortable. Unfortunately, our country has a real terrible habit of pushing down events that may make them look terrible.
And when you have to acknowledge other ethnicities in your series and say, “Oh, they actually did contribute quite a bit,” or “Here are these things that they do that we love so much we adopted.” You have to start seeing them as people, as people with value, as people with traits that are to be admired instead of just taking the trait and saying, “Okay, well now it’s ours and we hold it. And so we can continue to be comfortable and it’s not going to lead to deeper conversations.”
Same thing happened when I taught “Black Panther.” Now and again, I’ll teach a dual-enrolled class. So their high school seniors taking intro level college class. And in some of the areas, they’re fairly white and here I come bringing Black curriculum into the classroom setting. And some of them are a little shocked when they are forced to engage with a Black movie, with Black actors being normal is what I would consider it. They’re just showing everyday life. They have advanced technology, they do all these things.
And, again, it forces people to look at Black lives through the Black lens instead of coming into stereotypes, which are more heavily perpetuated. I think it’s about making people a little uncomfortable. I think, honestly, most media should do that a little bit, try to do that. And it’s not like when I write, I come out with these huge social agendas that I’m trying to push and get everybody on track.
But I think there is a wider space for learning in your discomfort because you’re being forced to set your assumptions on a shelf, you’re going to have to look at it. Hopefully you’re going to critically think and analyze what you’re actually seeing. And sometimes that changes what you knew to be true. And that’s a little uncomfortable, but it’s a necessary part of life. Otherwise, you stay in the same spot, you never make progress forward. And I would be sad for anybody to be stuck like that.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I like how you talked about both “Serenity” and of course, and “Black Panther” in your experience with teaching people who are white. I’ve watched movies my entire life in which I have been very represented basically from the beginning of American film until recently. Producers or directors, if they didn’t think about it, they probably wouldn’t have done it. They just went with what they knew. And it’s not to criticize per se because we all only know what we know, but like with “Serenity,” there was a choice somewhere, “Okay, we’re going to use all this Chinese imagery, but we’re not going to include anybody who is Chinese or Asian.”
And with “Black Panther,” there’s a great character, I guess you can say development, where it’s the American agent who, when he is first interacting with T’Challa, where he is interacting with him and T’Challa’s guards, where he’s almost dismissive, or I should say he is dismissive of the king of a country because he views them as just, “Oh, it’s just an African third-world country.”
And so his growth as a person going from what I would describe as a somewhat ignorant American character grows throughout “Black Panther” because he’s put in a position of being, well, I’ll describe it as imperialist American, and then being the other in Wakanda. And especially in Wakanda, he then quickly recognizes far surpasses any technology that his country has. I don’t know if people realize that or read into that storyline, but it’s there.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I think it merits having a discussion. So the character’s name is Ross. And in the classroom, we talk about how he comes in with a certain amount of arrogance, having always been at the top of the pecking order. And as he begins to interact with other people, especially when they travel up to M’Baku’s country and he doesn’t even allow him to speak, “You are not even worthy to speak to us, we’re not listening to you,” I think he starts to get that feeling of, “Oh, they don’t actually recognize me as any sort of power.”
And I think you’re right. His character arc takes a certain amount of growth, sorry people, spoiler alert. But in the end, when he’s willing to make a sacrifice so things can become right again, he is willing to push his life to the very brink to make sure that things become right again and T’Challa takes back over as king. I do think it shows beautiful arc of he comes in with a certain amount of hubris and then is knocked down a couple of times. And after he gets to the point where he’s most vulnerable, he starts to understand, “Oh, okay. I’m not actually very important here. I haven’t contributed anything. I didn’t bring anything to them. I am not the savior of this film.” Then he starts to understand, “Okay, this isn’t about me. How can I be supportive?”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: As the last question again on “Black Panther,” so I know that “Black Panther” draws on the comic books. So there’s literally years and decades of material to draw from. And I guess it’s my own anti-monarchy views. Why do we love kings and queens, in the sense that T’Challa becomes the king? Because within the culture of Wakanda, there’s this battle to be the king. And literally, it’s very brutal and everything could go sideways if the wrong person takes power of essentially a kingdom that is the most powerful in the world. I don’t know if that makes sense.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: It does. I think the idea of royalty for a lot of people is that fairy tale, correct? So you’re going to be a princess or a prince, you’re going to raise and be king or a queen. A lot of people, quite frankly, don’t understand peerage basics. So when you talk about duke, duchess, earl duchess, marquess, marchiones, a lot of people hear titles, they don’t understand how it filters down.
So, I honestly think there’s a lot of willful ignorance about the glories of being a king or a queen. I think it’s just very much that figurehead of, “Oh, I would be the queen and I could make the rules,” and nobody sees the work half of it. So I think we have a very romanticized notion of what royalty entails, especially because we don’t have the titles here. We have the power structures here, but we don’t use those particular titles. So I think everybody is like, “I’m going to be king and life’s going to be a cake walk,” instead of recognizing, it’s a title, you’re a human filling the title and with the goods come the bads.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Because when I think of royalty, I always think of Henry VIII, Charles I, which led to the English Civil War. I think of Nicholas II, which his inaction helped destroy Russia. So there’s all these things, I guess, from my perspective, I’m much more of a parliamentist, more of a democratic-institution person.
But it’s not as exciting as a story because, yes, the princess isn’t kidnapped into a family and then she grows up normal and then one day she realizes she’s the princess and everybody loves her. That is a wonderful fantasy story, but it implies a power structure that is extraordinarily unfair.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: But this is how we get escapism, right? So we entice people just enough with the other to be like, “But you could do this glorious life thing. You too can be a Cinderella.” But looking at the rest of the work that comes after, that’s where the book closes, you’re done, you don’t have to think about it anymore. I think most stories do that work of escapism. You’re reading another situation, whether good or bad, and either you’re like, “Yeah, I can relate to that and that would be great,” or you read a different type of story and you’re like, “Well thank goodness I’m not there.” So you’ve got both sides of it.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And absolutely wonderful conversation. Any final words, Jennifer?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: For starting writers, again, don’t give me the side eye, but the best way to write a novel is to write every single day, at the same time, and then find a decent online writing group to help you hone your skills.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And absolutely wonderful advice. Wonderful conversation. And today we’re speaking with Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson, full-time faculty in the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. And of course my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and thank you for listening.