Guest Post: Fantasy Authors – Why You’ll Believe Their Lies

I’m thrilled to welcome Sarah Zama to Bookshelf Fantasies! Thank you, Sarah, for providing this terrific guest post.


by Sarah Zama, The Old Shelter (see author bio below)

Tell me. Are you a fantasy reader?

As a fantasy writer (and reader) I often hear readers say  they don’t care for fantasy and prefer to read stories that are realistic.

Let’s talk about it.

What is storytelling?

As Flannery O’Connor said, everybody knows what a story is until they try to write one. Defining storytelling is harder than one would think, but years ago I came across a fascinating definition. It answered the question, what’s the difference between chronicling a true event and telling a story? The chronicle and the story largely adopt the same elements and can even concern themselves with the same events, what then is the difference between the two forms of telling?

Let’s say there is a car accident. A journalist will try to relate events as close as possible to how they happened, trying to replicate the dynamics and the cause-effect evolution, adding all relevant info.

We already have a ‘problem’ here: how does the journalist decide what is relevant? How does she describe events that happened at the same exact time? We have two cars moving towards each another, there are people on both of them, and things are happening inside both cars. How does a journalist decide what to relate out of all this info?

The obvious answer is that she will have to make choices. Choose which event to tell first and which tell later. Choose what details she will actually mention and which she will leave out altogether.

This will colour her account of a personal flavour… and that’s where storytelling begins.

Where a chronicler will try to leave her personal judgment out as much as possible, a storyteller will push it at its utmost consequences, with the goal to give a meaning – a very specific, personal, carefully chosen meaning – to  those events. When recounting that car accident, a storyteller will put special care in choosing who are on board those cars, what they’re doing and where they’re going. She will carefully decide what events she will tell first and what later and how they will intertwine, the chain of events and their timings, she will decide whether and how to tell the impact that accident will have on those people. And her goal won’t be to just recount how the accident happened, but it will be a carefully chosen message about something she thinks it’s important for her and for her readers.

Storytellers make choices all the time and every choice intentionally lends a meaning to the story.

So we could say that while chronicles try to manipulate events as little as possible to present them ‘how they happened’, stories intentionally manipulate events with the specific goal, the specific purpose to send out a chosen ‘message’. Where the point of the chronicle is the events, the point of the story is the message, or if you prefer, the theme.


Mimic and fantasy stories

Stories are generally divided into two big categories:

  • Mimetic stories which mimic life as closely as possible. They may be based on actual facts, but even when they aren’t, they depict the world, people and the workings of life as we are accustomed to see them play out every day around us
  • Fantasy stories which adopt elements who aren’t experienced in our everyday life. These fantasy elements may range from slight deviations from what we know (magic realism) to full-fledged reimagined worlds that look like nothing we’ve ever or would ever experience (high fantasy)

Readers and writers familiar with one realm are normally very hesitant to wander over to the other realm because they think they won’t fit in. Readers of mimetic fiction, in particular, think that what a fantasy story would ask them to believe is really too weird and unrealistic and so they will be unable to immerse themselves in the story the way they like to do.


Why would I suspend my disbelief?

Now, dear reader, be honest with me. You don’t believe for a moment that the novels you read are in any way true. They may be ‘realistic’ but they aren’t true. Beside, the fact that they are realistic is the important factor, because if they are, you can happily pretend they are as good as true and you can pretend that you can be part of that story.

This is a specific phenomenon called suspension of disbelief.

The term and concept  of suspension of disbelief was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817, and refers to readers’ willingness to accept the story as it is, even when they recognise elements that challenge reality as they know it. Since Coleridge was a Romantic (by this I mean he was a member of the Romantic movement), he referred specifically to any fantasy elements present in the story. Since then, the concept has taken up a larger meaning encompassing the totality of storytelling.

The core concept is that authors can employ any element in their story, unlikely as it may be (being it fantastic creatures or very daring chains of coincidences) and the reader will accept it as long as the author makes it plausible.

Prof. J.R.R. Tolkien went even further. He theorized that an author needs to be able to create a fictional world that not necessarily adheres to reality (he was after all talking about true speculative/fantasy fiction), but that works in the same way reality does. This ‘secondary reality’ may be very different from reality as we know it, but the rules that governs it must be as stringent and logic as those governing our real world. It must have the ‘intimate consistency of reality’, no matter what it looks like on the outside. It must be plausible in that context. At that point, the author won’t even need to ask readers to suspend their disbelief, because given the rules that govern that secondary reality, the readers will accept this is exactly how that reality should work.

Along these lines, Prof. Rosalba Campra went as far as saying that all stories with a perfectly functioning secondary reality should be considered realistic whether they have fantasy elements (like Middle Earth) or not.

Have I messed up your ideas well enough? Good!

Now tell me, why would you suspend your disbelief in regard to any story? Well, as a reader, I have an answer: because – as it’s for storytellers – when we read fiction we are more concerned with themes then events. If events sustain the theme convincingly and plausibly, then we are willing to play along even if the element is in itself unlikely. If the story is worthwhile in terms of themes and involvement, if it enriches us as persons, then we are willing to believe the lie.

Why then, some readers think that fantasy is more a lie than any other story? Why some readers think that ‘it doesn’t exist, it’s not realistic, so it can’t give me any worthwhile experience.’

As a writer of fantasy stories, I often wonder: is the appearance of the story really so important to obscure its theme?


Commissar Montalbano: a case study

Ragusa Ibla (main setting for Il Commissario Montalbano)

Years ago I read an interview with Italian mystery novelist Andrea Camilleri about his acclaimed series Il commissario Montalbano. If you are unfamiliar with it, this is a series of mystery novels set in Sicily, Camilleri’s homeland. Salvo Montalbano is a police detective who investigates murders in his little town, Vigata, following Italian police procedures… if sometimes interpreting them in his personal way, and juggling himself between strict magistrates, shadowy mafiosi, young ambitious entrepreneurs projected in the future and old Sicilians living the traditional way and only speaking dialect. The novels themselves are written in a mix of Italian and Vigata dialect.

All perfectly mimetic, wouldn’t you say? Especially if you think that the Siclianity radiates from every little element of Camilleri’s stories and he has often been praised for how vividly his stories depict the reality of Sicilian life.

So let me tell you that Vigata doesn’t exist. Montelusa, the province to which Vigata depends, also doesn’t exist. And even the dialect the novels are partly written in doesn’t exist.

Camilleri made it all up, just like Tolkien made up the Shire, in Middle Earth, and all its languages. Vigata works perfectly well and it sounds like reality because it mimics it so well and so close that readers are deceived into believing it is reality itself, when in fact it’s a very well crafted secondary reality, just like The Shire.

But there’s more. What I find particularly interesting is why Camilleri decided for a fictional place. He initially wanted to set his stories in an actual place, Porto Empedocle (which is indeed the set of the tv series), but because he knew from the beginning that he wanted to write a series of novels all set there, he quickly realised the murder rate of this town would soon exceed the actual murder rate of Porto Empedocle by far.

He could have played along anyway, pressing on the readers’ suspension of disbelief, ignoring that if that murder rate turned up in Porto Empedocle in real life, it would cause all kinds of political and social alarm. Or he could create a completely fictional place, although recognizably Sicilian, where he would be free to create his own custom made reality where he could decide whatever was best for the stories and their themes.

So yes, Camilleri created a fantasy reality so to make his stories more realistic. Although not true, Vigata does have the intimate consistency of reality more than Porto Empedocle would have had.


So tell me. Are you a fantasy reader?


About the author:

Sarah Zama was born in Isola della scala (Verona – Italy) where she still lives. She started writing at nine – blame it over her teacher’s effort to turn her students into readers – and in the 1990s she contributed steadily to magazines and independent publishers on both sides of the Atlantic.

After a pause, in early 2010s she went back to writing with a new mindset. The internet allowed her to get in touch with fellow authors around the globe, hone her writing techniques in online workshops and finally find her home in the dieselpunk community.

Since 2010 she’s been working at a trilogy set in Chicago in 1926, historically as accurate as possible but also (as all her stories are) definitely fantasy. She’s currently seeking representation for the first book in the Ghost Trilogy, Ghostly Smell Around.

Her first book, Give in to the Feeling, came out in 2016.

She’s worked for QuiEdit, publisher and bookseller in Verona, for the last ten years.
She also maintain a blog, The Old Shelter, where she regularly blogs about the Roaring Twenties and anything dieselpunk.




A two-person review: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Good Omens 2I had the great fortune of attending a Neil Gaiman appearance two weeks ago, which occurred on the day of the late Terry Pratchett’s death. Hearing Neil Gaiman speak with great warmth and emotion about his long friendship with Terry Pratchett and their marvelous collaborations made me realize that I had to read Good Omens without further delay… and many people felt the same way, including my good friend Heidi.

Heidi is a real-life friend who is also one of my very favorite book people. She attended the Neil Gaiman event with me**, and  also just read Good Omens this past week. (Her second time; my first). I was going to get to work on a review of Good Omens, and then I saw Heidi’s Goodreads review, which is wonderful and really says it all.

**We even got a picture with Neil Gaiman! However… I think I look hideous and she looks great. Heidi is convinced that she looks hideous and I’m actually okay. End result? We’re not posting the picture.

With Heidi’s permission, I’m featuring her words on Good Omens as a guest review:

4751840Heidi‘s review

Mar 28, 15

This was my introduction to Neil Gaiman. I have a first edition hardback, thanks to my dad, who, browsing in a bookstore one day in 1990, picked it up and thought: “This is something my daughter would like.” He had no idea. He subsequently read it himself, and to this day nurses a crush on War.

This past March 12, the date on which you might remember Sir Terry Pratchett took one last walk with an old friend, I had the improbable good/bad luck to attend an evening of conversation with Neil Gaiman. It was clear Neil was tired, and sad, but he was there. He didn’t cancel, and he very gracefully took time to chat and pose for pics at the reception beforehand. He was exactly as charming and approachable as any fan could hope.*

The talk itself, with Gaiman’s close friend Michael Chabon acting as interviewer, was meant to support his new story collection Trigger Warning, but we were in for an unscheduled surprise when it turned into a sad, funny, moving eulogy for Sir Terry. Gaiman, as he does so well, told stories. He told us about how, as a young journalist, he met his early mentor and lifelong friend Terry Pratchett. He talked about long phone calls during their pre-Internet collaboration on Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. He told funny Terry stories. And he spoke proudly about Pratchett’s brave struggle with Alzheimer’s and his very public campaign for death with dignity.

And finally, he read from this book.Which is a round-about way of getting to why I decided to reread Good Omens when I have a giant stack of new books waiting for me. This book — the story of the coming of the Antichrist (a spunky boy called Adam who’s maybe a little too rebellious for the position), and of an angel and a demon who team up to thwart the Apocalypse because they kind of like things just as they are, thank you very much — is just as delightful as it was in 1990. And from here in 2015, it gains unexpected emotional heft as a Bradbury-esque fable of that not-so-long-gone time when kids actually went out to play and make trouble of a summer day. It’s still Douglas Adams-level silly, but there’s nothing wrong with that, and its influence on the fantasy genre is undeniable. And under the comic veneer is a keen study of human (and angelic and demonic) fallibility, and the joys and responsibilities of exercising our freewill. Upgraded from four to five stars. A classic.

*In case anyone is interested in what happened when I had my chance to chat with Neil-freaking-Gaiman, I have to admit I was a little star-struck. I managed to blurt out how much I loved his screenplay for the Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife.” In it, the TARDIS is enabled to manifest in a human body, and for the first time actually “meet” the Doctor. There’s a moment, after she’s been embodied for a while, she points out how humans are rather like a TARDIS — much bigger on the inside. Neil’s eyes — I swear — actually twinkled, and he replied: “Yes . . . that was one of those moments when I thought — yes, I’ve done something clever right there.” That episode won the 2011 Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation and the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form.

Heidi is an amazing reader and writer, and is a horror aficionado too — so if you’re looking for great reviews and recommendations, you should check her out on Goodreads!

My thoughts:

I’m not sure what I can say to add to Heidi’s words. I’m annoyed with myself for waiting so long to read Good Omens, when it was clear to me all along that I’d be sure to love this book. All the folks who say that Good Omens will appeal to Douglas Adams fans are entirely correct. There’s humor to be found in the bleakest of circumstances (like, oh, the end of the world), and Gaiman and Pratchett manage to keep Good Omens clever and funny even when it’s raining fish, Atlantis rises from the depths, and the Four Horsemen are abroad in the land, on motorcycles this time but utterly bad to the bone.

How can you not love a book in which Famine amuses himself in the 20th century by creating a calorie-less diet craze? Or where an angel and demon agree that the world is pretty okay, and that the true problem is nasty humans, not the temptations of hell? Throw in a vast assortment of characters, including a gang of four children known collectively as the Them (one of whom is also the Antichrist), a Hellhound who’s mostly a cuddly mutt, witchfinders, satanic nuns, and a very important delivery man, and you’ve got a book that’s just a pure joy to read.

I’ll wind up with a few random quotes and passages that made me chuckle:

It’s like you said the other day,” said Adam. “You grow up readin’ about pirates and cowboys and spacemen and stuff, and jus’ when  you think the world’s all full of amazin’ things, they tell you it’s really all dead whales and chopped-down forests and nuclear waste hangin’ about for millions of years. ‘Snot worth growin’ up for, if you ask my opinion.”

cropped-flourish-31609_12801.pngThe kraken stirs. And ten billion sushi dinners cry out for vengeance.

cropped-flourish-31609_12801.png“Oh, come on. Be sensible,” said Aziraphale, doubtfully.

“That’s not good advice,” said Crowley. “That’s not good advice at all. If you sit down and think about it sensibly, you come up with some very funny ideas. Like: why make people inquisitive, and then put some forbidden fruit where they can see it with a big neon finger flashing on and off saying ‘THIS IS IT!’?”

“I don’t remember any neon.”

cropped-flourish-31609_12801.pngSome police forces would believe anything. Not the Metropolitan police, though. The Met was the hardest, most cynically pragmatic, most stubbornly down-to-earth police force in Britain.

It would take a lot to faze a copper from the Met.

It would take, for example, a huge, battered car that was nothing more nor less than a fireball, a blazing, roaring, twisted metal lemon from Hell, driven by a grinning lunatic in sunglasses, sitting amid the flames, trailing thick black smoke, coming straight at them through the lashing rain and wind at eighty miles per hour.

That would do it every time.

If you’ve grinned a bit reading these passages, there’s nothing to do but rush right out and get a copy of Good Omens. It’s amazing. Enjoy!


The details:

Title: Good Omens
Author: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Publisher: Various editions
Publication date: 1990
Length: 367 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Borrowed (stolen) from my daughter’s bookshelf

Guest Review: I Shall Be Near To You by Erin Lindsay McCabe

Please join me in welcoming my wonderful friend Mary, who consistently recommends superb books to me. Mary is the one who first encouraged me to read I Shall Be Near To You, and so I thought it only fitting to invite her to write a review.

***Guest Review: I Shall Be Near To You by Erin Lindsay McCabe***

***Reviewed by Mary***


“His arms pull me tight against his chest and I bury my face in his shoulder. He shakes and it is dark enough I can still say I ain’t ever seen him cry. My heart goes to cracking wide open, but at least I am alive to feel it. I am a different kind of woman now, a wife who knows what this war really is. At least I am part of this war, part of the things Jeremiah’s done here, things that will always be hiding somewhere in his heart.”

New York, 1862. Rosetta marries her childhood sweetheart just before he leaves to enlist with the Union Army. Jeremiah is naive and optimistic about the war, thinking he’ll be gone a short while and return with money enough for them to buy their own farm. Even so, Rosetta doesn’t want him to go. Without Jeremiah, she has to play the role of wife, cooking, mending, making soap, when she’d rather be outside tending the animals or helping with the harvest. Rosetta is stubborn and spirited, and it isn’t long before she hacks off her braid, dresses in Jeremiah’s old clothes and follows her husband to war.

Rosetta is a force, a fighting wife, a woman brave enough to follow her husband into hell. Their love is both fierce and tender, and their connection to one another endures long stretches of boredom, constant hunger, and short bursts of battle-born terror. Neither of them truly understood what war would be, and the author, with well-placed poetic imagery and necessary grit, conveys the realities of a soldier’s life.


“I aim careful in the dying light and fire two rounds…the first don’t hit a thing, but the second shot makes a space in the line advancing. Something heavy settles in my belly when the stain blooms on that soldier’s chest, the hole in the line, the tear in the fabric of some other family.”

Rosetta’s voice is strong and straightforward; her struggles and fears are authentic and entirely relatable. The supporting characters are well-drawn, compelling, easy to get attached to. There is just the right amount of historic detail to capture the essence of the time period without inundating the reader with “research.” The way the story is told, the structure and pacing, seems effortless (though I am sure it wasn’t), and thankfully, there is no epilogue to stitch up every last detail. In short, this is as close to perfect as it can get. If you love historical fiction – if you love great fiction – read this book. But read it slowly. Savour your time with these unforgettable characters and their heart-wrenching story. 

And…when you read the last page, close the book and still find yourself unable to let go of the story, read these interesting links:

The title of the book was inspired by a real letter from Union soldier Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah. Read it here.

The author’s playlist. Music can strike an emotional chord with me, and I love that the author included the songs she listened to while writing. These echo the mood of the book so well. Make sure you listen to “My Father’s Father” when you have finished the book. So, so moving.

An interview with the author. I love hearing about the process of getting this book revised and published. It was obviously a labor of love.

The original photo from the cover.Were you, like me, curious about the soldier pictured on the front of the novel? I wanted to see his (her?) whole face, and I was surprised to discover that the soldier was actually a Confederate.

A Savage Day in American History. A little more information about the Battle of Antietam.

About the reviewer:

MaryMary is a life-long reader and self-professed book-nerd. She carries a book with her wherever she goes, and if she isn’t reading, she’s either sleeping or dead.

Want to read more of Mary’s reviews? You can find her here on Goodreads — just tell her Bookshelf Fantasies sent you!

Stay tuned:

I Shall Be Near To You is my spotlight book this week, and there are more related blog posts to come!