Helen Corcoran Talks World Building & Representation in Fantasy
On August 28th, debut author, Helen Corcoran, joined our marketing manager, Britt, live on Instagram to celebrate the recent release of Queen of Coin and Whispers, her debut novel. Here's what she had to say about the upcoming book, her writing process, LGBTQ+ representation in literature, and more!
Britt: Thanks so much for joining me. I'm so excited to talk about your new book, Queen of Coin and Whispers. I'll admit, I had so much trouble putting it down what with all the court intrigue! But before I get too excited, let's kick things off with three words you would use to describe the book.
Helen: I would probably use intricate, feminist, and extremely gay. Which is technically four, but we'll just pretend there's a hyphen. It's glittery. It's probably not the smartest thing to call your own work feminist, but it's 2020 so we're just going to go with it.
B: And I think it's important to have more of those kind of books, especially for young readers.
H: Yeah, I was a bookseller up until 2018 and 2018 was a big year for patriarchal fantasy in YA. I think it was everyone responding to everything that had happened in 2016 and it was just really exhausting to read because everything was happening in 2018 as well and then to read about... Patriarchy is sort of a thing in one of my countries [in the book] but otherwise it's not really there. They have no time for it.
B: I did really love the world building in this story especially for something which mostly takes place in the court. You give the reader a great sense for these other countries without ever visiting them in the story. I'd love to hear more about the origin of some of that world building, as well as where the idea for the story itself came from.
H. Queen of Coin and Whispers is a young adult queer political fantasy of manners. It's about Lia, a newly crowned idealistic queen, who falls for Xania, her new spymaster who has taken the job to avenge her murdered father. My informal pitch is basically if you like the Little Finger and Tyrion bits of Game of Thrones but you want more women, and specifically queer women, you'll like Queen. And if you don't like what happens to women in Game of Thrones, you will really like this book. I always feel a bit weird saying that because when you write fantasy, you write it under the shadow of GoT and the big cultural thing it is but...
B: But it's all about escaping that shadow and getting to be something unto itself as well.
H: Exactly. I knew going in that Queen would have a very tight focus with the political intrigue and the way I set up Xania as a spymaster. Having the focus between her and Lia, I knew it would mostly happen in the palace and a bit in the city. So at that point I was do the world building - creating the other countries, figuring out their relationships and their history - and I wondered how I was going to bring it all in. I finally realized that Lia would have to go through the process of maybe getting married, or at least taking hands for her suit. I figured that was a good way to bring in some of the other countries.
Part of the world building as well was the realization that if the characters wouldn't naturally think it or if it wouldn't come up naturally in their own narrative, it couldn't be in the story, which did pose problems. So even the bits and pieces of the other countries you see is not as much as I actually have in my head. I have a whole notebook of world building that's just sitting there and will hopefully become useful if I ever get to write another book in that world. A lot of it was me seeing the problems I'd given myself and then figuring out solutions.
B: I love that. And I love that you have that whole notebook of how you imagine this world because it lends so much credibility to what did make it into the book. There is so much backstory that the reader may not get to see, but you can feel it there when you're reading.
H: When one of my early readers read the midwinter ball scene in an earlier draft, one of the things she really liked was the hint that they used to have this religion and mythology and you get this slight glimpse of it. All the characters know it, but because it's not as important, it's not really the focus, but it's there.
B: When you were creating these mythologies and the bases for these worlds was there anything within your own culture or cultures around you that you pulled from?
H: With the midwinter mythology, it was probably taken a bit from Irish mythos. The first Empire in the book is 1000-1500 years before Lia and Xania's times. I didn't directly take any figures, but in Irish mythology, some of the gods are specifically associated with water or air, or very strongly focused on a certain season. I took that kind of basis. The Irish gods are known for being quite cruel, not to the same extent as the Greek gods, but they are the kind of gods that are founded on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic where it's very cold and damp. They have a certain level of pettiness, but not the same degree. Farezi has a more traditional (not-quite) Christian basis, though I didn't go into that a lot.
Generally, I do tend to use certain countries for part of world building, but I try not to focus any one culture on one country because then you're holding the country you've created up to an actual, real world and depending on your characters or what's happening in that country you could be creating an unfavorable bias which isn't fair or right. So I do tend toward a bit of mushing around of things. It starts with an idea and then as I world build, I find that the timeline of the world I'm building brings up its own rhythm and smooths any direct world parallels. Eventually the world takes its own shape.
B: When you were creating this, were you more of a plotter, with a strict sense of what you're going after, or do you tend to fly more by the seat of your pants when you're writing?
H: Queen was a very large learning curve. It was a horrendous learning curve. For every new idea, I write out a query letter to see if the idea has some bones and shape to it. Originally, they were both anti-heroines - Lia was quite a cruel princess taking the throne and Xania was a lot more angry and vengeful. It was actually them taking on the court who were going up against Lia. This was back around 2013 so I really had to consider whether an agent would take on such a dark, queer book because there was so little positive representation out there. I had to ask myself if I really wanted this to be my debut when there was so little good representation. As I did more world building and plotting, it became clear that the narrative voices were more YA and it was more of a coming-of-age story. I think there are still some dark elements in there, but it took a much different turn. I do still like the original, much darker timeline, but it just wasn't right for that book.
B: Did you find that the plot changed significantly as the characters evolved?
H: I tend to be more of a character-focused writer. The political intrigue took about 3 years to get right. I did not plan it. I have severe regrets. I had to fix the political intrigue from a pretty weak foundation. So for every book since, I have either done a synopsis outline of about 2500 words, which is kind of me vomiting the book out to myself, or it's a really structural, plot-based outline. But I haven't just sat down to write 20-50,000 words with no plan since Queen. Like, I did not know the death in the middle of the book was going to happen until I wrote it. That person died, and I sat there and went, 'what do I do now? I'm 52,000 words in. Who's the actual antagonist in this book now? Cause it's not him, or it might be him. I don't know - he's dead.'
B: That bit certainly threw me for a loop, I will say.
H: It threw me for a loop when I wrote it! Just sitting there wondering... 'okay, he's dead. Who killed him?' People get quite horrified when I tell them that, but I made it work. It took a few drafts. We made it work. I cried a bit. It was fine.
B: You absolutely made it work. For some much the better too - the way you brought everything together and tied up those loose ends.
H: I had a bullet point list of everyone who was involved and different colored lines marking them to each other. I knew it was the kind of political intrigue where not everything would wrap up neatly in a box - too many people were dead, so there wasn't going to be a letter conveniently hidden away with exactly what they did and who they killed - but I put enough in there that the reader could conjecture a bit, that Xania or Lia could put together, knowing it wasn't ever going to be something they could entirely solve, but that they were as close to the truth as they could get.
B: So you sort of had to solve your own game of Clue without entirely meaning to?
H: Never again. That was such a poor choice. After that though, anything I've written since at least isn't a political intrigue with a beginning, an unknown middle, and some sort of an ending. It can only get better from here.
B: When you were writing, obviously Lia and Xania have their own points of view in this story, was that a choice from the beginning, or did that happen over time as well?
H: I knew it would be both their point of views. I wrote bits of it out in first and third [person] because I wasn't sure which would be the better choice. I was going to go with third first because I thought it would keep enough distance that you could still have a lot of the political intrigue happening without necessarily having to keep to their closer person. But when I kept writing in it, I'd find that halfway through a scene, I'd have reverted to first, and I'd have to go back and fix it. It kept happening enough that I knew then that the book wanted to be in first person. There were certain limitations in doing that. Everything has to be through their point of view.
In the very first draft, Matthias had his own first-person point of view - part of it linear, part of it flashbacks. It was the first thing I cut in the next draft since the book was super long, over 130,000 words. Cutting out his POV got me down to about 100,000. I miss it in some ways because it was really good to write and you got to see more of who Lia and Xania's fathers are, versus seeing them only through the lens of two grieving girls without the room for flaws.
I also cut a POV toward the end of the book, which some of my critique partners like, others didn't. But it was a pretty grim section of the book to write. As a women in her 30s in Ireland, I'm one of the last generations to grow up as HUGE positive change was happening; homosexuality was only decriminalized when I was about 8 years old. Things for current Irish teenagers are very different than they were for me so I'm very conscious of the kinds of queer trauma I write in my books. Obviously stuff has to happen. Books without conflict are extremely boring and very short, but I'm very conscious of what I put on the page - what drives a plot and what's just putting trauma in because people expect queer stories to have trauma. There's a time jump in the book as well, but I was never going to write that out, because it only would have been 60,000 words of Lia and Xania processing trauma. It might be a good book, but it's not one I particularly want to write.
B: Absolutely. And I think it was an incredibly well-done and sensitive way to approach it. I liked too, the way that you approached the aspects of queerness in the world because it was just accepted, no need to talk about it or label it.
H: I think one of the bits I particularly like was the marriage and power implication. Like, you can get married to a woman, you can decide one of your nieces or nephews is your heir and that keeps the money, wealth, and power in an upper class family. You just have to go through a lot of paperwork, and it's fine. And in the lower classes, it's not a big deal at all. It becomes more complicated the higher up you go. That's primarily Lia's problem - she's the last one of her line before the crown goes to another country that they have a very tense relationship with. It's part of her mystique. She has to have an heir so people believe she cares enough about the throne and her duty. It's not about her being queer. If her aunt and uncle had had a child and she was bumped down the succession ladder, she would have gone off, married a woman, had her estate in the country, and been extremely happy.
I knew going in that it would be, essentially, a homophobia-free world. Farezi has its problems, but I wanted to show it's more of their leadership - who is currently sitting on the throne and its heir - so I made sure to put other characters in the story to showcase that it's not the people of the country, but who they have on top that are the problem. Even when Rassa is being awful that the narrative and the characters don't support him. He's refuted in the text, which I feel is super super important.
B: Let's talk a little more about these characters you've created. Who were your favorite to write?
H: I would have to say Lia and Xania because I spent years with them in my head. I know everything about their childhood and the time after Queen. I really liked writing Martaine, Xania's stepfather because I deliberately subverted the bad stepparent trope. He's the least dysfunctional member of that family. He is the glue that has kept them together - doesn't get enough credit for it but he had a fan club when I was drafting and querying. Truth has a lot of fans as well. He was a lot of fun to write. He's the one who has no ethical or moral boundaries. He's loyal, but it's his own brand of loyalty. He's just a low-level chaos with murder. He's in the background doing his own thing and he's the most dangerous person in that room at any given time.
I really like Matthias, though I had to cut him down a bit. It's been interesting - some people haven't liked how little presence he gets in the book though in straight narratives he would be the girls' best friend. I find it interesting that people react to a male character having that supporting role because it's Lia and Xania driving the plot. Couldn't do it without him, but he's also the kind of character who knows where he is in this dynamic. But he's also aware that they are two people with their own personalities and their own ambitions and he doesn't try to take the spotlight as much. It was very unconsciously done but it was one of the pieces of feedback I kept having to push against because everyone expected Matthias to betray Lia eventually because he's such an ambitious, conniving, and sly character. They just could not fathom him being the one loyal person she could depend on. People just expected a male character to take his agenda and push it for his own means.
B: I can see why they were so much fun to write and play with expectations. Who would you say is closest to you in personality?
H: Xania is demi like me so everything she thinks about romance is me. I didn't realize when I was writing - I though she was bi when I first wrote her, and I could not get her to even acknowledge that a man was more than just aesthetically grand. It was incredibly frustrating that my character would not listen to me. Then a friend of mine was reading a draft where Matthias references her being bi and said 'no, she's not bi. She's demi.' I sat there and went 'ohhhh' and sat down and thought about myself and went 'oh!' So in some ways, Xania has a lot of the person in me. Lia is who I would aspire to be. She's very calm. She knows her own worth. She's mostly cool-headed. I've accepted I'm not her. I'm a highly anxious disaster of a person, really emotional. But I would aspire to be someone who could just handle that level of chaos and only start to crack a little towards the end when her options start shrinking. I think they all have a bit of me. Matthias has my irritation and says everything I wish I could say but can't because one has to exist in civil society. And Diana is the adult woman I'd like to be at 50 - she knows who she is, doesn't care anymore, and you do it her way or you don't do it. But at the end of the day, they all came out of my head. Eventually, you spend so much time with them in your head, that you feel that they are you.
B: I loved reading the scenes with Diana in them - if not for her overall character, for the way that you described her clothing. I wanted those outfits. I wanted all of the outfits, but especially hers.
H: Her original inspiration was actually Artemesia from the 300 sequel, and the historical figure as well, who was a quite strong-willed woman in Ancient Greece. I just wanted to to have a very overt female character who wielded overt power and got there on her own merit and was quite respected and a little bit feared for it as well. There's a very good reason she's stayed out of politics.
B: Speaking of other worlds, what sort of books did you read when you were younger that influence your writing now?
H: Tamora Pierce was the big one. My mother came home with Alanna: The First Adventure when I was about 11. She'd gone into a bookshop and said 'she reads too much. I need something that she hasn't heard of,' and she came home with that book. This was before you could go onto Wikipedia and figure out how many books were in a series so I ended up picking up a lot of her other quartets in bits and pieces. My favorite is the Kel books because Kel has no magic and has to do everything through practice and stubbornness and sheer grit. She's just my favorite. I also read a lot of Christopher Pike, Sweet Valley, Babysitter's Club (the recent adaptation made me realize how much I loved those books)... When I was a bit older, Garth Nix's Sabriel . I've realized Sabriel and Touchstone's relationship and marriage is one I've been trying to replicate in books for a very long time. I think Lia and Xania owe a lot to them especially. I also really really liked Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials - I read that one when I was about 12 and just dreamed of being able to write something with that epic scope one day. I think I've a bit more time and work to go. One day I will be able to look at a sprawling plot that will span several books and not want to put it in a drawer to look at it in about 5 years time.
B: Do you have any plans to write longer series, possibly revisiting this world of Edar?
H: The two current books I'm working on are standalone. I have an idea for Queen that I'm pitching O'Brien fairly soon once I can finish it if 2020 can let up for 5 minutes. It's an indirect sequel much like the Graceling Realm books by Kristin Cashore. Eventually, I would really like to tackle an epic fantasy. My dream is to write a 6-part female-focused fantasy, to have someone with enough faith in me to let me write 6 huge books, and have them be queer and feminist and female-focused. Just need adult fantasy publishing to get on board. Just a bit more time and practice.
B: As for practice, do you have any writing (or querying) advice?
H: I was actually in that weird position where I got the book deal before I signed with my agent, Eric (who obviously did not sign up for my book coming out in a pandemic year. He's been wonderful to work with). I got the idea for Queen in 2013, finished the first draft in 2015, wrote the query in 2016, and got a revise and resubmit. That involved me gutting most of the first half, and stitching the second half on to what I'd rewritten. That took about 8 months and I was back to querying in 2017. At one point I got up to about a 40% full request rate which is pretty good but I could not get past that last hurdle. Eric actually rejected the manuscript, but he was the only rejection I got where he didn't act like I'd failed a maths test. He loved the book, but he just wasn't sure he could help get it ready to go to a publisher. So I pitched him my next book, and he told me to come back with that when I was ready. I ended up querying O'Brien in September 2017 under a pseudonym because I was a bookseller who worked with them and couldn't face the thought of ever meeting them again if they turned it down. They ended up asking for the full in February 2018, but I didn't think much of it and I started focusing on my second manuscript more. But three weeks later, O'Brien rang and told me they wanted to publish it, at which point I panicked and reached out to Eric because I couldn't negotiate myself out of a paper bag. I got really really lucky he said yes. But I remember I used to tell my critique partners 'I'm going to make Eric take me on as a client. He just doesn't know it yet.'
The one thing I would say, because I have some friends who work in publishing, is that just having a query with good spelling, good grammar, and having it neatly laid out gets you to the top 0.2%. Basics of addressing it correctly, having your log line, title, name, word count... My query took my 3 years and every time I changed the draft, I edited the query so it matched the book - an introduction, the basic plot and conflict points, and what the characters have to do to reach a resolution. And if you write a really strong query letter, sometimes it ends up on the back cover of the finished book - you can see mine there. I had industry experience as a bookseller, so I made sure to include that. It sounds really really basic, but being polite and just following the guidelines makes a difference.
Querying is hard. It's that first turn from writing a book because you love it to having to face publishing as an actual industry. And sometimes the rejections just make you feel awful. I got some 'really close but not quite' responses, and there's nothing you can do because that's a good thing. It's the difference between me liking a book and absolutely loving a book and telling everyone to read it. It sucks when it happens to your book, but you have to remind yourself that you do it when you read as well. So you can't expect something from someone else that you don't give to every book. But you can go off and feel sorry for yourself for a while.
B: You talk a bit about being a children's bookseller. What was that like versus being an author, and what has that transition been like for you?
H: I was in college and I needed a job when I started in 2006. I just said 'I like books. I'm sure selling books at a bookstore is pretty much the same thing.' Spoilers: it's not. I just got very lucky. I was one of the few Christmas temps that got kept on after Christmas. I made my way up from part-time to full-time just before the recession. It was interesting because I got a lot of contacts and I got to read a lot. I was there for the Twilight trend, the post-Twilight trend, the dystopian trend, the John Green trend, the brief high-fantasy trend that kind of just stayed... So I've seen publishing at its best and its worst. But you also get to see what's not there.
I remember thinking I wanted to write a queer fantasy where the two characters were teenagers but they were treated seriously by the adults around them. I wanted a book where there were a lot of women. I was really tired of reading all these fantasies that were always straight. I just knew I wanted to write about a princess who wanted to become queen who's as ready for it as she can be. And I really like Elizabethan spymasters so I knew I wanted another clever person beside her. I'm actually really bad at math, which I shouldn't say because my new day job involved math, but all the bits where Xania is really excited about math are probably the biggest lie of the whole book. You go off and get excited about finding that one wrong figure. I'll be over here with my books.
Queen was mostly me saying I like fantasy but I want this particular kind of fantasy because I never got to read it growing up. Because even with some of Tamora Pierce's earlier works, there are queer characters, but they're not really there. Or they're there, but only for a page. It was, again, just that gap. It sounds very 'old queer person' but I wanted to give queer teenagers something that I didn't have growing up, that they can have. Like the choice - though obviously it's not as good as it could be - in the last decade since Ash came out it's been amazing. My teenage years would have been completely different if I'd had more of these books.
B: Having a chance to see yourself in a story is incredible and important. But I think, also, for the kids that aren't queer, having a chance to see other experiences is equally important.
H: A friend who works at the bookshop I used to work at had a father come in asking for queer fantasy and she told him to come back - 'someone who used to work here has one on its way, just please come back in about 6 months.' I used to quietly stock as much gay YA as I could and hold it against returning it for as long as I could, because they were the books that no one every came up and asked for but they would quietly sell. If they were on the shelf and someone needed them, they were there. So I would keep yanking them off the returns cart if they hadn't sold after 12 months. Things have certainly changed so much, especially in the past five years. It could be better, but we're making progress. When I was querying Queen, I really didn't have any comps. Now, I could have 4 or 5 easily.