Do you like dragons? Epic, fantastical tales of love and loss played out by daring, witty characters? If so, you may already be a fan of H.L. Burke, author of several works of fiction spanning worlds of magic, kittens, and yes of course, dragons.
Tabitha: Thank you for doing this, H.L.! Tell us about yourself! What drew you to writing?
H.L.: I like to talk. While I wrote my first few stories when I was really young, I didn't start really getting into it until I was around nine. My friends and I had very elaborate imaginative play scenarios, so I took it upon myself to write down the best ones, then expand on them. They got put into a three ring binder and then passed around the group, and from then on I was hooked. I was lucky to have one friend, Ashley, who would read pretty much everything I wrote growing up. In fact, sometimes we'd share a table, her reading on one side, while I wrote as fast as I could on the other.
Later I started using the computer, and I had a mailing list (back in the days when hotmail and MSN messenger were the craze) of other kids I'd send short, funny stories to. Writing has always been a bit of a social thing for me.
T: Nice! Let's dig into your writing a bit. In your Dragon and the Scholar (DatS) series, there is oodles of romantic tension between Shannon and two love interests: the dragon, Ewan, and the Prince Ryan. With the “love triangle” being a common trope, what strategies did you use to keep the romance fresh and engaging?
H.L: It's all about the characters. In order for a love triangle to be sustainable for me, the “second man” has to be a good enough guy that the woman could fall for him without you shouting at her that she's an idiot…but that causes a problem: if he's a good guy, as good a guy as the other guy, why would she abandon him, hurt him, for the sake of the other guy? I didn't want Shannon to be calloused, just playing with Ryan's heart so she could abandon him at Ewan's return. I didn't want Shannon to be stupid, drawn in by a man who wasn't worthy of her, so I decided to make it clear that as much as Shannon was “settling” for Ryan, Ryan was “settling” for Shannon.
Ryan is an injured character, trying to put himself together. He's logical and a bit repressed because the one time he let his guard down, he got knocked to the ground. I didn't want him to be attracted to Shannon because of passion or because she was some sort of irresistible “man magnet,” but because she was kind, and he was desperate for something—someone—to wrap around himself like a bandage. For me, with Ryan, that emotion worked better than romantic interest. I felt for him as a character not because he loved Shannon but because he needed love in general.
On the other hand, you have Ewan. Ewan only has one real issue by this point in the story. He's come to terms with his dragon nature. He's learned to make it work except for one aspect, and that one aspect is Shannon. His separation from Shannon is a gaping wound in his soul that really only she can heal.
Shannon is in a similar state to Ewan, desperate for him, feeling as if he's ripped her heart out because he abandons her “for her own good.” She recognizes Ryan's pain, understands it, and longs to heal it, but it's also more about comfort from her end than love. Of course, Ryan can offer her things that Ewan, as a dragon, cannot, mainly marriage and a family of her own someday.
Ideally the reader will end up rooting for both Ryan and Ewan, only in different ways, without getting angry at Shannon when she makes her choice.
T: Are there any "writer rules" you love to break? Ones you swear by?
H.L: I question everything. It is weird to me the sort of things that can become “rules” in some people's minds. It isn't like there is a big "how to" book somewhere.
I jumped into a fray in a group of writers once where a person asked about italicized inner thoughts and someone told them to use them “sparingly - never more than five or six times in an entire book.” Then when I said I didn't agree, they tried to claim it was a “rule” as if that gave it some sort of clout. I was like, “Whose rule? Where is it written? Why should I trust whoever wrote it?” They didn't give me a link to some sort of writer in the sky who had proclaimed that the number should be “no more than six…seven is right out,” so I feel I won that one. (I'm a little competitive).
Though I think to me “show not tell,” while it can definitely be taken too far, is probably the most important. When you show something, you allow the reader to use their imagination and draw conclusions which makes writing more interesting. I don't want to be told what to think of the scene. I just want you to show me the scene and let me use my brain.
But even that can be taken too far. A lot of my early work needed clarification. The reader would ask me, “But how does he feel about this?” and I'd think, “He shrugged. What more do you need?”
T: It's rare to see female villains, and I LOVE that you use them in several of your works. Do you find there's much a difference between how you write a female vs. male villain?
H.L: Men underestimate women. Even women underestimate women. I think that makes them sneakier in some ways. Also, since a lot of my heroes are no-nonsense, type A, men of action sorts, it's kind of fun to throw a woman in an elegant dress and perfect hair at them and just watch them squirm because “I can't punch my way out of this, can I?”
A woman, rarely, is able to get what she wants by force. She needs to use other weapons. I will also admit, I do nuanced villains better as females. I have an easier time wrapping my mind around their frustrations and possibly even liking them a bit. I've been getting better at bad men (not evil men, I guess I've known enough that I can handle writing them), but I think when trying to think of “evil but relatable” my mind goes to my own dark corners and sees what hides there first.
T: Speaking of sex and gender, your DatS series is unafraid to show the sexism and gender roles of the medieval time that seems to have inspired the books. How did you work with such a sensitive topic, especially with a female protagonist?
H.L: It was a bit of a balance because I wanted to make the setting feel realistic to the perceived time frame, but still give my female main character the freedom to move in that world. It wouldn't be much of a story if she were burned at the stake for wearing pants at the beginning of book two…well, it would've been a much shorter story, anyway.
This is a really lighthearted tale, a fairy tale even, so I didn't want too much darkness. Mainly I wrote Shannon as the sort of character who is more concerned with what she sees as right than perception…in fact sometimes she's blissfully unaware of how others perceive her. She's a little trusting and naive, and part of her arc is learning to assert herself when her nature is very much to avoid conflict, so she does become a more powerful character by book four.
Ewan is protective of her, not so much because she's a woman but because he's a protective sort. He's the same way with his brother and best friend in places, and part of Ewan's arc is learning to trust those he loves, including Shannon, rather than to always try to be the protective big brother who holds things together.
So I was always more focused on the individual characters and their place in the story, then I was necessarily about gender roles…and a lot of my bad guys are sexist mainly because that's an easy way to get the reader to root against them. I'll admit, it's a writer's trick, but it works.
T: You have eleven books, a box set, and a handful of short stories out in the world (wow), all self-published. Why did you choose the self-publishing path, and what has been your experience so far?
H.L: What really attracts me to self-publishing is the speed and flexibility. There's no waiting on other people. I write what I want, release it when I feel it is ready, and then move on. If I need a change of pace, I switch sub-genres. If I don't feel like marketing, I don't. I might not make as much money that month, but I won't burn out. I like to be able to get my books into the hands of my readers in a few months rather than a few years. I don't need to get rich doing this, though I admit, my long term goal is to make enough that my husband can retire for real when his years in the military are up, rather than one or both of us having to start another career.
T: Any advice for all the fellow writers out there?
H.L: Don't ask for permission. Too many beginning writers start out with, “I have this idea for this book. Can you tell me if it is a good idea?” Then they get discouraged if people don't get excited about it, or someone points out it has been done before in some incarnation.
Just write the book and see if it is a good idea. If it isn't you can always write something else, and now you at least know you can write something. The next one will be better…and probably easier. I promise!
T: Up for a fun question or two?
H.L.: YES YES YES! I'm all about fun questions. Are there any dragons?
T: Why yes, there are! Who is one of your favorite dragons?
H.L.: My favorite dragon is Chrysophylax, the sneaky dragon from Tolkien's lesser known "Farmer Giles of Ham," because he is sneaky, but still rather clever.
T: If you could live in any fictional world, which world would you pick and what would you do there?
H.L: Hmm … this is hard. I kind of want to be vain and pick Gelia from Beggar Magic because they have audible magic floating everywhere that you can talk to and get to do the dishes for you. Can you imagine, humming, invisible spirits doing your housework? I'd have them do everything.
But I also would like to spend a little bit of time in Middle Earth. I know that's everyone's answer (or most everyone), but it's so wild and wondrous … and it has handsome Rangers. I love tall, dark, and rugged rangers. The dragons there aren't very nice though … I'm sure I could talk one down, though.
T: With your penchant for the fire-breathing beasties, I'm sure you could too! Thank you again for taking the time to do this interview! I'm looking forward to many more of your works to come.
Readers! Interested in checking out the Dragon and the Scholar saga? Good news! The first in the series, Dragon's Curse, is free right now over on Amazon! If you'd rather get the whole series in one go, check out the box set!